Great White North

After trying in futility to arrange more than my standard allotment of two days off in a row, I decided to spend three glorious nights in the northern frigidity of the Akita Prefecture. After scouring through the Shinkansen (bullet train) schedule, I determined that it was technically possible for me to run from work and catch the last train to Omagari station in Akita on Sunday, spend two days in nearby Yokote with my adopted "Big Sister", and then catch the first train back to Shizuoka on Wednesday morning in order to start work at 1:20 Wednesday afternoon.


I came into work Sunday morning with my mega-bag brimming with ski clothes, toting a pair of hiking boots in my left hand. When my last class ended at 5:20 in the afternoon, I jotted down some comments about each of my students, left my tie and work shoes in the teachers’ cabinet, hefted up my bag and bolted for the station. I was hoping to catch the Hikari express to Tokyo, but I arrived at the platform just as the doors closed, so I had to settle for a slower Kodama. “Kodama” means “sound”, while “hikari” means “light”. There is one speed of train that is faster than the Hikari: it’s called “hope”.


Once I got on the train I had to deal with the new dilemma of actually needing travel activities as it was too dark to see the landscape. After a day of work, all I had the energy for was a half-hearted plod through my lines for my Kabuki performance at the spring cherry-blossom festival. More on that later.


Arriving at Tokyo station, I had to ask the station staff three times before I got the pronunciation of “Omagari” right. I got on Car 1 at the back of what I was vaguely sure to be the right train and got a little stressed when I discovered immediately after the doors closed that only Cars 11 through 16 were actually going the way I needed to go. When the train got to Morioka, I would be performing the 500-yard Platform Dash unless I wanted to go to Aomori. I tried to explain my situation to the train staff as I slowly shifted further and further up the train, but the fact that I kept telling people I was going to Otemachi wasn’t doing my comprehensibility any favours. Otemachi is a stop on the Tokyo subway system.


Two hours later, I saw Sendai for the first time. It looked magnificently modern and Tokyo-like, a vast sprawl lit up with cool neon. It reminded me of just how much of a speck Shizuoka really is.


As I dashed outside to move to Car 11 at Morioka, I was pleased to note that it was actually cold and there was a legitimate accumulation of snow on the ground—the first l’d seen all winter. I ended up stealing a seat in the reserved section, whic caused me some concern, but I hadn’t been too enthused about the prospect of running around outside the train in search of the non-reserved cars only to have the whole thing leave without me, so I figured I’d take my chances. Nobody bothered me, and I spent the rest of the trip relishing in the sight of massive snowdrifts along the Shinkansen tracks as we continued into northern Japan.


We arrived in Omagari just after 11:00. Big Sis met me at the station and we drove to her friend’s house, where we ate some rather tasty curry and slept on a carpet of futons and blankets that had been assembled on the living room floor.


Big Sis and her friend are both Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) program, so they teach at public schools and have government sponsorship. Big Sis’ friend’s house was actually built specifically for her since she’s only the second ALT to live and work in her area. Her place is twice the size of my apartment, and I live with two other people, on top of which she gets public and school holidays off, while I get only a week at New Year’s and two weeks subject to my employers’ approval if I give them a month’s notice. I think she also gets paid more than me. I’ve determined that JET is to private conversation schools as the petty bourgeoisie was to the proletariat. Not that I’m having revolutionary thoughts, mind you.

Repeatedly Hitting the Slopes

Monday was a public holiday, and snowboarding was the principal item on the agenda. It was snowing incredibly heavily, and we could barely distinguish the road in front of us from the surrounding fields as we drove through open country. In Canada, perfectly flat snow-covered areas are usually lakes, but in Japan they’re typically rice fields. There aren’t that many lakes around here, and it doesn’t really get cold enough for them to freeze over. And yet, Big Sis has to turn off all the water in her apartment every night to prevent the pipes from freezing.


I’ve snowboarded just once before in my life, and that was in high school. It involved lots of falling and very little else. It also involved putting up a $500 deposit for each of the snowboards my friends and I rented. Five years later, I rented a board and boots for 1500 yen by doing no more than writing my name and address on a sheet of paper at a little shop on the way to the hill. The guys at the shop were amused that I came all the way from balmy Shizuoka—the warmest place in Japan outside of Okinawa.


Despite the heavy snow, the roads near the hill were clear and, oddly, steaming. I discovered that some of the roads in Akita are actually heated. In other places, such as Omagari station, there are little metal tubes built into the curbs that spray warm water to melt the snow. They don’t salt the roads in Japan, which explained why there wasn’t any grey-brown mush lining the side of the road to help distinguish it from the landscape.


At the hill, the lift lines operated on an honour system. You could buy a day pass, but it was more economical to buy lift tickets one at a time or in a set of eleven. You dropped a thin slip of paper into a little transparent plastic box that nobody was watching, got on the lift, and off you went. Since I was going to make a spectacle of myself anyway, I decided that I was going to do so wearing my red cow boxer shorts on my head. I had, however, forgotten that I generally need a certain amount of speed to keep the shorts’ legs from getting in my face and obscuring my vision, and it was a little difficult to hit warp speed when I was spending most of my time on my face or on my backside. I soon tucked the legs into the headband, so it looked like I was wearing a red thong on my head for the day.


Between the airborne snow and my repeatedly snowbound face, my sunglasses quickly became superfluous, and I finished my first run squinting and wiping massive accumulations out of my eye sockets every thirty seconds. But the snow lightened up and Big Sis gave me some good tips on techniques for remaining vertical, so I got the hang of things well enough that I could make it down a good chunk of the hill without falling. I even figured out how to carve a bit.


When Big Sis and I got to her apartment, the snow pile around her parking spot was at the height of my shoulder. I’ve been to Winnipeg and Montreal in the winter, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen as much snow as I saw in Akita. It snowed for three days straight while I was there. Every time we came back to the car, we had to spend a few minutes wiping it off before we could move again.

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