My Encounters With Alaska by Michio Hoshino

Back in 2004 when I was working for a conversation school in Tokyo, a student of mine had an important business meeting coming up with some foreign clients, and signed up for extra lessons so that he might better understand what was going on without having to be completely reliant on an interpreter. The meeting went well, and by way of thanks, he presented myself and another teacher at the school with gifts. Mine was a book called My Encounters With Alaska (「僕の出会ったアラスカ」) by Michio Hoshino (星野道夫), although it took me another six years of studying Japanese to be able to read it.

Fortunately, it’s a book with plenty of pictures, as Hoshino was a photographer who lived in Alaska for many years, before his untimely demise in 1996 at the hands (or rather, at the paws) of a brown bear, while on an assignment for Japanese TV in Siberia .

Perhaps because in some small way it reminded me of my own experiences of living abroad, I found the first chapter of Hoshino’s book particularly moving, and decided to have a go at translating it into English. Having done so, I now realise how little of it I understood on first reading, so if you have any suggestions for improvements or spot any errors in the translation, feel free to let me know (although this is all on a strictly unofficial basis, as I don’t have any kind of permission to reproduce the text!).

(Hoshino’s homepage, incidentally, can be found here.)

A picture of Shishmaref Village

There was a phone call from Don Ross, the bush pilot.

‘A cameraman from the National Geographic magazine is on his way here. Apparently he’s going to photograph the Caribou migration in the Arctic Circle, so there are a few things he wants to ask you about. Do you think you could go to the hotel for me…? His name is George Mobley.’

The National Geographic deals with nature, geography, indigenous people and history, and it’s the most influential magazine in America. It’s probably the place where photographers want to get published more than any other.

So, a staff photographer from the National Geographic. I bet he’s been all over the world… As I was thinking about this on my way to the hotel downtown, suddenly the name George Mobley began to ring a bell in my mind. Surely not…but it was definitely the same name.

I did a u-turn, went back to my house and took a photography book off the shelf. It didn’t take long to find the page. Next to a photograph that brought back so many memories was written the name ‘George Mobley’. Fancy meeting him in a situation like this…

When I was a teenager, I was fascinated by the nature of Hokkaido, and at the time there were various different books that influenced me. I longed to head north, and before I knew it my thoughts had turned to to Alaska. But I had no clue of the reality – it was only a feeling that grew inside me. More than twenty years ago, there were hardly any books about Alaska in Japan.

One day in the second-hand book district of Kanda, Tokyo, at a shop that specialised in books from the West, I found a photography book about Alaska. On a shelf among many such books, why was my gaze drawn to that one in particular, I wonder? It was as if the book right in front of my eyes was the one that had been waiting for me, and from then on, whether I was on my way to school or going out, that photography book was always in my bag. I read it so much there were finger marks all over it, although in my case, all I did was look at the photographs.

In the book, I couldn’t stop thinking about one page in particular. It was a photograph taken from the air of an Eskimo village in the Arctic Circle. The grey Bering Sea, the leaden skies, the sun shining through a break in the clouds as if through a bamboo screen, the Eskimo settlement like an isolated dot… At first I suppose I was fascinated by the mysterious light in that photograph. Then I gradually started to become interested in the village itself.

Why did people have to live in a place like that, I wondered, at the end of the Earth? The scenery really was desolate. There were no people in the photograph, but you just about make out the shape of what looked like houses. What kind of people could they be, and what were they thinking as they lived there?

A long time ago, while I was absentmindedly gazing out of a train window at a town in the twilight, through the window of a house, I suddenly caught sight of a family sitting around the dinner table. I carried on looking until the light from the window had passed. Then an overpowering feeling welled up inside me. What could that feeling have been? Perhaps that group of strangers was conveying to me the mystery of a life I knew nothing about. Because we were living our lives in the same time and place, there was a sadness about the fact that I would never meet them.

It was a similar feeling to the one I had looking at the photograph of the Eskimo settlement. Somehow or other I wanted to meet those people.

In the caption beneath the photograph was the name of the village. Shishmaref… I decided to write a letter to the village. But who should I address it to? In the dictionary, I found the English word for ‘head of the village’. For an address, all I could do was write Shishmaref, Alaska, America.

‘I saw a photograph of your village in a book. I would like to come and visit. I wonder if there is someone there who will look after me…’

Of course, there was no reply. With no name and no address, how would anyone know who to deliver it to? And even if it had been delivered, there was no reason for someone I had never even met to offer to look after me. I forgot that I had even sent the letter. Then, when more than six months had passed, I got home from school one day to find a letter delivered from abroad. It was from a family in Shishmaref.

