Japan Trip – Week Four – Hokkaido
August 16, 2016 Leave a comment
This was a very busy week, with lots of new children arriving at the Nature School for a more adventure themed week long camp that would involve mountain climbing, spending a day on fishing boats, and ending with a more challenging two-day camp that was supposed to provide a sense of adventure for these children.
The week started on a more sedate note though, with the children and staff who were staying either two, or three weeks visiting a local farmer to get a tour of their farm, and find out about the sort of crops that are grown in this valley. As with a lot of Japan’s farms it was actually quite small, but with a large number of crops, including: broccoli, potatoes, mame (soy beans), asparagus, pumpkins, and rice. I had driven, and walked past numerous farms during my time in Hokkaido, but it was nice to get a closer look at the sort of crops they grow, and in what quantity. As with all farms everywhere there is a business like quality to the place – piles of bricks, and an assortment of other random items that appear to be useful, but have yet to be used. My trip also reminded me of something I was told a while ago about farmers in Hokkaido – they grow during the summer, but because they get between two and three meters of snow every year, often work in the ski resorts during the winter. So Hokkaido farmers are often only farmers for half of the year. I also believe all Japanese farmers are still subsidised by the government if they grow rice, an important staple that is also symbolic of Japan’s power, and has its roots in very old rice cults that in many respects have long since lost their meaning.
The day was astonishingly hot though, which made touring the farm quite tiring, and everybody seemed to be constantly drinking water. And it does make you wonder how on earth people can farm in such heat, I suspect they just get used to it, whereas I would rather be lying down in the shade somewhere. I did however notice a small shrine to Inari near the small road that connected a large number of farms together, something of a rare sight in Hokkaido. While Inari is one of the most popular kami in Japan, and you can find shrines to him/her all over the place, I have not seen much evidence of Inari worship in Hokkaido so far. Although a local fishing town has a smaller alter and accompanying red Torii besides its main shrine, so Inari is clearly still present, and remains an essential deity within agricultural communities throughout the country.
The second day of the week was actually rather quiet for me. While the children and most of the staff visited a local fishing community to learn about their work, and be given the chance to see their work first hand, I stayed at the nature school. The main reason was the size of the boats. Anybody who has seen a Japanese fishing boat will know that they are actually rather small, and it was important to allow every child to take that trip, with staff coming in a distant second. There have really been too many volunteers this year, which meant that space was short, and I was ultimately asked to stay behind. As such while the children were out being shown how to catch fish and Uni (sea urchin) I was left to fix things and chop a lot of wood, which is a rather curious and low key way to start what was labelled an ‘Adventure Camp’.
The day after was one that I had been looking forward to for a while, as it offered an opportunity to climb Annupuri, a mountain in the Niseko range. While it isn’t especially large (1308 meters), its position offers great views of the Niseko region, and of Yotei-yama, assuming you have good weather. While I enjoy visiting the local area, learning about farming, and even working with fishing communities, I am also somebody who really enjoys more adventurous activities. As with everything in Japan, the preparation, and little presentations that they give before a major activity can be rather long. In this case it was a talk about what to bring, and little details on how to talk up a mountain.
As I have some experience doing more outdoor related activities I was also asked to provide some insight into the activity, although since it was rather late when the presentation started, I didn’t have much time to say anything. As with all such activities, the staff always seem to be carrying far more than the children – first aid kits, extra water, extra layers in case the children get cold, etc – so my bag was fairly heavy, but at least it’s a proper hiking bag. The climb itself was actually fairly straightforward; most Japanese mountains have a single well-worn route up and back, and it is either very difficult, or impossible to stray off course, at least during the summer. The path was fairly wide with lots of large rocks, ways to hurt yourself if you are being stupid, but also quite straightforward to climb, with very few places where anybody, particularly the children could slip. But, it was also an incredibly hot and humid climb, as we start in clouds, more than anything I find humidity when climbing can be rather draining, and it certainly seemed to take a toll on many of the children, as the group I was in went from 15 strong, down to about seven.
