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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Goroawase: Japanese Number Puns

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On November 8th 2011, the junior high school conducted a special “Dental Heath Day”. This seemed to me like a rather arbitrary time to emphasize dental health, as important as it is. But Vice Principle Tanaka explained to me that the day hadn’t been selected completely at random. This particular date was chosen using goroawase (語呂合わせ).

Goroawase (語呂合わせ) is a form of Japanese word play in which the pronunciations of numbers are used to make homophonic words of various convenient meanings. It is essentially a vast world of number puns, and it’s very commonly used. The most prevalent use of goroawase is as a mnemonic device for handy memorization of phone numbers. Pretty much all advertisements that include a phone number utilize this type of pun-ishment.

What makes goroawase convenient is its flexibility, and this comes from the multiple pronunciations for numbers found in Japanese. Japanese contains two ways of pronouncing any particular kanji, called kun’yomi (訓読み – native Japanese reading) and on’yomi (音読み – reading borrowed from Chinese). This is the reason why learning kanji is so frustratingly difficult, but it also makes the creation of puns easier. In addition to the dual pronunciation thing, the Japanese language has also added tons of words from English in recent history, so Engurish terms can be used as well. (I say “Engurish terms” because while these are the numbers you’re familiar with, they’re usually spoken in a Japanese accent, which changes the pronunciation a bit.)

To make it easy, I’ve prepared a reading chart for you, complete with both kana and romanji:

No. Kun’yomi Reading On’yomi Reading From English
0 maru, ma →まる, rei, re →れい, o, zero, ze→,ゼロ,
1 hitotsu, hito, hi →ひとつ,ひと, ichi, i →いち, wan→ワン
2 futatsu, fu, futa  →ふたつ,ふ,ふた ni → tsū, tū→ツー,トゥー
3 mitsu, mi →みつ, san, sa →さん, surī→スリー
4 yon, yo, yotsu →よん,よ,よつ shi → fō→フォー
5 itsutsu, itsu →いすつ,いつ go, ko →, faibu, faivu→ファイブ
6 mutsu, mu →むつ, roku, ro →ろく, shikkusu→シックス
7 nana, nanatsu, na →なな,なつ, shichi →しち sebun, sevun→セブン
8 yatsu, ya →やつ, hachi, ha, ba →はち,, eito→エイト
9 kokonotsu, ko →ここのつ, kyu, ku →きゅう,

nain→ナイン

10 tō →とお ju, ji →じゅう, ten→テン

 

The most noticeable use of goroawase has to be “3-9”. When said as “three nine”, as opposed to “thirty-nine”, these numbers are pronounced “san kyu”. To the ear of a Japanese speaker, this sounds exactly like “thank you”.

So back to the November Dental Health Day, it breaks down like this:

November 8th → 11/8 → 1, 1, 8 → い, い, は→ いい歯→ “good teeth”, hence Dental Health Day

And there’s also this one:

June 4th → 6-4 → むし→ 虫→ “bug” or (in the context of teeth) “cavity”, another Dental Health Day

One for use at the grocery store:

The 29th of the month → 2, 9 → にく→ 肉→ “Meat Day”, meat is cheaper at the store

And another school day of note:

July 10th → 7, 10 → な とお→ 納豆→ “Natto Day”, or in my opinion, “Disappointing Lunch Day”

This place is called “Hanaten”. (Ha – 8, na – 7, ten…well, you know.)

It’s helpful to familiarize yourself with goroawase, as it’s everywhere in Japan. Then the next time an advertisement cleverly uses this convention in their phone number, you can finally be in on the joke.

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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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Golden Week Part II: Komoro

On Saturday May 5th, it was time for Rio and I to head out to Nagano. He had invited me to come along on his trip to the mountainous prefecture and see his hometown. As gigantic and interesting as Tokyo is, I was probably more excited to see a new part of Japan, especially my friend’s childhood home. The day began with morning coffee with Adam at his local Starbucks, where we chatted about life, Japan, life in Japan, and I think I brought up video games at some point. Adam was even kind enough to ride the trains with me most of the way to Tokyo Station just to make sure that I didn’t get lost.

Back at the massive Tokyo Station, I met up with Rio and we purchased tickets for the Shinkansen (新幹線 – bullet train). Nagano isn’t particularly close to Tokyo, but thanks to Japan’s superbly efficient mass transit systems, we could get there quickly and conveniently via high speed rail.

Even through you are traveling over land, the Shinkansen experience struck me as being very much like riding an airplane. First of all, the tickets aren’t cheap. Buying a ticket for the bullet train is reminiscent of purchasing a plane ticket just for the expense alone. Then there’s the diligence and efficiency which with the Shinkansen is operated. Everyone involved is extremely serious about providing rapid transportation in the safest way possible. But the greatest similarity between the bullet train and commercial aircraft is in the physical design of the vehicle itself.

