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Golden Week Part I: Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tokyo Station

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

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

Mandarin Hotel

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

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

Mandarin Hotel toilet

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

Can you see the 円?

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

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

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

To Be つづく’ed…

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Aquariums, Zoos, and Hell Valley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mini Volleyball

I was lesson planning in the teachers’ room at Bikuni Elementary School when the Vice Principal asked me if I would participate in their upcoming volleyball tournament. Without knowing the details of the plan I agreed to come. Any physical activity sounded good to me since I had gone several months without the weekly soccer matches I had enjoyed in Seattle. The Vice Principal was delighted and told me that I could play on his team, along with the Principal and a couple other teachers. Seo-sensei, the fifth grade teacher, then explained that the game we would be playing was Mini Volleyball (ミニバレー).

Mini Volleyball (sometimes abbreviated to “Mini Volley”, or else called “Soft Volleyball”) is a variation of volleyball that’s played with a rubber ball. The ball is lighter and much softer than your usual volleyball, like a cross between a beach ball and the red kickball you remember from elementary school. This makes it easy to volley around and yet forgiving enough to absorb any impact. Having the balloon-like ball spiked directly into your face is startling, but not likely to do any damage whatsoever. The game is played on a badminton court, and with the reduced area the game is played four on four.

On the evening of Tuesday, November 8th, I showed up at Bikuni ES to find the gym was buzzing with activity. Volleyball nets had been set up and several clusters of adults were bouncing neon-colored balls back and forth, warming up. The Vice Principal found me and led me to the rest of the team. We formed a circle and volleyed our own ball back and forth, much like the other teams. It was good to get a feel for the ball, which was incredibly soft. There was never any forearm-stinging pain like you generally encounter with a normal volleyball. This game was clearly nerf’ed to be accessible to anyone. It was like the bumper bowling of volleyball.

The “real” tournament was scheduled for Friday, so Tuesday was more of practice round. All the teams were all assigned a different grade year, which I assumed had to do with who had kids in what specific grades. That would explain why the Yamizakis and Yoshimuras were each split playing on the teams for 5th Year and 7th Year—since both couples had a child in 5th grade and a child in 7th grade. My team was the 1st Year team. Incidentally, we had no parents on our side; just two teachers, one principal, one vice principal, and me. It was quickly evident that I—the young American—was supposed our team’s secret weapon. Considering that the average age of folks participating was probably around 45 or so, this didn’t seem like a bad strategy. Except for the fact that I hadn’t played volleyball in years and I wasn’t especially good at the game to begin with.

Six teams were distributed among the three courts and the games got underway. I was a little tentative at first, as my team seemed to want me to relentlessly block the net and/or spike the opposing team into oblivion. With such a forgiving ball in play, one would think that this would be a task easily performed with a clear conscience; no one could be physically hurt, even if you went all out. But the first team across the net from me was four elderly ladies. While they looked fairly robust, they were still old, and they were women. I felt that they deserved my respect and reverence, and trying to spike a rubber ball in their faces—even just in their general direction—seemed a bit uncouth. In the spirit of compromise, I decided to block the net as much as possible, but never spike on them.

While many of the teams were comprised of older folks, there was at least one team with younger, more athletic players. (By “younger”, I mean that they were probably in their mid 30’s.) This athletic team seemed to be more serious about their Mini Volleyball than the rest, and I suspected that they played together regularly. They were extremely good about recovering from awkwardly received balls, and they deftly set up an attack with every possession. Even their serves were executed skillfully. While I had been reluctant to spike on my elders, this team consistently spiked on everyone with vicious proficiency. They were the Cobra Kai of Mini Volley; they showed no mercy.

By the end of the night, all the teams had got plenty of playing time in. The athletic folks had dominated play in all their matches, handing my team our one loss for the evening. All the parents and teachers got some quality exercise and a good time was had by all.

