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Messages for Betsy
In Japan: Hagi to Daisetsu-san National Park

April 4, 2006 Hagi to Okayama

Before breakfast Tom and I left the Youth Hostel and ran/walked up the small mountain behind the castle ruins. On top of the mountain we saw foundations from an old lookout. We were fascinated by deep dotted-line carvings in the bedrock, places where masons had chipped away to mark where to break the rocks used in the castle walls. Neither of us knew how masons 400 years ago would have done this, but certainly the "dotted lines" must have helped.

We'd paid 450 yen each, about $4.00, for the Youth Hostel breakfast and at 8:30 the youth hostel manager knocked on our door to tell us it was ready. I expected white bread toast, a fried egg and a little tossed salad, the "western-style" breakfast served everywhere in Japan. But when we walked into the empty dining room we saw three trays of Japanese-style breakfast waiting for us. This was hardest for Jay, who managed to eat a bowl of white rice, the small piece of banana, lettuce and the cold bit of sweet omelette. Tom and I drank the miso soup and green tea, ate the tofu sprinkled with dried fish flakes and then tackled the Chinese dumpling and the little gray squids. I won the bravery award for actually eating an entire pickled squid. Tom took a bite of his then hid the rest under his banana peel. We thanked the cook and shuffled off in our indoor slippers to get packed up and leave.

We had time to explore the castle ruins again, and do a bit of mock sword fighting, before we wandered through the Old Town, where ancient stone and stucco walls hid shrines and beautiful gardens. Everywhere we saw pottery displayed for sale. The Hagi style is very old, learned from Korean potters, and most of the pots and bowls had pale almost pastel glazes.

We got turned around in the walled streets of Old Town and had to run to get to the train station in time for the 9:28 train. We made it with one minute to spare. This was the smallest train yet--one car set up like a bus, with benches facing inward. We were a spectacle to the school kids and older people who stared quite openly. Not many foreigners get to this side of Japan.

Wild Hokkaido horseradish

The train clacked along, stopped at every little station and moved a bit faster than a determined walk. Much of the route was along the coast where we passed beautiful islands and rocky beaches with a layer of plastic trash at the high tide line. When we went inland we passed little rice fields, not yet planted, and saw daikon, huge white radishes, sticking out of the fields, ready for harvest. Most of the people out in the fields were older women wearing calico aprons and sunbonnets.

We switched to a slightly bigger train and whenever the conductor passed through our car, he would turn and bow before he continued on to the next car. We saw this also in the shinkansen and came to expect to see this graceful acknowledgement of the passengers.

When our train left the coast to traverse the interior of Honshu we passed through many tunnels and up narrow vallies where a river, the railroad, a road, houses and rice fields were all squeezed in together. The roofs were all made of an elaborate curved tile, making even the new houses look old.

We made it back to the east coast and spent the night in the city of Okayama in a quiet tatami room in a rhyokan, a Japanese inn, near the station. We even found a bookstore that had a few English books and Jay bought a book he hadn't read by his current favorite author, Diana Wynn-Jones.

View from Himeiji castle

April 5, 2006 Himeji to Sendai

Our guidebook said if we were only going to see one castle in Japan, it should be the castle at Himeji, a city not far north of Okayama and a stop on the shinkansen.

Of course, lots of other people were seeing the castle, too. We joined the crowd approaching the castle, paid our admission and walked in. The castle was relatively new, built in the 1600's, and stood high on a hill, with the biggest building six stories high. It was painted an elegant white with roofs that turned up at the edges, a classic Japanese style.

Jay wanted to see all of the castle, this being more interesting to him than a temple or a shrine, so we started by visiting a wing, a long arm of the castle where a princess had lived with her flock of women servants. Before we could enter we had to take off our shoes, put them in a plastic grocery bag and step into slippers. Nothing unusual about this in Japan, except that hundreds of tourists were doing it and employees hurried us along so that we didn't block traffic behind us. The Japanese can take their shoes off and step into slippers in an instant, but it took much longer for the foreigners in the crowd. As we shuffled along the old wooden floors, Jay was interested in the stone-and-hot-oil-throwing windows where the wooden shutters were opened if attackers made it past the moats and onto the walls.

