Christina M. Spiker

Christina M. Spiker

Art Historian | Professor | Digital Humanist

Constructing a (Digital) Resource: Isabella Bird in Japan

The summer is off to a fantastic start! It has been hard to get my head into writing, so I’ve thrown my effort into developing a new online resource using ArcGIS and the StoryMap feature that they offer for free. It isn’t live yet, but I’m close…

I have some experience working with the basic functions of mapping in ArcGIS through the Traveling Hokkaido project. I’ve got a long way to go before that work is done, but I wanted to make a resource more squarely focused on the various dimensions of a single traveler. Since I’ve been working on an essay on the role of illustration and the depiction of the Ainu in Isabella Bird’s Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880) (which will be moving to proofs soon, hopefully), I thought this might make a nice supplement.

My goal with this is to create something that is accessible for audiences of all ages. The points I plotted out for Traveling Hokkaido form the basis of the Hokkaido map above, but I’ve gone through Bird’s itinerary and began plotting out her travel in Honshu as well. Although her journey is in two volumes, I am breaking it up into four stages: Yokohama to Niigata, Niigata to Aomori, Hokkaido, and Kansai. Each point on the map to the right is an actual location Bird indicates either in text or in her itinerary. For each pin, I am going through the original 1880 text and isolating relevant quotes that pertain to place, geography, specific sites, or customs. I haven’t worked with her first volume extensively before this, and it has been enlightening to see seasonal changes and her subjective evaluations of place before and after her time in Hokkaido.

In addition to creating an overview of her entire Japan trip, I’m also trying to conxtualize the importance of her time in Hokkaido. I feel committed to doing this in terms of Japanese history while also recognizing the current state of the Ainu in the Saru River valley, where Bird spent her time. I’m highlighting the Nibutani Ainu Culture Museum, the Kayano Shigeru Ainu Museum, and the legal debate regarding the Nibutani Dam. Too many popular writers only see the Ainu in terms of their “pastness” and it would be irresponsible not to consider their present and their future.

As I put this together, I am also compiling ideas for an Educator’s Guide pitched towards high school and undergraduate students. I want to give educators ideas about how to use this series of maps in their classes. (After all, what good is a resource if you don’t know how to use it?) I think it could be extremely useful in Japanese history (of course), discussions of Victorian travel writing in literature, understanding the role of women in 19th century exploration, understanding the role of the Ainu in these narratives, and as a way to highlight the geographic context for understanding earlier practices of tourism that inform our own “beaten routes” today.

A work in progress! I anticipate releasing the project in two weeks or so. The Educator’s Guide might come a little bit later, but it will definitely be done before fall. For now, enjoys the screenshots!

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.


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…