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30th Anniversary Alaska Hokkaido Japan Japanese Palmer Saroma trains travel

Palmerites Visit Saroma

I always encourage my friends to visit.  I like having visitors and I think it’s even more important to do so here in such a small town.  Nik, my predecessor, told me that he never got many visitors to Saroma.  This left me less than optimistic about friends visiting me, here in this far-flung remnant of empire, this village isolated from all but the rare fishing boat or mining expedition, where humans struggle against nature’s cruel chorus, their pitiful dwellings windswept and beaten from a hundred angry winters and their meager chattel at the mercy of gaunt, desperate vermin – a forsaken crag of hubris built upon the very precipice of earthly existence, unto which only the forlorn souls of broken men venture forth.

Wait, I think I’m talking about Russia, a little further north.

Saroma is actually quite accessible, with well-maintained roads, punctual trains and affordable air connections.  It’s still a little far away from happenin’ Tokyo and hip Sapporo, and that’s why I consider myself lucky to have received numerous drop-ins over the 19 months I have lived here: Hannah and Yoshi; Ilkka and Petri; Natsuko; Remmington; Jon; Roxy and Daisy, and two weeks ago, Mike and Alissa.

I’ve known Mike and Alissa for about as long as I’ve been able to sentiently know other beings.  Alissa and I were consistent and reliable line leaders in Mrs. Butler’s 2nd grade class at Swanson Elementary.  Mike and I created several award-winning high school video masterpieces.

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30th Anniversary Hokkaido Japanese Palmer Saroma travel

Mount Nikoro

Saroma, while surrounded by mountains, isn’t dwarfed by them as is Palmer or other towns in Hokkaido.  Saroma sort of melts into the softly rolling, forested mountains, many of which are small and gently sloping enough to be farm fields.  There is one mountain at the very southern edge of Saroma that is a decent peak.  Mt. Nikoro, or Nikoro-yama, is 829 meters tall (2,719 feet) and acts as a border point between the Tochigi area of Saroma and the Ainonai area of Kitami City.  My predecessor Nik recommended the mountain as an accessible year-round hike with great views.  However, the trail to the top is on the Kitami side of the mountain and I never got around to bothering.  For almost two years, I didn’t hike the tallest mountain in Saroma!  Unforgivable.

Luckily, Graham, the ALT in Kunneppu Town, and some friends headed up a few weekends ago and I was able to tag along.  The trail follows a summer access road for communications towers at the peak, so is quite gentle with ample switchbacks.  It’s also well hiked (and probably snowmachined as well).  The snow was packed down hard enough for us all to walk without snowshoes all the way to the top.

Looking north into Saroma and the sea.  The bumpy mountain center-right is Mt. Horoiwa.

Now, aside from the quality of the hike, there was one unique thing about Mt. Nikoro that I had heard from Nik, and from other English teacher friends who had hiked it – The Old Man of Mt. Nikoro.  No, he’s not a ghost or someone who will try to scare you off, but an incredibly kind gentleman who hikes the mountain nearly every day of the year.  The man, Mr. Kisaku Sato, is rather famous – the website he keeps about the mountain is the first hit on Google for Nikoro-yama (仁頃山) in Japanese.

Looking toward Rubeshibe town.  The pointy mountain is Kitami-fuji.

We had a late start in the day, and began coming down the mountain as the sun was getting low in the sky, around 3pm.  I thought perhaps we had missed Sato-san, as elderly Japanese people tend to do most things much, much earlier than groups of foreign English teachers.  But, about 1/4 of the way down from the top, there he was!  He seemed quite pleased to see us, and remembered Graham and Aisling from a previous hike.  After pointing out that the two mountains visible to the southeast were in fact Mt. Meakan and Mt. Oakan (Steve thought Mt. Meakan was Mt. Shari – I was right!), he quickly interviewed us, asking our impressions of the mountain, along with our nationality and the towns that we each taught English in.  Then he asked to take our picture for his website and after one shot, he wondered aloud “Aren’t you going to do anything funny like make a face or wave?”  We obliged and he snapped the photo below.  Sato-san put both photos and our profiles up on his site in Japanese on this nice page about our encounter.  I chose Babelfish to translate the page for the benefit of the Japanese-illiterate because it translates Holland written in Japanese into “Hoe land.”  Google translate just messed the whole thing up without any added humor.