The body of the Shinkansen looks like an airplane without wings. The sleek aerodynamic look of the bullet train, from the rounded nosecone to the streamlined cars, is reminiscent of commercial airliner. If a regional JR train and a Boeing 737 mated, the bullet train would be its offspring. Even the interior of the train reminded me of a plane; although it was more spacious and comfortable than any aircraft I’ve ever ridden on. And the view of the landscape whipping by my window seat was captivating. I’ve always enjoyed watching the world below from an airplane, but in the bullet train, you’re seeing everything from ground level. The unique perspective you get on the train is worth the price of your ticket. For the train enthusiasts out there, it doesn’t get much cooler than the Shinkasen.

After a 90 minute train ride, we arrived at Saku-shi (佐久市), Nagano. Since it was Kodomo no Hi (こどもの日 – Children’s Day), the colorful koi-shaped flags, known as koinobori (鯉のぼり), were out in full force, livening up neighborhood. Rio pointed out to me that Nagano is one of the few places in Japan where people actually eat koi. In fact, we were going to be having koi sashimi, called koi no aria (鯉のあらい) for dinner. We found Rio’s BMW parked at the train station and set out for his hometown of Komoro (小諸).

On the way, we stopped for a bite to eat at a local taiyaki (鯛焼き) place. Rio had been surprised to hear that I liked anko (餡子 – red bean paste) and I had specifically mentioned my love of taiyaki, a fish-shaped red bean paste-filled fried treat. So he brought me to his favorite taiyaki shop, the place he used to go back in his high school days. It was some excellent fish-shaped deliciousness.

We also stopped to see a cute, cartoonish figure, a statue called pin-koro (ぴんころ). Rio introduced it as the “live long and die quickly” statue, which is essentially what pin-koro means. The name comes from pin pin (ぴんぴん), a colloquialism meaning “healthy, lively”, and korori (ころり), meaning “easily, effortlessly, suddenly”. [It’s worth noting that korori is the adverbial form of “korokoro” (ころころ), the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound of a round object rolling. Koro, koro, koro…] As Rio explained, the men in this area of Nagano generally live to ripe old age, with an average lifespan that surpasses even the rest of Japan. This friendly marketable image was apparently made to promote and capitalize on the local population’s longevity.

Next we drove further into the mountains, following the ridge of a beautiful forested river valley. The natural splendor of rural Nagano was rather breathtaking, and I felt a strange twinge of jealousy, like I should have asked my company to place me there. We drove past Rio’s elementary school and a huge dam that that neighbors it. As Rio explained, going to college in Iowa was exciting for him, because he had never seen a place that was so amazingly flat. Clearly his home’s geography was far more varied.

Arriving at Rio’s family’s house in the afternoon, we found that no one was home. The house was very old, about 80 years old or so, and huge! Constructed in the traditional Japanese style by Rio’s grandfather—or was it great grandfather?—it was made of great beams of wood, and had all the Japanese features one would expect; sliding doors, Tanami floors, tiled roof, etc. Before even entering the house, I was immediately impressed by the old-style gate, and the tall wall that runs the border of the property. The gates massive wooden doors were so authentically old-fashioned, to point of being historical artifacts, and to me they felt epic, otherworldly. With no one at the house, we dropped off our bags and set out to see the town.

We ate lunch at a popular soba place called Kusabue (草笛 – grass whistle) that featured a sweet chestnut dipping sauce for their noodles. Chestnuts, called kuri (栗) in Japanese, are a local specialty there. Then we drove into central Komoro to see some of the historical sites in the heart of the town.

Since it was Kodomo no Hi, there were plenty of extra decorations around. There were lots of koi flags and even great big displays of elaborate dolls on display. We also noticed several posters advertising an anime series called “Ano Natsu de Matteru” (あの夏で待ってる – translated as “Waiting in the Summer”). From the posters we deduced that the show must be set in Komoro, as the posters featured identifiable landmarks from around town, like the dam near Rio’s elementary school.  Although I couldn’t tell what the show was about—beyond high school kids with a video camera—I decided to check it out sometime to see what bits of town I could recognize.

Komoro’s main street looked surprisingly low key and underutilized, much like the barren main streets of Middle American towns that have been destroyed by Wal-Mart. Rio explained to me that the place once was a busying thoroughfare. Conveniently located right off the train line, it had received plenty of street traffic from visitors and nearby country folk alike. But then the bigger train station in Saku opened up, along with lots of big retailers to draw customers. With a giant Aeon store next to the high-traffic station in Saku, Komoro’s main street became all but deserted.

In the heart of Komoro, Rio led me to a massive, beautiful park called Kaikoen (懐古園). Built upon the ruins of Komoro Castle, Kaikoen retains the impressive castle gates and several stony fortress foundations. The tree lined paths and grassy picnic areas provide an incredibly peaceful, distinctly Japanese atmosphere for relaxing on a spring day. The park also contains a museum, and—although we didn’t check them out—a zoo and amusement park for the kids.

While wandering about the park, we discovered an archery range where a man was practicing Kyūdō (弓道 – “Way of the Bow”, traditional Japanese archery). Unlike normal recreational archery, Kyūdō is considered a martial art, much like Judo or Aikido, and participating in it is to follow “the way of the warrior”, or budō (武道). This means the purpose of Kyūdō is just as much about spiritual development and the perfection of character as it is about hitting the target with an arrow. Watching the man ritualistically draw back his longbow, take aim, and let arrow fly across the open shooting ground was intensely interesting, almost hypnotic. We lingered there to watch him for several minutes.

While the entrance of Kaikoen is normal ground level, the other side drops off like a cliff. This makes for some breathtaking views of Komoro’s gorgeous mountain-protected river valley. The way the deep canyon of the valley contrasted with the tree covered mountains was really spectacular. I got yet another great view of the dam, and one lookout point in particular seemed to have been used as a model for some of the Waiting in the Summer posters.

After the castle park, we stopped at some small rice fields on the way back to the house. Utilizing the limited space in the mountainous terrain, Komoro residents had created miniature rice fields on the uneven ground. The fields were asymmetrical and tiered, covering as much of the available land as possible. One man was tilling the soil with a diminutive but maneuverable gas-powered machine. This was Rio’s father.

Rio’s family had been growing rice in the mountains of Nagano for generations. For as long as Rio could remember, he father would tend to the field and produce all the rice the family needed. But this wasn’t his father’s profession, Rio’s dad was actually math teacher, this was more of a hobby, or a serious family garden. Rio’s father, Yoichi, took a break from the tilling work to greet us. He had already met my brother in the past and seemed particularly interested to meet me. His warm smile genuinely made me feel welcome. Father and son chatted a bit while I snapped some obligatory photos and then we were on our way.

Back at the homestead, Rio’s mother had prepared a traditional holiday treat for us, called kashiwa-mochi (柏餅). These mochi (餅 – glutinous rice cakes) were filled with anko (that delicious red bean paste again) and presented wrapped in oak leaves. (Kashiwa means “oak” in Japanese.) We sat down and enjoyed the delicious Children’s Day treat with green tea. It was excellent. After the mochi treats, there was some downtime to relax until dinner.

Dinner with Rio’s family was amazing. Not only was his mother’s cooking unbelievably good, but all of the ingredients used were ridiculously fresh. I had been excited to try the local specialty koi sashimi—koi no aria (鯉のあらい)—which was a big part of the meal, but I ended up being blown away by everything else instead. With the exception of the fish, everything we ate was produced by the family themselves. All the vegetables, even the rice we ate, they had grown in their own garden! And all of it was delicious. The rice in particular, was probably the greatest rice I have ever tasted. In terms of food quality, I could not imagine a more impressive meal.

Despite the language barrier, Yoichi and I were able to converse, discussing cultural and even philosophical differences between our respective countries. An ample supply of beer and sake made communication flow even more freely. Eventually Yoichi shared some of his photography with me, showing me some amazing nature shots that he had captured over the years. It made for a truly wonderful evening.

Most of Sunday had to be in transit by necessity, as I had to get all the way back to Sapporo, and then to Shakotan in time for Monday’s classes. But before we skipped town, Rio took me to his favorite coffee purveyor, and we enjoyed some truly excellent espresso drinks. Rio’s family were so kind and generous, and they encouraged me to return again in the future. We took a group photo to commemorate the occasion and then we drove to the train station. It was a truly Golden Week indeed.

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Golden Week Part I: Tokyo

When I first came to Japan in April 2011, I flew into Tokyo a few days earlier than necessary so that I’d have some sightseeing time. I knew a couple guys who lived in Tokyo, both of whom were friends of my brother, Mike. Ryoichi – who often goes by Rio or Leo to make things easier for the English speakers – grew up in Nagano, Japan, but studied aerospace at Iowa State University. Adam grew up in good old Fort Dodge, Iowa, just like my family, and he and Mike have been good friends since their high school days. Fresh off the plane from Seattle, these were the only two people I knew in Japan. Luckily in Tokyo, they were really all I needed for an immensely enjoyable introduction to the country.

Fast-forward 13 months, and having just completed my first year teaching English in Shakotan, I was looking for a good way to use my time off during a string of consecutive national holidays, known in Japan as Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク).  Right on the heels of Shōwa Day (昭和の日 – the birthday of the Shōwa Emperor) on April 29th, the first week in May hosts three back-to-back holidays; Constitution Memorial Day (健保懸念日) on the 3rd, Greenery Day (緑の日) on the 4th, and Children’s Day (こどもの日) on the 5th. The way these holidays were observed on the 2012 calendar gave me Monday off, followed by just two days of working, and then a four-day weekend starting on Thursday. To make this time really count, I decided to fly to Kanto and ‘Tokyo it up’.

Fun fact:  The Children’s Day holiday was originally dedicated to only boys and went by the name Tango no Sekku (端午の節句 – Boy’s Day Celebration). Inversely, Hina-matsuri (雛祭り – Doll Festival) on March 3rdwas the traditional Girl’s Festival. Boy’s Day was changed to Children’s Day in 1948, to include all children. The symbol of holiday remains the carp-shaped windsocks known as koinobori (鯉のぼり – literally meaning “koi flag”). Leading up to the holiday, each household would traditionally fly one koi streamer for each son in the family, and this practice remains relatively unchanged today.

