Roads of Oku: Travel in Northern Japan
In the Footsteps of Basho and Beyond / May 19-June 8, 2005
Last Edited: August 30, 2010
At the end of spring of 1689, the haiku poet Basho traveled from Edo (now Tokyo) to Oku a term that referred to the northern provinces of Honshu, then the northern border of Japan. Today, “oku” has taken on a broad and, for the traveler, alluring meaning variously, deep north, far province, remote, out of the way.
I read Basho's travel narrative Narrow Road to the Deep North 35 years ago, and it has remained a favorite. As I was planning a trip to northern Japan, I reread it, hoping to locate and visit a few of the utamakura (storied places) that inspired some of his best poetry.
Travel was more difficult in Basho's time: his journey on foot and horseback over unpaved roads and paths without signs took five months. The 45-year-old poet got only as far as Hiraizumi and Kisakata before returning south along the Sea of Japan.
Today, we travel faster and farther, on wider roads. We rented a car for three weeks and drove as far north as we could, past Hiraizumi, to the end of Honshu. Then, since we had come so far north and didn't know when, if ever, we would be here again, we caught a car ferry and continued on to the northern tip of Hokkaido island before returning to Narita Airpot via the backside of Japan.
Map by the Honolulu Advertiser. Click on the image for a Google Map.
Nikko to Hiraizumi
One of Basho's first stops was Nikko ("Sunlight"). Still fresh on his journey, the poet inked a celebratory haiku:
glorious! / green leaves, young leaves / in Nikko
We arrived in mid-May, like Basho, when Nikko is still bright green-gold with new leaves and rice shoots sprouting in mirror-like ponds.
Over breakfast at dawn, the innkeeper praised his hometown for its clean air and abundant water. When I told him we planned to see Urami Falls and Kegon Falls, he told us about a third waterfall, Kirifuri ("Falling Mist"), a 5-minute drive from the inn. A walk through a forest with blossoming azaleas took us to a lookout below which Kirifuri tumbled down a sun-lit mountainside.
We visited Nikko National Park's most famous site, Toshogu Shrine, built in 1617 as a mausoleum for Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the shogun who established a unified nation and a dynasty that ruled for two- and-a-half centuries.
On our way up to Lake Chuzenji, we hiked a short ways to see Urami no Taki ("View from behind Falls"), which appears as it did when Basho saw it:
a waterfall ... came pouring out of a hollow in the ridge into a dark green pool a hundred feet below. The rocks behind the waterfall were so carved out that we could enter behind the falls and see out from it, hence its name.
A road known as the Iroha Slope, full of S-turns, goes one way up to and one way down from Lake Chuzenji, with a view of Kegon Falls on the way up.
From Nikko, Basho descended to the plain of Ibaraki and headed for Sendai and Matsushima through Nasu, Shirakawa, Nihonmatsu, and Fukushima. We took a less-traveled road through the mountains to the town of Ashinomaki and through Bandai-Asahi National Park. (In fall 2009, we followed Basho's route through Nasu, Shirakawa, Nihonmatsu, and Fukushima, to Sendai, to see some of the utamakura we missed in 2005.)
Two odd sights along the road: a miniature replica of Mt. Rushmore carved into a low stone cliff; and a disabled BMW, with one front tire stuck in a narrow concrete drainage ditch next to the road. At Ashinomaki, hot-spring inns are built along the Aga River flowing north to Aizu Wakamatsu.
After a quiet night and an early morning walk along the Aga River, we headed for Yamagata Sendai via Lake Inawashiro, the fourth largest lake in Japan. We stopped to walk at Goshikinuma ("Five Colored Marshes") near Mt. Bandai.
In the afternoon, we reached Yamagata, where the poet visited Risshaku ("Standing Rock") Temple, perched on a rocky hill dotted with caves. Basho describes the temple as quiet, remote and lonely:
tranquil hush / a cicada's voice / permeates the cliff
At 3 pm, Risshaku was bustling; no cicadas, just the chirping of visitors (some of cell phones) going up and down the 1,100 stone steps leading up to the temple. But the tourist day was nearly over, and by the time we reached the top, the crowd had thinned, leaving a peaceful view from an observation platform.
As the afternoon waned, we drove the winding Route 286 over the mountains to the city of Sendai, hoping to see the moon over nearby Matsushima, as Basho had. This bay with 263 pine-covered islands was (and still is) considered the most scenic spot in Japan.
Instead, we saw the moon over Sendai Station above an avenue filled with cars and sidewalks crowded with businessmen and young shoppers garbed in a 60s fashion-warp. Our car was trapped in a vertical elevator car park, which was what the hotel meant by "parking available." O little Tokyo of the north!
Early the next morning, we got the car back, drove to Matsushima and walked around Oshima Island, which was once a place where Buddhist recluses meditated in caves. In spite of the millions that have described and photographed it, Matsushima appeared fresh and beautiful to our eyes.
We looked for the former site of Taga Castle, which Bashō visited, to see Tsubo no Ishibumi, the stone monument whose ancient inscription brought "joyous tears" to Basho's eyes. The castle, actually an administrative outpost, was built during the Nara period (circa 800 A.D.) to bring the northern frontier peoples called Emishi under the control of the imperial court.
We ended up at the former site of Taga Castle Temple, a nice park-like area, where local residents were out for their morning walks.
