Week 29

Sounyko Gorge in winter is merciless. Hokkaido on the whole is pretty vicious, weather-wise, unloading unfathomable tons of frozen water on the landscape, blowing the air one way and then the other way with such fervor that human capability is rendered a joke, reminding us daily that though the rest of the world may have rolled over into the Anthropocene, in Hokkaido, Nature comprehensively disregards human activity. In Sounkyo, however, arguably the aorta to the heart of Hokkaido (viz. The Daisetsuzan), Nature actively antagonizes humans. The air at the top of Mt. Kurodake shakes off as much energy as it can, drops as close to absolute zero as could be expected of it (and then some), and rides in great Walküre-esque charges down the slopes of Kurodake, down into the narrow gorge of Sounkyo where it whoops & wails across the thin skins of humans, where it crawls into our jackets with us, screaming off into the snow and the dim distance. This is to say nothing of the snowfall itself, which from maybe late November to April, even into May depending on the year, never stops falling -- which is both a blessing in that it paints a face on the wind (and we always like to see our enemies, right?), and a curse in that said face actually stings like a [word that I am not allowed to say on a blog that my mother reads] when it barrels down on you with the kinetic energy of a diesel-powered locomotive.

[This is where I would like to put a picture but I don't own any photographic equipment capable of functioning in these conditions.]

But here we are, riding a creaking chairlift up the slope of Kurodake, and here is the peak, barely visible through the snow, evoking any number of mountain-based survival movies, esp. those going for the double-barreled mountains & snow combo. Here are the only two other people sharing the mountain with us, a team of two novice skiers who rented gear from the chilly chalet halfway up the mountain itself. They're both in magenta jackets and gray pants and skis, and cursorily seem to be two apparitions of the same person awkwardly snowplowing down through the impending blizzard, little pinkish figures we catch glimpses of from the chairlift. Disembarking and following these figurants down the slopes, their presences are known only by the disturbed snow leading into the whiteout space between the trees.

The silence is filled in by the animal coughing of the wind, but after ten minutes it becomes a part of your aural carpet, the foundation upon which Kurodake's sonic furniture is arranged, and before you know it you can only feel the wind, not hear it. It's when the air dies down that real dreadful silence sets in, and you have to listen very hard to resolve the sound of snow falling against the internal blur of the blood in your own body -- which noise, by the way, is really difficult to turn off, once you've noticed it. Every now and again a little chinook climbs up into the trees and releases a white spume, falling to the ground with a soft crumpling sound, like collapsing into a feather-stuffed pillow, and your whole system goes into momentary cochlear relief; and it's during this brief respite that you point your skis down the slope in an attempt to stem that silence before it comes back, choosing the sting of the wind on your skin to the sting of the nihilist's Nothing in your head.

After skiing we enjoy the obligatory post-exertion onsen, followed by milk & obscene lengths, timewise, horizontal on the floor. When the bitching begins to approach insufferable levels, we move like wraiths to the nearest restaurant. I bury my head in the crooks of my folded arms on the table, emerging only to order more food than I ever have, at a restaurant. It’s a quantity heavy enough to prompt the waiter to ask, "Wait, are you eating that all yourself?" which I took as a compliment but no, in the end I don't have the digestive stamina to eat it all myself. I recruit Tony from the other side of the table to vanquish a gratin made out of a pumpkin.

I think one of the more telling facets of the Sounkyo Ice Festival (next up on the docket) is the demand for the total suspension of an attendee’s disbelief — that is to say, the visual and structural vocabulary employed there is so foreign to someone experiencing it that one has to sort of just go along with it, much in the same way that film-goers have to go alongwith the film’s premise, despite knowing that the characters are actors, that the film is a work of art. Refusal to go along produces only a certain dissonance, the whole world around you demanding that you shut up and take a step back from your consciousness and ride whatever experiential wave is carrying the crowd around you. In short, the Sounkyo Ice Festival is bigger than a person can understand, so the only real option left is to not try.

For example, at the time I don’t realize that the whole festival is set on the Ishikari River. Not beside the Ishikari River, nor on the banks of the Ishikari River, but literally on top of the Ishikari River, the only gesture to the river itself being little gaps in the ice through which a person can peer to spy out the ominously gurgling blackness below. But more jarring than this, the whole festival (i.e. the buildings, the bridges, the stairs, the very ground itself) is made entirely of ice. No conventionally-built structures exist except for a little warming shack off to the side, vendors shilling amazake and dates-turned-bundled-refugees-from-the-cold. On top of this, the whole is lit up like one of the giddier scenes from a Tim Burton stop-motion flick.

There's something troubling to the soul about an entire experience, a structure, a festival with brochures and reviews on Google dot com and blog entries smeared across the Internet in a hodge-podge of excited diction -- there's something really troubling about such a comprehensive reality being constructed of something so fluid and transient as water, something that by its very nature moves & reels & roils & doesn't remain in the same place, doesn't stop, ever, without being infected with bacteria and the larvae of mosquitoes. Something troubling about said comprehensive reality depending entirely upon the whims of the atmosphere, sometimes cold and sometimes warm depending on its angle w/r/t the sun. Something troubling about the tenuousness, like an egg balanced on its end by a couple of grains of salt, like the beauty of the first sunny day in a long time.

It's funny, then, to return to your hotel room burdened by the cold, by windburn, by this ticklishness up at that knob at the top of your spine, and where only this morning you foresaw revelry now you really can't muster anything more than a couple of half-formed syllables from your half-lit corner, from the softness of your futon. You're a little bit bothered by the notion that in a month or so the weather will have warmed up enough to render the whole spectacle of tonight completely impossible, enough to turn it all into a just-weird-enough dream; but as you fall asleep, you comfort yourself with the moon's path across the sky outside the window, with the animal mass of Kurodake nestled up to the small village of Sounkyo, with the belief that, at the bottom of everything, isn't this what Hokkaido is all about?

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme


Week 30

A blizzard strikes Yubetsu.


Week 28

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