Category Archives: Sapporo

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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Christmas in Sapporo

Leading up to the winter solstice, friends and family back home all asked me the same question: Do they celebrate Christmas in Japan? Indeed they do. They really, really do. There are a few differences between customs in the US and in Japan, but on face value, Japan appears to love Christmas as much as—if not more than—anyone else. And in super snowy Hokkaido, Christmastime is rather idyllic and magical.

It comes but once a year. ...And always early.

Beginning in mid November, the Christmas music started in stores and on the radio. By December, it was everywhere. The 100 Yen shops and omiyage (おみやげ – souvenir, gift) vendors quickly filled their inventories with red and white seasonal trinkets. Judging by the time that my American friends on Facebook began complaining about the early arrival of Christmas decorations in stores, I’d estimate that Santa’s onslaught in Japan begins at least two weeks in advance. It seems that the entire nation of Japan is able to kick into Christmas mode with the perturbing efficiency of a Starbucks.

And that is where Japan really puts the US to shame: the omnipresent commercialization of the Christmas holiday. The lights, “Jingle Bells”, Christmas trees, Santa hats, snow globes, advent calendars; you name it, they’ve got it. And it’s everywhere, you can’t avoid it. With the constant Yuletide saturation, it’s impossible not to catch the infectious spirit. And why would you want to? It’s the most wonderful time of the year, so they say. Well, perhaps you’re trying not to think about the holidays because you are thousands of miles away from your family, your friends, your girlfriend… Still, it’s a losing battle. No one can stand against Santa and his minions. Don’t even try.

The big difference between Christmas in the US and Japan is that in Japan, Christmas isn’t really the holiday that you spend with your family; it’s more a couples’ holiday. New Year’s Day is the traditional family holiday. Christmas in Japan is the perfect time to have a fancy dinner with your sweetheart, probably involving fried chicken (seriously), and definitely ending with a Christmas cake (クリスマスケーキ). In fact, Lawson’s, 7/11, Seicomart, and the other conbini’s advertise their Christmas cakes more and more heavily the closer it gets to December 25th. Lawson’s really gets into the spirit by forcing all of their employees to wear red Santa outfits and—at least on Christmas Eve—making one poor soul stand outside the store entrance with a megaphone, aggressively trying to unload as many cakes as possible before midnight. I hope the red suits are well-insulated, because in late December, it’s bitterly cold outside.

On Saturday December 17th, my friend Mayumi had invited me to see her gospel singing group perform in Odori Park. This proved to be ultra Christmassy, as Odori Park was covered in snow and the east end recently transformed into a winter wonderland. An impressive light show really set a festive mood. Holiday light displays are called “illumination” (イルミネーション), yet another term directly borrowed from English. Not only were several trees lit up, but there were large 3D figures of comprised of a wireframe of Christmas lights. Even Sapporo’s iconic TV Tower was lit up like a Christmas tree.

The centerpiece of the illumination was a sea scene, with a huge net of blue lights hung just a meter or two above the snow. The lights would light up and fade out on a timer, creating the optical illusion of undulating waves. The scene was accented by several bird figures formed with white lights. There were seagulls soaring just above the water and cranes standing in it, both brilliantly popping out against the ever changing blue. A two-meter high walkway had been erected at one end to make viewing and photographing the scene easier, but it had a line of people waiting to get their chance, and since it was so cold outside, I didn’t bother waiting for a turn.

Mayumi’s gospel choir had come from Otaru to perform at the east end of Odori Park, on the block right beside TV Tower. I arrived to discover that this particular block had been transformed into a veritable village of shops, resembling a German mountain town. Some store fronts were selling Christmas-themed trinkets, others had glass works (which I’m confident came from Otaru), but most were selling food and drinks. Soft pretzels, bratwursts, soup, and cocoa abound; all hot to provide relief from the winter chill. There was also hot red wine available, and it seemed to be very popular. I didn’t actually try a glass myself (even though I was freezing cold by this point), but I suspect that it was what’s properly called “mulled wine” or “Glühwein”; not merely hot, but also flavored with added spices. At the center of the German shop village was a two-story tall, wireframe white obelisk. It had several rods protruding out from the center like branches and was also covered in lights, playing the role of a giant modern art Christmas tree.

Even though I got there just in the nick of time for the singing to start, I was still shivering before they even completed the sound check. The singing was quite entertaining, with the choir singing vocal jazz renditions of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful”, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, and “Jingle Bell Rock”. They also performed “Joy to the World”—but the Three Dog Night, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog” song—not the traditional Christmas carol. I didn’t bother saying anything about it. The group of Japanese women did a respectable job of pronouncing the English lyrics, and some of the gospel-style solos were fun to listen to. Still, after 30 minutes of standing in the audience, my teeth were chattering uncontrollably and my feet ached in frozen rebellion.

