In August of 2010, while shopping for my year in Akita, my mother insisted on buying me another winter coat. Winters there aren’t like winters here, she said. Have you seen the pictures, she said. I like the cold, I said. I’ll be fine as long as I don’t lie down in the snow and roll around in it, I said.
Six months later, I found myself here
In Tohoku, snow doesn’t signal the apocalypse. Whereas around here, some years we get snow, sometimes we get nothing, in Tohoku, snow is guaranteed and expected. Complete supplies of bread don’t disappear, and Japan Rail doesn’t shut-down for a day. Supermarkets remain stocked and trains and buses keep running as usual. Honestly, in Tohoku, snow is just a reason to put chains on your tires and drive a little slower.
But Tohoku’s acceptance of snow doesn’t make the season any less harsh. Snow fall can begin in November, with noticeable accumulation by early December. Once about three inches of snow has accumulated on unsalted ground, it’s here to stay until late March, possibly even into the beginning of April. Daily precipitation means that it can be dark and cloudy just as often as it is sunny, if not more. The following photos are a good summary of what it’s like in the northern coastal areas of Tohoku during the winter
Unfortunately, this was the same time of year that the Great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. Initial tsunami relief efforts in Miyagi not only had to worry about supplying shelter, water, and food, but winter-related amenities such as coats, heavy blankets, and portable heaters. In photos 13 and 15 of The Atlantic’s “Japan: One Year Later”, you can see debris blanketed in snow around the same time the tsunami hit a year earlier. To make matters worse, Tohoku has a very large senior citizen population, meaning many of the tsunami survivors were particularly susceptible to the cold weather.
In the linked article above, Alexandra Harney makes one particularly intriguing point about Tohoku recovery:
“The key to Tohoku’s future may lie in its past. Tohoku is rich in Japanese cultural folklore, and many older locals still speak in a regional dialect. As Japan has struggled to redefine its place in the world beside a rising China in recent years, areas steeped in traditional Japanese culture and history have become increasingly popular with tourists. Depending on how shrewdly Tohoku rebuilds, the pull of nostalgia, if not a touch of patriotism, may boost the region’s appeal as a tourist destination.”
The most comforting, and rewarding, parts of living through the Tohoku winter was being able to see how Tohoku residents coped with the season. In addition to seasonal foods, there are all sorts of winter festivals in Tohoku, such as the New Year’s Eve Yamahage demons and the Kamakura snow huts of Akita. Over the next few months, as the weather gets drearier and drearier, I plan to gradually introduce winter festivals such as these.
By the way, snow is expected across the region this weekend! If you can read Japanese, or at least recognize basic weather-related kanji, you can follow the weather in Tohoku here.