The next evening, on Wednesday (November 9th), I headed to B&G for a workout, part of my usual routine. I was hungry when I arrived there, as I had not yet eaten dinner. By the time I had lifted weights for about an hour, I felt like I was starving. Coming downstairs from the weight room, I crossed the entrance to the gymnasium to get a sip of water from the drinking fountain. It was then that I noticed something was going on in the gym; the usually empty space was filled with people. And to my surprise, everyone was playing Mini Volleyball.

Walking up to the glass door to sneak a peak of the action, I was spotted by Hitomi-san, a young lady who works in the town office. I gave a wave and started toward the exit, but Hitomi actually came out to say ‘hi’ and to invite me to play. As she explained, this large group played Mini Volleyball at B&G every Wednesday and Friday. On this particular night, a few folks hadn’t showed up, so they were short on people. It seemed that my participation would even the numbers and help everyone out. For a brief moment, my stomach battled my sense of social obligation. Then I agreed to jump in and play.

As I normally do when lifting weights, I had worn a sleeveless shirt to the gym that day. When I took off my track jacket to reveal my bare, alabaster arms, I got immediate reactions from people. While everyone’s comments were complimentary (they were mostly saying that I had big muscles), it still made me feel quite self-conscious. I found myself legitimately embarrassed, wishing I had dressed a little more conservatively, even just a t-shirt that still had its sleeves would have done.

I played several games of Mini Volley with them over the course of two hours. As I was the substitute, I ended up playing on several different teams throughout the evening. Unlike playing with the PTA, where an organized squad was the exception, the general skill level of everyone present was quite high. There were also more young people present, like Hitomi-san and Masato-kun (who I knew from our trip to Kōchi-ken in August), so play proved to be more challenging.

When I really started to get into it, I started diving after any and all wild, mishit balls, adamantly trying to keep my side afloat, even when someone made a mistake. While this did help my side out on a few occasions, my enthusiasm more often than not was fruitless, and I ended up bruising my knees on the gym floor. During the last game of the night, I made the split-second decision to go for a very unlikely save, laying out and diving for an unreachable ball. I crashed into the gym floor with a bang, landing hard on right elbow. This was not only painful at the time, but continued to ache for the rest of the week.

When I finally headed back to my apartment at 9pm, my arm was swollen and throbbing, and my stomach was angrily grumbling. I was ravenously hungry, thoroughly exhausted, and I had injured myself to boot. And in the midst of all this, I hadn’t managed to win a single game all night. It actually felt great.

Later that week, on Friday (November 11th), the Bikuni Elementary School PTA held their Mini Volleyball Taikai (ミニバレーボール大会). Tuesday had been practice, but Friday was supposed to be the real competition—as real as Mini Volleyball can be, anyway. There were 11 teams competing and the captains drew numbers to determine their teams’ places in the bracket.

I noticed familiar faces this time—from playing Mini Volley at B&G—and discovered that there were actually two teams of serious competitors. Knowing that we were guaranteed to lose when we went up against them didn’t make the evening any less fun, however. Without a challenge, the evening would have been considerably less enjoyable. Sure enough, the skilled teams were too much for my 1st Year team to handle.

Win or lose, everyone had a great time. The evening had its fair share of brutal spikes, fantastically unlikely saves, and wonderfully coordinated setups; entertaining plays produced by every match. I especially enjoyed playing against Yamazaki-san’s team, as games are always the most fun when played with close friends. Playing against Yoshimura-sensei team’s and Nishikawa-sensei’s team was also great. Spiking on your coworkers never feels rude, for some reason.

That week was my introduction to Mini Volleyball, three days of lighthearted, ball bouncing merriment. There would be more Mini Volley events in the future; random drop-ins on B&G’s Wednesday and Friday nights, and more special events, like nights specifically for teachers to play in the junior high gymnasium. In every instance, this volleyball variant has proved to be great fun, good exercise, and easily accessible, even to the older folks.

Speaking of which, I have really been impressed with ability of the older Japanese population to stay fit and physically active as they age. Between Mini Volley, walking all the time, Yosakoi dancing, and shoveling their own snow, elders in Hokkaido manage to get a lot more exercise than their American counterparts. Recreational sports are just one part of this lifestyle, but it’s a fun aspect to examine.

