Regretfully, after writing this blog for only four weeks, I have already missed a scheduled post – but I feel like my excuse is viable. My fiancé lives in Hokkaido, and his family was there visiting from the states last week. I hadn’t yet had a chance to spend much time with them, and I was pretty nervous on the way up. But it was an awesome week. Not only did I relax around my future family-in-law while seeing all sorts of beautiful Hokkaido scenery, but I also learned to like playing cards. Unfortunately for my blog, poker took priority over writing, but I now return to you a happier, worldlier woman.
After spending two days in Sapporo, we began the trip east toward Kushiro via the Doto Expressway. The Doto is an ambitious project – perhaps too ambitious for Hokkaido’s struggling economy, as evidenced by two missing sections of the expressway. Just as we ran out of car games we reached one of these missing sections, and found ourselves dumped off the Doto and into the city of Yubari.
My Jalan Hokkaido tour magazine has this to say about Yubari: “It’s great to enjoy Hokkaido’s major sightseeing spots, but if you give your legs a stretch you can find new, unknown history and food! Let’s head to Yubari, land of adventure!” Along with the average spread of local goods and resort hotels, the magazine advertises such eclectic attractions as Yubari Melons (well known across the world for fetching, on one occasion, one million yen a piece), river rafting, farm homestays and coalmine tours. Although it used as many bright colors and cheerful phrases as any other page, everything about the Yubari spread alluded to a tragic history – one which the editors had not felt a need to elaborate upon. I began feeling like I had missed something.
Turns out what I had missed was one of the biggest, most publicized examples of rural Japan’s economic struggles. Yubari was founded as a coal mining town. In a day when the nation favored domestic coal, this was good money. At its peak, the city was home to 120,000 people. But changing energy policies and two disasterous methane explosions during the 1980s brought mining in Yubari to a end.
Now without its main source of revenue, the city made use of subsidies from the central government (readily available at the time) and began borrowing heavily, in an attempt to move from mining to tourism. The Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, held annually beginning in 1990, brough international recognitions and such household names as Angelina Jolie and Quentin Tarantino. (He named Kill Bill character Gogo Yubari after the city.) Luxury hotels and a theme park sprouted up. But the city of Yubari was spending and borrowing far beyond its means. When huge national debt caused the national government to cease its financial support of failing rural economies, Yubari was left on its own. The city declared bankrupcy in 2007, with a total of $500 million dollars in debt.
With bitter memories, high taxes and less than the bare minimum of public services, Yubari residents had little inticement to stay. The population is less than a tenth of what it was at the peak of the coal days. If you’d like to learn more about what Yubari is like today, Spike Japan has done a lot of research on Yubari and has an awesome report on the state of the city in 2010, which includes a number of compelling photos.
Of course, our cheerful party of tourists knew none of this – we likely wouldn’t have stopped in Yubari at all were it not for the Doto hadn’t forced us off its straight, wide lanes and onto the 274. Lured in by a wide parking lot and a banner promising coal cream puffs, we took a break at Melon no Sato: a standard, if a little run-down, souvenier shop and cafeteria. Visitors are greeted at the doorway by a horrific ursine visage:
Although ambitious projects like the coal mining theme park have been abandoned, Yubari is still using tourism to attempt to pay back its outstanding debt. In 2007 they began the “No Money, But Love,” campaign, capitalizing on the city’s notably low divorce rate. The mascots of this campaign are Yubari Fusai, a couple wearing patched track suits. Their name is a pun – the word fusai means “married couple,” but is also an antonym of “debt.” The characters were a success, and their promotional video won the advertising company international acclaim. Melon Kuma (melon bear) is another of their promotional characters. His backstory is much less endearing – I mean, he’s a bear who ate so many melons that he mutated – but he’s really pretty cute. I don’t know the numbers, but judging from the fact that Melon Kuma goods were available at every souveneir vendor and game center we visited in Hokkaido, I’d say he’s doing pretty well.
If you’re wondering where the food part of this post comes in, here it is: Coal Cream Puffs.
Since I have a penchant for weird regional sweets, these were impossible to resist. We bought a box of three – coal, melon and vanilla – to share between the five of us, and they were excellent. I’m not usually a fan of melon flavored things, but the melon cream didn’t taste artificial and brought out all the deliciousness of Yubari’s most famous crop.
If puff pastry with coal in it sounds unappetizing, think again. Not only are they strangely beautiful, but the mild, substantial pastry is a good contrast for the sweet vanilla cream.
Yubari is trying hard. But with the Doto expected to be finished in 2014, cream puffs and melon bears may not save this city. But hey, let’s do our part. If you’re ever in Hokkaido, why not give your legs a stretch and visit Yubari?