Christmas Eve Eve (December 23rd) was on a Friday, so I ventured out to Susukino to meet up with fellow ALT Nari, and some of her Japanese friends. Since it was pretty cold out, I chose a route that allowed me to walk most of the way in Sapporo’s extensive underground walkways. Once I made it to Sapporo Station (札幌駅) above ground, I could walk all the way down to Susukino Station (薄野駅) without having to brave the elements. In fact, I had the good fortune of selecting the best possible exit from the “Pole Town” underground shopping area, as it was about only two meters from my destination’s front door. The place was fairly posh chain bar/restaurant called “WALL BAR DINING” and it had an all-caps logo that seemed to shout at me.

As it turned out, I had actually already met two of Nari’s friends; Daichi and Usaji. I had attended an impromptu karate class with them back in September. After some dinner and drinks at the restaurant, we ventured out onto the streets of Susukino. It wasn’t long before a street worker sold Daichi (our unofficial leader) on his particular karaoke establishment. We took an elevator up to the fifth or sixth floor, were given our own room, and commenced singing. The karaoke place had nomihoudai (飲み放題 – all-you-can-drink) of course, but it also provided free soft serve ice cream, which seemed a bit peculiar to me. The ladies sang a surprising number of anime songs (like only anime songs), and I made sure we got in a Christmas medley to appease the Roman god Saturn.

On Christmas Eve, I was invited to a party at the apartment of another fellow ALT, Jack. Hailing from Sheffield, England, Jack is a connoisseur of Nintendo games (much like myself) and the evening promised to include a fair share of Wii playing. When I arrived, Wii Mario Kart was already in full swing. To my surprise, Nari’s Japanese friends from previous evening were also in attendance, so I actually knew most of the guests from the get-go.

Everyone brought snacks and/or drinks, so there was plenty of refreshments to keep the good times rolling (at least for most of the evening). Case in point, Jérémie (from France) had brought pasta and individual molten chocolate cakes, both of which he had made himself. Experience tells me that when a Frenchmen offers to make dessert, you should enthusiastically take him up on the offer. The molten chocolate cakes were amazing.

Jack is also a musician, and to my surprise there was a ukulele to pass around and play. I fooled around with four-string guitar fingering to see what chords I could play on the diminutive instrument, whilst the other guests were preoccupied with Wii Sports.

Once all the guests had arrived, we had a Secret Santa gift exchange. Apparently the gift exchange had been organized ahead of time over Facebook, but I never received any recipient-specific instructions. All I knew was to bring a gift costing 1000 yen or less, but apparently the others had got specific information on their gift recipient’s interests and tastes. Luckily, my gift of Studio Ghibli playing cards was something that anyone could appreciate…I think.

You actually look pretty good as a woman.

At some point, someone produced a woman’s wig and everyone took turns wearing it and posing for multiple iPhone photos. This was especially fun for the dudes, as a man in woman’s wig always makes people cock their head to side and say, “You… actually look pretty good as a woman.” Inexplicably, there was a giant stuffed banana in the room, so all the guys had to pose with it. Then we proved our masculinity by fiercely battling each other in Smash Bros. Brawl.

Former Sapporo ALT, Canadian citizen, and good friend of mine, Jennie was also at the party. Since her birthday was coming up on the 30th, Usaji drew a customized birthday card for her on the spot. I’ve found that most young people in Japan can draw really well, probably due to the incredible popularity of manga and anime, and Usaji was no exception. She really captured Jennie’s personality with an anime-style portrait.

About the time that everyone had imbibed enough to jump into the Wii version of WarioWare, we discovered that we had actually drank all of the alcohol. Since the fun couldn’t end so early, someone had to venture out into the cold and make a run to convenience store. We formed a party of four to tackle this mission: Jack, Jérémie, Yoshiko, and me. To our surprise, the Lawson’s nearest to Jack’s apartment was extremely busy and soldout of beer. We went to a Seicomart a couple blocks away and it too was very crowded. Even though it was around 12:30am—and now officially Christmas Day—I have never seen the convenience stores so full of people. By the time we returned to the apartment, half of the other guests had left, meaning we now had a lot of alcohol to divide among less people.

At this point, people had started playing New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a Mario game that allows up to four people to play simultaneously, all on the same screen. Everyone was on the beginning of World 2 when I cracked open a beer and jumped in. After a while more guests departed, bringing the party down to only five people; plus, Yoshiko fell asleep, so only four waking people. Still, Jérémie, Jack, Yoko, and I kept on playing and playing, into the Wii hours of the night. The crazy gameplay, challenging jumps further complicated by your friends getting in the way, amused us for hours. We tried help each other, using teamwork as best we could, but death after unintended death ensued. We laughed and laughed, eventually making it all the way to the end of World 8. When we beat Bowser—or “Koopa” (クッパ) as he’s still called in Japan—and finished the game, we looked at the clock. It was 6:30am. We had literally playing Super Mario all night long, and it was now Christmas morning.