‘…We received your letter. I talked to my wife about you coming to our house…summer is the reindeer hunting season. We need a helping hand. …come any time…’

After six more months of preparation, I set off for Alaska. I flew in several small planes and saw animal colonies floating on the ice in the Baring Sea, before the photograph from the book that I had looked at for so long began to overlap with reality, and I pressed my face to the window.

Spending those three months in the village was an intense experience. It was the first time I had seen bears, seal hunting and reindeer hunting, and Arctic nights when the sun never set. Now I was standing in the village from the aerial photograph. I met many people in the course of the trip, and I was fascinated by the variety of ways in which we can live. That summer I was nineteen years old.

After that, I chose to become a photographer, and fulfilled many of my dreams. Then, for the first time in seven years, I went back to Alaska. This time wasn’t to be a short holiday. Three years…no, maybe it would be five years, I thought. The time began to fly by so quickly.

I walked the untrodden peaks and valleys of the Brooks mountain range that traverses Alaska. While kayaking in Glacier Bay, I heard the creaking sound a glacier makes as it moves. I rowed with the Eskimo in their umiak boats as they followed the Pacific whale in the Arctic Circle. I was fascinated by the migration of the caribou, and the trip continued. I recorded the lives of bears through the course of an entire year. I looked up to see the aurora borealis countless times. I encountered wolves. I learned about the lifestyles of many different people… Before I knew it, fourteen years had passed. I had built a house and put down roots in this place.

If that book hadn’t found its way into my hands in the second-hand bookshop in Kanda, I may never have come to Alaska. No, that’s a crazy thought. But if our lives progress through a series of moments, like looking at one’s own reflection in a bell that rings, then life is a limitless series of coincidences.

But of course, I really did look at that photograph, and I really did go to a village called Shishmaref. From then on, as if a new map had been drawn, this different life became a reality. And the person who took that photograph was George Mobley.

I arrived at the hotel, found the room and knocked on the door. Without knowing what I had been thinking about as I made my way there, George smiled through his grey whiskers as he met me.

After a while, when we had talked about the caribou migration, I took out the old photography book and began to tell him the story I have just recounted here. George looked intently at me and leaned in close to hear what I was saying, which made me feel at ease.

‘Well, well… So my photograph changed your life…’

‘Oh no, it wasn’t quite like that, but…it gave me a great opportunity.’

‘So, do you have any regrets?’

Deep in the eyes of this wise old man, I could see that he was smiling kindly.

Life is full of tricks and mechanisms. In our day-to-day lives, despite crossing the paths of countless different people, most of us never even exchange glances. That fundamental sadness, put another way, is the endless mystery of how people come to encounter each other.

And this is the chapter in the original Japanese:




ナ ショナル・ジオグラフィックマガジンは、自然、地理、民族、歴史を扱う、アメリカで最も権威のある雑誌である。カメラマンなら、誰もが憧れる雑誌かもし れない。そこのスタッフ・フォトグラファーか。きっと、世界を駆け回っているんだろうな……そんなことを考えながら、車でダウンタウンのホテルへ向かう途 中、ジョージ・モーブリイという名前が、突然、記憶の鐘を小さくたたき始めた。まさか……でも、たしかにそんな名前だった。


十 代の頃、北海道の自然に強く魅かれていた。その当時読んださまざまな本の影響があったのだろう。北方への憧れは、いつしか遠いアラスカへと移っていた。 だが、現実には何の手がかりもなく、気持ちがつのるだけであった。二十年以上も前、アラスカに関する本など日本では皆無だったのだ。

ある 日、東京、神田の古本屋街の洋書専門店で、一冊のアラスカの写真集を見つけた。たくさんの洋書が並ぶ棚で、どうしてその本に目が止められたのだろう。 まるでぼくがやってくるのを待っていたかのように、目の前にあったのである。それからは、学校へ行く時も、どこへ出かける時も、カバンの中にその写真集が 入っていた。手垢にまみえるほど本を読むとはああいうことをいうのだろう。もっともぼくの場合は、ひたすら写真を見ていただけなのだが。

そ の中に、どうしても気になるたび、どうしてもそのページを聞かないと気がすまないのだ。それは、北極圏のあるエスキモーの村を空から撮った写真だった。 灰色のベーリング海、どんよりと沈む空、雲間からすだれのように射し込む太陽、ポツンと点のようにたたずむエスキモーの集落……はじめは、その写真のもつ 光の不思議さにひきつけられたのだろう。そのうちに、ぼくはだんだんその村が気にかかり始めていった。


