Snow Piles for Miles

Entry from Jan. 15, 2009

I knew it would snow a lot here so when I woke up this morning I wasn’t surprised as much as I was worried about being late to work.  There was no way I was going to ride my bike in these conditions – I would have to walk. (You actually can ride a bike in these conditions if you’re willing to risk slipping on ice and getting wet. The same risks come with walking, but at least you fall from a lower point. The snow-melting-street-sprinklers also complicate travels as they sometimes squirt streams of water higher than expected) I still haven’t found any snow boots that fit me so I put on my regular dress shoes, grabbed a tangerine, put my gloves on and headed to the office.

5 minutes late…again. Punctuality in the winter is proving to be one of my biggest challenges.

25 minutes till 1st period at a school 15 minutes away (on a regular day).

10 minutes to push 25 centimeters (about 9.84 inches) of snow off the top of the van, scrape the windows, and get the van through the barrier of snow accumulated overnight and out of the parking stall.

25 minutes to drive to the school taking the safe, less-snowy roads

When I enter the teachers room the secretary tells me, “Happy New Year!” I say the same and apologize for being late. “Don’t worry, 1st period will end soon anyways so it’s fine. Why don’t you have some coffee? Here you go.”

“Hhmm, no 1st period then huh? Cool, if that’s OK with you, that’s OK with me,” I think to myself while I itadakimasu some warm coffee. Looking at the schedule placed on my desk I notice there’s no English activities planned for 2nd period. What a great start to a beautiful snow day. Turns out, today is a special day at this school.

Today is 小正月 ‘kosyougatsu’ (I have no idea if this is actually how it’s written. I’m guessing it’s a smaller new years celebration). At this school in the teachers office, my desk is faced away from the windows. Even with my back to the windows everything in front of me seems reeeeally bright. I’ve noticed that when indoors, there’s always some kind of snow-aura on everything, as if everything has a snow-glow. I kinda like it. I know it’s because there’s so much snow outside and it’s reflecting all the light so I turn around to take a look. In the middle of the courtyard I notice a tall bamboo structure with lots of kakizome (paper with writing on it, kind of like new year resolutions but not really) tied to it. The vice-principle asks me to join everyone as they participate in this event.

I swap my indoor shoes for my outdoor shoes and make my way through the deep snow. Luckily, the PTA set up everything. They built the bamboo thingy, shoveled snow around it, and also took care of the mochi production. We exchange ‘konnichiwa’s’ and i make my way towards the bamboo. Of course, when in snow, there’s a snowball fight. I’m a pretty big target for the students and they took advantage of that. However, I can make bigger snowballs so it kinda evens out. I’d rather get hit with a snowball the size of my fist than with a snowball the size of my head ;p

When everyone was in place around the bamboo the MC started. The Principal followed with some words of wisdom. Then students from each grade made short speeches about what their goals are for this year. Then, four kids approached the bamboo with lit torches and set it ablaze.

Talk about culture!

I must say, this was a great experience. I never would’ve thought I’d be able to experience something like this in japan. I never even heard of this! So much thoughts were going through my head while it burned down. This was a real benchmark in life you know? You know that feeling, that feeling when you’re doing something and while you’re doing it, you think:

– How you never expected to be doing this.

– How you want to share this experience with your friends/family but didn’t bring your camera EVEN THOUGH YOU HAD A FEELING when you were walking out the door that YOU SHOULD’VE BROUGHT IT! (pics courtesy of the school secretary)

– How no matter how much you talk about it, you can’t fully share the experience of standing there under the lightly falling snow at an elementary school in the country-side of Japan, hearing the crunch of snow under the little feet of cute little genki kids running around, watching the flames rise, feeling the warmth amidst the snow, watching the ashes rise high into the sky and out of sight… [flashback]

I had one of those moments.

