About the photos: there are few photos of the landscape described because I only post photos for which I have permission. However, plenty of photos are online. Some of the text’s links navigate to image searches or specific photos. Wikipedia photos are licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported license.
To supplement, I gratefully included images of Switzerland from my friend Rhonda.
An Alaska native, she has helped me navigate through many winters.
“I get a little warm in my heart when I think of winter.” ~ Tori Amos
I first heard those lyrics in elementary school, and I still vividly remember my reaction: the sentiment seemed ridiculous. By nature (both my native climate and genetic predispositions), I have always preferred summer. My Yankee mother never expressed nostalgia for the snowy winters of her childhood—perhaps in part to discourage her children from wanting to visit at that time of year. My Texan father, in contrast, never even reacted to Georgia summer. For years, he ran year-round during his lunch breaks, without any complaints about the weather.
Warm-blooded mammals internally function in lifelong summer: 70% water in more than 98-degree heat. Skin is the largest organ, with sensation being one of its primary functions. Thus when exposed, as often in summer, I detect temperature differences mores strongly: dewy grass vs. morning heat, shade vs. intense sunshine. Moreover, I notice heat’s various textures. For example, billowy puffs of heat on an open field feel different from concentrated, oscillating waves of heat sizzling up from a paved road. Summer sounds often feel tactile as well—the nighttime chorus of crickets, cicadas, and other insects buzzes another layer in the thick, humid air of Georgia summer.
I have never minded intense heat. Nor sweating, which has served me well in many locales, from Bangkok to Black Rock City. Even when heat leaves me feeling sluggish, everything still feels clearer and lighter. As a child, the only people I knew who looked forward to winter were those who skied. For me, Georgia winter was negative space, a season of white noise (no pun intended). Though the weather never impacted my daily life (no shovelling snow, for example), it also failed to to create any seasonal activities. Whereas in spring, everything exploded into activity: picnics, festivals, concerts, parties.
Despite its mildness, winter was always my least favorite season. I preferred spring and summer, when my inclination for self-expression felt more aligned with nature. Though aging enables many people to connect most fully with their emotions and intuition, I have always known my inner life well. I feel no more in touch with mySelf now than when I learned the alphabet; I have always seen and heard and felt my intuition. I usually existed in emotional summer, feeling my intuition acutely—a sensory immediacy as powerful as shade at midday, a box fan on high.
However, almost no one encouraged me to value these insights. Instead, I fought constant and usually losing battles. The clothes I wanted to wear to school were unattractive. My stories were banal. When I wanted to attend a different school, I was told that I’d be happier at my current school—even though I struggled daily not to cry in class, on the playground, on the bus. When I conveyed my reluctance to join my family’s church at confirmation age, people who had known me since childhood suddenly became suspicious. When I decided to become vegetarian, I endured endless litanies of disapproval and advice. People of all ages and stations constantly questioned me as though something were deeply wrong.
Many things, in fact, were deeply wrong, though now I understand that none of them were about me. But not knowing that then, I buckled under the incessant emotional pressure and derision from parents, peers, and community. Though some people were probably expressing curiosity and trying to understand me better, I was so hypersensitive that I perceived everything as condescension. The frequent criticism, from trivial to significant, only augmented my resentment. Despite my tendency towards extroversion, I was rarely drawn into a single clique—rather, I floated among several social groups. Regardless of the crowd, I never felt fully accepted or affirmed. I preferred a solitary childhood, away from all the people I confounded.
Some say the world will end in fire;
Some in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if I had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
~ Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice” [emphasis added]
Though fire frequently symbolizes devastation, I immediately understood Frost’s association of ice with hate, and its resulting destruction. Unlike Tori Amos’s lyrics, I experienced ice as far more detrimental than fire, though I felt (and was, at that time) powerless to stop it. Although my inner summer smoldered, I developed an icy armor, as though covered in prickly ice shards, like scales on a fish.
Outwardly, I functioned. I had perfect grades and behaved responsibly. I channeled all my energy into presenting a seemingly open demeanor. Under that freezer burn facade, I fiercely deflected any vulnerability or moments of creativity, certain of inevitable disparagement. So I was always fine; nothing bothered me. No one needed to help. More importantly, no one knew anything of consequence. I divulged only what I considered safe—in other words, almost nothing.
