Tag Archives: Karaoke

Mike Visits Shakotan

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

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

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

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

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

For relaxing times, make it a Suntory time.

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

Not as easy as it looks.

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

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

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

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

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

IP Phone production room: where the magic happens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shiroi Koibito Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shenanagens! Shenanagens!

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

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Hashigozake Taikai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Weekend in Kōchi-ken: Part 2

Saturday morning, I awoke early enough to enjoy the complimentary hotel breakfast. Afterwards, we piled into a van for some sightseeing. The change in temperature and humidity one felt when walking out the hotel doors was like a kick in the face. It reminded me of summers in Iowa, where you sweat all the way from your car to the supermarket doors, only to have the air conditioning freeze you once you’re inside; one extreme to another. Ironically, southern Japan in the summertime didn’t feel quite as bad as the Midwest, but it was definitely damn hot.

Our first stop was Katsurahama (桂浜), an amazingly beautiful beach. Before I even got a look at the water, I was shocked by the deafening volume produced by the local cicadas. They were so loud that I actually had a hard time hearing my travel companions when they were standing right next to me. We climbed stairs up to a point where the water was in view and then I was immensely impressed.

The waves at Katsurahama were HUGE! Just watching the sea evoked a strange feeling, like I had finally arrived in the land of my childhood fantasy. Wave after wave crashed on the rocks, sending a spray of mist into the air, and all I could image was a character from Samurai Showdown, practicing his swordsmanship. In the distance, I could see a small Shinto shrine on a cliff, its bright orange structure popping out from the sea blue behind it. We didn’t visit the shrine, but I image it is the epicenter of awesome. From my travels so far, no single place embodies the mysticism of Japan for me more than Katsurahama.

The reason we had walked to this spot was actually to see the iconic statue of Sakamoto Ryōma (坂本 龍馬). Ryōma was an avant-garde samurai who had been credited with helping bring about the Meiji Restoration—the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the rapid modernization of Japan. He was assassinated just before the Meiji Restoration got started, at the age of 33, which I’m sure helped solidify his idealized image as a handsome, young revolutionary. Ryōma favored egalitarianism and saw the feudal system as a block to progress. However, he didn’t completely reject samurai ideals. Apparently he carried a modern weapon, a Smith & Wesson revolver, but he continued to dress in samurai garb. His mix of tradition and modernity has made him a classic character in both history and Japanese popular culture.

Ryōma was born in Kōchi and Kōchi is extremely proud of him. At this point, Ryōma has become the symbol of Kōchi. (To me, the repeated use of Ryōma‘s image is reminiscent of the image of George Washington in the States.) This is evident not just from his massive statue at Katsurahama, but also from every gift shop in the prefecture. They have every Ryōma-themed product imaginable; key chains, cell phone charms, t-shirts, hats, boxer briefs, statues, action figures, bobble heads, mugs, sake sets, candy and other food products, naruko, umbrellas (with handles that look like the hilt of a katana), and—the very best of all—toilet paper. It probably helps that Ryōma’s story has been told over and over in Japanese media, most recently in the NHK historical drama, Ryōmaden.

Before leaving Katsurahama, we did some shopping for omiyage (おみやげ – souvenir) at one such gift shop. Gift giving is a big part of Japanese culture, and often times (if not all the time), a traveler will bring back some token gift for his coworkers from where he’s been. My fellow teachers had given me omiyage multiple times in the short time I’ve been in Shakotan, so I wanted to return the favor. I ended up buying a couple packages of an okashi (お菓子 – confections, sweets, candy) representative of Kōchi.

Besides the Ryōma stuff, there also seemed to be many dog-theme decorations and omiyage around Katsurahama. I thought this was especially odd, since the dogs pictured were beastly-looking pit bulls, or a similar breed. My friends told me that one thing Katsurahama was famous for was dog fighting, and they still do it to this day. I was told I could watch a dogfight and even place bets, if I so desired. That made me kind of sad.

Next on the agenda was a visit to historic Kōchi Castle (高知城). I couldn’t have been more pumped to visit an authentic Japan castle, and Kōchi didn’t disappoint. Just climbing the massive stone steps gave me flashbacks of the ninja video game series, Tenchu. Even though the castle is now in the middle of a metropolitan area, the cicadas were again unbelievably loud. Constructed out of giant stone blocks, the majestic castle rose above move the city, situated on a hill top right in the middle of the area.

As we neared the castle entrance, we passed several food carts selling “ice crean.” I thought that this was just an Engrish typo, but Yamazaki-san explained to me that Kōchi had a unique dessert that was like ice cream, but a bit different, hence the odd name. We ended up buying some on our way out (in fact, Chikaru had two) and I was surprised by its consistency. Ice crean is frozen concoction that’s somewhere between ice cream and sorbet, and if you ask me, more on the sorbet side. If you order a flavor like chocolate or matcha, and you’re expecting creamy goodness, you will be disappointed; ice crean is more icy than creamy. I wonder if the name is actually an Engrish typo and the name they had intended was “ice clean.”

Near the ice crean vendors there was also a tent set up that constantly sprayed a gentle mist from its awning. The summer air was quite hot and humid, but the mist was cool and refreshing. I’m always impressed by the little touches in Japan.

We bought our tickets for the castle and checked our shoes at the door. Slippers were provided for indoor footwear. A man at the entrance also handed out cold oshibori (お絞り – wet towels), which everyone used to wipe the sweat from their faces. Once inside, we strolled about the castle and climbed floor after floor, up to the very top. Like any good historical site, the inside of the castle now contained many educational displays, including several dioramas of the castle and surrounding area in the feudal era. The models were so detailed that the effect was rather surreal; a castle within a castle. (I wondered if the model also contained a model castle inside: Inception.) A couple models actually depicted Japanese whalers catching and dismembering huge whales. That made me kind of sad.

After the awesomeness of Kōchi Castle, we walked around the town a bit and stopped at a food court for lunch. The building we entered was kind of like a mall, I suppose, although it was an odd collection of little shops within a cramped building. I think bazaar would be better word for it. There were tons of food options, but I wasn’t feeling especially hungry, so I bought some takoyaki for only 400 yen. I walked around the shops with one of the other dancers, a younger guy named Masato. We saw plenty of Ryōma products, as well as whale hunting-themed knickknacks.

In one of the gift shops, I was mesmerized by a bright yellow drink in a self stirring cold drink dispenser. The color was a radiant, almost neon yellow, reminiscent of Mountain Dew, but the liquid appeared to have some seeds in it. Masato-kun told me that it was yuzu tea (柚子茶), a drink made from a yellow citrus fruit called yuzu (柚子). I had never heard of yuzu, so I asked more questions. It wasn’t a lemon and it wasn’t an orange, it was different fruit that was native to Shikoku. It was tart and used in drinks like juices, teas, and sake. Intrigued, I had to buy a cup of this mystery tea. It was fantastic! Tart and sweet at the same time, it was like the golden child of lemonade and orange juice. If you ever get a chance to sample a yuzu drink, I highly recommend it.

Our group walked further into the city, passing through the Obiyamachi (帯屋町) shopping arcade, which was strongly reminiscent of Sapporo’s shopping arcade, Tanukikoji (狸小路). While there, we stopped into Astaire Dance Studio, situated on the third floor of a building in which all the other space looked gutted. Perhaps the building was amid renovations and the dance studio was the first business to start operating, I never did find out. The woman running the dance studio seemed to old friends with some people in our group, and we all sat down on the dance floor and drank iced coffee together. Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel to get dressed in our Yosakoi costumes and get ready to dance.

Stepping outside of the hotel in full Yosakoi garb, the heat was immediately a source of mild discomfort. The weather in Sapporo had been cool enough that the outfit was quite nice to wear, but in the hot Kōchi sun, the heat was unrelenting, and the costume proved to be a bit warm. Thanks to a slight breeze and the occasional stop in the shade, the weather wasn’t unbearable.

The Shakotan dancers walked for quite ways, finally meeting up our Kōchi teammates at a spot where all the Yosakoi teams were doing group photos. After we had our picture taken, the plan was explained to me. We were going to perform the Sōran down the street, parade-style like we done in Sapporo’s festival. This time, we were going to do the song ten times in a row. This sounded doable, although I knew the sun would be draining. Luckily, our group had two big coolers of drinks (one for alcoholic beverages and one for soft drinks) in our car, so anytime the parade stopped, we could grab a drink. Before we even got started, I downed a can of green tea.

Getting to dance the Sōran again was a real treat that I thoroughly enjoyed. As the parade wore on though, the sun shining on the concrete made the narrow Japanese street hotter and hotter. Every time there was a break in the action, I would grab another bottle of iced tea and hide in the shade. Considering how much I was sweating, replacing fluids was pretty important. Water would have been preferable, but the tea, with no sugar and—according to the label—no caffeine, was a decent substitute. By the time we got to the last couple run-throughs, I even indulged in a little 250ml can of Sapporo beer.

During one performance of the parade, Yasuda-san, who had been acting as emcee, gave me the microphone and had me actually sing the Sōran Bushi (ソーラン節) instead of dance. Since I still didn’t know all the lyrics by heart, he told me to just sing “la-la-la”, which I did. Afterwards, many of the dancers praised my singing, some of them apparently not noticing that missed half of the words. They really are very polite.

After our run of parading, our team arrived at the festival’s main stage. The area appeared to be a sports park, with space for two dirt baseball fields. A stage had been erected, several picnic tables set up, and the tents of random vendors snaked along the outside border. At first I walked around with my Shakotan friends, checking out what carnival food was being sold, but eventually the blistering sun was too much for me. I walked back to a shady area where I found the rest of our team having a bento dinner. Instantly I had a bento box and beer in hand, and was seated on the ground with old lady friends.

At 6:20pm, our team had our performance on the main stage. The powers that be had decided to place me in the front row, slightly to the right of center stage, so I was very visible. As we walked up onto the stage, the woman emceeing the event looked legitimately surprised to see a white guy in the group. Before we danced, Mayor Matsui came up to say a few words of introduction.  For some reason, he took the opportunity to point me out specifically, and the emcee lady asked me a couple questions. So there I was, basically speaking to an audience of like 800 people, in my terrible Japanese. Over all though, I think I sounded alright. We began to do our dance and one of the city officials who was sitting in the front row, ran up and placed a medal around my neck. It reminded me of the Sapporo Matsuri.

Once we were offstage, someone told me that my medal entitled me to a prize. I was led to the prize table to receive my festival swag, and they gave me an envelope. Yamazaki-san inspected the envelope for me and laughed; I had won free admission to the official Anpanman Museum in Kōchi, to which we would surely not be going. Oh well, it’s the thought that counts.

After all the Yosakoi teams had danced on the main stage—and there were only ten teams in total—trophies were awarded. Our Shakotan-Kami team received third place, and I was one of the two team members chosen to accept our trophy on stage. Again, the emcee lady took the opportunity to talk with the gaikokujin (外国人 – foreign national) and I did a decent job of conversing in front of the crowd. While showing the trophy to my teammates, another clearly-not-Japanese fellow walked up to talk to me; his name was Pablo and he was from Spain. He had been doing research at a local university and was surprised to see another non-Japanese person in Kōchi. As he explained, there were very few foreigners that resided in the area and he knew of all them. A cute lady friend accompanied Pablo and when I greeted her, she laughed and clarified that she wasn’t Japanese. She was from China, and was actually a fellow researcher at the same university. I’m pretty sure we were the only three foreigners present at the festival.

At that point, the Shakotan folks decided to head out. Chikaru and I grabbed a couple “ice crean” cones, and our group ventured out into the darkness. First we went back to the hotel to change, and then we got some food at a random izakaya. After dinner, Yamazaki-san and Chikaru decided to retire for the evening. The rest of us headed to Snack Rakuto for more fun and drinking.

Much like the previous night, we sang karaoke. There was a group of anime otaku (アニメオタク) there who were singing only to anime themes and songs from video games.  I should explain; an “otaku” is dork, geek, or nerd whose extreme, overwhelming enthusiasm for something makes them a social pariah. The word originally meant “your house” (お宅) and the term started be used for anime dorks that essentially never left their homes. A person can be labeled an otaku for being obsessed with any particular hobby or form of entertainment, but in the US it is usually only applied to anime/manga variety of nerds.

When I eventually sang, the otaku group seemed really impressed, and suddenly wanted to be friends. They requested songs for me to sing, starting with Take Me Home Country Roads, and I did my best to oblige. My fondest memory of the evening was singing All You Need Is Love, with the whole row joining in and drunkenly swaying back and forth to the rhythm. It was like love really is all you need; a beautiful moment.

On Sunday we had a bit of time in the morning before we had to fly home, so the whole Shakotan delegation, dancers and officials alike, drove downtown. We checked out a museum of sorts, a local exhibit for the NHK Drama “Ryōmaden” (龍馬伝). Ryōmaden was another retelling of Sakamoto Ryōma’s story, so it made sense that Kōchi was supporting it. The exhibit was a set from the actual show that you could walk around and check out. Had I ever seen the show before, I probably would have been even more enthusiastic. In one area, you could dress in samurai clothes, stand by a pedestal, and have your picture taken; in effect recreating Ryōma’s famous picture with you as Ryōma.

The exhibit had another gift shop full of Ryōma trinkets, even bigger than the others I had seen. Just outside the building, a group of dancers performed Yosakoi dances on a daily schedule, to promote dance style that Kōchi had produced. And of course, there was “ice crean” as well.

From there it was off to Kōchi Ryōma Airport and the journey home. For some reason, our plane was delayed an hour or so, so we killed time there. As you’d expect, the Kōchi Ryōma Airport has plenty of Ryōma gifts too. We said our goodbyes to our Kōchi friends and I promised that I would visit again someday. I also took the opportunity to buy another yuzu drink while I had the chance. It’s so good…

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An Evening at the Sapporo Beer Festival

 

July 23, 2011 – I had to drive into Sapporo for an afternoon training meeting with my company. Apparently the ALTs who work in Sapporo had an additional training meeting in the morning, meaning that they would actually be there all day, the poor bastards. As is my usually habit, I set out very early in the day, and ended up at the training location approximately an hour and half early. Luckily, the Sapporo ALTs broke for lunch, so I was able to hang out and eat bento with them before the afternoon meeting got started. (ALT=Assistant Language Teacher)

The meeting itself wasn’t anything worth writing about, but the nomikai (飲み会 – going out, literally “drinking meeting”) afterwards was something I had been looking forward to all week. My friend Nozomi-san had been planning on making a reservation at a suitable food/drinking establishment for anyone and everyone from the company that wanted to go out. Meanwhile, ALT factions had already been making plans to go to a beer garden in Odori Park, since the Sapporo Beer Festival was in full swing. After a quick group vote, it was decided that we would try to find a spot at the Kirin Beer Garden and see how it worked out. Nozomi-san was fairly certain that finding space for a large group was impossible without going very early, but she humored us anyway.

After the meeting broke, everyone went their own ways, so we were coming in separately and meeting at Odori Park. Walking from the Nakajima Park area, my friend Nari and I made our way to Odori. I was struck with how perfect the weather was. The night air was pleasantly warm, but not too hot.  After the sun went down, I still felt quite comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans.

While I had been told that the Sapporo Beer Festival was big, I still wasn’t prepared for how truly huge it was. There were multiple beer gardens in the park, each one a city block in size. We passed through the Suntory and Asahi beer gardens before arriving at our target, the Kirin beer garden. Each beer garden was packed with people; from a distance it appeared to be an undulating mass of alcohol swigging humanity. Making our way through the crowd, the atmosphere was warm and celebratory, with all comers, young and slightly less young, having a great time. I’ve never been to real German-style Oktoberfest, but image that the feeling must be the same.

It proved difficult to get everyone together, since there was so many of us and the place was crazy crowded, plus everyone was arriving at different times. The first people we met up with were fellow ALTs Ralph and Owen, who brought along their friend Koichi and a random guy they had just met at the beer garden. They had started the drinking early and even had the good sense to bring a few cans of beer in there bag, which they were kind enough to share with me.

When a large enough group of ALTs had found each other, I actually got a call from Nozomi-san. She was with the company managers (our bosses), looking for enough table space to sit down, but quickly losing hope. Navigating through the sea of people, I found Nozomi and the managers, and led them to our party of ALTs just outside of the beer garden. With everyone in the same place it was clear that our group was too big to find room in any of the beer gardens this late into the evening. The managers decided to move on to a restaurant, while the ALTs would still try to do the beer garden. Nozomi said that she would coordinate with me, in case our two groups wanted to reconvene later for more drinking, and probably karaoke. At this point, I was given the title of “Karaoke Leader”, which while unofficial, still appeared in a few emails from the company sometime afterwards. (They have a good sense of humor.)

The beer gardens use a weird ticket process for purchasing drinks. Perhaps it works differently once you are seated, but basically, you go up to a counter and pay for a beer. You can choose between a small size glass, a large size glass, or a HUGE 6 LITER TOWER OF BEER that looks like a titration burette from Chemistry class. (I really wanted one of those.) Instead of actually getting your beer right there, you receive a ticket that you then need to give to a waiter (designated by their red hats and vests) to get your drink.

When the ALTs ventured into the Kirin Beer Garden, many of us immediately went to buy tickets for beers. Someone in our group, perhaps Nari, actually found a table big enough to seat all of us, so after some cell phone coordination, we all converged on our new spot. Someone explained to me that the beer gardens actually close fairly early in the evening, at 10pm, so it may have been the case that were able to find our table because people were already going home. In any case, the beer garden party still felt like it was in full swing and the atmosphere was fantastic.

