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For the third time this winter, Uryu is undergoing snow removal. Nobody seems to tire of the spectacle around here, perhaps because it only happens a few times in a winter; this morning I got to watch my fully-grown coworkers all pressing up to the glass of the office windows to see the hulking green machines trundle by.

Snow removal? those of you from unlettered warmer climes (like myself) may ask. And all I can really do is nod, and reply, Yes. Snow removal.

It's amazing what a snowbound society like Hokkaido can dream up to keep to a semblance of normal function with several feet of snow falling every week. Coming into this place as an outsider, these ingenuities have been revealed to me piece by piece, forming new pictures week by week.

For example, when I first came to Uryu, I was a bit perplexed by the number of empty lots adjacent to the street. They were fairly well-maintained, not overgrown with weeds or anything, but they were just...lots. Scattered regularly throughout the town. Nobody used them for parking. Nothing seemed planned to be built on them. They gave the town a curiously open feel, but I couldn't for the life of me figure out their true purpose.

But as Sondheim put it, I know things now, many marvelous things, that I hadn't known before...like, for example, the concept of snow retainment lots. The open feel is gone, now, because every one of those lots is piled ten feet or higher with heaps and mounds of snow. Turns out that all that unmelted snow being plowed off the streets and driveways of Uryu has to go somewhere--a pretty basic fact, unless you're from a climate where cleared snow melts within a day or two, tops.

It's actually a charming effect, because any dirt plowed up with the snow is usually covered over by the morning's light fall, leaving softly crenellated mounds up to ten feet tall that sparkle in the sun like miniature manmade Alps. The spacious L-shaped empty lot that made our duplexes feel like small forlorn rowboats bobbing in a wide flat sea of gravel in the summer, has now sprouted a scenic mountain range that hugs in close and transforms them into cozy explorer's cabins, tucked against the looming slopes with just enough room to three-point-turn a car on one side.

But even this simple yet clever idea can't contain all the snow of a Hokkaido winter, and so we have the snow removal trucks.

After seeing these impressive contraptions three times, I can express nothing but the greatest respect for their inventors and their drivers. They are huge angular things, squared-off masses of exposed tubing and struts and lofty conveyor belts on heavy snow tires, like small mobile grain silos. I have no idea what the proper name is for them, but I call them snow eaters, because that's what they do. They're assisted in their quest by their less flashy, gently stolid helpmates, the snow carting trucks, big old flatbeds with giant containers in the back that putter along next to them, accumulating the snow they regurgitate. Oh, and snow plows. Naturally.

(Uryu's fleet of snow eaters, snow carters, and snow plows is--incidentally--painted a warm shade of evergreen, which is naturally very nice for me to look at, since I was raised in a state where so much stuff is painted that single shade that the highways and muncipal buildings of other states look a bit garish and tasteless.)

And maybe I was also raised in a household with too many Real Die-cut Articulated Metal Truck and Vehicle Toys sitting around, but there's a real joy in watching these perfectly coordinated teams making their runs down the snow-clogged streets. The little plows run speedily ahead and behind, preparing the way and smoothing the aftermath. The eaters hug the edge of the drifts, sucking up hefty swathes of rock-hard snowbank, mulching it up as it ascends a conveyor belt and then cascading it back into the carter truck containers, where it rolls over itself in muddy clogs and piles up thick like great curds of cottage cheese. The carters must have some of the best drivers in Japan; they have to keep pace just slightly faster than their munching buddies, to make sure their containers don't overfill at any one point, and then peel smoothly off to allow the next empty truck to take their place while they trundle away to dump their load.

The whole process gives the impression of a slowly and expertly-tread dance, and I can't help but feel a certain level of real awe for the snowgear-clad men and women who sit at the controls of these behemoths, waltzing them neatly around each other as the snow barrier is pushed back yard by yard. Having watched them go at it three times so far, I fully understand why forty- and fifty-something Hokkaidojin stand happily at the windows to watch the show.

Snow removal experts of Uryu? You rock my socks, you keep my walk to school clear, and what's more, you entertain me immensely. I salute you.
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December 2011

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