Today was Ohmisoka, New Year’s Eve, the flurry of year-end cleaning followed by the obligatory pilgrimage to hometowns to pay homage to parents and relatives. Every channel would televise the mass exodus from the cities to the countryside, with highlights of sixty-kilometer traffic jams in normal years.
This year was anything but normal. It never snows in Kyotanabe, never. A finger of arctic weather came thrusting through Siberia and North Korea to point accusingly at us with freezing temperatures and a full-blown blizzard in our normally temperate town. On the weather maps the accusing digit seemed to be pointing right at the area we had to traverse.
I pushed in extra coats and mittens, the warmest pajamas and socks. As I tried to remember what else I had forgotten the snow mocked me with visions of traffic jams that would trap us in a car with two small children and no food or bathrooms for hours and hours. I grabbed a bunch of CDs with pictures of bears and mice in hats on the jackets and shoved them in the bag with cookies and juice boxes. Then I thought of my husband without food: not the cuddly bear on the front of the CD but a ravenous monster a step away from eating his live young. Not good in a stopped car on a highway full of vehicles buried in snow. I grabbed a bag of bread rolls and pack of luncheon meat and shoved it in the bag on top of the CDs.
Half an hour later, climbing that first mountain between Kyoto and Shiga he says it: “Gee, there sure is a lot of snow.” I bite my tongue so hard I can almost taste the blood. “I haven’t seen snow like this on this road before,” he continues. “This road” is the one that he has driven everyday for five years, in the small hours before dawn in winter and the low-traffic hours after the evening rush. I fight the panic rising in me as he almost casually observes, “It must really be coming down in Shiga. I hope the traffic is moving. I wonder which road we should take.”
That phrase is my cue to begin for negotiating in earnest. If I push too hard for one road over the other, he will become stubborn and use the one I am against. “You know,” I start tentatively, “if we get stuck on the highway and cannot get off, and one of the kids needs to go to the bathroom…” I hope his imagination will show him a scenario worse than one I could describe. My tactic here is a twisted reverse psychology: by not directly stating my opinion I can pass it off as “his idea” to take the lower road. That old standby of peons and wives throughout history – “pretend it was His idea” – actually does work.
His internal debate, vocalized for us all, continues up until the last moment to make the turn, and then relief falls. He chooses the lower road.
Down a steep slope that gets steeper at the top with a traffic light we see the first bad backup in the opposite lane. Three, four… no, a total of five cars and skidded, slid and are stuck, one past our lane, clear on the other side of the road. The drivers and passengers all have that resigned look in their eyes that shows they have realized that they will be sitting there for hours before the tow trucks arrive to pull them out. The traffic behind them in already in a stationary line, miles long. The drivers varied between the catatonic state of endless waiting and the antsy indecision between waiting it out or turning back. My heart went out to those with small occupants.
As we make our way north, he congratulates himself on changing the tires to snow tires, on having a car with four-wheel drive, on having a car heavy with suitcases. He congratulates himself on having brought his offspring – one girl and one boy; Perfect! – to the parental pilgrimage again this year. I think warily of my in-laws and silently shove slices of ham into the sliced cheese rolls that I grabbed at the last minute, handing them around to stave off hunger. I try to warm my icy attitude with thoughts of the kids building snowmen and sledding, but my world suddenly seems to have frozen solid.