Everything is Shinpiteki

January 16, 2016 § Leave a comment

Every winter, the population of Yellowknife nearly doubles with aurora traffic from Asian countries. But are customers leaving satisfied? We took the tour to find out.

Everyone has their own way of knowing it’s winter in Yellowknife. For me, winter came this year in the first week of November, when the ice froze up on Great Slave Lake—enough to skate on and the first heavy snowfall hadn’t yet arrived. By 7 p.m. it was pitch black outside and I went for a skate, headlamp fastened. The ice was mostly clear, with patches of thin snow across the top. My lamp lit the patches just ahead of my skates; it looked like they were appearing from underwater, from ages ago. I knew it was winter when, out of the darkness, came three small snow angels and two columns of wispy, Asian syllabics.
The Japanese had arrived.

For the average Yellowknifer, the aurora tourist is another species of Yellowknifer that’s born at the airport, lives three days here, and is replaced on a daily basis. (Something like the average Yellowknifer lifetime, but sped up.) Last year, the population of Yellowknife nearly doubled with tourists coming to see the Northern Lights, and this year it’s expected to do the same. Almost all of those tourists are Asian, and most of them are Japanese, here on a three-day vigil that’s become standard in the aurora industry—72 hours of all-night watching provides a 90- to 95-per-cent chance of catching at least a glimpse of the elusive aurora.

But aside from the odd glimpse of big-booted, blue parka’d pairs of tourists trudging down the hill to Old Town, Yellowknife has almost no contact with its seasonal secondary population. Three days is not a lot of time to get acquainted with any city, especially for a group of people who sleep all day and stay up all night—and especially if you seem to disagree fundamentally with the local population about what’s beautiful and worth spending time on. Our aurora tourists can’t understand our seeming indifference to the Northern Lights, and Yellowknifers seem flummoxed by their fascination with them.

I’ve always wanted to know what Yellowknife must seem like to our aurora tourists. Is the city just the unfortunate place where the aurora happens to be? Do businesses understand what customers want? Do we care?

To find out, I spent three days watching the aurora with three different Yellowknife tour operators.

1. EVERYTHING IS SHINPITEKI

My first stop is obvious: Aurora Village, or as Yellowknife’s other operators call it, the Disneyland of aurora tourism. Of the 15,600 aurora tourists who came to Yellowknife last year, just over 12,000 went through Aurora Village. On its 26-acre property at Cassidy Point, a half-hour drive outside of Yellowknife, Aurora Village offers dogsledding, snowshoeing, a lounge, heated outdoor sky-watching seats at nighttime and a three-storey snow slide for tubing in the daytime. The aim, says owner (and former premier) Don Morin, is to make sure “everything’s in-house … We’re totally, 100-per-cent, take-you-off-the-plane-and-put-you-back-on.”

I watched a typical night unfold at Aurora Village. A blue-and-green Blue Bird bus arrives at the airport in time for Air Canada flight 8223 from Calgary to Yellowknife. Thirty-nine of the 70 seats are occupied by Aurora Village passengers, and about five or six are here for the other guides that offer airport pick-ups: Nanook Aurora Tours, Yellowknife Tours, Becks Kennels. Luggage is handled, names are ticked off and groups are dropped off at their various hotels—Days Inn, The Explorer, Discovery Inn, The Fraser Tower, Yellowknife Inn. On their beds, the newcomers find a custom-made blue Resolute parka, snow pants, elbow-length mitts, oversized Sorel boots and a head sock that they’ll get to take home at the end of the tour. One woman accidentally receives two right-foot boots, but in the hurry to get out aurora-watching, she puts them on anyway and clambers back into the Blue Bird.

A half hour later, 24 of us are crammed into Tipi Four (there are 21 at Aurora Village, including four private tipis), eating soup and bannock while the aurora smudges faintly overhead. The day has been snowy, conditions are cloudy, and though it’s 4 p.m. in Japan, it’s midnight in Yellowknife. After a 20-hour flight to get here, people look tired. I ask the woman with two right boots what she imagines the aurora will be like when they come out. “Shinpiteki,” she answers. “What does that mean?” “Untranslatable.”

I head to the gift shop, thinking there might be someone there who can help me translate, but the counter attendant speaks no English, and her line-up’s running six or seven customers long anyway, with people paying for tripods, DVDs (the gift shop offers nine—Best Aurora Images Volumes one through five, Best Aurora Movie Volumes one and two, and The Winter and Summer Collections), books on the aurora filled with incredibly complex mathematical diagrams, and cheesy, mostly inaccurate Canadiana—ice wine chocolates, maple candies, a cowboy hat and a headdress.