Tsubo no Ishibumi was harder to find. We were going to leave without seeing it, but noticed a photo of it on an overhead sign and asked an elderly man on his morning walk where it was. He said he would take us there, jumped into the back seat, and directed us to a park a few hundred yards and several turns away. The stone was housed in a small wooden building.
We offered to drive our guide back to where he got in, but he declined, bid us farewell and continued on his walk. It was the kind of civility Bashō and Sora encountered on their journey. On their way from Nikkō to Kurobane, in Nasu, they were unsure about the way and asked directions from a farmer cutting grass with a sickle:
As rustic as he was, he wasn’t without sympathy. “Let’s see,” he said, “What’s the best way? The roads around here branch off in every direction. I’m worried travelers new to the area may get lost. Here, I’ll loan you this horse. When he stops, let him find his way back.” ... Before long we reached a village and let the horse return, with payment tied to the saddle.
North of Matsushima is Hiraizumi, where in the 12th century the heroic warrior Yoshitsune took refuge from his rivalrous brother Yorimoto, Japan's first shogun, and committed suicide rather than allow himself and his family to be killed when his brother attacked.
For a hundred years, Hiraizumi had been the cultural and economic center of northern Japan under the Fujiwara clan. It never recovered from Yoritomo's attack. When Basho visited the area in the 17th century, fields of grass grew where mansions once stood:
summer grasses / all that's left / of warriors' dreams
The area is now the site of Motsuji Temple Garden. The day we were there, a Heian poetry festival was in progress.
What remains from Basho's time, a little north of the park, is Chusonji, a temple complex established in 850. A modern protective hall at the end of a manicured path houses the Konjikido, or Golden Hall, a beautifully gilded mausoleum inlaid with mother of pearl and jewels, housing the mummified remains of three generations of Fujiwara rulers.
No photos are allowed of the Golden Hall, but a photo of it (right) appeared in the online Japan Times (Kyodo/Cultural Affairs Agency, Yoshiaki Miura), when Hiraizumi was being considered for a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation in June 2011.
Nearby is a statue of the wandering poet.
Beyond Hiraizumi: Northern Honshu
From Hiraizumi, Basho headed west, to Sakata and Kisakata on the Sea of Japan. We drove northeast instead, to see Rikuchu Coast National Park, which extends 110 miles along the Pacific Ocean, and get to Oma from where we planned to take the car ferry to Hokkaido. (In fall 2009, we traveled west of Sendai to see some of the utamakura of Basho's narrative like the Narugo Gorge, the Shitomae Barrier, Obanazawa, and the upper reaches of the Mogami river.)
As we headed north, the rugged coastline was shrouded in mist and rain.
After a morning hike up and down ridges along the coast, we visited Ryusendo ("dragon spring cave"), 2,500 meters long, with an underground lake and a stream running through it.
We spent the night in Mutsu, at the base of the Shimokita Peninsula, so that the next morning we could visit Osore-zan ("Terrifying Mountain"), a volcanic crater and lake, with Bodai Temple inside the crater.
The sulphurous crater is said to be a borderland between the realms of the living and the dead, where spirits can be contacted through mediums called itako who gather there in the summer. The cawing of crows and a cold drizzling rain created a melancholic atmosphere. We were the only ones there.
Scattered over the sulphurous landscape are small shrines dedicated to children who have died before their parents. The shrines feature statues of the Mahayana Buddhist deity Jizo, adorned with hats and bibs. Among the shrines and along the shore of the lake are small piles of rocks.
Jizo pledged to wander the six realms of existence to help all suffering creatures toward salvation. According to Buddhist folklore, the souls of the aborted, the miscarried and the stillborn (mizuko) are placed in limbo because they haven’t done anything bad and can’t be sent to Hell, yet they haven’t accumulated any good deeds that would allow them to reach the river Sanzu and cross to the Western Paradise. They end up at a dried-up river called Sai-no-kawara. Here their spirits stack stones and pebbles into pagodas as a way to attract the attention of and worship Jizo.
Others say the children are praying for salvation and building small stone towers in order to climb out of limbo into Paradise. Parents stack rocks to assist the spirits of their children in this task to shorten the spirits' stay in limbo. Visitors may also add stones to the piles as a good deed.
After nightfall, demons with iron clubs, under Shozuka no Baba, come to scatter the rocks, strip the children of clothing, and beat them. Jizo protects the children from these demons by hiding them in his glowing robe and driving the demons off with his staff. Articles of clothing are sometimes left by parents to replace any clothing taken.
The bibs, kerchiefs, and hats (often red) found on the statues of Jizo are gifts to thank him for his protection of the children and to encourage him to continue to take care of them. Pinwheels are placed along the pathways as toys for the children or perhaps like Tibetan prayer wheels to spread prayers abroad and invoke the benevolent attention of Jizo.
North of Mutsu and Osoresan, at the tip of Shimokita Peninsula, is the fishing town of Oma. The town is noted for its catch of maguro (bluefin tuna), schools of which come in the winter to feed on schools of sanma (mackerel) in the Tsugaru strait. The fatty belly meat of maguro is the most prized cut of sashimi.
The car ferry from Oma crosses the strait from Oma, Honshu, to Hakodate, Hōkkaido, arriving in a little under two hours.
