Sunday, March 21, 2010

Katsuura Onsen and Tuna

From Shingu we moved to an onsen (hot spring spa) at Katsuura. The highlight is a hot spring in a cave overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Sitting in the steaming water we could feel the ocean spray as waves crashed upon the rugged coast immediately below us. Across the bay a high rugged cliff, pierced, had a tree artfully reaching into onshore winds. Japanese artists have a powerful muse in their landscape.

I returned at 5 am to watch the sunrise. It was dark, the sea was just noise, the rip of a wave breaking on rocks. The deep red band of the horizon interrupted by eight dark shapes, the craggy islands of the archipelago. Sitting to my shoulders in warm water, I watch the sky brighten through violet, pink and finally blue. On the sea the fleet of fishing boats is on the move. Finally the sun hits the cliff opposite and the sound of the waves diminishes in my consciousness as their sparkling droplets shine in the air before me.

Later we head back to the mainland and visit the commercial fish market. The fishing boats take turns emptying their catch, heeling over to ease the unloading. The floor of a large open warehouse is covered with tuna. Each one is weighed and registered. The tail is cut off, perhaps to let buyers, now apparently circulating, see the colour of the flesh. Boxes are loaded with fish, usually just one or two each, and packed with ice. The its off to the truck for delivery. Later we see the crews cleaning out their boats, repairing equipment and getting ready for tomorrow.

This week, at the UNESCO Committee on the International Trade in Endangered Species meetings in Doha, Monaco, with strong support from several other countries proposed strict new limits on the harvesting of tuna. These were defeated, much to the relief of Japan - especially in the fishing communities like Katsuura. However, there is recognition in Japan that there is a problem with tuna, catches are half of only a few years ago, and, if they are like Yukon River salmon, the fish are much smaller than they used to be. Hopefully we can curb our appetites to ensure these creatures are not lost forever.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Return to Kumano “Road of Sanctuary”

Our arrival in Shingu, Japan, was like old home week. Within fifteen minutes we had dinner invitations, offers of tours and a hearty welcome from the people we'd met five years ago. Shingu is about the same size as Whitehorse so we appreciated the sense of community.

During our stay we enjoyed catching up on our young friend Takaya who visited us in Whitehorse (and subsequently invented, tested and was rescued from his boat made of plastic pop bottles) and meeting again the interpreters for the Kumano Koda heritage site and the friendly staff of the city tourist information office. We also met the long time English teacher who uses his classes to translate heritage information into English.

Kyoko Fukutsuji took us for a day trip to onsen (hotsprings) up in the mountains. At Yonomine onsen the water bubbles up beside the creek almost boiling. Villagers cook their vegetables and eggs in the upwelling water. Two women offered to share some of their cooking with us and we sampled broccoli, winter greens, podded peas and boiled eggs. A great treat as we sat on the stones beside the spring in the sunshine. It took me a few minutes to realize my buttocks were getting cooked at the same temperature as the broccoli.

Later we walked the last stretch from the mountains down to the important Hongo Taishu Shrine. On our way we met a group of Japanese men with an ambitious weekend of pilgrimage travel before them. Learning we were from Canada got us the by now familiar response, "Ahh, Vancouver Olympics." Together we saw the first view of the largest tori gate in Japan which marks the entrance to the shrine.

This morning we met a priest from the Asuka-jinja Shinto shrine on his day off. We sat together in the spring showers under the sheltering roof of a shrine at the base of the divine mountain of Gongenyama. The rock at the top of the mountain is the landing spot on earth for a pair of the gods. The priest accompanied the bubbling and splashing of the rock runnel by the Tori gate, playing traditional melodies on his wooden flute. The pink petals of the cherry blossoms floated gently to the stones before us.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Banks Peninsula Walk - New Zealand

One of the charms of New Zealand hiking is the notion of a walk. Back in the Yukon a hike follows a route, sometimes there's a good trail, sometimes there's a rough track and sometimes there's just a thrash through the bush. In New Zealand you can probably do all of these, but everyone goes on a walk. A walk includes a cabin or shelter every night, no need to carry a tent, and then there are options; a shop or even prepared meals and carriage of your pack to the next camp. It's not hard core physical demands, but it sure broadens the audience for hiking.

The Banks Peninsula Walk near Christchurch is a four day experience established by a group of sheep farmers looking to supplement their income with tourism. A beautiful tramp along some of the most dramatic sea coast in New Zealand, each day ends at a well maintained and fully equipped rustic house beside the ocean. The walk reflects the past two hundred years of human interaction with the ecology of Aotearoa.

The hike begins with a steep climb amongst sheep paddocks. All the trees were cut down by the pioneering white settlers. The stumps of the monstrous rimu trees - the hardy durable wood whoch once covered large areas of the island - are still fixed in the land some 160 years later, and even tree trunks, too big to be moved, remain slowly wasting away on the hillside. Further up we pass the grown over concrete foundations and scattered wooden fragments of Paradise, a family operated creamery and cheese factory last working before the First World War. Now there are sheep, pasture and rugged stone outcrops.

At Flea Bay we meet Francis Helps, who, with his wife Shireen, have turned a large portion of their land and family energies to the preservation of the largest little penguin colony in New Zealand. In the evening, as the penguins raft out in the cove, we tour through steep slopes containing hundreds of burrows (used during the moulting period), many built and placed by the family and volunteers. To learn more about their work visit

The little museum at Stony Bay has photos of the stone crusher that spent a summer in the 1950s chewing up the beach cobbles to make gravel for the road finally connecting the farm to the outside world. Until this time these remote bays shipped out their produce, wool and mutton, and brought in groceries, school work and farm supplies with row boats slipping through the breakers on the beach. The hiker accommodation here is a delight of rusticity, the shower is set in the trunk of an old tree, the cabins nestled into the woods, our own included an apartment for a moulting penguin.

At Parakákáriki we eat our lunch on the high cliff top location of a Maori Pá, a fortress overrun and destroyed by a North Island group in the seventeenth century. On our last day we left behind the magnificent paradise beach of Otānerto Bay and walked up through the Hinewai Reserve, a private foundation which has purchased some 1300 hectares in the valley and is dedicated to the protection and restoration of native flora and fauna. Through the entire hike we saw the traps and poison baits to limit the introduced predators that have devastated New Zealand's endemic species.

The Banks Peninsula Track offers a terrific view of New Zealand. The land traversed speaks clearly about the people, forests and animals that have lived there over the past 500 years.

Banks Peninsula Track website: