Categories
Hokkaido Saroma travel

A Story of Saroma Lake

The Age of Freshwater

If one were to write a biography of Saroma Lake, it would need two separate volumes. One for the age of freshwater, and one for the age of brackishness. Saroma Lake (Saromako in Japanese) is the third largest lake in Japan, after Lake Biwa and Lake Kasumigaura. Shallow and calm, it sits on Hokkaido’s northern coast, the long arc of its shore cradling the Sea of Okhotsk like a bassinet, lest it spill through to the Sea of Japan and the Pacific.

Saroma Lake was once known as Saroma Lagoon, called so by explorers traveling through the waters off the coast and along the narrow strip of land between it and the sea. At that time it was mostly a freshwater lake, fed by the Saromabetsu and Baro rivers, swelling in the spring and summer and freezing solid in the winter, as drift ice packed the shores of the Okhotsk.

As lakes go in Japan, Saroma is large. It’s the third largest by area in Japan, a point of pride in the neighboring town of the same name, even though it is hardly known elsewhere in Japan. For comparison, it would be the 83rdlargest lake if it were in America.

Perhaps it lacks the mystique that Japan’s deep volcanic lakes possess. Lakes such as Tazawa, Shikotsu, and Kussharo, nestled in mountains and ancient craters, impossibly deep yet incredibly clear. Saroma is only 60 feet at its deepest, compared to the astonishing 1000-foot depth of Shikotsu in southern Hokkaido, a lake which has only half the area but contains 16 times the volume of water.

An inability to define the lake is part of its character. Simultaneously on a “top three” list and yet unknown, large yet shallow, created by freshwater yet influenced by tides, it’s a body of water that goes unnoticed while being incredibly important.

Viewing Saroma Lake on a map, or from a high vantage point like an airplane or a nearby mountain, one notices something unique about the shape and location of the lake. It looks like it’s trying to escape from Hokkaido itself, pressing itself flat onto the boundary of the coast. It’s almost part of the ocean.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, it was: a shallow estuary and small indentation along the northern coastline. 30,000 years ago, Hokkaido was the last stop for human land migrations from Siberia and Sakhalin over the land bridge that is now La Perouse strait, between Wakkanai and Sakhalin’s southern tip. Over these fresh and fleeting lowlands, came Asiatic brown bears, pikas, and other animals more typically found in Siberia. Hokkaido’s southern strait between Honshu, the violent Tsugaru Kaikyo, is much deeper and served as an ecological and anthropological firewall. This is why there are no monkeys on Hokkaido, and no brown bears on Honshu.

Gradually, erosive tides, winds, and the interminable grinding of rivers deposited sand and sediment into the basin of the lake. Through a process still debated by science, an arc-shaped berm of earth was gradually built that created a new lake, separate from the ocean.

Over the ensuing ages, as rivers such as the Saromabetsu and the Baro delivered more and more freshwater into what had once been an ocean, the lake gradually became a freshwater lake with its own unique ecosystem. In time, an outlet developed from the lake at its eastern end. Every spring, as snowmelt from the mountains flowed through the rivers, it would cause the lake to swell. The water level would rise until it burst into the ocean at the lowest point of the ocean-separating berm – at its eastern end. This annual occurrence caused the section of the lake near this outlet to become open to the ocean for several months in the summer, and brackish from seawater that would flush back in after the discharge, creating a wonderful environment to grow and farm scallops and oysters.

This abundance of protein was reason enough for the indigenous Ainu, who were usually sparsely dispersed across the island, to maintain a permanent settlement near present-day Sakaeura, Kitami City. Part of the Okhotsk Culture, during the Jomon Era (12,000 BC – 300 BC) the site is of major archaeological interest and is the location of an extension office of Tokyo University, with a museum and recreation of the ancient Ainu settlement.

The Ainu used the lake as the source of their livelihoods, and they named it and the surrounding places based on their natural features. The name Saroma comes from the Ainu “Saro-oma”, or “place of reeds and rushes,” which were in abundance along the lake’s shallow and fluctuating littoral. Like many Ainu names in Hokkaido (over 90% of placenames in Hokkaido are of Ainu origin), the assigned Chinese characters for “Saroma” are laughably meaningless. The three characters: 佐呂間 mean assistant, backbone, and between. Seeing names like this, I rather wonder why the Japanese even bothered. I think some agree, and often the name of the lake and the nearby town are written in katakana as サロマ, representing only the phonetics and eschewing the inappropriately chosen ideographs shown above.

