Monday, July 16, 2007


At 12,000 feet, we dropped below the cloud cover. To my right, the Olympic Mountains rose nearly to eye level, green-gray and still flecked with snow, the first American land I had seen in nearly two years. I looked away, rubbed my eyes, and then dried my hands. We banked to the right over Puget Sound, and there was Seattle, skyscrapers and waterfront, close and inviting, a haven of safety and comfort for the weary traveler.

I wasn't staying in Seattle, though. I was taking a train to Portland, departing from the Tukwila station in the suburbs near Seattle/Tacoma Int'l Airport. Clearing customs was a breeze, for me at least. The Korean man next to me got a long interrogation from a smug officer who seemed a little amused at the man's limited English abilities. I wished I could pull the officer aside and tell him to slow down and use smaller words. I wonder whether U.S. customers officers have ever been interrogated in a language other than English?

I found a bus and rode out to the Tukwila station, giving advice about living in Japan to a Department of Defense family who was about to move to Tokyo for three years. I missed the stop, but realized it quickly and the driver kindly pulled over at the next traffic light. Just being able to make that request in English made my life quite a bit easier. I was feeling good. I was back in my own country. I had shared some of what I'd learned about Japan to eight very attentive ears. A service employee had done me a favor. And then I stepped off the bus.

The Tukwila Amtrak station is in the city of Renton, Washington, part of the suburban sprawl that has filled nearly every available acre between Seattle and Tacoma. It had been nearly two years since I had walked through American suburban sprawl. New hotels with ground-level restaurants, big, black parking lots and immaculate landscaping. Low-slung, single-story office buildings. Strips of bright, green grass separating road from sidewalk. It was all very new, very neat, very clean, and incredibly ugly. And this was America. I knew it, I recognized it, even remembered it and connected with it. But it held no nostalgia. With every step I recalled the mundane parts of everyday American life that bore or depress me. I could hardly wait to get on the train, into my comfort zone, and at least put that big pane of tinted glass between me and that crafted, sterile landscape.

I've felt a lot better since then, but there have also been times when I've felt just as bad or worse. I'm lucky right now to be in very favorable conditions for readjusting. I'm visiting some very good friends, seeing some beautiful places, eating the foods I've most missed, and doing some of my favorite things. When I can focus on those, I'm delighted to be back. Yet so many sensations and visualizations pound me from every angle. They're simultaneously foreign and familiar to me, and that's unsettling. Things I thought would bother me don't; the most unexpected triggers set off deep loomings.

Those loomings arise, I think, because so much of what bothers me is also so natural to me, so much a part of me. I'd like to go on, but I see I'm speaking far too much in generalities. I'm far too tired to speak in specifics right now. This is going to take some time.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Leaving Japan

This will be my last post from Japan, as I'm leaving tomorrow. There are a lot of things that have happened recently that I've wanted to tell you about: How Mo and I nearly climbed the highest mountain on the Shiretoko Peninsula. About watching the moonset over Karikachi Pass. About a crackling campfire, a ukulele, and good friends singing into the night. About a hidden gorge and a man with a garden in Tomakomai. About how Mo and I did climb the highest mountain in Muroran. Those stories will have to wait, though. I've run out of time.


It started raining yesterday. A light rain that comes and goes from heavy gray clouds blowing low in the sky. Tonight after dinner, the drizzle subsided, so Mo and I took one last walk up the hill from our apartment to my favorite view in Muroran. It's only a five minute walk.

"When we think back on our time in Japan," I began, " we must always be very proud of ourselves for choosing to come here, for living here, and for finding things to sustain us in that time. It's okay to be frustrated with ourselves for the things we didn't do and the language we didn't learn, but we have to remember that no matter how much Japanese we learned or how attuned we became to the cultures and customs here, we would always remain outsiders. So we must always be proud for coming, and proud for the things we did manage to learn and do. Despite the frustrations and challenges, we still found ways to make this life our own. Indeed, enough that our decision to leave was incredibly difficult. We must never forget that when we look back on this time."

From the top of a small hill, you can see the train station, downtown, Mt. Sokuryo with its brightly lit TV antennae, the entire harbor, and the Swan Bridge twinkling in the distance. The ferry from Aomori had recently arrived, and trucks were still streaming out of the lower decks. It would be going back in a couple hours, and it was exhilirating to think that, had we wanted to, we could have gotten on it. Even more exhilirating was the thought from looking at the station, the thought I get everytime I pass it. That I can get a train there and, literally, ride almost anywhere in Japan.

"I'm glad I've ridden all the lines in Hokkaido," I told Mo, "but I'm also glad that I haven't ridden all the lines in Japan. It helps sustain my sense of wonder."

For several minutes, we looked in silence at the view before us. The lights, the cars moving slowly along the streets, the dark forms of the hills outlined by the lights' reflection in the clouds, the clouds themselves rolling onward through the sky.

"From all we can see before us, what's your favorite memory of it?" I asked Maureen.

She thought for a few moments, and then replied, "Two. Going to the Port Festival and seeing the fireworks in August when I first arrived, and walking up Mt. Sokuryo for the first with you in the winter."

We looked at the lights again, until she asked, "How about you?"

"I don't know if I can narrow it down to one moment, or even a few. Living here has been like working a giant jigsaw puzzle. Every discovery is like finding another piece that fits, and each one is incredibly exciting. The puzzle is far from finished, and never would be, but it's more complete than it was when we started."

As we turned to go back to our apartment, I looked back one last time, to the lights along the harbor and glow from the steel mills coming from behind the nearest hill.

"I always smile when someone comes here for the first time and remarks on how ugly Muroran is."

"Me, too," Mo agreed. "Because we know that's not true."

"We know this place a lot better than that. It's not a perfect place that you could ever describe as a paradise, but I think I like it better for that."

"Does such a place even exist?"

"I don't know," I replied. "Maybe for some people, but not for me. When I think of Muroran, I think of it with a sense of longing. I think I like it more for that. I think one of the worst sentiments in the world is the Not In My Backyard Syndrome. It lets people forget too easily the costs of convenience. Muroran doesn't let you forget that. But it still reminds of the beauty that's out there, too."

We paused again on the steps of our apartment. "The last place I lived that I felt as connected to the landscape as I do here was the year I lived in town in Dresden with Mom and my stepdad. I rode my bike and walked everywhere that year. That was half my life ago. I hope I find another place that I can feel as connected to the geography as I do here."

Mo heartily agreed. I only hope it doesn't take another half of a lifetime.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Matador Travel

Great news! My recent post about high school baseball in Japan has been picked up by Matador Travel, an online travel website. It's now a featured article in their "Sport" section, and be seen at:

Matador Travel is a new, online community of people who are passionate about traveling, experiencing, and exploring the world. There are some great articles on their site, so take some time to have a look. Membership is free.

Some of my favorite articles on Matador include:

Mango Village and the House of Oz
Huayhuash: A Convergence of Change and Resilience
My Chinese Clown

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Last Coal Train in Hokkaido

It’s 8:00 on Monday morning in Kushiro and the station is humming with the morning commute. Business suits and school uniforms pass in a steady stream from the ticket gates to the exit doors. In the men’s room, three high school boys stand in front of the mirror, liberally dousing their spiky heads with aerosol hairspray. Westerners may laugh, but in a country where appearances are valued so highly, it’s common to find both genders toting combs and compact mirrors. It’s a matter of pride.

Outside, buses come and go from the central terminal every few minutes, and the sidewalks are bustling. It’s enough to give this blue-collar city of 180,000 a healthy glow. That glow fades quickly, though, if you linger in front of the station past the morning rush, or if you venture very far from the station at all. The streets aren’t exactly deserted; they’re just a little too quiet. At 10:00 I pass a garbage truck equipped with speakers playing a merry tune. Inside the cab, three young men sit stoically in the front seat, eyes straight ahead, blank expressions cast in stone.

The people I pass on the sidewalks are mostly of retirement age. From the spring in their steps, it’s clear they are out walking because they want to be. They smile and return my greetings, and a few even take the initiative and wish me “good morning” first.

Going down a long hill, I pass two murals in the concrete retaining wall. They depict the two industries on which Kushiro – and indeed, Hokkaido – was built. One shows a fishing boat and men casting nets. In the other, miners dig for coal with pneumatic drills and haul it away in railcars.

In the mid 1960s, coal production in Hokkaido peaked at 20 million tons. Four decades later, that number has fallen to zero. There’s still coal in Hokkaido, sometimes in veins running two to three meters thick. It’s the demand that’s vanished. Cheaper coal is readily available from China and Australia, and Japan relies on Middle Eastern oil for the majority of its energy needs.

In the wake of mine closures, shrinking towns drift on an ominous sea of uncertainty. The tourism pipe dreams of the 1990s have busted in the recession of the new millennium. The droves of tourists simply never showed at places like Canadian Frontier World and Swiss Alpine Village.

The last coal train in Hokkaido isn’t even connected to the national rail network. It runs on 8km of orphaned track on Kushiro’s aging eastside. The coal it hauls came out of the earth a few years back. The mine closed in 2003 and all that’s left is the stockpile. When it’s gone, the wheels will stop turning. For now, they roll once a day, just before 9:00 every morning on a single trip from the mine to the harbor and back.

