February 28, 2020

Discover Snow Country

Though called Snow Country (or "Yukiguni" in Japanese), this part of Japan has a lot more on offer than JUST amazing options for winter sports.

Snow Falls everywhere in Japan's so-called Snow Country zone

Welcome back to another installment of my in-depth area guide series. As always, we’ll be going deep so that you, the reader, can experience a region of rural Japan without worry. In today’s post, we’ll be examining a slice of Japan that goes by the moniker of Snow Country. Spread across a wide swath of mountainous terrain that spans Niigata, Nagano, and Gunma Prefectures, this area of Japan sees a shocking amount of snow every year. In fact, snow plays such a critical role to this part of Japan that activities of the remainder of the year all center around preparing for winter.

Now, if you turn to Google to learn more about Snow Country, you’re bound to get a bit confused. You see, even the ever-reliable Wikipedia is plagued by what can only be described as an extremely vague entry. Indeed, after looking over the literature, I still cannot make out what exactly constitutes Snow Country as it seems like there are competing definitions. For the purposes of my article, I’ll opt to go with the Snow Country Tourist Association’s definition which includes the six towns of Uonuma, Minami Uonuma, Yuzawa, Tokamachi, Tsunan, Minakami, and Sakae.

When it comes to the slopes of Yuzawa, Snow Country is well known internationally as a renowned getaway for skiers and snowboarders. In fact, the region’s famous GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort is the only one of its kind to have a bullet train stop built directly into the facility. As you might imagine, this ease of access certainly draws a crowd. Given the fact that many tourists already flock to Snow Country for winter sports though, I’ll opt to omit these attractions in the coming analysis. Instead, I’ll elect to focus on the lesser known aspects of Snow Country such as the area’s rich cultural heritage.

Before we get into the weeds, I want to take a moment and stress that by no means is Snow Country a place that is only alluring during winter. Though the name may be a bit misleading in this regard, Snow Country has plenty to offer all year round. For example, the mountainous town of Minakami is regularly hailed as Japan’s premier destination for adventure tourism. That said, if you have your heart set on seeing some snow, rejoice in knowing that this area of Japan often remains snow capped until late spring.

Getting to Snow Country

A bullet train bound for Snow Country on the Joetsu Shinkansen Line

As alluded to in the opening prelude when mentioning GALA Yuzawa Snow Resort, getting to Snow Country isn’t exactly difficult. All you need to do is take one of the Joetsu bullet trains from Tokyo Station to Echigo-Yuzawa Station. The entirety of the journey should only take you a little more than an hour. Though there are regular departures, it would behove you to check with a service such as the helpful Hyperdia first. Unlike the trains heading to Kyoto and Osaka, you won’t have a bullet train departing every few minutes for this neck of the woods. Even during the peak of the ski and snowboard season, you’re lucky if there’s three trains per hour.

Once you arrive at Echigo-Yuzawa Station, the logistics start to get messy and rather challenging. In fact, though the entirety of Snow Country can be explored via public transportation, I am going to go ahead and make the suggestion that you just rent a car. The local trains up here are far too infrequent to rely on. Likewise, the buses are also equally headache inducing. To be honest, while I can read and write Japanese, even I would probably struggle navigating this arcane system. Of course, this means that foreign tourists would probably have a better shot at deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics than they would the bus schedules.

If you’re like me and cannot drive, you’ll probably want to limit your foray into Snow Country to just Yuzawa. While many of the area towns have poor public access, various of the points of interest in Yuzawa can be reached on foot from the Echigo-Yuzawa Station. During my visit, I had the luxury of being driven around by a representative from the Snow Country Tourist Association. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a friend with you who’s willing to drive, just stick with exploring Yuzawa. There’s easily enough content in just this part of Snow Country for an overnight trip.

What to See in Snow Country

The snowy valley basin of Eichigo-Yuzawa in Niigata Prefecture

I’m going to come right out and say that Snow Country is absolutely massive with each of the towns having enough content to feature their own piece. Unless you dedicate a solid week or more to just this location of Japan, you will not be able to see all that awaits. Truth be told, I’ve only done a fraction of what I’ll detail in a second so be sure to take my recommendations with a grain of salt and do your own research. In the subsequent paragraphs, I’ll try to quickly introduce each of the six towns in Snow Country and offer a few suggestions on what you might want to check out.

