Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Sayonara Tour -- Prelude

I leave Japan in 22 days. After making a life here for the past year and a half, it's hard to believe it will all end so quickly. Before leaving, there's time for one more trip, and I'm departing presently. Today, I'll take a train to Sapporo, where Maureen will meet me after she finishes work. Tonight, we're taking the night bus to the Shiretoko peninsula in far northeastern Hokkaido. Shiretoko is a national park and world heritage site. Since receiving world heritage status, tourism has increased dramatically, but we're hoping to get off the beaten path, at least for a little while. On Sunday, Maureen will return to Muroran and go back to work on Monday, but I'm taking a slower path home.

By local train, I plan to travel from Shiretoko to Furano, where I'll rejoin Maureen next weekend for the Hokkaido English Teacher's summer meeting. Along the way, I hope to stop for camping and photography in the Kushiro Wetlands, along the coast, and on Karikachi Pass. After the meeting in Furano, Maureen and I will get a ride home in a friend's car. If all goes according to plan, that will be July 1. Look for more updates after that (unless the weather is bad and I find an internet cafe en route). I leave Japan on July 12.


Well, it seems I couldn't even make it a month into this "revival" of my blog without lapsing into nearly two weeks of no updates. For a guy without a job, I certainly manage to keep myself busy. Since his retirement 21 years ago, my grandfather loves to say that he doesn't know how he ever had time to work. I think I know what he means.

Two weekends ago, June 9-10, was the 16th annual Yosakoi Soran festival in Sapporo. Last year, both Maureen and I watched it and loved it. She loved it so much, in fact, that she decided to join a local team in Muroran and perform this year. Since the end of last summer, she has met with the 40 or so other members of Muroran Renaissance almost every Thursday evening for two hours of practice. For the two months leading up to the festival, she has also practiced with them for another two hours on Monday evenings, and for marathon 7-1/2 hour sessions on Sundays.

Each team creates and learns one dance, about four minutes in length, which they perform several times over the course of the festival. Maureen's team performed a total of 12 times on Saturday at six different venues, and 5 times on Sunday at three venues. Some of the locations are stages, while others are parades on closed-off streets. Different dance formations are required for both formats.

In their division, Maureen's team qualified as "semi-finalists." That's something like "honorable mention," since they don't actually compete in any semi-finals. That was the team's goal this year, so everyone was quite pleased. One of Maureen's students is a member of a team in a nearby city, which also qualified for the semifinals. Their team had practiced almost every evening. At school the next week, the student told Maureen, "I'm so disappointed. We spent all that time and didn't even win."

Of course, there are about 300 teams, and only one of them can win. This year's winning team came from Shin Kotoni, a suburb of Sapporo, and was in fact the same team that won last year.

For my part, I don't like to think of Yosakoi as a competition. "Festival" seems like a much better term. Yosakoi is special to me because it's a beautiful display of movement, color, and coordination. Nearly every team performs at a very high level, and almost all are made up of amateurs, practicing after work and on the weekends simply for their love of dance. They come from all over Hokkaido, Japan, and even the world, to perform, and the spectators come from just as far and wide to watch them. The crowds are big at every one of the dozens of venues, and everyone watches with rapt attention and respectful silence...until bursting into applause with the final note. If we need to have a winner and losers for that kind of spetacle, I'm willing to accept it. But sometimes it's a pretext I wish we could transcend, and simply perform for the love of the dance.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Quarry at Lake Kanayama

On the map, it looked like about 8 kilometers from Kanayama station to the Lake Kanayama campground. I’m normally not one to shy away from an 8K walk along the side of a lake, but considering how much walking I’d already done in the past few days, combined with all the camping gear weighing down my backpack, further combined with the knowledge that I’d still have a good bit of walking to do in the evening to take photos…well, this was one walk I wasn’t exactly anticipating with glee. After seeing off the one-car local train that had brought me to Kanayama station, I walked into the empty waiting room, rested my bulging pack in a corner, and stepped out the front door.

