One of my childhood dreams, ever since I first visited the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, was to one day witness the ice floes filling the bay of the Okhotsk Sea. I got my first taste of what the cold and the ice from the Arctic meant when the cohort of 10-year-old summer camp companions and I dashed down the beach of Abashiri and plunged into the lead grey water. Within a minute our legs and lips turned blue from the frigidity and we scrambled out, gasping and squealing with joy. I still recall the suck of the grey sand and how the cold gripped my ankles the deeper I sunk.
That summer seemed to shake loose the stiff joints of Tokyo and, for a child who spent a lot of time alone and had few friends, to suddenly be sharing this new world of wide horizons with other children, just as excited as me, left me almost giddy with joy. I hardly rested a moment indoors within the three day ferry ride north. There was too much to see. Out across the waves glided black-tailed and laysan albatrosses, their wings held outstretched and still for impossibly long spells, just a handsbreadth above the waves, never seeming to need the aid of flapping. Among them, skirling like dark knives over the water’s surface, slipped sooty and short-tailed shearwaters, one of their wingtips skirting the water. Storm petrels danced on the waves like angels, at play with the wind. We saw fur seals, and common dolphin, and humpback whales, and once, far off, even an orca. On the second day, when the sea was lifting and dropping the ship on its heaving shoulders, some of us stood near the prow, daring each other to get drenched by the wings of turquoise spume that crashed over the gunwhales. Later in the evening, drowsy with fatigue, we sat in the great public bath amidships, sliding back and forth across the bathtub floor as the water sloshed like a drunk hippopotamus.
Hokkaido has always generated a kind of granting of my book-generated longings. Each of the five times I was there, over a period of 24 years, I met extraordinary people and encountered wild animals still very much alive and not yet just characters in a fairy tale.
And in May of 1994 my wish to see the ice floes of the Okhotsk Sea came true. As if set up purely for my viewing pleasure, the ice floes reversed their northern drift and returned to the northwest shores of Hokkaido in late May. Such a thing had not happened in anyone’s lifetime according to some locals I bantered with as we stood and prodded at a floe. “And it is awful for business.” grumbled an old fisherwoman. “We can’t set the boats out to go squid fishing.”
A day before we boarded the ferry back for Tokyo, we climbed some bluffs off the trail in Shiretoko National Park and sat basking in the sun for a whole day, hardly saying a word, hardly needing to think. The floes seemed to reach out toward some land in a dream.
It was one of those perfect days one’s life.