Hokkaido: Under the North Star
In Basho's time, all of Hokkaido, except the southern tip, was not Japan, but the homeland of the people the Japanese called Ezo, later Ainu, who refer to the island as Ainu Moshiri (“land of the people”). The island was unilaterally annexed by the Japanese government in 1868 and renamed “Hokkaidō,” or “Northern Sea-Road,” indicating the direction of Japanese colonization.
When the first Japanese settlers arrived on Hokkaido is not documented, but by the end of the twelfth century, there were settlements on Oshima peninsula, which extends south into the strait.
By the mid-1400s, the Japanese had extended their territory over the Oshima Peninsula. Matsumae and Esashi were the main settlements. Tensions between the Wajin and Ezo increased, until in 1457, Koshamain, the Ainu chief of Oshamanbe, attacked Japanese towns, including Matsumae. The tide of battle ebbed and flowed, but the Japanese held off the Ainu and remained in their settlements.
Sporadic fighting continued for almost a century until an agreement was signed in 1550 to establish a territorial boundary at the line between the towns of Shiriuchi and Kaminokuni, reducing the Japanese-controlled area to the southwestern tip of Oshima, around Matsumae.
In 1617, gold was discovered in a river eleven miles north of Japanese settlement of Matsumae and gold prospectors came. Their digging polluted rivers and interfered with salmon migrations, so tensions again grew between the two groups. The Ainu consider running streams sacred and did not wash soiled objects in it.
From 1669 to 1672, the chief Samkusaynu (Shakushain), with a thousand Ainu followers, led an uprising against the Japanese. But their poison-tipped arrows were no match for guns, and the Ainu were routed at Oshamanbe. Because of the loss of their hunting grounds and salmon streams and the loss of population due to the spread of diseases such as syphilis, smallpox, measles, cholera, and tuberculosis, Ainu control over Hokkaido gradually weakened.
Japan began systematically colonizing Hokkaido in the 19th century. Matsuura Takeshiro (1818-1888), who explored Hokkaido and Chishima (Kunashiri Island), exposed the forced labor with pay one-seventh to one-fifth of the prevailing wage for Japanese. Kayano recalls that his grandfather, Totkaram, was one of those forced into labor, with his mother and father, when he was eleven years old. In hopes of being sent home, the young boy cut off his left index finger; but his overseer told him to put salt on his wound, and it would soon heal. Finally Totkaram painted himself with blowfish bile from, which turned his skin yellow-gray; fearing that he had a contagious disease, his overseer finally sent him home.
Matsuura advocated against the practice of forced labor, arguing that the Ainu should be seen as people rather than “primitives.” Although his expose (written between 1854-1859) was banned, the Meiji government put a stop to forced labor. Matsuura was appointed Ezochi Development Commissioner in 1869 oversaw the annexation of their lands and promoted the settlement of Hokkaido by the Japanese.
The Meiji government brought in American advisors and experts in surveying, engineering, geology, mining, and agriculture to speed up economic development in Hokkaido. Experimental farms introduced Western agricultural equipment and practices to produce wheat, potatoes, beets, soybeans, onions, pumpkins, and corn, as well as raw milk and beef. In 1879, Hokkaido was declared part of the emperor’s lands. Today the island, a major food-producing and forestry region.
Best known for its Sapporo Snow Festival in February, Hokkaido is also home to six national parks, four at the corners of the island and two in the center. In a week and a half, we drove to all six, so we see the geographical and cultural diversity of the island.
Our first stop was Shikotsu-Toya National Park, named after its two lakes. Along the shore of Lake Toya is a small hot-springs town. In late May the cherry blossoms were falling along the lake.
Rising above the lake is Mount Usu, a volcano which last erupted in 2000; nearby is Showa Shinzan, a steaming volcanic cone created by a 1944 eruption.
On the way to Kushiro at the east end of the island, we went up the Saru River valley where Ainu culture originated: Here the god Okikurmikamuy taught the people to build houses, fish, and raise millet. Farms line both sides of the road that follows the river upstream.
The traditional Ainu culture emerged from a blend of the indigenous Jomon culture and Japanese culture. In the thirteenth century, this proto-Ainu culture appeared on Hokkaido, marked by shifts from pit-dwellings to houses on pillars and from pottery to iron cooking ware. Although the Ainu shared some cultural beliefs with the Japanese and traded goods with them, they are more closely related genetically and linguistically to the Jomon than to the Japanese. Also, they were traditionally not rice-farmers (rice did not grew well in the cold north); they lived as hunters of deer, bear, and rabbits; fishers of trout (summer) and salmon (fall); gatherers of wild plants; and cultivators of grains and vegetables.
The Japanese government's repressive policy of assimilation in the 19th century destroyed the Ainu language and culture. In recent decades, due to a more tolerant policy and the work of Ainu elders and scholars, the language and culture have begun to be preserved and somewhat revived, albeit in a modern context.
We stopped in the town of Shiraoi, which promotes a reproduction of an Ainu village and a museum. Before entering visitors have to walk a gauntlet of stores selling curios and just past the entrance, there was a cage of bears, which were worshiped as gods. The “iyomante,” or bear-sending ceremony, which was central to Ainu religious beliefs and cultural identity involved setting a captive bear cub free, before killing it in order to send its spirit back to the spirit world, with dancing, offerings, and an invitation for more bears to return. The slain cub was consumed at a communal feast.
The grounds of the village were deserted when we arrived, but a tour group showed up to half-fill the seats in a traditional house where young Ainu performed traditional songs and dances, a reminder of the culture that had been loss.
