Tackling northern Japan's record snow

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Media captionRupert Wingfield-Hayes reports on the record-breaking snow fall

The fact that anywhere can get 5.5m (18 feet) metres of snow in one winter is a little mind-boggling to someone who comes from Britain.

My home country grinds to a halt if more than a few centimetres of the white stuff fall, but 5.5m. Can it be for real?

As my plane touches down at Aomori airport in northern Japan, I look anxiously from the window. The snow beside the runway is maybe 1.5m deep. My heart sinks - maybe it has all melted, maybe the Japanese media have been exaggerating.

But as I drive south in to the mountains, the snow starts to get deeper, and deeper, and deeper.

Soon the snow on either side of me is towering over the car. A little further on, it is higher than the large bus I am following.

By the time I reach the small hot spring resort of Sukayu an hour later, the road is a narrow canyon, the snow on either side as high as a two-storey building.

In the pursuit of journalistic accuracy, I take out my tape measure and attempt to take a reading. But the wind is too strong and the metal tape measure keeps collapsing.

But the height of the snow is breathtaking, at least 5m.

Image caption Measuring the height of the snow proved to be challenging

The snow looks beautiful in the winter sunlight, like a giant meringue curling from the rooftops.

'Twice as much'

But for the locals it is a different story. At one point, I come across an abandoned settlement.

One of the houses has completely disappeared under the snow. It is so deep I can simply walk up the snow bank on to the roof.

Snow like this is a real danger. Buildings can, and do, collapse under the immense weight.

In a village a little further down the mountain I come across 77-year-old Masanori Sato, standing on the roof of his house, shovelling snow.

Like so many of the people in this part of Japan, he is immediately welcoming, calling down in his heavy Aomori dialect.

"I've lived here all of my 77 years," he says, "But I have never seen anything like this snow. This is at least twice as much as we usually get."

It is not just the snow, it is the age of the people who live up here. Most of the young people have left these villages.

Further on, I find 75-year-old Yae Nomura and her husband shovelling snow off their roof.

"It is getting really hard when you get old like me." she said.

"We are all in our 70s and 80s here so its very tough. If it wasn't for these bulldozer coming a couple of times a day, I think our house will be under snow."

Colder winter

Image caption The snow looks beautiful in the winter sunlight, like a giant meringue curling from the rooftops

Across northern Japan, 13 places have broken all previous snow records this year. Is it a freak, one-off year?

Or, as some have suggested, is it another result of global warming?

Significantly the total amount of precipitation over northern Japan this winter is about the same as normal. The big difference has been the temperature. This winter has been a lot colder than usual.

That means more precipitation has fallen as snow instead of rain, and that once it has landed hasn't melted. So the snow has built up and up and up.

The good news for the people of Aomori is that spring is now not far away.

On Thursday the temperature in the city rose to a balmy 6C. The sky cleared, the sun came out, and snow finally began to melt.

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