Japan Schools the East Coast on Dealing With Snow

Heated roads and zero flight cancellations: Welcome to “snow country.”

A man walks on a snow-covered street at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, Japan. (Yuya Shino / Reuters)

While the Northeastern United States endures its crippling snowfall, and all the transportation shutdowns, shelter-in-place orders, and travel cancellations that come with it, it’s instructive to look further east, where all these events happened several days ago—in Tokyo.

On Monday and Tuesday, Japan was hit by heavy snow that caused injuries, road closures, delayed trains, and cancelled flights. Tokyo—where snow is rare—was brought to a standstill by just two inches. But many other places in the country have adapted to much greater accumulation, of the kind that appeared this week, for example, in Hokkaido and Hokuriku (three feet); Tohuku and Tokai (around two feet); and in Chogoku, Kanto, and Koshin (around a foot and a half).

In much of Japan, that kind of snow—the kind that is currently producing headlines on the East Coast—is not uncommon. Japan has the most ski resorts outside of the United States, festivals for building ice sculptures and snow shrines, and a website dedicated to the art of shoveling snow. (“[Snow removal] is not a labor, it is an exercise!”) Snow even gives an entire region—known as “snow country”—its nickname. In these hilly, mountainous areas, visitors can see Japanese macaques, or “snow monkeys,” bathing in hot springs, and traverse alpine corridors that are carved out in the winter to make them passable: On the Tateyama Kurobe route, the walls can reach up to 65 feet.

People in “snow country” have developed snow-management techniques that would be the envy of the Eastern Seaboard. A 2006 New York Times article about Tsunan, in Niigata, described some of them, leading off with the story of a woman exiting her house through a “second-story window.”

The snow has buried cars and houses and trifled with Japan's famed bullet trains. It has flanked plowed streets with 10-foot-high walls of snow and transformed towns into white labyrinths inside which human beings scurry as if they were mice. … The snow country, or this corner of it at least, began conquering the snow in the late 1960's. Sprinklers were installed in the middle of streets, the first one here in 1972; electrical pumps nowadays send mild underground water to melt the snow all over Tsunan. Some streets, especially those near the train station, are heated. Snowplows clear the roads for the town's 12,000 residents, thanks to the $1 million the town spends on snow removal from its annual $50 million budget.

The “sprinklers installed in the middle of the street” are shosetsu (snow-melting) pipes, which eject warm groundwater onto the surface of the street. More recently developed methods involve heating roads by circulating hot water below the pavement with the help of solar power that is stored in the summer. Another snow-management system is the ryusetsuko, a channel of river water that runs alongside roads and carries chunks of snow away. Houses in snowy areas have steep roofs to make snow slide down them—although sometimes, according to Snow Engineering: Recent Advances, “deep snow accumulated on the ground reaches the snow on the roof, interfering with the sliding of snow off the roof.” (Japanese use old-fashioned snow-clearing—josetsu—techniques as well, meaning hands and heavy machinery.)

Japan’s innovations seem a wise response to the quirks of the country’s geography. In an introduction to the English translation of the novel Snow Country, by the Nobel Prize-winning Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata, the Japanese literature scholar Edward Seidensticker explains the phenomenon: “In the winter, cold winds blow down from Siberia, pick up moisture over the Japan Sea, and drop it as snow when they strike the mountains of Japan.”

The result is “anomalous” amounts of snow on Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, and on the western coast of Honshu, Japan’s largest, where the moist air mass runs into the Japanese Alps in the middle of the island. (This process is similar to what creates “lake-effect snow” in the United States.) Because of those mountains, the Pacific-facing side of Honshu, where it rarely snows, stays dry, like the front of a person lying on her back in fresh powder. Per Seidensticker: “The west coast of the main island of Japan is probably for its latitude … the snowiest region in the world.”

Otaru under snow on the island of Hokkaido, Japan (Peter Enyeart / Flickr)

So how much snow does that entail? According to the Japanese Meteorological Association, enough to break records: On February 14, 1927, 1,182 centimeters of snow—nearly 39 feet—were recorded on Mount Ibuki. On January 23, 2016, the JMA recorded almost eight feet in Sankeyu, Aomori Prefecture, in northern Honshu. The highest-recorded snowfall there is 18 and a half feet, in February 2013. (The measurements have only been made since 1979.) The same year, Eric Hansen, reporting for Outside from Niseko, Hokkaido, a popular skiing destination, described a “month-long, uninterrupted storm” that left almost 15 feet in January.

The Japanese government monitors snow depth in certain regions and designates them either “heavy snowfall areas” or “special heavy snowfall areas,” which are more extreme. In all, they make up about 50 percent of Japan, and their population has been steadily decreasing. Kyu-Shirataki, Hokkaido, where Japan Railways keeps a train station open to serve a single passenger, shows one example of such depopulation. When it snows—Kyu-Shirataki is in a special heavy snowfall area—the local government must decide whether to spend money on removing snow in the most remote areas for a dwindling and often elderly population.

It’s clear that despite Japan’s advances, it remains difficult to live in a place where several feet of snow is normal: According to the author of the Snow Engineering study, “Various types of labor peculiar to snow country and unrelated to productivity … are needed. When I consider these alone, living in snow country can be said to be disadvantageous, as compared to living outside snow country.”

But snow country has pulled off at least one miracle.

“Over the 50 years this airport has been open, a failure to clear snow has never resulted in a flight cancellation.” Masato Kanazawa, the director of the airport in Aomori prefecture—where there's now eight feet of snow on the ground in some places—said that in 2014. His team of snow-clearers is called the White Impulse.