From Shiraoi we drove to Kushiro, an industrial town and fishing port on the east side of the island.
Kushiro is noted for its fresh, delicious seafood, for sale at Washo Market and in restaurants:
North of Kushiro is Kushiro Marshlands National Park, with Japan's largest wetland. In late May, the landscape is colored in shades of grays, browns, and dull straw, with greens emerging.
The reedy marsh is home to the tsuru, or Japanese crane, known in Ainu as sarorun chikap, or “the bird among the tall grasses.” Their nests are lined with down, which the Ainu believe brings prosperity and abundant life, so when they find a nest, they take the lining home, wrap it in whittlings of willow and carefully put it away in a box at the northeast corner of the house (a protection from evil, which was thought to come from that direction).
We walked through the marsh on a boardwalk trail, but saw no cranes, only small birds.
The best time to see the cranes is winter, when they perform their mating dance. Even then, there’s no guarantee of a sighting. There was a stuffed crane at the park museum, with other stuffed animals that live in the marsh, none of which we saw in the wild.
North of Kushiro wetlands is Akan National Park with three lakes and forested mountains. Lake Akan is noted for its marimo, an algae that grows in round balls.
A legend about the origin of these algae balls is told in Takahashi’s Folktales of Hokkaido, a thin book published by the author, an English teacher at Hokkaido University: two lovers were separated by class, the girl a chief’s daughter and the boy a servant who grew up with her. A jealous suitor attacked the sleeping servant boy, but the boy killed his attacker. The distraught servant boy then drowned himself in the Lake. The girl, unable to overcome her grief, drowned herself as well. The marimo are said to be their offspring, which are cherished by the people of the lake. The gift shops are filled with marimo souveniors.
The gem of Akan National Park is Lake Mashu, a crater filled with possibly the clearest water in the world. Looking west from Mashu, we could see the central mountains and highest peak on Hokkaido, Asahidake, rising above the clouds.
From the lookout along the rim of the crater, the oblong lake appears far below, with a small island in it. Takahashi’s Folktales includes a story about the island in the lake: in a war between two villages, the son of the chief of the losing side escaped in the care of his old nurse. They were separated, and she waited for him at the shore of the lake, where she prayed to the mountain gods to transform her into an island so she could stay awake all to watch for her ward. Her wish was granted. When someone lands on the island, it rains or snows, which is a sign that the old nurse is weeping for joy thinking the boy has returned to her. From the crater-rim lookout, looking to the west, you can see all the way to the central plateau and the high mountains at the center of the island.
One of the oddest experiences of our trip: as we were leaving Mashu, a scrawny fox stepped out from the roadside brush and walked directly at our car, so we had to stop to avoid hitting it. Then it walked up to the side of the car, as if to ask for food.
It was the first fox I had ever seen. Luckily, we didn’t feed it because Karen’s mother told us later that if you feed a fox, its spirit will follow you home.
The Ainu, like the Japanese, believe in the magical, mischievous and wily qualities of the fox, capable of possessing people and causing illness, insanity or even death. An Ainu belief is that if you kill a fox while hunting, its spirit will go around and warn other animals away; so a hunter who takes a fox ties its mouth shut to prevent its spirit from leaving its body.
A skull of a dark-colored fox, considered good, may be posted outside a house to ward off evil spirits; it may also be consulted for oracles; a red-colored fox, on the other hand, is considered demonic, the kind that possesses people. They stay in their burrows during the winter because they can’t stand the cold, and come out only in warm summer weather. They are said to dig up human corpses and feed on them.
The fox is also known as a shape-shifter, appearing as a human to play tricks on people. Ainu scholar Shigeru Kayano says that a fox disguised as a human can be discovered by offering it a snack consisting of a bladder full of dried salmon eggs; a human will eat one egg at a time, but a fox will stuff its mouth.
At the far northeast tip of Hokkaido is Shiretoko ("End of Earth") National Park, noted for waterfalls plunging off cliffs into the sea, and abundant wildlife, including deer, bears and eagles. We wanted to hike to Kamuiwakka, a hot spring-fed waterfall, but the trail was closed, perhaps due to a bear sighting. So we drove up to Shiretoko Pass, from where, in a sea of mist off the east coast, we could see the mountaintops of Kunashiri, one of the Kuril Islands, which have been occupied by Russia since World War II and claimed by Japan.
We decided to go down to the fishing village of Rausu on the Pacific side of the peninsula. There was not much to see in the town, except fishing boats and seagulls. Kunashiri was clearly visible across the Nemuro Strait.
We were going to continue up the coast to a couple of hot springs in the rocks by the sea, but it was getting late, so we turned around and headed for Abashiri. By the time we got to our ryokan on Mt. Tento, it was late afternoon and the sun was setting over Lake Notoro, with sun rays breaking through horizon clouds, followed by sunset and a lingering twilight.
Sunset above Lake Abashiri / Dawn, with sakura in bloom in late May
An early morning walk to the lighthouse at Cape Notoro was enjoyable.
When we got back to the ryokan, we visited the Ryuhyo (“Drift Ice”) Museum, which was a short walk away and more interesting than its name suggests. The museum documents a winter phenomenon called drift ice: fresh water from the Amur River in Russia freezes and drifts in an icy sheet south across the sea of Okhotsk to northeastern Hokkaido. The ice reaches Hokkaido in January and melts by April.
