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One in a series of posts I've been meaning to make for a while; therefore a bit out of date, but!

Spring sneaks up on you in Hokkaido.

This may in fact be a necessary strategy. Winter is large and in charge up here, resting easy on five feet of snow instead of its laurels, and I doubt it's easy to dislodge after it's been settled in for nearly six months. Spring's been biding its time since the first sprinkles of snow fell last November, waiting for the right moment to make its move, and it would be suicidal to introduce itself with a fanfare of showering cherry blossoms and muggy weather.

That kind of confidence belongs in the warmer climes where spring and autumn reign supreme. The north of Japan is winter's turf, and spring is reduced to ninja'ing around the edges, making subtle inroads, destabilizing that frosty grip on the land one finger at a time, until the day comes when winter will wake up and realize its retainers' throats are slit, its castle is burning, and spring is hanging from the chamber ceiling with a black kodachi blade and a grin gripped together in its teeth...

...hang on. I think that metaphor may have gotten slightly away from me.

Anyway, my point is that spring is hard to track here. There's no specific run of a few days in which the world suddenly becomes balmy and golden and begins to sprout plant life from every available orifice, the way I remember down in Tokyo. If you go by the usual indicators of weather and flora, you'll never notice spring until it's already mostly here. You've got to get clever. You've got to learn the real signs.

I submit for your perusal, three no-fail signs in their chronological order of appearance, by which you may always know that spring has sprung in Hokkaido:

1) Water.

Don't bother waiting for the snow to melt. There will be Volkswagen-sized clumps still sitting around, weeks after spring already has the world firmly in hand. Instead, keep an eye on the state of the snow.

As the weather goes from eyeball-freezingly-cold to merely frostbite-if-you-forget-your-second-pair-of-socks cold (a change that takes place at a level of cold too far beyond the sensory range of a human being for us to tell the difference by feel), the snow will change appearance, going from a pure, fluffy, Christmas-card whiteness to a soft, damp, translucent iciness.

It looks heavy. If you press your thumb into it, instead of gently yielding like a light layer of spongecake, it will cling to itself and resist, and sweat water all over your skin on contact.

And the banks themselves are beginning to shrink, so that--while they're too big to notice much of a change at first--you'll begin to see last year's grass, wasted and smeared flat in a brownish, zombie-flesh plaster on the frozen ground, becoming visible at the receding edges.

2) The bicycles bloom.

Forget cherry blossoms. They're far too delicate to show up at the beginning of spring; the tulips will have been out for weeks before Hokkaido sees so much as a sakura bud, sometime in early May. No, the riot of eyecatching color that heralds the very start of spring in Hokkaido is...the bicycles.

Japanese people love bicycles. They're cheaper than a car, take up less storage space than a car, are more maneuverable through traffic than a car--and these are all major concerns in this country. A collapsable bicycle is a great way to fill in the details at the beginning and end of a journey otherwise undertaken by public transport. Even a regular bicycle makes the morning commute easier.

Hokkaido is not an exception, but the folks here are restricted by simple nature; Hokkaido sidewalks spend about five months out of the year covered in a three-inch, marble-hard layer of snow and ice. It just isn't worth the time and effort it would take to keep them clear, so pedestrians watch their feet and pack their shopping bags carefully to withstand any sudden flings into the nearest snowbank, should the foot-watching fail...and bicycles go into hibernation.

When the bicycles come out of hibernation, it's instantly obvious. Suddenly the sidewalks outside train stations, supermarkets, and entertainment centers--which have been as bare, all winter, as the cherry branches overhead--are crowded with wheels and steel in a rainbow of metallic colors. Whatever snow is left on the sidewalks will soon be pulverized under the hardy tires of Hokkaido's cyclist fleet.

It's a sight to warm the cockles of your heart.

3) The teepees vanish.

I'm not sure how else to describe these things. I mentioned them in a previous post. Basically, the people of Hokkaido are very protective of their decorative flora. They endeavor to keep winter from flattening it by strapping everything from groundcover bushes to fifteen-foot pine trees into a crash harness of wooden poles and rope, weeks before the first snowfall. With most of the larger plants, this ends up looking like the unfortunate tree or shrub has been trapped inside an Indian teepee out of an old Roy Rogers film, and somebody forgot to put the buffalo skins on.

These contraptions stay on for months, and their owners leave a careful margin for error; it wouldn't do to take off the teepee poles just in time for a parting-shot April blizzard to flatten all your lovingly tended bonsai. So when the teepees come off, you know it's spring.

After all these months of clutter--everybody's yard clogged with heaps of snow and looking like a giant second-grader dropped her game of Pick Up Stix into the garden--the resulting openness is startling to the eye. The snowbanks have realized their shogun's been outmaneuvered and are slithering back into the shady areas under house eaves and in alleys, for a futile attempt to sit out the siege. The empty space they leave behind seems almost voidlike. Plants stand alone in the open air, looking naked, isolated, and shy, like foreigners making their first tentative trip to the bathhouse.

It's a time of year that makes you realize why cherry blossoms are so welcome in the spring. The world is still raw and muddy, as bare as a preteen chin; the landscape really needs a little brightening, something to spruce it up and catch the eye...

Thank goodness for the bicycles.


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December 2011

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