City in Japan
, on the north coast of the north island of Hokkaido
. It is geographically the fifth-largest city in Japan, but its population is only 29,000. Mombetsu is at the same approximate latitude as Minneapolis
, and on the Sea of Okhotsk
. Needless to say, it's cold as fuck
there: you can sit on the shore in November
and watch iceberg
s. (Their sister city
is Fairbanks, Alaska
, if that says anything.) During the thaw, you can expect to see Russian sailors
here and there.
The only reason I know anything at all about Mombetsu is because while I was sunning myself in Osaka as a Rotary Youth Exchange student, one of my best umfriends from high school was chattering her ass off in this little fishing village from hell. She was the only gaijin in the entire city, except for the occasional Russian, and she quickly became a local celebrity. I think she was helped slightly by the fact that she was Japan and Peruvian (just like Alberto Fujimori, only less corrupt), which made her look sort of vaguely passably Asian... the blonde girl who came to town the year before was allegedly chased down by a phalanx of Japanese schoolgirls and asked "Is your pubic hair blond, too?" But that's another story entirely.
I flew to Mombetsu in March, wanting to see this mysterious place for myself. There's only one flight a day to Mombetsu, an All Nippon Airways Boeing 737 that takes off from New Chitose Airport in Sapporo1, and I was the only white guy on board. The flight attendant seemed to find this curious and offered me a copy of the Japan Times while the other passengers tried their best not to stare. Now, the airport in Mombetsu was a trip. It was surrounded by snow, first of all, and it also had no taxiway, so the plane had to do a U-turn at the threshold of the runway to get to the terminal. There was no jet bridge either, so they brought out the jet stairs, and I got off the plane watching the huge crowd of people standing on the observation deck watching the plane: I guess when your city gets one plane a day, it's kind of cool to watch it come in.
My friend's host family lived in a surprisingly nice house. The father was a crab fisherman, but because the Sea of Okhotsk was still frozen over, he was in a state of occupational hibernation, which meant sitting around all day lifting dumbbells and watching NHK. When we got hungry, we would go to KFC or Mos Burger, the only two fast food places in town. Most of our time was spent watching movie rentals from Tsutaya.
There are a few things to see in Mombetsu. There is an entire museum there dedicated to drift ice, and every now and then the city throws a Northern Regions International Symposium to bring in ice researchers from around the world. Between January and March, you can board an ice breaker and travel through the sheets of ice.
Okay, so I lied: the only thing to see in Mombetsu is ice.
Well, here's one more thing you can see: institutionalized racism. See, the people in Mombetsu really hate those Russian sailors, because they get drunk and steal people's bicycles. So there are many stores in Mombetsu that display prominent signs in Cyrillic that say "Russians not allowed." This sort of bothered me, especially since, as an Irish-American who hung out on BBS'es a lot, I could feasibly be mistaken for a Russian sailor. My friend explained that since the sea was frozen over, the Russians couldn't get there... and anyway, what would a Russian sailor be doing hanging around a Hispanic American exchange student?
(A couple of people suspiciously asked me "Where are you from?" and I enthusiastically replied "Vladivostok!" This did not amuse them.)
I shouldn't bad mouth Mombetsu, though. It really is an awesome place, and light years away from the urban Japan I had become used to. If you have a good excuse to go there, definitely check it out.
1 - I have since discovered that Mombetsu's daily 737 now takes off from Tokyo International Airport
, and the Chitose flight is flown with a puddle jumper
. Somehow, this makes the city seem a tad less romantic