Staying on top of winter in Japan with snowshoes

by

Contributing Writer

Japan appeals to different people for different reasons. Some visit for the history or the food. Many stay for the martial arts, while others keep coming back for a dose of manga, anime and video-game culture. Still others come to enjoy the land — the huge span of scenery from the north of Hokkaido to Okinawa in the southwest, and the sharp changes such places undergo with the revolutions of season.

Outdoor activities such as hiking and cross-country trekking are popular in the summer and autumn, and often go hand-in-hand with landscape photography, as the scenery tends toward breathtaking.

Just over 70 percent of Japan is mountainous, and each of the main islands has at least one range. Most of Japan’s mountains are heavily forested, too, which makes for no end of prime hiking trails.

The Hida, Kiso and Akaishi mountain ranges — also known as the northern, central and southern alps, respectively — are great examples. Each contains peaks, plains and valleys with something to offer hikers of all levels, complete with a wide spectrum of scenic views across the surrounding prefectures. And then there are the 34 national parks spread across the country, each with their own flora and fauna, again great for hiking and full of photographic potential. Japan certainly isn’t short of areas good for strapping on a pair of boots, throwing your camera over your shoulder and heading out for a hike, which many people do from spring through autumn.

But come the winter months, many of these places, especially in the northern part of Honshu and across Hokkaido, become inaccessible to the average hiker due to heavy snowfalls that can last anywhere from two to five months depending on the area.

Many people choose to hang up their boots during these colder months — assuming their favorite hiking routes are all but inaccessible due to snow and sub-zero temperatures. Imagining themselves cut off from the outdoors, save a few expensive weekends spent at a ski resort, many choose instead to hibernate for the winter in the warmth of their homes, which is a shame, because winter in Japan is full of beautiful landscapes waiting to be rediscovered.

One of the keys to unlocking what this side of Japan has to offer is the increasingly popular activity of snowshoe hiking.

Trekking around Kagami Pond, Nagano Prefecture.
Trekking around Kagami Pond, Nagano Prefecture. | BEN BEECH

Footprints from the past

Although it might not be apparent from a glance at modern snowshoes, this technology has been around for thousands of years.

Archeologists have been unable to date their exact origin, but evidence suggests that the first device to serve as an oversized piece of footwear used to ease travel over snow originated in Central Asia in about 4,000 B.C. Europeans and Native Americans were also developing their own versions that were similar in shape and principal.

Early snowshoes were fashioned from bent branches and lashed together with animal hide to create an oversized base that allowed hunter-gatherers to move across deep snow without sinking into it. Early designs were likely inspired by animals with broad feet such as hare and lynx. They were an essential item for those who lived in cold climates and needed to navigate snowy plains in search of food.

What started thousands of years ago as a means to survival has evolved into a popular winter sport and social activity, and the basic principle of snowshoe design hasn’t changed much: The oversized base of the shoe is still there, spreading your weight over a larger surface area helping to keep you afloat on the surface of the snow. The materials have shifted from wood and other raw materials to lightweight metals, plastic and synthetic fabrics, making them a lot stronger, and more lightweight and flexible.

Hard slog: Hiking up one of the trails at Fuji Panoramic Resort.
Hard slog: Hiking up one of the trails at Fuji Panoramic Resort. | BEN BEECH

Snowshoe hiking today

Snowshoe hiking, or snowshoeing, is a relatively easy and accommodating activity suitable for healthy people of all ages and ability levels who want to explore winter landscapes. It isn’t as focused on the adrenaline rushes one gets when flying through the backcountry on a snowboard, nor is it as strenuous and focused as a day cross country skiing. Like regular hiking, it is about easily exploring at a pace that suits the individual, and gaining access to scenery and views that only come to life in the winter.

Among its chief pleasures is the oddly satisfying feeling of being able to easily walk across plains of fresh powdery snow without sinking, often surrounded by complete silence — something one has to experience to fully appreciate. You’re also likely to encounter far fewer people than in the warmer months, making snowshoeing a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday modern life. Snowshoeing is a great activity for many reasons: It gets you outdoors, keeps you fit, poses little risk of injury and is relatively inexpensive compared to skiing and snowboarding.

Of course, many of the dangers that apply to other winter sports and hiking are pertinent here — it’s essential to know the terrain and make use of maps, a compass and a careful plan.

Always stay within the limits of your physical ability. Start small and slowly work your way up to longer hikes once you have adequate endurance. If you’re keen to start in the mountains, stick to established trails at first — that way you will always be near other people and unlikely to encounter avalanche hazards. Learn about safety equipment such as GPS tracking systems and rescue equipment. And never snowshoe alone.

Besides the obvious contenders such as Hokkaido, Nagano and Niigata, snowshoeing can be enjoyed anywhere that snow falls in quantity. Prime locations include national parks and ski slopes that have dedicated areas set up for hiking.

A simple internet search should provide you with a few options of places to go, or you can seek advice on locations from your local outdoor or winter sports shop. There is no better way to begin snowshoeing than just doing it. Rent or buy a pair of snowshoes, dress for the elements and set out to have fun.

A red gate that enshrines two Shinto guardians at Togakushi Shrine near the city of Nagano.
A red gate that enshrines two Shinto guardians at Togakushi Shrine near the city of Nagano. | BEN BEECH

Down to business

First, you’ll need a pair of snowshoes and a set of poles, which as a set can typically cost anywhere between ¥10,000 and ¥50,000 new. Renting from a ski/snowboard shop is a good way to start.

You’ll need tough, insulated, waterproof boots with thick soles to which the snowshoes can be affixed. Leather hiking boots work well, as do snowboard boots.

For clothing, a good base layer is essential. Long underwear made from synthetics or wool will keep you warm, insulated and dry. On top of that, a zipped fleece that can be easily adjusted to regulate body heat is good, as these can also be easily removed if you become hot. For an outer layer, a waterproof, breathable shell jacket and pants of the type worn by skiers and snowboarders is ideal. Although thin, it will help keep you dry while fending off the wind. Gaiters that go over the bottom half of your pants will keep the snow out of your boots and are especially useful when hiking in deeper powder snow.

Warm socks to keep your feet both warm and dry are also essential. Cotton socks are no good in the snow, so something made of either wool or specially engineered synthetics is best. You might also consider a spare pair for the way back. Waterproof ski gloves, meanwhile, will keep your hands warm and dry.

For your head, wool hats, balaclavas, wide brimmed hats and baseball caps will all help keep you warm and/or shade your eyes and face from the sun. Speaking of which, snow blindness can be a concern, so use sunglasses or ski goggles and sun cream to protect from UV exposure.

A cautionary word about food and drink: Be sure to pack enough water to keep you hydrated throughout your hike. This is as important in winter as it is in summer, so don’t underestimate how much you’ll need. Just as water is essential, so is food. Nuts, dried fruits and chocolate will supply your body with the necessary energy you need without weighing you down.

Peace and quiet: A torii gate stands at the entrance to Togakushi Shrine near the city of Nagano.
Peace and quiet: A torii gate stands at the entrance to Togakushi Shrine near the city of Nagano. | BEN BEECH

And finally, if you plan to hike in the mountains outside of designated courses, it is highly advisable that you also take safety equipment such as an avalanche beacon, probe and shovel — information on what these are and how you use them is available online. Make sure you read up/seek advice on how to use all of these items before venturing into any mountainous backcountry terrain. Your life and the lives of your group may well depend on it!


Getting started with snowshoes

Some recommended companies with professional guides to get you started with snowshoeing in Japan:

Evergreen (Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture): www.evergreen-backcountry.com/snowshoe-tours

Forest and Water (Minakami, Gunma Prefecture): www.fw-snowshoe.com/en

Myoko Kogen Snowshoe Trekking Tours (Myoko Kogen, Niigata Prefecture): myokokogen.net/snowshoe

Hokkaido Experience (various locations, Hokkaido): h-takarajima.com