I did deliberately set a fairly high pace at the start mind you, since if you leave it up to the children they can take all day to climb a few hundred meters. But, as it turned out, the staff had estimated that we would take three hours to reach the summit, but the leading group with me ended up at the top in about an hour and forty minutes, which meant far more time to sit, relax, and eat lunch. And, although we were climbing through cloud during the morning, the afternoon sun soon burnt it all off, and provided us with some stunning scenery, and views of the entire region, well worth the effort it took to climb the mountain.
I am also consistently amazed at the sort of equipment I see people using for these sorts of climbs. Whereas I wore trail running shoes (much lighter, and easier to pack than walking boots given luggage limitations on international flights), and simple, but effective outdoor clothes. I saw numerous Japanese walkers with massive trekking boots, and enough clothing and equipment for a weekend expedition, despite only going up the mountain for the day. Obviously a different country and culture, but I do sometimes think that they over prepare for these sorts of activities, and end up taking far too much with them. As it was I also took too much – waterproofs, layers for colder weather, and so on – and didn’t have to use any of it because it was as warm throughout the whole day, and not even a hint of rain.
While the climb was fun, the descent was a little trickier – most accidents happens when you are descending mountains, whether in the winter or the summer. People want to get back down, and often do silly things, such as jumping around loose rocks that could potentially give way. In this case the older children were almost running down the mountain until I bellowed at them to stop – we hardly wanted to deal with a badly sprained, or broken ankle when up over 1000 meters after all. It was also an incredibly hot descent, with very strong sunshine, that resulted in some minor sunburn on my part. Entirely down to my own stupidity of course, as I had forgotten for a few moments that UV rays don’t care about cloud cover, and only decided to put sun cream on when we reached the summit. So it was a hot and tiring day, although at least we were rewarded with a trip to the onsen. Onsen have become one of my favourite aspects of Japan, they are just so relaxing, and actually quite peaceful, assuming they aren’t full of screaming children, or it is a busy time of the year. But the best way to rest a tired body after a long climb is to visit and relax in an onsen, just the perfect way to end the day.
After these first few days the rest of the camp was spent organising what they called the ‘Kodomo Plan’, or Childrens plan – a two day, one-night camp that was meant to be about adventure and some challenge. A number of different camps were presented to the children, and they were given the opportunity to choose which they would rather go on. Similarly, the staff were given the opportunity to choose, although in my case I had been asked to work on what turned out to be the most difficult camp, and one that had many of the Nature Schools staff a little worried. Information that I had picked up, but didn’t fully appreciate until completing the camp itself, and while I certainly enjoyed my time, it also left a bitter taste in the mouth since my phone broke due to a series of pretty silly decisions. The camp in question aimed to explore Raiden’s Cave along the Sea of Japan coast.
It is part of the legend surrounding Raiden/Narukami/Raijin, the Japanese kami of Lighting, Thunder, and Storms. According to this legend, Raiden once fought Minamoto no Yoshitsune (1159-1189), a historical general who was part of the Minamoto clan during the late Heian, and early Kamakura periods. According to one legend, Yoshitsune was not killed by his allies, but instead fled to Hokkaido, where he fought, and ultimately beat Raiden in single combat. In defeat, Raiden fled across Hokkaido, and hid in a sea cave to heal, and rest. This cave is rather famous, and many Japanese will visit it each year, however, because of its remote location, they generally only go by kayak, and certainly only when it’s very good, and still weather. A fact I now fully understand having been there. It would have been quite simple to paddle to the cave and back, but the head of the Nature School wanted to make it more challenging, and we were to swim/scramble our way along about a mile and a half of coast line to the cave. It was something of a personal quest for him as well, as he had tried to get to the cave on two occasion already, but had been forced to turn back, either because it was getting dark, or because the weather made it far too dangerous to continue.
At the time I didn’t realise how potentially dangerous the trip to Raiden’s Cave could be, and had assumed that it was a relatively short, if rather technical, and difficult trip. As it turned out, we had to swim, and scramble along a mile and a half of rocky coastline, and it soon became apparent that if anything were to go wrong the only way out would be to retract our steps. Of course this all sounds rather exaggerated, and even somewhat melodramatic now, but the realities of the situation meant that while it was a fun journey, I had to keep the groups safety in the back of my mind. I had actually been asked to help out because I have a certain amount of experience teaching, and leading outdoor activities.
