Abashiri – Monbetsu
At the base of Mt. Tento just a short distance from my camping ground next to Lake Abashiri lays the repositioned Abashiri Prison. When I heard the story of Abashiri prison and the abstract and harsh misery endured by its prisoners I felt compelled to pay a visit. The curiosity derived from the suffering of others a strange one, but if anything a valuable history lesson.
In the late 19th century, fear of the Russian Empire’s expansion further east led the Meiji government to stake a claim upon the wilds of Hokkaido. Prior to the intervention of the ruling party the north of Hokkaido was just as wild as that of Siberia, a small conclave of fishing villages cut off from the world by an ocean of forest. However, Abashiri’s northerly locale was deemed ideal to open up Hokkaido, but to truly constitute this a road would need to be established into central Hokkaido. But how would this be achieved on an extremely limited budget? Hmm…how about some free and expendable labour in the form of one thousand prisoners? Yeah, that’ll do the trick! And so from all the far reaching corners of Japan a bunch of bad-arses were thus summoned to Abashiri. Firstly they would build themselves some accommodation, i.e. a prison, and then after that the real backbreaker, a really big fuck off road into the heart of Hokkaido. Land had to be cleared and bridges built, come rain or snow it was here that the iron ball clad prisoners were really put to the test. Exploited to the point of exhaustion and starvation, many died to aid the governments advance upon Hokkaido in order to claim the nation’s right to the land.
Overnight the wind had become limp; it was now a warm and overcast Sunday morning as I entered the grounds of the prison museum. All was quiet, the weekend day trippers obviously having better places to be. Many materials from the old prison which were once located on the northern shore had been used in the replication of the museum, everything exacted as it once was. From the main gate to the prisoner’s mess hall, bathhouse, prayer room and solitude huts. A guard tower sat adjacent the wooden radial five wing prison chamber, the prisons showpiece. Here one can walk down each aisle and look into the lives of each cell. Many cells containing a puppet depicting a typical day of an Abashiri prisoner. To be holed up here through the winter months would’ve been a freezing cold hell. The prison was also a working farm, so when the prisoners weren’t building a better future for Hokkaido’s infrastructure they were self-sufficient in growing their own produce. In the mess hall one could purchase themselves a prison dinner. Yet something told me that as a tourist one gets a slightly fuller plate than that of a rapist. Speaking of rape, just exactly how terrible the convicts of Abashiri actually were is still to this day open to some debate. Some say that the prisoners were mere petty thieves, others political prisoners sent to the wilds of Hokkaido to be silenced by the all powerful Meiji government, whilst others stipulate that the prisoners were just bad, really, really bad. But whichever their sinning; murder, poetry or activism, one can’t help but marvel at what these prisoners actually achieved during their miserable time at the prison. A prison that quietly came to a close in 1984 yet will forever be rooted deep in the history of Abashiri thanks to this very informative museum.
In central Abashiri I made a quick pit stop at Mister Donuts for a compulsory gluten treat before then continuing in a north westerly fashion for some 20 miles along a designated cycle path to Tokoro. Just beyond Tokoro I would pass alongside the coastal Saroma Lake, with a surface area of 58 mi² it sits as Hokkaido’s largest and Japan’s third largest lake. It was a dull coloured and brackish lake, its appearance clearly echoed by the dreary gloom that had begun to etch the bright morning skies out of the climatic equation. As I traipsed further minding my own business as was the norm I would again be halted by one of the few things that really annoyed me about Japan, traffic lights. In Kitami they would ridicule me, but out in the sticks they were just plain taking the piss. They’re bloody everywhere, and with Japan being the 10th most populous nation on earth they are of course in most circumstances a sensible solution to an obvious abundance of heavily trafficked roads. But in the countryside they just sit as non-sensical eye-sores and are generally completely irrelevant to their locale, that and they don’t have sensors on them, they are simply on timers. So you could be the first vehicle going down a certain country road for the first time since 1963 and below and behold you can bet your longest strand of ball hair that you’ll run head on into a red light. But then one has to remember where one was, in Japan this mental test of patience was surely considered a great incentive to discipline one’s self. And if you can’t wait a couple of minutes at a completely irrelevant to humanity traffic light then you’re more than likely to fail the Japanese code of etiquette as a Japanese, or you’re just not Japanese. Taking a quick look around and observing a plenitude of nothing and a couple of ominous looking bushes I shrugged my shoulders and broke the code. A code I would come to break on countless further occasions. Often upon doing so I would take a look around and offer a ‘What’s the fecking point in these fecking traffic lights?’ gesture in order to buy my law breaking self some form of credibility. But generally I‘d be alone and thus no one really cared for my pet hate for the countries overly numerous traffic lights. Which is a shame, because I really hate them and I just wanted everyone to know that. But now as a reader, I guess you do.
