Japan’s Snow Country

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When talking about the term “Snow Country”, this can refer to a book. Snow Country is a novel that was written by Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata.

It is one of the most critically acclaimed novels in Japan. This literary work is about a love affair that takes place in Yuzawa, a town located in western Japan.

Snow Country also refers to a geographic region.

Snow Country is the name of a region in northwestern Japan. In the Japanese language, the region is referred to as Gōsetsu chitai. Gōsetsu chitai translated to “heavy snow area. This is a reference to the heavy snowfall that this part of Japan receives. The town of Yuzawa part of the Niigata Prefecture, which is part of Japan’s Snow Country. 

A satellite image of Japan’ four largest islands on February 20, 2004.
A satellite image of Japan’ four largest islands on February 20, 2004. The snow-covered southern arm of Hokkaido extends into the upper right corner. Honshu, Japan’s largest island, curves across the center of the image. Shikoku, right, and Kyushu, left, form the southern tip of the group. Japan is mostly mountainous, and, as the dusting of snow in this image shows, is cold in the north and more tropical in the south. Source: NASA.

Geography of Japan

Understanding Japan’s Snow Country requires understanding the geography of Japan.

Japan is an archipelago nation. An archipelago refers to a group of islands. Japan has over 6,000 islands. There are five main islands in Japan: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Okinawa. Honshu is the largest of Japan’s islands. Over two-thirds of Japan’s landmass is mountainous.

The Pacific Ocean is on Japan’s eastern coast. The Sea of Japan is on the country’s western coast. The Sea of Japan is surrounded by Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and Russia. 

Where is Japan’s Snow Country

The extent of Snow Country can be defined in a few ways. A stringent definition of Snow Country refers to the prefectures of Akita, Yamagata, Niigata, Toyama, Ishikawa, and Fukui. All are part of the island of Honshu.

A more generalized definition includes Hokkaido (the northernmost of Japan’s islands) and  Aomori Prefecture at its northernmost point. Its southernmost extent can also include parts of southern Japan such as Yamaguchi, Tottori, and Shimane prefectures.

In general, it is the western portion of Japan next to the Sea of Japan. The location of Snow Country is imperative because it defines why this region is particularly snowy. 

Equal Earth map showing Japan.  Snow Country in Japan is found on the northwestern part of Honshu Island and Hokkaido Island.
Equal Earth map showing Japan. Snow Country in Japan is found on the northwestern part of Honshu Island and Hokkaido Island.

What is the Lake Snow Effect?

A region that Snow Country could be compared to is the eastern shore of Lake Erie. This region has some of the highest amounts of snow within the United States of America. This includes places such as Cleveland, OH and Buffalo, NY.

These cities are particularly affected by what is known as the lake-effect. Cold air blows across Lake Erie. When the lake is relatively warmer than the air passing over it, water vapor is collected and transported from the lake.

This water vapor rises into the progressively colder atmosphere. As the water vapor rises, it cools, condenses, and freezes. Precipitation falls downwind as snow. The lake effect produces large amounts of snow for cities such as Cleveland and Buffalo.

Satellite image of a strong band of lake-effect snow moving across Lake Michigan.  Image: NASA,  December 31, 2017
Satellite image of a strong band of lake-effect snow moving across Lake Michigan. Image: NASA, December 31, 2017

The Ocean’s Effect on Japan’s Snowy North

Snow Country borders the Sea of Japan. Most lakes are comprised of freshwater. The Sea of Japan is a saline body of water, being part of the Pacific Ocean.

The lake effect takes place when cold aid blows over an unfrozen body of water. Freshwater lakes freeze at 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit). While ocean water can freeze, it freezes and lower temperatures than freshwater. A temperature of 28.4 Fahrenheit is required for ocean water to freeze.

The Sea of Japan is slightly less saline than the Pacific Ocean. That noted, this body of water has enough salt content for it to remain liquid below 32 Fahrenheit. The Sea of Japan’s water temperatures vary greatly.

