Tag Archives: Matsuri

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.


Filed under Sapporo, Shakotan

Through the Flames: Bikuni Shrine Festival 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Tengu is the fire walking master.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under Shakotan

Sapporo Snow Festival 2012

I awoke early on Sunday, February 12th because my friend was picking me up at 7:30 and then we were driving to Sapporo. Natsumi, an elementary school teacher in Shakotan, had gotten two tickets to the Toyota Big Air snowboard jump competition at the Sapporo Dome and invited me to come along. We hit the road early so that we’d have time to see some of Sapporo’s world famous Yuki Matsuri (雪祭り – Snow Festival).

The Sapporo Snow Festival was simply magnificent. I expected to see some giant snow sculptures, but my concept of “giant” was far too diminutive. Natsumi and I first checked out an array of intricate ice carvings, lined up on one of Susukino’s thoroughfares, right in the middle of the road. (Apparently, starting from 10:30am, the street became pedestrian traffic only.) The ice carvings, partially crystal clear, partially cloudy translucent, were beautiful in the morning sun. I can only assume that when lit up at night, they would be even more breathtaking. The sizes varied from your antique vase-sized smaller sculptures, to the more common 2 – 3 meter tall masterpieces. There was also a whiskey bar made completely of ice and apparently actually fully functional. The sculptures were all so impressive that I barely noticed how bitterly cold it felt outside, especially in the shade.

Then we made our way into Odori Park for the Snow Festival proper. And WOW, it was even bigger than I had imagined. I had known that there would be snow sculptures carved out of large (probably 3x3m) cubes, but I didn’t realize that they would be the smaller pieces on display. To my surprise, there were several massive snow sculptures the size of houses. Sure, the snow Taj Mahal and snow Osaka Castle weren’t made to actual size, but they were pretty large-scale models, still bigger my apartment building.

Rice-stuffed squid on a stick. This is the life.

Odori Park was busier than I had ever seen it, and it wasn’t even noon yet. Clearly the festival had brought in lots of tourists, because there were many, many foreign faces in the crowd. Signs posted around the park sought to guide foot traffic in a counterclockwise path through the festival’s myriad of displays and vendors. It was crazy cold out, but no one seemed to care too much as this was a spectacle that could not be missed. Plus, there was hot tea, hot coco, hot coffee, hot amazake, and lots of hot festival food around every corner.

The first monumental snow sculpture we saw was a massive, impressively detailed, aquatic life scene. The huge piece had dolphins, seals, a sea turtle, and a walrus, all made in a larger-than-life-size scale. At the high horizon point in the background, a whale was breaking out of the surface of the water. Plenty of fish and coral and such livened up the background and the amount of detail was staggering. The artists had even used clear rubber tubing to form the walrus’s whiskers. (While this was the only part of any of the pieces I saw that wasn’t made of snow, it was actually a pretty nice touch.) Speakers pumped out an instrumental version of The Little Mermaid’s “Under the Sea”, repeating forever on an endless loop. At night, custom-made lighting of undulating blues and greens made the underwater impression even more palpable.

Most of the other monumental snow sculptures were scale models of world-famous buildings, but there were a couple character pieces, like the giant Fantasia version of Mickey Mouse. This Disney-themed sculpture seemed to be commemorating the 10 year anniversary of a Japanese Disney Resort. Near the end of the park there was a giant anime-themed sculpture, a combination of Toriko and uber popular One Piece. It was fairly plain in comparison with the other pieces, as it simply featured each anime’s lead character (the titular Toriko and One Piece captain Monkey D. Luffy) along with one animal character from each show. Fans of either series were sure to be thrilled with it and the cuteness of a three-meter tall Tony Chopper was difficult to top.

Just past the anime sculpture was a collection of pieces by foreign artists, and these were some of the most interesting works of all. Starting with a 3x3m cube of snow, each artist had carved an original sculpture, usually something representative of where they hailed from. There was a sculpture representing India, Thailand, Hawaii, and even one for Portland, Sapporo’s sister city in the States. Most of these were either impossibly detailed, conceptually very cool, or both. As stunning as the monumental sculptures were, these particular pieces were the highlight of the show for me.

