This is part of a series that will look at how to enjoy hiking in Japan at all times of the year
View over the snowy slopes from Fujimi Panorama towards Mt Fuji. Photo: Alison Beale
Not long after last red and yellow leaves of the autumn have fallen, snow starts to fall on the high ground in Japan and winter sets in. This is a great time to go walking in the snow. Although it can get very cold, the weather is often very stable with the most beautiful clear blue skies and bright sun.
There are many options for snow walking all around the country, but here are some suggestions for entry-level walks that are easily accessible and do not require technical equipment or expertise.
Snow-shoeing around Senjogahara
A highly recommended place for walking in the snow is Senjogahara in Nikko. Snow covers this beautiful marshland area between the months of about December and March. You can hire snow shoes at Sanbonmatsu tea house and from there set off along mostly flat, clearly defined walking trails. Walking by the icy river in cold, crisp air surrounded by the shapely outlines of the Nikko mountains is a truly magical experience. If you extend your walk to Odashirogahara you can visit the much photographed ‘kifujin’ or ‘lady of the marsh’ - a single white birch among brown Japanese oaks, with the dark contours of the winter mountains behind it. It has a stark, striking, atmospheric beauty that changes with the light and never appears the same.
The single white birch, “lady of Odashirogahara” Photo: Alison Beale
To get here, take the bus from Nikko station towards Yumoto-onsen, and get off at Sanbonmatsu. Here you can hire snow shoes and pick up a simple map. Make sure you come properly dressed for the cold. You can also hire cross country skis here and there are trails nearby.
View of snowy mountains in Nikko from the Kanaya Hotel. In addition to the beautiful natural landscape, Nikko also has many exceptional sites of historic and cultural interest like this hotel. Photo: Alison Beale
Nyukasa: 360 degree views of the Alps and beyond
Another easy and rewarding place for enjoying the snow is Mt Nyukasa, which lies on the far edge of the South Alps as they fall off from their higher elevations. The mountain is easily accessible from Tokyo by taking a JR Chuo line train to Fujimi station, and then a free shuttle bus to Fujimi Panorama ski resort (there are two a day in each direction in the winter season). From there you take the main gondola up along with the skiers and snowboarders, getting a beautiful view of Mt Fuji on the way in clear conditions.
The view of Mt Fuji from the start of the walk up Mt Nyukasa. Photo: Alison Beale
From the top station a path then leads off through the forest towards the summit of Mt Nyukasa which you can reach in about an hour. From here there is a stunning and dramatic 360 degree view of the South Alps and Yatsugatake. Even if you do not go up to the summit, there is a mountain hut about half way there which serves food and drinks. People often take simple plastic sledges and have a lot of fun playing on the hillsides in the snow outside the hut.
A snowy trail on Mt Nyukasa. Photo: Alison Beale
Rokko: frozen waterfalls and hot springs
Although snow is not always guaranteed, a good place for walking in the Kansai area when it gets cold is Mt Rokko. A recommended place to start is Arima-onsen which is easily accessible by the Kobe Dentetsu train line. Trails lead out of the town directly into the mountains, which are criss-crossed with walking paths. Please take a map.
Frozen waterfall on Mt Rokko. Photo: Alison Beale
A highlight of a trip to this area is a visit to some of the numerous frozen waterfalls that form at the coldest times of winter. It is really exciting finding the impressive icicles that cascade over icy rocks as if frozen in time. After a few hours walking in the frosty conditions you will no doubt start to feel cold, but one of the advantages of this area is that you can now walk back down into town and visit one of the famous hot springs of this historic resort. Soaking in a hot spring after a good day out is one of the true delights of hiking in Japan.
View down towards Kobe port from Mt Rokko. Photo: Alison Beale
Japan is a great place for snow, and famous of course for its legendary powder that makes for excellent skiing and snowboarding. There are however other ways to enjoy the fabulous wintry conditions, and walking in the snow is huge fun and truly memorable. Please make sure you dress up very warmly as even when it is sunny, it can be bitterly cold and your body temperature will drop even after a short time out. Once you become used to the conditions and know how to keep yourself warm, you can start explore some of the many other snowy walking areas. And if snow is not for you, winter in Japan holds other appeal, and this will be the topic of next month’s article.
Next month: blue sky walking!
About the author
Author: Alison Beale
Originally from the UK, Alison Beale spends her weekends outdoors exploring the geography, botany and mycology of Japan. Convinced that Tokyo is the foremost outdoor capital of the world, she is a self-professed evangelist about the beauty and richness of the nature of Japan.