Category Archives: Obihiro

Driving in Japan

When I accepted my placement in the rural town of Shakotan, there was one aspect of the position that really bothered me. It wasn’t the relative isolation in the country, or the fact that almost no one spoke any English (or so I’d been told). Even the promise of an epic winter with massive snowfalls the likes of which I had never seen wasn’t a worry for me. It was the driving. You see, one simply cannot work outside of major cities without needing a car.

Well, that's informative.

Personally, I don’t have much love for automobiles. It may be un-American to say, but I think the way people fetishize cars is absurd. Some people may see owning a car as liberating, but I see the opposite. I hate being confided to a car seat, obligated to focus on the task of driving for long periods of time. (It’s boring and my legs start to cramp up after a while.) I hate being in – nay, a part of – traffic. I hate all the maintenance that owning a car entails. I hate all the trouble one has to go through with car registration and insurance. I hate the expense of gasoline and the social implications its use. In general, I just hate driving – but I hate parking even more.

One of things I had loved about Seattle was that I had been able to get around the city without needing a car. Sure, Seattle’s public transportation isn’t the best in the world, but it got the job done. Only on rare occasions did I need to borrow my brother’s car for something specific. I didn’t particularly mind riding the bus, and anytime I could get to a destination on foot, I felt especially gratified. But in rural Hokkaido, I needed a car, if for nothing else, just to drive to my more distant schools.

So the day before I left for Japan, I had made a trip to AAA and picked up an International Driving permit. This was a surprisingly quick and easy process, and only cost about $26. The International Driving permit was good for one year, and along with my valid Washington State driver’s license, officially allowed me to drive in something like 150 countries. This seemed far too easy…

The company leased a car for me. I was given a “location allowance” on my paycheck that made my net income look bigger, but it really just covered the cost of the car lease and a little gas. They handled the lease, insurance, registration and the like; they would even cover routine maintenance appointments for me at a nearby autoclub. This made the whole car thing rather foolproof on my end; just don’t get in an accident. (And I’ve been in my fair share of fender benders.) Once my car arrived, it was time to get the hang of driving again, this time on the left side of the road.

Driving on the left is, of course, the biggest difference between roads in the States and roads in Japan, and the one that’s hardest to acclimate to. The first time I drove my car, Yamazaki-san was in the passenger seat as we took a leisurely drive around Bikuni so that he could remind me where the schools were. I absentmindedly turned into the right lane twice with him in car, making him alternately laugh and freak out. While I was awfully careful driving on my own initially, I still ended up turning into oncoming traffic on at least five separate occasions. Parking lots are especially confusing when you’re used to using the wrong side of the road.

But eventually I got the hang of it. The 30-minute drive to Yoichi became routine. I even started making the long drive to Sapporo. This greatly impressed Nozomi-san, as I made the journey on my own, without dashboard navigation or even a map. (The road signs are in both Japanese and English, so I just followed them. It was really pretty easy.) When I had a free day and the weather was nice, I’d explore the coast and the mountain roadways of the Shiribeshi area, driving through Niki, Iwanai, Tomari, Kamoenai, and the like. During the summer break, I drove across central Hokkaido to the town of Obihiro for a massive fireworks display. I brought three passengers along who had naively put faith in my total lack of Japan driving experience.  With such practice, driving in Japan became second nature, and I got used to the little nuances that make Japan’s roadways unique. There were a few things that stood out for me.

For instance, at least in Hokkaido, people will quite often run a red light if it has just turned red. Occasionally, I’d fly through an intersection when the light was yellow – just barely making it legally, I thought – only to have three cars follow behind me. The first driver could maybe have facetiously claimed that the light was still yellow when he entered the intersection, but the second and third drivers definitely ran on red. At first, this slightly amused me as a blatant violation, but then I saw it happen over and over, and I started to wonder if maybe Japanese traffic laws were flexible on the whole “red means stop” thing. I eventually learned what is common knowledge in these parts, that when the traffic signal turns red, there are exactly three seconds before the cross traffic gets their green light. With this three-second gap in mind, drivers will often run red lights, slipping by without interfering with the flow of traffic. So when it comes down to it, green means ‘go’, red means ‘stop’, and yellow means ‘go really fast’. But for a fresh red, see yellow.

Another thing that startled me early on was that the police almost always drive around with their emergency lights flashing. The sirens aren’t on but the reds lights spin around, apparently without communicating any sense of emergency. I wasn’t sure if I should pull over when I first encountered this, but it turns out that the cops just generally cruise the highway like that. In fact, they often leave a squad car parked outside of the police station with its red lights flashing, as if just to remind you that they are there. If I ever do get pulled over in Japan, the cops will really have to use the siren or else I’ll have no idea that they want me to stop.