A few years ago, I took a bike ride down to the abandoned old outlet of the lake, which no longer connects to the ocean and is full of brackish and standing water. On a map, this end of the lake looks like snake roadkill, winding and narrow, with bulging sections, going nowhere. Riding along the paved road between the lake and the ocean from the nature center, one soon encounters a “no entry” sign, but I believe such signs are best ignored. More often than not, while exploring a park or wandering through a hotel, I will find myself coming out from behind one of these signs, even though I never crossed one upon entry. There are usually things worth seeing behind those signs.

As the narrowing road meandered along, it disappeared from the map. Soon, to my surprise, and in confirmation of the aforementioned rule, I came across a beautiful stone monument marking the location of the lake’s erstwhile connection to the sea. It read:

“The Former Mouth of Saroma Lake:
Originally, the outlet connecting the lake to the ocean was in this vicinity.  Every spring people would dig to help reopen the channel. In Showa 4 (1929) a drainage channel was excavated on the Yubetsu end of the lake, causing tides to affect the lake and naturally close this outlet.

A map of videos and photos around Saroma Lake.

The Age of Brackishness

The Japanese began to colonize Hokkaido in the late 1860’s and 70’s, sending soldier-farmers to homestead the far reaches of the undeveloped wilderness, in order to establish a presence to ward off the colonial ambitions of foreign nations, especially the Russian Empire. Formerly called EzoHokkaido was given its present name and established as a territory of the Japanese Empire, in 1869. This was only two years after Russia sold its territories in North America to the United States, which would become the State of Alaska nearly 100 years later.

As settlers began to slowly enter the area during those beginning years after the Meiji Restoration swept westernization through Japan, even bringing in American advisors from Massachusetts to design the streets and factories in Sapporo, the capital city, it didn’t take long for them to capitalize on the natural resources of the island, where they were abundant. One natural convenience they made use of was the abundance of scallops and oysters of eastern Saroma Lake, bringing methods of cultivation from areas in Honshu.

As more people moved into the region and a fishing industry became established, the small saltwater arm of Saroma Lake began to be coveted by other fishermen on other parts of the lake, who could not cultivate ocean species in the calm freshwater shallows. In 1929, the fishermen on the western end, 25 miles away in present day Yubetsu, decided to take nature into their own hands. The lake was right next to the ocean. It wouldn’t take much more than a few pieces of machinery and some men to make their own outlet into the lake, to create for themselves the same favorable conditions the eastern fishermen had.

They did this without the approval of the local or central government, and were eventually forced to stop. However, as lore has it, a storm soon blew through and the surge of rising tides finished the job they had gone into half-cocked. Today, the western lake mouth remains open, along with a newer second mouth near the eastern end, constructed to equalize the effect of tides on the lake. Both mouths are ringed with massive booms to keep the Okhotsk drift ice out in the dead of winter.

Nature lovers surely see this all as a disgrace – an example of humanity running rampant over the environment, causing the extermination of the lake’s endemic species, giving thought only to their own immediate needs.

The fishermen of today would likely see it differently. From the eastern port of Sakaeura west to the fishing ports of Hamasaroma, Toppushi, Kerochi, Baro, and Yubetsu, scallops and oysters are the cash species that supports the very comfortable lifestyles of those fishermen with substantial allotments of cultivation areas in the lake.

Saroma Lake now supports a massive cultivation operation – 150 square kilometers of hanging nets full of scallops and oysters. It is part of the Hokkaido scallop fishery, the largest in the world, hauling in 410,000 metric tons of scallops annually. These are exported to China, Europe and the US. Perhaps as some sort of consolation prize for the damage done so many years ago, the fishery was certified this May by the Marine Stewardship Council’s global standard for sustainable and well-managed fisheries.

I have experienced the harvest of Saroma Lake’s scallops firsthand over the past several years. Every May, for a period of about 10 days, fishermen in Toppushi port harvest scallops. Every morning at 3AM, with the sun peeking over the eastern horizon, dozens of boats race out of the port to haul in hundreds of hanging nets full of chigai, or young scallops. The shells are about the size of an oreo, their inner meat about the size of a dime. But these scallops aren’t yet ready for market. After being raised from egg-like “spat” to a decent size over a year within the frigid womb of Saroma Lake, they are transferred onto a ship which hauls them to a designated site off the Okhotsk coast. There they are left in a practice known as “scallop ranching.” They will be retrieved two or three years later by a fleet of trawlers, after which they are shucked, steamed or sliced or dried, and shipped around the world.

