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Bikuni’s Yume Akari

The second week in February is supposedly when Hokkaido’s snowfall reaches its apex. From that point on, the snow will gradually decline, until spring finally appears in all its flowery glory. It’s during this snow peak that many cities in Hokkaido plan their winter festivals, celebrations of snow, lights, and hot beverages. While the winter solstice events were quite beautiful, this week is Hokkaido’s true time to shine, and shine it does.

One of my students had talked up the winter festival in Bikuni town (美国町) quite a bit, so I had high expectations going into it. On Saturday February 11th, the day had arrived for the event called Yume Akari (夢明かり), meaning “Dream Lights” or “Dream Illumination”. My understanding was that everybody in town would be making snow and/or ice lanterns, turning our village into a twinkling, wintery fairyland for one evening.

The Board of Education had scheduled me to participate in an event with the elementary kids that morning, presumably constructing the lanterns and such. I woke up early, donned ski apparel like snow pants and a giant frumpy jacket, and trudged out to the community gym, called B&G. It was a cold and blustery walk, and the snow that blew into my face felt like a bad omen for a day of outdoor winter fun. Still, I enthusiastically pressed on. At B&G, I was directed inside to a meeting a room, where several kids were assembled around tables, like a tiny, warmly-dressed board of directors. Kazama-sensei and Suzuki Harumi-sensei from Hizuka ES were there for adult supervision, as well as Kaneko-sensei from Nozuka ES.  The B&G staff, led by Kawai-sensei, facilitated the event, and my friend Yamazaki-san from the BoE was also assisting.

At 9:30am, the day got started with the students decorating clear plastic bottles. Using markers and colored transparency sheets, each student turned a few plastic bottles into beautiful, modern art candle holders. The multicolored tealight vessels would be used in the center of the snow lanterns, each forming a luminescent core. I walked around the room and enjoyed the out pouring of youthful creativity until the fumes from the giant makers started to make me a little dizzy.

Outside, Yamazaki and the B&G crew were hard at work, turning a mountainous pile of collected snow into a mini sledding slope. I came outside to assist with this effort, but just too late to really contribute. The slope appeared to be smoothed out and Yamazaki had dug some very respectful, architecturally sound snow stairs, right into the hillside. At that point, they really only had use for a test run of their creation, and this honor fell to me. They handed me an inner tube—which was referred to as a “tire tube” (タイヤチューブ)—and slide down the hill, head-first, like a penguin. Not bad at all.

When the kids came outside, we all climbed onto the snow started making lanterns. (I say “climbed onto the snow” because the height difference from the parking lot to the snow covered yard was about five feet.) Kazama-sensei showed me how to make snow lanterns using only a bucket and a gardening trowel. First, you stuff the bucket with snow, packing down into a dense frozen block. Next, you use the trowel to hollow out the center of the bucket, creating a cylinder shape that can house a candle. Then use the trowel to carve a little opening out of one side of the snow cylinder. This will become the viewing window. Finally, you tip the bucket upside-down, give it a few gentle taps to loosen the contents, and carefully place your snow lantern in the desired position. Done.

The school children and I made tons of these snow lanterns. Some ambitious kids even stacked lanterns atop other lanterns for a totem pole effect. Snow was packed down on the edges to form a ledge for display our frosty masterpieces. Additionally, recesses were carved out of the snow wall to create niches from which more lanterns could be displayed. Once the ornately colored plastic bottles were placed inside the snow lanterns, everything started looking quite festive.

After the work was done, and some of the kids had destroyed me in an impromptu snowball fight, it was time to rock the mini sledding slope. The kids took turns flying down the slope on inner tubes and sleds, and a good time was had by all. Eventually went back inside B&G for refreshments. A kind, grandmotherly lady had made lots of handmade doughnuts, as well as a giant cauldron of atsui cocoa (熱いココア – hot coco). Both were excellent and I end up drinking three cups of the chocolaty rich coco.

After the winter fun at B&G, Yamazaki invited me over to his house for lunch. Grandma Yamazaki made soba, which was excellent, and we sat around talking while I drank far too much coffee.  Since it was so close to Valentine’s Day, Saya gave me a box of chocolates. Handmade and delivered in cute pink and red polka dot bag, the chocolates were so incredibly nice that I felt unworthy of receiving them. That day I started a Choco-list, keeping track of who gave me chocolates, for I would need to repay the favor come White Day in March.

Eventually, Yamazaki, Saya, and I ventured outside to get the house all festive for Yume Akari. Using the same technique I had just learned at B&G, we made some snow lanterns using a bucket and trowel. Next, we carved several small hollows out of the snow wall, cave-like recesses just big enough for a tea candle to illuminate. The snow lanterns would crown the top of the snow wall, while the candle hollows would dot the broad side. While Saya and I worked on this wall, Yamazaki-san carved a big heart shape out of another. To keep things interesting, we perforated the heart with candle niches as well. Throughout the process of making snow-candle decorations outside, my hands became more and more cold. I think my hands are generally pretty weak at handling subzero temperatures, but repeatedly packing down snow while wearing subpar gloves led to painful aching. I persevered through the frozen hands though, especially since the snow sculpting was rather fun.

