Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 6 (Final)

The ferry strike which inspired the beginning of this series ended in early August. You can read about the end of the strike here and here.

I recall reading in a newspaper article in Ketchikan (which is paywalled) that a union member mentioned that the union had learned to take any statements made by the state negotiators with a grain of salt. At the time, I nodded my head and thought ‘yep, the state PR people are saying they are doing a lot to help the stranded passengers, but aside from the captain and officers of the M/V Columbia, all the state is doing is refunding tickets’.

I know that I do not understand all of the finer points of demands / contract provisions, so I will not discuss those.

Throughout my trip in Alaska, I kept on hearing about the major budget cuts to the ferry system, and how there will be less of a ferry system in Alaska next year than this year. ‘It’s a good thing you’re taking the ferry to Dutch Harbor this year’ I would hear people say ‘because who knows if that ferry route will exist next year’.

I know that the looming budget cuts had a bad effect on the morale of the ferry workers – I could feel it on the ships (the workers were professional about it, and some of them deliberately tried to avoid expressing too much, but one could feel the elephant in the room). Heck, how could it not have a bad effect on morale?

I’ve read that, though the contract-related grievances were sufficient to prompt the strike, an additional factor which encouraged the workers to vote for a strike was the fear inspired by the threat of budget cuts to the ferry system. It was their way of protesting the deep cuts. Continue reading

Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 5

Continued from Caught by Alaska Politics, Part 4

Unbelievably, I have managed to get this far in the series without mentioning one of the most politically powerful people in Alaska right now: Donna Arduin. She has been featured in multiple articles in Alaskan newspapers, including this one and this one. I highly recommend at least skimming those articles. In short, she has a history of being hired by a state government, slashing the budget – except for private prisons, she tends to increase spending on private prisons, and contracts tend to be awarded to the private prison companies she has a relationship with – and is gone in a year, so that she does not deal with the political fallout of the budget cuts.

I was in California when she was working for Governor Schwarzenegger, and I had never heard of heard, though I heard of some of the drastic budget cuts proposed. By contrast, she is a household name in Alaska. Almost every Alaskan I met had heard of her. A lot of them blamed Governor Dunleavy’s policies on her, and some even said that she is now the real governor and that Dunleavy is just her tool. Likewise, some of the Alaskans I talked to said that Arduin herself is also a puppet, and the puppetmasters are the Koch brothers (I have not independently confirmed this; it’s just something multiple people have told me; whatever Arduin’s relationship with the Koch family is, the fact that so many Alaskans believe that there is a connection is noteworthy).

I think Alaskans are doing all Americans a service by drawing attention to figures such as Arduin. Considering how much power people like her wield, they deserve public attention.

Now let’s get back to the ferries. Continue reading

Six Days in Shikoku: Farewell by Ferry

Standing on the deck of the ferry, looking at little green islands on the Seto Inland Sea.

Standing on the deck of the ferry, looking at little green islands on the Seto Inland Sea.

As I was reaching the limit of my entry stamp to Japan, it was time to leave Shikoku. My next major destination was Busan, South Korea, so I took a ferry from Matsuyama to Hiroshima, where I could catch a train going west to Yamaguchi, where I spent my last night in Japan.

A map of the ferry route between Matsuyama and Hiroshima.

A map of the ferry route between Matsuyama and Hiroshima.

The public ferries actually depart from a terminal which is not so close to Matsuyama City Center, so I had to catch a bus (not tram!) to get there. There were some Russians at the bus stop who were trying to get a bus to the airport, and naturally their bus came way earlier than mine.


Once on the ferry, I was able to relax. It was a sunny day, with views of various little islands on the Seto Inland Sea.


I enjoyed taking ferries in Japan, and one of the pleasures is comparing their amenities. This ferry had pachinko and slot machines, which are uncommon (at least on the ferry routes I used in Japan). The pachinko and slot machines were popular with the male passengers.


