Tag Archives: game references

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.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under Sapporo, Shakotan

Golden Week Part I: Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tokyo Station

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

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

Mandarin Hotel

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

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

Mandarin Hotel toilet

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

Can you see the 円?

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

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

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

To Be つづく’ed…

1 Comment

Filed under Tokyo

Street Fighter Rant: Character Missteps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can dig it.

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

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

You have got to be kidding me…

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

Darum: This would have been preferable.

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

No. This is not martial arts.

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

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

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Aquariums, Zoos, and Hell Valley

My piano teacher friend, Mayumi, invited me to come along on an onsen (温泉) trip to the southern Hokkaido town of Shiraoi (白老), and we decided to do some sightseeing as well. Shiraoi has some pretty interesting sights to check out, especially in regard to its preservation of Ainu culture, but we missed all that and actually did sightseeing in the nearby town of Noboribetsu (登別). In hindsight, it would have made more sense to do the reverse, since Noboribetsu is one of the most famous onsen destinations in Japan, a place whose name is synonymous with hot springs. Oh well, there’s always next time.

On Wednesday December 28th, the plan was to check out Noboribetsu’s aquarium and then the volcanic vents at the source of the town’s natural hot springs, a place called Jigokudani (地獄谷 – “Hell Valley”). After that, it was off to a Shiraoi for a soak at the onsen that Mayumi can procured discounted tickets to. Right away, upon exiting the expressway at Noboribetsu, we were greeted by a gigantic statue of an oni (鬼). At 18 meter tall, with red skin, horns, and a spiky killing club, the demon displayed a fearsome countenance. However, he pointed all visitors towards the Noboribetsu Onsen, which I took as a welcoming gesture.

Oni (鬼) are ogre-like creatures from Japanese folklore. Generally speaking, oni have horns, sharp teeth, and either red or blue skin. They’re usually big and ugly, and often carry a large club. While originally depicted as fierce and frightening menaces, oni also have plenty family-friendly depictions, pretty much analogous to Shrek in the western world. When Japanese kids play the game of Tag, the person who’s “it” is called the “oni”. Oni also feature in the February holiday of Setsubun (節分), where kids throw beans at ogres to repel them from the house, and in turn, shoo away bad spirits for  good luck.

In Noboribetsu, oni are everywhere, as they have basically been adopted as the town mascots. Oni signs and trinkets abound, and there are various oni statues peppering the town, including some that stand as talismans of good luck in randomly specific things like romance, success in business, and passing exams. Apparently there’s even a Jigoku Matsuri (地獄祭り – Hell Festival) in August, which sounds pretty hot.

The aquarium we visited immediately struck me as a bit usual, defying my expectations. I was expecting all the interesting stuff to be inside the building, similar to the Seattle Aquarium, so I was a bit surprised when we pulled up to a little castle town that had its own Ferris wheel. The Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe (登別マリンパーク二クス), it turns out, is more than just sea creatures.

The main aquarium facilities are contained within a German-style castle, with a moat and everything. This building is called “Nixe Castle aquarium” (水族館二クス城). Flanking the castle on either side are two auditorium structures called, “show pools”, where sea lions and dolphins perform shows for humans’ amusement. Directly in front of the castle is an open courtyard, called Nixe Square (二クス広場), and this plaza is encircled by quaint little storefronts where all the architecture has a distinctly European style. And while it wasn’t operating in winter, adjoining this Little Deutschland there is an amusement park. Nixe Land (二クスランド) comes complete with a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, train ride, go-karts, and a carousel.

While I could have used more time taking in the stimulus overload, we had to hurry the sea lion pool to see a performance by Hal, the sea lion. Trained to bow, clap, and smile on command, Hal also caught rings and balance balls for the audience’s amusement. I was honestly shocked at how trainable the sea lion was. Even though he was clearly working towards the reward of more fish, I wondered if he had a concept of how unnecessary it all was, and if he got bored of performing, or wanted to be free. Perhaps he enjoys the attention, as well as the fish, but I kind of doubt it.

Next we entered Nixe Castle to see some of the main aquarium exhibits. In the center of the building was a four-story tall open room. The chamber had two escalators in the center, taking visitors from the second story to the top, while the bottom floor was completely filled with water. Deep pools covered the floor, providing a public home for various large sea creatures, including sharks, manta rays, and schools of random fish. It was quite an awesome spectacle, and the unlikely combination of steel escalators, undecorated gray walls, and deep blue shark tanks made me feel like I was in a Bond villain’s secret lair. The hallways of the castle also contained copious items of Atlantis and seafaring memorabilia, and some of the more fantastic touches made me think of the Water Temple from The Legend of Zelda. The whole place was much more interesting than I had expected.

In the middle of checking out the main castle, we had to run back outside to see a scheduled “penguin walk”. By this point, the interesting sights and warmth contained within the main building sounded far more appealing than venturing back out into the frigid winter cold, but I followed Mayumi’s lead. As it turned out though, the outdoor attraction was quite entertaining. Just like it sounds, the penguin walk was simply penguins walking, but it’s not something you see every day.  Staff led the penguins, parade-style, around the square, while the gathered onlookers snapped as many photos as possible. As cool as it was to see the penguins so close up, it was much more interesting to see grown men and women fervently trying to capture the cuteness on digital media; priceless. The flightless birds all had colored rings high up on their wings and I wondered exactly how comfortable it was for them to wear the tags.

After penguins, we reentered Dr. Nixe’s secret lair and continued exploring the castle. Like the Seattle Aquarium, there were petting pools for people to gently touch the sea creatures. But in addition to the usual starfish and sea anemones, there was also a “touch pool” (タッちプール) for sting rays! This was irresistible to me, and despite the cold, I just had to dip my hand in feel the slick skin of a sting ray. In a rather bare, unembellished pool, the sting rays swam at a constant speed, in a counter-clockwise motion. As magical as it was to pet their smooth backs, I couldn’t help but reflect on how limited their lives would be in such a drab cage. The beautiful and majestic creatures are naturally inclined to fly through the ocean waters, but here the pool was only two feet deep. I honestly felt sorry for the little guys.

There was also a touch pool for horseshoe crabs, which really blew me away. Somehow, in all of my days in the Pacific Northwest – and I suppose, biology classes in school – I had never seen such a creature before. Between the armor of their shells and the long rigid tails, the crabs looked very alien, and their spidery legs underneath made “creepy” an accurate descriptor. If such a thing were to ever appear in a sci-fi video game, the natural response would be to shoot it dead and ask questions later. Of course, it was my ignorance of horseshoe crabs, and not their looks, which was shameful. In Japanese, horseshoe crabs are called kabutogani (かぶとがに), literally meaning “helmet crab”, a name which I think is more fitting. While they are fascinating creatures, their shells aren’t at all that interesting to feel.

We needed to interrupt our castle exploring a second time and make our way to the dolphin pool, where another show was about to start. Now, I had already spent the day wondering about the welfare of the animals we had gotten to see – the sea lion, the penguins, the sting rays – but if there’s only one animal whose welfare in captivity seems questionable, it’s got to be the dolphin. This is especially true in Japan, thanks to the 2009 documentary The Cove.  A pair of dolphins swam around and performed jumps for our amusement. Well for our amusement and the Pavlovian reward of fish. I suppose they didn’t seem unhappy, and they seemed to get along with the trainers well enough. But I still wondered what kind of feedback the dolphins would give if they were capable of human speech.

After the Flipper stage show, we were back in the castle again, finally finishing up the tour of the facilities. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the final part of the castle walk included an underwater tunnel portion. The tunnel actually cut through the pool that was at the bottom of the castle’s central chamber; the escalator room that had impressed me in the beginning. The sharks and sting rays and schools of fish were even more magnificent from an underwater perspective, as they swam alongside and above the transparent tube. I tried to take close-up pictures of the sharks, but the low light and surface reflections made getting a good shot quite difficult. Emerging on the other side, our tour of Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe was complete.

Our next tourist destination was a sulfuric gorge that goes by the name Jigokudani (地獄谷), meaning “Hell Valley”. The volcanic vents of Jigokudani supply Noboribetsu’s hot spring spas with natural spring water, rich in minerals. The first thing I noticed when we got out of the car was the pungent stench of rotten eggs. The volcanic vents have quite a high sulfur content, meaning “Hell Valley” smells strongly of brimstone year-round. Near the precipice, Jigokudani is rather breathtaking. Since it was the middle of winter, snow covered everything. In the gorge however, hot vents kept some surfaces too warm for snow cover. A constant fog of steam lifted off the barren landscape, lending to the eerily accurate hell comparison.

Mayumi and I walked the trail out into “Hell Valley”, getting a close-up view of the craggy, moonlike surface, and the cloudy creeks, yellow with sulfur. Steam rose from the ground in several different spots around us and the air was humid. I couldn’t help but imagine that this was precisely the place Gouki (Akuma) from Street Fighter would train. He’d probably then unwind at the end of the day by soaking in a sulfur bath. Eventually we made it out to a large volcanic vent that had a deck surrounding it for easy viewing. Steam gushed out from it, as it was essentially a geyser that bubbled instead of erupting. This hole in the ground, four feet in diameter, would make the perfect tub for Gouki, I thought.

The path at Jigokudani was quite active with other tourists. The snowy trail was a little tight in places and precarious with visitors coming and going. While I was the only white guy in sight, the other tourists definitely weren’t speaking Japanese. And one point, Mayumi said, “Urusai, kankokujin,” (「うるさい韓国人」), or “These Koreans are noisy.” To be fair, if I were walking my family into hell, I think I’d probably be a bit loud about it myself.

After Jigokudani, we finally drove to our main target, the onsen in Shiraoi. Since onsens are separated by gender, this was the first time that I had visited the baths completely on my own. I didn’t have any friends to imitate, no lead to follow, but I was pretty used to the whole thing by that point, so I was quite comfortable. Relaxing in one of the hot baths, I stared up at the ceiling. The condensation of hot, humid air collected above the bath to produce a canopy of hanging raindrops.  I reflected on how unintentionally beautiful this stippled surface was, like a hydromorphic Sistine Chapel. It’s the little things in life…

For some reason, I decided to challenge myself to a hot/cold bath circuit. After getting uncomfortably warm in the hottest bath available, I walked over to the cold tub and carefully plunged in. Sitting down with the frigid water up to my neck, I focused on my regulating my breathing and tried to remain absolutely still, motionless. Initially, the cold is quite a shock to the system. I could actually feel my heart starting to work harder and my breathing became a bit erratic. The icy cold spurred me to escape for the first 30 seconds or so, but then the cold surrounding my body became rather tranquil. My skin seemed to get used to the external chill, while my body’s core felt warm by comparison. My heart pumped warm blood throughout my system, holding off the cold at the surface. After a minute, I felt like I could sit there all night.

I was so still in the cold bath that little air bubbles collected on the undersides of my arms. It began to look kind of like I was soaking in 7-Up. After what was probably five minutes, I climbed out feeling very refreshed. In comparison to the cold bath, the air was warm and I felt like I had a blanket wrapped around me. I still had some time to kill, so I did the hot/cold thing a second time. After a second run, I felt like a million bucks.

On Monday January 2nd, with Japan still in full New Year’s swing, Mayumi and I decided to take advantage of some holiday deals and see more animals. We started in the morning with a trip to Maruyama Zoo (札幌円山動物園) in Sapporo’s Maruyama Park (円山公園). The park is 60,000 square meters nestled into Sapporo’s western neighborhoods. In addition to the zoo, the park’s features include the spectacular Hokkaido Shrine (北海道神宮), Maruyama “Primeval Forest” — the perfect spot for viewing cherry blossoms in springtime — athletic fields, tennis courts, and a baseball stadium. At least these are the things I’ve heard of, because this was my actually first visit to the park.

In my experience, zoos are summer attractions, kind of like amusement parks. I had thought that people only visit the zoo when the weather is warm and sunny. Maruyama Zoo appears to be unique in that it operates year-round. So, in the dead of winter, Mayumi and I ventured out to see the animals.

January 2nd was a special day at the zoo and we arrived at the precise moment that they were giving away free hot drinks. A warm can of tea was a nice touch, because the weather was frigidly cold and we were going to be doing plenty of walking outside. Inside my boots, my toes quickly went numb.

The zoo was completely snow-covered. The path, the trees, the animals’ pens, everything; a think blank of white accented every level change. It was a beautiful spectacle, although to be honest, even the monkeys looked cold. I expected the snow leopards and polar bears to be at home with the cold, but to my surprise, several animals from tropical or sub-tropical environments were also outside in the snow. African lions, hyenas, and a Bengal tiger, for example, were just chilling out in the freezing temperatures. There was a large building that was kept toasty warm for the giraffes, antelope, and ostriches to stay in, but even the hippopotamus decided to venture outside of this safe haven for his snack. I always thought that snow and hippos just don’t mix.

There were other indoor exhibits that helped me regulate body temperature, like the birdhouse, ape house, and a building designed to make wolf and bear viewing easier. My favorite part of the zoo had to be the orangutan exhibit, which featured a toddler orangutan that was just about two years old. Apes always fascinate me (purely out of self-interest, being an ape myself) and watching the little one play was delightful. He was actually too small for the exhibit’s cage to hold, and he effortlessly slipped between the bars, although he was still separated from zoo patrons by a thick pane of glass. A staff member was coming and going in this space, cleaning up a bit, and the little guy followed him with childish curiosity. I felt an undeniable ancestral bond with the humanlike little ape.

Overall, the Maruyama Zoo in the snow was pretty magical. Mayumi told me that in the summer, the zoo would look completely different, so I should check it out again sometime. We hit the gift shop on the way out and I picked up some postcards to send back to the States. Some young boys with Ultraman masks were getting their Power Rangers on, play fighting just outside the door. Mayumi pointed out one of the candy items on sale, called gorilla no hanakuso (ゴリラの鼻くそ – gorilla boogers). As she explained, marketing humorous food grotesqueries to children as candy is popular in Japan too.

After the zoo, it was off to Otaru for lunch, and a visit to the Otaru Aquarium (小樽水族館). Much like Noboribetsu Marine Park, the Otaru Aquarium had an adjacent amusement park, which was currently closed for the winter. So far, this seems to be a consistent theme, with Ferris wheels being part and parcel of the aquarium experience. While it didn’t have a castle exterior, the Otaru Aquarium was situated on the side of steep hill, facing the sea, so it properly would make for a quality fortress against invasion.

Just inside the door, right next to the gift shop, the Otaru Aquarium has a pool of seals to welcome all on comers. Its small size allows everyone to get very close to the seals, making photos obligatory, but such close proximately gives one the sense that you could reach out and pet the animals. Multiple signs warn that the seals will bite your fingers off and reaching in to give them the opportunity is strictly prohibited. The seals swam around, bobbed up and down, simply laid there on a dry patch, and generally looked adorable, meanwhile everyone with a cell phone or digital camera tried their hardest to capture the moment.

Otaru’s aquarium had beautiful tanks displaying all manner of sea creatures; sting rays, eels, octopi, sharks, crabs, venomous lionfish, stonefish, blowfish, seahorses, and even arapaima from the Amazon that were over a meter long. Judging from the gift shop emphasis, someone apparently expected anago (あなご – garden eel, conger eel) to become the next big thing. My personal favorite was a rescued sea turtle, who was missing one of his front flippers. I have a natural affinity for turtles, but this guy had real character.

Much like the penguin walk in Noboribetsu, the Otaru aquarium had an indoor pelican walk. While everyone tried just as hard to get pictures of the pelicans, I got the general impression that these birds weren’t quite as docile. From the moment they came running out of their pen with wings outstretched, it looked like the big one was waiting for an excuse to start a fight. While being paraded around, the group of birds huddled together defensively, and I got the impression that they liked the exercise, but not the attention.

Eventually we made our way to the show pool for some animal-performance based entertainment. A covered catwalk connected the show pool to the main building, but a vicious Siberian crosswind made traversing it surprisingly unpleasant. Once inside, we sat down for a sea lion performance. At Otaru there were three sea lions on stage together and they performed feats like solving math problems, gymnastically forming a pyramid, and “playing” musical instruments (piano, bass drum, and cymbals).  While the math and music stuff was clearly contrived, the athletic bits were very impressive.

Next, the trainers brought out a walrus. Ironically, everything the trainers had taught the walrus to do involved either sucking or blowing. He blew bubbles, kissed volunteers from the audience, and hooted – producing pitches like he was whistling. It was a unique spectacle, but I really wished he would’ve taken a shot at the musical instruments; there’s a Beatles tune just begging to be covered there.

Finally, three dolphins came out for the show’s headlining act. They swam at a rapid pace around the pool and shot out of the water for some high jumps. At one point, they slid out of the water completely to greet the poolside audience face to face. I just hope these majestic creatures aren’t bored to tears from their job.

Leave a comment

Filed under Noboribetsu, Otaru, Sapporo

Press START to Continue…

As you may have already heard, I’ve really been on the fence about whether or not to renew my contract with the company. I’ve flip-flopped back and forth, unable to fully commit to what my next year with entail. If I renew, I could stay in Japan for another year, and continue teaching English in the über quiet fishing village of Shakotan, living in fairly isolated Bikuni town. If I decline, could come back to Seattle and get started on the next phase of my life, most likely involving going back to school so that I can become a teacher in the US. More pressingly, now that my beloved Marissa is back in the States, I have new motivation to return. I’ve spent many homesick nights dreaming of everything and everyone I miss in Seattle, and now that my girlfriend has returned, the longing has increased exponentially.

Japan is a fantastic place, a Rising Sun Neverland filled intriguing customs and kindhearted people. (Kindhearted, unbelievably generous, genuinely wonderful people, actually.) The friends I’ve made here have become very important to me, and I’ll need to keep in touch with them after I return to the States. In my first year Japan, I’ve been able to accomplish many of my goals for my journey, and I’ve have countless surprising experiences that I didn’t even expect. It’s been one hell of a ride.

But the fact of the matter is, I have not yet done everything that I set out to do. If I were to leave Japan now, I would surely look back on it with a regretful, incomplete feeling. I’d wonder what could have been, if only Shakotan had had one more year with their first ALT; their first ever foreigner resident. After how welcoming and accommodating this community has been to me, I owe it to them to give it my all. When the next school year begins, I can hit the ground running, already well acquainted with the students, the teachers, and the Board of Education, not to mention other individuals in the community. A new ALT would need some time to adjust to this place, but I know it well, and I’m ready to kick some ass…speaking purely academically, of course.

Even though it has been an impossibly difficult decision, one that I’ve lost plenty of sleep over, I have finally made up my mind. The kids need me. Shakotan needs me. My homestay-esque family in Sapporo even kind of needs me. Oh, and the company needs me to a certain extant. Maintaining a sense of purpose in Seattle would probably be a bit difficult for me at the moment, but it’s strong here in Hokkaido. I know what I need to do.

And so, the journey continues…

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Educational, Sapporo

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sapporo