Friday, June 24, 2005


Japan is a big country, despite what most Japanese will tell you. The four main islands of Japan stretch from the Sea of Okhotsk, which freezes over in winter, to the tropical jungles of Southern Kyushu. Even without counting Okinawa, a chain of smaller islands to the south, from tip to tail Japan would stretch from Montreal to Miami, or Vancouver to San Diego.

The main island, Honshu, is where most Japanese live, and most of them live in a little strip of land on the Pacific between Tokyo, in the North, and Hiroshima, in the South. Japan is like a house party with almost everyone crammed into the living room. And just like that house party, the two or three people who aren't in the living room are probably having the best time.

Which brings me to Hokkaido, the upstairs bedroom of Japan. The second largest of Japan's four major islands, Hokkaido is home to only 5% of the population. It's part of Japan in the same way that Alaska is part of the United States; a northern frontier fully integrated with the national body politic but distinct from the nation. No one is from Hokkaido. It's native people were the Ainu, an aboriginal tribe completely unrelated to the Japanese, victims of the great genocide of native peoples that swept the world in recent centuries.

The people who live here now are either descendants of migrants from the south or are migrants themselves. The original settlers came to the frontier during the the Meiji Reformation, mostly to keep the Russians from claiming the land first. Territorial conflict with Russia simmers to this day, mainly over five disputed islands (and adjacent fishing grounds) just off the coast of Northeast Hokkaido. The goverment doesn't let anyone forget about these islands, which Japan lost in World War II. You can see billboards advocating their return along the roads in this part of the country, and the World Map hanging in my English classroom not only shows the islands as part of Japan, but, just for kicks, has the bottom half of Sakhalin marked as disputed territory, like Kashmir. Russia and Japan never signed a peace treaty at the end of the war, but these days, most Hokkaido residents are more worried about Russian sailors making off with their bicycles than Russian soldiers storming the beaches.

Tokyo has great sushi, Kyoto has great fancy vegetarian meals and Osaka has great noodles. Hokkaido is famous for an all you can eat grilled lamb dish called Genghis Khan. Will Ferguson, a former JET who wrote a book about hitch-hiking from one end of Japan to the other compared Hokkaido to a cold can of beer, little beads of ice water trickling down the aluminium, a refreshing blast of freedom in contrast to the humidity and crowds of Tokyo....screw it I'm going home early.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home