Snow monsters - trees caked in ice and snow from Siberia - on Mount Zao, Yamagata Prefecture

Photo gallery: How does snow in Norfolk compare to northern Japan?

Monday, January 21, 2013
1.16 PM

Reporter Martin George reports on how the Japanese cope with the snow.

Martin George at the Yonezawa ski slope in Yamagata Prefecture, JapanMartin George at the Yonezawa ski slope in Yamagata Prefecture, Japan

There were many things about English schools that surprised the Japanese teenagers I taught for three years: our long summer holidays, our cleaners who scrub the classrooms instead of kids, and our lack of special indoor footwear.

But most of all, they were astonished to hear how 5cm of snow can see life in England grind to a halt.

Yamagata prefecture is rural, moutainous, and for three months a year receives daily dumps of snow swept south from Siberia. It’s an area where a supermarket trip can leave your car under a foot of snow, and trees have wooden shelters to stop them snapping under the weight.

But despite the extreme weather, none of my students had ever had a day off because of the white stuff. Life simply goes on around it.

Roads are not gritted – the salt would damage the rice paddies – but in many towns naturally-heated spring water is used to keep them ice free. Drivers put on their winter tyres and it is rare to hear of an accident caused by ice.

The snow is formalised rather than fun, with few snowmen or snowballs, but snow festivals with ice sculptures instead. When snow was thin on the ground in 2007, one nearby town, Yonezawa, asked every resident to donate a bucket of snow to help create its famous snow lanterns.

But despite so much preparation for the bad weather, it always amazed me how so many houses were built to be cool in the summer, rather than warm in the winter, and do not have central heating. I stored my contact lens solution in the fridge – the warmest part of my apartment – and never learned how to stop my toilet freezing solid.

The difference with England, of course, is predictability. If we were guaranteed three months of solid snow, I am sure we would be just as prepared.