A snow adventure in the wintry Japanese countryside
In snowshoes, I step into untouched realms of Japan where hamlets and cedar forests lie under deep snow
Published on Aug 5, 2014 11:27 AM
Immersed in an all-white world, I strap on a pair of chunky snowshoes to trek in the wintry Japanese countryside. I am walking deep inside Nagano prefecture, where remote hamlets and cedar forests lie under snow fully four months every year.
With powdery snow falling ceaselessly on our six-day snowshoe trek in central Japan, we move over hushed landscapes where the only other footprints belong to wildlife.
One ethereal night, we traverse a moon-lit beech forest. Another day, a traditional bear hunter leads us to a waterfall.
These winter walks expose us to a hidden dimension of Japan, where extraordinary levels of snow purify the landscape but also isolate shy, resilient locals.
Our circle of seven walkers led by two guides from adventure company Walk Japan (www.walkjapan.com) begin our journey on Feb 14, days after Japan has endured the heaviest snowfall in 45 years.
Lots of snow guarantees pristine terrain for our walks - all quite leisurely except for a three-hour trek that morphs into a whole-day marathon.
Our crafted trip will change day by day, even hour by hour because of snow conditions.
From Day One, the itinerary tweaks begin. Our tour leader Takuya Ugajin, 37, decides that we should escape Tokyo for Nagano by the Shinkansen bullet train at 6.52am, pushing ahead our departure by four hours because a new snowstorm is brewing and the trip will be ruined if we're stuck in a paralysed metropolis.
So we speed towards Nagano, birthplace of Japanese Winter Olympic stars. A couple of hours later, we disembark and our innkeeper, also a Shinto priest, drives us through a winter-transformed land to Togakushi village.
Here, at the ancient Togakushi Shrine complex set on a 1,200m plateau, our Snow Country adventure begins gently.
While I have skied a couple of times and trudged through snow when I lived a decade in the United States, snowshoe treks are new to me.
I step into light plastic snowshoes, which look like half-sized tennis racquets stuck under my waterproof trekking boots. We shuffle around, grip walking poles, get oriented.
Snowshoeing is almost as intuitive as walking, it turns out, though we need extra balance and endurance.
In five minutes, amazingly, we are gliding freely over snow to explore the temple grounds, which include a Shrine of Light and Treasure.
In our one-hour circuit lasting 90 minutes, we also spy casks of sake ageing in the snow for a light flavour and smooth texture.
After a soba lunch - buckwheat noodles are Nagano's speciality - we take a longer walk to a frozen lake and scoot across it. The dazzling snow has not stopped falling from a serene smoky-grey sky.
On this more undulating walk, the trailblazer in front is like a human snowmobile. Usually it is Mr Ugajin and our other leader, Canadian-born Japanese-speaking Jamie Dwyer. They have legs of steel, stamping on knee-high snow to create a trail for the walkers behind.
Those further back enjoy a progressively smooth and compacted path. We try to take turns in the first three positions and it is intense work.
The day ends with a hot onsen bath in our pilgrim's inn Shukubo Gokui - a national cultural property with an immense thatched roof - and a sumptuous dinner prepared with local seasonal ingredients. This will be our soothing routine after each day spent outdoors.
The next few days, it feels like I have wandered into Narnia's eternal winter. We are a small line of walkers alone in a vast, white, timeless world.
In such open spaces, each object and scene is elegant. I love the wispy trees on distant slopes, rising above a mirror lake, Kagami-ike. Mountains look like Japanese papercut art.
"The scenes are like Impressionist paintings, with blurred images and lots of different greys,'' says Australian Sue Filby, 66, a retired teacher.
This is such untouched beauty and it mitigates our discomfort when things go awry. On our second day in Togakushi, a trek that would take two or three hours stretches into eight cold, damp hours.
An hour into our trek, Mr Ugajin indicates that the journey may take two or three times longer in the heavy snow and asks if we wish to tramp on or turn back.
Our group of four Australians, two Malaysians and myself, a Singaporean - plus two Americans joining us for the day - vote to continue.
Before long, I sink into thick snow with every step. At first I think I have dropped into an unseen depression and stagger wildly for several seconds. Then I realise, embarrassingly, that I have lost my right snowshoe. Those behind join me in searching and digging with our hands. I despair that my trek is over on Day Two. We have no spare snowshoes with us.
Mr Ugajin, who has moved quite far ahead with the rest, hurries back when Mr Dwyer telephones him. Out comes a shovel from his backpack.
It is a miracle when our American trekker finds the shoe deeply buried 20 minutes later and several metres further back than we estimate.
"I thought it will be spring before I see it again,'' Mr Ugajin says and he is only half-joking. Unflaggingly upbeat, he prepares hot chocolate and matcha latte to keep us warm.
We trek on and barely stop. We get colder; some of us have wet gloves. While we have our own snacks, no one has thought to pack lunch. I begin to think of the coffee and music in a converted barn that we will have to miss and a street of craft shops.
