When I was 29, I went to Japan to teach English, as people do. I hadn’t really taught before, just informally tutored people who were trying to learn English, through a community program in Boston. But I got hired by an English language school called Nova, and they were sending me to Asahikawa in Hokkaido to teach English conversation. It was my first time living overseas. I had worked in four other countries before (Mexico, Yugoslavia, France, and Tanzania), but always for short-term gigs of three months or so. This was my first time building a life in another country.
I returned to Asahikawa on the trip Emma and I took to Japan last summer. We stayed with a former student of mine, Yumiko, who became a close friend when I lived there in 1996. We had kept in touch ever since, and there we were, 23 years later, with our teen-aged children (her two a bit older than mine). It was quite an experience.
Asahikawa had changed tremendously in 23 years. I guess I should have expected it, but I’m more used to Switzerland, where you can return after 20 years and everything is still recognizable. But the changes to the Japanese economy over the last two decades were apparent in the city.
When I lived in Asahikawa, my life was focused on Kaimono Koen, literally “shopping street,” a main artery that was a pedestrian mall for several blocks leading away from the train station. The school where I taught was on that street, a couple of blocks from the train station, and the apartment where I lived was two short blocks off of it, a bit further away from the station. I didn’t have a car, so most of my time there was spent walking or riding around on my old blue “granny bike,” as I thought of it. Kaimono Koen felt like the hub of the city, lined with the then-famous Japanese department stores and other buildings chock full of bars, restaurants, and shops. It could get quite crowded, especially on a nice day at lunchtime, or in the morning and evening when workers were coming and going on the trains. There was much more to the city that street, of course, and I saw much of it on foot, or when I rode the train or in a friend’s car.
For our return trip, Emma and I would stay with Yumiko for two nights, and then spend two more nights in the Art Hotel, just off Kaimono Koen, so that we’d have a chance to walk the city like I used to. I looked forward to seeing my friend Yumiko again and also showing Emma one of the places I used to live.
Yumiko lives just outside of Asahikawa, and because she had some free time and a car, we were able to see some things together that I’d never made it to before. We went to the Asahiyama Zoo, which is an older-style zoo built in 1967, but with some improvements on the habitats starting up. It was interesting to see the local animals, but as usual, I found myself drawn to the waste containers, with the division between combustible and uncombustible trash that I remembered from my days of living in Japan. One set-up had an extra little bin for plastic bottle caps, which I thought was quite useful since those are such a common form of litter. Even at the zoo, the Japanese can be counted on to separate their garbage into the accepted categories.
After the zoo, we decided to drive out into the countryside, towards Biei. But first, we’d stop off at the glorious Aeon Mall, a new phenomenon on the outskirts of Asahikawa. The mall had replaced Kaimono Koen as the focus of consumer activity in the area. There was another Aeon Mall, we’d later find, built next to the Asahikawa train station. But this one was just like an American shopping mall, only…different. There was a shop called Sweat (which sold hats), and a few shops displaying the Japanese fascination with American consumer goods. We ate at the food court, which had vegetarian udon and other offerings. Then we went on a quest to buy Emma a yukata, an article of clothing she’d fallen in love with during our stays in ryokan in Tokyo and Takayama. It was a bit different from my experience buying a kimono in a shop above Kaimono Koen, which another student of mine had taken me to, where I tried on the kimono and they showed me how to wear an obi. The yukatas at the mall were all hanging on racks wrapped in plastic, and Emma chose one based on an estimate of her size, with a pattern and colors she liked.
On our way out to Biei, Yumiko stopped of at a place on a hilltop just outside of Asahikawa, but far enough outside to be surrounded by fields. She explained that she liked to go there to think. Yumiko is probably the most interesting person I met in Japan. She was in her early or mid-20s when we met, and she was a bit of a free thinker. She loved to travel, but independently rather than in the large tour groups many of my students favored. (She later went on a trip to Europe with one of the other teachers from Nova that she’d also befriended and ended up traveling on her own for a while.) She and I always had interesting conversations about all sorts of topics, especially as her English became more advanced (I never got beyond beginner Japanese, “level 7C” in the Nova system). Now, she hadn’t studied English for a while, but she could express herself well. I could imagine her going to this place on the hilltop to be on her own and think.
Next stop was a flower field, which Biei is famous for. We stopped at Atomunooka and walked among the flowers for a bit. Of course, there was a photo opportunity with a cute cow bench as well. Then we drove on to a viewpoint overlooking Biei with the added advantage of a lavender ice cream stand across the street. The area is also famous for its lavender, and the lavender softserve was some of the most delicious ice cream I’ve had. Emma even liked it, and she’s not a huge fan of lavender. It was a very satisfying day in the Hokkaido countryside, which was as green as I’d remembered it (after living in Ulaanbaatar, especially, the green of Japan is intense).
