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Saturday, Dec. 30, 2006

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Hakodate -- home of the Twinkle Lady


As I left Hakodate for Niseko, the whole city was draped in the first snowfall of the year. And it was one furious snowfall.

News photo
The secret to central heating in Hokkaido is large tanks of kerosene that can hold over 300 liters. Every house has one. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

It somehow seemed appropriate that Hokkaido greeted me with a snowstorm: wind blowing and snow falling horizontally. I did everything to keep those curious snowflakes from getting inside my bag and jacket but it seemed each flake was on a separate mission.

Like Indonesian ants who can get through sealed cookie packages, these snowflakes would find even the smallest crevice in your jacket.

The Hakodate natives walked around the streets, with their hermetically sealed bags and clothing, as if this was completely normal. Some even carried umbrellas to shield themselves.

But that's OK, I love snow, I kept reminding myself. Besides, I was still thinking about the conversation I had with one Okayama native before I left Honshu.

When I told her I was going to Hokkaido for the winter, she looked at me clearly puzzled, and said, "I hear that in Hokkaido they never turn off the heat in their houses." My face lit up. "Yes, it's called central heating!" and I had to restrain myself from launching into a lecture on the virtues of central heating.

Her conclusion was merely, "It must be very cold there." But I was dreaming of a winter in Japan devoid of frozen bottles of shampoo in the bathroom and having to wear my ski outfit indoors.

My first experience with central heating was in the Hokodate train station.

I marveled how the entire station was enclosed in glass, and the people sat on benches looking relaxed while watching the snow fall outside and waiting for their trains.

This is in huge contrast to Honshu where even large stations such as Shin Osaka are all open and people stand around with their bodies hunched over and trembling in the cold while waiting for the train.

Even those getting off the trains are in a hurry, trying to get to the next warm vestibule as soon as possible.

Even the bathrooms in the Hakodate train station were heated. Hakodate, in an attempt to be an "international city," had a sign in English that informed toilet-goers: "request in use. The use back please drain water. Please do not drain it other than toilet paper of equipment." Okay!

Once on the train from Hakodate to Oshamambe, I was informed that the "Twinkle Lady" would bring food "served to my seat." I wasn't sure that my seat wanted anything, but I certainly did want a warm cup of coffee. But the Twinkle Lady was no where to be seen.

Basking in the warmth of central heating, I thought surely there must be some way to get this commodity to Honshu.

Fiber optics carry phone lines under the seas. The Pan-American Highway that links Alaska with the bottom of South America is 48,000 km long. The Alaskan pipeline took 21,000 people to build.

Certainly Japan, with its experience building bridges and man-made islands could find a way to transport central heat from Hokkaido to Western Honshu. And with the Shinkansen being so fast and efficient, couldn't they just send it by bullet train? How about Takkyubin? Twinkle Lady -- Do you think that's her real name? Of course, everyone knows that you can't just heat up a house and then turn off the heat because the heat escapes.

So, if everyone in Hokkaido teamed up with someone in Honshu and put a duct between their two houses, we could capture the escaping warm air and bring it into our own houses in Honshu and reuse it. And with wind power becoming increasingly popular these days, we could take some of those windmills and turn them upside down in the ground, and use them to propel the air along faster through the ducts.

"Twinkle, twinkle, little star . . ."

Until someone comes up with a better answer, such as the warm equivalent of ice, or hot rain as opposed to snow, I think Honshu should take heed from Hokkaido-just put in bigger kerosene heaters and never turn them off.

"Twinkle Lady de gozaimasu!"

I think I'm going to love Hokkaido.



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