(Waiting in line at Zao Ropeway)
Last weekend I went on a trip to Yamagata with a bunch of other international students. It was sponsored by the Engineering school's international department, which subsidized most of the costs of the trip, so for students the end cost was only 1500 yen (around USD $15). The main focus of the trip was to visit the Safflower (紅花、べにはな）museum, and to see the snow monsters on Mt. Zao on the Yamagata prefecture side.
We rendezvous'd with the buses next to the station in downtown Sendai. With some scary black clouds off in the distance, it looked as if it might turn out to be a volatile day of weather. After two hours or so, we arrived at the first stop: the Zao Rope Way, a ski area in the Mt. Zao area.
We rode up two separate ropeways (which were more like gondolas) to the top of the mountain. One of the main attractions in this area are the so called snow monsters (樹氷、じゅひょう）. They are trees that have been sprayed with moist Siberian wind and snowed on repeatedly, accumulating enough snow and ice to be completely white, unrecognizable, and spooky. On the day we went, there was a very powerful storm system that was just leaving, so we could not see anything at the top of the mountain. I'd estimate that the winds were at a constant 40-50mph, which made riding the upper gondola quite an adventure.
Apparently, the snow monsters melted overnight due to unexpected rain and heavy winds. According to the locals this has never happened before, so I guess we just got really unlucky. You can see some pictures I randomly found on this flickr set, or just by googling "yamagata snow monster".
Next, we went to Sagae for lunch. This city is the center of the cherry-growing industry in Japan, and their cherry product sells for incredibly high prices, in excess of $30/lb (why this is, I could not find out). The lunch was decent and we picked up ice cream on the way back to the bus.
Our last stop was the Safflower museum (Japanese link warning). Safflower (which at first, I believe they were saying sunflower) is a flower used for its red-pink dye, which was very important in the days of kimonos and hand-made clothing in Japan.
The museum trip was divided into two groups; my group began with the hands-on dying of a handkerchief. Similar to tie-die, we used short sticks and rubber bands beforehand to create undyed patterns in the dyed product. This took quite a long time, because the dye had to be worked into the material, be set, and then dry off.
The second part was a series of buildings belonging to an important Safflower trader who lived in the Meiji era. Except for the meeting and living rooms, all the buildings had been converted into museum space featuring safflower-dyed kimonos, dolls, as well as period artifacts and some effects of the trader's family.
Overall it was a very fun trip which got everyone out of Sendai for a day of fun while only spending relatively little money. I am very much hoping to go back for a day of skiing sometime in the next few weeks if possible, pending gear rentals and figuring out transportation.