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January 25, 2016

Dreaming of a White Fukuoka

The night before, we sit at the window seats, warm inside Ohori Park Starbucks. I'm writing a letter to a friend while Kamil reads. The weather outside goes from small flurries to strong wind and steady snow, but still not enough to settle on the ground. Some brave ojii-sans are still jogging laps around the lake, despite the increasing snowfall. We drive to the supermarket and shop for dinner and as we go back to the car with our groceries I take a few moments to make a mental note of what the shotengai (shopping street) looks like with snow falling. People scurry about with their umbrellas as shields, buckling against the wind. The vending machines glow and illuminate the falling snowflakes. The shop selling karaage fried chicken has never looked so pretty. We escape into the warmth of our little car, heading home to cultivate warmth in our living room.

Unexpectedly, we end up sleeping in late the next morning. The alarm goes off very early in the morning as we had planned to go to swing dance practice in the city. Bleary-eyed, we check the weather apps on our phones but there are warnings recommending to stay indoors. We can't figure out how we would possibly make it into town in this weather anyway so we fall back into an unplanned, lengthy sleep-in. When we finally do wake again, the air is so fresh and chilly that getting out of bed feels like an impossible task. Kam leads, and I follow. We fold away the futon quickly to eliminate the temptation to climb back under the covers. Then the curtains are opened to a sight we've hoped for each year but one which has always eluded us: a whiter-than-white blanket of snow covers the ground and more falls from the sky. In our own backyard!

We have breakfast and pile on layers of warmth, heading downstairs to explore our neighbourhood. It's one thing to see snow on holiday or up a mountain, but to find it dusted over the most familiar and mundane landmarks of your suburb is next-level-exciting. There's a quiet but discernible buzz on the streets as people venture out of their homes: families are scooping up snow, making snowballs and little yuki-daruma (snowmen), teenagers are taking photos with their keitai. It's such a rare sight in Fukuoka, it seems nobody on the streets is immune to excitement or (at least bemusement).

In the evening we've got plans to meet up with friends for a shinnenkai that we organised awhile ago. They don't back out of the plans due to weather so neither do we. But it's too crazy outside to even consider going by bike or car. Checking the bus timetables, Kamil finds one that will take us from near Fukuoka Tower to a bus stop a few blocks away from the restaurant. Walking to the bus stop, the mood is noticeably different from our morning walk. The wind is howling, snow is falling, but there is almost no other noise. We realise its because there are no cars on the roads, and almost no people. It's post-apocolyptic but beautiful. A few blocks away, the "yaki imo" (fried sweet potato) van is driving the streets. It plays its strange jingle out over loud speakers "Ishiiiii yaki imoooo~". I've heard the little song countless times, but this evening it gets warped through the wind and there is no other background noise so it croons its way down the streets unrivalled. We laugh about how creepy it sounds.

As we approach the main road, the sweet potato song has long since faded and the silence is now punctuated by something else: the sound of chains rattling on passing cars and buses. Snow-chains are such a foreign concept to us, and it's our first time to see them being used in Fukuoka. Our bus rattles to a stop and we get on, happy to defrost our feet under the heated seats. From behind the safety of the bus' window we take in all of the strange sights of Fukuoka City in a snowstorm. Wind whips fresh snow across the road and it snakes its way across the surface, like a spirit from a Ghibli film, before dispersing. Cars and buses clunk along with their clumsy snow chains. We pass one bus that has recently slid off the road and hit a bus stop. All of the lights are off inside the crashed bus and police cars surround it, blue and red lights flashing. As we bump along past the crash, I am thankful for the chains on our bus' wheels. 

When we arrive at our stop, the wind and snow are stronger than ever and the usually busy main street that connects Akasaka with Tenjin is almost completely deserted. The whole situation is so novel to us. I take as many photos as I can manage as we hurry along to the restaurant. We move quickly towards our destination but are careful to avoid the more compacted areas of snow on the ground as they prove to be the most slippery. 

Dinner is inside a warm, cosy Taiwanese place with lots of atmospheric Chinese lanterns aglow and the wonderful company of our friends. We eat lots, talking about all the things that have happened since we last met. Afterwards we walk together a little, still chatting and laughing - the guys sliding down the middle of the road as if skateboarding with no board. There are absolutely no cars around, it's bizarre and exciting. We say goodnight and head for separate bus stops. After waiting a good 15 minutes for our bus with a collection of similarly cold commuters, a regular car pulls up to the stop and an everyday salaryman hops out and attaches a sign to the bus stop saying that services have been cancelled. Kam asks about our bus and the man says that "the number six may come..." So we wait a little longer, maybe 15 minutes more. 

While we wait, I notice there are two specific spots on the sidewalk near our bus stop that people seem to be slipping on the most. Nobody gets hurt and most recover their footing before they fall completely, but it's almost an 100% success rate for those two slipping spots. 

Losing body warmth we decide that our bus is not worth waiting for any longer and head for the nearby subway station. The street we take is one I'm really familiar with; the first Japanese office I ever worked in was on this street. Deserted and beautifully white, the main thing I notice about the street is the silence. Major Japanese cities are characterised by their sense of busy-ness and movement. But this is the first time in almost five years that I've experienced complete stillness and silence in Fukuoka City. 

Walking home from the station, after a warm reprieve on the subway, we pass through the university. Picking up an abandoned large snowball, we take a few photos. As we cut across the bike parking lot we notice a security guard coming towards us. He's carrying a red baseball cap and says to us "Come with me, I'm going to go put this on the snowman" gesturing towards a lamppost. We follow him and the three of us share a little moment as he puts the finishing touch on a massive snowman in the middle of the bike parking area, under the lamp. "It took two girls two hours to make him," he tells us. We chat a little more before thanking him and continuing home. 

Walking into our apartment complex is magical, it is whiter than before but the wind and snow have died down completely. There are no footprints or tyre marks in the snow, it's pristine. It's one of those moments that you can feel turning into a treasured memory while you're still in it. This apartment was our first home together; our first home outside of Australia; our first home outside of our parents' homes. It's not a fancy place, it doesn't happen to have hot water through its taps or a shower, but it really is our home. In this moment, I am so happy that we are able to see it covered in snow. We are both smiling from ear-to-ear.

We throw a few final snowballs, walk around a little, and dance the Charleston for a few steps before giving in to the cold and going upstairs. 

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