Lumpy mounds of snow, taller than the mesmerized people who gaze at them, cover long-hidden fir trees. Like fluffy clouds or plumes of smoke frozen in time, the incredible shapes formed from crystallized ice and snow rise like snow monsters out of the ground. But while this winter wonderland is a curious attraction for some, for thousands of people it’s their daily reality.
When you try to think of the snowiest place on Earth, many locations might come to mind. Somewhere inside the Arctic Circle in Alaska, Canada or Siberia, perhaps? But the place that actually lays claim to this chilly title is in fact Aomori City in Japan.
Nestled by Aomori Bay, in the far north of Japan’s main island of Honshu, Aomori City lies on approximately the same line of latitude as the likes of Rome and Beijing. With that in mind, you’d be forgiven for thinking the city might be a temperate location for much of the year. Indeed, you might even hope for some winter sun.
But Japan experiences a unique and varying weather system. While its Pacific eastern coast enjoys a moderate climate, cold winds blowing in from the Asian continent make the west much colder in winter. And when these winds hit moisture produced by the warm currents from the westerly Sea of Japan, a lot of rain and snow is produced.
This part of Japan, then, experiences heavy snowfall, especially when the wind hits the mountains of the Japanese Alps. The area is referred to as Japan’s “Snow Country.” In fact, this part of Japan is one of the snowiest regions in the world, although far from the coldest.
This all creates amazing effects such the “snow monsters” we’ve seen above in the Zao Ski Resort, which can also be found in other areas including the Hakkoda Mountains in Aomori Prefecture. These so-called “monsters” are formed by the water droplets in fog freezing onto the surface of the local Maries’ fir trees and then being covered by heavy snowfall.
And while the snowfall in many parts of Japan might be heavy, Aomori City trumps the lot. The city, comprising closing to 30,000 inhabitants, is battered by an incredible average yearly snowfall of 312 inches. If left uncleared, that would lead to snow piling up to a height that would cover a human being many times over.
The accumulated snow in Aomori typically reaches a depth of around 3 feet. In effect, that’s like wading through snow the height of a small child. And there’s little let-up in the pummeling of snow showers, with an average of 110 days of snow annually.
The result is an incredible snow-covered cityscape where buildings and cars can barely be seen beneath thick layers of white. Sometimes, in fact, the only way out of a building is by the upstairs windows, walking directly onto the snowdrifts. “Ground level” can shift 10 feet higher.
So what is it that causes Aomori City’s snowfall to be greater than anywhere else in not only Japan but also the world? Especially when parts of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido, have a colder, subarctic climate. Indeed, that island was host to the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo.
The answer lies in the fact that winds crash into each other over Aomori City. This forces the air upwards while at the same time cooling it down. That sudden shift in height and temperature causes clouds to form rapidly and – you’ve guessed it – creates a whole lot of snow.
Of course, all this makes for some pretty hazardous living conditions. During a recent winter of particularly heavy snowfall between December 2005 and March 2006, the weather caused more than 150 fatalities in the north-west of Japan. The same period saw 118-inch snowdrifts at the hot springs in Sukayu Onsen, 17 miles from Aomori City.
While you might think relaxing in a hot spring while watching the snow fall around you sounds pretty epic, it’s also not without its dangers. For example, early in 2012 three people died following an avalanche at a hot spring in Semboku, about a three-hour drive from Aomori City. The tragic events left tents at the spa submerged beneath almost 60 inches of snow.
Even in the city, though, conditions can be just as dangerous. The risk of roofs caving in under the weight of the snow is very real, so they must be cleared regularly. Traditionally in snow-hit Japanese communities, this is a chore reserved for men.
This necessary procedure has itself led to fatalities and injuries, however, when people have taken a tumble. Others have even become trapped under the displaced snow. But it’s nonetheless imperative that the task is undertaken, as others have perished when the weight of the snow has led to the destruction of their homes.
Getting around in such conditions can prove difficult, too. For instance, back in February 2012 a Japanese national newspaper reported that over 500 vehicles had become stuck on a road in Aomori Prefecture during a snowstorm. The highway had been blocked when two large vehicles had drifted in the snow, leaving them stranded.
The military were called in to help, in fact, and in excess of 200 drivers were reported to have left their vehicles and bunked down overnight in community buildings, including a primary school. Firefighters and ordinary citizens helped clear the highway the next day to get the traffic moving – but not before a local store owner had given out 150 rice balls to those trapped in their cars.
Of course, all this snow should at least make for great skiing. And it does, with several centers in the area including the Aomori Spring Ski Resort. Tourists flock to destinations such as this to whizz down the powdery slopes before warming up with a steaming-hot bowl of noodles.
There can be such a thing as too much snow, however. Unfortunately, it’s not unheard of for skiers and snowboarders to be killed by avalanches. Indeed, during the 1990s close to 80 people were killed in Japan in avalanches, the vast majority of them taking part in winter sports such as skiing.
Moreover, during the heavy snowfall during the winter of 2005-06, resorts struggled because visitors were put off by the possibility of avalanches. Conversely, the following winter was very mild, and resorts went bust as there was little snow for thrill-seekers to enjoy. Some centers even had to bring in their own snow, in fact.
