Road trip of the ris­ing sun

Gen­tle driv­ing and hearty noo­dle eat­ing on the Ja­panese is­lands of Hokkaido and Hon­shu

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - JOHN KAMPFNER

I WON­DERED which of the buoys were Rus­sian and which were Ja­panese. We were on a fish­ing ves­sel in the choppy Sea of Okhotsk, look­ing for whales. On the right­hand side, just dis­cernible in the misty dis­tance, was Ku­nashir, one of the Kurile Is­lands, seized by the Sovi­ets at the end of World War II and dis­puted ever since. Thank­fully, we didn’t stray into “en­emy” wa­ter and, amid much cheer­ing from the half-dozen Ja­panese on our boat, we de­tected three sperm whales blow­ing wa­ter dramatically out of their spouts. Mission num­ber one on our road trip to Hokkaido had been ac­com­plished.

Ja­pan comes no more rugged than Hokkaido, par­tic­u­larly its north­east fringe, the Shire­toko penin­sula. On the Pa­cific side is the no-frills small town of Rausu, with clap­board houses and pick-up trucks, where the fish­er­men haul in their catches early in the morn­ing. This was our base. An hour or so’s drive down the coast road is the bird sanc­tu­ary of Not­suke. There, a board­walk takes you past wild­flow­ers and wild horses, with ea­gles hov­er­ing over­head, to a small for­est of Sakhalin fir trees. From here, on a clear day, you can see the Kuriles.

Hav­ing spent quite a few years in Rus­sia, and vis­ited its far east, we wanted to get the other side of the story. When I ex­plained this at the vis­i­tors’ cen­tre, they di­rected me to a film that shows a group of Ja­panese pen­sion­ers be­ing al­lowed by the Rus­sians to ap­proach the coast­line, take pho­to­graphs and weep over the land of their birth that they have lost. By 1949, all 17,000 Ja­panese res­i­dents had been de­ported. Only oc­ca­sion­ally does Rus­sia al­low the dis­placed or their descen­dants back onto the is­lands to pray be­fore their an­ces­tral shrines.

The name Shire­toko, in the lan­guage of the in­dige­nous Ainu peo­ple, means “end of the earth”. It’s not hard to see why. This is bleak and beau­ti­ful fron­tier coun­try. Most of it is wilder­ness, with no roads, and with for­est out of bounds for all but the most hardy. An es­ti­mated 600 brown bears roam the na­tional park. Vis­i­tors are al­lowed only along its Five Lakes trail, and then only when ac­com­pa­nied. The only an­i­mals we saw on our two-hour trek were deer. But we weren’t down­hearted as we mar­velled at the un­touched lakes, so clear that the re­flec­tion of the moun­tains was mir­ror-per­fect in the wa­ter.

It was a cross be­tween Tus­cany and the Cotswolds, a gen­teel col­lec­tion of laven­der fields and winer­ies. The Ja­panese flee the conur­ba­tions of the main is­land, Hon­shu, for the clean air and moun­tains of Hokkaido. Although ski­ing in the re­sort of Fu­rano at­tracts in­ter­na­tional tourism, for the rest of the year for­eign­ers are few and far be­tween. Or­gan­ised travel is con­fined to spas and to tra­di­tional ryokan ho­tels, with their on­sen, or hot springs. I was in­trigued by the men sit­ting on plas­tic stools, star­ing end­lessly into mir­rors while preen­ing them­selves. The rooms are ba­sic, with fu­tons brought out onto the floor in the evenings, and yukata (light cot­ton ki­mono) pro­vided for eat­ing din­ner in the restau­rant. With no menu and a knowl­edge of the lan­guage that stretched to a dozen phrases we had learnt on the plane, it was hard to know what we were eat­ing — what we could dis­cern was sea urchin, crab claws and some­thing that might have been deer in broth.

Hir­ing a car al­lowed us to dip in and out of the tourist trail, tak­ing us from the Akan Na­tional Park, with spec- tac­u­lar vol­canic moun­tains that spew pale lemon-yel­low sul­phurous lava on to rocks, to the vil­lage of Biei, a gen­teel col­lec­tion of laven­der fields, artists’ stu­dios, winer­ies and teashops (where wait­ers dou­ble up as off-piste ski guides). The hol­i­day play­ground of to­day con­ceals a more sin­is­ter past. Dur­ing the Meiji Restora­tion of the 19th cen­tury, the Ja­panese grabbed the land from the in­dige­nous peo­ple to es­tab­lish homes and farms. Not only did they de­prive them of their liveli­hoods, they forced them to as­sim­i­late. “We were treated as in­fe­rior be­ings, but now, grad­u­ally, our rights are be­ing re­turned,” ex­plained one of the cu­ra­tors at the Ainu Kotan mu­seum, which ex­poses Ja­panese and for­eign tourists to Ainu cul­ture. It was only in 1997, she said, that dis­crim­i­na­tion was fi­nally re­moved from the statute book.

The mu­seum de­scribes how Ainu gods visit the earthly world through hu­mans, an­i­mals and plants, while vis­i­tors are en­cour­aged to try on na­tive cos­tumes, in­clud­ing a coat-like gar­ment that we were told is called at­tus, made of fi­bres from in­side the bark of an elm tree na­tive to the is­land. The most pow­er­ful ex­hibit is a film in which young Ainu living in Tokyo talk about how they are learn­ing of their cul­ture for the first time. They prac­tise chant­ing and danc­ing, both for the pur­pose of en­ter­tain­ing tourists and to re­claim a sense of iden­tity.

Our fi­nal des­ti­na­tion took us, via a short flight from Sap­poro, back to Hon­shu and the oth­er­wise un­re­mark­able town of Mo­rioka, for its an­nual Sansa Odori fes­ti­val. This is the largest tra­di­tional taiko drum­ming event in the world. The mix of metro­nomic pre­ci­sion and what might seem very un-Ja­panese aban­don left me trans­fixed. Floats com­pete for a prize and vis­i­tors are en­cour­aged to join in. My wife tried to mas­ter the in­tri­cate and repet­i­tive move­ments, valiantly wav­ing her arms about; other par­tic­i­pants laughed and clapped diplo­mat­i­cally.

I made the ex­cuse of film­ing the mes­meris­ing spec­ta­cle, but I had an­other rea­son to bow out. Only an hour ear­lier we had been ini­ti­ated in wanko soba. This dish, with its un­pre­pos­sess­ing name, is ac­tu­ally a con­test. The aim is to shovel as many bowls (wanko means bowl) of buck­wheat noodles (soba) as pos­si­ble. On the ta­ble are var­i­ous condi­ments, such as tuna sashimi, salmon roe and radish — but the real pro­fes­sion­als ig­nore them, barely look­ing up as they slurp 15 bowls at a time, pro­vided by a dainty wait­ress who stands over you recit­ing a mantra. The cou­ple sit­ting cross-legged next to us were a twen­tysome­thing man from Sendai and his new Sin­ga­porean wife. They’d fallen in love while vol­un­teer­ing dur­ing the clean-up, one of many dozens of in­ter­na­tional “tsunami cou­ples”. Dis­tracted by the fas­ci­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tion, I com­pleted a lam­en­ta­ble 51 bowls; my wife 35.

The av­er­age for a man is more than 100, while the record is said to be 383. I as­sume the cham­pion didn’t try danc­ing straight af­ter­wards.

The aim is to shovel as many bowls of buck­wheat noodles (soba) as pos­si­ble


Clock­wise from left, Shire­toko Five Lakes Hokkaido; a white-tailed ea­gle; a Shikisai laven­der field; drum­mers in Mo­rioka on Hon­shu

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