Japanese people like to tell others that Japan has four seasons, a tendency which often produces great amusement or even ridicule from foreign visitors, residents and commentators, especially those from similarly temperate zones. But this assertion isn’t made out of any inherent ignorance of the rest of the world, or in the belief that Japan is somehow unique in having four distinct seasons; it is more from the fact that the seasons arguably carry far greater cultural significance in Japan.
An appreciation of nature and its seasons is deeply rooted in the Japanese psyche; a product of Buddhist beliefs and, to some extent, the animism that predates them. Thus, seasonal motifs and ingredients are central to Japanese cultural expression, in everything from traditional ceramics to the tea ceremony, or from kaiseki haute cuisine to wagashi sweets. But there’s more to the Japanese winter than the odd snowflake motif on a tea cup – there’s a lot to see and fun to be had.
Winter in Japan
The winter season lasts from around mid December to the end of March, but how it’s experienced and how it may compare to winter in your own country, will depend on where in Japan you happen to be, which ocean currents are adjacent, which global winds are blowing and how high up you are. Japan’s climate is essentially temperate-humid, but within that there’s a remarkable amount of variation.
As you might expect, winter’s colder in the North, with a trip the northernmost island of Hokkaido being akin to going ‘beyond the wall’ of George R R Martin’s epic tale. Here, winters are longer, colder, and feature heavy snowfall and icy winds.
The main island of Honshu goes from very cold in the North to quite temperate centrally, where Tokyo and Yokohama lie. Temperatures are generally lower on the Japan sea side of the country to those on the Pacific side and, of course, areas of high elevation are colder still. Winter is typically milder in the South of Honshu and the adjacent islands of Shikoku and Kyushu.
Farther South, to Okinawa and the Ryukyu islands, and farther still to Ishigaki and the Yaeyama islands, the climate is sub-tropical, so the winter variation is negligible. In fact, it has only snowed on Okinawa twice in living memory, briefly in 2016 and back in 1977, and whether this was actually snow or just sleet is still in contention.
Winter in Tokyo
Tokyo’s winter is much like that of London’s – more wet than snowy. If anything, daytime temperatures are a little higher in Tokyo due to the typically blue winter skies and bright sunshine. Night time temperatures tend to hover just above freezing but are sometimes low enough to freeze open water and cause ground frost. Significant snowfall is rare, but every few years there’s enough for kids to build snowmen (yuki daruma) that can last for several days. Most often, however, snow turns to sleet, which turns to rain, washing the snow away before it has time to settle.
Naturally, much of the water on the ground turns to ice, which can present a hazard to pedestrians, but the ever-considerate Japanese will usually shovel and salt a path, at least along the pavements outside their homes and businesses as a courtesy. So if you want to score some kudos with your Japanese neighbours, grab a shovel and pitch in!
Look Out – It’s Snowing!
I’ve always kind of envied the Australian and New Zealand colleagues I’ve known over my years in Japan; their wide-eyed, almost child-like fascination at seeing snow for the first time. But such excitement may be short-lived, especially when one ends up sprawled out and embarrassed on an icy street for the umpteenth time; then the thrill soon turns to trepidation.
The good news is that water-proof, non-slip foot ware is both very effective and comparatively inexpensive in Japan; it won’t win you any fashion competitions and it’ll feel like you’re wearing diving boots, but you’ll spend far less time picking yourself up of the cold ground! But potentially more dangerous than what’s at your feet is what’s overhead.
Heavy and persistent snowfall can settle on roofs almost like pack ice to a depth of several centimetres and this presents two possible dangers. Firstly, that the weight of it can collapse older roofs, and secondly that it can ‘avalanche’ without warning onto the street below, which is why contractors in places like Sapporo do a brisk trade in roof clearing in the winter. It’s interesting to see gangs of men secured by ropes like mountaineers, chopping out blocks of packed snow and sending them crashing to the ground below.
