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An Unusual Childhood in Matsunoyama Onsen

Matsunoyama Onsen is a small town deep in the mountains of Niigata, and even in the last fifty years it has witnessed some big changes. As with all areas in Yukiguni, heavy snows fall in winter. Sitting in a small valley the town was used to being cut off once the snow came down. This marked distinct parts of the year, with times where the snow was on the ground causing a different pattern of life to when it was not.

The main street of the town slopes gradually uphill. Nowadays there are pipes in the road that sprinkle water to help with snow melting, and modern equipment can easily make it up the road and help with clearance. This is a relatively new advance for the town which was used to a very different winter life previously. Now it is a fantastic place to visit throughout the year but even just 45 years ago visitors didn’t come in winter.

Even as recently as the 1950s - 1970s, with no winter industry many of the local men, who mostly tended the fields during the other months, would often go to the larger towns or cities to keep working. This left women, children, and the aged in Matsunoyama Onsen. Traces of this time remain in the local dialect where a couple of words that are understood as “young man” in the rest of the Yukiguni region are used in Matsunoyama to also include seniors too!

Anyone who is familiar with the Japanese school system knows that many things have toban, or a person whose turn it is to be responsible for something on a particular day or week. For example, one student is in charge of dishing out the rice at the school meal each day one week. Matsunoyama Onsen had another task to add to the list. This was trail-breaking the path to school through the snow. It was a certain pupil’s job each day to tread down the snow. The children were relatively light and made a good path through, and then adults coming later would make the snow on the path more compressed. Waking up to a heavy snowfall if you were the toban must have been an exhausting start to the day.

A benefit of the heavy snows for the children was a chance to earn a bit of pocket money. With the town cut off by snow, one of the only ways in and out was over the pass that led down to the neighboring town of Tsunan with its train station. Adults would often have the children help taking packages up and down the snowy slope to pass to pass off to the postman coming up from Tsunan. If you needed to get out of the town during winter before the roads were cleared this was also the route you had to take.

The view from the mountain pass between Matsunoyama Onsen and Tsunan.

Stories like these sound like something out of an old fairytale but are memories of residents of Matsunoyama Onsen who haven’t reached retirement age yet. It is a fascinating little town that has a wealth of interesting stories and history. Enjoy a stay at Hinanoyado Chitose, or Tamakiya to learn more about this unique area of Timeless Yukiguni.


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