Snow Country

Spring has arrived. I spent the weekend of the first day of spring by the lunar calendar in Echigo-Yuzawa. Over three meters of snow! While realizing that it is rather inconsiderate, I hope that this impulse-driven trip stays in my memory.

I made a recreational trip to Minakami Onsen in March 1969. At that time, alighting from the express train, we found the hot-spring district buried in more than two meters of snow. I was completely awestruck by the amazing spectacle. Unfortunately, however, I also came down suddenly with a cold, and at the time of the evening dinner party, I was moaning in my sleep in an adjacent room. The snow seemed to be looking down on me from a high window. It was a very weird feeling indeed.

Since then I haven’t gone near any places with heavy snowfall, so you can imagine how intense that experience must have been. In Oita Prefecture, where I come from, when it snowed, we used to chase after the snow flakes as they danced around in the wind like cherry blossoms.

The snow falls thickly, sending Taro to sleep.
The snow falls thickly, sending Jiro to sleep.

Late at night, as the rain turned to snow, like this poem by Tatsuji Miyoshi, I remember being excited by the thought of a white landscape gleaming in the sun the next morning. The snow did indeed whiten the fields and trees, but it had disappeared by lunch.

As I sat looking at the endless clear sky and white clouds, with the peaks of Mount Akagi, Mount Haruna, and Mount Myogi on both sides, the Shinkansen bullet train roared into the first tunnel, which led to a snow-less landscape. The second tunnel was the same. The third tunnel opened to a snowy landscape. And then, just after Jomo-Kogen Station, the bullet train at last entered the 22.2-kilometer-long Daishimizu Tunnel. And after what seemed like a long time, during which there was even an announcement on the train, an overcast sky and snow-white scenery suddenly spread out in front of us, and Echigo-Yuzawa came closer.

The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.
The earth lay white under the night sky.

The picture of a night-time steam locomotive, with all its noise and smells, chugging out of a long tunnel is an impressive one. But the sudden appearance of a snowscape, without any sun and with the snow still coming down, just one hour away from Ueno by Shinkansen is a thrilling sight for the traveler as well.

Having said that, though, it soon became clear that the houses were drowning in snow. First of all, we headed by taxi to the Takahan inn, where Yasunari Kawabata stayed to write Snow Country. The main street was clear of snow, because it had equipment for melting the snow with water, but on both sides there were three-meter-high walls of snow. Snow was also piled up on the roofs of the hotels and condominium buildings, and people were clearing it away in places that could collapse under its weight. What snow!

From Takahan we headed in the Naeba direction to warm ourselves up at the Kaido no Yu hot-spring facility, but the road was completely blocked because of the blizzard. The snow showed no sign of ceasing. “This is the first time for us to have so much snow,” the taxi driver said. “It piles up 50 centimeters in one night. The people round here don’t like the autumn foliage, you know. We like the spring. We are just longing for spring!” Looking out of the car window, I could see a wall of snow about four meters high. The top of the snow looked just like a lion, roaring at the wind.

The top of meters of snow, like a lion.

The taxi driver said that the snow was not likely to completely melt away until June, a month or so later than usual. The first day of spring on the lunar calendar no doubt brings some comfort to the people of the snow country.

As I continued my journey in the comfort of the car, I recalled this poem by the Zen monk Ryokan (1758-1831):

Playing handball with the children
I wished the sun would never go down