Wednesday 15 February 2012

The Winter Beast

The stinging cold strikes my face as I open the shutters to the predawn light. It is snowing, again...still...I have never known so much snow. My first winter in Minakami is proving to be a challenge. Closing the sliding window, I bend down to the wood stove. I drag the last embers from last nights log to the front of the stove and add kindling and heavier wood on top. I close the hatch and open the draft, coaxing it into flame. Before long it is roaring, chuffing through the draft vent like a steam engine. I stand beside it, looking out the window at the burgeoning dawn, letting the room warm a little more before getting the children out of bed. There is a sooty brown icicle hanging from the end of the chimney, the condensation freezing as it exits the chimney, how can the smoke cool so fast?
Each morning I watch the sun rise beyond the valley, a little earlier every day, a little further east. It rises like a golden orb between the horizon and the heavy blue grey clouds, a halo in the misty distance through the crystals of the snow. The white surface of the snow sparkles like a sea of diamonds as the light catches the icy crystals. Movement in the garden catches my eye. A cock pheasant walks across the snow in the front yard. His feet leave a small trail of stars behind him, I wonder that his bare toes don't freeze. He stops beside the compost heap, looks around and begins to chirp his raucous call. With each squawk a small puff of steam escapes his beak. He begins to scratch in the compost, occasionally raising his head to call his mate. She does not come, let us hope she has the good sense to stay in bed.

Further beyond, a flock of starlings gathers in the leafless branches of the persimmon tree. They peck and feed on the dried remnants of the fruit hanging there. We did not pick the fruit last year, not knowing the levels of radioactive material in our own garden, but knowing that it would concentrate in the fruit. We will have the soil tested when we can afford it, the levels vary so much from place to far as we know Minakami is safe, but one must be cautious.

A white heron wings its way down the valley through the snow as the sun disappears within the cloud bank. The sides of the stove glow red, the kettle begins to sing. It is time to wake the family. 

The concrete foundations were poured last month, and we let them cure under an insulated tarpaulin with flood lamps underneath to keep it from freezing. The cats have been curious, occasionally playing tag through the tarpaulin, chasing each others movements as if they were mice under a blanket. Once the slab was revealed, Jiji (the alpha male) made an inspection, and, satisfied, they have now lost all interest.

It is a thing of beauty.

This is where the chimney shall be...

and here shall be a fire box!

The next snow was only shallow, and made the slab look like a fresh, white, stretched page waiting for the artists brush. The snow continued, though, and parts of Minakami had 130cm. We only had 30 or so, sheltered in our valley, but it has been a challenge none the less. The little truck is only two wheel drive, and getting through the snow to fetch the timber for the kiln shed has been an adventure!

Our friend Raku has been helping, but it is too cold outside to do much constructive work, so we have moved the timber inside, into the room with the holey floor. There I will cut the joins so that, when the snow clears, we can fit the frame together quickly.

But the snow seems to linger, and even as it melts it forms great icicles which hang from the eaves and threaten to pounce upon the unsuspecting who may happen to pass below.

I drive the boys to the bus stop, and Sora to school, for I feel it is too cold to make her walk. Above the highway there is a digital temperate display. It tells me it is -12C. Not as cold as parts of Europe this year, but cold enough for me. I return home, careful as I enter the house to steer clear of the talons of the winter beast that lurks on the roof. His great clawed hand reaches across the guttering, and I have taught the children to be wary of his grasp.

Inside, our home is warm and safe, and little by little we are returning to something close to normal. It will still be a while before my pottery is in full swing, till the kiln shed and kiln are built and I am firing again, but those things will come. For the moment there are more important things to do; to keep the fires stoked and my family warm; to put hot food on the table and provide a hot bath to follow; to listen to them, to hug them, to tell them that I love them and that everything is OK. To make silly jokes with them and laugh till we cry. I will protect them from the winter beast, and nourish them with love. When the time comes to pot once more, it is for them that I will make my work, and what a joy that will be!


  1. Euan, there is something absolutely beautiful about your prose, I love reading your blog, I can see, hear, smell, taste everything you write about. You should consider writing a novel (I am partial to novels), perhaps developing characters with skills and interests such as yours. I am also very partial to mysteries. Today, it is quite easy, they say, to self publish (kindle please), and I am positive that your writing would be well received, soooo, if you should ever want to augment your income stream, just sayin!!!!

  2. Hi Euan, thanks for your post, rather poetic and contemplative mood you are in today ! Beautiful to read...and , i think your chimney in the photo is a bit crooked ! Cheers from Vic,Australia

  3. May spring come quickly and bring all the happiness for you and your family :) I am praying for you all. Thank you for sharing your journey wiht us

  4. I agree with Pauline - your writing strikes a chord with your readers. Reading about your slow return to normal life is a reminder to all of us how deeply the catastrophe affected those damaged by the Tsunami and its aftermath.

  5. Love your prose. Sydney hasn't had much of a summer this year, perhaps the Earth is fighting back against global warming? Hope your place warms up soon so you can make those pots with love..

  6. I feel the warmth has come back into your soul dear friend, it is thawing from the ice wall you needed to protect yourself from the chills of your reality. Let the sun shine on you Euan as your life warms and rebirths. Lovely to read your are an inspiration....xxxx

  7. my face is smiling- warm thoughts your way- life is good, breath.

  8. Your beautiful prose inspires.
    You are as cold as we have been, but with the snow that we had last year.
    "Global Warming" is misleading. It is climate change, everything to the extreme.

    I have bags of clay stacked in my kitchen so that I have unfrozen clay to use. Looking forward greatly to the Spring and seeing you in your new workshop.

  9. love it euan!! you take a very descriptive photo :)) stay warm

  10. Another evocative, informative post.......looking forward to kiln progress.

    Your icicles look like those we had last careful....they took down a gutter and a rooflet.

    Jiji has kitty cousins on the other side of the world.

  11. I really enjoy your blog and the style in which you present your work along with food. I wish you all the best in your endeavours at the new location.
    Regards, Vinod

  12. Your writing is so lovely and descriptive. I was not only transfixed by your imagery, but by the interesting story of the life you are leading in Japan. I am sure by now the shed is built, and I hope the soil is safe. Just FYI, I found this by randomly googling terms..."winter beast" led me to you. Cheers!