There has been less ice recently due, apparently, to global warming. There was no ice in late May during our visit, but the museum had a wide-screen theater, empty except for us, featuring a documentary about drift ice and exhibits of the wildlife (e.g. tiny shrimps) that live on, in and under the ice, with a large freezer room that is supposed to give the visitor the experience of a Hokkaido winter. Cold-weather jackets are provided.
The Hokkaido Museum of Northern Peoples, also near the ryokan, featured artifacts of the Inuit (Alaska, Canada, Greenland), the Siberian peoples, and the Sami (northern Europe and Russia), all of whom share cultural practices and beliefs with the Okhotsk people, who migrated to Hokkaido from Sakhalin in the fifth century and settled the north coast of Hokkaido, including the islands of Rebun and Rishiri and the Kuril Islands. Hunters of sea-mammals (whales, porpoises, and seals), they inhabited Hokkaido until about 1300, when they disappeared as a distinctive group, pushed out, absorbed, or killed off by the Ainu.
According to a tale recorded by John Batchelor in the nineteenth century, the Ainu believed that the original inhabitants of Hokkaido were a race of tiny people who lived in pit-dwellings and who were exterminated by the Ainu. A legend suggests that the Ainu admired these tiny people for their abilty to fish for herring (five or ten men were needed to pull in a single fish) and to take whales: “Surely these pit-dwellers were gods.”
We drove past the Okhotsk archaeological site called the Moyoro Shell Mound, near the fish processing warehouses and harbor (not much to see), but didn’t have time to visit the Municipal Museum or the Shell Mound Museum where the artifacts uncovered are displayed.
On the way to Asahikawa and Taisetsuzan (“Great Snow Mountains”) National Park, we caught the ropeway at Sounkyo Gorge to Mount Kurodake, on the north side of the park.
The park, encompassing the central mountains of Hokkaido, features sixteen tall peaks, including the tallest on the island, Asahidake ("Morning Sun Peak") at 7,513 feet. The Ainu name for the area is Kamui-mintara, “Garden of the Divine.” We stayed at an onsen at the foot of Asahidake. In late May the ground was still snow-covered, though the snow was melting. Cross-country skiing is possible, but the hotel was nearly deserted.
A ropeway to hiking trails and a small alpine pond on Asahidake was closed for maintenance, in anticipation of summer crowds.
After watching the morning sun light up snow-capped Asahidake, we left for Wakkanai, 156 miles to the north, via Asahikawa, where we stopped at the Otokoyama (“Man Mountain”) Brewery.
This brewery was originally established in Itami, in Hyogo prefecture, near Osaka, over three hundred years ago. During the Edo Period, Otokoyama was a drink of choice for the Tokugawa household. Utamaro Kitagawa (ca. 1753 - 1806) and other eighteenth and nineteenth-century woodblock artists were fans of the saké and produced prints featuring casks of Otokoyama in the background of portraits of beautiful women, samurai, and kabuki actors. The prints are featured in the brewery museum, along with brewing equipment and utensils and saké bottles and cups.
The brewery in Asahikawa inherited the trademark and brewing techniques as an official successor to the original brewery in Itami. Otokoyama’s move to Hokkaido took place as Asahikawa grew from a village to a town in the early twentieth century.
Traditionally, saké is brewed in cold weather, from October to March, when the last batch of the rice used in brewing is steamed. Low temperatures make it less likely that undesirable microbes will get into the open fermentation tanks to affect the process; the cold also slows the brewing process, making it easier to control. Thus, one reason for Otokoyama’s move to Hokkaidø was the fact that Asahikawa is the coldest city in Japan (most days of snow, lowest temperature on record). After a brief autumn, storm clouds sweep in from the Sea of Japan bringing heavy, deep snowfalls. During the brief summer, the rain and melted snow in this mountainous region filters down through granite to underground reservoirs, and emerges in springs and rivers. A second reason for locating the brewery in Asahikawa is this excellent water, one spring at the entrance of the Otokoyama brewery.
We tasted some saké at the bar in the museum and bought a bottle of daiginjo to take on our journey to Wakkanai.
Route 40 to Wakkanai follows the Teshio River, between the Teshio and Kitami mountain ranges. Wakkanai is noted for its excellent seafood, and the hairy crab we had for dinner that night was delicious. Twenty-four miles across the Soya Strait is Russia's Sahkalin Island, visible on a clear day.
A ferry service connects Hokkaido and Sakhalin and signs in Wakkanai are written in Kanji, Roman characters, and Cyrillic. While strolling through the town, we passed a few Russians, mainly businessmen.
There is a plan to build a bridge across the relatively shallow Soya Strait (196 feet, or 60 meters, deep) and another one at the north end of the Sakhalin, across the narrower and shallower Tartar strait (3.6 miles wide and 65 feet, or 20 meters, deep). If the bridges are built, one could drive from Hokkaido to Spain. As trade between Russia and Japan expands, the probability of the bridges being built increases.
West of the town is Rebun-Rishiri-Sarobetsu National Park, which includes the islands of Rishiri and Rebun and an onshore area called Sarobetsu. We caught a ferry to Rebun and hiked up the hill at the southern end from where you can see Mt. Rishiri (5636 ft.), rising from the sea. It’s called Rishiri Fuji due to a faint resemblance to Japan's most famous mountain. Rebun is noted for its hiking trails and its small, brightly colored summer wildflowers, which were just starting to bloom, in white, yellow, and, purple.
