Of Solitude and Snow

Every year, I dread the onset of winter’s brief days and deep, dark nights. Yet every year I remember that this season brings its own small pleasures: snowball fights; friendships strengthened over hot tea and homemade bread; standing in silence among sun-dappled snowy pines, drinking in the cold, fresh air. Winter gives us time to be alone with our thoughts, to make good on our promises, to seek out small adventures in the seemingly endless days until spring.

In a recent fit of restlessness, solitude beckoned in the form of a trans-alpine journey. One bitterly cold morning in January, I awoke in the dark, dressed in my warmest layers, gulped some green tea, and hopped on a bus toward the mountains. The only things weighing me down were a small backpack and a camera. My destination: Shirakawa-go (白川郷), whose name literally means “white river village.”

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Setsubun

After all that talk of winter and being cold, the temperature in Saitama prefecture was over 10°C!  Ah well.  This is somewhat fitting, however, because today is yesterday was setsubun (節分) in Japan. This holiday, which usually falls on February 3rd, literally means “seasonal division” and commemorates the beginning of spring. Although it’s still very much winter for most of the country, it’s certainly fun to imagine that warmer temperatures are just around the corner.

Outside Japan, setsubun is perhaps best known as “the bean-throwing festival.”  This practice, known as mamemaki, involves throwing roasted soy beans out the front door or at a demon-masked individual while shouting, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” (“Demons out, good fortune in!”) Following this ceremony, one is supposed to consume the number of beans that correspond to one’s age. According to my Japanese coworkers, other activities associated with setsubun include hanging a fresh iwashi (sardine) head from a holly leaf in the doorway (I suppose the smell further frightens the demons) and consuming ehōmaki, an oversized, uncut form of rolled sushi. The ehōmaki are to be consumed silently while facing the year’s auspicious direction. (This year’s direction is south-southeast. though I must admit I’m not entirely sure why. A good explanation can be found here.)

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Winter Warmth

 

It took some time, but winter’s chill has definitely settled over Japan. A few weeks ago, temperatures on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido dipped to -25°C, and the western part of the country, where winters are usually temperate, received some unexpected snowfall. However, winter in the Tokyo area has been relatively mild, with daytime temperatures hovering around 5 – 10°C and little precipitation. No doubt those of you in the Northeastern and Midwestern U.S. will scoff at these temperatures, given the recent slew of blizzards those regions have been subjected to.

Here’s the catch though: most houses in Japan do not have central heating are poorly insulated (if at all). Traditionally, Japanese houses were equipped with a central hearth, or irori, which was used for both cooking and heating.  However, unlike the wood and coal stoves that heated American homes of yore, Japanese hearths lacked a chimney, which resulted in very sooty rafters and walls.  Thankfully, times have changed, although warding off the cold indoors remains an issue.

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