I arrived in Tokyo on Thursday, May 3rd (Constitution Memorial Day) to an unusual sight: rain. Apparently it’s quite unusual for it to rain in Tokyo during Golden Week, as tsuyu (梅雨), the raining season, doesn’t get going until June. Not only was 2012 a rainy Golden Week in Tokyo, but just to the north in Ikariki-ken, a tornado tore a path of destruction through the town of Tsukuba.  (When it comes to natural disasters, Japan just can’t catch a break.) I loaded my Suica Card up with money and jumped into the Tokyo Subway, doing my best to follow the instructions Adam had given me. Moving about Tokyo with my largish backpack, I surely looked like a tourist.

At the huge, busy, intimidating hive that is Tokyo Station, I encountered a small hiccup in the directions I was following. There wasn’t a way to take the subway line that I needed to reach Adam’s neighborhood. This was kind of cool though, because I got to practice my Japanese skills by asking for directions. To my disappointment, I ended up receiving help for a young Tokyoite who had lived in California for five years and spoke absolutely perfect English. With his trusty iPhone, the young man directed where to go, what line to take to which stop, and how I could switch lines at that station to get to my destination. He was a super helpful guy, a lifesaver really, I just wish his English hadn’t have been so good.

After some train hopping, I arrived in Adam’s neighborhood, Asagaya. We met up at the Starbucks, conveniently located inside the train station, and made the short, scenic walk to his house. While I’ve heard of Tokyo houses being cramped or claustrophobic or noisy, Adam and his family have a lovely home. It was a real pleasure to stay with them while I was in town. Since it was lunchtime, we went to a nearby Thai place to eat, and then Adam and I hopped on the train to meet Rio at Shinjuku station (新宿駅). When we found Rio, he was accompanied by his girlfriend, Akiko, but after a brief instruction, Akiko departed and it was just the three of us guys hitting the town.

We first headed to Harajuku (原宿), a district of Tokyo whose name has become synonymous with crazy youth fashion. The main street of Harajuku is more of an alleyway than a street, but it’s lined with countless shops on both sides and is always crowded with high school-age kids, most of them dressed in wacky attire. Despite the unseasonable rainy weather that day, the street was still packed. A moving canopy of umbrellas spanned the width of the walkway from awning to awning. There were plenty of things for the interested to peruse; lots of bows and lace and bright colors; clothing, and fashion accessories ranging from sickeningly cute to outright audacious. We were really just there for the people watching, taking in the spectacle of it all. Although admittedly, I was momentarily distracted by an impressive display of Super Mario Bros merchandise. Once we had run the gauntlet of kawaii (かわいい – cute), we walked on to the next sight.

At Meiji station, we met up with Kana, my old classmate form Iowa Central Community College. Kana and I had become good friends back in the day, singing in all the choirs and performing together in the school’s many stage productions. We hadn’t seen each other in nine years, so it was pretty amazing to finally get a chance to catch up.

We walked over to Meiji Jingū (明治神宮 – Meiji Shrine). Dedicated to the Meiji Emperor, the shrine is one the biggest and most famous Shinto shrines in Japan. It seemed to be intentionally hidden within its own urban forest, as the trail leading to shrine was surprisingly protected from the rain by thick tree cover. Once inside the shine proper, we leisurely looked around. The others had been there many times, it was only new to me, so we quickly paid our respects and were off. All four of our group had attended some college in Iowa and we found ourselves feeling quite nostalgic for the States, so we decided to do something extremely, stereotypically American. We went to Hooters.

There is one Hooters restaurant in Tokyo, the only one in Japan. Just as one would expect, it’s exactly like its North American counterparts; a playfully misogynistic, intentionally classless slice of Americana, transported to the Far East. The interior was their trademark orange, with walls covered in all the tacky minutia that always adorn the interior of chain restaurants trying to look unique. You’ll only notice this collection of random junk if you can avert your eyes from the girls, and of course, that’s what the Hooters experience is all about; the girls. The restaurant did a pretty good job of staffing the restaurant with women that fit the Hooters ideal of feminine beauty—busty, curvaceous, young cheerleader-types that can fill out a tank top and bright orange shorts—despite the fact that Japanese women don’t usually fall into category. The Japanese ideal of feminine beauty is generally considered more slender and waifish. Not only did they look the part, but all the girls talked the talk as well, speaking excellent English—complete with US colloquialisms and Hooters vernacular—to accommodate the surely foreigner-heavy cliental.

To get the full Hooters experience, we ordered a plate of deep-fried pickles, which came with a spicy mayonnaise dipping sauce, and some shakes. At some point, the music changed and the Hooters girls did a little dance for everyone. I had been snapping photos the whole time, but at this point I was told that taking pictures during “dance time” was forbidden—and I’m still not sure why. Eventually we got a photo with our waitress (which I ruined by standing in front and obstructing the view of her body) and we were off to our next spot.

