Monday, February 19, 2018

Snow country (5)

Travelogue concluded: in which we clear up, with a bit of help from the Heartful Dump Co.

8 February, Fukui: Twenty more centimetres have come down overnight. The Sensei’s back is hurting from three days of snow-shovelling, yet still she insists on coming outside: I want to make sure you dig in the right place, she says. We excavate alongside the car until we reach the tarmac, an exercise in snow archaeology. The bottom layer consists of graupel pellets, suggesting that temperatures were coldest during the snowstorm’s early stages.

Then I go upstairs to try dislodging the half-metre of snow piled up on the porch roof. When the weather warms up, roof avalanches can be just as bad for your health as their high-mountain analogues.

Over lunch, another ten centimetres of snow whirls down in two vigorous squalls, but it doesn’t take long to dig out the van again. Although the skies are still grey, there’s a sense that Peak Snow is past.

According to the noon TV news, JR will run a few trains this afternoon, and more tomorrow – yes, I might make that Sunday flight. If we can get to the station, of course. As for the roads, 324 trucks are still snowbound on Route 8. A unit of the Self-Defense Forces is keeping the drivers plied with blankets and hot drinks while helping to dig them out – some drivers have now been marooned in their cabs for almost 48 hours, but they should be free by evening.

Some outlying villages aren’t so lucky. Blockaded by more than a metre of snow on the roads, the often aged inhabitants will have to fend for themselves for another day or two. The snow is now up to 143 centimetres within the city boundaries, making this the heaviest fall for 37 years. NHK announcers are famously deadpan, but surely we detect a hint of pride in the voice of this one.

In the afternoon, we take a walk along the roads cleared by the municipal snowploughs. Whole families are out digging their forecourts: there’s a holiday spirit, as most schools and firms have shut down for the week. “You have to laugh,” says a neighbour in her seventies, who is busy shovelling her forecourt. Others grumble: “We pay our taxes: why don’t they do something,” mutters a passer-by.

We walk over to a neighbouring village, over a snowfield that pallidly gleams against a steel-grey sky. The snow laps over the hamlet’s old farm buildings and storehouses, recalling the scenes described by Suzuki Bokushi in his best-selling Snow Country Tales (1837), an account of winter life in old Echigo province.

Bokushi was proud of his region’s Big Snow. In those days, people dug snow tunnels between the houses, or started using the first-floor windows instead of the front door. Bokushi wouldn’t have thought much of a meagre 143 centimetres.

People are now up on the roofs clearing them. Not everybody is wearing the recommended safety rope. Greenhouses have come off worst: the snow has flattened many of the flimsy steel-tube-and-vinyl structures. Some were only recently repaired after last October’s super-typhoon.

In the evening, the Sensei makes bread; the supermarket has run out. Fresh eggs too are scarce, but overall there’s still plenty of food on the shelves. A more serious shortage is that fuel stocks are running low; the snowploughs have a massive thirst for diesel.

The city is also running out of places to put the cleared snow. Now and then, a snow-laden truck rumbles by, on its way to tip its burden into a river. I’m pleased to see a pink riband adorning a few of them. These belong to the (locally) famous Heartful Dump company, an all-girl trucking outfit. We met them just the other day, shipping out the spoil from a new tunnel under Monju-san.

You know, it’s an ill snowstorm that brings nobody any good…

Photo and logo by courtesy of the Heartful Dump company.

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