Wednesday, July 27, 2005


On a Monday morning in early August I got off the morning train hungover and needing a shower, squinted into the disgustingly bright sunshine and slouched over to the bus station to catch a ride home. The bus to Utashinai wasn't scheduled to leave for twenty minutes, and thinking that a little food might do my stomach good, I bought a rice ball from the old lady napping behind a dusty selection of boxed sweets. She handed me my change with a forced smile and promptly went back to sleep. I went outside and sat down to eat.

Unwrapping a rice ball is a delicate task when sober, nearly impossible under less than ideal conditions. Still, it was the only food I had, so taking a deep breath and making a concerted effort to focus the mind and settle my shaking hands, I ever so carefully peeled back the first strip of plastic. There was salmon filling underneath all those layers of wrapping, the best filling of all. I had paid 20 extra yen to the tired lady inside for the salmon flakes, and was damn well going to eat them.

With one strip out of the way, it was time for the most delicate part of the operation. Slowly, very slowly, I pulled back the corners centimeter by centimeter in one smooth motion. With my mouth starting to water, I made one last firm pull...and the rice ball disintegrated.

Dark green seaweed flakes littered the front of my shirt. Salmon was scattered across my lap. The biggest chunk of rice lay on the grimy bus station seat next to me. A dark cloud passed in front of the sun.

Using English not featured in the One World Text Book series, I picked up the chunk of rice, checked it for visible dirt and ate it. Japan is a clean country, I figured, foraging among the folds of my clothes for rice grains and salmon slivers. Utterly engrossed in my breakfast it was a shock to notice a Japanese man leaning over my shoulder. He was probably in his early 30s, with jug ears sticking out from under a baseball cap three sizes too big. His mouth was open slightly, lower lip protruding, and he was staring unabashed.

Of course, if I came across an unkempt Japanese kid with hamburger all over himself eating bits of bun from a bus station floor in rural Vermont, I probably would have stared too. But there was something about the look on this guy's face that was a

Glancing to each side, I realized that my companion was not alone. About a dozen young men were filing into the waiting area, some with coke bottle glasses, some staring at their own nose, some listening intently to headphones. As the bus to Utashinai pulled into the lot and everyone lined up to get on, it hit me. I was commuting with the Central Sorachi Center for the Mentally Ill.

In line for the bus, I brushed off a few stray grains of rice and said good morning to the man next to me.

"Good morning," he replied. "I've never seen you before. Is this your first day?"

Miyazaki-san, as my new friend was called, had been riding this bus between his parent's home in Sunagawa and the Center every weekday morning since graduating from high-school 14 years ago. Despite staring at me earlier, he wasn't particulary concerned about my background. I was just another new member of the Center, albeit slightly more disabled than most judging from my language and eating abilities. During the thirty minute bus ride, Miyazaki-san took it upon himself to begin my orientation.

"There are 38 of us," he began. "Sasaki-san is the leader. He lives at the Center. Good thing you're here. It's a busy time of year. Not easy to weed the fields in all this heat!"

An argument was going on in front of us. "I tell you, it rained yesterday," insisted a young man, staring bug eyed at a gray haired, pinch faced fellow who could not stop giggling.

"It was sunny all day. A little wind early," said the giggler.

"That's a lie! I was working outside and it rained and I had to put on my raincoat!" The young man was getting worked up. "Yesterday! Rain!"

"S..s...s....s...sunny," giggled his companion.

"Oi! Sato-san," shouted the worker who had gotten wet, turning to a fat man gazing soulfully out the window. "It rained yesterday, didn't it! Yesterday! It rained! Tell him it rained!"

"I don't remember," mumbled Sato, still staring into the air above the rice fields.

The pinched face man giggled harder.

Miyazaki-san was paying no attention to the debate. "You need to go to the bus terminal in Sunagawa every morning," he said. "It's very important to get on the bus. Who knows what would happen if you missed the bus!" The idea was making him nervous.

I wasn't sure whether I was going to get off at the Center or not. Part of me was intrigued at the idea of playing along for a bit, but as the driver announced the stop I decided to continue home and take a shower. The morning had been strange enough already. However, as it turned out though, I had failed to considered one crucial factor: Miyazaki-san. From his perspective, I was a new patient, a personal responibility. There was no way Miyazaki-san was letting me stay on the bus alone.

My companions slowly filed out the door. The driver thanked each one of them quite formally, giving a slight bow as they deposited the fare. Miyazaki-san hovered over me, the picture of concern. “Time to get off,” he said. “Let’s go.”
I stuttered a series of apologies, and his eyes betrayed a flash of anger.