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Going to the Onsen with Makoto

Harima Makoto is one of the most colorful characters in Shakotan. A large man in both stature and girth, this firefighter would make for quite an imposing figure, if not for his cheerful temperament. When it comes to making an impression, his powerful body and bald head are no match for his constant, warm smile and jolly, giggling laugh. Constantly upbeat, and at times downright giddy, Makoto-san is a gentle giant if ever I met one.

I first met Makoto-san at the Yosakoi Sōran Festival in Sapporo. At some point, he began greeting me with a fist bump and saying, “Nice body!” which is still the most unique welcome I’ve ever encountered. Yamazaki-san, Yasuda-san, and Makoto-san are all classmates and close friends to this day, so there have been plenty of occasions where I’ve hung out with everyone together. Since everyone is so nice, they quickly made me feel like one of the gang.

Makoto-san is probably the most socially outgoing guy that I’ve come across in the area. He’s one of the few people that will call me up on the phone without hesitation, even though with my limited Japanese, the conversation is bound to be a bit awkward. One such time, he called me up and asked if I liked tomatoes. When I confirmed that I’m indeed found of the fruit often confused for a vegetable, he brought me a massive bag of baby tomatoes (ミニトマト) from his family’s farm. They were the sweetest tomatoes I’ve ever tasted, and when I used them to make pasta sauce from scratch, the results were incredibly delicious.

One day Makoto-san called me up and asked me if I’d like to checkout an onsen (温泉 – hot spring, spa) in Yoichi, a nearby town. Since the only onsen I had been to previously was Misaki no Yu (岬の湯) in Nozuka, I enthusiastically took him up on the offer. He also asked me if I wanted more tomatoes, since the season was almost over, which I also accepted.

On Wednesday, October 19th, Harima Makoto’s black Mercedes Benz pulled up to my apartment. After I deposited my new gift bag of tomatoes, we were off to Yoichi. The drive to Yoichi takes about half an hour, and we stopped for soft drinks along the way. Once in town, we ran a few errands, going to the video rental/media store, Tsutaya; and the many stores within a store, Aeon; and even driving through a carwash.

Before the osen, we stopped at this little shop above a grocery store for dinner. The place had very inexpensive dishes, and yet the quality of the food was amazing. Having driven right past the site many times, I had no idea that the gem of a restaurant was hidden just above the often crowded grocer. We had hokke (ホッケ – Atka mackerel) as a set with rice, miso soup, and tsukemono (漬物 – pickled vegetables). Makoto-san had ordered grated daikon (大根おろし) on the side, and following his lead, I mixed the radish with soy sauce the dumped all of it on top of my fish. While this proved to be quite delicious, later digestive complications led me to think that my body has trouble dealing with that much daikon at once.

With our bellies pleasantly full of fish, we made our way to the Yoichigawa Onsen (余市川温泉), which was located near Yoichi’s Space Apple museum. The onsen was a two-story building with a space shuttle on top. (No seriously, there’s a large-scale model of space shuttle Endeavor on the roof of the building.) Admission was very cheap and the onsen was small and cozy inside. The atmosphere seemed more like a bathhouse on a budget.

One point of interest was a tub that looked distinctly different from the rest; it was bubbling and the water was bright purple. Makoto-san explained that this particular tub had special fruit-infused water, like taking a bath in herbal tea. There was a menu on display, organized by color, of the various herbal infusions the tub had. The flavor du jour appeared to be blueberry. I made sure to hang out in the blueberry bath as long as possible, experimenting to see if my white skin would come out with a pale lilac tint. After a long, refreshing soak, I emerged unchanged and was plum disappointed.

On the way home from the onsen, we stopped at 7/11 for some ice cream. Makoto-san, who wasn’t letting me pay for anything, also insisted on paying for the conbini (コンビニ – “convenience store”, shortened from English) snacks. In fact, Makoto-san told me to pick out a couple onigiri (おにぎり – rice ball) to take home and have for breakfast the next morning. What a guy!

