Snow Country: Taking The Train To Japan's Remote Regions

first snow toyama japan mainichi photo

Photo from The Mainichi

Today, we had the first snow of the year at Mt Tateyama in Toyama prefecture, northwest of Tokyo. The Japanese Alps are a long mountain range with many peaks over 3,000 meters of still active volcanos. It reminds me of author Yasunari Kawabata's masterpiece Snow Country where he describes visits to these parts of the country by train, through long tunnels linking the west coast to Tokyo.

"The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country," is the famous first line of the novel. Today, Japan invests heavily in its railroads, with the Shinkansen running since 1964, the smooth-as-silk Nozomi bullet trains at your hourly service linking Tokyo and Osaka, and for the future: Kawasaki's new efSET (environmentally friendly Super Express Train). Some tracks are still diesel, while 71% are electrified, as we saw in the post It's Time to Electrify the Railroads.The setting for Snow Country is the hot springs resort where "cold winds blow down from Siberia, pick up moisture over the Japan Sea, and drop it as snow when they strike the mountains of Japan," of Yuzawa in Niigata Prefecture, near the Shimizu Tunnel through the Japanese Alps. That tunnel is 970 meters long.

saitama railway museum photo

Today you would make that trip in less than two hours, while Yasunari Kawabata and other travellers in the 1930s probably spent half a day in a carrier pulled by the C57 Steam Locomotive, now at the Saitama Railroad Museum, and still running as a tourist attraction on certain tracks.

The general course of the train through the mountains, including this famous tunnel, is marked on the map in blue. Takahan, the traditional Japanese inn where Kawabata stayed during his own travels, still remains in Yuzawa, with his room kept as it was in the 1930s.

shinkansen 500 700 japan image

For travellers visiting Japan, the Japan Rail Pass is a terrific deal. The JR Rail Pass is a discount ticket allowing unlimited rail travel throughout Japan over a 7, 14 or 21 consecutive day period. It also works inside the cities like Tokyo or Osaka on JR lines. If you visit the Japan Alps, the Hida Limited Express to Takayama is the way to travel, according to Inside Japan: "Luxurious, wide view windows offer stunning views as you wind you way up into the mountains. Once up in the Alps, the alpine bus service scales mountain peaks and burrows through mountain tunnels to give you the chance see traditional rural life." I have a feeling Yasunari Kawabata would have liked that better than recent high-speed trains!

More about Japan's trains:
Japan's Seibu Railroad Uses Baseball Star To Promote Eco-Friendly Travel
Come on Ride The (Japanese Super Hybrid) Train, and Ride It...
Dual Mode trains in Japan
Now that's Fast! Japan to get 217 MPH Bullet Train

Written by Martin Frid at

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