Tag Archives: Drinking

Mike Visits Shakotan

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

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

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

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

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

For relaxing times, make it a Suntory time.

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

Not as easy as it looks.

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

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

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

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

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

IP Phone production room: where the magic happens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiroi Koibito Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shenanagens! Shenanagens!

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

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Through the Flames: Bikuni Shrine Festival 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

HADOUKEN!

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

The Tengu is the fire walking master.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rusutsu Resort

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Rusutsu, Sapporo

International Exchange Event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Year’s in Japan

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

Ōmisoka (大晦日 – New Year’s Eve)

Ōsouji (大掃除) super cleaning in progress.

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

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

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

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

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

Toshikoshi soba. Mm-mm-good...

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

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

Shōgatsu (正月 – New Year’s Day)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Bow. Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Household Shinto shrine, kamidana (神棚)

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

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

The ancestor box, butsudan (仏壇).

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

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

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

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Christmas in Sapporo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You actually look pretty good as a woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hashigozake Taikai

Friday November 4, 2011 – Hashigozake (はしご酒) is the Japanese word for barhopping. Literally translated, it means “ladder alcohol”. I theorize this indicates that with an additional drink at each consecutive bar, one gradually climbs the ladder of drunkenness. In the first week of November I heard talk of an upcoming Friday night hashigozake event, and being a healthy fan of social drinking, I got excited to go.

There was something that I didn’t understand, however. Shakotan’s Hashigozake Taikai (はしご酒大会) was more than simple barhop around Bikuni town (美国町); it was an organized pub crawl, with tickets for admission. When people had asked me if I was going, they were confused by my noncommittal attitude because—unlike me—they knew tickets for the event for limited. By the day of the event, I was talking to Yamazaki-san about going on the hashigozake, and he explained my error. He regretfully informed me that I needed a ticket, and as it turned out, tickets were already sold-out.

Never one to give up when it comes to helping a friend, Yamazaki-san made some calls around the office to see if anyone had an extra ticket. To my surprise, a woman who works on the second floor had a ticket that she was willing to part with. Before my afternoon shift at the Board of Education was over, Yamazaki-san had helped me secure a 2000 yen ticket for a night of drinking fun.

The Shakotan town office had coordinated festivities with several local snack bars, taverns, and restaurants, making the Hashigozake Taikai (はしご酒大会) a surprisingly organized event. Participants formed parties of four, and each group was assigned a course with four destinations to hit. There were a variety of venues participating, but your event ticket only granted you free stuff at your four assigned locations.

Everyone first assembled at the Town Hall auditorium (文化センター) to form groups and receive their course details. After a quick opening word, the mass of participants spilled out onto the streets 7:00pm and got barhopping. Everyone received a card with the names of your four venues. At each bar you get your card stamped, verifying that you made it there. At the end of the evening, you were to return to the Town Hall auditorium, and everyone with completed stamp cards (which I’m assuming was everyone), got entered into a big raffle for prizes. The duration of the event seemed a little short to me, as we had only an hour and 15 minutes to sample our four bars.

My group for hashigozake, included Sawada-san and another fellow from the second floor of the town office, as well as a third gentleman, a friend of Sawada’s who lives in Yoichi. We set out on the town and headed first to a sleepy little snack bar called Peny Rain. (I suspect that the inspiration for the bar’s name came from the Beatles hit “Penny Lane”, as the R vs. L aspect of English is a common hurdle for native Japanese speakers. I didn’t ask about it though, lest my question embarrass anyone.)

Laidback, with a relaxed atmosphere, Peny Rain was a nice place to have a drink. Like Snack Cocoro, a local joint that I’m more familiar, Peny Rain had TV screens mounted on the walls that could be used for karaoke. We were seated at the bar, which was made of thick, solid wood with a dark finish. Part of the bar bulged out roundly, like a kitchen table, and this was where we sat. Our free beers were served in unceremonious plastic cups, but along with the drinks, we also received complimentary potato wedges (フライドポテト) and edamame (枝豆). I suspected the vegetables were grown locally in Shakotan, because both were incredibly tasty, especially for bar food.

