By GEORGE BRAINE
Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern island, is a flat, sprawling city, surrounded by low hills. The downtown area, with classy department stores, high end dining, and tree lined boulevards, is lovely. But the outskirts are not attractive: mile after mile of car dealerships, used car lots, and pachinko (gambling) parlors.
Beyond the city, Hokkaido’s countryside is breathtaking. Forests, rolling hills, farms, salmon streams, fast flowing rivers, crystal clear lakes. The forests are rich in bear, deer, foxes, and smaller creatures. The beaches are clean, and although too cold for bathing most of the year, are deserted and ideal for beach combing. The surrounding seas supply plentiful fish and crustaceans, which the Japanese love to eat raw, steamed or grilled.
We were hunkered down in Sapporo for months, first by winter and then by Covid-19, and were impatient to travel. Infection numbers were down, our Covid fatigue needed a cure, and Furano was the obvious choice. I had been there three years ago and loved the place.
Hokkaido’s economy depends on farming, fisheries, and forestry, but Furano is best known for its lavender fields and melons. The flatness of the terrain is, in a mountainous island, quite astonishing. The hills can be seen all round in the far distance, but what lies in between is farm after farm, in near-perfect rectangles, swathes of gold (ripening wheat) and shades of green – rice, corn and onions. In between are the numerous greenhouses for the precious melon. Copses of trees dot the landscape. Irrigation channels spread the water from mountain streams throughout the agricultural fields.
Hokkaido agriculture was developed under American guidance, so the farm houses, the barns, and the silos have a distinctly American appearance. But, these are not humongous farms like in the USA, but much smaller ones, the farmer and his family living on site, in houses that add much colour to the landscape. In Japan, every aspect of farming – tilling, planting, weeding, spraying, harvesting – is mechanized, from two-wheeled tractors to tankers with extended arms that spray water onto the onion fields.
The Bed and Breakfast was in the midst of an onion field. During my walks, I saw fields basking in the glorious summer sunshine and the farmers going about their work diligently. The Japanese value aesthetics highly, and this extends to the farms, which are kept in near perfect order, to blend easily with the landscape and the neighbouring farms. The irrigation ditches are cleared of sludge, and the crystal clear water flows smoothly. I read that water distribution is harmonious and well regulated.
Furano is most famous for its lavender fields, which, on our last visit, were packed with tourists. This time, with the airport closed for international flights, only Japanese visitors were around. To enjoy them the most, one must spend time with the lavender, strolling among the fields, inhaling the scent deeply, or sit at a nearby bench and simply gaze, while butterflies flutter and bees go about their work. A cone of Japan’s heavenly soft-serve ice cream, lavender flavoured, of course, in hand, adds to a sense of calm that is precious during these troubled times.
Lavender is big business. Mainly used in the manufacture of perfume, lavender has also been applied to a mind boggling number of products, ranging from sachets of potpourri, to oil, soap, candles, pillows, hand cream, and tea. Lavender flavoured ice cream and wine are also big hits.
One evening, we had dinner at an izakaya, a type of small neighbourhood pub/eatery popular in Japan. Usually run by a husband and wife couple, or a chef and an assistant or two, they have a vast range of dishes on the meu, and a loyal clientele. One pushes the sliding door to a side, parts the half curtain to peer and step-in, to be greeted with “irasshaimase” meaning “welcome, please come in”. Robata, the izakaya in Furano where we ate, is a tiny, quirky place, where the chef owner is assisted by a younger man. A weird collection of artifacts hangs from the ceiling, and all around are bottles of liquor, masks from Noh drama, endless menu items with price tags, and coolers. Only the square seating area is in any order, chopsticks balanced on tiny, colourful plates, all social distanced. Traditional Japanese music (high pitched wailing, usually), sounds in the background. Everything is covered in a sheen of dust, but who cares: we came to eat and drink.
Upon being seated, wet towels are passed around, and small bowls of edamame (boiled soybeans in the pod) served. We take our time over ordering, because the menus are many and varied, but eventually go with the chef’s recommendations – cold draft beer, sashimi, cold tofu, grilled fish, and yakitori (grilled chicken on skewers). Izakayas are boisterous places, but tonight the mood is somber, Covid being not far from everyone’s mind. The chef keeps on a bantering with the customers (the only gaijin (foreigner), me, being a point of interest), soft cries of “kanpai” (cheers) are heard, and we savour the warm ambience. The bill is not itemized, instead rounded to the nearest thousand. We step out to a cool evening, the bright lanterns leading the way magically down a narrow lane.