The next week, on Monday, October 24th, Makoto-san and I headed back to Yoichi for more onsen relaxation. This time the plan also involved meeting three women for dinner. What seemed unusual about this plan was that Makoto-san had never actually met these women in person before. Apparently he had met them online somewhere and they agreed to meet face to face. (A third guy was supposed to come with us, making for an even three-to-three ratio, but he had bailed on the plans.) Now, it wasn’t the part about meeting new people from the internet that seemed weird to me, it was the fact that Makoto-san was happily married. On face value, the setup sounded like a group blind date, except that apparently everyone was simply looking to make new friends. It was like the inverse of Facebook.

This time we went to the Tsurukame Onsen (鶴亀温泉), a much bigger place than the last. When I recognized one of the kanji in the name, Makoto-san explained that tsuru (鶴) means “crane” and kame (亀)—which I recognized—means “turtle” or “tortoise”. The crane and tortoise are both symbols of longevity in Japan. There’s even an old saying like, “The crane lives for 1,000 years, the tortoise lives for 10,000 years.” (鶴は千年亀は万年。) Apparently as symbolic figures of long life, the crane and tortoise appear quite often in traditional Japanese culture.

Not only was Tsurukame Onsen big, but the water in the baths was brown. Makoto-san san explained that it was a true hot spring, hence the dirty-looking water. I can report that I couldn’t feel any sediment or grit in the water, it was just brown. He said it was full of minerals, which I just assumed made it good.

To my surprise, and Makoto-san’s surprise as well, there happened to be three other gaijin (外人 – foreigner) visiting the onsen that night. It’s not every day that you see four white guys together in the Yoichi area—let alone four naked ones—as smaller towns usually have only one foreign resident or none at all. The mystery foreigners appeared to be a family, with one significantly older gentleman and two younger guys, probably in their early twenties.

Makoto-san and I headed to the outdoor tubs at the same time as the older gentlemen. He said ‘hi’ to me at door, speaking first in Japanese, which was kind of cool because it demonstrated that he wasn’t making any assumptions as to where I was from. I said ‘hi’ back, also in Japanese to be consistent. Outside, Makoto-san and I ended up in the same pool as the foreign gentleman, and there was a fourth Japanese guy relaxing there as well. The old man made some short small talk in Japanese, and after I told him I was from the States he starting speaking English.

His name was Hans and he was from Norway. One of the young men with him was his son; the other was his son’s friend. He explained that he was a born-again Christian and had come to Japan over 20 years ago as a missionary. His son had actually been born in Japan, but the family returned to Norway soon afterward, so his son didn’t remember any of the Japanese language. He was now revisiting Japan, seemingly on holiday, although a missionary is always working, or so it would seem from where the conversation headed.

He asked me if I was a believer, a follower of Christ. In hindsight, when a self-proclaimed born-again Christian missionary asks you if you believe, your automatic answer—if simply to avoid conflict—should probably be “yes”, regardless of the truth. I gave him an honest “no”. When his agape expression communicated shock and repulsion, I quickly backpedalled a bit, adding, “I was raised in a good Catholic family.” Luckily, he interpreted this statement to mean “I’m Catholic”, when I really meant the statement in the completely literal sense, i.e.; “my family is Catholic.” Hans started expounding on your typical fundamentalist bible nonsense. Sitting naked in an outdoor tub, I felt a bit more vulnerable than normal and this superstitious talk of God and hellfire wasn’t helping.

While I pretended to listen to Hans’ proselytizing, I contemplated why so many Christian missionaries continue to try and convert people in Japan. In Japan, a person could simultaneously subscribe to several different Asian religions/philosophies (Shinto, Confucianism, Taoism, countless different sects of Buddhism, for example) and each one would more or less be compatible with the next. Or they could choose Christianity, which by design excludes and negates all other religious views. Culturally it’s such a bum deal that I don’t know how anyone could ever sell a Japanese person on it. The aesthetic appeal of a Christian wedding, which is very popular, is about all that Christianity has to offer. Inexplicably, I’ve met plenty of missionaries and Christians in Hokkaido. At this point, Hans was speaking to me in English and I envied Makoto-san, who probably couldn’t follow a single word.

