Category Archives: Shakotan

Shakotan Blue Available Now

Shakotan Blue angle

At long last, Shakotan Blue is officially published! Head on over to ShakotanBlue.com or Amazon to order your copy of the ultimate Japan travel guide/memoir. Makes a great gift for anyone interested in Japan, especially those considering teaching English in Japanese schools.

And thanks for reading!

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Coming Soon…The Book

Kamui Misaki Mikaku037

If you’ve enjoyed the true stories of life in rural Japan featured on this blog, then I have a treat for you. I’ve written a book!

Titled Shakotan Blue, the book will soon be released through Ahmnition. It catalogs the most popular content from this blog–all the humorous anecdotes and helpful insights on Japanese culture–along with some new tales that never made it online.

Shakotan Blue front_cover

Check out ShakotanBlue.com for more details.

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Amazing Hokkaido Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Shakotan’s Garbage Rules

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One thing I have come to love about Japanese culture is its reverent appreciation and conservation of nature. Environmental issues always seem to be on the forefront of the national conscience. This means that Japan is (usually) quite an environmentally responsible country. While I had an understanding of this, I didn’t know how it would personally affect me while living in Japan. As I have now learned, the rules and schedule of garbage disposal is significantly more complicated than what I had experienced in the States. Americans with a shaky grasp on Japanese (like me) might initially find the rules a bit daunting, so here’s what I’ve learned.

Growing up in Iowa, we definitely could recycle things like cardboard, but in my experience most people only really bothered to recycle bottles and cans—and then mostly just to get their nickel and dime deposits back. In Seattle, where everybody’s a tree-hugging hippie, each apartment complex would have two dumpsters; one for trash and one for recyclables, like aluminum cans, glass bottles, cardboard, and plastic. Many buildings also had a receptacle for food and yard waste. It was a Planeteer’s dream! Coming from this perspective, I fully expected that Sapporo would be serious about their recycling rules, but Shakotan, being a rural area, would be more lassie faire and simply trash everything. That didn’t hold true.

As I learned, trash in Japan is separated to a few different categories: burnable trash (燃えるゴミ), non-burnable trash (燃えないゴミ), plastics (プラゴミ), metal cans (缶), glass bottles (ビン), plastic bottles (ペート), and paper waste (紙ゴミ).  In Shakotan, special color coded trash bags are used to distinguish between burnable trash (yellow bags), non-burnable trash (blue bags), and plastics (orange bags).

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Burnable trash is what you consider to be regular old garbage and this stuff goes off to literally be incinerated. Disposable chopsticks, used paper towels and tissues, banana peels, egg shells and other food scraps, your general ‘yucky stuff’ all goes in the burnable category.

The plastics category is where things get a bit more interesting. With the exception of plastic bottles that have their own unique group, everything plastic goes into this category—even the plastic bottle lids! This includes all plastic bags, Styrofoam, plastic packaging, plastic wrapping, and pretty much anything made out of polystyrene. This must be separated from your regular burnable trash.

Since so many food products come in plastic containers, especially ready-to-eat items, some of your plastic trash ends up messy with sauce, grease, or some other viscous slime smeared on it. In the US, we would probably call this soiled and toss it in the trash. But in Japan, you are supposed to clean the grease off and put it in the plastic trash. That’s right; you wash your garbage before throwing it away.

Even in Seattle, I remember tossing many a plastic lid, wrapper, or grocery bag in trash can, because I had been told that it wasn’t recyclable. I had always wondered how much such things added up in the grand scale of things. Now, after having collected all my plastic waste in one spot, I tell you that it accumulates pretty quickly. Even just the plastic bags and packaging from one person’s groceries can form a hefty mountain in a week’s time.

Plastic bottles are called “PET” bottles (ペート), referring to polyethylene terephthalate, the polymer they contain. These bottles proudly sport a number 1 resin identification code inside the universal recycling symbol. Clearly, this system was someone’s PET project. (These jokes plastically write themselves!)

