Category Archives: Nature

In praise of…The Brown Bear

If you go down in the woods today, you’d better not go alone,
It’s lovely down in the woods today, but safer to stay at home,
For every bear that ever there was,
Will gather there for certain because,
Today’s the day the teddy bears have their picnic
Teddy Bear’s Picnic, Henry Hall & His Orchestra

Excessive harvest continues to be the most immediate threat to the persistence of Hokkaido brown bears.
Status and management of the Hokkaido brown bear in Japan, Tsutomu Mano and Joseph Moll, in Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for Asia

“What does the sign say?” asked the illiterate Dr. T.  
One of the pleasures of botanizing with Dr. T is that when two roads diverge, we take the one less traveled, which on this occasion led us, in the rental Prius with me at the helm, at the proper and stately botanizing speed of fifteen kays, up a winding, hill-chiseled, single-track logging road, Route 607, on the Oshima Peninsula at the very southernmost tip of Hokkaido. We hadn’t encountered another human being for at least an hour, no small feat in this crowded land.
“It says, ‘Beware of the bears.’”
“Are there any bears here?”
“Nah,” I replied with the faith of the ignorant, the city-slicker guide masquerading as Mowgli, “We’re too far south. They’re all up in the far northeast.”
Ten minutes later, we rounded a corner. There was a bear in the middle of the road.
“Holy fucking crap! It’s a bear!”
Legion are the species of flora and fauna that are devilishly tough to identify in the field on first glance. Bears are not among them. This was Ursus arctos (so good they named it twice), the Brown Bear, aka the grizzly bear, or in its northeast Asian subspecies incarnation, Ursus arctos lasiotus, the Ussuri brown bear—in Japanese, the higuma.
Memories of what happened next differ. I’m told that I moved with uncharacteristic physical swiftness to close the driver’s side window of the Prius. My recollection is that I coolly asked, with the curiosity of the natural scientist, whether it was an adult.
“Of course it is!” exclaimed Dr. T, scrambling around on the back seat for his Nikon. He had about thirty fumbling seconds before the bear, rightly more wary of us than we were of it (how much I would love to know if “it” were a boar or a sow), lumbered up the hillside and into the beeches and maples, which is why even the best photo looks as if it were taken with a Box Brownie by a leprous dipsomaniac with delirium tremens. No Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for Dr. T, then.

I’d naïvely asked whether it was an adult because, not well versed in matters ursine and reared on wildlife documentaries about the salmon-fat Kodiak bears of Alaska and Hokkaido brown bears of the Shiretoko Peninsula, our bear seemed, well, a tad diminutive. Later, Dr. T, quizzed on how big it had been, replied with typical drunken eloquence, “As big as a really fucking big Alsatian!” On reviewing his photo, that seems about right.

Not that—in this case—size mattered: for both of us, it was our first encounter with a bear in the wild, a moment made so much the more magical for being wholly unexpected and unscripted. Globe-gallivanting Dr. T, one of whose friends is an authority on the Spectacled Bear of the Andes, holds out hope of one day tracking down the inspiration for Paddington Bear in deepest, darkest Peru, but for sedentary city-bound me, this was almost certainly the only bear with whom I will ever cross paths. 

The following evening, we watch an item on the evening news: an Asian Black Bear, categorized on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as vulnerable to extinction, has been driven down into residential districts in the central Japan city of Nagano by a poor season for seeds, nuts, and berries, the dearth of which has been so exasperating Dr. T.
“These narratives,” I warn Dr. T, “invariably end in the death of the bear.”
Twenty seconds later, the bear is dead, shot by a local hunter.
“Isn’t there anyone to speak up on behalf of the bear?”
“Well,” I reply, gesturing at the screen, “This guy’s from WWF Japan, but he’s just explaining how there are likely to be more bear incursions this autumn, so your answer is no.”

******

The Brown Bear is one of only two of the eight species of bear listed by the IUCN as Least Concern—five are listed as Vulnerable and one, the Giant Panda, is listed as Endangered—and while it is safe for now in its strongholds of Russia, Alaska, and Canada, it is long gone from many parts (Mexico, California, the Atlas Mountains, South Korea, the UK, and Germany) of its immense historical range and under intense pressure in many other parts (India, China, Mongolia, North Korea, and most of Europe) of the rest. The Japanese population may be the fifth largest in the world, after that of Romania. But how large is it? I thought, from previous dabbles in ursid research, that I knew the answer—around 2,000-3,000 individuals—but the truth turns out to be more elusive, as this October 6, 2012, article from the online Nikkei newspaper, which I translate in its disturbing entirety, suggests:

How many brown bears on Hokkaido? First survey in 12 years
Survey to be used in trouble countermeasures
How many brown bears are there on Hokkaido? The first population survey in 12 years is to be conducted on Hokkaido, where bear intrusions into forest villages and residential districts are frequent. The previous census, in 2000, estimated the population at 1,771-3,628, but current opinion is divided, with some claiming there are over 10,000 and others that they have been over-harvested. Hokkaido wants to get a precise grasp of the population and use the data in measures to prevent trouble. Between April and September this year, there were 963 sightings and 416 bears were harvested. Reports were made of more than 100 sightings in Sapporo City alone. In the year to March 2012, 825 bears were harvested and researchers are saying that bears are being over-culled in comparison with the estimated population count. How many bears are there really out there? We need a more precise grasp of the number. In September, the prefectural government mailed a questionnaire to some 5,800 hunters within the prefecture asking them to estimate the number of bears in their municipality and whether the number was rising or falling. The results of the survey are to be put together before next March. Discussions have also begun about bringing in the “hair-trap method”, whereby bear fur is collected and DNA analyzed to distinguish individuals, so as to enhance the precision of the survey. The Hokkaido Research Organization’s Environmental Science Research Center is pursuing research into how to cut costs. The generally accepted theory is that up to 10% of a bear population can be harvested annually without impacting the ecosystem. A survey on the Oshima Peninsula in the south of the prefecture using the hair-trap method put the bear population at 800, plus or minus 400. Plans are being drawn up to protect the bears there by putting an upper limit on the harvest at 120 individuals (40 sows).

So noone has a damned clue what is going on and the bear census is to be done shoddily and on the cheap. Assuming the Nikkei numbers are accurate, even at the upper population limit of the 2000 census the recent Hokkaido-wide cull rate (“harvest” is a noxious euphemism widely used around the world) is over 20% a year; at the lower limit it is close to 50%. On the Oshima Peninsula, the cull averaged about 80 bears a year between 1990 and 2008, the vast majority in controlled kills of “nuisance bears” (some, using the Ainu language, talk of kimun kamuy, “good bears” and uen kamuy, “bad bears”) rather than in recreational hunting, and a cull cap at 120 would have only saved bear lives one year in the last two decades. If the peninsula’s bear population is only 400, the low end of the survey estimate, the cull-rate cap would be 30% a year and the average cull rate 20% a year.

This goes some of the way to explaining why the odds were strongly stacked that our bear would seem, well, a tad diminutive: brown bears reach reproductive age at around five to seven years and live, unmolested, for 20-30 years, but at a cull rate of even 10% a year, Hokkaido brown bears have only a roughly even chance of making it to adulthood, even setting aside normal mortality rates. To put this in human terms, a cull rate of 10% equates to a homicide rate of 10,000 per 100,000 people; the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime puts the 2011 homicide rate in Honduras, reckoned to be the most murderous country in the world, at 91.6 per 100,000, more than a hundred times lower.

What of the other side of the ledger of death? Between 1980 and 2009, a total of 14 people (five of them hunters) were killed by bears on Hokkaido—fewer than 0.5 fatalities a year—while in the last dozen years, no more than three people a year have been injured annually. On the raw, unadjusted-for-stupidity data (all 18 of the bear fatalities between 1970 and 2000 were male and a minority of victims are solitary nocturnal salmon poachers), you’re approximately 400 times more likely to be killed in a Hokkaido traffic accident (190 fatalities in 2011) and 7,000 times more likely to be injured in one (19,705 injuries in 2011). You’re also approximately 3,000 times more likely to die by your own sweet hand than at the paws of a bear (1,533 Hokkaido suicides in 2010). With people outnumbering bears by about a thousand to one (and I would guess “Beware of the bear” signs outnumbering flesh-and-blood bears by fifty to one), it’s a massively, massively lop-sided conflict between these two apex omnivores. There’s damage to crops and forests to be taken into account, too, but this could be overcome with a well designed compensation scheme—the damage amounts to a paltry million dollars or so a year.

The human population of the eight towns that make up the remote southern end of the Oshima peninsula, where the bears are densest, is collapsing—from 89,000 in 1970 to 47,000 in 2010 and a projected 27,000 in 2035—and across Hokkaido the hunter population is likewise collapsing, down by more than half since the 1978 peak to 9,400 of late, with 44% of them over 60, but it would be premature to declare victory for the bear on these grounds, as the Oshima bear population has been falling these past four decades, too. As long as bears are seen as a pestilent and lethal enemy to be subdued—a view kept alive by folk memories of episodes from the early settler era such as the Sankebetsu Brown Bear Incident—as long as there are people around, and as long as some have guns, the conflict will run and run.

