Snow Country: Winter Travel
January 8-17, 2008
Last Edited: August 30, 2010
To mark the New Year, the forty-two-year old men of Nozawa village sit in a nest of pine boughs on a sixty-foot shrine made of beech logs lashed together with rice straw rope.
Fueled by sake, the villagers attack, trying to set the shrine on fire, while the twenty-five-year old men, now considered adults and guardians of their elders, ward off the attacks. It’s all in fun the forty-two-year olds climb down a ladder before the fiery finale, a huge bonfire, symbolizing their escape from the dangers of a critical year in their lives (shini means both “forty-two” and “to die’).
Left: afternoon blessing of the Nozawa hi-matsuri shaden, or shrine. Right: mountain shrine.
A hot spring ski resort village in a mountainous region known as Snow Country, Nozawa is about an hour by car from Nagano, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics. This hi-matsuri, or fire festival, established in 1863 based on ancient Shinto tradition, is held annually on January 15.
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When we arrived in the early afternoon, a priest was blessing the shrine, and the twenty-five and forty-two year olds were gathered around to honor Dosojin, to whom the festival is dedicated. Dosojin is the village protector, a dual male-female kami of fertility, marriage, family, harvest, and health portrayed as a man and a woman standing together.
Left: Blessing the shadden. Right: Dosojin statues, made from logs.
At the blessing, the participants took their first sips of sake, a drink sacred to the gods. They continued drinking throughout the night, while villagers with 1.8 liter sake bottles wandered through the crowd, pouring cups and urging the spectators to down them.
At seven p.m. the sacred fire was lit. Lantern poles were erected for first-born sons in the preceding year (two this year). At around eight, aerial fireworks went off, and taiko drumming began.
Then, armed with flaming bundles of reeds, the villagers moved down a lane through the crowd and thrust their torches at the guards to drive them off and ignite the shrine.
Holding onto short ropes attached to the shrine, the guards knocked the torches down with their free arms or with pine branches and beat out the flames. Full of bluster and sake, the forty-two years olds egged on the attackers from above by tossing down unlit bundles of reeds to fuel more attacks. The flames from the reed bundles were too weak to burn their nest of pine boughs, which symbolize strength and longevity.
It’s the twenty-five year olds who are tested: their faces were blackened with soot and burning reed-ash landed and glowed in their hair; after an hour of defending the shrine, they began to look exhausted.
Meanwhile a couple of hundred spectators pushed forward against a barrier of rope and crowd-control officers to get a closer look at the action, then moved back whenever the attackers waved them off with their torches. With all the pushing, a couple of young Japanese men started fighting with each other and had be restrained. A drunken tourist got upset at being shoved about and started swearing at the Japanese in English.
Last year, according to the Snow Japan website, “there were some problems with tourists trying to take part in the fire attacks and getting into fights with locals.” This year, a flyer passed out at the inns emphasized that only villagers were allowed to participate; outsiders should remain spectators.
Around ten, the attacks subsided, and the forty-two year olds declared victory, chanting and clapping, their leader waving a pine bough. Then they climbed down, and the villagers pushed a pile of burning logs under the shrine, using poles as levers. The shrine and lantern poles were consumed in the bonfire as offerings to Dosojin.
Snow Country, the novel by Yasunari Kawabata that made the region internationally famous, concludes with a tragic fire blazing into the starry night, taking the life a beautiful young girl, a sacrifice to the gods of winter, an emblem of fragile beauty embodying the Buddhist belief that an individual’s life is a transient illusion doomed to extinction.
By contrast, Nozawa’s annual hi-matsuri is a comedy, a Shinto celebration of life maintained through family, community, and generations. Only the beech trees are sacrificed. As the bonfire died down, the merry townspeople, full of sake and feeling blessed, headed home through the dark snowy streets, while we visitors went back to our inns to warm up in sulphuric hot spring baths. A soaking is said to be good for fatigue and rheumatism.
Between Nozawa and Nagano is Jigokudani (“Hell Valley”), a hot spring in Joshin-Etsu Kogen National Park. Here a troop of 250 snow monkeys comes down from the mountains during the day in winters to warm up in and around the steaming waters. Japan is the northernmost habitat for these macaques, whose range stretches from North Africa to East Asia.
A one-mile walk through a wintry forest led from Kanbayashi hot spring to the Jigokudani. A few of the monkeys were in the water while others were frolicking or foraging for rice grains scattered by a park employee.
On our way to Nozawa we stopped at Obuse, a small town on Highway 403, with an excellent Hokusai museum and Masuichi Ishimura Sake Brewery. Winter is the season of sake, when kanzukuri (cold brewing) after the harvest produces shibori-tate (“freshly pressed”) rice wine. That morning there was a street fair, with businesses offering visitors specialties of the town cups of hot amazake, a sweet low-alcoholic drink made from the leftovers of the sake-brewing process; chestnut and mochi soup; and tea and cookies.