The harbor was filled with fishing boats. Uni, or sea urchin, from the waters around Rishiri, called Ezo Bafun, is said to be the sweetest in Japan.
Cape Soya, the northernmost point in Japan, 19 miles east of Wakkanai, is marked by a monument to the North Star (Hokushin or Hokkyokusei), a symbol of Hokkaido, marking the direction of Japanese colonization. (Hokushin is also worshipped as a Buddhist-Shinto deity named Myoken, a special protector deity of the land and country of Japan.)
At the cape was a statue of Mamiya Rinzo, an explorer who, along with Matsuda Denjyuro, was sent to explore Sakhalin in 1808 to determine whether it was an island or a peninsula and also to assess the Russian presence there.
Mamiya traveled up the east coast of Sakhalin while Matsuda went up the west coast; Mamiya eventually met Matsuda on the west coast, and they returned together to Shiranushi, a Japanese trading post on the south end of the island. The southern half of the island was occupied mainly by Ainu, and the north half by the Nivkh people, who were under Chinese rule.
In 1809 Mamiya went north again, this time alone, traveling in the winter and eating grass to survive. He learned of the presence of Russian hunters on the island. He accompanied a village chief across the Tartar Strait to Asia, then up the Amur river to Delen, a Chinese trading post in Manchuria, where the chief presented gifts for the Chinese emperor. Arriving in 1810, Mamiya saw various peoples of the region gathered to exchange goods, speaking different languages and using gestures and shouts to communicate with each other.
After a couple days in Wakkanai, we drove down the west coast to Sapporo on routes 232 and 231. Wind farms lined on portion of 232. A small town featured traffic displays reminding drivers to be be careful of children walking along the road.
Approaching Sapporo, there was a waterfall next to the road, with the stream going under the road and into the sea. A crow flew down from the cliff and posed on the sign.
With 1.9 million people, Sapporo is Hokkaido’s largest city and the fifth largest in Japan. We checked into a hotel near the university (which grew from an agricultural college founded in 1876) and walked from there to the station and the park where Sapporo’s famous snow festival with its giant ice sculptures is held each year.
An area near the station is well-known for its ramen shops, and we stopped at one for lunch. We also couldn’t pass up a visit to the Sapporo brewery the next day, for some German sausages and a couple glasses of cold fresh brew. The brewery was established in 1869, as part of the movement to develop in Hokkaido industries based on Western technology and processes.
Also worth a visit was the Sapporo Historical Village, where buildings from the colonial era have been brought together from various parts of the island and reassembled next to a park outside of downtown Sapporo. Modern Japanese have begun to romanticize the settlement of Hokkaido in a way similar to how European-Americans romanticize their settlement of the so-called Wild West; in Japan’s case, the Wild North.
The story of the Hokkaidō colonization is woven into such recent movies as Hidden Blade (2004), about a samurai who renounces his status after learning of the corruption of his lord and realizing the changes brought about by Westernization. He plans to leave with his girlfriend, a farmer’s daughter, for Ezo. “Year One in the North” (2005) tells the story of a clan sent from Awaji Island to settle new lands in Hokkaidō at the beginning of the Meiji era, only to be abandoned there by their lord after clans are abolished. The clan overcomes all hardships to start farming and ranching on their new land.
We spent our last night on Hokkaido in Hakodate. On the ways south, we passed Mt. Yotei, called the Ezo Fuji:
In 1853, Commodore Perry’s warships steamed into Hakodate to pressure the Shogunate to open ports to foreign trade and re-supply of American ships. Soon after, the British, French, and Russians also arrived. Along with Nagasaki, which had been previously open only to the Dutch, Hakodate and Shimoda (on the Izu Peninsula, south of Tokyo) were designated as ports for foreign ships. These port were isolated (which is why they were chosen), so the foreigners eventually demanded and obtained the rights, starting in 1858, to enter the ports of Yokohama, near Tokyo; Kobe, near Osaka; and Niigata, on the sea of Japan.
The night we arrived in Hakodate, we wandered the area around our hotel near the waterfront looking for a place to eat. There were dozens of seafood restaurants; we ended up at a small restaurant near the hotel where the crab, abalone, squid, scallops, and other seafood were keep alive in tanks and prepared raw or grilled when customers place their orders.
The next morning, we took advantage of the early northern summer sunrise to tour the town at 6 a.m. We drove through the deserted foggy streets of Motomachi, at the foot of Mt. Hakodate (1095 feet), where Meiji-era Western-style clapboard houses and stone buildings are located – including the Old British Consulate, a Russian Orthodox Church, a Roman Catholic church, the Chinese Memorial Hall, the former office building of the Prefectural Government, and the old Public Hall and Post Office.
There is a ropeway to a lookout on Mt. Hakodate, but it was too early for it to be running, so we drove up the winding and narrow road instead. The morning mist hadn’t lifted, so there wasn’t much of a view. Below us, past the trees, was Motomachi, with its steeples and rooftops barely visible in the fog, and the rest of the city fading into the near distance.
We went back to the small restaurant where we had dinner and ordered abalone sashimi over rice for breakfast.
With some time to kill before driving onto the ferry, we walked around the morning market, where four hundred or so stalls were selling Hokkaido’s wealth of fish and farm produce.
