This feature first appeared in Lonely Planet in 2017

A world of white is veiled behind misty clouds, the sun faint as the moon. Snow-laden trees are just visible against the mountains, their dark figures forming a classical ink-wash painting. The monochrome tableau is broken only by the occasional stamp of red: persimmons clinging to the branch, the vermilion outlines of bridges and bamboo poles used to measure the snowfall. Every sense is muffled: touch is numbed by the cold; scents are cloaked by the crisp air; sound is reduced to the white noise of drifting flakes.

Suddenly the near-silence is interrupted by a colossal roar as three feet of snow cascades off a rooftop. Fortunately, no-one is caught under this mini avalanche. The homeowner soon emerges to shovel the freshly blanketed doorstep. Wearing a yellow oilskin jacket and a conical straw hat to protect against the onslaught of precipitation, he pushes a plough as big as a wheelbarrow. Receiving some 400 inches of snow every year, the village of Shirakawa-go is one of the snowiest inhabited places on Earth. From November to April, snow banks build up to heights taller than any human, and residents must continually battle to keep paths and roads clear. Located in an area known poetically as ‘snow country,’ a conglomeration of provinces to the northwest of the Japan Alps, this is a village defined by its geography.

With some peaks exceeding 3,000 metres, the Japan Alps create a great mountainous barrier, dividing Honshu, Japan’s main island, into two very different halves. On the eastern side, which gets very little snowfall, cities, such as Tokyo, have grown to form a dense urban sprawl. But on the other side, moisture-laden winds from Siberia release their icy loads in downpours, and this extreme weather has kept the villages and towns of this region relatively isolated. These days, snow country can be reached by highway and bullet train from Tokyo in a couple of hours, but this historically cut-off region remains a reservoir of tradition, a place to experience Japanese culture and festivals as they’ve been practised for centuries.

Arriving at Shirakawa-go, I am greeted by a scene frozen in time. The stumps of last year’s rice crop poke out from iced-over paddies. A few dozen A-frame homes, some hundreds of years old, stand erect between them. Icicles extend down from their thatched pampas grass roofs like transparent fingers. Built without nails and using only natural materials, these buildings seem to have sprouted organically from the ground, like the shaggy cypress forest surrounding them. Many are now guesthouses and restaurants. Hanging near the entrances, menus painted vertically on wooden boards advertise dishes made with local ingredients: pickled winter vegetables, mountain-gathered mushrooms, and Hida beef cooked on a hot plate.

Come dusk, as the anaemic sun slips behind the hills, Shirakawa-go’s snowscape takes on a blue hue, except for the warm yellow glow emanating from the windows. Inside Magoemon, one of the inns, Fumie Suzuguchi lights the open-hearth fire around which she will serve her guests a meal. Above her, wooden beams, blackened from decades of smoke, gleam like lacquerware. Seemingly simple from the outside, the inn unfolds like a bento box inside, with a series of sliding doors compartmentalising rooms within rooms. Crossing the tatami-matted floor, Suzuguchi slides open one of the doors to the exterior to let in a little air. ‘Looking outside lifts my spirits,’ she says. ‘I see the mountains and the river and find myself raising my hands in prayer.’

Long winter nights spent playing cards and drinking around the fire with few outsiders to interrupt them has kept bonds between the villagers strong. Neighbours come together to help repair the thatched roofs in spring. When someone dies, the entire community sits with the family and makes decorations for the funeral. ‘To me it feels unnatural to go a whole day only seeing strangers’ faces,’ says Suzuguchi of her occasional visits to the distant metropolis where her daughter now lives. ‘I can only relax once I get back to Shirakawa-go.’

Draping on the traditional yukata robes left in their rooms, guests make their way to the dining area and, for one night at least, are made to feel part of this village family. They kneel in front of trays set out with a dozen small dishes, including miso-roasted tofu, slow-grilled river fish and thin strands of enoki mushrooms, set atop a lit clay pot to cook for themselves. As steam streams off the pot, the cold outside seems far away.

Even the cities in snow country feel like oversized villages. Heavy-duty snowploughs and built-in warm-water sprinklers keep the roads to Matsumoto open through winter, but life still passes at a gentle pace. Encircled by alpine peaks, this city of 240,000 people crouches low to the ground. The six-storey, 16th-century castle at its centre – the oldest castle of its kind in Japan – remains one of Matsumoto’s tallest buildings. Dusted in snow, its grey-tiled eaves sweep up to meet the sky like the proud crests of a samurai’s helmet. I lose myself for hours clambering up and down the castle’s wooden stairs, which are laid out in all directions, like an Escher drawing, in order to disorient attackers. It’s easy to imagine heavily armoured warriors running along the corridors, hurling projectiles through the narrow windows. Visible through the slits are a pair of swans on the moat below and a crane gliding just above the water.

Wandering through Matsumoto’s quiet streets, past antique stores, stone wells and the clear, carp- filled river, I arrive at Yohashira Shrine, dedicated to Shintoism, Japan’s indigenous religion. Locals on their way back from work stop to collect papers inscribed with their fortunes. Others reverently approach the main hall and ring the enormous brass bells at the entrance to send a greeting to the spirits of the shrine. Deep in the gloom of the inner sanctum, a priest in a white robe and crimson skirts is just discernible as he glides past.

Shintoism isn’t the only religion that found sanctuary in Japan’s mountainous interior. In Nagano, another peak-ringed city 30 miles away, Zenko-ji is one of the country’s oldest Buddhist temples, dating back to the seventh century. Inside hides the first image of the Buddha ever to make it to Japan: a 1,500-year-old statue considered so holy that it is never shown to the public. Still, the promise of being so close to the divine draws thousands of pilgrims from around the world; they rub shoulders with locals dressed in their finest kimonos. On the day I explore the complex, a row of verdigris, time-weathered Buddhas are crowned with caps of freshly fallen snow. Water spurting from a mythical lion-dog sculpture steams in the cool air, and worshippers shield against the white flurry with their umbrellas.

