For seven years, I struggled to write a novel about a choirboy set in 1990s Bavaria. I wrote and re-wrote the first chapter. When that didn’t work, I wrote and re-wrote the last chapter; I changed names, characters, places again and again. Nothing helped. The novel I wanted to write and what stared back at me on the page were so far removed from each other that I ended up not writing at all in order to avoid disappointment. At the same time, I was obsessed by the habits and routines of successful writers. What was their secret? Agatha Christie and Thomas Hardy wrote like their lives depended on it: punctually, reliably, at the same time every day. Yukio Mishima worked from exactly 11pm until 4am, shutting himself off in a hotel room for months. On the other hand, and more reassuringly, it took Jonathan Franzen nine years to write The Corrections; years in which he struggled to find the perfect place in which to work. In the end, he stuck earplugs in his ears and locked himself in a soundproof room. Whether it takes nine years or a single month, for all these writers, place – a room of one’s own – is key. Place matters in the same way that it matters to visual artists in need of the pure sunlight of California or the South of France in order to paint. For me, this sunlight was Hokkaido.
In 2012, I travelled to Japan to study and live. As soon as I arrived in Tokyo, everything changed, and the choirboy novel – which I’d made sure to bring with me in its many drafts – dropped from my thoughts. I couldn’t ignore Tokyo, this shining many-mirrored city. It invaded my thoughts, my feelings, my perspective on the world. Later, after I’d studied the language a little and settled down, I took a trip to Nisekō, where I stayed for a month with a retired couple.
Nisekō is a small town in Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan, famous for its powder snow and perfect skiing conditions. In October, it is deserted. There are no tourists, since there is no snow. Those who travelled north to escape the humid Tokyo summer have already returned to their homes in the city. The towns and villages in Hokkaido shrink. The streets are empty, apart from the hundreds of enormous pumpkins decorating the pavements. The shops and restaurants close, and even the lonely one-roomed library curtails its opening hours. And yet, despite this, or perhaps because of this, Nisekō transforms into a rare and beautiful setting. The landscape is extraordinary; rich forests, green fields, and long horizons. Shadowing Nisekō is the mountain, Yōtei-San, also known as Hokkaido’s Mount Fuji. The colours shifting from green to red across its slopes, the white alpine flowers, the sweeping sky and its autumnal shades, all had a profound impact on me, after living cocooned in a cramped Tokyo apāto for over a year.
My homestay parents couldn’t speak English, nor could their neighbours. My homestay mother took me on walks with her white Hokkaidan hound, Hana, and gave me tours of the supermarkets, pointing out all the strange delicacies packed up in cling-film (Fish roe? Fish guts? Black seaweed?). My homestay father took me to the onsen (public baths) and sake-tastings, where he’d sample as many different labels as he could before falling asleep in the mini-bus on the way home. I learned more Japanese in that one month than I did in two years. A neighbour – an ex-head-teacher, along with his two beloved, energetic spaniels – took me on a road trip of the island: from southern Nisekō to the northernmost point of Japan: the Shiretoko peninsula, where you might still meet a wild black bear with its distinctive tufted ears, and where there’s a magic lake only visible at certain times of year.
Another friend – a large, softly-spoken woman who lived in a tiny bungalow with her elderly mother-in-law – loaned me calligraphy paper and pens, even though I was hopeless at the art. She confided in us that her mother-in-law hadn’t left the house in over forty years. And for all that time, she had stayed with her, looked after her, even though, “she is not even related to me.” She herself had never been further away than Hakodate – the next city south of Nisekō. Together we visited the statue of Takeo Arishima, a famous novelist who committed a lover’s suicide in Niseko hundreds of years ago. The natural beauty of the region was magnified by the Hokkaidan autumn’s famous Kōyō – the Japanese term for when leaves turn into a burning red and gold. The leaves in this part of the world have a depth of colour unrivaled elsewhere. And the many photographs I took didn’t capture the full marvel of the scenes.
