Category Archives: Sapporo

Amazing Hokkaido Snow

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Having grown up in the Midwest, I’ve seen my fair share of bitter cold blizzards. And although the drizzly Seattle life might have made me soft, I still hadn’t been too worried by the stories of Hokkaido’s unrelenting winters. After changing a tire on the side of the highway in Iowa, in January, with no gloves, nothing seems quite so bad. And yet, Hokkaido’s winter still amazed me. It would seem that all the tall tales about Hokkaido and its intense snowy climate were quite accurate…

013My first winter in Hokkaido, the snows started in mid-November, and they never stopped. All the way through March, it snowed—with varying intensity—every day. Often times this was just a light dusting. Occasionally it was several inches. Shoveling snow became a regular afternoon activity for me, my new winter workout regimen. The accumulated snow piled up, forming hefty white blankets on rooftops, sometimes over a meter thick. Mountainous piles of snow collected on the sides of roadways, eventually forming walls boardering all pathways; shining white barricades that wouldn’t exist come summertime.

020The first time I chose to walk to school was a crisp winter day. While frosty cold, the air was still, and it felt peaceful. The snow crunching underfoot was especially satisfying. By the time of my afternoon walk back, the sun had come out and the radiant light bouncing off the snow was initially blinding. Once my eyes adjusted, the brilliant colors adorning buildings and signs really popped out; a marked contrast to the vast white cover. Elementary school kids approached me, asking me to participate in a yukigassen (雪合戦), which I quickly learned meant “snowball fight”. They also taught me the words yukidama (雪玉 – snowball) and tsurara (氷柱 – icicle), and I attempted to teach them the English equivalents.

001My second winter in Hokkaido, the snow and the temperature started out much less consistent. And with this inconsistency came turbulent, harsh weather. Whenever the snow hit, Old Man Winter made up for lost time. After a few days of no precipitation—and possibly above-zero, snow melting conditions—the ensuing blizzard would arrive and bury Shakotan. Afternoons might be rather warm and slushy, but by 5:00pm, it was frigid driving wind and heavy snow. Waking up to a foot and a half of fresh snow in the morning was fairly routine.

022So often was I digging out my car in the morning that I stopped bothering to clear off the collected snow from the top of the vehicle. My little Suzuki Wagon R appeared to be wearing its own white beret, a decorative snow hat. This usually made no impact on in-town driving, so I figured it was a harmless habit. On the open road, however, I learned that it wasn’t very safe at all. In the 30 minutes it would take to drive from Shakotan to Yoichi, the car would warm up considerably, and the snow atop the roof would begin to melt just a bit. Then it would only take a slight touch of the brake to bring the whole lot of it cascading over my windshield. The thick blanket was often so dense and heavy that the windshield wipers weren’t powerful enough to move it and they would be pinned down. Becoming suddenly blinded while driving is never fun, but having to pull over to remedy the situation makes it considerably worse.

005Despite my spotty driving record, I managed to make it through my two years in Japan without getting in any vehicular accidents. In fact, even with the long distances I drove during the wintertime, I never got my car stuck in the snow, not once. I kept a snow shovel in my car at all times, just in case, but I never had the trouble. My little K-Car, or kei-jidōsha (軽自動車), handled exceptionally well on snow and ice. Whether this was due to the vehicle’s lightweight, excellent snow tires, or a combination of the two, I’m not sure. Only three times in two years did my car go into a real skid, of the “life flashing before my eyes” variety. And each time I was able to bring the car back under control, right course, and avoid flying off the road. The worst skid Snow pics 008had me sliding at a 90° angle, going 65kph or so, but even then I managed to correct that one just in time to avoid oncoming traffic.

When winter strikes, the Shakotan locals are well-equipped to handle whatever nature threw at them, and the heavy equipment would come out to clear the roads. The snow would be dealt with via bulldozers, excavators, dump trucks, and even loader-mounted snow blowers—which look like terrifying snow threshers, with gigantic rotating blades at the fore for devouring massive corridors of snow.

012Occasionally, the accumulated snow would slide off a rooftop and come crashing down to the ground. This is honestly my favorite part of the Hokkaido winter. There is something mesmerizing about watching a great sheet of snow cascade off a rooftop, an instant sea of heavy white powder rush forward and plummet like a semi-frozen waterfall. If the avalanche is large enough, you can hear it too. Many times I would hear a massive crash from my apartment, a brief roar and then silence; Hokkaido’s winter thunder.

003The rooftop avalanches can be legitimately dangerous if you’re standing underneath them, claiming a few lives every winter. Tall buildings in Sapporo even have signed displayed on the sidewalks saying, “Beware of falling snow” in Japanese, and often also English. As a result of these conditions, people end up needing to shovel their roofs. If the snow piles up too high, it can cause your home’s roof to cave in, so it needs to be cleared away. People will climb up to the rooftops and shovel away, being very careful where they step. This is straightforward task for people with flat rooftops, but an A-frame home looks quite challenging. I’ve seen lots of people do this, even some elderly folks. You really must remain able-bodied to survive in Hokkaido.

The building neighboring my apartment had a slick-looking slanted rooftop. Wooden crossbeams were mounted across the roof to allow for people to climb up and clear the snow off. During the first winter, I came home while this shoveling was in progress and chatted with the workers from just outside my second-story door. During the second winter, the snow piled up like usual, but no one ever came to clear it away. I kind of figured that it would probably just melt down and crumble away on its own, but that was a poor assumption.

006One March afternoon, when temperatures were above freezing and the weather had turned rainy, I returned to my apartment to discover that the snow from the building next door had cleared itself away. Apparently the wooden crossbeams had given way under 001the massive weight of the accumulated snow and the whole the lot of it had come down. The resulting avalanche crashed into my building with enough force to bust through the wall, driving snow inside the unit below mine, and presumably ruining my neighbor’s day. The damage was so bad that my neighbor was forced to relocate and a crew was brought in the next day to clear away snow and board up the destroyed wall. My room was just fine.

The structure on the opposite side of the slick-roofed building was also affected by the avalanche. An old wooden warehouse that didn’t look very sturdy to begin with, this building actually had large braces erected on one side to keep it from falling over. Time had taken its toll on the debilitated shack, but it was still standing. Thanks to the heavy snow crashing into its side however, it was now leaning steeply to one side. Amazingly, while the new angle of the house had turned the rectangular window frames into rhomboids, the glass hadn’t broken.

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Mike Visits Shakotan

During my entire first year living abroad in Japan, I had only one guest; my beautiful girlfriend Marissa. Not only did no one else venture across the ocean to visit the quirky island nation, but none of new the friends I had made within Japan ever managed to visit my humble abode in Shakotan. It wasn’t until June 2012, exactly one year after Marissa’s visit, that I received my second houseguest; my beautiful brother Mike.

Of everyone in my family, Mike was the most appropriate candidate to make the trip to Japan. For one thing, Mike had a strong, long-running interest in Japan. In fact, he was probably the one responsible for giving me the Japan bug, fueling my Nippon obsession with countless hours of Street Fighter battles on the Super Nintendo, Playstation, at the arcade, you name it. Mike had voluntarily taken summer Japanese classes at the University of Iowa—something completely outside his demanding aerospace engineering curriculum—followed by completing every advanced Japanese class that the University of Washington had to offer. He used to spend almost all his free time studying the language, just for fun.

One of the perks of Mike’s job at Boeing is that when the company delivers a new plane to client airlines, some engineers need to ride along and do final diagnostics of the plane in flight. As such an engineer, he might get sent to Australia or the United Arab Emirates or—conveniently—to Japan. Two of Mike’s oldest and dearest friends lived in Tokyo and delivery flights had made it possible to visit them in the past. But this was the first time the stars aligned for my brother to be dispatched to Tokyo while I was around. So this time, he would make the trip north to Hokkaido.

On Thursday June 14th, Mike arrived in Sapporo. Since I was working in Shakotan on that day, I couldn’t meet him at the airport, or even the train station. Instead, the Fukui family (the Sapporo family who had all but adopted me) would take care of him. Hiroko—essentially my Japanese host mother—met Mike at Sapporo Station and graciously drove him all the way to my remote peninsula.

Hiroko’s minivan pulled up to my tiny Shakotan apartment building late in the afternoon and Mike hopped out. Energetic as ever, Hiroko expressed her surprise that Mike’s Japanese skills were so good. She said that he spoke Japanese better than I did! Considering how much time and effort my brother had put into his studies, this made perfect sense. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Hiroko and company hit the road, heading back to Sapporo again. To get Mike acquainted with my little town, we took a walk around Bikuni Marina (美国マリナ), located just behind my apartment building, followed by an introduction to Seicomart, Shakotan’s only convenience store. There Mike got a very Japanese drink, canned coffee.

For relaxing times, make it a Suntory time.

For dinner, I took Mike to Jun no Mise (純の店), one of my favorite local restaurants. The place was rather empty, so we got to chitchat with Mr. Jun and his family. Eager to give Mike the authentic Hokkaido experience, I ordered a lot of separate plates for him to try, like zangi (ザンギ), ika-yaki (烏賊焼き), and a rather pricey kaiyōdon (海洋丼 – literally “ocean bowl”, a bowl of sashimi-grade seafood on rice). I ordered enough food for four or five people, so it was a little ridiculous. On the way back to the apartment, we again dropped by the Seicomart to pick up some Suntory whiskey and Schweppes British Lemon Tonic. This made for some delicious cocktails at the old homestead.

Not as easy as it looks.

To cap off Mike’s first night in Shakotan, we cracked open my Toshiba laptop and set about replacing its screen, which I had broken a week or so earlier. Usually a broken screen is seen as not repairable, a piece of hardware that if damaged, completely totals your laptop. But I love my little Toshiba, and Mike and I were ambitious enough to attempt the replacement. The process turned out to be a bit more difficult than we expected—the screws are really small and the angles can be difficult to maneuver around—but in the end we were victorious. The laptop lives!

I decided to take the day off on Friday to make the most of the limited time that my brother was around. Ironically though, Mike wanted to see where I worked, so our first destination was Bikuni Junior High, the same place I would have been if I wasn’t using vacation hours. The other teachers shyly greeted my brother, and he even got to drop in on a couple classes to be introduced to the students. The social studies class proved to be so interesting that Mike hardly wanted to leave, but there was more to see.

We drove out to one of Shakotan’s famous sites, the Shimamui Coast (島武意海岸). After taking in the spectacular view and snapping some obligatory photos, we had lunch at the shop situated right outside the tunnel entrance. Driving along the gorgeous coastline, the summer sunshine hitting the blue sea made a tremendous view.

When we got to Kamui Misaki (神威岬)—the crown jewel located at the tip of the peninsula and Shakotan’s pride and joy—it looked as though the trail out to the end of the cape was open. However, we made our way out there to discover that less than a third of the trail was actually accessible. Apparently a section of the path had been destroyed in a landslide. Mike took in as much of the epic rocky coast as possible, and we enjoyed cones of the “Shakotan Blue” ice cream exclusively available there. Mike enjoyed the light minty flavor of the blue dessert, and then found himself craving more canned coffee. Luckily, the vending machines were right there.

The original plan was to leave Shakotan early that evening and spend our Friday night in Sapporo’s Susukino. Mike’s only goal in coming to Hokkaido was to sample Sapporo’s legendary miso ramen (味噌ラーメン – ramen noodles in a bean paste broth), so dinner in Sapporo was kind of a given. After completing the prerequisite sightseeing, it was only on a whim that I took Mike into the town office to potentially meet some people, like the mayor. Ihira-san, head of the Shakotan Board of Education, was the first person we dropped in on, and he was very excited to meet Mike. In fact, he was so excited that he offered to treat us to dinner at the finest sushi restaurant in town, Fuji Sushi. It turned out that Friday June 15th was “Uni Day”, the day Shakotan’s famous sea urchin was half price. Since Mike was in town at just the right time, Ihira-san insisted that he had to try the seasonal specialty. In the face of such great generosity, we were powerless to resist, and we changed our plans for the evening.

IP Phone production room: where the magic happens

On the second floor of the town office, the mayor’s office looked especially busy, so I decided not to attempt an introduction. Instead, I introduced Mike to the IP Phone staff, the folks that handle Shakotan’s local videophone network. The group was very welcoming, inviting us into the editing room where they put together the programs that the IP phone broadcasts into everyone’s homes on a daily basis. Specifically, they showed Mike my English conversational program, Lucas no One Point Eikaiwa (ルーカスのワンポイント英会話). This was interesting for me as well, as I had never seen the process past the point of recording my audio. The little room was long and narrow, suspiciously similar to a storage closet. It housed a desktop computer attached to multiple pieces of audio and video editing hardware, as well as an IP phone for testing newly made programs. To illustrate what my English lessons were like, they played the latest one for Mike, giving him a sneak preview of Saturday’s upcoming One Point.

Upon exiting the little IP phone room, we ran into a large group of local office workers that were headed to Fuji Sushi. These folks also invited us to join them for dinner, but I explained that we were already going with Ihira-san. It certainly seemed like a lot of people in the office were planning on taking advantage of the day of cheap uni, although we didn’t quite realize the extent of it. To our surprise, our Fuji Sushi dinner party grew to about 30 men, essentially becoming a huge party.

The dinner took place in a long room on Fuji Sushi’s second floor. Distinctly Japanese in style, the room had sliding doors and a Tanami floor, which the low tables necessitated we sit on. Huge platters of sushi were brought out, each one delivering 40 or 50 pieces of nigiri. Maguro (鮪 – tuna), awabi (鮑 – shellfish), and the like were all impressive, but the uni (海栗 – sea urchin) truly stole the show. Shakotan’s local specialty was pure gold, both in color and taste.

The sheer quantity of sushi was overwhelming and wave after wave appeared on the table. The drinks were equally abundant, if not more so. We started with big mugs of cold Sapporo beer, and this would have been enough for Mike and me, especially when Japanese etiquette demanded that our next beer arrive before we had even finished the last. But then we were offered locally-made wine, which we simply had to try. Then came the sake, also made locally, and therefore similarly obligatory. At one point, Mike had one nearly finished beer and another untouched beer, a glass of red wine, and a small glass of sake which was being constantly refilled for him by a city council member. I started to supplement my beer intake with glasses of water to prevent myself from getting too drunk.

Such an amazing spread of food and drink made for aristocratic social lubrication. Mike and I caroused with the warm and generous Shakotan folks, discussing jobs and schools and foods and sports, etc. The conversation was truly wonderful, and I witnessed Mike’s Japanese become more and more fluent with each drink. Eventually the dinner concluded and the evening went into its second phase, which in Japanese is called nijikai (二次会 – second party of the night, afterparty). Members of the group that still wanted to party headed over to Snack Cocoro (スナック心) for more drinks and karaoke.

Drunken karaoke is a standard Japanese pastime, the place all late nights on the town eventually gravitate towards, and as such, Mike was no stranger to it. This night was special, however, because we weren’t Tokyo or Sapporo or some other sizable city; we were in the middle of nowhere. Instead of a private room for a small group of friends, we were in a small, old fashioned “snack” bar. This wasn’t your typical, urban karaote experience. This was Shakotan. Mike and I impressed the local guys by singing songs in Japanese. I sang my usual “Sake-yo”, while Mike performed the wedding song “Kanpai”. One guy was so delighted by our singing that he passed out. It was either that, or the fact that he was very, very drunk.

On Saturday, we were rather slow to get moving. The previous night’s excessive frivolity weighed us down like a lead vest. Although we had planned on setting out in the morning, we didn’t actually make it out the door until about 1pm. Our first order of business to visit my closest-to-local Mr. Donut (in Yoichi) so that Mike could sample the coffee and doughnuts that drew me out of Shakotan so often. While in town, we checked a market that local wines and sake, as well as a crazy variety of locally caught seafood. Unable to find anything any particularly good souvenirs for Mike to bring home, we bought a couple of soft drinks and set out again.

The fruity, carbonated beverage we chose was called Oronamin C Drink (オロナミンCドリンク). An old fashioned Japanese energy/health drink that comes in diminutive 120ml glass bottles, originally introduced in the 1960’s. Unlike modern day energy drinks which usually contain an unsettling concoction of caffeine, herbal snake oil, and potentially dangerous chemical stimulants, Ornonamin C is really just a vitamin C drink. On his trip, Mike had seen numerous ads for the drink, most of them antique steel posters from a bygone era, starring comedian Kon Omura. Intrigued by the historical significance, we gave Oronamin C a try. It was extremely tart, clearly high in ascorbic acid as advertised, and reasonably sweet. Good, but not that great.

Shiroi Koibito Park

When we got to Sapporo, we made our first stop Shiroi Koibito Park. Shiroi Koibito (白い恋人 – the name means “white lovers”) is well-known white chocolate biscuit only available in Hokkaido, produced by the confection company Ishiya (石屋製菓). The company owns the city’s J-League soccer team, Consadole Sapporo (コンサドーレ札幌), and half of Shiroi Koibito Park forms the team’s practice grounds. The other half—the part we were stopping to see—is like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.  The architecture of the park’s buildings and various decorations communicates a clearly intentional northern European vibe. Even from the outside, one can see odd touches, like elaborate ivy-covered tree houses just off the side of the road. On the ground floor, immediately inside the entrance, there was an upscale gift shop selling all manner of posh, decadent chocolate goods to adults on the right, and a cartoonish, colorfully over-decorated candy laboratory for the kids on the left. In the center was a grand staircase stretching up to the next floor, which housed a free toy museum and the entrance to the not-free chocolate factory tour.

The unique but inconsistent atmosphere of the whole place was a bit disorienting and surreal. It reminded me of my first experience with Rusutsu Resort. Still, one had to laugh at the sign that proudly displayed the text “Candy Labo”. (Ah, so close to English! Good effort.) The courtyard was even more overdone random additions; a variety of child-sized dollhouses, automatic bubble blowing machines, and animatronic robot singing bakers, just to name a few. We couldn’t tolerate the sensory overload for long. Mike bought some presumably delicious—definitely expensive—chocolates to bring back to his wife and we were off.

When we arrived at the Fukui house, even I was shocked by the amount of food Hiroko had made for Mike’s welcome party! Apparently she had started cooking at 6am, going all day, and crafted a veritable feast. Since Fukui family had really taken me in like an adopted son, Mike too was like another son to them, one that they had never met. Hiroko clearly wanted to make this evening a joyous and memorable occasion. This mindset was evident by the dining room table, now overflowing with food. There was oden, chicken fried rice, salmon, pizza, pasta salad, potato salad, salad salad, an infinite supply of giant crab legs, and more. It was such an impressive spread that it was downright ridiculous. The drinks were equally over the top, with an insurmountable quantity of beer, wine, Champaign, shōchū, and sake available.

My closest friends in the area, other ALT’s based in Sapporo, were also invited to the party. Additionally, there were some guests that were new to me, a couple of young families who were work friends of Hiroko’s. The evening turned into a real family dinner party, complete with younger kids running around the downstairs in a perceptual state of play. A Nintendo 64 was brought out to entertain an older child—if we’re being honest here, it was also for my friends as well—and classics like Mario Kart 64, Pokémon Stadium, and the original Super Smash Bros were played on the TV while the adults chatted about this and that.

After much drinking and merriment, someone suggested we go out to catch the last moments of the Hokkaido Jingū Matsuri (北海道神宮祭り), the annual festival for the Hokkaido Jingū, Hokkaido’s high-status Shinto shrine. In hindsight, in was definitely too late to head out to the festival, and some of us had probably drank too much to go out in the first place. But Mike hadn’t seen much of Sapporo yet, so I felt obligated to try and catch some of the festivities. To exacerbate our poor planning, instead of taking taxis down to Nakajima Kōen (中島公園), the park where the matsuri was being held, we decided to walk there. This walk took approximately 30 minutes. While a nighttime stroll through Sapporo in the summer is quite pleasant, it simply took too long for our purposes.

By the time we arrived at the park, masses of people were leaving and the vendor stands were packing up. The festival had pretty much ended, but we walked in anyway, against the current of traffic, to get a quick look. I even tried my hand at winning a baby turtle, but I failed because there’s a trick to it. (Of course.) Eventually the speakers played an instrumental rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”, Japan’s definitive way of telling people to get the hell out and go home. The festival was over and we had missed it. Instead of walking all the way back to the house, we had the good sense to take taxis home this time.

Shenanagens! Shenanagens!

Mike’s flight on Sunday afternoon gave us just enough time to do lunch before his departure. To make sure everything went smoothly, we decided to eat at the airport, which houses what is essentially a shopping mall. We took the rapid service train down to New Chitose Airport (新千歳空港) early and searched the place for a good lunch venue. Finally, at the tail end of Mike’s trip, we found a nice restaurant serving Sapporo-style miso ramen.  There’s nothing like a lunch of soup noodles and beer to remind you that you’re really in Japan. After lunch, we grabbed one last coffee before Mike went through security, and he was on his way back home.

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Sapporo Snow Festival 2012

I awoke early on Sunday, February 12th because my friend was picking me up at 7:30 and then we were driving to Sapporo. Natsumi, an elementary school teacher in Shakotan, had gotten two tickets to the Toyota Big Air snowboard jump competition at the Sapporo Dome and invited me to come along. We hit the road early so that we’d have time to see some of Sapporo’s world famous Yuki Matsuri (雪祭り – Snow Festival).

The Sapporo Snow Festival was simply magnificent. I expected to see some giant snow sculptures, but my concept of “giant” was far too diminutive. Natsumi and I first checked out an array of intricate ice carvings, lined up on one of Susukino’s thoroughfares, right in the middle of the road. (Apparently, starting from 10:30am, the street became pedestrian traffic only.) The ice carvings, partially crystal clear, partially cloudy translucent, were beautiful in the morning sun. I can only assume that when lit up at night, they would be even more breathtaking. The sizes varied from your antique vase-sized smaller sculptures, to the more common 2 – 3 meter tall masterpieces. There was also a whiskey bar made completely of ice and apparently actually fully functional. The sculptures were all so impressive that I barely noticed how bitterly cold it felt outside, especially in the shade.

Then we made our way into Odori Park for the Snow Festival proper. And WOW, it was even bigger than I had imagined. I had known that there would be snow sculptures carved out of large (probably 3x3m) cubes, but I didn’t realize that they would be the smaller pieces on display. To my surprise, there were several massive snow sculptures the size of houses. Sure, the snow Taj Mahal and snow Osaka Castle weren’t made to actual size, but they were pretty large-scale models, still bigger my apartment building.

Rice-stuffed squid on a stick. This is the life.

Odori Park was busier than I had ever seen it, and it wasn’t even noon yet. Clearly the festival had brought in lots of tourists, because there were many, many foreign faces in the crowd. Signs posted around the park sought to guide foot traffic in a counterclockwise path through the festival’s myriad of displays and vendors. It was crazy cold out, but no one seemed to care too much as this was a spectacle that could not be missed. Plus, there was hot tea, hot coco, hot coffee, hot amazake, and lots of hot festival food around every corner.

The first monumental snow sculpture we saw was a massive, impressively detailed, aquatic life scene. The huge piece had dolphins, seals, a sea turtle, and a walrus, all made in a larger-than-life-size scale. At the high horizon point in the background, a whale was breaking out of the surface of the water. Plenty of fish and coral and such livened up the background and the amount of detail was staggering. The artists had even used clear rubber tubing to form the walrus’s whiskers. (While this was the only part of any of the pieces I saw that wasn’t made of snow, it was actually a pretty nice touch.) Speakers pumped out an instrumental version of The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea”, repeating forever on an endless loop. At night, custom-made lighting of undulating blues and greens made the underwater impression even more palpable.

Most of the other monumental snow sculptures were scale models of world-famous buildings, but there were a couple character pieces, like the giant Fantasia version of Mickey Mouse. This Disney-themed sculpture seemed to be commemorating the 10 year anniversary of a Japanese Disney Resort. Near the end of the park there was a giant anime-themed sculpture, a combination of Toriko and uber popular One Piece. It was fairly plain in comparison with the other pieces, as it simply featured each anime’s lead character (the titular Toriko and One Piece captain Monkey D. Luffy) along with one animal character from each show. Fans of either series were sure to be thrilled with it and the cuteness of a three-meter tall Tony Chopper was difficult to top.

Just past the anime sculpture was a collection of pieces by foreign artists, and these were some of the most interesting works of all. Starting with a 3x3m cube of snow, each artist had carved an original sculpture, usually something representative of where they hailed from. There was a sculpture representing India, Thailand, Hawaii, and even one for Portland, Sapporo’s sister city in the States. Most of these were either impossibly detailed, conceptually very cool, or both. As stunning as the monumental sculptures were, these particular pieces were the highlight of the show for me.

We took the subway down to its last stop and arrived at the Sapporo Dome around noon. Unlike my previous visits to the Dome, it was not warm inside. In fact, it was probably about the same temperature inside the dome as was outside, although the simple lack of wind made it feel a lot more comfortable. The show goers who came to see the Tokyo Big Air contest were all dressed in snowboarding apparel, as if they had been headed to the slopes but ended up here on accident. This turned out to be the most appropriate dress, as it was both warm enough for the chill and stylish enough to keep one looking good.

Instead of a baseball field or soccer pitch, a large snow-covered slope had been erected in the center of the dome. It was very steep coming down from the top, leveling off about halfway down. A ramp at the midpoint plateau would be used for jumping. After that, there was another slope for landings, eventually evening out on to flat ground at the base. An impressive construction of scaffolding, its skeleton resembled a huge Erector Set. The rest of the dome’s floor space was taken up with reserve seating and several cars on display, like the event was part auto show. The main sponsor of the event was Toyota, after all.

