The morning of Saturday June 11, I was up and ready to go by 9:30am, when the buses were supposed to leave. I dressed myself in my Sōran costume, although I actually didn’t put on things like the hand or shin guards quite yet. Yamazaki-san had advised me to bring two bags; one overnight bag with a change of clothes, and one little bag for carrying just my wallet, cell phone. Luckily, the case for my electronic dictionary was perfect for this, and I could even fit my camera in there too.
I walked to Shakotan’s bus station to find no one there. Fortunately Shakotan is small, and I could see everyone loading into a single charter bus just across the street, in front of the Shakotan’s do-everything office.
The bus ride to Sapporo was a pleasant two-hour trip, even when the ages of the passengers varied from 3 to 83 years old. There were various refreshments from the Seicomart, like bottles of iced tea and oddly named energy drinks. (“Drink Jelly” was an interesting one.) I couldn’t tell if the convenience store had donated the drinks to the dance team, or if everything was just purchased there. The kids seemed to have an overabundance of candy and chewing gum. One kid offered me a box of gum, via his mother, so I felt obligated to accept it. As it turned out, it was cola-flavored.
Once in the big city, we drove straight to Sapporo Factory, the first place we were to dance. Sapporo Factory is apparently a giant shopping mall, built around the old Sapporo beer brewery. The old brick building that originally housed the factory are still there, and a tall black smokestack stands proudly at its core. The brick and mortar industrial look of the factory reminded me of Soviet Russia, or at least, what I had been raised to envision Soviet Russia as. Fun stuff.
Outside of the shopping mall, an open area served as a makeshift stage for dancing. While it a big screen behind the dancers and giant speakers projecting their music, there was no elevated area for performing, and the dancing was done at ground level. The area was a buzz of activity, which several Yosakoi teams moving one place to another, mostly in herds. The bystanders that came to watch seemed generally excited to see every team, regardless of how competitive they were.
As we headed for the area where we would wait for our turn, we passed several other teams, most of whom were comprised entirely of college or high school students. It was consistently amusing to see people see me, realize that I was an out-of-place foreigner, and react. Most people gave me a smile of surprise, although others hadn’t quite reacted to the shock before I looked away. I even heard one youngster calling out “gaikokujin” (外国人 – foreigner) as he tugged on his mother’s sleeve.
The Shakotan Yosakoi Sōran team was a group of more diverse ages than most of the other teams. For the most part, our team was older folks and small children, so we didn’t a pack the athletic punch that the more competitive teams had. However, we were darn cute, if I do say so myself
I was positioned in the front row, again at the far left, so it was up to me to lead us on stage when the time came. Despite my lack of Yosakoi experience, I was having too much fun to be nervous. We walked out and got in position, and Yasuda-san took the microphone and introduced us. After shouting “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu!” (よろしくおねがいします – kind of like saying “please treat me favorably”) in unison, we got into our ready pose, the music started, and we danced the dance.
As soon as our turn dancing was over, we made a bee-line back to our bus. On the way, somebody handed a can of Sapporo beer. The can’s design was specially made to commemorate the event. I got on the bus, beer in hand, but I wasn’t sure if I was supposed drink it right then. Luckily, Makoto-san, a genuinely cheerful firefighter who was assisting the group but not actually dancing, gave me a “kampai” (乾杯– cheers, a toast) and opened his can. With this encouragement, I opened my beer and began drinking. It was around noon.
I drank my beer rather quickly because I thought that we have to dance right away at our destination and I didn’t know what to do with a half-full can. As it turned out, the bus took us to Odori Park, and it was time for lunch, so my chugging was probably unnecessary.
Odori Park (大通公園) is the first thing I envision when I think of Sapporo, and it’s essentially the city’s Central Park. The name Odori literally means “big street”, and the park’s layout matches this description. Sapporo’s city blocks count up both north and south from Odori, it’s essentially point ‘zero’, so on the map it’s truly at the heart of the city. The park stretches about 12 city blocks along the road, with the iconic red TV Tower on the east end, and the Sapporo Archive Museum on the west end. While the park is generally nice to stroll through, it’s also the prime location for festivals and such, and as far as I can tell, there is always an event going on there in the summertime. Also, while I haven’t seen it yet, Odori Park is the site of the Sapporo Snow Festival every February. I’ve heard that that its snow and ice sculptures are so amazing that they really have to be seen to be believed.
The scene at Odori was even more frenetic than Sapporo Factory had been, with a tangible excitement in the air. Costumed dances roved here and there, enjoying the many frivolities of the matsuri (祭り- festival) atmosphere. Our Shakotan group basically disbanded at this point, everyone splitting up to find their own food for lunch. I followed Yamazaki-san like a puppy, as I didn’t want to lose track of time, or the group. The Yamazaki family, Yasuda-san and his family, and even Makoto-san, all went to the Sapporo Beer Garden, located directly underneath the Sapporo TV Tower. I my mind, this was kind of like having lunch under the Eiffel Tower; a real pleasure for a visitor like myself.
