In the last month, most regions of Japan have experienced snow. The amount of snow and ability to deal with snow varies considerably depending on your region. There are certain regions of Japan are known as yukiguni (雪国), or “snow country.” Geographically speaking, the regions that are considered yukiguni are over half the land area of Japan. However, the population density in these areas is relatively low.
While communities of yukiguni are typically prepared to combat the snow with plows, shovels, and salt, communities outside of yukiguni are not typically prepared at all. A small amount of snow can have a devastating effect on these areas. No matter what type of region you are in, it is in your best interest to know what you need to do in case of emergency.
In any sort of weather or geological situation, the Japan Meteorological Agency website is very useful. They have an English page with regularly updated maps. The maps show the status of each prefecture, where typhoons are headed, where geological events have occurred, and other useful information. Many schools and offices have policies about canceling in the case of prefecture weather warnings. The warnings would be clearly listed on the JMA website, and may save you a difficult commute only to discover your school or work has been cancelled.
It is also beneficial to check the websites of the train lines or bus lines that you use. Even if the weather is mild but there is a warning in place, they may shut down the lines. Similarly, if you drive and use the highway, you will need to check the website for the highway, as they also can be shut down.
While snow rarely accumulates in the main parts of most big cities, the outer edges of the cities and the surrounding areas can get quite a bit of snow but still be outside yukiguni’s preparedness zone. That means lots of snow, but no way to deal with it. Traffic accidents increase dramatically as a result. Whether you are walking or driving, it would be wise to avoid roads with no shoulders if snow has accumulated. This is mostly a concern with the narrow residential roads, as most of the busier roads have constant traffic on them, which keeps the accumulation manageable.
I remember the first time I saw snow in Japan. I was walking to school in Osaka. The snowflakes were melting the minute they touched the sidewalk, though some snow was accumulating on a few blades of grass poking out between the cement panels. As I walked closer, the guard at the parking lot booth rushed out in a panic with a bucket and waved his arms for me to stop. I stopped and watched him use a garden trowel to spread salt on those few blades of grass. He then signaled that it was safe for me to continue. Having grown up in upstate New York, where we get dunes of snow taller than most people, I thought this seemed a bit drastic. After living in Japan for so long, I’ve realized that this time of year is all about extremes and dealing with them accordingly.
Despite my guardsman with his salt bucket, salting and plowing rarely happens in areas outside of yukiguni, if at all. Most cars do not have tires that can handle the snow, and most drivers are equally not experienced in driving in it. The chances of a driver fishtailing or skidding are raised exponentially, so do whatever possible to avoid being by the side of the road.
If you are driving any sort of vehicle, go slow. Do not make sudden movements. If you need to brake or turn, do so carefully and gradually. Be patient. Everything takes longer in the snow. Accelerating and decelerating take more time and energy. If you need to brake, start slowing down well in advance. It may sound silly to start braking long before an intersection, but it’s better than sliding through the intersection and into the path of a car, truck, or pedestrian.
On one particularly snowy day, I dropped my husband off at the local train station and had to use snow covered residential streets. There was only about 20cm of snow, but I saw a few tracks where cars had fishtailed, and so I kept vigilant. As I came up to a busy intersection, I started braking within two blocks. To some, that may seem like overkill, but I was very lucky for that bit of foresight. The car slid for an entire block. I kept calm and kept my eyes in the direction I wanted to go, preventing the car from swerving or spinning. My car came to a stop right on the stop line at the intersection. Maybe I was lucky, or maybe my caution paid off.
Always exercise extreme caution in extreme weather for your region, even if the weather doesn’t seem so extreme to you. It’s always better to be safe than sorry. Have a very happy and safe new year.