We headed to Roppongi (六本木), the district of Tokyo that’s home to several foreign embassies, including the US embassy. If you are looking for Americans in Tokyo, Roppongi is the place you look. And from what I had heard, the roaring nightlife of the district is extremely gaijin-friendly, to the point of being predatory. Given this reputation, our destination was probably the dorkiest possible. We were headed to a video game-themed bar. Arriving in the neighborhood a bit early, we grabbed some drinks and food at a German pub before taking the nerdy plunge.

At 7:30pm, we entered Luida’s Bar, a standing-room-only establishment, emulating a fictional tavern from the role-playing video game series Dragon Quest (also called “Dragon Warrior” in the US). Rio had made reservations for us a week in advance, which was good because you can’t get into Luida’s Bar without a reservation. Even with your reservation, the Dragon Quest bar only accepts groups of its patrons in shifts, like an amusement park. You are given 90 minutes to immerse yourself in the Dragon Quest experience and then you are shuffled out the door to make room for the next group.

While very small, the interior of Luida’s Bar was impressive. Massive swords and other fantasy relics from the video game world adorned the walls, while the hanging lanterns provided the mood lighting. Flat panel TVs in the corners of the room advertised the upcoming Dragon Quest 10—as well as a crossover party game with Nintendo’s Super Mario and friends—flashing gameplay videos and concept art on a never ending loop. A couple bartender/cooks whipped up orders of game-themed cocktails and novelty foods, while an attractive young lady in medieval garb wielded a microphone and worked the room as the master of ceremonies.

The bar’s menu of Dragon Quest cocktails and food items was quite impressive, if for its ingenuity alone. Everything was shamelessly overpriced, and all hot food items, with the exception of grilled meats, were microwave-prepared junk. But each item was somehow related to the game and all were aesthetically pleasing. Each dessert item we saw was more artistically impressive than the last. Rio ordered a “potion” cocktail that came in the appropriate round glass vessel, like a prop from a medieval play. I decided to try the manjuu (饅頭– steamed buns) filled with anko (餡子 – red bean paste), which were colored blue and shaped like the iconic “slime” characters from the series.

After our time at Luida’s Bar was up, we decided to head to the train station and call it a night. Walking through Roppongi at night was much different than crossing it during the day, as my unmistakable whiteness attracted attention. Every 50 meters or so, a tall African man would approach me, aggressively trying to sell his nightclub and/or hostess bar. Each man came on strong, and their accents were a bit difficult to decipher at first—in fact, I’m pretty sure one guy was alternating between English and French, trying to catch my attention with whichever language my native tongue might be —and it immediately made me feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. Having a large, physically imposing fellow purposely obstruct your path to go for the hard sell is disconcerting, even when he’s showering you with compliments. I didn’t want to be rude to these guys who were surely just trying to get by in an infamously xenophobic foreign country, but I wished they would just leave me alone. After two blocks I had gained a much deeper appreciation for what it must be like for women who endure street harassment. (And they take it all the time!  At least I can just avoid Roppongi at night.)

On Friday May 4th, I met Rio at Shinjuku Station again. Having hit the town the night before, I was running low on cash and growing a bit worried about finding a working ATM. Since I only had a Japan Post Bank account, withdrawing money was usually just a matter of finding a post office. But we were in the middle of a string of holidays, and all the post offices were closed. For some reason, Japan ATMs are generally not open 24 hours; they usually have operating hours much like a bank. The vending machines run 24 hours a day, so I don’t know why ATMs have this restriction.

The previous day’s rain had momentarily cleared up, so when Rio and I set out walking, it was a sunny, gorgeous morning in Tokyo. We first walked to Shinjuku’s gigantic park, Shinjuku Gyoen (新宿御苑). To our surprise, entry into the park was free because it was Greenery Day (みどりの日). An old imperial garden, the park was huge, expansive and impressive. There were forested areas, great wide-open grass fields, ponds with turtles and ducks, even a garden of multicolored hedges. One forested bit in particular struck me as the ideal place to have a samurai duel to the death…or a wedding…whichever one you’re in the market for.

Shinjuku Gyoen reminded me a lot of Central Park in Manhattan, especially with the way scenes of natural splendor were framed by a background of skyscrapers. It’s a bastion of nature hiding among the sprawling urban concrete, an oasis of green amid the desert of grey. Luckily Tokyo has multiple garden parks to provide people with an escape ever once in a while.

After the park it was time for lunch, and Rio and I decided to do fast food, at Mos Burger. It was excellent. I’m probably biased, but I think a teriyaki burger at Mos Burger is far superior to anything that McDonalds of Burger King offers.

After lunch the rain returned and my search for a Japan Post ATM proved fruitless. As I discovered, all Japan Post ATMs were down for the duration Golden Week. What’s worse, all Japan Post accounts were inaccessible! Even third-party ATMs that would usually allow me to withdraw money from my J-Post account couldn’t access it. There was simply no way for me to get to my yen. Luckily, there was no need to panic, as I had my American debit card on me. Using an ATM at a Lawson’s underneath the Tokyo Pokémon center, I was able to withdraw enough yen to get me through the holiday. While there was a sizeable international transaction fee, it really was a lifesaver.

