Friday, September 30, 2016

Walking in the Company of Crows

Jigokudani (Hell Valley), Shikotsu-Toya National Park
Between flights at Tokyo's Haneda Airport I noticed a comment on my Beyond the Narrow Road to the Deep North blog post. The writer recommended a book, Ainu Folk Tales.

The Ainu are the indigenous people of Hokkaido. Much of their culture is handed down verbally from generation to generation in the form of stories.

Although the book was published in 1888, it was available for download. I read many of the Ainu stories on my flight from Haneda to Wakkanai in the far north of Hokkaido. I'm grateful for the recommendation.
The devil got up early one morning, long before the sun had risen, with the intention of swallowing it. But God knew of his designs, and made a crow to circumvent them. When the sun was rising, the evil one opened his mouth to swallow it; but the crow, who was lying in wait, flew down his throat, and so saved it. [From an Ainu legend explaining how a crow saved the sun from the devil.]
Crows often invaded my solitude as I walked alone in Hokkaido. On my first day of hiking, they barked like dogs. On a busy city street their defiant "f*ck, f*ck, f*ck" rose above the sound of traffic. At other times they declared a simple "ah, ah, ah."

Crows, lurked on the trail, planning their next move as I hiked across Rishiri Island off northern Hokkaido.
Signs warned of dive-bombing crows.
...Thus we find that they have good cause for being bold and saucy, and it is not for men to say that crows are useless creatures. [From an Ainu legend, explaining that crows have special rights because a crow saved the sun from the devil.]
Rishiri Island from Rebun Island
In a previous post I wrote about an earlier visitor to Rishiri Island. In 1848, Ranald MacDonald, a young American, represented himself as a castaway to the Ainu. During his stay on Rishiri he sharpened a crow's feather to form a quill pen so he could create a vocabulary list.
After four hours on a train and ninety minutes on a bus I was in Daisetsusan National Park in the center of Hokkaido.

Daisetsusan National Park
On Mt. Asahidake, a fox blocked my path, unafraid of me. I was sad that humans had reduced this proud creature to begging.
The foxes thought thus: "What is nicer even than treasures is the delicious food which human beings have. As we do not know what it is, let us go again and buy some more of it." [From an Ainu legend explaining how foxes once preferred the food of humans.]
On Mt. Asahidake, Daisetsusan National Park
I thought about how this was Fall, there was plenty food for the fox; nature's equilibrium was disturbed.
"...The foxes left off assuming human shape, and, from that time forward, ate as they pleased of the mulberries and the grapes. When the crows let any drop, they went underneath the trees and ate them. They became very friendly together." [From an Ainu legend explaining how foxes ended up preferring the food of nature, in particular the food dropped by crows.]
Isabella Bird enjoyed the company of crows on her 1878 journey along Hokkaido's southern coast. [See Tracing a Victorian Woman's Hokkaido Journey that includes an interactive map.]
The deep boom of the surf was music, and the strange cries of sea- birds, and the hoarse notes of the audacious black crows, were all harmonious, for nature, when left to herself, never produces discords either in sound or colour. [From Isabella Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan.]
Crows were a strong presence as I retraced Isabella's journey, stopping along the way to explore.
A sign warned of malevolent crows as I sipped coffee at a picnic table in Shikotsu-Toya National Park.

Picnic table beside Lake Shikotsu, Shikotsu-Toya National Park
Crows called out as I explored the Ainu Culture Village in Shiraoi.
Even the few grey houses ... were spiritualised into harmony by a faint blue veil which was not a mist, and the loud croak of the loquacious and impertinent crows had a cheeriness about it, a hearty mockery, which I liked. [From Isabella Bird's Unbeaten Tracks in Japan.]
Ainu Culture Center, Shiraoi
In Shiraoi, and throughout my Hokkaido journey I was hearing crows as Isabella heard crows, and as the Ainu have heard crows throughout history. The sounds took my mind to a different time and helped me to glimpse things as they once were.

A glimpse of Mt. Usu, an active volcano, Shikotsu-Toya National Park
Note: I took all the photographs in this post during my September 2016 visit to Hokkaido.

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