|

Wintertime and the livin’ ain’t easy

by C.W. Nicol

I came to live in Kurohime in Nagano Prefecture in the autumn of 1980. An old friend lived here, the poet and critic Gan Tanigawa, and he found a house for me. It was a big old country house, a couple of hundred years old, at least, with massive wooden pillars and beams and a thatched roof. The house had lots of room, a bath, a huge kitchen and a small garden. The tatami was pretty old, and when we found how much it would cost to have new tatami mats put in, we decided to go for much cheaper carpeting instead.

There wasn’t much we could do about the toilet. It was of traditional design — squat and drop, if you know what I mean. There was quite a lot of water in the cesspit below, which could cause some very inconvenient splashes. Country Japanese call this o-kaeshi — getting something back in return. My Japanese friends, when not actually having to use our toilet, found this hilarious. I found it extremely unpleasant and soon adapted some quick moves to avoid the splash-backs.

The house was very picturesque, big enough to put in a grand piano and for me to have my own study, overlooking a traditional garden. I installed a wood stove in the kitchen and gathered in lots of firewood. Smaller oil heaters went into the other rooms we used.

Things were going quite well; I was working with Tanigawa for half of each day on a translation of the Japanese myths of creation, the other half pottering around and writing a novel. Then it started to snow — with a vengeance. Pretty well every other day I had to get out to shovel the front door and pathway clear, then the parking lot, then the back door. Snow piled up. The great old roof started creaking, occasionally dropping down lumps of ancient soot, accumulated in times when the house had an open fire pit. As more snow piled on the roof, some of the sliding screens and doors got hard to open. That was when the old lady in the new house next door, our landlady, started to scold me when I was outside shoveling snow. She told me I was lazy and that I had to get the snow off the roof.

In all the snowy places I’ve been to before, snow came off roofs by itself. I looked at the roof and sure, there was well over a meter of snow piled on it, and I suppose it was the weight of the snow that made the house creak, the soot get dislodged and the sliding door get jammed. I was in a hurry; I wanted to get on with my writing. I walked up to the snow on the eaves, easily reached because the snow was high all around anyway, and gave it an angry jab with my well-waxed shovel. How stupid can you get? An avalanche of the stuff came off the roof with a muffled roar and buried yours truly.

Let me tell you, snow is not always light and fluffy. It can be hard, heavy and damn cold. It took ages for me to wriggle, scrabble and worm my way out. I had visions of expiring under the white mass, my body being found during the spring melt. Oh, what an ignoble end for a fellow who had been on a dozen or more arctic expeditions!

To perform the Japanese rite of yuki oroshi — clearing off the snow — you must get on the roof and start from the peak, going round and round until you can shove the stuff from the eaves. It’s hard work with such a big house. Soon the snow that has been removed from the roof, together with the other snow piled up, is higher than the eaves of the house. The next job is to dig a trench around the house to keep the snow away from the eaves. If you don’t, snow can melt a bit on warmer days and freeze into the thatch, and if that happens the thatch will start pulling off.

That winter I had to get up and remove snow from the roof 12 times, and each time it took two full days. After doing the job I’d be sitting in the kitchen, the wood stove blazing merrily away, sipping some warm sake and nibbling salty pickles, thinking that outdoor exercise really was good for body and soul . . . then look out of the window and see snowflakes the size of bottle tops drifting down in millions. Aaah!

Actually it wasn’t that bad; I made local friends and joined the Hunting Association, getting my share of pheasants and snow hares and finding places where the bears denned. I did manage to finish the novel, and we could have faced another winter in the old house . . . except that the toilet was not only smelly and splashy but icy cold and dark in the winter. Then there was the ghost — but I am not getting into that story. Whatever, the missus wasn’t having anymore of it. We found a newer house, with a metal roof from which snow slipped by itself. Then a year later we built the house we still share.

However, we do gather Japanese pampas grass to thatch the huts in our woods. It was either that or ugly tin, or even worse, blue plastic sheets. Thatch really is warmer and quainter. The other kind of roofing we use, also traditional in Japan, is cryptomeria, or Japanese cedar. When the snow piles up on such roofs, it does have to be shoveled off, but the huts are small, and the job just takes an hour or so. Besides, I’ve got eager young staffers to do the job for me nowadays.

As I write this, getting on to the end of November, I can look out of the window in front of me and see the trees still yellow and brown with autumn leaves, only half of them fallen. But if I look to my right, the great mountain of Kurohime — the Black Princess — is streaked white and silver with snow, massive against a blue sky.