Week 19

As I sit here, the snow is still coming down. It's been about 24 hours by this point, but only some seven or eight inches have fallen. It's no last weekend, by any means, but it's the sort of thing that slows cars down, the sort of thing that forces drivers to leave a little more space between themselves and the driver ahead, the sort of thing that makes you wish that wearing two scarves were more acceptable.

It's difficult, really, to treat the weather in Hokkaido in anything other than the superlatives and axioms that characterize, for example, motion pictures to which Michael Bay likes to attach his name. Driving home from Monbetsu earlier tonight, visibility somewhere around 40 or 50 meters, the air around me more snow than air, homogenously dense, I tried increasingly desperately to find some way that I could tell the folks back home, tell the people in Honshu, tell anyone, really, about the things that I was seeing, without conjuring up Emmerich's 2004 The Day After Tomorrow or something. Phrases like, 'gale-force winds' and 'walls of white,' among others, sound more like storyboards for a disaster film than anything that I could possibly have been seeing out the window of a Toyota Vitz/Yaris on a Sunday night. The only way that I can sort of gesture, cognitively dissociative, to what it actually looked like would be by evoking driving said Toyota through a television screen all full to the brim with white noise, on the other side of which can be seen a starkly black-and-white forest thick with that Darkness from two weeks ago. You keep your eyes on the road ahead, even when you're a passenger, because looking out the window fills you with this like abyssal dread.

It doesn't help that overwhelming snow (which, by the way, the Japanese have at least four words for, all of which I've learned in the past week) tends to obscure anything familiar that you might want to touch upon on a trip between two towns, across a great straits of monochromed forest. Things like the little Totoro statue, or the farms belonging to the Yamazakis or the Sekizakis whose sign proclaims merrily, "Welcome to Monbetsu!", or the big sweeping curve around a semicircular field, with the Sea of Okhotsk in the background — all of these reassure you in little ways that you're still going in the right direction, which, I don't know about you, is one of my only big desires in life (to go in the right direction). But in the snow, in the Dark, all of these little familiar things that you thought you knew just up and evaporate into the blizzard, and you find yourself instead on a little dark road with maybe a couple of other drivers, big trucks that crash by and want nothing to do with you, blocky vans that tail up behind you really close and pass on turns.

For all of the cultural quasi-distance between the Japanese and myself, I think I feel most alienated out in the snow and the woods, in the total silence, in the whirr of the car's engine, turning up the music impulsively just to mix up the senses now and then, because the whole of my sensory input is telling me that I am in total sense-data hell, the same snowy ribbon ahead and behind me, the same static outside the windows, the same overbearing sonic sludge of wind and snow and blizzard cutting through under whatever's coming out of Penelope's little speakers.

What's weirdest, though, is that for all that it gets down inside of you with its chilly fingers, like icy toes under the sheets sending shivers up your back, for all that it makes you very viscerally aware of its presence, for all that Hokkaido limns your vision, sitting just beyond, whispering in your ear — for all of this, what gets me the most is how therapeutic it is. Like tuning yourself to the resonant frequency of the Earth, like stopping time to get to know, on a personal basis, every atom in your immediate vicinity. It's like shutting off everything that you think is important, strapping your emotional baggage to the top of your car and letting it go up in the wind and the snow, forgetting about it as you roll motionless down that ribbon of white, the whole world seeming to thunder and ache and moan around you. Halfway between Monbetsu and Yubetsu, you don't roll down the road, and you don't whizz by the trees, and you don't pass that Totoro statue, all buried in snow; but instead you lapse into limbo, heaving the weight of your leg onto the accelerator, and the world passes you by. You're not moving at all; the universe is moving around you.

This might be what relativity means; but this might also be a comprehensive bastardization of everything that relativity stands for. I don't know.

And then you get out of your car, back in Yubetsu, and you shovel some snow, and you dig out your bike that you forgot to put in the shed, and after ten minutes of moving snow and aluminum, you're ready to go back inside but you're grabbed by the shoulders and told to LISTEN very carefully, and only then do you realize that there's nothing in the air at all, the whole world has gone very sharp & crisp & clean, like the pleat on a professionally-ironed pair of pants, like the water from that spring in Higashikawa, like the sound of a glass harmonica, and there's all of this resonant air in the sky, a kind of hollow sound like air in a ventilation shaft miles wide. Up above the stars aren't even twinkling, the air is so still; they gleam perfectly like white and orange and red round brilliants on a big sheet of indigo, and you're standing knee deep in the snow, feeling the cold melt on your ankles down in your boots, but you just can't move for some reason. Every little particle around you has stopped moving and you're stuck in the you-shaped hole in the air, sharply defined against you, cold fingers and runny nose and chapped lips.

But then you return Nicole's shovel and you go inside to the kerosene warmth of your messy living room, deeply troubled but deeply at peace, tripped-up all negatively capable, not sure what to do now with yourself but go to bed, except for that it's only like 6 o'clock, which is no time to go to bed indeed.

Also, as a kind of p.s. here, this weekend Nicole said the sentence to me, speaking of my eggnog (which btdubz was delicious), "Shut up and focus on your nog," which it's like the first time a girl's ever said that to me and it made me feel very shimmery and weak-kneed and lovely.

Ed. note, 15/9/2021: That's a weird thing to say.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme


Week 23

A brief layover in Osaka on the way back from the States leads to some real soul-searching on trains.


Week 18

The night of the rented Higashikawa cabin, and the emotional aftermath.