A byte of life from the Land of Sumos and Sushi

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Never Ending Snow Storm

The calm before the storm: snowboarding at Fukui Izumi ski area, the day before the never ending snow fall began.

As I walk through the dense sheets of falling snow, searching for a shot, I wish I’d brought my goggles with me. The air is so full of flakes, I can’t help breathing snow. The sky is the same colour as the ground; an endless, featureless, ominous snow white.

It’s almost unbelievable that the heavens can contain this much snow. I’ve visited ski resorts across the globe from Switzerland to New Zealand and I lived in Whistler Canada for a year, but never, ever, have I seen so much snow as what I’m experiencing now, here in Japan.

It has not stopped snowing now for four days, and if the forecast is to be believed, it won’t stop for another four. As a result, Ono and much of the rest of Japan is becoming overwhelmed by the vast amounts of yuki (snow).

Huge snow walls line the roads where the ploughs have been through, struggling to keep the lines of communication open. Parked cars have become submerged, trees buried. People now walk on the roads, as the pavements have become completely impassable with some 1.5 meters of whiteness turning them into pedestrian free zones. Locals have begun to take on the perilous task of clearing the snow from their roofs, for fear of the extra weight causing collapse.

We, at Ono heights, have been working hard just to keep our parking spaces clear. As soon as we return from work we commence the battle and continue to toil late into the night, shovelling, chipping, ploughing the snow.

Not only has the snow come early this year, it’s come in unusually large volumes. Locals are beginning to say we’re in line for a ‘winter of old’. Keiko, my Japanese teacher tells me that when she was a girl, the snows were so deep they would have to use the balcony door on the 2nd floor to enter and exit the building - the ground floor being completely buried. Perhaps I'll be doing the same in a few days time.

The problem now, is where to put it all? The town is running out of space to dispose of the snow. Huge dump trucks work all day to ferry loads of snow to Ono’s snow dump, a disused area of land down by the river, but still the snow keeps coming, and space is running out.

I walk down the stairs of my apartment building and into the snow outside. Last night we cleared a path to the cars. This morning, our efforts are barely visible, and the snow walls lining the path are now above waist height. My car is buried again. With another 40cm over night, you wouldn’t have guessed my Mitsubishi Pajero was snow free nine hours ago. However, my 4x4 has done me proud. After digging away the night’s worth of snow, I am able to open the door, and power my way on to the road.

Last Sunday we had the first snowboarding expedition of the season, to a local favourite Fukui Izumi. It was great to be back on board, and though the powder was a little heavy, a fun time was had on the uncrowded, tree lined slopes. The first of many trips this winter.

I am heading home to England tomorrow, but in the wake of the snow onslaught, I almost feel that I want to stay here and continue to experience the awe inspiring weather. If these conditions continue, Fukui is in for one of the greatest ski seasons ever.

Bring it on.

Thefunkydrummer will be absent from the blog world for about three weeks – HAVE A HAPPY CHRISTMAS AND A JOLLY GOOD NEW YEAR.

STOP PRESS: As I type this, news comes in that train lines are down due to the snow. I need to catch a train to Osaka today. My flight is early tomorrow. The snow continues to fall. Will thefunkydrummer ever reach the Motherland?

Tune in next time to find out.

At the top; Chirs hijacks my photo at Fukui Izumi ski area.

Izumi Lines; a view from the chair lift, at Fukui Izumi ski area.

The endless storm; it's been snowing non stop for four days. A Japanese house takes the strain.

My car was a snow free zone last night. Not so this morning. All this in just 9 hours. It's insane in the membrane.

Shoveller on the roof; locals have begun the dangerous task of clearing their roofs, fearing the extra weight of snow will cause collapse.

A traditional Japanese house covered in yuki.

This used to be a car; a snow buried vehicle in our parking lot this morning.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Hatsu Yuki: First Snow For Ono

A view from my balcony this morning; the sun peeps through after a 14 hour thunder snow storm dumped 40cm of snow on my town of Ono, Fukui, Japan.

The snow has arrived in force here in Ono. Yesterday, I awoke to find the town had been covered by the hatsu yuki (first snow) gown, transforming the drab rice paddies and mountains into the beautiful white wonderland that I love so much.

The snow storm raged all day and lasted late into the night, subjecting us to continual booms of thunder and bright bolts of lighting, as dense sheets of heavy snow relentlessly fell from the brooding skies above.

The Okuestu area (Ono and Kastuyama) are just a little bit higher in elevation than the rest of Fukui, but it makes a huge difference in the amount of snow we receive, which is considerably more than the rest of the prefecture.

The snow has come almost a month earlier than last year, but you’ll hear no complaints from me. As I shifted my Mitsubishi Mini Pajero into four wheel drive, I found myself chuckling at the terrible conditions of the road.

I don’t mind driving in deep or compacted snow at all, in fact I quite enjoy it. Indeed, I remember driving out to ski resorts last year during blizzards, imagining I was some sort of Arctic explorer, braving the storm when few other vehicles ventured out on the completely snow covered roads.