Another day, away from Furano, we come across an old soba place in a rustic area. Soba is buckwheat noodle, served in a warm broth in winter and cold in summer, usually with tempura – vegetables, fish or meat battered and deep fried. Cold soba and vegetable tempura are among my favourite Japanese dishes. While waiting our turn to get in, another customer told us that the restaurant, Onada Soba, was the setting for a popular TV drama series in the early 1980s named “North Country”. When we entered, I wondered if anything had changed since then. The walls had hundreds, if not thousands, of business cards and boarding card stubs left by fans from all over Japan and elsewhere, some going back nearly 40 years. A coat of dust covered everything. An elderly man did all the cooking, helped by his wife who waited and washed up. The menu had only four items, and we ordered cold soba with onion tempura, and the waitress told us that two servings of tempura, not three, would be enough. When the meal arrived, I saw why. The tempura was a generous portion, fried to a golden sheen. With a generous serving of green tea, I enjoyed perhaps the best soba meal.
Now for the melons. The Japanese are fond of water melon, cantaloupes, and honey dew. Furano cantaloupes are highly prized, and are given as gifts. I’ve seen melons priced at US$50, but we didn’t have to pay that much for the sweetest melons. We gave one to our neighbour back in Sapporo, and, with a sparkle in her eyes, she ran to place it on her late husband’s alter before consuming it later.
We returned from Furano relaxed and rejuvenated, longing to go back in a few weeks. But, Covid had resurged in Japan, so we’ll have to wait.
Development after the elections
By Jehan Perera
Many years ago, former Government Agent of Jaffna, Dr Devanesan Nesiah, explained the northern sentiment when elections were taking place. He said there was apprehension about the possible turn of events over which they had no control. The minority status of the Tamil people would invariably mean that their future would be determined by the outcome of the power struggle in the south of the country. I was reminded of these words of Dr Nesiah during discussions organised by the Civil Society Platform in the northern towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna on the democratic challenges arising from the forthcoming elections.
The main theme, at the present elections in the south, and most of the country, has been the need to elect a strong government and to give it a 2/3 majority to change the constitution, accordingly. The response in Vavuniya and Jaffna, by the members of civil society, was that a strong government would not heed the wishes of the people. Like people in other parts of the country, they felt let down by the political leaders and said they did not know for whom to vote. The issues that they highlighted as being their concerns were economic ones, such as the lack of jobs for youth and the harm to families caused by an unregulated micro credit scheme that made them vulnerable to the predatory actions of money lenders.
The civil society members, in the towns of Vavuniya and Jaffna, did not take up the issue of the 19th Amendment and the possible threat to civil society space that the speakers from the south put before them. This indicated a longer term need to have educational programmes on the importance of the rule of law and judicial independence, in particular, to ensure justice and non-discrimination. But they also did not comment or discuss the manifesto put out by the main Tamil political party, the TNA, which addressed longstanding issues of the Tamil polity, including self-determination, federalism, the merger of the Northern and Eastern provinces or the newer post-war issues of missing persons and accountability for war crimes.
The absence of public debate, at the civil society meetings in the north on the political dimension at the forthcoming elections, may reflect a wariness about speaking publicly on politically controversial matters. Civil society groups throughout the country have been reporting there is more police surveillance of their work. The fear of falling into trouble and being seen as anti-government may have restrained the participants at the civil society meeting in the north from expressing their true feelings. On the other hand, there is also the reality that existential issues of jobs, loans and incomes are of immediate concern especially in the context of the Covid-induced economic downturn. The short term concerns of people are invariably with economic issues.
One of the salient features of the present elections has been the general unwillingness of even the main political parties to address any of the issues posed by the TNA. This would be due to their apprehension of the adverse fallout from the electorate. It could also be due to their lack of ideas regarding the way forward. Apart from the 19th Amendment, another impediment to a strong government, that is identified by its proponents is the 13th Amendment. In the run up to the elections, there have been calls for the abolition of the 13th Amendment, which created the devolved system of provincial councils, along with the 19th Amendment that directly reduced the power of the presidency and increased the independence of state institutions. The provincial councils have been emasculated by denying them of both resources and decision making power and are condemned for being white elephants.
It has been noted, by the political commentator D B S Jeyaraj, that the TNA’s choice of focusing on issues of transitional justice, in dealing with war time violations of human rights, led to the TNA aligning itself with Western powers. This did not yield the anticipated benefits as the previous government failed to implement many of its commitments in regard to transitional justice. It would have been better to have focused instead on getting the provincial councils in the north and east to engage in more development-oriented work which would have met the existential needs of the people.
