Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The three seasons.

For a little less than three months the same question has been patiently waiting for me at my cluttered grey desk. As I sit down, the equally grey haired Math’s teacher asks me with unwarranted sincerity if South Africa ever gets as cold as this particular Japanese day, and always reacts with noticeable joy as I say `oh no, this is far colder`. The weather in Japan is an institution as sacred a game as bureaucracy and the Japanese like to win at everything they play.

As I am racing towards spring with plum blossoms in my hair, I thought I would take a look back at the three seasons I have met.

Winter time is illumination time.
The warm sting of the kerosene heater was streaming past the back of my heels as I pulled one of the three layers of warm clothing over my head and in the process bumped the low hanging light in the lounge. As light swished around the room I stared at Roland sitting at his computer desk and without warning started to cry.

I have never cried over the cold before but I knew that beyond that door lay a frozen corridor and a bathroom floor that was no better than an ice-skating rink. The three degree air would burn my skin as I waited for the water to heat up and ten seconds would feel like a Siberian year. A fusion of amusement and alarm flashed in Roland`s clear eyes as he grabbed my hand and two towels on route to the nearest hot spring.

Those tropical flowers are real thanks to the warm onsen air.
As with all other Japanese phenomena, winter likes to add a little contradiction to the cake mix and on a different day you find yourself standing in a deserted temple courtyard, covered with freshly fallen snow. Only the stark red beams of the Tori gates avoid the white onslaught as four best friends stare up at the crumbling sky, trying clumsily to catch a snowflake on their tongues. God`s paintbrush proves superior as you see crystals clutching tree branches and frozen waterfalls convincing you that time has stopped.


I still squint my eyes in thought when I think back to how beautiful the valley circled with mountains in Kumamoto really was. I stood in the middle of a quaint Japanese town, all the ornate roof tiles covered in a soft duvet of downy snow and all around me rose a coliseum of frozen rock and ice. When I tell you that it was breathtaking, I mean it quite literally as even now I automatically stop breathing for the slightest second when I think back to that day. We went volcano hunting and stared down the temperamental caldera of Mount Aso, a few days before the neighboring volcano in Miyazaki blew its top.

Hiding from the lava
As I drove to school today I saw two or three trees covered in pink and white plum blossoms, each gleefully hitting the last nails into the coffin of winter. Soon it will be the season of Sakura and I will experience this week of cherry blossoms in Tokyo, the heart of my new home.


Ah, what a blissful state of equilibrium. The harsh heat of summer has finally fizzled out and winter still looks promising through naïve, snow colored glasses.

Beppu hells in Autumn
As Roland put my favorite chicory tainted coffee by my bed, my English teacher phones with a fine suggestion. Why not go for a bout of `Momiji ga` or autumn leaf hunting. We needed no better reason to hit the road and headed into the mountains. I know it is a bit odd but I always feel extra grownup while traveling a decent stretch of road on the way to a mini adventure. I am usually desperately content chatting and eating snacks until we have to stop at a dodgy mountain toilet that is more often than not of the traditional variety. I am skilled enough to use them but I don`t exactly throw a party in my head when I see them.

With grape flavored soft serves in hand, we rode the cable car up the mountain of many seasons (we have seen Mount Tsurumi exhibiting three of the four) and marveled at the bright red trees, that when hit with a ray of sun looks like it is on fire. Every leaf looks like a candle flame and some trees are colored in sunset hues moving from a red top, down to orange, yellow and finally lime green. This is a relaxed time of year where the Japanese start to eat persimmons and chestnuts are found everywhere. There are fire festivals and naked festivals and picture perfect sunsets. You cannot design better weather and I am desperately hoping that spring will deliver more of the same.

Autumn Braais are always amazing
Watching summer fireworks from a restaurant boat.
After wearing socks and sandals for months on end you start to look like a German on the beach and you start to feel decidedly claustrophobic. Nothing is more satisfying than coming home and taking off those offending socks and extra layers of clothes required for work and throwing it in the general direction of the laundry basket. This is followed by flopping down on the couch with a Hello Kitty hand fan battling to break the heat with a little breeze.

Summer days are hot but filled with freedom. It is easy to walk down the sandy beach skirting Beppu Bay and watch the fish jump over the jellyfish nets. Winter limits you to a computer and a warm blanket but now you are free to play in water parks and lay down in immaculately kept gardens while drinking fruity cocktails in full view of the local police. You pity your baseball boys and your softball girls but you dare not leave the comfort of the air-conditioned office.

Summer time is carrying the Omikoshi time.
The one thing you do not want to be is what Roland and I both were at the exact same time. I have never been as miserable as when the two of us hit our first Japanese flue during the height of summer. We could barely move as our bodies battled a Japanese bug for the first time. Roland used all of his remaining strength to walk (no car insurance yet so no driving) to the pharmacy to get us medicine, while I used mine to put cold towels all over a burning Roland when he got back. Our health insurance cards were still in the post and so we decided to muscle through it. We played it down for the parents so as not to add more worries to their already long list but we were both petrified and still flinch when we think about that hot, humid weekend of horror. By that Monday my fever had broken enough to go (mask and all) to school and make a slightly better Roland some tuna salad when I got home. Also keep in mind that throughout this tribulation we did not have internet yet and were forced to watch nothing but Japanese game / cooking shows the entire time. Nothing gives you more bizarre fever dreams than slipping in and out of consciousness while watching crazy Japanese television.

While this was an ordeal and a half we did have a fireworks filled summer and since time disguises that hellish heat with memories of braaing and camping plans, I am looking forward to that time of year again.

One can always find ways to cool down.
The Japanese usually start a letter by talking about the weather and so I thought I would leap into spring with a bit of a recap. I will be spending spring with my family, friends and cherry trees and I could not be more excited to complete my set of seasons and put to bed an incomparable year.

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