Charles Harries

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Week 28

A trip on the icebreaking ship Aurora to see the sea ice on the Sea of Okhotsk.

The sky is a bright, burning blue, the sun terrifically white. There is snow everywhere and it looks like it's on fire with photons, unchained, flying in every direction at once, vectors and magnitudes on scales and orders only spoken of in the deepest circles of high-energy- & theoretical physics. There is about three inches of snow in the road, churned by the few wheels that have traveled it today. Thick, floury, windshaped mounds sit on the shoulder and stretch their long blown-out legs across our path, but don't slow us down. To our right is a tall white slope in partial shadow; to our left the road drops off through some rocks into a long icy plain -- this is the Sea of Okhotsk in February.

We're at Cape Notoro in Abashiri. There are no trees out by the shoreline, no windbreaks or tall fences, and the wind whips down the coast with a sort of fluid urgency, like a crowd escaping fire, not wholly aware of its surroundings/path, needing only to get from there to here, and then on from here to another there, catching the tails of our coats, the split ends of our hair, the reddening sides of our faces, before flying on. It occurs to me, back at Penelope's door, seeking shelter on the lee side of her white aluminum bulk, watching the vaguely rippling forms of the couple of people out on the hemline between the icy land and icy sea, that to someone with no nerve endings, no sense of touch, no neurons to fire at the tongue of the wind, the whole scene would probably seem pretty frightening -- human forms assailed by an invisible army, this tremendous howling torn from the invisible air, white dust writhing across the road with no apparent stimulus. I tumble into the driver's seat and pull the door closed behind me, thanking Past Charles for leaving the car (and the heater) on, thanking Past Charles for having the insight to purchase a plastic bottle of chilled tea with cream & sugar dubiously branded 'The Pungency.'

there is a sea here somewhere
there is a sea here somewhere

A couple of hours and twelve hamburger patties later (don't ask) I'm on the gangway to the icebreaking ship Aurora (stress on the first syllable, like AU-ruh-rah). It's warm inside, they're selling bottles of bright blue beer, but this isn't what we're here for. Instead we make a beeline for the top deck and weave our foreign forms into the pattern of Japanese tourists, homogenized by virtue of our collective bracing against the cold, against the Arctic wind -- because we're here to look at the sea ice, here to ogle the cold of the water, here to try and wrap our minds around terrestrial superlatives -- here in short to try and come in brief contact with the reality of one of the few things so humanly accessible though inhumanly inhospitable as the thin stripe of white sitting a mile out from the shore.

It's funny how Hokkaido really only has two winter attractions -- skiing/snowboarding and looking at ice. I looked at ice at the Sapporo Snow Festival last weekend, got on a train and looked at ice at Yamabiko, then boarded a boat to look at ice in Abashiri -- and next week I'm gonna mount up in a car to go look at ice in Sounkyo Gorge. I think this speaks volumes about the state of winter in Hokkaido.

But so the boat groans like a sea mammal and turns its bow out towards the ice, and we all exchange some English formalities ("Hey, how's it been? Long time no see [or Japanese equivalent 'ohisashiburi'], Happy New Year, what have you been up to, &c. &c."), we moan about the cold, tighten our scarves and pull our hats further down on our heads. After some time has passed and the white strip of ice has begun to collect below the gunwales, a voice comes over the intercom in English. It claims that icebreaking is a pretty tremulous business and that we had all better hold on to our hats & maybe widen our stance if we want to stay upright -- though this warning seems a little bit gratuitous in retrospect, the shaking only really consisting of a now-and-again momentary shimmy of the deck, not really anything worth really falling for but more than enough of an excuse for a Japanese girlfriend, always precariously balanced atop four-inch stilettos, to fall into the arms of her waiting date, if she so chose. I see it happen twice, which I figure is enough for me to call it a trend. I'm no scientist: I don't have to maintain any degree of rigor.

these probably weigh a lot
these probably weigh a lot

With the exception of maybe fire and heights, we as humans, and especially humans with Facebook and Internet access and standardized salaries and relatively comfortable homes, don't ever really interface with forces or matter that could very easily kill us, as in end our total global experience. And when we do come in contact with that, the actual contact with the notion of death happens on a very deep-down, unconscious level: secretions of hormones and taken-for-granteds built on what we've seen in movies and read in books. Like for example when Nicole and I saw that bear in the fall, I don't think either of us thought consciously that here was an animal that could kill us, that we could be ended right here, because a contemplation of death really isn't the sort of thing that you can muster when you're actually faced with death itself; and so the body just takes over and one part speaks to another part without intervention of the conscious, and before you know it you're back in Penelope, safe & sound. I don't come in contact with death enough, probably, and I think I'm fine with that, even if the trade-off is a diminished appreciation of life.

The sea off the coast of Abashiri is heavy and quiet and slow, and standing on the deck of the AU-ruh-rah it’s just far enough away to keep human survival triggers disengaged, but close enough to whisper of the legitimate danger of being out here. It suspends you in this strange primeval limbo and allows you to know your proximity to death, allows you to look right into the eyes of the dark without igniting your limbic fear thereof. So you're looking over the edge of the gunwales into the waters, which sometime in the past ten minutes have gone black as the night sky, and the waters are whispering back to you that if you'd only lean a foot or so further out, they'll count to thirty, maybe forty-five if you're really strong or cardiovascularly tip-top before they begin to inflict some serious high-level permanent damage to the silly bag of meat you call a body. And it doesn't fill you with terror or anything, doesn't make you reel or fight your way into the ship for one of those blue beers; it just holds you there, your fingers slowly losing sensation on the railing, face muscles inarticulate with the cold, sunlight through the open side of your sunglasses and you hanging over a pit.

omg they dont no how clos they r to oblivin sum1 save them
omg they dont no how clos they r to oblivin sum1 save them

Soon the wind gets too strong and you have to move, or someone starts speaking nearby, or the boat kicks on the ice and you're brought back. And before you know it you're cozy on the shore and someone's talking about checking out some glass-blowing shop and getting curry afterwards, and you're back in Hokkaido and not mesmerized by the deep and the far and the cold, and Penelope is humming and you're out on the streets and the waters of the shores of Abashiri are nothing more to you than memories and pictures on Facebook.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme