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world wide wednesdays :: you don't know from snow

one hopes they tip the kid who shovels this
buffalo, new york has apparently called in the national guard to deal with their latest snowfall. a lot of times, canadians like to scoff at our southern neighbours and how panicky they get at what we'd call a flurry. that ignores the fact that, if your city doesn't budget for plows, salt, sand, disposal, etc., because it doesn't normally need such things, any amount of snow is a pretty big deal. most cities can't afford to hold tight and wait for the situation to resolve itself. more importantly, it also ignores the fact that the united states is home to a lot of the snowiest places on earth. in fact, when it comes to places that accumulate the white stuff, america kicks our frozen behind, whether you're considering it from the perspective of individual locations with the highest snowfalls or cities with the highest snowfalls. really, there is only one country that should have the right to scoff at the united states and their snowfalls: japan.

more specifically, the people who can scoff are the inhabitants of northern island of hokkaido, because for them, two metres is really more of a starting point. it's not uncommon for western areas of the island facing the sea of japan to see eleven metres of snow a year and while that's different from getting two metres at once, let's just say that such a storm would qualify merely as "annoying".

now, if most canadians were shocked to find out that the united states had more "snow hot spots" than us, we'd be absolutely flabbergasted by the fact that russia doesn't have any. our immediate assumption when it comes to winter is that russia is the only country that can beat us at it. it's likely that if you asked any ten canadians to name places in the world that got the most snow, not more than one or two of them would name a place in japan. but that's because in canada, we lump the two great harbingers of winter, cold and snow, together. mother nature doesn't. if you go back to that list of snowiest cities on earth, you'll see that the canadian cities that did make the cut are located on the sides, whereas the bitterly cold prairies are unrepresented. like the prairies, russian siberia gets plenty freakin' cold, but it's a dry cold. [side note :: a number of canadians would probably guess that the snowiest places in the world are located in the himalayan mountains and i did find some lists that listed nepal as one of the most snowbound regions, but there seems to be a lack of data on specific places. i'd say it's still highly possible that there are a couple of nepalese towns that should be on the list.]

go ahead, tell me about your awesome snow fort
if it helps you feel better, siberia is implicated in the outrageous snowfalls that western hokkaido experiences. every year, frigid winds go whipping across the plains in an easterly direction. as they cross the sea of japan, they pick up moisture from the comparatively warm water. then- bam!- they run headlong into the mountains of hokkaido. remember all that stuff you learned in grade school about how cooling vapours causes them to condense and form either liquid or, if it's colder, solid water droplets? when you cool an amount of humid air the size of a small ocean by forcing it up the side of a mountain, you get eleven metres of snow.

oh, and in case you didn't think that it was hardcore enough living in one [or several, depending on how you look at it] of the snowiest places on earth, it might interest you to know that much of hokkaido is made from motherf**king volcanoes, a handful of which are still active. this means that along with some of the world's best skiing, you have a number of hot springs [onsen], that offer a variety of different health benefits. chances are you've seen pictures of adorable monkeys using them.

all of this raises the question: who in their right mind would choose to live on a pile of volcanoes with some of the deepest snowdrifts in the world?

if you wanted an answer to that, you'd need to go back in time. way back. because as far as historians and archaeologists have been able to determine, there have been people living in hokkaido for about twenty thousand years. the original settlers appear to have been part of a larger culture that inhabited not just hokkaido, but other areas around the sea of okhotsk: sakhalin island, the kuril islands and possibly the southern part of the kamchatka peninsula. these were highly successful hunter-gatherers who kept largely to themselves and who gradually intermarried with the satsumon, a culture living on the japanese archipelago. the fusion of these two groups produced the ainu culture, which is what is chiefly associated with hokkaido today. [side note: the exact origins of the ainu, as well as the origins of the groups from which they descended, continues to be a subject of debate. although present on hokkaido for millennia, the ainu never codified their language, which means there is no written record of them before they began to interact with the japanese.]

the water is a little hot
the ainu remained more or less indifferent to their southern neighbours until the japanese entered their feudal period. japan's expansion inevitably brought them into contact with the ainu and the japanese level of organization and greater military strength allowed them to dominate the northerners with relative ease. nonetheless, the ainu did not go gently into the feudal night and mounted rebellions against their colonizers. however, as trade ties became stronger between the two, the ainu were forced into a position of increased dependence. these trade ties also resulted in the import of things like smallpox, which caused the ainu population to plummet. this decline in numbers made the ainu easier to subdue and they were often used as de facto slave labour.

with the meiji restoration, a campaign of assimilation began. this worked out about as well for the ainu as assimilation programs did for indigenous groups in north america and australia, although the implementation was slightly different. in 1899, the hokkaido former aborigines act was introduced in order to help the downtrodden ainu adapt to modern agriculture. the government said that their intent was to remove the stigma of being an aboriginal people from the ainu, but "removing the stigma" involved repressing ainu language, culture and religion. the ainu were forced to learn japanese and to change their ainu names to japanese ones. at the same time, just to level the playing field, the government decided that traditional ainu lands would be available to anyone and they conducted a massive campaign to encourage japanese immigration to the island, where all of this free land was suddenly available. the policy was successful, at least if you were japanese. the island was overrun with japanese immigrants and the ainu were permanently disenfranchised. [side note :: at the time, the government made no bones about what they were doing and even referred to it as "colonization". later on, upper class japanese academics realized that sounded icky and began to refer to the process as "reclamation". so the japanese were understood to have reclaimed land they had never inhabited.]

the japanese remained adamant about their policy of assimilating other cultures on the archipelago. it wasn't until 1997 that the former aborigines act was repealed- until then, it was the official policy of the japanese government that there were no ethnic minorities in the country. nineteen-ninety-seven. worse still, it wasn't until 2008 that japan officially recognised the ainu as a indigenous group. however, the policy of assimilation may have accomplished its aims before it was repealed. official estimates are that there are only about 25,000 ainu people left [although some claim there are as many as ten times that] and even that number includes many japanese people who have ainu ancestry; ethnic ainu would often encourage their children to marry into japanese families in order to protect them from racial prejudice. the ainu language, which is unrelated to any other language on earth, is on the verge of extinction: the number of people who speak it fluently is estimated at one hundred at
ainu couple in traditional dress and traditional lip tattoo
the most and possibly as few as a dozen. there have been efforts to increase awareness of the history and distinctiveness of ainu culture, but it's a sad state of affairs for the people who lived 20,000 years under the snow. [side note: the historical presence of the ainu continues to affect modern-day politics. the kuril islands are claimed by both japan and russia because of the traditional presence of ainu people, who are neither japanese, nor russian, but who have long-standing communities in both countries. the kuril archipelago runs from the northern tip of hokkaido to the kamchatka peninsula and all of the islands currently belong to russia. japan, however, claims the four southernmost islands. national dominion over the islands has been an issue between japan and russia for centuries and they have been handed back and forth. after world war ii, japan was forced to relinquish control over all the kurils, however the united states and her allies refused to acknowledge soviet dominion over the islands. since these positions have not been updated since the 1950s, the kuril islands have been de facto part of the soviet union/ russia, but their political status remains a sort of enigma.]

so this winter, as you're stuck on the road, or shovelling yourself out, or falling in a snowbank, or experiencing any of the other unpleasantries that go along with living in a climate where winter is something to be respected and feared, spare a moment to think that things could be much, much worse. unless you're living in hokkaido, in which case you should just pat yourself on the back and take pride in being such a tough s.o.b., then head off to enjoy some time admiring the towers of snow that could not defeat you, while soaking in volcanic hot spring. 

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