A midnight hot spring bath in a rooftop pool is inspirational. It can keep you in the pool for hours. And the serene view of mountain lake Tayo is equally mesmerising. If your body can take the cocktail of hot spring water and the freezing chill, the first rays of the new dawn will give you enough warmth. That is the advantage of being in the north Japan island province of Hokkaido.
The experience keeps you going. For many of us —journalists from India, China, Thailand, Malaysia and Hongkong — sleep was a distant thought that night. The hot sulphur bath started close to midnight and went on till early morning.
All we took was a few minutes break in between. As the sun rose, breaking through a thick cover of clouds and the rays passing through a gentle shower of snow, leaving that pool was next to impossible.
The morning hustle and bustle had already started in Toyaka, a small resort-town in Hokkaido with the roads being cleared of snow, people moving around on bicycles and in cars, and eateries preparing to serve piping-hot Japanese breakfast. While I must admit, that I didn’t particularly enjoy the breakfast menu — skipping it on most occasions — for most, the rare fresh fish from Toya Lake, flowing a few metres away from our breakfast table, was a delicacy. With the sun up, a morning walk at the lakefront with a perfect view of the four virgin islands in Toya lake, reminded me of Khajjiar in my home state Himachal Pradesh. The minus 10 degrees Celsius temperature, however, prevented me from extending my walk for more than 15 minutes.
There is another reason why lake Toya interested me. It is a lake created by volcanic eruptions that had taken place about a thousand years ago. But it was not a walk down the history. The thick smoke emerging from Mount Usu was a reminder of a recent eruption (in 2000). A few kilometres away from Toyaka town, the smoke caught our attention; the colour of the mountain was brown, setting it apart from the other peaks that were snow-clad.
Our Japanese interpreter Junko Saita was quick to explain that the hot boiler inside the mountain melts the snow giving it a distinct appearance. The brown slopes were clearly visible when we took a long ropeway to the mountain opposite Usu. At the end of the ropeway, it was almost Arctic and, I, despite being a Himachali from Shimla who is used to freezing cold, felt that Hokkaido’s cold is biting.
Next summer in Toyaka, the snow may not be there when world leaders, including our own PM Manmohan Singh, meet to discuss climate change as part of the G-8 Summit. All these leaders are scheduled to stay in Windsor Palace, a hilltop resort with a view of Toya, Mount Usu and the Pacific. And when they do, I’ll be telling myself: “I was there too.”
If there is snow, winter sports can’t be far behind. Locals say skiing is to Toyaka what cricket is to India. A walk down the streets will give you enough evidence, with youngsters skiing their way down or carrying their kits uphill for a skiing or ice hockey competition. For the youngsters, we were told; skiing is next only to Football. But, sadly, this popularity that skiing enjoys has also meant the near death of the Japanese traditional power game --Sumo wrestling.
High in Sapporo
About an hour’s drive down from Toyaka is the sprawling town of Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, a town as modern as Tokyo and as traditional as the valleys of this island nation. A neat network of subway trains provides a glimpse of modernity but the friendly insistence of our hosts to taste the locally brewed beer, Sapporo, is proof of their being rooted to traditions. For me, Sapporo was a better bet than Toyaka as it provided me a welcome break from the omnipresent seafood. Here the traditional meal consisted of lamb meat and a glass of Sake to wash it down with. The fact that I could choose how well I wanted my meat done, I could atlast pamper my Indian taste buds.
We got a better insight into Japanese lifestyle with the prefecture (province) government providing us with an opportunity to stay with a traditional Japanese family. An elderly Jokasa couple came to our hotel in the morning to pick us up and took us to their home on the outskirts of Sapporo. Not as traditional as I would have thought but the two provided a deep insight into the “terrible mistake” that World War II was and the process of resurgence. “But, today, the fighting spirit of Japanese has eroded the bad memories of the war,” said retired schoolteacher S. Jokasa. “I went to college against all odds, as my father toiled in a new factory started after the war,” he recalled, giving some insight into their post-war lives.
What came as a pleasant surprise was Jokasa’s wife’s recollection of tales about India and Indians that her father had told her after the war. Her father had fought alongside Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army in Myanmar against the British forces. “Tall and dark, Indians are very good looking,” she recalled her father telling her. “He always used to tell us about the bravery of Indians,” she said, a compliment that gave me a high in a distant Japanese village.
The best was yet to come. When it was time for us to leave she bowed in traditional way and politely said “Namaskar”. And that was the best sayonara I could have imagined.