Japan: Creeping through the snow womb


All other snow pales in comparison to Suzuki Bokushi’s account of a Japanese winter world: The Smart Set

snowIs there a place on Earth where people had to shovel snow from their roofs during winter every day? Where they lived like moles under the snow? Where there was never a question whether or not there would be snow at the end of the year?

In fact, there was: near the western coast of the Japanese peninsula, where weather conditions have always been markedly different from the coast of this country facing the Pacific Ocean. The seasonal winds coming from Siberia pick up evaporation from the Sea of Japan which helps to increase their humidity. Clouds form and as they pass the high mountains they cool and transform into masses of snow that almost defy description. Snow begins to fall towards the end of October.

Before the arrival of modern technology, this region was really in a world of its own: a microcosm of a winter wonderland, where the logic of winter was played out to the extreme. We know about all of this thanks to the report of Suzuki Bokushi, a Japanese merchant who knew the Niigata region (formerly the historical region of Echigo) in the 1830’s. More than a mere travel report, it is a participant-observer ethnographic study in the full sense, even before the scientific discipline of ethnography was properly established. Bokushi’s book was published (in Japanese) in 1835 as Hokuetsu Seppu, or Snow Country Tales. As he writes, he was actually buried under the snow when he began to compose his book.

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