Since I didn’t have my camera I knew this experience would remain only in my memories. My memories, which have no limited warenty guarantee. My Memories. Fragile items which left on the shelf too long expire and get replaced. Items that often have holes in them… but can be filled with deduction and/or imagination. Old Memories. To many a comfort in times of stress, a laugh in times of boredom, the reason to never give up because failure now would become the worst pain later. Bad Memories. To many a crutch preventing progress. Partial Memories. It’s that last bite. You just look at it cuz the rest of it was so good and you know this is the last piece and you want to savor that flavor. You could eat it right now it’s right there in front of you – no one’s going to take it but you just keep looking at it…  thinking about how it tastes so good.

My taste buds dance every time I think about this day.

Everyone else gets a watered-down artificially flavored vacume-sealed exported taster.

In many ways I’m happy I didn’t have my camera. I was beginning to forget how good it feels to soak it up. I look at my 3rd grade students using digital cameras and think of how the technology gap is getting wider by the commercial. Don’t you think some things need to be felt first-hand? Some conversations had face-to-face? Some sights seen through your eyes? Makes me think about one of my favorite Schwarzeneggar flics: Total Recall. At the rate we’re going, my grandkids are going to be buying digital vacations. It’s like you can explore the world through this screen without stepping out of your room.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then that’s a thousand less opportunities to get a taste for yourself.

[flashback story]

I gotta admit, I got a little chicken skin here. As i tilted my head back to look up, watching these ashes fall from the sky sent me back to my childhood in Leeward Oahu. Back then (before Target, Cosco, PetCo, KMart, Walmart, Outback Steakhouse, Home Depot, Taco Del Mar, Safeway, KFC, McDonalds, Jamba Juice, Starbucks, Chili’s, pretty much before the city of Kapolei- Kapolei High School, the Library, Police Station, Kapolei Theaters 16 plex, Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park, Kapolei Shopping Center, ect.) there were many sugar cane fields that stretched all the way to Waipahu. At harvest time the farmers would burn down the sugar cane, resulting in lots of fire and ash. Every now and then when the winds were just right the ash would make it’s way to my neighborhood.

With my eyes glued to the ash-filled sky, I would always try to spot the big pieces of sugar cane ash. When I spotted one I would ignore all the other hundreds of pieces around it and focus on that one, carefully watch it fall, try to predict it’s course, shuffle my feet to position myself under it, and wait anxiously while it got closer and closer. I put my hands together palms up and held them out in front of me as i chased – yes, ‘chased’ because at any given moment a gust of wind could’ve sent my target off in a different direction, or worse yet – over the wall and into Uncle Enriquez’s yard. And as the big piece descended I would get more and more excited. During the last seconds of it’s descent, just meters above my waiting hands I couldn’t help but smile. It wasn’t a choice of mine, rather a natural reaction. Maybe because just having your head tilted back naturally pulls your lower jaw down a bit, making it easier to smile. Whatever the case, the big piece was almost mine! Let me tell you, time slows down the second before the big piece settles in your palms. In that last second it’s like you recall everything from when you first spotted it till now – this epic moment – when my careful calculations and patience will pay off.

Now, I get to give my neck a rest and look down at my prize. The big piece. I think about how far the big piece had come. Was the big piece from Waipahu or elsewhere? How far up did the big piece go before it started to come down? Was the big piece a bigger piece before it landed in my hands? I wonder how many other people spotted the big piece…

This pastime can be enjoyed with friends as well. You can challenge each other to find and catch the big piece. You can spot the same big piece and see who can get it without breaking it. You can start a big piece collection. You can put the big piece in a jar. You can not even catch it at all, and instead keep crushing big pieces in your hands till your palms turn black and then smear it on your friends t-shirt. Possibilities are endless.

But for me, my satisfaction lays in the chase and the awe soon after the catch. This is what sugar cane ash catching is all about.

Allow me to explain what this looks like. Imagine the clouds were pillows filled with black feathers. Now imagine if one of these clouds popped. That’s what this looks like.

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