Then Missionary Hans said the unthinkable. “People need to have faith in God and He sends us signs to remind us. That’s why Japan has so many earthquakes and tsunamis. The recent disaster was a sign from God. Japan ignored the Lord’s word and he shook the earth to remind them.”  Makoto-san, seemingly interested in what the man had to say, asked for clarification. “The Lord shakes the earth,” Hans said in English, and then he translated it into Japanese!

My blood was boiling. How could anyone blame such a horrible, cataclysmic disaster—one easily explained through science—on the country’s lack of faith in Jesus? How could anyone try to blame the Japanese people for such a thing? Entire cities were destroyed, over 20,000 people died, and according to Hans, it was because Japan didn’t pick Jesus as their lord and savior. Such a statement would be outrageous enough if made in one’s home country, but to actually verbalize it here in Japan—right to the locals’ faces—that was unbelievable! Even if you are a believer, isn’t the Christian God supposed to be benevolent and loving? When did he go back to his Old Testament smiting ways?

The urge to punch Hans in the face was strong, but I resisted. I contemplated at least telling him off, verbally laying into him for being a disgraceful, opportunistic bastard, but ultimately decided it wasn’t the time. Instead I would just ignore his heresy and hopefully he wouldn’t draw much attention. Luckily, at that moment Makoto-san suggested we move on, so I had a very convenient escape. We bid Hans adieu and I avoided him for the rest of the time we were there.

After leaving the bath area of the onsen, Makoto-san and I hung out in the lobby. We drank some tea and enjoyed some salt gelato, a flavor I hadn’t tried before. It was good stuff. We proceeded to dinner at an izakaya called Tsubo Hachi (つぼ八), meaning “Eight Jars.”

At Tsubo Hachi, we met the three ladies from internet, already seated and waiting for us. When I sat down, I ordered a large beer. There were three sizes, so I figured “large” was your standard pint mug, but it was actually closer to one liter; gigantic! As the evening went on, I also had some plum sake (梅酒) and a Tori’s whiskey and ginger ale (トリジンジャ). The drinks were delicious, but since it was only Monday, I tried not to go overboard.

Everyone at the dinner was older than me, so at first I felt like a kid at the adult table. After some conversation and drinks, I felt more like part of the group. They ladies were very nice and they asked me questions about America and living in Shakotan. At one point, Makoto-san brought up how I disliked Nicholas Cage (something him and Yamazaki-san still laugh about), and one of the ladies asked me what I thought of Michael J. Fox. I was shocked, as Michael J. Fox starred in “Back to the Future”—my all-time favorite movie—and is one of my favorite actors. The shift of discussion from something you despise, to something that you love, is always a welcome change in conversation.

The food at Tsubo Hachi was served in small dishes, the typical style of an izakaya, and the food was quite excellent. Makoto-san made sure that we ordered a plate of yakisoba, and I also asked for some okonomiyaki (お好み焼き – savory vegetable pancake, with varying ingredients). Both were good, but it was the bulgolgi pizza (ブルコギピザ) that stole the show. Bulgolgi is Korean barbequed meat, and it’s quite spicy. This was the first time I had seen it used as a pizza topping and the results were spectacular. I think I’ll make it at home back in the States one day.

We said our goodbyes to the ladies at the restaurant and started our journey back to Shakotan. Much like last time, we stopped at a combini on the way home, this time a Lawson’s General Store. (While 7/11 is the biggest convenience store chain in Japan, Lawson’s is number two.) Again, Makoto-san insisted on buying me two onigiri for me to have for breakfast the next morning. He’s just a ridiculously nice guy.

