Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Japan - Warning Holiday snaps!

Recently I ticked one of my dreams off my bucket list- to take my family to Japan, where I have lived for two years. The first time was 30 years ago (do the maths!) as a Rotary Exchange student, in a lovely town called Tokamachi (which means '10-day town' as they had a market there on the 10th of every month, which I thought was so cool until I realised nearby was a 6-day town, a 4-day town....)

Tokamachi is in 'yukiguni' (snow country) and as such, holds an amazing snow festival every year as a way to 'make friends with the snow', a good move since they have 3 - 4 metres of it for four or five months every year. There were snow statues all around town, and the main event was a concert of some famous Japanese singers we'd never heard of, singing here:

Main Stage of the snow festival

Fireworks in Japanese is 'hanabi' - literally 'flower fire'. (Wouldn't it be cool to make up new words in a language?) btw, you can see the size of the ship now, with the kimono clad models, unknown famous singers and lines of red tracksuit wearing school students (it was held on their school sports grounds, after all). Note the snow covered Christmas trees in the background- sooo pretty I want to weep!

Some of the snow sculptures around town

We saw snow monkeys who keep warm in natural hotpools in the snow

and had a go at tea ceremony at the Buddhist temple where I used to learn 'ocha' (tea) and 'ohana' (flower arranging - ikebana)

We also went on to a gorgeous little alpine village called Nozawa Onsen for some fantastic powder skiing. Onsen is the Japanese word for hot pool, rather like the geothermal hotpools we have in Rotorua, NZ. However, in Japan,onsen are for bathing, not swimming, the difference being (much to my children's digust) one does not wear anything in the water! Needless to say, they refused to join me.

Our last night in Nozawa left me with a strong impression, which epitomised everything I love about Japan (excluding the food).
It led to this short story:

Onsen* on a snowy night

(* Japanese style natural hotpool)


The flakes fall thick and fast, white jewels in the darkness, melting into the wet black tar or disappearing into the mounds that have built up on what must have once been footpaths. The streetlights glisten with daggers of ice dripping from the glass shades, the snowflakes catching their glow for a final visible moment. All along the roadsides, candles light up the snowy path, flickering in their decorated paper surrounds, welcoming, luring, encouraging, in the cold. The faint smell of sulphur lures me on as I study the neon signs, decoding the scripted characters until I spot one with ‘lady’ in handwritten English under the Japanese symbol for ‘woman’.
Sliding the door to one side, the bathhouse curtain flutters around my head as I enter the steamy room. At first I go the wrong way, then follow the lead as I see half-naked women along the opposite wall, their clothes and towels piled in baskets arranged cubby holes. Shoes stand silently at attention on the wooden slatted walkway in the changing area. The women smile and nod in welcome, giggling behind their hands, at the sight of a foreign woman joining them in their daily ritual.
I crouch at the pool edge, shivering as the bone-chilling snow permeates the air.  The bare wooden walls do little to insulate against the stark cold that three metres of snow outside bestows. Using the small plastic basins provided, I throw mercifully warm water over myself, washing modestly as other women chat around me. A child beside her mother has almost finished dressing in fleecy pyjamas with blue and purple hearts. She stares at me un-self-consciously, wary of the white skin, the blonde hair and the green eyes smiling back at her. An overcoat protects her from the snow as she returns to her gas-warmed house and waiting futon.

 One woman, on her knees at the pool edge, washes her hair profusely. Another merrily soaps herself in public, despite her mutilated right breast. The mood is casual, friendly, cordial. The women come daily, catching up on gossip and news as they wash their bodies and wash away their day. They know each others’ families, their homes, their jobs, their worries, their stories. Problems are aired as are their bodies, the walls protecting their confidences as well as their privacy.

 Climbing into the scalding water to soak, I find it hard to equate the modest, shy people I see each day on the street, in the shops, at the convenience store, with these women here, happily washing together. The sulphur smell is almost intoxicating as I watch the water trickling in through a bamboo pipe. I let my arms and legs float, weightless, not daring to move, for every movement creates a burning sensation on my skin, as it turns to bright pig-pink. The women beside me giggle, reciting ‘atsui, atsui, atsui’ under their breath, as if admitting how hot it is will somehow make it more bearable. I feel relieved that they too feel the heat, and that it is not just my white gaijin body that is not used to the searing water. I breathe deeply, lying back, my head supported by the cold stone edge of the pool. “Ichi-go, ichi-e” I think. This moment called ‘now’ will not return, and so I treasure it.
Dried and reclad, encased in a down jacket, I trudge home back through the falling snow to our Japanese Inn, each snowflake living its moment as it falls to the ground.  In that falling, it is doing its living, whether anyone is there to see it or not. Toes pulsating with warmth, I melt the snow with my leather-clad footsteps, which are promptly re-covered in soft petals of snow. Somehow, deep in my warmed-up bones, I know I will be back.


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