Next we checked out Japan’s capitol building, with its interesting pyramidal stone roof. Rio pointed out that the Prudential Building—the building housing the Hooters restaurant we’d seen the previous day—wasn’t very far away. With the philandering reputation of politicians, this seemed intentional. We walked on, circling the perimeter of the old Imperial Palace to get to the Marunouchi district.

Tokyo Station

Marunouchi (丸の内) is an upscale centrally located neighborhood where all the heavy-hitting financial companies do business. It’s home to Tokyo Station, the massive transportation hub where several metro lines and the Shinkansen (新幹線 – bullet train) connect. Since the station was under renovation, not all of its façade was visible, but one could still see that it has a distinctly western architectural style.

While he wasn’t with us at the time, Adam works for a financial company in Marunouchi, so we decided to check out his building. The outside of the skyscraper looked like an imperial cruiser from Star Wars, but the interior was super posh and classy, with marble floors and gilded accents. We took the escalators up to the 10th or 11th floor, where we found several fine dining establishments. Craving espresso, we found one café to be irresistible, the aptly named “So Tired”. After some delicious cappuccinos and cake, we were on our way.

Mandarin Hotel

Though I’ve only visited Tokyo twice, Rio and I have a started a little tradition. We go to an ultra-fancy hotel—usually one that has their reception on the 40th floor or so—use the restroom, and leave. Yep, that’s all there is to it. We started this tradition when I first arrived in Japan and Rio took me sightseeing all around Tokyo. We headed to the Park Hyatt hotel, specifically because it was featured in the movie Lost in Translation. But since we were only there to loiter, we scoped out the lobby, used the restroom, and left.

The thing is, these hotels usually have a really impressive view of the Tokyo skyline, and you can get a great perspective from the bathroom window. Plus, in keeping with Japanese customer service, the staff is always extremely polite, never failing to thank you when you leave. So we walk in, use the restroom, walk out, and are thanked for our trouble. It’s rather pleasant.

Mandarin Hotel toilet

In keeping with our new tradition, this time Rio and I went to the Mandarin Hotel. It was honestly amazing! From 38 stories up, the bird’s eye perspective on Tokyo is already impressive, but thanks to the newly constructed Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) towering in the distance, the view from the Mandarin Hotel men’s room is unbelievable! And the hotel has made the view as accessible as possible, constructing the exterior wall completely out of transparent glass. Instead of a wall behind them, the four urinals have only giant windows. It really takes the piss out of every other toilet.

Can you see the 円?

After enjoying the Mandarin’s men’s room, and taking plenty of pictures, Rio and I lounged around the lobby, as if we were actually guests of the hotel. When we got up to leave, I took some time to enjoy the view from the opposite side of the building and spotted something interesting. Rio’s friend had told him that the Bank of Japan was shaped like the kanji for yen (円 – actually pronounced “en” in Japanese), but from the building map at ground level, it looked like that wasn’t the case. However, from our view from above we were able to see that the building’s roof really does have a yen kanji motif! It was a lucky find.

Soon thereafter, we perused a store called Sembikiya which has the most expensive fruit I have ever seen. While I’m sure that not all fruit is equally good, that some specimens are more delicious than others, I don’t know how anyone can justify spending Sembikiya prices, even the super rich. This isn’t like your grocer jacking up the prices of organic fruits, it’s complete madness. For example, one apple will run you ¥2100. Two melons cost ¥33,600, 40 cherries for ¥15,750, or twelve strawberries for a mind-blowing ¥6825. That’s hundreds of dollars for a bag of fruit.

For dinner, we went to an izakaya that Rio had personally selected. Apparently the place was known for its excellent Kyushu-style food and it also had a wide selection of sake, which I was excited to sample. It wasn’t until our drinks arrived that I remembered how Rio doesn’t drink. It wasn’t long before we were joined by Akiko, Rio’s girlfriend. Luckily for me, Akiko enjoys sake, so I could imbibe without being the lone drinker. The three of us enjoyed an evening of traditional Japanese fare and partially Japanese conversation. Rio and Akiko were a ridiculously cute couple, so much so that I felt like they could be used as models in a prescription drug advertising campaign. (You know, the kind where the couple is so active, attractive, and incredibly happy that you wish you could have genital herpes too?)

To Be つづく’ed…

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Street Fighter Rant: Character Missteps

This entry is going to be an oddity for my blog, as it has very little to do with my experiences in Japan. In fact, I’m about to rant about video games. So here’s fair warning, you can stop reading now and avoid wasting your time on this one.
Still here? Fine. Just remember that I warned you…

I love Street Fighter. For about 20 years now, the fighting game series has been a consistent source escapist fantasy, martial arts inspiration, and artistically stylized, expertly crafted interactive entrainment. It’s been the primary source of quality time with my elder brother, and a common interest that’s led to making new friends. I love not just the challenging, fast paced gameplay, but the overarching mythos of Street Fighter; the cannon that connects story of each game—usually quite minimal as it is—with the continuity of the others. I love the art of Street Fighter—referring to both the amazing visual works of Capcom’s artists, as well as the less generally recognized artistic brilliance of good game design.

And perhaps above all other elements, I love Street Fighter’s characters. Beginning with Street Fighter II, Capcom revolutionized game design by introducing a timeless cast of unique characters, each fleshed out with their own story, culture, fighting style, and personality. An impressive collection of legendary martial arts archetypes, along with the occasional oddball, each character looked distinct and played drastically differently. (Well, expect for mainstays Ryu and Ken, but the developers widened that gap as the series progressed.) This cast gave players a more meaningful choice rat off the bat, in simply which character to select, than many games would provide over the course of the entire experience. As countless one-on-one fighting games popped up to compete with Street Fighter at the arcades, it was truly the game’s iconic cast that enabled it to hold onto its primacy in gaming culture. Well, the cast and the gameplay mechanics, which Street Fighter pioneered and continued to fine-tune through many iterations.

Street Fighter reached its pinnacle in 1999 with Street Fighter III: Third Strike. This was the greatest fighting game ever made, and I’m fairly certain that it will never be topped as the King of Fighters. (See what I did there?) It had a fantastic, colorful cast of well-balanced fighters, gorgeous flowing 2D animation, and flawless gameplay mechanics. (The parry system, while potentially daunting to newcomers, was absolutely perfect.) But after this game, Street Fighter was fairly quiet for 10 years. Then in 2009, came the revival everybody was hoping for, Street Fighter IV. While the aesthetic style of SFIV was pretty cool, in my opinion, the game was no SFIII, and that’s what I’m going to complain about it here. There are specific complaints I have about SFIV’s gameplay—really, I could bore you with those all day—but it’s the game’s character designs that I’d like to harp on here. (I warned you.)

Simply put, the new characters in Street Fighter IV suck. Pretty much all of them. Abel, the French mixed martial artist, is really the only acceptable newcomer. He has a legitimately cool design befitting of SF, and he successfully capitalizes on the explosive popularity of MMA. I still must complain though, that from a martial arts appreciation standpoint, his special “Tornado Throw” is remarkably lame.

C. Viper’s fighting prowess comes from her super-tight cybernetic spy suit, and that’s just plain stupid. Fighters whose strength comes from magic or sci-fi technology are starkly out of place in a martial arts contest. It’s a crutch of bad character design and almost always comes off as ludicrous and moronic. (This is precisely why I think Rose is so lame.)

El Fuerte, the ultra fast sprinting lucador, almost works. But Capcom blatantly attempted to make him a super silly character, which ruins everything.  You see, El Fuerte is a chef searching the world for delicious recipes. And he’s also a lucador. This gag, while not very funny, is driven into the ground more often than his opponents.

And then there’s Rufus, the rotund, jingling, ponytail-sporting, fat ass, who—despite what we know of physics—is capable of lighting-speed, back flipping kung fu.  Now, I could have overlooked the unbelievable aspects of this character if he was A) actually funny on occasion, or B) fun to play, with some cool-looking moves. Neither of these are true. Rufus is probably the dumbest character Capcom has ever come up with, one that’s insulting not just to the fat American wannabes that he’s parodying (he is a parody of something, right?), but to every diehard fan that had been waiting a decade for this game.

So of the four truly new characters, two are jokes and one’s sci-fi reliant design is completely forgettable. That brings us to Seth, the new end boss. Seth manages to take some of the infuriating cheapness of SFIII’s end boss, Gill, and fuse it with recognizable classic SF techniques stolen from various characters, to form an unoriginal and ultimately uninteresting package. Seth is literally a naked gray lump of lazy character design.

Now I know what you’re thinking, Didn’t Street Fighter II have weirdo characters like Blanka and Dhalsim? Why are you giving them a free pass? And that’s a valid argument. But I think the difference there is that both Blanka and Dhalsim have back stories that go beyond a bad joke. And each one could potentially be taken seriously as an intimidating fighter. In Blanka’s case, the wild man from the jungle would certainly be someone that you wouldn’t want to tangle with. Sure, the green skin is a bit much, but as the original “freak” fighting game character, I think it’s passable. And while Dhalsim surely originated from the Japanese designers’ racist xenophobic ideas of people of the Indian subcontinent—complete with flaming curry breath—the stretching limb idea proved to be an excellent gameplay dynamic. (Plus, it’s still arguably more realist than throwing fireballs.) In the Street Fighter mythos, Dhalsim has become one of the most interesting characters as well. An enlightened spiritual leader and pacifist, Dhalsim only fights for a specific cause, usually to improve the lives of the poor in his homeland. Blanka and Dhalsim can be taken as facetious characters if you want, but they can also be taken seriously too. No one can take Rufus seriously. Ever.