Out of these experiences came a piece of nature writing, an account of Nisekō called “Woman Who Brings the Rain”. I didn’t start writing the essay until I was back in Cardiff. I needed the distance from Hokkaido to appreciate the experiences I had whilst I was there. Writing about where you are not is far more powerful than writing about where you are. Nostalgia is a great stimulus for the imagination, since nostalgia is a host for other deep, and sometimes contradictory, emotions: desire and gratitude; happiness and melancholy; contentment and yearning. I would wish myself back in Hokkaido every day. Yet I was also glad to be home in Wales, secure in the knowledge that I understood the way things worked; free of misunderstanding and miscommunication; free to be myself.
Surprisingly, it was through Wales that I came back to Hokkaido. The two lands share many similarities. Colonized by mainland Japan in the 1860s, it was only in 1869 that the island of Ezo became the Japanese island of ‘Hokkaido’ with all the corresponding Japanese local government, provinces and prefectures. As such, Wales and Hokkaido are both countries who have had to negotiate their identity in relation to a more powerful neighbour. They are both home to a minority culture and language not always understood by people outside their borders. Hokkaido is home to the indigenous people, the Ainu. The Ainu have a separate, distinct culture bound to their language, which is very different from modern-day Japanese. It was only very recently – in 2011 – that the Ainu people were even acknowledged by the Japanese government. Now, the Ainu language only has 15 native speakers, (according to census figures, although they may very well be wrong).
From 1869, local places were ascribed arbitrary Japanese place-names; names which either contained, mimicked, corrupted or discarded the original Ainu toponyms. In Hokkaido, as in Wales, the tensions between Ainu and Japanese were contained in the acts of re-naming. Yōtei is not the original and ancient Ainu name for the mountain, but the Japanese, which came much later in the 1890s. Even the way Yōtei is described as ‘Hokkaido’s Mount Fuji’ is indicative of a mind-set which describes the world according to its own terms. The original Ainu word for the mountain is ‘Makari Nuppuri’ – roughly translated as ‘Beautiful River Mountain’ – a little more poetic, complimentary, perhaps, then the Japanese, Yōtei, meaning ‘Sheep’s Hoof’.
At the Ainu heritage museum in Shiribeshi, aspects of the culture and history have been preserved in museums and in the long, thatched houses, covered in wood-carvings, the inau, offerings for the gods. The houses were also the stage for dance, music and other quaint demonstrations of Ainu culture. Outside the huts, black bears and Hokkaidan hounds were locked up in narrow cages, their legs chained. Tourists bought bags of nuts and fed the animals through metal pipes. The Ainu worshipped bears; they thought a divine spirit was trapped inside its thick, black fur, and could only be released through ritual sacrifice. They believed the cries of a dying bear to be cries of ecstasy as the spirit rejoined the realm of the gods. Locked up in a cage as bait for tourists, the black bears were a tragic emblem of Ainu life in modern-day Japan.
Victorian-era explorers came to this remote part of the world in the 1850s and 60s. John Bachelor and Isabella Bird, a missionary and well-to-do travel writer respectively, published chronicles. Even though they were enlightened and adventurous people (why else would they have come to Hokkaido?), they could not help but describe the Ainu and their experience generally in the stereotypical terms of a colonialist. The Ainu were for them ‘hairy men’, ugly, drunk, stupid, clumsy and all the rest. The Japanese were small, dainty, yet ruthless. Despite the fact that Bachelor ended up living with them for the rest of his life, compiling the first Ainu dictionary, he still put forward these narrow views in his writing. It was reading these early chronicles that spurred me on in my own attempts. Hokkaido had changed so much from the dangerous, snowy, remote wilderness that Bachelor and Bird had seen two hundred years ago; and I wanted to respond to some of those old clichés that they espoused about northern Japan.
It’s because of this history that Hokkaido stands slightly apart from the centres of Japanese culture, Kyoto and Tokyo. Nisekō is, after all, an Ainu name, not a Japanese one, and the atmosphere, the pace of life, the food, language, landscape, the character of the people, even the fashion, provides plurality in a nation which has often been described as homogenous. It’s this unique place which finally allowed me to write after two years of excuses. Perhaps, after another few years, I might even dig up that novel about the choirboy…
“Woman Who Brings the Rain” is published as a Kindle edition by New Welsh Rarebyte on 15 Oct. 2015
Photographs by the author.