We took the subway down to its last stop and arrived at the Sapporo Dome around noon. Unlike my previous visits to the Dome, it was not warm inside. In fact, it was probably about the same temperature inside the dome as was outside, although the simple lack of wind made it feel a lot more comfortable. The show goers who came to see the Tokyo Big Air contest were all dressed in snowboarding apparel, as if they had been headed to the slopes but ended up here on accident. This turned out to be the most appropriate dress, as it was both warm enough for the chill and stylish enough to keep one looking good.

Instead of a baseball field or soccer pitch, a large snow-covered slope had been erected in the center of the dome. It was very steep coming down from the top, leveling off about halfway down. A ramp at the midpoint plateau would be used for jumping. After that, there was another slope for landings, eventually evening out on to flat ground at the base. An impressive construction of scaffolding, its skeleton resembled a huge Erector Set. The rest of the dome’s floor space was taken up with reserve seating and several cars on display, like the event was part auto show. The main sponsor of the event was Toyota, after all.

Starting a 1pm, and going until at least 9, the Toyota Big Air competition was pretty much an all day event. That didn’t mean that snowboarders dazzled the audience with big air tricks for eight hours straight, however. The event had multiple musical acts; including a popular Japanese rock band, called “One OK Rock”. (For the uninitiated, stemming from Japanese R-L confusion, the band’s name is supposed to be pronounced like “one o’clock”. Seriously.) In addition to the bands, local TV personalities provided plenty of nonsensical filler “entertainment” and giant projector screens flanking the slope on each side played advertisements during any and all down time. While it had its dull moments, when the international collection of professional snowboarders did actually tackle the jumps, it was quite entertaining.

I was genuinely surprised to recognize one of the competitors, Eero Ettala of Finland. Just a couple weeks prior, when I had been invited to Yoshimura-sensei’s house for dinner, we had ended up watching a couple episodes of this Eero fellow’s TV show. Apparently he had actually won the Big Air competition the previous year (as well as in 2005), so his participation wasn’t too surprising to anyone who followed this stuff, but I don’t. There were also two American snowboarders, two Canadians, one from Iceland, another from Slovenia, and at the onset, at least 12 Japanese competitors.

For some reason, no one wore helmets at the beginning of the competition. Even by the end of it, only a handful of competitors opted to wear a helmet, and only once or twice. The youthful Mark McMorris of Canada abstained from protecting his skull and instead wore just a baseball cap, which in hindsight seemed ill-advised, since he ended up smashing his head into the snow fairly hard. Public Health says no.

A little bit after 7pm, Natsumi and I decided to slip out and head home. The competition was still going on – now down to its final four riders – but with a two-hour drive ahead of us, it wasn’t worth battling the crowd at the exit after the show was over. On our way back to the car, we took a quick look at the Snow Festival at night. With its impressive colorful lighting, it was even more beautiful in the dark. However, thanks to a heavy snowfall in progress and high winds picking up, the frigid weather had gone from uncomfortable to a full on blizzard. We looked around for about 10 minutes before calling it a day and trudging back to the car park.

All in all, the Sapporo Snow Festival really was amazing, just as majestic as advertised. It was definitely cold – bitterly cold – but it’s called a “snow festival” after all, so that was probably to be expected. Like Japan’s famous sakura (桜 – cherry blossoms) in the springtime, Odori Park’s snow sculptures are another example of impermanent beauty, their allure increased by their short lifespan. While stunning in their scope, the frosty masterpieces are only destined to stand for one week. After this, they are bulldozed into oblivion. Catching a glance of their artistry was well worth enduring urban Hokkaido’s winter wrath at its most vicious.