Cans and glass bottles are pretty self-explanatory, but paper waste category requires a bit of clarification. Paper waste doesn’t simply mean anything made of paper. Specifically, it’s supposed to be stackable things made of paper. Old magazines, broken down cardboard boxes, and even broken down milk cartons fall into this category. The key is that your stack of recyclable paper needs to be of a fairly uniform shape and must be properly bound with some sort of cord. At school, where a pint of milk comes with every meal, each student is responsible for methodically rinsing and breaking down their own milk carton. These rectangular pieces of cardboard are then collected, and over time form massive stacks until they are gigantic enough for paper recycling day.

And finally, if waste item doesn’t fit into one of the previously stated categories, it probably goes into the non-burnable trash. That said, I have never gotten the waste management crew in Shakotan to take a bag of non-burnable trash from me, ever. So I might not know what I’m talking about when it comes to this category.

The trash is collected on weekdays, and pickups are scheduled both by the week and by the month. For example, here’s what Shakotan’s waste management picks up every week:

Mon:     Burnable trash (燃えるゴミ)

Tues:     Plastics (プラゴミ)

Wed:     N/A

Thurs:   Burnable trash (燃えるゴミ)

Fri:         Non-burnable trash (燃えないゴミ)

The monthly pickups follow a Monday-Wednesday-Thursday schedule that varies from week to week. Since the third week is the same as the first, and the fourth week is the same as the second, so the schedule basically alternates like this:

Odd weeks:                                                                        Even weeks:

Mon – Cans & Bottles (缶・ビン)                           Mon – PET & Paper (ペート・紙)

Wed – PET & Paper (ペート・紙)                          Wed – Cans & Bottles (缶・ビン)

Thurs – PET & Paper (ペート・紙)                        Thurs – Cans & Bottles (缶・ビン)

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Personally, I’ve never paid much attention to the monthly pickup schedule because my apartment doesn’t have a proper bin to leave trash out. My neighbors and I literally leave our garbage out on the corner on the scheduled day and it gets picked up there. In the case of Cans & Bottles Day, someone at my apartment has to put out these specially labeled Rubbermaid baskets or there’s nowhere for me to leave my recycling. That means I just wait until a morning when the baskets appear and toss all my cans then.  Unlike cans and glass, PET bottles get collected in a big green net, which I’ve always liked. It really fits my seaside village.

My favorite part of Shakotan’s garbage collection has to the garbage trucks themselves. Painted baby blue, the smallish refuse collection vehicles have a fairly cute look, but the music they play is just plain adorable. I suppose they play music to announce their presence wherever they go, both to alert pedestrians that a heavy truck is rolling through, and also to remind forgetful residents that they need to take their trash out, posthaste. But when I first heard the garbage truck driving through, I thought the Ice Cream Man had come to town. The trucks play a variety of recognizable songs, most from classic animated series and movies, all played in a tinkly music box style. The themes from Laputa, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, even Lupin III; the trucks play them all.  And always the tune is reduced to its basic melody, played like a lullaby being plucked out on the teeth of metal comb. It was definitely foreign to me when I first heard it, but it is undeniably peaceful and downright relaxing.

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Mike Visits Shakotan

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

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

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

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

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

For relaxing times, make it a Suntory time.

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

Not as easy as it looks.

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

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

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

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

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

IP Phone production room: where the magic happens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiroi Koibito Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shenanagens! Shenanagens!

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

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Through the Flames: Bikuni Shrine Festival 2012

In July 2012, just like the previous year, I participated in Shakotan’s Fire Festival, whose proper name is actually the Bikuni Jinja Matsuri (美国神社祭り). The festival is named for the main Shinto shrine in Bikuni town (美国町). Even though it wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, I still came away from the experience feeling like I had learned a lot, yet again. In fact, it was genuinely humbling.

Once again, I was braving the flames and doing hikuguri (火くぐり), the fire walking ritual whose name literally means “through fire”. An older fellow in town had pointed out to me that since hikuguri is only practiced in Shakotan’s Bikuni town (美国町) and the neighboring village of Furubira (古平町), I was almost certainly the first—if not the only—non-Japanese person to do it. (Furubira also has a resident ALT much like myself, but perhaps he is too sensible of a guy to run through a bonfire.)As a cultural explorer, I had found a true frontier in Shakotan, and the concept of my primacy in this iconic ritual really bolstered my ego. But of course, as I quickly learned, this was hubris.

