Ni juu ni!
‘Did he say twenty-two? I’ve got all nine numbers then. I think I’ve won the top prize… Does that mean I’ve won the Nintendo Switch?!’ Here we were, my brother Stephen and me, 5,532 miles from home at a Japanese village fete, about to call ‘bingo!’.
We had found ourselves almost by accident at the Akan annual summer festival, held in the volcanic crater town on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido. I say by accident because, when we started fixing pins to maps and planning our route, we wanted to be hiking our way through a national park, not idling in towns.
But feisty flash floods and train-derailing landslips precipitated a rethink. Probably, we reasoned, we should pick somewhere less likely to drown us.
So, arriving through pattering rain and on the tail of a storm, we waved a soggy hello to our Akan host Mayumi as she bounded towards us at the coach stop. Beckoning us into her home, she asked only that we consider it ours for the next three days.
Kyuu juu ichi! Ninety-one!
For travellers dotty enough to visit Japan during its hot, humid summer months, Hokkaido is a mecca of mild weather. Its cooler climate like a resplendent bird, stretching out its wings to envelope us. It was such a relief to feel rain in the toes of our sandals, not sweat.
But without the skin-shrivelling heat to busy my thoughts, I could resort to another worry. Bears.
In some sort of ‘prepare for the worst’ mind-game, I’d daydream various murderous grizzly bear scenarios. Often I’d happen upon the bear, starving and looking for a square meal, then it spotted me, bounding over to do its worst. Occasionally playing dead would work, other times not. I tried to keep the worry out of my voice as I casually asked Mayumi how often she’d seen bears. As we surveyed the woods beyond her home on the western edge of town, she mused that she had never seen bears anywhere near the town.
‘Perhaps you might be lucky and see a sika deer from your room. Or an owl.’
In the native Hokkaido-Ainu culture, legend has it that the Kamuy bird gods once joined forces to defeat a fierce bear who’d been attacking humans. A once-timid wren volunteered to lead the charge, spurring on its fellow birds.
Birds, not bears, seemed to sum up life around the ancient Akan lake. In fact the wren is thought of as highly on Hokkaido as we think of the robin in the UK. More so in fact, for the wren is literally worshipped.
We must have seen some around on our walks, though a rarer birding experience has stayed with me more.
On our first of two full days in Akan we ventured out onto Lake Akan itself. All activities in the town seemed to us to centre around the lake. You’d see it out of the corner of your eye, guarded by the Oakan-dake and Meakan-dake peaks. You’d hear the boats zipping along on it. You’d sense its waters rippling and look for the wildlife in it, above it.
We joined a boat tour with the express view of chancing upon some of the famous Marimo algae balls that grow to big sizes only here in Japan. We did see some, but the discovery of a Blakiston’s fish owl was more impressive. They are native to Japan (known here are shima-fukuro), China and north-eastern Asia. It was later named after the naturalist Thomas Blakiston who ‘found’ them in Hokkaido in 1883.
We gazed at the owl perched regally up on tree branches, and the owl looked back in our general direction, seeming to size us up. I’m sure it would have been equal to the task of nabbing one of us, as we glided by on our boat.
They were clearly known long before to the local population. A rare encounter, but not the only owl we would see that day…
San juu hachi! Thirty-eight!
Mossy marimo balls spied from the glass-bottom platform (looking like big, earthy shot puts) we set off back for shore.
The weather had improved and the sun was blaring out at us, so we took two of Mayumi’s bikes for a ride round part of the lake, through some of the forest around her house. Her assertion that she’d never seen bears seemed a world away as Stephen and I chatted loudly and clanged our bike bells regularly as we rode — all the better to put off the bears. A casual ten minute pit stop incurred at least 20 cranings of the neck to check for movement in the leaves beyond us.
Just squirrels and song birds.
As evening approached we strolled over to the Ikoro Ainu theatre, at the centre of Akan’s Ainu community, called the Kotan. Here we saw our second owl of the day, perched beautifully on the archway entrance. A beautifully-carved fish owl, which to the Ainu is a kamui bird god.
We wondered if we’d be the only ones in the audience for the Ainu performance of traditional songs. The theatre was a very quiet space until minutes before curtain up, when groups of people spilled in, and the buzz and anticipation spiralled up in volume as the local Ainu performers readied themselves. Perhaps some of these people had already seen other performances earlier in the week and knew the best time to arrive.
Was this show going to be the kind of show that’s ‘only for tourists’ or was it more than that?
The Ainu people have a long history as the first settlers on Hokkaido, and indeed the name ‘Akan’ comes from the Ainu word meaning ‘unchanging’, ‘eternal’, which is quite apt as they have remained in the town, though their lands once stretched further north and south onto the Japanese mainland. Enforced assimilation and marginalisation under Japanese rule meant their culture, language and traditions suffered, as is sadly so often the case around the world.
We were there to see what’s called the Iomante Fire Festival, ‘a flame-lit story of kamuy, humans and prayers’. Those same kamuy bird gods that we felt we had come into contact with already during our stay. We needn’t have worried about how ‘authentic’ an experience the theatre would be. Here were a people wishing only to keep their culture alive, peacefully and serenely sharing their traditions and inviting us to share their world, if only for an hour.
Nana juu go! Seventy-five!
Peace – and relaxation – could also be found in the town’s onsen, aka at the public bathing facilities. Many Japanese people use onsens daily, and on Hokkaido it is no different. They are more than a series of pools or springs; people go there to shower, wash their hair, scrub up, calm down. And being naked is just part of the daily ritual. Completely normal. Every shape and size, not that anyone’s really looking.