The two protagonists of the debate over yesterday’s weather were stepping onto the curb, which meant we were the only passengers still on the bus. The driver swiveled his head around and looked at us, his face a mask of politeness. “Hai, doozo,” he said over the speaker system. “Go ahead.” Clearly, he was not accustomed to carrying passengers on this route as far as central Utashinai. The time to act was now.

The best adventures are never planned. Memorable conclusions are the result of mistaken assumptions more often than not. Travelers in Europe will often tell you that the best part of their journey evolved from a late night decision to head for the station, wave a Rail Pass at the ticket window and hop whatever train was leaving next, destination unknown, plans unrehearsed. Columbus assumed that the world was one-seventh its actual size. Many said he was dead-crazy-wrong, and they were right. Now, someone was assuming that I was mentally deficient. Maybe it was the spirit of discovery, or maybe I just couldn’t think of a way to pacify an apoplectic Miyazaki-san, but I got off the bus.

“You’ve got to follow my lead,” he was saying, walking rapidly up the sidewalk to catch up with the others. “Everything will be fine if you just go along with what I tell you, is that understood?”

“I’m very sorry,” I said, attempting to pacify my mentor with polite ritualisms. “I am indebted to you. But, you see, I am an American. I am an English teacher.”

Miyazaki-san frowned. Clearly, this new arrival was a difficult case. “America is very far, isn’t it,” he said finally. “Very far away indeed.” He was wondering how someone unable to speak properly or navigate a simple bus route by himself could possibly travel to Japan from America.

“Very far,” I said cheerfully, feeling that we were making progress towards mutual understanding, but Miyazaki-san had decided I must be delusional, and changed the subject.

“Some days are for working outside,” he said. “The greenhouses are over there, and there’s other vegetable fields in back. We grow corn, tomato, eggplant, onion, lettuce, soybean, cucumber…the rice is all across the road.”

Already, men in sun hats and tall rubber boots were striding out into the fields of rice, hooking up irrigation equipment and methodically removing stray weeds. Tall silhouettes of thick corn stalks and tomato vines heavy with ripe fruit were visible through plastic greenhouse walls. The vegetable gardens were spotless, the plants evenly spaced, row after row of dark, leafy eggplants and conical green pillars of beans stretching across the meadow to the edge of the pines. I thought of my little garden back home, baby zucchinis choked by exuberant weeds, fallen tomato plants and thirsty eggplants struggling to produce a single malnourished fruit. The workers here might not be able to name the four islands of Japan, but looking at their flourishing produce, I was the one who began to feel inadequate.

“There’s cleaning duty every two weeks,” Miyazaki-san was saying as we entered the main building and removed our shoes. I slipped into a pair of plastic footwear available to accommodate guests and looked around half nervously and half hopefully for a receptionist, superintendent or other authority figure who could instantly put a stop to this little charade. Apart from a white haired man with unfocused eyes dully running a vacuum cleaner across the linoleum, this part of the building was empty.

Miyazaki-san impatiently motioned me over to a small table under a bulletin board, where he carefully printed his name in neat ideograms, then pointed for me to do the same, frowning at my sloppy katakana. “Te-i-mu,” he read, holding the sheet up to the light. “Teimu….Teimu…” He was scanning a typewritten notice on the bulleting board.

“Your name isn’t posted,” he said apologetically. “I’ll check with Tanaka. He’s in charge of scheduling. For now you can just follow me. I’m assigned to the store today, just my luck, when it’s sunny outside.”

He led me down the hall, past the old man and his vacuum cleaner and through a door that opened into a wooden building that was an oversized version of a roadside farm stand. Fresh vegetables were arranged in shining displays in the front half of the building, while various arts and crafts that the residents made during the winter collected dust on shelves in the back. After unlocking the entrance and inspecting the vegetables for signs of rot, Miyazaki-san sat himself down at a small desk and produced a plastic pail for me to sit on.

And so we sat. Apparently the stress of dealing with me had put my companion in no mood for conversation. Miyazaki-san gave no sign that he was aware of my presence, but I knew that any attempt to leave would send him into a fit.

Customers trickled in and out, none of them paying me the slightest attention. Miyazaki-san carefully wrote down their purchases in an old fashioned ledger, carefully placing the bills and change in a wooden cash box. For the first hour I prayed that no one I knew would come into the shop, and for the next two hours I prayed that someone would recognize me. There was nothing to do but stare at the vegetables and think.