Starting a 1pm, and going until at least 9, the Toyota Big Air competition was pretty much an all day event. That didn’t mean that snowboarders dazzled the audience with big air tricks for eight hours straight, however. The event had multiple musical acts; including a popular Japanese rock band, called “One OK Rock”. (For the uninitiated, stemming from Japanese R-L confusion, the band’s name is supposed to be pronounced like “one o’clock”. Seriously.) In addition to the bands, local TV personalities provided plenty of nonsensical filler “entertainment” and giant projector screens flanking the slope on each side played advertisements during any and all down time. While it had its dull moments, when the international collection of professional snowboarders did actually tackle the jumps, it was quite entertaining.

I was genuinely surprised to recognize one of the competitors, Eero Ettala of Finland. Just a couple weeks prior, when I had been invited to Yoshimura-sensei’s house for dinner, we had ended up watching a couple episodes of this Eero fellow’s TV show. Apparently he had actually won the Big Air competition the previous year (as well as in 2005), so his participation wasn’t too surprising to anyone who followed this stuff, but I don’t. There were also two American snowboarders, two Canadians, one from Iceland, another from Slovenia, and at the onset, at least 12 Japanese competitors.

For some reason, no one wore helmets at the beginning of the competition. Even by the end of it, only a handful of competitors opted to wear a helmet, and only once or twice. The youthful Mark McMorris of Canada abstained from protecting his skull and instead wore just a baseball cap, which in hindsight seemed ill-advised, since he ended up smashing his head into the snow fairly hard. Public Health says no.

A little bit after 7pm, Natsumi and I decided to slip out and head home. The competition was still going on – now down to its final four riders – but with a two-hour drive ahead of us, it wasn’t worth battling the crowd at the exit after the show was over. On our way back to the car, we took a quick look at the Snow Festival at night. With its impressive colorful lighting, it was even more beautiful in the dark. However, thanks to a heavy snowfall in progress and high winds picking up, the frigid weather had gone from uncomfortable to a full on blizzard. We looked around for about 10 minutes before calling it a day and trudging back to the car park.

All in all, the Sapporo Snow Festival really was amazing, just as majestic as advertised. It was definitely cold – bitterly cold – but it’s called a “snow festival” after all, so that was probably to be expected. Like Japan’s famous sakura (桜 – cherry blossoms) in the springtime, Odori Park’s snow sculptures are another example of impermanent beauty, their allure increased by their short lifespan. While stunning in their scope, the frosty masterpieces are only destined to stand for one week. After this, they are bulldozed into oblivion. Catching a glance of their artistry was well worth enduring urban Hokkaido’s winter wrath at its most vicious.

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Getting a Japanese Driver’s License

In late November, I received an email from the company about the process of getting a Japanese driver’s license. It contained a list of documents to procure that was dauntingly long, and also informed me that Americans rarely pass the test on their first attempt. At that time, I was really indecisive about whether or not to renew my contract; in fact, I was thinking that I probably wouldn’t do it. Since I wasn’t planning on staying in Japan for a second year, I certainly wasn’t motivated to jump through the hoops of getting a Japanese license, so I promptly forgot all about it.

Fast-forward to February and I received another email from the company labeled “URGENT”. The rep asked if I had gotten any of those documents ready and reminded me that time was running out. By this time I had decided that one year wasn’t long enough and was now planning to stay in Japan after all. But I had done myself no favors by dragging my feet. Now I needed to act fast and get my documents in order so that they could schedule a test for me, and in the meantime, I was strongly advised to take some driving lessons. The urgency, combined with the looming difficulty that Americans usually have passing the test, freaked me out a bit.

Here’s what it looked like:

  1. A valid foreign driver’s license (US license)
  2. A Japanese translation of the US driver’s license from JAF (Japan Automobile Federation)
  3. An official document identifying the date that the license was first issued (such as a driving record or official state verification of status)
  4. An old Japanese driver’s license (if I had one)
  5. Tōroku Genpyou Kisai Jikou Shōmei-sho (外国人登録原票記載事項証明 – Certificate of Information Recorded on a Foreign Resident) a registration file from city hall
  6. Gaijin Card
  7. Passport
  8. Any additional documents confirming residence of 3 months or more in the country from which the license was obtained (such as school transcripts, old passports, etc). If necessary, apparently the US embassy could issue an entry and departure record.
  9. A photograph (3cm long x 2.4cm wide) taken within the past 6 months, no hat, front-face, no background, and from the shoulder up

Scrambling to collect the documents, I discovered that the seemingly complicated process was actually just as complicated as it had first appeared. Not only were some of the documents difficult track down – A document identifying the date that my license was first issued? Like from when I turned 16…in Iowa? – but some of them were even rather expensive. The JAF issued translation of my Washington State driver’s license cost ¥3000 (plus an additional ¥380 in postage for them to mail it back to me). Once I received this pricy piece of paper, I discovered that it actually had an expiration date. Why would a translation of a driver license have an expiration date, you ask? Beats the hell out of me.

It took me two weeks or so to get everything in order. By my count, the costs for the documents alone totaled ¥4480. (Additionally, I ended up spending $10 on an official Washington State driving record that I didn’t actually need. The Washington State DOL website’s FAQ section was quite clear that I just needed to email them to receive a “verification of status” document, but in my haste, I had already paid for the driving record before I read that bit. And by the way, Iowa’s DOT website, along with its lack of services, was utterly useless and unhelpful.) I was ready to face this test and see just how bad it really was.

On Thursday, March 1st, I was given the day off work so that I could go take a driving test in Sapporo. Since Americans are required to do a paper test and a practical driving exam, I had thought that I was doing both of these on the same day, but it turned out the written portion needed to be done first and actual driving part of the test would have to wait. Hiroko and Shun were kind enough to take me to the Driving Test Center (運転免許試験場) in Teine, and guide me through the process. As it turns out, I certainly could not have managed without their help.

We arrived at the Driving Test Center at 1pm. Documents in hand, we proceeded to window six, the one for foreigners. Hiroko noted that within the Driving Center, the signs were written almost entirely in kanji, making it difficult for a person of novice Japanese skill to read what’s what. The lady at the window took my documents and gave me a short paper to complete; it was basically asking if I have ever had any problems with problems with loss of consciousness, or other medical conditions which would impair my ability to drive.  I quickly read through it, circled “none of the above”, and signed. Then, before giving it back, I quickly corrected a small typo and handed it across the counter. This startled the lady, as she thought I was going to circle one of the other options, but when she saw that I was just correcting the form’s English, she seemed rather pleased.

They took my various documents, as well as my Washington driver license, passport, and alien registration card to be copied. Then they asked us to wait and return to the window in about one hour.  Hiroko, Shun, and I bought some refreshments from the vending machine corner and sat down to wait. An hour later, they called me up to the window again and I got my passport, alien registration card, and Washington license back. Apparently all my documents had checked out. I was given a new form and directed towards the vision screening area. But before I got my eyes checked out, I need to purchase ¥2400 in payment stamps to cover the process. The guy who did my vision test was probably the most cheerful guy I saw all day. He seemed to really enjoy listening to answers of “left”, “right”, “up”, and “down” in English, and his huge smile never faded.

After the vision test, I needed a wait for a little while longer while the staff prepared an English version written test for me. I was a bit worried about this written exam, even though I had actually read the book; I just had bad memories of my written driving test back in Iowa. It turned out that the exam was only ten questions, and it was a maru-batsu test (まるばつテスト – true-false test).  This should have been simple, but I still stressed over the prospect of making too many mistakes and failing. Luckily, I passed just fine.

With the written test passed, we then had to schedule practical driving exam for another day. Hiroko again stepped up and took care of me, speaking with staff and calling Nozomi-san to make sure the times worked for everyone. We scheduled the driving test for the following Monday afternoon, at 1pm. Following my company’s advice, we also scheduled a one-hour driving lesson for that same day, in the morning. This way I got some practice on the driving course, as well as insider info from a professional driving instructor. Use of the driving course costs ¥700 per half hour, so I had to buy ¥1400 worth of payment stamps ahead of time to be able to pay for my lesson’s hour on the course Monday morning.

On Monday March 5th, I got up at 5:30am. I had a driving lesson scheduled at the Teine Driving Test Center, with a driving course reservation at 7am. Hiroko was happy to drive me to the Driving Test Center in Teine again, even though it was very early. My driving instructor turned out to be a slender, athletic-looking gentleman with a military haircut. He seemed quite fit and youthful, so I assumed he was young, but the creases around his eyes indicated he had more years than I had guessed. We would be driving the course in his car, which looked like a taxi cab. The course was smaller than I had expected after looking at its map. Still, it was probably the size of two football fields placed side by side. There was a traffic signal intersection in the center, a couple of tight and narrow side streets, and enough room to accelerate to 50kph on the outside track.

The lesson itself was done completely in Japanese and proved invaluable for passing the practical driving exam. This isn’t because the lesson teaches you the necessary skills for safe driving, but because the driving exam has very specific and rigid expectations for what you are to do. Without a briefing on the esoteric actions one needs to perform during the test, the safest drivers in the world couldn’t pass. There are a lot of little touches, simple things to perform, but if you don’t know what they’re looking for, you’re screwed.

For example, right from the outset of driving, you should look 1) back at the left blind spot, 2) forward towards the front-left corner of the car, 3) at the rearview mirror, 4) towards the front-right corner, and then 5) back at the right blind spot. That’s a 5-point look combo that you’re obligated to do or you’re docked points. Of course during the test, you might not have been aware that you were being judged on few things even before this “initial” step. Did you adjust your seat, adjust the rearview mirror, buckle your seatbelt, and lock the door? Did you physically crouch down and check the ground in front of the car before even getting in? You probably missed points if you didn’t.

After the 5-point look combo, you still have to perform another step before starting to actually drive. Hit the right blinker to indicate you’re going to pull out, and look 1) at the rearview mirror, 2) towards the front-right corner, and 3) back over your shoulder at the right blind spot before starting to drive. In fact, anytime you turn or changes lanes, you are expected to perform this 3-point look.  From there on out the instructor gave me little tips to fine-tune driving. For example, what side of the lane to lean towards and when, when to drive slower or faster, and remembering to look right –then left – at an intersection (not left then right, like I’m used to). With his tutelage, I became more confident that I could pass the test. I paid ¥7000 for the hour lesson and hoped that it was enough.

Hiroko and Shun again accompanied to the driving center to help with any communication issues and to generally root me on. The time sensitive nature of the whole thing had made me anxious and I genuinely appreciated their support. As instructed, we were there at the window, five minutes before 1pm, ready for the physical driving test. However, we ended up having to wait because I was testing with two other foreigners and they hadn’t showed up yet. I joked to Shun that my fellow foreigners were probably Russian mafia and so they didn’t show up on time for anything. To my surprise, twenty minutes later, five or six young Russian men appeared.

The Russian guys lazily strutted up to the counter, standing out more from their swagger than from their height or whiteness. Since we had to wait for them to show up late, Shun was a bit offended by their lack of decorum. He quite audibly talked about how they were idiots in Japanese. I too was a little put off by them at first, as groups of rowdy young dudes generally make my spider-sense tingle, and I didn’t particularly want to attract their attention. Luckily, these guys could barely understand a word of Japanese so they probably didn’t catch the cracks Shun made about them.

My two fellow test participants and I were led into a little room where they explained how the test was going to go – in Japanese. Most of this time was spent trying to clarify if the Russian guys understood the directions, which they quite clearly did not. I tried to help translate a little, but one guy understood only a bit of Japanese and a bit of English and not much of either.  The other guy knew only migi (右) and hidari (左), right and left. During this briefing, I discovered that Japan has separate licenses for manual and automatic transmission vehicles. I was getting an automatic transmission license, so I would only be legally allowed to drive automatics and any car with a stick was off-limits.  My new Russian friends were doing the manual transmission test, and I had a feeling that their chances of passing that day were really slim. It was too bad too; they actually seemed quite friendly after I got a chance to talk to them.

To start our test, the three of us jumped in the car with an older gentleman, and he drove the course to demonstrate what we were going to do. After the run through, I got to drive in that same car – an automatic transmission – with the man, while the Russian guys got into a second car – a manual transmission – with a female test administrator. Since I was in the lead car, I couldn’t see how my Russian friends were doing, but I needed to focus on my own test anyway. The fate of the whole endeavor came down to my performance of the rehearsed, arbitrary, esoteric, superfluous driving actions to I had learned that morning.

Throughout my driving test, the test administrator made little ticks on his clipboard; I assumed he was checking the boxes of all the things I was doing right. I felt pretty confident during my drive. I followed all the tips I had received, made it painfully obvious that I was looking at all the right places, and never hit anything. The actually driving took less than five minutes. Finishing up back at the starting point, the man casually asked me a couple questions; what kind of work I did, where I lived, if I had taken driving lessons. His friendly demeanor gave me the impression that I had passed. Ten or 15 minutes later I got the official word: I did indeed pass. No problems. The Russian guys both failed. There was one more fee to pay via the payment stamps, another ¥2100, and then I had my photograph taken. It was about 2:15pm, and they told me that I could pick up my brand new license at 4:00.

