Japan Trip – Week Three – Hokkaido
August 4, 2016 Leave a comment
Whereas the first week was a relatively quiet week, with some intense traveling at the beginning, and periods of activity throughout – including a couple of days to train the volunteers who had arrived, the second week has been very busy. The camp itself started off a little slowly as we waited for all of the children to arrive, and made sure that things were clean, and there were enough futons for everybody to sleep on. But once the children arrived things began in earnest, for a start they were completely full of energy – part excitement, part nervousness. There was the opening ceremony, explaining what rules and other little details about the camp, an icebreaking event completely with over the top Janken, and other silly games, a welcome party with slightly fancier food, and then the ‘Ichigei’, basically a chance for the staff to introduce themselves in the silliest, and most memorable way possible.
As for the first proper day, it was a full day at the seaside, not a beach, but a local fishing port where Uni or sea urchins are caught. It is an interesting place complete with many rock pools where children can find sea cucumbers, crabs, star fish, sea slugs, and different kinds of fish. I was a little taken aback when I first saw a massive sea slug, or Amefurashi, it was a big bulbous thing that looked almost like a bit of extra slimy seaweed. When startled it can spray purple smoke into the water to hide its escape, and it was once believed to make it rain. The port also has some large breakwaters, complete with all of the standard Japanese tsunami defences, and perfect for jumping off into the deep channel below. The seas and oceans around Japan are fairly warm when compared to what I am used to, but trying to explain to the Japanese who get dressed up in extra layers and wetsuits that I am fine without one always draws odd looks, even odder when I happily swim around in the water without any issue. The only real problem with the day was the rain, unfortunately the first few days were fairly similar as large weather fronts that had come across from China and the Korean peninsula to hit Japan with an awful lot of rain.
The second day was no different, and perhaps even worse, so a planned picnic in the local woods had to be changed to a walk in the woods (somewhat oddly called a mountain trek). It was an astonishingly hot and humid walk, but, because the mosquitoes and other biting insects have been particularly vicious this year we had to cover up, and just sweat it out. Having said that, seeing the trees wreathed in mist, and water vapour rising into the air gave the impression of an otherworldly place, one cut off from the world outside. The day was completed with the camp splitting into three groups for a number of very different activities. I ended up going with a beach combing group that planned to visit two different beaches, one for stones, and another for shells.
As with everything here, the journey itself was all part of the process as we drove along the coast road through torrential rain that turned the road into a river. There are a series of disparate fishing communities along this road, some of them according to Tatsumi, one of the nature school directors, had no electricity or internet due to their position, and the heavy snow and wind they receive during the winter. These houses could be quite easily identified as they would have a wooden barrier in front, one that was angled onto the prevailing wind, and would clearly allow a three-meter wide space in front of the house to walk and work.
The first beach was full of fascinating stones, all volcanic in origin, and in so many different colours and shapes – marbled stones, spotted stones, streaky stones, even bright white stones. The second beach was actually quite close to the nature school, and was composed of rough sand, with lots of drift wood, shells, and other detritus coughed up by the sea. I have to say I was less interested in sea shells, and far more interested in looked for sea glass, and bits of sea worn pottery, all of which can be turned into very nice pendants if you get the right shape and size. Not that it matters, the children certainly enjoyed wandering along a beach and just looking for ‘things’, doing something that they just otherwise wouldn’t do, partly because many were from cities like Sapporo, Tokyo, and Nagoya, and rarely visited the beach, much less spent time actually looking at what they were walking on. I also enjoy beach combing, largely because you never really know what you are going to find, plus it can be peaceful to wander a long a beach, not worrying about the time, or where you have to be, or what you have to do.
Day three was something of a relaxed day, mostly spent preparing to make pizza in the pizza oven on site. The children would make these pizzas with produce either grown at the school, or sourced from the immediate area, including vegetables, cheese, and wheat flour. They even had the chance to make cheese in the afternoon, and were taught by a local cheese maker. I did not see this though as I had chosen to take a break and rest during the afternoon. While these camps can be fun, they are also fairly long days, starting at 6am, and running through to 11pm at night, giving little time to really rest and relax, doubly so because working with children during such a camp is a very full on experience, as you are responsible for them for the entire period. It was great to see the children get stuck into actually make the pizzas, and baking them in a proper oven, so that everybody could eat outside was also a nice touch. Unfortunately, many of the pizzas were a little under-done, something I noticed mostly because I bake bread, but then the point was to allow the children the opportunity to really make something themselves, and importantly, something that they may have never of thought about making before.
