Those old Snow Country blues

by Skye Hohmann

Sometimes I’m not even sure we were there at all. Distance and time often give perspective and clarity, but now when I try to call that day to mind, everything is obscured by a thickening curtain of falling snow.

Our train pulled into the station in the blue dusk. Where are we, I wondered. A muffled announcement crackled. The kanji characters on the station’s metal sign were obscured by thick wet snow. We stepped out of the train and into the damp cold, where fat snowflakes fell through the glow cast by orange streetlights.

The tracks were buried under a blanket of white, and those behind us were quickly disappearing — it was clear we weren’t going anywhere. Snowflakes stuck to my eyelashes as I squinted closely at the sign: Tokamachi (Ten-day Town).

Ten days from where? Niigata? Tokyo? The moon?

We had come up from Niigata City on northwestern Honshu’s Sea of Japan coast, taking the train that followed the Shinano River inland, aiming for Nagano City. We’d chosen the route after much consultation with — and concern from — the ticket agent at Niigata Station. “The trains are running, aren’t they?” asked my boyfriend (now husband). “At the moment, yes, the tracks are open,” the Japan Rail worker replied. He ran his finger along a section of the map. “The problem, of course, is the snow.”

That was okay. Both being Canadians, we knew all about snow.

Or so we thought.

For a while after leaving Niigata everything had been flat, gray and dull; but as the express forged on, the clouds vanished. Fields, lightly blanketed in white, sparkled under the blue sky. Never far from the rails, the river glowed like molten metal. We held hands, looked out the window and chatted comfortably. It was nice to be on our own again. It was good to be heading homeward.

We changed trains at Naoetsu, where the landscape begins to fold into mountains. The afternoon was closing in. Snow started to fall. The air outside turned blue, and distances disappeared. Snowbanks — pushed up by snowplows clearing the tracks — reared higher than the windowsills of our carriage. Where snow had drifted deeper across the tracks the banks cut off the outside world completely from our view, and we were snowbound.

The opening line of novelist Yasunari Kawabata’s “Yukiguni” (“Snow Country”) ran through my mind: “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.”

That’s where we were. Snow country. B y the time we’d arrived in Tokamachi, the tracks were closed in both directions. No more trains would be running that night, we were told. Terribly sorry. Perhaps in the morning? Yes. Perhaps. Come back and ask then. Someone said there was a hotel just around the corner where we could spend the night.

On the street, snowy embankments towered above our heads, turning sidewalks into tunnels. Out on the road, fountains drizzled water along the sloping street, melting the snow from the pavement; this kind of snowfall was clearly beyond mere plows. We walked in bewildered silence the short block to the hotel. There was nothing else for it.

Stepping into the lobby was an uneasy crossing from one era of Japanese literature to another. From the quiet, 1930s despair of Kawabata, we passed into the surreal Japan of Haruki Murakami. The hotel seemed lost somehow, abandoned by the 1980s economic bubble. Unmoored in time. Our room smelled of stale cigarette smoke. The beds were covered in mustard-colored acrylic blankets, the carpet gave me electric shocks, and the heater hummed loudly. It felt like a place where anything could happen, or where nothing ever would.

But it wasn’t just the hotel. Being stuck somewhere slips the ground beneath your feet, slants the world askew. Plans dissolve. Time opens up in unexpected ways.

We stowed our things and stepped back across the threshold into the snowy world of Tokamachi. We wandered the empty station street, looking for a place to eat. The dark was cool and soft, lights haloed by the falling snow, footsteps softened. The snow absorbed and muffled all normal sounds. The town felt weirdly deserted.

We eventually found a little yakitori place and ducked, relieved, into bright, loud warmth. Since we’d unexpectedly found ourselves in an area so famous for its sake, we ordered a earthenware tokkuri flask of piping-hot atsukan. The husband-and-wife team behind the counter served us stick after stick of grilled delicacies — grilled chicken, grilled ginkgo nuts, grilled vegetables — and chatted with us about the snow.

“This kind of weather isn’t unusual here in Tokamachi,” the wife said matter-or-factly as she brought another flask of the steaming sake. “This is snow country, after all. In the old days, people in the villages used to tunnel between houses, it was that deep.”

Going tipsy out into the eerie cold, we followed the surreal snow warren back to our hotel. While outside the snow continued to fall, I drifted asleep to the hum of the heating system, strangely buoyed up by the uncertainty of the trip. I n the morning, the snow had stopped, but the tracks were still closed. We found a dark cafe beside the station, ordered coffee and pastries, and waited for news.

The combination of caffeine and uncertainty made us restless with waiting. The holidays were drawing to a close, and we had jobs to return to. We wandered the backstreets, browsed the insulated rubber boots and waterproof jackets in quiet shops and watched the sprinklers melt snow on the roads. A soft snow had begun to fall again.

On the main street leading through town to the station, locals in conical sedge hats shoveled snow from the sidewalks and from the roofs of buildings where it piled up heavily. It was a Sisyphean task.

Noon came and went. Back at the cafe, the young woman who poured our coffee laughed at us. “So, you’re trying to go over the mountains?” We nodded. “Seriously?”

Sometime in the afternoon, the tracks back toward Niigata opened, and we jumped at the chance to escape. Instead of the cheaper, shorter — but now clearly impossible — route that followed the Shinano River toward its source and then on down into Nagano City, we were going home the long way — back through Kawabata’s “long tunnel.”

Dusk fell as we tracked back toward the coast. Boarding the shinkansen at Echigo-Kawaguchi, the lights in the station seemed very bright after the overcast day. Our journey ended well after midnight, and we walked home under a waxing gibbous moon, the cold clear air a relief after the weight of the snow.

Earlier, on the bullet train, as the scenery whizzed by in the dark outside, we had cracked open cans of frosty beer and toasted our success at escaping Tokamachi. Not that we didn’t like the town — it had seemed a pleasant enough place. We had simply never meant to be there at all.

I still think about the place every so often. Snow country holds a mystique for me. It feels like somewhere that I stumbled upon by accident on the edge of a dream in my sleep, and now yearn to return to.

Tokamachi is more easily accessed — and escaped — during the snow-free months of the year. It can be reached in under two hours from Tokyo (¥8,010) on the Max Toki Shinkansen and the Hakutaka Limited Express. The town’s annual kimono festival will be held on May 3 this year — the same day as Tokamachi hosts a display of classic and vintage Japanese cars. In early February, there’s also a snow festival to rival the more famous event in Sapporo.