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“Winter is coming”: exploring the snow countries of Japan

“Winter is coming”: exploring the snow countries of Japan

Snow: atmospheric water vapour frozen into ice crystals and falling in light white flakes or lying on the ground as a white layer. It’s synonymous with winter season, and countries with four seasons get to enjoy them typically towards the end and beginning of the year. Japan has its generous share of snow in northern regions, so much that it has coined a special term: snow country.

 

Niigata (above) is regarded as a snow country for its high snowfall. (Image credit: JNTO).

 

A snow country (雪国 yukiguni) is defined as an area in Japan that experiences high snowfall for extended periods of time. Most of these areas are in the western part of Honshū (本州)—the biggest island in Japan where the western front faces the Sea of Japan (日本海 Nihon-kai) and the eastern front faces the Pacific Ocean—and it includes prefectures and areas in northern Japan and southwards from there.

 

Snow countries in areas with high snowfall. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

Snow countries are much snowier compared to other regions in Japan because of their geographical locations, mountainous terrains, and weather conditions. Seawater from the Sea of Japan evaporate to form moisture-filled clouds which are then blown towards the western front of Honshū by the monsoon winds from Siberia. Upon contact with the frigid mountain air, condensation occurs that result in massive snowfall on the land below. Because of this, snow countries such as areas in Niigata and Yamagata often experience cold and wet weather compared to areas facing the Pacific Ocean, which experience relatively warmer and drier days.

 

A graphic illustration to explain the massive snowfall in snow countries. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Snow countries thus regularly experience record snowfall each year, and Tohoku Region is home to some of the honours. According to the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA), Aomori Prefecture recorded a snow depth of 5.66m on 26 February 2013 in the Hakkōda Mountains (八甲田山系 Hakkōda-sankei). Some rural and mountainous areas may experience snowfall even higher than that; for example, JR Morimiyanohara Station (JR森宮野原駅 Morimiyanohara-eki), a station that Joyful Train Oykot passes through, recorded snowfall of 7.85m in 1945, making it the highest snowfall at a JR station.

 

Sukayu Onsen (酸ヶ湯温泉), a hot spring resort in the Hakkōda Mountains in Aomori Prefecture, recorded the highest snowfall in 2013. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)

 

An event of Olympic proportion

High snowfall is often seen as a bane especially for people living in snow countries. However, sometimes it can be a boon, as in the case of Nagano. The prefecture hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998, which brought international attention to the region. The Olympic games also spurred major developments to the region: the construction of the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線) from Tokyo to Nagano (formerly known as Nagano Shinkansen) was completed in 1997 to usher in the games, new highways were built, and roads were improved.

 

Hakuba Ski Jumping Stadium (above) was one of the venues for 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano. (Image credit: Tourism Commission of Hakuba Village/JNTO)

 

Snowy literature

Yuzawa (湯沢), a town that gained immense popularity for being the epicentre of Niigata Prefecture’s skiing resorts and winter activities, served as the setting for “Snow Country” (雪国 Yukiguni), a Japanese novel by Kawabata Yasunari (川端康成) that is widely regarded as a classic work of Japanese literature. It won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, and to this day his work is still widely read. One interesting feature in the novel involves a tunnel that the protagonist used to travel between Niigata (Yuzawa) and Gunma, and Kawabata describes the transitory experience between the snow country in the west and the sunny land in the east, two contrasting worlds that serves as an important theme to the story.    

 

Yuzawa is the setting for “Snow Country”, a critically acclaimed novel by Kawabata Yasunari. (Image credit: Niigata Prefecture)

 

Living with the snow

Seeing as how heavy snow will continue to fall indefinitely, the locals living in snow countries learn to adapt to the extreme weather conditions. Many households in these areas have thus made special arrangements to their homes to meet the challenges; for example, there are “snowslide-style houses” (落雪式住宅 rakusetsu-shiki jūtaku), which have been gaining popularity since 1965. They feature slanted roofs so that snow can slide off and not accumulate on them, and a three-level foundation.