The final two days of the first week were particularly interesting for a number of reasons, not least because instead of camping in a tent, the whole camp were bivvying on the land of a local blueberry farmer. At least they called it bivvying, but it wasn’t bivvying as I know it, not least because there was simply far too much equipment and other ‘stuff’ to be true bivvying. It is interesting to see how different countries approach camping, and the Japanese seem to bring everything with them, in this case, breeze blocks to make a fire on, very large pans, and lots of baskets filled with things – they also brought tents and shelters in case of rain.
We had the classic Japanese curry, something I can never quite get used to as ‘curry’, but when you’re hungry after a long day you rarely worry about such things and just eat what is available. I did get the chance to teach the children proper fire lighting, and while I wanted to let them do things, I ultimately had to take over two fires because the wood they had chosen during a beach foraging trip in the day turned out to be soaked through with sea water. Without a very hot fire we couldn’t cook the curry – it’s a shame since children of all ages should be given the responsibly to build and tend a proper fire and use tools, but sometimes these things have to be done.
The best part of these two days has to be going to sleep while watching the stars, and waking up to the sun rising above the mountains on the other side of the valley. It’s very rare that you get the chance to sleep in a place without street lights, or other sources of human light blocking the night sky. To be able to see the stars in such detail, and especially as you go to sleep is certainly something to be treasured. Furthermore, waking up to a sunrise is wonderful, even if that means waking up at four in the morning, something I would otherwise avoid entirely. Of course we did wake up on the last day of a ‘taster’ camp for younger children, and as their departure grew closer we had more tears and little problems, as would be expected I suppose.
Over the course of these two and a half weeks I’ve noticed a lot more about daily life in rural Japan than I would have ever managed on my first trip. Everywhere you go there are abandoned buildings – houses, barns, and other huts and sheds – left to rot where they stand, land that nobody will use. Sometimes it’s easy to tell how long ago they were abandoned by the length of weeds, but other times it’s not so easy, they could’ve been abandoned a decade ago, or only been empty for a few years. Like the abandoned school buildings, and even the nature school itself, they are reminders of the past, when the countryside was still very full of people. Not to say that the countryside is empty, but it’s certainly depopulated, I was told that there are only four people per every kilometre now, and most of those are concentrated in the centre of little towns that dot the landscape.
I have also seen numerous shrines, and little roadside offerings everywhere, even if Shinto and Buddhism are fairly recent introductions to Hokkaido, comparatively speaking, but their influence can be found everywhere. I had the good fortune to attend a local Matsuri, and watch as the men of the town carried the Mikoshi through the town, stopping at every store who left a bottle of sake, or other suitable offering in the road for the kami. In fact, every little settlement within the area pulled their own Mikoshi, decorated wagons with lights, drums, and sound systems in what appeared to be a form of organised chaos. As individual shops left out offerings they would stop, and then do two, or three dances giving thanks to the kami for their good fortune. But, the dances were almost universally to Japanese pop music, including one memorable Mikoshi that kept using the Osomatsu-san OP. It was a procession of lights, noise, and very drunk men, at least by the time they arrived at the local Jinja.
The kami was then re-enshrined in the Jinja, with the priests surrounding the Mikoshi with a white cloth as the head priest moved the kami from one location to another. As the common folk we were not allowed to see the kami, lest our gaze damaged its power, or bring misfortune to the region. While it wasn’t a big matsuri, with a mere handful of classic stalls in the jinja grounds, it was a fascinating experience. All of the men who carried the Mikoshi wore particular omamori carved out of wood, rather than the fabric kind you often buy, with the number they wore, and the charms age denoting seniority. They did seem quite happy at a foreigner coming to see their matsuri, and kept buying drinks and food for me and the staff members, although I reckon part of it was because most of them were completely sloshed.
Perhaps the matsuri is, like so many are now, quite recent, perhaps a decade or two old, or it could be much older, but its very existence demonstrates how important such events are to these communities, as a chance for everybody to have a shared experience. It also highlights the continued importance of kami, and other superstitions within Japan, even more so for fishing communities like the one I visited, given their occupation. Many of the people I talked to claimed not to be religious, but they simultaneously expressed the importance of acknowledging to kami, and giving their thanks, and felt that if they were to ignore these events, their livelihoods, and lives would be threatened by a vengeful god. It is this sentiment that helps to demonstrate how complex Japan’s relationship with religion and secularism is. So it’s been a couple of weeks where I have been busy working with children, teaching a number of skills, but also exploring the landscape, and what I can see around me. Hopefully the next few weeks are equally as fun.