It was easier to drive on Hokkaido than on Honshu the roads are wider and straighter, and the streets of Sapporo and Asahikawa are laid out in numbered grids.
The Backside of Japan
Back on Honshu, we drove on an overcast day down the west side of the Shimokita Peninsula, which turned out to be the wildest experience of the trip. Route 338 winds in and out and up and down a largely uninhabited mountainous coast. When we stopped at Hotokegaura ("Buddha Bay"), with limestone pillars which vaguely resemble statues of Buddha, the wind was gusting down the mountain at 25 knots, moving in dark patches across the sea below. This area facing the setting sun is said to a leaping off place Amida’s Western Paradise; a place is reserved for dead children. Thus Buddhist geography is fixed on the peninsula, with the limbo for the souls of children in the east at Osorezan and the departure point to Paradise on the west side, at Hotokegaura.
On one stretch of road, as the mountainside switched from left to right and a fog rolled in, I had a "Twilight Zone" feeling that I was going back in the same direction I had come from, even though there was only one road and we hadn't turned off of it.
The area is a preserve for wild monkeys, and a troop appeared in the fog, foraging in the trees, with a couple of them scampering along the electric wires overhead.
After a night in the very attractive small city of Aomori, we headed south for Tsuruoka via the Oyu Stone Circle, south of Lake Towada. The two stone circles, with diameters of 45 m and 40 m, werediscovered in 1931 and date from about 4,000 years ago during the Jomon era. Burial pits discovered beneath clusters of large stones within these circles suggests the circles mark cemetery boundaries. What looks like a sundial within one of the circles has given rise to speculation that the sites may have also had some sort of astronomical use.
The Oyu stone circles are the largest of about thirty similar stone-age sites, distributed from Hokkaido in the north to the Chubu Highlands in the south, the oldest dating from the Early Jomon period (6000-5000 BCE)
The Jomon, named for their distinctive cord-imprinted pottery, were hunter-gatherers whose ancestors arrived in Japan from South and East Asia and thrived in the rich natural environment for 10,000 years. They were absorbed and/or displaced by rice cultivators from the Korean Peninsula who migrated to Kyushu and southern Honshu around 400 to 300 B.C. and spread gradually to eastern and northern Honshu, developing complex political units and a culture shaped by Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist philosophy.
Farther south, along the coast, we rejoined Basho's route at Kisakata ("shellfish lagoon"). In his time, Kisakata bay, like Matsushima, was filled with islands covered with pine trees. It was considered one of the most picturesque bays in Japan. He stayed at Kanmanju Temple, which is still there, in rice fields near shore, just off the coastal highway. According to one tradition, the temple was so named because the empress Jingu, wife of Chuai, the legendary fourteenth head of the imperial family, is said to have dedicated two jewels here, the kanju (ebb-jewel) and the manju (flow-jewel), which together control the tides of the bay.
In 1804, an earthquake raised the floor of the lagoon so that what once were islands are now hummocks surrounded by low-lying rice fields.
I was curious as to whether you could see Mt. Chokai from the temple, as Basho describes it while sitting at the temple: "to the South, holding up the heavens, its shadow reflected in the bay." However, it was too cloudy, and the bay no longer filled the land between the temple and the mountain. We visited the temple again in the fall 2009 and saw the mountain from the cemetery at the back of the temple.
When Basho got to Kisakata, the weariness of his journey and the muggy, rainy summer began to darken his writing: "Whereas Matsushima seemed to smile, Kisakata droops in dejection. The lonely, melancholy scene suggests a troubled human spirit."
At Sakata, we crossed the Mogami River, where Basho wrote a poem expressing relief at the end of a long hot summer day:
a scorching sun / enters the sea / Mogami River
We spent two days in Tsuruoka, near Dewa Sanzan, the three holy mountains of Dewa: Haguro-yama (“Black-Feather Mountain,” 1,358 feet), Gassan (“Moon Mountain,” 6,509 feet) and Yudono-san (“Bath-Chamber Mountain” 4,934 feet). Sites of worship for shugendo (a Buddhist-Shinto sect practicing mountain ascetism), each mountain was identified with a Buddha and a Shinto kami:
Haguro-yama: Kannon, goddess of mercy / Tamayorihime, “Divine Bride”
Gassan: Amida Buddha / Tsukiyomi, the moon kami
Yudono: Dainichi, the cosmic Buddha / Oyamatsumi ("Great mountain possessor")
Like other pilgrims, Basho climbed all three.
coolness / faint crescent moon / Haguro-yama
cloud peaks / countless, collapsing / Gassan
words prohibited / Yudono / sleeves wet with tears
Pilgrims still climb the three mountains to go through a symbolic death and rebirth through ten successive realms – the six realms of suffering and the four realms of enlightenment – to become bodhisattavas ready to return to the everyday world to assist others along the path toward enlightenment. They visit sacred sites around Gassan, including praying before a rock pinnacle and crawling through a rock cave. Enlightenment is said to come from understanding the sounds of wind, birds, and insects as voices of the kami and buddhas.
In a light mist and drizzle, we climbed the 2,446 stone steps to the temple atop Haguro-san. (The road and trail to Gassan are closed until the end of June. Yudono closes for the winter at the end of October and opens in May.)
The temple atop Hagurosan was founded in the seventh century by Nojo Taishi. He was led by a mystical three-legged crow into a small valley with a waterfall at its far end, where he performed his first ascetic training and discovered a statue of Kannon.
