Sunday, January 31, 2021

Meditations on a Snow Day

 -- Susan, every other Sunday 

It's difficult to believe how much the world has changed in only a year. A year ago this weekend, I saw a weather report suggesting it might snow in Hakone--a mountain onsen town a little more than an hour from my home in Meguro, where I made many climbs during my 100 Summits year. On impulse, I made a reservation at the highest-altitude ryokan I could find, jumped on a train, and headed for Gora (one of the many small towns in the greater Hakone area).

The seasons play a vital role in Japanese life, as they have for centuries. Even now, the diet and culture of Japan has a distinct (and distinctive) link to the changing seasons. Since ancient times, Japanese poets and artists have celebrated the seasons in their work:

Calligraphy mine, author unknown

The poem above was included in a famous 10th century collection of Japanese verse, and translates:

O warbler, sitting on the plum tree branch / you sing to welcome spring / but in the air, the snow still falls.

Since finishing my 100 climbs in the spring of 2019, I have tried to infuse my own life with that this appreciation for the seasons, which includes regular trips to the mountains to experience the seasons, as those ancient poets did.

I arrived at Hakone-Yumoto station and stepped out into a cold, steady rain. There was no snow at all. I felt keen disappointment--not unlike the Heian-period poet who wrote:

I left the city and found my way to this place / longing to meet you / yet my journey was in vain / for now we must say farewell.

I boarded a bus for Gora, hoping that the rain might turn to snow in the night, if it continued raining. As the bus climbed up the mountain, the rain transformed to slush, and then to snow, before my eyes.

Snow! As seen from the bus climbing into Gora

By the time the bus stopped at the base of the Hakone Ropeway, the world was transformed into a black-and-white wonderland. Snow fell around me in fat, lazy flakes that seemed in no rush to reach the ground--and I felt in no rush either. I boarded a gondola for the trip up and over the Owakudani caldera.

Hakone Ropeway in Snow

The caldera of Owakudani, a live volcano in Hakone

The scene put me in mind of another old poem, this one by Minamoto no Moroyori (1068-1139):

Wide the meadows where / upon my charcoal kiln / the snow is falling in sad solitude / The smoke arises.

I had lunch in a little restaurant atop the volcano, watching clouds of steam rise from the caldera to meet the falling snow. The weather was cold enough that the snow prevailed, reached the ground, and piled up in drifts everywhere except the fumaroles where the volcanic steam emerged from the earth.

After lunch, I headed for Gora Park, which sits on the mountainside just below the ropeway. As I hoped, the park (which is also home to a number of historic teahouses, moved there for purposes of preservation as the Hakone area was developed) offered a perfect opportunity to experience winter as Japanese poets did. The snow had stopped falling, but I was almost entirely alone at the park. 

As I walked the silent, forested paths, I felt an ever-deepening awe at the silent beauty of the trees and snow. 

Gora Park, January 2020

In Japanese poetry, snow is often used as a metaphor for age (a reference to the white hair people fortunate enough to live long lives are privileged to acquire). As another tenth century poet wrote:

The spring sun cannot melt this snow [and reverse the effects of age].

Snow also carries many other meanings, and appears as a central feature of Japanese poetry throughout history.

The snow lingers on, and / my deep mountain retreat is so cold, that / not one sign of spring can I see at all. -- Daishin Gito (1656-1730)

Upon the plain of heaven / of spring, there is no sign in sight. / A memento of the year that's gone / Snowfall with the dawn. --Fujiwara no Ariie (1155-1216)

Early in the morning / The storm wind / over my garden gusts, yet / Upon the fallen snow, no trace it leaves. --Fujiwara no Tsuneie (1149-1209)

Time to light the lanterns once again / And the painter, aging / has frost brushed upon his temples. --Basshō (1692)

To folk from the capital / First of all, would I show my mountain home’s mossy garden paths / where
The first snow has fallen. -- Nakazane

The stark black and white landscapes of a winter garden offer excellent opportunities for reflection, and it's easy to see why poets often associated winter with age, silence, and endings--but also with promise, and with the spring that would eventually return.

Snow serves as a powerful metaphor, in Japanese poetry and elsewhere, and it seems particularly powerful now, as the world waits for a post-COVID spring to thaw the ice that holds us in place, in many cases, apart from those we love.

And yet, the spring will come again. The world will thaw, and although the world may seem bleak now:

In a roadside field stands / a leafless willow tree. / Spring will come, and then / the wonders of long ago / will all return. --Sugiwara no Michizane

Until then, stay safe, keep faith, and remember that every day is still a blessing--even (or perhaps especially) when it's wrapped in a blanket of clean, white snow. 



  1. Absolutely gorgeous, Susan. Your photos are splendid. It’s a privilege to have them here. Your theme is particularly apt for me today. NYC is hunkering down for a nor’easter. I have laid in supplies of all I need. I only wish the city sidewalks wouldn’t be so treacherous in the aftermath. I would love to go out and take some photos of my own.

  2. You never cease to impress me with your take on all things Japan, but this time, as Barbara and I hunker down at our farm waiting for the nor'easter Sis Annamaria described, I feel a strange comfort knowing all that snow is in honor of my hair. :) Stay safe and snug, Susan.

  3. Lovely scenes and such a lyrical post

  4. Wonderful thoughts and pictures. Thank you, Susan.