Noilly Prattle: The Final Frontier . . .

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Final Frontier . . .

. . . or the first conflict zone?

     Or merely how the Shiretoko (in Ainu “land's end”) Peninsula in eastern Hokkaido's promotional people bill the area? The extreme eastern tip of the peninsula is, according to the literature, “a place where nature has been preserved in an extremely primitive state”. Beyond a certain point there are no roads--and only dirt roads up to that point. Anyone wishing to go into the preservation area, dangerous for kimun kamuy “mountain deity”, the Ainu word for brown bears and unpredictable weather conditions, should have “a high level of skill, physical fitness and mental judgment”. This clearly is not a place for a Sunday afternoon stroll or Senior Citizen walking exercise.

an Ainu elder
        Hokkaido is the home of the indigenous people known as the Ainu. In the Ainu language, ainu means “human”, the word for gods is kamuy (similar to the Japanese kami for a similar concept), not unlike Native Americans, their name, Ainu, simply means the people. Their origin is not completely clear but anthropologists postulate a mongolian genotype most likely an intermixing of Okhotsk and Jomon people between 8000 and 1000 BCE. It's interesting to speculate about some relationship to the Inuit peoples of North America who are thought to have migrated from Siberia around the same period—c.1000 BCE.

a ghostly Kunashiri
in happier times - Rausu Museum
        Off the eastern shore of Hokkaido lie the four northern islands that were captured by Russia at the end of World War II. Known in Japan as the Four Northern Islands and in Russia as the Southern Kuriles they are a popular topic of discussion and bone of contention among extreme right wing groups who demand their return to Japan. A little museum in the coastal town of Rausu, from which you can see Kunashiri on a clear day (not the day we were there) is filled with visuals full of longing for Japan's irredenta, the lost islands and the lost homes now sparsely occupied by Russians—not a single Japanese person lives on the lost islands. Even on a very low-ceiling cloudy day, you can catch a phantom glimpse of Kunashiri. The other three are named Shikotan, Habomai and Etorofu. A much publicized visit to Etorofu (Iturup in Russian) by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on August 22 in spite of Japan's official protest has raised the temperature in Russia/Japan relations, which, in any case, have been deteriorating since the onset of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

        After seeing to the repair of our collision scarred Mazda Demio, we rented a car and proceeded (with our son) from Kushiro (site of the accident) towards the Shiretoko Peninsula. We had originally planned to stay at a hot spring near Lake Akan, but that had to be canceled because we were required to stay in Kushiro pending settlement of accident legalities and details. That was unfortunate since we had planned to attend an Ainu festival that evening that included exhibits, stories and costumed dances that would have been very interesting.

ate it all up...
the noodle restaurant
        Before driving on to the Shiretoko  Peninsula, we stayed at a little hot spring hotel in the seaside town of Shibetsu-cho. The best thing about the hotel, which was a little run down looking, was the hot spring tub in the room. It was just what the doctor ordered for winding down a little from the stress and trauma of the previous day. For dinner we chose a popular noodle restaurant just down the street from the hotel which served meals so generous that only our son was able to finish his.

...ate maybe half or so

        Next morning the weather continued to be uncooperative: low hanging clouds, occasional rain, poor visibility as we drove out along a sand spit and marshland not far from the hotel in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Kunashiri, the closest to Hokkaido of the lost Four Northern Islands. Well, we did catch a glimpse, but that was about it. The weather wasn't particularly inviting, but we continued to drive as far as possible on the sand spit and stopped at a little museum that displayed some of the fauna and flora of the area. 

beached fishing boats

fishing boat under sail

aerial view of the end of the sand spit and marshland

fauna of the spit and marshes


wildflowers amid the marsh grasses 

dead trees preserved by the salty air of the marsh

Dmitri Medvedev on Etorofu (Iturup)
        No sight of Mr. Medvedev though, but we were a couple of days early and he was on another island anyway. Thrilling to be so near to historical (hysterical?) developments! But, we're trying to stay serene and calm even though Russia has the bomb and, I hear, our city administration is sponsoring “fun visits” to military camps for primary school children and parents. I would hate to think military promotion! But the Abe (Japan's Prime Minister) Administration IS pushing for more military involvement outside Japan for the (non-Army!) Self Defense Forces by splitting hairs and parsing the meaning of Article 9 of the “Peace Constitution”. 

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