As you travel around Yukiguni and interact with the locals at the ryokans that are part of Timeless Yukiguni, an often heard refrain is “Things are easier now.” Looking at old photos of the area in winter it does seem that the snows were often on the point of being overwhelming. The locals have a strange relationship with the snow. It is the point around which the whole year turns.
Preparations for winter begin early, often with the gathering of ingredients to be preserved to last through the long winter months. As winter approaches preparations are made to protect buildings and plants from the weight of the snow. Talking to some of the older generations, one of the outstanding memories is of the gloom of winter. This was often caused by the boards over the windows which were used to protect them, called yukigakoi. Often lower floor windows would be totally covered by the fallen snow so natural light was completely obscured . Throughout the winter snow clearing was a constant battle against nature. In Matsunoyama Onsen the snow was so plentiful that the term used was “snow digging” rather than just clearing.
This battle with the snow is one of the reasons that spring is such a beloved season in the Snow Country Region. Once spring arrives the point is reached where the snow is no longer such an issue. Parts of the ground that have been buried for months see the light of day again and plants begin to bloom. The mountain plants and vegetables that are so highly prized in Yukiguni put a spring in the step of those who have been hibernating all winter, and the taste of fresh greenery is bliss for the locals. Even some of these are immediately preserved for the next winter, and the cycle starts again.
Living in the snows of Yukiguni can be tough, but there are also benefits too, and the locals are the first to proclaim their gratitude for their unique climate. The snow melts and the water soaks through the ground picking up minerals on the way. This water will re-emerge as delicious spring water that is a wonderful natural resource. It feeds the rice, and is used to make the famous local sakes. The snow falling from the sky in winter is also said to help purify the air in the region.
It is thought that the Jomon people thrived in this area during winter as the snow on the ground allowed them to easily track animals to hunt. Hunters today still find the snows help them locate their prey.
The snows have also been used to provide refrigeration. There is a traditional system of piling up snow and then insulating it to make a kind of cold storage called a yukimuro, that remains into the heat of the summer. It is said that the constant temperature and humidity of the yukimuro brings out the sweetness and flavor of items stored within it. Several modern facilities inspired by this traditional system use the snow to provide cooling during the summer months. Warehouses, wineries, sake breweries, mushroom farms, and even public buildings are harnessing the power of the snow to be used outside of winter.
The snows of Yukiguni can be around for six months but they have also affected the way of life, culture, architecture, and gastronomy of the region throughout the rest of the year. The older people may claim to hate the snow, but most of them wouldn’t trade places given the chance!