A Story of Saroma Lake

The Age of Freshwater

If one were to write a biography of Saroma Lake, it would need two separate volumes. One for the age of freshwater, and one for the age of brackishness. Saroma Lake (Saromako in Japanese) is the third largest lake in Japan, after Lake Biwa and Lake Kasumigaura. Shallow and calm, it sits on Hokkaido’s northern coast, the long arc of its shore cradling the Sea of Okhotsk like a bassinet, lest it spill through to the Sea of Japan and the Pacific.

Saroma Lake was once known as Saroma Lagoon, called so by explorers traveling through the waters off the coast and along the narrow strip of land between it and the sea. At that time it was mostly a freshwater lake, fed by the Saromabetsu and Baro rivers, swelling in the spring and summer and freezing solid in the winter, as drift ice packed the shores of the Okhotsk.

As lakes go in Japan, Saroma is large. It’s the third largest by area in Japan, a point of pride in the neighboring town of the same name, even though it is hardly known elsewhere in Japan. For comparison, it would be the 83rd largest lake if it were in America.

Perhaps it lacks the mystique that Japan’s deep volcanic lakes possess. Lakes such as Tazawa, Shikotsu, and Kussharo, nestled in mountains and ancient craters, impossibly deep yet incredibly clear. Saroma is only 60 feet at its deepest, compared to the astonishing 1000-foot depth of Shikotsu in southern Hokkaido, a lake which has only half the area but contains 16 times the volume of water.

An inability to define the lake is part of its character. Simultaneously on a “top three” list and yet unknown, large yet shallow, created by freshwater yet influenced by tides, it’s a body of water that goes unnoticed while being incredibly important.

Viewing Saroma Lake on a map, or from a high vantage point like an airplane or a nearby mountain, one notices something unique about the shape and location of the lake. It looks like it’s trying to escape from Hokkaido itself, pressing itself flat onto the boundary of the coast. It’s almost part of the ocean.

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, it was: a shallow estuary and small indentation along the northern coastline. 30,000 years ago, Hokkaido was the last stop for human land migrations from Siberia and Sakhalin over the land bridge that is now La Perouse strait, between Wakkanai and Sakhalin’s southern tip. Over these fresh and fleeting lowlands, came Asiatic brown bears, pikas, and other animals more typically found in Siberia. Hokkaido’s southern strait between Honshu, the violent Tsugaru Kaikyo, is much deeper and served as an ecological and anthropological firewall. This is why there are no monkeys on Hokkaido, and no brown bears on Honshu.

Gradually, erosive tides, winds, and the interminable grinding of rivers deposited sand and sediment into the basin of the lake. Through a process still debated by science, an arc-shaped berm of earth was gradually built that created a new lake, separate from the ocean.

Over the ensuing ages, as rivers such as the Saromabetsu and the Baro delivered more and more freshwater into what had once been an ocean, the lake gradually became a freshwater lake with its own unique ecosystem. In time, an outlet developed from the lake at its eastern end. Every spring, as snowmelt from the mountains flowed through the rivers, it would cause the lake to swell. The water level would rise until it burst into the ocean at the lowest point of the ocean-separating berm – at its eastern end. This annual occurrence caused the section of the lake near this outlet to become open to the ocean for several months in the summer, and brackish from seawater that would flush back in after the discharge, creating a wonderful environment to grow and farm scallops and oysters.

This abundance of protein was reason enough for the indigenous Ainu, who were usually sparsely dispersed across the island, to maintain a permanent settlement near present-day Sakaeura, Kitami City. Part of the Okhotsk Culture, during the Jomon Era (12,000 BC – 300 BC) the site is of major archaeological interest and is the location of an extension office of Tokyo University, with a museum and recreation of the ancient Ainu settlement.

The Ainu used the lake as the source of their livelihoods, and they named it and the surrounding places based on their natural features. The name Saroma comes from the Ainu “Saro-oma”, or “place of reeds and rushes,” which were in abundance along the lake’s shallow and fluctuating littoral. Like many Ainu names in Hokkaido (over 90% of placenames in Hokkaido are of Ainu origin), the assigned Chinese characters for “Saroma” are laughably meaningless. The three characters: 佐呂間 mean assistant, backbone, and between. Seeing names like this, I rather wonder why the Japanese even bothered. I think some agree, and often the name of the lake and the nearby town are written in katakana as サロマ, representing only the phonetics and eschewing the inappropriately chosen ideographs shown above.

A few years ago, I took a bike ride down to the abandoned old outlet of the lake, which no longer connects to the ocean and is full of brackish and standing water. On a map, this end of the lake looks like snake roadkill, winding and narrow, with bulging sections, going nowhere. Riding along the paved road between the lake and the ocean from the nature center, one soon encounters a “no entry” sign, but I believe such signs are best ignored. More often than not, while exploring a park or wandering through a hotel, I will find myself coming out from behind one of these signs, even though I never crossed one upon entry. There are usually things worth seeing behind those signs.

As the narrowing road meandered along, it disappeared from the map. Soon, to my surprise, and in confirmation of the aforementioned rule, I came across a beautiful stone monument marking the location of the lake’s erstwhile connection to the sea. It read:

“The Former Mouth of Saroma Lake:
Originally, the outlet connecting the lake to the ocean was in this vicinity.  Every spring people would dig to help reopen the channel. In Showa 4 (1929) a drainage channel was excavated on the Yubetsu end of the lake, causing tides to affect the lake and naturally close this outlet.

The Age of Brackishness

The Japanese began to colonize Hokkaido in the late 1860’s and 70’s, sending soldier-farmers to homestead the far reaches of the undeveloped wilderness, in order to establish a presence to ward off the colonial ambitions of foreign nations, especially the Russian Empire. Formerly called Ezo, Hokkaido was given its present name and established as a territory of the Japanese Empire, in 1869. This was only two years after Russia sold its territories in North America to the United States, which would become the State of Alaska nearly 100 years later.

As settlers began to slowly enter the area during those beginning years after the Meiji Restoration swept westernization through Japan, even bringing in American advisors from Massachusetts to design the streets and factories in Sapporo, the capital city, it didn’t take long for them to capitalize on the natural resources of the island, where they were abundant. One natural convenience they made use of was the abundance of scallops and oysters of eastern Saroma Lake, bringing methods of cultivation from areas in Honshu.

As more people moved into the region and a fishing industry became established, the small saltwater arm of Saroma Lake began to be coveted by other fishermen on other parts of the lake, who could not cultivate ocean species in the calm freshwater shallows. In 1929, the fishermen on the western end, 25 miles away in present day Yubetsu, decided to take nature into their own hands. The lake was right next to the ocean. It wouldn’t take much more than a few pieces of machinery and some men to make their own outlet into the lake, to create for themselves the same favorable conditions the eastern fishermen had.

They did this without the approval of the local or central government, and were eventually forced to stop. However, as lore has it, a storm soon blew through and the surge of rising tides finished the job they had gone into half-cocked. Today, the western lake mouth remains open, along with a newer second mouth near the eastern end, constructed to equalize the effect of tides on the lake. Both mouths are ringed with massive booms to keep the Okhotsk drift ice out in the dead of winter.

Nature lovers surely see this all as a disgrace – an example of humanity running rampant over the environment, causing the extermination of the lake’s endemic species, giving thought only to their own immediate needs.

The fishermen of today would likely see it differently. From the eastern port of Sakaeura west to the fishing ports of Hamasaroma, Toppushi, Kerochi, Baro, and Yubetsu, scallops and oysters are the cash species that supports the very comfortable lifestyles of those fishermen with substantial allotments of cultivation areas in the lake.

Saroma Lake now supports a massive cultivation operation – 150 square kilometers of hanging nets full of scallops and oysters. It is part of the Hokkaido scallop fishery, the largest in the world, hauling in 410,000 metric tons of scallops annually. These are exported to China, Europe and the US. Perhaps as some sort of consolation prize for the damage done so many years ago, the fishery was certified this May by the Marine Stewardship Council’s global standard for sustainable and well-managed fisheries.

