I lived on the island of Hokkaido for six months. “It’s the northernmost island in Japan,” I used to tell people who looked blank when I told them where I was going. For some people, my explanation did not explain anything. They asked why I’d want to go there. They told me, as if I’d asked, or cared, that they’d never buy a Japanese car.
When I arrived in Sapporo, in March, bulldozers were pushing mountains of snow into the river because there was no where else to put it all.
On Hokkaido, I rode to the top of an Olympic ski jump. I climbed volcanoes, and smelled sulfur that came from deep within the earth. I traveled to the farthest point north on the island, and also to the most southern. I thought I could see Russia.
On Hokkaido, I traveled alone for the first time; I was nineteen. I took a train that snaked along impossible cliffs between the mountains and the sea, and spent nights in cheap inns with bathrooms down the halls. The other guests stared at my white skin.
On Hokkaido, I felt my first earthquake.
On Hokkaido, I got the worst sunburn I’ve ever had — my shins reddened and blistered and later, my blood pooled in a puffy layer around my ankles. On Hokkaido I ate raw scallops the size of half-dollars, right from their shells. I ate raw oysters and raw shrimp and raw clams and raw eggs. I ate crab meat from impossibly hairy, giant crab legs. I gained 20 pounds.
While on Hokkaido I studied and spoke Japanese so constantly that I began to dream in Japanese. I forgot English. In phone calls home, my speech was peppered with Japanese words that seemed to convey more meaning than their English counterparts. I learned ikebana, and tea ceremony, and calligraphy. An old woman played the koto for me. I gave speeches. I danced in a parade.
On Hokkaido, I lost sight of who I was and where I came from. I got drunk four nights a week. I dreamed of going home; I dreaded leaving.
On Hokkaido one evening I soaked in an outdoor hot spring on the shores of an alpine lake. Snow fell into the black of the water and disappeared.