Despite not entirely understanding what sort of trip we would be embarking on, I had decided to bring a pair of flippers along, thinking that they might come in useful during longer swimming sections. As it turned out they were utterly invaluable, and probably made sure I had enough energy to get there and back again. There were two specific sections that would clearly be impassable in all but very clear weather – sections where you would have to swim about one hundred meters, without any hand holds on the cliff, and nothing to protect you from the sea’s swell. On these sections I swam, pulling a fifty-meter rope, and secured it for the rest of the group to use it as a guide, rather than trying to swim the entire distance.
While I did enjoy the trip, it was also rather difficult, with lots of oddly shaped rocks, slippery seaweed, and a swell, that while relatively calm, still made climbing up onto rock formations somewhat difficult at times. Of course, the children, and staff clearly enjoyed their time – it was a chance to do something that many had never even thought of, let alone even try, and they found exploring the coastline fascinating and exciting, as did I. Unfortunately, upon arriving at the cave I discovered that my phone was utterly dead. I had decided to bring it along to take a picture of the cave, and had put it into a dry bag that the head of the Nature School was taking with him – in fact, it was in two dry bags, one inside the other – unfortunately as it turned out, neither were particularly dry. So my arrival at this fascinating cave was tinged with anger, mostly at myself for bringing my phone, rather than leaving it with the rest of the kit, and I wasn’t in an especially good mood, which was a shame, given what we as a group had achieved.
The trip back was a bit quicker, but also potentially more dangerous. When the children were originally told about the different camps, this one was the most popular, but, given the amount of energy, and a certain amount of strength required to complete the trip, it was limited to the older children. Even then, there were a number of older, but slightly smaller children, and a couple of members of staff who were clearly tired, and started to fall behind. To make matters worse, the older, and certainly more energetic children kept rushing ahead, clearly not knowing, or understanding the potentially dangerous situation that we could find ourselves in. Still, through a bit of careful group management, we were able to get everybody back at the same time – although I think my generally bad mood at the death of my phone helped me be a little more straightforward with my group control than I might otherwise have been.
This was not the end of the camp however, and what followed was a fascinating journey into rural Hokkaido, along old mountain tracks that must have been the main routes through the mountains before the main coast road was built, to an old, abandoned onsen that had opened in 1844, but closed down three years ago after the mountain partly collapsed near it. I have to say that the journey was truly amazing – the nature school is in rural Hokkaido, but it is still part of a wider community, with a major road in front – it is an old middle school after all. But there are other aspects to rural Japan that we may never actually see, a hidden side to the Japanese countryside that is utterly ignored by most people, and rarely, if ever makes an appearance in anime. Even Non Non Biyori, a series that does more than most to depict the busy, and occasionally lonely nature of Japanese rural communities doesn’t quite present us with a picture of the lost an abandoned that dot the Japanese landscape, and can be found at the end of innumerable old paths and tracks which once criss-crossed the mountains and landscape.
Upon arriving we were greeted with a relatively old building, and the signs of a potential attempt to restore it to working order – including an earth mover, and a number of tools. We also had the chance to explore the site, and found the source of its natural hot spring – a natural stone basin that had been reinforced with concrete, and was still full of actually rather hot, natural hot spring water. The plan was to cook dinner, and bivvy at the site – the night itself was rather pleasant, with a camp fire, and no sources of light pollution to obscure the night sky. As such I found myself lying there, talking to other staff, while looking up at and being treated to a beautiful display of stars, and shooting stars. We also saw a brown bear in the forest as we were scavenging for fire wood, but as is the way with Japanese brown bears, they are fairly nervous, and shy creatures, so it ran away rather than pose any threat to us. Admittedly, while the night sky was beautiful, it was hardly the most comfortable night’s sleep in the world. We were effectively bivvying on what used to be the Onsen’s main driveway, and parking area, so it was stony, and even with a decent roll mat, you couldn’t quite get rid of all the little bumps underneath.
