Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Room Without a View

One of the few trees outside our apartment on one of the few days that it snows.

It's snowing today in Tokyo. I know what you're thinking... 'snow, big deal.' Actually, I agree. Having grown up in the northeast, where it wasn't uncommon for us to experience copious amounts of snow, the few centimeters Tokyo sees every few years doesn't fill me with delight.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that, after living here for nearly 18 years, some of the shine of seeing snow falling has been revived. In fact, I might even be compelled to go out and walk around for a few minutes in it, take a few pictures, and attempt to wax poetic about the clean, quiet beauty of snow. Actually, that last part is a lie. I don't think I ever do anything poetic.

As some of my more astute readers may have noticed, my posting has become more erratic over the last several days after having been fairly steady for well over a month. This isn't because I have nothing to say but rather because I have no time or energy to say anything. This week, I'm working the equivalent of a full-time schedule (about 36 hours) between telephone testing and teaching privately. This requires me to remain tethered to the phone and remain in the apartment from about 10:00-8:00 for the better part of the work week to either answer the incessantly ringing phone or speak with the students who show up at the door. I spend the time between calls dashing around trying to clean and tidy up the apartment in preparation for the private lessons. It's pretty hectic.

There's no going "over the wall".

Working from home is largely a blessing because I save about an hour and a half a day in commuting time compared to when I worked in an office (though I make a fraction of my former income), but, on days like today, where something atypical is happening and I'm shackled to my living room, it can feel a bit confining. It doesn't help that the view from my living room is relatively bleak and uninteresting. In fact, the wall that separates our apartment building from the house next door gives one a bit of a felling of being incarcerated. I'm sure though that it's a pretty typical view for anyone living in Tokyo on the first or second floor of buildings.

Getting back to the snow though, if you ask Japanese folks who were born and raised in Tokyo if it snows in winter, they always say that it does. Technically, this is correct, but only in that every few years, there appear to be a few days in which a bit of snow falls.

Memories of how often and how much falls appear to be embellished at times. One of my students is 20 years old. That means that I have lived here for all but the first 2 or 3 years of her life and she has lived in an area not too far from me. She told me that it used to snow in Tokyo more when she was a child and she remembers being able to make snowmen. I was here "when (she) was a child" and I can't recall more than one year in which the conditions she mentions occurred and I'm pretty sure that she couldn't have been more than 5 years old at that time. I figure one of us has an altered memory of the way things have been, though I can't say with any certainty that it isn't me. ;-)


ThePenguin said...

Tokyoites should be thankful that Niigata catches all the snow blowing in from Siberia. My wife's family comes from there, and though the earliest I've been there was late March, there were still impressive amounts of snow lying about, and many of the houses have a little door in the upper storey for emergency use.

Lulu said...

The first time I ever saw snow was in Japan and I was 19. And there was enough to make a snowman (December 2004 it snowed twice during the week between christmas and new year)

Snow never fails to excite me since I have only seen it a handful of times! As a kindy teacher too, my kids today were very excited about the snow...It has been several years since tokyo saw as much snow as it did today which means some of the kids don`t remember ever seeing snow before!

The kids next door to the school mad two snowmen...

Shari said...

As the Penguin mentioned (always heed a penguin when it comes to snow), there is a lot of snow in some areas of Japan. There just isn't much in Tokyo.

The snow we got today didn't last long. It's already all gone.

Helen said...

Please, let me send you some snow! Although we haven't had a lot of snow since last week, there is still too much of it around!

Takkyubin will take it, won't they?

mike said...

We've gotten a dusting of snow pretty much every night this week. The snow is, IMHO, rather nice. The issue for me is the cold and wind! I can't get warm since I lost all the weight, and when the wind blows something fierce like it has been the last few days, it feels as if the cold is coming through the solid walls of my house.


Kanagawa G said...

Snow and cold, cold and snow.

I lived for quite a many years in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin so I am quite used to the cold. Watching the Green Bay Packers play at the frozen tundra was always a treat! It still amazes me how my current location never gets nearly as cold, but the damp chill goes straight to your bones and stays there. I usually get sick and tired of being cold and damp all the time around March. I chalk it up to poor construction and insulation (double pane windows? fiberglass insulation? no way!).