The main building was crammed with tourists all heading in a prescribed direction up steep stairs followed by more steep stairs to get to the top of the building. Once, one of Jay's slippers fell off and a kind Japanese grandmother helped him get it back on. From the top we had a great view of the city and a diorama showed how the original city had three moats and a strictly segregated populace, with merchants in the outer ring, samurai in the middle ring and royalty in the inner castle and grounds.

We spent most of the afternoon on the shinkansen, changing trains in Tokyo and heading north. It was evening by the time we got to the city of Sendai and, looking at our train schedule, I thought we could take an overnight train north to Hokkaido, arriving in Sapporo in the morning. When that train arrived we stepped on and looked around for the regular seats. A few panicky moments later we realized there weren't any regular seats, just rooms with berths, and we didn't have a ticket that would pay for them. Once again, we rushed off the train seconds before it pulled out of the station.

It was almost 10pm and we didn't have a place to stay. We tried calling a cheap rhyokan listed in our guidebook but the phone line was busy. We had a map so we decided to walk and hope for a room when we got there.

Sendai was cold and rainy. We passed homeless men settling in to cardboard boxes in the corners of a public stairway. A man and woman were giving them food, a good idea, as it would be a night below freezing. Jay wondered aloud that maybe sleeping in a cardboard box wasn't such a bad idea; it was more shelter than we had at the moment.

We slogged up and down several streets and asked at a convenience store and on the street for the address of the rhyokan. No one seemed sure of its existence though someone thought perhaps it had moved to a new location. Go that way, he advised us.

We did and didn't find it but we did find a very cheap hotel on a back lane, advertising its rates on a small neon sign. It seemed better than a cardboard box so we went in. The woman behind the desk took our cash and handed us a key. She didn't ask for any ID or passports, as the hotel clerks usually do for foreigners. She didn't even ask for a name so we were surprised when the small room was clean, had its own bath and even a window. The sign hadn't advertised an hourly rate and the room was furnished in subdued colors so I don't think it was a "love hotel", a variety of hotel in Japan designed for short stays. The love hotel industry in Japan is perfectly legal and not surprising, given that most people live in very small apartments with thin walls.

April 6, 2006 Sendai to Lake Toya

The rain had turned to a light snow when we woke and as we took the train farther north, we began seeing snow on the ground. Northern Honshu, called Tohoku, had a very difficult winter this year, with heavy snow and many injuries because of it.

The island of Honshu now connects to Hokkaido with the world's second longest tunnel. (Our sources told us the "Chunnel" between England and France is longer). It was a bit creepy to be hurtling through the dark in the train knowing we were underneath the ocean. When we popped out back into daylight, the ground had even more snow cover and it seemed a long way from the cherry blossoms of Tokyo.

On the train from Hakodate we met a dentist from Korea who planned to bicycle from the northern tip of Hokkaido all the way down to the southern tip of Kyushu, the length of Japan. He had a folding bicycle, not many warm clothes and he was very surprised by the amount of snow. Tom sat with him and they looked at maps together, trying to pick out the best route south. Fourteen years ago when we bicycled in Hokkaido in April we encountered a blizzard as well as roads with many tunnels, dangerous for bicyclists. We wondered, why Kim, the bicyclist, hadn't chosen to do the trip in the other direction, south to north. We exchanged addresses and wished each other well. I hope he made it.

We left the train at Toya, a small coastal town, and took a bus up to Lake Toya, an enormous crater lake with mountainous islands in the middle and steaming volcanoes surrounding it. During Japan's boom years several huge resort hotels were built at Lake Toya but at this time of year they were almost empty. Our lodging was modest, the Youth Hostel, and a long walk from the bus stop. We bought food at a small grocery store (Jay discovered the Japanese version of Frosted Flakes and we let him get them, with a carton of plain yoghurt) and walked along the lake on a windswept walking path. For the first time in months we needed our hats and mittens, and every warm layer we had with us. The path still had icy snow covering it, and although we tried, it was too cold to make snowballs. Still, we were all tremendously happy to be back in a northern environment, a place that felt familiar, even with its volcanoes and hot springs.

The Youth Hostel was new, though the manager was old. He used a magnifying screen to fill out our paperwork while his wife, bent double with a curved back, hobbled upstairs to turn the heat on in our room. We speculated that in Japan Youth Hostel managers aren't paid much and perhaps retired people are the only ones who can afford the job, certainly we hadn't seen any young people on the staff at any of the Youth Hostels.