Since it was morning, we woke up Yoshiko and headed out to a restaurant for Christmas breakfast. Where does one go for Christmas breakfast in Japan? Well, we opted for traditional Japanese fast food and ended up at a Matsuya (松屋) in Susukino. Curry Rice for breakfast has never tasted so right. God bless us, everyone.

I awoke from my short slumber at 12:30pm on Christmas day. After merely four hours or so of sleep, I really wanted to stay in bed, but I thought that for the sake of my sleep schedule I better force myself to wake up. It was already midday, so everyone was already going about their business. Yujiro had some free time, so we sat down on the living room floor and played some Super Smash Bros. It turned out to be a surprisingly Nintendo Christmas.

That evening we had a big yakiniku dinner at the Fukui house. Reno and Reni, a couple young ladies who are friends of family had dinner with us. They brought an ice cream Christmas cake from Baskin Robbins, or as it’s called in Japan, “31 Ice Cream” (サーティワンアイスクリーム). Shun, Ken, and Yuji talked with Reno and Reni in Japanese, and I did my best to keep up. But eventually I felt exhausted and decided to call it night a bit early.

On December 26th, Boxing Day, or the Feast of St. Stephen as my father calls it, I came downstairs to find a task awaiting me; shoveling snow! Ken and I started shoveling around the Fukui house together, and we were eventually joined by Kouhei, who lives in a neighboring house. After much snow was shoveled, we retreated inside the house for a breakfast that Hiroko-chan had graciously made for us. It was Curry Udon. For the second day in a row I was eating curry for breakfast and I can’t overemphasize how delicious it was. I think curry breakfasts might become my new Christmas tradition.

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Flight Complications: Quick Trip, Long Story

Sunday September 4, 2011 – My big brother Mike was getting married, and I love wedding receptions. However, I was still in the middle of my self-imposed exile from the States, it was expected that I would have to miss it. My friends in Japan were downright appalled that I miss my own brother’s kekkonshiki (結婚式 – wedding). Both Yamazaki-san and Nozomi-san preached the importance of family. Even if it meant using all of my vacation time and buying an unbelievably expensive ticket (and it did), it was probably worth it. Having already missed the weddings of some very important friends this year, I decided that missing Mike’s would be unforgivable. I had to go.

Even though the company was pretty clear about wanting us to save our vacation days to use at times when we were sick, I went ahead and asked for all five of my days off for the trip. Next, I had to make a trip to an immigration office in Otaru to procure a Re-entry Visa. (Little Shakotan doesn’t have such an office, so it was either Otaru or Sapporo.) For any other foreigners living in Japan, if you’re planning on leaving the country, even just a short vacation in Korea or a weekend sex tour in Thailand (I’m on to you, sicko), you need to get a Re-entry Visa before you leave Japan. Without it, your work visa becomes invalidated when you exit the country. On a Friday morning during my summer break, I made the trip to Otaru and got my “permission to come back” documentation pretty easily.

My parents helped me get my ticket, both with the booking process and with paying for it. (It really was a really expensive ticket.) The best part was that we kept the plan a secret so Mike wouldn’t see me coming. True ninja style.

The day before I was to fly out, a typhoon made its presence felt in Hokkaido. Once it started raining, it didn’t let up. On Friday September 9th, during my 5:00am drive from Sapporo to New Chitose Airport, the strong winds nearly blow my boxy little car off the road. Once I got to the airport and parked my car, I made the mistake of thinking that I needed the International Terminal, since I was flying internationally. Oddly, that terminal wasn’t open when I arrived, and I sat around and waited for 20 minutes or so for it to open up.

When the raised the metal gates and I entered the International Terminal, I didn’t recognize a goddamn thing. Realizing that I wasn’t in the right place, I double-checked the airport map. The International Terminal in the Sapporo airport only flies to Asian destinations, the most obvious one being Korea. Because the first leg of my flight was to Tokyo-Narita, I needed the Domestic Terminal.

I literally ran to the Domestic Terminal, passing through the shopping mall-like area that was familiar to me, and waited in line to check in for my flight. By this point I knew that I was getting dangerously close to missing my check-in time. Standing there holding my bags, the airport seemed uncomfortably hot, and sweat trickled down my lower back. When I got up to the counter, the conversation I had with the JAL airline lady went like this:

“Good morning, sir. Do you have an e-ticket?”

“Good morning. I have this. I think I’m running a little late.”

“Pardon?”

“I’m late? I think I’m a little late.” I desperately searched my brain’s data bank for the Japanese word for “late” and came up with nothing.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” She leaned forward with a quizzical look on her face, clearly attempting to decipher my English.

“Never mind,” I said with what I hope was a smile.

After printing some boarding passes and clarifying that I would need to recheck my bags in Chicago, I made to my gate just in the nick of time. Surprisingly, I received a phone call in the airport, Yamazaki-san checking up on me. He said he had been a little worried about me making my flight, but I assured him all was well. He told me to be careful and wished me luck.

