I took this picture at a shrine located a few blocks from my home in the Kitano neighborhood of Hachioji, Tokyo. I was going grocery shopping in the middle of a snowstorm but I was really struck by the beauty of the shrine in the snow which reminded me of something out of a Kurosawa movie so I had to stop and take a picture of it. How I ended up there is another story.
When I came to Japan one thing that really excited me was the fact that I was finally leaving the Chicago winter behind. I spent the first twenty one years of my life in California and this experience formed my template for “normal weather.” Even after spending the next 28 years in Chicago, I could never get used to the frigid Midwestern winters. For about three weeks after arriving in Tokyo everything was going fine, the temperature was between 40 and 50 degrees and when people complained about the cold “Kyo wa samui desu ne.” I would nod in agreement even though I had just escaped from the first pass of Chiberia’s polar vortex and I really felt like I had landed in a country where it was always spring. Boy was I wrong.
While northern Japan is famous for its snow festivals, Tokyo rarely gets snow. So I was quite surprised to look out the window on February 8th and see a Chicago-style blizzard. When it was all over nearly eight inches of snow had fallen and Tokyo had survived its worst snowstorm in 45 years. (That’s right, the last time it snowed this much the Beatles were still together.) In many ways a snowstorm in Tokyo is just like a snowstorm anywhere else. It begins with breathless news coverage about the approaching storm followed by the inevitable warnings of “Don’t go out unless you absolutely have to” followed by footage of people falling on sidewalks and cars skidding out of control on slippery bridges and of course the footage of the local television station’s least senior reporter standing out in a snow bank someplace looking really uncomfortable or interviewing people who were stuck at the airport. However there were a few things that were really different about this blizzard
Since Tokyo has very little snow the city was not really prepared for this storm so there are few snowplows, no salt or sand to put down and only the biggest roads were plowed. I assumed that since this was a Saturday everyone would just stay inside, just like the recent shutdown of several southern states after a dusting of snow that was lighter than the powered sugar on a Krispy Kreme donut. But this was not the case. Japan is a country that is only about the size of California but they have an earthquake nearly every day and several typhoons hit the country each year during typhoon season, so 20 centimeters. of snow is not going to stop people from their daily routine. I went grocery shopping in the middle of the blizzard and saw plenty of other people out shopping too. Since many people in Tokyo do not have cars and there is usually a grocery store within walking distance of people’s homes, a lot of people simply went grocery shopping or took their kids out to play in the snow. Since it snows here so rarely many children who were five or six years old were experiencing snow for the first time. Also public transportation is reliable and easily available so while it was more difficult to get around it was not impossible.
The other thing that I noticed was the way that people relied much more on human power to dig out after the storm. The entire parking lot in front of my building was cleared out by a group of five people with shovels and a big basket mounted on top of a dolly. I saw several other people shoveling paths through side streets and clearing out the entrance to the local train station by hand as well. One thing that I think accounts for this attitude is a Japanese phrase “Shikata ga nai” which translates as “It can’t be helped.” While this phrase is often seen as fatalistic or passive, it also has the meaning of squarely facing and pushing through difficult situations. You need to get groceries but there’s half a foot of snow on the ground instead of sitting around complaining while you eat the last bowl of ramen in the house, just go out and get your groceries. It might be fun and you might see something really beautiful like a shrine covered in snow or a child experiencing her first snow.