TOKYO – The efficient train networks in Tokyo were thrown into disarray on Thursday (Nov 24) after snow fell unexpectedly in the Japanese capital, the first time since 1962 that snowfall had arrived this early in the city.
At least 14 people were reported injured – with broken bones in four cases – due to falls on slippery roads due to the unseasonal snow.
Residents had woken up to November’s first snowfall in 54 years, recorded at 6.15am local time (5.15am Singapore time), as the mercury plummeted near zero. Such temperatures are rarely seen in late autumn, and have been attributed to a cold snap.
The Japan Meterological Agency (JMA) said the snow was due to a passing cold front moving eastward near the Izu islands chain, causing an air mass of minus 3 deg C at a height of about 15,000m that has spread over Tokyo.
It is the first time since records began in 1875 that snow has been observed accumulating on the ground in central Tokyo in November. Snow about one cm thick has been observed in several neighbourhoods such as Meguro.
The rare event captured wide attention, with the Line messaging application, popular among the Japanese, capitalising on the situation with a background of snowflakes falling, while Twitter was also abuzz with messages likening the scenes to those in a ‘romantic movie’.
It was the top story on most news networks, including public broadcaster NHK, which had run an online live camera feed of the snowfall in Hachioji and Shinjuku.
The snowfall stopped by the late afternoon, but not before miring Tokyo’s numerous train networks in widespread delays during the morning rush hour.
East Japan Railway – better known as JR East – said services on the Ome and Chuo lines were suspended due to snow-laden tree branches that had sagged over the tracks. The Seibu and Keio lines, which are owned by other operators, also experienced delays.
Company employee Masako Nakamura, 34, said she was not prepared for the snow and “had to scramble to look for gloves”.
Although she usually cycles to work, she decided against doing so given the slippery roads and was “thankful” to have been able to reach work on time.
High school student Taro Inoue, 16, said he was “surprised” by Thursday’s snowfall, and that it is rare to be able to see snow amid the coloured leaves of autumn.
The uncharacteristically cold weather led to a surge in demand for electricity. The Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) said that on Thursday morning, electricity consumption in the capital was more than 95 per cent of its supply capacity given the high demand for heating.
It called for energy conservation, adding that if electricity usage encroaches the “very severe” territory of more than 97 per cent, it will take “every possible effort to ensure stable supply by receiving electric power from other power companies”.
The electricity demand stabilised by noon.
The JMA urged extra caution due to the icy surfaces of the roads, while emergency responders reported an uptick of injuries sustained due to falls.
The year’s first snowfall came 49 days earlier than it had last year – and also 40 days earlier than in any typical year. Other cities in eastern Japan, like Yokohama, also experienced snow.
The earliest snowfall of the season – in a calendar year – recorded in central Tokyo is said to be on Nov 17, 1900, daily broadsheet Asahi Shimbun reported.
The JMA has forecast 15cm of snow in the mountainous areas in Kanto and Koshin regions, which cover areas such as Tokyo city as well as Chiba, Kanagawa, Saitama, Gunma and Nagano prefectures. In Tokyo's 23 wards, up to 2cm of snow is expected.
Snow also blanketed regions in Japan’s north that are more accustomed to such weather in November – in Horokanai in northern Hokkaido saw 82cm of snow.
Just four days ago, Tokyo had basked in the weekend sunshine with temperatures hovering around 15 to 20 deg C.
Weather forecasts indicate that temperatures are set to stay under 12 dec C for the next week, though snow is not expected.