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Snow Country Living

Everyday Moments – A blog about food, crafts, places, and life in Japan.

After thirty years of working and living in the greater Tokyo area, it was time for a change.

From the crowded metropolis, to the mountainous region of Japan known as “Snow Country”.

The scenery is a welcomed change from the cityscape I had grown accustomed to for so many years.

Snow country (雪国 yukiguni) refers to areas in Japan that are characterized by long winters and very heavy snowfall.

This blog is about life in snow country in the Minamiuonuma region in Niigata Prefecture, Japan.

Minamiuonuma is a beautiful region nestled in the mountains about 240 kilometers (150 miles) northwest of Tokyo. It can be reached in about 90 minutes from Tokyo Station by the high-speed shinkansen bullet train.

Minamiuonuma is classified as a “heavy snowfall zone” by the Japanese government. This is an area where snowfall is severe enough to be a hindrance to life.

In the winter, cold winds from Siberia blow across the Sea of Japan and into the Minamiuonuma region. The heavy snowfall in the region occurs when the moisture-laden clouds hit the neighboring mountains and dump the moisture as snow.

This region is renowned as one of the world’s snowiest residential areas compared to other areas at the same latitude.

According to official records from the Minamiuonuma City Office, the total accumulated snowfall for the 2019 season (November 2019 – April 2020) was about 5 meters (about 16 feet). That is the total amount of snow that fell in one season, not the amount of snow on the ground at one time. Luckily some of the snow melts quickly. Whatever remains gets packed down from the weight of the snow on top of it.

The 2020 season (November 2020 – April 2021) however was exceptional. An alarming 14.03 meters of snow fell in one season. That is about 46 feet of snow in total. It was an extreme winter.

Life in snow country is highly influenced by the long winters and very heavy snowfall.

Sixty or seventy centimeters (about 2 feet) of snow can fall in one day.

Snow must be removed from building roofs to prevent its weight from crushing the roof and caution must be exercised to stay clear of heavy snow falling off rooftops.

Some houses have steeply sloped roofs for the snow to slide off naturally. In such cases, an adequate space adjacent to the building must be secured for the snow to fall off the roof and accumulate safely without causing injuries or falling on public roads or neighboring properties.

When roofs are not adequately slanted, or if adjacent space is not available for the snow to safely accumulate, then other options include a special system to melt the snow off the roof.

In the past, it was often necessary to manually remove the snow from roofs that were not adequately slanted. You can still see some houses with ladders that lead to the roof so people can climb up and manually remove the snow. This of course is very dangerous. Luckily such houses are becoming more and more uncommon.

During the winter, if there is not enough space and snow accumulates close to windows, then the windows on the first floor are often protected by boards to prevent the windows from being broken when snow on the ground surpasses several meters. Covered walkways make access easier in the winter.

In the past when snow removal was done manually, if accumulated snow was very deep, sometimes people went in and out of their homes on the second floor because the first floor literally was buried in the snow. Thankfully, snow removal is easier now.

The Minamiuonuma region is also known for its numerous hot springs. Thanks to the warm or tepid underground water, currently many roads, walkways, and buildings are equipped with ground sprinkler systems that pump up the underground water and use it to melt the snow. Although the low temperature in the winter often drops below the freezing point, the tepid water usually (except in extreme conditions) can be used to melt the snow as long as the water is kept flowing to prevent everything from freezing over.

Snow removal sprinkler systems can be expensive to install and maintain but they make life in snow country more manageable.

A description of snow removal sprinklers is available ▷ at this link.

A short video of a snow removal sprinkler system being used on a street can be viewed on YouTube at ▷

Regular snow plows often are not suitable for the heavy snowfall in Minamiuonuma. When there are several meters of snow, there is no room to merely push the snow to the side of the road. Instead, snow removal trucks look like mammoth snow blowers. Huge turnstiles at the front of the truck are the width of one lane. The trucks sweep up the snow and use a high, angled spout to eject the snow away from the road. Some photos of these snow removal trucks are available ▷ at this link.

After the long winter, spring finally arrives.

Spring in snow country is truly beautiful. After a long, snowy winter, the first green leaves of spring are a welcomed sight.

When warmer weather comes to the Minamiuonuma region, the snow melts, providing a plentiful source of delicious, mineral-rich water.

Thanks to this water, the region’s rice, sake (Japanese rice wine), and other vegetables and fruits are very highly regarded. The region’s Koshihikari rice receives one of the highest rankings and is prized for its taste and outstanding quality.

Minamiuonuma is beautiful, at any time of year. The melted snow yields a plentiful source of delicious, pure water, making the area a gourmet’s delight. And the ample hot springs, mountain trails, and winter resorts provide plenty of options for recreation throughout the year.

This is a region where the seasons strongly influence life. This is an area where life is connected to nature.

This is life in Minamiuonuma – Japan’s snow country.

Minamiuonuma, Niigata, Japan
Minamiuonuma, Niigata, Japan