Deadly blizzards have wreaked havoc in coastal areas along the Sea of Japan, including an avalanche that killed three spa bathers, and the Meteorological Agency warned of more heavy snowfall through Friday.
The agency said snowfall was expected to peak Thursday but continue through Friday in Sea of Japan coastal regions from northern to western Japan, as well as in mountainous areas of Shikoku.
The latest blizzards have claimed over 50 lives and snow levels are nearing levels last seen in 2006, when around 150 people died amid the bitter cold.
Up to 50 cm of snow was expected in the 24 hours through Thursday evening in Hokuriku, 40 cm in the Tohoku and Kanto-Koshin regions, 30 cm in Chugoku, 20 cm in the Kinki, Tokai and northern Kyushu regions, and 15 cm in Shikoku.
Aomori Gov. Shingo Mimura asked the Maritime Self-Defense Force to send a disaster relief mission early Thursday, while Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda held a meeting of Cabinet ministers to deal with the impact of the heavy snow.
At the outset of the meeting, Noda expressed his condolences over all those who lost their lives during the recent snow storms.
Three people were killed Wednesday in Senboku, Akita Prefecture, after they were swept away by an avalanche while bathing in an outdoor pool at a hot springs inn.
Etsuko Kusakai, 63, from Yokohama, Yuzuru Saito, 59, from Semboku in Akita Prefecture, and Yoko Masukawa, 65, from Tokyo, were found in a state of cardiac arrest and later confirmed dead, the police said.
The avalanche leveled three tents set up for the baths on the premises of the Tamagawa Onsen inn, and deposited about 150 cm of snow in the area, according to police and the inn.
Local police said they conducted further searches Thursday, but believe there is little chance any other people are buried under the snow.
According to the Akita Local Meteorological Observatory, an accumulation of 115 cm of snow was recorded at an observation point near the inn as of 6 p.m. Wednesday.
More than 435 cm of snow, meanwhile, has accumulated in the Sukayu hot spring area in the city of Aomori, while some areas of Yamagata and Niigata prefectures have seen snowfall of more than 300 cm, the Meteorological Agency said.
Several hundred vehicles were left stuck on Route 279 in Aomori Prefecture when a 40-km section from Nobeji to Mutsu was closed. Local authorities said they shut the sections after a bus and a truck became stuck on a slope in the town of Yokohama amid heavy snowfall around 5 p.m. Wednesday.
There were no reports of injuries, but more than 300 people were forced to spend the night at nearby elementary schools and community centers.
One lane of Route 279 was cleared of snow and traffic partially resumed.
“I can finally go home,” a 31-year-old woman from the town of Yokohama said.
The unusually heavy snowfall was not confined to areas along the Sea of Japan. In Nagoya, 15 cm of snow severely disrupted transportation Thursday morning and about 800 traffic accidents occurred, Aichi police said.
Train disruptions also were reported in Kyoto, Hyogo and Shiga prefectures.