Jeyaraj has also surmised that if the TNA had chosen the path of utilising the provincial council system for development work, it could have obtained support from India, which had been the co-architects of the provincial council system, in 1987, along with the then Sri Lankan government. India has a moral obligation to contribute to developing the north and east of the country where the war raged in full fury and led to immense destruction. India’s role in destabilising Sri Lanka and enhancing the military capacity of the Tamil armed groups, including the LTTE, is a bitter and abiding memory which the journalist Shamindra Ferdinando has written extensively about.
A creative suggestion made during the civil society discussion in Jaffna was for the provincial councils to implement what governments have promised to implement but have failed to do. An example given was that of reparations to war victims. The previous government pledged to set up a system of reparations in terms of the UNHRC resolution in 2015. But, although an Office for Reparations was established, very little was done. The question was whether the provincial councils in the north and east could not have utilised their resources for the purposes of instituting schemes of reparations as it would be clearly within the policy framework of the government.
While the issues in the TNA’s manifesto will remain perennial ones to the Tamil polity, the people are looking for political leaders who will deliver them the economic benefits in the same way as in the rest of the country. The civil society meetings in the north suggests that the northern people are not showing priority interest in political issues as they believe these are non-deliverable at the present time. Instead of using its majority status in parliament and seeking to abolish the 13th Amendment, and the provincial council system, and creating a crisis with the Tamil polity and India, the new government would do better to work through them to meet the material needs of the people. They need to also realize limits of the constitution, and focus on social, economic and political pluralism and promote values of tolerance, pragmatism, cooperation and compromise, and consent of the governed.
A blazing story!
The local showbiz scene is ablaze with a story about the members of a particular band, who indicated that they are undergoing a tough time, abroad, because of the coronavirus pandemic.
It was a video, showing the members pouring forth their difficulties, and earnestly requesting the authorities concerned to bring them back home, that got others to move into action…and the truth has come out.
After having looked into their situation, extensively, knowledgeable sources say that the video contained a load of lies and, according to reports coming our way, the band has now been blacklisted by the authorities for lying about their situation.
These guys have, apparently, gone on Holiday Visas and have, thereby, contravened the Visa conditions.
The story going around is that they have had problems, within the band, as well.
The authorities, in Sri Lanka, are aware of the situation, in that part of the world, but there are many others who are waiting to get back home and, they say, musicians can’t get into the priority list.
So, it’s likely to be a long wait for these guys before they can check out their hometown again!
Top local stars to light up ARISE SRI LANKA
Richard de Zoysa’s brainchild, ARISE SRI LANKA, is going to create an awesome atmosphere, not only locally, but abroad, as well.
This telethon event will feature the cream of Sri Lankan talent, said Richard, who is the Chairman of Elite Promotions & Entertainment (Pvt) Ltd.
Put together as a fund-raiser for those, in the frontline, tackling the coronavirus pandemic, in Sri Lanka, ARISE SRI LANKA will bring into the spotlight a galaxy of local stars, including Noeline Honter, Damian, Mahindakumar, Rukshan, Melantha, Jacky, Ranil Amirthiah, Mariazelle, Trishelle, Corinne, Sohan, Samista, Shean, Rajitha, Umara, April, Shafie, Dr. Nilanka Anjalee Wickramasinghe, Kevin, Ishini, and Donald.
Mirage is scheduled to open this live streaming fun-raiser, and they will back the artistes, assigned to do the first half of the show.
Sohan & The X-Periments will make their appearance, after the intermission, and they, too, will be backing a set of artistes, scheduled to do the second half.
The new look Aquarius group, led by bassist Benjy Ranabahu, will also be featured, and they will perform a very special song, originally done by The Eagles, titled ‘There’s A Whole In The World.’
The lyrics are very meaningful, especially in today’s context where the coronavirus pandemic has literally created holes, in every way, and in every part of the world.
Aquarius will be seen in a new setting, doing this particular song – no stage gimmicks, etc.
The finale, I’m told, will be a song composed by Noeline, with Melantha doing the musical arrangements, and titled ‘Arise Sri Lanka.’
The programme will include songs in Sinhala, and Tamil, as well, and will be streamed to many parts of the world, via TV and social media.
Richard says that this show, scheduled for August 29th, is in appreciation of the work done by the frontliners, to keep the pandemic, under control, in Sri Lanka.
“We, in Sri Lanka, can be proud of the fact that we were able to tackle the Covid-19 situation, to a great extent,” said Richard, adding that even the World Health Organisation (WHO) has acknowledged the fact that we have handled the coronavirus pandemic, in an exceptional way.
The team, helping Richard put together ARISE SRI LANKA, include Noeline Honter, Sohan Weerasinghe, Donald Pieries, from the group Mirage, Benjy Ranabahu, and the guy from The Island ‘Star Track.’
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