Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Blizzard Strikes Takayama!

Here in Takayama, we are in the midst of what I will be the first to call a blizzard. It has been snowing all weekend, and is supposed to keep up for another three days. Even the locals say this is a lot of snow, for this time of year. They weren’t expecting this much snow until January! Hyuk hyuk hyuk. I shiver in my boots and try to smile as I blunder my way through this winter wonder land.
The local temple, mid-blizzard.

There are rules to the snow, things that only those who live in it would ever learn. I am learning them, day by day, though its not a gentle education.

Rule #1 No one will teach you how to drive in the snow until you demonstrate you cannot drive in the snow.

Remember: slow, steady, and don’t worry when you wife comes home ten minutes after leaving for work, sweaty and with a pounding heart because she couldn’t drive up the twisting driveway to school. No one can! She ended up having to take a cab who refused to drive up the same driveway because of—you guessed it—the snow! Sure, our car has four wheel drive, but no one told us that until it failed it to make it up the winding driveway of blind turns that busloads of children somehow traverse without death.

Rule #2 There are laws to shoveling the snow.

What some may see as a simple chore I look at as good exercise and loads of fun. There is a tiny creek that runs alongside our street that has yet to freeze. All the shoveled snow gets dumped into it and washed downstream. I find this fascinating. No matter how much snow I dump in this inch or two of running water, it melts away and vanishes! I’ve tried damming the creek with snow, slush and ice, but nothing stops it! On and on its run, enabling my play. After thirty minutes of shoveling, I’m not left with a huge pile of snow, but clean streets! I worry what will happen if this stream freezes (which seems inevitable to my ignorant Texan sensibilities) but until then, it’s shovel! Shovel! SHOVEL!

Bearded Kaiju, seen here stealing snow.
I know I’m not alone in this passion. A friend told me her dad is so passionate about shoveling the snow he shovels his roof. That sometimes she’ll wake up to find he’s shoveled his walk as well as all the neighbors. She said her neighbors fight over where to put the shoveled snow, but it sounds more likely that they’re arguing over who gets to shovel what. Every morning, senior citizens take to the streets with shovels and straw hats, eager to out shovel each other. I want to join them, but I wake later and thus am left with already shoveled streets.

But no bother! We’re in the middle of a blizzard! There’s enough snow for everyone to shovel. But apparently, that is not the way of things. After my wife’s harrowing drive to work, we set to work shoveling out our street, a sort of cul-de-sac with six houses on it. After thirty minutes the neighbor came out to question what the hell we were doing. My brave wife tried to explain we found it interesting (an adjective the Japanese love) but we were met with a blank, untrusting face. We tossed our piles of snow in the creek and got the hell inside, moments before a friend of the neighbor showed up, probably to watch the barbaric foreigners shoveling someone else’s snow. We’re actually fairly certain she called our landlord to come plow our driveway (he showed up as I was writing this). This is the same guy who painted our parking lot rather than telling us where to park, so it seems likely, either that or he saw us shoveling and got jealous.   

Rule #3 Snowball fights are always OK.

I’ve started snowball fights with my wife, five year old school children, drunken friends in the dead of night, and strangers in restaurant parking lots. Always the first snowball is met with disbelief, and then quickly followed by a return volley and a smile. Snowball fights build relationships and lessen stress. Snowball fights turn the world around you into a battlefield of the gentlest kind. Enjoy them, relish them, for you’ll need some way to fight against all these damn rules. And remember, snowballs translate far better than a stolen snow shovel.

J. Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama, Japan with his darling wife. Read more about the snow or about that time his house was almost washed away.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

This is the Most Snow I've Ever Seen!

To a Texan boy, there ain’t many things more magical than snow. My family’s from Michigan, so I have a few pieces of memories of holding a snowball or watching in horror as one of the neighbors bashed my father’s snowman with a skateboard. But I moved to Texas for kindergarten, so most of my memories of snow involve cars crashing and making 11 inch snowmen that melt before noon.
To a Texan, even this pile of garbage is beautiful under fresh snow.

