We’d been wandering round Otaru most of the day and I had it in mind to visit the canal which I had heard was lined with picturesque nineteenth century stone warehouses. We arrived just after dark and, fortuitously, discovered that this was where the Lantern Festival was.
In the next sleeper on the train on the way to Sapporo, I met a Japanese man with a shared interest in photography and Nikon equipment. He recommended I visit Otaru, so I did.
Otaru is the port for Sapporo, the second largest port in Hokkaido after Hakodate.
I met up with an Argentinian couple on the street and wandered around with them and their friends during the day, including a delightful visit to a Japanese restaurant. Much more congenial than wandering around by myself.
This is an image that seems to come in threes. There is the pedestrian, the truck and the wharf, the three trees, the three protruding faces of the buildings in the background (though two are on the same building), the three double windows in the left building, the three windows at the far right, the two mooring piers and the flagpole…. Note you can only see the top of the truck which shows how far the snow is built up around the road. You can also see how deep it is on the pier.
The snow is piled up high on the sides of the roads, higher than the van in the distance, but they obviously don’t want to bury the fire hydrant.
Snow piled up high on the roof and icicles from the gutter. Actually, this is a problem in Japan. People climb up onto their roof to clear the snow throughout winter and from time to time, fall off.
I would guess that the colourful bus is a special service for tourists, but maybe it’s just a normal bus.
They’re a local so probably they know what they’re doing but I would have thought that the person running across the road is taking a risk. It’s often ice underfoot. I little later, I saw a man carrying an infant slip over on his back with no harm to the infant and no obvious damage to himself. The previous night at the snow festival I slipped over backwards and had difficulty sitting down comfortably for the next few weeks.
The people here are waving to their friend who is wearing winter kimono attire.
This is on the side of a hill and the structures are barriers to prevent an avalanch of snow onto the street below. These barriers are also in the image three images before, towards the bottom of the slope below the big building on the hill.
Interesting pattern in the snow and it looked like a challenging route in the conditions.
Here we have a vendor with trays of crabs.
It was usually snowing, here quite heavily. The people are crossing on the signal (or maybe those two are a bit early) and there’s probably a pedestrian crossing under the snow. The building is probably a Tax Office because the one thing I can read is “Tax Refund”. The remarkable nineteenth century outside grandfather clock gave an impressive sequence of chimes a few minutes later when it reached five o’clock.
I’ll make some comments on equipment because of the conditions. I traveled very light to Sapporo, leaving my large case behind at the hotel in Tokyo. I probably brought other lenses with me but decided not to use them because of the difficulty of changing lenses in heavy snow. I took almost all images in this post, the previous two on the snow festival and the next one on the lantern festival using a Nikon D3 and an 85mm f1.4 lens, plus a hydrophobia rain cover over the camera and lens. I also had the Fujifilm X100 in my pocket but used it for very few images, though the previous two are amongst them.
After dinner and when it was dark, I returned to visit the snow sculptures at night.
Since we are in Sapporo, founded in the late nineteenth century in what was then largely an Ainu island, I will relate something of the Ainu.
History of the Ainu.
The Ainu are the indigenous people of Japan, now found mainly in Hokkaido. They are different in appearance from the Japanese, hairier, deep-set eyes, tending to be taller and can look like Europeans. In their traditional society, they had animist beliefs, with especial reverence to the bears. Males grew long beards and women had tattooed lips.
One theory is that the Ainu are a Caucasian people but it is not clear whether this is the case. They appear to be descended from the ancient Jomon people of prehistoric Japan and have been in Japan for many thousands of years.
The Ainu once lived all over Japan but were gradually pushed further and further north. When Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified Japan in 1590, that did not include Hokkaido and the northernmost part of Honshu, which were still Ainu territory. During the Tokugawa era, the Japanese took over the north of Honshu and settled in the south of Hokkaido. Though increasingly under Japanese influence, the Ainu largely retained their own culture and much of their way of life.
The Ainu are often seen as a “primitive” hunter-gatherer society but this may in part be nineteenth century Japanese prejudice to help justify taking over their lands without compensation. They lived in houses, rather than being nomads, they also undertook agriculture and from the 14th to 17th centuries had extensive trading contacts with nearby countries in their ocean-going canoes.
Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 came a determined attempt to colonise Hokkaido and this included founding Sapporo in 1871. Over the next 130 years, the Ainu were assimilated, their culture suppressed and their language banned.
