My passport will expire in a few months, a fact which I overlooked when I was in Sweden last year where it would have been convenient to apply for a new one. Due to Taiwan’s diplomatic status, it’s not possible for me to renew my passport here, I must leave the country. It so happens that the Swedish embassy in Tokyo is the most convenient of all nearby ones, so I decided on going there. Traveling all the way to Japan just for a passport run seemed like a waste of time and money so we figured we could combine it with something fun. Since Japan has proper winters I thought it would be good chance for me to do some snowboarding and our son could get his first real experience of playing in the snow.

We decided to go to a ski resort called Zoa Onsen not too far from Tokyo. I selected Zoa Onsen for two main reasons, it’s convenient to get to from Tokyo (2.5 hours by Shinkansen train to Yamagata then 30 minutes by taxi), and there’s more to see than just the ski slope. We were a little bit lucky in getting there because, due to my embassy visit, we only left Tokyo around four pm and by that time it had started snowing heavily. The snow wasn’t a problem for us, our train ride went smoothly and we arrived in Yamagata on schedule, but we saw on the news that the snow had caused a lot of trouble later in the evening. 

For our first day in Zao we decided to take it easy and let Tantan play as much in the snow as he wanted so he could get used to it. It only took a couple of hours digging in the snow and throwing snowballs for the initial exhilaration to subside. After that he became more interested in the cable cars and we spent most of the afternoon riding them up and down the mountain.

Mixed shots of playing in the snow and riding the cable car

On the second day I decided it was time for some snowboarding. My parents have told me that when I was young my dad would carry me on his back while he was skiing, so I decided I would give the same concept a try with my son. I found that it worked but it was quite heavy and I struggled a fair bit with getting up after strapping the board to my feet. After a couple of runs I managed to adjust the carrier in such a way that the weight didn’t bother me as much and I felt I had control when riding. I actually had a lot of fun, but more importantly, Tantan enjoyed it a lot and kept urging me to go faster. Suffice to say that I felt like a super dad. We of course got a lot of looks from other people in the slope and one cool looking guy told me “that’s sick bro,” which is probably the best compliment I’ve received in a long time. One thing to note however, I felt confident to do this because I have been snowboarding since I was 12, I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who’s not experienced.

Video of me coming down the slope with Tantan on my back

During the next few days me and my wife took turns watching Tantan so the other could have fun on their own. When I was on baby sitting duty I would bring him snowboarding but I could never convince him to try on his own. My wife on the other hand would mostly let him play in the snow. Either way he had a lot of fun. I also enjoyed myself greatly whenever I was able to go snowboarding on my own; it felt so good to be back on the snow after almost six years since the last time. I have to say I was quite impressed that my wife was willing to try snowboarding again after so many years, and I was even more impressed at how much she remembered; she was much more skilled than most people in the beginner slope. She was quite proud of herself for that as well.

As the name implies, Zao Onsen is a hotspring town with a stream of hot, sulfur smelling water flowing through the town center, puffs of steam rising into the air at regular intervals. There’s even an onsen shrine at one end of town. Along this stream there is a number of public bath houses but more importantly, our hotel had its own onsen (I’m pretty sure all hotels in Zoa do). I’ve probably said this before but going to a hotspring bath after a day in the ski slope is wonderful; heats you up on cold days and soothes sore muscles. A side effect of the hotspring river is that the steam rising from it turns the rather mundane countryside mainstreet into a brilliant setting for taking photos, and I spent an evening trying my best to make use of this opportunity.

Small boy and dad ready for onsen

Steam and lights on the streets of Zao

Zoa Onsen is famous for one other thing except for the hotsprings: the snow monsters. The weather conditions near the peak are such that the trees get coated on all sides with snow, turning them into irregularly shaped statues, almost like modern art. One such ‘snow monster’ would be kind of cool but ultimately unremarkable. The fact that there’s a huge field of them however, makes all the difference. Unfortunately, those weather conditions responsible for shaping this remarkable landscape – namely a combination of wind, snow and fog – make it quite uncomfortable to be up there a lot of the time. Even if you do venture up during those conditions, you can’t really see much. Turns out the best time to see the snow monsters is in the morning before the clouds start rolling in sometime around 11am. Due to various circumstances it was difficult for us to get there early enough. The thing is, I think the conditions in the slopes are the best early in the morning, so one day I left the hotel while my wife and son were still asleep and headed for the slope before the lifts opened. Although my main goal of getting up early was to enjoy the undisturbed slopes, it was a great opportunity for me to go see the snow monsters. When I got to the peak I was surprised to see that it was full of tourist (without skiing equipment) who were milling around taking pictures. The snow monsters are a spectacular sight, so I got out my camera as well, trying my best to find angles free of people. I loved it, I just wish my wife and son could have been there as well.

This is what I came up here to see

When I’m sitting here writing this I have already received my new passport, main mission accomplished. I also had a lot of fun in Zoa Onsen – it was great to be back in the ski slope again – and I am sure my wife and son enjoyed it as well. Secondary mission also accomplished. A final note on Zoa Onsen as a destination. If you’re a hardcore skier or snowboarder, there are far better resorts in Hokkaido. However, the convenient location makes Zao really suitable for casual riders as well as tourists just wanting to see snow.