As far as I could tell, the Central Sorachi Institute for the Mentally Ill was an entirely self contained organization. The residents themselves functioned as administrators, workers and trainers. Although responsibility and funding must have been organized somewhere in the vast recesses of the Japanese bureaucracy, the thriving vegetable gardens were a strong indication that the residents were doing a perfectly fine job managing things by themselves.

In Ken Kesey's brilliant novel One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, patients at a mental hospital in America are stripped of their independence and judged incapable of performing the simplest act of personal responsibility. Hints of self-assertion are medicated and belittled until the men conform to the staff’s vision of dependent infantilism. Miyazaki-san, the vacuum pusher and the weather debaters were clearly disabled, but were given responsibility for their own affairs and maintained a functional community in which they could take pride. I was reminded of the Japanese elementary school children who make sure their classmates are sitting up straight at the start of a lesson while the teacher sits quietly in the back of the room. Japan is a country that puts great emphasis on conformity, but I am continually surprised by how little authority figures force their wishes on subordinates. For most Japanese, the urge to conform and to be a productive member of the community is an internal impulse. I wondered how long Americans – disabled or not – could be left unsupervised in the vegetable market without a tomato fight breaking out.

After three hours of sitting on my stool next to the silent Miyazaki-san I decided enough was enough. “Excuse me,” I said, smiling nervously and standing up. “I’m leaving. I’m going home. I’m very sorry. Thank you for everything.”

Miyazaki-san’s eyes bulged. “At six!” he said. “Six o clock is the time to go home.”

I started for the door. He jumped from his desk and ran in front of me, highly agitated. It wasn’t possible. I couldn’t just walk away as long as Miyazaki-san saw me as his responsibility. Subterfuge was in order.

“Oh, “I said laughing. I didn’t mean that I’m going home. I have to use the bathroom. I’ll be right back!”

“It’s this way,” said Miyazaki-san suspiciously, heading for door to the main building. “I’ll show you.”

“But who will watch the store?” I asked innocently. “What if customers come and no one is here?”

Miyazaki-san was uncertain. “You can go at lunch time. One hour.”

“I’m so sorry, it’s urgent,” I said, plumbing the depths of my Japanese ability. “I’ll be right back.

“To the left,” said Miyazaki-san. “Don’t get lost.”

I took a deep breath and surveyed the main hall. The white haired man was asleep in a chair next to his vacuum, but otherwise the room was empty. Tip-toeing hurriedly to the entrance way, I pulled on my shoes, peeked outside and ran for the bus stop, doubled over like a soldier trying to make it into the next trench.

After half an hour of hiding in the little shed ready to run for the fields if Miyazaki-san came looking for me, an empty bus pulled around the corner. The driver welcomed me aboard, his face still a mask of politeness, and the two of us rolled up the valley into Utashinai.

Adventures with Rice Balls

There is a pecking order among ex pats in any country, largely based on who has lived abroad the longest, who speaks the language, who knows the best bars and who boasts the most connections. Among the Americans and Europeans living in Japan, this pecking order is particularly pronounced. Japanese culture is just a little more exotic than most, making assimilation a more convoluted process than in Germany or Australia, but at the same time Japan is wealthy enough to attract hordes of businessmen, exchange students and punks on a lark, otherwise known as English teachers.

As with any pecking order, long-term residents of Japan know how to identify those less experienced than themselves. Watching a foreigner eat is a sure fire way to tell how long they have lived in Japan, but you have to know what to look for. Though Japanese people never cease to be amazed by Westerners who demonstrate proficiency with their chopsticks, the ubiquity of take-out Chinese joints scattered throughout the great American sprawl means that some folks who have never been west of California can wield their wooden cutlery with the precision of a sushi chef. Likewise, the popularity of traditional Japanese cuisine is on the rise, at least in the types of towns where masters degrees outnumber deer tags, so even delicacies like raw octopus and bean curd soup are no longer guaranteed to produce gasps or giggles from those fresh off the plane.

No, these days it isn’t enough to shock a newcomer to Japan by sneaking extra wasabi into their soba, placing especially wriggly sea creatures on their plate or even counting the number of tries they take to pick up a cherry tomato with chopsticks. The way to distinguish the tourist from the ex pat is by watching how they deal with common, unexciting Japanese foods, such as the ever present rice ball, or onigiri.

Onigiri are a fixture of lunch boxes, picnics and convenience store shelves across Japan. The most basic kind of onigiri is simply plain sticky rice packed into a ball and wrapped with a strip of dried seaweed, but most have a filling of some sort hidden inside. For the uninitiated, choosing an onigiri is a bit like playing the lottery. Will that first bite reveal pink salmon flakes or brown shavings of dried bonito; the face twisting sourness of a pickled plum or salty pop of tiny yellow crab eggs?

