Travel & Culture

My Destination

NHK WORLD personalities introduce their favorite spots in Japan and offer sightseeing tips.

You might not believe it, but Japan is said to be the snowiest place in the world!!
The top 3 cities with the heaviest snowfalls are in fact all in Japan.
Ranked 3rd is Toyama City, in the northwestern part of the country.

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On average, the city has 3.8 meters (12 ft.) of snow falls each season. And not far from the city, at the 3,000-meter-high mountain range stretching from the Tateyama Mountain Range to the Northern Alps of Japan, you will encounter an astonishing sight. The majestic snow corridor called the "Yuki no Otani" measuring almost 20 meters high! From mid-April to early June every year, a 500-meter path for walking and driving is carved through the thick snow and open to the public for viewing.

In May 2015, I joined a special tour called "A Tale of Water and Ice". Our destination was the snow corridor. We were all eager and excited to get to the mountains but the guide didn't take us there right away.
He told us that to truly understand the wonders of the mountains and its amazing snow fall, we must start from within the city.

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Our first stop was at a small riverside temple where a statue of the Enmei-jizo (延命地蔵 guardian deity for longevity and protector of newborn babies) is enshrined. Just by the temple, Dragons spew fresh water called Mitarai-mizu (御手洗〈みたら〉い水) that is known as a mystical cure-all water which is listed as one of the 100 best spring waters in Japan. Many people visit here for the good tasting water.

The guide handed us each a water bottle to fill with this fresh water. He told us to take a sip. It was delicious! The very soft and mild tasting water got its taste from traveling through the mountains' natural filters for dozens of years. He told us to remember the taste as we now head for the mountains.

As we drove up the mountain, little by little the greens turned white with snow and by the time we reached the Midagahara Highlands (弥陀ヶ原) at an altitude of 1,930 meters, we were surrounded in a white snowy world. Our first mission here was to make a bench by digging up the snow. Here we had our Obento lunch boxes packed with local delicacies while enjoying the panoramic view of the mountain ranges.

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Now for the big event...the snow corridor!!
We drove further up to Murodo (室堂) at 2,450 meters, by now we were surrounded by high rising snow walls. On the day that I went, the maximum height of the walls were 18 meters. That is almost as tall as a 6-story building. Astonished by its height and beauty, I came to wonder how this corridor was made.
To my surprise the corridor was made by the works of experienced snow removal workers and a cutting-edge technology!
Every year they start at the end of January and work approximately for two and a half months. Since the road is completely covered in 20 meters of snow, it is impossible to figure out where the winding mountain road lies beneath. But with the help of GPS systems bulldozers can now figure out the center of the road and shaves its way down meter by meter. The snow that is removed is thrown down the valley.

The guide then took us trekking heading for the highest existing hot springs and the oldest existing mountain hut that was used by the Buddhist priests for training or so called ascetic practices (修行 shugyo) in the mountains since the 15th century. Nearing the 3,000-meter summit (approx. 10,000-feet) elevation, the uphill climb was quite difficult since the atmospheric pressure is low and the air is thin. My friend developed symptoms of altitude sickness as we made the climb. I breathed deeply and pushed myself up higher and higher. As we reached our destination the view from there was so magical....

The snowy world gleaming and reflecting the sun makes you wordless... And to think that this heavy snow would soon all melt away in a few weeks and turn into water as it continues its journey within the natural filters of the mountains for many years. I had finally reached the source of the water that I had brought with me from the fresh springs of the Enmei-jizou where we started the tour.

As we neared the end of the tour, we walked down the mountain to the Murodo station, we luckily bumped into to a male female couple of "raicho" ptarmigan. The bird is called "raicho" (雷鳥 thunder bird) in Japanese. For centuries they have been revered as messengers from god.
They have beautiful plumage that changes with the seasons: mottled in summer and mostly white in winter. It is designated as a Special National Treasure by the Cultural Affairs Agency, and at the same time, it's an endangered species. About 240 lives around the Murodo area. If you find them, it's said to bring you good fortune!

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A day in Toyama seeing the snow corridor climbing the mountains, and encountering the god's messenger...
It sure was an exciting day!

Although the Kurobe alpine route is closed off during winter, the area has beautiful attractions during all of the season. Easy access from Tokyo and Osaka, it's surely is a must go place if you love the nature!

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