The air is cold. My alarm wakes me up forty minutes earlier than usual. The white mounds outside my apartment are growing with a vengeance, getting heavier each day, and stealthily encroaching upon my parking space. My shovels stand at attention by the front door, ready for action. The seasons have changed in the extreme, and this time I am ready.
Last year, I thoroughly resisted the onset of winter. I bought the cheap, standard snow boots without liners, and then resented their inability to keep my feet warm. I avoided the use of kerosene until sometime in November. The roads of slushpiles-turned-icy-ruts made me fear for my life with each drive to the post office. When I returned from my winter vacation, I immediately wished I could hop on a plane back to sunny Thailand and avoid the two hours it would take to dig my car out from under the frighteningly large pile of accumulated snow.
Winter in northern Japan has many elements that you won’t find elsewhere. Besides several metres of snow, giant shovels and kerosene heaters, Japanese winters are accompanied by the arrival of several curious health practices (gargling for flu prevention, anyone?), one of which is the surgical mask. At first, I was surprised to see that the wearing of these masks is very common in public, but I’ve since adjusted to standing in front of entire classrooms of children sporting them. Many people wear them to prevent spreading illness, while others wear them so as not to catch anything. Still others wear them to hide the fact that they are not wearing makeup. Whatever the motivation, last winter, my school turned into a scene reminiscent of Scrubs with teachers being whipped into an influenza-fighting frenzy as I just watched, slightly bewildered.
Meanwhile, I began to slowly gather gear for what I hoped would become a respite from the dread I was feeling: a board here, some boots there, goggles, bindings, gloves…soon enough, I was stuffed into the back of a car along with snowboards and friends and on the way to Jeunesse ski resort.
I understand that waking up at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning to hurl yourself down a cold mountain at high speeds, snow flying in your face and melting down the back of your neck, isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, it sounds pretty unpleasant. But somehow, it gives winter an edge of excitement that is nonexistent when you’re just sitting in your apartment beside a heater all day. I began to look forward to those early mornings, to flying down those slopes, and even to the inevitable wipeouts that led to snow creeping down my neck in the first place. I began to be thrilled at each heavy snowfall, knowing what it would do for the mountains, rather than dreading its effect on the roads.
One night, I encountered my first real powder. “Boarding through powder is a bit different than the groomed slopes,” I had been warned. Not being used to it, I might have trouble at first, I was told. But I was on a roll – full of confidence and speeding down the hill for the first time with no fear. Things were going great – until I hit a pile of snow in the middle of the slope, and the tip of my board went under. Before I knew it, I was catapulting through the air, and hitting the ground face first. For a few seconds I gasped for breath and couldn’t seem to find enough to fill my lungs. The impact was jarring, but as it wore off, I became aware of the hot throbbing of my lip.
It took a few moments to gather my courage and my confidence and start off shakily down the hill. Clearly, I had overestimated my abilities and gone too fast for my own good. My friends were concerned, but limited their reactions to my face, which I could feel beginning to swell. When I got home and was finally able to see the injury for myself, I was shocked. Half of my lip was twice its normal size. From certain angles, I looked a bit like a duck. I could just imagine the fuss this would cause at work the next day, in the staff room and the classroom. I didn’t want to face it. How could I avoid the inevitable hysteria?
That’s when it came to me: I COULD WEAR A MASK. I had always rolled my eyes a bit at the practice as it seemed to have more of an image of practicality rather than an actual effectiveness, preventing anyone from missing work or school due to illness which seemed to me a guaranteed way to spread sickness around instead. This time, however, it seemed like a stroke of brilliance. Why shouldn’t I, too, don a mask?
In the morning, face still swollen, I bundled myself up to go to work, carefully hiding behind the folds of my scarf. I quickly explained my dilemma to one of the English teachers who, horrified, rushed off to fetch me a mask and an ice pack. I was given the option of eating with the teachers so the students didn’t have to see my disfigured face. I imagine the removal of my mask in front of them would have caused quite a stir.
So thank you, Japan, for your crazy winters and the socially acceptable practice of wearing surgical masks in public. The only remaining problem? Trying to pronounce vocabulary words like “popular” and “people” with a swollen lip.