The dilemma is especially acute at convenience stores, where there are at least ten different kinds of onigiri from which to choose. The wrappings are color coded, offering at least a hint of what lies within. However, if one cannot read Japanese, the choices are still bewildering. Does bright red mean slimy salmon eggs or, worse, the dreaded pickled squid intestines? What kind of animal or vegetable product does light blue represent? ∗

There are very clear stages of adjustment for foreigners when it comes to choosing a rice ball. At the very bottom of the pecking order is the reckless first-timer, bedazzled by the very fact of finding himself in Japan, and who, in the spirit of adventure, will pick the onigiri with the brightest wrapper in the spirit of adventure. This fellow almost always happens upon the squid intestine.

The second time around, having once encountered disaster at the heart of his evening snack, the neophyte approaches the rice ball wrap with suspicion and intrigue. In the same way that suburban dogs are aware that a little white flag at the edge of the yard equals a painful shock to the neck, he knows that the color bright red must be avoided at all costs. Still unable to decipher Japanese ideograms, he chooses the calmer, less threatening light blue and is rewarded with the familiar taste of tuna and mayonnaise. An astute observer will soon realize that any foreigner who, without hesitation, chooses the tuna and mayo rice ball has probably been in the country for between one week and six months.

There comes a time however, when a steady diet of light blue onigiris becomes tiresome. Who hasn’t gotten sick of tuna sandwiches at some point in elementary school? And so, in a matter of months, our brave ex patriate finds himself standing in front of the onigiri shelf at the local 7-11, knowing only that red is bad and blue is bland.

This third stage of cultural adjustment is a gradual process with moments of great relief countered by repeated disappointments and occasional outright failure. Trying to memorize which color wrapper goes with which filling is a lot like an extended game of concentration, only with rice balls one can never be sure that the rules haven’t changed overnight. New flavors are introduced, reliable favorites go out of stock and even after a master of the 7-11 can find himself reduced to playing eenie-meenie-miney-moe at Seicomart or Lawsons.

Though the trial of choosing the perfect rice ball can reduce the confidence of strong men to brittle little shells, an even more difficult task awaits in the convenience store parking lot. Hoping for the best but expecting the worst, our hungry hero begins to unwrap his enigmatic little ball. Giving the plastic a firm tear, the onigiri activates its primitive yet highly effective defense mechanism and simply falls apart, like a lizard sacrificing its tail to a predator. The uninitiated is left with a handful of rice clumps, bits of seaweed and, in all likelihood, dribbly strands of squid intestine.

The problem, of course, its that the rice ball is already wrapped in a layer of dried seaweed, which holds the whole contraption together. Fresh homemade onigiris tend to maintain their form even without the wrapping, but their older streetwise convenience store cousins often dry out under the glare of fluorescent lighting, ready to make a run for it if a clumsy foreigner opens the tiniest crack in their salty green cage. Removing the outer plastic wrapping without disturbing the inner layer of seaweed is a puzzle more confounding than Zen poetry, on par with making an omelet without breaking an egg.

There is a secret to unwrapping onigiri, just like there is a secret to collecting cobra venom. The Japanese make the process look easy, but their professionalism is a result of years and years of painstaking practice. In fact, origami was developed solely to train children in the delicate art of eating lunch. Only after mastering the intricate folds of paper cranes, dolphins and thousand petal chrysanthemums is a Japanese elementary school student deemed ready to advance to unwrapping rice balls.

Having lived in Japan for almost a year, my success rate unwrapping onigiris stands at about 50 percent. Success depends on patience more than skill. The first tear is made by gripping a thin strip of plastic at the top of the rice ball and pulling ever so gently until the wrapping is split down the middle. Next, grip one side of the wrapping in each hand and in one smooth motion pull the halves apart without disturbing the seaweed.

For the sake of sanity, it’s important to remember that ruined onigiris still taste fine, although you look like an idiot picking through a handful of rice in public. In fact, as I found out last week, butchering an onigiri can have consequences far more severe than simple embarrassment and inconvenience. In my case, a particularly inept unwrapping job gained me entrance to the local mental hospital – that story coming later this week.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Planning a hiking trip...


It seems to be fine, and it is from what.
My work is decided for each four week. My summer vacation is August 2 from July 29.
How is it though I think that it will climb "rausu-dake" of Shiretoko and "syari-dake"
I want to leave on July 29. Tell a reason.
Confer for the mark as well.
It is waiting for the answer.
see you soon.