I bought myself some yakisoba (焼きそば) and hoped that it would be enough to fill me up. As it turned out, Makoto-san and Yasuda-san ordered a lunch version of Jingisukan (ジンギスカン) and multiple draft beers, and encouraged me to eat and drink as much as possible. I tried by best to eat a respectable amount without getting too full, and then Yasuda-san’s wife gave me some corn on the cob.
I should explain at this point that I grow up in Iowa, a place known for corn and corn alone. (Well, technically it’s famous with Trekkies for being the birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk, but I don’t think fictional characters should count.) Enjoying locally-grown sweet corn is one of the true pleasures of Iowa life, and it makes the bitterly cold winters and oppressive hot, humid summers seem worth it, if only for just a moment. So I feel that I have a ridiculously high standard for sweet corn, and I’ve consistently been disappointed by the corn I’ve had outside of Iowa. That said, the sweat corn I’ve had in Sapporo has been so mind-blowingly delicious that I forgot about Iowa corn altogether! It’s possible—just barely possible—that Hokkaido’s corn is actually better than Iowa’s. And while I’m talking produce, the potatoes in Hokkaido are the best potatoes I’ve ever tasted, by far! How a potato could taste so good, I’ll never know.
After we had finished up lunch, and I was three beers into the day, my friend and fellow ALT, Nari, appeared. Other colleagues of mine had expressed an interest in seeing be dance the Sōran, but Nari was the only ALT to actually meet up me at the festival. The next thing on the agenda was a little parade style dancing south of Odori, near Susukino, my favorite night-on-the-town party location. After this short parade, in which we performed our dance twice, I think, we had more down time.
Back in Odori Park, Nari and I walked around and checked the many street vendors, but mostly just hung out and people watched. Eventually the directly sunlight was burning me (as it always does), so we found a spot in the shade to relax for a while. It was then that a couple of the Shakotan kids approached me. First, they really just wanted to play Janken (じゃんけん – Rock-paper-scissors), as Japanese kids often do. Then they wanted to thumb wrestle, which they called, in their adorable way, ゆびすもう (指相撲– “finger sumo”). A few more kids joined in, and then a few more. Thehn, and I blame Nari for encouraging them, the kids decided that they just wanted to tickle me. They did their best to corner me, and eventually I was running around the grass with a band of youngsters chasing after me. This was most exhausting.
Finally the time came to dance again. This time we were going to perform the dance parade-style five times in a row, going right down Odori itself. This felt like primetime at the festival, as stands had been erected on both sides of the street for people to view the performances one team at a time. It reminded me of something like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, only smaller and with dance teams instead of giant floats. A van equipped with a PA system drove ahead of the team, with Yasuda-san proudly standing atop it. Before we started, he gave our introduction, and the van and dancers moved forward in formation.
Dancing down Odori with the Shakotan group was wonderful. The local TV station had its cameras rolling, and as we danced our way through, one cameraman in particular seemed to be especially interested in me. Apparently going in for a close-up, he actually came within inches of hitting me in face with his lens. I would find out later that Kushima-san, from my company, had called the TV station to tell them about an American that was dancing with the Shakotan team, a first for the town. Apparently I was on live TV, with a caption that said my name and that I was from Seattle. I wish I could’ve seen that.
Midway through our five times dancing, a festival organizer woman came up to me and hung a pedant around my neck whilst saying, “おめでとうございます。” (That means “congratulations.”) The pedant apparently meant that I was a favorite performer of somebody’s…I assume the TV stations. Two other people in the Shakotan group got one; an elderly gentleman and a three year old girl.
After our run down Odori, the dancing was actually finished for the day. The group walked a few blocks north and about of the folks, including all the children, boarded a bus head back to Shakotan. The rest of us had some partying to do, and we headed to the hotel at which we’d be staying, the Sapporo Polestar Hotel, to get cleaned up.
On the way there, Makoto-san was speaking to me in half-Japanese, half-English and his larger-than-life personality was really shining through. I’m not sure how we arrived on the topic, but Makoto-san was saying how the Japanese pronunciation of the English words “bicycle” and “bisexual” were similar enough to confuse. (It was バイシクル versus バイセクシュアル. It made wonder if this phonic similarity was the point of Queen’s hit “Bicycle Race.”) Eventually I said, “自転車はバイセクシュアルじゃない。”, which you could potentially translate as, “The bicycle is not bisexual.” This became the quote of the trip and was repeated over and over.
At the Hotel, everyone checked into their rooms and we had about 45 minutes to shower, change, and get ready for the evening. This ended up being just enough time. Instead of walking to our next destination, we hailed cabs and were driven to Susukino, Sapporo’s entertainment district. Dinner would be at the Asahi Beer Hall, which I thought was interesting, considering we were in Sapporo (Asahi and Sapporo are competitor beer brands). I think there must have been 60 people in our party, including not only dancers and supporting team members, but also Shakotan officials, like the Mayor (Matsui-san) and the head of the Board of Education (Ihara-san).
Dinner for the evening was the quintessential Hokkaido dish: Jingisukan (ジンギスカン). Literally meaning “Genghis Khan”, Jingisukan is mutton or lamb which you traditionally cook on a convex metal skillet, right there at your table. According to what I’ve found online, the name comes from the fact that lamb is thought to have been the preferred meat of Mongolian soldiers and the convex skillet resembles a Mongolian soldier’s helmet. (This makes me think that Mulan might pass on it.)
