Sunrises and Snowstorms: A weekend trip through Matsushima and Zao

TitleRecently on several of my posts and uploads I have mentioned the fact that I have been incredibly caught up in work recently. With lots of special events planned for the students during the run up to graduation time here in Japan, things have been busy and a bit sentimental as we get ready to celebrate the graduations of 6th and 9th graders (the latter graduated this past Thursday). While all this has been going on though, I’ve been hosting 3 visitors for the early part of March: Steven and Austin, two of my good college friends and my teaching predecessor here in Koori Machi, a very nice guy named Tony who kindly came to visit and help celebrate graduation with the students.

While I have been too busy to do a lot of traveling with my friends, last weekend we did have the opportunity to take a 2 day trip together to visit two wonderful places in the Touhoku region of Japan, Matsushima and Zao.


Matsushima (松島) is a small town just to the north-east of Sendai, Japan which is situated by Matsushima Bay, a beautiful area populated by about 250 or so small islands in many interesting shapes and almost all are covered in stands of Japanese pines (松 is “pine”, and 島 is “island”, so you can see how the name is quite practical) and home to one of the three great views of Japan: the morning view overlooking the bay during the colorful sunrise that can be enjoyed each morning assuming the conditions are right. Some areas in the locality suffered a significant amount of damage in the 3/11 disaster, but as recovery efforts continue you can still see many beautiful sights.  The poet Basho was so moved by the scene that his haiku of Matsushima reads simply as follow:

“Matsushima ah!
A-ah, Matsushima, ah!
Matsushima, ah!”

On Friday evening, my friends and I took the train all the way to Matsushima and stayed at a local hotspring inn where took a bath or two and then enjoyed the following two meals for dinner and breakfast:

1 2It was on that next morning that Steven and I awoke at 4:30am and made the 45 minute hike out to the coastline north of our inn where it would be easier to catch good views of the sunrise. Thankfully we had a good amount of cloud-cover on that morning and were able to see many of the beautiful colors reflected in the water and upon the clouds. As for how it really looks, please feel free to see for yourself:

I also took a few panorama shots I’ll include here (btw all this stuff is iPhone 5 so don’t start harping on quality with me, that wasn’t going anywhere to begin with lol):

2014-03-15 05.40.35 2014-03-15 05.49.47 2014-03-15 10.33.09

After enjoying the sunrise, we explored some of the islands that were near to the shore together. Most of these islands can be reached by a series of red-painted wooden bridges and feature a variety of nature, small shrines, of which several are famous, and even more enjoyable views of the bay. Something else you’ll notice is an abundance of seagulls, many of them as aggressive as the one’s you’ll find near San Fransisco who aren’t too scared of humans and are always waiting for a chance to find an easy snack. Here’s just a few more snapshots from our morning in Matsuhima:


After spending a fun morning in Matsushima, I boarded the train with my friends and rode all the way to Yamagata-ken in the west, arriving at the station and then taking another bus for about 45 minutes to reach the location of our second stay. Zao (蔵王) is another of the hidden gems in northern Japan and is actually one of its very first ski resorts. It is a small mountain resort area right next to one of Japan’s most active volcanoes. It’s proximity to all that geological activity also makes Zao one of the oldest and more unique onsens in Japan. Due to the high sulfur content of the water the hot springs all smell somewhat like boiled eggs, but are never the less very hot and relaxing. The runoff from the baths in town flows into the various drainage channels surrounding the streets and buildings and during the winter it creates a very surreal feel as steam is rising all around you. It actually serves a practical purpose too in that it helps to keep the roads clear of snow for the most part. There are about 120 small and medium sized hotels you can stay at, but there is also a variety of public baths which you can also access, usually for free if you are staying in the town. These vary in size from large to incredibly small and there was even one that barely fit the 3 of us together. Most of the baths here are of a more traditional style and are made entirely out of wood which is quite different than the tile/ceramic ones I have visited so far. It is said that people have enjoyed the hot springs in the Zao region since around 110AD. I also couldn’t help but stop at the local Family Mart and grab the only Miku item I could find. Below are the few pictures I managed to take while running around the town bathing with my friends that give you a little idea of how it’s like (you can even see one of the green buildup in the drainage ducts that is due to the chemical makeup of the water here):

After a night of eating Japanese shabushabu and enjoying the steaming hot baths, we woke up in the morning and prepared to hit the slopes for some skiing. Although Zao is a famous ski resort, it isn’t necessarily the most difficult in Japan or anything of the sort. In fact the quality of the powder and the gentleness of most slopes makes for a relaxing and stress-free time (except for some reasons I’ll explain shortly). What does set it apart from many others though is it’s sheer size (just check out the complexity of the lifts on the map here). We had to consult our maps to get our bearings about 20 times during our runs. The unique conditions of the nearby volcano and lake (check the pictures in the wiki link for Zao) also allow for the creation of “snow monsters” throughout the ski area and especially near the summit. Basically a combination of rain/wind/snow/freezing temperatures combine together to cover trees in snow and icicles from the side, creating the aforementioned monsters, or 樹氷 ( juhyou). While not scary, some of them do take on very strange and uncanny shapes. I’ll put some of pictures that we managed to take of them despite the conditions below and you can find more on the internet as well.

After renting our skis and getting adjusted to the conditions on some of the slopes at the base of the mountain we set off with a goal of reaching the summit some 4000 feet above the base and then skiing down the approximately 10km path it would take to reach the bottom once more. It was during the very first lift ride out of five we would have to take (interspersed with lots of skiing, some of it unfortunately cross-country and uphill) to reach the summit that the clear early morning conditions started changing into the windy snowstorm that would basically destroy any and all visibility for the rest of the day. While the skiing didn’t get any worse, the lack of visibility did create some risky moments, because even on the easy slopes there are plenty of steep roped off drops and hills that are usually easy to avoid but become a bit more dangerous when you can’t see them until 3 or 4 seconds before you hit the rope. We had to take it slow and cautious at times. Even the wider courses had their own problems because sometimes you had to simply guess where the next turn was coming.

This is video of us waiting for my friend Austin to arrive at one of our “checkpoints” (since we couldn’t see each other while skiing well enough to follow each other) might give you a bit of an idea:

Here’s a bit more of our skiing adventure in the form of pictures as well:

Despite some crazy experiences on the slopes I definitely don’t regret going out and I am happy I got to do it with 2 of my good friends all the way over here in Japan. It’s definitely something we won’t forget. If you ever have the chance to visit Japan, I definitely recommend Zao for the skiing and hot springs and Matsushima for simply being one of the most beautiful views in all of Japan. I live within two hours or so of both so maybe we can ski together sometime. More to come soon, including lots of new Deco*27 translations! Deco*27 released the crossfade for Conti New the other day and I promise to get to work translating all the catchy and beautiful new songs the minute my birthday present arrives at my apartment. As a parting word, please check out the video below and consider buying the album on Amazon!

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