A schedule was mistaken.
Departure on July 29. It climbs "rausu-dake" for thirty days.
Then, it climbs "shari-dake" on the 31st. But, this may be stopped because there is severe climbing a mountain in  the previous day.
Then, it will come back on August 1. Therefore, if 31 days are stopped, it comes back on the 31st.
It will be guided to all with this schedule.

      Then, again

      From Watanabe

It came back from the conference.
Are Nick, Mark and Ryan all right for the member who participates?
As for Shiretoko, tourists increase with a world heritage designation. It may come to camp. I take a tent.
Are there any sleeping bags? It prepares over here if it is not here. Tell me.
Departure schedules about 9 a.m. on the 29th.
And, it calls later.

see you


It found out. Ms. "akemi-san" goes, too.
Make contact with Mark. As for the sleeping bag as well, listen. I have it if it is not here.
Food in climbing a mountain is bought in the store of on the way.
 The special belongings aren't needed because it has those dinners in the restaurant.
I think both time and start equipment to want to simplify it as much as possible because it increases when all is prepared.
You must surely have rainwear and a canteen.

Then, in Friday morning see you.

From Watanabe

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Folk Songs and Fireworks

Festival volunteers kept the charcoal grills fired until just before dusk, when they removed their sweaty headbands and began pulling benches into the open square for the folk song performance. As the sun sank into the ocean somewhere off Vladivostok, an armada of migratory sea birds began to emerge from the glow of the western sky like alien space ships in a big budget science fiction film. I climbed a little way up the bluff overlooking the harbor, slowly sipping from a bowl of warm miso soup and watching the birds wing their way home for the night. The waves of sea birds flowed in without end, some in little V flocks like migrating geese and others flying alone, high up at the edge of the sky, all following the same path home from far out at sea.

Blue-black darkness settled in over Teuri and the birds on the cliffs went quiet. Orange pools of light quivered against the sea wall as paper lanterns shook in the stiff night breeze. Below my perch on the bluff, groups of old couples emerged from the inns wearing light cotton summer kimonos and settled onto the benches in front of the tents. I finished my soup and walked down the slope to join them.

Japanese folk songs, or enka, are far from popular among the younger generation, but walk down the back streets of any small town late at night and chances are you'll hear a retired salary man crooning a classic tale of forbidden love in a hidden karakoke bar. Although each region of Japan has it's own traditional enka, the songs that best exemplify the genre are from the North, specifically the sparsely populated regions of Aomori, Iwate and Akita prefectures in Northern Honshu. The lonesome notes of enka fit the bleak valleys and icy sea coasts of the North, where travelers shiver on empty roads and beaches. Hokkaido, though even farther North, lacks the depth of cultural history need to produce genuine enka. Japanese folk songs, like traditional music the world over, are rooted in the murky historical mists of kingdoms long since conquered and lovers long since dead. Ainu music is practically extinct.

The rural parts of Japan that produced enka are themselves fading into hollow shells of their former vibrancy as generations of young people emigrate to the sprawling metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka, where they frequent underground raggae clubs, listen to Japanese rap and take their fashion cues from the pop icon flavor of the month. Although the urban hipsters wouldn't be caught dead singing enka in a karaoke bar, many of the best folk songs speak to the nostalgia for tradition that underlies the popular urban lifestyle. Enka speaks of displacement, the loneliness of a traveler far from a home to which he is unable to return, or the sadness of an old man remembering the vitality of his youth. Here in this faded fishing village, clinging to the shore of a windswept island far out in the Northern reaches of the Sea of Japan, the happy bustle of the islanders seemed like a raft of joy on an ocean of sadness. Their sea urchin festival was a celebration of heritage permeated with great loneliness.

The enka singer, a heavily made up woman of about 65 took the stage in a glittery sequin dress and high heels, her hair piled in a frozen nest. The old men clapped and whistled, and she began to sing.

After the first song, the singer came down off the stage and introduced herself, flirting with drunks in the front row and teasing the mayor, who refused to be dragged into the spotlight. As a professional entertainer on the verge of retirement, she had mastered the art of bantering with drunken old men while maintaining a firm aura of respectibility. She seemed vulnerable in her heels and dress and encroaching old age, singing alone as the wind gusted over the harbor, but at the same time even the loudest drunk never doubted her self assurance and poise.