Since we had some time to kill, Hiroko, Shun, and I drove to a nearby used book store to do some shopping. Like many bookstores in Japan, this store sold all kinds of media; books, manga (漫画 – Japanese comic books, which are produced in a variety genres for pretty much all possible audiences), music, movies, and even a variety of video games. I entertained myself for an embarrassing long time simply perusing the Famicom, Super Famicom, and Nintendo64 titles. Eventually (and with Hiroko’s help) I located the store’s inventory of a boxing manga called Hajime no Ippo (はじめの一歩); I’m a fan of the anime. I purchase book #4 and decided to challenge myself to read it.

At 4pm, we returned to the driving test center and picked up my new license. I had succeeded, and just in time too. To have the card in my hand was a great relief. It was also a further endorsement from the Japanese government that I was welcome to live and work in Japan.

In the end, the cumulative expenses to get my license totaled ¥17380 (that’s about $208 USD). The process of converting a foreign driver’s license to a Japanese one did honestly seem to be intentionally complicated. While one might guess that this is in an effort to keep foreigners excluded, I don’t think that’s the case. I believe the process is actually made difficult to prevent Japanese citizens from getting a driver’s licenses in foreign countries and converting them over at home. A Japanese citizen could easily get a driver’s license while on vacation, in say Hawaii, and then return to Japan and convert this license to the Japanese equivalent. If successful, you would circumvent the normal driving school method of obtaining a license and save yourself a lot of money.

You see, Japanese driving schools are quite expensive. Enrolling in a driving school in Japan can run you somewhere between ¥300,000 and ¥400,000 (approximately $3,600 to $4,400). Clearly, it’s big business. The boatload of documents, the esoteric driving test rituals, and even the driving course itself, are all designed to maintain the necessity for driving schools. From the outside this looks like quite a scam. But then again, I’m just an American, so what do I know?

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Filed under Educational, Sapporo, Teine

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

Aquariums, Zoos, and Hell Valley

My piano teacher friend, Mayumi, invited me to come along on an onsen (温泉) trip to the southern Hokkaido town of Shiraoi (白老), and we decided to do some sightseeing as well. Shiraoi has some pretty interesting sights to check out, especially in regard to its preservation of Ainu culture, but we missed all that and actually did sightseeing in the nearby town of Noboribetsu (登別). In hindsight, it would have made more sense to do the reverse, since Noboribetsu is one of the most famous onsen destinations in Japan, a place whose name is synonymous with hot springs. Oh well, there’s always next time.

On Wednesday December 28th, the plan was to check out Noboribetsu’s aquarium and then the volcanic vents at the source of the town’s natural hot springs, a place called Jigokudani (地獄谷 – “Hell Valley”). After that, it was off to a Shiraoi for a soak at the onsen that Mayumi can procured discounted tickets to. Right away, upon exiting the expressway at Noboribetsu, we were greeted by a gigantic statue of an oni (鬼). At 18 meter tall, with red skin, horns, and a spiky killing club, the demon displayed a fearsome countenance. However, he pointed all visitors towards the Noboribetsu Onsen, which I took as a welcoming gesture.

Oni (鬼) are ogre-like creatures from Japanese folklore. Generally speaking, oni have horns, sharp teeth, and either red or blue skin. They’re usually big and ugly, and often carry a large club. While originally depicted as fierce and frightening menaces, oni also have plenty family-friendly depictions, pretty much analogous to Shrek in the western world. When Japanese kids play the game of Tag, the person who’s “it” is called the “oni”. Oni also feature in the February holiday of Setsubun (節分), where kids throw beans at ogres to repel them from the house, and in turn, shoo away bad spirits for  good luck.

In Noboribetsu, oni are everywhere, as they have basically been adopted as the town mascots. Oni signs and trinkets abound, and there are various oni statues peppering the town, including some that stand as talismans of good luck in randomly specific things like romance, success in business, and passing exams. Apparently there’s even a Jigoku Matsuri (地獄祭り – Hell Festival) in August, which sounds pretty hot.

The aquarium we visited immediately struck me as a bit usual, defying my expectations. I was expecting all the interesting stuff to be inside the building, similar to the Seattle Aquarium, so I was a bit surprised when we pulled up to a little castle town that had its own Ferris wheel. The Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe (登別マリンパーク二クス), it turns out, is more than just sea creatures.

The main aquarium facilities are contained within a German-style castle, with a moat and everything. This building is called “Nixe Castle aquarium” (水族館二クス城). Flanking the castle on either side are two auditorium structures called, “show pools”, where sea lions and dolphins perform shows for humans’ amusement. Directly in front of the castle is an open courtyard, called Nixe Square (二クス広場), and this plaza is encircled by quaint little storefronts where all the architecture has a distinctly European style. And while it wasn’t operating in winter, adjoining this Little Deutschland there is an amusement park. Nixe Land (二クスランド) comes complete with a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, train ride, go-karts, and a carousel.

While I could have used more time taking in the stimulus overload, we had to hurry the sea lion pool to see a performance by Hal, the sea lion. Trained to bow, clap, and smile on command, Hal also caught rings and balance balls for the audience’s amusement. I was honestly shocked at how trainable the sea lion was. Even though he was clearly working towards the reward of more fish, I wondered if he had a concept of how unnecessary it all was, and if he got bored of performing, or wanted to be free. Perhaps he enjoys the attention, as well as the fish, but I kind of doubt it.

Next we entered Nixe Castle to see some of the main aquarium exhibits. In the center of the building was a four-story tall open room. The chamber had two escalators in the center, taking visitors from the second story to the top, while the bottom floor was completely filled with water. Deep pools covered the floor, providing a public home for various large sea creatures, including sharks, manta rays, and schools of random fish. It was quite an awesome spectacle, and the unlikely combination of steel escalators, undecorated gray walls, and deep blue shark tanks made me feel like I was in a Bond villain’s secret lair. The hallways of the castle also contained copious items of Atlantis and seafaring memorabilia, and some of the more fantastic touches made me think of the Water Temple from The Legend of Zelda. The whole place was much more interesting than I had expected.

In the middle of checking out the main castle, we had to run back outside to see a scheduled “penguin walk”. By this point, the interesting sights and warmth contained within the main building sounded far more appealing than venturing back out into the frigid winter cold, but I followed Mayumi’s lead. As it turned out though, the outdoor attraction was quite entertaining. Just like it sounds, the penguin walk was simply penguins walking, but it’s not something you see every day.  Staff led the penguins, parade-style, around the square, while the gathered onlookers snapped as many photos as possible. As cool as it was to see the penguins so close up, it was much more interesting to see grown men and women fervently trying to capture the cuteness on digital media; priceless. The flightless birds all had colored rings high up on their wings and I wondered exactly how comfortable it was for them to wear the tags.

After penguins, we reentered Dr. Nixe’s secret lair and continued exploring the castle. Like the Seattle Aquarium, there were petting pools for people to gently touch the sea creatures. But in addition to the usual starfish and sea anemones, there was also a “touch pool” (タッちプール) for sting rays! This was irresistible to me, and despite the cold, I just had to dip my hand in feel the slick skin of a sting ray. In a rather bare, unembellished pool, the sting rays swam at a constant speed, in a counter-clockwise motion. As magical as it was to pet their smooth backs, I couldn’t help but reflect on how limited their lives would be in such a drab cage. The beautiful and majestic creatures are naturally inclined to fly through the ocean waters, but here the pool was only two feet deep. I honestly felt sorry for the little guys.

There was also a touch pool for horseshoe crabs, which really blew me away. Somehow, in all of my days in the Pacific Northwest – and I suppose, biology classes in school – I had never seen such a creature before. Between the armor of their shells and the long rigid tails, the crabs looked very alien, and their spidery legs underneath made “creepy” an accurate descriptor. If such a thing were to ever appear in a sci-fi video game, the natural response would be to shoot it dead and ask questions later. Of course, it was my ignorance of horseshoe crabs, and not their looks, which was shameful. In Japanese, horseshoe crabs are called kabutogani (かぶとがに), literally meaning “helmet crab”, a name which I think is more fitting. While they are fascinating creatures, their shells aren’t at all that interesting to feel.

We needed to interrupt our castle exploring a second time and make our way to the dolphin pool, where another show was about to start. Now, I had already spent the day wondering about the welfare of the animals we had gotten to see – the sea lion, the penguins, the sting rays – but if there’s only one animal whose welfare in captivity seems questionable, it’s got to be the dolphin. This is especially true in Japan, thanks to the 2009 documentary The Cove.  A pair of dolphins swam around and performed jumps for our amusement. Well for our amusement and the Pavlovian reward of fish. I suppose they didn’t seem unhappy, and they seemed to get along with the trainers well enough. But I still wondered what kind of feedback the dolphins would give if they were capable of human speech.

After the Flipper stage show, we were back in the castle again, finally finishing up the tour of the facilities. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the final part of the castle walk included an underwater tunnel portion. The tunnel actually cut through the pool that was at the bottom of the castle’s central chamber; the escalator room that had impressed me in the beginning. The sharks and sting rays and schools of fish were even more magnificent from an underwater perspective, as they swam alongside and above the transparent tube. I tried to take close-up pictures of the sharks, but the low light and surface reflections made getting a good shot quite difficult. Emerging on the other side, our tour of Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe was complete.

Our next tourist destination was a sulfuric gorge that goes by the name Jigokudani (地獄谷), meaning “Hell Valley”. The volcanic vents of Jigokudani supply Noboribetsu’s hot spring spas with natural spring water, rich in minerals. The first thing I noticed when we got out of the car was the pungent stench of rotten eggs. The volcanic vents have quite a high sulfur content, meaning “Hell Valley” smells strongly of brimstone year-round. Near the precipice, Jigokudani is rather breathtaking. Since it was the middle of winter, snow covered everything. In the gorge however, hot vents kept some surfaces too warm for snow cover. A constant fog of steam lifted off the barren landscape, lending to the eerily accurate hell comparison.

Mayumi and I walked the trail out into “Hell Valley”, getting a close-up view of the craggy, moonlike surface, and the cloudy creeks, yellow with sulfur. Steam rose from the ground in several different spots around us and the air was humid. I couldn’t help but imagine that this was precisely the place Gouki (Akuma) from Street Fighter would train. He’d probably then unwind at the end of the day by soaking in a sulfur bath. Eventually we made it out to a large volcanic vent that had a deck surrounding it for easy viewing. Steam gushed out from it, as it was essentially a geyser that bubbled instead of erupting. This hole in the ground, four feet in diameter, would make the perfect tub for Gouki, I thought.

The path at Jigokudani was quite active with other tourists. The snowy trail was a little tight in places and precarious with visitors coming and going. While I was the only white guy in sight, the other tourists definitely weren’t speaking Japanese. And one point, Mayumi said, “Urusai, kankokujin,” (「うるさい韓国人」), or “These Koreans are noisy.” To be fair, if I were walking my family into hell, I think I’d probably be a bit loud about it myself.

After Jigokudani, we finally drove to our main target, the onsen in Shiraoi. Since onsens are separated by gender, this was the first time that I had visited the baths completely on my own. I didn’t have any friends to imitate, no lead to follow, but I was pretty used to the whole thing by that point, so I was quite comfortable. Relaxing in one of the hot baths, I stared up at the ceiling. The condensation of hot, humid air collected above the bath to produce a canopy of hanging raindrops.  I reflected on how unintentionally beautiful this stippled surface was, like a hydromorphic Sistine Chapel. It’s the little things in life…

For some reason, I decided to challenge myself to a hot/cold bath circuit. After getting uncomfortably warm in the hottest bath available, I walked over to the cold tub and carefully plunged in. Sitting down with the frigid water up to my neck, I focused on my regulating my breathing and tried to remain absolutely still, motionless. Initially, the cold is quite a shock to the system. I could actually feel my heart starting to work harder and my breathing became a bit erratic. The icy cold spurred me to escape for the first 30 seconds or so, but then the cold surrounding my body became rather tranquil. My skin seemed to get used to the external chill, while my body’s core felt warm by comparison. My heart pumped warm blood throughout my system, holding off the cold at the surface. After a minute, I felt like I could sit there all night.

I was so still in the cold bath that little air bubbles collected on the undersides of my arms. It began to look kind of like I was soaking in 7-Up. After what was probably five minutes, I climbed out feeling very refreshed. In comparison to the cold bath, the air was warm and I felt like I had a blanket wrapped around me. I still had some time to kill, so I did the hot/cold thing a second time. After a second run, I felt like a million bucks.