I try the lounge, which is empty and feels eerily like the Gold Ballroom in The Shining, complete with bow-tied bartender. At the bar, Chef Pierre LePage smokes a cigarette, leans lazily out from the counter, offers me a glass of red wine. Mystery has shrouded the ambitious (perhaps too ambitious) restaurateur’s seeming exit from the food industry after his restaurant, Le Frolic, went bankrupt last year. Turns out he’s been overseeing a major kitchen and lounge overhaul at Aurora Village’s dining lodge. Still, business is slow. “We’re always empty,” he says. “Yellowknifers don’t know they’re allowed to come here—they think it’s exclusively Japanese. We have Chinese guests who spend, but the Japanese…I think it’s a budget thing. They spend so much to come here.” It comes in seasons, he adds. Families with low budgets over Christmas, retirees and professionals bring in more money in the New Year.

The other problem with having a lounge in an aurora-watching camp? People are always running out on him. “Just last week, we had four ladies in here. They must have been 80 years old. They were so worried about coming in and getting comfortable in case they missed something. I told them, ‘I have a walkie-talkie, I get alerts when the aurora’s good.’ So they sat down by the window, ordered their food, and then the aurora got good. Two women were out the door, a third ran to the bathroom to tell the fourth, who was in there. The fourth lady ran out with her pants around her legs.” He sighs. “It happens all the time. I don’t know what it is, but they’re crazy about the aurora.”

I look at the time: 2:50 a.m. Time to meet at the tipis to make the 3 o’ clock bus back to town. Walking down the hill from the lounge, I see my tour mates file into tipi four. Then I see the aurora intensify suddenly, carving a bright white line into the sky for the first time all night. Tipi Four empties out with screaming, clapping, whooping Japanese. The tour guide runs out after them, helpless. “We need to leave here now,” she says to me. “But still, aurora appears!” She can’t let them stay longer because they haven’t booked an hour-and-a-half time extension (which must be done before midnight, and costs $30), but 10 out of the 24 assigned to her tipi are now lying on the ground on their backs, setting up their tripods, filming the action, yelling “Thank you” (“Arigato”) into the sky. It’s like a fireworks display, only natural, and with all these people around, it’s exciting. I lie on my back in the snow and watch a green curtain fade overhead.

When we finally make it back to the bus, I find the woman with the two right boots.

“Shinpiteki?” I ask.

She smiles beatifically. “Shinpiteki.”

2. A 50 SUGOI NIGHT

For my second night as an aurora tourist, I choose Nanook Tours, an operator which doesn’t advertise. When I ask owner Yoshi Otsuka what his rates are, he begs me not to print them. “I don’t want any more customers,” he says. “I have 10 per night right now, and already it’s almost too much.” Otsuka represents a growing crop of small, niche-market aurora operators, many of which cater specifically to the non-Japanese.

Though Nanook’s relatively new to Yellowknife—established 2008—Otsuka is not. Before branching out on his own, he worked as a guide for Canadian Ex, where he and owner Seiji Suzuki targeted the customers they say slipped through mass operators’ cracks. When Suzuki started Canadian Ex in 1993, there was only one aurora guide in town, Raven Tours. But from 1989, when Raven Tours was established, until 2001, business jumped from less than a hundred customers per season to just over 5,000. Raven Tours (later rebranded Aurora World) expanded and expanded. In 2001, they bought several new snowmobiles and hired a fleet of new staff. Unfortunately, 9/11 killed tourism all over North America, and then Japan went into a five-year economic slump.

The city, which had already invested in local signage and crash courses in Japanese for local businesses, developed a cynicism about aurora tourism that might explain why, even though aurora tourism has been coming back since 2008, and even though it’s the territory’s only export that’s increasing exponentially every year, Yellowknife shows almost no sign of it.

Canadian Ex survived through the slump, says Suzuki, with no layoffs, because it stayed small—no more than 30 guests per night. Suzuki also insisted on a two-year training program for his guides that involved spending a month on Baffin Island, learning about Inuit culture. “I taught my guides to have Northern experiences,” says Suzuki, “and Northern knowledge … All my guides learned to forecast the aurora, so on a slow night, people aren’t sitting out in the cold, not knowing what they’re looking at.” He criticizes the high turnover rate amongst Aurora Village staff. “Try to ask them something about the aurora,” he says, “and they’re like, ‘I don’t know, I just got here.’” (Actually, according to Aurora Village tour manager Kota Kanamori, his average aurora guide has two years’ experience; and all newbies undergo a two-week on-site training program before they meet their first aurora-watching group.)

