Ah yes. The cool Hokkaido summers. Where temperatures stay pleasant and mild. No need for air conditioning. No humidity. These lies still get pushed upon us. Those lies gave us an Olympic Marathon and the ridiculousness of the Run-Walk. (Come on. This is a sport?) These lies kill quite a few elderly people up here. These lies forced me to buy two additional fans this August so I could triangulate an artificial breeze in 36° C. Most apartments up here don’t have air con unless they are very new. Some offices, government facilities, and most shopping malls offer relief. So it’s been rough.
But finally I have been vaccinated. So that brings some mild psychological relief. It’s taking way too long nationwide. Anyone who has been to the mass vaccine centers here can conclude why. I went to the Sapporo Convention Center. Outside the convention center are approximately 30 volunteers blocking off the parking lot (which is roped off already) and funneling you into the entrance (which is already extremely well marked). Then comes a 4 tier screening, where other staff check and recheck the same form and ask you the same questions repeatedly. Finally, after all that, you get your shot, then are ushered out for another waiting period and final screening/stamp. Probably 10 doctors on hand to provide shots (max) and about 200 other staff doing mostly standing. It’s a long, laborious process. It is Japan in a nutshell. Meanwhile, they are vaccinating people at baseballl games in America. No reservation needed. Comes with free hotdog. (And in some cases free tickets!) The contrasts are absurd.
To keep cool I have sought the refuge of cool mountain streams. There was my usual go to tenkara fishing expedition by bike to Mt. Teine on the Kotoni-Hassamu River (above the Heiwa Waterfall). I did did some deep exploration, climbing over rock walls, avoiding giant hornets, bow and arrow style casting under the thick trees and brush. Managed to to get several white-spotted char (iwana), but a few got away.
There were trips to more far flung locations outside the Ishikari Plain. We explored the Kimobetsu River, and other areas west towards the Niseko resorts. Fish out this way can be more selective, but chances of finding larger Rainbow or even rarer Dolly Varden trout exist. Late summer the water has cooled considerably. So wet wading is like going to a natural water park for the day. Very refreshing.
Apparently we are still in the thick of a COVID spike. Not being flippant here, just avoiding the news religiously. When restrictions are lifted, I’m sure I’ll get the message. My news firewall isn’t that thick. Until then we are sticking to the rivers. Which is a good thing because our local park, which provides access to Mt. Moiwa, has been shut down for more than a month because of bear(s) sightings. Personally I think this is a very Japanese over reaction. I mean, bears exists, we are the ones intruding. Unless it is like a pack bears attacking people, stomping on cars in the parking lot, daily. But pretty sure that is not the case.
But summer is finally winding down. Deep into the teens at night. Winter is coming….
On a recent camping trip south to Shiraoi, we stopped by the Poroto Mintara (ポロトミンタラ) Tourist Information Center, not far from the Upopoy National Ainu Museum and Park, where I managed to pick up these playing cards with Ainu vocabulary. I must admit that I am still rather ignorant of the history of the Ainu people, but if you just take the time to read the wiki, you will find the mistreatment brought to them by the northern expansion of the Japanese to be rather horrific. Anyway, I hope that the money spent at the information center got filtered back to the Ainu people.
The transliterations into both Katakana and Romaji are pretty difficult to decipher. This YouTube post does the language more justice:
Sadly, the Ainu language is considered nearly extinct.
Have you ever felt that you are not a good person, a little dirty, a bit of a slob, or just had an impure thought? Just read this short novel from a modern master and you will soon feel positively angelic about your life. The central character, Lester Ballard, basically checks all the boxes for depravity: necrophilia, murder, rape and/or rape-ish tendencies, arson, compulsive lying, and animal cruelty – just to name a few that stand out on first reflection. By the end you’re searching for anything not evil that he might have done.
His is an evil stuck out of time. Aside from small contextual clues scattered throughout, one might wonder when this story takes place at all? Contemporary? Early 20th century? There are automobiles and carnivals, but somehow it all feels very medieval. Ballard, scraping his way through moldy caves like some creature from Middle Earth only adds to the confusion.
Weaved through all of this is McCarthy’s incredible language. Though the story may not be that complex, following Ballard’s heathenish rampage through the Tennessee countryside, the complete lack of redemption experienced by the main character is not a path usually explored in fiction. There really is nothing to salvage.
As the cherry blossoms begin blooming, let’s look at a unique hanafuda set featuring the heritage of Kyoto. Visually this is one of the more stunning sets in my collection, but it’s best to compare it to a standard deck to see the artistic license taken. Most hanafuda follow these traditional motifs.
The red borders and glossy plastic surface makes these cards durable and easy to play with, but I think that my Kyoto hanafuda set really makes things more stunning by using a more subdued green color palette and adding localized touches. Now let’s compare the two sets side by side:
Hope your spring is as colorful as these hanafuda cards!
Spring is almost here, but the nights are still chilly and when a breeze is blowing it can feel like February. The waters too high for safe fishing. They were still storing plowed snow along the banks of the Toyohira when I checked last week. Mountain trails in and around Sapporo are a mess of mud and slush, pretty much impossible for hiking. Safe to say that April/May might be the worst season should you ever plan to visit Sapporo. Golden week approaches feeling like fool’s gold. A camping trip near Hokkaido’s south shore is about as far as we’ll venture. Oh, did you know there is a pandemic going on still? Because Japan apparently forgot. Rumors of vaccines being available for all by September seems optimistic at the glacial pace things currently run at. Apparently the 65+ vaccines that where supposed to roll out on April 15th was for a select few elderly scattered in the countryside. My 80 year old in-laws haven’t heard a peep about it. Meanwhile India is making the vaccine available to all by May 1st. India! Jeeee…..sus.
Regardless, our bikes are out. My 30 minute walking commute is now a quick 10 with Jabra earbuds (featuring ambient noise pass-through, safety first!) pumping a Bob Dylan podcast (“Hard Rain and Slow Trains: Bob Dylan and Fellow Travelers”) making everything right. Schools back in session, which means the drudgery of work for this guy, but a endless supply of bloggy goodness about to be unleashed.
We all fib. Some white lies here and there. I exaggerate on this blog, just for effect. But in my 20 years in the ESL racket spanning two countries (South Korea, Japan), I have heard some amazing backstories from fellow foreigners explaining away their current predicaments with yarns so shoddy it’s laughable in retrospect. Back in the days before social media, LinkedIn, and the internet in our pockets, a vagabond language instructor could create the most fantastical CV prior to their employment as an unlicensed kindergarten teacher. Add in some alcohol and a naive and homesick listening audience… voila!
“A commercial helicopter pilot? That’s awesome! Why’d you give it up?”
“I’d rather not go into it.”
People bought that line. Chicks bought that line. Gullible people in the throngs of culture shock will buy anything. When the 2007-2008 financial crisis hit, Korea saw a huge uptick in ESL refugees. That’s understandable. Go where the jobs are. But the “I used to make 6 figures as a day trader, glad I landed on my feet at the GnB English Academy,” conversation got old after I heard it from multiple frazzle-brained dudes that following spring. It still comes off pretty hollow.
Another line I keep hearing a lot here in 30 year-old-stagnate-economy Japan is the “I don’t need this job” variety. Anyone, in any job, worldwide, who consistently tells you that they “don’t need this job” is full of it. Unless the next words out of their mouth are “I quit!”, followed by early retirement. Nobody works in Asia, beyond a couple years, for the fun of it. And that ain’t no lie.
Not to say there aren’t some incredible resumes that are completely legit. The “I was executive vice president at [blah blah blah]” might actually be true (though rare). But there is most definitely a string of bad decisions (family, law, drug) that caused that person to flee their homeland. All of this is conveniently not mentioned – probably for good reason. Charlatans exist everywhere. Just because another whitey happened to find his way to some bumblefuck part of Asia just around the corner from you doesn’t mean their story automatically checks out. When they tell you something ridiculous like “I invented the futon”, trust your instincts.
Anyway, I gotta roll. I recently refurbished a classic biplane that I am anxious to get off the ground. I’m licensed.
