By Shingo Masuda / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKitami, Hokkaido, is the hometown for LS Kitami — Japan’s bronze-medal-winning national women’s curling team at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Having seen the athletes moving smoothly and swiftly across the ice, I had a desire to throw curling stones like them.
I heard that at Advics Tokoro Curling Hall, LS Kitami’s base, beginners can experience playing the winter sport. Reservations are required.
I borrowed a brush and other tools and entered the ice arena, which is so large that up to six matches can be held simultaneously.
The instructor on the day was, surprisingly, Yoko Shirahata, who competed in the Nagano Winter Olympics under her maiden name, Yoko Mimura.
Japan’s first hall exclusively for curling opened in Tokoro, a town which is now part of Kitami, 30 years ago. The town area has produced many Olympic athletes, including Shirahata.
Now, veteran athletes work as coaches or instructors for younger people who may become Olympic athletes in the future.
As I am right-handed, I kicked the surface of the ice with my right foot, glided with the weight on my left foot, and threw a curling stone, which weighed about 20 kilograms, while twisting my wrist.
Doing this well requires balance, flexibility and muscle power.
I deeply understood that to play “chess on the ice,” powerful bodies are also necessary.
When I threw too powerfully, the stone passed through the circled target zone called the house. When I weakened the force, the stone stopped before reaching the house. The actions needed to play were more sophisticated than I had imagined.
When a stone lost speed near the house, Shirahata swept the ice with her brush to extend the distance the stone would run. I was impressed.
When I finished the hourlong experience course, I was covered in sweat. I had thrown 15 stones, and only one of them entered the house.
I asked Shirahata whether she feels it difficult to teach the sport to people without experience. She replied with a smile: “I also enjoy [the game] while teaching. I’m glad if more people get interested in curling.”
That night, many people — men and women, young and old — gathered in the hall and curling matches began. They played with handicaps to make up for skill gaps among them.
Shigenori Suzuki, chief of the secretariat of Tokoro Curling Club, said, “This is also a place for social interaction for local residents.”
Though they were playing curling very seriously, they were in a very friendly mood. Appearances by residents of the Tokoro area were mixed in with those by the heroines of LS Kitami, who are remembered for saying “Sodane” — meaning “That’s right” or “I agree” — to each other in cheerful tones during the Olympic matches.
It seems that Kitami has been a gathering place since ancient times. The Tokoro archeological sites, in an area facing both Lake Saroma and the Sea of Okhotsk, are designated as national historical sites.
Local people say the area is dotted with the ruins of houses dating as far back as the Jomon period (ca 10,000 B.C.-ca 300 B.C.).
I walked around in the Tokoro Forest Park of Archaeological Sites, in which there are recreational trails. It was fortunate that only a little urban development has occurred in the area, as large divots — the ruins of pit houses — can still be seen in many places there.
I learned that the ancient pit houses were built in the following way. First people would dig a pit to form a half-underground space, then they would set up wooden frames over the pits, and finally they would cover the frames with dried leaves of Japanese Torreya and other materials to form roofs.
I saw smoke rising from roofs of reproduced houses, modeled on ones from the 11th and 12th centuries. I looked inside of one of the houses, and noticed that a fire was lit in a fireplace in the center of the roughly 10-meter by 10-meter interior. But I saw nobody around there.
Curious, I inquired with an official of the Tokoro Archaeological Museum, a nearby exhibition facility inside the park. The official told me that it was because the houses were being fumigated.
It was in the middle of April when I visited the city, when snow remained in many places. The fumigation was done to remove moisture that had accumulated during the snowy season.
In the city, curling can be enjoyed year-round, but the best season for outdoor recreation had just begun.
While I was walking around in the forest, a flying squirrel appeared from a hollow of a tree, as if lured out by the spring sunshine.
Records of mint production
From the Meiji era (1868-1912) to years just after the end of World War II, Kitami prospered as one of the world’s largest areas for growing mint.
In the Kitami Mint Memorial Museum near JR Kitami Station, visitors can see how mint oil was extracted from dried herbs, and learn the history of the products through historical photos.
There is also a corner where visitors can buy a wide variety of souvenirs, including sweets and cosmetics in which mint is used.
About a 1 hour and 40 minute flight from Haneda Airport to Memanbetsu Airport. About a 40 minute bus ride from the airport to Kitami. About a 1 hour and 10 minute bus ride from the central part of Kitami to the Tokoro area.
For details, call the Kitami City Tourism Association at (0152) 32-9900 or the Tokoro-cho Sightseeing Association at (0152) 54-2140.
To find out more about Japan’s attractions, visit http://the-japan-news.com/news/d&dSpeech