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
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
Alaska Middle School Palmer Saroma travel

Exchange Trip to Palmer

This January I had the privilege to escort six students from Saroma, Japan, to my hometown of Palmer, Alaska.  Saroma Town employs me as their Assistant English Teacher, one of the requirements for the position being roots in Palmer.  I grew up in Palmer and graduated from Palmer High School in 2002, eventually finding my way to Saroma in 2008 after a degree in linguistics and a one-year stint on the JET Programme in Niigata.

It’s now my third year in Saroma.  Every year, there are mutual exchanges at both the junior high and high school level, and each year I have helped to prepare the students for their experience.  This year the exchange groups went to Colony Middle School and Palmer High School.  We hold about 10 to 12 predeparture classes at the Town Hall, teaching basic English conversation skills, helping to prepare them for cultural differences, and teaching about Alaska and Palmer in general.  They also spend a large portion of the time creating a poster presentation in English about some aspect of Saroma or Japan that they then present while in Palmer.

This year, as in past years, the groups from the high school and the junior high were both small, so it was decided that they would be sent together.  This year, though, I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the chaperones for the group.  As such, I had the pleasure and privilege of not only preparing the students for the exchange, but supporting them and guiding them while in Palmer.  To tell you the truth, I was not entirely sure of myself in this regard.  While there was another chaperone from the high school, I still felt responsible for the six students who were travelling, particularly the junior high students, whose maturity levels were quite different from the two high school students (who had both been to Palmer once before).

However, I somehow managed to get everyone from Hokkaido to Palmer and back, without any serious problems, crying fits, bouts of homesickness, huge misunderstandings, illnesses or disastrous scheduling errors.  All of the students and the other chaperone seemed to have a fantastic time in Palmer, and didn’t seem too concerned about getting back to Japan.  I too enjoyed myself, although I was busier than I could have expected, playing sort of a double-agent role as ambassador both from and to Palmer and Saroma.  Let’s just say that the students were not the only participants on this trip who experienced new challenges and developed new skills. ♦

Greeted upon arrival with a handmade sign in Anchorage by CMS Principal McMahon.

The view from CMS on our first day in town.  The winds were brutal, but the skies were clear.

A welcome poster for the JHS group.

Giving my Saroma presentation to a community group in Palmer.

Everyone on the freezing bus to Talkeetna!

Our mature and dependable high school contingent.

Arrival at Pioneer Peak Elementary with SJHS students and Hatcher.

Singing do-re-mi to the kindergarten at Pioneer Peak.

The group of volunteers who do so much to support the exchange programs.

Lastly, a video of us ice skating at the Palmer Ice Arena.  I think everyone makes an appearance.


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

Categories
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.”

Categories
bike Hokkaido travel

Northern Hokkaido Cycling

I finally posted all of my photos from my four day bike ride north from Oumu around Cape Soya and then south to Rumoi.  The captions of the photos chronicle the trip well enough.  I’ll let them and the photos tell the story without a blathering blog post.

Photo below links to the gallery.

Here’s a map of the route:

View Larger Map

Categories
America travel

The Hostel Northampton Project

A college friend of mine, Jeanine Dargis, is starting up a hostel in Northampton, Massachusetts, near my alma mater (sort of) of Hampshire College.  I was actually rather surprised that there wasn’t already a hostel in that town, considering the sort of nice little place that it is.

In order for the project to move forward, they need to raise some money.  $15,000 dollars.  I decided to pitch in a bit, because starting a hostel is something I’ve thought about, and I’d like to see them succeed.  The neat thing about this donation system is that your donation doesn’t actually become a real donation unless they meet their funding goal.  In that sense, it’s a pledge, kind of like the pledges in elementary school for Jump Rope for Heart.  Your uncle’s 1¢ per jump pledge will only becoming a $20 donation if you actually bother to do all 2000 jumps.

So, if you appreciate the uniqueness of hostelling and feel like chipping in, go to the link below and pledge some dollars to help them meet their goal.

Categories
festivals Hokkaido Japan Saroma travel

Saroma Pumpkin Festival 2009

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This weekend marked the 22nd annual Pumpkin Festival here in Saroma.  It’s by far the biggest event of the year, with the whole town coming out for a weekend of festivities revolving around the famous local pumpkins.

The Pumpkin Festival weekend kicks off every year on Saturday night at 6 pm.  As it gets dark, the Cinderella “Dream” Parade begins at the Town Hall and ends about two hours later at the Citizen’s Center where there are fireworks, vendors, and a band.  That’s right, the parade lasts two hours, enough time to allow each group in the parade to do a performance at several locations throughout the route.  These are elaborate performances, with costumes, choreography and fantastic floats.  People spend weeks preparing for the parade and it’s definitely the main event of the festival.

Categories
bike Hokkaido travel

Eastern Cycling Trip

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Yoshie and I took a four day bicycle trip around eastern Hokkaido last week.  On two folding bikes, we covered over 200 kilometers, went through two national parks, rode along two oceans, conquered two 2000-foot mountain passes.  We saw five foxes and dozens of deer, bathed in four different hot springs, and saw the Russian-controlled island of Kunashiri.  We managed to avoid rain during our ride, but got only one sunny day.  We skipped Notsuke Peninsula because of driving rain, but caught the local festival in Shibetsu that night instead.  We climbed Shiretoko Pass on Saturday in spectacular weather, with lovely ocean views, and Kiyosato Pass on Monday through a pine forest of dense fog, made spookier by the unnatural man-made rows of trees.

It was a leap of faith for Yoshie, who had never done anything like this before.  To convince her, I insisted I would carry all of our supplies myself, in my bike trailer.  I also consented to staying in a bungalow on the second night, and a youth hostel on the third, instead of camping the entire trip.  Anyway, it was great fun, and I think by the third day, after a small amount of strife, we worked out a good travelling relationship.  For me, I worked at staying close together on downhills and climbs, making sure to signal turns and moves on and off of the main road, as well as hollering the number of rear-approaching trucks and buses on narrow sections in Shari and Nakashibetsu.  Yoshie did a good job of letting me know when she needed to stop, when her rear brakes weren’t working at all (!), or simply putting up with a boyfriend who is used to riding alone and making stupid turns, quick decisions, and completely random stops for dumb photos.

Here’s a rough map of the route:


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