The Last Snow Country

For their latitude, Japan’s Northwestern coast and mountains, known as the Yukiguni (snow country) are the snowiest place on earth. At 36 degrees North, I live at the approximate latitude of Las Vegas and the South of Spain. Needless to say, we get a little more snow than either of those places. Cold winds blow down from Siberia, hitting the warm Sea of Japan and dumping massive amounts on Japan’s snowy backbone. It effects are spectacular. The snow and the mountains are big reasons why I live here, why I continue exploring.

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I just completed what could be my last Walk Japan tour ever: the Snow Country Trek. The people were fantastic, I enjoyed my time, and I have sort of been asked to continue doing winter tours, which is the reason I say could. My own businesses (Nagano Ventures and Pickleball Trips) have become busier and I am guiding for some other companies, but I realized that I truly enjoy working for Walk Japan. As a tour leader, I don’t do much besides walk, explain food and talk about Japan, all of which I love, so it can feel more like vacation than work. It does depend on the customers though 🙂 I am grateful to the company that hired me as a young tour leader, trained me and allowed me to grow in so many ways. We will just have to see where life leads.

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When traveling around Nagano, I often look around and stare, awed by towering mountains all around. Especially when covered in snow, mountains are a deeply inhospitable place. I personally know three people who have died here and one that was lucky not to. Yet being close to them provides a sense of comfort as well. They carve up this confusing and messy world into manageable pieces. What’s beyond the mountain is irrelevant because the world becomes only what is in front of you, one village at a time. I sometimes envy people from these villages for having such a compact world, for having such a simple life. I wonder what my life would look like had I been born in similar circumstances. It’s an impossible question to answer, but it’s fun to ponder.

Even though Yuzawa, where I am writing this post, has a bullet train station connected directly to Tokyo, I can still imagine its former isolation in Winter. Yasunari Kawabata wrote his Nobel-winning novel, Snow Country from a Ryokan in the village. The opening line reads, “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country” and rest of the novel takes place here, cut off from the rest of the world. I recommend the novel highly, not for the story, but for its beautiful descriptions of snow and ice. Another quote reads,

The road was frozen. The village lay quiet under the cold sky. Komako hitched up the skirt of her kimono and tucked it into her obi. The moon shone like a blade frozen in blue ice

What made this region unique is that the snow was so vital to life in Japan’s snow country that every aspect of traditional culture was connected to it or influenced by it. The summer was about preparing for the long winter. The traditions, foods, festivals and way of life were all connected to this obtrusive yet vital thing. Art forms developed while buried by snow in your own home. It made for a culture that is distinct from anywhere else in Japan. Nowadays, people do their best to keep these traditions alive but inevitably, connectivity causes change. I believe that Japan’s national culture is growing closer together, just like globally cultures and becoming less distinct. While there are positive changes, some traditions ought to be preserved.

Yet the biggest driver of change might be environmental. When Kawabata wrote his novel, the snow country routinely received 5-6 meters of snow at one time. Today, we are lucky to have 3. The average snowfall decreases every year, and soon the snow country could disappear altogether. It makes me sad and forces me to seriously consider how I live my life. The resources I consume contribute to this problem, and if I don’t change my lifestyle, I cannot expect anyone else to. I don’t want to be the generation that sees the last of the snow country.

Thank you for reading

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Thank you for reading

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Sugadaira

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A few days ago I finished my ski instructor job in sugadaira. The experience was great. I became a better skier myself and I met some interesting people. I was also encouraged to find that everyone can ski. No matter how bad a kid was on the first day, by the third day they could zip down the slopes. Helping a kid learn a new skill was pretty cool.

I also realized that there is a certain type of abnormal Japanese person that becomes a ski instructor. These "mountain people" don't conform to society's norms and basically do what they want. I decided that I like these people and sort of fit in. Everyone has a unique story and everyone is accepted – we were all just mountain people who loved to ski.

After I finished teaching, my friend Greg and I snowboarded every day. The first day we hit the slopes early, went to a hot spring, ate a slow Italian lunch, took a nap then played chess by the fireplace in the evening. Pretty close to a perfect day if you ask me.

Then yesterday some Japanese ski instructor friends and I decided to climb Nekodake, a 2200 meter peak right behind sugadaira. We strapped on our snowboards and started walking from the top of the lift with snowshoes. Hiking in snow with a board strapped to you back is tough. We made it to the summit in a couple of hours though, saw a shrine, ate our food and decided to head back before we got too cold. Since it had snowed over 40cm over the weekend, the powder was amazing. Our 2 hour walk was depressingly short on a snowboard.

We got down and were just waiting for the last person – a lady in her 40s to finish up. We thought nothing of it and threw snowballs at each other for a while, until 15, 20, then 30 minutes passed. We called her cell phone and got through – she had taken a wrong turn, got stuck in deep powder and was slowly fighting to get back to the main slope. She didn't know how far she had gone down and the weather was rapidly deteriorating. She said she was still warm but at -10C we didn't want to let it get dark. After deliberating for almost an hour, alerting ski patrol and calling the police, another guy and I decided to go out on snow shoes and try to find her. We didn't think she was very far from the road and thought that if we yelled loud enough she might hear us, which is exactly what happened. She had gotten herself back on track and was skiing down when she heard us yelling. She was almost in tears when she saw us and sincerely said she felt lucky to be alive. It was a pretty intense and exhausting, but still a great day.

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