Having grown up in the Midwest, I’ve seen my fair share of bitter cold blizzards. And although the drizzly Seattle life might have made me soft, I still hadn’t been too worried by the stories of Hokkaido’s unrelenting winters. After changing a tire on the side of the highway in Iowa, in January, with no gloves, nothing seems quite so bad. And yet, Hokkaido’s winter still amazed me. It would seem that all the tall tales about Hokkaido and its intense snowy climate were quite accurate…
My first winter in Hokkaido, the snows started in mid-November, and they never stopped. All the way through March, it snowed—with varying intensity—every day. Often times this was just a light dusting. Occasionally it was several inches. Shoveling snow became a regular afternoon activity for me, my new winter workout regimen. The accumulated snow piled up, forming hefty white blankets on rooftops, sometimes over a meter thick. Mountainous piles of snow collected on the sides of roadways, eventually forming walls boardering all pathways; shining white barricades that wouldn’t exist come summertime.
The first time I chose to walk to school was a crisp winter day. While frosty cold, the air was still, and it felt peaceful. The snow crunching underfoot was especially satisfying. By the time of my afternoon walk back, the sun had come out and the radiant light bouncing off the snow was initially blinding. Once my eyes adjusted, the brilliant colors adorning buildings and signs really popped out; a marked contrast to the vast white cover. Elementary school kids approached me, asking me to participate in a yukigassen (雪合戦), which I quickly learned meant “snowball fight”. They also taught me the words yukidama (雪玉 – snowball) and tsurara (氷柱 – icicle), and I attempted to teach them the English equivalents.
My second winter in Hokkaido, the snow and the temperature started out much less consistent. And with this inconsistency came turbulent, harsh weather. Whenever the snow hit, Old Man Winter made up for lost time. After a few days of no precipitation—and possibly above-zero, snow melting conditions—the ensuing blizzard would arrive and bury Shakotan. Afternoons might be rather warm and slushy, but by 5:00pm, it was frigid driving wind and heavy snow. Waking up to a foot and a half of fresh snow in the morning was fairly routine.
So often was I digging out my car in the morning that I stopped bothering to clear off the collected snow from the top of the vehicle. My little Suzuki Wagon R appeared to be wearing its own white beret, a decorative snow hat. This usually made no impact on in-town driving, so I figured it was a harmless habit. On the open road, however, I learned that it wasn’t very safe at all. In the 30 minutes it would take to drive from Shakotan to Yoichi, the car would warm up considerably, and the snow atop the roof would begin to melt just a bit. Then it would only take a slight touch of the brake to bring the whole lot of it cascading over my windshield. The thick blanket was often so dense and heavy that the windshield wipers weren’t powerful enough to move it and they would be pinned down. Becoming suddenly blinded while driving is never fun, but having to pull over to remedy the situation makes it considerably worse.
Despite my spotty driving record, I managed to make it through my two years in Japan without getting in any vehicular accidents. In fact, even with the long distances I drove during the wintertime, I never got my car stuck in the snow, not once. I kept a snow shovel in my car at all times, just in case, but I never had the trouble. My little K-Car, or kei-jidōsha (軽自動車), handled exceptionally well on snow and ice. Whether this was due to the vehicle’s lightweight, excellent snow tires, or a combination of the two, I’m not sure. Only three times in two years did my car go into a real skid, of the “life flashing before my eyes” variety. And each time I was able to bring the car back under control, right course, and avoid flying off the road. The worst skid had me sliding at a 90° angle, going 65kph or so, but even then I managed to correct that one just in time to avoid oncoming traffic.
When winter strikes, the Shakotan locals are well-equipped to handle whatever nature threw at them, and the heavy equipment would come out to clear the roads. The snow would be dealt with via bulldozers, excavators, dump trucks, and even loader-mounted snow blowers—which look like terrifying snow threshers, with gigantic rotating blades at the fore for devouring massive corridors of snow.
Occasionally, the accumulated snow would slide off a rooftop and come crashing down to the ground. This is honestly my favorite part of the Hokkaido winter. There is something mesmerizing about watching a great sheet of snow cascade off a rooftop, an instant sea of heavy white powder rush forward and plummet like a semi-frozen waterfall. If the avalanche is large enough, you can hear it too. Many times I would hear a massive crash from my apartment, a brief roar and then silence; Hokkaido’s winter thunder.
The rooftop avalanches can be legitimately dangerous if you’re standing underneath them, claiming a few lives every winter. Tall buildings in Sapporo even have signed displayed on the sidewalks saying, “Beware of falling snow” in Japanese, and often also English. As a result of these conditions, people end up needing to shovel their roofs. If the snow piles up too high, it can cause your home’s roof to cave in, so it needs to be cleared away. People will climb up to the rooftops and shovel away, being very careful where they step. This is straightforward task for people with flat rooftops, but an A-frame home looks quite challenging. I’ve seen lots of people do this, even some elderly folks. You really must remain able-bodied to survive in Hokkaido.
The building neighboring my apartment had a slick-looking slanted rooftop. Wooden crossbeams were mounted across the roof to allow for people to climb up and clear the snow off. During the first winter, I came home while this shoveling was in progress and chatted with the workers from just outside my second-story door. During the second winter, the snow piled up like usual, but no one ever came to clear it away. I kind of figured that it would probably just melt down and crumble away on its own, but that was a poor assumption.
One March afternoon, when temperatures were above freezing and the weather had turned rainy, I returned to my apartment to discover that the snow from the building next door had cleared itself away. Apparently the wooden crossbeams had given way under the massive weight of the accumulated snow and the whole the lot of it had come down. The resulting avalanche crashed into my building with enough force to bust through the wall, driving snow inside the unit below mine, and presumably ruining my neighbor’s day. The damage was so bad that my neighbor was forced to relocate and a crew was brought in the next day to clear away snow and board up the destroyed wall. My room was just fine.
The structure on the opposite side of the slick-roofed building was also affected by the avalanche. An old wooden warehouse that didn’t look very sturdy to begin with, this building actually had large braces erected on one side to keep it from falling over. Time had taken its toll on the debilitated shack, but it was still standing. Thanks to the heavy snow crashing into its side however, it was now leaning steeply to one side. Amazingly, while the new angle of the house had turned the rectangular window frames into rhomboids, the glass hadn’t broken.