Charles Harries

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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.

The mountains between Yubetsu and the ski field at Pippu Town are broad and craggy, solid but not imposing. They're bigger than I can easily understand, weights and heights outside of the realm of easy comprehension, but they don't give off much of an air of the sublime, don't stand over you reminding you of their transcendence of understanding. They exist almost more as facts than as features of a landscape. Some are gradual and black with leafless trees. From afar it almost gives you the impression of really wiry hair somehow all standing up at once. Others are patchy, like a physiognomically grotesque head gradually balding, dark clumps of hair here and there, the slopes sewn with evergreens that at a distance seem indefinite and fluffy. At this distance there's no resolution of individual trees, only the impression of a great number of trees, and through the general tree-haze you can see the grayish ghost of the snow on the hillside, a sunless winter rendering the face of the mountain ash-white. A smattering of rocks freckle the slope, interrupting the big pallid expanse. Along the roads especially, where, back in the day, engineers excavated the feet of the mountains with mighty explosives, big jagged faces sit exposed, gravelly and darkly wet on all but the coldest of days. Where the familiar dynamite bores are missing from the rock faces, one can discern that it must have been landslides one rainy autumn day that tore down the mountains’ masks of dirt and vegetation — and you can tell how long ago the mountain gave up a bluff or ridge by the number of pioneering trees that dare to sink their spidery roots once more into the muddy cliffs.

At the feet of the mountains are wide sweeping fields, too uneven for proper irrigation so even in the summer the farmers have given them up to the grasses. You don't really know what it looks like for a landscape to sweep until you've seen fields like this. They go on and on forever, spanning an empty, clean whiteness between you and the ragged black horizon, interrupted only here and there by a narrow stand of trees or a low beige farmhouse or a silo with a collapsed roof, sections of the cone still holding fast to the cylinder itself, the snow heavier everyday, evoking notions of either a rocket launch or geometry lesson gone wrong, or maybe both.

On the snowy highway, rumbling out of the Kita-Taisetsu Tunnel, or up at the top of Kitami Pass, stopping just for a moment at the peak of Good Ol' Route 333, you might be able to believe that your whole world has been desaturated, that color has been pulled out of everything while you weren't looking. And not only that, but it's all been polarized as well, the darker grays going straight to black, black of the mountains or of the soggy roads or of the sagging boughs that loll over the snowbanks like an arm draped across the back of a sofa; and the lighter grays perk straight up to white, white of the snow, of the houses, white of the water glinting as it's suspended briefly in the air between the tip of an icicle and the frozen puddle below -- even the shadows cast on the snow look white, somehow, white against the even-more-white of sunlit snow.

What's worse is that, what color there is -- the red of a half-buried swingset, the yellow of street signs, the glassy green of lights on the side of the highway -- all of this color is sort of faded with age, faded with resignation to time and nature, seemingly capable of evincing feeling to transmit to us this primal need to, somehow, swing back to the elements they were before -- metals buried in the ground, coal uncooked, sunlight back in the fusion heart of our star, rather than moldering in the staid fallen snows of Hokkaido.

It's weirdly desperate, standing consciously in this grayscale nature. Parts of your body you didn't know existed yearn for color, but it's not something you can put into words or understand. Your eyes are so jam-packed with other biological circuitry that whatever nerve endings there might be are more focused on getting that stray eyelash out of there than they are on getting some color back into the brain. But the need is there, pulsing on some deep neurological level -- you just don't know about it.

wait hold on look at that sky
wait hold on look at that sky

So when, halfway between Yubetsu and the ski field at Pippu Town, you lean out onto the glass of the window of Nicole's Toyota Vitz, (which by the way is called Hank), and you look up into a sky that, for the past like four months has been almost exclusively a dirty off-white — when you do all of this and find yourself looking deeply into the bright, profound, earnest blue, the electric sky evokes in your body a physical reaction, like instinctually, a shallow reeling, maybe an exclamation, an inability to pull your eyes away as your brain eagerly drinks down the wide, encompassing color, the only color that you've seen for a little while, and it's all you can do not to tell Nicole to stick her face up against the glass as well and look, really look because this is the most beautiful thing, out of all of the things, but yeah you can't tell Nicole to really look because she's operating heavy machinery at like 90 km/h and a collision at that speed -- me and her and skis and snowboard and Hank the Vitz and all, a collision with anything, really -- would probably do some serious high-level damage to our bodies.

Winter has been fun. Driving through blizzards and going skiing and tying up my boots and walking home in the dark all have their allure, but I'm ready for spring. The sun is coming out and it's blinding white, softly yellow, opening up the world again. The sky is the bluest blue made bluer by the unblue that came before, and the road is clear the temperature this morning was exactly 0 degrees Celsius and it's only getting better. Warmth is just behind the mountains and greenery is peeking out through the wet snow and I am in Hokkaido and everything is very, very good.

Everything You Have Heard Japan JET Programme

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Week 34

The first days of spring are coming to Hokkaido.

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Week 30

A blizzard strikes Yubetsu.