Driving on snow only becomes difficult during the awkward middle stage, before the ploughs have been through, but after heavy traffic has taken its toll. This creates a severely pot holed driving surface, which throws cars all over the place. This unexpected early dump perhaps took the city by surprise, as the roads were worse than I remember, and I found my seat belt constantly locking me down, loyally keeping me in my seat as I bounced through the gauged road surface in an effort to reach home.

With the joys of living in a winter wonderland, comes the drudgery of shovelling. Though most people see this as a tiring chore, I actually enjoy the task. Last night, my friends Chris, (an American Teacher), Luke (a Welsh teacher) and I, shovelled snow in an attempt to clear our parking spaces, as the snow continued to fall. By the time we retired for the night, I measured the snow depth to be 40cm where it was undisturbed.

This morning the snowfall has ceased and the sun was peeking through, but despite our shovelling efforts of the night before, I found a snowplough had cleared our road, and in doing so it had created a meter high wall of solid snow blocking our car park entrance thus preventing my escape. It took another twenty minutes of shovelling before I broke free, by which time I was late for school.

Seeing the snow laden mountains has got me itching to get out there and ride it. My snowboarding partner in crime (The Bran Pan Man) and I have plans to set up a mini rail “zone” in an unused car park nearby for some early season shredding and rumours have it that this week will see the opening of Izumi Ski Resort, one of the best in Fukui.

More snow is forecast for the end of the week, so things are looking good for the upcoming winter season.

Thanks be to snow.

A snow-sure view of the quad garden at Shotoku Junior High.

The brains and the brawn; Welshman Luke and American Chris battle the constant onslaught of snow, in the carpark outside our appartment in Ono.

The school car park; cars were covered again during the day by the endless snow storm.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Local Heating: Weapons of Warmth

My weapon of choice; one of just two heat sources in my appartment, this parafin heater keeps me toasty all winter.

Japan is often touted as a high tech country, pimping out its electronic gadgetry to the rest of the planet, but when it comes to keeping warm, they are only on par with the third world. The majority of their buildings are poorly designed with little to no insulation, and huge portions of walls are given over to drafty, single glazed windows from which heat is sucked from a room.

Rather than taking the modern approach of insulation and central heating, so that all rooms in a building are kept at a pleasant temperature, they still chose to heat rooms that are in use, with a single heater.

Even more stone age, is the fact that the vast majority of their heaters run on paraffin (kerosene), and must be refilled regularly, by hand. The staff room and classrooms in my schools are heated by such appliances, and whilst they do keep the rooms at a reasonably comfortable temperature, they also emit fumes and present an obvious fire hazard. Paraffin is the smell of winter in Japan.

This decentralisation of heat has lead to the development of other weapons of warmth. The kotatsu, is a heated table, which you cover with a blanket, and sit under. Small pocket hand warmers are very popular with students to save their mitts from frost bite, at home the heated carpet is another favourite, and you’ve all heard of the heated toilet seat.

Corridors, bathrooms and hallways are completed unheated, meaning that they are normally only a couple of degrees warmer than outside. In fact, it amazes me that in my school, they often leave doors and windows wide open, even when it’s almost freezing outside.

I still find it hard to understand why they don’t build their houses with decent insulation and a modern central heating system. In a country that is plus 30C in summer, and sub zero in winter, they would obviously benefit from double glazing and loft insulation, but it’s rarely seen, the reason given is that it’s “too expensive”.

Another thing that I’ve found strange, is that in my school, the rules state that only when the temperature drops to 12C in the corridors, may the heaters in the staff room be turned on. What’s even more patronising is that only two teachers have been empowered with the authority to switch on the heat source. I find it somewhat ridiculous and “big brother” like, that grown men and women can’t even switch on a heater when they’re cold.

Lewis, a friend in a town nearby, has it even worse; his school rules state that the heaters cannot be turned on, no matter how cold, until the 1st of December. Seeing as there has been several frosty mornings over the last few weeks, and there’s snow on the mountains, this seems to be silly rule, but if there’s one thing the Japanese are good at, it’s completely and utterly abiding by the rules, no matter what the situation.

STOP PRESS: The Eagle has landed – this morning I awoke to 10cm of snow on the ground, and as I type this, the rumbling thunder snow storm continues, with sheets of snow falling thick and fast. I had to switch to four wheel drive mode to make it into work today, and unconfirmed rumours are circulating suggesting Fukui’s biggest ski resort (Kastsuyama Ski Jam) has opened early.

It has begun...

Students gather round the only heat source in the classroom during break. If you look just above the shoulder of the student wearing glasses, you can see a sizeable hole in the wall that let's all the hot air out, and the cold air in! - And you thought they were an efficient race...

This is as high tech as it gets - a parafin (kerosene) heater, keeps the staff room warm, if a little smelly.