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Overcoming Homesickness

Moving to Japan has been a great experience for me, but I’d be lying though if I said that there haven’t been times when I’ve felt utterly lost here. And I mean “lost” in the existential sense of the word, not just an inability to ascertain my whereabouts—although I’ve had plenty of those too. Especially in a rural area like Shakotan, it’s not always easy to find the human interaction necessary to combat soul-crushing loneliness. When depression began to takeover, I needed to take the time to really address the problem. Here’s what I did.

“The mind is its own place,

     and in itself

Can make a Heaven of Hell,

     a Hell of Heaven” – John Milton

Like a true glutton for punishment, I first turned to my old friend, the Internet. And wow, when you’re feeling down, Facebook can always drag you down to deeper level of hell. Even sites that have consistently amused me were unable to break my funk. When 9gag.com can’t bring a smile to your face, you have a serious problem. Then, like a light from the heavens it dawned on me; nothing can provide you with more hope than a good TED talk.

The first video that caught my eye was a TED talk by psychologist Paul Bloom called The origin of pleasure. His presentation was about how people’s beliefs about the origin of something like art or wine profoundly changes we experience it. Apparently our brains are hardwired to enjoy a painting more if we know the story of the artist, and wine will actually taste better if we believe it’s expensive. Interestingly, the same concept can be applied to pain, as well. Studies indicate that something hurts more if you think it was done to you on purpose. The interesting concepts were distracting me from my depression, but not yet curing it.

Then I came across an inspiring video that truly turned my mood around, a talk by writer/blogger Neil Pasricha called “The 3 A’s of awesome”.  The title immediately made me think of Neil Patrick Harris’s character, Barney Stinson, on the show How I Met Your Mother.

“When I get sad, I stop being sad and be awesome instead. True Story.” – Barney Stinson

Neil Pasricha’s talk was like a young, hip self-help book. In fact, his blog 1000 Awesome Things has indeed been published as a book, The Book of Awesome. What’s weird is that his straightforward sediment really stuck me as being personally relevant. I will now spoil it for all of you that haven’t watched the video:

The 3 A’s of AWESOME

1) Attitude

2) Awareness

3) Authenticity

Pasricha’s talk, in a nutshell, is this; one needs to maintain a positive outlook, find enjoyment in the little things in life, and be true to oneself. This isn’t always easy though, as life never goes according to plan. Something surprising is always going to spring up, and life is going to hit you where it hurts. Pasricha’s message to keep moving forward may sound overly simplistic, but when combined with his advice to “embrace your inner three year old” and maintain an awareness of the tiny joys that make life sweet, it forms a personal philosophy that really gets you thinking about what you have, instead of what you don’t. It’s a good start.

The part that surprisingly struck a chord with me was his third A, Authenticity. Pasricha preached being authentic to yourself; to “be you and be cool with that.” This one made me take a good look in the mirror and consider what I really thought of myself. I rarely receive much criticism these days, so you’d think that I’d be feeling pretty confident, and yet here I was, wallowing in depression. Stopping to think about it, I wondered how much I could claim to be “cool with” being me these days.

You see, as Barney taught us, being awesome is really just a state of mind. If you’re happy with you, comfortable with who you are, then it’s infinitely easier to find contentment anywhere. It’s like The Beatles’ incredibly wise lyrics from All You Need Is Love:

“There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done…but you can learn how to be you in time… Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be. It’s easy.”

