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Snowshoeing: An Easy Way to Enjoy Japan's Winter Wonderland

Without the need for a trail, you get unfiltered access to Japan's picture-perfect snow scene. Snowshoeing is the perfect activity for anyone who can walk.



In snowshoeing, the trail is wherever one finds snow. (© Daniel Moore)

Snowshoeing is a unique activity because of its freedom and ease. Anyone who can walk can snowshoe. The trail is wherever one finds snow. Unlike hiking, the lack of a defined route means you cannot "complete" a snowshoe course. The right path is the snow that suits your fancy. If you see an interesting natural feature, go right up to it. If you want to go a little longer, keep walking until tired. After a storm, every step is on fresh snow that no person has tread before. The experience of walking on completely fresh powder in a white winter wonderland is unlike any other.

The white winter wonderland of Nagano (© Daniel Moore)

I step out the door of my guesthouse in the tiny village of Sugakawa, Nagano. A fresh dusting of snow covers the rolling white hills, and the sun begins to poke over the mountains. I gasp in the refreshingly cold air, soaking in the stunning, stark view. The only sound is the crunch-crunch of my boots and the rushing river below. Finally, after days of heavy snowfall and sub-zero temperatures, I can escape the cozy comforts of the house and explore without freezing.

The Journey is What Matters

I set out with only a vague idea of my destination, Takaifuji Ski Resort on the other side of the mountain from the house. The actual objective, though, is to explore and take photos so I can guide around this area. Even while guiding, the journey is more important than the destination anyway. Leaving the tiny hamlet, I cross the river and enter the unplowed forest road. 

This region is close to the Sea of Japan and receives so much snowfall that they let some roads remain unpassable for the season. I am thankful, because the unplowed roads provide excellent access to nature, away from the cars, snowplows, and brown snow of major roads. Making my way through the thinly outlined forest road, I walk the abandoned trail for nearly an hour. Occasionally, I see the ski resort through openings in the woods, junior high snowboarder girls flailing and screaming. I continue my solo walk in my own world; alone but far from lonely.

Immersed in nature (© Daniel Moore)

Hightened Senses

Northern Nagano's wintery landscape reminds me of a minimalist black-and-white painting. Unlike the vibrant green of Spring, the heavy mist of Summer, or Autumn's patchy quilt work colors, on the surface Winter offers little visual stimulation. The hues are almost exclusively cloudy/snowy white, dark evergreen, twig brown, and an occasional blue sky. But something about the lack of color makes the setting more beautiful. It forces the eye to focus on fewer things, making each contrasting object more vivid. I imagine it must be like suddenly being deprived of smell. One sense vanishes, but the other senses become heightened to compensate for the deficit.

A beautiful monochromatic landscape (© Daniel Moore)

Although I enjoy rushing through physical activities and challenges, I force myself to slow down this time. Listening, observing, breathing deep. I don't do these things nearly enough daily, and I want to remember this experience vividly. I notice powdery snow piled up on a branch, weighing it down. It already has buds prepared to immediately burst into life in the spring thaw. I listen to the river roaring below and think about all the rain and snow it took to fill this one stream. I look up at the frosty branches, blue sky, and clouds moving above. And I watch as the wind knocks snow off those branches. The powdery snow glittering down is called diamond dust in Japan.

Powdery snow glitters on the branches. (© Daniel Moore)

Unfiltered Access to Nature

For the final phase of my journey, I return towards the village across vegetable patches and rice paddies. The setting opens up so I can see multiple ski resorts, mountains, and a glimpse of life in the sleepy snow country village. I hope no farmers are upset I am encroaching on their fields. But with a 2-meter snow buffer below, I am doing no harm. The only unavoidable trace I leave behind is my single-file tracks. Soon, they will be forever covered in yet a new layer of snow.

Daniel's footprints in the fresh snow. (© Daniel Moore)

Snowshoeing is one of my favorite ways to explore because it provides access to winter landscapes in such a different light. While I love the thrill of barreling down a mountain on a snowboard, it sometimes feels like a crowded, manufactured experience in nature. Snowshoeing is the opposite. It provides unfiltered access to nature as it is. Indeed, there is not even a trail. Like hiking, there is something primally human about going outside, bathing in sunlight, and walking in the woods. It is hard work in deep powder snow, but worth it. The beer and onsen awaiting me will undoubtedly hit the spot.

It's been a fun day, a good workout, and a successful scouting trip. I am fortunate to have such easy access to nature and get to do what I love. I am already looking forward to the next adventure in the snow.


Author: Daniel Moore

Learn more about the wild side of Japan through Daniel’s essays, here. Leave questions or comments in the section below, or reach Daniel through Active Travel Japan.

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