******

We pressed on along Route 607, which turned into a deeply, rockily rutted track.
“You know, there are very few roads down which you can’t take a two-wheel drive car,” airily opined Dr. T, whose steed of choice is a Land Rover Defender, who believes all lesser mounts must be—or should be, in a righteous world—just as rugged, and who has previous global convictions as long as a brachiating gibbon’s arm for grievous rental car abuse—if rent-a-car agencies had an Interpol most wanted list, he would be on it.
Moments later, to a banshee wail of stone against steel, the Prius grounded out.
“Fuck this for a lark, I’m turning round.”
We headed up around the coast to the other end of Route 607, but could only get a few kilometers into the interior before being thwarted by a forbidding barrier declaring that the road ahead had been washed away.

Even Dr. T in his Land Rover couldn’t have maneuvered past this—although I bet he would have given it the old college try. Unlike other barrier-blocked roads we had run up against in our travels, this one offered no schedule for reopening. Beside the barrier stood a wooden house, its frail, skeletal rib-cage of a roof staved in as if by a giant, vengeful fist. It’s the same all over rural Hokkaido: the homesteads on the most marginal land, furthest from civilization, are as a rule the first to go. Perhaps, I later mused, just perhaps this is where bear salvation lies, in the withdrawal from the extremities of Homo sapiens sapiens (so good—and so immodest—we named ourselves twice) and the closure of logging roads rendered redundant by the demise of the timber trade.

Darwin’s dice have rolled badly for Earth. Thanks to the selfish genetic success of the human cockroach, the 21st century is destined by many a reckoning to see the extirpation of half of all of the creatures with whom we share the planet, in what may come to be known as the Anthropocene extinction, the greatest and swiftest extinction event since at least the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago. Barring nuclear holocaust, utterly catastrophic climate change, or asteroid impact, the Brown Bear might make it through to the dawn of the 22nd century, along with the American Black Bear and, courtesy of the crudely nationalist and blinkered efforts of the Chinese state, the Giant Panda, already conservation dependent and ecologically extinct. It has to be touch and go for the other five bears. In the follies of my Greenpeace youth, I used to care passionately about these things, until I came to appreciate the enormity of humanity’s indifference.
As Brion Gysin said, man is a bad animal.

Select sources (in no particular order):

The World Wildlife Fund Japan hates bears (J only)

Hokkaido suicide rates (J)

Hokkaido road traffic death and accident rates (J)

Japan Bear Network report on bear-caused deaths and injuries in Japan (J, pdf)

Bear-caused deaths and injuries on Hokkaido, 1970-2000 (J)

Bear-caused injuries in Japan, 2007-2012 (J)

Bears culled in Japan, 2007-2012 (J)

Bears, forests, and bear culls in Japan, 1923-2006 (J, pdf)

Aging hunters on Hokkaido (J)

Interpreting the recent increase of brown bear conflicts in Hokkaido, Japan, from the 20th International Conference on Bear Research and Management, 2011 (E, pdf)

Status and management of the Hokkaido brown bear in Japan, in Brown Bear Conservation Action Plan for Asia (E, pdf)

Population Characteristics of Brown Bears on Oshima Peninsula, Hokkaido (E, ppt)

Management and Research of Brown Bears on Oshima Peninsula (E, ppt)

IUCN Red List data for the Brown Bear (E)

Bear Conservation and Biodiversity, Japan Bear Network (E, pdf)

The status of brown bears in Japan, in Understanding Asian bears to secure their future (E, pdf)

Modeling the brown bear population in Slovenia (E, pdf)

Holiday in Fukushima: A tree of ages

 

They took all the trees, and put ’em in a tree museum,
And they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em

Big Yellow Taxi, Joni Mitchell

 Meandering south, I drifted without design through the town of Miharu and wound up at one of its cherry trees.

Over a millennium old, the Miharu Takizakura (三春滝桜, the waterfall cherry of Miharu) is no shrinking violet, no blushing wallflower among cherries. It has its own website and Wikipage, for starters. Its garlands are exhaustive: it’s one of the five great cherries of Japan (日本五大桜) and one of the three giant cherries of Japan (日本三巨大桜). In 1990, it was chosen as one of the top ten trees from among a list of the 100 great trees in Japan and is routinely chosen by voters in famous cherry spot rankings as the number one tree in all the nation. From 2008 to 2009, its seeds spent eight and a half months in orbit on the International Space Station in an experiment to investigate the effects of weightlessness on their development. It has siblings and progeny across the country and the world, in Taiwan, Australia, Poland, and Hungary. It would, in short, be an alpha male or female among cherries, if cherry trees had conventional sexes, and was not going to let little things like an earthquake (which in Miharu only clocked in at upper five, the fourth highest level on the ten-tier Japanese seismic intensity scale) or radiation (0.40 microsieverts/hour on the day I was there, down from a peak of 2.58 on March 17, the first day it was measured in Miharu) impede its stately voyage down the centuries, ceding only a few twigs to the temblor.

I realized on approach that I’d seen the tree on TV just a few days before, in a cameo news appearance, giving succor to evacuee children, its scarlet pink branches, at the height of their power to seduce, seeming to reach out and embrace the children’s fragile shoulders. The tree is a symbol not just of evanescence, as the common-or-garden cherry is, but, by virtue of its great age, of endurance, too, never more so than now. Railed and chained off from intrusion, it’s far too serious and venerable a tree to permit drunken hanami blossom-viewing revelry within its precincts. The atmosphere is not of the carnival but the cathedral, as the tiny shrine and offertory box atop the stairs attest.

Of almost as great fascination as the tree itself is the reverential hoop-la that attends it: in an ordinary year—which this is not—some 300,000 visitors descend to worship at its boughs, packed into at most three weeks’ worth of obeisance, a time when this A-list celebrity among cherries must be the most photographed tree on earth, much to the jealousy, no doubt, of the lovely but lesser cherry trees surrounding. To corral the ecstatic pilgrims, fields have been paved over with vast parking lots, underpasses dug out, and a swathe of hillside covered with a cobbled approach road. To part the pilgrims from their money, the approach road is lined with wooden and tin shacks hawking pickles, ice cream, and miso. Last year the town rolled the parking charge and the voluntary “cherry cooperation fee”, which many pilgrims were loath to hand over, into one mandatory Y300 ($3.70) payment, coining (I believe) in the process a word new to Japanese—the “cherry tree observation fee” (観桜料), which generated Y69.9mn ($850,000) in revenue, most of which was spent on the orchestration of the blossom-viewing jamboree.  

Swamped with evacuees, the town this year forsook the usual nighttime illuminations, free shuttle buses, and portaloos, provided only the bare minimum of parking marshals, and dispensed with the observation fee. Visitor numbers were projected at just a tenth those of a normal year, and with Fukushima Daiichi only 50km to the east, they may never recover their past levels.

None of this matters a whit to the tree, which has only been more than locally famous since Kyoto priest and poet Suetaka Kamo (1754-1841) penned a waka in its honor in 1836:

陸奥に みちたるのみか 四方八方に ひびきわたれる 滝桜かな

The weeping cherry / fills not just Tohoku / but resounds in all directions

Humanity’s tide, which had been rising in the northeast—albeit with stretches of stagnation—since the Stone Age, turned just over a decade ago, and Miharu will lose a quarter of its people in the coming quarter of a century, which is about how long it will take to dismantle Daiichi and—surely—Daini, for whatever the fate of nuclear power elsewhere on the archipelago, fission must be gone for good from Fukushima.

A quarter of a century, though, is nothing to the tree, which has already lived through forty or so of those. It is, after all, a mere stripling when set against the two other giant cherries of Japan, which weigh in at roughly 1,500 years and two millennia old. As long as there are folk around to tend to its now weary limbs—and maybe beyond that—it will endure.

Monbetsu: “We don’t want your sort around here”

My next destination was just the other side of Nemuro: Lake Furen, about which ornithologist Mark Brazil raves in A Birdwatcher’s Guide to Japan:

Furen-ko, a huge (52km2), shallow lagoon nearly 20km wide, up to 4km across, and averaging only 1-2m deep, is surrounded by forests. On higher ground fir, spruce, and yew dominate, on lower ground alder-birch-oak scrub with some maples. The lagoon itself is fringed with reedbeds and tidal mud flats, and opens to the sea at both ends of the long forested island known as Shunkunitai. Birdwatching along the southern shore of the lake, along the coastal marshes and wild rose-covered dunes that separate Shunkunitai from the sea, on Shunkunitai itself, and in the forests inland from the lake, is some of the finest in Japan. This area easily ranks as my favourite in Japan.

The main Nemuro-Kushiro road skirts the southern fringes of the lagoon, and it was there that I found a charming if slightly ramshackle collection of cottages called Lake Sunset, right on the water’s edge, with a restaurant where I lunched on seafood curry while watching buzzards circle high in the sky over the lagoon. I borrowed a charinko (the nickname for the clunky standard-issue Japanese bicycle) and headed out on the boardwalks across Shunkunitai.

(

What maps there were bore no relationship to the boardwalks and paths on the ground, which soon petered out, and the sole aerial observation deck had been roped off, its stairs removed. I wondered if the faint air of neglect was due to the lagoon’s status as a prefectural park, rather than a national one. This, and the all but inevitable tetrapods on the beach, was slightly disappointing, but some sterling birds, including Red-cheeked Mynah and Long-tailed Rosefinch, were compensation enough. As the afternoon wore on, fog poured in from the sea and the mercury began to drop fast.

Back at the cottages, I dined with my few fellow guests, a lone behatted woman in her late 60s in a taupe tracksuit who complained long and loud about the midges and the mozzies, and a pair of what birdwatchers derisively dismiss as “dudes”, who cheerfully misidentified a distant flock of five Grey Herons as Red-crowned Cranes. I offered the woman my petite but powerful Kowa 10×32 bins to get a better look at the Red-crowned Crane (genuine, this time) that was feeding at the water’s edge only a couple of hundred meters away, but after a few moments she sniffily indicated that she preferred the enormous and battered clunkers of dubious provenance that the restaurant had on had, no doubt in the erroneous belief that size and weight was of determining importance.

Like English, Japanese has no shortage of words for the boondocks. “Inaka” is the all-encompassing basic one, which is taken by many to mean anywhere outside of the megalopolises of Tokyo, Osaka, and Nagoya, and not a few Edokko (native Tokyoites) likely believe in their heart of hearts that the inaka begins at the edge of the five central wards of Tokyo. I’m not aware, though, of any mirror-image word to express the derision that country-dwellers must on occasion have for city folk. Indeed, the only one I know in English is the dismissive West Country term “grockle”, for the summer visitors from the city that crowd the narrow lanes and are unable to adroitly ram their cars up against hedgerows and verges to let oncoming traffic through.

My dudes were grockles, alright: in conversation with the proprietor, they asked in all seriousness if it was possible to drive the main Nemuro-Kushiro road in the depths of winter, apparently unaware that it doesn’t even snow that heavily most years in eastern Hokkaido, and cooed in amazement when told that it was. I ached to answer on the proprietor’s behalf, “No, we’re completely snowbound half the year and when the food in the freezer runs out we trap and eat foxes and rabbits”. Inaka folk must think their city cousins are such fools.

My long-dormant enthusiasm for birdwatching had been sufficiently aroused for me to take a long walk after dinner, to the light of a full moon, down some graveled byways to listen to the night-singing Locustella warblers and the downright eerie call of the not uncommon but highly elusive White’s Ground Thrush, a plaintive pair of thin, monotonous whistles delivered about half a minute apart from deep in the undergrowth.

The next morning I emerged from my lakeshore cottage and almost trod on a Red-crowned Crane, a very handsome and very rare bird indeed.

Breakfast was spent alternately crane-watching and listening to Michael Jackson’s funeral on the radio. Then I took a circuitous route west into the dairy town of Betsukai (1980 population 19,035, estimated 2009 population 16,236, projected 2035 population 12,278)—or is it Bekkai, nobody can agree—and down the sandbar that encloses the lagoon from the north-west to the end-of-the-road fishing village of Hashiri Kotan, which preserves the Ainu for village, “kotan”, in its name. Along the sandbar Latham’s Snipe, most of the world’s population of which summer in Hokkaido, displayed in spectacular style, dive-bombing from fifty or so meters up down to near head-height, the wind thropping through their wings as banks of fog billowed in.

Further up the coast, I detoured down the Notsuke peninsula, which at 28km long is Japan’s largest sandspit. The dense fog and driving rain accentuated the creepy feeling of water closing in on both sides, with the horror movie atmospherics further heightened by the ancient detritus of fishermen—this World War II American Army truck was long used to haul in boats, I believe—and by ghostly abandoned houses.

At the end of the peninsula, a profusion of bedewed flowers bloomed.

Goldenbanners, Thermopsis lupinoides

A Hemerocallis daylily, perhaps H. lilioasphodelus

A very handsome rose, Rosa rugosa, known in Japanese as Hamanasu (literally “shore aubergine”) and the prefectural flower of Hokkaido.

A Blood Iris, Iris sanguinea

Retracing my steps, I passed through another dairy town, Shibetsu (1980 population 7,730, estimated 2009 population 5,829, projected 2035 population 4,323), cutting inland to traverse the bottom of the Shiretoko peninsula. Soon after crossing into Shari (1980 population 15,795 estimated 2009 population 12,831, projected 2035 population 8,831), I came across this curiosity, a railway viaduct that never carried a single train, by the side of the road.

The Konboku line, of which it was intended to form a part, was intended to link two more important lines, and although it had been on the drawing boards for years, construction was only authorized by the Imperial Diet in 1937, for reasons of national defense amid growing fears of war with the Soviet Union. The bridge and the first 12.8km stretch of the line between Shari and Koshikawa, which halted just short of the bridge, were completed in 1939, but with war leading to growing shortages of materiel, further construction was halted and the tracks, which had not yet seen a train, removed. The line, although no longer needed for defense, finally opened in 1957 with hopes of lumber transport, but the roads in the vicinity were rapidly improving and the line was closed to freight traffic after just three years, limping on for another decade with just two trains a day until the axe fell in 1970.

I dwell on the mournful story of the Konboku line because it is emblematic of the history of railroads in Hokkaido, which is a train buff archaeologist’s paradise: Wikipedia Japan catalogs a total of 84 partially or wholly closed lines. To be sure, many were more akin to tramways, some horse-drawn, while many others were colliery or dockside lines, but by my estimate Hokkaido lost 1,280km of its railways as 20 passenger lines fell victim to the privatization knell in just five years, 1985-1989, more than a third of the network, which these days is down to 14 lines covering 2,500km, an axe even more brutal and wielded over a shorter span than the one Dr. Richard Beeching brought down on British Rail in the 1960s. Sparsely populated Hokkaido was hit far harder than anywhere else in Japan: neighboring Aomori prefecture, for instance, did not lose a single inch of track in the 1980s.

The physical relics of these lines—bridges, embankments, cuttings, tunnels, and platforms—are everywhere, and they now form an intrinsic and spectral part of the tapestry of the land.

A flower-spangled embankment on the 20km Kohinnan line (closed 1985), midway up the Okhotsk coast, leads seductively away into the distance.

Looming over a boarded-up but still inhabited shack near Shosanbetsu is a grilled-off tunnel on the Haboro line, which on March 30, 1987, was the very last line in Japan to be closed by the pre-privatization Japan National Railways and which once ran for more than a hundred miles up the west coast.

A steam locomotive (a C58 class from 1939) and a short stretch of track on the Yumo line, another Okhotsk Sea railroad; this one ran for 90km between Abashiri and, to be honest, nowhere in particular; by the time of its 1987 closure its five trains a day were carrying only a couple of hundred passengers.

Many of the lost lines of Hokkaido had very brief working lives: the Kohinnan was built in 1935, the Haboro in stages between 1927 and 1957, and the Yumo likewise in stages between 1935 and 1953, and this to me speaks volumes about Hokkaido’s restless history as a colonial frontier—the “build it and they will come” mid-century optimism, the post-war boom years in which Hokkaido’s extractive economy, dependent as so much of it was on fisheries, forestry, farming, and fossil fuels, was carried along by the rest of the nation to the south, and then the dawning of disillusion as the most rural districts began emptying out as early as the 1970s.

From Shari, I headed up the Okhotsk coast in increasingly inclement weather through Koshimizu (1980 population 7,836, estimated 2009 population 5,531, projected 2035 population 3,457), about which I recollect nothing, and into Abashiri (1980 population 44,777, estimated 2009 population 39,695, projected 2035 population 30,054), which among many Japanese is a byword for bleakness owing to its remoteness, exposed position on the coast, and most of all to its prison.

The Okhotsk Marine Palace on the outskirts of Abashiri features prominently on the blogs of many a ruin fan. The little critters on the right of the door are translucent sea slugs of the genus Clione, sometimes known as sea angels, for which the Okhotsk coast is famous.

The angelic theme continued in the statuary; the expression, the posture, the washed-out whites, the tiny scar of rust on the cape—just too perfect.

Heading out of Abisihiri, the rain drove down in sheets so dense they made driving hazardous, and I pulled in at a convenience store to sit out the rainstorm and to repair the soles of my decade-old sneakers, which had begun to detach themselves from the rest of the shoes. When the rain abated, I pushed on around the vast and brackish Saroma lagoon through the towns of Saroma (1980 population 8,666, estimated 2009 population 6,030, projected 2035 population 4,428) and Yubetsu (1980 population 14,326 estimated 2009 population 10,276, projected 2035 population 6,924), where I delighted in the unintended poetry of this pachinko parlor.

My favorite line, for its effortless romance and hints at a dark past, has to be, “He floated with the various women, and washed away a name.” Tell me more about the legend of Tamagoro, whose given name seems to have been selected both for its 19th century authenticity to Japanese ears and because it contains the magical “tama”, the stainless steel ball-bearings whose tantalizing clatter is the essence of pachinko.

Crossing into Monbetsu (1980 population 33,860, estimated 2009 population 25,121, projected 2035 population 15,762), signs appeared for the Okhotsk Monbetsu Airport, and having become something of a connoisseur of the exquisite pointlessness of many of Japan’s provincial airports, I had to divert to take a look.

I counted the cars in the parking lot—mine was the fourteenth. Although the airport can never have been more than marginally viable, it got a very expensive makeover in 1999. ANA and JAL subsidiaries have tried and failed for years to make flights to Sapporo pay; these days there is just one flight a day, to Tokyo’s Haneda, which fortunately is operated by ANA and not bankrupt JAL. The airport has a tiny, rural catchment area, whose population is aging and shrinking fast. The 100th provincial airport in Japan opened last year; will Monbetsu be the first to close?

It was 5pm and the terminal was shutting down. A security guard escorted me brusquely out.

Darkness was closing in and I decided to put up at Monbetsu for the night. The Prince Hotel, which would have been handy for the pachinko parlors, turned me away, but the Central Hotel, which was handy for the rattling crab-canning factory outside my bedroom window, let me stay. Just as the neon was coming on, I strolled in the now sun-streaked twilight up and down the main nighttime drag, Hamanasu Dori (named after the rose), overcome by the squalor.

In need of a drink, I stopped in at an izakaya pub, Irori (“hearth”).

Two men in late middle age were sitting at the counter. From behind the counter, the master had only one thing to say to me, “Japanese only”. Or rather, “Japaneezu onrii”.

It was bound to happen sooner or later—the welcome would be the same at countless thousands of seedy snacks, taverns, and soaplands in the center of Tokyo—but in the tumbledown drinking district of Monbetsu, of all places! Although I knew I had it coming, I had never pictured precisely how I would react, and was caught wholly off-guard.

Realizing instantly that we were far beyond the realm of rational debate, my initial reaction was to crank up the middle finger, in tandem with a methodically uttered “Fuck you!” I switched to Japanese.

“Gimme a beer!”

“Get out!”

“I said, gimme a beer!”

“Get out!”

“Call the cops!”

“I don’t need to call the cops. Get out!”

“Call the cops!”

It wasn’t what you’d label a sophisticated exchange. He came round from behind the bar and started tugging hard at my sleeve. There was no conceivable way I could win from here, so I did as I was bid.

I was even more in need of a drink now. I stepped apprehensively into the nearest neighboring bar, Sasaya.

There were no customers, only the welcoming proprietor Sasaki san (39) at the counter.

I ordered a beer and related how I’d been thrown out of the first bar I entered.

“Well, he probably mistook you for a Russian”.

“Yes, I realize that now. But do I look like a Russian to you?” I was wearing bright polkadot shorts and sporting hipster specs.

“Well, no, not to me. But to oyaji [middle-aged men], all foreigners look the same”.

We chatted over beers for a couple of hours, our conversation taking a mostly mournful course. He was rightly worried about the fate of Monbetsu’s airport, and related the failed attempts that had been made down the years to make it viable. We touched on the daily realities of population decline, how there were only two classes a year at the elementary school his eight-year old daughter attended, against the four when he himself had been a pupil there. I mentioned that I’d come across a gate-closed facility called the Okhotsk Sea Ice Park on the fringe of town and couldn’t really work out whether it was going up or coming down.

“Oh, that’ll be opening soon. It’s what we call a ‘hakomono’ (“box thing”). The construction industry has to keep busy, so they give funds to the local politicians, and they vote through this kind of project in the prefectural assembly. You know how it works.”

“I know how it works”.

“I wanted it to have something for the kids, maybe a skateboard bowl, but that idea was vetoed. It’ll have a miniature golf course instead, for the old folk”.

“It’s a country for old men. Especially places like Monbetsu”.

The lack of consideration for children in the planning of the Okhotsk Sea Ice Park seemed to particularly rankle; he returned to the subject several times over the course of the evening. But when your demographic profile is as skewed to the elderly, who turn out in droves come election time, as Monbetsu’s is, it’s not surprising that what the aged want, they tend to get.

I paid for my beers. “I guess you’ll be my only customer tonight”, he lamented as we parted.

I should have eaten, but the late evening streets of Monbetsu no longer looked so hospitable, so I bought a can of beer and brooded by the moonlit window back at the hotel, resolving in revenge to return to Hamanasu Dori the next morning to see if I could capture the magnificence of its squalor on camera.

Monbetsu was snack heaven—or hell. “Snack bars” (スナックバー sunakku bā) in their smallest incarnation—as found in Monbetsu—are tiny bars seating at most a dozen and orchestrated by a “mama san” who serves, banters, and flirts with the patrons. Once upon a time they were pricey, with the mama san charging what she thought she could get away with; those days in places like Monbetsu will have gone with the cold north wind.

The yellow sign on the upright says “Welcome: I like it! Monbetsu”. I liked the pile of garbage at the bottom of the fire escape and the patterns created by its stairs and rusting cage.

I snapped this yakitori chicken-on-a-stick place because it was one of the few with a sign in Russian. My Russian isn’t great, but I knew it didn’t read “Welcome Russian brothers! First drink is on the house!” I pieced it together later.

МАГАЗИН ТОЛЬКО ДЛЯ  ЯПОНЦЕВ

Store only for Japanese

The snacks spilled down dingy sidestreets.

The flies were particularly rife and the odor particularly fetid down this lane.

Snack Dog and a sign proclaiming a campaign to stamp out drink-driving, recommending that drinkers bring a “handle keeper” along with them on their night out on the tiles of Monbetsu. I adore this pic, not solely for the way most of the Photography 101 checkbox has been ticked, but also for the context of the surrounding squalor beyond the frame, which makes the scene so fragile, and for the unspoken and unspeakable tension between the two cartoon characters, one representing licentiousness and the other the cold dead hand of authority, the tension between dog and handler.

Snack Cap and Snack Paradise Hill. You really wouldn’t want to, would you?

Tired grey snack dishrags drying in the morning wind. I like the awning, too; there’s something of a woman in a dress a size too small about it.

The weatherbeaten karaoke joint sign seduces customers with 30 minutes of singing opportunities for Y76 (84¢, 52p) per person between noon and six.

Fried chicken and grilled fish—with garbage.

Monbetsu’s tag crew (I refuse to believe there could be more than one) had been to work on this derelict snack, which had been called “Hood Village”, appropriately enough. A sleepy little Hokkaido town was suddenly coming over all Detroit on my ass.

Coffee shop Maimu had once shared the premises with a hairdressers, the shadows of the characters below the top-floor windows revealed.

“Snack Sakae” reads this battered sign. “Sakae” means prosperous or flourishing.

I couldn’t tell what the New Gin No. 3 Hall had been, but whatever it was, it’s not. I liked the 70s tiling well enough, though.

Goodbye Hamanasu Dori. May you rot in the squalor of your ignorance.

While the no-holds-barred photo-tour had been entertaining enough, as a friend rightly commented when I related the tale to him, posting a few snaps to a blog that noone reads to protest about prejudice is not even tantamount to a strongly worded letter to the newspaper.

Back in Tokyo, I mused on what more I could do in the name of revenge before hitting on something that would at least amuse, if not bring redress—I was just a tourist, after all, so why not complain to the Hokkaido Tourism Organization?

From: Spike
Date: August 25, 2009 10:34:30 PM JST
To: Hokkaido Tourism Organization
Subject: Complaint

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am writing to complain about an incident that occurred on Wednesday, July 8, in Monbetsu, Hokkaido. I was on the second week of a two-week driving tour of Hokkaido and had driven on the day in question from Nemuro to Monbetsu. At the Monbetsu Central Hotel, where I stayed, I was given a map of central Monbetsu and made my way to the entertainment district, Hamanasu Dori. There I entered an izakaya called Irori (telephone: 0158-24-2468) at around 18:00. The proprietor crossed his arms in front of his chest and said repeatedly in English “Japanese only”. I asked in Japanese for a beer and told him in Japanese to call the police if he wanted to remove me from the premises. He then came around from behind the counter and started pulling my sleeve to get me to leave, which I reluctantly did.

The whole incident was very unpleasant and ruined my two-week vacation. This sort of racist behavior might be normal in a Third World country such as Nigeria but is not acceptable in a G7 and OECD member such as Japan.

I have no doubt that the proprietor thought that either I was Russian or had decided to ban all “white” people from his izakaya because of trouble caused by Russian sailors or other Russian visitors in the past. This is no justification whatsoever for his behavior. There is no conceivable reason why I, as a tourist from the UK, should be held responsible the trouble anyone else has caused.

I request two things, via your intermediary services. The first is a written apology from the manager of Irori and the second is a promise from him that he will not discriminate in this way again.

If I do not receive the apology and promise, then I will apply the reverse of his attitude, and hold all Japanese responsible for failing to eradicate this obnoxious discrimination in Japan. I will never travel in Japan again and I will never buy a Japanese product costing more than Y10,000 again. As my last auto purchase was of a new Japanese vehicle that cost more than Y4mn, it should be clear that the behavior of the owner of Irori will cost the Japanese economy at least Y10mn. I will also of course advise everyone I know and everyone I meet never to travel to Japan.

If I do not hear from your organization within a week, I will take the matter up with the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Yours faithfully,

Spike

OK, OK, a bit pompous, so sue me. I make no apologies for the Nigeria reference; it was deliberately crafted for the Japanese hierarchy of peoples.

After several polite e-mails back and forth, the resolution, such as it was, came.

From: Hokkaido Tourism Organization
Sent: Thursday, September 10, 2009 3:24 PM
To: Spike
Subject: RE: Complaint

Dear Mr. Spike

Many thanks for your email and we just send our reply.

Monbetsu tourist association reply about the matter of the complaint that we had from you the other day.

Since the “Izakaya Irori” is not in the member of us so we offered it through the Monbetsu food & drink store association that “Irori” enrolled in joined our association.

For the Monbetsu food & drink store association, such problems happens frequently around them for several years and what you’ve pointed out is true. They would take this matter gravely and give a notification to all member of their association to deal with it adequately.

Based on “Irori” proprietor’s deepest apology, never doing such behavior. Monbetsu food & drink store association promise you that there will not be such a thing in future.

We accept your complain seriously and make every effort to please all travelers with best hospitality.

Sincerely yours,

Hiroshi Kagaya
General manager

From: Spike
To: Hokkaido Tourism Organization
Sent: Thursday, September 10, 2009 5:36 PM
Subject: RE: Complaint

Dear Kagaya san and Kondo san,

Thank you very much for your kind reply and your sincere efforts on my behalf.

Do you think you could send me the Japanese version of your reply, as there are some things I do not quite understand.

Warm regards,

Spike

From: Hokkaido Tourism Organization
Sent: Friday, September 11, 2009 2:21 PM
To: Spike
Subject: RE: Compliant

Dear Ms. Spike

Hi.

For your request, which part you don’t understand?

I think to send you whole Japanese version takes some time because it concerns at least 3 associations and need to ask my boss about your request.

If you tell me which part you don’t understand, I’ll answer.

Thank you

Hokkaido Tourism Organization

Having caused enough inconvenience, Ms Spike left it at that. The circuitousness of the intervention, involving “at least three associations”, is authentically Japanese. The complaint must course through the proper channels, protocol must be minutely observed.

While I was sincerely hurt and offended—well, as sincerely as I am capable of being—I can of course by no means claim to be some Rosa Parks standing up (or sitting down) against perennial and viscous discrimination, the very idea would be laughable. The immediate loser in all this was the perpetrator, who sacrificed the $30 or more of custom I would have put his way (custom that to judge from the above noone in Monbetsu can afford to lose), not me, who quickly found an adjacent and hospitable bar.

Sadly, though, the discrimination may be economically rational, as long as the shabby bars and snacks of Monbetsu depend more on their Japanese customers than their Russian ones, as long as their Japanese patrons refuse to intermingle with the Russians, and—to be fair—as long as the Russian sailors and traders refuse, as many reports go, to kowtow to such idiosyncratic local customs such as settling bills at the end of an evening.

So much for my Rosa Parks moment; here I am defending the discrimination of which I was an inadvertent and scarcely afflicted victim. It would be delightful if Russians and Japanese could exchange cups of an amnesiac broth in the bars of Monbetsu, slapping each other heartily on the shoulder blades as they did so; sadly, given the tortured history of enmity between the two nations, it seems unlikely to happen anytime soon.

In my book of good graces, though, the responsibility ultimately lies with the host to ensure that the visitor, as long as they have come legally and in peace, is enjoying himself or herself, and this is where the Japanese response is so wanting, so dis-grace-ful. A poetic justice of a sort is being served, however: writ large, the victims, like my loser bar owner, will finally be the possessors of the insular mentality and the perpetrators of discrimination—it is no accident that Japan struggles to attract foreign tourists, receiving fewer in 2007 than South Africa, Macau, Croatia, and Hungary, around the same number as tiny Singapore, and only a third more than South Korea, no accident that Japan has so few true friends on the international stage, no accident that Japanese companies, with a handful of exceptions, have failed to turn themselves into truly successful multinationals.

Abayo, Monbetsu. I won’t be back.

[With thanks to TM for help with flower identification.]

Kushiro: Everyone knows this is nowhere

The big drive east took me across the northern fringes of the Hidaka mountain range, first through Mukawa (1980 population 14,591, estimated 2009 population 9,852, projected 2035 population 6,619), a new town created in 2006, famous for—if anything—shishamo smelt and a proving ground for Isuzu trucks, and then very briefly through the village of Shimukappu (1990 population 2,721, estimated 2009 population 1,239, implausible projected 2035 population 1,335), one of the coldest places in Japan, logging -35.8c in January 2001, which boomed in the 1980s as a ski-resort, the company behind the resort finally going bust in 1998 with debts of ¥106.1bn.

The drive through Hidaka (1980 population 18,875, estimated 2009 population 14,001, projected 2035 population 8,981) and Shimizu (1980 population 13,352, estimated 2009 population 10,362, projected 2035 population 6,933) across the 1,023m Nissho Pass and down into the Obihiro basin was fabulous, although I was nearly outrun by a humble first-generation Toyota Raum, over which I had a 150hp advantage.

I skirted through the Obihiro dormitory town of Memuro (1980 population 16,580, estimated 2009 population 19,353, projected 2035 population 17,147), the 1947 birthplace of gateball, Japan’s very own version of croquet and much loved by seniors across the nation, although by all accounts its inventor, Eiji Suzuki, intended it as a game for children to keep them out of trouble in the lean post-war years.

It was then into Obihiro (1980 population 153,861, estimated 2009 population 168,608, projected 2035 population 133,894) proper, which feels like the least Japanese of cities, with its broad boulevards, huge John Deere and New Holland tractor outlets, massive farms (on average ten times bigger than the Japanese norm), wheat fields, potatoes, beet, and confectionary makers, and then out of the city on the southeast, through another dormitory town, Makubetsu (1980 population 22,390, estimated 2009 population 27,378, projected 2035 population 23,734), where another only-in-Japan game, park golf, was invented. Let’s park golf!

Leaving the Obihiro sprawl behind, I made a run for the coast through the cattle country of Toyokoro (1980 population 5,779, estimated 2009 population 3,672, projected 2035 population 1,873) and Urahoro (1980 population 9,693, estimated 2009 population 5,784, projected 2035 population 2,721). Urahoro was once on the edge of the Kushiro coalfield but it lost its eponymous mine as early as 1954 and now feels like any other sleepy Hokkaido seaside town on its uppers.

I stopped for lunch in the adjoining town of Onbetsu, which became part of Kushiro in 2005 in the great Heisei municipal merger boom of the middle of this decade, although Shiranuka, the town that lies between it and Kushiro, did not, so it is now administratively an odd little exclave—think Kaliningrad. Lunch was at a randomly chosen soba joint called Mikaku, with a perfectly preserved interior from the 1970s.

The chicken in the “chicken and egg” soba was so tough I swore that it had seen active service in the First World War. I was of course the only customer (well, it was gone 2pm).

In the Shoro district of Shiranuka (1980 population 14,514, estimated 2009 population 9,868, projected 2035 population 5,336), I fell deeply in love with Restaurant Moonlight.

Was there just a trace of Islamic influence in the arches and the arabesques of the restaurant’s name? I thought so. The restaurant specializes in Japan’s cuisine least familiar to outsiders, yoshoku, Japanese reinterpretations of Western dishes that date back more than a century, including Japan’s national dish, curry rice.

Shiranuka was once another small Kushiro coalfield mining town; the population peaked at 22,737 in 1967 and all the mines were gone by 1970.

I motored past the paper factories and chemical plants on the outskirts and into the center of Kushiro (1980 population 227,234, estimated 2009 population 186,962, projected 2035 population 118,448).

In finance, people talk about districts or countries being “overbanked”, having too many bank branches or competing banks, and in Japan, the structure of the word has been mimicked in a marvelous bit of made-up English, “overstore”, applied to the retail industry. I made up my own word to describe Kushiro: it was overbedded.

There was a chill in the air as I parked up in front of the centrally located ANA Hotel. Even in high summer, the mercury in Kushiro struggles to make it beyond the high teens. Inside, I enquired about the cost of a single; just over Y13,000 ($150, GBP90). I balked and turned to walk away; while I wasn’t on a particularly tight budget, for the pleasure I was likely to derive from the room, anything over a Y10,000 seemed superfluous. “How about Y10,000?” the receptionist said, addressing my back.

For a moment I felt as if I was in some Moroccan souk; this is Japan, noone haggles. They must be absolutely desperate, I thought to myself. I declined, saying that I would check out a couple of nearby places. There wasn’t going to be any problem finding room at the inn that night. At the Prince Hotel, the headline figure was Y9,500. I hummed and hawed; might as well go back to the ANA. The receptionist could see I was hesitating. “But we have a special Limited Plan for Y8,500”. What the limits were he didn’t care to explain. I checked in.

There are some 20 hotels of varying size in downtown Kushiro; the Prince alone has 400 rooms and the ANA 190. Some of the less prestigious but still respectable business hotels around the station would set you back as little as Y3,000 ($35, GBP21) a night for a double. At the exchange rates prevailing 18 months ago, that would have been $25 and GBP12.50 or thereabouts. With prices at the bottom end already at Motel 6 rates and Kushiro’s population spiraling down, its hotels’ collective future does not look pretty.

Kushiro’s showpiece attractions are the retail and restaurant complex Fishermen’s Wharf MOO, which stands for Marine Our Oasis, and an adjacent steel and glass indoor garden called EGG; I never discovered what EGG stood for, but maybe it was Extremely Great Garden. Perhaps they could be creatively renamed CLUCK and COWPAT, I’m sure noone would notice the difference.

There are no prizes, none at all, for guessing when they opened (1989). Designed as primarily a retail facility, MOO is grossly underused; much of the fourth floor of its five is given over to the drawings and scribblings of Kushiro elementary schoolers. On the second floor is a photo exhibition of Kushiro’s tourist highlights, with much self-referential space allotted to MOO itself. Some functionary—or a committee of them—had determined Kushiro’s “sloping roads” were worthy of exploration.

The burghers of Kushiro were also excited to share their civic pride in the magnificence of their flower clock and roundabout with the world.

Japan is almost wholly devoid of roundabouts. The caption to the photo reads:

When you cross the Nukimai Bridge on the Kita Oodori, you come to a roundabout with six projecting spokes and no traffic signals. Apart from the one in Asahikawa, this is probably the only other roundabout on Hokkaido.

We often hear from women and people that have been transferred here on work that they don’t want to drive through the roundabout, but the fact is that for all the six spokes and the lack of traffic lights, the flow of vehicles is smooth and there are few accidents. If you’ve come to Kushiro by car, why not give yourself a little thrill and experience the roundabout for yourself?

That was enough for me: I set off immediately across the bridge in search of the flower clock and roundabout.

Bagged in a single shot! Two of Kushiro’s prime tourist attractions.

I wandered down the other side of the Kushiro river, as twilight folded in, lured by the false promise of a brewery I had spotted from the other side.

The Hokkaido Shimbun reports that the building was originally erected in around 1960 as an ice-packing plant and taken over by Kushiro Harbor Beer in 1997 until it went under in 2007. Various plans are afoot to refurbish it but they’ve already been delayed and I have to doubt they’ll come to much. On the doors of the brewery were signs indicating that a guerilla nightclub, Let’s Groove, would be holding a Sunday evening party a little later, and indeed there was a hubbub of cars pulling up, speakers being unloaded, and urgent whispered advice being exchanged.

I returned a couple of hours later to find the party in its fullest of swing. It had the air of a Japanese flavored student disco—there were makeshift stalls selling edamame soybeans in the pod, shishamo smelt, and beer at Y500 a can. My scrawled jottings, taken on the spot, capture some of the flavor.

- “It’s too good to be true, I can’t take my eyes off of you”

- execrable sound system/distortion

- James Brown, “Shake your groovy hips”

- preteen dancing with funkyman

- “That’s the way, uh huh, I like it”

- 50 people, mostly female

- veering toward middle-age

- dry ice!

- hardcore collective with a Kushiro dance stylee

- bar counter about 3ft by 3ft with six bottles of spirits and a beer keg

- “Happy birthday to ya!”

- slender goth queen and hip-hop boy with headband, makes his hair look like a shrub

- manic whistle ref man (50?)

Then the hip-hop DJ took his slot; I wasn’t too sure about the wig.

I was swaying alone to the music, moderately drunk, when a 21-year old kid appeared by my side. Shin was from Kitami in the north and studying business at college in Kushiro. Not a great academic leap forward, I couldn’t help feeling.

“Do you like hip-hop?” he asked. “Not really”, I said, “but I like you”, and from this point on the evening must be mosaicked out.

******************

Kushiro’s prime lure is located north of the city itself: the 20,000 hectare Kushiro Shitsugen National Park. A tract of almost undisturbed marsh most celebrated for the winter gathering of Red-crowned Cranes, the second-most endangered crane in the world, the park was the first in Japan to be accorded Ramsar site status under the Ramsar Convention wetland conservation treaty and is the largest surviving wetland in the country.

At the Onnenai visitor center, a lattice of boardwalks lace out across the tussocks of sedge.

While the winter crane displays draw the crowds, the marshes are rewarding at any time of year. Ayame Blood Irises were in full bloom when I was there.

The boardwalking was heavenly: buntings and warblers chorused from the reeds, dragonflies and damselflies of every hue patrolled the bogs, and shady alder stands were alive with Siberian Rubythroats.

The visitor center is located in the village of Tsurui (1980 population 2,638, estimated 2009 population 2,571, projected 2035 population 2,303), whose name means “where the cranes are” and whose population is stable because of its proximity to Kushiro airport and the recent development of a housing estate for wealthy refugees from the city. Average annual farm household income, mostly from dairy farms, is apparently the highest in Japan.

From Tsurui I toured the backroads north of the wetlands, flushing snipe from the reeds as the road turned to dirt. We eventually converged with the Kottaro river. I had to take a photo—this was the first free-flowing river, untrammeled by concrete banks, unfettered by dams, unimpeded by weirs, that I had ever seen in Japan.

I realized that I was slowly running out of fuel but there was nothing to do but press on. I crossed the border into the undulating dairy country of Shibecha (1980 population 12,297, estimated 2009 population 8,540, projected 2035 population 5,809), which is gradually emptying out as farms get larger, and began to hypermile, coasting downhill and as far uphill as I could manage, changing up at 1,500rpm, and trying to keep to around 55kmh. With the roads virtually empty, it was idiosyncratic adrenal fun.

I rejoined a trunk road soon after entering Akkeshi (1980 population 15,940, estimated 2009 population 10,993, projected 2035 population 7,004), a place of oysters and dairies, where according to the town’s history section on its Wikipage, nothing of note has happened since 1955. The car was by now running on air and I have never been as glad to see a gas station as I was in the Akkeshi district of Ohoro.

Akkeshi somehow still manages to support a pachinko parlor—I suspect there’s not much else to do of an evening in Akkeshi, if playing pachinko qualifies as doing anything at all—and its sign amused.

From Akkeshi I took the stunning but often fog-shrouded coastal road through forests of primeval birch and pine into Hamanaka (1980 population 9,243, estimated 2009 population 6,717, projected 2035 population 4,718) out to Cape Kiritappu.

The wind chill made the cape too bracing for this shorts-clad visitor to linger long, and I made my way back inland through flat wooded cattle pastures, a landscape that grew steadily bleaker as I approached the city of Nemuro, on Hokkaido’s easternmost reaches.

Lake Shikotsu: Vitriol for the Viking

By the time I left Poroto Kotan, it was too late to hunt down lunch, so I made do with an onigiri rice ball and a bottle of tea for the second day in a row and headed off up the back roads to my next destination, Lake Shikotsu, another caldera lake, but the fog closed in fast on the acclivity into the mountains and on the map the road up ahead narrowed disturbingly, so I retraced my steps and headed east back up the coast to the blot on the landscape that is the paper town of Tomakomai (1980 population 151,967, estimated 2009 population 173,743, projected 2035 population 142,120), described in 1880 by Isabella Bird as “a wide, dreary place” and unchanged since. I then turned inland on tree canopied Rte 276, crossing over into Chitose (1980 population 66,788 estimated 2009 population 93,211, projected 2035 population 87,968). Located just south of Sapporo, Chitose has been flourishing not only because it is the home of Hokkaido’s largest airport (the Sapporo-Tokyo run was once reputed to be the most profitable airline route in the world and is still one of the busiest) but also because roughly a third of the city’s inhabitants are military personnel, as it is the home to the Seventh Division of the Japanese Imperial Army Japan Ground Self-defense Force.