After one beer at Peny Rain, we headed out to one of my favorite local establishments, Jun no Mise (純の店 – Jun’s Shop). The Jun family runs a great restaurant with especially delicious tempura (天ぷら) and fried chicken (ザンギ). The proprietors always give me a warm welcome when I go there. We were seated at a table on the first floor, in a little alcove in the back. It was just the right about of space for the four of us. We received our beers in plastic cups, just like at the first place, and snacked on some fried goodies. The beers went quickly and Sawada-san went ahead and ordered another round. The next set of beers came in the standard glass mugs, along with a very Japanese snack food, small eel-like fish called kounago (こうなご – young sand lance).The tiny fish were very tasty, but I think most American’s would find their appearance unsettling.

After Jun no Mise, we headed to another bar, one located very close to my apartment, Snack Bright (スナックブライト). Nestled directly behind the ramen shop Yamatomi, Snack Bright is just down the street from my apartment, a little way past the historic Yamashime House. Considering its close proximity, I was surprised that I had never managed to go there before hashigozake.

Like Peny Lane, I was impressed with the warm, old-style bar interior of Snack Bright. The walls were painted dark brown, yet somehow they matched the black tables and couches that sidled them. The bar counter had a clean-looking finish, with a varied collection of alcohol bottles displayed behind. At the far end of the room there was a little spot for singing karaoke. Like a mini-stage, it had a slightly elevated platform equipped with a monitor. In fact, it occurred to me that every little bar in Shakotan was karaoke able, which is a nice touch.

The proprietor of Snack Bright was instantly familiar to me. I had seen him around the town office quite frequently, and I’m fairly certain that he was one of the representatives that traveled to Kōchi-ken for their Yosakai Sōran festival in August. I knew he was a city council member, but I didn’t realize that he also operated a bar as his day job—or night job, I suppose. (It’s funny how the way a person is dressed instantly colors your interpretation of them.) We sat down and enjoyed our free beer, along with the complimentary snack food, and caroused with the crowd of mostly older folks. There was one group of young ladies there, and I recognized one of them who worked in the Shakotan Dentist’s office. To make the event look young and hip, they ladies posed for a picture with me.

Time was running out as we headed to our fourth destination, Fukuzushi (冨久寿し), a sushi shop on the corner of the busiest intersection in town. (Although, that isn’t saying much here in Shakotan). We had only ten minutes or so to try out the place out before we needed to return to Town Hall. Fukuzushi‘s prime location, along with the fact that it serves sushi in a town famous for fresh seafood, gives one the impression that they do very well. Still, this was the first time I had ever been inside, as the more famous Fuji Sushi seems to get all the attention. It was very quiet inside, as everyone else was most likely on their way back already. Instead of beer, we were served nigiri-zushi (握り寿司) with green tea (お茶). The sushi was absolutely delicious, and I love green tea, but part of me still longed for another beer. We devoured our food in record time and hustled on back to Town Hall.

One man from our group ran ahead, to make sure that our completed stamp cards got into the raffle for prizes, even if the rest of us were late. Back at Town Hall, the auditorium was abuzz with excitement. On stage there were a lot of prizes to divvy out, from random stuff like bags of rice, paper towels, and tissue boxes, to more appealing prizes like huge bottles of sake and six-packs of beer. The organizers began drawing numbers and a steady stream of winners walked up to collect their spoils. As for myself, I actually won some beer in a handy tote bag.

After all the gifts were handed out, three more numbers were drawn for the grand prize: Genkin Tsukamidori (現金掴み取り – money grabbing). A clear, plastic box was filled to the brim with 1000 yen bills (千円札 – せんえんさつ).  [At the time, 1000 yen was approximately equivalent to $12 USD.] Each contestant got one attempt to try and grab as much cash as possible with one hand, and deposit it in a bowl next to the box. Only cash that made it into the bowl would count, and the contestant had a time limit of 15 seconds. The three lucky contestants tried their hand at Genkin Tsukamidori, and each came away with fat wallets. Considering the event ticket cost 2000 yen, they made out like bandits.

When the event completely wrapped up, the evening was still young. Along with some fellow elementary school teachers, I proceeded to Yamatomi for some delicious ramen. Normally the ramen stage of an evening is dead last, the place you go around three in the morning when you’re completely drunk. Since it was much earlier than that, I enjoyed another beer with my meal. The conversation with my three teacher companions was surprisingly smooth, helped not only by Kazama-sensei’s solid grasp of English and French, but also the English dictionary app on his smart phone.

When we left Yamatomi, I said goodbye to my friends and started my lonely walk back to my apartment. Passing Snack Bright, I stopped. I could hear karaoke and the sounds of a lively party in full swing. At this moment, I had a choice; go home and sleep, or pop in the bar and see what’s up. I wasn’t feeling tired. It was hashigozake night after all, and I was only five beers into it! Curious, I stepped inside Snack Bright for the second time that evening.

The place was packed with patrons, all pretty good and liquored up. But unlike the kind of bar scene I’m used to seeing, everyone present was well-aged. The youngest person must have been in there late 40’s—well, the youngest until I appeared. Ihira-san from the Board of Education spotted me at the entrance and gave me a genuinely warm welcome. Besides Ihira-san, I noticed that there were a few other local officials present, including Mayor Matsui. Ihira-san seated me at the same table at which I had sat earlier that evening, a table now almost exclusively occupied by grandmothers. As I sat down and said ‘hello’ to everyone, a beer appeared in front of me.

I drank and made conversation with the Baba-chan (婆ちゃん – granny) party. They were very interested in me and the United States, and asked lots of questions. They had some bar snack food which they insisted I sample. By the time I completed my beer, another one arrived, a gift from a mysterious benefactor. After much merriment, the Baba-chan’s asked me to sing a Beatles tune for them, and I obliged. Then somebody requested I sing Sake-yo (the only Japanese song I can manage, so far), so I sang that one to. As is usually the case, the grandmothers approved of me.

Eventually, most everyone left the bar and went back home. Still working on my fourth beer, I sat at the counter with the only two guests remaining. They were making conversation with the proprietor of Snack Bright, the man I knew from the city council. When I asked for my tab, the barkeep told me that it was all taken care of; someone else had paid for all of my drinks.  I thanked him and departed, walking the short way back to my apartment.  The time was around 12:30, and—if my count was right—over the course of the evening, I had drank nine beers. Not bad for my first official hashigozake.

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Furubira Road Race

Quite some time ago, I had spoken with Ihira-san, the head of the Shakotan Board of Education, about running. For a silver haired man in his sixties, Ihira-san is incredibly energetic and healthy-looking, and as it turns out, he loves to run. When I said that I also liked to run in my free time, he physically examined my calves as a way to gauge how much I ran. He said that my muscle was impressive, and then showed me his calves, which were incredible, softball-sized rocks hiding under his pant legs. It was clear to me that he was much more of runner than I.

Ihira-san was excited that Shakotan’s resident exotic foreigner was also interested in running, and he invited me to run with him in an annual race in the nearby town of Furubira (古平). He referred to it as the “Furubira Marathon”, which sounded frighteningly long to me. When I was assured that the race would not be the full (or even half) marathon length, I agreed to do it. At that time it was early summer, so the October 10th date seemed a long way off.

Fast-forward to October, and race day was upon us. The Furubira Road Race Taikai (古平ロードレース大会) was scheduled for the second Monday in October because this is a national holiday in Japan, called Heath and Sports Day (体育の日 – たいいくのひ).  Participants could choose between different distances to run; 15km, 10km, 6km, or even 2-4km. I assumed that Ihira-san would be running the longest distance, so when asked I chose the 15k race. Ihira-san actually chose the 10k, so perhaps I overdid it.

The Yamazaki family picked me up around 9:20am. We then picked up Ihira-san, and drove on to Furubira. Yamazaki-san, along with his wife and daughter, was running the 4km distance. While I had been told that it was going to rain on race day, the early morning weather was still dry. It was overcast, humid, and a little cool—so it looked like it had the potential to rain—but when we arrived in Furubira, it just felt like perfect running weather. We picked up our information packets, and Yamazaki-san and Ihira-san explained what each of the enclosed tickets were for; apparently I had hot soup and cold beer to look forward to after the run. We got ready for running and I did some quick active stretching. Then, twenty minutes before the 15k race was set to kickoff, the rain started as prophesized, and it rained hard. Clearly, a very wet run lay ahead.

