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Saturday, Jan. 15, 2005

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Freezin' in a winter wonderland


Winter lies heavy on Japan. In this country, that means ski slopes, hot sake, common-pot stews, frosty smiles, rosy cheeks and -- at least for those in the highlands or up north -- buckets of snow. It's but one cozy chapter of the chipper romance that all Japanese feel for the four seasons.

But -- and you can ask my wife on this -- I am not Mr. Romantic. Especially when my partner is Old Man Winter. I have but one desire in this season of chilly delights, and it is not to escape to the slopes or to build a snowman or to munch "mikan" under a comfy "kotatsu." It's merely this:

I want winter to go away -- now.

Some Japanese -- enchanted perhaps by the slurpy spell of hot "oden" or bewitched by the crystal clarity of the seasonal skies -- choose to query me on this. Did I grow up spoiled on buttery California sunshine? they ask. Or did I spend my younger days wafting around the Everglades, where the winter temperatures are ever-warm?

But no. I hail from the Midwest prairies, where winter not only has some bite, it can take your leg off. Furthermore, I grew up at a time when the words "global warming" were but distant glints in some industrialist's eye. As a kid, when I went outside, I had to pile on so much clothing that it was physically impossible to bend either elbows or knees. If knocked down in such a state, the only way to get up again was to roll south until it was warm enough to wiggle free from several layers of apparel.

While that may be a mild exaggeration, it is a cold fact that when, upon learning my first job in Japan would be on the "southern" island of Kyushu, my joy was so unbridled that I smiled from ear to ear for an entire week, even in my sleep. For I had escaped winter at last!

Of course, as anyone who has lived on Kyushu will attest, I was soon in for an icy surprise. For while Kyushu's winters have little snow, they also have little warmth. What's more, in those days southern Japan had yet to accept foreign innovations such as centralized heating, insulation or winter jaunts to Florida. What was supposed to keep you warm was your samurai spirit.

In my case, I traded my samurai spirit for an Eskimo parka. But even this failed to do the trick. My teeth did not merely chatter, they soliloquized. Slowly I shivered my way through to the spring.

I still pretty much shiver my way through winter, even though I have since relocated to Tokyo and indoor warmth has greatly improved -- after, that is, the Japanese discovered that heating systems were marketable. It has not helped that my Japanese wife enjoys winter and is prone to opening windows, switching off heaters and bullying me to rise and shine from under six sediments of futon.

"Do you know what I like about winter?" Her eyes sparkle. So does her breath, which hangs frozen in our living room icebox. "I just love the feeling of getting all warm and toasty after having been out in the freezing cold."

In case you are wondering, yes, we have indeed discussed whether or not she is insane. I say her viewpoint is equivalent to extolling the pleasure that comes after a dentist has stopped drilling into a nerve. She says men, especially foreign men, and more especially foreign men who wear stocking caps and gloves IN the house, cannot possibly understand.

This is one Japanese/female concept I do not wish to understand. At least, thanks to a lack of athleticism not so dissimilar from my own, she has never suggested we go skiing. But a friend has.

"C'mon! It's so much fun! The slopes are great!"

My sunny response to his cordial invitation has always been the same: "Not on your life."

I then explain that I don't need to go to the mountains to freeze. I am managing that right here in Tokyo.

"But with the sun out, you don't even feel the cold! And the scenery is stunning!"

Now THAT I believe, for I have heard stories of skiers wrapped around trees and splattered against rocks. Very stunning, I'm sure. Plus, at that moment, I suspect the rest of her statement is true too. You don't even feel the cold.

I also suspect the never-ending ski boom is somehow linked to a distant Japanese discovery that skiwear is marketable. I feel no real need to sink a month's paycheck in fashion that I will wear for only one weekend and then probably have to have scissored off my body by an emergency room nurse.

"But you can wear them around town as well," says my wife.

"They would make me look ridiculous."

"So? Most clothes make you look ridiculous."

"Maybe, but the alternative is worse."

To this she adds no comment, offering only a quiet nod of the head.

"Forget the skiing then," says that friend. "Forget the snow. Forget the cold. Just join the party at the ski lodge! You can't possibly object to that!"

Of course not. For that reason I am very willing to go -- in the summer. In the meantime, I will stay as warm as possible here in Tokyo, where I can party with my room heater cranked as high as Hades. That is, until my wife rushes in, shrieks in sweltering protest, and thrusts open a window.

"You have to learn to enjoy this season!" she yells. "There is a reason that God made winter!"

Perhaps, but there is also a reason that God made Guam. And that is a theology worth exploring, I feel. At least until spring.

To contact Thomas Dillon, send e-mail to marriedtojapan@yahoo.com


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