LET it Snow! is probably not a song you want to sing lustily even as you marvel at the fat flakes falling at increasing speed and size, creating instant duvet covers on hapless parked cars and head of a lone grocery-shopping housewife waiting stoically for our bus to stop as it trundles its way towards the Minakami train station.
This is northern Gunma prefecture, Japan, where locals don't really sing about snow. They just kind of grimace, pick up their shovels and hope for warmer weather - you know, like a balmy minus 2 deg Celsius or thereabouts. Snow is for tourists - those who sing stupid songs with no concept of ice-scraping, frozen water pipes or walking home during a blizzard after a late night shift serving multi-course kaiseki dinner to said tourist in upscale onsen resort.
But for the outsider - this is magic land. A small onsen town far from the brighter lights of Hokkaido, Hakone, Nagano or Ishikawa, oozing with a quiet charm and folksy appeal - not to mention some stunning scenery headlined by the statuesque Tanigawa mountain and fast-flowing Tone river.
There's no better way to perpetuate the image of a snow-covered utopia whose denizens dress in yukatas and soak in their private rotenburo (outdoor hot bath), emerging for elaborate meals or jaunts along fresh-fallen powder paths than at Bettei Senjyuan - which roughly translates into "God and man together in one small inn". Make that a quite large, and very luxurious inn, in this case. Molton Brown bath accessories and private attendants aside, there is social merit to this outpost of quiet refinement, each of whose 18 rooms has a view of Mount Tanigawa. Like its name suggests, it was built with an eye on the environment - a commercial venture with a bottom line to meet, but with a philosophy of respect towards its natural surroundings.
Prior to Senjyuan's opening 16 years ago, the land it sat on was slated to become a ski resort to take advantage of Minakami's reputation for consistent, high quality powder snow that runs right up to late March.
The locals, though, were up in arms at the thought of bulldozers ripping through the greenery to create a monstrous facility. So when the Japanese economy took a nosedive and the idea was shelved, it was a minor victory of sorts.
But with a nascent tourism economy which Minakami badly needed to develop, the land was put up for sale again. This time, the locals persuaded the father of Hidehiro Kubo - who already owned two other ryokans in the Tanigawa onsen district - to buy the land and build another resort.
At the time, the younger Kubo-san had a regular job in a logistics company so that he could have a "normal" job rather than work in the family business. But when this project came along, his father entrusted him to it so that he could learn the ropes from scratch.
It would be their first upscale ryokan, explains Kubo-san with the help of an interpreter. "Normally, people go to an onsen without enjoying the surroundings. We wanted a place that people would want to spend time in amid nature." The three-year-long project was slow, painstaking "and expensive!" laughs Kubo-san. To kick off, 20 tonnes of bamboo charcoal were laid in the foundation for its apparent detoxifying properties and insulation.
Craftsmen were then called in to build the structure which isn't made of brick but old-school Gunma clay mixed with straw and fibre for a natural "mud wall" look. That same artisanal approach was extended to the finishings - from cypress wood sliding doors using old fashioned wood joining techniques, to handcrafted Japanese paper artworks and even intricate calligraphy painted on the wall of the distinctive curved corridor.
Then there's the impressive Louvre-museum inspired glass feature that follows the same curve. The building also features the only stainless steel tatami mat in the world, made of woven steel fibres that reflects the light in an almost chapel-like effect in the welcome area.
Each of Senjyuan's rooms has a private bath - perfect for those lacking the Japanese attitude towards public nudity - and they are generous-sized plunge pools, not bath tub-sized token efforts. The water is pumped in directly from the Tanigawa hot springs - said to have cleansing properties for those with skin ailments. Not that it will make a difference to you when you're fixated with the gentle rising steam from the hot water disappearing into the frosty scene of naked trees clothed in snow, dagger-like icicles dangling from the wooden eaves above the bath.
Meal-time is almost theatre-like thanks to the 18 individually appointed private dining rooms, each with a different view of the resort's grounds and surrounding trees and streams. The food is exquisite, classical fare that is completely different each day so you never feel a sense of repetition.
Be it super fresh sashimi, delicate soups and simmered dishes, grilled or fried local seafood and meat, it's all elegantly served by friendly, ever-helpful attendants who speak enough English for you to get by.
Its sprawling, untouched grounds make it a private playground for guests who are encouraged to step out - with snow shoes and warm shawls conveniently laid out for you thanks to the fun-loving Kubo-san whose eye for detail and personal touch means that he anticipates every possible need you may have.
At one stage, Kubo-san even hand-shovels a make-shift sofa in the snowbanks covering the garden, throws yoga mats and blankets over the "seat" and invites you for a toast of hot yuzu cocktail.
While you could easily spend your entire stay in the cosy confines of Senjyuan, Minakami itself offers enough attractions to woo you out of your bath.
The snow is just so hard to resist, to the point that even the most avowed couch potato would take a stab at snow-shoe trekking (www.fw-snowshoe.com) which involves strapping a clownish flattened wire basket on each foot and hoping that it will hold you steady while you try climbing a snow-covered mountain.
Well, they don't, so expect much tumbling and cursing despite the patient efforts of your English-speaking guide Yohei (as in "Yo" and "Hey", the guy drawls in an accent picked up somewhere between Canada and Australia where he worked for a while).
But if you persist, it will be a nature lesson worth pursuing as Yohei points out things you'd be normally blind to: a surreal moth chrysalis quivering in a shimmer of green on a stark, bald tree branch, or what looks like a giant bird's nest high up in a skinny tree but is actually a makeshift armchair of branches made by a very nimble bear who sits in it while munching on acorns.
And if you continue right up to top, your reward is some candy and a jaw-dropping view of the mountain range - the kind that makes you take a sharp breath in a 'I've been touched by God' moment.
Even if you're not so enthused that you want to go snow-shoeing again the very next day, there are other things to distract you. All you can pick and eat strawberries is a great morning spent, and you can do that at Dole Land - a joint venture with the American fruit company.
Its greenhouses are packed with rows of strawberry vines with different varieties of the fruit. Arm yourself with a plastic container of condensed milk and let yourself go. It's easy to gorge on these plump, juicy (if not always sweet) specimens, some of them almost as large as your palm. Work it off with a stroll through Takuminosato, a traditional village that houses small craft workshops that teach you how to make your own soba or little trinkets. One of them is a house of 'chirimen' or Japanese shrunken cloth used for making kimonos. An elderly couple who live in the house offer lessons on making little dolls or toys. End your tour with an artisanal coffee at a little cafe that also teaches matchbox art. The barista there handgrinds his own beans and brews hot cups of fragrant comfort in quirky ceramic cups.
While all enjoyable little distractions, the real attraction of Minakami is its onsen culture, and for that, Bettei Senjyuan could well be the poster resort with its successful mix of tradition and modern aesthetic.
It befits its position as a Relais & Chateaux property that it can project an authenticity that satisfies the Japanese but doesn't alienate foreigners. Plus it's so private, any encounter with other guests would be too fleeting to create any unease.
Sure, you pay a premium for the experience, but the sight of falling snow creating a canvas no human artist can emulate? That's pretty priceless.
Bettei Senjyuan, 614, Tanigawa,
Minakamimachi, Tonegun, Gunma
prefecture, 379-1619 Japan.