The Kawabatas, who run a family fishing operation out of Toppushi port, invite me along to help every year. Feeling the brisk morning air from the deck of a fishing boat brings me a sense of freedom, and a jolt from the routineness of life as a teacher. The mindless, back-breaking work of dumping bivalves into crates for four hours before work is in a way meditative, the separation of the thinking mind from the active body. And there is a satisfaction in seeing a three-thousand pound mountain of scallop crates that does not compare to the more delayed and less visceral gratification of white-collar work. During the ten days of the harvest, the Kawabatas, one of hundreds of fishing families on the lake, gathered 130 million of the young scallops. As thanks for my labor, I received a few thousand of those baby scallops (and a case of beer), and spent the better part of a Saturday steaming them in sake, shucking and cleaning them, then freezing them to be used in a variety of pastas, quiches, stir-fries, and stews.

The Ainu of pre-Meiji Japan in effect had laid the groundwork for the future industries of the colonizing (many would prefer “invading”) Japanese. Areas of abundance were well known to the Ainu, and after having those areas taken from them, or taxed out of their reach, many were taken forcibly from place to place to work for a pittance. Kayano Shigeru describes the brutality of this practice in his memoir Our Land Was a Forest, in which his grandfather is forced into conscripted labor for the resource-extracting corporations that began the development of Hokkaido.

The Ainu did have one more reason to live so permanently at the lake’s eastern end, one that the Japanese could not exploit so easily for commercial gain. If one visits Sakaeura, and drives across the massive steel span bridging the port and narrow eastern slough, they will arrive at Wakka Nature Center. Today it is a popular spot in the mid-summer months when Siberian lily, dragonhead, and Japanese rose come into bloom. Take a walk or bike on the paved path, cross the second lake mouth, over the rushing tides that course through the narrow opening, and continue on the lake side as the road turns to a reddish gravel. There you will find a freshwater spring, paradoxically situated on a slice of land a few hundred meters wide and no more than 3 meters high, sandwiched between two saltwater expanses. Wakka in the Ainu language, naturally, means water.

This slice, this strip of land from which wakka springs forth, is now an island, manmade, orphaned from its mainland. No road runs along its 15km length, and a bridge extends only over the second, eastern mouth. In the age of freshwater though, it was something of a superhighway along the northern coast, serving as an unobstructed east-west route for the Ainu, animals, and the occasional explorer.

This road between lake and sea was the route of British explorer and anthropologist Arnold Henry Savage Landor as he made his way around Ezo in the early 1890’s by way of pack mule. In his memoir of that trip,Alone With the Hairy Ainu, he recounts his route northwest up the coast. Landor describes spending the night at the village of “Tobuts”, present day Tofutsu, near the former lake mouth. There he “entertained himself” to an oyster supper in the Ainu village, and describes sketching the portait of an “Ainu belle’ who was “not nearly so hairy as most.”

The morning after his romantic idyll, Landor went on his way:

Continuing my journey north, on the stretch of sand between the water of the sea and that of the Saruma  lake the travelling was fairly easy but monotonous. The long chain of mountains on the other side of the lake was magnificent in the morning light. For twenty-two miles this went on.

Nature’s Fulcrum

One hundred and fifty years have passed since Landor’s misadventure through Hokkaido. Five million people now live on this island the size of Maine, still a virtual emptiness by Japanese standards. Boats ply the lake through channels crossing between buoys holding billions of scallops and oysters. Thousands of people live in the surrounding towns and many come each day to visit the lake and admire its expansive beauty. But people stick close to home. They get back in their cars. They see the place, but they don’t feel it. I would guess that more people travelled the expanse of sandy oblivion in the 1880’s than set foot on it today.

There is something primeval about the thin line between lake and ocean of the shore beyond Wakka. It’s like standing on a massive mountain ridge, but more sublime, pressed between opposing waves. A place home only to deer, fox and swans. This easily accessible isolation is almost spiritual, a juxtaposition of land into water, of freshwater from salty surroundings.

I had lived 25 minutes by car from Wakka for five years before I finally ventured to its farthest reaches. By cycle, kayak, foot and snowshoe, I had tramped and paddled around most of Saroma Lake, but never to the end. I had seen that far tip from the Yubetsu side, thrown rocks across the awkward channel opened by those fishermen to unlock the riches of the lake.