 

Snowslide-style houses with slanted roofs and three-level foundations, and enclosures on first floor. (Image credit: Tōkamachi City)

 

Because of the high snowfall, the first floor can get completely buried in snow and sunlight will be blocked out. Because of this, the garage and storeroom—both of which are not usually frequented by households—are located on the first floor, which is made from hard concrete to withstand piling snow. Snow enclosures (雪囲い yuki-kakoi) are installed outside the windows on the first floor to prevent snow from caving in and breaking the windowpanes, and they are designed in such a way that they can be uninstalled during non-winter seasons.

 

The second and third floors are where the living room and other rooms are located, and a second door is even made on this level to provide access on days when the first floor is buried in snow. Snow tunnels have also been dug to connect neighbouring homes in some cases, and locals must always ensure to clear snow from their rooftops so that they don’t cave in when snow falls.

 

Other structures put up to prevent snow from caving in. (Image credit: Tōkamachi City)

 

Snow enclosures are also put up on trees, especially those with frail branches, to prevent snow from piling up on them. For some buildings, their rooftops have unique downslope design so that snow can slide off them easily on their own, preventing accumulation and caving in.

 

Nabekura Kogen Mori no Ie.jpg (373 KB)

Nabekura Kogen Heights Mori no Ie, in summer (left) and winter (right). (Image credit: Shinshu-Iiyama Tourism Bureau)

 

Yamagata's under-snow vegetables

Perhaps unbeknownst to most people, snow plays a vital role in producing vegetables that can be done only in snow countries. Take Yamagata, for example. Because of heavy snowfall, the locals often do not have access to wholesale markets especially during winter. As a result, they have to think of ways to preserve food for the long haul since running out of food was a real problem. They tried burying their vegetables under snow as a form of natural refrigeration, and this resulted in under-snow vegetables (雪下野菜 yuki-shita yasai).

 

Yamagata's under-snow vegetables. (Image credit: 全国有機農法連絡会)

 

Up until 1955, this method was done mostly for private use, where households resort to under-snow vegetables for days when they have food supply shortages. Root vegetables such as radishes and potatoes were commonly kept under the snow to retard spoilage but this resulted in vegetables that not only taste sweeter than the average ones, but don’t smell as earthy as their regular counterparts. This was how under-snow vegetables came to be, and a prime example of how wisdom is gained from livelihood, and how it is passed down from generation to generation.

 

Chinese cabbages kept under the snow.  (Image credit: 全国有機農法連絡会)

 

under-snow vegetables are sweeter specifically because of the storage methods. As the vegetables are stored in specific conditions—0°C, humidity levels of 90% or more, completely dark environment—protein turn into amino acids, the starch breaks down into sugars, and amino acids are naturally produced. This process, along with the method of burying them under snow, prevents freezing and helps rendering them more delicious. As the vegetables stay buried under snow, they undergo ageing where the odour disappears, and the texture and fibre become softer. Produce grown using this method in Yamagata include apples, cabbages, Chinese cabbages, radishes, and turnips.

 

Harvesting radishes buried under snow. (Image credit: 全国有機農法連絡会)

 

Traditional winter festivals galore

Hachinohe Enburi (八戸えんぶり)

Hachinohe Enburi in Aomori Prefecture. (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)

 

People who live in snow countries intimately understand that there is always a risk of disruption to food supply because of the weather. Historically, they would pray to the gods that their harvest would prevail in spite of the weather, and resorted to folk rituals in hopes that their prayers would be answered. For example, in the city of Hachinohe (八戸) in Aomori Prefecture—perhaps the snowiest prefecture in Japan—there is the Hachinohe Enburi.