While the first leg of the journey went just fine, there was baggage related troubles in Tokyo-Narita. Apparently the baggage sorting system failed somehow. After boarding late, we waited motionless while the staff apparently tracked down and loaded all the bags by hand. By the time we took off, we had been delayed by two hours. Once in the air, the flight was 11.5 hours long.

When I arrived in Chicago, I was really surprised by how much “Welcome to the United States” crap they had all over the place. Immigration at O’Hare International Airport was overflowing with people, at 11:00am on a Saturday. Waiting in the line for US Passport holders, I was surprised to see many different people bumping into old friends or colleagues, and striking up conversations about business and/or mutual friends. I really don’t understand how so many of these random travelers knew each other.

Due to the baggage delay leaving Tokyo, I just missed my next flight, from Chicago to Des Moines, Iowa. The airline automatically moved me to the next one, leaving around 2:00pm. I wanted to call my mom and let her know about the change in plans, but I only had my Japanese cell phone, which doesn’t work in the states. Also, the only payphones I could find seemed to only accept credit cards or phone cards. It then dawned on me that I hadn’t brought any phones numbers with me, whatsoever. I thought back to my childhood and actually managed to recall my mom’s home phone number and—quite oddly—my Aunt Mary Ann’s phone number. I dialed both, calling collect, and hoped that I didn’t ruin the surprise.

After a few tries, I managed to reach my little brother Patrick, who as it turns out, already knew about my secret visit. He texted Mom for me and still managed to keep things hush-hush from Mike and Kevin. Everything, it seemed, was alright. Then, just before boarding, my next flight was abruptly canceled due to weather.

While my long journey seemed to getting longer and longer, I still was in good spirits. A fellow traveler and I talked about how were being inconvenienced by flight cancellation as we rebooked for later flights. Her name was Melinda and she was traveling from Michigan to Des Moines to visit her boyfriend. When I told her about my brother’s wedding and my surprise visit plans, she was quite entertained. The next flight to Des Moines left at 4:30, but we could only get stand-by for that one, and we were booked for a 7:00 flight instead.

While waiting for the chance to possibly board the 4:30 flight, Melinda kindly let me use her cell phone to call my mom and explain the situation. (Patrick had given me Mom’s cell number.) We sat at the gate and chatted until the flight started to board. It looked like the plane would be full and we would have to wait until our 7:00 flight. A few passengers walked down the jet way and presumably were sitting down on the plane when the announcement was made—the 4:30 flight was also being canceled due to weather! Everyone with tickets to the 4:30 flight scrabbled to the counter to get on stand-by for the next and final Des Moines flight of the evening, the 7:00pm flight for which Melinda and I already had tickets. It was a shocking reverse of fates.

Melinda and I killed time before our (hopeful) flight by grabbing dinner together. We talked about family and travel and had a grand old time. Eventually when 7:00 rolled around, our flight was on time, and thankfully, not canceled. The small Bombardier puddle-jumper we boarded was definitely not going to accommodate any of the folks waiting on stand-by. By 8:15pm, I had landed in my homeland, Iowa.

My mom, patient as can be, greeted me at the Des Moines airport and we drove straight to Fort Dodge, where most of my family was still having a rehearsal dinner. Those in the know had made up stories as to why my mom wasn’t present at dinner, using the unnecessarily embarrassing alibi of a digestive illness as cover. When we made it to the hotel where everyone was celebrating, my mom’s husband got everyone’s attention.

“Kathleen has made a miraculous recovery,” he said. “And she even brought the doctor that helped her.” Then I walked in the room and watched the jaws hit the floor. I raised my wedding invitation, which Mike had mailed to me in Japan and said, “Yeah, I’ll take the beef, if that’s okay.” There were hugs and smiles all around, a happy moment that made the whole trip worth it.

The next day was the wedding, and it was beautiful. Mike sang not one, but two original songs during the ceremony. One song he had written specifically for Samantha in secret, and surprised her. Surprises became a recurring theme of the event. When the newlyweds walked down the aisle to the closing tune of the theme from Love Actually, even I was moved to tears. The reception was also fantastic; good food, good wine (and beer), a photo booth, dancing… I delivered a speech at reception, which I had been looking forward to for quite some time. I was especially pleased to see not only family, but also a couple of my Seattle soccer friends, who I think of as family. A good time was had by all. Now back to the travel stories…

I woke up at 5:30am (CTS) on Thursday, September 8th, feeling congested and rundown, like I was coming down with a cold. I was flying halfway around the world, so it wasn’t the optimal condition to be in, but it would have to do.

