Road trip of the rising sun
Gentle driving and hearty noodle eating on the Japanese islands of Hokkaido and Honshu
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