Aqua satellite image of northwestern Honshu Island covered in snow on February 26, 2018.  Image; NASA.
Aqua satellite image of northwestern Honshu Island covered in snow on February 26, 2018. Image; NASA.

Ocean currents play a role in the variation of water temperatures. The northwest portion of the sea will have temperatures as low as 32 F. The eastern areas of the sea, near Japan, will have markedly warmer temperatures. This effect is due to the circulation of the currents. Warmer water is moved towards the eastern side of the Sea of Japan. 

Very cold air blows from the northwest direction. This is due to a high pressure system sitting over Asia’s mainland during the winter months. This cold air passes over the Sea of Japan, picking up water vapor. That water vapor rises, condenses, and freezes. As a result, precipitation falls on the western part of Japan, in the form of snow. 

Because the Sea of Japan is more likely to remain unfrozen than freshwater lakes, more water vapor can be produced, feeding a phenomenon comparable to the lake effect. In this case, it is ocean-effect snow being produced. 

Snowfall in northern Japan captured on March 21, 2014 from the International Space Station showing Hokkaido’s east coast.  Image: NASA, ISS039-E-003841
Snowfall in northern Japan captured on March 21, 2014 from the International Space Station showing Hokkaido’s east coast. Image: NASA, ISS039-E-003841

How Japan’s Terrain Creates More Snow

The ocean effect is more pronounced by Japan’s terrain. The majority of Japan consists of mountains. The Japan Alps comprise the northern and central part of Honshu.

The mountains contribute to an orographic lift where the cold air mass moving moisture from the Sea of Japan is forced upward to higher elevations by the mountains. With the rise in altitude, adiabatic cooling takes place which allows for rising water vapor to reach a relative humidity of 100 percent. This happens because the temperature has reached its due point.  When enough water vapor has condensed, precipitation takes place. At cold enough temperatures, snowfall takes place. The orographic lift helps produce more snow. 

The ocean-effect produces more snow than the lake effect for these reasons.

  1. Sea water remains at a liquid state at lower temperatures than freshwater.
  2. The water off Japan’s western coast are warmer due to the ocean currents. 
  3. Orographic lift from Japan’s mountains. 

Japan’s Snow Country has some of the snowiest places in the world. Aomori City, in the northwest part of Honshu, gets around 312 inches of snow annually. Akita City receives close to 150 inches of snow annually. 

The snowfall of this region plays a large role in the human geography of the region. Snow Country is famous for its skiing. A bulk of Japan’s skiing areas are in this region as a result of the deep snows that blanket the mountains during winter.

Yuzawa, the setting for the novel Snow Country, has long been known for its hot springs. The area around Yuzawa has several ski resorts. Tourism is an important part of Snow Country’s economy as a result of the many ski resorts in the region. Nagano, located in the southern portion of Snow Country, receives around 100 inches of snow annually. It was here where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held. 

Heavy snowfall also poses challenges to the region. Large amounts of snow create difficulties in transportation. The government provides extra money to help the region with snow removal. The heavy snowfall has affected how some buildings are constructed. Some buildings have an entrance on the second floor. This is to cope with the deep snows that block entrances on the first floor. Deep snowfalls are heavy enough to crush houses. For this reason, roofs must be cleared of snow. 

Snow Country in Japan is the setting of an acclaimed novel and also hosted Winter Olympiads. Geography makes Snow Country what it is. From the Sea of Japan to the Japan Alps, these are some of the things that shape Snow Country.  

Further Resources

Asenlund, D. (2015, January 3). In Kawabata’s footsteps to ‘Snow country’. The Japan Times. https://www.japantimes.co.jp/life/2015/01/03/travel/kawabatas-footsteps-snow-country/

Kawabata, Y. (1915). Snow country. New York: Knopf.

Snow country: Northern Japan home to some of the world’s heaviest snowfall. (2020, May 31). nippon.com. https://www.nippon.com/en/features/h00357/

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