Their rights were only legally recognised as recently as 1998 and there has been some cultural regeneration since. There is said to be some 25,000 Ainu living in Hokkaido though perhaps there could be more because it had been prudent for Ainu to deny their identity in Japan for so long. There are very few without other ethnic ancestry and only a handful of remaining Ainu speakers.
There are also very few people left in Russia who identify themselves as Ainu. Most Sakhalin Ainu were repatriated to Japan after the Second World War and Russia no longer recognises the Ainu as a current ethnic group.
Sapporo holds a snow festival every year in early February, as it has done since 1950. Obviously, it needs to be cold so the sculptures do not melt. The average temperature while I was there was -7.3˚C and it was usually snowing.
The three images above are part of a large tableau called Snow Aquarium ~ Gift from the Sea. This is one of the large sculptures created by the Self Defence Forces (Japanese Army).
This is another huge sculpture created by the Self Defence Forces, presumably with the active support of the Government of India.
Another is this one-third size replica of Tsuruga Castle, also known as Aizuwakamatsu Castle (from the town where it is located in north central Honshu). The castle was built in 1384. Local warlord Date Masamune captured it in 1589 but then had to give it up to Toyotomi Hideoshi in 1590, who after all now controlled all of Japan (apart from the Ainu far north) and was not a man to be trifled with.
In 1868, the castle was the last major Tokugawa holdout in Honshu until it fell after being besieged for a month. During the siege, twenty teenaged samurai belonging to Byakkotai or the White Tiger Company committed seppuku (spoken form: hara-kiri) on a hill overlooking the castle. They mistakenly thought the castle had fallen but smoke was from the town burning in front of the castle walls. One survived, rescued by a peasant.
The castle was demolished in 1874 due to damage from the siege bombardment. It was replaced in 1965 by a replica built in concrete.
Performing in front of the snow castle was a Japanese pop singer with a very good voice.
There were also smaller sculptures that were part of an international competition. This shark is one.
There were sixteen competition teams in all, from Chile, Finland, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Russia (Novosibirsk ), Singapore, South Korea (Daejeon), Sweden, Thailand, Taiwan, and USA (Hawaii and Portland).
This is part of another massive snow tableau that refers to television mangas Toriko and One Piece. In the preceding image (with the same snow tableau in the background), people are queuing to pay money to take a photo from an elevated platform. I think the statue is of Horace Capron, an American who in 1870-71 helped found Sapporo and assisted in the development of Hokkaido, at the invitation of the Japanese Government.
Representing traditional Korean poles usually found at entrances to villages or temples or at the side of the road, Jangseung usually come in pairs, one male and one female.
A gentle dance posture from Southern Thailand.
I returned the rental car though I didn’t manage to find petrol even after driving around all the tiny back streets of Hakone Yumoto. My Japanese and their English were not good enough to communicate this to the rental company but they didn’t mind because the fuel gauge still showed as full (very small car, slow speeds).
Two days earlier, I didn’t make it to the other end of Lake Ashinoko so there were quite a few things around Hakone that I didn’t get to see. One of them was the reconstructed Hakone Checkpoint.
In the early 1600s, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa shogun, moved the administrative capital to Edo (now called Tokyo). This was the end of a long period of vicious civil war that Ieyasu was determined to prevent recurring. One of his measures was to require that daimyo had to spend alternate years in Edo – and when they were absent, their wives had to stay behind. Hakone Checkpoint was on one of the few routes out of Edo. Movement was restricted generally but especially for the wives of the daimyo; if they were caught trying to sneak past the checkpoint, it was tantamount to an act of treason or rebellion.
I caught the train from Hakone Yumato via Odowara to Tokyo. I spent the next day organising my luggage, sending emails and posting on the web. The next evening I boarded a train with a sleeper berth for Sapporo, for the Snow Festival.
The railways in Japan are marvels of efficiency. If you are visiting Japan and traveling extensively (more than just Tokyo to Kyoto and back), it can be a good idea to get a Japan Rail Pass, which you have to do from overseas. I did have to pay an additional amount for the sleeper cars (there and back) but it was a lot cheaper than two nights accommodation.
Here are a few images from the train, largely random. It’s often not easy to take them because images can flash past before they fully register in the mind. There was fairly heavy snow outside for much of the journey (the part I was awake for and could see, anyway).