Charles Harries

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Week 25

A bit about Hokkaido in the dark on a quiet evening.

So it's Sunday, early afternoon. The ground is white and the sky is white and Nicole and I are driving along Route 238, a 300-odd kilometer highway running down the Okhotsk coast like the trail that a drop of sweat makes down the side of your head. We're just outside of Monbetsu. I look out the window of the buzzing little Toyota Vitz. I'm looking at a field, black little fingers of leaf-stripped bushes poking out here and there; I'm looking at a stripe of tall evergreens, dark and brooding, sentinels on the seashore; and through a break in these trees I look over the Sea of Okhotsk -- but today there is no sea, there are no hoary-capped waves, there is no churning, no restlessness, but instead a vast expanse of white, an infinity reaching up into the sky. I know that there is a sea here -- the angle we make with the coast precludes the mistake that maybe I just can't see it behind a rise or something. No, there is a sea here, or there was, but now the little highway is actually only maybe 150 yards from the end of the world, a big drop off where Moshirikara Kamuy, Ainu creator-god of the earth, decided to stop drawing, so, paper-white, the Sea of Okhotsk has become a great Nothing, part of the empty sky above, part of the aether. Later that evening I took a walk with my camera. This is what my backyard looked like:

it was so quiet i could hear my blood
it was so quiet i could hear my blood

Of course we live in the twenty-first century and the idea that an Ainu god wandered along and took a bite out of reality makes no sense, because seas don't vanish and Moshirikara Kamuy doesn't exist and never existed, and we know this because we have spaceships and electron microscopes and radio-carbon dating and proton accelerators that tell us so.

My Internet is high-speed and I have a camera that can pick up and store 12.1 million pixels and my phone can tell me what movies are playing on the other side of the world, but here in Hokkaido, here on the edge of Everything, here 1.2 kilometers from a observation tower where I can watch the white of ice and snow tear up the black of the sea, I can't incorporate (like in the literal, make-it-a-part-of-your-body definition) I can't incorporate enough of the twenty-first century to really shut down the back-of-the-neck creeping sense that the Ainu gods, the Kamuy, are here on every side of me, animism-ed, woven right into everything. In the weight of the mountains, the ferocity of the blizzards, the gray monolith of the sky. In the black of the forests, in the fire of the dawn, in that increasingly disturbing 'unknown compelling force' that keeps driving people (Yamato Japanese people) away from Hokkaido. So when you look at something like the Sea of Okhotsk, covered totally in ice, when you look at something like the 450-foot cliffs of Sounkyo Gorge, when you look out the windows of your car and realize that you can't see the road, literally, on any side of you, and you have to hit the brakes and hope you don't collide with something, all of the iPhones and Wikipedias and CERNs of the world can't save you from the notion that something out there, something inhuman and real and BIG is looking back.

I think the Ainu understood it. Better than we do, at least. These are a people who, after a certain age, refused to shave or cut their hair at all, claiming descendance from bears. These are a people who believed women were only marriageable after their faces had been completely tattooed, soot from the cooked branches of a certain Hokkaido-native tree wrought under their skin. These are a people for whom an engagement ring was a sword, followed by at least two more swords on the wedding day. A people whose clothing consisted almost entirely of trees and the skins of the animals they hunted -- which hunting, by the way, they refused to do in anything but the dead of winter, and was performed with poison-tipped arrows (secret family recipe -- no kidding) and stingray stingers. After they were done hunting, they'd perform rituals to send the spirits of the animals back into the wild to get hunted again. These are a people who called their children Shit until the age of three so that evil demons wouldn't want to mess with them. This is the kind of culture that exposure to Hokkaido has bred.

So us, modern civilization with Apple products and 3G wireless and capital-t Technology, we come to Hokkaido and we marvel at the size of the mountains and the cold of the wind, we marvel at the beauty of the snow, we marvel at the clear air and the colors of summer and autumn, we write blog posts about marveling, and we go about our days and nights. But the more we're here, the more we get this feeling that there's something not quite right here, that this is different, somehow, from the other marvelous places we've been, that there's something in the mountains and the wind, in the air and the colors, something on the other side of car windows, something far below the ropeways -- something. Something that shouldn't be there as far as the Human Experience is concerned, something that can'tbe part of the equation, something that humans just don't have the cognitive skills to interface with. But the longer we're here, the less and less sense the sentence I live in Hokkaido makes, the less and less it makes sense to conceptualize ourselves as living here as we would live anywhere else -- because here isn't really like anywhere else; it wasn't built by natural forces, by planetary pressures on rock and stone and organic elements. Knowing the position x and momentum p of every atom in Hokkaido wouldn't allow Laplace's Intellect to extrapolate the future and past of this place. Science doesn't work when you're living in the presence of the gods, which would explain such ostensibly impossible experiences as that harrowing sense that the ground is always subtly moving, would explain why the snow falls from the eaves without any apparent stimulus, would explain why the trees move even when there's no wind. Hokkaido doesn't care if you've got a Ph.D., it doesn't care how many years you've gone to school or how many papers you've published, because one day it's going to pull the tides back from the shores, it's going to tear up the black sea in the night and leave the shreds strewn around the boats and the breakers, it's going to disassemble the blue of the sky, and in the morning the sun will not rise, light will come from everywhere at once, if only to show you that the little houses you built, the restaurants and the hotels and the onsens are all little human monuments on the edge of a great Infinity, that all around you is white, abyssal, choked with falling snow; and so we don't live in Hokkaido so much as we live on Hokkaido, like little creatures on the back of some impossibly large bear, which might at any moment shake us off, but which, for the moment, settles for unbelievable gun shows, flexing its muscles every now and again, just to remind us who's the boss.

Hokkaido is actually a super-scary place.

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