Charles Harries

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Week 30

A blizzard strikes Yubetsu.

I went skiing again this past weekend, which was tremendously fun but not really amenable to writing about. It’s not that I don’t want to; it’s just that skiing isn’t really something you can write about without trying to evoke in people the sensation of skiing, which if you haven’t felt, then you won’t really get at it exactly, and if you have, your memories of the sensations themselves are a lot stronger than anything that I can evoke – it would take a much better writer than I.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman delivered this really cool talk back in 2010 distinguishing between happiness as perceived by two different selves. On the one hand, the experiencing self consists of the more or less three seconds surrounding your present, and changes as you glide through time, so your experiencing self is different now than it was, say, at the beginning of this paragraph. On the other hand, the remembering self is the snapshot that you get looking back; it's sort of like the imprint that the experiencing self leaves behind when it becomes the next experiencing self, three seconds later. This is all really just exposé for the notion that this blog is almost exclusively an account of the remembering self (with the exception of those tidbits from Osaka, written by the experiencing Charles on those trains). The remembering self is the storyteller, is the point here.

So insofar as I am a storyteller without the words to tell the story of skiing, I can’t/won’t describe the weekend at Niseko Ski Resort/Towns/Complex. Instead I will leave you with an admonition to break out that fiberglass and attach it to your feet and come to Pippu this weekend where a bunch of us will be doing the same.

Anyway.

Coming back into Yubetsu, you ride over a couple of little hills before putting the pedal down onto the long straight road on which pretty much the whole town sits, stretching probably 15 or 20 km from the said little hills to the coast. It's always fun coming home because after hours of Darkness (and let's get real, homecoming always comes after sunset), after hours of rollercoastering through shadowy, threatening mountains, you're finally spit out on this big snowplowed ribbon laid out like a landing strip before you, and there's more of that Darkness all around, devouring the farms and the hills and the airy whispers blown near-silent across the Yubetsu River's alluvial plain, but right in front of you there's this immeasurably bright light, pinpricked like an impossible star, all the lights of Yubetsu compressed to a turbulent gleaming at the vanishing point. As you ride into town the lights gently untangle themselves and resolve into dim storefronts and buzzing convenience stores and late-night gas stations, brightly loud, and the town actually seems to build itself out of the light ahead, which always sits out at the end of the road, beyond the power of our eyes to parse.

But it's Sunday night, and as I gallop into town on Penelope's bucking haunches, having traveled over the course of the weekend some 900 km to get back to where I was, something's off. The lights in the distance are maybe a little dimmer, or the Darkness a little heavier. The hulking white shoulders of the road, big monolithic snowbanks that no one who has spent more than a couple of weeks in Hokkaido during winter will ever forget, seem whiter, craggier, harder, more hostile, somehow. They sit like fat, misshapen foremen watching over crooked bodies shoveling snow, lifting away just enough of the snowbank to fit a car through. This isn't an unusual sight in and of itself, but there's something about the shovelers that doesn't look right, something that looks, I don't know, defeated. Something in their comportment, in the ineffable language of their bodies and motion, has been broken down, is running on fumes. They look like tired soldiers.

And on the fringes of the town, where houses back off and fields take over, where the sky and the stars explode, where civilization is only made manifest in the long rows of shadowy autumn shapes in the field, where this time of year big white quadrangles stretch out across the countryside like frames of a blank quilt -- out there in the windswept snowbanks are these craters, microcosmically catastrophic, deformed, here and there really clearly-edged like something engineered had been dropped into the snow and then hoisted out with a crane; and others appear to be little more than purposeless holes where a bunch of citizens banded together for no other reason than to excavate. Some of these craters are real big, big enough to bury a legitimately valuable treasure until the spring, while others were small, probably not even capable of fitting a person without having to build up a big pile on top of them (but let's get real who would volunteer for that, getting buried in the snow on the side of the road?).

But I get home, by and by. There's an indecipherable anxiety about me, like when you've forgotten something but you don't know what. But the 7-11 is still there across the street, and Nicole's Toyota Vitz is sitting in the driveway, and the Shell gas station down the road is still advertising for the in-pump slot machine, so I figure that the world is still mostly as it should be. Not quite as it always is -- there's a new snowbank sitting in front of my door that reaches up to my shoulder -- but more or less as it ought to be.

It's only the later that I learn that on Saturday night a terrific (like in the sense of terror) blizzard crashed into town. The kind of blizzard that urged the words from my supervisor's mouth, with no small amount of reverence, "I've been here for a long time but I have never seen snow like this." The kind of blizzard that lured over a hundred cars in Yubetsu alone into snowbanks and buried them entirely, shivering people inside. The kind of blizzard that called all of the town employees into work at 6 o'clock on Sunday morning on a search & rescue mission. The kind of blizzard that trapped a brass band inside their rehearsal hall -- the vice-superintendent decided to jaunt across the road to visit them at one point in the night; he described crossing the street in terms of swimming. It was the kind of blizzard that immobilized the whole Okhotsk region, and that’s saying something: if a blizzard rolls in, generally the answer is to drive more slowly, be a little more careful, but there’s nothing really standing between us and what we want. This blizzard programmed our loss into the snow – there was simply no way to win.

in related news, i used snowbanks like these to climb onto the roof of my house
in related news, i used snowbanks like these to climb onto the roof of my house

It was the kind of blizzard in which drivers, in the terms of Japanese people I've spoken to, "lost the road," which is if you think about it the most frightening way to put it. It’s easy to lose keys or sunglasses, but losing the road is like losing the sun, losing the sky, losing fundamental parts of the human environment.

It was the kind of blizzard that took eight people's lives throughout the Okhotsk, including a father in Yubetsu, picking his daughter up from the children's center behind our house.

I think the word 'disaster' has lost a lot of its meaning in well-used terms that pair it with other words, like 'natural disaster' and 'disaster movie' and 'this is a disaster' speaking of like for example a baking project gone wrong, a soufflé that didn't rise. Especially with people like Michael Bay and James Cameron and perennial-butt-of-my-jokes Roland Emmerich around, it's easy to forget that the word 'disaster' originally meant a situation where the stars in the sky were falling apart; it’s easy to forget that disaster is something significant and meaningful and moves continents in terms of human lives. And I think the worst thing about it is that though we see disasters on television, on the news, on the Internet, on YouTube, we don't connect with them, we don't feel disaster until the world is coming down around the heads of people only one or two degrees of separation from us, and disaster gets so real we can almost feel it inside our own clothes, inside the four walls of our house. We don't feel it until we realize that it's something that could happen to us.

Everyone here is a little bit in awe, leaning back in their chairs, like the silence that comes after the muted clap of a closing book, when you're done and you're just thinking about what came before and what comes next. In the silence is just the itchy, brisk snicker-snack of shovels moving snow, the buzz of traffic in the street, and the shuffling of booted feet buying emergency supplies for their cars, but everyone's keeping one eye always out on the clouds, waiting for the next one.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme

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Week 31

Coming back from Pippu, I am struck by the first blue sky I've seen in what feels like months.

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Week 29

Skiing at Kurodake and my first visit to the Sounkyo Ice Festival.