 

Hachinohe Enburi is a local folk-dance performance traditionally done to pray for good rice harvest, and is designated as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property. The name comes from the farm tool called eburi (エブリ) that was once used to flatten the ground to prepare for rice planting. The dancers are called tayu (たゆ) and they wear brightly designed eboshi (烏帽子) caps that are unusually shaped like horses’ heads. The dance troupe dances to the rhythm of the chants sung in the background together with flutes and drums.

 

Several dances performed during Hachinohe Enburi, such as naga-enburi (left) and ebisu-mai (right). (Image credit: Aomori Prefecture)

 

Namahage Sedo Festival (なまはげ柴灯まつり)

Namahage Sedo Festival in Akita Prefecture. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

In the coastal peninsula of Oga ( 男 鹿 ) in Akita Prefecture, the locals have their own way to celebrate during the snowy winter season, and theirs is a frightening one. It is the Namahage Sedo Festival, which is designated as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property as well as the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2018. Traditionally celebrated to pray for good rice harvest, this festival involves scary deities (or at least humans donned in scary like deity outfits).

 

In this festival, the participants would wear masks and straw costumes to pose as namahage, which are ogre-like deities that would visit homes to look for lazy and disobedient children and scare and even take them away. They also carry fake knives to remind people not to sit around the fire hearth (囲炉裏 irori)—often used to keep people warm during winter—for too long. Historically, people who sat around it for too long would get burnt skin, and the namahage would come to cut off the burnt skin. Ultimately, their presence is a reminder for the locals to work hard to ensure there’s always food supply especially during the harsh winter, and the only way for people to appease and make them leave is to offer rice cakes (餅 mochi).

 

The key to chasing the namahage away? Give them rice cakes. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

The Namahage Sedo Festival began in 1964, and it’s been celebrated ever since. The festival takes place at Shinzan Shrine (真山神社) There’s Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum (男鹿真山伝承館) and Namahage Museum (なまはげ館) nearby so that visitors can learn more about the history and folklore of this surreal ritual.

 

Namahage Museum located near the Shinzan Shrine where the festival is held. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum / Namahage Museum (男鹿真山伝承館・なまはげ館)
Address: Mizukuzawa, Kitaura Shinzan, Oga City, Akita Prefecture, 010-0685
Nearest station: JR Oga Station (JR 男鹿駅)
Opening hours:

  • Namahage Museum: 8:30am–5pm
  • Oga Shinzan Folklore Museum: Hourly basis between 9:30am to 3:30pm e.g. 9:30am, 10:30am, etc. (Apr–Nov), hourly basis between 9:30 am to 3:30pm (Dec–Mar; closed on weekends, national holidays and New Year’s Eve; entry every half-hour on 1 and 2 January)

Admission fee: ¥550 per adult for Namahage Museum (¥275 for junior / middle / high school students)
Tel: +81-185-22-5050

 

Yokote Kamakura Festival (横手かまくら祭り)

Igloo-like snow houses at Yokote Kamakura Festival. (Image credit: Tohoku Tourism Promotion Organization)

Yokote (横手) is a city in Akita Prefecture that also experiences a lot of snow, and like Tōkamachi, the locals also have their own snow festival. Named Yokote Kamakura Festival (横手かまくら祭り Yokote-kamakura-matsuri), this event has a history that stretches more than 450 years ago. It is devoted to the Shinto water deity, and locals historically prayed to it for seek for ample water for harvests.

 

Visitors can witness igloo-like snow houses called kamakura (かまくら) with a snow altar built for the deity inside all of them. Visitors can come inside the snow houses and be offered rice cakes and amazake (甘酒), a warm and sweet sake beverage. In return, they can pay respects to the deity at the altar.