Mayumi didn’t tend to go as much as her husband, who would go religiously every day. So we met him in the lobby of the only hotel in Akan, and took the lift up to our rooftop onsen. My brother went in with him while I minded my own time.
It was a lovely place to unwind, though I didn’t know how fast or how slow I should be, in order to meet my brother in the outdoors part of the onsen, the rooftop pool. So I didn’t quite switch off, but just floating for some time in one of the more temperate pools, across from a family doing the same. It was pretty blissful.
Here we were hanging out with the locals, and we’d gotten a taste for it.
Roku juu go! Sixty-five!
Eating out being my absolute favourite activity on holiday, on our second and last full day, I persuaded Stephen to try some local food with me over a late lunch.
Walking into a small restaurant I’d spotted on an earlier walk, I knew we’d struck gold; the menu outside was only in Japanese and the place was clearly popular with locals. As everyone sat cross-legged on mats, animatedly making their way through plates of steaming, delicious looking food, we plonked ourselves down at the only free spot – the counter by the kitchen — one of my favourite places to be in any restaurant.
While Hokkaido is known more for the beer it produces in its capital Sapporo than for particular food specialities, one foodstuff does come close.
Scanning the menu using our nifty – though sometimes glitchy – photo translation app, we found what I was looking for and gestured to the owner for two bowls of roast venison with rice.
Elsewhere in Japan, venison in July might have seemed a little bonkers, but here it hit the spot. I still wish I’d ordered a second bowl for myself.
Juu yon! Fourteen!
Something all of Japan goes for is yakitori — marinated chicken skewers that entire bars are sometimes devoted to. It was the first smell to waft into my nostrils on our arrival at the summer festival later in the afternoon.
Mayumi had invited us and we were excited to be there for our last evening on Hokkaido.
The festival was, unsurprisingly, in one of the parts of town closest to the lake. Always in the corner of eyes, now taking centre stage. The downcast grey clouds clashed with the festival atmosphere, as mothers carried their excitable toddlers around, families sat relaxedly on tables in the centre and locals strolled between stalls, mostly buying yakitori and beer.
It hadn’t been that long since I’d eaten, but that didn’t stop me grappling with my yen and ordering up whatever the stalls had left to sell, as the student band played Beatles and Oasis covers.
Ni juu kyuu! Twenty-nine!
Lighters at the ready, folks.
Framed by a crane holding up the festival sign and singing their hearts out, I loved this band! They were a delight — even if most of the crowd appeared quite nonchalant, there were a few of us going for it. Maybe, for many, they had heard it all before.
Or perhaps their minds were on the main event.
It was time for the bingo.
Hyaku! One hundred!
Within half an hour of our arrival, the last of the snacks were on the grills, the band’s set was coming to an end and the tension was palpable, as everyone searched for their bingo cards.
Wait. We had none! They had sold like hot yakitori.
But Mayumi came to our rescue, she’d bought us each a card along with her own.
As the dials decreased on stage, the volume among the Akan locals ratcheted up. Cards were smoothed out, laid out on tables or spread out on the ground, pens and pencils were distributed as the prizes were deliberately laid out on the stage, like jewels carefully being set in a magnificent crown. Crates of Sapporo beer, hampers, toys, gift vouchers.
And a brand new Nintendo Switch, boxed and ready to be claimed. My brother’s eyes lit up, like Mario uncovering a cache of golden coins.
Maybe there were more valuable prizes, but not to him. The first to cry bingo would surely be given first dibs.
All of sudden and unceremoniously the bingo began — and we quickly realised we would need Mayumi to translate every number for us. My knowledge of 1-10 wasn’t going to get me that far with a hundred numbers flying about.
Five numbers in. My card unmarked, gripped solidly in my sweaty palm.
Ten numbers in. No-one had yet come forward. I’d gotten my first number, but had eight more.
Fifteen numbers in. Stephen was a paragon of concentration, his card swathed in blue circles.
‘I’m one away!
Ni juu ni! Twenty-two!
There his last number was. The day of his birthday in June.
Hollering ‘BINGO! WAHOO!’ as he tripped his way to the front of the crowd, Stephen approached the all-seeing, all-knowing Bingo Master to collect his prize.
The only man standing between my brother and a Nintendo Switch.
Stephen was asked his name, where he was from and whether he was enjoying his visit. Basking in the glory of having snagged the top prize, he cracked a few jokes and motioned towards it, almost trying to magic it into his hands.
To my brother’s dismay, the bingo maestro, grinning, pulled out a small sack of democratically-jumbled up prize item tickets from his pocket. The crowd seemed collectively to be saying, ‘no, not that fast mate!’
Joy turned to apprehension as Stephen theatrically, and blindly, rustled around and around the tickets to make his choice. Sweeping through the item tickets undecidedly and with all the reverence of a child in a sweet shop with a crisp £10 to spend. Would he pick that one? Perhaps that one? No, maybe that one? Here goes……
Damn! It wasn’t to be, he had picked out the prize of a buffet lunch for two in the town’s hotel. My idea of complete nirvana, but we were leaving at breakfast the next day and wouldn’t get to use it.
So of course we offered it to our host Mayumi to use with her family. She had been such a wonderful host. We were very glad to have made our way to Lake Akan for those three days.
It took until we arrived in Kyoto, but Stephen rallied his spirits after the bingo disappointment.
After all, he did already have a Nintendo Switch at home.
If you’re interested to find out more about the Ainu people: