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!”
“I said, gimme a beer!”
“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?
Date: August 25, 2009 10:34:30 PM JST
To: Hokkaido Tourism Organization
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.
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
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.
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.
From: Hokkaido Tourism Organization
Sent: Friday, September 11, 2009 2:21 PM
Subject: RE: Compliant
Dear Ms. Spike
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.
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 T.M. for help with flower identification.]