Having done hikuguri and ran through the fire last year, I arrogantly assumed that I had it pretty well down. I certainly gave off a bit of a “been there, done that” vibe. When they asked me where on the omikoshi (おみこし – portable Shinto shrine) I wanted to be placed, I told them, “Anywhere is fine.” I should have taken note of the organizer’s surprise. The man took a moment to draw a squarish omikoshi diagram in the dirt—quite literally drawing lines in the sand—to illustrate the different positions at which one could placed on the heavy portable shrine. You see, the omikoshi are quite heavy and it’s a group effort to haul them. The strength and, more importantly, height of each individual involved makes a big difference. Based on my height and willingness, he placed me at the back of the omikoshi, in the center.

Back… center… I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is not a fun place to be.

Thursday July 5th, was the first night of fire walking. Since I had spent most of the day pushing a dashi (山車 – float, festival car) around Bikuni with the Tomosukai (灯す会) group, I was fairly exhausted by the time the inferno hour arrived. In fact, I had even taught one English class that afternoon. Right after lunch, I had changed clothes, driven 20 minutes or so to Nozuka Elementary, taught my class, driven back, changed back into my festival garb, and rejoined the others mid-parade. Changing gears in the middle of the day like that had been surprisingly tiring.

When I got to the shrine house, I was given my white cotton pants, shirt, gloves, and two towels for covering my head. I quickly changed and met up with the other fire-walkers outside. I was pleased to discover my fellow junior high teachers there, including Yusuke, the English teacher. Even Nao-kun, the cool, young guy from the town office who had carried the omikoshi with me the previous year was there. We got organized, finding our places on the omikoshi and drank some pre-fire walking sake.

HADOUKEN!

As we were making our final preparations, the Tengu began his own ceremonial hikuguri. From behind a wall of spectators, we could see flames reaching high in the air, illuminating the shine grounds. The crowd cheered with excitement at the Tengu’s performance, while the omikoshi carriers waited. The drunker participants made loud banter. One fellow in particular was overly interested in the size of my penis and repeatedly asked me about it. (Now I see where the kids get it.) The more sober and less experienced carriers fidgeted with nervousness. In the midst of a particularly large flare up, Yusuke let out a sigh of apprehension, while I gave a cocky laugh.

The Tengu is the fire walking master.

“You really like this event, don’t you?” Yusuke asked, giving me a sideways glance.

“But of course!” I replied. “It’s surely the most exciting thing I’ve done in Japan.” I think Yusuke shook his head at me a bit, as he was generally concerned about safety. Fire walking is most definitely dangerous and accidents can easily happen. Even when things go quite well overall, there is usually some collateral scorching. For instance, Yusuke had burnt off part of his eyebrows last year.

We got the signal that it was time to go and everyone took their positions under the omikoshi. At the last minute, Nao-kun changed places and took position in the back-center, just in front of me. With a coordinated heave, we lifted the omikoshi off its sawhorse rests, and supported its weight with the shared burden of our shoulders. As we moved forward, the sea of onlookers parted, revealing the roaring inferno in all its blazing glory. The spectators, in their positions surrounding the two piles of fire, formed human barriers, borders along our track through hell. I realized at this moment this would be the first time that I would be tackling this challenge completely sober, and my sense of self-preservation—my spider-sense, if you will—started going off like crazy. Clearly, this was not the wisest of activities to engage in.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!” we chanted. “Wasshoi, wasshoi!” But even before we started moving toward the fire, the omikoshi was swaying and stumbling back and forth. The collective guidance of the men of underneath was disorganized at best, disjointed and chaotic. The event staff were there to right the course of the portable shrine, as we veered left and right, unable to stand in one place, nearly crashing into the crowd. The strong hands of these organizers pushed us one way, then the other, but our group had trouble keeping stable footing, like a top-heavy robot dancing on ice.