To kick things off, let’s begin with the centrally located town of Yuzawa. Technically, Minakami is the first borough that you’ll encounter en route to Snow Country from Tokyo. I have previously published a guide for Minakami so rather than waste more ink reinventing the wheel, you can reference my link here. Moreover, the Echigo-Yuzawa Station is somewhat of a hub for the area in that it acts as the entry point to Snow Country. Due to its extremely convenient location and connections, you’ll want to begin your journey in Yuzawa and then branch out from there into the more remote regions of Snow Country.

So, what’s on offer in Yuzawa? Well, for starters, know that the Echigo-Yuzawa Station is a bit of an attraction unto itself. Inside the behemoth facility, you’ll find the Ponshukan. This cramped hall is actually something of a museum (or at least that’s how it gets rendered in English) for all the various types of sake produced in the area. For just a few hundred yen, you’ll receive a handful of coins which can be exchanged at any of Ponshukan’s countless machines for a sample of sake. With so many different alcoholic concoctions to try, this activity is probably one you want to leave for the end of the day.

On the cultural side of things, there are a few other spots in Yuzawa that I’d urge you to check out. The first of these is the Yuzawa Museum of History and Folklore. Here, you can learn all about how the locals of this part of Japan historically survived the harsh winters that torment Snow Country. Situated just a few minutes away from Echigo-Yuzawa Station, this one is a must see. In addition to the Yuzawa Museum of History and Folklore, I also suggest you make a stop at Takahan. This ryokan has roots dating back over eight-hundred years. Here, the acclaimed author Kawabata Yasunari, penned what would later win him a Nobel Prize for Literature.

The breathtaking temple ceiling carving at Saifuku-ji in Niigata Prefecture

Next up, let’s move on to the towns of Uonuma and Minami Uonuma. When it comes to cultural attractions, these two municipalities really do deliver. In fact, there’s so much to see in Uonuma and Minami Uonuma that the only way I can fit all of my recommendations is to opt for a list like the one that follows. Alas, public transportation is still severely lacking in this rural neck of the woods meaning that some of these amazing locations will only be accessible to those with their own set of wheels. I’ll include a Google Map link to assist your navigation with Siri (or whatever the Android equivalent is).

  • Saifuku-ji
    Pictured above, this temple redefines the word “beautiful.” In all of my travels across Japan, I’ve never seen carvings as awe inspiring as those at Saifuku-ji. The magnificent woodwork is the product of the master craftsman, Ishikawa Uncho, and completed during the Edo period (1603–1868). Sadly, all photography is prohibited inside so be sure to etch these images into your memory. Note that if you don’t have a rental car, Saifuku-ji can be reached on foot from Yairo Station in under thirty minutes.
  • Eirin-ji
    While not quite as impressive as Saifuku-ji, this temple also boasts some truly amazing works by Ishikawa Uncho. Originally constructed over 500 years ago, this quaint countryside temple is definitely worth popping by if you have access to a rental car. Should you not, I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that you skip it. Given that you’d need to walk over 3 km from Echigo-Horino-Uchi Station, your time would be better spent just visiting Saifuku-ji seeing it’s the same craftsman.
  • Fuko-ji
    This temple belongs to the Shingon sect of Buddhism and is said to be over 1,200 years old. Every year in early March, while the snow is still piled up shoulder high, the temple holds one of strangest gatherings in all of Japan. Known as the Hadaka Oshiai Festival (lit. “Naked Man Festival”), this annual event is one worth viewing. Oh and don’t worry; there aren’t any actual manbits flying about. Those are all well covered by loincloths. Note that Fuko-ji is located only around 0.5 km from Urasa Station.
  • Bokushi Dori
    Once part of the important Mikuni Kaido highway, Bokushi dori is a street shaped by history. These days, you’ll find a number of shops and cafes that have taken up this critical artery. To pay homage to the Bokushi dori’s roots, the local authorities have mandated that all businesses along the street must have Edo period (1603–1868) facades. This feature provides the area with a unique historical theme. Much like Fuko-ji, Bokushi dori is located quite close to the station and can be reached in minutes from Shiozawa Station.
The Light Cave at Kiyosu Gorge in Niigata Prefecture’s Toyosu Gorge

