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Sunday, Aug. 22, 2010

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Away from it all: The Sarufutsu River (far left) and its many serpentine tributaries comprise one of the last wild-salmon river systems in Japan. WINIFRED BIRD PHOTOS

Way up North

By the time you've got to Sarufutsu in Hokkaido, there's not really much farther left to go in Japan


Special to The Japan Times

If you're trying to get to Sarufutsu in a hurry, the best way is to fly into Wakkanai, a blustery little fishing town on the extreme northern tip of Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, then rent a car or take the bus east. From Tokyo the whole trip takes just over three hours.

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Anyone eyeing the town's main drag could be forgiven for not realizing that Sarufutsu is Hokkaido's largest town.

But if you are in a hurry, you probably shouldn't be headed to Sarufutsu in the first place — and if you're not watching the clock, there's a slower, better way to go.

This way will see you flying into Sapporo, Hokkaido's capital, and taking a 90-minute train ride to Asahikawa (of zoo fame), where you hop the one-car local train north to Wakkanai. Soon you will be rolling slowly through low hills and empty fields with only the occasional farmhouse or cluster of rundown cabins to draw the eye. If, however, you're traveling between November and April, those same fields will be deep in snow, the pines weighed down with white globs and the rooftops decorated with icicles.

Winter or not, though, there's every chance you'll be the only one on the train, and by the end of the six-hour ride you should be starting to understand the key characteristic of your destination: a glorious lack of neon lights, traffic jams, tourist amenities — and all the other human clutter that fills the rest of Japan.

What you will find instead are forests, rivers, lagoons and cheerful locals willing to show you around. Sitting on the eastern side of a long tapering headland that extends toward Russia's Sakhalin Island, Sarufutsu is Hokkaido's largest town by area (590 sq. km) but among its least densely populated (4.7 people per sq. km — compare that to Osaka's 12,000 per sq. km).

Several parts of Sarufutsu have been designated Important Bird Areas by Birdlife International, and are inhabited either seasonally or permanently by majestic Steller's sea eagles, black woodpeckers, Bewick's and Whooper swans, red-crowned cranes and other species. Forests of birch, spruce, fir, white oak — and magnificently gnarled old elms — cover more than three-quarters of the town. In summer the forests grow so dense with foliage and bamboo grass that it's only possible to traverse them by canoeing along their waterways.

In fact, what draws most visitors to Sarufutsu is the river. The Sarufutsu River is one of Japan's last wild-salmon rivers and is a favorite with sports fishermen. Unrestrained by concreted banks and dams, narrow tributaries descend from the hills in a serpentine network, then spread over the valleys in glassy black swamps, and finally join in a single wide band that flows into the Sea of Okhotsk.

Each year a succession of spawning salmonids power their way up these waterways from the open ocean: first the sea-run taimen, then the cherry, pink, and chum salmon, and finally the white- spotted char.

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Friendly faces: Mikiya and Rie Kasai (above) in the entryway to their welcoming inn, Kasai Ryokan; and Seichi Nishiguchi, 77, who has great tales to tell of times past.
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Sports fishermen may wish to pursue the latter four, but even those who normally regard angling as being about as exciting as a trip to the dentist would likely find the sea-run taimen irresistible. The rosy-red mammoths are predecessors of modern salmon, reaching 1.5 meters or more in length and living for more than 20 years. They are now critically endangered and have become the focus of passionate local conservation efforts, although catch-and- release fishing is still permitted. The best time to view them is in the spawning season at the end of April through early May.

So why do these primordial salmon still inhabit Sarufutsu when they've disappeared from most of the rest of Japan?

According to Michio Fukushima, a senior researcher at the National Institute for Environmental Studies who has studied the fish extensively, the answer is a combination of climate and geography. Sarufutsu is too cold for agricultural development and too flat for hydroelectric dams, and as a result its rivers remain as nature intended.

Actually, to say Sarufutsu is "cold" is an understatement. The climate is brutal. For half the year snow blankets the land, enlivened only by the occasional grass-green apartment, sky-blue bridge or primary-red barn. Nothing grows aside from grass from which hay can be made.

Before the town was founded in 1878, Ainu and other indigenous peoples hunted and fished in the area but did not practice agriculture; even in the early 20th century, farms were scarce. In those days, fishing, coal mining, and forestry were the area's main industries.

Seichi Nishiguchi, a 77-year-old carpenter who grew up in Sarufutsu, recalls his parents telling him that in the 1920s and '30s the coast was still black with dense forests. But then, most of the larger trees were hauled to the port on horse-drawn sleds and shipped to paper factories south of Sapporo. In fact industrial giant Oji Paper still owns nearly a third of the land in Sarufutsu, although these days little wood is harvested, and the company last year set aside 16 percent of its property as conservation forest.

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Proceed with care: In the Sarufutsu area, along with many parts of Hokkaido and many upland areas elsewhere throughout the archipelago, bears are the dominant species other than Homo sapiens.

Today, scallop aquaculture and dairy farming fuel the town's economy. This is happy news for the visiting gourmand. Restaurants and inns offer scallop sashimi, deep-fried scallops on rice, and — perhaps taking the theme a bit too far — scallop ramen. At Sarufutsu Koen (01635-2-2311), a seaside gift shop and diner where country music floats over an empty parking lot, you can choose to have between six or 10 scallops in your order of curry. Whichever you decide on, portions in Sarufutsu are such that you are not likely to go hungry during your stay.

You may, however, have to go without a proper bath. The pump at Sarufutsu Onsen (0162-2-2180), the town's only hot spring, recently broke, and while you can still enjoy a heated bath there, purists must leave town for the real volcanic thing. One interesting choice is Toyotomi Onsen (0162-82-1728), discovered in 1926 when oil prospectors drilling an experimental well instead found petroleum-tinged hot water. The baths smell like someone tipped a can of kerosene into them, but your skin will be soft for days — and the proprietors insist there are no health risks.

Most of Sarufutsu's accommodations are located in the Onishibetsu area of town. Choices include a few nondescript inns, a campsite and a Rider House where those arriving by Harley-Davidson can stay for just ¥1,000. However, if you want to insert yourself directly into the heart of Sarufutsu's social scene, you would do best to book a room at the Kasai Ryokan (01635-2-3628).

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Don't let the inn's nondescript clapboard front, water-stained walls and entryway jammed with thigh-high rubber boots, fishing poles and dusty knick-knacks put you off. This is the place to stay in Sarufutsu. Over ridiculously ample meals served in the common dining hall, you are liable to meet sports fishermen, Tokyo University biologists, members of the local taimen conservation group and other colorful characters who add to the overall sense that you have somehow checked into the boarding house of a Charles Dickens novel. Rates are ¥6,000 per person including breakfast and dinner — with a ¥500 surcharge for fuel in the winter.

For somewhere between zilch and a modest fee, the inn's friendly, no-nonsense proprietors, Mikiya and Rie Kasai, will also lend you fishing gear or a canoe, show you the best fishing spots or take you snow-shoeing, star-gazing and night-safariing (which involves driving out to a field to view — not hunt — the local deer herds).

If necessary they will even pick you up from Wakkanai's airport. Those who don't speak Japanese are welcome, though the Kasais request an e-mail in advance to mrkasai@coral.ocn.ne.jp stating what you'd like to do during your stay.

To Japanese and non-Japanese alike, Mikiya says, "Please come on up and hang out!" It's an invitation well worth accepting — and should you find yourself short on conversation topics during your stay, remember: There's always fish.



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