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.

Japan Palmer Saroma

Saroma Recipe: Tofu Dumplings with Jam Topping


For tofu dumplings with spinach:

  • 80 grams Shiratama-ko rice flour
  • 100 grams soft tofu
For regular tofu dumplings:
  • 80 grams Shiratama-ko rice flour
  • 100 grams soft tofu
Suggested jam toppings: rhubarb jam, strawberry jam, pumpkin jam

Cooking Instructions: (for both types of dumpling)

  1. First, lets prepare the spinach dumplings. Lightly boil the spinach. After boiling, wring out the water and dice it into fine bits.
  2. Add the rice flour to the diced spinach. Then, slowly add tofu to the mixture until it becomes about as soft as an earlobe.
  3. Form the mixture into child bite-sized dumplings, making an indentation in the middle of each with your thumb, which will shorten the cooking time.
  4. Let’s next prepare the regular dumplings, following the above instructions without the spinach.
  5. Insert the dumplings in a pot of boiling water and boil for one minute after they naturally float to the surface. After removing from the boiling water, cool the dumplings in a bowl of cold water.
  6. Place two or three of each type of dumpling on plates, and garnish with your choice of jam.
Watch out for: When mixing the tofu and rice flour, be sure to add the tofu a little at a time so that you can control the hardness and water content of the final mixture. The smoother the dumpling mix turns out, the better the finished product will be.
✦ This recipe is courtesy of Mr. Onishi, the nutritionist at the Saroma Town Hall. The recipe originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of the Saroma Town Magazine. View it in the magazine here. (it’s on the second page of the PDF.)
Hokkaido Saroma travel

Beautiful Sunset on Lake Saroma

View from the shore of the Saroma Tsuruga Resort.

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



A Wintry May

A quick post.  Have a look at the change in the weather over the last week in Saroma.  After several weeks of steadily strengthening spring, the temperature dropped for a few days and it snowed about 6 inches.  Here are two photos I took, one on Monday, and the other today, Sunday.

education English Middle School Saroma

Write Your Own Calvin Comic

This is a lesson I designed and did several years ago and have done a few times since.  I introduce Calvin and Hobbes, explain who the main characters are, and then give the students a handout with a few comics on the front.  We read the comics together and I try to make sure they understand the meaning.  Of course, the explanation sort of removes the humor from them, but that’s OK, because the fun part comes next.

On the back of each sheet, there is a different comic printed, one for each pair of students in class.  The comic has had the wording removed from the speech bubbles, so their goal is to assess the comic, try to figure out what is happening or what the author intended, and then either write something they think fits in the bubbles, or take it in a different direction.  Sometimes students ask if they can add drawings to the comic, or extra bubbles not originally there.  I say sure, why not.

Here are some selections of comics that last year’s 3rd graders at Saroma Junior High did (9th graders).  They’re gone and graduated now, but I’ve kept the comics they wrote, and per a request from a friend, I’ve scanned the best ones: (Images link to larger versions, and are browsable using the arrows)

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.



Tochigi, Saroma

Panorama of Tochigi Farm

This summer, one of our visiting CMS exchange students, Kevin, stayed with the Takase family in Tochigi. He was taken by the beautiful rolling farm fields contrasted with the sudden mountains and visible expanse toward Lake Saroma to the northeast. Today I ran into Mrs. Takase at Wakasa Elementary. She had a card from Kevin that no one in their family completely understood, and asked me to translate it. This got me thinking that I had never really explored Tochigi, not by car nor by bike.

Yesterday I had a 5th period class at Wakasa Elementary school that was open to parents. The school staff had been asking me to do this for quite some time, and today was the first time schedules allowed. The class went well; I taught eleven 5th and 6th graders how to ask and answer “can~” questions, i.e. “Can you play baseball?” I particularly focused on the differences between predicates that require “play” to precede the object and those that don’t. For example, we all play baseball, but does one play judo, or do judo?

I finished class before 2:30 and had no pressing matters to attend to for the rest of the day. When I have free time after finishing class, I try not to rush back to the office. It’s easy to forget that I’m not just here to teach, but to act as an ambassador between the towns, sometimes as an evangelist. So, I like to take some of my workday to go for a drive down a road I’ve never taken before, have a chat with some locals, or somehow get to know Saroma a little bit better. So today I drove toward Tochigi, an isolated and peaceful part of Saroma, the furthest that you can get from the lake. It was such a beautiful day, I got some nice photos on my iPhone, including the panorama at the top of the page. Enjoy.




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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.




The Former Mouth of Saroma Lake

Before Saroma’s two manmade passages to the ocean were constructed, the lake would naturally flood and overflow (aided by some human intervention) each spring, at its eastern end. During this brief period, saltwater would backwash into this shallow, narrow part of the lake, causing it to be more brackish and good for farming saltwater species such as oysters. Near this old outlet, which no longer floods from runoff since it is subject to the natural flow of tides into the lake, I discovered an unmapped road that actually loops back onto the main road behind a sugar beet processing plant, as well as this monument marking the location of Saroma Lake’s erstwhile connection to the ocean.  Japanese text and English translation below.



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.

Alaska earthquake family Japan Palmer Saroma tsunami

Letter from Saroma

A shorter version of this piece appears in the April 1st edition of the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman.

On Friday, March 11th, I had three English classes at Hamasaroma Elementary School, a school of 29 students on the shore of Lake Saroma.  The day’s classes were my last of the Japanese school year, which ends in March.  The goal of the lessons was to have fun, and we did.  The younger grades played a treasure hunt game for which I dressed up like a pirate.  The other grades played a rock paper scissors battle game in the gym, and a very rowdy game of “Pit.”  At recess I played badminton and practiced riding a unicycle.

I have lived in Saroma for three years, working as the town’s Assistant English Teacher.  Saroma has been Palmer’s sister city since 1980, and has hired the English teacher directly from Palmer since 1994, making me, as a 2002 Palmer High graduate, the sixth Palmerite to hold the position.  I visit all of the schools from preschool to high school in this farming and fishing town of 5,900 people in the north of Hokkaido, the northernmost of the Japanese islands.  Saroma often reminds me of Alaska, with its frigid winters, wide summer skies, fields of hay, and the independent, resourceful people.  Saroma feels like home.

When my last class ended at 2:05 PM, I returned to the teachers’ room, got a cup of coffee, and began writing my lesson notes for the day.  After such a wonderful day of classes, I felt like the week and the school year were coming to a perfect end.  The week before I had just agreed to another year of teaching in Saroma, and the week before that I had become engaged to my Japanese girlfriend of several years.  All was right in my world as the clock struck 2:46.

At first it was slow and smooth, then rattling, then smooth again, like an airliner in the minutes after takeoff.  The earthquake as I felt it in Saroma lasted about two minutes.  Some of us got under our desks, but no one seemed particularly concerned, and when it finished there had been no damage at all.  Having felt dozens of earthquakes growing up in Palmer, I guessed it was a magnitude 6 or 7, perhaps located somewhere north, in Russia.

The vice principal turned on the TV, where the first images shown were of shaking TV studios in Sendai and Tokyo.  It was obvious that it had been strong, but that those cities were still intact.  Then the epicenter was announced off the coast of the Tohoku region in Honshu, Japan’s main island, over 400 miles to the south.  Tsunami warnings and watches were quickly issued for nearly the entire 18,000 mile coastline of Japan, including the Sea of Okhotsk near Saroma.  Several teachers immediately got in their cars and drove off to make sure students who had already walked home for the day arrived home safely.

The rest of the staff remained in the teachers’ room and watched the rising waters gradually swell to violent torrents, live and in crystal-clear high definition.  We slowly grew hushed as we realized the gravity of what was occurring.  To say it was like watching a disaster movie isn’t accurate.  It was worse.  I had been to those places, I had friends near those places, and I knew that these astounding images were happening as I watched, many which were cut away from quickly and never replayed in the following days because they were too disturbing.  I could imagine myself in that place, in their shoes.  Yet, out my window, the day seemed to continue as it had before.

Even though Saroma was spared from this disaster, the genuine concern expressed by the people of Palmer and all of my friends outside of Japan has been extremely touching.  My mother couldn’t believe how many people called her or stopped by to ask about me once they heard about a quake in “northeast Japan.”  Tohoku, the area hit by the tsunami, literally means “northeast” and from Tokyo, the capital, it is northeast.  However, Hokkaido and Saroma are farther northeast by hundreds of miles.  This caused family and friends at home to experience some unnecessary worry as well as get an impromptu lesson in Japanese geography.

While Saroma was not at all damaged and its people are doing fine, the town has experienced its share of natural disasters.  In October of 2006, over a foot of rainfall in 24 hours caused the Saroma River to swell over its banks, damaging large portions of downtown.  One month later a tornado hit the neighborhood of Wakasa, killing nine people, injuring 31 and destroying 38 houses.  It was the first tornado in Japan’s recorded history to take lives.  The next week a magnitude 8.3 earthquake off of the Kuril Islands prompted coastal evacuations in Saroma and caused a 10 inch tsunami on the Sea of Okhotsk. The same evacuations were repeated the next month, in January 2007, when a magnitude 8.1 earthquake hit the same area.

