H is for Hokkaido

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.


Joining Charlotte’s Web, Jade Park and The Contact Zone in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. It’s called Alphabet: A History.

Previous posts:

A is for Aaron

B is for Biddeford Pool

C is for crème brûlée

D is for dog bite

E is for everything, everything, everything

F is for Fort Wayne

G is for geology


6 thoughts on “H is for Hokkaido

  1. I love the litany of transformation. I wonder if this happens to older travelers to the same extent–it seems a rite and benefit for the young, who might enter into the culture more deeply, if only by necessity, taking more risks?

    • You know, I was thinking something similar when I was writing this, basically that my more recent travel experiences seem less dramatic and exciting than those I took when I was younger. You’re right about all of the transformation. Youth probably allows more risk-taking, although I think the accompanying poverty of my college years probably impacted the way I traveled then, too.

  2. I thought this piece was going to be about pumpkin! We get a kind of gourd in Germany called the Hokkaido, which I love because it is easy to cut and the skin is edible.

    Your Japanese experience sounds amazing.

  3. Pingback: I is for introvert « Fog City Writer

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