When we got the green light, the group made a mighty push forward, only to be immediately pulled back before covering a single meter. False start. The organizers nurtured the fire, raking the blaze and throwing on wood shavings to rapidly grow it. We were successful the second time we were unleashed, and we plowed headlong into the blaze. On the way in, I suddenly remembered multiple people telling me that the back of the omikoshi was a hard place to be. This was supposedly because the feet of the men in front agitate the fire, kicking up an even higher wave of flames for those in the rear. It was immediately apparent to me that this assessment was entirely accurate.

Last year’s run in the front of the pack had made me confident that the diving straight through the center of the bonfire—while dangerous—wasn’t necessarily as painful or death-defying as it looked. But that was in front, and now I was in back. This position was a challenge on a whole new level. With my first step into the fire, the flames extended the height of my body, whipping past my face, and the heat enveloped me. Even moving quickly, I thought the soles of my trusty Adidas sneakers were going to melt. After our first pass, the event staff were reaching into our group and slapping people’s bodies, seemingly at random. It took me a moment to realize that they were putting out the small fires that had ignited on people’s clothing. A couple men’s pant legs were on fire, and another man in the middle had a parrot-sized blaze perched on his shoulder. How did I not notice this stuff last year? Apparently being in back also gives you a better perspective of the whole group and just how flammable everyone really is.

With the second pass over the two bonfires, I witnessed Nao, directly in front of me, trying to jump over the center of the fire—the hottest part of the blaze—and instinctively I mimicked his maneuver. But my upward momentum was immediately impeded by the omikoshi above me. It was like finding yourself in a wood burning oven, trying to avoid the searing flames by jumping out, only to hit the ceiling. It felt claustrophobic and instantly terrifying. There was no way out of this.

With each run, the heat felt equally blistering; it didn’t seem possible to acclimate to. My feet were literally plunging into the fire, but it was the rest of my legs that gave me the most intense sensations. The heat would billow into my pant legs, traveling upward quickly, and making me feel like my kneecaps were burning. After the third pass, I audibly expressed my displeasure by saying “Mo yada” (も嫌だ – slang; essentially “I don’t want to do this anymore”). This probably amused anyone who heard it, as it was too late to get out of anything. I had to hope the significant layer of sweat that now coated my body would act as a flame retardant.

After two more fiery passes the ritual was complete, and our ragtag group stumbled and swayed drunkenly to bring the omikoshi to its resting place in front of the shrine. As soon as the weight was off my shoulder, I tore the towel off my face. Boiling with a feverish heat, I needed to breathe the cool night air into my lungs. I so, so glad it was over…for the night. I was still scheduled to have another go at it the following evening.

When I braved the hikuguri again the next night, I made sure to be placed on the side of the omikoshi. This made for some awkward conversation with the organizer, since I had been so supremely confidence before and was now backpedaling. But I had to be firm and stick to a new a cautious plan; there was no way I was going to be running though the middle of a bonfire in back of that beast again. And sure enough, doing the ritual on the outside—even while sober—was far less terrifying and therefore more enjoyable than being in back-center.

In the aftermath of the hikuguri, I found that my shoes had taken much more of beating than they had the year previous. My once white Rod Laver sneakers were now substantially charred; almost uniformly black and gray. In the heat, the tied loops of the shoelaces had fused together. My legs had received a fiery makeover as well, as the lower halves of my shins were suddenly hairless. Some ladies shave, others wax, some use chemical hair removers, but has anyone ever tried simply burning off their leg hair? I can attest to the fact that it works. Additionally, my kneecaps were startlingly hair-free, and my right knee was superficially burned. I’m guessing that the heat had collected in the spot that my pant legs bend. The burn wasn’t severe and pretty much healed overnight.

Despite my best efforts to cover my head, my face didn’t go unaffected by the flames either. My bushy eyebrows got visibly singed, with a small spot in the middle my right brow being scorched off. Even my eyelashes had even been lightly toasted, becoming slightly cauterized at their tips.

