Kokusai Street – November 2014 Silkroad Magazine

Kokusai Street - November 2014 Silkroad Magazine

Kokusai Street – November 2014 Silkroad Magazine

Now that the Karate Masters book is completed and on sale I have time to catch up on things on my to-do list. Here’s a scan of my Kokusai Street feature from last month’s Silkroad, the magazine of Dragonair.

Kokusai Street - November 2014 Silkroad Magazine

Kokusai Street – November 2014 Silkroad Magazine

Kokusai Street - November 2014 Silkroad Magazine

Kokusai Street – November 2014 Silkroad Magazine

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The Best of Hokkaido

Hokkaido, Japan

Hokkaido, Japan

Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s four main islands, and its final frontier. It has a quarter of the country’s landmass, but only one twentieth of its population. Large sections of the island are national parks where foxes, deer and brown bears outnumber people. Visitors come during winter to ski, and during summer to camp, hike and soak in hot spring pools. Hokkaido provides an escape from modern Japan to an almost primordial time. Amidst volcanoes, geysers and ice flows visitors can experience the ancient, wild side of Japan.

Winter Attractions

Skiing and Snowboarding

Hokkaido’s winter weather is strongly influenced by the cold winds blowing in from Siberia. In Sapporo, the temperature regularly drops to -5°C, and further east, away from the ameliorating affects of the ocean, it gets as low as -30°C. The winters bring a lot of snow, and the big dumps of fluffy powder make the island’s ski resorts the best in Japan. Sapporo hosted the 1972 Winter Olympics, but until recently, Hokkaido’s excellent skiing and boarding was not well known outside of Japan.

There are large ski areas in the Furano, Rusutsu and Niseko. Although the resorts are not as big as many European ski hills, Hokkaido has a lot to offer both beginners and those who prefer the steep and deep.

Niseko Hirafu has 57 runs, 28 lifts and, with floodlit slopes, skiing and boarding continues long after the sun has gone down. The après-ski activities are subdued, but many of the hotels have their own onsen (hot spring pools) where you can sit and soak away the day’s aches and pains.

Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan

Niseko, Hokkaido, Japan

Abashiri Ice Flows

As a rule of thumb, ships that plow through icebergs are not going to last long. The high pitched squeal of the hull scraping the ice is usually followed by a loud crack as metal gives way. The Aurora, however, is not an ordinary boat. Throughout the winter, the icebreaker takes a tour from the port of Abashiri out into the ice flows covering the Sea of Okhotsk. While the Aurora crunches along, the passengers look out for seals, feed the gulls, and try not to think about the Titanic.

Red-Crested Cranes

Legend says that Japanese cranes live for a thousand years and that the mere sight of them will bring longevity and prosperity. In fact, a pair of cranes used to be on the back of every 1000 Yen banknote. At the start of the 20th Century the birds themselves were on the verge of extinction. The situation has slowly improved due to protection of Hokkaido’s wetlands and local people providing food in winter. Today, more than 600 birds live in the Kushiro area.

These elegant black and white birds have a red patch on the tops of their heads and are highly photogenic. For most of the year, the cranes live amongst the tall reeds of the marshes and are difficult to observe. In winter, however, the birds move out onto the snow covered fields to search for food and to find a mate. Out in the open, pairs of birds begin to dance. Balancing on their spindly legs, the cranes raise their heads skywards and throw back their wings. The birds circle each other, their breath forming tiny clouds in the cold air. The dance continues with a series of bows, leaps, kicks and pecks.

This timeless ritual may be performed for fun, to assess social status, or even to enhance the pair-bond between mates. Many cranes remain paired for life, and the birds are regarded as symbols of marital happiness as well as longevity. On bridal kimonos it is not uncommon to see a pair of red-crested cranes captured mid-dance.

Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo Snow Festival – Yuki Matsuri

There is a 30ft tall T-Rex looming over a young Japanese family. It bares its teeth and beads of saliva hang from its lips. The T-Rex is not looking down, but out across the park toward Thomas the Tank Engine, and Pikachu. All three stand motionless, as they have done for the last week. But Pikachu’s creators are far more worried by the effects of the sun than any dinosaur. A brief warm spell could transform their work of art into an indistinguishable puddle.

Every year in early February, teams from around the world descend upon Odori Park in Sapporo with shovels, chainsaws and ice picks. Gigantic blocks of snow and ice are transformed into sculptures that range from delicate flowers to whales and entire buildings.

Toddlers career down near-frictionless ice slides while parents stand close by, videotaping the rite of passage for posterity. The weather is usually bitterly cold, but there is a steady supply of coffee and hot chocolate. If that doesn’t work, then the festival has 2 million spectators visitors can huddle between.

Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo Snow Festival

Dog Sled Competition

For the pampered pooches of Tokyo the toughest part of the day is deciding whether to wear the Gucci or Louis Vuitton collar. At dog sled competitions in Hokkaido there isn’t a Chihuahua, Toy Poodle or Bichon Frise in sight. The competing Huskies are big, strong, disciplined, and yearning to tear across the snow-covered hillside. Riding a dog sled is probably the closest man can get to actually running with the wolves.

The Japan Cup Dog Sled Competition is held in Wakkanai on the northern tip of the island. It takes place on the last weekend in February and entrants from throughout Japan come to compete. In some of the world’s harshest conditions the competition tests the teamwork between man and man’s best friend.

Spring and Summer Attractions

Volcanoes and Hot Springs

In March 2000, Mt. Usu was classified as a dormant volcano. Then it woke up. On the last day of the month, the volcano gave a deep earth-shaking growl and spat a cloud of black ash into the sky. The eruption continued for several days and was a clear reminder that Hokkaido is still geologically active.

Mt. Usu erupts 2000

Mt. Usu erupts March 2000

Around Lake Toya there are several spa hotels where guests can bathe in the hot spring pools. Although the hotels were temporarily evacuated during the eruption they remain a popular destination for tourists seeking relief in the therapeutic waters.

Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

Noboribetsu, Hokkaido

Noboribetsu Spa is located on the southern coast of Hokkaido. As well as the spa hotels the area is popular with visitors who wish to enter Hell. Hell Valley is in fact the largest outpouring of hot mineral water in Asia. Visitors are given tea spoons so they can try a little of the steaming water. The slightly murky concoction tastes of vinegar with a bad egg aftertaste. It explains why people come here to bathe in the water rather than drink it. The pools in the valley itself are generally far too hot for people to relax in. The coolest ones leave you feeling cooked, while the hottest ones have been fenced off to protect people from the boiling water. The hotels, however, have a selection of pools that are fed by water from Hell. Unlike the natural pools they have a less painful range of temperatures and the sulfurous bad egg smell is not quite so noticeable.

Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido

Ainu, the indigenous people of Hokkaido

Ainu – Hokkaido’s Indigenous People

The Ainu were the only inhabitants of Hokkaido, until the national government encouraged immigration from the Japanese mainland. Forestry by the new arrivals reduced the areas where the Ainu could hunt and brought diseases to which they had little resistance. Now, the Ainu are a minority group, but through festivals, parks and museums, they make sure their history is not forgotten.

The Ainu are physically different from mainland Japanese; they are shorter, more muscular and have more body hair. They have their own music and dances, which are often influenced by the animals and environment around them. Songs celebrate fishing or the hunt for bears, while other rituals such as the crane dance mimic the movement of the birds.

Near Shiraoi on Hokkaido’s southern coast is Poroto-Kotan Ainu Museum. Shiraoi was once one of the largest Ainu villages. Porto-Kotan remains a museum-cum-miniature theme park that hopes to educate both foreigners and Japanese about the traditions and culture of the Ainu people. It is an interesting look at a dying culture, but the caged bears may leave some visitors wondering if animal husbandry has fallen at the wayside of commercialization.