Not for the cricket novice, despite what the narrator claims near the books beginning. If you are like me, and have followed international cricket from the periphery for many years, this book can serve as a useful jump start to that cricket obsession brewing beneath anyone who has sat through a full days play – even if only from your armchair. I am just that kind kind of armchair fan, and this novel sent me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole that I have yet to climb out of.
This book is long. It reads long. Like a drawn out fifth day of a test with no result in sight. Be prepared to get yourself heavily invested in the Sri Lankan Civil War, its cricket team’s history, the urban layout of Colombo, arrack, Sinhala slang, and impossibly long surnames. If any of that interests you, then dig in. There will be times you will want to end it. But just as you begin to lose interest it will drag you back with some cricketing anecdote from the 1950s that is just too good leave, you have to dive deeper. The fictional elements of the mysterious Pradeep Mathew are interwoven so seamlessly with actual cricket history that by the novel’s conclusion it is difficult to dissect the two. I found myself checking historical scorecards for a mystery spinner that exists only in the mind of the author.
If you are looking to reinvigorate your interest in cricket, this is the book for you. But if you never followed a World Cup, read a Wisden Almanack, or scrolled Cricinfo for hours, I would advise to stay clear until your cricket knowledge is up to snuff.
With three ice fishing trips under our belt this winter, it’s finally time to update on some of the progress we have made into this new subsurface world. A lot of gear has been purchased, locations have been explored, and holes have been drilled in the last couple of months!
The destinations: Lake Shumarinai, about 4 hours north of Sapporo. Lake Kanayama near Minamifurano, about 2 hours east of Sapporo. And finally the smaller Lake Poroto about 90 minutes south.
Each location had it’s unique character. Shumarinai is a long haul for us. It’s the largest lake of the bunch and gets plenty of visitors for wakasagi fishing. It’s a good place to go if you don’t have all the gear to set off on your own. You can rent anything you need, and most of their holes are freshly drilled so you can get right to fishing.
Kanayama is a do it yourself kind of place. It’s an unlicensed lake, so there are no fees to pay, but you will have to have your own ice auger, tent, and all the other accoutrements.
Poroto was the closest lake we most recently set out for. It a nice spot to go either beginning or end of season. Here too you will have to bring all your own gear, but there is a small licensing fee.
Here is a rundown the essential gear we used for our wakasagi (Japanese pond smelt) hunt:
Coleman Ice Fishing Shelter Auto (Large) – This costs a pretty penny and seem to be fast flying off the shelves in Japan. The more heavy duty ice shelter seen in the U.S. aren’t available here, but this one is roomy and works well enough. It seems to be a Japanese exclusive and the go to tent for most wakasagi enthusiasts. Its a quick setup, folds up umbrella style, and has multiple entries.
North Eagle Ice Drill (auger) – Picked this up at the local Homac. It was the last in stock. These are flying off the shelf folks! Probably not the highest quality drill on the market, but we had no problem hand drilling through a little less than a meter of ice with this guy. It’s a decent work out.
Wakasagi Ranger Rod Set – we aren’t going too hard core with our rods (just yet). The sky can be the limit, but this bundle only cost about 2,000 yen at Corso, the local fishing gear depot. Short (maybe 2 feet with tip attached), light, and easy to detect strikes with. This came with a pretty basic Mirage mini reel (baitcasting style). We found similar reels at our neighborhood Homac for about 1,500 yen. We got a bunch as spares.
low fishing chair (Prox Inc.) – Posture and comfort is very important in this kind of fishing. Not a fan of the sitting Japanese zazen style, which seems to be the norm. This one gets you down low enough while saving your knees/legs from long term damage. Prox Inc. makes a ton of medium quality gear for all styles of fishing in Japan. My waders are made by Prox and they have been going strong for about 6 years now.
Hayabusa Wakasagi Hooks – These come in a wide range of lengths, hook sizes and hook quantities. It’s best not to over think it. We try to opt for the 4 hook 45 centimeter length system. You can go with a longer 7 or 8 hook system but that just takes too long to set the bait up on and sometimes you just want to get fishing. You add a weight to the bottom (with an optional hook hanging from that!) Our basic rig looks like this:
A cheap live well – Basically we’ve been using small rectangular 100 yen shop plastic containers filled about halfway with water. It does the job and and you can get an approximate count on your fish (which accumulate quickly).
