Experiencing winter in Japan is a must for someone exploring the elements in this remarkable country. Many people associate this season with the ice crystals we know as snow. Snow does not blanket the whole of Japan in winter though, not by a long shot. And where there is snow – the amount, type and timing of occurrence vary considerably. To experience the great diversity of environmental conditions and activities that occur in winter in Japan I have designed a trip that begins in subtropical Okinawa and ends in subarctic Hokkaido. My Japanese winter will include many special expressions of ice and fire along the way.
My travel companion Suki is prepared for the cold conditions experienced in the snowfiields. As 2018 is the year of the Yang Earth Dog, Suki is likely to get even more attention than usual on this elemental adventure.
This post gives a flavour of my 2018 winter trip to Japan, written 5 days into the journey. On my return to Australia in February I will share some of the experiences gained during my travels. Neither the time or technology will be available to do so any earlier. I’m persisting using WordPress on my iPad for this post to lay the foundations for my story of winter in Japan.
Winter illuminations are widespread in Japan helping transform the long nights into magical worlds. This display welcomed me when I arrived at Hotel Nikko at Narita on January 14th. What a lovely start to my travels.
Given the excellent packages available it’s not surprising that many Australians travel to Japan for winter sports. Many of my co-travellers from Melbourne were taking advantage of such offers. This advertisement by ozsnow.com is for the Nagano/Hakubo region. Hokkaido is another popular destination for skiers from Australia – so much so it has been called the Bali of snowfields. My first site of snow was at age 11 – while I enjoyed making snow men, and went on to do my PhD on the ecology of Snow Gum (Eucalyptus pauciflora), I’ve never been tempted to take to the slopes.
Not only Australians are attracted to the snow. When you type ‘winter in Japan’ into Google, images of snow is what you get. Lots of them.
This is winter in Naha, Okinawa where I am writing this post. There is no snow in sight. Maximum temperatures have been around 20 degrees Celsius in mid-January. Very pleasant. The furthest south that snow falls in Japan is on the mountains of Yakushima, and then only rarely. The snow images we see are mainly from mountainous areas near the Sea of Japan, across northern Honshu and in Hokkaido. The influence of the bone-chilling Siberian air masses during winter helps explain these patterns. Once again the geography of Japan comes into play in the story of the elements.
Another sign of the variation in winter weather in Japan is this poster (complete with reflections) for a cherry blossom festival in central Okinawa. It starts on January 27th. The blossoms aren’t waiting though – they are already blooming. I was lucky and surprised to see Sakura blossoms yesterday on a tour to northern Okinawa (image below). This is the start of the wave of cherry blossoms that will move north-east up the islands of Japan, as I’ve written about in my post ‘Space, time and flowers‘.
Sakura blooming in Okinawa on January 18th, 2018.
These are the some of the other winter activities and attractions offered in Okinawa. Sun, blue skies, water sports and whale watching. These majestic animals can only be seen during the winter months – much like the groups of Steller’s Sea Eagles that can only be seen on the pack ice in Hokkaido at the other end of Japan. These animals are reacting to the different environmental conditions experienced in winter in Japan, as we do.
My favourite 1970s publication on Japan is the insightful book by Fosco Maraini. His ideas on continuity of the essence of many Japanese traditions over time provide much food for thought. Fosco also writes about winter being the time of the greatest diversity in environmental conditions in Japan. Deep snow for several months in some places and none in others, with everything in between. Diversity is not something that may immediately come to mind given the dominance of snow associated with winter images in Japan – remember that Google search! That may change as visitors learn more about what’s on offer in other parts of Japan.
Kyoto seems to be one of those inbetween places for winter weather. Friends have been posting pictures of icy streets and short-lived snowmen in Kyoto. Taken in Kameoka (near Kyoto) this week, this photo by Bill Roberts shows a light dusting of snow. As one travels further north, Japan has the two snowiest cities in the world – Aomori in northern Honshu and Sapporo in Hokkaido – where several metres of snow fall each year. These diverse winter conditions have led to a range of regional responses across Japan, a subject I’ll return to in later posts.
One aspect of winter that remains constant is the unique ice crystals that snow consists of – wherever it falls. When I travel to the snowfields next week I look forward to experiencing the trillions of crystals that create the winter wonderland often associated with Japan. Pure magic. I am also looking forward to an onsen in the snow, one of the elemental allures of hot springs.
According to the lunar calendar I will be visiting the snowfields in the ‘severe cold’ part of the season – Taikan (aka Daikan) . A system of 24 seasons was used in Japan prior to the Meiji Restoration. This table comes from ‘The Geography of Japan’ published in 1969. The author writes that the lunar calendar, while no longer officially used, was still recorded at that stage on the Gregorian solar calendar that had replaced it. This was to remind the Japanese of the nuances in the seasons. The author also notes that the 24 seasons varied spatially as well as through time. January 20th, the day I travelled from Naha to Kyoto, was considered the coldest day of 2018 according to the lunar calendar. People in Kameoka and Fukoaka have shared stories about current activities related to this significant day, illustrating the continuing relevance of the lunar calendar in some aspects of Japanese life.
In contrast to the elements of ice and snow, fire is ever present in winter, although not always obviously so: it expresses itself through the warmth of the sun, especially in southern Japan; in the fire used in many winter rituals and festivals; in the energy used for heating and cooking; and in the incredible winter illuminations that in their grandest form use millions of light bulbs in a single display. No doubt other expressions of fire will present themselves. Diversity is the hallmark of winter in Japan: a world of ice and fire.
Having now returned to Tasmania from my winter trip to Japan, here are some of the highlights I experienced. There are many more to share.
On January 23rd and 24th I was invited to participate in a winter pilgrimage to Mt Ontake. It was a remarkable experience, one which you can read about here.
Attending the Wakakusa Yamayaki Festival in Nara has been a long held dream of mine. On this winter trip I spent a very enjoyable evening on January 27th with Akiko Murikama attending the festival. The ritual is understood to be an offering to the souls of the dead entombed in the burial mound at the very top of Mt Wakakusa. The grass-burning rite seeks to appease them and prevent them from causing natural disasters. The burning of the mountain by 300 firefighters and the accompanying fireworks were spectacular, to say the least.
Between the Wakakusa Yamasaki Festival in Nara and Sapporo Snow Festival (shown below) I visited Nagano, Matsumoto, Iiyama, Kyoto, Wani (on Lake Biwa), Echigo Yuzawa (the ‘Snow Country’ of Yasunari Kawabata) and Tokyo. The amount of snow experienced in these different environments and cities was very variable. It included an interesting gradient of lots of snow on the northern shores of Lake Biwa to no snow in Kyoto. I have photos taken at each train station to demonstrate the changes. The impact of sunshine (another representation of fire) on the snow patterns was clear, at both local and larger scales. For someone with a long-term fascination with micro-climate there was much to see and enjoy, as well as experiencing the influence of the mountains and the broader ocean and atmospheric currents on winter in Japan. Sampling the seasonal food was also a highlight.
The final stop of my winter tour was in early February in Sapporo, Hokkaido to experience the Snow Festival – the largest in Japan. As I began this post I will end it with an illumination – this time of a huge snow sculpture of the main protagonists of Final Fantasy 14. A stunning finale to a thought provoking trip.