On the highway and especially in Sapporo, I learned quickly that the lanes are really just mere suggestions. Especially on four lane roads, drivers don’t really hesitate to swerve into the neighboring lane without so much as a turn signal, whether to avoid a park car on the left, or a car waiting to turn on the right. While this sounds dangerous, everyone is usually driving pretty defensively and looking out for what the other cars are doing, so it seems to work out pretty well.

Generally speaking, the speed limits in Japan are slow. REALLY freaking slow. Driving on the highway, I usually see 50kph as the posted speed limit. This is about 31 miles per hour. The fastest speed I’ve ever seen posted was 80kph on the expressway, which is almost – but not quite – 50mph. Yamazaki-san once told me that everyone gets speeding tickets, and with the snail’s pace regulations, I can see why. Still, I suppose it is safer that way.

Through observation and imitation I have learned that you’re supposed to stop and look both ways before proceeding through a train crossing. This is true when the barriers are up, no lights are flashing, and there’s not sign of activity whatsoever; you always have to stop at the train crossing. Also, you are supposed to turn on your headlights whenever you enter a tunnel. During the day, most drivers flip on their lights when they enter the tunnel and switch them off again when they come out the other end. Since there are tons of tunnels in my area (the road from Yoichi to Shakotan is probably more subterranean than open-air) I generally just leave my lights all the time. I hope that doesn’t make me look weird…

There is a lot of road construction in Hokkaido, year-round. Whether they are filling potholes, repairing the damage of the latest landslide, clearing away many tons of snow that necessitates the use of heavy equipment, or even boring huge new tunnels into the side of a mountain, the construction crews in Hokkaido never stop working. They are also incredibly polite. The kanji for construction work is read kouji (工事), not that you’ll ever need to know it, because you’re sure to recognize their symbol; a stick man in a hardhat and safety vest bowing. Their signal gestures to you, whether delivered with illuminated wands or hand flags, are intuitively clear and don’t require any explanation. Although, generally speaking, it helps to know that red means ‘stop’.

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Filed under Educational, Obihiro, Sapporo, Shakotan, Yoichi

Fireworks in Obihiro

August 13, 2011 – Every year, the town of Obihiro hosts one of the biggest fireworks displays in Japan. With over 20,000 fireworks set to light up the sky, the Kachimai Fireworks Show (勝毎花火大会) is definitely the biggest display in Hokkaido. When my fellow ALTs and I were looking for a possible destination for a summer road trip, this event arose as the clear winner. The fact that it would only take a few hours to get there from Sapporo, and Nari’s friend had invited us to his family’s house to watch the show, didn’t hurt either.

This wasn't the gridlocked part.

We planned on leaving at 8:00am. Having been warned that traffic would be murder, all advice to us was to depart very early in the day. Nari and I picked up Elizabeth and her boyfriend, Mark, at Sapporo Station and headed out a tad later than we hoped. Our other ALT friend, Hannah, had planned on coming with us, but car seating restrictions and a recent wisdom teeth removal kept her from joining us. We stopped to gas up my Suzuki Wagon R and get some refreshments before venturing out on the Hokkaido Express Way. By the time we were really rolling, we were probably an hour behind schedule.

This sign indicates that you've been spotted.

As it turned out, the reports of heavy traffic were not at all exaggerated. In fact, I think the advice to leave early wasn’t stress enough. At a certain point, the Hokkaido Express Way bottlenecked into a two-lane road, which was actually what the majority of the expressway was. Thousands of vehicles clogged the single lane leading east. We found ourselves in a beautiful mountain pass, stuck in bumper to bumper gridlock that crawled forward, only intermittently. It was definitely the prettiest traffic jam I’ve ever seen, but a traffic jam nonetheless.

I had to laugh at the fact that we were obligated to pay for the toll road and it wasn’t getting anywhere very fast. Eventually we were able to get off the express way, which we actually did by accident, and got a little lost in central Hokkaido’s back roads. Like the reports of traffic, the descriptions of Hokkaido’s beautiful countryside were also understated. The rolling hills, mountain valleys, farmland, and simply open plains, were breathtaking. Around every turn was an idyllic scene that looked more like an artist’s concept of a peaceful childhood than a real place. Some of the wide open areas reminded me of the Legend of Zelda, and I imagined how exhilarating it must feel to ride a horse across the landscape. Then I went back to focusing on driving my car.