There were also some video games from the 1990s. Nobody ever played them. My guess is that these video game machines were bought in the 1990s, and the ferry company just never bothered replacing them, even after these games fell out of fashion.


I decided to partake of the massage chair. I wasn’t going to need my leftover yen anymore after 48 hours, and I was never going to get another opportunity to get a massage while I looked over at the Seto Inland Sea.


It took nearly three hours to get to Hiroshima, from where I took a tram to the main train station. To quote my diary “I underestimated the slowness of the Hiroshima tram! No! I’ve been to Hiroshima, I should know better. Oh well, I got to see more of Hiroshima and its terrible traffic.” I think I once saw a list of the Japanese cities with the worst commuter traffic, and I think Hiroshima got the #1 place. I can believe that. I think it took nearly two hours to get from the port to the train station. I didn’t get to the ryokan in Yamaguchi until 10pm. Fortunately, the women who run the ryokan were very understanding and welcoming when I finally arrived.


The next day, I visited Akiyoshi-do (one of the largest limestone caves in Asia), and then went to Shimonoseki to board a ferry to Busan. If you want to know more check out my South Korea travel blog.


So that was the end of my six days in Shikoku. Or rather, my six days in northern Shikoku. If you look at the map below – which shows my path through Shikoku – you’ll see that I didn’t go to southern Shikoku at all.


Of course, the vast majority of Shikoku’s population lives in the north, thus most of the cultural heritage is in the north as well, and the most significant mountains (Ishizuchi and the mountains around the Iya Valley) are in the north as well. And finally, as I’ve said, the north has much better public transportation.

Of course, I actually wanted to go to southern Shikoku precisely because it’s more remote, rugged, sparsely populated, and mysterious. However, due to my time limitations, it simply wasn’t practical, and I definitely packed in a lot more sightseeing in my precious six days by staying in the north. Besides, I spent 40 days in Hokkaido, so I definitely got to experience remote and rugged parts of Japan. Heck, I even went to the Iya Valley in Shikoku itself, which is remote and rugged in its own right.


So, what do I make of Shikoku? I think it’s a great place to go if you want to get a broad sense of what travel in Japan has to offer within a limited time (say, a week), or you don’t want to go over long distances, AND you’re allergic to the beaten path. Shikoku has a fantastic traditional garden, a beautiful Edo-era castle, historic onsen (hot springs), *very* important religious/cultural sites, delicious food, the sea, the ocean, and beautiful hiking. Admittedly, it does not have any megapolis like Tokyo, Osaka, or Sapporo, but I personally don’t miss that. Aside from the lack of a megapolis, Shikoku is like a mini-Japan with some excellent places to visit.

And I strongly encourage people to get off the beaten tourist path in Japan – it seems like 90% of the foreign tourists just go to Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Osaka, and maybe Fukuoka/Kyushu. Even when they are in those places they mostly go to certain famous tourist spots, and ignore whatever else the city/region offers. I’m not saying that the beaten path should be avoided (unless you want to avoid it, which I can understand) – I’ve visited quite a bit of the beaten path too, and some of it is very much worth visiting. I do feel that most tourists would get a lot more out of their trip to Japan if they didn’t have the same travel itinerary as a million other tourists, and they went to at least one significant place off the beaten path.


Aside from the 88 Temples pilgrimage – which really is unique to Shikoku and is island-wide – I don’t feel that there is something which is specific to Shikoku itself. Each of the four domains (Iyo/Sanuki/Awa/Tosa or Ehime/Kagawa/Tokushima/Kochi) have their own distinct traditions, and I feel that Ehime prefecture (Shikoku) has about as much in common with, say, Okayama Prefecture (not Shikoku), as it does with Tokushima Prefecture (Shikoku).

To me, Shikoku was my farewell to Japan. It was my last chance to experience these kinds of distinctively Japanese places. In other words, it was like a recap of my prior months of travel in Japan. It was a good, succinct, and meaningful recap.

Farewell Shikoku. Farewell Japan.