Takayama, Gifu has changed all that. It began to snow in earnest last Friday. My wife and I rushed outside for the smallest of reasons, to take out the garbage, to check the mail, always after bundling up under too many layers. The snowflakes that day seemed bigger than my hand, huge, silent masses of fluffy ice that were thicker than any fog. They would fall for a spell then stop and melt away before another flurry would begin.
What little snow that did stay on the ground I scooped up and hurled at my students. Though I gave the five-year-olds a ten-to-one distance handicap, I still managed to hit each of them with far more snowballs then they hit me. Ah to have eye-hand coordination. The game only stopped twice, once when I chastised a child for throwing balls made of slush and rocks instead of snow (I’m from Texas, and that don’t seem right) and once when the whole gang of them chastised me for some egregious sin I will never understand. Still, we all returned to the warmth of the school smiling.
vThe next day the snow committed to covering the landscape. The snowflakes shrunk to a tenth of their previous size, and instead of falling heavily for twenty minutes at a time, they fell unceasingly for twenty four hours. By the next morning the entire town was covered in (gasp) three or four inches of snow. I began to chant “this is the most snow I’ve ever seen!” unceasingly.
It was perfect really, for that day was to be a white Christmas. Though it was still early in December, the English school where we work was hosting a plethora of parties, and lucky for us they’d all be decorated with the most festive of precipitations. We pulled our scarves closer to keep the errant snow flake from finding its way in to our coats, and unloaded the car.

The highs and lows of Christmas cake.
The party went by without a hitch, well, mostly. The games flew by. We served the Christmas cake, which in japan is a shortcake with pineapple rolled into a spiral around whipped cream and is not as good as it sounds. The kids, high on the cake, crashed into eachother like reindeer. Finally the big moment arrived: Santa was here! He stomped into the room with his hat pulled low. The youngest child was terrified and screamed at her mother for putting her on Santa’s lap. The older kids screamed “Joe-sensei!” and Santa looked around confused. The oldest kids waited in line, mumbled ‘merry Christmas’ and made off with their haul of goodies. But most of the students seemed genuinely convinced that of course ol’ Europeon Saint Nick would make it to an English school’s Christmas party in early December. What else does he have to do this time of year?
After that we braved the snow again, this time through enormous windows at the Japanese restaurant that was hosting our adult students’ Christmas party. We sat and chatted about the weather, about skiing, about what exactly I was about to eat. All the while I stared out the window as the snow kept falling. We ate and we drank until the restaurant turned out the lights illuminating the trees outside, and my beautiful panorama of leafless cherry tree branches and dense piney shrubs felt all the colder.
We left the restaurant and made for the nearest karaoke bar, though not until I chunked a few snowballs at the ten year old kid who was trying to peg his mom while she waited for dad to get the car. I consider it a success, because by the time we turned the corner, the entire family was furiously pelting each other with snow.
We tromped through the snow in single file, the man in the front breaking trail for us. I love the way snow sounds when it crunches under foot. It’s the sound of something miraculous compressing into something bland and pedestrian. It must sound like the opposite of diamonds being made.
I marveled at the town I thought I knew so well. Where were the streets? The sidewalks? Where were the trees I’d spend so many hours painstakingly cataloguing, learning which would bloom in spring and which would put on the most impressive shows of fall foliage. Under the snow, they were all the same: slumbering giants with nothing to do but shoulder the weight and the cold until spring. 

These are my best friends as usual, giggling like a schoolgirl,
 asleep, and brooding over booze and cigarettes
The snow still seemed magic when hours later I watched it fly by as a taxicab drove us home from our last stop of the night, a Dutch Christmas poetry party. The snow hadn’t even lose its splendor when at the party I drank too much and had to sit outside in the cold and sober up. My friends found me out there, without a coat or a hat, and challenged me to make a snowman the next day. They’re good people.
I managed to make that snowman (with more than a fair amount of help from my darling wife) and still the snow seems magic to me. Today the temperature is rising to a whopping 44 degrees Fahrenheit, and the snow is melting. But even this is beautiful. The sounds of water dripping, of branches snapping up after losing their melting weight echo through our town, and it makes me appreciate the transient beauty of snow. Even in Texas I understood that snow could change everything overnight, but here that realization seems even more present.

When the snow falls, another city awakens: a city where teachers attack their students with weapons made on the street, a city with the paths of human and beast laid bare for all to see, a city where even the trees dream. In this city spring may come for a day or two, but always the threat and beauty of the snow lies at the top of the mountains, threatening to come down and stay for the winter.
I for one, can’t help but invite it in. But let’s see how I feel in February.  
Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama, Japan with his darling wife. Though he's excited for the snow, he still fears the coming months. If you liked this story, please +1 and share with your friends!