Despite being located only around 20km from downtown Chitose, Lake Shikotsu feels far more remote from civilization than Lake Toya—it is not even fully encircled by tarmac. The resort area at Shikotsuko Onsen is concomitantly more compact, with the detritus of forlorn craft shops, cafes, and restaurants corralled into a square acre away from the handful of hotels.

DSCN0574

Delightful to see the Bubble-era Mitsubishi Debonair sedan in the background, pushing 20 years old—at least—and still going strong, presumably as a daily driver; clearly not owned by a Japanese person though, according to the blogosphere, which will have you believe that all Japanese people junk their cars after a decade while starving their babies—if they have any—in order to be able to afford to do so.

I was already by this stage growing weary of Japanese business hotels, with their collage of hard to identify but rarely pleasant odors, spiritless décor and listless service, coffee rings and cigarette burns, and longed for relief from molded plastic bathrooms so cramped, gentle reader, that even the averagely endowed male of the species has trouble, when perched on the throne, in tucking himself in.

Fortunately relief was at hand in the center of the onsen village, in the shape of the splendidly named Lake Shikotsu Tsuruga Resort Spa Mizu no Uta (“song of water”). The name in Japanese is worth unpicking:

しこつ湖鶴雅リゾートスパ水の謌

The creators of the hotel had opted to write Lake Shikotsu as しこつ湖 rather than the usual 支笏湖, perhaps to add a friendly touch with a hiragana lead-in rather than the formality of the kanji. Tsuruga (鶴雅, or “crane elegance”), I later learned, was the name of the small hotel group that ran the operation. Next comes resort spa (リゾートスパ) in the katakana script reserved primarily these days for foreign loanwords. What had happened to the “and” between “resort” and “spa”, I wondered. Was that just an ampersand too far? Bringing up the rear is “Mizu no Uta” (水の謌), and here the bestower of the name had excelled: of the four different ways of writing “uta” (song)

歌 (common or garden song)
唄 (long song, folk song, or other form of traditional Japanese song)
詩 (poetic song or more frequently poetry)

our hero had chosen the most obscure of all, one I had never come across before and one which many native speakers of Japanese cannot fathom, to judge from the number of websites on which it appears with metatextual explanations of how it is read. Clearly I was in the presence of something special.

Entering the lobby, everything came over a bit boutique, a bit—dare I say it?—a bit Bali.

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Gingerly I enquired at reception of Hashimoto san, the man on the left, how much a night in this temple of the contemporary might set me back. The answer was a shade over Y25,000 ($280, GBP175) for full board. Not cheap, certainly, but then I was on holiday (as I had to keep reminding myself) and feeling an acute urge to scrub away the soot of Muroran. Done! Hashimoto san had been a tad stand-offish at first, alarmed perhaps by my bright polkadot shorts and scruffy T-shirt, but warmed a little after he watched me maneuver the car into a space by the entrance lobby. Entirely unsurprising how perceptions of wealth alter people’s attitudes. He showed me to a soothing and softly-lit tatami matted room. “We’ve prepared an extra-large yukata for you, sir”, he said, referring to the cotton kimono in which Japanese hotel guests love to loll around. “For your ample girth”, he might as well have added. “Well done, my man, I see you’ve taken care of everything.” He also explained, in response to a bit of prodding, that the hotel was under new ownership and had just been completely refurbished, reopening only months before.

I strolled around the public areas of the hotel, luxuriating in all the boxes than had been so conscientiously ticked.

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It felt, I smirked cynically to myself, as though the designer had been handed a pile of coffee table books with titles such as “Chichi Hotels of the World” and “Modern Hotel Design for Simpletons”, given a lavish budget and told to get on with it, after a parting lecture on how these days the punters are going gaga about yer natural look, how these days it’s all about yer slate and yer granite and yer stone, and how we’ll be havin’ none o’ that plasticky tack, thank you very much.

I have to admit, though, that the designers had done a  fine job in capturing the essence of nowness. I had simply had no idea that this sort of ultrafashionable bijou accommodation existed in Japan and wondered, on first arrival, whether foreign confectioners were behind the creation. This fanciful notion was swiftly disabused by the shoe Gestapo. As normal in a Japanese hotel, guests are required to change from shoes to slippers in the lobby; at Mizu no Uta, however, there is nothing as vulgar as locker but instead a shoe valet, who whisks your pumps or plimsolls away as soon as you step out of them, and a further shoe affectation in the form of the geta clogs that guests are obliged to don to eat, so a quick trip from room to car to dining room requires two changing-of-the-footwear ceremonies, and ceremonies they were too, as the valet has to be found, the shoes have to be produced with a flourish, and slippers have to be placed just so, with corporal precision, on the edge of the raised genkan entrance. Such anality with brogues and loafers could not be the province of the slobby foreigner.

I took a preprandial amble down to the lakeside and stumbled across the Yamasen bridge over the headwaters of the Chitose river, the oldest surviving railway bridge in Hokkaido, forged in Wednesbury in the Black Country of England in 1899.

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A university friend of mine once wrote a song about Wednesbury, quite possibly the only one that has ever been composed before or since, and I thought of him as Wednesbury 1899 met Hokkaido 2009.

“On the right a cemetery
On the left the sky
On the right the hoarding boards
Pylons flashing by….

Wednesbury sleeps where Wednesbury stands
In the middle of the week, in the middle of the Midlands.”

It was only at that moment, more than two decades on, that I realized there was a joke buried in the chorus. I can be slow on the uptake like that.

Britain was cropping up in the most unexpected places: there was the Scottish connection in Yoichi, of course, but there was also the grave in Muroran of a British sailor on the HMS Providence, which put in at the port as early as 1796, the conversation on which I eavesdropped in Niseko, and—if only I had had the time to investigate—the British consulate in Hakodate, built in 1859 and still standing, the very first British legation in Japan with a permanent home.

I retraced my steps to once again luxuriate in the arms of my newfound hotel friend, lingering awhile in the bar with a gin and tonic to ponder my good fortune.
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Almost every conceivable travel book about Japan has already been written, I mused, as I nursed the glass and the condensation on its outside brought a pleasant palm-chill. The country has been walked, hitched, and written across from north to south and from west to east, the last written by the former boss of my present boss—it’s a vanishingly small world. At least three pedal-propelling authors have penned accounts of journeys up and down Japan, one a woman so enthralled by her first cycling encounter (“useful for swatting flies”, one Amazon reviewer puts it, although even that comment generated dissent) that she came back and did it again (“stop her before she writes another”). Foot and bicycle have been the preferred choice of locomotion for those in the perhaps misguidedly naïve search for lost and vanishing Japan, the “real” Japan, the “authentic” Japan. The bicycle has also been responsible for what is currently at the top of my list of worst examples of travel writing about Japan—a fiercely contested trophy—this 1988 New York Times essay, Rediscovering Japanese Life at a Bike’s Pace, by James Salter, a winner of the PEN/Faulkner award, which puts him in the illustrious company of the likes of John Updike and E. Annie Proulx.

People have written about their year in Japan, their two years in Japan, and their three years in Japan, often on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme, convinced that although at any one time there are around 5,000 JET teachers across the length and breadth of Japan undergoing experiences very similar to theirs, they have something uniquely profound to impart, although in the case of the last of this trio, if as this New Zealand Herald reviewer seems to believe, the author’s opus of sublimely pedestrian discoveries—Japan is hot in summer!—and experiences—getting drunk in beer gardens and falling asleep on trains—had indeed been set “on the Japanese island of Osaka”, the writer would truly have had something wholly new to share with the world.

No facet of Japanese life has been left unexplored: I have long lost count of meditations on time spent in Zen monasteries, confessionals about time spent as nightclub hostesses, and thinly fictionalized exposes of the zany world of English conversation classes, books with arch titles like Green Tea to Go, Sweet Daruma, and Lost Girls and Love Hotels. There are travel tomes about Japan’s seas, its slums, and even, seemingly, largely about its socks. There are travel guides to its love hotels, its hot springs, and its sex clubs. Is there any country on earth that has been more picked over by travel writers, aspiring and actual? Is there an angle they have neglected to survey, a mossy stone of Zen left unturned, a tawdry gimmick still left on the rack? Just maybe. In the spirit of generosity, I offer up these titles of books I might care to read about Japan for wanderlust-possessed adventurers with the wherewithal, the writing chops, and the time to kill—a year should do it in most cases, much less in one. Budgets and the requisite talents may vary.