Away from pleasurable pursuits on the ski slopes, though, during the winter day-to-day life in Aomori City is clearly not without its challenges. For example, a YouTube video filmed there shows an unidentified Japanese man filming his walk to a neighbor’s house, with the surrounding buildings carpeted in white.
As he crunches down a path plowed through the deluge on this cold February day, he explains that the snow is almost 60 inches thick. With more of the same still falling thickly around him, he describes the incredible white scene around him as being like a “movie.”
Even though such snowfall is typical of the region, and the man tells us that he grew up in equally snowy conditions, he still seems in awe of the scene around him. Climbing back up the makeshift slope to his house, he’s worried about making it back. And once safely outside his door, the exhausted filmmaker declares that he needs a rest.
In the face of such extreme conditions, how can people still live and work day to day? Well, the Aomori man in the video gives us a clue to the survival of the city’s inhabitants when he clambers up the deep passage that has been plowed through the snow.
Indeed, the roads there are frequently plowed to stop communities becoming isolated, with the process sometimes creating sheer walls of snow on either side. It’s also a relentless task, as a cleared road can become once more completely submerged within 48 hours.
In fact, some communities in Japan’s Snow Country were regularly swamped with snow and cut off until 50 years or so ago. By the 1960s, though, trucks and plows had begun to make concerted efforts to reach these settlements when the snow came. And today, modern technology has further improved the lives of the inhabitants of these snow-hit towns such as Aomori.
As well as moving away the snow with shovels and plows, many towns use sprinklers to melt it. In the busy streets of the city center, meanwhile, some sidewalks are heated to keep them clear. But while this saves the laborious work of shifting the snow by hand, it can also prove costly.
When the snow isn’t creating dangerous conditions, though, locals and visitors can enjoy the winter wonderland that the deluge creates in Aomori. Nonetheless, in the months between November and March, tourists are advised to wrap up warm with underclothing, coats, gloves, scarves and sturdy walking shoes that will help keep them sure-footed in the icy conditions.
Once fittingly suited and booted, there are a host of activities to enjoy in the area. Aside from skiing, snowboarding and skating, an hour in the car from Aomori will get you to the Hirosaki Snow Lantern Festival in February. The stunning Hirosaki Castle, built in the traditional Japanese architectural style, is coated with snow and illuminated during the event.
Snow houses and other structures in the surrounding park are also lit up, like scores of fairy-tale homes glowing invitingly in the winter night. Strings of lights in the trees guide visitors around the ethereal snow town. They take pictures of themselves among the buildings that have been constructed of snow and ice.
Tourists who really want a taste of how people survived the snow in the years before mechanical plows and heated sidewalks can try the “snow drifting” tour. After traveling to a rural setting from Tsugaru railway station in Aomori Prefecture, visitors get to wear traditional kanjiki (snow shoes) as they trudge through the wintry landscape.
If you haven’t had enough of the snow and ice by then, Lake Towada, around an hour-and-a-half by car from Aomori City, stages an annual Winter Story Festival, also in February. Huge ice sculptures are created, including a “tunnel of light” that’s illuminated from within by more than 150,000 LED lights.
What’s more, fireworks set off in the evening at the festival are reportedly all the more spectacular thanks to the incredible acoustics the icy landscape provides. The sound reverberates dramatically around the nearby mountains, amplified by the crisp winter air, which creates an eerily unique effect.
In the anticipation that snowy days won’t last forever, the Hachinohe Emburi winter festival looks forward to the spring. Located just under a couple of hours’ drive from Aomori, the celebrations see dancers in traditional costumes parade the streets of the city.
The performers dance with traditional wooden farming implements called emburi and move headdresses shaped like horse heads in order to signify the motions of farmworkers sowing seeds. Meanwhile, in between these displays, children perform their own folk dances wearing traditional costumes.
The harsh climate has also produced another way of celebrating the cold – by warming up with hot, filling dishes. Aomori cuisine is renowned for being wholesome and hearty, using fish and vegetables to make winter soups and stews. Jappa-Jiru, for example, is a kind of miso soup that includes cod, vegetables and tofu.
So, back to the skiing. There are several resorts in the area around Aomori, none less photogenic than that in the Hakkoda Mountains just to the south of the city. You can fly down the powdery slopes between those fir trees disguised as ice monsters that we saw earlier.
If that’s too energetic for you, take a scenic tour in the local cable car called the Hakkoda Ropeway and drink in the stunning scenery below. Or from December to March hop on the Tsugaru Railway Stove Train, which has run for almost 80 years.
In living memory, the most difficult time to be in Japan’s Snow Country probably came back in 1945. That year saw the town of Tsunan in Niigata Prefecture become submerged beneath more than 20 feet of snow. Nonetheless, life in the region since then certainly hasn’t been without its challenges.
Thankfully, locals and tourists alike have found many benefits to living in such a surreal climate. Delicious food, powdery snow, enchanting festivals and stunning scenery have made Aomori and other similar towns in Japan popular tourist destinations all year around. Just don’t forget your snow boots!