Tomotaka Koyama, a snowshoe guide for a Japanese nonprofit nature educational association, teaches visitors about the influence humanity exerts upon the amazing natural environment of Matsudai Town, Niigata Prefecture. Koyama discarded his secure job and life in metropolitan Tokyo to become a wilderness guide in a town with less than five thousand residents, but uncountable snowshoe trails. Koyama loves the land he snowshoes upon, intimately introduces visitors to nature, and encourages locals and visitors to protect the environment.
With a broad smile, Koyama met my wife and me at our hotel entrance. Clipped to his jacket was a stack of laminated animal photographs: Japanese serow, monkeys, boar, rabbits, deer, bear, and others. He shows those photographs to clients and asks fun quiz-like questions to stimulate their interest in the wildlife they might encounter in Niigata.
We learned that Japanese bears on the main Japanese island of Honshu rarely winter in the forests around Matsudai Town. Despite the low elevation of just 400 meters above sea level, the average winter snow depth of four meters is too deep for those bears, so they move to less inclement conditions. The weather conditions around Matsudai Town are unique even for Niigata Prefecture, which is renowned in Japan for snowy and icy conditions.
In the midst of a cedar grove, we perambulated past a mammoth metal-gray cellular phone tower, installed for the convenience of guests at the hotel where we had met. To construct the tower, workers had to remove around fifty trees. Immediately afterward, animal sightings sorely decreased in the vicinity. Like many guests in that hotel, I had been playing games, addictively reading and sending mail, and reveling in the clear, fast reception without knowing the cost.
Not too far away, though, scores of rabbit tracks crisscrossed the woods. Koyama pointed out other animal signs that I would not have noticed. Again, instead of simply telling us what we were looking at, he asked us questions. We were correct in guessing why thin branches poking above snow level were partially stripped of bark. The answer: hungry rabbits. I was stumped when it came to a small reddish-orange hole in the snow: it was rabbit urination that had melted the hole. Scattered bark strewn around the trunk of a tree indicated woodpeckers. A speck of green attached to a spindly brown branch was the remainder of a Japanese silkworm’s cocoon.
Our guide also showed us plants that the locals often gather for traditional meals. Edible mountain plants are called sansei in Japanese. Foraging for sansei is an important part of Japanese culture. City dwellers take special trips to mountainous regions in spring and autumn to savor the flavors of edible plants in traditional dishes such as tempura, miso soup, buckwheat noodles, and many others. Gathering and eating mountain vegetation and fungi is a nostalgic activity for older generations.
Koyama tailors his tours to match the abilities of his Japanese and foreign guests, who range from the young age of three to the late seventies. He decided that my wife and I had enough experienced to traverse up a thin ridge trail. The cedar forest through which we had trekked stretched to one direction. A precipitous drop on the opposite side separated us from a deep valley. Far in the distance, looking like tiny models, scattered farming homes rested, their roofs, yards, and neighboring rice fields all painted, it seemed, with snow.
Upon ascending the peak, Koyama unfolded foldable snow measuring sticks and stuck them into the snow. The depth was 137 centimeters, about one-third of the usual depth. This year’s winter sports season started over a month late. And February was warmer than normal. We shared our concerns about the future of snowshoeing in a world getting warmer and warmer, and we exchanged ideas about promoting nature conservation.
Koyama’s organization, the Shinano River Outdoor Tourism Promotion Association, takes students into the woods for a variety of outdoor educational experiences—snowshoeing, river rafting, camping, canoeing, trekking, and cycling—all year round. Koyama also organizes conservation activities and speaks to the farmers about reducing pesticide and herbicide usage.
Our tour, because it was so interesting, finished much too soon, but we still had the afternoon free, so we asked him for suggestions as to where we could snowshoe by ourselves. He recommended snowshoeing in the traditional terraced rice fields of Tokamachi, which are tourist attractions. Japanese rice connoisseurs prize the rice grown in those tiny fields.
Many decades ago, farmers built tiered fields of rice on mountain sides that had ample supplies of clean water and sunlight. The rice farmers used mud, straw, and rock to separate the tiers that move up and down the mountains like staircases. The terraces in winter look somewhat like the side of a multilayered white wedding cake.
After the autumn harvest, the farmers rarely touch their fields until spring. Expanding their winter habitat, animals venture out from the forest, Fresh powder on the rice fields revealed abundant evidence of wildlife. We snowshoed up, down, and around terraced rice fields. A small icy pond at the bottom reflected the tiers above. In one open area, we startled a pure white rabbit. It sprang up and bounded for twenty meters or so before disappearing behind brush. I followed paw marks in the snow. Perhaps they were the prints of a fox. The footsteps led straight across one field and encountered the tracks of a rabbit. The prints of both animals formed various loops in the snow and finally intersected at one point. Only one set of prints led off from there. Following that trail, I found scat with traces of fur. Life and death in the wintery rice fields of Matsudai.
The sun was setting and temperatures were dropping, so we headed back to the Unkai Hotel for a well-deserved bath in an outdoor hot spring. Lights of a ski resort in a blackened valley below and steam-misted stars above all shone and glimmered in the chilly night air, but we were warm and glowing with heat, a perfect ending to another incredible snowshoe experience in Japan.