Since World War II, six million courageous Japanese, all of them heirs to the cheerful fatalism of kamikaze pilots, have taken up skiing and have developed certain traditions of hysterical enthusiasm for it. When the season opened the other day, for example, one million people entrained, sardine style, for the country's 200 ski hills. Once back from their holiday, despite odds against any of them still being alive, even the wheelchair and hospital cases were convinced their pilgrimage had been a success. The good times of this outing will prevail from now until spring, and may God have mercy.
To begin with, the Saturday ski report from the mountains west of Tokyo was prohibitive: snow patchy, fog dense, rain steady. Nevertheless, lines began forming at Tokyo's Ueno Station shortly before dawn. But the train many of these people were waiting for would not leave until 11 that night. By noon more were in the line than could possibly be seated on the train, which goes to Nagano, a city in central Japan. By late afternoon ticket sales were stopped altogether. Still the lines grew (the Ueno Station had scheduled 50 extra trains for skiers), until 150,000 were jammed in and around the station. The air became so foul that station officials exhausted six cylinders of oxygen into the stupefied masses. When the Nagano train eventually backed into the station, trainmen opened the doors of the coaches and leaped back for their lives. The rush for seats was like an explosion, and at least a dozen were injured in the melee of hurtling bodies and flying skis and poles. The second wave made for the floor space under the seats, the third for the standing room in the aisles. Those unable to get in the doors went in the windows, where trainmen genially pushed on their bottoms until the anguished shrieks of those already inside bade them relent.
When the train pulled out, it carried 7,000 passengers in space normally allotted to 800. A standing woman fainted—but did not fall. Other standees let themselves go limp and slept supported by the crush. Said a contemplative type from under a seat: "I have trained myself to go long periods without the toilet." Said a standee who had not mastered the discipline: "Excuse me a minute." Walking over the tops of seats and crawling across the shoulders of seated passengers, he was back in 92 minutes.
So it went, the long, lurching night through, and at daybreak on Sunday the train wheezed into Nagano. Here the skiers scrambled for the locals that would deposit them—an hour later—at the base of the mountains. There the fight was on again for the buses that would take them to the actual ski area—another hour's ride. A full day after the first lines had formed at Ueno, the skiers reached their destination, Shiga Heights, one of Japan's glossiest ski resorts.
As advertised, the slopes of Shiga were foggy (visibility: 10 feet) and pocked with dangerous patches of mud and ice, and the drizzle was still coming down. Dopey with fatigue but altogether undaunted, everyone headed straightaway for the rope tows and chair lifts. The proficient and the incompetent (nobody much bothers with lessons in Japan) reached the summits together, and together they pushed off for the bottom. It was, for the moment, a grand sight.
In Japan, however, it is considered a loss of face to snow-plow or otherwise slow one's descent, so most skiers career downhill, madly out of control. Soon, therefore, the sounds of carnage began to filter through Shiga's obscuring mists. There were the shouts of surprise, of fear, and then of agonizing pain. "Abunai," the word for danger, was often heard, but the frenzied yelp always came too late and was followed by the brittle breaking noise of wooden skis, the softer thud of colliding bodies and the faint click of breaking bone. Like victims from a battlefield, the wounded began to crowd into the medical hut at the bottom.
"I moved 20 meters off the trail to rest," said one man weakly, "and suddenly I was hit by someone who didn't stop." His leg was shattered, a piece of bone protruding out of his stretch pants. But he was grinning. "I had one good run before this happened, so I am happy." A college boy with a broken leg was brought down; he had lain in the middle of a trail for five hours, missed by the overworked ski patrol, ignored by his fellow skiers. "Well," he said without bitterness, "I might have done the same. If someone had stopped to help me, it would have cost them an extra run. Time is too precious."
Time runs out for the typical Japanese skier on Sunday evening, when he must sprint for the bus to catch the train. If he manages to squeeze on board, he will stand up all night on the long trip back to Tokyo. Monday morning at Ueno Station the injured will be trundled to taxis on special baggage carriers equipped with seats (thus relieving porters of the task of carrying them piggyback). The survivors will report for work. Sighs an employer, "I'm resigned to getting no work done on Monday. Most of my people are so tired they can't walk straight, and some fall asleep at their desks." But after a few days of comparative rest, things will be back to normal. Then it will be dawn at Ueno Station. The line for the 11 p.m. train will form to the rear, please.