Imagine a lake half frozen and its shores all covered in snow. Yet this frozen lake still teams with life. All the barren trees around the lake turn beautiful when they are covered in snow. In the background are mountains covered in snow. Now in the middle of that scene place a mid-sized city. You have just pictured Suwa in Nagano Prefecture, in winter —a place full of all kinds of winter charm that make it is totally worth a visit.
Lake Suwa with snow-capped mountains in the back ground Photo: Patrick Murphrey
Nagano has mountains that make up the range of the Japanese Alps. It is here in the southeastern part of Nagano that the town of Suwa is located. This city attracts Japanese from all across the country, but it is quite off the foreign visitor’s path,which is surprising because it is a town with ancient history nestled in a gorgeous natural environment.
On the last weekend in January, Suwa has the ancient tradition of Omiwatari. It is believed that when two gods come from opposite sides of the lake (one god comes from one of Saku’s shrines and the other from Chinju-jinja from the Minato area of Suwa) and meet on the lake, the ice begins to break. All the cracking and roaring of the ice breaking up was to many of the first inhabitants not just the gods meeting, but a dragon crossing the lake. Because Lake Suwa is one of Japan’s most famous lakes, there are many myths associated with it, but Omiwatari is the one pertaining to winter. In the middle of winter, if you’re lucky, you can witness this tradition in Suwa. If the ice is thick enough, a Shinto priest walks out on the lake and performs a quiet ceremony that can be seen from the shores. In the past few years, Omiwatari has not been held because the ice has been too thin.
Winter fishing in Suwa Photo: Patrick Murphrey
During the coldest times of winter, the lake is still an active place. In the past, when the lake completely froze, ice fishing was a popular sport. Today it is popular to sit in a heated boat and fish. Some even fish from the 16-km trail that encircles the lake, while other people are out walking and running on it, and doing exercises, regardless of the temperatures.
Swans and ducks swim in the lake. Photo: Patrick Murphrey
For the avid bird watcher, Suwa is a must because many birds migrate to Suwa to spend the winter. All kinds of ducks, like wigeons, tufted ducks, golden eyes, pintails, mergansers, and even an occasional mandarin, pass the winter in Suwa. Other common birds are egrets, herons, coots, plovers and cormorants. However, it is the swans from Siberia that receive the most attention. Always in winter in the local newspapers, there are numerous articles about the swans. For the locals, they are a great conversation topic and drawcard. They are definitely worth watching as they walk and slip on the ice of the lake or swim and play in the water. The swans typically visit the lake from December to March, while the ducks often come earlier and stay later.
A winter illumination display in Suwa Photo: Patrick Murphrey
If you can handle the colder temperatures at night, the city does a nice illumination display on the pier. Over the lake there are often starry skies providing a view of all the winter constellations. When there is a full moon, the lake glistens.
There are several ways to keep warm during the cold winter days. First there are two foot baths along the lake. Both offer nice views of the snow-covered mountains while soaking your feet in warm water.
A foot bath along the lake Photo: Patrick Murphrey
The town is also full of hot spring spas and the best ones are in the hotels, like Rako, Sosennoyadosuhaku and Saginoyu, in the hotel district along the lake. There are also many ski resorts,such as Fujimi Highlands or Kuramayama Highlands Skypark. After a hard day of skiing, a nice soak in a hot spring spa is a good way to relax.
Unfortunately, the lake is also an excellent place to witness climate change. A generation ago, people used to ice skate on the lake. Today there are signs that warn people not to go out on the lake because the ice is too thin in places. Every year the birds come later and leave earlier. The super cold days are fewer in recent winters too.
Despite all of that, Suwa still remains a winter wonderland. The snow blankets the temples, shrines and the local castle, Takashima-jo, so that all glisten in their new coats of snow. Winter is also the best time for views of Mount Fuji in the background of the lake.
Access: Suwa is on the Chuo line that runs between Shinjuku and Matsumoto. There are express trains that go between these two stations and a local train service from Matsumoto if that is where you are staying for a night. It is about 30 minutes from Matsumoto and 2 1/2 hours from Shinjuku. If you’re coming from Kansai, take the shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya, change to the Shinano Line and take the express train to Matsumoto before transferring to the Chuo Line. The trip takes about the same length of time. By car, Suwa is along the Chuo Line Expressway. There are buses that run hourly from Shinjuku and the trip takes about three hours. From Osaka, there is an overnight bus.
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