Every year, winter storms out of Siberia and mainland Asia, picks up steam as it howls across the Sea of Japan, and crashes onto main-island Honshu, making Japan – literally – the snowiest country on earth. Fortunately for us, Tokyo is in the lee of the “roof of Japan,” mountain ranges which trap the worst of the cold and snow to the windward side. Areas such as Niigata prefecture, on the coastal plain between the Sea of Japan and mountains, are transformed into the 雪国 yukiguni “snow country” made famous in Kawabata’s sparse, bleak-as-winter-snow love story. Just as a point of reference, Niigata City averages 217 cm a year (Tokyo, on the other hand, is a paltry 11cm; my hometown of Toronto comes in at 115cm; my first host city in Japan, Nayoro in central Hokkaido, records a massive 890 cm). Traditionally, houses in snow country have a special door built on the second storey for winter. When I lived on Hokkaido, I had to shovel off the roof to avoid having our cabin crushed under the weight of snow; every winter a few homeowners disappear while shoveling roofs, only to re-appear in spring as the snowdrifts melt away.
“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.” – Kawabata, Snow Country (Seidensticker trans.)
Not surprisingly, until recently this part of Japan was quite isolated. In the 60s and 70s, a major highway and a shinkansen bullet train rail line connected Niigata City, and outlying mountain towns, to Tokyo and the rest of Japan. Niigata is also an important port: until the ship was linked to abductions and drugs and weapons smuggling in the early 2000s, a ferry connected Niigata with North Korea. Another ferry plies the Sea of Japan between Niigata and the once-closed Soviet-era city of Vladivostok – home to the Russian Pacific fleet, if you wanna know.
Today, R. and I make the trip at least once a year to visit her family in the suburbs, near enough the sea to avoid the worst of the snowfall in the mountainous interior.
“I might as well be going to the ends of the earth” – Matsuo Basho, writing about the neighbouring prefecture of Tohoku
See more pictures on my Niigata gallery at 500px