Ki-Gu-Mi Miniature Schnauzer

Christmas and the New Year often bring with it an assortment of paper/wood models that I can’t wait to get started on. Japan has been really upping its game in this field in the last decade so I am always excited when a different brand I haven’t heard of before catches my eye. Ki-Gu-Mi has a large variety of balsa wood projects and I was gifted their miniature schnauzer set from Old St. Nick, I so wasted no time assembling.

This one was pretty straight forward and took only about 30 minutes, which is unheard in my experience. That too star difficulty rating is pretty spot on. There is a remarkable amount of detail in the dog’s muzzle and it really ties my micro man cave together.

Nopporo Forest Park

Some decent snowfall overnight brought levels up for some decent snowshoeing in and around the city. We took a drive out to Nopporo Forest Park, near Ebetsu, to explore its trails. Although most of the trails are groomed, there are a lot of open spaces for some great snowshoeing.

The visitor center is ultra modern and has all the maps and resources (Japanese only) you might need
Download a this map here.

We started at the visitor/nature center and after a quick onigiri, hit the trail. The park has a lot of trails, you can get lost for hours if you choose, but we decided to do a simple loop to the Centennial Memorial Tower, a monolithic art installation slated to be demolished later this year. Its eerie presence will be missed.

The snow was fresh and it was a great day. Nopporo’s trail network, although extensive, is relatively flat, so it’s the perfect place for low intensity snowshoeing. Most trails are well groomed in winter, so even without snowshoes you can still have a decent hike (some simple crampons might help).

We saw a flock of Great and/or Lesser spotted woodpeckers, encountered quite a few cross-country skiers, and got a decent workout in.

But don’t just take my word for it, go to Hokkaido Wilds’ guide to Nopporo Forest Park for a great deep dive (in English) on this under utilized trail network and snowshoeing location.

Japan’s Postal Network and Postcards

Japan’s postal system really does a crack up job. Some of that comes down to geography, some of it comes down to history. Japan closed it self off for several hundred years prior to the 20th century. It had a lot of “me” time to focus on its overland highway system, getting messages from one village to the next, transporting goods quickly, and all the rest. That streamlined focus of the postal system carried over into the modern era. Even today, letters rarely take more than a full day to reach their destination. Packages can usually be delivered within three. Japan Post and independent couriers like Yamato make package deliveries seven days a week, 9 AM to 8 PM. Not around to receive your package? Just call the number on their delivery slip and schedule a re-delivery whenever is best for you, even as little as an hour later! It really is bizarre…

Well, the snow is starting to really settle in, just in time for the New Year. In the past few days I’ve had the privilege of obsessively tracking several parcels sent from the U.S. for Christmas. As relatives cursed the heavens at the inefficiencies of America’s postal service (our boxes took more than a week to finally get on a plane to Japan), I was pondering on a trip we took about 10 years ago with my in-laws along the Nakasendo. I already documented my stay a long while back, but I thought I share some hand sketched postcards that I bought on that trip. They really capture the overall mood of the old postal towns.

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Snowfall Anticipation

No major snowfall yet here in Sapporo. It’s that time of the year when we all just wait. I’m expecting a big snow dump this year. We’ve had some relatively mild winters the last few years, and one would think that we are due. Get ready for longer walks to work. Hours of shoveling at the in-laws. But most importantly, long snowshoe treks into the local woods… to escape it all.

It won’t be long, usually by Christmas Day we have some accumulation. Even the Buddhist stone deities along the trails have sprouted newly knitted sweaters (they know what’s up). Always a nice site to see.

These Jizo statues will be buried soon enough by the snow.

Due to the pandemic, which apparently continues until further notice, this year’s Snow Festival will be scaled back, presumably to dissuade tourists. Fine by me. One of the benefits Sapporo’s intense winter is how the streets become mostly abandoned, everyone huddled inside I assume. Always hated the throngs of people that descend on the town in February to see some snow statues of their favorite anime characters. Ruined the mood.