While at this onsen, called Asahi Onsen, I began to think about the abandoned and forgotten, of an onsen that must have once been on a relatively busy route through the mountains when it opened, but was gradually lost and forgotten as larger, busier roads were built through the landscape, rather than over it. The track we took meandered along the mountainside, whereas the main coast road tunnels straight through any obstacles – we drove through two particularly long tunnels that were both roughly 3.5 km long each – convenient, but as with all major roads, they feed traffic around the peripheries, thus making onsen, or inns, or other similar buildings somewhat difficult to get to. This process happens everywhere, and while it can make sense in terms of travel distance, also seems to be to be rather sad, as it isolates large parts of the landscape, and as the year’s progress, people slowly forget about large sections of their own country, assuming they even knew about them to begin with.
The final act on this camp was to drive to Narukami’s waterfall – a waterfall, and pool that was supposed to have been formed by Narukami/Raijin, and may have once been used for aesthetic practice by monks, and other religious figures. The drive there was predictably a little difficult, since the signs were few and far between, and often obscured by bushes. But, upon arrival it was a rather pleasant place, and although I didn’t get fully understand the story behind this waterfall, or even its full religious significance, I can certainly see why it was once so important. We weren’t there long mind you, due to the large number of ‘Abu’, Japan’s version of the gadfly/horsefly that kept swarming around us. Many of them are relatively small in size, but there are a number, called ‘Ushi Abu’ that are bigger than hornets, and buzz around incessantly, and also have a rather nasty bite if you are unlucky enough to annoy one. This was one of my main memories of the onsen, and certainly left their impression on the children. Every group had to write a report of their activities, and while the main purpose of the camp was to explore Raiden’s Cave, the only thing the children talked about was the literal swarm of Abu that kept buzzing around the onsen.
While the week ended on a bitter note with the destruction of my phone, I still enjoyed the activities, and since I have had time to think about it, look more fondly on what was a week of adventure, and exploration. I am particularly proud of the trip to Annupuri, specifically because there was one child on the camp, who called himself Saru (although this was not his real name); despite being barely three-foot-tall, he stubbornly stuck with the leading group, and while he did struggle at times, still managed to keep going and make it to the top. That he managed to be one of the first children to the top, despite his small size was truly remarkable, and demonstrates how we may often underestimate children – I had thought he would slip back into one of the smaller groups for example. I was also rather pleased that the children who I went to Raiden’s Cave enjoyed their time – it would have been far too easy for the children to start complaining about being tired – something that would have likely ruined the entire experience for many, turning it into a chore, rather than something to be enjoyed. That they were able to enjoy themselves even when tired helped to make the whole experience one that can be remembered for their achievements, rather than anything else. In fact, in hindsight, it was a very busy week, and one that I really enjoyed, despite my phone breaking. It was also nice to see a camp challenge the participants, and offer activities that were potentially quite difficult, and even dangerous if they weren’t treated with respect.
I also discovered upon returning from Raiden’s Cave camp, that most of the staff, including a number of more senior individuals who have been working as camp directors here for a number of years, were actually rather worried about the whole affair. As far as they were concerned, the trip to the cave and back was potentially very dangerous – something I am inclined to agree with after seeing it for myself – and were worried that a number of the group, the smaller, perhaps less fit members, would struggle later on. It was quite gratifying to hear that they were much happier when the camp head asked me to help – I am hardly the world expert on outdoor activities, but it is nice to be acknowledged, and depended upon.
The week also marked the midway point of the three-week camp, with a lot of new children arriving, and many others leaving, staff and volunteers included. The final week would be a very different affair, at least for me, and certainly much quieter, as all bit six children left. One thing I did learn though is that a number of children had flown to Hokkaido from all over Japan, including Tokyo, Nagoya, and in one case, Kagoshima. But, it was one boy, an eight-year-old who was about three-foot-tall, that particularly stood out, as he had come from Tokyo, and was flying back there on his own, something I found rather astonishing. It is just interesting to see how much more independent children seem to be in Japan than some other countries I’ve visited – or at least they appear to be more independent, and certainly seem more likely to travel to and from camps on their own than be ferried around by their parents. You do learn something new here every day.
As with all posts during the summer camp, it has been rather difficult to find pictures since I cannot use any that clearly show children’s faces based on Japan’s child safety laws, and as a request by the Nature School.