We also stopped off at a supermarket on the way back to Yumiko’s house. It was much bigger than any supermarket I ever shopped at when I lived in the city, and it was fun to see all the different products available. Yumiko was concerned about our vegetarian diet (as non-vegetarians often seem to be, until they realize it’s not so hard to make vegetarian food based on what they usually cook). She wanted us to be able to pick out food, but I always freeze when I am put on the spot like that, so I was glad she had some ideas for what to make for the two nights we’d be staying with her family. We also bought quite a few treats for Emma, who enjoyed seeing some of the foods she was familiar with from manga and anime.
I suppose it’s worth pausing here to write a bit about being vegetarian in Japan. I have the idea of writing another post about how Emma and I ate on our trip to Japan. And this was never really meant to be a food blog, despite the title. As I explained earlier on, this blog was mainly meant to be about our life in Mongolia and the cultural differences we expected to encounter. I thought of the title for the blog as a bit of a joke, and it just stuck. I have a tendency to name things based on jokes; we have a chihuahua named Mussolini, for instance. But we do both stick to vegetarian diets (and I have for about 35 years). And it really is always easier than people think.
My theory is that most non-vegetarians have simply never tried to be vegetarian, so they don’t realize that it’s not nearly as difficult as they imagine. There are plenty of vegetarian options in Japan, though you have to be careful about the tendency to put fish sauce in everything. I spent my very first night in Asahikawa, back in 1995, huddled over the toilet puking because something I’d eaten had some fish in it. This is what fish and seafood do to me, and why I won’t ever try someone’s favorite seafood dish no matter how “delicious” they might think it is. I have a strong aversion to throwing up. I’ve never had an anaphylactic reaction to seafood, but it does affect my gastrointestinal system somehow. Anyway, some of the things I loved eating in Japan when I lived there were the noodles (udon, soba, and ramen), and the shabu-shabu restaurants were a lot of fun because you could have your own pot with just tofu and vegetables. And Asahikawa had many non-Japanese eateries; one place my fellow teachers and I frequented was an Italian place called “Aru Dente.” So eating vegetarian in Japan is entirely possible.
The next day with Yumiko we saw a gorgeous exhibit at the Asahikawa City Museum about the Ainu people, who are indigenous to Hokkaido and also Russia. It was beautifully designed, but unfortunately not in English. Yumiko did her best to translate some of the signs, but just seeing the Ainu clothing, tools, and other materials was fascinating. There was also an exhibit on area geology, flora, and fauna, focusing on adaptation to the cold. It was definitely worth visiting. Emma remarked that the Ainu objects reminded her of Ashitaka and the Emishi people from Hayao Miyazaki’s film Princess Mononoke, though the Emishi were culturally distinct from the Ainu even if they might have been related.
We went into Asahikawa for lunch at Yumiko’s favorite ramen shop, near the city center. We parked at the library, which brought back memories (I had gone there sometimes just to get out of the apartment, which I’d shared with two fellow teachers) and took a short walk through Tokiwa Park, which Emma and I would visit more extensively the next day. Then we had some of the most delicious ramen I’ve ever tried, at Shogu Ramen Mizuno, behind an unassuming store front. Unfortunately, Emma’s ramen was too spicy for her, so she couldn’t eat much of it, though she had some of mine. After lunch, Yumiko took us to the Takasago sake brewery, one of the oldest in Asahikawa, dating back to 1899. I sampled some sake and bought a small bottle to take back with me.
Those were the highlights of my stay with Yumiko. She had other things happening, including an ailing mother-in-law and a husband in the hospital, so we were only able to stay with her for two days. But those two days were a gift. I had always hoped to visit Asahikawa and see Yumiko again, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to since Japan is so expensive to travel to. It was a much shorter distance to travel there from Ulaanbaatar than from the USA. I was glad that Emma was interested in seeing the city where I used to live. And Yumiko is one of those friends that make it easy to pick up where you left off, even if it was 23 years since we’d seen each other, and a lot had happened to both of us since.
This post is getting a little long, so I’ll break and write about my two days in Asahikawa with Emma in another post. Up to this point, we’d seen little of the city center, which had been my main stomping grounds, so we were going to spend the next day walking the city and looking for the places I remembered visiting. There were many changes, as I would find out. I’ll write about them in my next post.