 

People enjoying sitting inside snow houses during the festival. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Tōkamachi Snow Festival (十日町雪まつり)

Tōkamachi Snow Festival in Niigata Prefecture. (Image credit: Niigata Professional Photographers Society / JNTO)

 

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade”, or as the old saying goes. Perhaps in this case, it should be “when life gives you snow, make snow sculptures”. Tōkamachi (十日町) is located in the mountainous interior of Niigata Prefecture, so it experiences high snowfall for extended periods of time. Rather than simply be inconvenienced by it, they decided to organise the Tōkamachi Snow Festival and use all the snow to make snow sculptures.

 

Visitors can witness amazing snow structures such as snowmen shaped after popular anime characters, and even a giant snow stage. This festival is similar to the more popular Sapporo Snow Fest, but on a smaller scale. Although not as grand as the one in Sapporo, Tōkamachi Snow Festival is more intimate and welcoming (which means it’s less crowded too) since it’s based in a rural area.

 

Walking in a winter wonderland

Yuzawa: the heart of Niigata's winter activities

Most people would associate snow with winter activities: snowboarding, skiing, and the likes. (Image credit: JNTO)

 

It would come as no surprise to anybody that in areas with plenty of snow, snow resorts are to be expected. And continuing with Niigata, the prefecture is definitely popular for its ski resorts, more so for people living in Tokyo since it’s considerably accessible by train. When winter comes, people know it’s time to bring out the winter wear and get ready for the snowfall. And when in Niigata, the immediate go-to for snow is Yuzawa.

 

Located in southwestern Niigata, Yuzawa (湯沢) is a town that is wedged between the Sea of Japan to the east and the Japanese Alps to the west, thereby experiencing some of the highest snowfalls annually in Japan. Thus, many ski resorts were set up in this town and over the years, people from all over the world flock here to experience a winter wonderland. The entire skiing area is stretched over two train stations along the Jōetsu Shinkansen (上越新幹線), Echigo-Yuzawa Station (越後湯沢駅 Echigo-Yuzawa-eki) and GALA Yuzawa Station (ガーラ湯沢駅 Gāra-Yuzawa-eki). In fact, skiing is such a big deal in this region that Niigata and Nagano are respectively ranked #1 and #2 for having the most ski resorts per prefecture!

 

Skiing in Yuzawa during winter. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The snow resorts of Yuzawa are one example of how people have learned to adapt to live and even enjoy the abundant snow that falls in snow countries, using it to turn a town into a man-made winter wonderland. But for those curious to visit a winter wonderland that is formed naturally by Mother Nature, we shall turn to another area known for experiencing consistently high snowfall.

 

Hachimantai: the snow wonder of Akita and Iwate

Hachimantai during winter. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Hachimantai (八幡平) is a group of mountains that stretches across prefectures Akita and Iwate, and has an altitude of 1,614m. Snow is plentiful here not only because of the mountainous terrain, but also its geographical location: with Akita directly facing the Sea of Japan to the west, it experiences much more snowfall compared to other regions, as expected from a snow country. Plus, the area experiences high snowfall longer than most other places, starting from mid-November and ending in mid-April.

 

Snow corridor in Hachimantai. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

Hachimantai features some of the most spectacular snow-based formations you can witness in a snow country. Case in point: majestic snow corridors. Mention snow corridors and people would usually envision the Tateyama Snow Corridor on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route (立山黒部アルペンルート) that stretches from Toyama Prefecture to Nagano Prefecture. However, Hachimantai has its own snow corridor along the Hachimantai Aspite Line (八幡平アスピーテライン), a 27km mountain sightseeing road running through the Towada-Hachimantai National Park, making it the longest snow corridor in Japan!

 

From mid-November onwards, the road experiences heavy snowfall so traffic is closed until late April. After which, the road is ploughed to make way for traffic, forming impressive snow walls along each side of the road. The snow wall can reach up to 6m high, making driving through this road an unforgettable experience. Better yet, since this snow corridor is only passable from late April until early May when the snow begins to melt, it coincides with spring season, so visitors can witness cherry blossoms blooming at the base of Mount Hachimantai after going through the corridor!