My mother was driving me back to the Des Moines Airport and my dad had expressed concern that we were leaving Fort Dodge too late to make my 8:50 flight on time. In theory, if we left the house right at 6:00am, we would have just enough time to get to the airport and get me checked in. (Des Moines is pretty small potatoes as far as airports go, so once checked in, I could be through security and at my gate in like five minutes.) However, he hit some random construction on the way, and then—the killer—Des Moines rush hour traffic. When we made it to the airport, I was 10 or 15 minutes late to board within the minimum 30 minutes early that they ask you to be there. Mom even got a $20 parking ticket because, in our rush, we had just parked the car at the terminal’s arrival gate and left it unattended. It was only there for a couple minutes, but as we all know, that zone is for “loading and unloading only”.

So I missed my flight and needed to rebook. However, because we had purchased through Travelocity, we had to call them to do it. Travelocity informed us that since I had missed the first leg of my flight by my own fault, not the airlines, it counted at as no-show. Even though it was a return trip of an already wildly expensive international flight, we had to buy a whole new ticket! We talked to the people at the American Airlines counter (JAL’s “Sky Alliance” partner) but they couldn’t do anything to help. We talked to an amazingly helpful guy at the United Airlines counter (Steven Something), and he made some calls and talked to the folks at the AA counter on our behalf. To his surprise and our dread, Japan Airlines policy dictated that we were totally screwed and had to buy a brand-new, one-way ticket to Sapporo.

Long story short(er), we bought a new ticket with United Airlines, which was damn expensive, but half the price of the JAL ticket we were offered.  And my new itinerary was longer (Des Moines to Denver, Denver to San Francisco, San Francisco to Tokyo-Narita, and finally Narita to Sapporo), but it was the layovers that would make it a total beast. For example, I was looking at a 12 hour, overnight layover in San Francisco, followed immediately by a transcontinental flight over the Pacific Ocean. With this new itinerary, I was supposed to arrive almost exactly one day later than my original plan.

Since my new flight plans weren’t getting started until 7:15pm, Mom and I spent most of the day killing time in Des Moines. We first went to breakfast and sat around the restaurant talking for about four hours. Then we hit the used bookstore and got some frozen yogurt, before returning the airport SUPER early to check-in for my flight. By the time I was boarding the first leg of my flight, I had already been in travel mode for over 12 hours.

The flight to Denver was about two hours. Once there, I bought a vegetarian sandwich at the food court, and a 16oz Americano from Caribou Coffee. I had about two hours there, and then another two hour flight to San Francisco. I arrived at the San Francisco Airport around 11:35pm, and wandered a bit to begin my 12 hour, overnight layover. The place was super quiet, almost deserted, and a bit chilly. I thought the atmosphere was borderline creepy, but fine.

I found that I could actually access the airport’s Wi-Fi; I just had to watch an advertisement video to get it going, and then re-watch it sometime later to stay connected.  After walking around, surfing the internet, and walking around some more, I decided to try and sleep.

By this point I’m feeling pretty cold and I’m kicking myself for wearing shorts on such a long trip. If I had long pants, I probably would have been fairly comfortable, but my leg hair wasn’t proving to be very good at insulating my body heat. To make matters worse, I didn’t have anything to cover my legs with, expect maybe my track jacket, but that was busy keeping my torso warm. Remembering a scene in Back to the Future where Marty wakes up a homeless guy, I recalled that the homeless guy used a bunch of newspapers for a blanket, and scoured the area for a newspaper. The cleaning staff was actually hard at work, doing a great job of tidying the place, so it took me forever to find a discarded newspaper. Once I had one, I used my messenger bag as a pillow, covered my legs with newspaper, and drifted off to sleep, probably around 2:30am or so.

When I awoke around 5:00am, the airport was abuzz with people. The gate at which I had crashed was now filled with travelers waiting for a flight to Salt Lake City and I was surrounded. Groggily I sat up, looking truly homeless with my newspaper blanket still covering my legs.  I collected my things and got up for a walk, freeing up three more seats for the folks there. The rest must have done my brain good because it was at that point that I realized I wasn’t at the International Terminal. A short jaunt later, I found myself in the right terminal, a much bigger space with better chairs for sleeping.

A bit hungry, I bought a decent breakfast sandwich that came with terrible breakfast potatoes, and found a new spot to settle down. I connected to Wi-Fi again (watching the same advertisement video to get it going), and check my email and such. This time I actually caught my girlfriend, Marissa, online in Africa. We had a Skype conversation; it was the highlight of my travels.

Fast-forward to 11:15am and I takeoff in a Boeing 747 bound for Tokyo-Narita. The flight only took 9.5 hours, but unlike the cushy JAL flight, this plane didn’t have individual screens for each seat. This meant that instead of having access to a ton of movies, I could only watch the utterly forgettable romantic comedy Something Borrowed, followed by episodes of House, M.D. This was probably a good thing, since I needed to sleep. Plus I had a real blanket for my legs, so I was happy.