昔、 電車から夕暮れの町をぼんやり眺めているとき、聞けなたれた家の窓から、夕食の時間なのか、ふっと家族の団欒が目に入ることがあった。そんなとき、窓 の明かりが過ぎ去ってゆくまで見つめたものだった。そして胸が締めつけられるような思いがこみ上げてくるのである。あれはいったい何だったのだろう。見知 らぬ人々が、ぼくの知らない人生を送っている不思議さだったのかもしれない。同じ時代を生きながら、その人々と決して出会えない悲しさだったのかもしれな い。




返 事は来なかった。当然だった。名も住所も不確かなのだから。たとえ届いたとしても、会ったこともない人間を世話してくれる者 などいるはずがない。ぼくは、手紙を出したことも忘れていった。どころが、半年もたったある日、学校から帰ると、一通の外国郵便が届いていた。シシュマレ フ村のある家族からの手紙だった。



この村で過ごした三ヶ月は、強烈な体験としてぼくの中に沈殿していった。はじめてのクマ、アザラシ猟、トナカイ狩り、太陽が沈まぬ白夜、さまざまな村人と の出会い……そして、空撮の写真から見おろしていた村に、今自分が立っていること。この旅を通し、ぼくは、人の暮らしの多様性に魅かれていった。十九歳の 夏だった。


アラスカ山脈を横切るブルックス山脈の、未踏の山や谷を歩いた。グレイシャーベイをカヤックで旅しながら、氷河のきしむ音を聞 いた。エスキモーの人々とウ ミアックを漕ぎ、北極海にセミクジラを追った。カリブーの季節移動に魅かれ、その旅を追い続けた。クマの一年の生活を記録した。数えきれないほどのオーロ ラを見上げた。オオカミに出合った。さまざまな人の暮らしを知った……いつのまにか十四年が過ぎていた。それどころか、ぼくは家を建て、この土地に根おろ そうとしている。




しばらくカリブーの話をした後、ぼくは古い写真集をとりだし、これまでのいきさつ 彼に話し始めていた。ジョージはじっとぼくを見つめながら、耳を傾けちくれた。それがうれしかった。







By some freak of genetics that I don’t pretend to understand, I have been blessed with everyman-like features, and over the years a disproportionately large number of people have told me that I look like someone they know, or someone famous. For example, a friend of mine once went up to someone on the tube and, convinced that it was me, said, ‘Hi, Muzuhashi!’ only to be treated with a blank look and a ‘Who’s Muzuhashi?’ in reply, and in my days as a sound recordist, there was supposedly a doppelganger doing the same job, even though, like Superman and Clark Kent, we were never seen in the same room together.

In the interests of national security and for the safety of my family and friends, I have yet to post a photograph of myself on this blog. But while my true identity shall remain a closely guarded secret, I thought that now might be a good time to give you at least an inkling of the face behind the enigma.

For example, when I was much younger and still had hair, Ronan Keating was a prime suspect.

As I got older and my hair got thinner, it was Keifer Sutherland.

And then Kevin Costner.

Of course, the irony is that now I’m in Japan, rather than being an everyman, I stick out like a left-winger in the Labour Party, and the only Japanese name ever to have been mentioned in the same breath is that of TV presenter Tokoro George.

Closer to the mark is Arjen Robben, a Dutch international who plays his club football for Bayern Munich, and whom countless junior high school students have ‘mistaken’ me for.

Facial features, it has to be said, don’t necessarily come into the comparison, so what these students are really thinking as they pass me in the corridor and shout ‘Robben!’ is ‘You’re a balding white man!’

In much the same way, balding white men – myself included – are often likened to Bruce Willis.

Despite the shining pate, however, Willis is facially even less reminiscent of me than Robben, so for a more likely lookalike, we need to consult some non-Japanese.

A good friend of mine insists that I’m a dead spit for Gary Barlow, which is very nice of him, so long as I choose to overlook the fact that what he’s basically saying is ‘You look like the ugly one out of Take That’.

Someone once came up to me in a pub and said that I looked like Tim Roth, which is fairly credible.

While a different person once came up to me in a different pub and told me that I looked like Ben Stiller, which is frankly tenuous.

Both witnesses may well have been drunk at the time, and where Roth looks a bit too mean and moody, Stiller looks a bit too sarky and smirky. Ben Miller, on the other hand, is in the right ballpark.

Another friend suggested Rob Brydon, who I like to think is a little on the craggy side for comparisons, although I have to admit that I’m veering into craggy territory myself these days (and by that I don’t mean Snowdonia).

You can imagine my confusion, then, when Miller and Brydon appeared together on QI, and even went so far as to kiss each other on screen, a moment that for me was reminiscent of the bit in Being John Malcovich where John Malcovich enters the portal into his own brain.