Had enough of Snow Country yet? Well, maybe now is a good time to get a cup of joe or something as we’re only getting started. Next up, I’d like to introduce the town of Tokamachi. Though located only just to the west of Uonuma and Minami Uonuma, Tokamachi actually has a fair bit of notoriety thanks to the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial. Every three years, modern art legends from across the globe gather in this part of Japan for an exhibition of art work. The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial began back in the year 2000 and has been running strong ever since. Should you be visiting Japan during one of the years when the triennial is happening, you really ought to check it out. If not, much of the art is still on display during the off years too!

Of course, there’s a lot more to Tokamachi than just modern art. For example, the Instagrammers out there will really want to get their behinds to the Light Cave at Kiyosu Gorge (pictured above). Alternatively, hot spring enthusiasts will want to hit up Matsunoyama onsen for a good soak. During my stint in Snow Country, I stayed at Hinano-yado Chitose and thoroughly enjoyed my time at this ryokan. More of a nature type? Why not check out the slender beech tree forest at Bijin Bayashi? Planted approximately a century ago, this virgin grove possesses a distinct look during each of the four seasons.

The beautiful Hoshitoge Rice Terraces in Niigata Prefecture’s Tokamachi area

As if all this weren’t enough already, I have one final recommendation for the town of Tokamachi. Though it’s unfortunately covered by white blankets of snow during the wintertime, the Hoshitoge Rice Terraces shown above are truly a sight to behold (or so I’ve heard). While I have yet to view them myself, I’ve read online in a friend’s article that the terraces look like they’ve been ripped from the pages of a fairytale during sunrise. If you happen to drop by when they’re not buried under snow, be sure to snap me a pic as all I have to drool over is the stock photo above.

Moving on, let’s take a look at the township of Tsunan. Situated to the southwest of Tokamachi, Tsunan has a reputation domestically for producing some killer rice, sake, and buckwheat. In terms of attractions though, Tsunan is a little bit sparse. If you’re into archeology though, you need to visit the Okinohara site. This archaeological park contains the remnants of a middle Jomon period (2500–1500 BCE) settlement. Indeed, there are numerous dig sites across Japan however the park in Tsunan was designated as a National Historic Site of Japan. Note that many of the artifacts uncovered are stored at the Tsunan Municipal History Museum.

Rounding out the six towns of Snow Country, we have the village of Sakae. Located over in Nagano Prefecture, this is the only member of Snow Country besides Gunma’s Minakami that isn’t found in Niigata. While there are a few allures in Sakae (such as the spectacular 360-degree panoramic view from Mt. Naeba), I’ll be frank and say that the other areas in Snow Country are more deserving of your time. Unless you just want to get away from it all and soak away your worries in one of Sakae’s many onsen, there are few reasons to choose this hamlet over someplace like Tokamachi.

Attractions Near Snow County

A master yamabushi mountain ascetic sits in a temple in Yamagata Prefecture

With sooo much to see and do already in Snow Country alone, it would be silly for me to recommend additional nearby spots. Simply put, anywhere in this sector of the country is going to be pretty similar to Snow Country. Instead, I’ll opt to give you two options for the rest of your travels that synergize well with the logistics of Snow Country. This way, you can sample more of Japan.

  • Shonai
    Located up in Yamagata Prefecture, this secluded part of Japan is home to the Dewa Sanzan mountains and the Yamabushi who practice there. If you’d like to partake in their transformative training, hit up my good friends over at Yamabushido. Though I’ve said this countless times now on social media and on this blog, I cannot more highly recommend their service. Bar none, it was one of the most meaningful experiences of my entire life.
  • Kanazawa
    If you’re sporting a JR Rail pass, making the trip from Snow Country to Kanazawa is actually pretty easy. All you’ll need to do is take the Joetsu bullet train down to Takasaki Station. From there, you can switch to the Hokuriku bullet train. Though the entire journey will clock in at over three hours, you’ll only be required to transfer once en route to Kanazawa. This makes it quite simple to reach what may be considered one of the most underrated locations in Japan.

Until next time fellow travelers…