When Suzuki retired to run Yellowknife’s Sushi North in 2008, Otsuka started his own company (the “Nanook” in “Nanook Tours” comes from a Pond Inlet polar bear hunt Otsuka went on during his training period for Canadian Ex) but he maintained Suzuki’s m.o.: keep it small, personalized and knowledgeable. Otsuka packs his guests into a 12-seater van and drives them around town every night himself. Sometimes he rents snowmobiles for his guests, but he has no infrastructure, no aurora-watching tent or cabin to serve as home base, and he doesn’t want one. His only overhead is the $10,000 he spends in gas every year and the pound cake his wife bakes for a midnight snack.

On the night of our tour, Otsuka parks the van on Vee Lake, near Giant Mine, and we get out, take pictures for a while and shine flashlights down into the ice. The aurora’s okay. To be honest, everyone seems a little bored. Otsuka makes demonstrative sweeps across the air with his arms, pointing out invisible bands that sure enough, grow brighter within a few minutes, but he says it’s not going to be a Spectacular NWT night.

He pulls a tripod, camera and external flash from the back of his van and sets it up in front of the brightest corner of the sky. One by one, his guests stand between the camera and the crappy aurora, striking poses that make it look like they’re shooting light orbs from their hands. But the aurora in Otsuka’s photos are nothing like the aurora outside: they’re amazing. The camera picks up pinks and whites that don’t exist to the naked eye. The customers scream with laughter and we giddily spend all night practice-shooting invisible orbs.

On the way home, I ask Otsuka if he knows how to translate shinpiteki and if it’s a good word to describe the aurora.

“Shinpiteki?” He laughs. It takes him a while to figure the right translation, but finally, he comes up with “I think it’s something like ‘mystery of the gods … I don’t think the aurora is shinpiteki. More like nagoya—awesome. Like I’d say tonight was a 50 sugoi night.”

“What does that mean?”

“Good, not awesome.” He pauses. “People think there’s something special for Japanese about the aurora,” he says. “It’s not spiritual. It’s just neat. Just something to see. Something to say you’ve seen. Something you can put on Facebook.”

I ask Naomi Saeki, seated behind me, to compare the aurora to something that’s just as awesome. She answers, disappointingly, “Anne of Green Gables.”

In fact, aside from a deep respect for all things natural, there’s nothing essentially Japanese about their fascination with the aurora. That old myth that they have sex under the Northern Lights to conceive? Not true. In fact, most aurora tourists (66 per cent) are women travelling in groups, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the Northern Frontier Visitors Association. They have no myths or legends about the aurora though they study it in middle school science class.
The reason they ever fell in love with the aurora in the first place is because of a simple nonromantic circumstance. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, after international flight became available but before the 747 in 1970, all planes from Japan to North America stopped in Fairbanks, Alaska, to refuel. Customers forced to overnight in Alaska fell in love with the Northern Lights they found there. They went home and made documentaries about the lights. Tourism agencies caught on and made commercials showing people sobbing at the sight of the aurora. People started putting the aurora on their bucket lists.

Because there is nothing essential about the Japanese fascination with the aurora, though, the rest of Asia is just as likely to fall in love too.

“Japanese are simply the trendsetters for the rest of Asia,” says Colin Dempsey, president of the visitors association. He worries that local businesses and government focus too much on the Japanese market at a time when massive mainland China—and its massive wallets—are on the way.

And what’s Yellowknife doing to make those guests feel welcome? In September, the Visitors Centre helped local aurora watchers Astronomy North launch the Northern Lighthouse project: small, cement lighthouses were set up at five locations across the city, forecasting fair aurora by flashing blue, good by flashing green, and great by flashing red. The lighthouse’s predictions aren’t always accurate, says Otsuka, but they do increase awareness; Otsuka also suggests inviting aurora scholars to town on a regular basis, like when Astronomy North invited Japanese aurora expert Yohsuke Kamide to speak at the Visitor’s Centre in March. Individual businesses hire Asian staff at their own discretion, but besides that, Dempsey says “the city is doing next to nothing” to welcome tourists.

3. A TOURIST REBELLION

“I don’t give a f*ck about the aurora.”

So proclaims Ragnar Wesstrom as he smokes a cigarette in his dining hall at Enodah Wilderness Lodge, on Great Slave’s East Arm. He just finished telling his customers the lodge is non-smoking. His Chinese business partner, Angela Law, buries her head in her hands at his comment. He thrusts his wine glass in tribute to the old guard: “I’m a fisherman. I never had any idea about Asians.”
But fishing tourism has been on the decline for decades, and ever since the caribou have been off-limits to non-aboriginal hunters, that’s almost dead, too. Wesstrom says he’s still fully booked for the summertime, but he’s been supplementing his American hunting and fishing market with aurora-watching for the past 13 years. He may not care about the aurora, but he’s cashing in: he follows Asian politics and plays his markets shrewdly. He almost never mixes Japanese and Chinese tourists because they notoriously don’t get along (though he says he’s never had an incident when he has had to mix them). Acknowledging the Japanese distaste for outhouses, he installed—and became a local marketer of—Pacto toilets, which seal up waste after each use, ensuring his bathrooms are odourless.