I have experienced the harvest of Saroma Lake’s scallops firsthand over the past several years. Every May, for a period of about 10 days, fishermen in Toppushi port harvest scallops. Every morning at 3AM, with the sun peeking over the eastern horizon, dozens of boats race out of the port to haul in hundreds of hanging nets full of chigai, or young scallops. The shells are about the size of an oreo, their inner meat about the size of a dime. But these scallops aren’t yet ready for market. After being raised from egg-like “spat” to a decent size over a year within the frigid womb of Saroma Lake, they are transferred onto a ship which hauls them to a designated site off the Okhotsk coast. There they are left in a practice known as “scallop ranching.” They will be retrieved two or three years later by a fleet of trawlers, after which they are shucked, steamed or sliced or dried, and shipped around the world.

The Kawabatas, who run a family fishing operation out of Toppushi port, invite me along to help every year. Feeling the brisk morning air from the deck of a fishing boat brings me a sense of freedom, and a jolt from the routineness of life as a teacher. The mindless, back-breaking work of dumping bivalves into crates for four hours before work is in a way meditative, the separation of the thinking mind from the active body. And there is a satisfaction in seeing a three-thousand pound mountain of scallop crates that does not compare to the more delayed and less visceral gratification of white-collar work. During the ten days of the harvest, the Kawabatas, one of hundreds of fishing families on the lake, gathered 130 million of the young scallops. As thanks for my labor, I received a few thousand of those baby scallops (and a case of beer), and spent the better part of a Saturday steaming them in sake, shucking and cleaning them, then freezing them to be used in a variety of pastas, quiches, stir-fries, and stews.

The Ainu of pre-Meiji Japan in effect had laid the groundwork for the future industries of the colonizing (many would prefer “invading”) Japanese. Areas of abundance were well known to the Ainu, and after having those areas taken from them, or taxed out of their reach, many were taken forcibly from place to place to work for a pittance. Kayano Shigeru describes the brutality of this practice in his memoir Our Land Was a Forest, in which his grandfather is forced into conscripted labor for the resource-extracting corporations that began the development of Hokkaido.

The Ainu did have one more reason to live so permanently at the lake’s eastern end, one that the Japanese could not exploit so easily for commercial gain. If one visits Sakaeura, and drives across the massive steel span bridging the port and narrow eastern slough, they will arrive at Wakka Nature Center. Today it is a popular spot in the mid-summer months when Siberian lily, dragonhead, and Japanese rose come into bloom. Take a walk or bike on the paved path, cross the second lake mouth, over the rushing tides that course through the narrow opening, and continue on the lake side as the road turns to a reddish gravel. There you will find a freshwater spring, paradoxically situated on a slice of land a few hundred meters wide and no more than 3 meters high, sandwiched between two saltwater expanses. Wakka in the Ainu language, naturally, means water.

This slice, this strip of land from which wakka springs forth, is now an island, manmade, orphaned from its mainland. No road runs along its 15km length, and a bridge extends only over the second, eastern mouth. In the age of freshwater though, it was something of a superhighway along the northern coast, serving as an unobstructed east-west route for the Ainu, animals, and the occasional explorer.

This road between lake and sea served as the route for the British explorer and anthropologist Arnold Henry Savage Landor as he made his way around Ezo in the early 1890’s by way of pack mule. In his memoir of that trip, Alone With the Hairy Ainu, he recounts his route northwest up the coast. Landor describes spending the night at the village of “Tobuts”, present day Tofutsu, near the former lake mouth. There he “entertained himself” to an oyster supper in the Ainu village, and describes sketching the portait of an “Ainu belle’ who was “not nearly so hairy as most.”

The morning after his romantic idyll, Landor went on his way:

Continuing my journey north, on the stretch of sand between the water of the sea and that of the Saruma  lake the travelling was fairly easy but monotonous. The long chain of mountains on the other side of the lake was magnificent in the morning light. For twenty-two miles this went on.

