Category Archives: Furubira

Enter the Mama-san Dump

On Tuesday November 15th, I awoke to find that Shakotan had transitioned into winter overnight. A new white layer of snow blanketed everything. The previous day I had seen some flurries, so I decided that it would be a good idea to buy a scraper for my car. I bought a big telescoping snow scrapper/brush. As it turns out, this was just in the nick of time. If only I had also purchased a snow shovel…

On the way to work, the sunshine bouncing off the fresh snow gave the day a crisp new vibe. Winter had made its debut and it was certainly a brand new day. But the thing is, the snow didn’t let up. The snowfall actually picked up throughout the morning. Since it was just cold enough to freeze, the snow was the dense, wet variety; perfect for making snowballs. The snow stuck to each individual branch and twig of the trees, frosting the village in winter wonderland style. By lunchtime, it was a complete whiteout.

That afternoon I was going to the nearby town of Furubira (古平) for a presentation in their junior high school. Basically, Yusuke and I were to observe an English lesson there and see how other school does things. Miura-sensei, the math teacher, also came to the school for what I assume was a similar sample math lesson. Furubira is only a ten-minute drive away, but since it was still a blizzard outside, Vice Principal Tanaka drove us there in an SUV. The short trip proved to be quite a spectacle, as the environment had changed so drastically overnight. Even the sea seemed different. Huge waves crashed on the shore, as if global warming had angered Poseidon, or his Japanese legend equivalent. Every house, every tree, everything had a nice new layer of snow on top. Even though the snow was still falling, people were already outside, shoveling their walks, doing their best to keep things clear.

Along the way, we talked about snow, how heavy it was it Hokkaido, and what kind of shovel I should invest in. They used two different terms for “snow shovel”; yukikaki (雪かき) was from Japanese, while the other, “snow dump” (スノーダンプ), was from English.

The people of Hokkaido have a variety of snow shovel designs to choose from, but there’s one that I had never seen before. It’s called a “Mama-san Dump” (ママさんダンプ), and it’s the brilliant combination of a shovel and a walker. The Mama-san Dump features one large shovel body that slides along the ground like a sled. A single handlebar extends from the top of shovel, forming a walking frame. This allows one to push the Mama Dumper around like a shopping cart, easily plowing the snow in front of you. While it wouldn’t be useful from digging your car out of ditch, the design makes clearing your sidewalk a relative breeze.

Vice Principle Tanaka also taught me some useful snow terminology that I’m sure will come in handy over the course of the winter. For instance, botanyuki (牡丹雪) is a word for large, flowery snowflakes, while sasameyuki (細雪) is the opposite; light, small snowflakes. Konayuki (粉雪) means powder snow, so that’s sure to be said often, once snowboarding season is underway. And pertinent to the day’s conversation, fubuki (吹雪) is the term for snow storm or blizzard. Good to know.

Back at Bikuni Junoir High, snow would occasionally slide off a gymnasium’s sloped roof and collect in an ever-growing pile on the ground. From my desk in the teacher’s room, I had a front row seat for the intermittent avalanches, and I found myself mesmerized by the sight. With each new snowfall, the gymnasium roof would collect more powdery ammunition. Over the course of the school day, the snow glacier would slide incrementally down, piece by piece inevitably raining over the side. Occasionally, a whole sheet of snow would go at once, in a spectacular cascading avalanche. I contemplated how high the snow pile could actually get, imaging that the gym door leading out to the soccer field might be completely blocked by February.  (Yusuke and I joked about how a game of soccer with the students would be interesting in the winter conditions. The ball is certain not to roll very far in a couple feet of snow.)

Soon after the first snow, I made a trip out to Homac (ホーマック) and purchased a shovel, as well as some boots. Instead of getting fashionable winter boots, I opted to purchase high rubber work boots, the kind of thing you might use for walking through a swamp. According to an elderly gentleman at the store who was also there to buy footwear, rubber boots with a warm cushion lining were the way to go. As per my usual “when in Rome” philosophy, I followed his advice.

I can attest that the outrageous accounts of Hokkaido’s heavy snowfall have not been exaggerated. Observing how the locals deal with the frequent dumps of frosty precipitation has become a new point of interest for me. For instance, there seems be an unusual high number of frontend loaders in Bikuni. Back in the Midwest, I remember occasionally seeing a local guy with a plow on the front of his truck. While that seemed like pretty heavy equipment at the time, folks here use bulldozers. Every time it snows, the frontend loaders come out of the woodwork like the Constructacons about to form Devastator. They clear the streets, alleyways, and even private parking spaces; it’s insane.

Another thing that caught my attention was that the local folks always shovel snow right into the storm drains. Once the snow has been collected from the sidewalk (usually via Mama-san Dump), the street grating is lifted up, and the snow is dumped into the storm drain. This seemed odd to me, as I thought that packing snow into your street’s drain was likely to clog the storm sewer. However, as one kind gentleman explained to me, the street drain is actually quite deep and able to accommodate a massive helping of snow. Also, the drains have been designed to constantly flow with water, originating from (and eventually rejoining) the river that runs through town. So as snow is stuffed into the drain, it’s melted by river water, and carried underground through the storm sewer, back to the river. This explained not only why everybody and their grandmother was cramming the street drains full of snow, but also why the sound of running water can always be heard on the streets of Bikuni, regardless of how far one is from the river or seashore.

Just another morning in Shakotan.

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Furubira Road Race

Quite some time ago, I had spoken with Ihira-san, the head of the Shakotan Board of Education, about running. For a silver haired man in his sixties, Ihira-san is incredibly energetic and healthy-looking, and as it turns out, he loves to run. When I said that I also liked to run in my free time, he physically examined my calves as a way to gauge how much I ran. He said that my muscle was impressive, and then showed me his calves, which were incredible, softball-sized rocks hiding under his pant legs. It was clear to me that he was much more of runner than I.

