Japan Literature Translation Travel

Lake Mashū Journals: from a trip to Hokkaidō

Lake Mashū Journals: from a trip to Hokkaidō

摩周湖紀行 ー北海道の旅よりー
(Mashūko kikō: hokkaidō no tabi yori)

by HAYASHI Fumiko (林 芙美子)

Hayashi Fumiko in Hokkaido, 1929

I arrived at an old station called Takikawa on the Sōya Main Line. It was dusk, and I didn’t know anyone around. I had fully looked up all the places I planned to go in a guidebook, but on the way I had changed my mind and decided to get on the Nemuro Main Line.  I had gotten off in a rush at Takikawa.  I caught a porter as I walked down the platform, to ask him where I could stay the night. Since I was supposed to be on the sleeper from Sakhalin to Tokyo, my purse was a little light.

The town was cold.  Cold enough for a woolen suit.

I asked the porter if Miura Kaen inn was good. Entrusting my baggage to the porter from Miura Kaen, I walked through Takikawa to the inn as the sun was setting. The small town made me feel like a government clerk or shopkeeper was quietly approaching behind me. When I arrived at the inn the women who greeted me looked me over from head to toe.

For a woman to travel alone was perhaps odd. I had a bath and dinner first, but it was unbearable, I had to have some sake. I only drank two cups, but my chest already felt so heavy. I got in the bed but as soon as I did, I was wide-awake, unable to sleep.

For an unprepared traveler who arrived at nightfall, there was no steam train to Nemuro– by accident I had no choice but to stay the night in Takikawa, there was nothing else to be done.  Next to my pillow on the tray with the water pitcher was a little train timetable, for guests who were only staying overnight.  On the reverse, it had a section from Doppo Kunikida‘s 1903 story, The Fatalist.

“Where is your destination?” Suddenly a man’s voice was directed at me. “I’m going to Sorachibuto.” “Ah, then you should have a look into staying the night at an inn called Miura.”

I don’t know whether Doppo stayed the night at the Miura inn, but I found the solitary journey of a man who felt bleak isolation, seemingly without any affection or pity, surprisingly interesting. I was the same. I was born in 1903. Still I was sure this area, in Doppo’s day, had been wilderness.

I turned off the overhead light and turned on the bedside one. If I’d read a book I would’ve been able to bear this feeling that I, one who felt bleak isolation, seemingly without any affection or pity, had – but I didn’t feel like reading. I heard a lovely voice in the dark of the night, but from the servant’s greeting of, “We have a cafe here as well– if you’re not too tired, why don’t you give it a try?” the sweet voice was that of a waitress.

I was strangely tired, too tired to go to the cafe, and with the bedside light on I fell asleep.

The next morning was, unhappily, foggy. I got on the 9:15 steam train on the Nemuro line.

The scenery of Sorachi was depressingly flat. It was expansive enough to make me think that my map of Hokkaido must have fluttered because it couldn’t really be that small. The plain was larger than the sky. Rather than a parody of Bon, in the torrential rain that struck up on the way through Sorachi, the white crabapple flowers flashed like a rainbow. The people out tilling the blackened fields carried out their sweat-soaked, thankless task without any need for thanks.

I had been on the train since the morning, but since there were no express trains on the Nemuro line, I saw every single station in the middle of these fields.

It was eight when I got to Kushiro, and when I got off, the morning fog was hanging low as if I’d gotten off at a foreign port. Between the rain and the fog my glasses quickly got steamed up. The family of a railway staff member who was coming off shift, who had ridden together from Obihiro, said that they would enjoy walking through the town, and dragging their children through the rain they showed me around.

I took a room at an inn called Yamagata. It was an old inn that smelled of the sea, and there was a bearskin spread out in my room. Walking through such-and-such town, taking a room for the night– just arriving at night in a place with the sound of a foghorn going off every three minutes was somehow lonely. The sound of  the distant foghorn made me feel like a cow was mooing constantly.

I had come here because I had received a letter recommending it from Mr. Itou from the Asahi Shimbun, but I did not go to visit Mr. Itou,  quietly taking a room instead. Some suspicion had arisen when I wrote I was unemployed. The aging woman at the desk was very formal with me, for some reason. I ate the typical late-night meal that the inn provided and stretched out on the bearskin rug. It was weird, as if I was really trying to ride on the back of this bear.

