Sunday, May 27, 2007

One to Go

When I came to Hokkaido 18 months ago, I endeavored to ride all of the island's 2500 km of railway. I only have one line to go, a branchline to the coastal city of Esashi in the far southwest. I'm going there this week to ride it, as well as to take photographs along the nearby Kaikyo mainline, which goes through the Seikan Tunnel, beneath the Tsuruga Straights. So, I won't be online for a few days. Check back in a week or so.

War is Easy

Last night, Maureen and I watched The Last Samurai, starring Tom Cruise. If you're not familiar with the movie, it's a lot like Dances With Wolves meets the Meiji Restoration. Cruise plays an Army capitan, haunted by his part in a massacre of native Americans, who goes to Japan to teach fighting techniques to the new Japanese military, whose primary objective is to crush a rebellion led by samurai (aka the Sioux from Dances) in Japan's still-rural north. Cruise is captured and (predictably) takes to the traditional life in the samurai village. When given the chance to return to his old post, he instead chooses to help the samurai.

Historically, the movie dramatized the ideals of the samurai life while overlooking many of the realities, particularly those concerning the samurai of the late 1800s, the setting for the movie. At that time there had been some 200 years of relative peace within Japan, and many of the samurai were often little more than privileged, conservative aristocracy, whose concerns were as much about economics as honor. For a good overview, check out the following article on National Geographic's website.

Still, the movie was entertaining, featuring epic cinematography and dramatic battles. For both Maureen and me, however, the most enjoyable parts of the movie were the scenes in the samurai village of Cruise stumbling to his understanding of traditional Japanese life. There, the portrayals of culture differences and misunderstandings were accurate and well-done. Eventually, the entire village takes Cruise as one of their own. In the climactic, final battle between the samurai and the Japanese Army, one hardened samurai who was particularly slow to come around to Cruise gives his life for him by taking a bullet in the chest.

While the act was heroic and made for good on-screen drama, it also underscores a very tragic phenomena of human relations. That character in the movie learned to die for Cruise's character, even though he wanted to kill him in the beginning. So often, it is so much easier to die for something, than it is to live for it.

Regarding that same human condition, Dostoevsky wrote the following:

"...he was spoiling for immediate action, was prepared to sacrifice everything, his life itself, in an act of supreme devotion. Unfortunately, these young men often fail to understand that the sacrifice of their lives may be the easiest of all sacrifices, much easier, for instance, than giving up five or six years of their seething youth to hard study, to the acquisition of knowledge which would increase their strength tenfold in the service of that same cause, and in the performance of the great works they aspire to. But to sacrifice those few years to study often proves too much for them."

When two young boys come to blows in the school yard, it's because they're taking the easy way out. Resolving their differences with their minds becomes too difficult for them, so they instead turn to their fists. That much I know from experience. And in the moment of rushing at my tormentor, it did indeed seem so much easier than any other possible solution. Only afterwards, as one eye swelled shut and my bruises throbbed, did I began to realize the folly of my decision.

Tragically, as societies we don't seem to learn very much from these childhood encounters. Violence is still there, always looming on the horizon as the "easy" solution. Of course, it isn't easy, not in the long run, as all wounds need time to heal, and some of them never fully do. But it's all too easy to overlook all of that in the crucial moment when making the decision to strike. If you're wondering why, after millennia of human conflict, we're still having wars, it's because, at least for an instant, they present that guise of being the easiest solution.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

First Camping Trip

I’ve just returned from my first camping trip of the year, a single overnight in the mountains near Niseko, to the southwest of here. My muscles ache from carrying the heavy pack over rough terrain, my heels are blistered, there are about a dozen little cuts on my hands, and I’m trying hard not to scratch the countless places that now itch from various bug bites and leaf contact. And of course I’m eagerly anticipating my next trip, and hoping it will be longer.

I was excited before this trip, too, but also nervous. As I stepped off the train at a deserted station and started climbing the hillside, leaving civilization down below, I walked with the anxiety that each step was taking me farther from my comfort zone, and that I wouldn’t be returning to that comfort zone until the next morning – on the far side of night. After a long climb up into the woods, I cleared off a small patch of earth just big enough for my tent. I stayed busy exploring and taking photos all afternoon and evening, but then night descended and the wind rose.

When you’re alone on a mountain, there’s nothing like the wind to remind you of just how alone you are. It buffeted the tent, rising and falling through the trees and tearing at my heart with every gust. There are bears in Hokkaido, and even though there aren’t very many in southwest Hokkaido, and it’s been several years since anyone in Japan has been killed by one, every noise out in the forest still set me on edge.

I was expecting all of that, though. It’s always like that the first night I’m out camping, and even moreso on the first trip of the season. So why go at all? Camping simplifies things, removing distractions and heightening awareness. As the wind howled through the hills outside, I pulled out my harmonica (which I’ve recently started trying to learn again) and drove out the loneliness by filling the tent with the chords of “Oh Susana.” When I stopped, the wind had fallen, and down in the valley below, the peeping frogs of the flooded rice fields were sending their nightly chorus into the air. I read Dostoevsky by flashlight until falling into a restless, fitful sleep.

At home, I would have slept well. I also would have stayed up late in front of the computer, clicking away in my nightly search for answers and meaning online. In my tent, I made music, read a classic Russian author, and listened to the sounds of springtime in the night.

In the morning, I was tired, but at peace with my surroundings. No bears had come, although the wind had risen again and blew a small thunderstorm across the adjacent ridge just before dawn. By mid-morning, the fog had burned off to reveal another bright, spring day under clear blue skies. I returned to the deserted station and rode south to Niseko, where I spent the afternoon taking photos along the river, reading and playing more harmonica, before heading home in the evening.

Several high school students boarded the same train at Niseko. Three girls sat in front of me, talking and giggling, and occasionally glancing at me. One of them, the one who wore bright, checkered Converse All-Stars instead of traditional penny loafers with her school uniform, took out an English textbook and began reading aloud, checking the meanings of various words with her two friends. It quickly became obvious that this pretense of studying was simply a ploy to gain my attention. My policy in such situations is to not make the first move, although eventually I helped them along by noticeably chuckling at their “studying.” It was enough.

“Hello!” the girl in the bright hi-tops called out.

“Hello,” I returned. “Do you like English?”

“Yes I do!”

She rose from her seat and stood beside mine. We made introductions and remained like that, me sitting and she standing in the aisle beside me, for the remaining 20 minutes until her stop. We filled those 20 minutes with the kind of small talk that is so good for language practice. It was the same kind of predictably repetitious chitchat that I normally deplore, making it one of my main excuses for having studied so little Japanese. Here, though, it wasn’t deplorable at all. Maybe that was because I was so happy for some human contact after a night in the woods, maybe because she was willing to approach me despite my mud and sweat stained clothes and unshaven face, or maybe because she just seemed so genuinely interested in me.

As we approached her stop, she told me that she would write about me in her diary that night, and asked if I would tell my wife about her.

“Of course!” I shot back.

She then asked me to move across the aisle so she could waive to me from the platform as the train pulled out. Touched by the gesture, I was only too happy to comply. She and her two friends waived with both hands, and as the train began to move, I blew her a kiss through the window. She positively glowed, and blew two back to me.

The train was a lot quieter after that, rolling into the blue light of late evening. I was still smiling on the inside, though, and was for some time to come. I’m certain she was, too. What a wonderful exchange when two people can come away so much happier than they were before. I suddenly thought back to my previous post about living without a car here. With a car, I’d have been struggling to stay awake on a long drive home, instead of leaning back and staring lazily out the window. And I wouldn’t have met her.

Lest I forget, the main reason for this trip was to take railroad photos on the Hakodate Line, which was the original mainline between Sapporo and Hakodate. It’s since been replaced in that capacity by the Muroran Line, so that now, between Oshamambe and Otaru, the only trains on the Hakodate Line are a handful of one- and two-car locals. But these rails, laid in 1966, once felt the weight of double-headed steam express trains.

There is actually one train with some length to it, a six-car commuter run that comes directly from Sapporo in the evenings. I timed my camping trip to see it climbing into the mountains at dusk.

The Hakodate Line runs in the shadow of Mt. Yotei (1898m), locally known as “Ezo-Fuji,” or “The Mt. Fuji of Hokkaido.”

