Whether snow is forecast, falling, or melting, there is work to be done managing it because around 10 metres will assuredly fall during winter in Central Hokkaido.
Preparation begins in autumn, when gardeners protect their prized trees and shrubs with supports and wraps. This stops them from become misshapen or damaged under the weight of the snow to come. Outdoor seating is also wrapped in plastic and marked with tall poles. The wraps protect them and the poles show their location, which can be handy to know once the snowy blanket arrives.
Residents and shopkeepers prepare their buildings for winter, too. They install ingenious double glazing on their windows, using glass, corflute, or a sheet of thin plastic. If a building is likely to be empty when winter arrives, the water is switched off at the main and all pipes are drained. This avoids a plumbing rupture when the water freezes and expands.
At entryways, baking tins or similarly shaped containers are re-purposed to store snowy boots that will drip overnight. A luxurious home (or very lucky person) might have a heated shoe cupboard to toast their footwear overnight.
Snow moving is the most obvious job once the falls start, and most people own a few choice tools for the job. A hand shovel is useful but with the volume of snow in Central Hokkaido, the large push-scoop is essential. Once its bucket is full, it can be rocked back so the heavy contents can be sledded away and dumped.
Snow dumping spots must be chosen carefully, because what starts as a hill will soon become a mountain of moved snow. In Central Hokkaido, it is not uncommon to see trucks full of removed snow being taken to where it can eventually melt. These are chosen for convenience and to cause the least amount of erosion or flooding possible.
And snow-moving is not a job to be procrastinated, because if you lose control of your driveway in December, it will be no use to you until April.
Serious snow movers may have invested in a blowing, chewing contraption about the size of a small ride-on lawn mower. These machines till up the snow, then extract it and blow it through a large snorkel a distance of five to ten metres. The most serious snow movers in a community will use tractors.
Municipal workers remove roadside snow when necessary, always choosing the best forecast conditions to get the job done and to have it last. They use a much larger version of the mower-like machine to till and extract giant snowbanks using metre-high rotating blades. The equipment then blasts the snow through a huge snorkel into a waiting tipper truck. When one tipper truck is full, the procession stops for about 15 seconds while the next truck moves into place and the snow removal continues.
Ice and heavy snow on pitched rooftops is one of the most insidious problems in a long winter. These slides-waiting-to-happen are particularly dangerous when there have been fluctuating temperatures to melt and refreeze a slab of snow. Snow on rooftops will regularly shift more than a meter off the eaves, then stay hanging for weeks or months. People walking nearby could be killed by falling ice the size of an apple, so the tons of hardened snowpack are a serious concern.
A less serious matter, more of an inconvenience really, is what might happen if you leave a window open. With temperatures of minus ten degrees Celsius or even -20C, just letting the steam out of a bathroom might freeze a window in place. For winter.
And then there is clothing. Children are easy, with all-in-one ski suits replacing coats for all occasions, including the walk to school. In addition, they need insulated, waterproof boots, and gators with elastic that hooks under the sole. The gators stop snow from getting in between the trouser leg and the boot. A warm hood is best for the head, but hats do just fine. A piece of elastic with a glove on each side weaves nicely through the sleeves so even forgetful people will have warm hands. Face covers or scarves are optional but a very good idea.
For adults, dressing snow-smart is more challenging but if you’re prepared to swap style for practicality it is easily overcome. Again, water proof boots that are well insulated are essential, and the ones with good grip are best. Footwear from home improvement shops is often the most sensible and affordable, and some boots have retractable metal spikes under the heel. Slush and other signs of sudden melting are a challenge in winter, which is why footwear at least shin-height is best. When the slush freezes overnight, the spiky grips on the boot soles will certainly come into their own.
If you are puzzled to see a hand broom or small brush near a doorway, it’s probably there for your benefit. Before entering a restaurant or other building, it’s polite to brush as much snow off yourself as possible. Even ski resorts often have brushes strategically positioned so you can remove the snow from your skis or snowboard before coming inside.
When you park your car, even for an hour’s grocery shopping, it is wise to prop the windscreen wipers skyward. If you do not, they might freeze to the glass which, can blow the wiper fuse if you do not dislodge them. Similarly, in the morning before you drive off, people in Central Hokkaido brush as much snow off their vehicles as possible. This lets you see the road and stops the windscreen wipers from trying to move more weight than they were designed to shift.
Driving is a whole other topic to explore, but swapping to good snow tires is essential each winter. Knocking the accumulated frozen slush from wheel wells is also important, as it builds up and stops tires from turning. The roads have helpful tall arrows, on poles at least five meters high, to show drivers (and snow clearers) where the road’s edge is meant to be. Footpaths are often snowed under in winter, so watch out for road side pedestrians, some towing shopping on sleds, or even the occasional bike rider.
A sparkling layer of snow brings a pristine beauty and sense of cleanliness, in already tidy Japan. By the end of winter, the residents of Central Hokkaido may long to see grass, blossoms, soil and even awakening bears. But this wild northern island, without winter, just would not be Hokkaido.