Arriving in Tokyo-Narita Airport, I went through customs, which was very busy. Luckily, the line for people with Re-Entry Permits was only four people long, so I bypassed a line of like two hundred people. I picked up and re-checked my big bag, and started looking for my next gate. As it turned out, I still had six hours to wait and my gate’s security checkpoint wasn’t even open yet. I would need to kill some time.

At this point, the strap of my messenger bag tore off. Apparently I had overburdened my bag with the weight of my laptop. I very nearly caught it before it hit the floor, but the corner of my computer surely felt the impact. Summoning my inner MacGyver, I managed to attach the end of the strap to another part of the bag by hand, essentially fixing it, at least for the time being.

I discovered that the Tokyo-Narita Airport has a huge shopping area and food court. It’s like there’s a mall inside the airport, with lots of food and omiyage (お土産   – souvenir) options. I bought a bottle of green tea, a delicious nikuman (肉饅 - meat filled bun), and a matcha bagel. It was already good to be back in Japan.

In a room containing comfy chairs and a TV inexplicably playing CNN, I found an outlet to power my laptop. Luckily, my battered Toshiba powered up without any problems, apparently not damage by the drop it endured earlier. Using my Docomo USB internet key, I accessed the internet on my own, and checked my email and such. Then the TV actually caught my attention with “Breaking News” of a ferry that had sunk off the coast of Zanzibar. It had been carrying somewhere between 800 and 1,000 people. They zoomed in the map and I saw that the boat’s destination was actually the island of Pemba, where Marissa was! I found this more than a little unsettling, and shot off an email of grandmotherly-like concern.

When I finally was able to go through security, I found myself relieved to be out of the United States. Airport security is so much more reasonable and respectful of individuals in Japan than in the perpetually terrified United States. I was momentarily embarrassed by my country, but the feeling comes and goes fairly often. Looking around a little shop near the gate, I accidentally knocked down a shelf of ANA toy airplanes. A store employee rushed out, apologized to me repeatedly, and picked up the mess that I had created. Even when I bought a bottle of water after the incident, the staff was exceedingly nice to me.

The flight to Sapporo-Chitose was just 1.5 hours. I was home…almost. I picked up my bag, walked down to the parking garage, and by watching other returning passengers, figured out how to pay for parking. The bill for parking my car at the airport for one week:  8600 yen (about $112)! Since the airport is all the way in Chitose, I still had an hour and a half drive. I arrived at my friend’s apartment in Sapporo around 9:30 or 10:00pm, Japan time. After a much-needed shower, I finally passed out. With the rescheduling and all the delays, I estimate that my total travel time, door-to-door, was around 50 hours.

The following week, back in Shakotan, I had dinner with some of my fellow JHS teachers. Everyone had questions about my trip and the wedding. Yoshimura-sensei asked me what my brother did for work, and this is where hilarity ensued. First I said that he worked for Boeing, which was met with raucous laughter. Then I tried to clarify, explaining that he was an aerospace engineer. This only cracked them up further.

Yusuke later explained to me that Boeing sounds like “boin” (ぼいん), meaning “big breasts.” And aerospace contains the word “ero” (エロ), which in Japanese means “erotic” or “eroticism”, so I had only made the misunderstanding worse. If only engineers’ jobs were so interesting.

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Beyond Sapporo Dome

I had heard that an International Friendly match between Japan and South Korea was going to be played at the Sapporo Dome in August. As a soccer enthusiast, and fan of both national teams as well, I was pretty damn excited at the prospect of actually attending and watching the match in person. Yusuke dashed my hopes though, telling me the match was immensely popular and while he was going to try to buy tickets the moment they went on sale, the odds of being successful were very low. As expected, he wasn’t able to get tickets.

Sometime later, when hanging out with my fellow ALTs, Rebecca mentioned that a teacher in her school was able to get some tickets and she was actually going to the game. My reaction to the news was a little intense, as I did poor job of curtailing my shock and jealousy. Luckily, no one seemed offended. Rebecca was surprised that I was so interested in the match, and very generously offered to contact her teacher friend to see if he had another free ticket. Apparently he was able to buy a whole block of seats! Embarrassed from my outburst, I told her not to go to any trouble, but I admitted that I wouldn’t pass up a chance to attend. A couple days later, Rebecca texted to say that there was indeed a ticket for me and I just needed to bring 7500 yen to pay for it on game day. It was on like Donkey Kong!

Sapporo Dome is a truly massive sports structure. On the outside, it looks like gigantic blob of mercury, a big organic shape with a clean metallic look. Inside, its spacious interior contains not only the playfield, but also several shops and food vendors. What makes the dome especially interesting is that it is convertible to accommodate both soccer and baseball games. Baseball games are played on an artificial turf surface, and soccer is played on a grass pitch. Before a soccer match, the grass pitch is mechanically slid in and the baseball turf slid out. While there are other sports complexes that make this conversion, it seems that the Sapporo Dome is unique in that does it with a fixed roof structure.

