– “Snow Country”, Kawabata Yasunari
These famous opening words clung to my mind like the fresh snowflakes dotting the shinkansen window. Having read the story of the doomed love affair between a wealthy young man and an onsen geisha back in my college days, I was now heading to Echigo-Yuzawa in Niigata prefecture, the setting of the tale. Though I enjoyed the book, with its nuanced characters and haiku-like brushes of detail, it was the snowy, crystalline world serving as its canvas that got me bundled up in winter fashion and on a train in the middle of February.
The snow country, or yukiguni (雪国), is generally the areas of Japan that receive heavy, long-lasting snowfall due to the mixing of moisture in the air with strong winds from China and Siberia. When these elements clash against the Japan alps, the moisture is released and mostly confined to the Sea of Japan side of the country’s main island, Honshu, as well as areas around the alps.
The effects are dramatic; when traveling through the tunnel towards Yuzawa, the ground was completely clear of snow on one side of the alps but a winter wonderland on the other. Huge blankets of snow added new roofs to old homes and power cables sagged under the weight of glistening white clumps. In many areas the snow can easily reach 4 feet (1.5 meters) and in 2006, locals faced record heights of 14 feet (4.5 meters).
However, the people of the snow country have adapted to the harsh winters and, in doing so, helped create some of the charms of the region; many homes have an extra door on the second floor for those record snowfalls; near Mt. Zao another alchemic mixture of moisture and strong winds have turned the trees into what the locals call “snow monsters” or juhyou, ; a farmer shared with me the secret of Koshihikari, the region’s own brand of rice, said to be the finest in the country. It was grown using the pure waters from the high quality snow, enriching the texture and flavor of the grain.
Passing through the town center, I saw the shoveled sidewalks weaving like snakes between 6 foot walls of snow while whimsical, moss-covered drains seemed to work backwards, streaming the excess water out across the tilted streets. Steam arose from various nooks and crannies as the many onsen worked hard to keep everyone warm. Old men stood brazenly atop wooden roofs clearing off mounds of snow with a well-practiced rhythm and grin, if you’d be so kind to say hello.
Refreshed from an hour’s sleep on the train, I walked briskly into my hotel, Takahan, where Kawabata wrote his ode to the yukiguni. Inside was a museum whose walls were lined with vintage photos and paintings alongside ancient clothing and gear unique to the region. The items all together sparked an image, a glimpse of life here in the snow mostly lost on foreigners like me and Tokyo dwellers. Was it beautiful? Romantic? Lonely? I could not put it into words, and sat down with some cocoa while staring out of the hotel library’s large windows, into the silvery valley down below. I looked over to see another gazing out as well.
Fast forward to 2014, and after 4 years in Japan and 2 journeys to the snow country, I still don’t quite understand why I find it such an attractive place. Maybe another trip back will create a clearer picture.