The Genki Gaijin Group

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30th Anniversary Saroma

Statistical Saroma, 2010

March 31st marks the last day of the fiscal year here in Japan, and everything is being finalized and finished. As such, a copy of Saroma’s 2010 Mini-Stats landed on my desk this morning, hot off the presses. I previously translated and distributed the 2009 Mini-Stats to members of the Palmer City Council and travelers to Saroma. I thought that I would update that translation with the data from the 2010 publication, and post a quick look at Saroma’s 2010 Mini-Statistics.

Here are the numbers, complete with cute clip art, as compiled by the Planning and Finance Department:

One Year in Saroma (2009)

※Water use and alcohol consumption data are current to March 2010. All other data is current to December 2009.

Overall for the calendar year 2009 compared to 2008, Saroma Town has made some improvements! Births are up, deaths are down. Marriages are up, divorces are down. Trash and sewage held fairly steady as did traffic accidents and ambulance calls. Criminal incidents increased from 31 to 40 over the year. Perhaps because of the bad economy? Not so fast – alcohol consumption was down by over four thousand gallons from the year previous – not typically associated with a bad economy. Perhaps people decided they’d rather hold off on the drinks and drive home, rather than get sloshed and take the bus? It’s possible, as bus ridership was down by almost 20%. All in all, no statistical black spots for the town. I’m going to do my part to help out by next year trying to drink a lot more on the bus after fathering a few children and catching a burglar or two. In fact, I think some of those things might be in my contract of employment.

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30th Anniversary Japan Saroma

Saroma Town Proper

One thing that is difficult for an American to grasp when visiting Japan is municipal divisions. Most of America is unincorporated, middle-of-nowhere spaces. Once you enter a town or city, you are then technically “somewhere” more specific than the state you are in. In Japan, every piece of land is part of a village, town, or city.  Throw a dart at a map of Japan, and as long as you don’t end up in the ocean, you’ll be in some specific municipality, even if the dart lands somewhere in the mountains.  Saroma is no different.  The map below shows the town limits of Saroma, and the neighboring towns that share the same border.

saromaborderssmall.jpg

This makes it hard to compare the two towns. Saroma has strictly defined borders, and thus a nearly exact count of population within them. Palmer, on the other hand, might have a defined population within city limits, but a fairly vague number for the greater Palmer area.  It’s this greater area that really should be compared with Saroma.  If one simply looks at the official populations of the two municipalities and makes assumptions from there, it is difficult to see why Palmer has a McDonald’s, a Dairy King, a Taco Bell and two huge supermarkets, but Saroma has no fast food restaurants and only two modest supermarkets.

To help one visualize Saroma and the population density within Saroma that determines these sort of economic factors, I’ve made the following map showing the area and shape of Saroma’s boundaries superimposed over a map of the Palmer area.

saromapalmersmall.gif

Imagine that within that red line, there are 6,002 people.  That is the population density of Saroma.  If the Palmer city limits were this size and shape, I imagine the population would be closer to 15,000.

Some quick facts:

Saroma: 414 km² (156 mi²), Pop. 6,002.

Palmer: 9.7 km² (3.8 mi²), Pop. 8,201 (2008 estimate)

Map data from Google and Yahoo.

added April 12th: Butte centered size comparison map for my mommy.

