Yes I know I can't challenge any of your Northeastern or Midwestern (or, god forbid, Great Plains) winters with my Fukui stories for cold, but I daresay we've got a decent bit of snow here in western Japan. Around my house on the Takefu plain, we've got close to four feet on the ground, and out at my visiting school, it's at least five feet--with drifts to much higher. Have I mentioned that these people don't believe in snow removal? The roads are horrible. Completely third world. It has been snowing continuously since about five minutes after I pedaled away from my house on my way to an office drinking party Friday (I was slogging through about 2 inches by the time I got there, and my bike was in about three feet by the time I remembered to look for it Monday afternoon--I didn't ride back). As a side note, some teacher must have told the restaurant staff to be on the lookout for an insane foreigner on a bike, because when I dripped in, three workers ran out to take my coat and toss me a towel, and one of them giggled and asked, "by bike?" It was a howling blizzard. On Sunday, I made my last ascent of my mountain for a while (mountain, thy name is Miyohojiyama)--normally about a 25 minute hike if I take my time but an hour in 1--3 feet of snow. (temple, me at the top, view) Every time I need to go somewhere, another foot of snow has buried my car. Without much snow removal (they don't seem to touch it until there's a foot of it on the surface, then rather than clear it to blacktop they just crush it down--now there's a very uneven and slippery foot of ice on most of the roads. Most traffic moves along at 10-15 miles an hour, and 15 is reckless in many places. And the capper--both of my schools are going skiing next month, and the teachers are going to ski-school school (yes, among other jobs, I can add ski instructor) a few times in the evenings, but our first session has been cancelled--too much snow!
Today, I asked if Japanese schools have snow days (they loved the description of kids waking up at six and gluing themselves to the closings reports on the radio), and I was told they never do. Then a teacher who had been scheduled to teach in the next town today wandered in and reported that school there was called off when most of the staff called from their cars to report the roads were closed and they couldn't get to school. Another report came in--Anyoji-cho, my elementary school's village, was cut off from the world (the post office called to say our mailman was trapped there). Finally, just as the last class was about to start, the kyoto-sensei's voice came over the intercom and said something about twenty minutes, but from the large crowd of twelve year olds having simultaneous orgasms I could guess that the message was "get the hell out."
As I had been teaching (and then using the shop classroom to adjust and sharpen my skis), the other male teachers had been shoveling snow, so I headed out to join the men who were still working outside. The kocho told me not to worry, I could join them next time, but I said I really wanted to, that I felt silly sitting inside warm while they were out there. Of course, had I understood more, I would have realized that the identity of the "them" was the critical point. I climbed up onto one of the bicycle parks to help the men clear it off (they were worried about the weight collapsing it, as several more feet are expected in the next few days), only to realize, hey, I don't know these guys. They're not teachers. I first thought they were students' fathers, as that's often how things work here, but it turned out they were municipal workers the kocho had called in from Streets and San. They were hugely amused to see me and asked me questions nonstop (some of them I could even understand). After the first roof, as I began to soak through, I dropped out of the work crew, pointing out that I wasn't really dressed for this--lest this make it sound like I'm really good at this Japanese stuff, I should point out that my exact words translate as "Sorry, going inside. Wrong clothes." One of the guys was half a foot taller than the depth of snow on the roofs.
Then, inside, the one English teacher told me that yesterday the kocho had sent us all home about this time, but with the city workers we'd asked for still clearing the roofs of the bike barns, it would look bad for us to go; fortunately, a few minutes later the leader came in to say they were done, so we started to leave. I forget how high the status of teachers is here, but I'm reminded by the humility and deference of other adults whenever they enter a teachers' room. Getting out was also a project, as was getting to my next stop, my student's apartment. All the spots in his lot were full of either cars or snow, so I parked in the lot of his factory, about 200 m away. And I did what I'd feared doing some drunken night, but without even being drunk. One step--three feet deep. Next step--at least 6, and, gee, my boot's underwater. I'd stepped into one of the damned drainage/irrigation channels, but I grabbed the drainpipe of a shop and so only put one calf underwater and could haul myself out. I was only a couple of feet from traffic, and there were plenty of people nearby as the factory was letting out; I taught eight or ten people a new English word: "bwaaaaaaaaaa!" The guy in the car next to me stopped and asked if I was OK, but I was laughing by then, and when two other men who came to help me saw that I was laughing, they laughed too. Still entertaining the locals.
And vice versa--one of them just slammed his car into the outside wall of my apartment. I am now going to get up and see if my wall is OK. No, I was mistaken--it was just the eight foot bush outside of my window collapsing. Lovely: my view of the parking lot is restored. Oh, there's another one. I hear car doors slamming, so I suspect these collapses might be getting a little help, but that part of the lot is kept pretty clear by the sprinklers--which, as I had suspected, don't work that well if you get a lot of snow, which this part of Japan is famous for, and don't work at all when the the temperature goes below 20° F, which people had assured my doesn't happen. Now, I'm guessing that the slamming noises are other bushes in the row giving up the ghost in the heavy wind which has risen in the last few minutes. I will never understand Japan if I can't even figure out the shrubbery.
That's all for now. About the time I send this, I will be putting up the one picture I have from last Friday's drinking party, a tiny vending machine photo sticker of me and as many PTA parents as could fit under the curtain. I think the friend I've mentioned once or twice, the youngest English teacher, is also in the photo. I was dragged into this on the way into a karaoke place. I've developed a style: I make up for my lack of singing ability with hammy overacting. Accordingly, my one song was a sneering, threatening, and of course tottering "Anarchy in the UK." Someone else had another idea, and at one point two ladies hustled me out of my seat, planted the mike in my hands, and said over and over as they shoved me forward, "My Way." It's a huge karaoke favorite, and of course it goes with hamminess (you should always end "My Way" on your knees, reaching for the heavens, with tears rolling down your cheeks--but I couldn't manage the tears). It was a great time--the parent who'd wanted to fight me at the last PTA enkai wasn't there (and he'd missed another PTA-teacher function last month--I think he's either been kicked off the PTA or isn't allowed to come when the teachers are there; I'm sure his action was viewed as a blot on the entire nation). Oh, yes, cultural differences: one father told me, "you drink a lot." My supervisor overheard this and came up to me a minute later and said, wow, he must really like you to say something that nice. Another friend later told me that, yes, this is universally considered a virtue here. Oh, well, I hadn't given my liver much exercise since Christmas eve.
I even repeated the experience of thinking I was being taken home and winding up at the same bar as last time with the kocho-sensei. This must be his neighborhood place--"where everybody knows your name," so to speak: Cheers with grasshoppers instead of peanuts. Ultimately, like everything and everyone else at Manyo, I'm the kocho's responsibility; in a very friendly way, he wants to show me some attention and make sure I'm getting along OK. He also saw to it that I got home OK (his wife drove up to the bar and they took me home on their way home, although the bar is close to their house and my place is at the other end of town--and this was in a heavy snowstorm). My colleagues and the students really treat me well and make me feel very much like one of the team. It's strange that I should feel like I fit in where, where I'm such an obvious alien, where I barely speak the language and don't understand the culture at all. There are some good people out here.
O genki de