Into the great white

Cross-cul­tural en­coun­ters un­der the north­ern lights

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - PICO IYER

Hiroko, my Ja­panese wife, is stretched out on a plush black sofa at Aurora Bo­re­alis Lodge, and I’m tucked into the other end. In front of us are long win­dows look­ing to a haunt­ing black-and-white land­scape of ghostly birch trees, the out­line of re­ced­ing hills, snow­falls of stars. A group of vis­i­tors from In­dia is crashed out be­hind us, and so too is our host in In­ner Alaska. But every­one else in the room is Ja­panese.

Out­side, alone on a ter­race, a sin­gle fig­ure stamps his feet in the mi­nus-17C dark and stares out into the si­lence, barely stir­ring, for 3½ hours. Look­ing for the north­ern lights around Fair­banks, Alaska, is the best way of meet­ing ad­ven­tur­ers from ev­ery cor­ner of Ja­pan. Signs in the mid­dle of nowhere spell out “alpen­glow” in Ja­panese katakana script. Ev­ery room at Chena Hot Springs Re­sort, more than an hour away, fea­tures a 48-page guide to the re­sort in Ja­panese, much more ex­ten­sive than the rather desul­tory English ver­sion. “Sev­eral years ago, 99 per cent of the vis­i­tors for the lights were Ja­panese,” says the owner of Aurora Bo­re­alis Lodge, Mok Ku­ma­gai, a na­tive of Ja­pan’s Chiba pre­fec­ture.

Just as we’re head­ing out the door, the parka-swathed her­mit from the deck shuf­fles in. He’s a tiny char­ac­ter with a wispy white beard who looks like a wiz­ard es­caped from a fairy tale. He’s from Tokyo, it tran­spires, though he’s been in Alaska for 45 years, hunt­ing wolves and bear with na­tive tribes. “How old are you?” I ask, as Ja­panese pro­to­col dic­tates. “Sev­enty-seven,” replies the sage, in east­ern-ac­cented Ja­panese. Then he looks up to the heav­ens and says, in English, “Soon I’ll be with you.”

We don’t see the north­ern lights that evening, de­spite our 210-minute vigil. But it hardly mat­ters.

The pre­vi­ous day, within hours of ar­riv­ing in Alaska, my wife and I were dog-mush­ing through the woods, driv­ing snow­mo­biles through the fall­ing dusk, to within 6m of a moose and her new­born, and walk­ing around an ex­tra­or­di­nary mu­seum at Chena Hot Springs, com­plete with life-size de­pic­tions of joust­ing knights on rear­ing horses, all made of ice. Twice be­fore 10am, we soaked in de­li­cious, medic­i­nal hot springs in weather so cold our hair in­stantly turned white and ici­cle-sharp.

Most of all, though, I get to see the Ja­panese peo­ple, among whom I’ve lived for 30 years, as they look when they’re joy­ously them­selves and unbuttoned amid nature’s mir­a­cles. Ex­actly 30 years, half a life­time ago, I’d been trans­ported by “white nights” in Ice­land in mid­sum­mer; now, as a com­ple­ment, I want to try dark days in mid­win­ter, lit up by the “rest­less, elec­tric, au­ro­ral fires” that gal­vanised the great nat­u­ral­ist John Muir. Where bet­ter to com­bine a sense of the beauty of the heav­ens — four hours be­tween sun­set and moon­rise ev­ery af­ter­noon — with a newly spir­ited and in­for­mal ex­pe­ri­ence of my highly civilised neigh­bours back in Nara?

Our first af­ter­noon in Alaska, Hiroko and I find our­selves with Masako Tokida, who’s been work­ing at Chena Hot Springs for eight years. Af­ter Ja­panese tele­vi­sion spe­cials quick­ened in­ter­est in the aurora in the 1990s, she ex­plained, three di­rect char­ter flights from her home­land in 2003 quickly be­came 17. “Some say it was the Ja­panese in­ter­est that helped awaken all Alaska to the aurora,” Masako says. “Pre­vi­ously, no one, not even Amer­i­cans, was think­ing about the lights.” Sud­denly, Fair­banks had a win­ter tourist in­dus­try.

For me one of the great tourist sights in the modern world is the sight of other tourists in un­ex­pected con­texts, such as Chi­nese women, hi­jabs slip­ping down their backs, earnestly fol­low­ing an English-flu­ent guide amid the desert mosques of Yazd, in Iran, or the Ja­panese who fol­low hi­ra­gana signs on foot­paths around the York­shire Moors in search of the Brontes. Masako’s hus­band is a

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.