A few years ago, my yoga teacher commented that people often struggle emotionally in summer, when emotions tend to be closer to the surface. My difficulties have been the opposite. Fire was not nearly as injurious as the ice that resulted from internalizing and self-hating. Winter never warmed any part of me, particularly not my heart. My outer sensations felt dulled, in addition to my already stifled emotions. Enduring winter felt like living in a cage with invisible bars. As a result, I most appreciated opportunities for my own space, apart from judgment. I yearned for summer—free, bright, warm, open. Lack of school emancipated me from suppressive expectations and projections.
As Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés wisely notes, “When a life is too controlled, there becomes less and less life to control.” My sustained control and containment nearly rendered themselves unnecessary—I had less and less worth sharing. I stopped writing, for years. Playing music didn’t move me. That iciness only catalyzed my inclination to internalize further. And the shards grew like crystals.
By the time I finished college, I lived in an ice age. Fortunately, some tiny spark of summery intuition enabled me to choose drastic change at that time. Nothing—no activity, no community, no culture, not even language—compelled me enough to live in any specific place. So I accepted a job in Japan, apathetically clueless about the upcoming details. I figured I’d learn some kanji and have ample time to write letters.
My placement was in Yamagata. When I found it on a map, I felt uneasy that it was closer to Russia than to Korea. Not for any political reasons, but for climate. One of Japan’s largest ski resorts was just outside my city, and I was apprehensive about the long and intense winter. ∞
In contrast, the Japanese face the seasons with equanimity, with festivals accompanying seasonal shifts. In fall, as daylight shortened and temperatures dropped, people hosted parties, primarily outdoors, where we made imoni, a hearty stew of root vegetables and potatoes. Cooking and eating outside amplified its heat. Though imoni is far too heavy as a summer dish, it restores warmth in autumn the way watermelon cools in summer.
Nevertheless, after imoni season, I watched with dread the snowline descending from the mountains.
“Within the grip of winter, it is almost impossible to imagine the spring.
The gray perished landscape is shorn of color.
Only bleakness meets the eye; everything seems severe and edged.
Winter is the oldest season; it has some quality of the absolute.”
~ John O’Donohue
Even before living through a harsh winter, I easily imagined its prevenience over the rest of life, that it existed before life evolved. Lack of life can make a place feel cold, even if lacking low temperatures.
Not surprisingly, I expected to despise Nihon no fuyu (Japanese winter). Perception creates reality, and at first I struggled mightily. I was cranky at how many layers of clothes I wore, irritated at the multiple pairs of socks damp at the end of a day, disheartened to see my breath inside my apartment in the mornings. Buildings usually had space heaters, but rarely central heat. In my apartment I used a kerosene heater, which was safe for half an hour at a time. Then I had to open a window to disperse the fumes. The absurdity bothered me so much that I used the heater less than everyone else I knew, even the Canadians. Thus my apartment was often just as chilly as outside.
Yamagata winter intensified my emotional difficulties: cold, dark, limited daylight—the latter due both to latitude (same as Colorado) and the surrounding mountains which raise the horizon. For the first time, I lived in constant twilight. All day was a time warp, when 7:30am, 11:24am, 5:03pm all looked the same. Never had I experienced snow measured in feet. Snow fell nearly every day, though not always all day. My caged feeling felt more literal, due to the immense drifts around my apartment building. My freezer burn thickened.
Fortunately, another detail of Yamagata life alleviated the chill: konnyaku (konjac or devil’s tongue root), an ingredient in imoni. Boiled in huge pots, the vegetable becomes gelatinous. Vendors skewer it on sticks and garnish it with spicy mustard. Another refreshing food completely inappropriate for warmth, yet perfect for cold—hence why it is never sold in summer. It became a staple in my diet before the end of December.
A typical element of Japanese life is onsen (hot spring public baths, often outdoors). Japanese people enjoy them year-round, but people in Yamagata insisted they were better in winter. In fact, many people raved that the best onsen experience was during snowfall. The outside pools had roofs on stilts, so people could see (and potentially touch) the snow.
I was skeptical, of course. In my first onsen visits, during summer, the combination of blazing hot air over blazing hot water did not bother me. I could not fathom choosing to walk outside, “wearing” (so to speak) an onsen towel, which is only slightly longer than a typical dishtowel. Even on Japanese people, typically smaller than Westerners, onsen towels fail to offer any modesty.