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Bikuni’s Yume Akari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Weekend in Kōchi-ken: Part 1

August 5-7, 2011 – During the first weekend in August, I went along with a delegation of Shakotan officials and dancers to participate a Yosakoi Sōran festival in Kōchi-ken (高知県), on the southern island of Shikoku. When we had participated in Sapporo’s Yosakoi Sōran Matsuri in June, dancers from Kōchi had come north to team up with us. Now, we were traveling to participate in their festival. (Well, 12 people were coming, and only half of them dancers.)

I should probably clarify that while we came to Kōchi for a Yosakoi Matsuri, it wasn’t the Yosakoi Matsuri. Kōchi-ken is actually where Yosakoi originated and the city of Kōchi-shi (高知市) hosts the All Japan Yosakoi Matsuri on August 12th. It sounds like that Yosakoi festival is probably the biggest of them all. We were participating in a smaller event in Kami-shi (香美市), which like Sapporo’s festival, was focused on the Sōran Bushi (ソーラン節).

Visiting Kōchi-ken was a fantastic experience for me, maybe too fantastic. I say this because Kōchi fits my idealized image of Japan exactly. Kōchi has a rich samurai heritage and the people are clearly proud of their feudal roots. It was magical to see the sights and take in all the history, as well as the simple natural beauty of the landscape. But almost all that was wonderful about the southern prefecture contrasted with my current home in Hokkaido, which with the exception of the spectacular sea views, more resembles Midwest America than this quintessential Japan. And that made me question my decision to come to Shakotan after all. Luckily, the town of Shakotan is home to the nicest people in the world.

On Friday August 5th, we were flying to Kōchi, but first we had to drive to Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport, which takes around two hours. Our party of 12 boarded a large van that just barely fit us and our bags, and departed for the airport at 5:30am, so I was pretty tired going in. During the drive I just drifted in and out of consciousness, never really sleeping, never really awake. During the each leg of our flight, first to Tokyo Haneda and then to Kōchi Ryōma Airport, it was a similar experience; drifting in and out, but never feeling any more rested.

Once in Kōchi, we were greeted at the airport by a large party of local officials. Then we hopped on another bus and headed out. The air was much hotter in Kōchi than in Hokkaido, considerably more humid too. I had been warned about this and pretty much got exactly what I expected.

Just driving through Kōchi-ken was fun for me. For the most part, the area was flatter than I expected, with plenty of rice fields in the countryside. It seemed that every house, from rural farm houses to those in more urban areas, all had those Japanese tile roofs, called “kawara” (瓦). The kawara roofs, combined with the beautiful gardens that many homes featured, made the area seem distinctly Japanese.

Our bus took us directly to Kami-shi (香美市) town office, where there were some formalities to be done. Kami-shi’s office was bigger than Shakotan’s, with five floors of office space and meeting rooms, constructed in the latest ultra-modern style. While Mayor Matsui and the other officials briefly hobnobbed with their Kami-shi counterparts, the dancers and Yasuda-san were led to the room where we’d be having a meeting. The chairs in which we were to sit were actually labeled with our names; mine said 「ルーカスケレハー様」.

There were actually two meetings. First, the mayors of Shakotan and Kami officially met and each gave a speech, with many photographs being taken. Then, a gift was presented to Kami from Shakotan, a large painting of a coastal scene in Shakotan. (Actually, I was sure that I had seen this painting before at Shakotan’s town office, and I was pretty surprised that they were giving it to Kami. It’s a nice one.) After that was concluded, the Shakotan folks were given a tour of the town office building’s many features, including a trip to the basement to see the base vibration dampening devices that make it resistant to earthquake damage.

After the tour and some iced tea, we returned to the same meeting room, which this time had even more people present. A fellow named Hasegawa (長谷川) was to speak. As I understand it, Hasegawa-san was pivotal in creating the Yosakoi Sōran festival 20 years ago, which makes me think that he must have been the one to bring the tradition from Shikoku up to Hokkaido and make it such a success in Sapporo. He gave a long speech and was even moved to tears, choking up a couple times and apologizing. Because everything was spoken in Japanese, I couldn’t understand any of it, and my lack-of-sleep-induced fatigue made me kind of zone out for much of the talk. I really wish I could’ve comprehended more of it.

We left the town office but instead of the hotel we visited a local art museum that was currently featuring the works of Takashi Yanase (柳瀬 嵩), creator of Anpanman (アンパンマン). To be clear, this was not the official Anpanman Museum, which is also in Kōchi-ken, but merely an art museum that was showing Yanase’s illustrations, most of them not Anpanman related. Actually, if you’ve never been to Japan, I bet you’ve never heard of Anpanman; I should explain.

Anpanman (アンパンマン) is cartoon character that first appeared in the late 60’s and is still extremely popular with young children in Japan. Specifically, he’s popular with kids in elementary school and younger. Anpan is pastry; a bun filled with red bean paste, called anko (餡子). You could think of it as a Japanese jelly donut.  “Pan” (パン) means bread, so anko bread is called “anpan” (餡パン). Anpanman is a superhero whose head in made of out of anpan, and is therefore edible. Apparently Yanase wanted to create a character that could fly around feeding the hungry, and Anpanman can literally let people eat his head. (He can always get a replacement head from his father, who is a Geppetto-esque baker, I guess.) Other characters in the Anpanman Universe include Shokupanman (White Bread Man), Currypanman (Curry Bread Man), Melonpanna (Melon Bread Girl); you get the idea.

In addition to the Yanase illustrations at the art museum, we also saw a huge exhibit of school children’s artwork, from both Japanese and international students. There was one work that caught my eye, a painting by a Swiss student named “Lukas Keller”. Sounds like a good kid. After the art museum, we finally were taken to the hotel and I managed to sneak in a much needed 45 minute nap.

Around 6pm, we walked from the hotel to the place where we were having dinner. I’m not sure if the venue was a restaurant, or just a dining hall, but it was on the third floor of cramped inner-city building, so we had to climb multiple flights of narrow stairs to get up there. Inside it was basically just an open room, with a Tamami floor and the Japanese sliding doors you’d imagine. Four long rows of tables were set out to accommodate a large group, with kneeling pads designating individual seating. One of the Kōchi dancers was standing in the middle of the room with a clipboard, directing each person to their assigned seat as they entered.

The spread of food was unbelievable, I could barely wait for the obligatory opening speeches and toasting to finish so I could dive in. The first dish that was served was a kind of shrimp noodle soup. After that, it was an all-you-can-eat affair, complete with all-you-can-drink beer. The sashimi alone was out of this world, but there was also plenty of nigiri sushi; tamagoyaki, ebi, unagi, etc. The seafood just kept coming, with shrimp, crab legs, and lobster galore. There was even this dish that was essentially a fish stuffed with sushi rice and sliced up, making for a reverse sushi roll effect, with the rice on the inside and fish on the outside. Its head was also stuffed with rice and eaten. I’m told the cheeks are especially delicious, but since it looked like a lot of work to eat around the skull, I didn’t bother.

While the food alone made for an amazing dinner, the most memorial part of the evening was a local sake ritual called “atsukan” (熱燗). Atsukan is a general term for hot sake, but in Kōchi Province there is a unique protocol to imbibing the warm liquor. The cups used are small and rather shallow, capable of only holding about a shot’s worth of liquid. One person—probably the senior and/or socially superior in Japanese society’s hierarchy—hands the other person a little sake cup, and pours for them. The second person thanks them and drinks the hot sake, usually in a single gulp, then hands the cup back. At this point, roles are reversed and the second person pours so that the original person can drink from the same cup. The experience reminded me of communion in church, although with an even stronger sense of fraternity and good will.

My Shakotan friends had forewarned me about atsukan, describing how it worked so that I wouldn’t be surprised or uncomfortable. They had also joked about how with so much communal drinking expected that it might be hard to not get overly drunk. Yamazaki and Yasuda speculated on who would be the strongest drinker. True to expectation, it was me.

