On June 20th, Marissa arrived in Japan. This was the fourth country of the month for her, since she was living in Italy, had visited a friend in Turkey, and also had a school/business trip to Switzerland. With all that excitement, I was worried that she was going to be incredibly bored spending two weeks in middle-of-nowhere Shakotan, but she assured me that some rest and relaxation would be much appreciated.
I had made arrangements with my friend and company contact, Nozomi-san, to help get Marissa from the airport to Sapporo as comfortably as possible. I also got the ‘ok’ to leave work after lunch so that I could drive her the rest of the way to Shakotan myself. At the airport, Marissa boarded a bus that would take her into Sapporo and drop her off at a major hotel. After a 70 minute bus ride, she arrived at the Prince Hotel, where Nozomi’s sister, Hiroko-chan, was kind enough to pick her and bring her back to their beautiful Sapporo home. And that’s where I came in to meet her.
I came in the front door, automatically removing my shoes at the genkan (玄関 – entryway) as one does, and was immediately greeted by Hiroko-chan. Then, standing across the short hallway, I saw her; my Marissa, as beautiful as the day she broke up with me and left the country. Appearing not even slightly weary from her journey halfway around the world, a broad smile appeared on her face at the sight of me. It was a surreal experience as we embraced because we hadn’t seen each other in person for over nine months. Hugs and kisses ensued, and Hiroko retired to the kitchen to give us a bit of privacy. After thanking Hiroko-chan profusely for the help, Marissa and I left to drive back to Shakotan. Hiroko-chan, in her endless generosity, also sent us home with beef stew, salad greens, and bread to eat for dinner.
In Shakotan, things were generally quiet…a little too quiet… During Marissa’s visit I was still working, so during the day she was on her own, and Shakotan doesn’t boast many diversions to occupy one’s time. To make matters worse, we only had my laptop to use to access the internet, and I needed to take it with me to work every day. Marissa could have killed some time watching (occasionally bizarre) Japanese television, but my TV stopped working properly just before she arrived, so even that was out. I’m told that she was never too bored, spending her time reading, jogging or walking around town, or simply napping with the sound of the sea in the background.
Thanks to Marissa’s instant celebrity status in Shakotan, I heard from many locals who had spotted her walking or running around town. They always told me how beautiful she was, to which the proper Japanese response is probably to wave off the compliment. Being a foreigner, I would say, 「はい、そう思います。」meaning, “Yes, I think so.” Yamazaki-san even made the comparison I’ve heard in the States before, that Marissa looks like the actress Julia Roberts. I clarified that I thought Marissa looked more like young Julia Roberts (Mystic Pizza, Pretty Woman, Hook), and less like current Julia Roberts (pretty much everything after Erin Brockovich, although The Mexican was a great movie).
And then there were the bear warnings. There had been recent bear sightings in the area of town, and people were advised to take precautions, like not leaving raw trash or food scraps out in the open. One evening, around 5pm, Marissa and I were walking around town, and we decided to stroll down a road that has four Buddhist temples on it. We were about halfway through our temple-viewing when a car pulled up beside us. “Lucas-sensei!” the man inside called to me, and then in Japanese, he told me that a bear had been sighted nearby. For our own safety, he advised that we should return home. When he said “kuma” (熊 – bear), I repeated it with such a shocked inflection that even Marissa understood we were talking about bears. I thanked him for the heads up and we headed back to the apartment. As we learned later, the sighting was indeed very close, just a little ways further down that road, 30 minutes earlier.
While we didn’t see any bears ourselves, Marissa and I saw lots of interesting birds. First I should explain that the crows in Hokkaido are huge! Shakotan, being right there on the water, also has a great number of seagulls about. In addition to the numerous gulls and the large crows that ominously lurk hither and thither, we also spotted quite a few hawks and a couple majestic cranes. The hawks were generally either perched stoically on a telephone poll, or heroically gliding on a thermal, but one time we saw two crows engaging a hawk in an aerial battle. I’m guessing he must have watched them like a hawk, decided to wing it and eat crow, just to wet his beak, but discover that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. (And I came up with that on the fly.)
In addition to the massive crows, Marissa was impressed by the startlingly large spiders we saw. I suppose that the big insects naturally result in big arachnids that eat them. (It’s funny though, the one snake we saw was really puny.) I’m now told that Marissa has seen even bigger spiders in Africa, which actually sounds pretty terrifying.
Since I still hadn’t received my first real paycheck by the time Marissa arrived, we did a lot of cooking at home, on the single gas burner in my apartment. Well, this was also due to the fact that I wanted to make dinner for Marissa for a change. During her visit, I prepared Japanese style meals, such as Curry Rice (カレーライス) and Yakisoba (焼きそば), with things like gyoza and shumai on the side. I even made Daigakuimo (大学いも – “university potato”) for the first time, a rather syrupy snack of sweet potatoes in honey.