Nao, the fellow who had been directly in front of me, was not as lucky as me. His right wrist had sustained a rather severe burn, in about the same place where one would wear a watch. He began icing his injury that very night, but by the next morning, it had formed a large, puffy, watery blister. Yusuke also received blister-inducing burns from the fire walking, but on his neck. Apparently Yusuke always wraps his neck with a third towel. The one time he failed to do this, he got burned.

So the lesson here, kids, is that hikuguri (火くぐり)—running through bonfires—is dangerous. Do not try this at home. But if you happen to be in Shakotan in July, ask about it at the Bikuni Shrine (美国神社). All the cool kids are doing it.

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Return to Shakotan

After a far too brief visit to Seattle, I returned to Bikuni by April 9th, 2012, ready to start my second year as Shakotan’s ALT. The moment I entered my apartment, I was struck with an eerie sense of déjà vu. Unlived in for two weeks or so, the apartment had grown just as cold as the sea air outside. In my absence, the normally omnipresent curry aroma has dissipated, giving way to the bland, nondescript fragrance of nothing in particular. Walking in and dropping my suitcase on the floor, I was overcome with the sense that my dwelling had reverted back to its original state, like I had somehow come back not just in space – but in time – to my first day here, one year ago. This was an unnerving sensation.

Perhaps I had more doubts about my decision to stay than I had originally thought. Perhaps being able to visit Seattle and briefly see the people I love was a good way to trigger intense homesickness. Perhaps my apartment in Shakotan is a fortress of solitude, an ever-lonely place. It’s likely that all of the above of are true. In any case, there I was; voluntarily starting another full year in a relatively isolated Hokkaido fishing village, with only my laptop and guitar as companions. Was this really the right decision? Is there ever a right decision? Perhaps all choices are half chance.

I was in for a new experience by carrying on here; I got to see my students progress through school. In my first year at Shakotan, I had taught at the junior high school and two elementary schools. At the junior high, this meant that my Second Year students had become Third Years, and my First Years were promoted to Second Year students. Perhaps the most interesting to see, the students that I had taught as 6th graders were now the new freshmen at the junior high. No longer dressed casually as elementary school kids, these young students were sporting their new junior high seifuku (制服), the military-esque school uniforms that look like sailor outfits. And apparently more formal dress lends itself to more serious studiousness, as these kids seemed to have matured considerably in the span of three weeks.

Despite the small size of the elementary schools in Shakotan, this year all four of them have at least one 5th grader. Since English instruction officially begins in fifth grade, this means that my time teaching in elementary schools has doubled. I now teach at Bikuni, Hizuka, Nozuka, and Yobetsu elementary schools. Those last two have only one 5th grade student – and only five students in the entire school – meaning that our classes are one-on-one. Actually, there is also a Japanese teacher present, so technically these students get two teachers completely to themselves. How’s that for small class sizes?

Nozuka Elementary School has five students, total.

Unfortunately for me, some of my favorite teachers had been transferred to other schools. Apparently it’s common practice to move teachers about the region, typically at least once every six years. I’m not sure what the purpose of this is, but it seems that an individual would have to be pretty one devoted to teaching to pursue a career as a semi-nomadic educator. At the junior high, the vice principal, school manager, social studies teacher, and second PE teacher had all been transferred. At Hizuka, the French-speaking Kazama-sensei and his wife, along with the principal and vice principal, had departed for greener pastures. And at Bikuni Elementary, the lineup remained largely the same, but the teachers had swapped positions, meaning that I was working with different teachers for the 5th and 6th grades than I had been previously.

The loss of Kazama-sensei was a bit of a downer for me, as we had had some memorable conversations in a comical mix of broken English, French, and Japanese. At the junior high, I had come to really enjoy the way Vice Principal Tanaka would teach me new phrases and Japanese puns, and I knew that I would miss his comic presence. I was also sure to miss the social studies teacher, Yoshimura-sensei. In fact, I missed the whole Yoshimura family. The Yoshimuras had welcomed me into their home for dinner on a couple separate occasions, the most notable time being when Marissa was visiting and they had invited us over for yakiniku. I always felt like Shingo and I were pretty good friends (although I never actually called him by his first name like that). And the two Yoshimura daughters were the brightest students in their respective classes, so their absence was quite noticeable.

