A Different Attitude Towards Snow

It was snowy here in February. I’m not saying it snowed a lot. We had three or four snows, and one of them brought down over a foot. But in comparison to what the weather has been in the U.S., this winter, what we had was nothing. Except it is something. Not because the amount is something I’m not used to but because the Fukushima culture handles snow differently. 

I grew up in the Midwest. It snows there in the winter. The first flurries always seemed to come around Halloween, and I remember them continuing after March had passed. That phrase “In like a lion, out like a lamb” always seemed idiotic to me. In my world March came in like a lion and left like a lion. And we knew how to handle it. In high school my family lived on the town’s main street, and we mentally measured how much snow had come down by how frequently the plows went by. Salt trucks spread their cargo as the flakes first began to stick and plows were out within the hour to keep the roads clear. In college I moved to a wealthy Chicago suburb, one of those places where people pay others to do their yard work. The small landscaping businesses compensated for the lack of work in the winter by attaching a plow on the front of their truck and clearing driveways and privately owned parking lots. And among those who cleaned their driveways themselves, it was common to see snow blowers. I’ve never owned a snow blower in my life. My dad figured his kids could clean the driveway, and post college my roommates and I had short driveways. But every place I lived had a snow shovel. And a bag of salt in the hall closet by the front door. 

My Japanese town’s treatment of snow puzzled me for a long time. 

1. First and foremost because there is no snowplow in this city, not one. In times of great desperation a bulldozer is called and all of the snow is pushed into a corner. A few days later a crane might appear and systematically scoop the mound into a dump truck before it is disposed of in the river. But for the most part, the streets aren’t cleared. People just wrap chains around their tires and leave for work early. 

2. Secondly, I was puzzled because there are no snow days here. Where I went to high school snow days were built into the schedule, and if we didn’t use them, we got an extra long spring break. In rare form, the local Japanese schools did actually get a snow day this year. From asking around it sounds like it was the first in ten years. 

3. Thirdly, I was puzzled because sidewalk salt doesn’t seemed to be used here. My first winter in Japan I didn’t see it at all until March, and I was so shocked by it that a rather loud, “It does exist!” exuded from my mouth. Seeing how bad salt is for the environment, this omission doesn’t bother me too much. It still perplexes me, however, for anytime I walked on icy roads the usual “Konichiwa”s are replaced by “Kyotsukete”s. “Be careful” everyone calls out to me. Yes, I know to be careful while walking on ice. If you’re so concerned about it, why don’t you do something about it? 

4. And fourthly, I didn’t understand the lackadaisical approach often taken to clearing the snow. Where I grew up if the snow isn’t cleared but is just packed down by tires or feet, after the temperature drops overnight it will be a sheet of ice. Here is no exception. I spent many an hour my first winter using the afternoon sun’s warmth to give me an advantage over the glacier covering my junior high’s parking lot. 

I’m still not so sure I understand everything that goes on in the local heads. But here is my current theory about why Fukushima prefecture treats snow the way it does: They think the snow will take care of itself. 

In some ways, I guess they are right. Where I lived the last 23 years, we often experienced days at a time when the thermometer didn’t go above 32F (0C). Here it seems like most afternoons any spot not in the shade gets to 45F (8C) or higher. Fukushima is further south than where I grew up. The prefecture sits at the 37th parallel. That puts it on par with southern Kentucky and northern Arizona. I often forget how far south I am living. The, um, energy efficient heating practices make me feel like I live in North Dakota (see my December post Balmy New Hampshire for more on that). While it might feel cold inside, outside is warm compared to what I am used to. And if the snow is just going to melt in a few days, you might as well leave it alone. 

I can relate to that. My least favorite chore in the world isn’t mowing the lawn or taking out the trash or even changing a dirty diaper. It’s drying dishes. Because while the toilet won’t scrub itself and the carpet won’t vacuum itself, the dishes will, in fact, dry themselves if you give them a couple hours. And you know what? That snow will melt all by itself if you wait awhile. So grab a shovel, clear the street, and wrap some chains around the tires. It will probably only last a few days, and then everything will be clear again. 

Now, the reader may ask, “Do people still go to work and to school if the roads are that bad?” Yes, yes they do. With that exception of that once a decade snow day. The Japanese have a very strong work ethic, one that makes my Protestant German work ethic look downright lazy. But that is another post for another time. Suffice it to say, they don’t have a grid for not going to work just because the weather is bad or they are sick. 

Or the reader may ask, “What if someone slips and falls on the ice?” Well, that is a good question. I don’t have a complete answer. But a big concern in the U.S. is that someone will fall and break a bone and sue. I texted a couple Japanese friends and asked them if a store would be held liable for medical costs if a customer slipped on ice. Both said that the person who fell would be the one who paid for it. In Japan, at least when it comes to snow, it seems it is the responsibility of each person to “Kyotsukete” to be careful, not for anyone else to make it safe.

Have any other questions? Let me know and I’ll ask around.

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