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Saturday, Feb. 3, 2007


Making the streets safe in Hokkaido

I came to Hokkaido for the winter to take a job in medical translation. I work in Niseko, the powder snow Mecca to skiers and snowboarders. And when they face plant in the powder, ski into a tree, or huck a cliff and land improperly, I go to the hospital and help interpret between doctor and patient.

Ice Bar in Hirafu, Hokkaido
Ice Down your injuries at the Ice Bar in Hirafu, Hokkaido. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

I also translate medical documentation for the patients. This means taking difficult Japanese words, such as tokotsuenitankossetsu and turning them into the more comprehensible English words distal radius fracture (broken wrist).

But since I've started this job, only half the accidents have been related to skiing or snowboarding. It turns out that walking around town can be far more dangerous. And I'm not talking about crime.

Walking around Hirafu can be quite hazardous to your health. Because what the glossy tourist brochures about Niseko don't tell you is that the town of Hirafu, at the bottom of the ski mountain, is also the world's largest patch of ice. And it claims victims every day.

As soon as a tourist gets off the bus here from Chitose airport, his chances of ending up in the hospital are considerably greater than before he left his home country. Some people don't even make it an hour before they slip and fall on the ice: Wham! Bam! Pavement! Hospital! Distal radius fracture.

Although it may be the foot's fault for slipping, the damage occurs in the wrist as most people automatically put out their hand to break their fall.

The strange thing is, no one does anything about the ice. If they'd just take care of the Wham! Bam!, people would never get to the Pavement! Hospital! Distal radius fracture state.

Whereas in many Western countries there would be lawsuits against the town, in Japan they just say, Sand? Go to the beach if you want sand. Salt? That's for Shinto rituals. Makes you wonder what the Eskimos do.

But Hirafu can make the streets safer. Here are some of my ideas:

Hold Shinto purification ceremonies in the streets every few days. I'm sure the Japanese would acquiesce to using salt on sidewalks and streets if they thought the salt was a purifying safety ritual.

If that doesn't work, hold sumo tournaments in the streets. There is always lots of salt flying around in sumo tournaments.

Sell crampons. If someone would just open a climbing store, they'd do a brisk business in crampons.

Dispatch ambulances to known criminal ice patches such as the one in the convenience store parking lot. If there are not enough ambulances to go around, how about installing some of those emergency phones next to the ice patches, like the ones they have on highways?

Move the hospital. The closest hospital is 20 minutes away. This strikes me as very odd.

When a new McDonalds restaurant goes in, first there is extensive research as to how many cars pass that spot, who is in them and where they are going before they decide to build a restaurant there. Yet when it comes to building a hospital, you'd think the position would be obvious: the bottom of the ski slope.

Instead, they ferry people all day long to the hospital, whether it be for a broken femur or a distal radius fracture.

Perhaps there is some kind of sacred quality to ice that prevents the Japanese from removing it. They just can't seem to get enough of it here. There's even an "Ice Bar" in Hirafu -- completely made from blocks of ice.

I think they've made it especially for patients so they can come to terms with the culprit, ice down their injuries, and with one good hand to drink with, forget about Wham! Bam! Pavement! Hospital! Distal radius fractures.

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