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Country Gentleman: City snow, country snow

A long-tailed tit. (Photo courtesy of the C. W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

I arrived in Tokyo on the afternoon of Jan. 23. At Tokyo Station there were long lines of people waiting for taxis so we decided to take the subway. Although it was just about four p.m. the trains were jam-packed full and I had to become a one-man rugby scrum in order to push myself off the train. On television there were announcers talking in excited voices about 'heavy' snow on their umbrellas, poking fingers into snow on the sidewalk, and generally making a huge drama about it. Cars, trucks and buses were slipping and bumping all over the place, and on roads with any kind of incline, traffic was immobilized. The capital city of Japan, a nation that hosted a winter Olympics, seemed to be in a state of confusion, all over twenty or so centimetres of snow!

As I write this, back now in Kurohime, northern Nagano, a fine light snow is steadily falling, and is piled up about a metre deep. The roads around, even our little country road, are all passable, with motor vehicles driving about with little trouble at all. When it snows, the snow ploughs and snow blowers are out even late at night, so we are rarely inconvenienced. Of course, most of us locals have four-wheel drives, and snow tires. You rarely see chains on vehicle wheels anymore, and studs are forbidden, but snow tires are quite adequate.

There were very heavy snows in the winter of 1980 to 1981, when I first came to live here. For the first year I rented a big old thatched house, which was lovely to photograph, but with an icy-cold toilet that plopped and splashed when it was used. I had to get up on the roof twelve times during the winter to shovel snow off. It took a full day to do that, and then another day to clear snow from around the eaves. Pretty well every day I had to shovel snow from the front and back doors, the parking lot, and the path to the road. I used to joke about coming here to write a novel but spending more time shoveling snow.

Therefore, in 1983, when we bought land and built our own house, I made sure that the metal roofs were angled at 45 degrees so that the snow would slide off by itself. I also had the house built on concrete foundations two and a half metres high, which formed our basement and wine cellar.

This ensured that snow from the roof would not block out our big windows in our dining and living space. It amused me back then that several locals told me that I should have metal strips fixed to the roof to stop me from slipping when I got up there to shovel off the snow. When I said that the snow would fall off by itself, and that I did not intend to go on with the local sport of 'yuki oroshi' quite a few were aghast and called me 'zuku nashi' -- lazy fellow.

Last winter, while I was away, the roof over the outside tub next to our sauna collapsed from the weight of snow. Very soon now I or somebody will have to get up and shovel snow from the garage roof, the sauna, and off the narrow roof of a little addition we built to give us more dining space. Also when it snows we have to shovel the stuff off the steps leading up to the front door.

Nowadays, when I go to Nagano Station almost half the passengers seem to be foreigners, especially Australians, New Zealanders and Chinese. Japanese snow country is definitely in vogue.

I used to cross-country ski a lot, but not now, although I sometimes strap on snowshoes to take a walk in our woods.

Right now the greatest inconvenience is that the television antennas are blocked up with snow and I can't watch the news and my favorite shows. Had I not witnessed the chaos it caused I would have scoffed at Tokyo's 'heavy snow.' ("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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