While the face may be similar, though, the body is a dead giveaway: I do of course look much better than this with my shirt off.

The best suggestion so far – so good, in fact, that it’s genuinely spooky – is Christopher Timothy, who apart from a slightly different nose could quite easily be my long-lost identical twin brother.

Although rather like the Superman / Clark Kent combination, I have yet to be filmed sticking my hand up a cow’s backside – not that I’m aware of, anyway.

A final disclaimer: while I do in some aspects resemble many of the gentlemen depicted here, I should of course emphasise the fact that I’m not even remotely as handsome or debonair as any of them. The closest I’ve ever come to that is by having my voice likened – by Japanese as well as Brits – to Hugh Grant’s.

But let’s face it, if  I looked like Hugh Grant as well as sounding like him, I wouldn’t be an English teaching assistant, I’d be…well, I’d be at least a deputy headmaster.

Wild boar 猪 (pt.2)

As Mrs M and I were returning from a visit to the in-laws the other day, we noticed something rather strange happening on the forecourt of an Eneos petrol station. For a split second, Mrs M thought we had stumbled upon a murder scene, but a closer look revealed something far less sinister, namely our second encounter with an inoshishi (猪 / wild boar) in the past year (the first one gave rise to a disappointingly blurry photograph).
As anyone who’s seen the film Deliverance will tell you, it’s usually best to avoid groups of country folk who own guns, drive pick-up trucks and wear fishing vests and baseball caps, but while their replies to my questions were very much on the monosyllabic side (‘Is that a wild boar?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Did you kill it yourselves?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘With a gun?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Will you keep the hide?’ ‘No.’), that was due more to Japanese reserve than redneck menace.
__You need to apply to the town hall for a special licence to hunt wild boar, and the official season runs from 15th November until 15th March. According to our community newsletter, during the 2010 / 2011 season the wild boar population was reduced by a grand total of 62: 53 of them trapped and 9 of them shot. An interesting way to spend a Wednesday evening, I reckon, and enough meat at the end of it to feed a small army – or at least a medium sized hunting party.

It’s just not baseball

Despite there being a page-long explanation of the rules in the current junior high school PE textbook, very few of my students have even heard of cricket, let alone played it, so while Mrs M, M Jr and myself were in London over the Christmas holidays, I was interested to see the following article – published as part of a regular column called Bridging People – in Eikoku News Digest, one of a handful of Japanese-language newspapers available in the UK:

Building bridges between the UK and Japan

In September 2012 a motion was proposed in the Scottish Parliament to recognise the activities not of a Scotsman but of a Japanese man. He was to be commended for his untiring work in popularising cricket – a sport normally regarded as the preserve of the English gentleman – in his home country. His influence has spread far and wide, and through his activities he has formed lasting connections around the world.

Naoki Miyaji – profile

Born on 16th September 1978 in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan (full name Miyaji Alex Naoki / 宮地・アレックス・直樹).
Graduated from Keio University.
Completed an MA at the London School of Economics.
First chosen to represent Japan’s national cricket team in 2000.
Has since played in Melbourne, Australia and for various clubs in London.
CEO of the Japan Cricket Association since 2008.
Created Cricket For Smiles, a project to support the recovery from the Great East Japan Earthquake.

On 12th September 2012 at the parliament building in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland and a World Heritage Site, a motion was proposed to commend Naoki Miyaji. Miyaji was being acknowledged for his efforts in popularising cricket in Japan, although at the time, he was representing his home country on an overseas tour.

The following day in Samoa, a tiny island in the South Pacific, Miyaji had just finished practicing for the the upcoming World Cricket League [a tournament for national sides without test status], and was about to go out for an evening meal with his teammates. One of them showed his mobile phone to Miyaji, saying, ‘Look, this has just popped up on the news’. Miyaji peered at the screen and saw a report about the Scottish Parliament’s motion to commend him. Miyaji – now back in Japan and working hard at the offices of the Japan Cricket Association – reflects with a wry smile, ‘At the time I had no idea what it was all about.’

Naoki Miyaji was born and brought up in Japan by his Japanese father and Scottish mother, and as a ten year old went to stay at an aunt’s house in Wimbledon, West London for the summer holidays. During that brief trip he attended a sports camp and had his first encounter with cricket. Miyaji had neither seen nor heard of the game in Japan, ‘but for some reason,’ he says, ‘it made a strong impression on me’. In junior high school he brought up the subject with a surprised ALT, who as Miyaji recalls, ‘certainly didn’t think he’d be talking with a Japanese student about cricket!’ Pleased that her son had taken an interest in the culture of her home country, Miyaji’s mother bought him a complete set of cricket equipment, which he used at the local park with his brothers, making up the rules as they went along. Miyaji began to play cricket properly after joining the cricket club at Keio University. ‘To be honest, even then we didn’t properly understand the rules. In fact,’ he says, laughing, ‘on the first day of practice I was the only person who brought a bat with them!’