Ihira-san was excited that Shakotan’s resident exotic foreigner was also interested in running, and he invited me to run with him in an annual race in the nearby town of Furubira (古平). He referred to it as the “Furubira Marathon”, which sounded frighteningly long to me. When I was assured that the race would not be the full (or even half) marathon length, I agreed to do it. At that time it was early summer, so the October 10th date seemed a long way off.

Fast-forward to October, and race day was upon us. The Furubira Road Race Taikai (古平ロードレース大会) was scheduled for the second Monday in October because this is a national holiday in Japan, called Heath and Sports Day (体育の日 – たいいくのひ).  Participants could choose between different distances to run; 15km, 10km, 6km, or even 2-4km. I assumed that Ihira-san would be running the longest distance, so when asked I chose the 15k race. Ihira-san actually chose the 10k, so perhaps I overdid it.

The Yamazaki family picked me up around 9:20am. We then picked up Ihira-san, and drove on to Furubira. Yamazaki-san, along with his wife and daughter, was running the 4km distance. While I had been told that it was going to rain on race day, the early morning weather was still dry. It was overcast, humid, and a little cool—so it looked like it had the potential to rain—but when we arrived in Furubira, it just felt like perfect running weather. We picked up our information packets, and Yamazaki-san and Ihira-san explained what each of the enclosed tickets were for; apparently I had hot soup and cold beer to look forward to after the run. We got ready for running and I did some quick active stretching. Then, twenty minutes before the 15k race was set to kickoff, the rain started as prophesized, and it rained hard. Clearly, a very wet run lay ahead.

My friends gave me many a “gambatte” (頑張って – persevere, do your best) as I headed for the starting line. Right before the race got underway, I ran into Kazama-sensei from Hizuka ES. He was actually running the 15k as well, but he told me that he planned on taking it easy, so I shouldn’t wait up for him. Kazama-sensei had spent some time in Cameroon, and was able to speak French and English. For the race, he was sporting a green and red Cameroon national team soccer jersey with his given name, Naoki, and the number 22 (his birthday, in February) on the back.

The crowd of runners, already cold and wet, shuffled around at starting line. There were about 99 people doing the 15k run. At the sound of a starter pistol we were off, a mass of people running down the small, puddled streets of Furubira. I had made a playlist especially for the race, so as we got started Japanese rock and pop songs played through my headphones. I again felt like I was getting a new, unique Japan experience, something interesting that not every foreign visitor would do. And at 15 kilometers, I was also running my longest race to date.  An odd feeling of camaraderie came over me. Here my fellow runners and I were testing not only our endurance on the road, but also our mettle against the elements.

After the first kilometer or so, the track flowed out of town, onto country back roads. Most of the race was run just outside of Furubira and not within the limits of the town itself. The rain did not let up, instead, it intensified. A flash of lightning startled me, with an ominous clap of thunder immediately to follow. Soon it was pouring rain so hard that I could hardly see 20 feet in front of me.  The rain drops themselves became blinding, blowing into my face with stinging velocity.

As my clothes became waterlogged, I remembered why it’s good to wear shorts—and not pants—when going on a long run. The rain got in my ears and my music became muffled and distorted, as if the speakers were underwater. After fighting with my headphones a bit, I came to find that the volume of my iPod had been severely reduced. Whether the problem was caused by wet headphones, or a wet iPod, I’m not sure. In either case, the pounding rain and rolling thunder provided the race’s new soundtrack.

The mountainous hills on both sides of the road, combined with the roar of the thunderstorm, made for an epic race. The run was challenging, but satisfying. The lightning continued for at least the first half of the race, and for a while I was sure that race officials were going to call it off. Apparently nobody saw the storm as a real danger because we all just kept on trucking. Eventually the rain lessened in the second half of the race, but never completely abated. Somewhere in the middle I saw Kazama-sensei; him coming up one side of the road, while I ran back down the other.  We exchanged quick words of encourage and a high five. Kazama-san said “Fight!” (ファイト), a word used often in Japan simply to say, “do your best”.

Coming back onto the Furubira streets at the end, I tried to keep up a decent pace, and sprinted the last 100 meters or so. Yamamzaki-san and Ihira-san met me at the finishline, and after changing into drier clothes at the van, we proceeded inside Furubira’s B&G gym for post-race fun. While I had been wise enough to bring a fresh pair of socks, I had neglected to bring other shoes, so my new socks were quickly soaked by my thoroughly saturated running shoes. Everyone who ran the race received complimentary fish snacks, like hokke, a delicious bowl of miso soup, and one free drink. While some juice or tea probably would have been the healthiest options after running, I chose to get a draught beer. I was celebrating the end of the running season, or so I rationalized it in my head. At some point, Ihira-san surprised me with a second beer, so I ended up having a two-drink lunch.

The post-race festivities involved a little ceremony recognizing the runners with the fastest times, and then a raffle with prizes. As a general rule, it seems that you must always have prizes whenever a big enough group of people gathers in Japan. The gymnasium had plenty of familiar faces, but I was very surprised to run into Marta and Michal Sylwester there. Marta and Michal are a Polish couple, so they stand out a bit in rural Furubira. They live in Sapporo and had come to the Shakotan area for the weekend, apparently fitting the race into their schedule as well. I had only just met them at a party at a JHS teacher’s house a couple days before hand, so it was a pleasure surprise to see them again so quickly.

By 1:30, I was back at my apartment, taking a long hot shower. My official time for the race was just under one hour, 12 minutes (1:11:57), and I had come in 35th place.

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