Many of us dream of getting away from it all.
But for the Japanese engineer affectionately known as Uncle Antarctica, a member of the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition, near-isolation on one of the planet’s harshest frozen environments is a way of life.
While working and living for months at a time in a place few people ever visit, Uncle Antarctica has his trusty Globe-Trotter suitcase for company — just as explorer Robert Falcon Scott did more than a century ago.
Photography courtesy of Uncle Antarctica
Can you tell us about the Japanese Antarctic Research Expedition and what your job entails?
Japan's Antarctic Research Station (Showa Base) is located just below the Aurora Belt and operates year-round. It’s a comparatively large base in the Antarctic, and like other nations’ bases there, we collect research data on the climate, geology, aerosol particles, the aurora borealis and so on. My main job is as an engineer to maintain and operate the snow vehicles.
What are your plans after you retire from this mission?
After returning to Japan I will continue as an engineer for snow vehicles, as well as posting on my YouTube channel in my spare time. I make videos to introduce people to my life in Antarctica and the fun and interesting aspects of living there. I hope this will increase people’s interest in Antarctica and help deepen people’s understanding of that part of the world.
What is it like being based in such an isolated place?
At times, the temperature can be as low as -40 degrees celsius with wind speeds as high as 50 m/s, but whatever the conditions, we have to keep our buildings and lifelines in working condition at all times. If something breaks down, we have to fix it ourselves as there isn’t anyone else you can rely on! Similarly, if a snow vehicle breaks down there are only limited parts available, so I either have to make the parts myself or find a substitute.
Any rubbish we generate on the base must be taken back home, so we have to be inventive and frugal with food ingredients in order to minimise waste. For example, we will reuse leftover food and turn it into a different dish the next day. In a sense, you could say this is the ultimate eco-friendly way of life.
What is a typical day like for you in Antarctica?
The time difference between Japan and Showa Base is minus 6 hours. However, life is basically the same as in Japan. Work starts between 8 and 9am, lunch at 12pm and dinner at 6pm. Sundays are our day off, although there isn't much distinction between weekdays and holidays in Antarctica. On a typical day, I would be removing snow and dealing with breakdowns, but I also do preventive maintenance. When the weather is bad, I often do desk-based office work or help other departments.
If there is a problem, we must deal with it regardless of time or whether it’s your day off. I’m sure it's the same for all bases, but a breakdown happens just when you want to take a break! Equipment problems tend to happen in the middle of the night, and they happen quite often.
The most difficult time for me was when I had trouble with my snow vehicle at an altitude of 3810m, about 1,000km from the Showa Base. The oxygen levels were half that of normal, and the temperature was minus 40 degrees celsius with wind speeds of 15m/s. I had to turn a small bolt with my bare hands, but in extreme cold and high altitude you can only work for five minutes then rest for 10 minutes indoors. Otherwise you could collapse or get frostbite. If you catch an infection from frostbite, you could lose your life so we had to be very careful. In the end the work, which would have taken 30 minutes in Japan, took me a whole day in Antarctica.
What do you miss most about home when you are away for long periods of time?
The Showa Base will only receive one ship a year, and apart from that you live in isolation for the entire year. You won't see anyone other than the 30 people who are on the base — you don’t need to spend money, and you will have limited contact with society. Every time I returned to Japan, I was unable to adjust to the flow of time and would feel uncomfortable with civilization, to the extent that I would say I had to be "rehabilitated". In Antarctica I would miss small things in life, like wasting my money at a convenience store or buying a cup of coffee at Starbucks. But then I would look at the beautiful Antarctic scenery and feel I didn’t want to go back to Japan. I think life on the Antarctic base proves that people can live quite happily on very little.
Tell us about your Globe-Trotter suitcase. When were you first introduced to the brand and what do you like about their products?
The first time I saw a Globe-Trotter was when I was walking in Tokyo. I'm ashamed to say that I had never heard of the brand before. But as soon as I saw it, the charisma of the suitcase drew me in and I thought to myself “I’m going to go Antarctica with one of those.” I impulsively tried to buy one that day, but my friends stopped me. I went home and researched Globe-Trotter and found that it had a connection to Antarctica. Once I found this out, I was hooked, and the decision to buy one was easy for me.
How well has your suitcase withstood the harsh conditions of Antarctica?
I heard it was made of Vulcanised fibreboard, but to be honest, I wasn't sure if it could withstand the extreme weather conditions of the Antarctic. Once there, I left the case outside and instead of breaking, it withstood the conditions perfectly. I don't use my Globe-Trotter to carry expensive clothes or to go to fancy hotels. It’s my travel buddy and comes with me everywhere, just like Captain Robert Falcon Scott 100 years ago.
You have decorated your case with stickers. Can you tell us a little about this – where are these stickers from and when did you start collecting them?
It has stickers of the places I have actually been; the hotels I stayed at, the Antarctic expeditions I went on, and other foreign expeditions. I now no longer have any space to put stickers on my first case.
I always look for stickers wherever I go. Airports are easy places to find stickers, but outside the airport, it can sometimes take half a day just to find the right sticker. On missions to the Arctic, we sometimes transport items from Japan by air so our suitcases get baggage stickers put on them. These stickers have the Japanese flag printed on them along with the destination "Antarctica", so I often get asked about it by curious people at the airport. It's a great way to connect with people.
What other memorable places have you travelled to with your Globe-Trotter?
I’ve been to Korea, China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Australia and South Africa. I haven't been to that many places, but I've had unforgettable experiences with the case in each place. I use it quite roughly, so I’m amazed that it's never broken.