Snow and Transportation
It’s a long time since I lived in my native English Midlands, but I remember well how a severe winter could paralyse almost the whole country, with deep snowdrifts effectively closing motorways and whole sections of the railways. Partly the problem was unpreparedness, and partly the inherent difficulty in accurately forecasting weather over the British Isles.
Fortunately, weather fronts are far more easily anticipated in Japan so it’s rare for the infrastructure to be caught napping. Within hours of any significant snowfall, the snow ploughs will have cleared roads and railway lines, ensuring things are kept moving. Even the winding mountain roads are soon passable, though tyre chains may be required.
But all that snow clearing activity isn’t just to keep Shinkansen and lorries moving; it’s also intended to ease the transportation necessary for the winter season’s main business: skiing. I grew up at a time and in a culture where the only people who could afford to go skiing (to the Swiss and Austrian Alps) were the jet-setting Sloanes and Hooray-Henrys of the English upper classes (yes, I do know it really isn’t like that anymore). Be that as it may, it did come as something of a surprise when I first came to Japan and found that just about everybody goes skiing or snowboarding in winter.
Actually, the mountains that bisect the island of Honshu are known as the Japan Alps, and are a popular destination for skiers. The best known Japan Alpine ski resorts are found in Nagano prefecture, famous as a winter Olympics venue. The town of Hakuba, for example, is well connected by rail and road, offers lodges for hire in extremely pretty surroundings, and easy access to all the nearby cable cars and slopes.
I’m told that Japan’s mountain snow is particularly well-suited to skiing, none more so than the famous ‘Niseko Champagne Powder’ snow found at Niseko in western Hokkaido. Originating in Siberia, the cold weather fronts which bring the snow have much of their moisture absorbed over the Sea of Japan and the Annupuri mountains, resulting in the removal of around 90% of the moisture in developing snow crystals. If you want to know why this makes a difference, ask a skier!
Personally, I have zero interest in skiing, and a terror of heights that makes ski lifts an absolute torture. But my wife and daughter love it, so I accompany them on their winter trips and hope to find other places to explore and photograph while they’re on the piste. The truth is, I love the winter; ice, snow and frost have a unique beauty that I enjoy photographing, and few subjects are as sparklingly magical or, conversely, as colourlessly sombre as Hokkaido’s winter scenery; it’s a contrast I find quite breathtaking.
For photographers, the typically bright sunny days can be a bit of a problem because contrast is through the roof, so unless you’re shooting subjects in open shade, it’s best to leave the landscapes until late afternoon’s ‘golden hour.’ On my last two trips to Sapporo with the girls, I bought one day travel passes and took the local train down the coast to Otaru and its icy port, stopping here and there along the way to explore sleepy, snowbound seaside villages.
Sapporo itself has little of interest in winter, though its heated, ice-free pavements make getting around on foot easy. As towns go, Hakodate is much nicer, with its quaint port area and warehouses redeveloped as shops and restaurants. More importantly, Hakodate is close to Onuma Quasi-National Park and the dormant volcano, Mt. Komagatake, a stunning visual treat at any time of year but particularly picturesque in the winter.
The Japanese love their festivals and there are several in the winter that attract large numbers of visitors. Some of the best are in Hokkaido, including: Sapporo Ice Festival, Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival, and the Otaru Snow Light Path Festival. In the North of Honshu, Aomori prefecture’s Hirosaki Castle Snow Lantern Festival is a truly spectacular event.
Other notable winter festivals include: Yokote Kamakura Snow Festival, Dosojin Fire Festival, Chichibu Yomatsuri, Asahikawa Winter Festival, Hadaka Matsuri, Lake Towada Snow Festival, Tokamachi Snow Festival, The Wakakusa Yamayaki, and Iwate Snow Festival.
A Final Thought
Whether one is new to cold and snow or not, the unique landscape and charming shrines and temples of Japan take on a wholly different mien in the winter, one which says just as much, if not more, about the traditional beliefs of the Japanese people as spring cherry blossoms or autumn colours. And if that all sounds just a little too wabi-sabi for your cold bones, you can always take a flight down to the Yaeyamas and stretch out on the warm sand!
By Bill Ambler
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