No one complains. Mr Ugajin has sized up our temperament and fitness, he tells us later, or he will have advised us to turn back early on.
Day for play
Another day, however, he does advise us to skip a steep ascent on the 1,069m Mount Hanatate-yama in Nabekura. Extreme conditions that day may trigger an avalanche and visibility is low.
He has a great alternative: Play!
Our morning is spent sledding. We also bound down soft, yielding slopes in big, goofy strides.
Then we work hard to dig a snow cave big enough for nine of us; such caves are storm shelters too. Squeezed inside, we open our bamboo-box lunch of leaf-shaped sushi and sip a hot, thick, reviving soup of arrowroot or kuzu.
We have lovely variations of our treks twice: a moon-lit walk and a trek on traditional bamboo snowshoes, both in Nabekura.
Our night walk takes us trough a silent beech forest, where trees look like feathery fingers. Clouds drift across the moon like a smoky veil. What do the Japanese see when they peer at the moon? A rabbit pounding mochi.
Another very Japanese moment: We put on kanjiki or light bamboo-and-rope snowshoes to explore a snowed-in hamlet of 11 households, where the youngest person is over 60 years of age. The snow, piled almost to the roof, turns the hamlet into a labyrinth. Neighbours cannot see one another.
We step into an old farmhouse full of character, which is rented by our local guide, a bachelor.
As we drink tea and warm our toes at an open hearth, we talk about a depopulating Japan.
Brides from afar
Sweet-natured Filipino brides are a great contribution in far-flung hamlets apparently. Brazilian women are hard to assimilate.
In another tiny hamlet in Koakasawa, we have a closer encounter with a local.
Mr Kazuhito Fukuhara, 52, is a sixthgeneration bear-hunter or matagi. Each season, he hunts one or two black bears with a shotgun from 30m away.
Nothing is wasted, he assures us, not the pelt, meat or bones, which are ground into powder to treat painful joints. "We hunt only what we need. We are careful not to over-hunt,'' he says.
This last hamlet is so secluded that few Japanese know of it.
Dr Russell Mitten, 67, a retired associate professor of veterinary medicine in Australia, relishes being "so far from civilisation".
We do not run into bears here.
But on the final day of our trip, we look for the elusive kamoshika, which resembles a deer but has a four-chambered stomach like a cow.
First, we spy some freshly chewed shrub. Then we see a solitary kamoshika ploughing up a steep slope.
We follow its tracks and see it fleetingly a couple more times in the blinding white snow.
The creature is almost illusory - much like our experience of an isolated winter world in Japan.
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This is the first of a five-part weekly series. Next week: Kayaking in Bai Tu Long Bay, Vietnam.
My snowshoes are lightweight plastic platforms for walking on snow. A simple concept, snowshoes distribute my weight over a larger area so I will not sink into deep snow and can explore places usually out of reach in winter.
For extra grip, three crampons - spiked metal plates - are set on both sides and the front of each snowshoe.
Snowshoe rental is included in the price of my Snow Country tour designed by adventure company Walk Japan.
I strap the snowshoes to my waterproof trekking boots. Then I grip a pair of walking poles tipped with snow baskets, which are rings to stop poles from sinking into soft, new snow.
Snowshoe trekking is a leisurely activity, almost like walking, and is easy to learn compared to skiing. It does require a level of endurance, balance and leg strength however.
Frequent walks are the best preparation. I also add lots of squats to my workouts to strengthen my legs and improve my balance.
Overall, snowshoe trekking is suitable for reasonably strong, regular walkers and children can do it too.
Our route is gently undulating, with occasional steep stretches. Our shortest walk is 90 minutes, but one planned three-hour walk lasts an entire day in heavy snow conditions.
So it is important to keep warm and dry. I wear a base layer, light fleece jacket and a waterproof, breathable outer shell. Down jackets are too warm for the activity.
My pants are waterproof and I wear sunglasses though goggles are better if you are pelted with snow and ice. Other garments: thick woollen socks, a hat and mittens - a spare pair is a good idea. I pack a thermos flask and snacks in my knapsack.
Our tour leaders check weather conditions constantly, with an eye on safety. One uphill trek is abandoned because of low visibility and a chance of an avalanche.
But treks are mostly safe and are a fun way to burn 600 calories an hour.
These wintry walks are also increasingly popular in North America and Europe, though snowshoes have been around for centuries as long as people needed to walk or hunt in immense snow.
My seven-day Snow Country tour begins in Tokyo, when we ride a Shinkansen bullet train to Nagano city in under two hours. We trek for six days in several villages and hamlets within Nagano prefecture, travelling to each remote destination on local trains and chartered mini-buses.
Adventure company Walk Japan (www.walkjapan.com) launched snowshoe treks this year and will run the tours again from January to March next year.
The tour price of 282,000 yen (S$3,420) includes six nights of accommodation in traditional Japanese inns, local transfers, snowshoe rental, meals and guides.
Tokyo is served by multiple direct flights from Singapore, including Singapore Airlines, ANA and United Airlines.