Unperturbed by the flakes falling on his black robe, priest Takashi Wakaomi stands at the gate of one of the temple lodgings. Before entering, he removes his traditional cloglike footwear. Over tea, served kneeling on a tatami mat, he explains why he thinks Zenko-ji was built here, far from any historically important cities: ‘The mountains are a place to meditate away from the distractions of the plains below.’ In slow, deliberate phrases, his white beard moving with his mouth as he speaks, Wakaomi says that it is easier to feel a spiritual connection when you are surrounded by nature. ‘Seeing the seasons change, you understand reincarnation. Even under the snow, buds lie waiting to bloom’.

For hundreds of years, people have been drawn to snow country, seeking not just spiritual renewal but physical succour. The Japan Alps aren’t ordinary mountains. Volcanic in origin, they harbour a fiery interior and thermal waters in their foothills. ‘Samurai came here to soak and heal their wounds,’ says Yukiko Saisu, the owner of Ryokan Biyunoyado, one of the many guesthouses in Yudanaka-Shibu Onsen, a village that has transformed its natural hot springs into dozens of bathhouses.

Nowadays Yudanaka is better known as a jump-off for Shiga Kogen ski resort and the nearby Jigokudani Monkey Park, where hot-spring-loving wild macaques have become some of the world’s most photographed primates. But despite the changes that have come in recent decades, cultural customs dating from the age of the samurai still remain in Yudanaka. The volcanic waters are considered a present from the gods, and the temples and shrines erected in their honour are still well attended.

In scenes that could pass for another era, people totter along the main street in wooden sandals, trying not to stumble in the snow. Reaching their bathhouse of choice, they step through the doors and slip off their traditional robes, letting the warm waters envelope their naked skin. ‘Japanese travellers love it here but even local residents prefer to use the public baths instead of the ones in their own homes,’ claims Saisu, before shuffling off to attend to guests, her kimono striking a timeless silhouette against the grid pattern of the sliding paper doors.

Some 20 miles from Yudanaka, Nozawa Onsen is another hot spring village where the development of world-class ski slopes hasn’t stopped a rich seam of heritage from being preserved. Bordered with channels of piping waters, its labyrinthine streets are cloaked in a vaporous veil, and on almost every corner is a timber-framed public bathhouse. In mid-January, the steam and the snow are met by another primal element, as Nozawa’s 3,500 villagers hold the annual Nozawa Onsen Fire Festival, a three-day event culminating in a blazing battle that seems like a scene from Game of Thrones.

The day before the main ceremony, Morio Tomii, head of the festival committee, oversees the carving and painting of statues of Dosojin, the guardian Shinto deities in whose name the celebrations are held. ‘We do this to show respect to the spirits in nature,’ he says. ‘The hot springs are a gift from the mountains. If we don’t show our gratitude, we might lose them.’ With a full head of white hair, pin-straight posture and few wrinkles, Tomii doesn’t look his 81 years. He proudly notes that he’s been present at more than 70 of the festivals, one every year since he was a boy, except the period during WWII, when the event didn’t take place. ‘We pass this from generation to generation,’ he says. ‘The whole village has a part to play.’

Across town, residents filter into the festival site, bringing offerings. Symbolic papier-mâché daruma dolls, pine branches and cardboard boxes filled with old New Year’s decorations all join the heap, waiting to be burned in the fiery grand finale. Every resident is involved in the preparations but some have a special part to play. Because the numbers 25 and 42 are considered unlucky, the men of these ages are the ones tasked with building the giant shrine that will become the festival’s bonfire. For days they chop sacred beech and cedars from the mountain forests, haul them down the slopes and heave the trunks into position. When the shrine is complete on the final evening they take on the role of sacrificial lambs, guarding the structure while the rest of the villagers take turns running at them with flaming torches.

With a name that means ‘strong cedar mountain’ and a burly physique to match, 42-year-old Go Sugiyama presents a perfect picture of stoicism in the face of the upcoming danger. Taking a break from the construction of the shrine, he explains that although the 42-year-olds have to clamber on top of the two-storey edifice, it’s the 25-year-olds that have the worse job: they have to encircle the bottom of the shrine, fending off the fire-wielding attackers. ‘When I was 25, I got so close, the flames burned off my nostril hairs,’ Sugiyama recalls. ‘But the saké we drink will take away our fear.’

Come sunset, Sugiyama’s moment of truth arrives. Wearing a worryingly flammable straw hat, cloak and boots, he climbs atop the shrine with the other 42-year-olds. Drumbeats and fireworks presage the battle. During the next two hours, wave after wave of villagers, including Sugiyama’s own 10-year-old son, rush at the shrine looking like they are trying to set it ablaze. From atop the holy pyre, all Sugiyama can do is watch the onslaught below and pray the protective ring of 25-year-olds do their job. It’s a ritual performance that’s been carried out safely for more than a century, but to an observer, the attackers appear close to actually burning the men alive.

Finally, when everyone has had a go at charging, the ordeal is over. It seems the gods are satisfied. Go and the others descend from the shrine before it is set on fire, sending a huge fireball into the sky. By daybreak, only embers remain. Schoolchildren grill rice cakes over the smouldering pile. By afternoon, the ash will be covered in a thick new layer of snow. All will soon be white again.

First appeared in Lonely Planet magazine in 2017.