Friday September 23, 2011 – At 2:30pm, I climbed into a van at the Shakotan town office. Sawada-san was the driver responsible for transporting five gentlemen and me to Yobetsu (余別) where there the event would be held. After a short but scenic drive to the tip of the Shakotan peninsula, we arrived at Uni-ya-Kinoko (うに-や-きのこ – “sea urchin and mushroom”), a little resort just outside of town. Nestled into the wood surrounding Yobetsu, Uni-ya-Kinoko is an idyllic spot to get away from modern urban stresses. It has hiking trails and cabins to stay in, as well as an onsen (温泉 – hot spring) for the ultimate relaxation.
We were here for a special event called “Konkatsu” (婚活). Konkatsu is basically a mixer for single men and women to meet and find prospective marriage partners. The event was apparently organized by the city of Shakotan and much of the staff I recognized as the same folks who handle the IP Phone; each one of them worked on the second floor of the town office. For this event, there were 20 men and 25 women contestants. While all of the eligible bachelors were from Shakotan, the women were coming in from either Sapporo or Otaru. Even if the ladies made no love connections, the event would at least serve as a weekend getaway in exotic Shakotan. Since people were bussing in from far away, Uni-ya-Kinoko was a rather ideal venue because after the dinner festivities, everyone could crash there.
When we first arrived, all the men were rounded up for a seminar on how to talk to women. A professional public speaker was brought in from Sapporo to instruct the men on the dos and don’ts of intergender communication. The best part about this was that the speaker herself was an attractive young woman, so any nerves the guys had were bound to surface in practice. There was a lot of rehearsing introductions. The guys were supposed to say 1) their name, 2) their age, 3) their hobbies, and finally, 4) ask the lady something about her interests. While the men had little trouble providing the information, the speaker gave many critiques on their delivery. She encouraged them to speak with confidence, stand tall, and avoid fidgeting with their hands, or so was my understanding. The seminar went on for at least an hour and a half, maybe two hours, and I did my best to follow along, although I my language comprehension was very low.
Each man received a catalog for the Konkatsu that listed the all of the female participants’ profiles. Like a hardcopy version of Facebook, the catalog profiles featured a picture of each woman, along with her name, age, city she was from, and a blurb of text that I assume must have been a self description. The women also received a catalog of all the men, although the format was different. The women’s version featured much bigger mug shots, as well as a lot more information on each man.
My friend Fukuda Masato, whom I had gotten to know when we traveled down to Kōchi-ken for a Yosakoi Sōran festival, was one of the hopeful suitors participating. We checked out the catalog together and he asked me which of the women looked most attractive. I basically just pointed out the youngest girls on the list, which made him laugh. Most of woman were older than 35, there were a few in their late 20’s/early 30’s, and then three who were quite young, around twenty. The profile pictures also seemed like odd choices, as they were mostly unflattering. Masato-kun showed me which woman he was most interested in, and of course, it was the best-looking picture of the bunch.
After the seminar, I was given a big green “staff” nametag to wear. Iwaki-san tried to give me some directions, but besides the pushing gesture he did, I didn’t quite follow what he was saying. He brought the seminar lady over to translate, as she spoke better English. To my surprise the instructions were, “If any women approach you, please push them away.” This cracked me up.
Eventually it was time for the dinner, the main event of the Konkatsu. The dining hall had three rows of tables; the two outer rows were for the participants’ seats, while the center table was setup buffet-style for the food. The spread was amazing, as I’ve come to find is usually the case at any dinner event in Japan. The far wall had a counter of drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. The men had been advised to avoid drinking too much, lest they make drunken fools of themselves. Also, when one guy said that he planned on drinking only Coca-cola, the speaker advised against it, saying that cola was a kid’s drink.
There were eight tables for the participants’ seating, four on each side of the room. First, the men were brought in and placed at the outside seats, two men to a table. A few minutes later, the women came in and were led to the seats on the inside of the tables, usually two to a table, but sometimes three per table. (There were more women than men present.) Apparently the initial seating arrangement was determined by drawing numbers from a hat.
A comic duo, one man and one woman, were the emcees for the evening, and they gave instructions via microphone and a small PA system. The night began with an initial round of individual introductions, first the men then the women. (Just like the seminar, each person gave their name, age, and hobbies.) Afterward, everyone got up to grab food and drinks. Once the participants were seated again with their dinner, they chatted with one another and leisurely got acquainted with everyone at their table.