While I was writing a letter, two girls of just sixteen who had worked in the dining car of the train I had been on that day came in, as we were sharing the room. I was taken aback by their beauty when they changed out of their waitress uniforms. They told me that tomorrow their steam train back to Hakodate would leave at ten. For some reason I enjoyed their chit-chat as they drank tea and ate sweets. Their monthly salary was thirty yen so their parents were living together, too, they said.

After having a bath I spread the bedding out, but the bearskin rug was frightening, so I dragged the bedding into the next room. When I laid down the sound of the foghorn kept me wide awake. The house was so old it felt strangely like it was breathing. The heavy rain seemed, in the middle of the night, more like a torrential downpour.

——June 16.

If I was crossing through Hokkaido I would see that stretched-out blue sky again. I called Mr Itou and ate breakfast. If you’re going somewhere you must know a little something about that place, so I had a plan to spread my map and travel schedule out on the train to Nemuro.

Shuukichi Itou was really quite a good person.

Either he had gone early to meet someone, or he wasn’t leaving the inn at all, but it was said that the inn the woman runs in Takuboku’s poem ‘Kakutai’ was here, so I borrowed a bicycle. I had the letter of introduction that had been sent to the inn, but the loneliness of traveling had gone right to the core of me.

Settling my account with Yamagata inn and stepping out to the road, I found that directly in front of the inn was an end of nowhere station. My stay at this inn hadn’t been great, but with this end of nowhere disused station, which seemed more like a fertilizer warehouse, right before my eyes, I recited Takuboku’s poem to myself as if it were my own.


Alighting at a station at the end of nowhere
The snow glistening,
I enter a lonely town

The road in front of this end of the earth station was muddy, and when I closed my eyes I could imagine the way the snow would cling to this scene.

The woman who ran the Kakutai inn in Takuboku’s poems was called Koyakko but now was a woman called Jin Oomi. It was a new, large inn, located between the old town and the new town. Jin said she was forty five years old. Koyakko had been here before the current woman, and she thought Koyakko and Takuboku must have been about the same age. If she had lived, she would be in her fifties. Everyone had heard their love story, said that Takuboku had been a kind person, told stupid stories about him as if they were meaningful. Jin was a large, bony woman, but she wasn’t thin and bony like the proprietor of a run-of-the-mill inn would be. She showed me a picture of her beautiful daughter, who she had lost and was grieving for, but more than the stories that everyone knew from Takuboku’s memories, from the stories that Jin told me about her daughter, I somehow grew to like her.

I met many different people from Kushiro at this inn. There was a man called Yoshida who was studying the historical relics of the indigenous people, a man called Nojiri who recited poetry, a female reporter called Fujii and so on, and I heard various bits of local history from people who cared deeply about it, but fearing that I would start to want to take a notebook and walk around copying things down, I decided I would walk alone around the circumference of the nearby lake. After being treated to lunch by Jin, I excused myself from the inn early, and I took the most difficult of the paths around Lake Akan.

It was fair in Kushiro, and since the weather was nice the foghorn was not sounding.

On the way, I passed by the Kushiro News office where Takuboku had worked. It was a red brick building, and as it had been built in 1907 it was fairly new, perhaps, but now it was rather antique-looking, and somehow childlike in a nice way.

I went to Shireto cape, where the foghorn sounded from. As I ascended the hill to the cape, the reclaimed land from Pacific Ocean coal mining sites extended to the northern seawall, making it really seem as though the sea had been cut in two. In Sakhalin I’d only been able to see the gray Sea of Okhotsk, but at Kushiro the sea was azure and glimmering and, perhaps because of the good weather, I could see straight to the harbor.

A dredger with a red smokestack was bellowing out mud from a derrick, moving with a sound much like that of a great downpour. The one respect in which the scene differed from the mainland was that it was bitterly cold.

I could see many ships in the harbor. It was said that the navy did their exercises in the sea at Akkeshi, and people said that they would probably take place at Kushiro as well.

When I arrived at Kushiro station, the 3:30 to Abashiri was there so I boarded it. Fujii, the young, female journalist from the Kakutai inn, said she wanted to travel with me and carrying our bags we got on the train. I saw no reason to refuse such kindness from good people. Out the window I could see a vast marsh full of oak trees. Near Shibecha it started to rain suddenly. The promoter for the river onsen had gotten on and I was amused by his spiel.

“Lake Mashū is frequently covered in fog, and if you’re not lucky you can’t see it at all.”