After much hot sake was shared, and everyone had reminisced about the recent Sapporo Yosakoi Sōran Matsuri, the dinner ended. Coming back down the steep stairs was a bit scary, as expected, but the alcohol hadn’t affected my motor skills, so it was alright. The night was still young, so many of us headed to bar called Snack Rakuto (らくと) for more drinks and karaoke. As it turned out, Snack Rakuto is owned by one of the Kōchi dancers, the fellow who acted as leader dancer with a pair of lanterns in hand, instead of naruko. His daughter, who also danced with us, worked as a bartender there too. It was like we were on home turf so far from Hokkaido.

We ordered drinks. I got beer, although some others got sake on ice. Yamazaki-san’s son Chikaru was with us, so he got soda. Our local friends had heard that I could sing an Enka song and they requested that I perform Sake-yo. I obliged and they kindly cheered me on. At some point in the evening, one of the Kōchi guys and I were singing Beatles songs together, me taking the melody and him singing harmony. It was awesome.

Eventually it was time to leave, so we bid adieu to Snack Rakuto. Instead of heading straight back to the hotel, we went to Lawson’s convenience store. The other guys were hungry and looking for a snack. This was unbelievable for me, as I was still full, almost painfully so, from the epic dinner we had had earlier. Still, Yasuda-san and Yamazaki-san bought some snacks.

Our hotel actually had a curfew. We were told that they weren’t going to open the doors after midnight, even if you had already paid for you room and everything. This was a bizarre concept for me, but we had to follow their rules. We walked into our hotel at 11:55pm. Once inside the building, Yasuda-san’s trip to the Lawson’s made more sense, as he invited us to hang out in his room. After midnight, Yasuda-san, Kida-san, Yamazaki-san, and I had one last drink before calling it a night.

To Be つづく’ed…


Filed under Kōchi-ken, Shakotan

Shakotan Fire Festival: Part 3

July 6th was the final day of the Shakotan Fire Festival (火の祭り), and we got started even earlier, at 7:30am. The weather had grown increasingly hot and I started sweating before we had even pushed the dashi one block. I asked Fujimura-san if it would be permissible to ditch my t-shirt and he approved, so I went shirtless under my happi coat. I expected my ghostly white skin might garner some attention, and it did, both from kids and adults. The male students have little to no reservation about touching their teachers and I discovered this is even true when one is shirtless.

Much like the previous day, Wednesday’s activities involved pushing the dashi around the streets that we had not yet visited. We again danced intermittently along the way, putting on a show for the benefit of the citizens who presented their offerings to the portable shrine. Since this was the final day of the festival, I helped myself to countless beers throughout the journey.

The dancing was already my favorite part of the festivities, but at some point during this last day, it actually became something magical. Most of the songs were good fun to dance to, but one song in particular elicited an extraordinary of feeling joy and goodwill; Hana Matsuri by Tatsuya Ishii (花まつり -石井竜也).  The only lyrics from the song that I picked up were 「みんなで」, (meaning “everyone together”) but even without comprehending the lyrics, the mood of the song was unmistakable. As the Tomosukai group danced to this song, members of other dashi and mikoshi teams would join in, making for a huge group dance. The choreography had us in a circle formation, moving around the center like a wheel. As everyone danced and sang together, the atmosphere of camaraderie was infectious; pure and simple celebration. Any inklings of homesickness or loneliness were instantly washed away, and for once I had the feeling that at that moment, there was no place in the world I would rather be. It was intensely enjoyable, the highlight of my Japan experience so far.

There was one member of a mikoshi team that made a special effort to talk to me. He was a stocky, muscular fisherman with the look of badass, rough and tumble brawler. Looks can be deceiving though, as he turned out to be very friendly, with a smile big enough to match his biceps. He asked me where I was from and when I told him I was American, he share with me his love of American rock music. He specifically mentioned Aerosmith, Mötley Crüe, and Van Halen as some of his favorites. I asked him if he like any Japanese rock bands, but he said didn’t care for them.