On Marissa’s first full day in Japan, we went out to dinner with Yasuda-san and Yamazaki-san at Heihachi (平八). This was Marissa’s first time at an izakaya (居酒屋), a Japanese-style restaurant/drinking establishment where you sit on Tanami mats, and also her first taste of sushi in Japan. In an unexpected treat, the sushi platter actually had nama uni (生海栗) on it, the raw sea urchin that Shakotan is particularly famous for. We had a great meal with my Shakotan friends, with me translating for Marissa as best as I could. The next day, we went for drive in the countryside. We left with the idea of checking out Cape Kamui (神威岬), but it was rainy and overcast, so we checked out the Shimamui Coast instead. As it turned out, it was a little too cold and rainy to enjoy that either, but Marissa was very polite about it.
On Friday night, we were invited to a Yakiniku party (barbecue) at Yoshimura-sensei’s house. Yoshimura-sensei, his wife, and their two daughters were there, as well as Miyakawa-sensei, the new PE teacher. Yusuke Itagaki , the English teacher that I work with closely at the JH was there, and he brought his wife as well. Both Yusuke and his wife could speak English well enough that Marissa could chat with them, and thanks to common interests in European travel and soccer, there was plenty to talk about.
The yakiniku set up was pretty cool, as we had the grill going inside a large text. The smoke from the grill actually made for great insect repellent, as miraculously the mosquitoes were no problem. Also, it was nice and warm for everybody even after the sun went down. After much barbequed meat and beer was consumed, the party moved inside the house for some dessert and Uno Attack. It was a great party.
Saturday June 24th was a big day. In the morning, Marissa and I went for a jog around town. This was beautiful, not just because Shakotan’s scenery is so nice, but also because it had been a long time since we had run together. We then drove to the nearby town of Otaru (小樽) to meet up with my friend Nozomi, from the company. Nozomi had relatives visiting from the US, so this was another chance to hang out with more English speakers.
Otaru is quite the tourist destination. A port city, Otaru has apparently been called the “Gateway to Hokkaido”. It has a lot of brick/stone architecture that has been preserved over the years. Walking around town feels kind of like going back in time, although since the buildings exude a northern European style, it feels like going back in time in Europe. The many brick buildings were originally used as warehouses, and now house all manner for touristy shops, cafes, and eateries. There’s also a canal, which is apparently a famous spot to visit.
We met up with Nozomi, her daughter Aika, as well as Aika’s two cousins visiting from Florida, Yoko and Yujiro. The six of us strolled along Otaru’s iconic streets, checking out multiple glasswork shops and a store that makes custom music boxes. We tried gourmet creampuffs (which came with free coffee) and sampled some chocolate. Eventually we had ramen for lunch, Marissa’s first taste of legitimate ramen. It was a magical afternoon.
We parted ways with Nozomi and family after lunch, but made tentative plans to possibly meet up in Sapporo in the evening. Since I didn’t really have much a plan for the rest of the day, Marissa and I did drive on to Sapporo, where we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring Odori Park and Sapporo’s extensive underground. We even had a (surprisingly large) cup of coffee at Pronto, a franchise coffee bar that sells my favorite cup of coffee in Japan so far.
In the evening we met up with Nozomi at her sister Hiroko’s house for dinner. In addition to the crew had met up with ealier, there was also Nozomi’s son Ken, Hiroko-chan, and her two sons Shun and Ryo. In fact, the family was celebrating Ryo’s birthday. The drinks had already started, and the drivers were the only people drinking, so we proceeded to the chosen restaurant by cab. The restaurant, according to Nozomi and Hiroko, was definitely the best Chinese food in Sapporo. Even though it was around 8:00pm, and we had a party of 10 and no reservation, we still managed to get a table. The food was spectacular, just as advertised, and for the first time since I had come to Japan, I didn’t drink alcohol with dinner. I still had to drive us back to Shakotan.
After dinner, we strolled back to the house on foot, passing through some of Tanuki Kōji, the shopping arcade. Once back at the house, the kids booted up the GameCube for some Super Smash Bros., and reluctantly, Marissa and I made our exit. We drove an hour and half or so back to Shakotan, getting home around 12:30am. Then sleep.
Sunday June 26th was the Shakotan Sōran Mikaku Matsuri (積丹ソーラン味覚祭り), which is essentially the “Taste of Shakotan Festival”. It’s a celebration of food, the local fishing culture, Yosakoi Sōran tradition—but mostly just the food. As luck would have it, the festival grounds were directly behind my apartment, between my building and the marina. This meant that the whole thing was going down, quite literally, in my backyard. When we awoke, tons of people were already gathering, and the crowd noise actually woke us up.
Yasuda-san had invited Marissa and I to spend the day with his family, and we met up with him at 11:00am. Yasuda-san, along with Makoto-san and some other local guys were performing a super traditional version of the Sōran, completely with boat and net props, and they we getting ready to perform when we arrived. I ran into Ihara-san from the Board of Education and he had a beer in my hand within 30 seconds. Then we sat under a tent near the stage, and another local gentleman wanted to share some sake with me. Marissa just laughed, prophetically warning that starting the drinking so early is probably unwise, but I didn’t want to be a bad guest. A woman from the paper came by and took out photograph, which I now have framed on my desk.
