The train came out of the long tunnel into snow country.
The earth lay white under the night sky.
These opening lines from Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Yukiguni (Snow Country) transport the reader not only into the story but also into the magical landscape of western Japan, home to countless natural onsen (hot springs) and beautifully engineered ski resorts nestled between the mountains and the sea. With annual snowfalls measured in meters, there was once a time when entire villages were cut off from the rest of the country for months on end. In preparation, residents erected strategically placed boards and tunnels that would allow them to travel between houses and shops throughout the winter. Things have changed somewhat since then, and far from being isolated, local towns are now popular destinations for city dwellers and foreign visitors alike, seeking the superb skiing and restorative waters unique to the region.
In addition to the skiing, the area is recognized for its hot springs and public baths as well as Jigokudani Monkey Park, home to the famed Snow Monkeys of Yamanouchi. Visible primarily in the winter when they descend from the surrounding forest to warm themselves in the onsen specially built for them, the monkeys have been visiting the park for nearly 40 years. As the hot springs themselves are accessible only by hiking a snowy 1.5-mile footpath, they are rarely overcrowded despite their fame, and hikers can enjoy the solitude of the snowy woods for brief periods.
Spectacular skiing; restorative hot springs; fabulous food; beautiful surroundings; entertaining snow monkeys: everything required for the perfect winter getaway. While many visitors to Japan never get beyond the temples of Kyoto or the many wonders of Tokyo, venturing north of their borders will not only expand your understanding of Japan, it will allow you to appreciate the country’s natural splendors with all five senses, leaving an indelible memory.
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