 

Snow monsters in Hachimantai. (Image credit: Akita Prefecture)

 

Another snowy observation seen in Hachimantai? Snow monsters (樹氷 juhyō). Usually people associate snow monsters—snow-covered trees that resemble monsters—with Mount Zao (蔵王 山) or Zao Ski Resort in Yamagata, the same way they associate snow corridors with the Tateyama Snow Corridor. Hachimantai also has their own frosted trees, and they can be seen right in the heart of winter. They are best enjoyed during non-windy days when the skies are clear, and you can witness these magnificent formations in full.

 

Dragon Eye Kagami Pond in Hachimantai. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

When you visit Hachimantai, you will learn simply how vast the entire area is. Take on the Hachimantai Nature Observation Trail, and you will see numerous lakes and ponds. Go up the Hachimantai Viewpoint, and not only will you see Hachimantai Pond (八幡平沼)—an outstanding water body that has become symbolic to the whole region―but another amazing snow formation on the Dragon Eye Kagami Pond (ドラゴンアイ鏡沼 Doragon-Ai Kagami- numa). Located near the peak of Mount Hachimantai, the pond’s ominous name comes from how the pond looks like a dragon’s eye because of the melting of snow. Visitors can witness this in spring from late May to early June.

 

Snowshoe walking experience in Hachimantai. (Image credit: 岩手県観光協会)

 

If you like to have a more physical and tactile experience at Hachimantai, why not try snowshoe walking on the snow itself? It’s perhaps the most intimate way to enjoy the blankets of snow that cover the sprawling area, and guided snowshoe walking tours are available from mid-April to mid-May. Hachimantai is one of the few places you can experience snow-walking during spring; how novel is it for you to be able to walk on snow at this time of the year?

 

As one born and bred in a tropical country, I find it hard—almost impossible—to imagine what my life would be like if I were to live in a snow country. Weather plays a significant role in shaping up one’s livelihood, and the people living in snow countries have learned to co-exist with the plentiful snow that surrounds them. Why don’t you travel to a snow country in Japan, and have a glimpse of what kind of life you would be living instead? It will help to broaden your horizon and even change the way you view your own way of life.

 

More details

Niigata Prefecture is located in the Shin’etsu (信越) part of Chubu Region (中部地方 Chūbu- chihō), and is reachable from Tokyo by bullet train. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Jōetsu Shinkansen (上越新幹線) from JR Tokyo Station to JR Niigata Station (JR 新潟駅 Niigata- eki). The ordinary fare is ¥10,760 and the journey takes about 2 hours.

 

Yamagata Prefecture is located in the southwestern part of Tohoku Region, and is reachable from Tokyo by bullet train. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Yamagata Shinkansen (山形新幹 線) from JR Tokyo Station (JR 東 京 駅 Tōkyō-eki) to JR Yamagata Station (JR 山 形 駅Yamagata-eki). The ordinary fare is ¥11,550 and the journey takes about 2 hours 45 minutes.

 

Yuzawa is located in Niigata Prefecture, and is reachable from Tokyo by bullet train. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Jōetsu Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station (JR 東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) to either JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station or JR GALA Yuzawa Station. The ordinary fare for either stations is ¥6,790 and the journey takes about 80 minutes.

(Note: JR GALA Yuzawa Station is only operating from Mid-December until early May for skiing season.)

 

Hachimantai is part of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park (十和田八幡平国立公園 Towada-Hachimantai Kokuritsu-kōen) that stretches between prefectures Akita and Iwate. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tōhoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) from JR Tokyo Station to JR Morioka Station (JR 盛岡駅 Morioka-eki), and then take the Iwate Kenpoku Bus (岩手県北バス) bound for the Hachimantai Mountaintop. The journey from Tokyo to Morioka costs ¥15,010 and takes around 2 hours 15 minutes. The bus journey from Morioka to near the summit of Mount Hachimantai takes around 2 hours and costs ¥1,100.

