Marred though the view is with power lines and other trappings of modernity, the rainbow that appears at the far end of Tsubame-Sanjo Station seems a rather auspicious beginning. The initial impression that greeted us in front of this largely unpopular station just south of Niigata on the Joetsu Shinkansen line was a panorama of patchy snow, dirtied by tires and car exhaust, pounded down with a light layer of hail. As the clouds break and the multicolor mirage appears, however, I begin to feel slightly optimistic about our escape to snow country.

Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kaawabata was the man who coined the phrase "snow country," but it's no stretch to imagine that residents of this slender prefecture on the Sea of Japan have long considered their home in such simple yet appropriate terms. Winter snowfall accumulation in Niigata averages around 150 cm, though several years in the late 1970s saw totals reaching twice that number.

Most people come to Niigata Prefecture for the skiing, disembarking at high altitude stations such as Jomo Kogen or Echigo Yuzawa, where wintery peaks loom large on the horizon. My family, however, is an embarrassment to our pedigree. My husband and I, both hailing from the snowy northeastern states of the U.S., have never so much as strapped on a ski. Despite growing up near numerous winter recreation areas, our affinity for ski lifts is purely based on how capably they can convey us to our chosen summertime hiking trails. Our island-born daughter, on the other hand, thinks snow is nature's best playground and regularly begs for vacations of the "Frozen" variety.