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Paving Japan

February 6, 2009

I lived in a national park in Japan.  A place so remote that we frequently shut schools down at dusk because bears would wander in.  A place where not only did we have a giant doe walk right up to our barbecue one night (we chased her off with our chopsticks), deer are such a problem that convenience stores have large sticks for when deer walk straight in off the street and have to be chased out.

I lived on the Akan River, supposedly one of the cleanest in all of Japan.  Nearly extinct, red-crested cranes drank there until foxes chased them away.  A road followed the river, a relic from the days when Central Akan was a stop on the way to the giant mining town of Yuubetsu, and only 80 people remain in one of it’s suburbs.  Past my house, which was one of the last occupied housing on the edge of town, the road abruptly stopped being paved.  I used to walk down the dirt road and then, after five minutes, walk down a grassy hill where there were giant sandbars and the Akan River was just a trickle in parts.  At this part, the gravel road became a dirt path, through the woods, until suddenly you were at the foot of the ghost town (and past the ghost town, logging roads for a hundred miles).

A year after I moved in, the construction started.  First they decided that people on that gravel road to nowhere needed to be protected from rock slides.  As far as I knew, I was the only one to walk down this path.  No one lived down this road, no farms, no traffic.  So, they built a gigantic concrete net and covered it with a wire net to protect yours truly from getting being crushed by suddenly rock slides on her weekend walks.

Then they decided there was something wrong with the river and the steep hill running down to it.  They made the hill steeper, ripped out all the brush and trees and replaced it with AstroTurf, until it became a concrete wall.  Then they ripped and tore through the river and sandbars until the river went in a solid curve of 3-5 feet deep, rushing along the wall.  Thank god they did that, because…uh…..

I still went down there.  Actually, it was ideal for swimming, especially when the idea of swimming in a river horrifies Japanese people as far as I could tell.  The spot was still so abjectly desolate that I could lay on the concrete wall and sun topless and never had a single car or person walk by.

There’s a very good, if depressing book by Alex Kerr called Dogs and Demons that explains Japan’s sad, sad obsession with paving itself in concrete, even in it’s most pristine national parks.  There’s also a good, if a bit too reserved, article in the New York Times about Japan’s construction mania and it’s applications here.

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