As he’d said it wasn’t visible today, we decided to stop at an onsen in Teshikaga. When we got off at Teshikaga’s little mountain hut-esque station, the cottages in the village already had their lights on, and a rain was pouring down fiercely as if to dig up the soil. We shoved all our things in a muddy hired car with us and went to Chikamizu Hotel, which had been recommended to Ms. Fujii. An architect named Yoshiya Tanoue had designed it, it was said, in the style of Wright. Nevertheless for a mountain onsen I didn’t feel for a moment that it wasn’t rather like an apartment building instead. I don’t like Western-style rooms, so I asked to be shown to a Japanese-style room instead. It seemed like a very fine room. It was no difficult thing to have Japanese rooms available at an onsen. The maid was quiet and kind.

More than anything I wanted to look out at the torrential rain, listening to the dreadful sound of the thunder, a cracking, harsh sound, I thought, but refreshing. The little upper stream of the Kushiro river ran gently down below. When the rain stopped intermittently the cicadas would start up.

I was, nevertheless, a bit of an unhappy traveler. Though I was looking out at this kind of scenery, my mind was going back, back, and my traveling partner was also silent, to the point where the atmosphere was poisonous.

We went to the baths together.

The brick-enclosed bath protruded into the river. We could see the river flowing through the large, dusky glass window. I thought it would be great if there were a deep, lush forest nearby. Perhaps because the land surrounding the hotel was so new it felt like a wilderness, the river was sufficient on its own. We were told that the hotel’s proprietor, Seiichi Endo, would eventually grow vegetables and fruit in the garden, but I rather preferred the garden with the lofty white birches and oaks.

I got out of the bath and opened the window. I could see the tall mountains that she said she’d climb tomorrow. Mount Pirao, Mount Oakan, Mount Meakan–I could see their peaks from far away, as if drawn in thin ink. From those mountains the moon and stars would be clear. The moon was still just a sliver. I didn’t know how long it would be before I headed back to Tokyo, and suddenly I started thinking about that. I hadn’t written or read anything other than letters, and this letter was nothing more than just a diary, simply writing down that day’s events and thoughts, curiously empty.

When I went to bed, the journalist started talking about various personal things, but my mind was far away, thinking about other things.  The rain didn’t stop.

When I woke up the next morning, it was so sunny that it was like I could clearly see the trees on the mountain, past the river, the other bank, and the dripping young leaves. I opened the door and stood dumbfounded at this beautiful sky.

After attending to equipping ourselves for our trip to the mountain, a Mr Endo from the hotel offered to be our guide. Though we felt we were causing trouble, the three of us set off happily together. Conveniently enough he said that we could get a hired car to Lake Mashū, so we set off toward the mountains in a car.

In this area, sumacs, poplars, birches, oaks, pear, and a tree similar to a pagoda tree were numerous, and they were not as green as on the mainland.

Mt Mashū had a height of 350 metres above sea level, while the lake was just 200 metres deep, it was said. From halfway up Mt Mashū the lake appeared like a mirror set down. In the center of this mirror-like lake, like a beauty mark, is an island called Kamuishu, which rather seems as if it’s floating. The passing clouds were reflected, bright like in a Russian movie, on the utterly still waters. It looked as if within the lake the sword-like peak of Mt Mashū was hidden in the clouds. From a cliff where it was difficult to descend to the shore of the lake, its bottomless depths were submerged in darkness. It was said that sockeye and crayfish had been released, but the waveless lake looked dead.

The dwarf bamboo and sapling white birches at my feet were blown about by the wind from below. This area was more precisely called Akan area, and from the dwarf bamboo-covered hill I was standing on I had a panorama of Mt Akan’s peak and the outline of the gently drifting ridges of Mt Shari.


Clouded over
Is that a sea of clouds? in the whirlpool of fog
Tonako’s form, transformed
Into Lake Mashuu, submerged
How funny…

This might be called Lake Mashuu Lament, but in the poem Lake Mashū, too, is too tragic. I had come to Hokkaido with an interest in Lake Mashū and Lake Shikaribetsu, in the Obahiro area. Lake Mashū had surpassed my imaginings of it. As an isolated lake with shores unaccessible to people, it had a simple majesty. To look at it in the sunshine, it appeared as if it was always covered in mist or clouds.

To get to Lake Mashū, we would have to go from Kushiro to Shitakara station and go around Lake Akan in order to enjoy the best scenery on our approach. Rather than doing this, we climbed down the mountain and went back to Lake Kussharo near the northern edge.

