I'd heard stories of life on Japan's north island of Hokkaido, a place that stretches as long as Britain and makes up 25 per cent of Japan’s land mass despite holding only 5 percent of its population. With a history of colonization, ethnic repression, threats from Russia, and as the bearer of Japan's own Meiji-era gulags, it seemed to me to be Japan's final frontier. I booked a flight to Hakodate, the port at Hokkaido's southern tip, rented a car, and set off on the long road north. Along the way I encountered power-tool wielding convicts, erotic woodcarving ethnic Ainu potheads, strung-out bikers, and an apocalyptic scattering of abandoned buildings. I also nearly got kidnapped by Russian sailors.
Hakodate was one of the first ports in Japan to open up to international trade. Though it was once a bustling business hub, today, for the most part, it is pretty run-down and desolate. Apart from the clatter and bells of the tramway running from the coast to the base of Mt. Hakodate, the place is silent and stagnant.
Locals obviously get their kicks from carrying knives because the trams were plastered with police posters reminding people of their illegality. Meanwhile, down by the train station there’s the opportunity to get your picture taken with a cardboard cut-out of one of the Aum Subway gassers who still hasn't been caught. Obviously they reckon he could be hiding out here.
We headed off to the overgrown carcass of Hakodate’s once powerful five-pronged fort, where the last battle of the Boshin War took place.
Hokkaido was originally settled by the ethnic Ainu people, but became the final prize in Japan and Russia’s race for colonization. Japan obviously won but Russia still plays bully boy around the edges of the island. The old Russian consular building now sits abandoned on a hill. The Victorian architecture may look standard in English-speaking countries, but buildings like this simply don’t exist elsewhere in Japan.
There was a special graveyard there for dead Russians, right next to a graveyard for Brits and another for Chinese. It had a “look how many foreign nationals have tried to assert themselves on Japanese soil and ended up dead beneath a commemorative pillar” feel.
Mt. Hakodate lies at the tip of the city. All day there had been a distinct lack of people for us to talk to as we fumbled about the empty town. So it was pretty fucking odd to find the entire population of Hakodate up the top of the mountain hanging out in the fog. When the clouds cleared we realized everyone was there to enjoy the nice view.
Leaving Hakodate, we pioneered north towards Lake Akan in the huge Akan National Park, where the last of Hokkaido’s native Ainu population now reside peacefully, after centuries of persecution by the Japanese.
Persecution seems to be a theme some Japanese still love to flirt with and before we made it to Akan we got a quick lesson in cultural insensitivity in Hokkaido’s capital, Sapporo. While perusing one of the main shopping streets we spotted these tasty sartorial treats on sale prominently in one shop’s front window.
There are at least 150,000 indigenous Ainu left in Hokkaido, but likely far more if you consider bloodlines merged with native Japanese and the large number who reportedly keep their Ainu ancestry a secret. Ethnologically, some anthropologist boffins suggest that Ainu are closer to the Maori of Australasia than they are to the Japanese, and are almost certainly all pumped full of Russian and Mongol DNA. They are characterized by their general hairyness and great beards, which most Japanese men could only dream of.
After the Japanese colonized Hokkaido, the Ainu were slain, repressed, and those who remained were made an underclass without rights. It was only last year that the Japanese government recognized the Ainu as an indigenous people, and urged for an end to the centuries of discrimination. But after so much brutality against them, the decision to try and rejuvenate their culture now seems to be a farcical case of too little, too late. There are few Ainu left and apparently only four people remaining who can speak the Ainu language fluently.
The last shards of Ainu culture have been appropriated into a tourism bonanza.The Japanese travel from all over the country to check out Ainu living in their little Ainu towns doing their Ainu thang. In the middle of the town they’ve built a large theatre where tourists can watch Ainu do traditional dances and festival rituals. Including myself and my mate, only four people turned up to watch that day. Some of the Ainu tunes were pretty banging.
Then they played a game called "Catch the Plate." You have to catch a plate. It really sucked.
But we got into the spirit of things and joined the performers on stage to take part in an Ainu dance.
Most of the people working on the Ainu settlement in the multiple traditional Ainu woodcarving shops weren’t actually Ainu, or even from Hokkaido.
But, finally, after endless fake Ainu outlets we met Araki, a 25-year-old bonafide Ainu (with a little bit a of Japanese thrown in there somewhere down the line) willing to give us the skinny on life in the settlement.
He showed us a picture of his grandfather who had been a famous woodcarver in the area, and was still living above the shop with his wife. Araki told me that he looks after them while his parents work. He was pretty bummed out about this – he admitted he’d have to hang about here carving little wooden owls in Akan until his grandparents died and only then he’d be able to sod off. He said he can't wait to go to Canada because he reckons the cannabis is great out there. But judging by his nervous giggling and wobbly hand, it seemed he was doing pretty good on the weed front right here in Akan. “Oh yeah, we’ve got a whole field of it growing behind the settlement,” he said.
Apparently his wooden female-with-cock-for-a-head dildos sell by the bucketload, although he warned us that if we were going to use them we'd better cover them with a condom first to avoid splinters. Sexy.
Then he showed us this innovation in dildo technology. It’s the penis back scratcher. After buying two to appease a couple of lonely female friends of ours with eczema round their shoulder blades, we got back in the car and headed further north.