Well that’s all fine and good, but what about those times when something is bothering you, when negativity just lingers in your mind? It’s not always easy to bring yourself back around from a bad mood. The next video I watched gave me an interesting perspective on this. The talk on the habits of happiness was by an unusual Buddhist monk. Frenchman Matthieu Ricard apparently used to be a biochemist, and now he’s a monk, writer, and photographer. He has the Himalayan monk look down; robes, bald head and all. His talk was about the mind and emotions, and how we can train our minds to reach and maintain a sense of serenity. Here’s my favorite bit:

“Usually, when we feel annoyed, hatred or upset with someone, or obsessed with something, the mind goes again and again to that object. Each time it goes to the object, it reinforces that obsession or that annoyance. So then, it’s a self-perpetuating process. So what we need to look now is, instead of looking outward, we look inward. Look at anger itself; it looks very menacing, like a billowing monsoon cloud or thunder storm. But we think we could sit on the cloud, but if you go there, it’s just mist. Likewise, if you look at the thought of anger, it will vanish like frost under the morning sun. If you do this again and again, the propensity, the tendencies for anger to arise again will be less and less each time you dissolve it. And, at the end, although it may rise, it will just cross the mind, like a bird crossing the sky without leaving any track.” – Matthieu Ricard

I was already feeling a lot better when I watched statistician Nic Marks’ TED talk, entitled The Happy Planet Index. This presentation was about how we measure a nation’s progress based on outdated productivity measures like GDP that don’t directly reflect the happiness and wellbeing of its citizens. You see, being a wealthy nation doesn’t necessarily make you a happy nation. He suggests a new measure he calls the Happy Planet Index; weighing the wellbeing of a nation’s citizens against the amount of resources that nation uses. I had seen a few different videos with a similar theme in the past and I couldn’t agree more with his brilliant message.

What made Nic Marks’ talk special to me was that he actually provides a few steps anyone could take to be a happier, more contented individual. Referencing the UK’s Foresight Programme, an organization that tries to use science and technology to improve the way government and society works, he presented “5 ways to wellbeing”. To spoil the surprise—in case you haven’t seen the video—here they are:

Five ways to wellbeing:

1) Connect—keep building on social relationships

2) Be Active—the fastest way out of a bad mood; dance

3) Take Notice—be aware of what’s happening in the world

4) Keep Learning—maintain curiosity throughout your lifetime

5) Give—it’s more satisfying to spend money on others

You might take note that these steps don’t necessarily involve spending money, hence the idea that a nation’s economy isn’t the source of its people’s happiness. I was amused to discover that Nic Mark’s steps included “Take Notice” and Neil Pasricha’s list had touted “Awareness”. Clearly a mindfulness of the world around you was an important factor to one’s wellbeing. However, it was “Connect” that struck me as being critically relevant to a foreign national.

Connect; keep building upon your relationships. Humans are social creatures and we need our connections with friends and family to keep us sane. It’s not really a new concept, but one that is consistently proven true. It’s what made the movie Into the Wild so poignant when its protagonist reaches the epiphany; “Happiness only real when shared.

To keep from going crazy, a traveler may have to make new friends abroad; forge new connections with the people around him. But one must also keep in touch with old friends at home, and that is one area in which I have been failing. Despite the fact that a Skype conversation with my one of my brothers, or one of my Seattle friends would instantly lift my spirits; I had hardly managed to do it at all since I arrived in Japan. My record with writing letters is embarrassingly poor. Whether writing to my mom, or grandmother, or anyone that isn’t very email savvy, I’m very slow to get the ball rolling. It isn’t as if I didn’t have the time, I’ve just been neglecting to do it. And my own laziness has been slowly eroding my sense of wellbeing.

I realize now that maintaining your personal relationships is an important key to being happy. Physically staying close to loved ones is a one way to do it, but if you’re off on a solo adventure, you’ll need to improvise. Write letters, write emails, make Skype calls, or even make old-school phone calls if possible. Keep in touch with the people you care about, who care about you. This is the challenge of living far from home.

TED Conferences. (2011, July). “Paul Bloom: The origins of pleasure”   Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_bloom_the_origins_of_pleasure.html&gt;.

TED Conferences. (2011, Jan). “Neil Pasricha: The 3 A’s of awesome ”   Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/neil_pasricha_the_3_a_s_of_awesome.html >.

TED Conferences. (2007, Nov). ” Matthieu Ricard on the habits of happiness”   Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/matthieu_ricard_on_the_habits_of_happiness.html&gt;.

