Snow Removal

  • 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

    Natsuo Numano formerly examined snow damage for the National Research Institute for Earth Science and Disaster Prevention. While on the national committee, he also headed efforts to prevent snow damage in heavy snowfall zones. Until 2015, he did research regarding city and regional planning in snowy areas as a member of the Tohoku Institute of Technology’s Department of Architecture.

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February 20, 2018

Snow Removal

*You will leave the NHK website.

Here's a fact that may surprise Japan travelers who have only visited Tokyo: for months during winter, a large portion of the country is blanketed in snow. While Japan's capital city experiences relatively mild winters, about 20 million Japanese—some 15% of the population—live in regions that regularly get hit by heavy snowfall. On this edition of Japanology Plus, we learn how population centers like Sapporo deal with all that white stuff, and the challenges that lie ahead for Japan's snowiest regions.

Our program takes us to the prefectures of Hokkaido, where Peter Barakan meets expert guest Natsuo Numano, Aomori, where snowplow operators drive in perfect synchronization to quickly clean airport runways, and Niigata, where Matt Alt learns how to safely and effectively remove heavy snow from rooftops.

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In many parts of Japan, heavy snow is a fact of life.

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Synchronized swimmers have nothing on these plow drivers.

But those three are only a few of Japan's 47 prefectures affected by heavy snowfall. During the making of this program in February 2018, in fact, hundreds of cars were stranded for days by heavy snow on a major road in Fukui, north of Kyoto, necessitating help from the Ground Self-Defense Forces. Many people were forced to spend several nights in their vehicles; Self-Defense Force members passed out rice balls to stranded drivers as they plowed.

On the program, we are introduced to many innovative snow removal methods in addition to those listed above, including special plow-equipped trains, gutters where citizens can dispose of their excess snow, 24-hour cleaning crews, free gravel to help increase traction on sidewalks and roads, and more.

But even with all the time, effort, and money spent on snow removal, one doesn't get the feeling that people living in these snowy regions would rather be rid of it entirely. In fact, in much of Japan, snow plays a huge role in cultural identity, and has influenced things as disparate as sports, art, literature, and cuisine.

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In Plus One, Matt Alt visits Niigata to do some rooftop snow removal.

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Sapporo, pictured here, hosted the Winter Olympics in 1972 and is aiming to do so again in 2026.

Fans of winter sports know, for example, that Japan has some of the best skiing and snowboarding in the world. Ski resorts dot the country and attract visitors from around the globe. The country has hosted the Winter Olympics twice—1972, in Sapporo (the principal setting of this edition), and 1998 in Nagano. Sapporo is currently planning to bid for the 2026 games, which would make it the second city in Japan to host the Olympics twice, after Tokyo.

Snow has also had a huge effect on Japanese cuisine. In some locations, snow storehouses are used as giant refrigerators where a stable low temperature helps to increase the sweetness of potatoes, preserve the freshness of rice, and change the flavor of coffee. Other regions have their own snow-influenced specialties, such as Akita's pickled vegetables, which traditionally served as sustenance over the long winter months when farming was impossible.

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Snow may take a toll on everyday life, but its beauty has inspired many Japanese artists.

Snow has also played a key role in many works of Japanese art and literature. Snow Country, one of Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata's most celebrated works, is set in Niigata. Kawabata's descriptions of the prefecture's white, glistening snowscapes helped make the novel a classic. Similar scenes are also the basis for some of the Edo period's most striking ukiyo-e woodblock prints. And as for art that's slightly less permanent, but no less impressive, Sapporo holds a yearly snow festival during which artists carve ice sculptures with incredible detail.

Snow, then, is a big part of life in many parts of Japan, and snow removal isn't so much about eradicating the white stuff—if such a thing were even possible—as finding ways to live with it while keeping daily life functioning smoothly. As Japan's population ages, and it becomes more difficult for people to remove snow from their property, Japan's urban and rural centers alike will have continue to innovate. If future methods continue to be as effective as the ones seen in this edition, let it snow.

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A special plow-equipped train.

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Sapporo citizens can shovel their excess snow into these gutters.

*You will leave the NHK website.