Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Fictional Hokkaido

I was on a train, traveling through darkness. The elderly woman next to me asked if it would be OK if we chatted.

She was on her way to her home on Shikoku having stayed with friends on Honshu. I was returning to my base after cycling on bridges and islands across Japan's Inland Sea.

After some basic pleasantries we talked about the Meiji era at the end of the 19th century when young Japanese traveled to America and the UK to learn how to modernize Japan.

She chatted about her year working at Johns Hopkins, and her travels in the UK. She connected with northern industrial cities like Manchester and Glasgow. She did a side trip to Denmark because she loves Hamlet.

I sometimes struggle with the concept of place. Talking with people on trains helps.

A good novel can reveal place. It's a huge bonus if it gets me inside the heads of the inhabitants.

Next week I'm off to Hokkaido, so I'm looking for hints of the psyche of that northernmost of Japan's islands. I'm having a hard time finding post World War II Hokkaido literature, in translation.

Hokkaido does not have a long literary tradition. The indigenous Ainu did not have a written language, and the population of Hokkaido was tiny (60,000) into the 1870's. It has shot up to over five million, but it is now heading south; it'll be close to four million in 2040.

Haruki Murakami's A Wild Sheep Chase keeps popping up near the top of my searches. I find myself wondering: is that all there is?

Hokkaido is an important character in Wild Sheep Chase. It's "the other," a distant place, the antithesis of the frenetic floating world of Tokyo. It's a credible foundation for Murakimi to build magical realism as the narrator seeks to avoid ruination by locating a strange sheep with a star-shaped birthmark.

Two fictional Hokkaido settings are firmly burnt into my mind: Sapporo's mind-bending Dolphin Hotel and a sheep farm in the far North.

I've read most of Murakami's novels.  I generally don't seek his specific locations, but I must confess I looked for the Lost and Found office in Tokyo's Ueno Station featured prominently in Norwegian Wood. Of course I never found the place Murakami created.
Some fans take these settings rather seriously. I gather there's now a Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo, but the name merely cashes in on Murakami. Once a year, fans flock to a sheep farm in Bifuka, northern Hokkaido, that resembles Murakami's fictional farm. They wait for an announcement that Murakami has won the Nobel prize for literature.

An actual Nobel Prize winner's work does show up in my searches: Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country.  The setting is a small town in the mountains of Honshu, not Hokkaido. Hokkaido is snowy, the northern mountains of Honshu are snowy, but historically these are very different places. Snow Country is a good read, but it's not set in Hokkaido.

Then there's novels I have not read:
Ayako Miura's Shiokari Pass was made into a Billy Graham movie, which provides a strong hint about its worldview. I have a problem with Western cultural imperialism.
Takiji Kobayashi's The Crab Cannery Ship. Written in 1929, it details the "grueling reality of capitalism and the possibility of united resistance of the working class." In 1934 the author was tortured then murdered by the Imperial police. The novel enjoyed a 21st century revival when annual sales shot up to 500,000 in the financial crisis that started in 2008. I'm not sure I can stomach early 20th century Marxism, even while I believe 21st century-style capitalism is failing the basic needs of too many people.
I found Hokkaido in a murder mystery: Keigo Higashino's Salvation of a Saint. The philandering husband was murdered in Tokyo, while the wife managed to be in Sapporo (Hokkaido) at the time. How did she do it? Hokkaido, yet again playing the role of a remote place.

There's travel writing, of course. Two examples stand out: Alan Booth's Roads to Sata and Will Ferguson's  Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchhiking Japan. Non-fiction written by Westerners does not get me sufficiently inside the heads of Japanese people.

When I explore Hokkaido next week, I won't be visiting Sapporo, the fake Dolphin Hotel, or the sheep farm. But my mind will interpret what I see in magical, unrealistic ways, which is perhaps what we all do much of the time. It's impossible for me to perceive Japan in the same way as a Japanese person. Travel, itself, can be fiction.

Note: I took the photo at the top of this post in Yorkshire, England. In the 19th century, the Japanese government imported sheep from Yorkshire to Hokkaido. I took the Lost and Found photo in Tokyo's Ueno Station.


  1. Japan's Lost and Found:
    "I am seeking Hokkaido."
    It may be hidden.

  2. Have you considered the Nakasendo trail? It is very fine, but I found it a bit difficult

    1. Thank you for your recommendation. Yes, I have considered it: it does look lovely, and I know I would enjoy it spread over sufficient days. In my recent trips I've focused on Shikoku and Kyushu. It sounds like it's time to pay more attention to Honshu. It's always good to hear from someone who enjoys hiking in Japan.