As we descended the mountain, the weather had already turned for the worse, and an ill wind full of the promise of rain was rushing through the treetops of the woods along the path. Lake Kussharo’s circumfrence was 47 kilometres making it appear more like a sea. We first approached from the south. On the imperial estate on that side were the villages of Pontou, Osatsube, Entokomappu, Sattekinai, and so on, and at Wakoto Elementary School on the way they were having a sports day. There was also a horse tied up inside the wooden fence around the sports ground.  The wind filled the black and white banners surrounding the school building so they looked like a lion dance. The teachers in their white sportswear held megaphones up to their mouths. This isolated school, out in the middle of the wilderness, this tiny school building had, at the side of the sports field,  a tiny confectionery shop stuck on.

We passed through this little village and went onward into the Wakoto Peninsula. At the water’s edge there was a single teahouse selling boiled eggs and crackers.  Just before the teahouse there was a natural, open air bath, with the bath formed in the crack between the rocks. The town’s people and children were gossiping loudly, their skin as red as if they had been boiled. I could easily imagine this natural onsen at night, natural and utterly without any human handiwork. How lovely it would be in the bright moonlight! Yellow mineral deposits had accumulated on the rocks and it looked for all the world like they were bathing at Ayameike in Nara. Like a small child, I dipped my hand into the water. The old woman washing her back next to me was saying, “I don’t know if it’s the weather today or this terribly hot water, but I just can’t hardly move.” There was a little shack at the mouth of the water, with what appeared to be a dressing room.

This lake had no sense of isolation like Lake Mashū did, as on the shore here and there were lively little inns. To the south it is surrounded by Chisenupuri and Iwatanushi mountains, and beyond that run the Kotonipuri, Osappenupuri, and Samakkenupuri mountains.

The lake was so vast it couldn’t all be seen in just one look. The shoreline was sandy and, much like the seaside, if dug into it would fill with water. The waves on the shore were yellowy, string-like waves of minerals. It was a bizarre scene.

It was called the Wakoto Peninsula though it was only a small peninsula, but I had heard that Oomachi Keigetsu had named it.

On the way back, going around Lake Kussharo’s coast, we headed back toward Kawayu village. En route we went up Mount Iou as well. We came upon a field of creeping pine and wild rosemary, heavy with white blooms. The wild rosemary flowers when in full blush gave off a sweet-smelling fragrance, which permeated the air incomparably.  This field covered a 150-160,000 sq.m. radius at the base of Mount Iou.

There wasn’t a single tree or shrub on Mount Iou. However, halfway up the mountain, a fencepost read ‘forest reserve’. Suddenly, this active volcano we were climbing shook as if we were walking on top of a running motor and began to spew rocks and sulfur from its vent. As the rocks fell they crumbled to tiny particles in a mesmerizing way. My silver ring turned pitch black.

The bare mountainside was white and yellow and emerald green with moss. I felt as if we were climbing a mountain made of candy.

At the foot of the mountain was a sulfur factory. In 1886, Yasuda Kazuha had managed a sulfur mining operation here, transporting it as far as Shibecha station, it is said.

Kawayu Onsen station was one further on than Teshikaga, on the way to Abashiri. In the village the fragrant wild rosemary was blooming, and hot water bubbled up from a shallow, withered-looking riverbed. I remembered that on the train to Teshikaga I had met the station master for Kawayu, but unfortunately it had begun to rain. Here there was a shop selling souvenirs and two or three places selling automobiles.

With a “Looks like a big storm,” a young chauffeur in a yellow jacket suddenly turned the wheel and took off, forty miles an hour, down the route from Kawayu to Teshikaga through a dark wood.

The thunder was worse than the day before, and after a bolt of lightning there was a terrible crack above our heads. Shocked as a bird that’s just lost its feathers we were running away towards the woods. Whenever I looked behind I could see the shape of a bird, slick with raindrops, trying to escape.

“For the children of man, not being born nor seeing the fiery light of the sun is far better than anything. But if you are born, as soon as you can, pass through the gates of Hades. Under the warm blanket of earth there is no suffering.”

In the middle of a forest at the far reaches of the north, despite being in the midst of thunder that exhausted my ears, I remembered this disperata-esque stanza from Buchia (?).  And yet suddenly I felt optimistic. Normally I was chatty, not thinking of myself. I contemplated this under the sky I was journeying under—after all I am a coward to the bottom of my shoes, who merely didn’t know what to do with my empty body, nothing left but the dregs.

When I got back to my room, the female reporter was talking to me about her life, but the truth was that I was far inferior to this woman.

