Thursday, July 12, 2007


In September 1996 my brother Graham and his wife Alexis came to stay with Jo and me in Sapporo for a bit. Grack came prepared for the food by importing 15 of those Peperami sausage things in his suitcase. Forget the wealth of tradition of Japanese cuisine, when in doubt about the grub, Grackle was always whipping out his little Peperami. But I digress.

Of course, they didn't want to be stuck in the city throughout their holiday, and neither did we, so we bundled into the Toyota and headed east to Nemuro and Shiretoko, birding on the way and staying in a variety of places on the way, but that's another story.

We didn't stay at Rausu where everyone goes these days in winter for the Stellers' Sea-eagles, but rather on the north or western side near the Shiretoko Go-ko, the five lakes. We stayed in the youth hostel. Shiretoko is apparently an Ainu word meaning 'the end of the earth' and it is a wild, largely uninhabited peninsula sticking out into the Sea of Okhotsk, with most of it unreached by road or track, but just by boat.

In May, Jo and I had seen a couple of Brown Bears near the Go-ko at a skin-blanching range of about 20m. And if you leave the tourist draw of the five lakes and head up the main track of the only road it soon gets into Black Woodpecker country with Crested Kingfishers and Brown Dippers in the fast streams. I like the name Kumagera for Black Woodpecker – the Bear Woodpecker.

At night, the sky was absurdly clear. Perhaps the clearest I have ever seen was on a tiny Fijian island, plonked in the middle of the Pacific without dust or light pollution, when the sky looked like it belonged to another planet, with stupid numbers of stars. That September night in Shiretoko, the sky came very close.

We decided it would be a good night to head out up the track through the peninsula, aiming for wilderness and looking for mammals, particularly bears. The four of us bundled into the car, and with Jo driving we were off. Apart from the odd Red Fox and Sika the mammals were not really showing by the road and our eyes were drawn back to the sky. The constellations become meaningless in this mass of new stars, so we decided to invent some new ones based on what we could see.
Out on that wild track, Jo joked that she could see a new one, like a row of lights. Ha, I said, that is just the reflection of the dashboard in the windscreen… good gag.

But it wasn't a gag.

Up there in the now very slightly hazy mid-reaches of the sky were lights, hanging, hardly-changing vertical lines, like nine stations on dial of a celestial radio. And they stayed there still unchanging, unexplained glows over uninhabited wilderness.

Lights over Shiretoko, Hokkaido, September 1996, by Graham P Weedon

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