February in Nakatsugawa: Path-stomping

Nakatsugawa is a small community in Yamagata Prefecture. It is in the Gosetsu Chitai (豪雪地帯) which refers to Japan's areas of heavy snowfall. This part of Japan is also called Yukiguni (雪国), which means Snow Country. The snow is often around 3m deep in midwinter. 

Take a look at some pictures of Nakatsugawa in February.  

 The photo below was taken by Ito Jintaro in around 1930.

This shows the Iwakura district of Nakatsugawa. 

Many of the dwellings in the image are still there, but the buildings are now more modern. Thatch has been replaced with roofs that help the snow to fall off on its own. 

In the snowiest areas of Japan, many people choose to enter their home from the upstairs floor in the winter. That's how deep the snow is. But that was not the tradition in Nakatsugawa. In this community, the snow around the main entrance (genkan) is cleared away day after day so that people can enter the house in the usual way. Imagine the scene with three meters of snow! People walk between walls of snow to enter the house. It's almost like returning to an underground burrow.

When the landscape is covered in deep snow, how do people maintain a walkable route to their home from the main road? This was a particularly tough challenge in the days before machines were available to remove snow regularly.

In fact, the whole community would contribute to an activity called "michifumi", which translates to stomping on the path, and that is exactly what they did. Each household was assigned a certain portion of the road and one member from each family would come to the road every morning wearing kanjiki, which are snowshoes made mainly from rice straw. They then stomped along the road, leaving deep footprints that helped everyone identify where the road was. If a snow storm hit during the day, they'd do it again to make sure the path was still clear. The narrow lines in the snow that you can see in the postcard image are the paths made by people wearing kanjiki. This was how the routes were maintained until 1973, when the snowplows were first used. 

Life definitely wasn't easy. Here's Ito Koichiro, head of the village hall, on one aspect of his childhood life in winter. 



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