Ka Chou Fuu Getsu “Flower Bird Wind Moon:” an Explorer’s Guide to Japan’s Wild Places

花鳥風月, Kachou Fuugetsu: “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself.”

A tangle of scrub pine, roots bone-white in the gunmetal blue of a Hokkaido dusk. Around us low, forested mountains rolled out to sea. In one direction, the Russian Far East; in another, Tokyo and main-island Japan. Only 1500 meters (4500 feet) above sea level, but the harsh climate of Hokkaido —  Japan’s northernmost, frontier island — put us already well above treeline. Below, I knew, higuma brown bears, cousin to the grizzly back home in Canada,  foraged among the bamboo grass for bedtime snacks. We stood in the triangular shadow of the summit as night crept up-slope, looked over a lightless wilderness, and marvelled at the irony of two city kids from Canada travelling halfway around the world, to one of the most urban and densely populated parts of Asia, to wind up alone on a mountaintop in bear country.

Grizzlies weren’t high on the list of things my admittedly eclectic research on Japan had prepared me for: a sporadic diet of Lone Wolf and Cub, Black Rain, Kurosawa movies, Akira, and Godzilla, had prepared me more for the 85 million-person conurbation on main-island Honshu, the Tokyo-Osaka megalopolis. Nature, for all I knew, was limited to the disciplined gardens of bonsai trees and ikebana flower arrangements, rather than big-N Nature red in tooth and claw.

But in fact, as I was quickly learning, this high tech, near-future, post-industrial nation still has plenty of countryside and even wilderness. In fact, in many parts of the archipelago it seems more like the people are squeezed into what arable land exists, mainly on the coasts, while large parts of the island interiors remain uninhabitable, and thus undeveloped.

Of course, Hokkaido is not main-island Honshu. In fact, that’s kind of the point:

Japan is a surprisingly big and diverse place. 6,000 islands hang pendulously from wintry Russian Far East, all the way to distant Taiwan in the semi-tropical south. Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku and to an extent Hokkaido and Okinawa make up the bulk of what most visitors think of as “Japan,” but there are literally thousands of smaller islands which unfurl into the East China Sea.

Hachijojima
Hachijojima

Some islands are heavily developed, such as main-island Honshu with the Tokyo-Osaka conurbation (though, as you will learn, there’s still a lot of wildness left even on Honshu); others still have untouched forests of antediluvian fern and palm — such as on Iriomote — and millennia-old cedar — on Yakushima — at their mountainous hearts.

Continue reading “Ka Chou Fuu Getsu “Flower Bird Wind Moon:” an Explorer’s Guide to Japan’s Wild Places”

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Good Reads: “snowflakes that cast shadows” (Niseko)

NYTimes: “Niseko, Japan’s Own St. Moritz” by Ondine Cohane; with  ccompanying slidehsow

 

11 years ago, when I last visited Niseko, the ski resort area outside of Sapporo on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido, the place still felt off the beaten path, for expats and tourists alike. I remember snowshoeing through a river valley, among rocks and trees mushroom-capped with some of that “champagne powder” snow that is making this part of Hokkaido internationally famous. At the time, Niseko was still a destination worth visiting for some peaceful communing with nature.

Hopefully, that’s still the case. However, in the ensuing 11 years, Niseko has apparently gone from a sleepy village to a world-class resort town. Australians and others are buying up vacation condos, and the area is now on the radar of the international jet set. And service infrastructure, ie restaurants for foodies,  is arising to meet the needs of this new class of visitor.