But I had never been there. Anyway, you weren’t really supposed to go. There was a rusted old “no entry” sign and a dirt road which became less and less passable on a mountain bike after a few kilometers, as the dwarf bamboo overtook the path. But for me, the pilgrimage needed to be made.

At 7am on a blazing June morning, I and four Western friends set out from the nature center to make the 30km round trip. We filled up our water bottles from the spring at Wakka, hid our bikes in the woods, and began trudging along the high berm of the island. Refrigerators and buoys, vodka bottles and tubes of Korean toothpaste littered the beach below. This stretch of beach is a beachcomber’s paradise, and a well kept secret. Nik Hill, a former English teacher in Saroma Town, called it the “Golden Mile of Wakka.”

We remained on the solid ridge for as long as we could before venturing to the beach, which is awkward and tiring walking. I quickly came across the vertebra of a whale interspersed with vodka bottles. We began to find glass fishing floats, which I treasure, and gain a rush of excitement in laying eyes upon. Before the day was over, I would stuff over 20 floats into my pack, including a gorgeous blue 8-inch diameter globe.

In spite of all of my pseudo-poetic warblings about Wakka’s spiritual isolation, the explorer Landor was right about its monotony. The Wakka Coast is a rather boring slog. Gradually, though, the beach narrows and turns into small cliffs, topped with the scraggliest, spookiest little trees I have ever seen, whispering for you to turn back. Swallows make their homes in these cliffs, flitting about the beach, clearing it of insects for us, its daytripping visitors. Towering remnants of past erosion served as a reminder of the impermanence of these cliffs, and made me think that it really is best there are no people here.

In Japan, coastlines tend to be smothered in concrete, sprinkled in tetrapods and spheres and plastered with 20 meter seawalls whose ugliness will fail to be worth it as soon as the next 21-meter tsunami hits. The total absence of this is what makes this coastline special, and its presence is what made its end point so remarkably jarring.

After passing the swallow cliffs, the land on the left widens outward toward the lake, and there begins a wide sloping meadow of dwarf bamboo, a knee-high and hearty underbrush that remains green throughout the winter, even buried under meters of snow. Now far behind the rest of the group, I stopped trying to keep up, and walked up through this slope to a low, forested knob. There, I turned and looked back down the length of land, at both shores tapering away toward their geometric vanishing points. It was a special place to be. While I am not a religious person, I find the animism of Japanese Shinto to be a soothing concept, with its spiritual view of the souls that live in nature’s special places. This was certainly one of those places. It felt like I had reached the fulcrum of the island, the point at which its own balance was reached. I took a drink of water, and turned to go.

Categories
Alaska Hokkaido

Internet Speeds: Hokkaido vs. Alaska

In 1998, when I was in 8th grade, Rogers Cablesystems began a cable internet service in the Matanuska Valley in Alaska where I grew up. I remember going into their strip mall office near Wasilla High to pick up the modem, and the technician grinning as he warned me “You’ll never be able to go back to dialup.”

That connection was 512kb down, 33.6 up (you needed a phone line to send data). If my memory serves me correctly, the cost was about $60 per month, and the modem about $10 a month. Gosh was that fast. Before, I had used a 33.6kb modem because I couldn’t afford a full 56kb model. I went from downloading Mp3s off of Napster at 8KB/s to 60KB/s. My life had indeed changed, and I have never gone back.

That was 15 years ago. Since then, I have moved abroad, but I often yearn to move back in moments of homesickness, and simple want – it’s natural to want to return to a place with which you identify so strongly and where so many family and friends are. But as an adult, I always begin to think about practical things – job, healthcare, housing. Internet access is among those things. So, every now and then I click over to the Matanuska Telephone Association website and see what they’re charging for DSL.

I am continually stunned. No improvements in service in the sense that you would imagine. Their lowest connection costs $55/month with a $25GB/month download cap (my 512kb connection in 1998 had no cap). I do see that they are offering fiber in some areas, which is great, but the costs are outrageous. $110 dollars per month for a 40 megabit connection, also with a $25 gigabyte download cap. I don’t understand who would buy this plan. On a connection like that, you could download 25 gigabytes in an hour.