While waiting for a train to cross a bridge, I was passed by about 20 rafts of Japanese whitewater adventurers, all striking peace sign poses for my camera.

Monday, May 21, 2007


Top of the seventh, two outs, runners on first and second. As the next hitter steps in, the man on first takes a long lead. The midday sun shines down unforgivingly on the brown earth of the infield, and the pitcher looks intently to home plate, getting his sign from the catcher. With a nod he leans back and prepares to go into his windup. Then suddenly, with a deft flick of the wrist, he fires the ball out to the first baseman. The runner is frozen like prey in a cobra’s gaze. Realizing too late what has happened, he makes a mad dash back for the safety of the bag, only to be met with the hard leather of the first baseman’s mitt. End of the inning.

As the home team runs off the field, the pitcher and first baseman touch gloves and beam as if they’d just made the last out of the World Series. Several teammates come up to congratulate them, and the whole bench rises in a warm welcome at the dugout. Before sitting, the whole team huddles in preparation for their coming at-bats.

Up in the stands, I’m caught up in the team’s exuberance, but I’m also confused. To be sure, the pickoff was a good play, executed to perfection after who-knows-how-many repetitions in practice. Had it preserved a one-run lead, I would have understood the joy. But that wasn’t the case. Prior to vanquishing that runner from first, the pitcher had given up three runs in the inning, and his team now trailed by four. With only three innings left to bat, a comeback seemed unlikely. Had this been an American high school baseball game, the pickoff would likely have been followed only by a collective sigh of relief.

But it wasn’t an American high school game. It was in Japan, at a regional high school tournament in southern Hokkaido. There are two national high school baseball tournaments in Japan each year, one in the spring, and another in the summer. Every high school in the country can compete, and many do – about 4,000 each year. The road to the final stage, at Koshien Stadium in Tokyo, is a long one, with only one victor from each regional tournament being invited. At the end, a single national champion is crowned.

Those are much higher stakes than in the U.S., where there is no national tournament in any high school sport. Each state holds its own tournament, and most further divide the participating schools into a few divisions, based on their enrollments. With 50 states and an average of three divisions each, that’s 150 American high school baseball teams who can claim the title of champion each year. In Japan, there can be a maximum of two, although the Summer Koshien so overshadows its spring predecessor that in reality there can be only one. One in 4,000.

Japan is so enamored with the tournament that teenage national heroes are born every August on Koshien’s hallowed grounds. Current Boston Red Sox phenom “Dice-K” Matsuzaka was propelled to instant stardom by his epic performance in the 1998 Summer Koshien. American high schools take great care to preserve the health of their players, especially pitchers, who are so easily injured by the rigors of their position. U.S. high school games last only seven innings, and pitchers are limited to throwing a total of seven innings per week. There are no such regulations in Japan. Games last the full nine innings, and pitchers are allowed to throw as much as they’re physically able…and sometimes more.

On August 19, 1998, Matsuzaka, an 18 year old with a 95 mph fastball, pitched a complete game shutout in the third round of the tournament. The next day, he was the starting pitcher in the quarterfinal game. The game ended in a tie and went to extra innings. The tie was not broken until the 17th inning. Matsuzaka pitched every one of them, prevailing in victory after throwing 250 pitches. The semifinals were the very next day. Matsuzaka was given a “rest” in left field, but after seven innings, his team was behind, 0-6. Over the next two innings, they put together a furious comeback, scoring seven runs. Matsuzaka came in from left field and pitched the ninth to notch the victory. Still, the young hurler wasn’t finished. The final game was, once again, the very next day. Matsuzaka was standing on the mound when it started. Nine innings later, he had thrown the only no-hitter in championship game history.

For Matsuzaka, it meant his face on the cover of every sports magazine in the country, and a lucrative professional contract immediately upon graduation. His story, of course, is exceptional. The results are far different for nearly all of the other 80,000-some boys who compete in the tournament every year.

