Snow Country

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Natsuo Numano

    Main guest

    Researcher specializing in town planning that addresses the needs of small provincial towns, areas suffering from depopulation, and those that experience heavy snowfall. With 18 years’ experience grappling with snow-related issues at national research centers, he is the key figure in the development of the novel field of “snow country studies.”

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December 29, 2016

Snow Country

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Like its famous seismic and volcanic instability, Japan’s mountainous topography is a product of the country’s location at the convergence of four tectonic plates. The movement of these vast, constantly shifting slabs of the earth’s crust raised a network of mountains that runs right along the backbone of Japan.

The climatic implications of this landscape are dramatic. In the winter, frigid air blowing toward Japan from the Asian mainland gets caught along this range, and the moisture gathered as the air passes over the Sea of Japan is dropped as snow. Lots of it.

The result is that, even in comparison to the rest of northern Japan, the areas along the western side of Honshu and Hokkaido are subject to an incredible amount of snowfall. Ranked among the world’s snowiest cities, Akita, Aomori, Sapporo and Toyama are routinely blanketed by 2-4 meters of snow in an annual whiteout that typically lasts for three months.

Down the centuries, communities have been forced to pull together and pool resources simply to survive the long winter months. The various coping strategies have influenced each region's culture, crafts and diet.

One of the most obvious necessary tasks is the clearing of snow. Without regular removal from every roof, an accumulated mass of snow could crush the structure below.

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Without regular clearance of snow in areas of high accumulation, it would be very difficult to walk around outside.

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Various implements are used to clear snow. 

Traditional northern homes are shaped to encourage snow to slide off, but no northern household would be complete without a range of shovels, picks and snow scoops to meet different snow-clearing needs. These tools are also used to keep key pathways accessible. Some communities have roadside gutters for the disposal of snow, and warm water is pumped from vents in the road to melt snow and ice.

The numerous building innovations designed to make coping with the snow and the cold easier include buildings whose living quarters are on the second floor, as the snow may well pile up higher than the windows downstairs. Outside stairwells may also be encased in a protective shell.

Methods of staying warm include the traditional irori hearth set into the floor of the main room of a home. In times gone by, households would gather around this source of life-giving heat for tea and meals during the day. Then at night, the whole family would lay out their futons around the irori to stay warm as they slept.

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Peter Barakan and guest Natsuo Numano keep warm beside a traditional irori hearth.

Thick kogin-zashi cloth, with its elaborate embroidered patterns, is one craft that emerged from months spent inside during the winter. Another is straw weaving, which was used to produce thick winter capes, hats and snowshoes. These days, straw costumes are still seen on the oni (ogre) who scare local children in Akita into remaining on their best behavior throughout the coming year, in an annual custom known as namahage.

As we see in this edition of Japanology Plus, another Snow Country innovation was bucket-like footwear. This was used in the days before the snowplough to press down the snow on footpaths that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Dealing with the snow was a family and communal effort, and the close-knit spirit of the Snow Country is also reflected in its cuisine, with households preparing and exchanging a range of fermented foods and pickled vegetables to ensure access to sufficient nutrients throughout the barren winter months.

These days, thanks to snowploughs that keep the most important roads open all winter, the traditional welcoming, communal spirit of Snow Country residents can be enjoyed even in the depths of winter.

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A steeply sloping roof discourages the accumulation of snow that might otherwise crush the structure.

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These traditional kamakura snow huts are part of an annual celebration in Akita Prefecture.

 



*You will leave the NHK website.