The overnight cloud cover was scattering beneath a bright blue spring sky, and the trees on the surrounding hills radiated a blinding shade of new green when the sunlight caught them. A scattering of buildings appeared down the road to the right, a short block or two of Kanayama “proper.” There was a small, empty parking lot in front of the station, and across from it a round metal sign hanging high on a post glinted in the sun and caught my eye. The sign marked a bus stop. I grabbed my map and checked the characters for the posted destinations. One of them was definitely in the direction of the campground.

A couple minutes after the advertised 9:46, a spotless minibus pulled up in front of the station. No one else had joined me at the round sign. The driver was an older man with a ready smile who didn’t even wait for me to finish asking (slowly) whether the bus stopped at the campground before assuring me that it did. A middle-aged woman sat in the front row, but otherwise I had my choice of the 20 upholstered seats with white lace covering the headrests. I dropped my bag into one and myself into another, and then noticed that the radio was playing an English song. “Wonderwall,” by Oasis.

Eight winding kilometers later, the bus stopped at the campground. I bid farewell to the other passenger and driver, who thanked me in English as I paid my fare: 100 yen, less than a dollar.

The expansive campground occupied a long swath of relatively level ground on the north shore of Lake Kanayama. Several vendors’ stalls lined one side of the road, and behind them was a large recreation center and bathhouse. Given their well-maintained appearance, I presume they have plenty of business in-season. It’s just that camping season in Hokkaido lasts a scant two months, so even though it was turning into an absolutely glorious spring Friday in the mountains, only one of the stalls was opened and the rec center was deserted except for a few workers.

Across the street, the campground looked like it could easily accommodate a few hundred tents, but on this day it was equally deserted. I checked in with the caretaker who pointed to the broad, grassy fields with not so much as another camper in site, and told me that I could pitch my tent anywhere I liked. Once that was accomplished, I pulled off my boots and socks, and reveled in the simple pleasure of walking barefoot through the lush grass. I waded up to my ankles in the lake’s cold, refreshing water and sat on the bank.

On the opposite shore, I could make out a small railway bridge through a break in the trees: the Nemuro mainline. It was once the mainline of eastern Hokkaido, but today it is a mainline in name only. In 1981, the newly-completed Sekisho Line opened up a 45-km shortcut and relegated the eastern third of the Nemuro mainline to secondary status. Today there are no freights and no express trains plying the south shore of Lake Kanayawa, just a handful of one-car locals that run nearly empty, except for the crowds of high school students in the mornings and evenings of school days.

I had ridden one of those local trains along the south shore earlier that morning, on the way to Kanayama station. I had also ridden the line 15 months earlier, and on those two trips I thought I had had a pretty good look at the lake and its surroundings. That was why I was shocked to see that, just behind the tracks, the face of one entire hillside had been scraped away. From across the lake, the quarry looked less like something that had been unearthed, and more like something that had been stabbed into the land. The sea of green extended to the horizon in every direction, except for that one stark hill.

The next morning, I was packed up long before the first buses were running. There was another train station near the quarry, and it turned out to be much closer than going back to Kanayama. Approaching the denuded hillside, I had hoped to at least find a prospering settlement, but of course I didn’t. Instead I found only the remains of one. Shuttered houses with overgrown yards lined the deserted, crumbling streets. A lone fisherman cast his line down by the lake, while on the hill above, a single haul truck prowled the quarry.

Outside the empty station, the Nemuro line split into two tracks around an island platform. Beyond them, four rusty sidings – some with rails dating back to 1930 – were slowly being reclaimed by the weeds. It has been a long time since any stone was shipped out by rail. So many extraction industries come with a promise of bringing prosperity to their surroundings. Eventually, though, the story always seems to end as it has at Kanayama, with abandoned buildings, displaced residents, and deep scars on the landscape that nature alone is left to heal.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

2500 Kilometers Later

There were only a few other people aboard the one-car local when it pulled up to the low, flat-roofed building that is the Esashi train station. There are no sidings or extra tracks at the end of the line, just the single stub of rails running into a pile of gravel and a steel buffer. The open field beside that one track told me that it hadn’t always been that way, but the weeds between the rails and the moldy ticket gates told me that it had been that way for a while.