(Note: the mountain is out of bounds from mid-November to late April due to high snowfall.)

 

Hachinohe is located in the northern prefecture of Aomori, and the Hachinohe Enburi takes place at the Hachinohe City Center. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Tōhoku Shinkansen (東北新幹線) from JR Tokyo Station to JR Hachinohe Station (JR 八戸駅 Hachinohe-eki). From JR Hachinohe Station, switch to the JR Hachinohe Line (JR 八戸線 Hachinohe-sen) and alight at JR Hon-Hachinohe Station (本八戸駅 Hon-Hachinohe-eki). It’s a 10-minute walk southward to Hachinohe City Center, where the festival is held. The journey from Tokyo to Hon- Hachinohe takes 3 hours 15 minutes and costs ¥16,590.

For more information on Hachinohe Enburi, you can read it up on Visit Hachinohe website here.

 

The Oga city / peninsula is located in the northwestern side of Akita Prefecture, and the Namahage Sedo Festival takes place at Shinzan Shrine in Oga. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Akita Shinkansen (秋田新幹線) from JR Tokyo Station to JR Akita Station (JR 秋田駅 Akita-eki), and then switch to the JR Oga Line (JR 男鹿線) to proceed to JR Oga Station (JR 男鹿駅 Oga-eki). From there, they can take the shuttle bus from JR Oga Station to the shrine. The train journey from Tokyo to Akita takes a total of approximately 3 hours 45 minutes with a fare of ¥18,120; from Akita to Oga, it is a 1-hour journey with a fare of ¥770. The shuttle bus from JR Oga Station to Shinzan Shrine takes around 30 minutes and costs ¥300.

 

Yokote is located in the southern side of Akita Prefecture. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Akita Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to JR Ōmagari Station (JR大曲駅 Ōmagari-eki), and then switch to the Ōu Line (奥羽本線 Ōu-sen) to reach JR Yokote Station (JR横手駅 Yokote-eki).

If you like to know more about Yokote Kamakura Festival, you can have a look at the official website here (Japanese only).

 

Tōkamachi is located in Niigata Prefecture. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Jōetsu Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station to JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station. From JR Echigo-Yuzawa Station, switch to the Hokuhoku Line and alight at Tōkamachi Station (十日町駅 Tōkamachi-eki). The train journey from Tokyo to Tōkamachi takes 2 hours 15 minutes and costs ¥7,460. Alternatively, visitors coming from Nagano can take the Joyful Train Oykot from JR Nagano Station to JR Tōkamachi Station. I have written an article for the train, which you can have a look here.

If you like to know more about Tōkamachi Snow Festival, you can have a look at the official website here (Japanese only).

(INSIDER TIP: If you have the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can travel on the Yamagata Shinkansen, Tōhoku Shinkansen and Akita Shinkansen, and make seat reservations for free! Or, if you have the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), you can travel on the Jōetsu Shinkansen and also make seat reservations for free! However, the fare for the Iwate Kenpoku Bus, shuttle bus from JR Oga Station to Shinzan Shrine, and the Hokuhoku Line must be paid separately.)

 

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area)

JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area. It's a 5-day flexible pass where you can choose any 5 days within a 14-day period for your travel, and the 5 days need not be consecutive either. It's ¥19,350 when you buy it overseas, and you can use it to travel by train from Tokyo to Akita, Yamagata, Aomori, and Iwate. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free.

For more information of the JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), you can visit the link here.

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) is an affordable pass that offers unlimited train rides on JR East lines, including bullet trains, within the valid area. It's a 5-day flexible pass where you can choose any 5 days within a 14-day period for your travel, and the 5 days need not be consecutive either. It's ¥17,310 when you buy it overseas, making it a considerable option for rail travellers. Pass holders can also reserve seats online for up to a month in advance for free.

For more information of the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), you can visit the link here.

 

Header image credit: Akita Prefecture

 

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