Stuffing my face with sweets or sleeping or talking about nothing.
Onsens are the most fun. I washed myself three times before dusk.
I wanted to hear some music but there wasn’t any.
Ended up staying two nights here.

Got up at four-thirty in the early morning, got ready to go back to Kushiro.
When I opened the window, the cicadas were already singing.
Got the five-thirty train to Kushiro. Bought two third-class tickets.
The guard who punched my ticket said, to us two women,
“Are you going home already?”

I arrived in Kushiro around eight o’clock. Checking my bags at the station, I went into the restaurant/bar in front of the station. Next to me, a commissioned officer of the army was eating a bento on his own. It made me want a bento, too, so I ordered udon and a bento. It looked like the female reporter was not used to traveling, and she seemed rather tired too.

After finishing our bento, we went to Mr Itou’s house. I met his beautiful wife, little baby and daughter. After giving my regards to Mr Itou, I thought I would leave Kushiro and go to Obihiro.

There was still time until the afternoon train, so I went to the governmental branch office, walked around some historical sites to do with the aboriginal people, and went to Lake Harutori on the outskirts of Kushiro.

Lake Harutori, unlike Lake Mashū or Lake Kussharo, was very Ainu-like, a rustic yet busy lake.

It seems like all I’ll be seeing during my trip in the north for the rest of this month are lakes, fields, marshes, and forests. It’s going to continue being warm. The people you meet in these unknown places are surprisingly fat, aren’t they, she said. Little old 90lb me had gained another ten pounds, probably putting on meat somewhere. This life of looking at fields and lakes, staying in inns and eating nothing but milk, salmon, and bog rhubarb. In the past month, maybe I had turned into an optimist. Being alive was fun.

I left Kushiro on the one-thirty train. Again it was a normal slow train, so I saw each and every station as we approached. It was raining at the Karikachi Pass.

We arrived at Obihiro around five o’clock. It was sunny and flat, and the line of acacia trees was thick with leaves.

Had Mr Itou gone ahead and called him from Kushiro? I was to be met here by a man called Okubara.

I went into the inn called North Sea in front of the station.

When I entered the inn, the feeling that I was totally alone grew. In front of the inn there was the street that went to the station, a fruit shop, and a 10 sen stand. Before dinner, I took a walk around Obihiro alone. It was a deserted, lonely town.

I walked through the town, wondering if anyone really did live in this town since it was so old. There were a surprising number of second-hand bookshops. Perhaps I still couldn’t sleep back at the inn. I went in one of these shops and bought a couple books. I bought a copy of a book called White Birch Forest from 1918 for 30 sen. The binding said Mr Leech, and on the frontispiece were three pictures of Rodin sculptures.

“A Little Shadow”, “Bust of a Parisian Rogue”, “Mignon”—and there were also sketches from Jean and Lamb. It was quite interesting.

As I ate my dinner silently, I held the book open and read it.  Arishima Takeo’s To a Small Person was waiting. Shiga Naoya’s To Abashiri I read with great interest.

At night it was still raining.

I was asked if Mr Okubara wasn’t out walking through the town in this rain.

“When I came out to try to meet you then went home, while I was out I received notice that I would be changing post, to my surprise.”

“Well, I suppose it’s for the best, isn’t it? Let’s take a walk through the town to celebrate.”

The gentle rain seemed to have settled in for a long spell over this town as we walked around, looking for a meager restaurant to stop at for the sake of Mr Okubara, who seemed so excited about his change of post, but in the end the two of us, in the rain, went into a cafe to get an ice cream. A record of Hokkaido University’s school song was on there, and somehow it gave me a nice feeling.

Since I had got on to the Nemuro line, there had not been enough days with good weather. Tomorrow I must go to Lake Shikaribetsu early in the morning, but I’ve been told that the path may be cut off in the rain.

Mr Okubara and I parted ways, and I returned to my room just before nine o’clock. If it rained tomorrow I would try to go to a sugar beet factory. While I was writing to friends that I was tired of looking at lakes and fields, it was like I was chasing lakes for some reason. I had to be more cheerful.

At my bedside, I was entertained by a book full of pictures of the lake that I was going to see tomorrow from every angle.

Late at night the maid came and brought me a water-drenched lily of the valley. She told me she had never even been to Sapporo.

Shikaribetsu is still lit, and the maid said it was very nice there. It seemed there was only one inn. I opened my empty wallet and said, “Surely this room isn’t that expensive?” Because if it’s not, I want to stay two or three days.


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