The Hokusai museum displayed selections from the artist’s waterfall, bridges, and Mt. Fuji wood-block print series, as well as his ink drawings and paintings and his works on the ceiling boards of two festival carts. Hokusai (1760-1849), who moved quite frequently, lived in Obuse during the last years of his long life.
In Nagano, we stopped at Zenkoji, founded in the seventh century and today, the city’s most visited site. It features a tunnel, completely dark, down a stairway under the main temple. Visitors grope along the walls, symbolically searching for enlightenment. The temple also contains what is believed to be the oldest Buddhist statue in Japan, brought from Korea. The statue isn’t shown, though a replica is, every six or seven years, in a special ceremony.
Our first stop in Snow Country was the town of Yuzawa (“Hot Spring Valley”), twenty miles east of Nozawa. Yuzawa promotes itself as the unnamed village in Kawabata’s Snow Country. On the Shinkansen from Tokyo, when we emerged from the darkness of the thirteen-mile long Daishimizu tunnel, the landscape was magically transformed, from a cold, but sunny and snowless plain, into a snowy mountain valley in early afternoon twilight.
Yuzawa’s no longer the remote, rustic village of Kawabata’s pre-war Japan. The bullet train has brought urban development, and skiers and snowboarders from Tokyo come to ride the winter slopes above the town.
While snowfall as deep as fifteen feet has been recorded in Snow Country, this year, after the first week of January, Yuzawa had only one to two feet, and it was melting. In neighboring Gunma Prefecture, ice-fishing on a lake was postponed by three weeks, awaiting the hardening of the ice. Hokkaido, known for its long, frigid winters and annual ice festival, had days when it rained rather than snowed.
Left: melting snow in Yuzawa. Right: the slopes above Yuzawa town, accessed by ropeway.
Yuzawa has a snow country museum and an inn where Kawabata stayed, but what we most wanted to visit was the sake-tasting room at the train station, where for five dollars you can sample five shots, then buy what you like at the shop next door. The samples are dispensed from coin-operated units in a wall housing over a hundred local varieties. We tasted ten and decided on a bottle of Manotsuru, a smooth daigingyo from Obata Brewery on Sado Island in Niigata.
The alkaline water of Yuzawa hot spring is said to be especially soothing for aches and pains, perfect after our nine-hour flight from Hawai‘i and two train rides. Pink and white camellia were blooming beside the small rotemburo (outdoor hot spring); the shrubs around the camellias were trimmed with snow.
After Yuzawa, and before going to Nozawa, we spent five days touring the sites in and around Kanazawa (“Gold Marsh”), the largest and wealthiest city in Hokuriku (North Country) since feudal times. The entrance to its train station blends the traditional and the modern: a towering wooden gate whose pillars resemble a giant pair of hand drums (tsuzumi) in front of an aluminum-and-glass dome.
Facing east, the gate greets the morning sun, and the reddish wood adds warmth to a city that is often dreary and rainy in the winter. A foot of rain falls on average in both December and January. On a coastal plain, Kanazawa gets less snow than Yuzawa and Nozawa.
We arrived a week after the New Year, when the twenty-year old women in elegant formal kimono and fur collars were out and about town celebrating Adulthood Day and their coming-of-age year. The twenty-year old men also celebrate this day, though in suits rather than traditional kimono.
The city boasts one of the best gardens in Japan, Kenroku-en, across the moat from a gate of its former castle, which burned down in 1881.
The Maeda lords were patrons of the arts, and regional artisans continue to produce traditional works gold-leaf, lacquer ware, pottery, and painted silk displayed and for sale at numerous museums and shops. Geisha and samurai houses and a ninja temple with hidden doors and passageways have also been preserved in districts with narrow streets east and west of the castle grounds.
Omicho Market, between the station and the garden, houses sushi bars; we stopped at one for dinner to taste the region’s fresh winter seafood: snow crab, sweet red shrimp, and fatty yellowtail.
Noto Peninsula: Wave Flowers
Jutting out into the Sea of Japan north of Kanzawa, Noto Peninsula is known for its wave-battered coast with unusual rock formations.
During winter storms, a phenomenon called nami no hana, or “wave flowers,” occurs. As the temperature drops below zero, sea spray freezes in the air and is blown onto shore and tossed about, like falling petals.
The morning we drove up the west side of the peninsula, a light snow storm swept in, and wave flowers and snow flakes swirled across the road and lined the shore. The weather cleared by afternoon.
Photos: left: snow falling on the Noto Kongo coast; right: wave flowers frozen ocean foam piled up on the coast of Noto Peninsula after a winter storm. The piles look like soap suds.
On the north side of the peninsula is the fishing town of Wajima, noted for its morning market. We spent so much time sightseeing on the way up, we arrived just after noon, when the vendors were putting their goods away. We wandered down the empty main street and had some delicious fresh soba noodles, dipped in a sesame sauce.
Also on the street was Hiyoshi Sake Brewery, with fragrant steam pouring out the side of the building. We bought a bottle of Shirakoma daigingyo. Shops were also selling Wajima’s famous lacquer ware.
East of Wajima is Senmaida ("Thousand Rice Fields") small rice terraces on a slope overlooking the sea, especially beautiful in the winter when the fields are lined with snow. The smallest paddy is the size of a hat, suggesting the need to cultivate the least bit of soil on this rocky coast.
Beyond Senmaida are the Oku-Noto Salt Fields, where salt is produced in evaporation ponds using a five-hundred year old method called “agehama.” You can learn about the process and purchase bags of salt (said to make food tastier) at a small education center and shop.
We kept going to Rokkosaki, the northernmost tip of the peninsula, before turning south on the lee side, where the seas were calmer.
We traveled back to the west coast along snow-covered beaches and through forested hills, to Chirihama, where we stayed overnight at a hot spring inn to warm up with a bath, sake, and a crab dinner. (The waters of Chirihama are good for stress and muscle and shoulder pain, among other ailments.)
South of Kanazawa
Twenty miles south of Kanazawa is Natadera, a temple founded in 717 by the priest Taicho, in a small valley that features a rocky hillside with caves.
A legendary ascetic with powers to fly and to disappear and appear elsewhere, Taicho climbed Hakusan (“White Mountain,” 8,865 feet) and at a crater lake near the peak, had a vision of its mountain goddess emerging from the waters and becoming the Buddhist goddess of mercy Kannon. He enshrined an image of the eleven-headed, thousand-armed goddess in one of the caves.Today, Natadera is dedicated to world peace and natural harmony. Visitors can enter one of the womb-like caves to light a candle in worship, wash away the impurities of life, and be symbolically reborn.
The garden with a swan pond is said to represent the Bodaraku mountain of the Pure Land of Kannon. There were very few people when we visited, and the spiritual aura of the valley was intense.
Photos: left: the gate at Natadera; right: the rocky caves and pond. The tent-like ropes around the trees protect them from heavy snowfall, but there was no snow when we visited in mid-January.
Five miles south of Natadera is Yamanaka, a hot spring town built along Kakusen Gorge. A pleasant one-mile walk along the Daishoji stream from one end of town to the other features two bridges: the traditional wooden Korogi (Cricket) Bridge and the Ayatori (Cat’s Cradle) Bridge, a modern steel structure with an S-curved path inside an inverted triangular frame, designed by ikebana master and film-maker Hiroshi Teshigahara (“Woman in the Dunes”).
Left: the path along the stream. Right: Ayatori Bridge.
Eight miles south of Yamanaka, at the end of a narrow alley, on a small hill off Highway 8, is Maruoka Castle, which dates from 1579 and lays claim to being the oldest castle still standing in Japan.
Farther south, tucked up in a mountain valley among cedars is Eiheiji, an active monastery, founded in 1244 by the famous Zen master Dogen, who studied Buddhism in China and returned to establish Soto Zen in Japan. The complex of seventy buildings is a mecca for pilgrims from all over the world who come to meditate. The road up to the valley wound through a snowy forest.
Left: Snowy scene. Right: Monk parting for meditation at Eiheiji.
To tour the region south of Kanazawa we stayed near Natadera, at Katayamazu hot spring on the west shore of Lake Shibayamagata, where ducks spend the winter. The waters, with low sodium and calcium chloride content, is said to benefit chronic joint and muscle rheumatism and gout. Nearby is Dainichizakari Brewery, which uses water from the Mt. Hakusan to make sake.
The sixty-mile drive from Lake Shibayamagata to Tsuruga on a narrow coastal road (in one place, boats brought up on shore are close enough to be touched from the car) takes you through the Echizen-Kaga Coast Quasi-National Park, which, like the Noto Peninsula, is known for its and winter wave flowers. The day we drove along the coast, it was snowless, with cloud cover, and the sea was calm. Winter daffodils were blooming.
In Tsuruga, we visited Kehi Jinja, a Shinto shrine established in 702, and Kehi-no-Matsubara, a park with 17,000 red and black pine trees, along the sandy shores of Tsuruga Bay.
The poet Basho stopped at a shrine at Kehi to view the full moon at the end of September in 1689, on his way home from a five-month long tour of northern Honshu. The night was rainy and the moon hidden, so he wrote, "Full moon? North Country weather is unpredictable."