The Sound of Water (IV): Lakes and Ponds 1. Crater Lakes in Hokkaido

Japan is a volcanic country, so we have many crater lakes. They can be easily identified on a map, for they are usually round in shape. Some of them are quite large, while others are very small. Extremely small crater lakes are called okama (cauldrons) in Japanese, which, I think, is an appropriate name, for we can often see steam rising from them. Their colour varies, but many have tinges of yellow resulting from their sulphur content. Perhaps witches are boiling some kinds of poisonous concoction in them. Large crater lakes, on the other hand, may be truly beautiful. Their water is so calm and transparent that they mirror the surrounding mountains and trees as if they had been printed on them. They also reflect the blue sky. It would hardly be an exaggeration to call them “angels’ looking glasses”.

My favourite crater lakes in Hokkaido are Lake Mashu and Lake Toya. Lake Mashu is situated in the northeast of Hokkaido, not so far from the largest crater lake in Japan, Teshikaga. The unique feature of Lake Mashu comes from the fact that it is isolated from human dwellings, and is not fed by any rivers. It is close enough to the Sea of Okhotsk for thick fog to flow in frequently on an easterly wind, causing the spectacle of fog cascades pouring down from its surrounding mountain rim. I once visited this lake on a beautiful autumn day. The trees were in bright colours, which heightened the blue of the lake. While I stood breathless on the observation platform, I felt I was close to the Ainu goddess, Kamyush, whom they believed to have dwelled on a small island in the middle of the lake. She had once been a lady belonging to one of the Ainu tribes. On their defeat in a war, she had run away with her grandson, but they had soon been separated. The old woman subsequently lived by herself on this island till at last she was deified. It is a sad story, but somehow it resonates with the isolated beauty of this island in the lake.

Lake Toya is a larger crater lake in the southwest of Hokkaido. It also has an island in the middle, where deer may be seen wandering about. I was told, however, that they had been introduced to please visitors. Man’s effect on this lake does not end there. In days gone by, the lake was polluted by the construction of mines and dams, so that the water became very acid. Ironically what saved the lake was the 1977 explosion of Mt. Usu, which dropped so much alkaline ash on the lake that its water was neutralized and became suitable for fish to live in once again. When I saw the lake in late autumn, the hot-spring resorts were empty, and I could enjoy wandering alone on its shore. I saw the Windsor Hotel on top of a hill overlooking the lake, but it seemed rather alien to its surroundings. However, this hotel was chosen by Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, as the venue for the Summit Meeting he chaired in 2008. I hope the leaders of the world who gathered there were able to enjoy the bird’s-eye view of the lake and the beautiful cone of Mt. Yotei soaring opposite. I am afraid, though, they were not able to prevent the political upheavals and conflicts that followed.

Ainu songs are sad
Like this deep blue crater lake
With fog cascading.

This blue crater lake
Will be laid in sleep before long
Under ice and snow.

Left on the islands
Deer starved when they ate up
All the greens they had.

Mines and dams destroyed
But volcanic explosions revived
This precious lake.


6 Responses to “The Sound of Water (IV): Lakes and Ponds 1. Crater Lakes in Hokkaido”

  1. Another in this charming and fascinating series of haibun on watery subjects. Once again, you have given us a feast. Thank you so much.
    To begin the piece with the shape of things on a map, then later to take us to the places themselves so that we can witness their reality: this, I found very natural. A nice, intriguing beginning.
    I inserted the name ‘Kamyush’, as I also have visited Lake Mashu, and remember this was the name of both the goddess and the island itself. I hope you don’t mind.
    One of the strengths of this haibun, I feel, is that environmental problems are mentioned in a haiku-like way – with a light touch but producing a strong resonance. I am a great believer in haiku about and for the conservation of the environment, provided things are not forced. Here, they are not.
    Finally, I wonder if the author would like to say something (via the comments box) about the merit of leaving all the haiku until the end – something Basho often did – versus interspersing them in the prose? The latter certainly works well if the subject is travel, of course (viz. ‘Oku no Hosomichi’ or ‘Oi no Kobumi’), but in this piece, which is perhaps closer to an essay in style, the haiku work like a procession of envoys, crystallizing (and sometimes recapping) the important points or emotions from the account itself.

  2. Thank you, Tito, for adding the name of the island and its goddess. I am glad that you, too, saw Lake Mashu. I wish I had more time to explore the lake. Looking back from the observation platform, I was able to see Mt. Akan soaring above other mountains. I also enjoyed cruising on Lake Akan, but I found it too commercialized, athough the Ainu performances were superb.

    • Would it be possible for you to leave a few sentences, I wonder, in reply to my request beginning “I wonder if the author would like to say…” in my comment above?
      It is a fundamental point, about which I am very interested.

      • I am not a theorist, so I do not know what is the best way to put prose and haiku together in haibun. However, it seems to me that haiku at the end of prose works in three different ways: like a period (full stop) concluding the preceding prose, or like a question mark adding a new dimension to the preceding prose, or like an exclamation mark heightening the emotional tension. Haiku in the middle of prose works like a comma, concluding a section but preparing for the section that follows. What is important is the interaction between prose and haiku. Of course, there are infinite ways of achieving this in actual contexts.

  3. A very satisfying read. For what it’s worth, I find that interspersed haiku work well to separate/join different themes within a haibun. But in other cases, such as this one, I feel that interspersion might have interrupted the steady flow of the prose, and that leaving the ku until the end was more effective.

  4. Richard Donovan Says:

    Very interesting to read how haiku can work to punctuate a haibun, almost like 切れ字 within a haiku itself! And the characterisation of their operation at the end of a haibun, as akin to period, question mark or exclamation mark, is particularly insightful.

    As for the piece itself, the reference to witches’ brews reminded me that the Japanese ‘okama’ has its near-equivalent in the English ‘caldera’, or volcanic crater (often turned into a lake, and sometimes with an island in the centre), from the Spanish for cauldron.

    By the way, New Zealand has similar bodies of water, such as the Emerald Lakes, part of the Tongariro National Park, a World Heritage site strewn with volcanoes and crater lakes. The Tongariro Crossing is considered one of the world’s best day walks.

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