Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hokkaido Part I, Ice Museum and Higuma Bears

(Republished with photos added)

Itsumi and I are on vacation in Hokkaido, Japan’s north island. We flew here from Tokyo’s domestic airport and I learned that, if you need to remove your shoes during screening, the security people give you a pair of slippers to wear in accordance with Japan’s rules about shoes. In addition, you don’t have to show photo ID in order to enter the secured area. A ticket is enough. And best of all, you can bring plastic beverage bottles through security! They are scanned by a security machine, and this eliminates the massive throwing away and repurchasing of water bottles that occur at U.S. airports every day.

We arrived in Asahikawa, Hokkaido, where we bought lunch boxes and ate them on a bench in front of the train station, under the beautiful sun. We bought one box of fish including sushi and fresh crab, and another box of Genghis Khan. Genghis Khan is popular in Hokkaido and means Mongolian barbecue. Our Genghis Khan contained lamb and sautéed vegetables and rice, and we heated it by pulling a
string in the packaging that ignited some kind of heating material underneath the food.

In 3 minutes, it was piping hot! (But the packaging is probably not very good for the environment). We took a train to Kamikawa where we went to the Ice Museum which advertises temperatures of -41 degrees Celsius (-42 degrees Fahrenheit).

Paying to visit extremely cold temperatures seems like a silly thing for a Minnesotan to do, and this place was quite the tourist trap, but I couldn’t resist the temptation to see what a museum says about temperatures that low. It turned out Kamikawa has the Ice Museum because the town once registered real temperatures of -42 degrees Celsius, the coldest registered temperature in Japan. Before entering the museum the docent had us blow soap water bubbles through a wand to see how the bubbles behaved at a normal temperature. Then we put on parkas and entered the Ice Museum, which consisted of a long and windy tunnel through ice formations and was indeed very cold, especially since we weren’t dressed like Minnesotans!

The temperature in the ice tunnel was actually -20 degrees C (just -4 degrees F) but that felt plenty cold especially with bare hands and trying to blow bubbles and take pictures. Some of the bubbles did indeed freeze when they hit the ground, and I must say that I never thought to blow bubbles in the winter in Minnesota!

Then we got to the main draw of the ice museum, the -41 degree part. It turns out that the real temperature was still just -4 F, but we pushed a button that caused a ten second wind storm creating a wind chill of -41 C (-42 F). Although I've experienced real temperatures of colder than -40 F and a windchill of -75 F in Minnesota, I must say it was very hard to endure ten seconds of the wind chill effect! We literally ran to the exit of the museum where I took this photo of Itsumi with a frozen wet towel.

Outside, in the beautiful sunny fall weather beneath birch trees like the ones in Minnesota we saw higuma bears, Hokkaido's brown bears. They are VERY big, bigger than any other bears I've ever seen! But these bears, a side attraction at the ice museum, were in a rather sad condition, confined in a cement enclosure and waiting for tourists to throw food pellets provided by the museum. As we entered carrying our bags of pellets, the bears struck many cute poses, some even like yoga poses, hoping to be rewarded with treats. Unfortunately, by visiting this attraction we encouraged it to continue.

This bear tries to catch a treat thrown by a tourist.
There were also a few Kodiak bears from Alaska, which have very long claws but are smaller than the higuma bears.

The town of Kamikawa reminds me of North Dakota with its wide empty streets, tiny business district and small grocery store where the locals gossip about each other. This is a part of Japan much different from the Tokyo area which I have become accustomed to!

No comments: