A memory in white


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Five days before I left Tokyo for Hokkaido, I was on a train, the Chuo Line bound for Musashi-sakai from Shinjuku. It was a regular day–nothing much was of Tokyo for Hokkaido, I was on a train, the Chuo Line bound for Musashi-sakai from Shinjuku. It was a regular day–nothing much was of interest, and I stared blankly into the mass of people surrounding me, thinking only of the bed that waited for me in my dorm room.

Suddenly, two elderly Japanese women suddenly erupted into a furious catfight, despite the heavy passenger crowd inside the train. It happened in front of me. They went about it in a strange stranglehold– no shouting or screaming, just two women locked in a furious quiet, battling each other. I felt embarrassed for them. And nobody, not one among us, attempted to separate them.

When the train doors opened at the next station, the wintry air suddenly blasted in, and they both got off in their quiet huff, still clutching each other’s clothes, gripping tight each other’s hair.

Then the train chugged on, everybody occupied in their own private shells, all in our own journeys to some future where there would soon be an abundance of so much coldness.

My first sight of snow was from above, up in the air–it was little patches of white sectioned in parts in the vast brown earth below in Hokkaido, as my plane from Tokyo started its maneuvering for eventual landing. Farther on, the white patches spread– and I remember suddenly exclaiming: “It looks like a giant vanilla cake!” They all laughed.

But it’s true. Snow is the icing of wintry earth, although a more apt laughed. But it’s true. Snow is the icing of wintry earth, although a more apt simile is of a spread of vanilla ice cream over a loaf of rye bread.

Hokkaido looked as wild as the guidebooks contended it would be: vast pristine forests, frozen lakes, and rolling fields clamor for space, all dwarfing the occasional farm house now buried under several centimeters of snow. The patches snow at first gave way to the greenish brown of wintry land. But one knows the snow eventually wins: going farther inside Japan’s northernmost island region so near Siberia, away from the sea, there would only be stark whiteness.

From the plane, I expected a nasty freeze to attack every pore of my tropical body. Nothing did. Kitami City, on entry, was sunny, and the snow was crisp and dry, perfect for a snowball fight. After an airport lunch of Japanese curry rice, the trendiest dish in town, we finally went outside to the perfect cold. I stopped to touch for the first time the ubiquitous white, and found that it was what I always thought it would feel like: beautiful but perfectly ordinary ice scrapings from the Big Freezer in the sky. But the beauty of the thing was the shimmering light reflected from everywhere, creating that illusion of snow with a creamy consistency when actually everything is just ice flakes packed tightly together.

Soon my feet were cold, although I longed to strip off my four or five layers of clothing. Still, at -6°C, it was “too warm” for winter–but I liked it that way. I became slightly disappointed, however: where were the shivers? the blue lips? the frozen eyes? the tongue stuck on frosty metallic surfaces? I was an impatient tropical boy. After four o’clock, however, when the sun began to set, a hard and fast coldness started to creep into our consciousness, just enough to make everyone shiver and whisper in such pious observation of weather: “Samui desu ne?”

During that trip to the northern lands, I was to get in touch with the best of Japanese culture–make some glazed china, go skiing in a mountain resort, make a snowman, learn ikebana, go to the onsen or hot spring, make rice cakes, wear a kimono, ride a snow mobile, go to a shrine during the New Year, and do para-sailing. I was staying with the Koras, a Japanese family. Both my vacation okasan (mother) and otosan (father) were veterinarians, and when I could I was supposed to help out in their downstairs clinic. We lived upstairs. They were an extremely kind and generous kazoku. I conversed with them nightly in broken Nihongo. Totemo muzukashii desu ne… But I was not supposed to speak English at all. After every spare Japanese dinner, in typical Nihonjin politeness, I’d say: “Oishikatta desu neu. Onnaka ga ippai desu”–although I was still famished. After TV, which I did not understand, I’d excuse myself to my room, but not before sneaking some dried shrimps from a bowl just lying on the kitchen counter.

I knew I would have a nice fuyu yasumi. I had hoped. The kazoku were Buddhists by practice, and they tried their best to entertain a Filipino boy. But it was also a lonely time: every night in Hokkaido when I went to bed, I told myself beyond the keen understanding that my spirit longed for home: I needed this. I coudn’t always be home. I will have a future in stranger lands lonelier than Japan. Melodrama might have defined my nights there, but my reality eventually demanded sense, or at least an understanding of the deeper things that lie just beyond the province of tears.

It was snowing that last morning of 1997–softly at first, then in a mute frenetic dance that blurred to an icy grayness the surface of the car window. I sat spellbound in my passenger seat, mesmerized by this vision in white. I was, I think, murmuring: “Hajimete, hajimete..” First time. This was much to the amusement of my ojisan. The old man was chuckling, “So desu ka…” as he drove our death-trap of a car around the turns and bends of gravel, asphalt, ice, and snow.