It’s not that I don’t have any love for the weird characters. I like playing as Necro, the electric, stretchy freak job in SFIII. I also like playing as wrinkly Oro, the Brazilian hermit, and oldest—yet strongest—man alive. I think Oro has a special place in the story, essentially as a representation of what Ryu will eventually become if continues to wander the world training for the remainder of his life. Usual, oddball, or downright weird characters are fine on occasion, it just helps if they work within the context of the game. And you can’t overdo it. For example, some people like to call out French goth Remy as a weak character. But I think a skinny emo kid is perfectly fine within the mostly young cast of SFIII. His goth fashion androgynous aesthetic fits right in. And his sonic booms and flashkick nostalgically clue us in to the fact that he’s probably a competent fighter.

I can dig it.

Back to SFIV, one character that I really wanted to like, but couldn’t, was Gouken; Ryu and Ken’s murdered-but-now-inexplicably-resurrected master, and the brother of fan favorite, Gouki (Akuma). Gouken would have been a perfectly fine—yet completely unnecessary—inclusion if they had gotten his moveset right. But for no reason whatsoever, his dragon punch dashes forward, not up. His hurricane kick flies straight up, instead of forward. And the player is expected to key in these techniques with the old motions, which are no longer intuitive. Why not change the arbitrary motion inputs to make his moves flow more naturally? And while we’re at it, why not use the good old backward quarter-circle motions for his counters like Karin used in Street Fighter Zero (Alpha) 3? That would have been a lot better too. And speaking of Gouken’s dragon punch, did any of you play Street Fighter EX back in the day? (Yeah, nobody else did either. Just me.) Fun fact: one of the characters in SFEX, Allen Snider, had pretty much the exact same dragon punch move as Gouken, only his was called the “Justice Fist.”

When Capcom inevitably released the next iteration of SFIV (Super SFIV) just one year later, they upped the ante with a couple more disappointing characters. Juri, the South Korean Tae Kwon Do girl, had a ton of potential. (I had predicted that Capcom would include a female TKD fighter, so this was a win for me.  Generally, I love TKD characters.) But, Capcom decided to give Juri a weird cybernetic eyeball and make her into a psychotic, overly-sexualized, sadistic villain. This struck me as an odd choice for a smaller female character that doesn’t look physically imposing. The game’s opening cinematic introduced us to Juri by showing her successfully take on both Chun Li and Cammy simultaneously, just to show off how incredibly strong she was supposed to be. Now, no offense Capcam, but you’ve already established Chun Li as the strongest woman in the world, so that doesn’t really hold water. Overall, Juri’s design isn’t too bad, but her story and personality are just abysmal.

You have got to be kidding me…

Super SFIV’s other new fighter, Hakan the Turkish oil wrestler, really highlights how far Capcom has fallen in terms of character design. I mean, what the hell were they thinking? Again, it looks like Capcom thought that players were holding out hope for yet another lighthearted, goofy character; yet another joke to keep them laughing all the way. But this facetious attitude just makes me wish they would take their jobs more seriously. If anybody should be insulted by a fighting game character these days, it’s Turkish oil wrestlers, and it’s Hakan that they should be pissed about. Instead of paying homage to a traditional fighting system—like character designers do when they get it right—Capcom pokes fun at this one outright. And they don’t help anything with Hakan’s personality either. They have him yell stuff like “Time to oil up!” at every opportunity.

Darum: This would have been preferable.

Perhaps Capcom was trying to do something really original with Hakan’s gameplay mechanics. Maybe they wanted to create a really unique experience by literally slopping oil everywhere. But I honestly don’t find Hakan that interesting or compelling to play. And what makes things worse is that I had high hopes for him. To reference Street Fighter EX again, that game had a badass Indian wrestler by the name of Darum Mister. After Hakan had been announced, but before he was debuted to the public, I thought he might be a legitimately cool character in the same vein as Darum. In fact, the two do share several aesthetic similarities. But while Darum was an incredibly cool character, Hakan—by design—is a complete joke.

No. This is not martial arts.

Sure, Street Fighter has had its fair share of bad characters over the years—the SF Zero (Alpha) series included several unnecessary/loser characters by Zero 3. (R. Mika? Seriously, Capcom.) Even SFIII: Third Strike had freaking Twelve, an alien-looking T-1000 shape-shifting creature. Also Q was distinctly out of place, but at least the steel-faced apparent robot in a trench coat was shrouded in as much mystery as possible. (Sometimes the key to good character design is in the details you withhold.) Still, there’s something about level of character design awfulness vs. excellence in SFIV that is unsettling.

After SFIV, when Capcom partnered with Namco Bandai to bring us Street Fighter X Tekken, we got to see Capcom’s eccentricities highlighted further by their truly bizarre choices of which fighters to include from both franchises. [There was also that little scandal involving Capcom’s scam to include DLC (downloadable content), including 12 new fighters, hidden on the game disk and just charge their customers for them later. You know, as if they were actually purchasing additional, downloadable content. But that game’s a rant for a different day.] Finally players got the match up they were longing for, Rufus vs. Bob. Two fat-yet-speedy blonde guys, duking it out for the title of gaming greatest self-deprecating joke.

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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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