Both of the national tournaments, as well as the regional tournaments leading up to them, are single elimination. Lose once, and you’re finished, like March Madness for high school baseball. I understood that much, sitting in the stadium as the teams switched places between innings. But there is a crucial difference that I did not know: March Madness follows a 30+ game regular season. American high school baseball teams play about 20 regular season games before their state playoffs. In Japanese high school athletics, there are no regular seasons. I’ll say that again, because it took me a long time to understand. There are no regular seasons.

Back on the field, the home team came to bat in the bottom of the seventh and scored once, reclaiming one of the runs they had lost in the top of the inning. But then no one else scored again in the rest of the game. Had it not been for the three runs allowed in the top of the seventh, by the same pitcher whose pickoff play was so jubilantly celebrated, that one run in the bottom of the seventh would have tied the game and forced extra innings. As it was, the visiting team won the game, 11-8.

As I said before, when I watched that game, I did not understand that Japanese high school baseball has no regular season. I did know, however, that Japanese high school baseball has no off-season. Perhaps I should repeat that, too. There is no off-season. That fact was driven home to me by my year of teaching English in a Japanese high school. Every day -- every day after school, I passed the baseball team doing conditioning exercises in the hall. When the school year had started in April, that made sense. By September, I was beginning to wonder how long the “season” would last. By December, with the snow piled high on the baseball field, I was becoming perplexed.

I had several of the baseball players in class, and often greeted them as I passed them practicing in the hall. One day, in early winter, I pulled one aside.

“Do you practice everyday after school?” I asked.

“Yes! Everyday!” he replied enthusiastically.

“When is your next game?”

He thought about it for a moment, then replied, “In May.”

There are no three-sport high school jocks in Japan, no basketball players who pole vault during track season, no swimmers who show off their speed and conditioning in cross country meets, and no tennis stars who also don fencing masks. Japanese high school athletes play one sport, and one sport only. They practice it year-round, everyday after school and sometimes before school, too. Many teams require their athletes to give up their spring, summer and winter holidays to yet more practices.

For all their labors they get but one or two chances to shine each year, one or two single-elimination tournaments to pour out a year’s worth of nearly constant practices. The reward for the chosen few like Dice-K is huge. But for fully half of the participants in every tournament, their “season” lasts exactly one a game: a single loss.

For the good player on a bad team, there is no chance to bat .400 or lead the league in RBIs. There is one chance, and only chance, to prove yourself. It doesn’t matter how many homeruns you might clout in practice. If you go 0-for-4 in an opening round loss, then that is your only official stat line for the entire year.

The home team, whose season had just ended, was luckier than most in Japan. They had advanced to the third round of their regional qualifying tournament, winning two games and giving them more victories than fully 3/4s of all the teams in the country. When their pitcher threw out the runner at first, it may have been the only time in his entire “official” career that he would ever throw out a runner at first. And that after practicing first base pickoffs ad infinitum in the previous year.

After the game, the two teams met in front of home plate, lined up, turned, and bowed to each other. Then the home team ran to the bleachers where its fans still sat. They again lined up, bowed deeply to their fans, and shouted in unison, “Thank you very much!” I was already walking out, and gave only a few claps of cursory applause. Had I known then what I know now, I’d like to think I’d have been a little more respectful.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A Fine Evening in Nagawa

After three days of rain, I awoke this morning to deep blue, cloud-dappled skies. Everything, including the air, had been washed clean by the rain. The hills are coming alive in their new green, and farmers are busy flooding their fields for the summer rice crop. After lunch, I caught a local train to Usu station, 45 minutes to the southwest, where I back tracked along the coastal roads. The wind was up and whipping little, white-capped waves along Volcano Bay, where I climbed a hill to a tiny shrine and watched a southbound freight motor by on the mainline.

From there, I joined the main road and continued towards Nagawa, and then climbed up to a hillside field overlooking the tidal plain. Here I present part of the evening parade in three movements, sunlight, twilight and starlight.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Getting Around to Getting in Shape

It was a warm, spring day in southern Hokkaido, and I was homeward bound on the Etomo peninsula, nearing the end of a 20-km bike ride. The low road follows the railway out the peninsula from Higashi Muroran station, and the ride is flat on a wide, uncluttered sidewalk as far as Misaki station. That’s where the hills begin. There are four altogether, and while none are very long or steep, all are substantial enough that, just a few short years ago, I would have been down to my lowest gear, standing up on the pedals, and sucking hard for air.

