My Mother is a Tractor - Chapter 23
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O Yuki, or The Fine Art of Coping with Niigata Winters
"Ambitious of blue sky" - Japanese Proverb
The weather became even colder and more unbearable. December had brought the disconcerting sight of new red and white marker poles on the road to school. I guessed that they were snow poles and the full white winter experience would not be too far away now. And then one Saturday morning in January, there it was – the first heavy snowfall. I was excited, but it was soon to wear off. I thought I was living in Japan but it sometimes felt more like Siberia. Just call me ‘Scott of the Antarctic’. Well, that’s how I felt walking to school most mornings through freezing blasts of yuki.
One of the first words you learnt when you came to Niigata (my part of Japan) was yuki (snow). After that you quickly also learnt the meaning of o yuki, which roughly translates as ‘big snow’. I’m still looking for a Japanese word that translates from the English, “Bugger me! I can’t believe how much bloody snow there is!” You see, as you probably realise by now, I come from Australia. Australia is the driest continent in the world and my state just happens to be the driest state. Our local newspaper will stop the presses if the temperature drops below zero overnight. And just occasionally every twenty years or so, about three centimetres of snow will fall on nearby Mt. Lofty.
At this stage please note that Mt. Lofty is not actually tall enough to be a mountain, nor is it particularly lofty. The only reason why it could be accredited as such is maybe that early English explorer who named it (Matthew Flinders) might have had a particularly big enkai the night before. Anyway this fall of definitely un-o yuki is a cause of celebration, not to mention traffic jams, car accidents and the odd fatality as roughly half of the one million or so population rush up a tiny one-laned road to the summit for snow play. The other half either don’t own cars, watch the special live broadcasts, or have real lives to live.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that winters are not that tough in my hometown. After being rejected to teach in Japan for the first time I took a job in Albury, New South Wales. Albury is not far from what we Aussies jokingly refer to as the Australian Alps, probably named so by another explorer after a quite savage enkai. It still didn’t snow in that town but during winter it dropped below zero overnight quite often. This is what Australians refer to as ‘brass monkey’ weather, ergo it could be said, “Geez mate, it’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey”. Living in an unheated timber house did not help, and this one-year sojourn was enough to solidify my disdain for cold weather, and of course unheated homes.
When filling out the J.E.T. employment application for a second time I was at pains to ask for a posting as far south as possible for the very obvious reason that, “I do not enjoy living in cold weather climates”. The big day came and my acceptance letter duly arrived. It read ‘Niigata-ken’. I checked every prefecture on Kyushu in the south, but no not there. As my finger moved further and further north up the map my palms began to sweat and my temples throbbed. Just before I hit Hokkaido there it was. With typical bureaucratic aplomb I had been placed in one of the wettest, coldest, and snowiest prefectures. In fact I have been assured, that for it’s latitude, it’s the snowiest place on earth! Did they bother to read what I said, or was I just the unfortunate loser in a shady game of janken?
During my first ultra o yuki winter I was told, “You are very lucky. This is most snow in ten years”. Obviously this was a new concept of ‘lucky’ I had not encountered before. Later I realised it might have been worse as I could have been placed in nearby Nagano-ken. But then again Nagano had actually found a semi-useful purpose for all of its snow by holding something called a Winter Olympics. This sort of festival is akin to having a hundred strangers around to your bedsit for dinner, whilst flushing your life savings, and a few of your neighbour’s life savings, down the toilet. Nagano busily constructed lots of shiny new infrastructure that will be useful for years to come. It’s just that the people who it would be useful to are not there anymore. Neither is any of the government documentation - which somehow was all burnt by local bureaucrats before the auditors could get to it and jail anyone for graft and corruption.
Anyway let’s stop digressing and look at the problem itself. First of all the people there obviously are a hardy bunch. They refuse to concede that winter is any different from summer - the hot sweaty season that starts two weeks after snow stops falling in April. “No”, they cry, “we can go on exactly the same as we always do. We have no need for central heating because we like sleeping with the rest of our family under a coffee table. We are one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, we just don’t want to flaunt it!”
And I ask you - what compels old people in weak states to act like lemmings and fall off roofs or into rivers while trying to clear large piles snow by hand? Is this some sociological form of acceptable matricide/patricide? Honestly, every time the prefecture had a dump of snow another few pensioners dropped off the twig shoveling snow. Why can’t Japan have a marginalised class of people that will do this simple job for food like any other civilised country? Fortunately I have a simple answer. At the time of writing the American president (motto: have guns, will travel) had just announced that the U.S. would move toward having 60% of the global arms trade. Yes attentive followers of world affairs may note - the very same global arms trade that the very same American president was trying to actually stop.
Well Mr. Prez, and his successors, you can get off to a flying start by throwing a few thousand flame throwers into crates and addressing them to ‘Niigata-ken, Japan’. This will not only reduce snow drifts and promote goodwill, but will also take the focus off Okinawan objections to all your military bases down there and their occupants transgressions with local twelve year old girls. It will also mean the redeployment of medical personnel, because so many old people won’t die, to the role of firefighters - because we all know that many of the sturdy and well designed wood and paper Japanese houses might stand in the way of a really good snowdrift. And if any more of those pesky North Korean boats land? Well, they will all be roasty-toasty won’t they? Of course, all those people who wish to thank me can send me cash. I’d accept credit cards or cheques but maybe that’s a point of discussion best left for later – if I remember.
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