My old shack in Hiroshima was so decrepit that I knew instantly upon waking up in the morning when it had snowed because it was warmer inside as the snow plugged up the holes thereby keeping the chill breeze from blowing through and acting like a layer of insulation. My Kanagawa "mansion" (built only five years ago) is much better, but still drafty.

Traditional Japanese houses were built for the heat with the thinking that one can warm a cold house in the winter, but not cool a hot house in the summer. This line of thinking was on par in, say, the Meiji and Taisho eras, but construction practices need to be modernized to suit current technology. Perhaps people just prefer to walk around constantly saying "寒いですね!".

Several friends of mine have built houses here and they have horror stories of shoddy construction practices (sawing through floor joists to install a fan in the bath, not using a vapor barrier, etc.). The only way I would build a house is if I did it myself.

Shari said...

Helen: When I read how you have to clear your parking space in the winter, I'm glad I live in Tokyo. ;-)

Mike: I guess that there is a down-side to no longer being heavy. However, I'm sure the babes dig you now. ;-)

KanagawaG: I do get tired of hearing three phrases in Japanese:

"Samui desu ne."
"Atsui desu ne."
"Segoi." (often "Segooooooi" in a sing-song manner)

It's a little like hearing some teenager constantly say "cool" or "sucks" though it's the sort of thing you hear from everyone of all ages here.

I thought the bad and poorly insulated construction was confined to apartment buildings, but I see it's the case with houses as well. I wonder if they don't spend much on the houses because they expect them to be torn down and replaced with a fresh, clean, more modern one every 20 years or so, or at least hope that's the case.

Thanks to all for the comments!

Anonymous said...

Hey Shari,

Not related to the main theme of this post, however...

Having lived in Japan for ~18 years, it would seem you arrived at the peek of Japan's bubble (world domination..etc) and have lived through the collapse of that bubble and the so called "lost decade". I lived in Japan from 2003-2005, a small snippet and again in 2006-2007 and could summarize Japan as a insulated culture that wasn't moving in any particular direction. I'd love to hear about your perspectives on Japan from when you first arrived and over the years and how you've seen the culture change.


Shari said...

Hi, Michael, and thank you for reading and for your question.

I'm not sure that I'm qualified to judge the direction of an entire culture, even one I've lived in for a long time now.

When you say the Japanese are insular, I'm not sure to what you're referring. Do you mean that they embrace other cultures and understand them little? Or, do you mean that they remain intolerant of outsiders and unsupportive of minorities? Or, so you mean something about their economics or way of thinking?

I'm not sure that any culture knows where it's going in the long run. Most tend to experience various zeitgeists (if one can use the term in the plural). The most marked change I've seen in Japan is from a nation full of smug, superior people who felt they were smarter and made better products than anyone in the world to a far more humble group of people. When I first arrived, their notions of the rest of the world were that they could beat the pants off them technology-wise and in terms of productivity because they were better educated and harder working. That has been a clear change, particularly looking down on Americans as lazy and spoiled.

Anyway, if you could clarify your question, I'll do a better job of answering it. It's a very interesting question and the sort I like to get because it makes me think.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for your comment. Your comment about Japanese feelings towards themselves in the early 90's as compared to now is an example of exactly what I was hoping to hear. I am only familiar with the "humble" side and thus I can be easily persuaded that this is the "true" Japan.

My guess and that is all it is, would be that with becoming the #1 economy, if only for a brief period, would convince Japanese that they are on the right path and should continue to do what they were doing to achieve that success. However, with the great failure of the last 15+ years, it seems they no longer have a clear direction. In other words, what do people around the world see as Japan's greatest exports? Cars, Cute (Anime, Manga...etc) and electronics? What is their impact on outside cultures? Are they a follower, a leader or as I believe now they are neither and are wandering aimlessly. I realize my writing is vague, but I'm more interested in your observations than what my limited exposure to Japan has given me.