Thursday 25 January 2018

First Snow in Tokyo: Zao Ski Resort and Kotatsu

Pagoda-like garden lantern covered in snow in Yamagata
Garden Lantern (tōrō)
Tokyo typically doesn't see much snow, but Monday saw the capital's first snowfall of the season and it was the heaviest since 2014. Snow started falling in the afternoon and at around 2:30pm a heavy snow warning (ōyuki keihō =大雪警報) was announced, triggering the cancellation of classes at my university (and lots of happy students). Thereafter, it really started coming down and in the end we had around 20cm in the centre and 30cm out in Western Tokyo. In contrast to Tohoku and Hokkaido, which are used to the snow, people in Tokyo always seem taken by surprise by snow and don't know how to handle it. The rush of people leaving work early coupled with train delays saw entry restrictions (nyūjō kisei =入場規制) at Shibuya and Shinagawa Stations. Moreover, there were over 60 injuries from falls reflecting the fact that Tokyoites simply don't know how to walk in the snow; my Tohoku friend recommends walking like a penguin to prevent slips and falls! Since then, temperatures have dropped as low as minus 8℃, the lowest since the 1970s, causing dangerous patches of black ice. See the video below for a clip of our dog Jaz enjoying the snow on our balcony.

The sound of the snow chains making a shan-shan jangling sound on the tyres of buses and trucks always takes me back to my time in Yamagata, Tohoku, which marked the start of my life in Japan. The snow was unlike anything that I seen before in North-west England and I had to learn quickly how to walk properly! One common activity during the winter was yuki-kaki (雪かき) or snow shovelling, also called josetsu (snow removal=除雪), which saw all the neighbours band together to clear the snow in front of their houses and shops. During my time in Yamagata, one of the things I enjoyed most was taking the bus at weekends to Zao ski resort where I would rent skis and spend the whole day enjoying the web of slopes and courses (and in the process teaching myself to ski - very badly). Mount Zao is actually a volcano on the border between Yamagata and Miyagi prefectures with the ski resort and famous hot springs (onsen) on the Yamagata side. One of the biggest tourist attractions are the so-called "snow monsters" (jyuhyō =樹氷), frost covered trees which look amazing especially when illuminated at night. Zao was actually the location for world-cup ski jumping last week and is highly recommended for expert and beginner alike.

As the conclusion to this snowy story let me introduce one of Japan's most well-known and loved children's songs: Yuki (snow) which is popularly called Yuki ya Konko (雪やこんこ) supposedly meaning snow falling though linguistically it doesn't make a lot of sense in modern Japanese. The lyrics and a translation can be seen here. My favourite line is undoubtedly the last, one that perfectly catches a typical indoor Japanese winter scene: neko wa kotatsu de marukunaru (猫はこたつで丸くなる) - "the cat is curled up under the kotatsu." A kotatsu is a low heated table covered with a quilt which, given that most Japanese houses don't have central heating, serves as a cosy refuge during the cold months. Highly recommended!