TED Conferences. (2010, Aug). ” Nic Marks: The Happy Planet Index”   Retrieved 31 Oct, 2011, from <http://www.ted.com/talks/nic_marks_the_happy_planet_index.html&gt;.

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Nihon Pan-demic: The Road of Yeast Resistance

Japan is a land of innovation, although it’s not usually the source of the original invention. Japan is unparalleled in its capacity to take existing methodology or technology and improve upon it. Sony didn’t invent the transistor radio, but they perfected it. Nintendo didn’t invent video games, but they utilized the medium so skillfully that it has been elevated to an art form. Toyota didn’t invent the automobile, Toshiba didn’t invent the television; the list goes on and on.  Even Osamu Tezuka (手塚 治虫), the creator of Astro Boy and other classics—often called the “Godfather of Manga and Anime”—was originally inspired by Walt Disney. (That is where the trend of extra big anime eyes started, by the way.) Now Japanese hand drawn animation is the best in the world, has been for decades. In fact, these days Disney focuses almost entirely on CG animation, and then they simply buys the rights to distribute Hayao Miyazaki’s films in the States. If you can’t beat’em, take credit for their work.

So why, amid this atmosphere of constant improvement and striving for perfection, does Japanese bread suck? Yeah that’s right, I said it. Japanese bread sucks.

I should probably explain that I passionately dislike white bread. If you can appreciate white bread then you will probably dig Japan’s style. But I cannot. I’m pretty sure almost no one in Japan has even a conception of wheat bread.  Japanese bread is super light and ultra fluffy—like you’re eating air. This is the antithesis of my preferred bread; a hearty wheat or multigrain. Some brands have multiple varieties available, but they are all white bread, with names like “Fresh & Soft” and “Sweet & Soft”, which I believe has added sugar.

There’s also an extremely popular style of bread is called “Hotel Bread” (ホテルパン). Hotel Bread is—you guessed it—also white bread. I tried to find an explanation of what makes Hotel Bread different from the others, but all I was able to find is that it is similar to the bread you’d get for breakfast in a hotel. OK thanks, glad we cleared that one up.

I’ve actually read blogs where people profess their love for Japan’s bread, comparing it to, and elevating it above, terrible American white bread. This is interesting since Japan’s bread is the distillation and perfection of Wonderbread. And not only is the bread as white and airy as possible, but it always comes pre-sliced in thick, Texas Toast-style slices. I couldn’t use this to make a sandwich if I wanted to.

I had a conversation with my friend Yamazaki-san about Japanese bread, and he was surprised that I didn’t care for it. I explained that I preferred denser, whole grain bread, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to properly express it, so Yamazaki probably thinks that I like hard, stale bread. One key point that he explained to me is that in Japanese homes, bread is rarely use to make sandwiches. Instead, a single slice of bread is considered the main course of a breakfast.

That revealed much of the mystery right there. All the slices are thick Texas Toast-style because one slice—probably with jam or some other spread, and a piece of fruit on the side—was actually supposed to be your whole breakfast. Loaves always contained five of six slices because that would get you through a work week. But why does it always have to be white bread?

I would venture to guess that white bread as a national preference is related to Japan’s preference for white polished rice, but honestly, I don’t know. Fun Fact: the process of making white rice removes many important vitamins and minerals. The lack of vitamin B1 in particular caused an epidemic of thiamine deficiency in the Japanese middleclass in the late 1800’s, which was called “beriberi” (ベリベリ). These days, it is standard practice to enrich white rice with minerals to avoid dietary deficiency issues.

It’s funny that Japan seems to have plenty of artisan bakeries, where you can buy all manner of pastries and cakes and breads, but at the supermarket, white bread is all you can find. After much searching, I was finally able to find a loaf of wheat bread (or something like it) at an Aeon store in Yoichi. While it’s at least brown, it’s still very light and fluffy. Oh well, I think this is the best I can do.

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Fireworks in Obihiro

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

This wasn't the gridlocked part.

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

This sign indicates that you've been spotted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don't remember this part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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