By Anita Krishan
In the winter of 1997, I boarded a ship from Tokyo for a 30 hour-long cruise on the Pacific to the city of Kushiro, one of the major cities of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. I was accompanying my husband to an international conference of Passive Low Energy Architecture (PLEA), on Bioclimatic Design for Sustainable Communities.
I had received a complimentary ticket for this voyage, courtesy of the Japanese organisers of the event. Unfortunately, the free ticket went down the drain. The Pacific Ocean decided to be a spoil sport and became rough and turbulent. I suffered a terrible bout of seasickness and couldn’t even raise my head from my pillow throughout the voyage. So, my exotic journey turned into a nightmare. I just lay in my bed and imagined others on the ship having gala time; enjoying the cold spray from the rolling oceanic waves, the cool sun smiling from above, and an evening of riveting entertainment.
Surprisingly, the sickness disappeared like a burst bubble the moment I stepped out of the ship. The horizon was just turning pink, declaring the onset of a lovely clear day. I came to know that it was a rare occurrence. On one side of the city is the Pacific and on the other is the vast stretch of Kushiro marshland.
For most of the year, a thick mist blankets the city. Thus it is also known as the “City of Mist”.
Instead of wandering alone in an unknown city in that intense cold, I decided to be a guest at the conference and initiate my education in the field of architecture without expecting to be conferred a degree. After a few presentations I realized the extensive research and planning that goes behind the meticulous process of designing structures that must sustain the future of our planet with ever-growing communities. The fabulous presentation awed everybody in attendance. However the language was a deterrent. Unfortunately, they did not provide earphones which simultaneously interpret the language to non-delegates like me. I also realized that not many Japanese were fluent in English.
Interestingly, people of all ages attended this high profile international conference. Delegates presented their research papers and professional works in the main auditorium. Above this, primary school children exhibited their paintings under the theme “My Vision of the Future World”. Furthermore, the prize winners had the honour of meeting professionals from over forty countries of the world.
A group of high school students visited the venue to display their creations: a few working android models they had designed and assembled in their robotics class. What a proud moment it must have been for the youngsters to be applauded by internationally known professionals! This thoughtful act by the mayor of Kushiro (I was told it was his idea) must have done wonders to boost the self-esteem of these budding citizens. This elucidated the culture of importance given to children in Japan.
Home Is Where the Heart Is
We explored the city in the evening. Wrapped in thermals and thick woolens, my husband and I walked around. We braved the icy cold winds and stepped carefully to avert slipping on generously spread ice carpets on the roads. The city proved true to its name and draped itself in cloaks of mists every evening. These were miniscule discomforts to the otherwise many heartening scenes we got to see.
The citizens of Kushiro had geared up to make sure we didn’t miss home. They warm-heartedly welcomed the large contingent of doyens gathered to share their knowledge and expertise with each other and the world. The welcome banners were everywhere; on the main streets, shopping centres, and departmental stores, adding to the festive spirit of the city.
A Slice of Heaven
There were plenty of bars and restaurants to reconnoiter. The seafood restaurants and the sushi shops outnumbered the rest. Wharf Moo was the most happening place, very popular both for the local people and the visitors. There was a lively, cheerful and warm atmosphere.
Everywhere in the city, the non-Japanese people received deep bows and affable smiles from the locals.
On the concluding day, I received a surprise invitation to the farewell banquet. It was an honour and I went with great eagerness to absorb more of the Japanese culture. The welcome committee comprised of young girls dressed traditionally in their Kimonos. Consequently, I was glad to have added to the spirit by dressing in a traditional sari.
I had no idea that Japanese cuisine had such a huge variety. I was also happy that in the milieu of the hordes of guests, no one noted a sole vegetarian struggling to find edible stuff in that excessively elaborate dinner layout. The ravenous invitees constantly attacked the exotic seafood dishes. But, I hovered most of the time around the desserts, because there was nothing else except boiled peas, potatoes and carrots, which were used as mere decorations for the exotic non-vegetarian dishes.
Culture and More
The highlight of the evening was the exhilarating and impeccable Taiko performance by a troop of Japanese drummers in their traditional dresses and bandanas (called hachimaki). These red or white headbands convey perseverance and courage. Furthermore, the aggressive and powerful movements of the drummers were awe-inspiring. I learnt more about Taiko from our Japanese interpreter.
In the sixth century Japan used Taiko to motivate troops, call out orders or announcements, and set a marching pace. They deployed this method to encourage armies and intimidate enemies. During the 16th-century Japan drum calls communicated orders of retreat and advancement.
The Breath-Taking Panorama
Once the conference was over, we were left with a day for sight-seeing. The Kushiro marshland was the most famous place to visit, covered with ice and snow, breathtakingly stunning and pristine. I was keen to spot the famous Tancho (Japanese red crowned) cranes, considered a special natural treasure of Japan. The indigenous Ainu people worshipped it and called it Sarurunkamui; God of the marshland. In present day Japan, it is the symbol of longevity and good luck because it was thought to have a life span of a thousand years. I had heard that they perform one of the most beautiful, intricate and flamboyant courtship dances ever seen among birds.
These cranes are also one of the largest in the world; with a body length of about 140 cm and a wingspan of about 250 cm. We spotted a group of these most exquisite creatures on the snowfields feeding and gracefully taking off & elegantly landing back on the frozen land. Since we had other destinations to follow, we couldn’t wait for the birds to get into mood for their courtship dance.
We then came across the free flowing waters of the river Kushiro, in that frozen landscape seemed so peculiar. It is because the river is fed by a number of fresh water springs. The wetland has a variety of plant species including Marsh Jacob’s Ladder, a relic of the ice age. The white-tailed Sea Eagle’s flew extraordinarily. Although, we missed spotting the white-tailed sea eagle, the Steller’s sea-eagle, Blakiston’s fish-owl, and the black woodpecker that inhabit the Kushiro marshland making it the treasure house of birds.
Then we took a short walk on the sightseeing walkway. We enjoyed the winter landscape of the meandering Kushiro-gawa River with the backdrop of the Akan Mountain Range. But the freezing cold soon sent us back into the warmth of our tour bus.
At last, bidding goodbye to this relaxed and peaceful city of 189,539 people, we boarded the plane to return home. I knew I was carrying a lifetime of memories back with me.
Anita Krishan chose superannuation, after a tenure of 25 years as a teacher of English, to confer time to her passion of writing. She is a published author of the fictional and autobiographical works: ‘Tears of Jhelum’ and ‘Running up the Hill’. Also an ardent poet, educationist, and environmentalist, her humanitarian side is well revealed in her literary works. She has extensively travelled around the world. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences, and another in Education, and a Masters in English Literature.
Featured Image Source: Marcelo Quinan via Unsplash