Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Snow Won't Melt my Heart

Ah, a month in, and still the snow fascinates me. 
Bearded Kaiju, seen here fascinated by snow.

I am from Austin, and have only fleeting understanding of the cold. Wow! It rained and all the streets are covered with a thin film of ice! Chaos! Wow! It’s so cold you can leave the beer outside! Hyuk hyuk hyuk!

Here the cold is stronger, a bitter god angry at the joys of summer. I know there are fiercer gods of cold out there, “All you who live south of the Wall are Southerners,” but I don’t ever want to meet them.

Here, the cold is an entity, not a number that measures the absence of heat. Pah! I feel myself relating more and more to the ancient philosophers who believe cold was a force and not the base state that modern physicists define it as. To think the sun is the aberration in our universe is counterintuitive to the human experience. When the sun is shining and the ‘natural state’ of the universe is melted away if just for a cloud free afternoon, my world feels right, not alien. And the neighbors agree, albeit in their obsessive hardworking Japanese way. A sunny day means a day of watching sixty year old men scale rickety ladders up onto their roofs and hurl mountains of snow atop their sixty year old wives. A sunny day doesn’t mean less shoveling, it means a joyful day spent scraping away the bottom few centimeters of ice that make the road truly treacherous. Ah, a recent convert to Celsius, I relish the 5 degree days, and positively bask when its 8 degrees outside.

For the cold will return, it has each and every time so far, and I suppose if the physicists are right, it always will, soon as we shift out of the light of our freakishly optimistic sun, the cold returns, as inevitable as the dark.

I try not to get angry when someone from Austin tells me, “oh, its’ the same temperature in Takayama as it is here right now!” I understand. I’ve made the same righteously unsympathetic statements to a friend living in Boston and my family in Michigan. A moment of equality only drives the abject misery of living in the cold deeper into my frigid bones. For a moment when—gasp—it’s a few degrees above freezing in my home town and my current residence represents a huge difference in experience. For 3 degrees Celsius in Austin is one of the colder nights, here in Takayama, it’s a warm afternoon. That difference may seem pedestrian but it is not. Cold is not something that can be thwarted with a scarf and a cup of hot cocoa. It is a merciless, relentless enemy, who sees no attack upon my sanity too insidious to employ. 

A man must shovel the snow. Even in the face of more snow
This is right, and as it should be.
I’ve woken to find all the windows frozen shut, with a shirt hung carelessly close frozen to the glass, as if it’d reached out to lick the frost and been trapped there. I’ve woken to find the olive oil frozen into a brick (It’s been too cold to put honey in my coffee for months). I’ve discovered my washcloth frozen to the shower tiles, the shampoo beyond unusable. I’ve had entire days ruined because I’ve run down stairs at the crack of dawn to turn on the kerosene heater in the kitchen (no central heat for me) only to seek refuge thirty minutes later and discover the cursed thing was out of fuel and my kitchen still a frozen wasteland. I sleep with a hat, every night. I wear two hats and six layers during the day. I rant passionately about my heated coffee table (my beloved kutatsu). I value soup above all other foods. And, when given the opportunity to spend the night in a repurposed bakery up in the mountains, I leap at the opportunity, not because a bakery sounds warm, but because a night away from home will give us enough time to wash our sheets and let them dry.

So my wife and I found ourselves whisked away, up into the mountains, towards Mastumoto. I told my students of my plan to sleep in an old bakery in the mountains and they warned me of the drive.

“Be careful, the way between here and Matsumoto is very treacherous. Its full of twisting, frozen roads and haunted tunnels.”

I nodded, thankful for the terrifying advise, but explained that in fact I wasn’t going all the way to Matsumoto, I’d be stopping somewhere along the way.

“Oh! We’ll watch the news!” one of my students exclaimed, “If a bear comes down out of the mountains, we’ll know it’s you!”

Everyone laughed at the dire predicament I’d soon find myself in, and I lamented that despite my time here, I have not developed a Japanese sense of humor.

Still, the promise of adventure stirred my frozen bones and I packed my bag with enough calories to survive a hike out of the mountain.

The drive was spent in second gear, climbing six hundred meters along mountain roads that were only ploughed when they straightened out. Between harrowing turns and bone rattling bumps of ice, we found ourselves in old twisty tunnels. I always imagined tunnels to be pushed straight through mountains, but these beasts were like something from inside an ant colony. Dull flashing lights warned us of approaching walls and sharp turns. I mistakenly asked Eric why the tunnels were haunted.

“Because so many people crash and die here,” his wife Nolico said from the steering wheel before popping out of tunnel, running a red light and smiling, “oops!”

When we arrived at the bakery, I had never been so happy to set foot on an iced over road.

It turned out our host was far from a baker. He was a guitar player that—everyone but him likes to remind us—used to tour with Deep Purple. He kept the wood burning stove stoked as he wailed on his guitar, Eric played the harmonica and I did my best to insult Eric through rhyme between sips of sake. More people showed up, including Steve, who assured me that this was as good as it got, and even though we’d only been here a few months, we better damn well recognize that.

And you know, after getting slush in my boots, and snow down my coat, after paying for tank after tank of stinking kerosene, I got it, loud and clear. Nothing is better on this earth than warmth.

Warm people, music so loud it heats your bones, and fire. Be it from the sun, that unnaturally optimistic aberration, or from wood burnt to keep out that most vicious of gods, it doesn’t matter. For warmth, in all of its forms, is as good as it gets.

1 comment: