Photo/IllutrationA man takes a photo of snow-covered “ume” Japanese apricot blossoms in Yamaguchi on Jan. 26. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

In old Japan, the term “ume no hana” (ume Japanese apricot blossoms) meant “hakubai” (white ume blossoms) not “kobai” (red ones), according to Naoto Yoshikai, an expert on Japanese literature.

To support this assertion, Yoshikai referred to a poem in Kokin Wakashu (Collection of Japanese Poems from Ancient and Modern Times), an anthology of “waka” poetry completed in the 10th century.

Haru tateba/ hana to ya miramu/ shirayuki no/ kakareru eda ni/ uguisu no naku (Now that spring [the first day of spring by the lunar calendar] has come, does he mistake them for flowers, the warbler singing among branches deep-laden with mounds of snowy white flakes?)

It was composed by Sosei Hoshi, a Buddhist priest who died in 910.

The poet likened snow piled up on ume tree branches to flowers. The piece effectively conveys how the composer longs for spring while visualizing its images.

In the Kanto region around Tokyo, snow has fallen just as the apricot blossoms have begun to come out. As I walked in central Tokyo on Feb. 9, I found roadside trees blanketed in white.

If we call this “heavy snow,” we may be derided by people living in areas of high snowfall. But the capital was mantled in snow for the first time in a while.

A cold spell has gripped wide areas of northern Japan. Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost main island where signs of spring are nowhere in sight, has been blasted by the coldest weather on record. Rikubetsu and some other towns in Hokkaido have seen temperatures fall below minus 30 degrees.

This weather must be harsh even for people accustomed to cold climates.

The act of clearing away snow has different names in different areas, including “yuki kaki” (snow raking), “yuki noke” (snow removal) and “yuki nage” (snow throwing).

In Hokkaido, the practice is also known as “yuki wari” (snow breaking). Unlike ordinary snow removal, yuki wari involves breaking frozen snow with a shovel before discarding.

In his essay, writer Junichi Watanabe (1933-2014), who hails from the island, recounted his memories of yuki wari in early spring.

Daily snow removal work is nothing but temporary resistance to the “white devil,” he wrote. But yuki wari in early spring is “the final declaration of victory over the devil.”

From under the broken snow, earth, with all its familiarity, makes its appearance. Eventually, plants like fukuju-so, or amur adonis, put forth buds.

It seems we need to endure the cold for a while more until we can welcome the season of rebirth.

Since the long Japanese archipelago extends from north to south, spring arrives in different parts of the nation with significant time lags. People in different areas have different feelings when winter finally gives way to spring.

What is common to all regions, however, is the people’s attitude of quietly waiting for the warmth of spring.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Feb. 10


Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.