I simply don’t understand what the reasons or excuses are for zero improvement in services or reduction in prices over the past 15 years. I understand that Alaska has a limited connection to the rest of the US, and that bandwidth is not cheap. But how does the rest of the world provide far better service? I live in a rural Japanese town of 6,000 people, about 30 miles from the nearest city, and I am writing this on an unlimited fiberoptic connection that costs me ~$50 dollars a month.

So let’s compare:

Ok, so these are a bunch of nice numbers, but unfortunately they are all the same size. Let’s make the font sizes proportional to the vast gulf in services:

Here in rural Japan, I am paying 1/5th as much for a service that is 2.5-8 times as fast. Someone explain this to me. I can’t give up my fiber.

Categories
Hokkaido Saroma travel

Beautiful Sunset on Lake Saroma

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View from the shore of the Saroma Tsuruga Resort.

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Some rain clouds were passing to the south of the lake, but the sunset was spared.

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Categories
earthquake Hokkaido Japan

A Cute Hokkaido Power Map

This morning I found a rather interesting infographic pamphlet on my desk from HEPCO, the Hokkaido Electric Power Company.  It contained a very straightforward graphic showing the major sources of power generation on the island of Hokkaido.  I searched for it online, to no avail.  So, I snapped a photo:

With no classes in the morning, I decided I’d try and reproduce the graphic, along with English annotations.  I think I did a pretty good job.  Have a look: (click for a larger version)

I’d say this is a sign I either have too much time on my hands, or perhaps would enjoy a job in graphic design/translation better.

Categories
Hokkaido

Who Owns Hokkai.do?

Sometimes when I’m bored, I’ll plug interesting word combinations into register.com and see what domain names are available. A while back I was intrigued by the two character top-level domains (TLDs) available from other countries such as .ly, .gl and .it (i.e. bit.ly, goo.gl, redd.it). I like the simplicity of a short, clean domain name and these do that.  So I tried to create domains that would fit with the preexisting TLD.

And of course I thought “wow, wouldn’t hokkai.do be great?” So I searched it. It turns out that .do is the TLD of the Dominican Republic, and that hokkai.do is taken.  But I was disappointed when I visited it.  There is nothing other than some text that says “Welcome to Hokkaido! Soon, my pretties…”  It’s been like that for more than six months since I checked it.

.DO domains aren’t cheap – one like this costs $125 for a two-year registration.  Someone’s paying $60 per year to sit on the hokkai.do domain name, linking to nothing and showing nothing. It seems a waste of a beautiful and sexy domain that if the Hokkaido Government decided to make use of, would give them some major street cred with internet-savvy peeps.

Who owns you, hokkai.do?

Categories
earthquake education English Hokkaido Middle School

Sapporo Conference Presentation

This is a short post to quickly provide the PDF version of the presentation that I and my JTL and wife Yoshie Holland and I presented at this year’s Sapporo ALT Skills Conference. The topic was “Cooperating and Communicating Effectively” at the Junior High Level. Check out the slideshow below, or click here to load the 7.6 mb .pdf file.

Holland2012sapporo from seanmisen
Categories
Hokkaido Saroma

The East End of Lake Saroma

Snowshoeing along Tsurunuma Slough at the eastern end of Lake Saroma near Baro. Mt Horoiwa in the distance.

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Categories
festivals Hokkaido Japan JET Saroma

Of Typhoons, Pumpkins and Hornets

It was an exciting weekend. The Saroma Pumpkin Festival took place, as it does every year on the first weekend of September. Every night throughout the week I stopped by the snow removal center to help with the town hall’s float. This year’s theme was One Piece, one of the most popular manga and anime franchises of all time. In traditional fashion, the float was ambitious, a full size pirate ship and a whole host of elaborate costumes spanning nearly all the major characters in the series.

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The completed float on Saturday afternoon, before the rain.

Talk frequently turned toward the weather. Typhoon 12 was slowy approaching southwest Japan, and we had no idea what effect it would have on our festival. The main event, the Cinderella Dream Parade, was to take place on Saturday at 6pm, so our fingers were crossed for clear weather for at least that evening. On Friday, while the typhoon was still centered more than 1,000 miles to the south, near Shikoku, Hokkaido was hit by massive rainbands from the outer edge of the storm. Saroma got four inches of rain in a 12 hour period – other areas got much, much more. By Saturday morning, the weather had cleared up, and with the typhoon still a thousand kilometers to the south, moving at a glacial 10 kph, we were all very optimistic.

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The Saroma River on Friday afternoon.