The dome’s normal role is as the home to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters baseball team and the Consadole Sapporo football club. I’ve discovered some interesting things about the names of both of these teams. First, I had thought that Nippon Ham was a strange name for a baseball team, and as it turns out, the name actually comes from the meat packing company that owns the team. In Japan, the baseball teams’ names usually include the name of the company that owns them, and this has been a tradition since the beginning of the league. Other examples include the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (SoftBank telecommunications), the Yomiuri Giants (Yomiuri media conglomerate), and the Hanshin Tigers (Hanshin Electric Railway Co). The owner of the Hokkaido’s beloved “Fighters” baseball team is Nippon Ham, hence the funny-sounding name. It has only been in the last few years that baseball teams have started adding locations to their names.

Consadole Sapporo was named by utilizing an even stranger idea. The name originates from the Japanese word “dosanko” (道産子 – どさんこ), a term used for people from Hokkaido. When the football club moved to Sapporo, they decided to use this word, but with its syllables in reverse; “ko-n-sa-do”. This already was a strange enough name to use, but they opted to include an extra twist, adding the Spanish ‘Ole!’ to the end. The result was the cryptic and slightly ridiculous “Consadole”, which they use to this day. It’s too bad, I think “Dosanko FC” would have sounded so much better…

On Wednesday, August 10th, I took the Toho subway line southeast, all the way down to its last stop, Fukuzumi Station (福住駅). Just outside of the station, one could easily see the silver blob of the Sapporo Dome, glimmering in the distance. I met up with Rebecca at the station and we waited there for her teacher friend who was supplying the tickets. Once he appeared, the three of us ventured on to the dome.

The Sapporo Dome was extremely crowded inside, packed with people for the popular Japan/Korea match. Just walking through the hallways was an exercise in patience and the sheer body heat of everyone around me made these areas uncomfortably warm. As we entered the main playfield space of the dome, I was impressed by the colossal size of the building; it looked even bigger on the inside. The number seats seemed comparable to what I was used to—the recently renamed “Century Link Field” in Seattle, where the Sounders play—but the fact that the dome had everything contained under one roof was pretty spectacular.

We arrived around 3:30 in the afternoon, which seemed fairly early in the day to having a big game. Once inside, I discovered that there were actually two games to be played! The main event wouldn’t start until around 7:30, but first there was an Under-21 match to be played: U-21 Japan vs. U-21 Egypt. The bonus game was a very pleasant surprise.

During halftime of the first match, I bought myself a Japan jersey from one of the many vendors inside the dome. I opted to buy the cheaper version, instead of the nicer quality, 7000 yen variety. All the jerseys I could find had players’ names and numbers on them, so I picked up a Nagatomo jersey, since he was the Japan player I was most familiar with. (Unfortunately, Nagatomo wasn’t playing that day, due to a dislocated shoulder.)

In between the two games, we ventured into the fray of bodies again, trying to cross the phalanx to retrieve some food. There were plenty of choices; ramen, bento, sushi, Mos Burger, McDonalds, KFC, Subway, but each one had a dauntingly massive line. Eventually we decide that the bento line was probably moving the fastest, and also was most likely the healthiest option, so we stuck in out there. As predicted, the line moved very fast; customers only had to select their option and hand over the cash, and they immediate received a premade box of delicious Japanese food. On the way back to our seats, I also stopped to buy a drink. I couldn’t decide between getting a beer or a juice-box of green tea (both Kirin products), so I bought one of each. This proved most satisfactory.

The friendly between Japan and Korea was part of series of international matches called the “Kirin Challenge Cup 2011”, and clearly, the Kirin Brewery Company was the major sponsor of the event. There were at least two raven mascots present, the raven being the symbol of Japan’s National Team. (Actually, it appears that Japan’s soccer emblem and uniform are based on France’s team, just replacing the cock with a crow.) There was also a white blob mascot, who looked like a cross between a kodama (木霊 – tree spirit) from My Neighbor Totoro and the Michelin Man, but I never did figure out was that was all about.

The atmosphere in the dome was really excellent for soccer. The Japan supporters cheered loudly and constantly, with songs being led by one the diehard group at the far end of the pitch. It reminded me of the Emerald City Supporters in Seattle that energetically lead songs and cheering from the south end of the stadium. This group had essentially the same feel, complete with drums and giant flags. When the squads walked out onto the pitch, the diehard group produced a giant Japan flag and jersey, and dropped banner letters spelling out “KING OF ASIA”. While I thought that the banner displayed borderline offensive insensitivity given the historical context between the two nations, I still admired the fans’ enthusiasm.