After we had completed our work and returned to the warm house, Grandma Yamazaki had rewarded us with amazake (甘酒). Made from fermented rice, amazake is a sweet white drink, served hot in the wintertime, much like hot coco. The name literally means “sweet sake”, but the drink usually has little to no alcohol left in it – although recipes vary. (I’d assume this is because ethyl alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so boiling your alcohol tends to make it less alcoholic.) The drink is given to kids all the time and is even considered a heath food of sorts.

At four o’clock sharp, fireworks went off to signal the beginning of the Yume Akari festival. I couldn’t see them; only hear their bomb-like blasts. At this point, Yamazaki, Saya, and I headed off to the Yamashime House which has having a kodomo no ennichi (子どもの縁日), or “kid’s fair”. Much like other festival events I have seen, they had lottery games, a popgun shooting gallery, and a candy carving game called katanuki (カタヌキ). In katanuki, you are given a flat, brittle, pretty much tasteless sugar candy with an image imprinted on it. Using only a toothpick, you try to carve out the image following the mold imprint. You have to be very careful to scrape out your shape without breaking the candy, and if you are patient and skillful enough to succeed, you receive a prize. (It’s actually harder than it looks. I’ve tried the game on a couple separate occasions and never succeeded.)

The fair had a very cozy feeling about it, seeing as how outside of the historic Yamashime house was a frosty white blizzard of death – or a winter wonderland, depending on how you look at it – while inside was a safe and joyous occasion. The fiery blaze inside the space heaters kept the chilly old building warm enough, and Yasuda-san used a microwave to prepare takoyaki for anyone peckish.  The power would go out relatively frequently and the lights would go dark, with the crowd of people always producing a sigh in union. Everyone was fairly certain that the building’s electrical system couldn’t handle Yasuda-san’s microwave after all.

Later on, we walked to the center of town to check out the snow lantern displays. The snow had starting falling and whirlwinds were blowing it around everywhere. With the sun long gone it was quite cold. Still, the blizzard conditions made the festival of lights even more magical. Many people had created some sort of wintery decoration outside their houses. Some folks had made snow lanterns, but others had somehow made crystal clear ice lanterns. Many homes – I’m assuming homes with kids – had carved their own elaborate snow sculptures. I saw a couple different One Piece sculptures, including a giant Toni Chopper head complete with colored surfaces reminiscent of a snow cone. One family had done a huge Super Mario head, while their neighbor around the corner had made a near life-sized Mario and Yoshi sculpture that I found incredibly impressive.  Even the Seicomart had a modest display, an old school snowman carrying a broom and a small bottle of sake.

The town’s main intersection was the epicenter of snow lanterns. One corner had a giant heart-shaped sculpture displaying the text Yume Akari (夢あかり), with descending levels of lights underneath it. On the other side of the street, a great dome of snow had been covered with candle niches, now illuminated. A small wall, similarly dotted with fiery hollows and crowned with more snow lanterns, formed a fence-like border.  As the bitter wind picked up, the contrast of warm festival lighting against the dark winter bleakness became more apparent.

While the lights were truly beautiful, the wind wasn’t letting up and eventually I felt good and frozen. When Yamazaki’s son Chikaru met up with us, we took refuge in the white food tent that was set up for the event. Like an igloo, the tent felt quite warm on the inside. The ground was still packed snow, but the tent’s canopy captured all the steam and warmth of the food preparation going on in the corner.(Also, by simply eliminating the wind chill, the interior of the tent felt infinitely warmer.) The festival staff was busy making large cauldrons of oden (おでん – a popular soup dish consisting of multiple disparate ingredients floating in a clear-ish, soy-dashi broth), as well as ika-age (いか揚げ – fried squid) and zangi (ザンギ – fried chicken, as spoken in Hokkaido dialect). Oden can be found at most festivals, especially in the wintertime, and many convenience stores sell it as well. While the individual ingredients can vary greatly, I’ve almost always seen hardboiled egg, daikon, chikuwa (竹輪), and konnyaku (こんにゃく) included. Everyone has their own favorite oden ingredient, but if you prefer something over the daikon, you are wrong. (It’s clearly the best part.)

Yamazaki had purchased meal tickets ahead of time, so after a surprisingly long wait in line, we got our hands on the food. Maybe I was super hungry by that point, or maybe there’s simply nothing better than a hot soup on a cold night, but the food was unbelievably delicious. With each slurp of soup, each bite of fried chicken, I felt like my body was coming back to life, reanimating after cryostasis. After dinner, the Yamazakis returned home for the evening.  Although it was only 7:30pm, with the blizzard conditions out, I too decided to head home. I needed to get up early the next day anyway, for a Sunday trip to Sapporo.

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Japan’s Funny Valentine

"I love cat - Only imflowing you don't flowing imflowing - I must go to you stay a place"

At first glance, Valentine’s Day in Japan seems pretty sexist. And that’s because it is. Women are expected to give chocolate to men, and men aren’t expected to give anything in return. However, the equalizing factor in Japan is a second holiday called White Day (ホワイトデー) that reverses the gifting roles. Just as the Valentine holiday is essentially a marketing gimmick of romantic obligation in the US, Japan has manged to double the profitability of the tradition by splitting the ritual gift giving into two separate events. Let me explain how it works.

Valentine’s Day arrives in Japan on the standard February 14th with all the hearts and Cupid imagery that you’re familiar with. The social expectation on this day is the women will give gifts, most likely chocolates. But the ladies aren’t just expected to give chocolates to their boyfriend/husband/lover guy; they’re also supposed to give chocolates to friends and coworkers too. Instead of being motivated by purely romantic notions, Valentine’s chocolate can be expected out of various levels of social obligation. The prime example is called girichoko (義理チョコ – literally “obligatory chocolate”), the ritual of giving chocolate to your male coworkers, just to be polite. This term breaks down to giri (義理), meaning “obligation”, and choko (チョコ), meaning “chocolate”, just like it sounds.

Quick tangent; when talking about Japanese society, the concept giri (義理) is very important. This social obligation compels one to act in accordance with the rules, but is thought to often conflict with ninjō (人情), meaning human emotion, or more simply one’s personal feelings. You can see this conflict between duty and passion in lots of Japanese stories, from classic samurai tales to modern Japanese dramas. The western equivalent can best be illustrated in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (or my favorite version, West Side Story), where the protagonists are torn between their feelings of love for each other and their responsibility to their respective families. But whereas personal feelings (ninjō) tend to win out fairly easily in western stories, the characters’ sense of duty (giri) proves to be stronger in Japanese fiction. Understanding the giri vs. ninjō dynamic is critical to understanding individuals’ motivations in Japanese society, both in literature and in real life. Now back to chocolate.

"Wow, you made these?...but I didn't get you anything..."

So ladies are expected to give girichoko to their coworkers, without any implication of romantic interest. They might also give chocolate to their friends, which is called tomochoko (友チョコ – friend chocolate). This is already a rather hefty coco-burden, and we haven’t even gotten to honmeichoko (本命チョコ), the chocolate you give to your true love. This word breaks down to honmei (本命), meaning favorite or “one’s heart’s desire”, and choko (チョコ), again just meaning “chocolate”.

It seems plausible that a festively inclined young lady might end up buying a lot of candy for Valentine’s, and from what I’ve read, the confectioners are really counting on that. (Apparently Japanese chocolate companies make about half of their annual sales during the Valentine’s season. They’re cuckoo for Cocoa Profits.) And if that wasn’t enough of a hassle, homemade chocolates are considered preferable to store bought items, so often times ladies will spend a weekend day creating confectionary goodness to distribute on the holiday. This homemade chocolate is sometimes called dekochoko (デコチョコ), or “decoration chocolate”.

Now, it’s not unheard of that a man might step up and give his girlfriend a gift on Valentine’s Day, but it’s definitely not the norm. This is called gyakuchoko (逆チョコ – literally “reverse chocolate”) and as the name indicates, it’s considered the opposite of social expectation. Whereas ladies are almost obligated to give chocolate, the guy who reciprocates on Valentine’s Day is considered funny or weird.

It’s not until one month later that the roles reverse. On March 14th comes White Day (ホワイトデー), the male answer to Valentine’s, the day when men return the gifting favor.  Social obligation dictates that men get something for all the ladies who gave him gifts, so most of the time these gifts also carry no romantic sentiment.

Apparently White Day was first proposed in the 1970’s by a Fukuoka marshmallow company. The idea was that it was only fair for men to give something back to the women that had been so generous to them. And of course, the best way to do that was by buying marshmallows. It was originally introduced as “Marshmallow Day” (マシュマロデー), but the name changed rather quickly thereafter. These days, typical White Day gifts included cookies, white chocolate, and even dark chocolate. In the case of one’s wife or girlfriend, a man might purchase a non-edible gift, like jewelry or lingerie; the latter of which is probably also white. The holiday is celebrated outside of Japan as well, in Taiwan and South Korea.

Speaking of South Korea, they apparently take this tradition one step further, with a third holiday called “Black Day”. Basically like an anti-Valentine’s Day, Black Day is a day for single people. It occurs on April 14th, following the same monthly pattern, and involves single people get together to eat jajangmyeon, a noodle dish with a black bean sauce.

On last thing, it’s worth mentioning that Valentine’s Day isn’t really the big romantic holiday in Japan. That would be Christmas Eve. This is probably why Japan has a seemingly odd attachment to Christmas cake (クリスマスケーキ), the only way to end a romantic dinner on December 24th. Christmas Eve is the prime time for lovin’. Valentine’s Day and White Day take a backseat as (only slightly more) transparent corporate conventions for unloading chocolate.


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