Nature’s Fulcrum

One hundred and fifty years have passed since Landor’s misadventure through Hokkaido. Five million people now live on this island the size of Maine, still a virtual emptiness by Japanese standards. Boats ply the lake through channels crossing between buoys holding billions of scallops and oysters. Thousands of people live in the surrounding towns and many come each day to visit the lake and admire its expansive beauty. But people stick close to home. They get back in their cars. They see the place, but they don’t feel it. I would guess that more people travelled the expanse of sandy oblivion in the 1880’s than set foot on it today.

There is something primeval about the thin line between lake and ocean of the shore beyond Wakka. It’s like standing on a massive mountain ridge, but more sublime, pressed between opposing waves. A place home only to deer, fox and swans. This easily accessible isolation is almost spiritual, a juxtaposition of land into water, of freshwater from salty surroundings.

I had lived 25 minutes by car from Wakka for five years before I finally ventured to its farthest reaches. By cycle, kayak, foot and snowshoe, I had tramped and paddled around most of Saroma Lake, but never to the end. I had seen that far tip from the Yubetsu side, thrown rocks across the awkward channel opened by those fishermen to unlock the riches of the lake.

But I had never been there. Anyway, you weren’t really supposed to go. There was a rusted old “no entry” sign and a dirt road which became less and less passable on a mountain bike after a few kilometers, as the dwarf bamboo overtook the path. But for me, the pilgrimage needed to be made.

At 7am on a blazing June morning, I and four Western friends set out from the nature center to make the 30km round trip. We filled up our water bottles from the spring at Wakka, hid our bikes in the woods, and began trudging along the high berm of the island. Refrigerators and buoys, vodka bottles and tubes of Korean toothpaste littered the beach below. This stretch of beach is a beachcomber’s paradise, and a well kept secret. Nik Hill, a former English teacher in Saroma Town, called it the “Golden Mile of Wakka.”

We remained on the solid ridge for as long as we could before venturing to the beach, which is awkward and tiring walking. I quickly came across the vertebra of a whale interspersed with vodka bottles. We began to find glass fishing floats, which I treasure, and gain a rush of excitement in laying eyes upon. Before the day was over, I would stuff over 20 floats into my pack, including a gorgeous blue 8-inch diameter globe.

In spite of all of my pseudo-poetic warblings about Wakka’s spiritual isolation, the explorer Landor was right about its monotony. The Wakka Coast is a rather boring slog. Gradually, though, the beach narrows and turns into small cliffs, topped with the scraggliest, spookiest little trees I have ever seen, whispering for you to turn back. Swallows make their homes in these cliffs, flitting about the beach, clearing it of insects for us, its daytripping visitors. Towering remnants of past erosion served as a reminder of the impermanence of these cliffs, and made me think that it really is best there are no people here.

In Japan, coastlines tend to be smothered in concrete, sprinkled in tetrapods and spheres and plastered with 20 meter seawalls whose ugliness will fail to be worth it as soon as the next 21-meter tsunami hits. The total absence of this is what makes this coastline special, and its presence is what made its end point so remarkably jarring.

After passing the swallow cliffs, the land on the left widens outward toward the lake, and there begins a wide sloping meadow of dwarf bamboo, a knee-high and hearty underbrush that remains green throughout the winter, even buried under meters of snow. Now far behind the rest of the group, I stopped trying to keep up, and walked up through this slope to a low, forested knob. There, I turned and looked back down the length of land, at both shores tapering away toward their geometric vanishing points. It was a special place to be. While I am not a religious person, I find the animism of Japanese Shinto to be a soothing concept, with its spiritual view of the souls that live in nature’s special places. This was certainly one of those places. It felt like I had reached the fulcrum of the island, the point at which its own balance was reached. I took a drink of water, and turned to go.

Writer’s note: This is a work in progress, and will likely be rearranged, added to, and filled out with more information and more stories as time goes on and I think about maybe someday submitting it for publication. My biggest concern is with the structure. I feel that perhaps breaking it into smaller episodes that are not necessarily connected by an overarching narrative might be more appropriate and make it more accessible to readers.

Update: October 1st, 2013. Taking the editing advice of my father, I went through and made some minor changes to the piece. I think it reads a little more clearly now. I also feel satisfied with the structure. I think I will leave it as it currently stands.

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