Photograph by JTB Photo, UIG via Getty Images
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This beech forest near Tokamachi, Japan, has seen more snowfall than most other places on Earth.

Photograph by JTB Photo, UIG via Getty Images

The World’s Snowiest Place Is Starting to Melt

The mountains of northwestern Japan have long received up to 125 feet of snow a year—but that's starting to change, prompting locals to ask how long it will last.

In the kitchen of a traditional wooden Japanese farmhouse, Nils Inugai Hinrichs is drinking a cup of coffee next to a window that is almost completely buried in snow. There are about seven feet on the ground, and a fresh 10 to twelve inches have just fallen.

“You came on the right day,” says Hinrichs, who lives here with his wife Adele. “We have new snow, but it was just a light storm.”

A one-foot snowfall is a common occurrence here in Takakura, a tiny mountain village located about 150 miles northwest of Tokyo. The village is a thirty minute drive from Tokamachi, population 54,000, which according to the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) is the snowiest small city in Japan. On average, Tokamachi receives a mind-blowing 460 inches of snow a year. That's more than 38 feet—about four times what famously snowy Syracuse, New York, gets.

Being 1,500 feet or so higher in elevation than Tokamachi, Takakura receives even more snow—though exactly how much more no one knows, because no one is counting.

Such epic snowfalls have long shaped the life and culture of this region of Japan. Yet scientists warn that the snows are at risk from warming temperatures—already the totals are decreasing. And that raises big questions about the near future for the people who live there.

For now, there are only 14 people in the village of Takakura, and Nils and Adele, 28 and 34 respectively, are by far the youngest. They met on the shoot of a music video in Germany and moved to Takakura, not far from where Adele’s parents live, to escape the noise and grind of cities.

“It is extremely beautiful up here, and I find it very rejuvenating,” says Adele, who is an artist and together with Nils runs an English language school in Tokamachi.

“The silence is great inspiration,” adds Nils, who is using an upstairs room in the farmhouse to produce a hip hop instrumental album.

“The earth lay white under the night sky,” Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata wrote in Snow Country, his famous 1956 novel about traveling through the region. In one town visited by the book’s protagonist, Shimamura, a local conveys to him that ordinarily seven to eight feet of snow blanket the town in winter, sometimes as much as twelve or thirteen.

“Snow has great power as a symbol, a cultural artifact, and as an experience in Japan,” Merry White, a Boston University anthropologist who has written several books on contemporary Japanese culture told me as I was researching my trip. Snow is beautiful, she said, “because it is natural, and ‘alive’ in motion…but even more poetically, because it is ephemeral, disappears, falls, changes, morphs into water or ice or air.”

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Snow often mounds up many feet in northwestern Japan.

Source of the Snow

Snow in Japan may be mystical but the phenomenon behind it is purely meteorological. From December to March, cold Siberian air streaming south and east across the relatively warm waters of the Sea of Japan generate bands of clouds that dump snow over the mountains on the western part of Japan’s main island of Honshu and its northern island of Hokkaido. The phenomenon is similar to lake effect snow in the U.S. But while the Great Lakes can freeze over, effectively shutting off the snow machine, the Sea of Japan stays relative warm all winter long, thanks in part to the warm Tsushima Current, which flows up from the south.

The coastal mountains in Japan, rising as high as 10,000 feet, amplify the snow. More typical low pressure systems churn through the Sea of Japan too, bringing additional snow. And the Pacific Ocean spawns nor’easter-like storms that can bury even Tokyo in snow.

But in Snow Country entire mountaintop forests get buried, transforming the trees into strange entombed triangles known as ghost trees or ice trees. Residents in some villages must enter homes through special second-story entrances. And highways carved through the winter-scape become veritable snow canyons, some with walls as high as 50 feet. Weather historian Christopher Burt estimated that the snowiest parts of the Japanese Alps, which run through Nagano Prefecture, just west of Tokamachi and Takakura and where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held, may receive as much as 1,500 inches of snow a year, or 125 feet.

Are these Japanese towns and cities really the snowiest on Earth? I put that question via email to the World Meteorological Organization. “The WMO does not record snowfall extremes and related events,” Chief WMO Rapporteur of Weather & Climate Extremes Randy Cerveny replied. The reason: techniques for measuring snowfall differ around the world—for example, some places measure while it is still snowing, some wait until the storm has finished.

Either way, when last November Tokyo received a freak early snow storm and the general outlook was for Japan to have a snowy winter, I decided it was time to make my journey to what certainly appears to be the snowiest spot on Earth.

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Japanese macaques fall asleep while bathing in a hot spring in Jigokudani.

