Week 24

Heading out to the ski field at Piyashiri, the sun is like an ocean. The wind is blowing waves of snow across the low prefectural routes. You can't tell exactly where the atmosphere phases from clear air to denser cloud-air. The sky is half-blue, half-gray, half-cream, almost, a gentle off-white that in places where the sun catches things just right actually looks almost like soft peach-fuzz up above. There is no definition, though: above the trees and the fields and the old abandoned farms, silent, in the snow, someone has turned the focus way way way down. A few flakes -- only maybe 20 at any given time -- are fluttering around in the air, taking their time to fall, deciding here and there to catch the fluffy hands of wind coming up out of the ditches, deciding here and there to be lofted back up into the sky.

Hokkaido is quiet.

It's a side of this land that you don't see that often, this time of year. The days usually start sunny and bright and clean and eventually dwindle into thin flurries that chirr into the night and cast halos all around the street lights. Sometimes this order is reversed, the snow chirring out of the dark and burning away in the sun's rays, only gathering enough intensity to clear snow at 1 in the afternoon (the sun's rays, that is). Otherwise it's blizzards that roar like landing airplanes and dump upwards of fifty, sixty centimeters overnight. Gentle winter just isn't something that we get here, so the half-sun, eggshell texture of the big white fields was an awesome change, except for that I had forgotten my sunglasses at home and had to drive wearing my ski goggles, so everything seemed a bit more orange than it really was.

We pulled up to the ski field around 11 o'clock. The mountain sits at the end of a shallow gorge, so some amorphous caravans of clouds that got blown in by accident kept sighing little snowy breaths onto the mountain: never enough to really lay down any lasting snow, but there's something to be said for skiing through thin clouds, something to be said for whizzing through shimmering sparkles in the air, the sun glinting askance like motes of dust in a doorway. I don't know what that something to be said is, though; it might have been the previous sentence.

When you're stopped on the mountainside, skis perpendicular to the trail, the snow beneath them suspiciously crunch-less, everything is surprisingly quiet. Either the snow and clouds mute the ambient noise, or otherwise there might just be very few people skiing on any particular day -- I don't know. But, standing a ways downhill, I could hear conversation as if it was occurring right next to me, though I was probably some hundred yards away; I could hear an edge of ski or snowboard cutting into a snowdrift, hear that rattling shearing sound, like paper tearing, when someone crossed a patch of ice way on down in the distance. What was most curious was that the sound was reduced in volume but not in clarity; you never really notice how much quiet speech consists more of proper resolution of syllables and less of actual decibel level until you've heard smacking of lips from seventy yards.

But then you get moving, and the English language becomes useless to translate what absurd fireworked stories your hormones are telling, what gasping endocrine stew is keeping you upright on either one or two pieces of fiberglass at 40 miles an hour. Somewhere between flying and swimming. You're only a few feet off the ground, your legs are just suspension, barely engaged at all; it's almost like you're falling rather than moving forward with any degree of purpose. In that speed, with the air all alive & electric about you, with the wind whispering through the little gaps in your knit hat, with the tag of the zipper on the front of your coat clicking against your chest, it's very very very easy for you to lose the rest of the world.

My job is not a stressful one. I don't wake up in the middle of the night with a jaw sore from clenching, a forehead slick with dreamed-up fears. Most of the time I don't even really take my work home with me. But life likes to let fall little droplets of anxiety into your life, and though they diffuse like food coloring in water, the whole glass is a little bluer or redder or whatever than it used to be. But on the side of a mountain, knee-deep in snow, moving at 30 or 40 or 50 miles an hour if you're really adventurous, you drop off everything about you, you forget stress, you forget the weekdays ahead; you forget what color your jacket is and you forget the date; you forget where you're going after this and where you were before; you forget whether you're a man or a woman and you forget your name and you forget who you are, because it doesn't matter anymore: you're a living creature on a snowy mountainside, moving impossibly fast, engaging with speed and wind on an intimate level, engaging with life, almost, by outrunning everything that we (qua humans) like to layer on top of our lives to dilute what it means to be here. Of course you'll never maintain the speed for long enough to get at what It means -- no mountain's that big. Of course you'll never be able to see It for what It is -- our retinas don't have rods or cones quick or resilient enough for that. But you've been wondering for a little while now what exactly you're doing here, why you've come here after you were there, why you're big now when you were once small, why you have five fingers on each hand and five toes on each foot but only two arms and two legs and two eyes and two ears; you've been looking for an Answer ever since you developed the insight to ask a Question, and at this point it doesn't even matter what the Question is, what the Answer is, because you're too occupied with stress, with the weekdays ahead, with what color your jacket is and what's the date, with where you're going and where you've been, with being a man or with being a woman, too occupied with your name and who you are; so the Question & Answer don't matter so much as that there is a Question and there is an Answer, and you are, regardless of what you are, and it takes a human body racing under the power of it's own gravity much faster than it was ever meant to move to really come into contact with the big ineffable sense of *you-are-*ness, to know not what it is but only that it is, and to be happy with that.

What's funny is that when you come to a stop, you can't even really believe that it happened, this communion, you begin to believe that what you thought, isn't, that It isn't and you aren't, and the only thing that matters is would these bloody snowboarders hurry up getting their bindings on so we can do it all again; and let's get real do they even really need to undo them to get on the chairlifts in the first place? Come on, guys.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme


Week 25

A bit about Hokkaido in the dark on a quiet evening.


Week 23

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