So I was fairly nervous on my first winter onsen visit. I did not want to embarrass myself by retreating at the doorway, though I told myself that Japanese people assumed I was a crazy gaijin (foreigner) anyway. Walking from the steamy, indoor shower area to the frigid outside shocked me into an extended gasp at the contrast. I hurried to sink into the sulfur-y, smelly, hot water. For the first time in winter I felt shocking temperature changes, like the summer ones I prized.
Initially, my enjoyment felt surreal—I thought my smile was a sign of madness. I decided to test myself further by walking to another outside pool. The paths between the pools were paved with stones, and the foot traffic prevented snow from sticking there. I took a deep breath, as though I were about to jump into a lake, and managed to walk calmly, soaking wet and amidst snowfall, to another pool, where I encountered the bliss again. Like konnyaku, onsen visits also became a staple of my routine.
During some of my summer onsen visits, I heard Yamagata locals speak affectionately of juhyo, literally “snow monsters”: trees transformed by snow cover into random, blobby, and supposedly spectacular shapes. I was unconvinced, though I politely and truthfully agreed that trees are beautiful and humbling.
By midwinter, I understood.
Despite my resistance, Yamagata fully acquainted me with winter. Walking out of the shower in my apartment felt like walking outside at the onsen. When I heard my footsteps crunch in snow or my snowboard whisk downhill, when I communed with the snow monsters or watched snowfall from an onsen, I participated in winter’s beauty.
Nihon no fuyu revealed the season’s beauty and blueness, in contrast to what I always pictured as grey. Even though my city was equidistant from both coasts, in this island country one is always near the sea. Inland was not without oceanic sensation. Winter, more so than rainy season, brought the waves, tides, shallows, depths of the ocean to me—albeit the frozen versions.
Just as clouds are the vapor version of the ocean, their shapes often repeating those of waves, snow’s textures and formations also mimic the sea. Frozen on trees or piled against buildings, snow and ice often looked like still images of falling water. The spray from skis and snowboards reminded me of the impact of waves crashing against rocky shores or cliffs.
Over the months, my senses sharpened. I began to distinguish the sharp cold over old, frozen snow as different from the chilly puffs over fresh powder—reminiscent of those same tufts of heat I felt in open, grassy spaces during summer. I learned the many types of snowfall, from piercing, tiny flecks to comparatively massive, soft flakes that stuck to my eyelashes.
Eventually I craved a clear day’s view of nearby Gas-san, the highest peak in the prefecture. Meaning “moon mountain,” the round peak, when snow-covered, truly resembles a full moon—a view nonexistent in summer, when the name is far less literal.
Witnessing this beauty was strong, as well as unexpected, emotional medicine. Learning not to dread or resent winter released the feelings of restriction I had long associated with the season. Without realizing, I gradually acclimated to winter’s retreat into the internal. I began to write so much that I was grateful for the season’s quieter social life. I brought my camera everywhere, marveling at the many variances of the season.
In Nihon no fuyu I discovered the figurative summer in winter, or rather the oneness of summer and winter. After years of separating them, I encountered summer and winter as parts of a whole, in the same way that sunlight and starlight together, not in isolation, create a day. I slowly understood that heat and cold contextualize each other—they are sharper in combination and they equalize natural cycles. I had understood that clearly about summer—my appreciation for swimming and rocking chairs on porches—but did not recognize that winter also balances, via things like onsen and imoni.
Like many of my decisions, moving to Yamagata was criticized. But that choice was an opportunity to ignore the criticism and follow the intuition I had conditioned myself to ignore. Choosing the unlikely road sparked my long-dormant intuition—perhaps that “little warm” about which Tori Amos wrote. Even in my freezing apartment, the old restrictions dissolved in the heat of freedom. Intimacy with winter empowered me to acknowledge mySelf again. Ironically, a deeper cold, a more powerful winter, was the catalyst to melt my freezer burn and warm my heart.
∞ Yet by some freak or miracle or conspiracy, Yamagata held the record, set in 1933, for the highest temperature recorded in Japan: 40.8 degrees Celsius. It was broken in 2007 in Gifu, a prefecture further south on Honshu.
SK © 2011