The mountainous area around Dewa Sanzan is one of the traditional centers of shugendo. In times past, some ascetics practiced an extreme form of self-mortification: self-mummification through an increasingly restrictive diet and the drinking of a tea and water whose contents killed off bacteria and after death, maggots. The practitioner had himself sealed in a cave to mediate before passing on. The practice was outlawed in the 19th century.
The mummified remains of two priests from the 18th and early 19th century are worshiped at temples south of Dewa Sanzan. Out of curiosity we went to see Tetsumon-kai (1768-1829) at Churenji temple, half wondering if it was a hoax.
To my surprise, a mummy was on display, sitting in the lotus position in a glass case on an altar, dressed in a hood-like cap and red cape, his aged skin shiny black, as if lacquered, and clinging closely to his skull and bones, his eyelids drawn over hollow sockets.
I felt awkward not being of the faith. The woman at the shop where Buddhist items are sold, reacted somewhat coldly when we told her we were "just visiting" (i.e., not there to pay for a worship service). She appeared somewhat more pleasant after we bought two omamori, or protective amulets, at $10 apiece. Somehow, I felt our road luck might run out if we didn't.
For a more light-hearted experience, down the hill, there is a tourist center with Yamagata souvenir shops, a bungee-jumping operation, and an Amazon River nature museum. The area is known for its June-July ski season, when the access road to the glacier-based ski area on Gassan opens.
South of Tsuruoka, we traveled the coastal route through Niigata. The leg from Tsuruoka to Kanazawa was the most difficult part of the poet's journey: "During nine long days we endured heat and rain, which afflicted my spirit. I became ill."
Twenty miles offshore is Sado Island, about which Basho composed this haiku:
rough seas / leaning above Sado / the River of Heaven
About Sado, he later wrote a prose piece:
From the place called Izumozaki in Echigo, Sado Island is eighteen li [twenty-seven miles] away on the sea. With cragginess of its valleys and peaks clearly visible, it lies on the side in the sea, thirty-odd li [40 miles] from east to west. Light mists of early fall not rising yet, and the waves not high, I feel as if I could touch it with my hand. ... from past to present, a place of exile for felons and traitors, [Sado Island] has become a distressing name. As the evening moon sets, the surface of the sea becomes quite dark. The shapes of the mountains are still visible through the clouds, and the sound of waves is saddening.
The tranquil River of Heaven overhead, as if sheltering this island of exile, suggests the compassion of Amida Buddha and Kannon, the goddess of mercy.
As we drove down the coast in early June, the weather was in the low 70s, though warming. Stopping at sandy beaches lined with pine trees and rocky headlands overlooking coves, we searched the horizon for Sado but couldn't see it in a haze between the calm ocean and the blue sky.
Crossing Japan Alps to Mount Fuji
At Joestsu we left the poet's route and turned inland for the castle town of Matsumoto in the Japan Alps. (In winter 2008, we went south from Kanazawa to Tsuruga to see some of the Basho utamakura we missed in 2005.) The next morning, before heading for our last stop at Lake Kawaguchi, one of five lakes on the north side of Mount Fuji, we drove up to Utsukushigahara ("Beautiful Fields") to see some summer mountain scenery.
The expressway goes from Matsumoto to Kofu, then a road takes you over Misaka Pass to Fuji. Confused by the signage, I got off the expressway too soon and had to use the GPS to navigate through some ricefields, then up and down the narrow, winding Shoji Blueline Road, ending up at Lake Shoji, west of Lake Kawaguchi. Fujisan was suddenly there, but shrouded in clouds.
As the center of population and political power in Japan shifted from western to eastern Japan in Tokugawa times, Fuji-san, a near-perfect volcanic cone and the tallest mountain in Japan, emerged as the piko (navel) of the nation, marking the start and end of journeys for the Edo traveler.
As Basho left for Oku, he noted the faint outline of Fuji-san at the dawn horizon 75 miles southwest of the capital.
The mountain is said to be shy: On the first day we were there, only a small portion of her snowy summit peeped through the clouds. The next day, the clouds around the summit had dissipated.
In early June, the flowers at Kawaguchiko Music Box Museum and Garden are in full bloom.
At 3 a.m., the next morning, we drove 18 miles to watch the 4:30 sunrise at the fifth station. When we arrived, no one was there. Some tourists arrived a little before sunrise and departed before us.
We said goodbye to Fujisan from a gas station before heading back to Narita Airport.
Five years after returning from his journey to Oku, Basho set out on another journey; he fell ill and died. His failing health had intensified his awareness of the passage of time: Not only was his own life fleeting, but the ancient sites themselves were changing and disappearing:
Many utamakura (storied places) have been passed down to us; but mountains collapse, rivers flow, roads change, stones are buried and hidden beneath the earth ... and the traces of what once was are now uncertain ...
Driving on Route 16 in the outskirts of Tokyo through the heaviest traffic on the widest roads (six lanes) of our trip, the changes that had occurred since Basho's time were obvious.
Not only is Japan Westernized, industrialized and high-tech, its northern borders have expanded and its past extends way beyond the sites that Basho visited, into prehistory, through archaeological finds like the ones at Moyoro and Oyu.
What Basho considered ancient is no longer as ancient as it once was; what was remote, no longer that remote. But his poems about a fleeting human life still speak to us today, and his metaphor of life as a journey is timeless.