Heavy snow that has blanketed northern Japan for weeks, triggering avalanches and affecting transport networks, has left at least 55 people dead, officials said Thursday.
In one of the country's coldest winters in recent years, 43 people have died as they removed snow from roofs or roads, while seven more were crushed by heavy loads of snow falling from buildings or other structures, the disaster management agency said.
Four people have died in avalanches, with the latest snow slide reported in Akita Prefecture at a popular mountain resort known for therapeutic hot-spring baths, which left three holidaymakers dead.
The 43-meter-wide avalanche occurred at around 5 p.m. at a bedrock bathing facility inside a tent some 600 meters from the hotel at the Tamagawa resort in the mountains, NHK reported. Rescuers found the three, two women and a man aged 59, 63 and 65, beneath 1.5 meters of snow just before 7 p.m. All were unconscious and in a state of cardiac arrest. They were taken to hospital where they were pronounced dead a short time later.
The area had two meters of snow on Wednesday, officials said. The bathing facility was located near a slope. A resort spokesperson was quoted by NHK as saying that avalanches are very rare because the geothermal heat from the hot springs usually prevents snow from piling up.
Local police and rescuers continued their search Thursday "to confirm there are no others buried in the snow," a local police spokeswoman said.
Heavy snow has covered Hokkaido and much of the north of Honshu, particularly affecting the country's eastern side.
Sukayu, in northern Aomori Prefecture, where the temperature went down as low as minus 9.2 degrees Celsius on Thursday, recorded 4.29 meters of snow.
Yamagata and Niigata prefectures have had more than three meters of snow, the weather agency said.
Atrocious conditions have led to the cancellation of flights and numerous train delays, including to parts of the shinkansen bullet train system.© Japan Today/AFP