Unlike the southern parts of Japan, the Yotei region does not burst into spring at this time of year but rather clings to a wet, cold and desultory late winter. New growth and its celebrated manifestation — sakura — are still months away and the feeling of slow transition in these parts is one of melancholy amplified by your correspondent’s imminent departure.
For the first time in months, rain has come and come again turning the whiteness into grey and the snow covered streets into rivers of slush. The sky is unrelentingly solemn and trees are wet and drooping in sympathy. Yotei-san himself seems to watch forlornly on from between the leaden clouds. Driving down the farm road from Hanazono between the greyness of snow covered potato fields and dwelling on the weather leads me into a kind of physical sadness. Then follow thoughts of friends we are leaving, of distant family and of a young grandson too far away, of favourite places too long unvisited. Although my old Subaru is not the place for things metaphysical, I wonder if it is possible to be saddened by what I am seeing and at the same time admire the beauty of that moment.
As the Hanazono ski bus went by, I wonder too if these feelings are best expressed by that esoteric and distinctly Japanese concept of wabi sabi. As a gaijin with limited understanding of Japanese culture I am drawn nonetheless to the confluence of wabi sabi’s core meanings – imperfection, impermanence and sadness. Drawn also to what emerges from these feelings – as happened to me on that drive – a sense of beauty in what is there and what is not there.
Back in Australia we have a courtyard garden where we try to capture something of these feelings with a pond, moss, dwarf nandinas and a small rock fountain. They remind us there of what we miss here and at no time more so than when the seasons change. So too in my roadside view of Yotei, I see a season disappearing and try to appreciate that the melancholy that comes with it is also a glimpse of something beautiful and a promise of something else.
In my well-thumbed little reference work ‘The Japanese Mind” there is a chapter on wabi sabi which explores its roots in Buddhist ideals with aesthetic and moral elements. Monks and poets pursued the ideal of solitude and with it an austere beauty and a transcendence of life in general. In other areas, nowhere is wabi sabi more evident than sado – the tea ceremony – where it once exerted great influence with the character of rusticity or wabi cha (and the author deplores the modernisation and formalisation that has taken place in more recent times).
Coming back to my own encounter, the snow has fallen from the skies almost endlessly for months and for back country skiers, it has been an epic winter of powder day after powder day that we all knew would end. While there will be some big falls before the winter is over they will diminish in number and the grey days will come more often.
Spring will come then summer. I hope to return to Hokkaido in autumn to see the leaves turn and in the style of a monk centuries ago, to take o’cha in an earthenware cup and watch the leaves disappear once more as an augury of the winter that follows.
Editor’s note: Yotei Views is an occasional feature highlighting a behind-the-scenes look at life in the Niseko area. To submit your own Yotei Views column, contact us with your proposal. The picture of Mt. Yotei used as a thumbnail feature image for this column was taken by Motohiro Sunouchi, adapted here from Flickr under a creative commons license.