The dashi pushing and dancing carried on into twilight hours. Just as the sun was going down, we turned onto the main road that cut through the center of town. The two floats pulled up side by side, completely blocking off traffic, so if anyone tried driving down the 229 right then, they picked the wrong the night for it. There, in the street in front of the local Seicomart, two days of celebration culminated into one giant party. Everyone sang and danced by the light of the festival cars. I found myself surrounded by my JHS students, some of them playing flutes or drums, all of them dancing. It was hard to tell how much of the magical atmosphere I felt was the genuinely joyous celebration and how much was just my drunkenness, but either way, it was an incredible, one of a kind experience.

The street party started to gravitate in the direction of Bikuni Shrine and the dashi got moving again. I then realized that I had a second opportunity to walk through fire, and quickly made my way to the shrine house. Unlike the previous night, Yoshimura-sensei and the other JHS teachers weren’t present, so I was potentially on my own. However, I discovered Nao-kun was fire walking, so I knew someone in the group after all. I changed into my white ninja garb and went out to find a spot on the mikoshi.

As luck would have it, there were less people participating in the fire walking on the second night, definitely not enough people to have one man whose only responsibility was to ring the bells. This time I would be shouldering the burden as well and legitimately crossing the inferno.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

The chanted started and everyone heaved the mikoshi up and down, building anticipation. This time it was for real. This wasn’t a watered down substitute, no kid gloves. It was on! My pulse raced and I felt exhilarated, but less from fear and more from mob excitement around me. The pushing was much more evident from under the mikoshi. You really had no choice but to go along with the forceful flow, resistance was futile.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

There was a fierce push and the group ran forward into the flames. This time, I could feel the intense heat of the fire. Passing over the flames, the wave of heat that washed over my body somehow felt purifying. Just on the verge of burning, if one moves quickly over the bonfire the feeling is akin to running one’s hand through a candle flame; intensely warm, but not dangerous for the swift. Feet trampling over the fire sent burning embers into the air as well, and the glowing flakes blew past my eyes like fiery snow.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

As we turned around for our second pass, I was violently shouting the chant in rhythm with the other men. The mob mentality had taken hold and I was as engulfed in the ritual experience as I was in the flames. At that moment, I wasn’t really myself; I was just part of the collective.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

At some point, I began laughing hysterically. If anyone was watching me closely, it would have been clear that I had lost my mind, but there were a lot of us, so no one noticed. Cackling like the Joker, I moved along with the pushing, right into the fire again and the tall flames licked my ninja mask.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!”

After five passes, we were resting the mikoshi on a stand nearby the main shrine building. It was all done. I felt extremely grateful to have the second chance to run it, and the second time was much more satisfying.

Nao-kun and I returned to the shrine house and changed back into street clothes. An older gentleman inside thanks us for participating and offered us some sake. I hadn’t turned down a drink for the entire festival and this was no exception. As we drank, Nao-kun explained to me, in English, that this was blessed sake. For a moment I wondered if it was like drinking the sacramental wine in church, but since it was so much better than Carlos Rossi, I figured it didn’t matter either way.

And that was that, the festival concluded. Along with Yamazaki-san and the rest of the Tomosukai crew, we returned the dashi to the garage. Then, Yamazaki-san, Makoto-san, and I went out for post-festival drinks and karaoke. By that point, more drinking was probably the last thing my body needed, but I was too far gone to notice. Yasuda-san and his wife also met us at the bar. Fresh off his successfully run playing the Tengu, Yasuda-san was met with much praise and adulation. We drank beer and I sang Sake-yo, I think…

Suddenly, I was awoken by the IP phone’s 7:30am message. Sprawled out on my wood floor, I had apparently passed out without even taking my futon out of the closet. True to my previous drunken adventures, I had only managed to remove my pants before losing consciousness. The hangover was terrible, punishing my head and my stomach for the previous day of constant drinking. When I realized that I had to be at the school in 30 minutes, I felt like I had made a serious error in judgment. It was only Thursday, after all. Still I had to smile. It had been an amazing ride.

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Filed under Shakotan