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Saturday, Feb. 17, 2007


Niseko -- snowflake Mecca

It snowed 30 cm last night. And another 30 cm today. Nature is expressing herself.

Snowflakes in Niseko
SNOWFLAKES living a quiet life of meditation. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

While the locals here in Hokkaido are concerned with getting rid of the mounting piles of snow, I am left wondering: Why is Japan such an attractive destination for snowflakes?

Do you think it's some Shinto ritual? In the same way the Shinto gods gather in Izumo every October for their "God convention," perhaps the snow gathers in Hokkaido for four months in winter for a "drifting convention." After all, four months is a long life span for a snowflake -- longer than moths and many insects.

Niseko powder is born in Siberia as droplets of moisture, and then turns to snow after arriving in Japan's mountains. At this point these droplets can form into one of three kinds of snowflakes: dendrites, plates or needles/columns. Snowflakes crystallize into dendrites and plates at -1 C and -3 C.

Dendrites are the classic snowflake design, with lacy edges making them look like they are dressed in frilly gowns ready to go to the queen's ball. Plates are simpler yet also beautiful designs looking more like fancy versions of the washers used between nuts and bolts.

Needles and columns are long like grains of rice and form at between -5 C and -10 C. Below -10 C, dendrites and plates form again. So you see, while no two snowflakes look exactly the same, they are all related.

Snowflake reproduction, referred to as accumulation, is especially high in Niseko. It is a very fertile place for snow babies. This is why those piles of snow just get higher and higher, even without any apparent new snowfall.

While the flakes fall relentlessly, the snow plows scoop them up and transfer them to trucks that carry the snowflakes out of town.

It seems like a terrible fate for snowflakes that have traveled so far. But the secret is in the landing. If they learn to land in trees or untouched fields, each snowflake will live a life of quiet meditation. Pity the snowflake that has a bad aim and lands on the warm hood of a car, or worse, straight into the rotenburo.

Yukimi is the Japanese word for watching the snow fall. And there is plenty of opportunity for yukimi in Hokkaido. In one moment, furious flurries, needles and columns race with the wind, making little tornadoes.

Then suddenly the mood changes and the snowflakes are sauntering down from the sky in slow motion. Time stops as the dendrites dance slowly, their frilly gowns billowing out as they sally down from the sky as delicately as cherry blossom petals.

However, yukimi is not the only pastime in Hokkaido. A close rival is what I call yuki-oroshimi, or "watching snow removal." One can spend hours watching people clear the snow from their lives.

Tourists take photos of dump trucks hauling away snow. People stand mesmerized as they watch the locals climb up on the roofs of their houses and push the snow off.

Shop-owners can be seen shoveling snow from their store fronts and stuffing it down sewer drains in the roads.

And forget those wimpy ice scrapers for cleaning snow off your car -- here people clear off their cars with snow shovels and household brooms. I even find the snowplows enchanting, as they rumble around town like tanks all through the night, often lined up three in a row, working around the clock.

I suppose it is all this snow removal that prompted Hokkaido to have snow festivals such as the Sapporo Snow festival and the Lake Shikotsu Ice Festival. Ice sculptures are a form of recycling snow.

Although I have always thought of ice as angry snow, in this case the ice has been tamed and turned into art. To be part of a beautiful piece of ice sculpture must be what every snowflake aspires to. Unless of course they are looking for everlasting life.

In that case, the dream of every dendrite, plate and column, would be to become permafrost.

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