The last two songs were the standards, summer festival favorites that even the urban hipsters know by heart. The enka singer sang in a strong, clear voice and the crowd joined in with a murmering harmony. Five old men, islanders, got up from their seats and danced gracefully across the square at the edge of the spotlight. The last note blew off in the wind and the singer bowed deeply, holding her head low while the audience applauded. The whine of a firework spiraled up from the breakwater at the end of the harbor and exploded with a boom of white stars that crinkled across the sky and reflected little bits of light onto the dark waves. The man sitting behind me kept up a running commentary on the show. "Here comes another one," he said, elbowing his wife. "Ara! Ara! Kirei da! Kore wa ii ne!" What a good one, what a fine show this.

"Zyaa, owari," it's finished, he sighed after three large fire flowers fizzed into the harbor. But after a pause there were more whistling launches, and more, and then explosion after explosion, boom crack fizz all at the same time. "Ara, Ara, Ara, Ara!" said the man behind me and then one last fizz choked off by the wind and the show was over.

At the edge of the square the bald fisherman from the morning had his arm around a young woman. Their shadow played off the rocks of the breakwater until he whispered something in her ear and the couple vanished into the night.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

The Sea Urchin Festival

With a backpack full of beer and blue sky overhead I walked along the harbor to the Northern tip of Teuri Island. Cats prowled the dusty street, slipping in and out of ramshackle wooden sheds and squabbling with healthy looking sea gulls over fish scraps. Gulls are called "seacats" in Japanese, a fitting description given the noise they make, which sounds just like a cat asking to be fed.

At the end of the street, where the road dead-ended into a sea wall, an old woman sat in the shade of her doorway, shucking sea urchins. She smiled and fired off a few questions in the local dialect, accepting my stumbling replies without batting an eyelash. Older people in the countryside often simply assume that I speak Japanese, while younger, more cosmopolitan people who have encountered Westerners before are shocked when I manage to say hello. It occured to me that to this woman, I was probably only slightly more foreign than the college students from the ferry, still struggling to set up their tent on the very doorstep of the porto-potty.

"Here for the festival, are you then?" she asked. "There'll be an enka singer performing tonight. She came all the way from Iwate, if you can believe that. And fireworks afterwards of course. Where are you staying? Camping? Ha! Well, the inns are full anyway and it won't rain for another day or so. Good weather this year, isn't it, and plenty of urchin too. Don't take too long walking or we'll eat it all!"

As we talked, the woman kept right on shucking urchins, splitting them with a knife, scooping out the edible yellow gonads and dropping them into a pan of fresh water. The shelled urchins, each about the size of a baseball, went into a large trash bucket, where their spines scratched helplessly against the plastic.

Leaving the old woman to her work, I rounded the cape and started off down the Western Shore. Bits of Russian, Korean and Japanese garbage had washed up amidst the boulders of the beach and big drift wood logs lay piled in the shadows at the base of the cliffs. Sea roses and orange lilies clung to grassy hollows amidst the nesting birds, who were too absorbed with their own family politics to pay me any mind. Fishing boats motored about offshore, outlined white against the dark blue of the sea, and far off on the horizon a small clump of clouds marked the peak of Rishiri Island, an extinct volcano rising 1,700 meters above the ocean.

After downing a couple of beers and taking a quick swim in the teeth-chatteringly cold water I boulder hopped my way back to the village, where the festival was now in full swing. A young fisherman with a shaved head and big hoop earrings called me over to his stand, where I bought a plate overflowing with wedges of fish, scallops, hunks of octopus and thin sliced squid for a little less than $4. "Take these too," said the fisherman, grinning, handing me three sea urchins, which he pulled out of a tank and sliced open just as the old woman had done. "Try it raw," he said, handing me a little wooden ice-cream spoon. "But just eat the yellow stuff."

The urchins rotated their spines frantically, trying to propel themselves to safety as their guts glistened in the bright sunshine. The gonads were arranged around the inside of the shell, surrounding the urchin's red organs. While my other seafood cooked on the grill, I struggled to scoop out the slimy yellow clumps of eggs and then let them dissolve on the back of my tongue. In most sushi restaurants raw sea urchin roe is served on little mounds of rice wrapped in seaweed, $1.50 per bite, but the taste was stronger this way, a pure distillation of the ocean.

Halfway through my second urchin and well into my third can of beer, a young man dressed in baggy shorts and sandals sat down across the grill and greeted me in English. "My name's Chris," he said, offering his hand. "At least that's what I have the students call me. I teach English at the junior high here on Teuri."

"How many students do you have?" I asked.

"Seven," he replied. "That's Sato, the math teacher, and the funny looking guy over there teaches science."

