Sapporo Source DEBITO Column 1 June 2009 on Hokkaido Winters

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Hi Blog. A new “free paper” came out last week in Sapporo. Called SAPPORO SOURCE (get a copy in pdf format at, it contains the first of my regular monthly columns, where I talk about offbeat topics (meaning non-human-rights stuff; we got government sponsors). The first one is about the weather. Yes, the weather.

And let me add that it’s taken some time for Japan’s #5 City to come up with a free paper of this quality (Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka have all had their own for quite some time). The longstanding paper, “What’s On In Sapporo?“, is a milquetoast flyer put out by Sapporo City Government bureaucrats (who can’t even spell “calendar” correctly). SAPPORO SOURCE’s predecessor, XENE, gave it a good go — until it succumbed to market temptations that contradicted its mandate as an international paper: 1) putting out damage-control advertising (see my protest letter here), sponsored by the Otaru City Government, that denied that the Otaru Exclusionary Onsens Issue actually existed, and 2) translating exclusionary signs for xenophobes in the Susukino party district, for the 2002 World Cup (some are still up to this day), that effectively said “JAPANESE ONLY” (which XENE decided to render as “MEMBERS ONLY” in five languages, but not Japanese, as if that made things all better; their letter of apology here). XENE folded a couple of years ago, and not before time. It really had no idea how to serve an NJ audience.

Now it’s SAPPORO SOURCE. I had a read of it, and it’s a professional job with a good tone and a lot of useful information. See for yourself.

Oh yes, my column. Cover page and scan of my article follows. Arudou Debito in Sapporo

Column one for publication in Sapporo Source June 2009

If you’ve ever read any of my writings (, this column will be a bit of a departure. I’m going to try writing about something more banal. Nothing’s more banal, of course, than the weather. Except if it’s the weather in Hokkaido.

Japan likes to chatter on about its distinct four seasons. But Hokkaido, I’ve noticed after more than twenty years here, has only three: Winter, Summer, and two half-seasons — I’ll call them “Pseudo-Spring” and “Pseudo-Autumn” — that act as short transitions between the two. Let’s chatter here about Winter first, since it’s the most memorable of them all.

At the end of Pseudo-Autumn, you tear October from your calendar and watch The Revolution from your window: the first flakes of snow infiltrating the air and occupying cracks in the road. The time is ripe for change — all Hokkaido’s verdure has collapsed into a uniform brown, with skeleton trees and evil-dead spooky forests clawing their way up from the newly-frozen ground. Nights are long, dark, and brutish throughout November, the worst month — as you can neither ski nor even go outside without wincing, as the winds whip up and blow December closer. Just hunker in your bunker and accept the inevitable: the Siberian snows are yet again crashing in, like a sociopath shadowing your door whom you will eventually have to go outside and face.

Then the snows come. And come. And bury you. Overcome, you coin words like “Tropical Snow Forest”, as thirty centimeters at a time almost every day accumulate to a meter, then two, then three or more as you try to shift it around. At least under The Occupation the long nights are brighter now, and Hokkaido’s odd weather pattern of “dump, then clear” means that you can enjoy sunshine on fresh white snow a couple of times a day. If you’re not happy with the current weather, wait half an hour.

Unfortunately, collaborating with rotations of flurry and dazzle becomes tiresome by mid-January, as Winter overstays its welcome. Everywhere becomes an obstacle course. Sidewalks challenge you to sashay your way through ten centimeters of sublimated ice. Side roads demand you merge into traffic by peering around two-meter drifts, sticking your car’s nose in front of oncoming cars. Hokkaido Winter takes your life into its hands, as you learn how to skate in your shoes or on your car’s snow tires. You wonder if that innocuous-looking crossroads on your commute is going to yield a fatality this year. You begin to watch the forecasts avidly, because at any time the weather may turn foul.

Eventually you come round to seeing why Japan’s nanny state exists. Local NHK broadcasts devote at least a third of their airtime to the weather, what roads have been freshly blocked, and where pileups have occurred. You take heed, or else you too might lose the road and find yourself in a potentially fatal situation.

But Hokkaido’s fatalism is what makes us special. Sure, people down south get seasonal spurts of storms when typhoons barrel through. But they don’t compare with our daily dump that whallops, then envelops, for three solid months. So we learn to live with it. Contrast that with Tokyo, when you scoff at their panic at a whole three centimeters accumulated. Their trains and school systems are in chaos! Bah! They’re rich, but they’re softies! By February, snow has even occupied our economy, as the Japanese military tames it into snow sculptures to attract and bedazzle the rich tourists.

Fortunately, Winter officially turns a corner by the end of the Snow Festival, when you get a miraculous day or two above freezing. At the start of March, you wonder if the snow and ice will ever begone. Fear not, it will. Hokkaido has no glaciers, and within three weeks, you can emerge from your bunker to kick over the retreating snow walls on the sidewalks, and smash the cages of icicles on nearby roofs. There is a joy in shoveling dying ice in front of oncoming cars. The Resistance has prevailed. Open the window and savor the victory of outlasting yet another Occupation.

That’s how we suddenly arrive at the dazed and confused brown grasses of Pseudo-Spring — not sure if it’ll rain or shine, but at least it won’t snow and stick. Then you can enjoy Golden Week for one more important reason: it’s as far away from Winter as possible.

It is also mere footfalls from Summer, the reason why everyone in the world should live in Hokkaido. I’ll get to that next column.



3 comments on “Sapporo Source DEBITO Column 1 June 2009 on Hokkaido Winters

  • Great article Debito!!! I think you should come on down to Yonezawa (Yamagata ken) where I live now during the winter. The temps may not phase you, but the accumulated snow amounts may.(^_~)/

  • What happened to Sapporo Source? Before there was Xene, do you know if there is a magazine out there for Sapporo nowadays? Couldn’t find anything.

    — Sapporo Source folded. It couldn’t find enough advertising and the local government couldn’t see the value in funding it more.

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