My friends gave me many a “gambatte” (頑張って – persevere, do your best) as I headed for the starting line. Right before the race got underway, I ran into Kazama-sensei from Hizuka ES. He was actually running the 15k as well, but he told me that he planned on taking it easy, so I shouldn’t wait up for him. Kazama-sensei had spent some time in Cameroon, and was able to speak French and English. For the race, he was sporting a green and red Cameroon national team soccer jersey with his given name, Naoki, and the number 22 (his birthday, in February) on the back.

The crowd of runners, already cold and wet, shuffled around at starting line. There were about 99 people doing the 15k run. At the sound of a starter pistol we were off, a mass of people running down the small, puddled streets of Furubira. I had made a playlist especially for the race, so as we got started Japanese rock and pop songs played through my headphones. I again felt like I was getting a new, unique Japan experience, something interesting that not every foreign visitor would do. And at 15 kilometers, I was also running my longest race to date.  An odd feeling of camaraderie came over me. Here my fellow runners and I were testing not only our endurance on the road, but also our mettle against the elements.

After the first kilometer or so, the track flowed out of town, onto country back roads. Most of the race was run just outside of Furubira and not within the limits of the town itself. The rain did not let up, instead, it intensified. A flash of lightning startled me, with an ominous clap of thunder immediately to follow. Soon it was pouring rain so hard that I could hardly see 20 feet in front of me.  The rain drops themselves became blinding, blowing into my face with stinging velocity.

As my clothes became waterlogged, I remembered why it’s good to wear shorts—and not pants—when going on a long run. The rain got in my ears and my music became muffled and distorted, as if the speakers were underwater. After fighting with my headphones a bit, I came to find that the volume of my iPod had been severely reduced. Whether the problem was caused by wet headphones, or a wet iPod, I’m not sure. In either case, the pounding rain and rolling thunder provided the race’s new soundtrack.

The mountainous hills on both sides of the road, combined with the roar of the thunderstorm, made for an epic race. The run was challenging, but satisfying. The lightning continued for at least the first half of the race, and for a while I was sure that race officials were going to call it off. Apparently nobody saw the storm as a real danger because we all just kept on trucking. Eventually the rain lessened in the second half of the race, but never completely abated. Somewhere in the middle I saw Kazama-sensei; him coming up one side of the road, while I ran back down the other.  We exchanged quick words of encourage and a high five. Kazama-san said “Fight!” (ファイト), a word used often in Japan simply to say, “do your best”.

Coming back onto the Furubira streets at the end, I tried to keep up a decent pace, and sprinted the last 100 meters or so. Yamamzaki-san and Ihira-san met me at the finishline, and after changing into drier clothes at the van, we proceeded inside Furubira’s B&G gym for post-race fun. While I had been wise enough to bring a fresh pair of socks, I had neglected to bring other shoes, so my new socks were quickly soaked by my thoroughly saturated running shoes. Everyone who ran the race received complimentary fish snacks, like hokke, a delicious bowl of miso soup, and one free drink. While some juice or tea probably would have been the healthiest options after running, I chose to get a draught beer. I was celebrating the end of the running season, or so I rationalized it in my head. At some point, Ihira-san surprised me with a second beer, so I ended up having a two-drink lunch.

The post-race festivities involved a little ceremony recognizing the runners with the fastest times, and then a raffle with prizes. As a general rule, it seems that you must always have prizes whenever a big enough group of people gathers in Japan. The gymnasium had plenty of familiar faces, but I was very surprised to run into Marta and Michal Sylwester there. Marta and Michal are a Polish couple, so they stand out a bit in rural Furubira. They live in Sapporo and had come to the Shakotan area for the weekend, apparently fitting the race into their schedule as well. I had only just met them at a party at a JHS teacher’s house a couple days before hand, so it was a pleasure surprise to see them again so quickly.

By 1:30, I was back at my apartment, taking a long hot shower. My official time for the race was just under one hour, 12 minutes (1:11:57), and I had come in 35th place.

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Konkatsu (婚活)

Friday September 23, 2011 – At 2:30pm, I climbed into a van at the Shakotan town office. Sawada-san was the driver responsible for transporting five gentlemen and me to Yobetsu (余別) where there the event would be held. After a short but scenic drive to the tip of the Shakotan peninsula, we arrived at Uni-ya-Kinoko (うに-や-きのこ – “sea urchin and mushroom”), a little resort just outside of town. Nestled into the wood surrounding Yobetsu, Uni-ya-Kinoko is an idyllic spot to get away from modern urban stresses. It has hiking trails and cabins to stay in, as well as an onsen (温泉 – hot spring) for the ultimate relaxation.

We were here for a special event called “Konkatsu” (婚活). Konkatsu is basically a mixer for single men and women to meet and find prospective marriage partners. The event was apparently organized by the city of Shakotan and much of the staff I recognized as the same folks who handle the IP Phone; each one of them worked on the second floor of the town office.  For this event, there were 20 men and 25 women contestants. While all of the eligible bachelors were from Shakotan, the women were coming in from either Sapporo or Otaru. Even if the ladies made no love connections, the event would at least serve as a weekend getaway in exotic Shakotan. Since people were bussing in from far away, Uni-ya-Kinoko was a rather ideal venue because after the dinner festivities, everyone could crash there.

When we first arrived, all the men were rounded up for a seminar on how to talk to women. A professional public speaker was brought in from Sapporo to instruct the men on the dos and don’ts of intergender communication. The best part about this was that the speaker herself was an attractive young woman, so any nerves the guys had were bound to surface in practice. There was a lot of rehearsing introductions. The guys were supposed to say 1) their name, 2) their age, 3) their hobbies, and finally, 4) ask the lady something about her interests. While the men had little trouble providing the information, the speaker gave many critiques on their delivery. She encouraged them to speak with confidence, stand tall, and avoid fidgeting with their hands, or so was my understanding. The seminar went on for at least an hour and a half, maybe two hours, and I did my best to follow along, although I my language comprehension was very low.

This is the correct distance to talk to a woman.

Each man received a catalog for the Konkatsu that listed the all of the female participants’ profiles. Like a hardcopy version of Facebook, the catalog profiles featured a picture of each woman, along with her name, age, city she was from, and a blurb of text that I assume must have been a self description. The women also received a catalog of all the men, although the format was different. The women’s version featured much bigger mug shots, as well as a lot more information on each man.

My friend Fukuda Masato, whom I had gotten to know when we traveled down to Kōchi-ken for a Yosakoi Sōran festival, was one of the hopeful suitors participating. We checked out the catalog together and he asked me which of the women looked most attractive. I basically just pointed out the youngest girls on the list, which made him laugh. Most of woman were older than 35, there were a few in their late 20’s/early 30’s, and then three who were quite young, around twenty. The profile pictures also seemed like odd choices, as they were mostly unflattering. Masato-kun showed me which woman he was most interested in, and of course, it was the best-looking picture of the bunch.

After the seminar, I was given a big green “staff” nametag to wear. Iwaki-san tried to give me some directions, but besides the pushing gesture he did, I didn’t quite follow what he was saying. He brought the seminar lady over to translate, as she spoke better English. To my surprise the instructions were, “If any women approach you, please push them away.” This cracked me up.

Eventually it was time for the dinner, the main event of the Konkatsu. The dining hall had three rows of tables; the two outer rows were for the participants’ seats, while the center table was setup buffet-style for the food. The spread was amazing, as I’ve come to find is usually the case at any dinner event in Japan. The far wall had a counter of drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. The men had been advised to avoid drinking too much, lest they make drunken fools of themselves. Also, when one guy said that he planned on drinking only Coca-cola, the speaker advised against it, saying that cola was a kid’s drink.

There were eight tables for the participants’ seating, four on each side of the room. First, the men were brought in and placed at the outside seats, two men to a table. A few minutes later, the women came in and were led to the seats on the inside of the tables, usually two to a table, but sometimes three per table. (There were more women than men present.) Apparently the initial seating arrangement was determined by drawing numbers from a hat.

A comic duo, one man and one woman, were the emcees for the evening, and they gave instructions via microphone and a small PA system. The night began with an initial round of individual introductions, first the men then the women. (Just like the seminar, each person gave their name, age, and hobbies.) Afterward, everyone got up to grab food and drinks. Once the participants were seated again with their dinner, they chatted with one another and leisurely got acquainted with everyone at their table.

For my staff dinner, I was seated behind a folding screen in the corner of the room and given a bento box and beer. From my vantage point it appeared that everyone was having a legitimately good time, as no one appeared nervous or having any trouble communicating. Even the guys that had appeared shy during the seminar were chatting up the ladies with no trouble at all.

After 15 minutes or so (they didn’t seem to keep track of time very precisely), all the men got up and rotated positions to the next table. In this way, all the all of ladies would meet all the men, in turns. The round-robin arrangement reminded me of the “speed dating” we have back in the States, although perhaps all formalized matchmaking systems are run in a similar way.

As I sipped my beer, I made conversation with the other staff. The evening seemed to be going rather well and everyone was happy. In the frivolity, I helped myself to a cup of “goma” pudding (胡麻プリン) from the dessert table. “Goma” means sesame seeds, and the pudding was so delicious that I ended up eating four servings before the night was over.

In the middle of the dinner, one of the male participants had to leave; for what reason, I don’t know. To my surprise, I was asked to sit at the table in his place. Since I had been specifically asked to “push” the women away, I double-checked that it was alright for me to sit at one of the tables like a suitor. The seminar lady clarified, “Just talking is OK. Show your nametag too.” I then wondered what kind of behavior would justify the advised pushing, and a zombie survival scenario ran through my mind.

As instructed, I sat down at the table with another gentleman to help make conversation with three eligible bachelorettes. I greeted them with, “Konbanwa. Gaikokujin desu” (こんばんは、外国人です。- “Good evening, I’m a foreigner.”). Due my limited Japanese, I wasn’t actually able to contribute very much to the conversation. Out of respect for the male contestant I was paired with, I didn’t really want to talk too much anyway, lest I take away from his spotlight. To be a good wingman, I mostly just nodded quietly.

At the second table we moved to, one of the women shocked me by speaking perfect English! When I looked totally lost, she would take a moment and translate a summary for me. It was very kind of her. At the final table we ended up at, the conversation was really dead. While it was fine for me to sit in silence, the awkwardness of a table of people not talking was just too awkward. I tried to ignite some discussion by asking the youngest girl there what kind of music she liked. Impressively, the girl managed to still kill the conversation by saying something about not knowing any band or song names, and doing so with an expression that said, “I don’t care for music.” She was truly a fun assassin.

When the men had completely circumnavigated the room, it was time for climax of the evening; the actual matchmaking. One by one, the men were to come up to the front of the room and choose one of the ladies he’d like to date. The chosen lady would then come up front too, making for a very public proposal. The man gives a short appeal into the microphone, then reverently bows to the woman with his hand outstretched in offering, and says “please” (おねがいします). Then there’s a dramatic pause where everyone wonders if she’ll take his hand or just say “I’m sorry” (ごめんなさい).

To make things even more interesting, if one man chooses a lady that another man also wants to ask out, the second man can shout “Hey wait!” (ちょっとまって), and run up front as well. It’s kind of like that line in movie weddings; you know, the “speak now, or forever hold your peace” bit. In this scenario, the two men both give a short appeal into the microphone and then bow simultaneously, each with his hand outstretched. The woman then gets to pick whichever suitor she prefers by taking his hand, or she can choose to reject them both. Yes, the Konkatsu has it all; love, rejection, conflict, conquest, all you can eat shrimp! It’s very dramatic.

To explain how the process works, the staff gave a theatrical demonstration. Iwaki-san ran up to me a minute before to give me hurried directions on how I was to participate. Due to the language barrier, I double-checked and triple-checked with him that I had it right, as I didn’t want to make (too big of) a fool of myself. When Sawada-san demonstrated choosing the seminar lady, I yelled “Hey wait!” (ちょっとまって) loudly from the back of the room, ran up front as quickly as possible. This surprise proved to be even more comically effective than anticipated. Hopefully my brief performance was good enough to warrant the amount of alcohol and dessert that I consumed.

When the first contestant went up front and chose a lady to ask out, the nervous tension was palpable. As he bowed and offered his hand, everyone hoped for a love connection and waited with baited breath for the lady’s response. When she shyly apologized, the whole let out a collective “ahh”, empathizing with man’s rejection. While we felt bad for him, he laughed it off. The fun was only just beginning.

There were plenty dating proposals that were accepted, including my friend Masato-kun, who was extremely pleased to pair up with the girl whose picture he had picked out as the cutest in the catalog. Similar tastes between suitors led to several two-man proposals. There was even a three-man proposal for one young lady. In all but one of the multiplayer proposals, the woman rejected both men. In the case where the woman picked one man over the other, the crowd gave a scandalous cheer for new couple, and then applauded the loser for his courage. There was also at least one gentleman who decided not to ask any ladies and just bow out.

For the most part, the Konkatsu seemed like a lesson in gender roles.  That was turned on its head at one point though, as one of the women went up front to ask out a guy. In this reverse situation, she made the appeal and bowed to him, and he was the one to take her hand and accept. At first I thought that all the unpaired women would get their chance to go up front, but it became quickly apparent that it wasn’t usually done that way.

After the excitement of couples pairing off, the dinner came to a close, and the party moved to three of Uni-ya-Kinoko’s cottages. Everyone piled into the cabins, leaving an impressive collection of shoes in the doorway. While each cottage had a table and chairs in the main room, these obstacles were pushed aside, as every got comfortable on the floor. There was still of bit of alcohol remaining, so drinks were poured and snack food was spread out on paper plates in the center of the room. Everyone just kicked back and hung out, chatting about this and that.

One young man was fairly jumpy, and every time the cabin door opened, he would dive out of sight. When people started asking him what was up, he explained that he was desperately trying to avoid his new date. I realized that he had been the guy asked out in the role-reversing proposal at the end of dinner. Apparently he had interrupted the lady’s pursuit of him as a lighthearted gesture, maybe even a joke, and accepted her proposal playfully. She, on the other hand, had been quite serious, and started an intense discussion on their relationship and potential marriage straight away. The young man was so freaked out by this that he avoided her for the rest of the night.

It was fun to chat everyone, and it made for some great conversation practice, but by 1am, I was ready to crash. I found a room with four bunk beds upstairs and went to sleep. I later learned that most people kept the party going until 4:30am!

The following morning a friend woke me up at 8:00 and let me know that I needed to eat breakfast before 9am. I got dressed and made my way back into Uni-to-Kinoko’s main building. Luckily I ran into and Sawada-san, who was headed to breakfast as well. The breakfast was an impressive buffet-style affair, with your usual western foods, like eggs and bacon, as well as Japanese dishes, like miso soup and curry rice. I grabbed a large portion of scrambled eggs before seeing the tamagoyaki (卵焼き – Japanese block shaped omelet, usually sweet tasting), which I would have preferred. My real mistake was picking up nikogori (煮こごり – にこごり), as it turned out to be jellied fish. I think I might be able to stomach a small portion of cold jellied fish as a dinner side dish—maybe—but as a breakfast food, I found it to be quite repulsive. The coffee was very good though.

After checking out of Uni-to-Kinoko, the party moved on to Yobetsu Elementary School for a cooking seminar. I got there early, with most of the staff. When the participants showed up, I was a little surprised to see only the women. Apparently the cooking activity was not intended for the men. Again, gender roles. I couldn’t help but think that the guys were missing out though, because the cooking lesson was epic.

Five sweet old ladies were the cooking instructors, and they taught the Konkatsu participants how to prepare salmon, as well as a kind of pumpkin hotcake. The ladies started with a whole salmon, head and all, the kind of giant silver fish you would see hurled through the air at Pike Place Market. With terrifying speed and precision, the sweet old ladies made short work of the fish, chopping off the head and fins, and deftly filleting the body with their knife. In some instances, the salmon was female and two large egg sacs would be carefully removed. Salmon roe (イクラ) is extremely popular in Japanese cuisine, so the eggs sacs are especially precious. After all the ladies had tried their hand at fish butchery, a multitude of salmon fillets were ready for everyone to take home. Even though I didn’t really help out at all, I too received five or so fillets, as well as freshly canned salmon roe. It was amazing.

The Konkatsu events were supposed to go on until 3:30pm, but by noon I was ready to be on my way. I caught a ride home with some of the other staff, including the speaker lady from Sapporo and the female half of the comic duo who emceed the previous night’s dinner. We stopped at a sushi restaurant in Yobetsu to grab some lunch before our drive. As you might have expected, it was amazingly delicious and just the right amount of food too. The quality of sushi on the Shakotan peninsula is so good that I’m wondering if it will ruin all other seafood for me, by comparison.

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Fireworks in Obihiro

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

This wasn't the gridlocked part.

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

This sign indicates that you've been spotted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don't remember this part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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