beneath a bruised summer sky
I am lucky to have traveled all over Japan on business or leisure trips, from Okinawa and the four prefectures of Shikoku to the northern tip of Honshu, Aomori. But until recently, I had never visited Hokkaido. Don’t ask me why, cause I don’t have a ready answer. Just never got around to it, I suppose.
Big mistake. Hokkaido is Japan’s quintessential natural wonderland, and a bit unlike any other place I know in Japan, with its vast open spaces, a delightful canopy of `green` from coast-to-coast, and tourist user-friendly. The one suggestion I make is that the main tourist attractions describe spots of interest in English, Chinese, and Korean. Everywhere I went I saw Chinese tourists. Yes, the common written language of both countries is based on “kanji,” but that does not make it easy to fully understand a description written in Japanese—which uses a limited number of “kanji” (compared with Mandarin) and two special syllabary, “hiragana” and “katakana.”
Four noun phrases capture Hokkaido:
Nature, frontier, seafood, sea.
As I don’t own a car or have a Japanese driver’s license, the only option available to my wife and I was to join an organized tour, first-time ever. Although apprehensive about the tour, it turned out to be exceptionally well-organized, with a super-knowledgeable guide from Hokkaido, who had us laughing much of the time and awake, especially with her ability to speak Hokkaido dialect, which is delightfully distinctive (and not understandable to anyone who isn’t native to the region).
Adding value to our tour was the professionalism of the bus driver, who kept the trip safe and always greeted us passengers (I was the sole gaijin.) with a warm smile and polite expression. His professionalism reminded me that no matter what the field, all champions work very hard to excel at what they do.
Yes, there were a fair number of stops to the typical tourist shops, but the other travelers wanted these breaks to buy “omiyage” (souvenir gifts) and local foods, and the pit stops were welcomed to stretch and pause on a hectic early morning-late evening schedule.
We skipped Sapporo and spent most of the 4 days in Hokkaido along the northern coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, and then headed south along the sea facing the Kurile Islands to Kushiro.
We toured four national parks, Shiretoko, Akan, Kushiro Shitsugen and Daisetsuzan. There is enough natural beauty in these parks to refresh me until another trip. I only wish that we would have had more time to do some hiking and take more photographs with the patience that decent photography deserves.
A highlight of the trip was participating in an Ainu evening procession and ceremony and watching Ainu perform folk dances and sing. I had thought this event would be touristic and inauthentic but was still curious to see the Ainu. Much to my surprise, the event was genuine, `the real deal’, and moving.
I was struck by the similarity of Ainu, in a sense the indigenous native people of Japan, and native Americans. Their reverence for nature as well as the simplicity of their dress and their dance bear common features. Both Ainu and most native American tribes have no written language. The Ainu write with modified Japanese “katakana.” One of the few native American tribes to have a written language were the Cherokee. Sadly, today there are fewer than 100 Ainu language speakers and even fewer who speak Ainu in daily life.
Ainu are believed to have originally come from Siberia. The most prevalent theory to explain the origins of native Americans is that Asians walked across a now-submerged land bridge connecting Alaska with Siberia during the last Ice Age. They are believed to have been present in America 20,000 years but still must have some common roots with Ainu.
All the best,
Warren J. Devalier
©2011 Warren J. Devalier