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.