Both of the young men he pointed to looked more like college kids than teachers.

"How did you end up all the way out here?" I wondered. "Are you from Hokkaido?"

Chris laughed, "Nah, I'm from Tokyo. This is my first assignment. I was pretty shocked at first but it's not so bad. The other teachers are all just out of school too and the fishermen are really friendly. Everyone knows everyone else. You can't find that most places these days. Haven't been through a winter yet though, so check back in on me next March. Hey, there's a couple of my students. Miyuki-chan! Chotto kite!

Two girls walked over, stopping open mouthed when they saw me. "How are you," I said. They giggled, poked each other and ran away.

"They're shy," said Chris. "No one gets off the island much. Most of them will probably go to the mainland for high-school though. There's only three kids at the Teuri high school now."

"Do you teach English at the high-school too?" I asked.

"Sometimes," said Chris. "But the prefecture sends a high-school English teacher over from the mainland a few times each month. I gotta go," he said, gesturing over to Sato, who was struggling to balance three cups of beer while a kindergardner hung onto his right leg. "You're welcome to join us if you want. And if you need anything while you're here just let me know. Everyone knows where I live."

Eating my way across the grill, I thought about what Chris had said. Teuri village is a tiny place on a rock in the middle of the ocean. Most of the people who live here are pensioners and there aren't any jobs apart from fishing and city government that most islanders qualify for. Was it in the best interest of the island children to keep them isolated here all the way through school? How much did the prefecture spend to educate those three high-school students? In Utashinai the high-school will close down in two years, but my current junior high kids will just ride their bikes a little farther down the valley, to Sunagawa. Where would the island kids live if their schools shut down? Would the village die without them? Would there be volunteers to light the charcoal at the uni festival in ten years? Would there be anyone to catch the uni?

The problem of shrinking schools in dying villages propped up by unnecessary infrastructure projects is one of the main dilemmas facing modern Japan, where low birth rates and the popularity of big cities are rapidly transforming the countryside into a gigantic nursing home. Work is done for the week, but this is an issue I hope to address in later posts.

Next week - folk songs and fireworks

On Teuri Island

The morning ferry from Haboro to Yagishiri and Teuri islands was busier than usual, packed with holiday makers heading for Teuri's annual sea urchin festival. The sea urchin festival marks the official start of summer season for the coastal region, six weeks of hot days and cool nights, when the water is warm enough for swimming and the fishing villages come alive, attracting windsurfers from Tokyo who pose on the beaches and families that fill the little restaurants selling salmon eggs on rice.

Claiming a bright spot on the rear deck, I leaned against my pack and watched the other passengers from behind my sunglasses. A group of middle aged men rapidly approaching old age stood in a loose circle, laughing at old jokes, slapping each other's backs and drinking from silver cans of Sapporo beer. This was their homecoming, a reunion trip to the fishing village of their youth. Next to them a self-concious huddle of college students made awkward small talk, three boys and three girls in carefully chosen outfits, the girls laughing with their hands over their lips when one of the boys jammed his entire fist into his mouth. A man leaned over the railing trying to coax a seagull to take a cracker from his hand while his wife snapped pictures each time the bird swooped down.

The boat stopped first at Yagishiri island, which is basically a big rolling meadow full of wildflowers with pebbly beaches and a small village hugging the green hills above the ferry terminal. Since Yagishiri's sea urchin festival wouldn't be held until the following weekend, only a few people got off, and the ferry soon continued on to Teuri, a few kilometers further West into the Japan Sea.

Teuri is about the same size as Yagishiri, small enough to walk around in a few hours, but it has a more remote feel. The main village, home to about 400 mostly retired fishermen, is tucked into a small bay at the Northern tip of the island. A few houses are scattered along the Eastern shore, but most of the island is wild, especially the Western half, where massive cliffs plunge down to a narrow, boulder-strewn beach. The cliffs serve as summer nesting grounds for millions and millions of seabirds, some endangered, and walking on the beach underneath the nests is like standing courtside at a basketball game, listening to countless raucous conversations, jeers and taunts filling the air above.

If Teuri were off Cape Cod rather than the coast of Northwestern Hokkaido, no doubt the fishing shacks and open meadows would have long since been torn down and dug up to make room for twelve room summer cottages and a 9 hole golf course, but summer has yet to become a verb in Japan. Although a small number of tourists visit in July and August, I didn't see a single house that didn't belong to a full time resident.

