We Survived the Tokyo Snowstorm

We Survived the Tokyo Snowstorm

Our roommate, J, told me this was the coldest winter Tokyo had experienced in 48 years. He told this to Gemma, too. Information from Jonny is taken with a grain of rice, but there’s no denying that it has been exceptionally cold. Almost-50-year-storm cold? How would I know?

J had the propensity of cornering us and dishing out advice:

The thing with Japan is…

and engaging in one-sided conversations. It’s a bit of a game of cat and parrot to get away from him when he begins. I often found myself brushing my teeth at odd hours in the hope that by occupying myself he might back off. He rarely did, continuing to talk over my shoulder while I rubbed my gums raw.

Exceptionally cold though. Every morning the hot-water pipes in our share house were frozen solid, and outside one found a Japanese game-show obstacle course of snow and black ice – Takeshi’s Castle made real, slipping and sliding with arms full of noodles, cabbage, tofu and fermented soy beans because Gemma made me feel bad about single-use plastic bags.

I wasn’t expecting the big snow that we got – the biggest for four years, if you’re desperate for a point of reference – but was happy that we got it. Any snow storm in an unlikely place throws an extra layer of exoticism over the landscape, and cities have no shortage of stimuli to be enhanced by the dusting. Ramen signs and convenience stores and unlocked bikes in the street all coated in some inches of snow. We still measure snow in inches, snow and dicks. Weird.

Tokyo inhabits a reasonably northern latitude, and acts as an entry point to the crowded Japanese Alps and their snow resorts, but one doesn’t expect snow to fall here. Tropes of cherry blossoms and raw fish belie a warmer clime and deny the islands’ proximity to the Russian far east.

The night of the snow storm, I did have Vladivostok on my mind, as I struggled forward through the driving snow and wind towards a bathhouse. The now somewhat-familiar sights of my neighbourhood were now given a harsher aesthetic, painting it in the facade of a tough Arctic city that is bereft of sunlight for nine months of the year and where a vodka-soaked braggart might run a blade through your parka if you stumble down the wrong icy alleyway.


Of course in Tokyo, that’s not the case. Cars patiently slid and stopped as the city descended into the politest form of chaos imaginable. Workers put their heads down and shuffled home. Everybody slipped, but nobody fell, not one person that I saw. Ninja genes. The little old men who hang outside construction sites and wave glowing wands while wearing cute little plastic helmets changed vocations from illuminators of the obvious, Don’t walk here, cranes operating, to orchestrators of chaos, Stumble politely there.

At home in the sharehouse, the heaters in our rooms would sometimes let out an exasperated sigh and stop working for a spell, and while I didn’t consult our live-in oracle on the phenomenon, I’m sure he would have had some blanket cultural explanation for it.

The thing with Japanese heaters is…

But when Gemma had a complete heater malfunction on the coldest night, J the wise was unable to repair it; the only hot air available being his recycled expertise on everything.

The next day, I took a walk outside and to a pond and around a park, and everything was devastatingly cute under the bright winter’s sun, still bathed in the abominable snowfall. The ducks in the park didn’t seem to mind the snow and I saw one travelling birdwatcher employ binoculars to view them from a distance of three paces, desperate to employ the vision enhancers she’s carted across the globe with her. Japan is a safe space for all kinds of kooky foreign behaviour, best exemplified by the binoculars and worse by the fedora-sporting English teachers who find love among Tokyo’s westerner-obsessed young ladies.

Not far from the bird watcher, I found a unicorn: a youngish man from either France or the United States, I assume, wearing a kimono and wooden sandals and a fedora, finding it tough to walk through the snow and ice in the oriental open-toed clogs, but happy with himself for integrating.

With plenty of time to think, I dabbled in the gajin obsession with regurgitating talking points and speaking of the complex nation in grouped absolutes. Someone like J, or the kimono fedora guy, will tell you that births are devastatingly down because people no longer have the time to get together when they’re focusing on their careers; that because of this robots will care for 80 per cent of the aged and infirm by 2020; and social and professional pressures are driving Japanese people to kill themselves in record numbers, while the comfort industry is on the rise, with PG prostitutes of both sexes offering cuddles, attention and an attentive ear. All of this information is available online and is voraciously consumed and regurgitated by expats desperate to make sense of their new home while differentiating themselves from it. It seems, when reading these articles or having them pompously recited to you, that Japan is gripped by a crisis of community.

But here in post-snow Tokyo, I saw the Japanese set to scraping ice and snow from the roads and sidewalks, well beyond the borders of their property, in an act of solidarity that seemed to contradict what I was led to believe I knew about their approach to community. In a bar, a Japanese woman informed me that given the harshness of nature here – bitter winters, hot summers, natural disasters, relatively little arable land – agrarian Japan had to employ systems to encourage community, as one could not survive it alone. These systems continue now in the form of tradition, where villages will still get together for festivals where they lift and carry disastrously heavy statues designed so that if one person crumples under the tonnage the whole project is ruined. I’ve seen similar feats across Spain, another country where a difficult environment and reliance on farming meant that community cohesion is not just desirable, but necessary for survival.

That the Japanese coalesce as a community makes sense when you see the orderly manner they alight a train, single file and only once everybody has disembarked; how they bump into each other in crowded places without becoming irksome. On one hand, they were selfishly offing themselves without replenishing the population, but on the other, they would happily squeeze into train carriages as it was necessary for the greater good.

Like anywhere, contradictions are rife and national psyches are incomprehensively complex; it seems futile to attempt to grasp them. Armed with freshly garnered absolutes from the internet, we could wander the wonderful city and interpret everything as another indicator of irredeemable difference, but the truth is that finding those differences is the traveller’s conceit. There’s nothing intrepid in recounting stories where one admits that things aren’t so topsy upside down in Nippon – that the orderly queue for the metro means people are going to work, and the dating deficiencies mean that the Japanese, like us, are having a tough time negotiating the new courtship-career landscape, especially in terms of gender equality and women in the workplace. We search for difference and fetishise the bizarre, at the expense of acknowledging the basic humanity with share with the denizens of the places we fall into.

The real discovery for the traveller is that everybody is pretty much the same. This can be tragic for the raconteur with a propensity for mythomania, desperate to differentiate their experience from the manifold that have come before them, but that’s why their narratives always read so hackneyed. We all want to have the big adventure and be instant experts on obviously multilayered and complex issues that even those living them don’t have a reasonable explanation for. How devastating it must be to realise that not only are you fundamentally the same as everybody at home, but those abroad as well.

Perhaps instead of shipping ourselves off to these far-flung places so that we can purport to be temporary experts on the bizarre, we should stop trying to analyse and just take our time to enjoy the way life unfolds on the road – to survive the snowfall, miss our loved ones and try as many different types of noodled soup as we can afford.

Cover by Gemma Clarke

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