Japanese Life at a Funereal Pace: Hearsing around in Old Nippon

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear! Or how I pedaled backward across Japan on a unicycle and lived to tell the tale

Pogo through Hyogo: One Gal’s Extreme Pogo Trip to Enlightenment

Maybach manga mayhem! Japan’s pop culture as seen from the back of a limousine

Thirty Seconds in Tokyo: My Narita Transit Lounge Heaven and Hell

A year of living dully: On being a human tape-recorder in the classrooms of a sleepy provincial town in Japan

My Sushi was a Burger—Bikkuri Donkey and other tales of eating dangerously in Japan’s family restaurants

My Ramen Voyage from Sapporo to Hakata: The Untold Story of the Noodle that Captured a Nation’s Heart

Lost and Found in Japan, a journey of self-discovery through the lost luggage offices of Japan Railways

The Tetrapod Traveler: A practical guide to the concrete structures that are altering Japan’s coastline—and changing lives

Ryokan and me: My year in a thatch hut I built myself

Lord of the Fries: My dog-eat-dog year spent working a Tokyo fast-food joint

How I got a zombie geisha tattoo—Crazy Stories from the Tokyo Night

Miss Manners does Japan: 36 things not to do with your chopsticks and other fine points of Japanese etiquette

Ganbatte means go for it! Or…how to become an English teacher in Japan

Drat! It looks as though the last one has already been penned.

Off the top of my head, there are three travel books about Japan I would genuinely like to see written. The first would be a plain vanilla tour of Hokkaido, digging deep into its contested history, the restlessness of its colonists, and the sadness of much of its present. My preferred means of locomotion would be a fast sports car, just to annoy all the go-slow and prosaic pedestrians and bicyclistas of yore that presume to equate sluggishness with authentic encounters and spiritual access. My preferred accommodation, from the same motive, would be as luxurious as possible, so Mizu no Uta was a good start. The second would be a trek around the hundreds of inhabited islands aside from the big four that go to make up the archipelago; Japan must have more of these than any country on earth save perhaps Indonesia, the Philippines, and Greece, (one day I’ll investigate that list), and the contrast between the rito (isolated islands) and the megalopolises is arguably nowhere starker than here. This would take forever—it is an almost constant source of wonder to me, for instance, that there are islands under the jurisdiction of Tokyo that are a day’s travel (by boat) from any other inhabited place on the planet (there are very few places left about which you can say that)—but be truly on the unbeaten track and I’m sure deeply rewarding. The third would be a reprise of Jonathan Raban’s wonderful circumnavigation of Britain in Coasting; what could be more fitting for a nation so intimately tied up with the sea in which, despite being twice the size of Britain and roughly the same area as California, it is never possible to get even close to 100 miles from the coast.

Enough musing already, though, it was time for dinner. One of the most miserable aspects of prolonged stays in Japanese hostelries of the business stripe is the Viking breakfast buffet, named I believe after an eponymous Swedish restaurant in Tokyo in the 1950s that pioneered the smorgasbord. Now the smorgasbord as a concept might be perfectly acceptable for fare such as rollmops, lox, ham, and cheese, as well as the odd hot dish such as meatballs or a casserole, but it is far from appetizing in the form into which it has mutated in Japanese business hotels. In its current Japanese breakfast incarnation, it is intended to symbolize a cornucopia of indulgence, the luxury of the provender of the land that the hotel sees fit to share with its exalted guests, but instead takes the innocent diner on a wholly unwanted timewarp back to the 1950s and lays bare the astonishing resistance to culinary innovation and improvement that defines the bulk of degraded Japanese cuisine today.

The easiest place to start is with the “Western” options; we’ll be done with them in a jiffy. All Viking bread is naturally completely inedible—outside a few select outlets in or near the center of major cities, Japanese bread has been fossilized in the industrial era, when bread had to be as white and smooth and tasteless and antiseptic as possible. I invite you to recoil in horror at the photo that adorns the top of the homepage of the website of Japan’s largest breadmaker, Yamazaki Baking. Other Viking concessions to Western tastes include the Weiner sausage, the very lowest rung of sausage life and which is better passed over as quickly as possible, again with a shudder, and some form of egg concoction, usually scrambled, which brings us to a problem that unites both the Japanese and Western sides of the Viking experience.

Business hotels serve breakfast between 7am and 9am, with slight variations; woe betide you if you arrive toward the end of that aperture, because the scrambled eggs (on the Western side) and the miniature grilled salmon or yellowtail steaks (on the Japanese side) will have been stewing on a hotplate or under a microwave light for at least a couple of hours and thereby drained entirely of moisture and rendered both inedible and lukewarm; arriving on the dot at 7am improves the chances of edibility but does not render it a done deal by any means, as the platters could easily have been put out half an hour beforehand, allowing plenty of time for the juices to evaporate, the eggs to transmogrify from lubricious runniness to surly yellow lumps of snot and the yellowtail and salmon steaklets to curl up at the sides, spit out their bones, and die a gastronomic death.

On the Japanese side of the equation there are at least the old staples of white Japonica rice and miso soup, both of which I find utterly palatable but which cannot by any stretch be said to satisfy the promise of abundance in these saturated times and  are hence entirely missable to this spoiled palate. The rest of the Japanese offerings seem to be engaged in a private competition of their own for the world’s most unpleasant morning food: I like to think I’m an adventurous eater (no—I am, chocolate-coated grasshoppers of a Thailand evening were not an issue), but fermented squid innards and pickled cod bollocks at 7am are not the way I need to be snapped back into reality.

Then there’s the coffee. The coffee of itself is often not bad, although the perils of the hotpot stew are omnipresent, but if you take it white, as I do, then you have to navigate past the hideous miniature plastic tubs of synthetic “cream” that keep for several millennia at room temperature and pour a glass of fresh Hokkaido milk, return to your seat, and run the risk of an impolite white ring being left on the table as you attempt to milkify your coffee from such an unsuitable vessel.

I was therefore crestfallen to learn from Hashimoto san that the evening dinner would also be served in a Viking stylee, together with an entrée to be ordered in advance: either aigamo duck (technically, an only-in-Japan cross between a Mallard and a domestic goose) from Takikawa in Northern Hokkaido, or himemasu (kokanee, the landlocked form of the sockeye salmon Oncorhynchus nerka) from out of Lake Shikotsu itself. The hotel clearly had the modern fetish for local food down pat, although it went overboard by describing next morning’s breakfast salmon as being from the Okhotsk Sea. Big place, the Okhotsk Sea…

There was something ever so slightly disturbing about the chubby Western girl on the Healthy Buffet AmAm sign that I couldn’t quite—and still can’t—put my finger on.

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The entrée of aigamo arrived within minutes of my sitting down, leaving no time for the plateful of appetizers I’d selected from the Viking. The kitchen left no room for doubt that it was a fervent worshipper at the altar of nouvelle cuisine: three slices of duck breast, each roughly the size and shape of a pinched thumb and forefinger, were perched on half a white kabu turnip and dusted with a smattering of rock salt, looking lonely and forlorn in the middle of a gleaming white plate with a diameter of about ten inches. Many, many meals had been made from the duck that died to feed me. The hot dishes at the Viking were suffering from the same problems of overexposure that plague all buffets and the Chinese offerings gave off that familiar but ever unsettling glisten of cornstarch. Some of the descriptions of the dishes careened into the land of BS: what, I pondered, did the “PG”, written in the Roman alphabet, stand for in PG tamago no medamayaki (PG fried eggs)? Parental guidance? Procter & Gamble? I made mischief by asking. The first server had no clue; a summoned chef mumbled something about its signifying that the yolk had a high density. Was that a good thing, I wondered to myself. Research suggests that “PG” is indeed a massively obscure designation for a particular type of egg, so the Japanese Vikingers were in all probability as bamboozled as I was. Some diners were taking discreet snaps of their meals; I preferred to photograph the condiment set.

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It is my firm conviction that toothpicks should not be found on the tables of respectable restaurants, as gentlemen and ladies simply don’t.

While Mizu no Uta will never win any awards for the quality of its cuisine, the bed was supremely comfortable, falling asleep to the fragrance of tatami for the first time in a long while was sublimley comforting, the public spaces were chic without being intimidating, and there were some nice touches of decadence, such as the foot spa in the garden, to flatter guests into thinking that they were among the ranks of the ultrawealthy, if only for a night.

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After a stroll the next morning around Yacho no Mori (Wild Bird Wood), where instead of communing with dearly beloved feathered friends I was viciously mobbed by a pair of nesting Jungle Crows (not birds in my book but emissaries of Satan), I headed into and out of Chitose and then across little arable towns east of Sapporo—Naganuma (1980 population 13,354, estimated 2009 population 12,119, projected 2035 population 9,724) Yuni (9,000, 6,228, 3,861), and Kuriyama (17,482, 13,731, 9,779)—where I got deliriously lost and didn’t give a damn because the  hoonage was such a hoot, before finally setting tire and foot in the one-time coal-mining city of Yubari, which was to be home for the next three days.