Excessive amounts of raw meat were brought to our table. There was lamb, as well as beef and pork and even chicken. Additionally, there were also veggies to be cooked in the skillet as well. This was full-on Jingisukan, done “tabehoudai” style (食べ放題 – all-you-can-eat), so it really felt like a smorgasbord worthy of the Great Khan. The meal was also “nomihoudai” (飲み放題 – all-you-can-drink), so the beers went fast and came frequently. In fact, the nomihoudai menu also covered wine and some cocktails.
After much epicurean enjoyment, everyone was moving around and making conversation. I was definitely a bit of an odd duck, being the only non-Japanese there, but that seemed to make some folks more interested in talking to me. Although I was very slow on the uptake, I finally discovered where all of the new faces in our dance team came from! It turned out that the town of Shakotan had teamed up with Kōchi (高知), a city down on the southern island of Shikoku. Kōchi is actually known for their own Yosakoi festival, which is held in August. (In fact, from what I’ve heard, the Yosakoi tradition may have actually originated in Kōchi.) A few of the folks asked me to visit Kōchi for their festival too.
After time was up on our Jingisukan at Asahi Beer Hall, the large party splintered into small groups, with most people probably heading back to their hotels. Yamazaki-san, Yasuda-san, Makoto-san, and I, along with some of the other younger guys, were just starting to party. We ventured out into Susukino, which was still a buzz with activity. It wasn’t just the usually Saturday night parting either, there were still Yasokai teams performing, parade-style down the streets at 11:30 at night! It felt like a carnival; bright and loud and joyous, which a lingering feeling of impermanence, like you had to appreciate it tonight because it would exist tomorrow. It was wonderful just to witness.
Our all-male group ended up getting drinks at a place called Himiko, which I’m thinking would probably qualify as a Hostess Bar. The place was nice, chill and quiet, and we sat around talking jovially. Two women served us, but unlike your usual bar staff, they sat down with the group. They joined in on the conversation and made sure that everyone’s drink was refilled as soon as they finished. (We were drinking shōchū and water.) At this point I should explain that in Japan, there are clubs that hire attractive women to pour drinks, light cigarettes, and engage in conversation with the male customers. It’s kind of like the evolution of the geishas from olden times and something that you see a lot in Japanese nightlife.
Eventually, I enquired about the TVs mounted on the walls and discovered that we could sing some karaoke if we were so inclined. In my liquored up state, I couldn’t resist, so I busted out some Queen and Beatles. Then I decided to try and sing a song in Japanese, the classic Enka tune “Sake-yo”. The lyrics on the screen had no furigana (phonetic Japanese that tell you how to pronounce kanji) so I thought I was in trouble right off the bat, but Makoto-san shouted the pronunciation of each new line for me, so I was able to get through it just fine. As much as Japanese people generally appreciate you singing karaoke, actually singing a song in Japanese garners instant admiration.
At some point, an older lady came and sat next to me. She told me that she was the owner of the place. Like her other hostesses, she poured drinks and chatted with us. In my drunkenness, I made the comment that the shōchū drinks tasted like water, completely obliviously of how arrogant and disparaging it must have sounded. The owner then poured my next drink to be extra strong, just a tall glass of shōchū on ice. That was plenty strong, alright.
I distinctly remember part of our conversation where Yamazaki-san asked me what American celebrity I looked like; Tom Cruise or Nicholas Cage. I couldn’t believe this because I hate Nicholas Cage so much. Not only is he a hack actor, but he’s ugly to boot! In my limited Japanese, I did my best to explain how much I hated the man. I went so far as to compare my distaste of Nick Cage to that of natto, Japan’s disgusting dish of fermented soybeans. My reaction was so vehement that Yamazaki-san brought it up on many occasions since.
After the Hostess Bar, more of our group bailed, and only Yamazaki-san, Yasuda-san, Makoto-san, Noa-kun, and I continued on to the next place. We ended up at a little izakaya called Taiyoumaru (太陽丸), which was run by a classmate of Yamazaki’s named Kon. Apparently Kon-san’s restaurant served Shakotan-style food, and was even named for a boat from Shakotan. Even though we had already had tons to eat and drink already, we drank more beers and Kon-san served us some delicious seafood that made for exquisite drinking snack food.
After Taiyoumaru, Makoto-san bid us adieu. By that point it was really late, but true to drunken Japanese tradition, it was time to get some ramen. The four of us that remained stopped into a random noodle joint and ordered ramen. The other guys ordered salt ramen (塩ラーメン) but I decided to get the miso (味噌) broth, since Sapporo is known for it. I was then the only person to actually drink all of his broth, which should have told me that I was doing something wrong. As I learned, miso is more filling than salt broth ramen, and after stuffing yourself all evening long, a belly full of broth isn’t going to help you either way.
Back at the hotel, Yamazaki-san reminded me that we were getting breakfast at 8:00am. I drunkenly tried to set my alarm and passed out.
To be つづく’ed…