We noticed that one town along the way seemed to advertise dinosaur fossils, as if there were a museum. We didn’t actually stop to check it out, but the roadside plesiosaur skeleton really did pique our interest. There was also a pair of towers that caught our eye, mostly because the man-made structure looked so out of place in the natural landscape. We assumed that the towers were a hotel for a ski resort, seeing as how they were in the middle of nowhere, but we never did find out exactly what that was.

one good-looking son of a bitchAlong the way, the four of us engaged in idle chit-chat. Mark was college physics professor by trade, which I found most impressive. He was visiting Japan for only a few weeks, getting to spend time with his girlfriend over summer break, but would have to return soon to resume teaching classes. There were enough common interests to keep to conversation going, so even while stuck in gridlock, things were never dull, and many a laugh was had. One particularly funny moment was when we were talking about how dialogue obscenities in movies get voiced-over to make them TV appropriate, often to hilarious results. Elizabeth shared a new one from The Big Labowski that I hadn’t heard before: “This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!” I laughed so hard, for so long, that I literally cried, and I’m not even a big fan of that movie.

In the afternoon we arrived in Obihiro. The three hour drive had taken us six hours to complete, but no one seemed too displeased about it. Our original plan had been to stay with a friend of Hannah’s parents, and even though Hannah wasn’t able to come, we still stuck with that plan. The kind lady met up with at a paltry pachinko parlor parking lot, and led the way to the house we were staying at, which turned out to be next door to a local church.

You see, Hannah’s parents were Christian missionaries, and their friend was also a missionary. The inexpensive room we were renting was actually in the church’s guesthouse. Our hosts greeted us with genuine warmth and didn’t proselytize. They did give us an excruciatingly detailed tour/explanation of how everything in the house works—including a warning that the night air gets very cold, so we were not to open the windows after dark, lest we get sick—but it was done with the best of intentions. There was one tense moment when Nari (who was acting as unofficial leader of the group) was asked if we would be attending their Sunday church service the next day. I honestly didn’t want to go to a church service, and luckily my companions had other plans, so we needed to leave very early in the morning. Thank God.

Nari’s friend Hiro met us at the church. Hiro is a super friendly guy, thin and good-looking, with a classic winning smile. I started speaking Japanese to him and Nari teased me for it; his English is very good. We piled into his car, leaving mine behind so that I too could drink, and headed to his family’s house. During the short drive, he told us about how mother and aunt and cousin would be there, but no male relatives, he would be the man of the family. We were going to do yakiniku, and he explained that they had lots of food, so we should eat and drink as much as possible. I knew this wouldn’t be a problem.

When we first got to the house, we opened some beers and chatted, while The Karate Kid: Part II played on the TV. It wasn’t long before we went outside to get the grill going. I’ve been impressed with the consistency of how people barbeque in Japan, it seems very standard. In the States, everyone has a different way of grilling, even different equipment; coal burning grills versus propane grills for example. But in Japan, everybody uses a metal mesh surface atop a trough of hot coals, and everyone uses a paper hand fan (団扇 – うちわ) to get the fire started. Hiro showed us how it’s done, and we helped manually fanning the flames.

Once the grill was going hot enough, we started cooking. In keeping with every yakiniku party I’ve attended, there was tons of food; Jingiskan, horumon, hokke (ほっけ – a species of mackerel popular in Japan), yakitori, squid, and this ham that I’m pretty sure qualifies as bacon, just to name a few. The beer was also plentiful. Even as more guests arrived, we clearly had way more beer than we could drink, plus there were cans of shochu and a couple bottles of champagne as well. We had the makings of a fine party before the sun even went down.

The fireworks were to be launched from the river and the house was just a few blocks away, so we were well placed for the show. There was one apartment building between the house and the river that obstructed our view of the lower level fireworks, so in order to get a better vantage point, some of us climbed up on top of the garage. Hiro’s mother brought out a ladder for people to use, but I always opted to rely on my Spider-Man/ninja skills. Before sunset, I did plenty of climbing on the rafters of the covered parking structure, and even did a wall-run straight up the garage itself. Hiro impressed me by also running up the side of the garage, but he did it while wearing flip-flops! That takes some serious balls.

As was no surprise, the firework show was amazing. Right from the start fiery colors filled the sky, and it felt like the finale of a smaller show. Most of the time, at least four fireworks were launched at once, as if the folks running the event were trying hard to use all 20,000 within a time limit. (They probably were.) Every time there was a pause in the action to reload for the next wave, I kept thinking that that had to be it. Be they just kept coming. With so many subsequent explosions, I wondered if the fireworks could use up so much oxygen that the people of Obihiro might collectively suffocate.

I came down from the roof to get another beer and I heard Hiro’s mother and cousin playing the radio. The local radio station was broadcasting music and a commentator to go along with the fireworks. After what seemed like many finales, there was a huge rapid-fire sequence of explosions, and the firework display ended. I had expected an awesome show, and yet I was still blown away.

After the fireworks display, there was more merriment to be had. A watermelon was brought out for suikawari (西瓜割り). Suikawari is game played in the summer in Japan that is equivalent to playing with a piñata. The player is blindfolded and given a big stick, and then they try to break open the watermelon. The main difference between suikawari and breaking a piñata is that the watermelon is on the ground. A blue tarp was laid out and the prize watermelon was set upon it. For our big stick, we used a bokuto (木刀 – wooden sword). This kendo equipment had belonged to a deceased relative, but it had never been used, or so was my understanding.

I was the first to attempt suikawari. This was actually my second time playing it; I was first introduced to the game at Hizuka ES’s party to celebrate the start of summer vacation. Blindfolded and bokuto in hand, I felt pretty confident that I could smash the watermelon, despite the fact that I was a bit drunk by this point. Guided by the voices of everyone at the party, I stepped forward; forward, turn right a bit, no too much, a little left, forward again, a smidge right…and so on. When everyone told me I was in place, I raised the bokuto high in the air and—paused for dramatic effect—swung down at the melon with all my might. There was a loud crack and shockwaves reverberated through my hands. The watermelon was unharmed, but the tip of the bokuto broke as a result of being slammed into the concrete. I had missed.

The end of the bokuto splintered off, resulting in the wooden sword being shortened by four to six inches. The new tip of the bokuto was now a bit sharp too. My hands ached for some time afterwards, just from the vibrations they absorbed when I hit the ground. Mark was the next one try suikawari. We guided him with shouts to the spot where the watermelon awaited its grizzly fate. He blindly took his swing in good faith, but unfortunately swung wide, hitting the ground just to the left of the watermelon.

Nari was contestant number three. Following our voiced instructions, he set up and took her swing. Unlike Mark and me, Nari’s aim was right on the money. In fact, the splinter-sharpened end of the bokuto didn’t just smash the watermelon, it sliced it evenly in two. The melon opened up into two hemispheres of fruity goodness. Then we all ate it. After the watermelon was pretty much devoured, we even went the extra step of drinking sparkling wine from the remaining pieces of rind. It was awesome, in a nature commune sort of way.

After drinking from the watermelon chalice, my memory of the rest of the night gets a bit fuzzy. I remember talking with Hiro about this and that, talking with his cousin about her job as a nurse, and generally making conversation with all of their friends present. I’m told that my Japanese just sounded better and better as the evening went on, further convincing me of the power of “nominacation.” I’m also told that yakisoba (which I love) was made very late in the evening, and that I devoured a huge portion of it, but I honestly don’t recall this at all. At the end of the party, Hiro put the four Americans in a taxi, and we were taken back to the church.

I don't remember this part.

The next morning we aspired to depart by 8:00, and actually took off at 8:45am. When I was putting my bag in the back of the car, I was surprised to find two six-packs of beer and a broken bokuto. Suddenly I remembered that Hiro had entrusted me with the bokuto before we left the party. It really was the perfect memento.  The beer I didn’t really remember, but the others reminded me that there was so much surplus alcohol that Hiro had sent us home with some. What a guy!

We filled up the gas tank and hit up a 7/11 for breakfast. Despite its impracticability for eating while driving, I couldn’t resist buying inarizushi (稲荷寿司). Inarizushi is a sweet sushi item made by wrapping rice in aburage (油揚げ – fried tofu). I highly recommend it.

On our way back I started noticing many abandon-looking train stations scattered about the Hokkaido countryside. They appeared a bit old and decrepit, like they hadn’t been used for quite some time. I contemplated stopping at one to explore one, but I didn’t want to waste everyone else’s time to go climbing around an abandoned building. Hopefully I can check out a ghost train station in the future.

In the town of Yubari, we encountered a fascinating cultural phenomenon. It was the combination of Hokkaido pride in bears, Hokkaido pride in their produce, and Japan’s pervasive culture of making cartoon mascots for absolutely everything. The resulting product: Melon Bear (メロン熊). While Melon Bear (or Melon Kuma, as it’s called in Japanese) defies description, I will do my best. Basically, it’s a melon, like a cantaloupe, with a bear’s face, legs, and tail. Actually, that wasn’t very hard at all. I guess it’s not the description that’s hard; it’s the justification of its existence.

My friends and I found Melon Kuma at a rest stop in Yubari. We were only looking for refreshments and a restroom, but we found the motherload of fruit-Ursus mutation themed merchandise. There were figurines, magnets, stuffed animals, animatronic stuffed animals, piggybanks, pillows of various sizes, stickers, bumper stickers, folders, notebooks, key chains, cell phone charms, hats, t-shirts, and underwear, not to mention a sizeable collection of food (or food-like) products. My favorite food product had to be the “Melon Kuma Milk Soft Candy”, simply because the Melon Kuma pictured on the package had a single breast growing out of its underbelly.

Melon Kuma is definitely one of the most random things I’ve come across so far. Japan is truly wondrous, often perplexing, place.

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