Friday, 19 December 2014

Snow in Niigata: Why Teineipokna-Shiri is worse than Hell

While simultaneously stuck in the worst traffic and the worst snow storm I have ever experienced, it suddenly dawned on me. The Japanese have developed such a unique and strange culture in part because of the ridiculous environmental pressures they have had to put up with for the past  16,000 years. Since I arrived in August during 35°C temperatures and 100% humidity, there have been multiple landslides, huge thunderstorms, a couple of tsunami's, my first earthquake and even a volcanic eruption. This particular archipelago is trying to kill off its inhabitants.

Those hazards have been nothing in comparison to what even my Japanese co-workers have described as the snowstorm of the century. It's easy to laugh about it now with the sun shinning over the white blanket spread across Joetsu, but during the Wednesday evening drive home it really felt like Mother Earth had found her weapon of choice - Death by yuki.*

The Little K-Car that Could

It's funny. People said the snow got bad here, and I thought they were exaggerating. Turns out it was a huge understatement. More snow fell in 24 hours than Humberside, or even Durham, gets in two years. My usual 20 minute drive home took an hour and a half.  Despite the best efforts of the car heaters I could only see out of two small circles on the front window, and gale force winds whipped up the snow banks, making visibility nil. The roads had become freestyle mogul slopes.  It's a miracle my little K-Car made it.

Thankfully the guy who lives upstairs had cleared my parking space, so I didn't have to get out and dig for the fourth time that day when I arrived home. I quickly burrowed in under my Kotatsu (heated table),** and did not move until I made the quick dash to bed. It wasn't until I woke up the next day that I realised I'd slept in my clothes. Sometimes its just too cold to change.

Now, I can hear you sat at home asking "Mr. Lichaado San, what does all this snow have to do with culture?" Well, one of the identifying features of the Japanese way of life is the importance of society over the individual. In the face of natural disasters, bad weather of both extremes, and ground that is doing its best to shake everyone into the sea, we are reliant on society's helping hand. Through thousands of years of trial and error, the Japanese have learnt that the best way to face such adversity is as a unit. And afterwards everyone is closer for the simple reason that we made it through to the other side, together.

Thursday morning the roads had hardly improved. I made it to school 25 minutes late and was congratulated for it.

The Great Escape

Most religions and cultures represent the ultimate punishment for misbehaviour as roasting in an eternal fire. The Ainu, indigenous to the northern island of Hokkaido, pictured something far more terrifying-

"Gehenna, or hell, is called Teineipokna-shiri,
and that means ' the wet underground land.' The
wicked are punished in this place. As to what
these punishments consist of, the Ainu are not all
agreed. Some say that the spirits which go there
will be wet, uncomfortable, and very cold for ever."
        (John Batchelor 1901, The Ainu and their Folklore)

I always imagined the apocalypse as fire and brimstone. Now I know the truth - it all ends in a big freeze and everybody's got wet socks. Niigata is know for two things, sake and snow. Considering how great the sake is, I should have guessed how awful the snow would be. Life is a balance. Without the bad, good things would just seem ordinary. Work and holidays. Yin and yang. Snow storms and warm sake.

There are a few hardy individuals willing to pit themselves against the weather this winter and stay in Japan for christmas. They will be wet, uncomfortable , and very cold. Teineipokna-shiri on earth. I however have plotted an escape route. Four trains, two planes, and a car ride are all that separate me from the Malaysian beach I will be enjoying on Monday. And it's going to seem very, very good.

*On an academic side note, the Kanji for weather is 天気, which literally means something like the mood of the heavens. I think the heavens are angry about something.

**There is no central heating in Japan... I think it's because there would be thousands of gas leaks every time there's an earthquake. Because Japan is trying to kill everyone that lives here.

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