Inside, I was surprised to find that the station was manned. An attendant sat behind the open window where only six of the one-car trains arrive and depart each day. The waiting room was neat and expansive, with racks of colorful travel brochures and three long rows of plastic chairs facing a kerosene heater. One woman sat on them.

My train had passed the high school shortly before pulling into the station, but downtown Esashi, a coastal town of 10,000 in far southwest Hokkaido, was still a kilometer distant. It was only 9:19 in the morning, and the last train didn’t leave until 7:00 in the evening, so I easily could have walked there, sought out some vestiges of the Esashi Oiwake folk music that had its beginnings in the town, or even caught a ferry to Okushiri Island, a 60 km ride off the coast.

In the end, I did none of those. I took a short walk past the convenience store, factory, and rows of apartment buildings clustered near the station, then got back on the same train that had brought me there. Almost as an afterthought, I walked back onto the platform and snapped a self-portrait with the station sign. I was already starting to dose in my seat when the train pulled out at 10:08.

That was how my journey ended, a journey of 2499.7 kilometers covering every active JR line in Hokkaido (and another 140 kilometers of a now-closed private railway). I’ve ridden nearly all of those kilometers twice, some a few more times, and some more times than I can begin to count. I’ve also spent countless hours and days exploring and photographing those lines, their surroundings, and the trains that run on them. That journey isn’t finished yet, and perhaps never will be. Far more than ticking off every kilometer of track, it’s really my main journey here…and everywhere I go.

So that’s what I did after visiting Esashi, although not along the branchline with its smattering of one-car locals. I instead rode back to the junction with the Kaikyo mainline, where express trains and container freights roar through the Seikan Tunnel at the rate of three or four every hour. Maybe it comes from an American longing for distant horizons, but I feel a much stronger connection to those long-haul trains of the Japanese mainlines, than the puttering, all-stations locals of the branches, atmospheric as they may be.

Looking back on my railway roamings throughout Hokkaido, I’ve spent the vast majority of my time along the mainlines. There are five other stub-ended branchlines in Hokkaido similar to the Esashi Line, with one-car locals rolling out and back to distant terminals. I’ve done little more than roll out and back once on those lines myself. The places where I’ve lingered are the places where night trains glide along with their sleeping patrons between Hokkaido and Honshu, where expresses link distant cities with the populous interior, and where freight trains haul away the agriculture bounty of every harvest.

Along those lines, I’ve worn out the leather on two pairs of boots. I’ve slept in the waiting rooms of rural stations and camped in the hills to be in position for the sunrise. I’ve spent nearly-sleepness nights just to see the way the full moon glints off the winding rails. I’ve waded streams, dodged snakes, gotten stung by a two-inch wasp (no exaggeration), hacked through six-foot high weeds, and crossed mountain passes on snowshoes. And out there, along those steel rails, I’ve experienced moments of such complete sensory perfection that they defy both words and images to capture them.

Still, I ask myself why I do it. Why shiver in a tent when I could be in my warm bed beside my wife? Why eat instant noodles off my campstove, alone, when I could be dining and drinking with friends? Why trudge out the long kilometers between stations, heavy pack on back, just to find that perfect angle for a photo? Why sit on a hillside swatting black flies and mosquitoes when I could be writing at my desk or reading in a cushy armchair? Those moments of perfection are indeed great rewards, but even considering them, the equation defies conventional logic. And yet I’ve been asking myself these same questions for years now, and something tells me that I’ll keep asking them for all of my life.

James J. Hill, the man who built the Great Northern Railway across the northwestern U.S., said at his retirement, “Most men who have really lived have had, in some shape, their great adventure. This railway is mine.” For me, I wonder if there can be any one railway, or indeed any one entity of any shape or form, that can ever be my own “great adventure.” There are times I’ve doubted it, but at those times, perhaps I was looking in the wrong place.

Hill’s adventure was an outward one, embodied in a physical entity. But who’s to say that another man’s great adventure can’t be inward? For me, then, I think the great adventure of my own life is taking place inside myself. It’s my own journey to discover just exactly who I am, and what I’m capable of. That journey will last my lifetime, and even then, I don’t expect to arrive at a destination. But even an inward journey must follow some path. I’ve found none better than those parallel steel rails, stretching off to the horizon.