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....


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