I am still new to this whole winter thing but I am almost certain that there is a heralded custom of people staying indoors with the creature comforts of warm fleece blankets and illegally downloaded films. For me, snowy winters have always been evocative of a certain kind of comfy hibernation. Fireplaces and hot toddies? Sign me up. By now everyone who lives in a place where the temperature dips to low and negative degrees are collectively rolling their eyes at my grossly over-romantic notions of the season. They’re totally right — Winter kind of sucks. I say that because I have pretty much been in a limbo, alternately embracing my first “real” winter and ignoring it.
How does one ignore winter, you ask? Well, I kind of cheated. I traveled from mid-December to mid-January and since I have arrived back in my little village I have just been quietly defying winter, refusing to cede power to the season. I have started a new healthy eating kick that forsakes gluten, sugar, and processed foods. I started running right before the sun goes down to beat the spreading slickness coating the roads. I have been selfishly sleeping a perfect eight hours every night. I am basically doing everything in my power to not let the less than ideal weather get me down because I know myself to be extremely sensitive to my external environment. It is the Taurus in me that stubbornly needs everything in my external world to be just so – which lends to my affinity for crafting cozy and whimsical home spaces and also sends me into major funks when the weather wont cooperate as the perfect background to whatever my plans are. Its silly – I am obviously well aware that I am not capable of controlling the weather so I have been exerting my energy into productive self-care outlets. Take that, winter!
I haven’t just been avoiding the potential pitfalls of winter. I have also been embracing some of the fun aspects of the season. Last weekend, I tore myself away from my tiny space heater and poorly insulated apartment for a ski trip to Nagano, Japan – a neighboring prefecture. We had a crowd of 114 English teachers (and friends!) take over a lodge in Hakuba. A good bit of that group came to enjoy the fresh powdery slopes while a small pocket of brave souls came just for the booze and board games. I, on the other hand, came for the monkeys.
Yes, the monkeys. I begged and pleaded and whined at Ben, my kind friend and the master of the car for the weekend, to drive us over to see the Onsen snow monkeys. So basically there is a beautiful forest where a big group of extended monkey families live. In the winter, it snows a ton but the forest very conveniently is located on a hot spring so that when it is winter, the monkeys bathe in a big steamy natural spring tub.
Visiting the Jigokudani Yaen monkeys was probably the coolest experience I have had in Japan. They were incredibly gentle, peaceful, and totally nonchalant to the group of humans following their every move with adoration. There were a ton of babies and I learned that many of them live in extended families with their mothers and older relatives. The single male monkeys come and go, visiting the area to mate and then dip out. But then, the ladies and their large clan of assorted relatives create these badass familial units that look out for one another. It was so amazing to see this powerful, female-led microcosm of the animal world. I saw a mother breastfeeding her baby in the water, mischievous adolescents pouncing on elders and then getting swiftly corrected (only to do it again) and so many mutually reciprocal lines of monkey grooming. I was positively ecstatic to have the opportunity to exist in the same space as these animals as they went about their lounging and grazing. One thing is certain — While winter poses some problems, it also presents some incredible opportunities.