On Monday January 2nd, with Japan still in full New Year’s swing, Mayumi and I decided to take advantage of some holiday deals and see more animals. We started in the morning with a trip to Maruyama Zoo (札幌円山動物園) in Sapporo’s Maruyama Park (円山公園). The park is 60,000 square meters nestled into Sapporo’s western neighborhoods. In addition to the zoo, the park’s features include the spectacular Hokkaido Shrine (北海道神宮), Maruyama “Primeval Forest” — the perfect spot for viewing cherry blossoms in springtime — athletic fields, tennis courts, and a baseball stadium. At least these are the things I’ve heard of, because this was my actually first visit to the park.

In my experience, zoos are summer attractions, kind of like amusement parks. I had thought that people only visit the zoo when the weather is warm and sunny. Maruyama Zoo appears to be unique in that it operates year-round. So, in the dead of winter, Mayumi and I ventured out to see the animals.

January 2nd was a special day at the zoo and we arrived at the precise moment that they were giving away free hot drinks. A warm can of tea was a nice touch, because the weather was frigidly cold and we were going to be doing plenty of walking outside. Inside my boots, my toes quickly went numb.

The zoo was completely snow-covered. The path, the trees, the animals’ pens, everything; a think blank of white accented every level change. It was a beautiful spectacle, although to be honest, even the monkeys looked cold. I expected the snow leopards and polar bears to be at home with the cold, but to my surprise, several animals from tropical or sub-tropical environments were also outside in the snow. African lions, hyenas, and a Bengal tiger, for example, were just chilling out in the freezing temperatures. There was a large building that was kept toasty warm for the giraffes, antelope, and ostriches to stay in, but even the hippopotamus decided to venture outside of this safe haven for his snack. I always thought that snow and hippos just don’t mix.

There were other indoor exhibits that helped me regulate body temperature, like the birdhouse, ape house, and a building designed to make wolf and bear viewing easier. My favorite part of the zoo had to be the orangutan exhibit, which featured a toddler orangutan that was just about two years old. Apes always fascinate me (purely out of self-interest, being an ape myself) and watching the little one play was delightful. He was actually too small for the exhibit’s cage to hold, and he effortlessly slipped between the bars, although he was still separated from zoo patrons by a thick pane of glass. A staff member was coming and going in this space, cleaning up a bit, and the little guy followed him with childish curiosity. I felt an undeniable ancestral bond with the humanlike little ape.

Overall, the Maruyama Zoo in the snow was pretty magical. Mayumi told me that in the summer, the zoo would look completely different, so I should check it out again sometime. We hit the gift shop on the way out and I picked up some postcards to send back to the States. Some young boys with Ultraman masks were getting their Power Rangers on, play fighting just outside the door. Mayumi pointed out one of the candy items on sale, called gorilla no hanakuso (ゴリラの鼻くそ – gorilla boogers). As she explained, marketing humorous food grotesqueries to children as candy is popular in Japan too.

After the zoo, it was off to Otaru for lunch, and a visit to the Otaru Aquarium (小樽水族館). Much like Noboribetsu Marine Park, the Otaru Aquarium had an adjacent amusement park, which was currently closed for the winter. So far, this seems to be a consistent theme, with Ferris wheels being part and parcel of the aquarium experience. While it didn’t have a castle exterior, the Otaru Aquarium was situated on the side of steep hill, facing the sea, so it properly would make for a quality fortress against invasion.

Just inside the door, right next to the gift shop, the Otaru Aquarium has a pool of seals to welcome all on comers. Its small size allows everyone to get very close to the seals, making photos obligatory, but such close proximately gives one the sense that you could reach out and pet the animals. Multiple signs warn that the seals will bite your fingers off and reaching in to give them the opportunity is strictly prohibited. The seals swam around, bobbed up and down, simply laid there on a dry patch, and generally looked adorable, meanwhile everyone with a cell phone or digital camera tried their hardest to capture the moment.

Otaru’s aquarium had beautiful tanks displaying all manner of sea creatures; sting rays, eels, octopi, sharks, crabs, venomous lionfish, stonefish, blowfish, seahorses, and even arapaima from the Amazon that were over a meter long. Judging from the gift shop emphasis, someone apparently expected anago (あなご – garden eel, conger eel) to become the next big thing. My personal favorite was a rescued sea turtle, who was missing one of his front flippers. I have a natural affinity for turtles, but this guy had real character.

Much like the penguin walk in Noboribetsu, the Otaru aquarium had an indoor pelican walk. While everyone tried just as hard to get pictures of the pelicans, I got the general impression that these birds weren’t quite as docile. From the moment they came running out of their pen with wings outstretched, it looked like the big one was waiting for an excuse to start a fight. While being paraded around, the group of birds huddled together defensively, and I got the impression that they liked the exercise, but not the attention.

Eventually we made our way to the show pool for some animal-performance based entertainment. A covered catwalk connected the show pool to the main building, but a vicious Siberian crosswind made traversing it surprisingly unpleasant. Once inside, we sat down for a sea lion performance. At Otaru there were three sea lions on stage together and they performed feats like solving math problems, gymnastically forming a pyramid, and “playing” musical instruments (piano, bass drum, and cymbals).  While the math and music stuff was clearly contrived, the athletic bits were very impressive.

Next, the trainers brought out a walrus. Ironically, everything the trainers had taught the walrus to do involved either sucking or blowing. He blew bubbles, kissed volunteers from the audience, and hooted – producing pitches like he was whistling. It was a unique spectacle, but I really wished he would’ve taken a shot at the musical instruments; there’s a Beatles tune just begging to be covered there.

Finally, three dolphins came out for the show’s headlining act. They swam at a rapid pace around the pool and shot out of the water for some high jumps. At one point, they slid out of the water completely to greet the poolside audience face to face. I just hope these majestic creatures aren’t bored to tears from their job.

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Rusutsu Resort

If there is one thing that brings people to Hokkaido, it’s the snowboarding. Hokkaido’s frontier of unspoiled nature makes for some great outdoor activities, and the heavy snow makes winter sports almost compulsory. So throw a mountain into the mix—which isn’t hard to find anywhere in Japan—and you have the makings of the perfect ski resort. So when I received an invitation to join some fellow international interlopers for a weekend of early season slope shredding, I went for it.

Andres, my friend and fellow ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), was turning 30. Being Aussies, both Andres and his fiancée Sarah were culturally obligated to be enthusiastic skier/snowboarders, so a birthday party at a ski resort was fitting. He drew up an invitation over Facebook and 12 of his luckiest friends (including me) signed on to spend the weekend in Rusutsu (留寿都). I had heard the name before, but I really didn’t know what to expect from the place.

On Saturday December 3rd, everyone met in Sapporo, near the town’s epicenter, Sapporo Station. The plan was to board a bus at 8am that would take us to the resort. Andres and Sarah had arrangements well planned out, with transportation, lodging, and lift tickets all covered by one flat—and rather inexpensive—rate. Once the bus got moving, everyone became acquainted with everyone else, which was good, since I only knew three people beforehand. Throughout the two hour drive, fog and falling snow made it hard to observe the natural beauty of Hokkaido, but it was still a pleasant ride.

Rusutsu Resort (ルスツリゾート) is huge complex, and apparently a major destination for skiers and snowboarders. The resort is more than a huge hotel next to the slopes. There are three mountains for skiing, and in addition to the hotel, there are log cabins and cottages for rent. The complex contains several specialty shops, and an assortment of restaurants and eateries. There’s an onsen (温泉), a game center, an indoor wave pool, animatronic robot animal musicians (no seriously), a fountain with its own music-coordinated light show, and a free carousel for the kids. There’s even a whole amusement park that operates in the summer months. Basically, Rusutsu Resort is like a self-contained city. Walking around the resort feels a bit strange, like being in Disney Land or aboard the starship Enterprise. Something about it feels artificial, contrived, but probably with the best intentions.

At least, I think that’s how Rusutsu Resort would normally be. At the time of our arrival, the skiing season had literally just begun, and Rusutsu, just reopened, was still very empty. There were some staff working and a few other snowboarders around, so the place didn’t feel completely abandoned. Still, not everything was operating yet, and a whole wing was basically shutdown. There was a strange vibe in the air, a lot like the Stanley Kubrick movie “The Shining”. Every new theme park-like side attraction we discovered increased my impression that we were in the perfect setting for a horror movie.

When our group first arrived at the resort, the giant carousel caught my eye. Honestly, it was hard to miss. White and red, and crowned with lights, the merry-go-round had two levels of seats. It also featured fantastic creatures to ride; the usual galloping horses, plus a giraffe, camel, pig, and something that was either a dragon or seahorse, I wasn’t sure. Walking up to the oddly placed circus attraction, I discovered that the hallway containing it was even more extraordinary.

The hall housed two stories of store fronts with elaborate facades, exuding the atmosphere of a street in a European village. Since we were still indoors, the outdoor scene greatly lent an amusement park air to the experience. As I explored further down the hallway, I was amused to find that while the European street stretched on for a ways, its architectural theme wasn’t wholly consistent to one country. One part of the street looked very much like Germany, while another bit looked more Italian. It was essentially a “Little Europe”. Speakers pumped out Christmas chorals to add to the winter wonderland aesthetic. These particular versions of the songs were purely instrumental and sounded like they were played on only chimes; the harmonic result sounding like a cuckoo clock striking 12, or being stuck in an elevator at Santa’s workshop. Still, it was very festive.

We gathered in a cluster near the front entrance and waited while Sarah and Andres sorted some business with the resort staff.  Right there we found another odd touch, an animatronic tree and animal scene that performed a song at the touch of button. The tree’s big round eyes opened realistically, as it was waking up, and then it opened its mouth and began to sing. That was probably the exact moment that the near empty resort became creepy.

We were headed for the slopes straight away, as daylight is precious in early December. A few people in our group opted not to snowboard at all; they were just going to relax in the resort. I wanted to snowboard, but first I need to rent all my gear. Jack, another ALT from England who’s quite fluent in Japanese, went out of his way to help me with the rental process. I was extremely grateful for this, for I would have had an impossibly hard time on my own. Since we were renting a cabin, I got a bit of a discount on a two-day rental of a snowboard, jacket, snow pants, gloves, hat, and goggles; although it still wasn’t cheap.

On the bus ride to the open mountain, Leon already began to show his expertise as an outdoorsman. Originally from New Zealand, Leon runs a hiking, camping, and English-speaking tour service based in Sapporo where he leads folks on all manner of cool outdoor adventures. A stocky, powerful-looking fellow, Leon sported a big beard to properly frame his wide smile. He and Andres discussed the various winter sports equipment and apparel, and he offered what sounded like expert advice. In fact, when he heard that I was renting gear, Leon said that he had an extra snowboard just taking up space in his shed. Had he known, he would have been happy to lend it to me.

While everyone else that day had snowboards, Leon was skiing. He wore a large backpack that looked potentially awkward, but handled it like a pro. From the pack, he produced a liquid-containing plastic bag and passed it around, giving everyone the chance to have a drink. It turns out the bag was filled with sake. While it was around 11am, I figured a couple of gulps of alcohol wouldn’t hurt, so I took a swig. To be honest, it really hit the spot.

The actual snowboarding was fantastic. Since it was early in the season, the snow wasn’t as good as it should have been for Hokkaido, but it still made for a smooth ride.  The group of us did a pretty good job of sticking together too, although effort was hardly necessary since there were really only two runs and a single lift open. At the top of the mountain, an epic wind was blowing. While I was waiting for us to start down the mountain, I outstretched by arms, and I swear that the wind actually moved me uphill! The lodge at the base had some delicious lunch options like potato wedges and curry rice, as well as beer vending machines.

After hours of boarding, the bus took us back to the resort and we were shown to the cottage where we’d be staying. The short walk from the main building to our cottage was surprisingly beautiful, and—like much of the rest of the resort—somewhat otherworldly. An idyllic winter scene, the path was a snowy trail of log cabins adorned with pine trees and elaborate, Christmassy illumination displays. The cottage itself was the quintessential log cabin, sporting a woodsy aesthetic complete with a functional fireplace and mounted buck head. There were at least four bedrooms on the ground level and two more on the second floor, with enough bunk beds to accommodate a small army. All the girls were sleeping upstairs, while the guys spread out mostly in the downstairs rooms. We enjoy a few beers as everyone got settled. Our non-skiing friends had started the party early and were clearly several drinks ahead of the rest of us.

Next, the group visited the resort’s onsen (温泉 – hot spring, spa) for a relaxing, post-boarding soak. After a day of physical exertion, lounging in the bathhouse is an excellent way to unwind. Some of the guys were doing a kind of hot/cold circuit, first roasting in the sauna for several minutes, and then dipping into the cold bath for an extreme thermal contrast. While I was curious about the appeal of such a trial, I’m not a big fan of saunas, so I delayed giving it a try. Eventually, I decided to go from the hottest bath to the coldest bath, and discovered that the cold tub was really, really, shockingly cold. Oddly refreshing, though… Only when we were leaving did I realize that Leon had sat in the icy cold bath for at least 15 minutes straight. Total badass.

