Misunderstandings & monsters

It's a long way down the ski trail at Mount Zao, especially if you're not wearing skis.
From Stripes.com
It's a long way down the ski trail at Mount Zao, especially if you're not wearing skis.

Misunderstandings & monsters

by: Nathan A. Bailey | .
Stars and Stripes | .
published: May 08, 2012

While day-tripping in the United States, I expect misadventure, perhaps even seek it out, as with the benefit of hindsight and a few drinks, these calamities, rarely of my own making, become endearing and laughable.

When I reminisce about my misadventures as I serve in Japan, hindsight seems to consistently reveal that it is solely my lingual and cultural stupidity that lead me astray. And when I retell the tales, people may laugh, but it is certainly at my expense.

"Hello," I said to the ski-lift ticket attendant. "We'd like to get a ticket to go to the top of the mountain to see the 'snow monsters.' " I spoke slowly and clearly. I held up a map of the Zao Mountain ski area that flapped violently in the wind and pointed to where we needed to go. The sun had recently set, but the temperature had already dropped to minus-8 Celsius.

My friends and I had traveled hundreds of miles to Yamagata to snowboard on this active volcano because of its famous "snow monsters." Perhaps you've seen pictures of these beasts. In the frigid winter months, wind from Okama Crater Lake, near the summit, tears through the neighboring trees and freezes icicles nearly horizontally to their branches. Later, as snow collects, they evolve into captivatingly beautiful and grotesque white monstrosities. The three of us were determined to see these freaks of nature.

"It's closed," she said as she raised her arms in an "X" shape, which in the Japanese pantomime repertoire means "no," "stop," "you can't."

As night skiers filed past us to board the lift, the clerk and I had a brief and mostly undecipherable conversation about the definition of "closed."

We convinced ourselves she didn't understand our questions and decided to buy a night ski ticket anyway.

We had been told this was an "event." I was thinking maybe there'd be somewhere warm where we could sit down; maybe sip cocoa as the staff guided us down an enclosed walkway through the monsters. As we gleefully rode to the top of the lift, my fantasy quickly deteriorated.

As we scanned our night passes to get onto the second lift, the attendant stopped us.

"You can't go on the lift in just shoes," he said politely.

We didn't wear our ski gear because the slopes were closed at the top for the snow monster event.

I explained our plan.

"It's been canceled because of the wind," he said. Immediately it clicked.

The woman at the bottom didn't mean "closed." She meant "canceled."

We felt incredibly ignorant, but we didn't think much of it because we were only out 2,000 yen and the only damage was to our pride; no big deal.

Only when we were greeted by the crossed-arms "X" as we tried to get back down the mountain on the lift did the evening seem ruined.

When I considered the prospect of wading down the mountain in my Keds, I began my own desperate pantomime.

My first was to point wildly at my shoes. I then fell to my knees and lifted my hands in prayer to him. (This is what my friends tell me. If asked directly, I would deny it to the grave.)

He continued with the "X" and made a throat-slicing motion indicating his job would be in danger if he let us board.

I'm not really sure how long we went back and forth. I may or may not have acted out our slow death from hypothermia and how they would find us frozen years later like Encino Man.

We must have looked pathetic enough, because before my third act, a more senior staff member intervened. We would be able to ride down the mountain.

It was pretty embarrassing.

A man at the bottom promptly gave us back the majority of our money, which made me feel worse, and scolded us for behaving like children.

We apologized profusely and as we prepared to leave, the smug smile of the woman we had dismissed as a miscommunicator, the only one who had tried to intervene, seemed to brim with righteous contempt. I could only bow and agree.

Editor's note: The author and his friends returned the next day, when the wind had died down, and saw the snow monsters without causing further international incidents.


How to get there: It takes about three hours to get to Yamagata on the Tsubasa Shinkansen from Tokyo Station and costs anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 yen (prices fluctuate throughout the year) for a round-trip ticket. From Yamagata there is a bus that leaves hourly from Yamagata Station to Zao Onsen ski area. Hotels in Yamagata run about 8,000 yen a night. Lift tickets were about 4,500 yen per day and about the same for rental equipment. Not a cheap trip.

Total cost: 36,000 yen.

Tags: Travel
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