Make Your Own Space

I quit the news. It’s been a struggle, but for the last month leading up to the U.S. election I managed to pretty much eliminate it from my life. Of course it seeps in at times. I stamp it out like a grease fire in the kitchen. It tries so hard to tell me things. Especially the last few days. I know something is happening that is pretty monumental. But I’ve replaced all of that with art, creativity, books, and what I feel is a better life.

“If you wish to improve, be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.”Epictetus

What is extraneous? Mostly everything. It doesn’t mean I do nothing. I voted. Not sure if my vote ever arrived. It got mailed off into the ether. But I did what I could. I’ll continue to do what I can with my actions. I’ll still hear about the news, but it will have to come from the lips of others. I won’t deny them their talking points.

“But what if something happens?” Like what, a pandemic? The hostile takeover of my birth nation? All those are already in play. I probably will get some emails. I’ll look forward to reading them. In the past it would have just been old news, stuff I read about prior. Now everything can be a neat little surprise. But that’s where it ends.

“The News”. It’s a terrible show I should have gave up on a long time ago. Now I can focus on things that matter like reading the complete works of Cormac McCarthy, watching Twin Peaks for the first time, and building a homemade rod for ice fishing this February. Also there will be more time to just space out…

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quiet in a room alone.” Blaise Pascal

As George Costanza once said, “This is no longer just some crazy notion… this is my religion.”

Robot English

How to cope with a robot co-worker? Each day I come to work and have to deal with a man who refuses to speak like a human. I just want normal. A normal, simple, English speaker. Not a simple person. I don’t want anyone to be simple. I am just asking for clarity.

For example. “Is this sentence correct?” That would be a basic way of clarifying whether an error has been made in syntax or grammar. I could thus respond in my own standard, simple, understandable way something like, “Yes, it is.” Or some derivative.

Instead, each day I am confronted with bespoke works of linguistic gymnastics so bizarre that I barely have the energy to respond upon hearing them.

“Is this sentence correct?” becomes “In your perception, this sentence which has been written on the blackboard, is it accurate, in your opinion?”

An exchange like this might seem innocuous. Maybe just the spoken English of a man trying to impress with his second language skills. But it is the default of so many “elder” speakers of English in Japan to use unnecessary verbiage for such mundane conversations.

This default must have been encouraged in them when they learned English. Speak to impress, not to communicate. And those who “impressed” the most find themselves as teachers of English, or translators, or government advisors.

It leads to Japan’s “Go to Travel” tourism campaign. It leads to Homac, a popular home supply depot, displaying slogans like “Do Create Mystyle”. Of course there are an infinite amount of other horrific Japanlish examples, just search. My point being that these painful expressions of English, whether in advertising or in conversation, badly reflect on how English has been commodified in the last century in Japan.

You see it’s not about communicating. It’s about status. Memorize this list of words, pay for a juku to train to pass an Eiken test, “earn” your certificate. Congratulations! Now you are qualified to develop our national ad campaign. Of course, use English, use ridiculous words, string them together any which way! You have credentials.

Back to the schools, where I witness the worst of these offenses. I taught a special needs class the other day. Usually the special needs students have the best communicative ability because they haven’t been beaten down by the Japanese pressure to conform. They bypass that, which is great for me. Kids raise their hands in special needs class. They try to speak, out loud, with enthusiasm. But even there English is bastardized by this need to be impressive, rather than expressive.

Students where giving a brief introduction of themselves to me and the class. They had prepared their short speeches, probably worked on them for weeks. A few simple sentences about what they like, don’t like, hobbies, etc. But it seems that a robot infiltrated the class, and made some “adjustments”. Here’s a snippet from a girl’s speech, let’s call her Sakura:

Hello, I’m Sakura.

What I’m addicted to is making videos.

My current hobby is to acquire singing techniques.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the last time I heard a speech like that was from the android Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. I certainly wouldn’t expect a 13 year old girl from Japan, or any other nation on the planet, to speak about themselves in such a manner. Of course Sakura, could never reproduce that speech spontaneously because it was completely fabricated by a Japanese teaching assistant, and most of the words aren’t even taught at the junior high school level. It was rote memorized.

As soon as you decouple English language learning from the business of handing out Eiken certificates and emphasize simple down-to-Earth communication, the ability of students will grow in a more organic way. No more robots! No more ridiculous English signs and slogans. (Which are often unnecessary anyway!)

Summer Camp 2020

We still managed to get out there and do some camping this summer, despite COVID running roughshod over many cities on Honshu. Not gonna lie, it is worrying. But up here in Hokkaido life goes on, and so do our yearly trips south of Obihiro to Snow Peak’s Tokachi Poroshiri campground.

This year’s trip did not involve the non-stop rains we have been accustomed to, though we did get a few showers. Our main goal this year was to catch and keep enough yamame (cherry salmon) to have a tempura feast. Fortunately the small rivers to the east in the region, known locally as the Tanzan (湛山), are teeming with fish, and we managed to find the perfect drive in location. We caught more than enough!

A nice isolated stretch of river teeming with yamame

We got to try out some of our new fishing gear, fishing simple keiryu style, using salmon eggs per usual. It’s been a very long time since I’ve harvested a fish, so it took a few fish wiggling around in my new Daiwa creel, breathing their last breaths, to become comfortable with taking their lives.

We had a very nice tempura feast that evening and put a few of the larger fish on skewers to cook over the coals.  So many yamame were caught that we had enough for breakfast in the morning!

About 35 yamame with a few larger rainbow trout

Keeping the fish on the skewer without melting off is a tough skill I still need to master

It was definitely one of the more interesting dining experiences while camping in Hokkaido. We supplemented our fish intake by sampling soft ice cream and gelato from several local establishments. Our current favorite is Tokachi Fromages.

Heiwa Waterfall White-Spotted Char

For the last several summers I have hiked the backside of Teine (手稲), Sapporo’s main ski mountain, starting from the Heiwa waterfall (平和の滝) and following the the Hassamu-Kotoni River (発寒琴似川) along the trail. It’s quite the hike.

The small stream above the falls runs about a kilometer before a man-made dam blocks any fish moving further upstream. I’ve explored this stretch fly fishing before, convinced it was dead water. But I’ve heard rumors of iwana (white-spotted char) being caught somewhere above the falls, and this past week I set out on a mission to finally land me a fish in this wild area within Sapporo’s city limits.

Heiwa Waterfall is a fairly well known tourist spot. The water above the falls is even more interesting.

So I geared up my fishing supplies, opting for my 3 meter Daiwa keiryu rod, using ikura (salmon eggs) for bait. I’ve messed around with fly fishing/tenkara in this area before, but the tightness of the stream makes casting nearly impossible. Keiryu style bait fishing seemed like my only chance at landing a fish.

I loaded up my bike at 5:30 AM and set off on the hour+ journey to the falls in the Nishi (West) Ward. One quick look at falls and you can easily see that fish aren’t traversing past this point. Yamame (Cherry Salmon) and rogue Rainbow Trout from downstream aren’t venturing up here. So any fish that do exist are more than likely self-sustaining, endemic iwana (white-spotted char).

I set out on the trail for the 20 minute hike to the upper dam, where a trail offered the only true access to the stream.

The trail down to this dam/waterfall offers the only access to the stream.

Once down at the base I of the dam I prepared my rig and set out downstream, careful to remain along the mossy rocks on the banks and trying not to spook any fish.

After descending down about three or four step-down pools, out of view of the hiking trail, I began lob casting into the foam. I was just happy to be fishing and more than curious if any fish could be hidden here. Most of the stream is only a few meters wide in this area but each pool is surprisingly deep, at least a meter.

I was completely shocked when on just my second cast, I had a monster hit on my salmon egg. One cast later I hooked one, the largest iwana I have ever caught here in Hokkaido, approximately 30 centimeters!

I would catch a total of 4 large iwana, all approximately 30 centimeters, in these plunge pools. I barely had made my way downstream and I had already surpassed my expectations. All within about 45 minutes, maybe less. It was an unbelievable experience. Some of the best fish I have yet to catch in Hokkaido, all within the city limits.

I don’t have any pictures of the fish. I rarely do. My nervous hands have a hard time handling fish and reaching for a smartphone at the same time. So you don’t have to believe me. But get out there and explore your urban streams. Ride your bikes just a little bit further. You might be surprised what you find.