Daisetsuzan National Park

Daisetsuzan National Park

Hiking

Six national parks, five quasi-national parks and twelve prefectural parks provide many opportunities for hikers. Fir, pine, beech, oak and larch cover the valleys and lower hills while the highest peaks remain capped with snow throughout the year.

Mt. Yotei is known to locals as Ezo Fuji or Hokkaido Fuji due to its conical shape. The mountain is close to Niseko and Lake Toya and during summer many visitors undergo the four or five hour hike from the parking lot up to the crater rim at 1,893 metres.

The crater of Mt. Tarumae near Lake Shikotsu is fenced off. The 1038m mountain is still an active volcano and although not presently erupting, fumes emanate from fumaroles inside the crater. It is possible to drive to just a few kilometers from the volcano’s summit and then hike for 40 minutes to the crater rim. You could also spend the whole day on the climb by starting out from the campsite at Lake Shikotsuko.

Daisetsuzan National Park

Daisetsuzan National Park

Daisetsuzan National Park is the largest National Park in Japan at 890 square miles. Mt. Asahidake is the park’s high point and at 2,290 metres is also northern Japan’s highest mountain. A cable car runs from Asahidake Spa at 1000m up to 1600m. It is then a moderate hike for two hours over broken rock and then snow to reach the summit. From the top you can hike around the edge of the Ohachidaira Cauldron before returning via Sugatami Pond to the cable car. Another option from the summit is to press onward to Mt. Hokkaidake (2,149m) then Mt. Kurodake (1,984m). Not far from the summit of Kurodake, a chairlift and then cable car can take you all the way down to Sounkyo Spa on the otherside of the national park.

Daisetsuzan National Park

Daisetsuzan National Park

Summer Festivals

The Yosakoi Soran Festival is held in Sapporo every year in mid-August. It is a celebration of dance that combines the traditions of the Yosakoi Festival of Kochi Prefecture and the Soran folk music of Hokkaido. The dancers are grouped in teams which can be made up of hundreds of people. Each team has its own costume and unique ensemble dance number. Some of the dances are held on giant stages while others spread out across Odori Park.

Unlike winter, when Furano has a thick layer of snow, summer sees the grassy slopes covered with purple lavender, and red poppies. In July the area has a flower festival where everything from Kitty-chan dolls to the ice cream is colored purple and scented with lavender.

When to go

Most of the ski resorts are open in early December and don’t close until the end of April. Sapporo snow festival is usually in the first week of February. The dog sled competition is held during the last week of February. The red-crested cranes are out in the open during January and February.

Unlike the rest of Japan, Hokkaido does not have a rainy season. The summers are also much drier and cooler than in mainland Japan where the high humidity can become oppressive. June, July and August are the perfect time to camp, kayak and hike in Hokkaido. Sapporo’s Yosakoi Soran Festival is held in mid-August while Furano’s flowers are in full bloom during July.

Getting There

International and domestic flights land at Chitose Airport about 30 km southeast of Sapporo. Tokyo to Sapporo is one of  the world’s busiest air routes. There are regular trains that connect the airport with the city centre in around 40 minutes.

Getting Around

Hokkaido, like the rest of Japan, has a comprehensive rail system. In winter when the roads are covered in a thick layer of snow and ice, trains are by far the fastest, most reliable and safest way to get around. Ski buses run from Sapporo and Otaru all the way to the resort’s ticket offices.

In summer, however, if you want to hike, camp or explore the more remote parts of the island a car is invaluable. There are several rent-a-car agencies, but you will need an international driver’s license. Except for central Sapporo, the roads tend not to be crowded. One thing to remember, however, is that Hokkaido is big, and with a 50kph speed limit on rural roads and 80kph limit on the expressways it may take a while to get to your destination.

Sapporo has its own subway system that connects the main railway station with other sightseeing areas like Odori Park, Suskino and the Botanical Gardens. The city also has a modern grid based street system making it the easiest of Japan’s cities to find your way around.