The run is a model of efficiency, as the roundtrip, including unloading at the harbor, takes less than half an hour. The 24-car train has an engine on each end, and before it even comes to a stop at the docks, a brakeman cuts the train in half. The lead engine pulls its half onto one unloading trestle, while the rear engine shoves its half onto the other one. A dockworker on each trestle pulls a lever that dumps the coal from two cars at a time in a matter of seconds. Once the two halves are emptied, they quickly rejoin and head back to the mine.

With so little work to do, it's a wonder why there’s such a rush. I’d like to think it’s a lingering pride in a profession that once identified the whole island. I’m only guessing, and optimistically at that. I never talked to any of the workers, but their smiles and waves told me they were glad I was there, glad I had taken an interest in what they do. Such reactions most often come from pride.

I don’t know how much coal still waits at the mine for the 8km trip to the docks. I do know that it’s disappearing at the rate of 720 tons per day, and that’s it not being replaced. When it’s gone, the proud eyes of those railway, dock, and mine workers will have to look elsewhere for their identity.

Even in the long days of summer, twilight comes early in far eastern Hokkaido. A thick bank of fog has rolled in off the Pacific, and even though it’s not yet 7:00, the light in the sky is already fading. I’m in a bus with three other passengers rolling down Kita Odori, the main road leading out from the station. Businesses line both sides of the street, but most of them are closed with metal doors rolled down over their windows. Some have just closed for the evening. Others have been closed for much longer.

Back at the station, the evening commuter rush is already winding down. I find myself walking behind two high school girls wearing warm-up jackets. Printed in English, the backs of the jackets read, “Kushiro Commercial High School.” Commerical high schools in Japan are akin to vocational high schools in the U.S. They’re geared towards practical employment skills for students not planning on attending university. Ahead of me, the girls share a joke, laugh, and pull out their cell phones. Walking behind, I remember the words of Caz, the English teacher I stayed with during my first visit to Kushiro, a year and a half earlier. She worked at many of the lower level high schools in Kushiro, including Kushiro Commercial.

“Most of my students don’t have much to look forward to after graduation. A few might escape to Sapporo, but many will end up here, behind the counters of grocery and convenience stores.”

When the last coal train in Hokkaido comes to a final rest, it will close the book on an industry that once brought hope, prosperity and pride to Kushiro. The hope and prosperity may be gone, may even have been false from the beginning, but the pride remains. I hope a little of that pride can be preserved. There’s room for some tourism in Kushiro – the nearby Kushiro Wetlands already attracts a lot of visitors – although tourism certainly can’t be the panacea that saves the city.

The coal train runs through a park with a lake, and comes right alongside the ocean. The mine buildings and shops are still in good repair, and many of the locomotives are quite unique in Japan. With just a few passenger cars, the line could offer a pleasant ride between the mine and the harbor. If the proud eyes of the railway workers can welcome a camera-toting foreigner, surely they could also welcome buses of their curious countrymen, and share with them a bit of the history and the pride of their city.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Shiretoko: Bus Tours and Brown Bears

By the time the overnight bus from Sapporo arrived in Utoro, Maureen and I comprised half the passengers. Most of the riders on the less-than-half-filled bus had gotten off in Shari, an hour earlier. Utoro is a fishing and tourism village on the west coast of the Shiretoko peninsula, in far northeastern Hokkaido. Shiretoko comes from the indigenous Ainu word for “the end of the earth,” and that’s an apt description where Japan is concerned.

The peninsula juts 80km into the ocean and is a mere 25km wide at its base, getting narrower the farther out you go. The coastline is rugged and rocky, with countless snowmelt-fed waterfalls cascading down the steep cliff faces and snow-capped peaks rising over 1600m (more than a mile) along the peninsula’s towering spine. There are no roads to the tip of the peninsula, and pavement ends about halfway out. Winters are brutal here, and the one pass linking the eastern and western sides of the peninsula is only opened from mid-June to mid-October.

Peak tourist season in Shiretoko, which is a national park and world heritage site, doesn’t begin until mid-July, and then lasts but a scant two months. Some of the park’s best natural features are only accessible during peak season, a fact that our guidebook failed to mention. Or rather, I should say, a fact that didn’t exist when our four-year-old guidebook was published. That was the year the park achieved world heritage status, and many regulations were summarily tightened.

After pitching our tent in the Utoro campground, Maureen and I caught the first bus of the day out the peninsula to the famous Shiretoko Five Lakes. From there we had planned to visit Kamawakka-no-taki, a hot waterfall and natural hot spring, whose warm waters offer a sweet reward for the half hour hike up from the road.