Not only was this the weekend of the Pumpkin Festival, it was also the Eastern Welcome Party, which we carefully planned to occur coincidentally with the festival. HAJET and I received permission from Saroma for 50 ALTs to camp in the main park in Saroma near the gymnasium, and the Town Hall parade entry were excited to have several dozen ALTs walking with them behind the float, handing out balloons and participating in the fun.

But then, after a blustery, halfway sunny, spritzy day full of fast moving scud and fleeting suckerholes, dark clouds appeared on the western horizon. It was around 5pm, and from there, our plans basically laid down and died. The pumpkin parade was cancelled, and rescheduled to take place inside the Townspeople Center. That meant we couldn’t use our float. Some people seriously considered not performing at all so that we could reuse our float in next year’s parade. Meanwhile, 50 ALTs were standing around in a quickly darkening unlit BBQ house, already several beers into the evening, two rainy kilometers away from a festival with no parade. Back at my house were Yoshie and her parents. For a few hours, I ran back and forth between the park, the snow removal center, and home. I managed to get the lowdown on the festival plans (parade: not happening; fireworks: maybe happening; band: happening inside), change into my suit and costume, very poorly learn the group dance performance routine, beg and borrow the generator from the float and some lights, and haul them down to the BBQ house to save the foreigners from the inky black of night. All of this in time to make it back in time to dance arrhythmically, catch the kickass fireworks, down a half dozen beers, introduce Yoshie to all the important and great people I work with, high-five three dozen students, and make it back to the house to share some craft beer with Yoshie’s father and blow their minds with a Google Earth iPad tour of Palmer. It had turned out to be a crazy, but remarkably fun evening. We didn’t get to bed until well after midnight, an unusual occurrence for Yoshie’s parents.

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My costume was a naval officer from the anime series, who enforces law and order on the pirate-filled seas.  The costume consisted of my regular suit under a borrowed labcoat from the Saroma Clinic with some cleverly applied yellow and blue tape for insignia.  The back of the coat said “正義” or “Justice.”

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Saroma’s performance consists of attractice preschool teachers who know how to dance, and then the men of the town hall, who remain in the back clapping and swaying in an uncoordinated  manner.

But I wasn’t done yet. I had to go check on the generator at the BBQ house and make sure everyone was still alive. And of course, stay there until 3am smoking cigars and talking American politics with a very savvy Kiwi guy until the crowd of those still awake dwindled to a point where the generator could be shut off, and I could commence to chase my wet reflection home on deserted, drunken streets.

Then, on Sunday morning, I went outside and got stung in the head by a hornet. It hurt like a bitch and a half, and I was a little worried I might be allergic, since the last time I was stung was when I was 7 or 8 and stepped on a bees’ nest in the Palmer woods. Yoshie and her parents insisted I go to the hospital, so Yoshie drove me into Engaru, about 40 minutes away. I couldn’t believe how much my head hurt. The pain just wouldn’t stop. After 30 minutes, we went in to see the doctor. He looked at my head, asked me a few questions, and then said “Ok, we’re going to give you some medicine and put you on an IV.” Not only have I never had an IV before, but I had no idea how you said that in Japanese. So, like an idiot, I said “Okey doke” when he told me that. After I realized, I became more worried about the prospect of getting an intravenous drip for the first time in my life than I was about the darned hornet sting. It’s important to understand that this is an extremely routine and almost blanket treatment in Japanese hospitals. I’ve heard of people heading into the hospital because they feel tired, getting an IV for an hour or so, and heading home feeling pretty good. Well, it turned out to be a pretty enjoyable afternoon with my wife. I got to lie down and watch fluid drain into my arm while hornet pain stabbed through my skull, and in the company of Yoshie, it was actually pretty enjoyable. The whole situation was so unexpected, it became a novelty. She even took a picture of me.

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There’s a first time for everything.

After the IV finished (I was very worried about air being inadvertently injected into my artery, so I pressed the call button for the nurse really early) we got some prescription cream for my head and paid the bill. After insurance, the total bill was 2,400 yen, about $30 bucks. The real bonus of the trip, that I can thank the hornet for, is that we grabbed kebabs on the way back out of town.

So, I didn’t get to participate in the parade, my ALT friends didn’t get to participate or enjoy the festival at all, I got stung in the head and missed the whole main day of the festival, but I actually had a pretty great weekend.  And today, Mr. Ikeda from the town hall came out to my house in his bee suit and took out the hornet nest that had been in my shed.

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Categories
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.

Categories
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