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Saturday, Jan. 13, 2007


Niseko -- the souls of melted snowmen

Here I am basking in central heating in Hokkaido. I came to try out Japan's rugged north for the winter where only five percent of Japan's population dares to live, along with 3,000 higuma, or brown bears. Hokkaido is famous for its wide-open spaces and dairy cows.

News photo
BEWARE skiing potatoes in Kutchan! AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

But I've been here a week and haven't seen any of this. I have been through the towns of Kutchan, Niseko and Hirafu and have no idea what they look like. This is because since I've been here, I haven't been able to see more than a meter in front of me at a time.

They say that in Niseko, it doesn't snow; it dumps. And so far, it has dumped over 30 cm of snow every night. Every morning, I have to shovel myself out of my dwelling.

Outside my door, a giant volcano called Mt. Yotei towers over the town. Or so they say. Funny how I can see millions of tiny snowflakes in front of me but not a nearly 2,000-meter-tall volcano.

With an average snowfall of 15 meters a year, it's not surprising then that this area is famous for its powder snow. Everyone around here snowboards or skis, even the vegetables. Yep.

One thing to be on the watch for in the town of Kutchan is skiing potatoes. These potatoes, (not mashed potatoes, mind you, but either baked or boiled) can be seen on signs all around town. Apparently, the potatoes prefer to ski in pairs. Now those are some real frozen vegetables.

One thing is for sure though. Life here is very different from life on Honshu.

First of all, no one fears earthquakes, or even tremors. The first night I spent here, I felt a tremor in the early morning. The house shook and things on the shelves rattled for a few seconds. That day, I asked someone else if they felt the tremor and they said that in three years living here, they had never felt a tremor. "That was definitely not a tremor you felt," the person said.

The next night, I felt the same shaking of the house, but this time at 3:30 a.m. I looked out the window to see a giant snow plow passing by, with huge chains on its tires, clunking down the road. So that's where the tremors were coming from.

This is when I learned the key to surviving in Hokkaido: snow removal.

While the locals spend their days trying to get rid of the snow, the snow continues dumping down. You can see people desperately trying to get rid of the white stuff by stuffing shovel loads of it down street drains, or by having it hauled off in large dump trucks that take it to the countryside. The next day, the routine starts all over again.

All day long, snow falls off roofs, sometimes even killing passersby. This is facilitated by houses with steep roofs to encourage the snow to slide off. All it takes is the slight movement of the house, brought on by a snowplow tremor or the closing of an outside door, to loosen the snow and send it crashing down.

I imagine there are very few divorces in Hokkaido as getting angry at your spouse and slamming the door behind you as you leave could be fatal.

Cities such as Sapporo have realized that the best way to get rid of the snow is to melt it, so they have installed heated streets and sidewalks. The taxi drivers take a different attitude though and put ski racks on their cars.

The explanation for why so much snow falls in Niseko is that weather streams from Siberia pick up moisture over the sea and dump it as snow in the mountains here.

But I have a different theory behind all this snow: the souls of melted snowmen.

When all the snowmen around the world melt, their souls come to Niseko and reappear the next winter as snow.

As I went outside my house this morning to do the obligatory two hours of snow tunneling to get out of my house, I started talking to a snow-shoveling neighbor. "This is nothing," he said with a laugh. "This year is on record for the least snowfall ever."

I sighed and went back to my snow-shovelling. Only 14 more meters of snow to go!

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