Wakasagi Antenna (Prox Inc.) – What the hell is a wakasagi antenna? Believe me, I was right there with you when I heard about this piece of gear. Essentially it is a long adjustable telescoping “antenna” that you can connect to your live well (or something else low lying). The top of the antenna has some grooves in it and extends to about a meter. When you need to re-bait your hooks or unhook caught fish, it makes the process much simpler. Most importantly, you will avoid a ton of potential (and realized) hook snags on clothing and fingers. Dangling 5 or more extremely tiny hooks without one of these seemingly bizarre tools is a Japanese ice fishing nightmare. The base of the antenna is also magnetized, which proves invaluable for unsnagging hooks caught under the ice.
low bamboo table (Prox Inc.) – Another WTF? piece of kit that proved its worth. If there are lulls in fishing, it is best to get your rod level, low and completely still. It also helps makes your area a bit more homey.
Bait – Wakasagi “Rabbit” (Melon, Cheese) – There are a variety of tiny grubs you can use. We’ve been sticking with the Wakasagi “Rabbit” variety. No idea why they are called that. They are about half the size (a couple millimeters) of the standard aka mushi (red worm) or shiro mushi (white worm). They also come small pieces of cheese or melon mixed with finely shredded wood chips. We assume that by digesting these particles their bodies take on a flavor more to the wakasagi’s liking. Our local Homac sells these, as well as Corso and Amirikaya (the big fishing depots of Sapporo).
Those are the main purchases. Of course, there are quite a few other items we keep adding to our setup: rod holders, ice anchors, foam interlocking tiles for around our feet, wakasagi unhookers, etc. There really is no limit to what you could end up buying and we are in a constant struggle to refine our gear. There is also a whole other level of gear that we haven’t even touched on such as electric reels, fishfinders, and heaters. That’s for maybe next year’s gear dump.
This style of fishing may not be for everyone. The gear is very Japanese centric, and hauling in over a hundred tiny smelt might not be your cup of tea. It’s more like fish “harvesting” than “fishing”. If the fish are there and you’ve done the proper prep work, then you’ll be bringing them up pretty consistently. Watch the end of your rod tip with a keen eye, and keep warm!
This past year I explored the trails and waters around Heiwa Waterfall quite a lot. I took the trail up the backside of Mt. Teine in early summer and caught iwana (Arctic Char) above the waterfall on both bait (salmon eggs) and hand tied tenkara flies. I even did some low-level stream climbing (sawanobori) to get to some hidden fish deep off the beaten path. It’s been a fun year in that regard. And now I rounded out the winter season with some great snowshoeing at the falls, in a near blizzard.
We managed to hitch an automobile ride this time. Riding a bike, even a winterized fat bike, is next to impossible for this long a ride and in these conditions. Once we got to the surprisingly crowded line of cars along the narrow road at the trail head (the large parking lot hadn’t been plowed for weeks), we were anxious to explore.
The trail was surprising well groomed for a good portion of our trek. Other trekking parties, snowshoers, and cross country skiers, had plowed a narrow track that was quickly being devoured by the morning’s intense snowfall. We hiked about 2 kilometers in, past the dam, exploring some side trails and enjoying some deep powder.
With snowshoes, accessing the Kotoni-Hassamu River is actually easier. With some careful planning, I wouldn’t mind trying some winter tenkara fishing. But that is for another day. On this particular hike we decided to head back to the car a bit earlier than we would have liked, since the snow wasn’t abating and we didn’t feel like having to call JAF (Japan Automobile Federation) to dig our car out.
Every day on my morning walk I pass the Nakamura General Store (中村商店), or shouten as they say in the common parlance. It primarily sells Japanese sake and other alcohol. Somehow they are hanging in there, even with a massive Sapporo Drug Store right on its doorstep across the street. Less and less of these places are existing these days.