After getting off the ferry, we pitched our tent at the tiny official camp site at the edge of the harbor. No doubt the little spit of mowed grass offers more than enough space for campers most of the year, but the sea urchin festival had attracted a small crowd. We quickly claimed a patch of grass as far away from the porto-potty as possible and set out to explore the island.

Teuri village is a cluster of weather-stained wooden houses surrounding a small harbor full of fishing boats. Small vegetable patches were squeezed between the buildings, covered with fishing nets to keep the gulls away. Little wire enclosures like big bird cages surrounded racks of drying squid. An elongated building with a tin roof housed a sea-food processing plant, where sea urchins were kept in tanks of salt water before being cleaned and packaged for sale.

The open ground between the buildings and the harbor was covered with tents, with picnic benches and large charcoal grills set up under the canvas. Purple banners reading "Sea Urchin Festival" flapped cheerfully in the sea breeze. The festival was timed to begin with the arrival of the ferry, and volunteers decked out in aprons and headbands rushed about lighting the grills, tapping kegs of beer and organizing buckets of seafood, much of it still squirming.

Since it was still only 10 o'clock, we decided to walk around the Northern cape to the rocky beaches of the Western shore before lunch. On the way through the village, I stopped at a vending machine to buy some beer. I put in a 1000 yen note, worth about $9 and selected a tall can of Asahi for 150 yen. Instead of giving me change however, the machine continued to pump out beer, until six cans were jammed together at the bottom of the dispenser. An old man in the shop chuckled as I filled my backpack. "It always does that," he said. "Welcome to Teuri."

Part 3 coming tomorrow....

Friday, July 08, 2005

To the sea...

The last time I tried to explore the Northern part of Hokkaido's Sea of Japan coast was in the middle of a January snowstorm. Stir-crazy with an early case of cabin fever, I convinced an easy going friend to drive across the mountains to the coast in a raging blizzard. Swigging from a bottle of expensive sake, we crawled over a pass squinting into a solid curtain of snow. When it got too thick to see, we rolled down the windows and stuck our heads out into the frigid salt air. Waves bit into snowdrifts along the shore and the ramshackle fisherman's houses were heavily boarded up against the storm. Around 2 o clock, after 4 hours of driving, we pulled into the parking lot of a lonely 7-11 and tramped through waist high drifts towards a sea wall. I had my video camera in one hand and the last of the sake in the other. The wind blew strong inshore, gusting bits of snow, ice and salt spray against my face. Hauling myself to the edge of the sea wall, I popped the lens cap off my camera and started filming the ocean. Of course, the wind chose this time to pick up a notch, while at the same time a massive swell crested the concrete barrier.

Soaking wet, freezing cold and not so drunk anymore, I trudged back to the car with a broken camera. The drive home took 5 hours.

The trip to the coast this weekend was better. Ducking out of work early on Friday while the other teachers were in a meeting and the office lady was snoring by the telephone I hopped a bus to Sunagawa station and took the train up to Asahikawa where my friend was waiting. From there, we drove North through farmlands and forests, admiring freshly rolled hay bales in the evening light.

The part of Hokkaido where I live, though quite rural, isn't truly wild, in the sense that I feel comfortable wandering around in the woods with only a water bottle and paperback. The times I've gotten lost, getting home has been as simple as walking downhill until I find a stream and then following it out to civilization. These Northern hills felt different, the bamboo thicker, the rivers wider, the roads emptier. Getting lost here would be frightening rather than entertaining.

The sun had set by the time we navigated the last switchback and emerged at a river mouth south of Tomamae town, a fishing settlement notable for the time a massive bear rampaged through the village killing several residents. Huge white windmills lit by spotlights spun steadily along the coastal ridge. In Williamstown, the Massachusets town where I went to college, many locals are up in arms over a plan to build similar windmills along a ridge line, mostly on aesthetic grounds, so I found it intriguing that here in Tomamae the towsnpeople are proud enough of their windmills to show them off to the few motorists traveling up the coast. The looked beautiful to me, gleaming ghostly pale at the edge of the sea.

That night, we made camp on Sunset beach in the town of Haboro. The town was clearly making an attempt to draw visitors to their waterfront. 36 plastic palm trees were planted in the sand, each about 5 meters high, with glowing red coconuts casting a festive (read creepy) light on the sand. Pop music blared from speakers mounted on a crumbling concrete structure housing showers, toilets and a cafe. A stage was set up at one end of the beach, and a water trampoline bobbed at anchor in the protected bay. We had the place to ourselves.

After a few beers, the music faded off, the coconuts dimmed and we settled into sleeping bags for the night.

More coming next week....