I found myself drawing figures and kanji characters on the frozen window, while Naoki and Nozumi, aged 13 and 9, were fighting over some otamatoshi in the backseat with me. The car radio was blurting out a strange singsong that I could only identify as some furui ongaku. Somehow, it all seemed alien in this Hokkaido landscape–this place could not be Japan! I thought this should be the wilds of some European steppe.

The snowfall fascinated me because, unlike rain, it is soft and stealthy. It does not announce itself like the dropping pellets of rain; it just sneaks over everything, like a thief of time. For example, the view from the car window, when a moment ago was blue and green was soon transformed into a whiteness you could feel. The whiteness stretched on and on, soon blurring the distinction between land and sky.

And on and on, ojisan drove. The drive seemed to take forever. And there was only silence and snow.

When we arrived at the onsen, I thought quickly that it was most interesting. The winding mountain path led us to this perfect hot spring getaway–a common bath of a beguiling rusticity. Soon I quickly find out that everybody went naked together, but I didn’t care, and it was not embarrassing. You won’t have time to mind your own fragile nudity once you step into the boiling water. I remember I loved that hot bath with its fiery 40°C heat. My skin felt tight and supple. I felt reborn.

Ojisan turned to me, and naked and in Japanese, he said, “I know a woman from your country. She is married to a farmer I know. I’ll take you to see her before you leave for Tokyo.”

In Engaru, a town an hour away from the bright city light of Kitami, I met her. She was a hapless Waray named Divina who was married to mono- syllabic Japanese cow-farmer. I thought quickly that she was probably your typical mail- order bride–a country girl, ignorant, but hard-working, full of hopeful ambition. She had been living in Engaru for nine years, and she told me that she was happy.

“My husband is good,” she declared to me, after offering me a plate of pancit, which I swiftly gobbled up. But she also told me horror stories of other Filipinas in the area who kept running away from abusive husbands, who are married to Yakusza mobsters, who work as Japayukis to what she quaintly referred to as bodabil. It was the first time I saw such a thing. I’ve heard about these things most definitely–about OCWs, about penpal girls, about exotic dancer, but they didn’t seem exactly real to me. Until then.

Soon, she had both of us clad in stained overalls and in protective gloves. “I want to show you where I work,” she said. And we stepped out into the snow again and into a dingy place that smelled quite bad. Divina showed me where she worked morning, noon, and night: in a cow barn that smelled of dung, littered with hay and refuse and treated corn. It was an automated cow farm–there were sucking machines milking the cows instead of old-fashioned human hands. But for an hour, I saw her go about her work, I listened to her broken Tagalog and her familiar Cebuano. She told me she just finished the construction of her family house in Samar, and now she was about to send money to purchase the “Frigidaire” and the washing machine her sister was demanding. I looked at her house and saw something very typical for a Japanese small town: a miserable, tiny structure barely consisting of three rooms, warmed only by an old stove placed in the middle of a cluttered living room. This and her dirty barns, and her cow shit, and her eternal snow. I asked her, “Did you expect this life here in Japan?” She smiled and said, “No.” But she had come. She worked hard. She was resilient.

Later that week, we–my kazoku and I–went to a temple for the New Year, in a tradition the Japanese called Hatsumode, and there I offered my prayers and my wishes to the gods.

Back in Tokyo, the metropolis was suddenly deluged by thick and unexpected January snow. So thick and so fast that in less than an hour, it covered everything. It was supposed to be the heaviest snowfall in the metropolis in four years. Everywhere, there was a blanket of whiteness that dazzled. But nightfall, it was almost a disaster, but a merry one. Snowmen and igloos were popping out by the scores, all made by eager student hands in my Tokyo university. Elsewhere else, trouble and chaos reigned. Tokyo is a huge maze of a city and imagination alone cannot surpass its monstrous size or complexity. To get from one side to the next would take hours of endless train rides. Trains crisscross the metropolis like blood veins: they are the sole means of transportation by millions of Tokyoites. In Shinkjuku station alone, about 4 million people change trains every day. Trains in Tokyo have never been an image of comfort. In a regular rush hour, they’re hell on earth, with everybody practically canned inside like sardines.

Now imagine thick snow blocking the railways during rush hour in the evening. Electricity is soon cut off. The trains stop between stations, in the middle of nowhere. The door won’t open. The people inside cannot get out. The people in the stations cannot get in, nor get a ride. Working men and women, high school students–everybody cannot go home or even go eat. Everyone is trapped. That is, until 6 or 7 the next morning. It was really funny listening to the “adventures” of people in call-in radio stations the following morning. The first world and its problems…

Much later, I suddenly felt I could do anything. That I could be anybody I wanted to be. Maybe this was my gift to myself in choosing to come here: to have that newfound sense of self long buried by the static of Dumaguete life. Perhaps I found myself by leaving home.

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