Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

Remembering My First Study Abroad: Photos from 2005

Last week, I undertook a massive file purge of an old hard drive. It is amazing how one’s drive tends to mirror the state of one’s office… In my case, this means a creative disarray of folders that was once painstakingly organized according to a complex system that I no longer remember! But among the files, I found a treasure trove of old photographs from my very first study abroad in Japan, when I was an undergraduate at Ursinus College (slideshow above).

It was fun reliving the memories of friends met and places traveled over the course of 2005 to 2006. And my, how things have changed from that very first adventure! I remember when two volunteers picked up a very jet-lagged 19-year-old version of myself from Narita Airport to help me find my new dormitory and my university in Mitaka. They kept throwing me softballs–what is your favorite music? favorite movie? favorite food? I remember nodding along, trying to wrap my mind around the barrage of syllables that felt simultaneously foreign and familiar. Every so often an English loan word would grab my attention like a shining beacon until the rolling murmur of the language swallowed it whole once again. I remember feeling a combination of excitement and nervous anxiety about what that year would hold, like any student starting out on a study abroad with only a beginner’s knowledge of the language. But the shock and trepidation wore off quickly, and I began traveling. I found myself venturing to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, investigating Japan’s natural features, and making my way to exhibition openings and basement galleries, often with friends and sometimes alone. It was a year that built character and sparked a love of art, travel, and photography. It also taught me about the challenges that my own students face upon departure.

I used to bring a little Canon point-and-shoot camera with me everywhere I went. This is something that remains the same today, even though I am now dragging around a beast of a DSLR. But here are some glimmers from that year before I had ever decided to go to graduate school and devote my professional career to the study of Japanese visual culture.

Goodbye Hokkaido, Hello California

I cobbled together this post over the course of moving back to the States–from WordPress, the note-taking function on my phone, and a convenient napkin stuck between the pages of a book I am reading…

The Preparation

I leave Japan in less than a week. It is hard to admit that my leaving is actually real as I look around my apartment with items strewn everywhere. The moment when my room should be its absolute cleanest, it looks like a tornado tore through the hallway and down the center of my living space. My heart feels somewhat the same. This has been a week of many goodbyes, and each one does not come any easier than the one before it. My professional and personal life seems straddled between two countries, and although that brings with it a certain amount of joy and adventure, it also makes me feel a little disconnected by the sheer vastness of the Pacific (and perhaps, the price of plane tickets… In comparison to a flight I took in 2009, the price has at least doubled.) I will miss Hokkaido, Sapporo, and the people here a great deal — at the end of the day, this is a wonderful place to live and work. I am going to miss it here… Thank you so much Prof. Sasaki, Prof. Tanimoto, and everyone in the Department of Japanese History!


The Transit

Goodbye Japan!

I somehow managed to tame that tornado into two suitcases and a carry-on, and I headed to a hotel in Chitose. My flight left too early in the morning to depend on the trains, in addition to the fact that torrential downpours in Sapporo and the flooding of the Toyohira river pretty much brought JR to a stop. The storm broke for just long enough that we were able to make it to the hotel. That night, I submerged myself in the entirely empty public bath and reflected on the remaining leg of the journey. I had two suitcases–38 kg and 23 kg–in addition to two carry-on bags.  I’m still not entirely sure how I managed to wrangle the suitcases to the New Chitose airport. In Tokyo, when they transferred me to a different terminal, my heart sank as I stared at the pile of… stuff.  Let me just say that muscles were hurting me in places that probably has not seen any physical action since my short-lived rugby days. I’m waiting for my flight now, with eight hours left of my ten hour layover. I had some grand ideas of exploring Narita city when I got here, but now all I can think about is collapsing in a chair and taking a nap.

The Arrival

The flight went surprisingly well. For the first time in years, immigration and customs gave me no significant trouble and I assembled the bags onto a cart with the remaining morsel of strength left within me. As I ascended to the surface of LAX heading for ground transportation, I was hit with this overwhelming smell of french fries. At first, I thought it was just me… But judging from everyone else’s confused whiffing, I would say that the smell wasn’t my imagination. It seemed almost as if someone sprayed the place in french fry essence mixed with car fumes…  Welcome to the United States of America.

My other first impression is perhaps less surprising: California is hot.  Returning in a heat wave will do that to you, but it isn’t just the temperature. The sun itself seems to burn brighter, and I was squinting all over grabbing for my sunglasses within ten minutes of my arrival. It feels weird to be back here. I expected things to look and feel different, as if the landscape would somehow reflect my absence, but everything looks and feels the same. I guess the world just bumbled along without me. However after all the goodbyes of last week, I’m looking forward to saying hello for a change.


Cruising Down Flower Road: Furano & Biei

Where did the rest of my summer go?!  It is hard for me to believe that I’ll be returning back to UC Irvine in less than a month’s time. Time certainly flies!  I have been busy tying up the loose ends of my research, and preparing my paper for the Nineteenth Century Workshop on the theme of “Circulation” to be held at Rutgers University this October. I am just about finished — time to have a glass of wine and relax.

AdobeRevel_SharedImage_6ee777754137402fb5d5fe21968c047bI’ve been trying to squeeze as much travel in as I can before I leave Hokkaido.  Last month, I went with some friends to visit Furano (富良野) and Biei (美瑛), cities known for their fields of flowers, particularly lavender. In comparison to some other tourist sites here in Hokkaido, Furano has a short history. The city’s name comes from the Ainu for fura-nui (“foul-smelling place”), possibly in relation to the sulfuric smell from Tokachi Peak. Biei on the other hand comes from the Ainu for piye (“greasy, oily”) which could relate to a sulfur mine near the source of the river, causing the water to take on a cloudy appearance. I find it interesting that the Ainu names sound less-than-beautiful considering that this is a tourist destination which packages and markets the beauty of nature!

Located in the exact center of Hokkaido, it has the nickname “Navel Town” (臍の町). It sits between the Tokachi Mountain Range (as part of Daisetsuzan National Park), and the Yuubari Peaks (including Ashibetsu). Cruising down Highway 237 (or “Flower Road,” 花人街道), there seems to be a limitless number of farms where you can buy Hokkaido milk products (of course), lavender, and melon. Delicious.


JR Calendar featuring Tomita Farm, 1976

When I visit new places in Japan, I always like to check out how these sites are represented in late Meiji and Taisho postcards (as with this post). However, with Furano’s short history, there isn’t any to be found with the exception of views of Tokachi Peak. A train line didn’t even reach Asahikawa, the closest city, until 1900! Even the famous Farm Tomita did not begin cultivating lavender until 1958, with tourism picking up after the farm’s lavender fields were featured on a JR Calendar in 1976.

Kita no Kuni kara Poster, Japan Railways, 1988

Poster, Japan Railways, 1988

Like several “rustic” locations in Japan, it also seems that tourism picked up following the famous drama, Kita no Kuni kara (北の国から) set in the Rokugo area, which began airing on Fuji Terebi in 1981. (For the curious: Click for Episode 1) This drama was also followed up by two others (Yasashii Jikan, 2005; Kaze no Gaaden, 2008).

Noboribetsu’s Jigokudani: Frozen Hell

Noboribetsu (登別; comes from the Ainu word nupur-pet for “dark-colored river”) is just one of those strange places where the natural landscape utterly fascinates me. My latest trip was in the beginning of March, and I was amazed at how different the landscape looked after having visited in early winter and summer. In February, the alien landscape of Jikokudani (地獄谷, lit. “Hell Valley”) was covered in a layer of glistening snow, with the powder forming what could only be called “snow bubbles” around the various heat sources. With no trees blocking the path, small crystals of diamond dust swirled over the mounds, mixing with bursts of steam. However, in early March, much of the snow had melted to reveal the red crust of the earth, introducing a beautiful contrast of orange against the cool blue hue of the lingering snow. All of this looks quite different from the summer landscape of orange, yellow, and red against the background of a lush green forest (a view that is found on most tourist postcards).

Seasons of Noboribetsu

Screenshot 2014-03-14 21.10.21 (2)_editedThere are a number of postcards of Noboribetsu found in Hakodate City Central Library‘s digital archive (デジタル資料館), one of my favorite resources for old Japanese postcards.  Although the more artistic renderings of Jigokudani are definitely compelling, I am always fascinated by the process-printed kitsch postcards that adopt the rainbow colors of a surreal landscape. The real colors (which, at times, can seem just as alien) are eschewed entirely. High drama, indeed. I believe that this particular set was put out by a popular tourist shop, Kisendou (貴泉堂), that still exists on the main street of Noboribetsu’s onsen town today. I couldn’t get close enough to confirm the printing process, but The Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City has a wonderful website breaking down these processes for the curious.

I always enjoy checking out old postcards from places that I visit. When looking at various views of Jigokudani, I was shocked to see people playing in the mounds amongst the stream and sulfur!  Now you are limited to a wooden footbridge that takes you into the heart of hell…