Not after nearly two years in Asia.

I cruised up the first hill, and when I was halfway up the second, I couldn’t help but break into an ear-to-ear grin. My legs were keeping cadence in the middle of my gear range, and I was shifting up to take the hill faster.

Coming from an asthmatic, un-athletic childhood (I played zero sports growing up), I couldn’t be happier – or more pleasantly surprised – with the level of fitness I’ve attained in Japan. The surprise comes because I didn’t come here looking for fitness. In fact, I rarely exercise for the sake of exercising. The change has come on a far more basic level.

In Japan, my wife and I don’t own a car. Five years ago, as a new college graduate about to embark on a Great American Road Trip, the thought of not owning a car was unimaginable. The automobile symbolized freedom, the ability to point myself down any open road and just go. And go fast. But after 80,000 miles in the next three years, I was burning myself out. So when Maureen asked if we should try to get a car in Japan, my response was, “No.” More than anything, I wanted to see if I could actually live without my own car.

Now, as we prepare to return to the U.S. this summer, one of things I’m most dreading is driving again. I’m dreading the stop-and-go traffic of rush hour, the looong suburban streets of endless traffic lights and stop signs, and the hours of my life that I’ll forever lose to focusing on the road. Books on CD will help there, but even so, they aren’t the same as actually reading, or writing on my iBook, or just staring contemplatively out the window.

One thing I hope I don’t lose is the firmness I’ve found in my thighs and quadriceps. Nights at the gym aren’t the answer for me. My only hope is by refusing to drive any distance that I’m able to cover on two feet or two wheels. That won’t always be easy in a country where many main roads don’t even have sidewalks, but I’m determined. I’ve already told Maureen that we can only get one small car for the two of us to share (and two nice bikes). She’s willing to try, but has her doubts. To tell the truth, I do, too, so for any of you who we’ll be seeing stateside in the months ahead, we’d really appreciate your support. For anyone else who happens to be reading, encouragement is always welcome.

All the same, I’m excited to try. Besides, maybe I’m looking at it all wrong. To turn this around, despite all the convenient public transportation in Japan, I was still able to get into shape. Just think of the exercise I can get in the U.S. without so much public transit.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Evening Train

Muroran station is at the end of an 8-km branchline on the Etomo Peninsula. There are 23 passenger trains per day in each direction, running to and from the junction with the mainline at Higashi-Muroran (higashi=east). Usually, to go very far from Muroran, you have to change trains in Higashi-Muroran. However, five of the trains are direct expresses to and from Sapporo. They're four cars long (the longest on the branchline) and carry the name "Suzuran," or "Lily of the Valley."

Going from Muroran to Sapporo, there are two departures in the morning, one at midday, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. The evening train leaves at 7:15pm, and in the long days of late spring and early summer, that's right around sunset. Hence, it's one of my favorite trains to photograph.

Here are some takes from the past two weeks.

May 2:

May 7:

May 15:

Cherry Blossoms

It's the middle of May, and nearly two months after the first cherry trees starting blooming in southern Japan, the pink-and-white blossoms have finally come to Hokkaido. On Saturday, Maureen and I took a short trip to Date (dah-tay), the next city to the west, where we found the trees along the Kimonbetsu River in full bloom. There were also a few trees next to the railway, so (with Maureen's patience), I had to try some trees-and-trains photos.

Super Hokuto limited express bound for Sapporo.

Twilight Express night train bound for Osaka.

I think they came out looking a little "forced," but with only six trees at the back of a vacant lot, the angles were few. I've seen some beautiful rail photography in Japan, but it seems that even the Japanese photographers often struggle to find "natural" compositions of trains and cherry blossoms.

As always, comments are welcome.

Coming Back

I think it's time I did some blogging again. While I was teaching, I kept a journal, but for a number of reasons those writings weren't very suitable for my blog. Now that I've finished, I've lost that direction for my journal, and I'm hoping that by re-invigorating my blog, I'll find some new incentive for writing. I'll also use this an online photo diary.

In the meantime, I'm also working on a more polished, permanent online home for some of my best stories and photos. Look for an announcement in the near future.