While visitors flock to Nagoya during the summer to enjoy the slew of outdoor activities, winter is a favourite time for avid photographers for get snap happy.
After an extraordinary winter adventure with photographer friends to savour the beauty of Nagoya covered in snow, I have to agree with the Japanese proverb which claims: “One kind word can warm three winter months.”
While winter in Europe usually means escaping the cold and heading for the tropics, winter in Japan is a time when tourists swarm over to enjoy the good food, absorb its exotic culture and take in the unvarnished natural scenery. I, for one, voluntarily return to Nagoya knowing we’d be braving sub-zero temperatures, but who can resist capturing Japan’s beauty under a magical winter spell?
The spellbinding beauty of Shirakawago at night.
With a thick blanket of snow covering the rooftops that resembles a gingerbread village from afar, the ancient homes that make up the breathtaking village of Shirakawago is indeed a scene straight from a fairytale. It’s hard to believe that two hours ago, we were at Chubu Centrair Airport still accustoming ourselves from Bangkok’s stifling heat to the refreshing cold. The mere two-hour time difference between Thailand and Japan meant jet lag didn’t factor that much during the pleasant drive to Gifu to the clutch of rest stops that punctuated the highways. We arrive soon enough at the UNESCO World Heritage site in time to check-in at Magoemon homestay and make a beeline for Shiroyama Tenbodai viewpoint where one of the main highlights of the tour – an uninterrupted view of gassho-zukuri farmhouses over 250 years old, with its steeply thatched roofs or “praying hands”. I’ve experienced summer in Shirakawago during the daytime, but admiring it at nighttime in the winter is an altogether different, not to mention, truly magical experience.
Shogawa Gorge cruise
The biting cold makes me feel like going to the loo every ten minutes, but there is no time to waste. I’m at Shogawa Gorge, waiting for the cruise ship to sail downstream for my money shot. The most beautiful time to cruise down the Shogawa Gorge is usually in autumn; during this time, visitors can admire the changing colours of the leaves as the boat cruises from Komaki Dam to the Omaki Spa in the Shogawa River Valley, said to have been discovered by an injured samurai who battled the Minamoto clan, where he rested and healed his wounds. When visiting in winter, however, cruising in the cold may not be the most pleasant undertaking. A more appealing activity might be taking photos of the ship against a stunning backdrop of snow-kissed mountains – and that’s exactly what I did. Just a few kilometres away, the brightly coloured yellow-green trains crossing the bridge at Chigaki Station is also a popular spot for trainspotters and photographers alike.
Last train out from Chigaki station.
Hakuba Ohashi Bridge
For the average vacationer, a 9 a.m. wakeup call is respectable, but for a group of landscape enthusiasts hungry for spectacular sunrises like us, 3:30 a.m. was already cutting it fine. Still feeling emotionally shaken from last night’s dinner (I’d mistakenly inhaled a bowl of pig’s ears, thinking I’d ordered beef with rice), I groggily step on the accelerator at 4 a.m. and head for the three Shirouma mountains of the Northern Alps. One can almost cut the silence with a knife here as I am left at the mercy of Mother Nature, spellbound by her beauty as the colours of mountain’s peaks change from lavender, pink, orange and then white. Savouring this moment as I stand awestruck on Hakuba Bridge over the Matsukawa River, I make a mental note of it being one of the most meditative parts of the entire trip.
A small village in Hakuba in the Japanese Alps.
Nothing warms the belly quite like a bowl of freshly-made soba noodles in broth. As soon as we arrive at Togakushi Village, I did just that in preparation for the 1.5km trek through snow-covered tracks to witness one of the most sacred sites in Japan – the Togakushi Shrine. Nestled amongst 400-year-old cedar trees, this place is as mesmerising as I’d imagined. With rows of metres-tall cedar trees on both sides of the pathway, I mentally thank the generations of Japanese people who preserved these natural treasures for future generations – including mine – to admire.
Jigokudani Monkey Park
No winter adventure in Japan is complete without a dip in a hot spring, but at Jigokudani Monkey Park in Nagano Prefecture, furry patrons in the form of macaques or “snow monkeys” seem to get preferential treatment over their human counterparts. Literally meaning “hell valley” due to the severe cold, Jigokudani is home to wild macaques that come to bathe in the natural hot springs during the daytime and head back into the wild at sundown. It’s hard for me not to laugh at the expressions on their puce faces and how they bore an uncanny resemblance to me after polishing off a bottle of wine.
Unlike most castles that are built on a hill or mountain, Matsumoto Castle in Nagana Prefecture is a hirajiro – a castle built on a plain. Also known as the Crow Castle due to its black exterior, photographing the castle is indeed a joy, for not only does the castle boast unique structures – it has a secondary donjon (castle keep) and an adjoining turret to its main keep – it is also home to graceful swans that can be seen gliding on the water, preening themselves to their heart’s content.
Photographing Mount Fuji in the mist is undoubtedly on every photographer’s bucket list and we cross this off ours from Kirigamine Highland. Standing at nearly 3,800 metres in height, this spot is certainly one of the better places from which to admire the fabled Fuji-san, Japan’s tallest mountain.
Tsumago-juku is a feudal-era village frozen in time which makes it an extremely photogenic destination. Located on the old Nakasendo merchant trail bordering Gifu Prefecture in Kiso Valley, this small town was once a rest station between the trade route which connected Kyoto and Edo (known as Tokyo today). When urban development spread across Japan like the plague, the local council decided to preserve the village’s main street for future generations like ours to see.
The feudal-era village of Tsumago-juku.
A woman demonstrates how a traditional Japanese kettle was used by locals.
Next time you’re planning a holiday, don’t let the snow put you off. Just spread those kind words and you won’t feel a thing.