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Saturday, Dec. 16, 2006

JAPAN LITE

Land of Akita dogs and Santa Claus


I've had it! I'm not going to sit around freezing to death in my uninsulated Japanese house again this winter.

News photo
Tim Ernst, who Japanese think looks like Santa, poses with a friend. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

No more of those cold winter rains that get under your skin, no more hanging onto the heated kotatsu for dear life, and no more braving indoor breezes! I would leave my rabbit hutch and head to someplace warmer. I'd head north.

Some say this defies logic. But if I'm going to be cold, I'm going to be cold properly: in a place where I can experience yukimizake and drink sake while watching the snow fall outside. Watching the rain is not the same.

Besides, I had heard that Hokkaido has central heating. Japanese logic told me that the coldest place would be the warmest place.

There are many options as to how to get to Hokkaido from Western Japan. I chose to fly into Akita Prefecture, in Northern Honshu, then take the train North to Aomori Prefecture, then the ferry to Hokkaido.

At 6 a.m., I was waiting outside the train station for the airport bus and was surprised to learn that a dog would be driving me to the airport. On the bus stop sign was a dog, in uniform, assuring me that this was the correct place to wait and that this dog, personally, (or should I say "caninely") would be driving the Airport Express Bus. Wow.

Once on the bus, I noticed the driver's voice was deep and gravely but his language skills were actually quite good.

At the Akita airport to meet me was cartoonist Tim Ernst, perhaps the only gaijin in Akita at any given time. Tim was going through an annual December ritual: getting in touch with his inner Santa. "I don't know why, but all the Japanese think I look like Santa Claus," he said, his droll little mouth tied up like a bow and the beard of his chin as white as the snow.

A little soft toy he had flung on his back, and he looked like a peddler just opening his sack. From his sack he produced a tiny stuffed Akita dog!

The "Akita ken" is the native dog of Akita Prefecture. I hear these dogs are like the Ainu of Akita and originally settled the prefecture. I don't know why Japan spends so much money developing robots when dogs seem so easy to train.

Tim's eyes how they twinkled, his dimples how merry! And his little round belly shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.

Tim, the Akita dog and I got into the car. A wink of Tim's eye and a twist of his head, soon let me know I had nothing to dread. Tim was a driver so lively and quick, I knew in a moment he must be . . . "The Japanese also think I look like Colonel Sanders," Tim added. Whoops.

It's tough being the only gaijin in a prefecture.

Tim showed me around Akita, but mostly the inside of restaurants. You get the feeling that Akita people spend a lot of time inside.

Which confirms my theory that, given the chance, humans will flock to central heating.

This would also explain why I saw very few traditional Japanese houses where you hang onto the kotatsu for dear life and have to brave indoor breezes. No, these houses were new, and insulated.

As I left Akita bound for Aomori the next day, I knew central heating was not far away.



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