The Joys of Local Snowshoeing in Niigata, Japan スノーシュー
Living on the edge of one of the snowiest areas of Japan brings me joy, but most people around me hate the snow. My work colleagues complain, "Snow makes driving so difficult." My neighbors reiterate, "Walking becomes dangerous."
I cannot deny that they are correct: I know people who have broken hand and wrist bones after slipping on icy roads. I have seen cars spin out of control and have been stuck in traffic jams because of heavy snowfall. Winter can be a trial, especially with its icy rain. But when snow falls, the pure beauty of wind-sculptured ice and snowy fields refreshes my eyes like sharp breaths of crisp cold air clears the lungs.
I live in Toyosaka, a suburb of Niigata city, which is a spread-out city of over 800,000 residents. On one side is the Sea of Japan from which fiercely strong winds dump precipitation. It is the only place in the world where rain, snow, and hail falls almost horizontally, blown by winds which often rip apart umbrellas, and where newspapers keep count of the deaths of people who fall off roofs while removing snow. On January 14, 2015, four such deaths occurred in the previous two days in Niigata Prefecture, Niigata's neighbor, Yamagata Prefecture, and Hokkaido.
Sure, the climate is not temperate, but from my home, I do not need to travel far to see a multitude of spectacular winter visions. Vast areas of harvested, muddy rice fields turned to coconut-cream stretch to the mountainous walls of the snow capped, jagged Japanese Alps. Mid-winter transforms Niigata into a natural whiteness.
The mountains rise spectacularly in the background behind Fukushimagata, a nearby lagoon (no relation to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant), which becomes the winter home for several thousand swans and geese from Siberia and other areas of Russia.
For these feathered migrants, the Niigata winter temperatures that stay close to freezing are cozy compared to their home climate. In mid-winter, I can walk along the side of the lagoon and watch them fly off in near-perfect V-shaped formations to the rice fields.
Before sunset, with cacophonous squawks they return and greet each other with fresh news of the evening. They fly low to the ground since the rice fields where they graze are near. I can hear their powerful beating wings - whoosh, whoosh whoosh - as they fly less than ten meters above me. The wingspan of the larger swans exceeds two meters. Bird watchers from across Japan and other countries flock (pun intended) to photograph these beautiful creatures.
In early winter, swans and some geese eat the panicles (rice flowers), and spilled rice grains that farmers had not collected during the autumn harvest. When those disappear, they eat the rice stalks and continue downward through the snow into the mud to consume the roots. You can see their heads digging in the snow like large feathered dogs searching for bones. Niigata's most famous product, Koshikari rice, is clearly appreciated by both two-legged and two-winged connoisseurs of fine agricultural products.
Within a few-hours' drive at the most are the famous mountainous winter sports regions of Niigata: Echigo-Yuzawa, Myoko, and Joetsu, as well as the incredible fields of snow monsters in Yamagata's Zao Ski Resort, but I have discovered numerous surprises and snowy pleasures within a short walk or drive from my home.
Several tiny ski resorts are between thirty minutes to one hour away: Budoh Ski Area, Wakabuna Kogen, Tainai Resort, and Ninox. Waiting in line for a ski lift is unheard of. Lacking the dramatic flair of their famous cousins, these ski resorts offer a more relaxed atmosphere, and you can look over the white checkerboard rice fields to the blue ocean while kicking up some white spray with your skis, or, as I do, walking through the nearby forests and peaks on snowshoes. Tainai Resort also has a fantastic hot spring with a view of some of the ski runs, a nearby river, and countryside homes.
Sword Dragon Gorge
When the snow is deep and temperatures drop to freezing and below, my dog and I walk on icy roads from our suburb of almost identical grey, brown, or beige homes to the edge of black asphalt where rice fields have turned to fields of twinkling ice and creamy snow. I strap on my snowshoes and walk on water away from the streetlights into the darkness of real night.
On rare nights when no clouds obscure the stars, the stars shimmer and glimmer with, it seems, a passion that illuminates me from the inside. Bundled in my down clothes, probably looking like a fat duck, I waddle across the fields. My snowshoes press down upon the crackly almost-solidified snow. Sometimes I stop, lie down, and look at the millions of sparkling eyes above and have a private face-to-face conversation with the galaxy until my dog reminds me that it is time to continue.
One of the most beautiful winter sites near my home is a gorge that cuts through several steep mountains. The name of the gorge when written in Japanese is kenryuukyou, which means Sword Dragon Gorge. Rivulets of crystal clear water join to form a small tumbling waterfall that crashes down into the gorge.
In the depth of winter, melting snow and splashing water form icicles that grow like teeth over rocky overhangs in the cliffs. I have seen them as long as three meters. Despite being less than an hour away from the center of Niigata city, except for the rare snowshoeing hiker or the ultra-passionate winter photographer, almost no one goes there in winter which satisfies me because the quiet and natural beauty is refreshing.
Refreshing and healing are qualities I discern in the snowy winters of Niigata, but climate change will eliminate or severely reduce snowfall from this region. In fact, a Japanese government report predicts that if global warming is unchanged, Niigata Prefecture's snowfall will decrease by about one meter by the end of this century from the current average depth of just over two meters.
Less snow will lead to ski resorts going bankrupt, much more rain, possibly floods, and the probable loss of many plant and animal species. So fight climate change. Save our snow and so much more!
Access - Getting to Niigata
Niigata Airport info: tel 025-275-2633.
Flights from Osaka (Itami) (8 daily), Tokyo, Nagoya, Sapporo, and Okinawa as well as Seoul (daily), Taipei, Shanghai, Harbin and Guam. There may be occasional flights to Vladivostok and Khabarovsk. Check Niigata Airport website for details and flight schedules.
ANA Tel: 025 244 5812
Aeroflot Tel: 025 244 5935
Vladivostok Air Tel: 025 279 5105
Korean Air Tel: 025 244 3311
China Airlines Tel: 025 227 4158
Japan Railways (JR) Joetsu Shinkansen super-express from Tokyo (2 hours) to Niigata Station. Change at Takisaki for the Nagano Shinkansen line. Some trains from Niigata to Osaka and Kyoto. Niigata Station Tel: 025 248 5211
Long-distance bus services from Ikebukuro (Tokyo) to Niigata (6 daily). Niigata also has bus links to Sendai, Kyoto, Nagoya and Osaka.
Ferry to Otaru (for Sapporo, 18 hours) run by Shin-Nohonkai Ferry (tel 025-273-2171) Daily, except Mondays.