The National Anthem of Japan sang by Futoshi (太志) of the rock/pop band Aqua Timez—of which I’m not familiar—and the game was under way. One of the main cheer songs sung by the Japan supporters used the melody from Scott Joplin piano rag, “The Entertainer.” Unfortunately for Korea, Japan dominated the whole match. Considering how well both teams had been doing in international play recently, I expected a pretty good match, but Korea never seemed to step up. In the end, Japan won easily, three to nil. Despite the lackluster game, the experience was fantastic.

Not moving.

Upon exiting the stadium, Rebecca and I discovered that Sapporo Dome’s crowded hallways were nothing compared to the bottleneck of its exits. Getting stuck in traffic while driving is incredibly frustrating, but getting similarly stuck on foot was a new experience. The mass of bodies, all crammed together, moved forward a few steps, and then stopped for perhaps a minute, then forward a bit more, then stopped again. It went like this the whole way out of the building, only opening up out on the street. Thus it took us about an hour just to make it to the subway station. The scene was an agoraphobic’s worst nightmare.

Saturday August 20, 2011, I was back at the Sapporo Dome, this time for a Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters baseball game. There was a group of Shakotan folks bussing in for the game and Yamazaki-san invited me to come along. Since I had plans to be in Sapporo the night before for a party, I opted to just meet everyone at the dome. Completely by chance, I ran into one of the Shakotan guys on the subway heading there, and he led me to the rest of the group.

Along with my ticket, I had been given a Fighters tote bag that included a keychain/cell phone charm, a lanyard, and inflatable noisemaking cheer sticks. Not bad for only 500 yen. The Nippon Ham Fighters have a J-Pop theme song which I could hear from just outside. It’s quite an upbeat, catchy tune, and it quickly got stuck in my head.

Beer: This is how it’s done.

The Shakotan group had a block of seats, apparently three rows worth, behind first base. Inside of the dome looked smaller this time, both the baseball field and the stands seemed to be on a slightly smaller scale than they did at the soccer match. As it turns out, Sapporo Dome has a seating capacity of 67,400 in football mode, but the capacity for baseball games is only 55,000.

My Shakotan friends were very generous with me, and someone returned from the concession stand with a cola and snacks for me. I can’t remember the last time I actually drank pop, but this was a gift, so I humbly accepted and drank it. It was surprisingly good. I also saw many folks drinking beer and iced tea, much like what I had bought at the Japan/Korea match. The food available was your usual ballpark fare; hotdogs, warm pretzels, chirros, etc. The warm pretzel I was given was different than what I expected. It had no salt on it and contained some kind of sweet filling, jelly doughnut-style. More sweet than savory, it was fantastic.

While I’m not really a baseball fan, the atmosphere at the Fighters game was exuberant; great fun to be there with the Shakotan folks. The crowd constantly sang cheer songs, and the fans were always on the same page with each other. Whenever the Fighters were up at bat, the hitter’s name would be worked into the chant. This kind of collective, super-fan behavior is quite common in Japan, and it can make even the most boring sporting events more entertaining. With my friends teaching me songs, I completely forgot how disinterested in baseball I normally am.

As the game was getting into the last inning, the Shakotan group collectively made our exit. The Fighters were up 2-0, so the game wasn’t exactly in the bag, but having seen the nightmare of Sapporo Dome’s exits clogged with bodies, I thought this was a wise move. My good friend Harima Makoto-san hadn’t been able to take the group bus, and had driven his car (a Mercedes, no less) to Sapporo. In his endless generosity, he offered to drive me to dinner in Teine (手稲) and back to my car in Nakajima Koen (中島公園), just so that I wouldn’t miss out. I seriously owe him one.

Dinner was at a “Viking” (バイキング) restaurant, meaning that it was an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink smorgasbord. Being an American, I have seen my fair share of all-you-can-eat buffets, but Japan’s “Viking” style is, far and away, the craziest conglomeration of food that I have ever seen.

First off, the restaurant was a yakiniku place, with grills installed in every table. There was a buffet of raw meat and vegetables, basically all the things that might want to barbeque. That alone makes for a big meal, but there was more! There were several buffets, each with a variety of options; sushi items, noodle dishes (like spaghetti and yakisoba), fried stuff (like fried chicken and spring rolls), a full salad bar, a huge variety of fruit, a soup bar (complete with white rice, fried rice, and curry). And obviously there was also unlimited beer, soda, iced tea (of many kinds), even a coffee drink machine.

And then there were the desserts. They had a variety of ice cream in tubs, as well as a soft-serve ice cream machine. There was a bunch of cakes (chocolate, cheese cake, etc), cream puffs (and other pastry stuff), and more traditionally Japanese mochi (糯) and anko (あんこ) desserts. What blew my mind was that they had a crepe station! But the kicker had to be the cotton candy (綿菓子 – わたがし) machine. Just grab a stick, sweep it around the bowl, and you had yourself a sugary treat. A gluttonously good time was had by all.

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Fireworks in Obihiro

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

This wasn't the gridlocked part.

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

This sign indicates that you've been spotted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don't remember this part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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