Our group of gaijin got plenty of looks from the locals, although there were clearly other foreigners present. The atmosphere felt quite open, and the conversation from one table easily spilled over to the next table, as long as there wasn’t too much of a language barrier. One brave and friendly fellow approached us and introduced himself in English. (I think he was really pumped just to get to use some English, actually.) He explained that he loved beer and had even worked for a few months at a Trappist beer brewery in Belgium.

Eventually the beer garden closed and everyone had to leave. To make sure drunken groups didn’t try to linger at the tables past closing time, the beer garden actually turned out the lights. This made for a pretty clear signal that the party’s over.

Some of our ALT group decided to call it a night at this point, but eight of us wanted to continue the fun. I called Nozomi-san and got directions to the restaurant in Susukino where they were currently eating, and the group of us walked there.  The restaurant didn’t have room for another eight people by the time we arrived, and the managers were pretty much done with eating anyway. We decided that the eight of us would try and find somewhere to drink and sing karaoke (in that order), with the hope that the manager group could meet up with us.

We had barely walked a block before a girl working on the corner tried to sell us on her karaoke joint. Koichi did the talking for the group and was assured that they had a karaoke room big enough to accommodate a group of 20 people. That plus their “nomihoudai” (飲み放題 – all-you-can-drink) meant that we had a winner.

Karaoke establishments in Japan generally have a cramped feeling of small subdivided rooms connected by narrow hallways. Walking from your private room to the toilet feels akin to moving about a submarine; not uncomfortable, but definitely inhibited. The room that we were led to felt oddly large by comparison. Seating wrapped around the length of the walls, with four tables in the middle. You could definitely fit 20 people in there. Since the eight of us were there first, and you pay by the hour, we got started with both the singing and the drinking.

Eventually, Nozomi-san showed up with our bosses and our karaoke party really exploded. I remember singing “One Week” by the Barenaked Ladies, which didn’t seem to disappoint, but not really impress either. What was really memorable was listening to our bosses sing. Nozomi-san, it turns out, has a beautiful singing voice and I was blown away by her moving performance. Jude, the Aussie-New Zealand trainer for the Hokkaido Branch, entertained us by singing the hell out of a Green Day tune.

It was my boss, Josh that shocked me the most. He sang Billy Joel’s “Piano Man”, and as the music started, he stood up and walked to front of the room. Josh didn’t even look at the screen, having clearly memorized all the lyrics. Instead, he faced us like he was on stage and we were his audience. Beer in hand, he sang the entire song hauntingly in character, as if he himself were a drunken lounge singer, or perhaps a pirate. Now every time I hear that song I’m going to see his wide, crazy eyes staring me down.

After two hours of karaoke (or was it three hours?), it was time for everyone to go. Most everyone was calling it an evening, but Owen, Ralph, and I wanted to get some ramen before cashing out. I mean really, that’s just how it’s done; ramen is the only way to end a late night of drinking in Japan. We walked around Susukino for a bit before finding a ramen shop that Owen assured us was fantastic. After as much alcohol as we had had, it was definitely more than sufficient.

While enjoying the noodley goodness of my miso ramen, I realized that I hadn’t eaten any dinner up to that point. I had at least three beers at the beer garden, then another three (or four) beers plus a shochu drink at karaoke, and I had been doing it all on an empty stomach! Suddenly I was incredibly grateful for my bowl of Chinese soup. By this point, poor Ralph had had tons to drink and was crashing. Eventually, a sleepy nod of the head sent his bowl onto his lap, dumping broth all over his best suit.

The three of us were to part ways at the ramen shop, but I was really hesitant to let Ralph walk home alone, since he was so trashed. Japan is super safe, so the odds of him being mugged were super low, plus the weather was so nice that he could literally sleep outside be fine. In fact, he actually joked about sleeping in Odori Park. In the end, I decided that given the lack of danger, if a grown man tells me he’ll be fine, I have to take him at his word. So Owen and I let Ralph brave it home on his own. As I would find out later, Ralph actually did end up sleeping in Odori Park that night. When he awoke, his bag and glasses were missing, but after a little searching, he recovered them. Apparently the worst part of the episode was trying to clean his suit, as the drycleaners were suspicious of the miso-stained, grass-stained outfit. See, he was fine.

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