For my staff dinner, I was seated behind a folding screen in the corner of the room and given a bento box and beer. From my vantage point it appeared that everyone was having a legitimately good time, as no one appeared nervous or having any trouble communicating. Even the guys that had appeared shy during the seminar were chatting up the ladies with no trouble at all.
After 15 minutes or so (they didn’t seem to keep track of time very precisely), all the men got up and rotated positions to the next table. In this way, all the all of ladies would meet all the men, in turns. The round-robin arrangement reminded me of the “speed dating” we have back in the States, although perhaps all formalized matchmaking systems are run in a similar way.
As I sipped my beer, I made conversation with the other staff. The evening seemed to be going rather well and everyone was happy. In the frivolity, I helped myself to a cup of “goma” pudding (胡麻プリン) from the dessert table. “Goma” means sesame seeds, and the pudding was so delicious that I ended up eating four servings before the night was over.
In the middle of the dinner, one of the male participants had to leave; for what reason, I don’t know. To my surprise, I was asked to sit at the table in his place. Since I had been specifically asked to “push” the women away, I double-checked that it was alright for me to sit at one of the tables like a suitor. The seminar lady clarified, “Just talking is OK. Show your nametag too.” I then wondered what kind of behavior would justify the advised pushing, and a zombie survival scenario ran through my mind.
As instructed, I sat down at the table with another gentleman to help make conversation with three eligible bachelorettes. I greeted them with, “Konbanwa. Gaikokujin desu” (こんばんは、外国人です。- “Good evening, I’m a foreigner.”). Due my limited Japanese, I wasn’t actually able to contribute very much to the conversation. Out of respect for the male contestant I was paired with, I didn’t really want to talk too much anyway, lest I take away from his spotlight. To be a good wingman, I mostly just nodded quietly.
At the second table we moved to, one of the women shocked me by speaking perfect English! When I looked totally lost, she would take a moment and translate a summary for me. It was very kind of her. At the final table we ended up at, the conversation was really dead. While it was fine for me to sit in silence, the awkwardness of a table of people not talking was just too awkward. I tried to ignite some discussion by asking the youngest girl there what kind of music she liked. Impressively, the girl managed to still kill the conversation by saying something about not knowing any band or song names, and doing so with an expression that said, “I don’t care for music.” She was truly a fun assassin.
When the men had completely circumnavigated the room, it was time for climax of the evening; the actual matchmaking. One by one, the men were to come up to the front of the room and choose one of the ladies he’d like to date. The chosen lady would then come up front too, making for a very public proposal. The man gives a short appeal into the microphone, then reverently bows to the woman with his hand outstretched in offering, and says “please” (おねがいします). Then there’s a dramatic pause where everyone wonders if she’ll take his hand or just say “I’m sorry” (ごめんなさい).
To make things even more interesting, if one man chooses a lady that another man also wants to ask out, the second man can shout “Hey wait!” (ちょっとまって), and run up front as well. It’s kind of like that line in movie weddings; you know, the “speak now, or forever hold your peace” bit. In this scenario, the two men both give a short appeal into the microphone and then bow simultaneously, each with his hand outstretched. The woman then gets to pick whichever suitor she prefers by taking his hand, or she can choose to reject them both. Yes, the Konkatsu has it all; love, rejection, conflict, conquest, all you can eat shrimp! It’s very dramatic.
To explain how the process works, the staff gave a theatrical demonstration. Iwaki-san ran up to me a minute before to give me hurried directions on how I was to participate. Due to the language barrier, I double-checked and triple-checked with him that I had it right, as I didn’t want to make (too big of) a fool of myself. When Sawada-san demonstrated choosing the seminar lady, I yelled “Hey wait!” (ちょっとまって) loudly from the back of the room, ran up front as quickly as possible. This surprise proved to be even more comically effective than anticipated. Hopefully my brief performance was good enough to warrant the amount of alcohol and dessert that I consumed.
When the first contestant went up front and chose a lady to ask out, the nervous tension was palpable. As he bowed and offered his hand, everyone hoped for a love connection and waited with baited breath for the lady’s response. When she shyly apologized, the whole let out a collective “ahh”, empathizing with man’s rejection. While we felt bad for him, he laughed it off. The fun was only just beginning.
There were plenty dating proposals that were accepted, including my friend Masato-kun, who was extremely pleased to pair up with the girl whose picture he had picked out as the cutest in the catalog. Similar tastes between suitors led to several two-man proposals. There was even a three-man proposal for one young lady. In all but one of the multiplayer proposals, the woman rejected both men. In the case where the woman picked one man over the other, the crowd gave a scandalous cheer for new couple, and then applauded the loser for his courage. There was also at least one gentleman who decided not to ask any ladies and just bow out.
For the most part, the Konkatsu seemed like a lesson in gender roles. That was turned on its head at one point though, as one of the women went up front to ask out a guy. In this reverse situation, she made the appeal and bowed to him, and he was the one to take her hand and accept. At first I thought that all the unpaired women would get their chance to go up front, but it became quickly apparent that it wasn’t usually done that way.
After the excitement of couples pairing off, the dinner came to a close, and the party moved to three of Uni-ya-Kinoko’s cottages. Everyone piled into the cabins, leaving an impressive collection of shoes in the doorway. While each cottage had a table and chairs in the main room, these obstacles were pushed aside, as every got comfortable on the floor. There was still of bit of alcohol remaining, so drinks were poured and snack food was spread out on paper plates in the center of the room. Everyone just kicked back and hung out, chatting about this and that.
One young man was fairly jumpy, and every time the cabin door opened, he would dive out of sight. When people started asking him what was up, he explained that he was desperately trying to avoid his new date. I realized that he had been the guy asked out in the role-reversing proposal at the end of dinner. Apparently he had interrupted the lady’s pursuit of him as a lighthearted gesture, maybe even a joke, and accepted her proposal playfully. She, on the other hand, had been quite serious, and started an intense discussion on their relationship and potential marriage straight away. The young man was so freaked out by this that he avoided her for the rest of the night.
It was fun to chat everyone, and it made for some great conversation practice, but by 1am, I was ready to crash. I found a room with four bunk beds upstairs and went to sleep. I later learned that most people kept the party going until 4:30am!
The following morning a friend woke me up at 8:00 and let me know that I needed to eat breakfast before 9am. I got dressed and made my way back into Uni-to-Kinoko’s main building. Luckily I ran into and Sawada-san, who was headed to breakfast as well. The breakfast was an impressive buffet-style affair, with your usual western foods, like eggs and bacon, as well as Japanese dishes, like miso soup and curry rice. I grabbed a large portion of scrambled eggs before seeing the tamagoyaki (卵焼き – Japanese block shaped omelet, usually sweet tasting), which I would have preferred. My real mistake was picking up nikogori (煮こごり – にこごり), as it turned out to be jellied fish. I think I might be able to stomach a small portion of cold jellied fish as a dinner side dish—maybe—but as a breakfast food, I found it to be quite repulsive. The coffee was very good though.
After checking out of Uni-to-Kinoko, the party moved on to Yobetsu Elementary School for a cooking seminar. I got there early, with most of the staff. When the participants showed up, I was a little surprised to see only the women. Apparently the cooking activity was not intended for the men. Again, gender roles. I couldn’t help but think that the guys were missing out though, because the cooking lesson was epic.
Five sweet old ladies were the cooking instructors, and they taught the Konkatsu participants how to prepare salmon, as well as a kind of pumpkin hotcake. The ladies started with a whole salmon, head and all, the kind of giant silver fish you would see hurled through the air at Pike Place Market. With terrifying speed and precision, the sweet old ladies made short work of the fish, chopping off the head and fins, and deftly filleting the body with their knife. In some instances, the salmon was female and two large egg sacs would be carefully removed. Salmon roe (イクラ) is extremely popular in Japanese cuisine, so the eggs sacs are especially precious. After all the ladies had tried their hand at fish butchery, a multitude of salmon fillets were ready for everyone to take home. Even though I didn’t really help out at all, I too received five or so fillets, as well as freshly canned salmon roe. It was amazing.
The Konkatsu events were supposed to go on until 3:30pm, but by noon I was ready to be on my way. I caught a ride home with some of the other staff, including the speaker lady from Sapporo and the female half of the comic duo who emceed the previous night’s dinner. We stopped at a sushi restaurant in Yobetsu to grab some lunch before our drive. As you might have expected, it was amazingly delicious and just the right amount of food too. The quality of sushi on the Shakotan peninsula is so good that I’m wondering if it will ruin all other seafood for me, by comparison.