However, upon arrival at the Five Lakes, we were greeted by signs and barricades at the trailhead: “Bear Alert: All Area Closed.” Shiretoko is home to about 600 Hokkaido brown bear, a less-vicious relative of the grizzlies found in North America. We didn't see any bears at the Five Lakes, though. Nor did we get to see the Five Lakes, either. We only got to see one of them, and it from a distance, on the observation deck at the end of a short boardwalk by the visitor’s center.

With the trails closed, that boardwalk and the visitor’s center comprised the entirety of the Things To Do at the Five Lakes. Nor could we carry on to the hot waterfall, as the access road was closed for another 3-1/2 weeks. And yet, despite all this, the tour buses still paraded through the parking lot, discharging their passengers in droves. One group after another filed out the boardwalk for a group photo at the observation deck, then stopped for ice cream at the visitor’s center, took yet another photo beside the Bear Alert signs, and then promptly filed back onto their buses and drove away.

I was quickly becoming disgusted by it all. As another wave of buses rolled into the parking lot, I turned to Mo and barked, “Why do they keep coming? Don’t they know there’s nothing to see here?!?!”

She was disappointed, too, but she helped me calm down and remember how bus tours operate in Japan. Bus tours in Japan are typically sold months in advance as part of all-inclusive vacation packages from Sapporo, Tokyo, and all over the country. They’re painfully short, painfully expensive, and every moment of the trip is planned down to the minutest detail. Many Shiretoko tour packages from Tokyo last only two or three days, including the flights and bus rides. But then, so many Japanese only take a few days’ vacation every year – or few years. With their time so short and their disposal income relatively high, it makes sense to pack in as much as possible on a well-planned tour. It just doesn’t leave a lot of room for flexibility if the trail around the Five Lakes is closed to bear activity.

Maureen and I didn’t see any bears, or even any hints of bears, at the Five Lakes. We later learned that the closure was due to a single bear sighting three days earlier, and that any bear sighting around the Five Lakes results in an automatic four day closure of the hiking trails. The staff at Shiretoko N.P. aren’t taking any chances. Even though we didn’t see any bears, we did see plenty of bear merchandise.

It was easy to feel bitter toward the whole situation after the long, expensive train and bus ride from Muroran. Especially when I had recently read that it’s been a full nine years since anyone has been killed by a bear anywhere in Japan. But as my irritation subsided and I began to think more objectively, I realized that could very well be the direct result of such cautious policies as the one at Shiretoko.

We caught the very next bus going south, back toward Utoro, but disembarked at the nature center to see what we could find. The trail to Furepe Waterfall was open, and the weather cleared just in time to give us a stunning view of the falls with the mountains towering in the background. We lingered for half an hour at the observation deck, enjoying the sun, the sound of the surf, and sea gulls gliding in the narrow bay below us. In that time, we shared our spot with exactly five other hikers. The falls were only a 20-minute walk from the nature center, but that seemed far enough to keep the tour bus patrons away.

From there we continued by bus to another waterfall, Oshinkoshin, south of Utoro. This one was right beside the road and packed by a steady stream of bus tours. We found an old road leading to a view at the top of the falls where we escaped the crowds, but in doing so missed the next bus back to Utoro. I suppose I should also add how that was also due to my misreading the timetable. It was over an hour until the next bus, and I was resigned to walking. Maureen, however, took matters into her own hands and within a few minutes managed to flag down a friendly local man who gave us a ride straight back to our campground.

The entrance to the campground was closed, and we had to wait with several other campers for about half an hour while park staff tracked down a baby bear that had somehow gotten into the campground, despite the high, electric fencing surrounding the property.

The next morning, we boarded the [i]Fox 2[/i] site-seeing boat for a ride out to Cape Shiretoko, the windswept tip of the peninsula. Our guidebook advised against the expensive boat tours, arguing that the money could be better spent on bike rentals, local bus fare, or kayaking, but with so much of the park currently inaccessible, we reasoned it was one of the best ways to still see a lot of the park. We were not disappointed.

The captain spoke English and the mate carried a pair of high-powered binoculars. Thanks to her sharp eyes, we spotted three different bears foraging along the coast, as well as an eagle. The small boat was able to stay close to the shore, giving us better views of the wildlife and the breathtaking waterfalls. We shared the waters with a few other site-seeing boats and several fishing boats, the latter operating out of tiny, seaside hamlets wedged into peninsula’s steep cliffs. The fishing villages have no roads leading in or out of them, and are accessible only by boat.

As we bobbed in the rolling waters out from the cape, I looked back down the long, wild peninsula, and thought of those bears searching for food along the coast. We are visitors in their home. Sometimes being good guests means not building roads everywhere, and closing others for much of the year. Even if that makes the bears habitat that much harder to see, there’s a part of me that’s happier knowing they’re still out there, running free and largely undisturbed. I think that’s worth the annoyance of missing out on a hike or two.