The Snow Country
Japan has had two Nobel laureates for literature. The first was Kawabata Yasunari (deceased). The second is Oe Kenzaburo (alive). As the frst Nobel literature laureate, and the first postwar Japanese Nobel laureate in any field, Kawabata is the more revered and famous of the two. One of Kawabata Yasunari’s most famous novels was titled The Snow Country, or Yuki Guni in Japanese. (I read it.)
Periodically people in Canada ask me about snow in Japan. Or, I write to them about the weather here and they answer with some inquiries about the seasonal weather. About snowfall in the winter I say that while Japan receives some of the heaviest snowfall of any place on the planet, Tokyo itself gets very little (although it remains possible for Tokyo to get hit with heavy snowfall). In the winter time the prevailing winds come out of northeastern China (Manchuria) bringing cold air and precipitation. But on their eastward trek the heavy clouds have to dump much of their precipitation in the form of snow in the Japan Alps along the Japan Seacoast and in the interior of the main island of Honshuin order to make it over the mountains. So by the time the winter weather reaches Tokyothe air remains cold but the precipitation has mostly been left in the mountians. So, winters in Tokyo are cold, with very dry air. But there is little in the way of snow. Consequently, the city of Tokyo has absolutely no budget or equipment for snow removal, and on those odd days when we do get a heavy snowfall people use brooms to sweep snow off their thresholds and into the streets. Or, they carry kettles of boiling water to poor over their thresholds to melt the snow and ice. I have even seen neighborhood people pry up manhold covers and use household dustpans to scoop piles of snow into the sewers. In each of these scenarios it is local neighborhood citizens who take snow removal into their own hands.
By constrast, the summertime weather in Japan is very hot and humid. It features southern Pacific warm air masses moving north from The Philippines and elsewhere bringing not only heat and humidity, but the seasonal Rainy Season (in June) plus typhoons that occur regularly every summer. The northern island of Hokkaido has the most temperate climate, and although I have never been there I imagine that it’s weather would be most like my Canadian home.
In February I traveled to Niigata Prefecturenorth of Tokyoand along the JapanSea coast of the country, which is part of the Snow Country. I have only rarely traveled outside the Tokyoarea, but this was my third or fourth trip to Niigata Prefecture, and my first wintertime trip. So now I know firsthand why that area is called the snow country. I have never seen snow so deep before in my life! Unlike Tokyo, towns there are certainly no strangers to snow removal equipment. Snowplows left snow banks next to the roads of the small towns I passed through that began at 3-meters deep, making the roads look like white tunnels. Houses were almost completely buried, and householders had to tunnel to clear paths from their doors and garages to the roads. Some outbuildings were indeed buried. I made sure to take pictures of it. Periodically I read short news bits in the newspaper with information like, “71-year-old man died in Niigata Prefecture after falling from his rooftop while shovelling snow,” and I thought, “What the hell was a 71-year-old man doing up on his rooftop shoveling snow in the winter for, anyway?” But now I know better.
It was not as cold as I expected, and I quickly learned that I packed too much cold weather clothes. That’s okay, though, because it is better to have things and not need them than to need them but not have them. When I made a trip last October to Yamanakako at the foot of Mt. Fuji in Yamanashi Prefecture I was cold because I under-estimated the weather and I did not take enough warm clothes. I did not want a repeat of that situation.
I was interested by some of the wildlife roadside signs I saw. In Canada I have seen roadside signs warning of deer, moose, and even bears. This trip is the first that I ever saw a deer crossing sign - almost identical to what is found in Canada. But I was most interested in the monkey crssing signs, which I had never seen before and didn’t even imagine despite knowing that some monkeys are native to Japan. I wish I had been able to get a picture of one.
The most inconvenient thing for me on this trip to Niigata Prefecture was not being able to find and buy any Diet Cola. Every vending machine, every place I came across where drinks were sold there was always regular Coca Cola (which I never drink), but never any Diet Cola, the stuff I like. I wondered, “Is Diet Cola only available in the big cities?”
My other trips to Niigata were to the region near the town of Tokamachi. With school groups I used to spend a few days in the summer time in the mid-1990s at a ski resort hotel, picturesquely perched half-way up a mountian slope, teaching English Club summer camps. That was a decade ago, for a private girls junior/senior high school in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, near the JR Tamachi Station. At that time I was surprised how hot and humid it was even though I was in the mountains. In one direction I could look up the mountains at what were ski slopes in the winter, but just over-grown, fallow alpine meadowland in the summer. And in the other direction I could look down the mountains’ slopes at picture postcard terraced rice paddies interspersed with small rural cemetary plots, all the way to the country villages at the bottom of the mountians, clinging like flies on flypaper to the ribbon-like highway snaking along the valley floor below me - traffic running full steam towards the sucking black hole of Tokyo in one direction and the coastal port city of Niigata in the other. I always thought it was a beautiful place to live but worried that the incovnenience of finding Diet Cola would prevent me from seriously thinking of it.