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Japanese Thanksgiving

A psychedelic Japanese Indian, an Israeli from Ukraine and a vegetarian Dutch English teacher walk into the coolest bar on earth for thanksgiving dinner. Elvis Presley croons “Blue Christmas” as the bartender sips his whiskey and asks, “Hey, where are the Americans?”

We, of course, were an hour late. I tried to blame my Latin wife, an always successful strategy with my family in Texas, but the Eurasians were having none of it.

Nolico the psychedelic Japanese Indian pushed her headdress aside as she danced in her seat, “You said seven, it’s eight. This is magic quiche Eric made!” I took a bite, wondering if it would make me wiggle and groove as much as she already was. 

Alex the Ukrainian Israeli cursed us, “Damn Americans think they’re so important. Would you like some Ukranian salad?” he heated up a pan for fresh falafel, “If it is not good, then it is Russian salad.” 

And Eric, the vegetarian English teacher asked if we had brought any chicken and apologized for being on time.

The coolest bartender in the world laughed and sipped his whiskey.

These are my friends in Japan. And they’re good ones. I’ve already told you a little about Alex, the Ukrainian Israeli that witnessed medestroy a restaurant, and I’ve told you about Kensei, the bartender sippingwhiskey and the coolest man in Japan, so today, I’ll tell you about Nolico and Eric.

Nolico is the best dresser in town. Half as a joke, Raquel said to dress up as Indians for Thanksgiving dinner, so Nolico came with feathers in her hair and a headdress. She vanished at some point in the night, and reappeared with dozens of locals. Japanese people of all ages poured through the door. Nolico shouted hello and fed every single one of them while the rest of us jabbered away. But Nolico’s greatest strength is that she married Eric in Holland on the back of a bicycle, and has managed to stay married to him for more than fifteen years.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Eric, he’s just a bit sarcastic. He spent thanksgiving dinner convincing everyone in the bar my wife was british, and then convinced an older Japanese man that she was flirting with him, and the old dirty bastard tried to steal a kiss right in front of me (fortunately his friend whacked him on the head before I had to intervene and end my stint in Japan in prison). So, quite wisely, I don’t believe anything Eric says anymore. He recently tried to explain his behavior by enlightening my about Dutch Christmas.

Dutch Christmas is celebrated on December 6th, and came before American Christmas. It is celebrated by reaching your hand into a mysterious box filled with something revolting, and then--I don’t know--I guess just having a gross hand for the rest of the night. The pinnacle of the celebration is the stinging poems people write for each other in some kind of horrid secret Santa ceremony. I’m fairly convinced this was all an elaborate ruse told to convince me to write a vicious poem about either his best friend Alex, or his wife Nolico, but in honor of Eric, I wrote one about him.  

The Lying Dutchman

Eric is a giver, of facts that are not true
He’ll pour you beer from your own bottle, convince you that the sky’s not blue,
If you go with him to eat-it’s fine. He won’t eat that much
He’ll drink instead, and quite a bit, and then ask you to go Dutch
That means he’ll pay for half the meal, a steal! A deal most kind!
But he won’t pay a single yen, he’ll let it slip his mind
Nolico his gracious wife, she’s the one that pays,
Eric wouldn’t dream of it, don’t trust a word he says

Eric threw a party, on the day of Halloween,
For his friends to come, they had to pay, a thought- to me-obscene!
Every year he goes to Holland, so if he’s not around
He’s charging his own students for a tour of his hometown,

When my friends came to visit, I asked sir Eric-chan
To come on out and meet them, to see what’s going on,
He came out alright, he did! For two minutes, or was it three?
We were drinking whiskey, so Eric had some tea

The man, he is a teacher, a giver oh-so-wise,
He wants to quit--don’t think he won’t--once he gets his prize,
Though the two of us are rivals, we both teach English for our work,
Eric wants me to teach his classes, what a lazy jerk!

We’re working on a project because Eric begged me, ‘please’,
While I give my sweat and blood he just insults my Japanese,
It’s fine, I think, I don’t speak it well, his criticism’s fair,
 Though when I mess up, he laughs so hard that those around me stare,

But I wouldn’t trade him for a better friend, an easy find I’m sure
I’d have my pick of better dressed, more handsome, more demure,
There’s kinder folk, with finer taste, men I’d friend with ease
But Eric laughs when no none does, at childish jokes like these

Merry Christmas Eric! Don’t worry about giving me a gross box or anything!

Joe Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan and goes drinking with all these lecherous cretins when he’s not teaching English. If you enjoyed this post, why not write a dirty poem for one of your friends?