Where to stay

Sapporo is Japan’s fifth largest city and has a wide range of accommodation, from hostels through to 5-star hotels. Otaru is a small port town, 30 minutes west of Sapporo and serves as a good base for exploring the Niseko and Toya areas.

Camping on beaches and lakeshores is not a problem. There are also 350 official camp sites which have facilities ranging from a single faucet all the way up to hot showers, log cabins and convenience stores.

 

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Red Powder Puff, Calliandra haematocephala

Red Powder Puff, Calliandra haematocephala,

Red Powder Puff, Calliandra haematocephala,

Flowers of the Red Powder Puff, Calliandra haematocephala known locally as obenigoukan. Flowering in Yomitan Village, Okinawa, Japan.

Red Powder Puff, Calliandra haematocephala,

Red Powder Puff, Calliandra haematocephala,


Red Powder Puff, Calliandra haematocephala,

Red Powder Puff, Calliandra haematocephala,

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Okinawan Chondara

Okinawan Chondara

Okinawan Chondara

I regularly meet this chondara (Okinawan clown) when teaching my photography workshops, yesterday he had a new face pattern. I had presumed that each chondara would have a unique pattern they would keep for life, but I guess Okinawan clowns take these things lightly.

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Prints now on sale through Fine Art America

Cherry Blossom

Cherry Blossom

I’m now offering some prints for sale through Fine Art America. This will allow friends to purchase a wider range of images, sizes, and media than I currently offer. It also means that prints will be available to purchase even when I’m overseas.

School's Out

School’s Out

A few reasons why I chose Fine Art America.

1) Great reviews on the quality of their prints.

2) A large range of products, that I couldn’t offer myself such as canvas prints, frames etc.

3) They produce the items in either the United States or the UK (Glasgow) depending where you’re shipping to. This is the big game changer. The majority of people who have bought my prints are based in either the US or UK. Shipping is therefore affordable, and there are no import taxes for either group.

Zampa Twilight

Zampa Twilight

What can’t they offer.

1) Signed prints. For a few more months I will continue to offer signed limited edition prints through the TRAVEL67.com website, but after then these will only be available at exhibitions, bazaars, and in person.

Water Lily

Water Lily

Meanwhile I’ll continue to upload more of my favorite images to Fine Art America, you never know, you may find the Christmas present you’d been looking for.

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Crusader for Health – Interview with Dr. Makoto Suzuki

Dr. Makoto Suzuki is a cardiologist and geriatrician. In 1976, he moved from Tokyo to Okinawa and began work at the Ryukyu University Hospital. While working in the field of community medicine, he discovered that there were an unusually high number of very healthy old people living on Okinawa. He began the Okinawa Centenarian Study, which has documented the phenomenon for more than 30 years. The findings of his research became the basis of several books that became bestsellers in Japan and around the world.

Dr. Makoto Suzuki

Dr. Makoto Suzuki

How did you discover the phenomenon of Okinawan longevity?

“I had heard that there was a very healthy old lady living in Yomitan Village, so I, and two others from the hospital, went out to meet her. She was over 100 years old, but when we arrived she was outside cutting the grass with a sickle. I was amazed at how fit and strong she was. When we talked to her, she didn’t think she was unusual at all. In fact, she pointed out that another healthy centenarian lived directly opposite her. When we went back to Naha City, and checked through the medical records, we found that Okinawa had 32 people over 100 years old. Although six were bedridden, 26 of these centenarians were in excellent health.”

How many centenarians are there on Okinawa now?

“There are now around 700 centenarians in Okinawa, but most of them are bedridden. The number of super healthy very old people has not gone up much from the 26 we counted at the beginning of our study. This is an important point, as it means that although advances in medical technology can keep us alive, those extra years are not always active and productive. Our goal needs to be not just longevity but healthy longevity.”

What are the main factors that have kept elderly Okinawans in such good physical shape?