A Voyage to Whiteout

I began in Kyoto, where nearby Mount Ibuki once received 90.6 inches of snow in just 24 hours, a world record that still stands. A train on the Takayama Line took me along the Kiso River and into the mountains. Quickly the brown rice fields and green woods turned to white.

I transferred trains in Takayama, where there was about two feet of snow, and took a local train deeper into the snowy peaks. Night fell but I kept my forehead glued to the train window. To my surprise, the snow walls lining the track were soon half as high as the train itself.

In the city of Toyama, which is located on the Sea of Japan, just beneath the glimmering front of the Japanese Alps, I spoke with snowplow drivers who are responsible for clearing snow in the city of 420,000. Toyama receives 144 inches of snow a year. For Japan it doesn’t seem like much, but that is still snowier than Syracuse, and about six times snowier than New York City.

How does Toyama keep up with the plowing? The city has 651 pieces of equipment for clearing snow, including 64 large bulldozers, 128 small bulldozers, 22 large rotary plows, and 104 small rotary plows for clearing sidewalks. Snowplow drivers work through the night to make sure roads are clear for the morning commute.

“This is a job and someone has to do it,” Igarashi Takuma proudly told me, a snowplow driver for 20 years. “We might be doing it in the shadows, but it’s for the benefit of everyone.”

I made a brief stop in Jigokudani Monkey Park, not far from Nagano, and home to the world-famous snow monkeys. The Japanese macaques likely migrated from mainland Asia and across the Sea of Japan hundreds of thousands of years ago, University of Tokyo biologist and snow monkey expert Takafumi Ishida tells me. He doesn’t think the monkeys appreciate snow in the same way that humans do, but he does tell me an astonishing story.

One time, at the beginning of the snow season, he spotted a baby snow monkey, looking “with big eyes” into the sky and “playing with the snowflakes.” He was “grabbing up,” said Ishida, “and trying to catch them.”

The monkeys are also famous for partaking in hot spring baths, at naturally heated pools in the Yokoyu River. They likely learned this practice from watching the local humans, said Ishida.

From Jigokudani I took a series of trains to snowy Tokamachi. The station was a mad house; it happened to be the 68th annual Tokamachi Snow Festival. The town was filled with vendors selling bean curd sweets and soba noodle bowls and was decorated with numerous snow sculptures.

Later that evening I followed festival goers up a hill on the edge of town. A massive temple had been sculpted out of snow and there was a large snow stage and a snow gallery, where we stood and watched a series of performers, including a 10-woman Japanese pop band called NGT48. The night ended with fireworks. Almost on cue, it started snowing.

Snow—and a Culture—at Risk From Changing Climate

But according to Hiroaki Kawase, a researcher with the Japan Meteorological Agency, “the total snowfall in central Japan this winter is much less than the usual.” Kawase’s work has shown that under global warming, that trend may continue.

In a November 2013 study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, Kawase, the paper’s lead author, reported that snowfall should decrease at all elevations, though the impact will be much more pronounced at lower elevations. Tokamachi, for example, receives much of its snow with a temperature right around freezing. Warm the weather by a few degrees and snow becomes rain, and it’s easy to see why the city’s snowfall rates could decrease dramatically. Towns located at higher elevation, like Takakura, will warm too, but still should stay cold enough for mostly snow, at least in the short term.

When I told this news to my snowy hosts back in Takakura, they were disappointed. “That’s sad to hear,” said Nils. Adele agreed. But it isn’t all easy life in Snow Country, snow removal can be quite difficult. “It is hard work to live here,” said Adele.

Yasuyuki Takahashi, who uses a hand-pushed rotary snow blower to clear snow off the paths and driveways around the village, agreed. “It’s very hard work to live in snow,” he said. You also have to shovel snow off the roofs, so they don’t collapse, work Takahashi does for many of the residents. And often cars don’t start. Or they get stuck at the bottom of the mountain and the drivers must wait until morning to get back up to the village.

“I spend all day snow-plowing,” said Takahashi, with some frustration, “and then it snows again, and again, and again.”

But less snow would not necessarily be good either. In summer Takahashi farms rice in the village, which has earned the highly lauded Grade A rating from the Japanese government. Less snow means less water for rice, and in years with low snow the crop has indeed done poorly.

It is now the final day of my trip and I am headed north, into the Hakkoda Mountains, to Sukayu Onsen, a traditional Japanese hot spring resort that appears to be the snowiest place on Earth. Sukayu average 700 inches of snow a year, and when I arrive by taxi on a mountain road so bound in by snow it is like a canyon it is indeed snowing. There’s about 11 feet on the ground, and another foot will fall overnight. I head to the onsen to warm up.