The Snow Country

We explore the whiter side of Japan, put on our snow boots and go snow trekking.

Japan is more than sushi and geishas, skyscrapers and Hello Kitty. Yes, Mount Fuji looms large over Tokyo, and you’ll struggle to find a more technologically advanced society, but as you venture beyond the major cities, those stereotypes start to fade. To see the bigger picture, you need to strike out into the rural hinterland, and in the winter months, an extraordinary wonderland of snow and ice awaits.

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If you’re an obsessive ski bunny, you might already know that Japan has some of the most exclusive ski resorts in the world. But even then, it may well come as a surprise to learn the country receives snowfall comparable to that in Patagonia, Alaska, and the Canadian Rockies. The major difference? In Japan, people actually live in this extreme environment. One-third of Japan’s population lives in the aptly named Snow Country, where the snow can fall up to 7m deep.

We boarded the Shinkansen bullet train in Tokyo with Takuya, a trekking guide with Walk Japan (www.walkjapan.com). Passionate about the great outdoors, and eager to share not only the beauty of the wilderness, but also ancient aspects of Japanese culture, Takuya spends much of each year exploring Japan’s historic pilgrimage trails and trading routes. Having rediscovered a long-forgotten path, or forged a new one, he shares it with small parties of visitors from around the world.

The train shot forth towards Nagano, the namesake city of Nagano Prefecture, and the gateway to the Snow Country. Tokyo had been crisp but dry; here temperatures were rapidly plummeting, and there was already snow blown across the surrounding hills. Leaving the train, and then the city, behind, we climbed the roads coiling up the mountainsides by minibus, our driver a former rally driver turned Shinto priest. In Japan, one can lead many lives even in a single lifetime.

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The priest is the guardian of the pilgrim’s guesthouse at Togakushi, a collection of five ancient Shinto shrines spread across a forested plateau. Once the winter snow falls, the only way between the shrines is on foot, trudging each step in plastic snow shoes so you don't sink into the drifts. Donning snow shoes for the first time is akin to walking in flippers, or those ginormous shoes clowns wear. Waddling and stomping in an ungainly fashion, you cannot take yourself too seriously. But once you learn the tricks of snowshoeing - digging your toes hard into the snow first, before thumping down your heel - you progress with greater ease and speed.

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Gingerly, we made our way through the snow to the priest’s guesthouse, a listed building with a thick thatched roof. Accommodation is in traditional rooms, with futons set upon bamboo mat floors, and instead of en suite bathrooms, an onsen: a scalding hot communal bath fed by a natural spring. Bathing au naturale with strangers (albeit of the same sex) takes a little getting used to, but so long as you avert your gaze, lie back, and soak, it’s a glorious experience after the cold outside.

The shrines at Togakushi are hidden amidst the cedar forests, snow covered paths weaving between the trees. Chusha - the largest of the shrines - has turned grey-white with age, but the beauty of its carved facade is not diminished. Originally a Buddhist temple, local people were pressured to convert to Shintoism in the 19th century, and the building stands as a testament to the entwining of both faiths.

Tokuya is a man of the mountains, of wild places, but he is also very much a story teller. Each shrine, each rock, and each pool triggers a legend, from that of a she-bandit with murderous tendencies who terrorised pilgrims, but ultimately became a Buddhist nun and goddess of travellers; to a wounded bear who led his hunter to a natural spring whose waters had healing properties. The combination of stories and endless observations about the natural environment means that even the most challenging of walks - five or six hours through the snows - go far too quickly. You reach your destination each night physically tired but with your mind engaged and racing.

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At Mori No Ie (“The House in the Woods”), we cast aside our plastic snowshoes in favour of traditional bamboo kanjiki. Far lighter, we could move nimbly over short distances, though as their surface area was considerably smaller than on their modern equivalents, our feet sunk deeper into the snow. Staying now in wooden cabins which would not look out of place in Scandinavia, the tree cover here was sparser.

After dark, the bright moonlight was reflected off the snow, illuminating everything with a blue-white light. Wrapping up in an indefinite number of layers - from Rohan Climate socks and Icebreaker Merino base layers, via mid layers and fleeces, to a Jack Wolfskin Revelstoke Texapore II jacket and trousers on top - I ventured out into the night. Takuya, still as lively and alert as he had been at 8am, led us through the trees, stopping periodically to look around us and listen to the silence. Coming into an open grove, thermos flasks and mugs appeared like magic from his backpack, and we slurped up hot chocolate hungrily, our faces lit and hands warmed by a pyramid of tea lights.… 

Writer Sophie Ibbotson and photographer Ed Day explored Nagano Prefecture on Walk Japan’s seven-day Snow Country Trek (www.walkjapan.com/tour/snow-country-trek/), which is available between January and March. Their flights to Tokyo were provided by Japan Airlines (www.jal.com).