Before dark we walked up the road for a good view of Showa Shinzan, a volcano that grew out of a rice field in 1945. It was still smoking but it hasn't caused as many problems as the neighboring volcano. An eruption there buried several houses and a resort a few years ago.

Back at the Youth Hostel we discovered we were the only guests in the large building so we had a private soak in the spacious onsen, in hot water piped down from the volcano.

April 7, 2006 Toya to Obihiro

We spent most of the morning walking, from the Youth Hostel to the train station down in Toya village. It was still cold, but clear and lovely along the lake. We passed through a sculpture garden where we all had different favorites and watched a fake paddleboat plow through the lake with a load of tourists. No one stood outside on the deck to enjoy the wintry wind. Jay thought the name of the boat was silly, the Tom Toya. (Toya rhymes with Sew-ya, which is how the Japanese pronounce Sawyer, as in Tom Sawyer. It took a bit of explaining, but eventually Jay understood the Japanese play on words).

Our route took us past the area above the lake that was most recently changed by the volcano. Some houses were slanted because of uplift of the mountain and others had been crushed by a chunky lava. In places the ground still steamed. It was very interesting to all of us, especially to Earth Science teacher Tom, who took lots of photos.

Friends from 23 years ago, the Teramotos

Then we were back on a train again, an environment we were becoming very familiar with. We only changed trains once before we met our friends Atsuko and Mutsuo Teramoto in the small city of Obihiro. They were waiting at the train station and we had a grand reunion, all smiles after fourteen years of not seeing each other. We first met the Teramotos twenty-three years ago when we hiked into the small village where they operated an Anglican church and a nursery school. Although we spoke no Japanese and they spoke only a bit of English, we immediately enjoyed each other's company. They were the first visitors to our ramshackle rental house where we laughed our way through a Halloween party with bobbing for apples and costumes. (They knew how to dress because they had seen the movie E.T.)

They both still seemed youthful, though Mr. Teramoto, 75, is now retired from the church and Mrs. Teramoto, 60-something, doesn't work at the nursery school any more. When they retired they moved to Memuro, a small town near Obihiro, at the base of the Hidaka Mountains. Mrs. Teramoto's 93 year-old mother lives with them and helped get supper on the table, a big pot of oden, a slow-cooking Japanese stew of fish and vegetables. It was wonderful to be with the Teramotos again, to share photos, memories and laughter and try, in our broken Japanese, to update them on our last 14 years of activities.

April 8, 2006 Memuro to Azusa's house

Every morning at 5:30 am the Teramotos take a walk with their elderly dog, Mako. Their house is on the edge of a housing development that ends abruptly in farm fields. The ground was still covered with snow, crusty and hard in the cold, and the Hidaka Mountains rose in a wall behind the farms. Mrs. Teramoto had her binoculars with her for birdwatching and she was ever hopeful, though the birds she saw were common ones, nothing special.

We often had to wait for the dog to catch up with us and while we did we tried to have a casual conversation. This was not easy for any of us, as our language barrier was high. When we got stuck we laughed and kept on walking. I did learn that the trees that are familiar as windbreaks all over the Tokachi Plains are a kind of larch and the Teramoto's house was built with that wood. When I asked what would be planted in the fields the Teramotos shrugged; they aren't farmers.

After breakfast we took Jay outside to go sliding down a big pile of frozen and snow-covered sand at a nearby gravel pit. We didn't have sleds but our rain pants were slippery and the snow was warm enough for a good snowball fight. It was our one chance for a bit of winter play, after trading in our northern winter for a summer in New Zealand.

Soon we were back on a train, but a short journey this time. We took the local line in to Obihiro and walked to a department store near the train station where our friend Azusa Sasaki stood with a local group of peace activists, hoping to get shoppers to sign a petition asking for more government aid for the elderly hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We signed the petition but later Azusa said most of the Saturday shoppers avoided her group, a Japanese version of don't-rock-the-boat.

We met Azusa when she was a university student in Sapporo in 1983. Her English was excellent and many of our interests intersected-simple living, native rights, and environmental activism. Now Azusa is teaching English in a small rural high school and living in a house she designed, a house full of local wood and sunlight. It was wonderful to see her again and, although it seemed as if we were cheating, we could speak in English with her and ask her the questions that were too difficult for us to ask the Teramotos in our pidgin Japanese.