Miyaji, who had loved sport since he was a child, played a key part in the inter-university tournament six months later, and was subsequently chosen to represent Japan at Lord’s – the headquarters of cricket and hallowed ground for players and fans alike – against a prestigious MCC team. ‘The MCC players had an aura of nobility about them,’ says Miyaji. ‘They were energetic but relaxed at the same time. They listened to our questions intently and always had an intelligent answer. I thought to myself, “so this is what a true gentleman is”.’

Having spoken English with his mother since he was a child, Miyaji is now fluent, so he looks after Japanese teams when they are on tour in the UK, and acts as a point of contact for the International Cricket Council when he is in Japan. Since being chosen as a member of the national team he has had plenty of opportunities to travel, appearing as far afield as the United Arab Emirates, Botswana and China. Seeking opportunities to improve his technique, he has played in Australia, and of course in England, the birthplace of cricket. But while cricket has opened a window onto the world for Miyaji. rather than moving abroad, he has chosen Japan as his base. Here, awareness of cricket, which is popular in countries all over the world, is low. Even if you are chosen for the national side, there is no coach and no practice ground, a situation that Miyaji decided he had to try and change.

The Great East Japan Earthquake struck on 11th March 2011, and at the time Miyaji was in Tokyo, on his way back from representing Japan at an invitation match in New Zealand. At the end of February that year, a devastating earthquake had struck the south island of New Zealand, and he had also travelled there to discuss plans for a charity event. After the quake in Japan, however, Miyaji redirected his efforts towards the recovery in his home country.

When the quake hit, his mother was living in Shichigahama Town in Miyagi Prefecture. She survived, and soon afterwards opened a knitting class as a way of bringing the local community together. ‘Maybe I can do something as well,’ Miyaji thought. It wasn’t within his power to hand out food, give shelter or provide the kind of essentials that would enable victims of the disaster to survive, so instead, he thought, why not play cricket with children in the area as a first step on the road to recovery. The Japan Cricket Association, of which Miyaji is CEO, is an NPO with the aim of increasing opportunities for people to enjoy playing sports, thereby popularising cricket. ‘At times like these,’ he thought, ‘if you can’t do anything as the representative of a visible organisation, then what exactly are you representing it for? Since people in the disaster-stricken areas were saying that the smiles and laughter of their children were their biggest inspiration, I started the Cricket For Smiles project to enable children from those areas to have fun, and to enjoy playing cricket.’

At schools in the disaster-affected region of Tohoku, lessons were being taught in temporary classrooms, and playing fields and sports halls were either partly or wholly unusable. In other words, during breaktimes and after school, children had no chance to play baseball, soccer and so on. In that environment, regardless of whether or not the instinct to play such a completely novel sport existed, the rules were changed to enable playing in a limited space, and plastic bats and rubber balls were utilised, so that cricket became a fun game that got people moving and brought smiles to their faces. After a workshop in Kessen-numa City in Miyagi Prefecture in which staff and parents from numerous elementary and junior high schools took part, Cricket For Smiles was taken up by the Kessen-numa Board Of Education, and cricket lessons were started at every school in the area.

‘The Scottish Parliament commends Mr Miyaji and the Japan Cricket Association for developing the Cricket For Smiles programme.’ This is a phrase taken from a motion proposed on 12th September 2012. ‘It’s not me who should be recognised,’ says Miyaji. ‘It’s the people who have turned cricket into a global network’, says Miyaji, a sentiment that is backed by the many supporters of Cricket For Smiles: by the donations of money and cricket equipment from Indian people in Dubai, from Schools in Scotland, from Scots in Shanghai, and from New Zealanders in London.

‘In Japan the scope of cricket is extremely narrow, but around the world, its influence travels far and wide,’ says Miyaji, and thus, a man who lives in East Asia, where cricket is treated as a ‘minor sport’, is actually an important part of a much bigger picture.

As the original text of the motion points out, ‘there are now over 3,000 regular cricketers in Japan, with teams at both senior and junior level, including some 30 university teams’. So perhaps this sport of the English gentleman can one day overtake baseball as the most enjoyable thing to do with a bat and a ball on a summer’s afternoon in Japan.

(Donations can be made to Cricket For Smiles via their homepage, which can be viewed in both English and Japanese.)