And yet the effect that all of these personnel changes had on me really paled in comparison to the big shocker: Yamazaki-san was also being transferred! The news of Yamazaki’s two-year transfer to the main Hokkaido office in Sapporo hit me like a ton of bricks. In my first year in Shakotan, Yamazaki had become my closest, most trusted, most helpful friend in town. We had worked together at the education board’s office every week, and he was always there to support me when I needed help. It probably goes without saying, but I needed help quite often. He was my pillar, my rock, the wind beneath my wings, and honestly, the only person in town whom I felt that I could communicate with perfectly, despite the language barrier. He had helped me get set up in my apartment when I arrived, guided me through many adventures (local festivals, sports days, trips with his family), introduced me to interesting aspects of Japanese culture (onsen, baseball games, yakiniku, “nominiucation”, etc), and also enabled me to go on some adventures without him (like hiking Mt. Shakotan and Hashigozake). We had even traveled down to Kōchi together for Kami-shi’s local Yosakoi Sōran festival. In my second year in Shakotan, Yamazaki wasn’t going to be there, and I was certain to miss him most of all.

Solar eclipse

My frustration in the matter of Yamazaki’s transfer is admittedly self-serving, but the reasoning of why he was being temporarily moved was genuinely perplexing. At first it seemed like a promotion for him, getting a chance to work in the bigger pond of the Hokkaido office. But that fact that his transfer was temporary made it seem almost intentionally awkward. You see, both Yamazaki and his wife had been working in Shakotan’s town office. They have a nice little house in the village where they lived with their two children (one in junior high, one in elementary school) and Yamazaki’s mother. Shakotan is two hours away from Sapporo by car and not accessible by train. By moving his position to Sapporo temporarily, the powers that be had forced Yamazaki to rent an apartment in the city, live there throughout the work week, and only see his family on weekends; the only time it was feasible for him to make the drive home, or his family to make the trip there. The fact that the transfer was temporary and his wife still had her career in Shakotan makes moving the whole family to the big city completely impractical. So why do it?

Cherry blossoms on the hillside

Apparently this kind of intra-company transfer, called tenkin (転勤 – job relocation), is a very common practice in Japan. I’ve been told that the idea of shifting people around is to avoid workers in bureaucratic positions from getting too comfortable. This is quite literally in an effort to avoid corruption and cronyism in the workplace. Having the same people working together in the same office for too long might potentially lead to minor corruption, like folks breaking the rules to do favors for their friends, or more serious unethical behavior, like embezzling money. The idea that anybody would suspect Yamazaki of ever doing anything unethical strikes me as preposterous. Although, I suppose I do have a TV from the Shakotan town office in my apartment, which is technically a no-no… Man, I love that guy.

While the loss of Yamazaki was a blow, I’m still bound to enjoy teaching in Shakotan. After all, Yusuke, the junior high English teacher, is still here, and we make an exemplary excellent educational team. He does all the lesson plans, worksheets, tests, quizzes, and grading; is responsible for students’ performance, discipline, and classroom morale; and basically deals with all the stressful aspects of the job. While I handle a fun ten-minute game at the beginning of class, provide pronunciation expertise (which I have simply by virtue of having grown up in an English-speaking country), and generally soak up all the glory and admiration the kids have to offer – just because I’m exotic and interesting to them. It’s a good system. Plus, Yusuke and I are avid soccer fans, both watching and playing the beautiful game. This year, the new school manager is also a young soccer enthusiast, so the post-lunch soccer scrimmages with the kids are looking to be better than ever.

After having eaten school lunch with the kids for over a year now, one student finally pointed out to me the proper dish arrangement for eating. Rice goes on the left, the bowl of soup on the right, and the plate for miscellaneous items (like vegetables and fish) is placed behind them. I had been taught to “triangle eat” – eating a little bit of each item without finishing any food faster than the others – but no one ever pointed out how to arrange the plates until now. No matter how much you know, there’s always more to learn.

What it’s all about.

 

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