After the men performed the Sōran, Yasuda-san led us through the crowd to a spot at a table that his family had staked out. His wife and son were there, as well as grandmotherly Baba-chan, and Makoto-san came to hang out with us as well. Various athletic Yosakoi Sōran teams that had performed in the Sapporo festival danced on Shakotan’s stage. One group was particular interesting, as by the time they had finished dancing, their male dancers were wearing only mawashi (回し), a loin cloth akin to what sumo wrestlers wear.
The food, as you’d probably expect at the “Taste of Shakotan” festival, was crazy delicious. There was your standard festival fare, like fried chicken, hotdogs, onigiri, and oden (which somehow, I still haven’t tried). But the real star of the culinary show was the fresh seafood; snails, crab, shrimp, uni, and even a variety of dried fish products. The Yasuda family brought beer, including alcohol-free Kirin for Baba-chan, and Makoto-san brought a bag full of sake and other hard alcohol. At some point Marissa made a run for beer so that we could contribute to the party.
We basically sat in the sun, eating, drinking, and watching musical performances for the whole day. The weather was absolutely perfect for it, if you’re into such a thing. I’m more a shade person myself, so I wore my cowboy-esque hat and reapplied my sunblock regularly. I tried to take as many photos of the festivities as possible, but my camera’s battery died fairly quickly that day.
At some point, Kon-san came and sat with us. Kon-san was a classmate of Yamazaki-san’s and I had met him in Sapporo during the Yosakoi Festival. He runs an izakaya there called Taiyoumaru (太陽丸) which serves Shakotan-style food. (In fact, I was told that the name “Taiyoumaru” is actually the name of a fishing boat in Shakotan.) Eventually, Kon-san invited Marissa and I to check out his dad’s boat, which I thought might be the mythic Taiyoumaru itself. I wasn’t quite following what he was saying, but as it turns out, he was inviting us to boat ride with his dad. At that point, I was pretty pissed that my camera had died.
At least ten people, including Makoto-san and a small child, climbed aboard the fishing boat. Immediately after leaves the marina, Kon-san Sr. stopped the boat next to something bobbing in the water. A minute later had pulled a trap from the depths and dumped its contents right into the boat. Crabs went scurrying all over the floor, and the little kid seemed legitimately frightened. Continuing on our boat tour, we circumnavigated Bikuni’s prominent island, Takara Jima (宝島 ). While the beautifully green rock formation has a name meaning “Treasure Island”, it should really be all “Seagull Island” because it’s completely covered in them. At some point I noticed that the area’s gulls seem to retire there each evening, but from the boat you could even view whole families of them, even young birds that had not yet learned to fly. After seeing the island up close, I’m convinced that single spot produces all the world’s seagulls.
After touring a stretch of picturesque coastline, Kon-san Sr. brought us up to the shore. I wasn’t totally clear on what was going on, as Makoto-san was the person best able to translate things into English and his English is pretty limited. Eventually, Kon-san, Makoto-san, and another fellow whose name I never caught were overboard, knee-deep in frigid sea water. They passed the occasional object to the ladies on the boat, which under inspection proved to be clams and uni. I had never seen a live sea urchin up close before and I was surprised to see that they can move! These little urchins were wiggling their spines and slowing crawling on the boat floor. It was cool and educational.
Back at the festival grounds, it didn’t take much more frivolity before I was feeling pretty wiped out. The combination of sun and midday beer was knocking me out. Luckily, my apartment was less than 50 meters away, so it was easy to get a break. We retired to the apartment and I took a much needed nap.
After the sun went down, the festival’s featured performer took to the stage. I have no idea who he was, but he sang songs for the crowd, including old enka (演歌 - traditional Japanese ballads) and the Japanese version of “YMCA”. We still stayed in the apartment for the duration of his performance where we could hear him just fine. After the singer, there were fireworks. When the pyrotechnics started, we were still inside, but we quickly scrambled out to get a better view.
There, staring into the sky, we ran into Yamazaki-san, who had been working all day, and even still had more work yet to do. A nice local lady who was quite drunk and excited, kept predicting when the final was coming, being consistently wrong each time. He sister tried to silence her, as if the raving was an embarrassment, but I fully encouraged the drunken lady to cheer and yell and laugh as much as possible. When the fireworks were over, someone gave Marissa and I some mochi (糯) that had been thrown out to the kids in the audience like candy. Being fans of mochi ice cream, we were excited to receive it. We soon learned, however, that plain mochi isn’t even remotely sweet. It’s just glutinous rice that’s been mashed and formed into a patty-like shape. Without sweet filling, it’s really rather disappointing.
To Be つづく’ed…