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Juhyo: Japanese Monster Trees
In winter mild-mannered conifers become hulking monstrosities of snow and ice
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2008-03-17 04:48 (KST)   

Strangely-shaped trees called Juhyo (monster trees) lurk on Mount Zao.
©2008 D.Weber

They're out there lurking in the dark, in the desolate wilderness of winter -- the beautiful and eerie offspring of Yuki Onna, the Japanese snow woman spirit. They are the Juhyo, or monster trees. Every winter the trees of Mount Zao in the Yamagata Prefecture undergo a shocking transformation. From mild-mannered conifers, these trees become hulking monstrosities of snow and ice.

©2008 D.Weber

Heading up to the summit and the land of the Juhyo.
©2008 D.Weber

What makes the trees into monsters is a wintery cocktail of snow and ice shaken and stirred by a blustery freezing Siberian wind. The snow and ice cakes the conifer trees so completely that often the original shape of the tree is so distorted that's it unrecognizable as such.

©2008 D.Weber

©2008 D.Weber

To the Japanese, trees in Japan often have a spiritual nature. At many Shinto shrines, trees are venerated as having a kami or type of spirit. One type of spirit is a kodama and it is believed that to cut down a tree containing such a spirit will bring about bad luck, so they are marked off with sacred rope. As with many spirits in Japan, these tree spirits can be beneficial, dangerous or neutral.

Juhyo Kogen - Monster Tree Plateau.
©2008 D.Weber

In rural areas, it was thought that if trees reached a thousand years of age, they could come alive, particularly at night, and some were quite dangerous. Woodcutters out after dark had to be extra cautious of running afoul of these creatures.

Me and the Juhyo.
©2008 D.Weber

Fortunately for visitors, the Juhyo monster trees are apparently dormant, content to stand still showing off their weird and beautiful shapes. In this respect the Juhyo resemble the snow spirit Yuki Onna. Yuki Onna is the female personification of winter in Japan. On one hand she represents the haunting beauty of snow and ice in her form as a beautiful pale woman with red lips and black hair.

©2008 D.Weber

On the other hand she represents winter's deadlier side as she would freeze her hapless victims to death with her breath or she would lead them astray so they would perish in the wilderness. Like Yuki Onna, the Juhyo are beautiful in their odd way but they serve to remind viewers of the fate that awaits anyone who stays too long out in winter's domain.

©2008 D.Weber

While the monster trees may be docile, the weather is not. Visitors may either encounter perfect weather with sunny clear blue skies in which to view the Juhyo or face freezing cold winds and such thick fog that they can barely see past their nose.

A Christmas tree gone over to the Dark Side.
©2008 D.Weber

I had the misfortune of it being a day with weather of the latter sort. The monster trees were practically swallowed by the swirling white mist. The main path was closed off to keep visitors from getting lost and becoming monster trees on their own. Luckily for us monster-hunters, there was a sizable herd of Juhyo next to the visitor center.

©2008 D.Weber

During the day -- if you could even call it day -- the wind was fierce. My face, feet and hands kept freezing while my glasses kept fogging up. It took quite a bit of hot sake back at the center to get the warmth back into my cold bones.

A dinosaur tree?
©2008 D.Weber

In the evening, the monster trees really come to life when the visitor center illuminates them with an array of multi-colored lights. At this time the trees really take on the shape of things unearthly. To me, the Juhyo don't resemble monsters as much as they do the terrain of some alien landscape on another planet.

The Juhyo look like the bizarre terrain of an alien landscape.
©2008 D.Weber

The Juhyo are atop Mount Zao in the northern prefecture of Yamagata. Zao, like many mountains, is actually a volcano and an active one at that. The Juhyo can be seen at Zao Onsen, which is reachable, by bus from Yamagata City station. Take the cable car of the Zao Ropeway to the midway point and get on the Sanroku Line, which goes to the top to the Juhyo-kogen: Monster Tree Plateau. The Juhyo exist from mid-January to mid-March depending on current weather conditions.

Juhyo Godzilla.
©2008 D.Weber
©2008 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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