Two years ago, he hooked up with Law of Yellowknife Tours—the only Chinese tour operator in the city—to provide the aurora-watching and ice-fishing components of a three-day Yellowknife trip. At $1,795, it’s by far the most expensive of the three-day packages (Aurora Village’s basic aurora-watching package, with clothes rental, costs $445). Visitors get the airport pick-up, then Wesstrom meets them on the edge of the highway with a Swedish amphibious tank called a Hagglund. It barrels through the bush with a violence and crudeness that makes you feel like you’re being transported to a Siberian gulag. “This is the real wilderness,” yells Law over the tree branches scraping across the windows.

That’s part of the draw, says Li Wei, a Chinese internal medicine doctor working in Singapore. He’s here on his honeymoon. “Singapore is an island, 700 square kilometres. You can drive across it in 45 minutes.” He says he considered Aurora Village before he came across Enodah’s pamphlet at a Singapore travel fair, but decided against the former because he wanted to get away from the crowds. Law wags her head in agreement. “The Northwest Territories is so big,” she says. “There’s no need to cram people 24-apiece into tipis and on buses. Let them spread out.”

Still, Wesstrom’s disinterest in the product he’s selling is obvious. All of his staff seem to be early-to-bed, early-to-risers. After supper, there’s almost no one around to provide photography advice or information about what they’re seeing, when the best times are to see it, what to expect or where to look.

In the morning, Wesstrom and Law head out in the Hagglund to pick up a six-person group of Chinese tourists coming from Vancouver. They live in Canada and assume they know how to dress for the winter: they refuse the boot-and-mitt rental. Wesstrom has no spares, but takes them out with us in -35 degree weather anyway. It’s a 20-minute Ski-Doo ride to the ice-fishing spot, during which time one Ski-Doo breaks down. It’s abandoned. Before we get to the spot, everyone’s frozen. We fish for maybe 20 minutes, then huddle in a prospector tent eating soup for a couple hours. Wesstrom’s playing tough, saying “If you don’t get out there and catch a fish, no one gets lunch.” He tries another angle: “Who wants to snowshoe?” No one.

The Singapore couple’s hands are frozen in Kombi mitts. Wesstrom gets serious. “I have to clean this place, you have to get out.” The Chinese family digs into their seats. It’s a tourist rebellion.

On the ride home, everyone who can fit crams into the Hagglund, but there’s no room for Li Wei, the honeymooning Singapore doctor. He’s let his wife take the last seat, and I ride on the back of his Ski-Doo. But we’re driving into the wind, and even sheltered by his back, my face is searing. Without goggles or his glasses, Wei gets a little delirious and veers off the track of our Ski-Doo convoy into the bush. Panicked, I grab his back to point him back in the right direction. When we get back to camp, we’re so disoriented we start crawling up the wrong hill, not realizing the stairs are right beside us. Wesstrom appears on the balcony above. “What are you doing? You’re supposed to park it in out back!” He yells, and Wei heads back to find out where “out back” is. At dinner, his cheeks are covered in frostbite. The food is cafeteria calibre, Wesstrom harasses his customers for using their iPhones, and the rooms come without showers (customers are taken to Yellowknife’s public pool to clean up).

Riding home in the Hagglund in the morning, we have an extra passenger: Ingrid Au, one of the Chinese customers who arrived yesterday, is coming home early. “Why?” I ask her. “A little bit too cold,” she says. “…But the aurora last night were so perfect. My family has been to Whitehorse five times to see the aurora, and we never saw them. Finally we saw them last night.” She shrugs her shoulders in a cozy way. “I’m so happy!”

Then it occurs to me: We can bully our customers, beat them up, ignore them, bore them, speak to them in the wrong language, charge them too much, treat them to unsanitary bathrooms; or we can keep them warm and make them feel welcome — it doesn’t matter. They’re here for the aurora, and for some reason no one has been able to figure out yet, our aurora are the best in the world. “About five years after the Japanese catch on to something,” says Colin Dempsey, “the Koreans pick up on it. And in ten years, China.”

But are they returning? Wesstrom keeps a black bear claw ashtray in his dining lodge. It comes from a duck-hunting Japanese heart doctor who’s been to Enodah about 16 times. “She must have spent a quarter million dollars here,” one guide tells me. “And every time she comes, she brings a brand new group.”

Read the story at Up Here Business.

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