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30th Anniversary Palmer Saroma travel

Saroma

In July, over 20 visitors from will come to Saroma to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the sister city relationship between Palmer, Alaska and Saroma, Japan.  Some of the members of this group have lived in Japan before, some even in the very house where I write this.  Many however, are visiting Japan for the first time.  They have a short period to become acquainted with Saroma and the complex and beautiful country that contains it.  I want to do my best to improve the value of this visit for everyone involved, so I’ve decided to focus on Saroma through a series of blog posts about my own experiences, common misunderstandings, stories about the town and its people, and any other ideas that come to or are brought to my mind.
Worrying that I might launch into something stodgy and boring like an overview of the role of local government in Japan, I’ve put off posting anything for quite a while.  Tonight, after I read the site introducing the members of the exchange group visiting in July, I suddenly remembered my own blank slate experience with Japan and Saroma.  And well, wouldn’t you know, I blogged about it.  It was six years ago, before I believe anyone had started to call it “blogging.”  To kick off this series about Saroma, it feels appropriate to republish my first impression of Saroma.
Hopefully this post and those that follow will the benefit the coming delegation as they experience the rewards the sister city relationship offers.  Below is my own personal account of my first visit to Saroma, as a 19 year old solo traveler with limited language skills, who was accepted warmly into Saroma under the auspices of a positive and strongly woven relationship between two communities.
Monday, May 31, 2004

Location: Saroma, Japan

I am in Saroma.  I arrived yesterday by train to Engaru station, and was greeted by Yuko Hirouchi, a very nice lady who works at city hall, and Isao and Kotoe Kimura.  They have a very nice car.  Yuko stayed around until about 6 that night, to help the Kimuras and myself get used to each other, as our proficiency with the other’s language is not great.  We chatted and had tea, and then ate dinner.  Mr. Kimura is a fun guy.  He likes golf.  He works for a family business that makes raw material for concrete, something which I doubt Japan will ever stop having a demand for.  They have a very nice house and treated me very well.  We actually ended up having a lot of fun misunderstanding each other last night.  I also took an extremely hot bath.  Today, I went to the preschool, elementary school, and high school.  Heidi Hill, a fellow PHS graduate, is the Assistant Language Teacher here in Saroma.  I met her at city hall and went to the preschool, where I was served coffee, and helped the energetic children learn names of animals and fruit.  Then we went to one of Saroma’s 6 elementary schools, which had only 14 students.  Heidi’s lesson for them was baking brownies, with English instructions.  They turned out OK, considering we used Japanese cherry vinegar and had lots of little hands reaching and spilling and mixing them.  Then I showed them on a map where I had travelled, and some of my photos, although I only got through Tahiti and New Zealand before it was time to eat brownies.

The students had to go back to class, so Heidi and I sat with the Principal and another teacher, I think his name was Kanta.  He had been all over Alaska (more than I have) and Northwest Canada, and spoke good English.  He explained, very clearly, the differences between Japanese and Western thinking concerning individualism and groups.  He pointed out the ordering of Japanese names, with the last name coming first, as well as addresses, with the country name, prefecture name, and town name coming before the actual name and address.  Another wonderful analogy he made involved an imaginary puzzle.  In America’s imaginary puzzle, every person is a puzzle piece, and together, the individual pieces come together to make the image of America.  For Japan, the image is already there, and the Japanese must choose which piece of the puzzle they will be.  I found that beautifully enlightening.

Then I made a quick stop at Saroma High School, and met Yoshida-Sensei, the vice-principal, and an amazingly nice man, with a wonderful and distinct command of English.  He stayed with Paul Morley when he visited Alaska, I believe.  I very much enjoyed meeting him.  He gave Heidi and I a tour of the school, and we met a very friendly girl, Yui, who spoke nice English and had been to Palmer several years before, and had hosted Palmer students.  She knew Sienna Houtte and Emily Estelle.  I told her that they were best friends of mine.  I had my picture taken with Yoshida-Sensei and waved goodbye.

Then I was off to the Mayor’s office.  He asked me how much my trip cost, what my favorite Japanese food was, and we talked about Alaska, with Yuko’s help translating.  He presented me with a gift of Japanese collector’s stamps.  That was my day.  Back at the Kimura’s house, I managed to ask in Japanese to Mrs. Kimura, わたしは、コンピュータができますか? (watashi wa konpyuuta ga dekimasu ka) which I think means “Can I use the computer.”