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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.