My evening saw me arrive in the port town of Monbetsu, a place that often crops up in my mind when I cast my mind back to my time in Japan. And for no particularly right or wrong reason, apart from it generally being a bit of a shithole. But saying that I’ve most definitely been to bigger shitholes, like Invercargill. As expected of a port town though it was invariably shabby, even for Japanese standards. Along the docks cardboard and plastic wrapping blew about like tumbleweed as noisy forklift trucks darted about with pallets of scrap metal. If this were any other country apart from Japan one would expect to see a few burnt out Ford Escorts down by the shore front. The town like many on the shores of Hokkaido is a trading post with Russia. In just a short time of being there I’d already witnessed a few conspicuously tall caucasian chaps mooching about with plastic bags full of rattling Vodka bottles. The town even had a number of signs about in cyrillic. I’d have to be on my guard tonight, for I hadn’t made it this far north to get bummed in my tent by a bunch of rowdy Russian’s.
I found an Aeon Mall, of which usually has a roof top car park, from there one can gain a good vantage point in order to try and get a grasp of the lay of the land and even potentially figure out a suburban green space, i.e. a park for a night’s stealth camp. My immediate surrounds being particularly built up, yet casting an eye away from the mall saw a procession of grubby and lost looking apartment blocks fizzle out a third of the way up a distant hill, from there vegetation was allowed to reign supreme. It was there that I would find my pitch. Upon coming to this conclusion I took a glance downwards toward the mall’s ground floor car park. A couple of bulky white men were looking up at me with a curious eye, my butthole clenched a little as I took a step back out of their line of sight. Waiting a few seconds I would then for no good reason approach to have another look, they were still looking at me. I quickly jumped back again equally and as unnecessarily alarmed as before, I appeared to be playing subconscious mind games with Russians for reasons unknown. Should I take another peak to see if they are still looking up me? I thought.
What again? Why?
I don’t know.
Just leave it you fucking idiot.
Yeah ok, good call.
Who are you talking to?
But I am you.
No you’re not.
Yes I am.
Oh, ok, bye!
Ok, see ya mate, good luck not getting bummed.
Thankfully talking myself out of a third glance I hastily retreated from the mall and cycled up into the hills.
It would be dark by the time I’d made it through the suburbs and on to the hills sweaty ascent. Just beyond the last batch of architectural atrocities I would find a park. The bitumen evacuating and presenting me with a constricted and steep, gravel infested slope. From there I would have to get off to push my bike to the hills summit. The surrounding park, unlike the rest of Monbetsu was meticulously well maintained; to camp here now felt a trifle insulting. But thinking of the Vodka swilling Russians in the town centre below and how at some point during the night they would probably end up pissing through some poor old Japanese Gran’s letterbox made me feel like the idea of camping on an immaculate Wimbledon Tennis Club esque lawn was probably the least of Monbetsu’s concerns….probably.
It gives me great pleasure to announce the release of my book ‘Tokyo to Tokyo – A Cycling Adventure around Japan.
Enjoy the ride.
24°C, warm, overcast
Todays RT – 7hrs Total RT -181hrs
Today’s Mileage – 77.3m ODO – 1744.3m
Av/s – 9.4mph