After the onsen, we went looking for dinner. The resort advertised several restaurants—a German pub, a France restaurant, an Italian place, and so on—so we thought we’d have our pick. However, since the season was just getting started and the resort wasn’t yet fully operational, it came down to only two choices: super expensive Italian restaurant, or slightly less expensive Japanese izakaya. Despite the fact that the birthday boy didn’t particularly feel like Japanese food, we ended up at the izakaya. The food was fairly delicious, the drinks were plentiful, and the times were good.

There was one odd occurrence at the resort’s izakaya. As our mostly-gaijin party ate, drank, snapped photos, and generally caroused loudly, the restaurant proprietors began quietly setting a camera a couple tables away. This was a massive video camera, the kind that you might see a TV news cameraman use, but due to its unwieldy bulk, no private citizen would ever lug around. Since the only other patrons in our section of restaurant had just left, it became clear that they intended to film us. This made several folks in our party uncomfortable, as they hadn’t so much as asked if we would mind being recorded. Being a bit of an attention whore, I wasn’t really bothered, but I completely understood the feeling of privacy invasion and exploitation. If they wanted to use us for some sort of advertising, they could at least offer us some compensation, but they didn’t even do that. Jack acted quickly and approached the unsubtle film crew. Using his legendary Japanese language skills he got them to immediately pack up and go away. While he claimed that he just asked what they were doing and then told them that we didn’t want to be recorded, I’m pretty sure that he must have also slipped in a threat of severe beatings, dismemberment, or other bodily harm.

After dinner, the group returned to the cabin for more partying. There was an assortment of snack foods, lots more drinks (of course), a playlist of awesome music compiled by Andres himself, and lively conversation. There may have also been dancing at one point. When it got really late, people started crashing for the night, but for the hardcore, the party kept on rolling until at least 3am. It was genuinely wonderful to get to know everyone.

 

Breakfast the next morning was included in our accommodations, and some of us got up early to make the first bus out to the slopes. As it turned out, breakfast was being served at the German restaurant that had not been open for dinner the night before. The amusement park atmosphere of Rutsusu’s European hallway extended into the interior of the restaurant, which had a Bavarian forest flavor to its décor. The breakfast buffet was breathtaking in its breadth of bites and boredom-bombarding brand of barbecued beef, bread, and bacon. But the spectacle of the decorations again attracted most of my attention. For instance, there was yet another band of animatronic musician bears inside the restaurant, this time wearing Bravaian clothing and playing instruments like the tuba and accordion. It was so weird, it was kind of cool.

The bus ride out to the mountain was filled with anticipation. Fresh snow had fallen overnight and the landscape looked primed for slope shredding. The trees provided the best indication of what kind of dusting the area had received, as snow had accumulated on every individual bow and branch, about four centimeters high. The white scene was naturally quite beautiful, and on its own, was already worth the trip.

Being the first ones there in the morning, along with the fresh snowfall, made us fairly optimistic that we were in for an amazing ride. But to our dismay, the two trails had already been groomed. Even though a layer of powder had just fallen, the snow had been flattened and compacted. Andres, Sarah, and Leon were so disappointed in the surface quality that they turned back after just a couple runs. Luckily the trail maintenance folks had neglected to groom about two meters on each side of the trail, so there was still untouched powder on the edges. That’s precisely where I spent all my time riding, putting down first tracks.

Since I quickly found myself boarding on my own, I lost the sense of pace and rhythm that the group had provided. I began rocketing down the powdery edge of the trail, trying to capture the sensation of flying through clouds. This was pretty magical, and even when I would bail, I’d end up barreling through the marshmallow softness of the powder, taking no real knocks. Eventually my over acceleration caught up with me, and I wobbly lost control precisely at the line separating powder and the compacted snow of the main trail. While I had gained all of my speed inside the safety zone of soft powder, the trajectory of my fall sent my body hurling onto the hard, unforgiving groomed section. My shoulder impacted first, with my lower half following over the top, and I did a couple spiraling somersaults before finally sliding to a stop on my back. It was a good hard crash that managed to knock my goggles off—which I had to crawl about ten feet uphill to retrieve—but all things considered, it wasn’t all that bad. Despite the spectacle of it, I wasn’t injured. Still, it made me think about Marissa, as well as Jackie in Seattle, who would be shaking their heads in disapproval of me not wearing a helmet.

When the day wrapped up, we hopped on the evening bus back to Sapporo. Everyone was pretty wiped out from two days of boarding, so there was plenty of dozing on the road. Leon again reminded me that he had an extra snowboard at home and he even offered to lend it to me for the season. It was a very generous offer that I just couldn’t pass up.

The bus dropped us off near Sapporo Station and I made the walk back to the Fukui family’s house, where I had left my car for the weekend. My snowboarding friends had shared a lot of stories about the dangers of snow falling from rooftops, and during the conversation, I had realized that I had probably left my car in a bad spot. Just behind the house there was an open space that wasn’t being used for anything, and that was where I had parked my car. The problem was, due to the house’s slanted rooftop, this spot was precisely where snow would avalanche to the ground. Arriving at Chez Fukui, I took a quick look around back, just to confirm that my car’s roof hadn’t been caved in, and then went inside the warm house to spend time with the family for the evening.

It wasn’t until I set out for Shakotan that I noticed the snow had actually done a bit of damage. While it hadn’t flattened my car or shattered the windshield, the crashing snow had broken off my side mirror, which now dangled from its wiring on the driver’s side—that’s the left in Japan—of the vehicle. While this was a bit of an inconvenience, I was really pleased things hadn’t been worse.

A couple weekends later, on the evening of Sunday December 18th, I ventured out into northern Sapporo by car, hoping to find Leon’s house so that I could borrow his spare snowboard. He had given me directions and I checked out the address on Google Maps, but I still was certain that I would get lost somewhere along the way. And sure enough, I took a few wrong turns and ended up needing to backtrack a bit. Unlike most cities in Japan, Sapporo is laid out in a straightforward grid, so you would think that navigation would be fairly easy. Still, it seems that they number the city blocks instead of streets, and this difference complicates the simple task of tracking down an address to the proper building. I’m sure I could adjust given enough time and experience, but finding a location by its address is still difficult for me.

Eventually I found myself in what I assumed was the right neighborhood, but I couldn’t find the right block. My instincts told me that I was close, but my brain told me that without more information, I would be wandering the area in hours, so I pulled up to a Spar convenience store to ask directions. I walked right up to the woman behind the counter and politely asked what direction my destination address was in, using my awkward Japanese. To my surprise, the woman responded to me in perfect English.

“Oh, are you looking for Leon?” she said. “I’m his wife.” She then proceeded to give directions, even drawing a little picture to help me. As it turned out, I was only two blocks away. I thanked her for the help and proceeded on to their house.

When I got there, Leon asked if I had had any trouble finding the place. I relayed the story of asking for directions and inadvertently meeting his wife, which made him laughed heartily. Apparently many foreigners have ended up getting directions to Leon’s house from that store, so it’s just extra convenient that his wife works there.

As a compensatory offering for the generous equipment rental, I gave Leon a case of beer. Always friendly and gracious, he even invited me to come back to his house for Christmas. “If you find that you don’t have any other plans, feel free to drop by and spend the evening here. You don’t need to confirm or anything. If you want, you can just show up. No pressure.” I’ve met some genuinely kind people in Japan, but even among such company, Leon is one hell of a nice guy.

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International Exchange Event

The bus barreled down the expressway, chartering 12 college students from the bustling metropolis of Sapporo to the sleepy fishing village of Shakotan. Just after noon on Saturday, November 19th, the gray, rainy weather promised to spoil the day’s sightseeing plans. The bus’s windows fogged up with everyone’s breathing—conversation condensation—making it difficult to even enjoy the dreary version of the view. But despite the inclement weather, the student visitors already seemed to be enjoying themselves, awaiting a unique cultural experience ahead. This was the Shakotan Board of Education’s pride and joy, a special international exchange program called Kokusai Kouryuu Kai (国際交流会).

The 12 college students hailed from nine different foreign countries; China, Korea, Brazil, Paraguay, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Finland, Bulgaria, and Germany. Everyone was able to speak at least a little Japanese, but due to the varying levels of proficiency, the common language among everyone was actually English. (Thanks to the conquests of the British Empire and the rise of the Internet, English has solidified its position as the standard international language. Thanks chaps!) In the front of the bus, there was a representative from the Hokkaido prefectural office, Keiko-san.  Fluent in both Japanese and English, Keiko-san was able to act as translator for everyone. Yamazaki-san and I were also present, acting as tour guides and representatives of Shakotan.

The bus stopped made a brief pit stop at the Space Apple Yoichi (スペースアップルよいち), a science center/museum dedicated to space exploration. I found the Space Apple to be rather perplexing, both in its fruit-based name and its location in quiet Yoichi (余市). After a little research, I discovered that the Space Apple was built to honor Mōri Mamoru, a Japanese astronaut and scientist who was born in Yoichi. If I had to venture a guess, the “apple” name comes from the local agriculture, which is famous for producing delicious fruits, such as apples and grapes. (I have yet to check out the actual science center, but it looks like a cool family destination, reminiscent of the Science Center of Iowa that my dad used to take my brothers and me to.) Once we made it to Shakotan, Yamazaki-san tagged out, and Fujiki-san and Katsuo -san tagged in, and the bus proceeded on to some picturesque sights.

Our first destination was actually the same place that Yamazaki-san had first taken me when I was new to town, the Shimamui Coast (島武意海岸). The bus wound its way up the steep mountain road just outside of Hizuka town and stopped at the presently deserted parking lot at the top. The college students were already impressed by the view of the mountains and valleys facing the direction we had just come from, much like I had been when had first been here, but that was nothing compared to the coastal view. After everyone passed through the claustrophobic, dark and dripping tunnel to emerge on the seaside, the sense of awe really hit.

Everyone genuinely enjoyed the scenic vista. Aki, from Finland, and Daniel, from Bulgaria, seemed especially impressed. Aki went so far as to say that he loved it so much, he wanted to move and live at this very spot. We took some group photos, and the BoE personnel insisted that jump in for pictures, as if I too were a visitor.

After Shimamui, we went straight to Kamui Misaki (神威岬), the surreal, rocky cape that serves as Shakotan’s most renowned tourist attraction. Unfortunately, in addition to the rain, it was also very windy at the cape, so the trail to the point was closed. Everyone was still able to view some magnificent rock formations, but no one was allowed to make the walk out to the lighthouse and legendary Kamui Rock (神威岩). When I told Fujiki-san that the weather had been bad for four of my five visits to Kamui Misaki, she called me an ame-otoko (雨男 – literally “rain man”), a man who brings rain with him wherever he goes. I apologized, explaining that after living in Seattle for many years, that label was probably accurate.

After the cape, we stopped at my favorite onsen (温泉), Nozuka town’s Misaki no Yu Shakotan (岬の湯しゃこたん) for some soaking relaxation. Due to the potential social awkwardness of getting naked with a bunch of strangers, the invitation to actually go into the bathes was completely optional.  Apparently in the previous year, less than half of the participants chose to test the waters, while the others had drinks and kicked back in the facility’s commons area. This year the participants were more adventurous, and only three students opted to keep their clothes on.

As usual, Misaki no Yu proved to be a top-notch, relaxation experience. The view alone was worth the price of admission, but the BoE had provided free passes for everyone, so it was an even better deal. My new Finnish and Bulgarian friends seemed to be connoisseurs of saunas and bathhouses, and they agreed that this onsen was something special. Aki again expressed a desire to move here. After about an hour of leisurely soaking, everyone boarded the bus again to head back to Bikuni.

The college students were dropped off at the inn where they would be staying, a fancy place called Kasai (お宿かさい). While they started a fancy sushi dinner there, Katsuo-san, Fujiki-san, and I headed over to Fuji Sushi to eat. After the meal, the plan was to have a little party with the BoE staff. When the three of us met up with Ihira-san and Yamazaki-san at the inn, where they were preparing for a traditional Japanese dance performance. The dancer turned out to be none other than Yasuda-san’s mother-in-law, Kawasaki-sensei; the lady that I affectionately refer to as Baba-chan (祖母ちゃん – grandmother, “Granny”). It was great to see Baba-chan again, and especially interesting to see her in full geisha garb.

Baba-chan gracefully performed a traditional dance piece called “Wakamurasaki” (若紫). [Wakamurasaki means “light purple” but the title actually comes from a chapter of the ancient Japanese novel, Tale of the Genji (源氏物語).  In the novel, Murasaki is the name of a little girl, so in that context, Waka-Murasaki could be translated as “young Murasaki”.] After the dance, many drinks were poured and bags of okashi (お菓子 – sweets, candy, junk food) were opened. I convinced Baba-chan to stay for a quick drink with us (non-alcoholic beer, of course) before she headed home.