Disasters, however unwelcome, have the power to bring us together.  In a time of such crisis, the differences between nations and cultures seem to dissolve as our shared humanity is reaffirmed.  This sense of shared existence, solidarity and deep empathy that so many around the world now feel for the people of Japan is what Saroma and Palmer have been building steadily for over thirty years, through hundreds of personal experiences, friendships, gestures of goodwill and shared commitment.  Times like this remind us how important these connections are that we have built.  In normal times they might seem inconsequential.  Some people might ask why they are necessary.  But they are real.

The full effects of this disaster are still being understood, but surely the Japanese deserve credit for their own preparation toward the inevitable, unpredictable menace of earthquakes and tsunami.  The evacuation routes, warning systems, and awareness education surely saved many more lives than were lost.  Alaska, three thousand miles clockwise from Japan along the Pacific Ring of Fire, can learn from their preparedness.

As the aftermath continues to unfold, I’ve noticed a big difference in the news coverage from within Japan and abroad.  For example, the threat from the nuclear reactors in Fukushima is grave, but the reporting on it has largely overshadowed the more immediate tragedy being endured by hundreds of thousands of people on the ground.  Foreign media outlets, particularly American cable news networks, have engaged in a lot fearful speculation regarding the nuclear threat.  While Japan grapples with half a million homeless and 28,000 dead or missing, there have been no deaths related to the Fukushima plant, radiation levels outside of Japan’s designated 20km evacuation radius are within safe levels, and the government continues to exercise extreme caution regarding the inspection of food produced in the area.  It’s a distraction from the more pressing human problem.

Life continues as it has before, but the television coverage is still focused overwhelmingly on the Tohoku region, whereas Libya has taken the spotlight abroad.

Here in Saroma, we have felt like many Americans have: unaffected, far away, and wondering how we can help.  Saroma has already sent monetary aid to the affected area, and has accepted two families displaced by the disaster.  Voluntary gasoline rationing and electricity saving measures have been in effect.  Hokkaido now has a surplus of electricity which is being sent to Honshu to compensate.  Over the last two weeks the Japanese have used 20% less electricity than over the same period last year, due to efforts to conserve.  Rolling blackouts have largely been avoided.  While essential items like toilet paper, water, and instant noodles have been disappearing from shelves in Tokyo, such items are plentiful here.  The only bare shelves I have seen are for yogurt, as many of those factories are in the Tohoku region.

Life in Saroma continues much as before, although everyone’s minds are still on the disaster.  Television coverage is still focused overwhelmingly on the Tohoku region, whereas Libya has taken the spotlight abroad.  Regular TV programming has returned, but news programs continue with report after report.  Commercials have also slowly started to be played again, although public service announcements account for the majority, with major stars giving messages like “I believe in the power of Japan.”

This morning’s news programs had report after report related to the ongoing situation. People sleep in their cars because their pets are not allowed inside evacuation centers and they refuse to abandon them.  An old man provides transportation of goods and people on his boat, out at sea during the tsunami, even though his own house is destroyed.  Community groups search through the rubble daily for family photos, cleaning, drying, and displaying them on the walls in local evacuation centers, trying to help salvage their former lives.  In all the myriad media coverage, I have not heard one single complaint, not one outburst of anger or incident of selfish behavior.  People are meeting difficulty with unfathomable integrity.

The hardship continues for the hundreds of thousands still homeless, for those who still have not found their loved ones, for those uncertain of their future.  Pessimism comes easy to some, and I have heard numerous grave predictions about Japan’s future.

They are wrong.  Japan is already recovering.  The Great Kanto Expressway, parts of which were demolished during the quake, was rebuilt and reopened only six days later.  After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, which killed 6,500 people, Japan’s economy actually grew.  I think that meeting the challenge of reconstruction could usher in a new age in Japan, pulling it out of the past two decades of malaise and perhaps fostering a new willingness to confront the country’s big problems.  The disaster might seem unimaginably large, but I trust in one resource that the earthquake and tsunami did not destroy: the ingenuity, cooperation, and resourcefulness of Japan’s people.  The people of Tohoku need our help, but Japan as a nation will emerge stronger.

I was spared from this disaster.  I don’t believe in luck, yet I feel incredibly lucky to know this country and its people, a place that has been my home for the better part of my adult life.  The Japanese people deserve our prayers, our respect, and our support.  Let’s give it to them.