Yakiguni…translated in English, it means Snow Country. It is also the title of a novel of Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata, and the story was set in Yuzawa, a town in the mountains of the Niigata prefecture.
Niigata and its neighbouring prefectures comprise Japan’s Gosetsu Chitai (translated in english as “Heavy Snow Area”). This region, in the mountainous western side of Honshu, is reputed to receive the heaviest snowfall in continuously inhabited and arable land, in the world (there are other areas with more snow of course, like the Arctic, Antarctic and the depths of Siberia, but neither can be arable by any measure). Siberian winds blowing down through the Sea of Japan pick up moisture from the sea and dump them on the side of Honshu in the form of snow, lots and lots of it. The accumulated snowfall in the area, in a year, could get as deep as 12 feet.
Yuzawa is just 200 kilometres west of Tokyo, and a mere 300 meters above sea level, but it looked like it was a world apart. It was the first week of April and Tokyo was in full Hanami mood while the Sakura was in full bloom. But in Yuzawa, there was still loads of snow.
Yuzawa itself is a charming, rustic, rural town. It was almost noon when we arrived, but it was all very quiet, and the air was very chilly – as if winter forgot that it overstayed the place and should already be gone. Exiting the station, all we could see are houses lining the highway, and behind them are already the mountains and snow – a white and brown wilderness, a complete contrast to the concrete jungle in Tokyo, which is just one and a half hours away through the Joetsu Shinkansen.
Yuzawa thrives mainly on tourism. It’s one of the Japanese towns famous for Onsen (hot springs), and its accessibility from Tokyo (thanks to the Shinkansen) makes it one of the most visited skiing and snowboarding destinations in the country from winter to the middle of spring. Yes, spring. There’s more than enough snow in Yuzawa to last until early May. And one of its ski resorts, the Gala Yuzawa, is right at the doorstep of a Shinkansen station. Owned by the same company that runs the Joetsu Shinkansen line, JR East, some Tanigawa services in the Joestu Shinkansen drop passengers right into Gala Yuzawa, during the skiing season.
The Tanigawa services that drop straight into Gala Yuzawa leave Tokyo pretty early in the mornings though, but if you don’t manage to catch one, it’s also possible to take the Toki, or later Tanigawa services (still on the Joetsu Shinkansen) and drop at the Echigo-Yuzawa station, the town’s main station. From there, one can take the Gala Yuzawa shuttle bus that stops by every half-hour or so.
From the Gala Yuzawa base station (where you pay the entrance fee, and rent skis, snowboards, sleds, boots and gloves), one takes the cable car or gondola for a 500 meter high ride to the ski slopes. At the top of the gondola you can take ski lifts to your course of choice, from beginner to expert rated ones. If skiing is not your stuff, they have a sledding area that’s separated from the rest of the ski and snowboard traffic. There’s also a restaurant and some shops at the top of the gondola, and from there one can also view the majestic blue and white beauty, of the mountains in the “snow country”.
* We made this trip on April, 2015.