Ihira-san made a quick speech to toast the occasion and Keiko-san translated so everyone could understand. The gist was that the event was a very proud moment for Shakotan, and it made him very happy that everyone could come. It was the first time they had hosted people from the countries of Bulgaria, Bangladesh, Paraguay, or Kazakhstan. It was also the first time 11 different nations had been represented. (That’s 11 counting the US for me, and Japan as the hosts). It was a rousing speech and I think everyone was genuinely moved with a feeling camaraderie. We all raise our glasses and gave a “kanpai!”

Partying with the college students and other BoE staff was fantastic. Conversation—both in English and Japanese—was engaging, as everyone had a unique story. We all came from different places, grew up in different cultures with different perspectives. Yet our common similarities felt strong somehow. For instance, everyone present seemed to highly value education, and an insatiable curiosity seemed to be common amongst us all.

As some point, people were asking me the inevitable “why” question: Why did you want to come to Japan? And for these guys it was even more specific: Why did you want to come to Shakotan? I explained that I had studied a lot about Japan in college, and I had also been considering becoming a teacher, so teaching English in Japan was seemed like a good fit. Aki was also studying to work in education. He asked, “But why here? Why did you choose to teach in Japan instead of just teaching in the US?”

“Well, because the US sucks,” I said dryly, and paused for comedic effect.

No one laughed. Not even a smirk. The faces of genuinely interested people stared back at me, waiting for me to go on. While I had meant my disparaging comment in irony, the silence gave me the sobering realization that the sentiment wasn’t at all ironic. To an international crowd, the idea that the US was a broken country worth taking a break from was a legitimate opinion, perhaps even a sensible one.

I explained further that I thought it would a good experience to see how another country does education, to get a different perspective. The funniest thing about studying Japan is how much I’ve unintentionally learned about my home country. In order to see how Japan was different, I needed to compare it to the US, which in the case of things like international relations, involved a lot of research on both sides. However—as I clarified to cosmopolitan buddies—I’ve never bought into the ideology that people of different cultures think in a fundamentally different way. Society might shape our customs or philosophies in different ways, but at the end of the day, people are people.

The following day, Sunday November 20th, it was time for the International Exchange Event to take place in Shakotan’s schools. Zhaina from Kazakhstan, Rai from China, and Daniel from Bulgaria got truly unique experiences; they visited the rural elementary schools on the peninsula, Nozuka, Yobetsu, and Hizuka. These schools had only three students, four students, and nine students, respectively. The rest of the visitors were divided among Bikuni ES’s six grades and Bikuni JH’s three.

I also spent the day at Bikuni Junior High, so I got to see the presentations from three of the visiting college students. The morning started with the kids gathering in the gymnasium, and a projector being set up. Marie from Germany, Habiba from Bangladesh, and Lee from South Korea were brought in and introduced to the student body. Since English was still the common language, Yusuke, the English teacher, assumed the new responsibly of translating.

Each of the college students had prepared a PowerPoint presentation on their home country, highlighting facts like population and currency, cultural points of interest and particularities, popular traditional foods, and sometimes pop-culture trivia. In the case of Korea, for example, K-Pop music is extremely popular worldwide, especially in Japan. Korean TV dramas and movies are also making waves these days, even on Japan’s shores, so the kids were familiar with that.

Throughout the presentations of all the exciting and interesting content, poor Yusuke furiously scribbled down notes. Every couple minutes, the presenter would pause and Yusuke would deliver a rough translation of the specifics that the kids probably could not ascertain from spoken English. This is not something Yusuke usually has to do and I suspect that, even under ideal circumstances, it would be fairly difficult to manage. But things were definitely made even more challenging by exotic vocabulary words that couldn’t be translated, and instead needed to be explained. By the time the presentations were completed, Yusuke looked completely exhausted, like his brain had just run a marathon.

After the presentations were complete, the classes split up to spend quality time with one visiting college student. Lee and I were assigned to the 3rd Year class, and it turned out that we were going to play PE games in the gym.

This picture has been distorted to protect the identities of the children. Or maybe it's just blurry.

First we played “Hand Baseball”, a baseball variant akin to kickball, except that you “bat” by swinging your arm. As a big fan of kickball and soccer, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever choose to play this game, but we had fun nonetheless. Next we played basketball, which was also fairly enjoyable. Lastly, we played the Japanese version of dodgeball, which I can honestly say was awesome.

In Japanese-style dodgeball, there is only one ball. Two opposing sides must stay within the boundary of their own square courts. If a player is struck by the ball, they must leave their court, go to the other side of the area, and take a position outside the opposing team’s court. From there, out-players who get the ball can take shots at in-players of the opposing team, creating a situation where no one is ever knocked out of play. While I also appreciate the American version with several balls flying back and forth in a constant melee of projectile warfare, I found Japanese dodgeball’s egalitarian twist charming.

After the games, it was time for lunch. The visiting college students ate with the kids, much like I do every day. After lunch, everyone returned to the gymnasium for some music. The school band played, and then all the students sang as a choir. The music, as always, was quite impressive. While everyone was still in the gym, we took a group photo (the most Japanese of all activities) to commemorate the event.

By 3pm, the international event had concluded, and the college students boarded a bus back to Sapporo. While I didn’t witness any emotional goodbyes at the junior high, apparently there were some tears at the elementary schools. The kids truly enjoy the event every year, and sometimes they form a bond with the visiting college students rather quickly. Unlike me, these super interesting foreign nationals wouldn’t be in town tomorrow. In fact, the kids didn’t know if they would ever see them again. At the end of a day filled with excitement, wonder, and international intrigue, the young ones had to say goodbye to their new heroes. And it was, quite possibly, ‘goodbye’ forever.

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Canned: A Seattleite’s Quest for Coffee in Japan

I didn’t always like coffee. In fact, for the two and a half years that I worked for Starbucks in Seattle, I didn’t drink coffee at all. (We had to taste all the different coffee blends, but I never drank it of my own volition. I’ve always been more a tea guy.) It wasn’t until I visited Italy that I discovered the breakfast perfection of a good espresso and pastry. Still, while I could enjoy Italian style espresso, it wasn’t until I arrived in Tokyo that I came to really appreciate plain, black, drip coffee. And suddenly, I craved it daily.

Ironically, I have discovered that Seattle style coffee shops are not quite ubiquitous in Japan, especially in more rural areas. The typical kissaten (喫茶店 – café, teahouse) in rural Japan is a little too homey for my tastes. Many cafés are simply a bar countertop built right into the ground floor of a large house. The resulting feeling is akin to literally hanging out in someone’s living room—because you are essentially doing just that. It’s possible to find cafés more like what I’m used to in a big city, like Sapporo, but I think the standard Japanese café more resembles a jazz club built in the 1960’s than a Starbucks.

That’s not to say that Japan doesn’t love coffee, because it clearly does. In fact, Japan’s fondness for the beany brew has united with their passion for vending machines, to form a new invention: Canned Coffee (缶コーヒー). Canned Coffee is exactly what it sounds like, and this fusion of caffeine and convenience is extremely popular in Japan. You can find it in anywhere, in all vending machines and convenience stores. [In Japanese, the words for “vending machine” and “convenience store” are jidouhanbaiki (自動販売機) and conbini (コンビ二), respectively.]

There is cold canned coffee and hot; plain black coffee and coffee that has a desirable amount of milk and sugar already in it; a variety of flavors produced by a variety of competing beverage companies. For example, there’s Fire (made by Kirin), Boss Coffee (made by Suntory and advertised by Tommy Lee Jones), and Coca-Cola’s brand, Georgia. Even Tully’s Coffee has their own Japan can brand. The Ueshima Coffee Co. (UCC) apparently gets credit for introducing the original canned coffee way back in 1969. Coincidentally, I think that the UCC Black canned coffee is still best that I’ve tasted so far.

The Japanese coffee cans feel heavier, and more durable, than your typical can of soda. I had assumed that they were made of thicker aluminum; however my theory was a bit off. It turns out that these coffee cans are usually made of steel, not aluminum. For some reason, I think that’s kind of badass.

In addition to the canned coffee, there are other varieties of espresso drinks that you can find in convenience stores and supermarkets, like prepackaged café lattes and mochas. There are Starbucks brand drinks of course, and usually a conbini like Lawson’s or 7/11 will have their own generic versions as well. One brand that I found particularly interesting is called Mt. Rainier. Their circular green logo is clearly designed to look like Starbucks and the cups sport the slogan “The Mountain of Seattle”. Considering the aesthetic similarities, and the fact that Starbucks is a Seattle-based company, I almost thought that this was another brand owned by the coffee giant, but I haven’t been able to confirm it. If they aren’t owned by the Galactic Coffee Empire, then I have to commend them on their superb mimicry. It has been nostalgic to find a product sporting a Seattle landmark on its packaging.

So when you’re looking to enjoy a simple cup o’ joe and read a book in Japan, what’s a Seattleite to do? Well, I’ve done some café scouting for you and here are my recommendations:

¥480 for a cup of “blend coffee”. Another ¥100 for a refill.

First off, avoid any place selling “Blend Coffee”. This generally means that they consider their plain coffee to be really special (probably based on where the beans came from), so it will cost more. A cup of “Blend Coffee” generally costs between ¥350 and ¥500—often right around the ¥450 mark—and in my experience, it never tastes much better than drip coffee. In fact, the taste is almost always worse. Skip the blend and save your money.

Matcha Latte: Totoro not included

Next, if you’re looking for a latte, cappuccino, or—god forbid—a frappuccino, you could always patronize a Starbucks. [In Japan, Starbucks (スターバックス) is often abbreviated to “Staba” (スタバ) in conversation.] You can find multiple Starbucks stores in Sapporo. However, for plain coffee, Starbucks is a really expensive option. A tall-size drip will cost you ¥340. If it be coffee ye want, sailor, best look elsewhere.

The absolute cheapest cup of coffee I could find was at McDonalds. [It’s called Makudonarudo (マクドナルド) in Japan, or simply “Makku” (マック) for short.] Over the past five or so years, Micky-D’s has been vigorously stepping up their “McCafé” options to compete with coffee giant Starbucks. (Apparently they want to usurp Starbucks’ globally dominant position as “The McDonalds of Coffee”.) At ¥136, the small coffee at McDonalds was cheap as dirt, and it tasted like it too. Definitely, the most repulsive, disgusting coffee I have ever tasted. Don’t even bother.

In Japan, doughnut shops are almost as ubiquitous as Staba or Makku, so chances are you can easily sit down for a cup o’ joe at a doughnut joint, even in a more rural location. With that in mind, I’d recommend Mr. Donut. [The name is pronounced “Mister Donuts” (ミスタドナツ)—as if it was plural, due to Japanese pronunciation—or else it goes by “Mis-do” (ミスド), the abbreviated version.] Mr. Donut coffee is surprisingly tasty, and reasonably priced at ¥262. The kicker though, is that if you decide to drink your coffee there in the store, the staff will come by and pour you refills! [The term for refills or a second helping, in the context of a meal, is okawari (お代わり).] Good taste, good price, and refills to boot; Mr. Donut coffee is hard to beat.

Another place I have to recommend is Excelsior Caffé. I’ve seen them in Tokyo and Sapporo, and they consistently have a clean café atmosphere that most resembles the more standard café vibe I’ve been looking for. Their coffee is good, and not too expensive at ¥280. But where Excelsior really excels is their bagels. Bagels aren’t always even to find in Japan, theirs are delicious, topnotch. If you are looking for a coffee and a pastry, I’d head to Excelsior Caffé.

But the champion—the very best plain, black coffee that I’ve had in Japan—comes from a café/restaurant chain called Pronto Il Bar. I’ve only seen Pronto in major cities, but for regular coffee, they’re amazing. This coffee comes from a brewing machine at the press of a button, much like the super-automatic espresso machines that I used to work with at Starbucks. While such a machine usually makes inferior espresso shots, the high-pressure brewing style creates a cup coffee that’s actually a lot like espresso—with a delicious crema on top and everything. And since the small coffee at Pronto is only ¥200, it’s also one of the most affordable options around. Pronto è il vincitore.

Luca’s Coffee Review

Pronto Il Bar

Cost: ¥200           Taste: 5/5            Bonus: Legit sounding Italian name

Excelsior Caffé

Cost: ¥280           Taste: 3/5            Bonus: Bagels!

Mr. Donut

Cost: ¥262           Taste: 3/5            Bonus: Unlimited refills!

Starbucks

Cost: ¥340           Taste: 2/5            Bonus: Always the same, EVERYWHERE

McDonald’s

Cost: ¥136           Taste: 0/5            Bonus: Type 2 diabetes, heart disease

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New Year’s in Japan

While the big, heartwarming, family holiday in the States is Christmas, in Japan it’s Shōgatsu (正月), New Year’s. In fact, ritually speaking, New Year’s Day is probably most important day of year in Japan, and the party extends from New Year’s Eve to January 3rd. Since I was spending my winter break at the Fukui house in Sapporo, I had a chance to legitimately experience New Year’s the Japanese way, with family.

Ōmisoka (大晦日 – New Year’s Eve)

Ōsouji (大掃除) super cleaning in progress.

Hiroko-chan explained to me that in preparation for the New Year, the whole house needed to be cleaned, room by room. This major cleaning, which she called “ōsouji”(大掃除), takes place over the last few days of the year. Since I was staying in the guest room, I was responsible to clean my room just like everyone else. Luckily, since the room was sparsely furnished (just a bed, lamp, mirror, and chair), the dusting and vacuuming were easy to do. However, Yujiro was responsible not only for his own room, but cleaning the bath as well.

When I woke up on New Year’s Eve, Ukai-san was in the kitchen turning huge pieces of raw fish into a beautiful tray of sashimi. His four year old son, Taichi, was running around the house, playing sneaking games with Shun. At some point, Shun took a break and I stepped in to sneak about the house, ninja-style, with little Taichi. Eventually, Ukai-san’s sushi masterpiece was finished, and he and Taichi departed. That was time for me to clean my room.

That evening there was a small dinner party where the sushi was eaten. Some of Hiroko and Hiroshi’s friends came over to share in the merriment. Along with the feast of exquisite sea food, there was much sake to be drank. I had started a Skype video call with my brother in Seattle just as dinner started, so I missed the beginning of the meal, but luckily there was plenty of sushi still waiting for me. The older folks had also had plenty sake by this point.

Kouhei, a young man who lives next door, came over with his girlfriend. There had been much anticipation about this because no one had met the girl before, and everyone was curious about what kind of person she was…as well as how she looked. I’m happy to report that young lady exceeded everyone’s exceptions. While this was a rather crucial moment for new couple, for some reason people insisted that Kouhei drink sake, and they aggressively refilled his glass. I don’t understand why getting him drunk would be considered a good idea, but perhaps the fact that everyone else was several glasses into the night had something to do with it. At some point, Kouhei left to take his girlfriend home, but he returned later on. For a thin guy, I saw him drink a ton of sake, and he ended the night by passing out on the floor. (An older couple also fell asleep in the living room, so it was a natural move.)

If I had so desired, I could have walked down to Odori Park for a Times Square-style countdown.  But that would have involved braving the cold and I was enjoying chilling out at the house. We probably could have at least tuned into a channel that was doing a countdown, but instead the TV was set to a bizarre program with a panel of comedians trying not to a laugh as other comedians were humiliated in various ways. I wasn’t really watching it, but I did catch a part where guys wearing next to nothing had to pour buckets of hot candle wax on themselves. It looked quite unpleasant. While everyone drank and hung out, I watched the time on my laptop.

Toshikoshi soba. Mm-mm-good...

When midnight finally came, I played the Barenaked Ladies rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” from my computer and everyone who was still awake had a New Year’s toast. Just a moment later, Hiroko-chan reappeared—I had thought she had gone to bed for the night. She seemed surprised that it was already 2012 and began feverishly working on toshikoshi soba (年越し そば), literally “end of the year” noodles. Apparently eating long noodles is symbolic of crossing over from the old year to the next. We ate the buckwheat noodles zaru-style; plain noodles from a drying basket that you dip in men-tsuyu sauce (麺汁) before slurping up.  Hiroko also whipped up some shrimp tempura to go along with the soba. It was one hell of a midnight snack.

Since I didn’t venture out for the countdown, I also didn’t have an opportunity to hear the bells tolling out the old year. I’ve been told that with the New Year, each Buddhist temple rings their giant bell 108 times. It’s called joya no kane (除夜の鐘), meaning “New Year’s Eve bell”. According to Buddhist tradition, 108 is the number of earthly desires of man that lead to suffering, so that’s where the seeming random number originates.

Shōgatsu (正月 – New Year’s Day)

Having been told that there was a holiday meal planned for the morning, I made sure to be up and out of bed by 9am. Coming down stairs, Hiroko and Hiroshi greeted me in proper New Year’s fashion. In fact, Hiroko-chan had me repeat the words back to her until I had learned it well enough to properly greet the others. It sounds like this, “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. Kotoshimo yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (明けましておめでとうごうざいます。今年もよろしくおねがします。) Pretty long, right? Essentially, the first sentence means, “Happy New Year,” while the second bit roughly translates to, “Please treat me well again this year.”

Around 10am or so, the family assembled for a big meal of osechi (お節 – traditional New Year foods). Hiroko-chan gave me the honor of opening the elaborate box in which the food had been delivered.  Inside the cardboard box was another box, carefully wrapped in ornate red and white cloth. Unwrapping the cloth, I discovered that the square structure was actually three separate bento-style boxes stacked atop one another. When the boxes were opened and spread out on the table, a veritable holiday feast was revealed. We opened a big bottle of sake, and poured little cups for everyone. Then with a “kanpai”, we commenced eating.

The osechi foods were simply amazing; in taste, but even more so in extravagance. The magical box contained lobster, shrimp, goose, foie gras, and shark fin, just to name a few. There was even fugu (河豚), the distinctly Japanese delicacy of blow fish. Fugu is poisonous, and if not properly prepared, eating a toxic bit can be lethal. Hiroko-chan invited me to try the fugu since it was normally extremely expensive, but I had actually just promised my brother—not 24 hours beforehand—that I wouldn’t eat the potentially deadly fish. So I sampled most of the dishes, but passed on the fugu.

Many of the osechi foods had special meanings, derived from a play on words with their name. For instance, Hiroko-chan tried to explain to me the significance of konbu in New Year’s dishes. As I understand it, konbu (昆布) is the word for seaweed, but it’s associated as a sort of pun with yorokobu (喜ぶ), meaning “to be pleased.” So konbu is eaten as a part of osechi for good luck in the New Year. Many of the New Year foods were also very sweet. For example, there was a sweet black bean dish, and a sweet rolled omelet called datemaki (伊達巻). I’m not usually into the sweet stuff, but both with incredibly delicious.

As we ate the New Year meal and reflected on the past and upcoming year, we talked a bit about my plans. While I hadn’t officially declared any plans for the future year, Hiroko-chan was fairly certain that I would return to the US in April to be with my girlfriend. When she began talking about my leaving she actually shed tears, momentarily overcome with emotion. It was a bittersweet moment.

After everyone had their fill from the osechi box, we also ate a traditional mochi soup that Hiroko-chan had prepared, called ozouni (お雑煮). In the States, the only experience most people have with mochi is as an occasional glutinous covering for balls of ice cream. However, in Japan this pounded rice cake is rather prevalent, especially in festive dishes.

After we concluded the most epic brunch I have ever experienced, Hiroko-chan told me that more food was on its way. “Today is endless eating and drinking,” she said. “It will make you tired.”

In the afternoon, five of us guys braved the winter cold to walk to a Shito shrine, as is customary on New Year’s Day. This tradition is called hatsumoude (初詣); hatsu means “first”, while moude means “pilgrimage”. There was a building within a few blocks of the house that I had thought was a shrine, but apparently it was actually a Buddhist temple, because we walked past it, on to another location. We ended up walking for about 20 minutes, going almost all the way Susukino. The weather chill felt stronger with every block.

Eventually we reached our destination, Miyoshi Shrine (三吉神社). Right in the middle of an urban area, Miyoshi Shrine and its pine trees stand out as pleasantly old-fashioned scene; a spiritually charged anachronism. With everyone flocking to shrines for the ritualistic New Year visit, the place was pretty busy, and a long line extended out from the main building.

First we took part in omikuji (おみくじ), a kind of fortune-telling lottery. I put a coin into a collection box and drew out a folded piece of paper. Unrolled, the paper gives you a random fortune for the year, ranging from super great, to not very good at all. My particular fortune was called sue-kichi (末吉), which was first translated to me as “future blessing”. I thought this sounded pretty good, but they explained to me that it was a low blessing, the sixth best out of seven possible “good” fortunes. In fact, a better translation is “uncertain luck”, as in luck that might become apparent as time passes. In other words, it’s the equivalent of a magic 8-ball telling you to try again. (Sounds like the most honest fortune ever, actually.) When the fortune is bad, one can fold up the paper and tie it to a rack on near the entrance of the shrine grounds. Kouhei must not have liked his results, because he did this.

Next, we got in line for the osaisen (お賽銭 – monetary offering), which I consider the main activity of a shrine visit. When you get to the entrance of the main shrine building, there’s a large box for monetary offerings. You pitch your coin in the box, much like making a wish at a fountain, and then perform the following actions to appease the kami (神):

1) Bow. Of course.

2) Bow again. You’re greeting a god, show goddamn some reverence.

3) Clap twice. This alerts the spirits to your presence while simultaneously showing appreciation. Apparently it’s also thought to ward off evil spirits, who—contrary to heavy metal philosophy—don’t like loud noises.

4) With your hands together in front of your heart (namaste-style), bow once more. You didn’t really think you could walk away without another bow, did you?

Before we left, Kouhei decided to buy a lucky charm amulet called omamori (お守り). The word omamori actually means “protection” and the amulets are thought to provide you with some form of protection or luck. They might be dedicated to a particular kami or Buddhist figure, and can dangle from your cell phone, bag, or even rearview mirror. All of the omamori I spotted were on sale for either 500 or 600 yen.

As we were leaving the shrine grounds, I noticed the hand washing basin and realized that we hadn’t done the ritual purification when we entered. Considering how cold it was, getting my hands wet sounded unpleasant, but I realized that I just performed my Shinto rituals in an impure state. Visit ruined!

That night, we had kimchi nabe (キムチ鍋) for dinner. Nabe means “pot” and it’s a Japanese style of dining that basically involving stewing everything in one big pot. While I already liked nabe, doing it with a spicy kimchi soup base was spectacular. I was so satisfied after dinner that I drifted off into a little nap. I think I’ve found a new favorite dish.

In the late evening, Shun, Yujiro, Kouhei, and I walked out into the falling snow to make a 7/11 run. Our timing was very good as we ran into Ken, who was on his way to the house on foot. The five of us ended up throwing a lot of snowballs, trying to peg a stop sign from about 25 or 30 meters. Shun had declared that no one could enter the house until all five of us had hit the sign, but it soon became evident that the feat was harder than expected. Everyone’s hands were freezing by the time we succeeded.

Once back inside the warm house, we ended up playing some video games, starting with the always festive Smash Bros. Brawl. Next the Nintendo64 was dusted off for some old-school gaming. Diddy Kong Racing, Mario Kart64, and Mario Party were fun, although they hadn’t aged well. Eventually, my eyelids were too heavy to continue and I called it a night.

Tuesday January 3rd, a woman visited the house right around noon. At that time, Hiroko and Nozomi had gone to the nearby onsen, and Aika and I (two Americans) were the only people home and awake. So when she arrived, we greeted her at the door and she explained that she was there to change the house’s kami-sama (神様 – Shinto spirit, god) for the family.

Household Shinto shrine, kamidana (神棚)

We let her in and she proceeded into the butsuma (仏間). This is the room in every Japanese home that contains the 

, the household Buddhist alter; sometimes called the “ancestor box”.  Also contained in this room was the kamidana (神棚 – household Shinto shrine), which was a decorative wooden shelf with what looked like a model of the front of a Shinto shrine building. The lady stood on a chair to reach the kamidana and proceeded to replace one thin envelope with a new thin envelope. My understanding is that the envelopes were meant to contain the kami.

The ancestor box, butsudan (仏壇).

After making the switch, the lady knelt on the floor seiza-style and performed the kami greeting that I described earlier (bow-bow-clap twice-bow again). Aika and I just stood there awkwardly with are hands in the namaste gesture; complete foreigners to the ritual. Next, perhaps to be extra respectful, the lady also knelt in front of the ancestor box, rang the bell, and appeared to say a quick prayer. She gave us a couple proselytistic pamphlets and was on her way. Aika wasn’t impressed, but I was rather fascinated with the custom.

There are three days of celebration for Shōgatsu. Most people have January 1st, 2nd, and 3rd off work and they often spend a lot of money, living it up. For example, we ate sashimi everyday during the holiday period. As Hiroshi-san explained to me, after the excessive extravagance of these three days, when you have no more money, you can’t let on that you are now poor. Even if you are doing without, you put on airs (見栄を張る – みえをはる). Nozomi-san added, “If you’re hungry, you act like you’re not hungry.”

As easy as it would be to judge these customs as unnecessary, or fiscally irresponsible, I can’t help but be reminded of the Christmas tradition in the US. There people feel obligated to unnecessarily spend tons of money on gifts for their family and friends, often buying their loved ones random, unwanted gifts just so that can give them something, anything. And why? To honor the incorrectly dated birthday of an ascetic minimalist, who preached the forsaking of all possessions. While living beyond your means for three days might be a little silly, I think America still has the prize for stupid holiday customs.

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