Sunday, 31 January 2016

5) THE HAKKODA MOUNTAINS 八甲田山系 – The Wind Rages

A Voyage to Aomori, Part 5 of 5

There are those who claim that happiness has nothing to do with your circumstances, and everything to do with how you choose to respond to them. Such people seem quite numerous nowadays; whether more so than in the past I cannot say.

They are fools.

One does not simply choose to be happy. External circumstances matter. We have created societies that systematically break people. How callous, or plain ignorant, does a person have to be to expect anyone to accept and adapt to a world like that?

And yet, there are places our madness has not yet reached. Places free of arrogance, cruelty, poverty, gender or greed. Places that were there before us and will be there long after us. Places beautiful before anyone was around to corrupt the concept of beauty – a primordial beauty, one we cannot define but know at once when we see it, as though by an instinct as old as love itself.

It was a pain that should not have existed, brought on by the failure of human society, that drove me to Aomori in the distant north of Japan in search of respite. And on my final day there, I found one of the most formidable such places of beauty that I have ever known. It was unexpected – not part of the original plan. And it was guarded by some of the toughest combinations of weather and terrain I have yet encountered.

A location where big explosions once happened bigly.
But it was necessary. It was right. For the winds, the rocks, the trees, the skies, no matter how fierce, how rugged, how sharp, how cold, are not mad. Never have they hurt out of malice. They exclude and alienate no-one; all are welcome in their realm. Unlike society's, their conditions are fair. I could accept them with no hesitation. And in return for what they take, they give a thousandfold.

They give better external circumstances. Beautiful circumstances. Circumstances, if not for happiness, then at least for something magical and profound; something which speaks to your humanity at a level our shallow materialist individualisms no longer bother with.

The Hakkōda Snow March Disaster
Make no mistake, that does not mean the Hakkoda Mountains will not kill you if you do not approach them with care. The Aomori Fifth Infantry Regiment, a unit of the Eighth Division of the Imperial Japanese Army, learnt this in supremely miserable fashion back in the New Year of 1902.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

4) OIRASE GORGE 奥入瀬渓流 and LAKE TOWADA 十和田湖 – Colourfully Lurking

A Voyage to Aomori, Part 4 of 5

The Oirase River.
Lake Towada.

Many of Japan's most popular sites of nautral beauty are also immensely destructive volcanoes. Indeed, that volcanism tends to be precisely what made them so beautiful. This is something the millions of people who flock there to take selfies and soak in hot springs might do well to consider.

Hakone is perhaps the best example, but another may be found in the mountainous heart of Aomori Prefecture. At the centre of its southern border, Lake Towada (十和田湖) is a bright blue lake 11km across and almost perfectly circular. The lake, along with the upper course of the Oirase River (奥入瀬川) that flows from it, is now one of the major natural attractions of the Tohoku region, above all in the autumn when its crystalline blue and white currents are wreathed in flaming yellows and reds.

Aomori Prefecture, with Lake Towada at bottom centre.

In fact Lake Towada is a massive volcanic caldera, formed by six major eruptions over the millennia. It is considered active to this day, and though its eruptions are not frequent, those that have happened have been spectacularly violent. The most recent, in 915 CE (when it was still not really part of Japan), was one of the largest volcanic eruptions in Japan's recorded history and smothered the entire region in ashfalls and pyroclastic flows.

Remarkable rock formations and colours, many more spectacular than this, can be found around the rim of the lake and attest to the dramatic processes that created it.

The photos that follow come from a walk along the upper Oirase River, followed by a boat crossing of Lake Towada to the little town of Yasumiya (休屋), the lake's only settlement. The area can be reached in two to three hours by a regular bus service from Aomori City or Hachinohe, and with good planning can be explored as a day visit. Note again that winter in this region is rough and sees both the bus and ferry service suspended – check before you go.

Friday, 8 January 2016

3) AOMORI CITY 青森市 – Rassera, Rassera: The Story of the North

A voyage to Aomori, Part 3 of 5

From the sanctuary of Osorezan I crossed back to this world of artifice and illusions. A two-hour descent from the Shimokita Peninsula by train brought me to Aomori City (青森市), the capital of Aomori Prefecture and my base for a few more days of northern exploration.

Aomori. It is a name synonymous in the Japanese imagination with scallop-fishing, apple-growing, and above all the Nebuta Festival.

The city perches at the south end of Mutsu Bay, at almost the geographic centre of the prefecture, where it brings together the diverse cultures, histories, trades and forces of nature of a land whose present form is of very recent construction. Most of Aomori City as we know it today was built upon the wreckage of World War II, while the concept of Aomori Prefecture as a coherent unit is scarcely a century old. Let's take a look at the story of the north end of Japan.

The First Peoples and the Japanese Conquest 
If we speak of illusions, we should do away with one of this country's most popular: that is, the myth of the homogenous nation. The closer you actually look at Japan, the less escape there is from the hollowness of those claims that this is a land of one people, one ethnicity and one culture.

Get on a bus at Aomori Station and within twenty minutes you come to one of Japan's most interesting archaeological excavations, right there in the suburbs of Aomori City. The oldest finds at the Sannai-Maruyama site (English website here) date back almost 6,000 years, to the world of the earliest known inhabitants of this region.