On our way to Azusa's house we stopped in to have tea with a friend, Yoshihiro Ichigawa, a man who lived in Vietnam while he volunteered for a Japanese peace organization during the Vietnam War. Ichigawa-san now runs a small English juku, an after-school school, in his home and works for progressive causes in the Obihiro area. He also has a very ornery cat who scratched Jay in the face. I could tell Jay wasn't the only victim because the iodine and swabs for dealing with the wounds were already out in the living room.

Azusa loves onsen, hot springs baths, and we had time before dinner to go to the large community onsen near her house. The new building had a snack bar (with ramen and ice cream cones), a room with video games and, of course, and a large area of hot pools, including some outside. It was busy on a Saturday afternoon but Azusa and I found unoccupied spigots on the women's side where we sat on short plastic benches to wash thoroughly before we stepped into the bath. It would be the ultimate rudeness to get into a public bath without washing first.

Back at Azusa's house we cut up vegetables for a nabe party, a meal cooked at the table in an electric pan. Azusa's friends, Shizuko and Yasushi, also teachers, joined us for the meal and we all enjoyed the food and company. Yasushi is a science teacher and he and Jay traded non-verbal jokes, culminating in a series of caricatures they drew of all of us seated around the low table. It felt so comfortable, and yet so special, to be horsing around with new friends. Yes, we were halfway around the world but it seemed as if we were with friends from down the street.

April 9, 2006 Daisetsu-san National Park

While Azusa and Jay slept in, Tom and I quietly left the house and headed out into the open fields for a morning run. The Tokachi Plains are one of the only places in Japan with flat, undeveloped land. What a treat it was to run on a straight road past snowy fields with no towns, no houses and only a range of mountains to stop the view. I'd seen Tokachi "special products" for sale at the community onsen so I knew the fields would be cultivated for dry beans, sugar beets, potatoes, wheat and barley. Under the snow the soil was a rich, dark volcanic layer with very few rocks. The only vertical lines were the long rows of larch, planted as windbreaks.

After breakfast we hopped into Azusa's SUV ( not little by Japanese standards, but small for an American car) to drive to Daisetsu-san National Park in the middle of the Hidaka Mountains. On the way we stopped at Azusa's high school, a rural school with a graduating class of about 25. If enrollment continues to drop, and it probably will as farms consolidate and young families move to more urban areas, the Hokkaido government will close the school. Azusa said the community would fight to keep it open, but it might be a losing battle. We met parents at the school on a Sunday morning who were putting up a long plastic greenhouse to use as a temporary gym for weight lifting for the baseball team. Students on the team had shoveled off their field so they could practice. The baseball team seemed very dedicated, even though Azusa said they were one player short of a full team.

On the outside the high school building looked much like a small American school but inside the doors was a spot where students left their street shoes and slid into inside slippers. In the lobby was a soft drink machine that also sold cans of hot coffee, very common in Japan, though we were a bit surprised to see it in a sold in a high school. Azusa said the students clean the school building and it looked spotless as she led us through to the gym where the badminton team was practicing and then upstairs to the Teacher's Room. In Japanese high schools the teachers all share a room, their desks crowded together. Students stay in the same classroom for most of the day and teachers travel around to teach them.

The drive to Daisetsu-san was spectacular, first across the plain, then in the mountains where the road was a marvel of Japanese engineering. The snow hid most of the buildings in the small tourist town where we stopped to go to a natural history museum. My favorite display showed a higuma, grizzly bear, with its long teeth sunk into the body of a shika, Japanese deer. Grizzly bears still roam in the Hidaka Mountains and several people told us the population is stable, and perhaps growing.

Hokkaido snow woman

The snow beckoned, especially to Jay, so we set out for a walk. We couldn't take a trail as the snow was at least waist height, but we found a small plowed road winding through the deep woods. It felt very familiar to us, especially when several deer leapt over the snowbanks and across the road. They stood in a thick stand of spruce, watching our progress. We kept up a running snowball fight and before we turned around stopped to build a snow woman, complete with long wavy hair and a big smile. On the way back we composed haiku, in English. It was the first time Azusa had composed haiku in English and she and I teamed up on ours.

Long time friends unite
Walking on a snowy road
Spring snow woman smiles

by Betsy Kepes and Azusa


The flakes of winter
Alight to the sleeping boughs
Up and down the slopes

by Jay Vandewater


Spring snow falls softly
Hokkaido deer step through woods
Long time friends unite

by Tom Vandewater

We ended our walk with a soak in an outside onsen, the only people in the pool.

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