“I think there are four keys to their health: diet, exercise, self-care, and community care. The traditional Okinawan foods like goya champuru, sweet potatoes, fruits and vegetables have a lot of nutrients and are low in fat.

The elderly are also used to strenuous jobs such as cutting sugar cane and continue to be active gardening and walking. This regular exercise keeps their bodies strong and supple.

Self-care is about having an awareness of your own health and getting regular check-ups by the local doctor, while community care is important to extinguish mental troubles. On Okinawa, many elderly people attend mowai, or get-togethers where they cement friendships and can help each other with any problems they might have. Unfortunately the lifestyles of younger Okinawans do not match with these four keys to health, and their life expectancy is dropping.”

How do the lifestyles of young Okinawans differ from those of their parents or grandparents?

“Food and, more specifically, fat is the biggest issue. Younger people are more likely to choose a hamburger over goya champuru when eating in a restaurant. The number of obese males has dramatically increased, and this leads to many medical problems including heart attacks, strokes, and several hormone dependent cancers. Cars, rather than walking, are now the main form of transport, and computer-based jobs mean that, for many, the only muscles they are exercising are those in their fingers. In addition to this decline in physical fitness, young people are not taking as much care of their mental health. In big cities the community spirit that is so important for the elderly is not as strong. ”

Are you optimistic about the future?

“Okinawa’s ranking for male life expectancy has dropped from number one to number 26 in Japan, but the life expectancy of Okinawan females remains at the top. If the health of the island’s women also decreases, Okinawa will no longer be able to claim itself as the centre of longevity.

I am hopeful that the study’s results, especially the ideas of better self-awareness of health, will help many others. In September 2006, I hosted the Ningen Dock conference, during which 7,000 doctors, researchers and technicians from around the world discussed how to achieve successful longevity. Ningen Dock is the idea that just as ships regularly go into dock to be checked and serviced, so should people. Regular medical checks would allow doctors to catch problems before they become serious. This leads to a change in the emphasis of medical care from treatment to prevention. Hopefully, more people will then be able to live longer, healthier lives.”

More Information:

www.okicent.org

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Words of Warning and Wisdom – Interview with Dr. Andrew Weil

Dr. Andrew Weil is the director of the Program in Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. He’s been on the cover of Time magazine, written several best selling books and was recently described as one of the twenty most influential people in America. During his visit to Okinawa I talked to him briefly about his thoughts and views on healthy living and the longevity of Okinawans.

Dr. Andrew Weil

Dr. Andrew Weil

What do you think are the major problems with the western diet?

“Too much meat and animal products in general. Too few vegetables and too few fruits, the wrong kind of fats especially too much refined vegetable oil, margarine and artificially hardened fats, and too few of the Omega-3 fats from fish. Also too much refined carbohydrates, highly processed wheat flour and in general too much processed food, not enough fresh natural food, I’d say they were the main problems.”

What can we learn from the Okinawan diet?

“Many more vegetables and a greater variety of vegetables, more legumes especially soy and other special Okinawan foods, goya and ucon.”

In your books you often mention the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, what can Okinawans learn from this?

“Using olive oil, having dairy products in the form of cheese rather than milk and more whole grains.”

What relaxation or exercise techniques do you practice and recommend?

“Breathing. Breathing techniques are simple, require little time and no equipment.”

What are the scariest examples of alternative medicine you have heard about?

“Things like intravenous hydrogen peroxide are just horrible and dangerous.”

Some scientists have said that vitamin supplements are not effective, what’s your opinion?

“Fruits and vegetables are the best source of vitamins you should eat plenty of good quality natural vegetables. Supplements can act as insurance but not as a substitute. Fresh vegetables and fruits are the best.”

What is the most common misconception about you?

“That I am trying to do away with traditional medicine. Traditional medicine is right when it’s the right thing to do.”

Can you give us one key point or piece of advice to take away?

“Lifestyle choices have a huge influence on the way we age and a lot of this is within our influence.”

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