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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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International Exchange Event

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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School Arts Festivals

While I would have preferred to sleep in on Sunday October 2nd, I instead got up early enough to make it to the junior high by nine o’clock. This was the day of Bikuni Junior High School’s gakkoukai (学校祭), the school festival. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, except for a band performance and possibly some singing.

The building had clearly received an artistic makeover since Friday, when I last saw her. The hallways leading to the gymnasium now proudly displayed the students’ artwork. Paper hearts hung from ceiling throughout the length of the corridor, suspended like raindrops frozen in time, and an upside-down umbrella positioned like a chandelier, added to the rain imagery.  Every student had made a self-portrait and they covered the walls along with other art projects. There were interesting silhouette landscape pieces, and drawings in the ukiyo-e (浮世絵) style, many a recreation of kabuki actor Otani Oniji II’s famous portrait. Tables in the hall also displayed hand sculptures and papercraft models of sports cars and construction vehicles, like a backhoe.

The windows of the school’s main entrance were decorated with a colorful stained glass design, made from colored transparency sheets and black cardboard paper. With the morning sun streaming through, it made for quite a beautiful addition. Just inside the gym, I discovered another student art production; a giant papier-mâché Anpanman. Nearly two meters tall, this Anpanman was taller than any of the students who constructed him.

Families had piled into the gymnasium and found places to sit, either in folding chairs or on the floor. The homey floor seating was set front and center, a picnic-style ground cloth designating where groups could assemble, while the chairs were farther back. Spotlights had been set up on each side of the gym, with students and a couple teachers trading off the responsibility of running them at different times. After a quick speech by the Principal, the event was underway.

The first bit of the festival seemed to be a formal recognition of the decorating crew for all their hard work. This focused on the rapid production of the stain glass windows and the giant Anpanman. During the ceremonious presentation, students carried the papier-mâché idol on stage, the gym lights were turned off, and Anpanman was lit up. It turns out that his hollow body was equipped with light bulbs. It was an impressive spectacle, especially when you think about how quickly they put him together.

There was also a presentation of a giant photo mosaic that one of the teachers had made for the students. It was a massive picture of the students—probably around five feet by seven feet—comprised entirely of smaller photos, which also pictured the students. I couldn’t understand the explanation of how it had been put together, except that some special software had been involved. It was a stunningly cool gift.

The next part of the festival was the premiere of two plays, each written, directed, and preformed the students. The first play used well-known anime characters like Doraemon and Detective Konan, and told a story about time travel. The second play seemed to be about a struggling savings and loan, and at one point, almost all of the characters on stage were shot. (It then turned out to all be a rouse to trick another character.)  Both plays were rather lengthy and impressively complex…I think. I had difficulty understanding any of the dialogue, so I could only follow along by the actions.

Right before the lunch break, the PTA performed the inexplicably popular Maru Maru Mori Mori dance. I participated in this and actually had a lot of fun with the parents and teachers at our two practices. When we started learning the dance, I was already fairly familiar with it, having danced it multiple times in Shakotan’s Fire Festival with the Tomosukai group. As annoying as the song is—or rather, should be—it really grows on you after a while, and I came to genuinely enjoy the tune. Perhaps one can grow to like any song by mere repetition alone. Right after the break, the school band performed and truly rocked the house. I’ve been consistently impressed with everyone’s general musicianship in Japan, the school bands being a prime example.

Next, a series of musical performances took place on stage, some involving actual singing and others involving lip syncing and dancing. Most of the performances were renditions of recent chart-topping pop songs, but a couple songs were actually classic enka (演歌 – traditional Japanese folk ballads).

Popstar Idol Superstars: AKB48. Way too popular...

At this point, I need to explain that the boy band/girl band fad that swept the world in the late 90’s with the likes of the Spice Girls, N’Sync, and the Backstreets Boys, is still flourishing in East Asia today—in fact, it’s gotten rather out of hand. Pop stars of this variety are called aidoru (アイドル – from the English word “idol”), and they are omnipresent. Male singing groups like Arashi, EXILE, and SMAP continue to be immensely popular and the female groups like Perfume, Kara, and Girl’s Generation (those last two are from South Korea, by the way) dominate the airwaves. The epitome of this trend is the mega-pop juggernaut known as AKB48, but if I get started on that bizarre phenomenon now, we’ll be here all day.

The most entertaining musical act was a group of boys—all from the badminton team, I believe—dressed in drag and dancing to Kara’s song “Mister”. Apparently the boys did an accurate job of replicating the choreography from Kara’s music video, because the crowd went wild when they shook their asses around in a circular motion. I hadn’t seen the video beforehand, so I didn’t quite get the joke. It was surprising that parents and faulty alike applauded the lewd dancing, as I had been told that Japan was a conservative country.

The final part of the school festival was a choral performance. Each of the three grades sang a song, during which time I was quite intrigued because the performances were completely student directed. One student conducted the choir while another student played the piano accompaniment. It happened this way for all three grades and there was no staff involved in the actual performances. As a finale, the entire student body assembled on stage and sang together. The song was incredible beautiful, with male and female voices singing complimentary parts in harmony. There had been one morning, when I was feeling particularly homesick, that from the hallway I had heard the kids practicing that song. It had literally moved me to tears on that occasion. Therefore when I heard it performed at the festival, I was prepared and ready to keep my game face on.

Since the school festival was held on Sunday, school was off the following Monday. On Tuesday, with the kids back in school, there was a morning cleanup. In the aftermath of so much frivolity, the kids were required to take down all decoration and return the gym to normal. The stain glass window art got to stay up for a time, but everything else was taken down. It was particular sad to watch the kids dismantle the giant Anpanman, as they basically punched his papier-mâché head in and took him apart from the inside out. There really is nothing permanent is this world.

On Sunday, October 23rd, the elementary schools held their own gakugeikai (学芸会), or school arts festivals. Similar to the scheduling of the undoukai (運動会 – field day) events in the summertime, the elementary schools of Shakotan’s various villages were doing their school arts festivals on the same day. This meant that I was attending the morning portion of Bikuni ES’s festival, and then after lunch, I was headed to Hizuka ES for their event.

Since Bikuni is the big elementary school, their school arts festival was a spectacle to be enjoyed my many families, and the gym was pretty packed. Luckily, folks can sit on floor just as easily as in chairs in Japan, so there was ample space for everyone.

One highlight of the show was the first graders dancing to the song “100% Yūki” (100% 勇気) from the children’s ninja anime Nintama Rantarou (忍たま乱太郎). The cuteness factor was taken to extremes with each of the youngsters performing their dance in colorful ninja garb.

Besides the ninja the dance, my next favorite part was the school band, which impressed, as always. They even performed the theme song to the classic anime series Lupin III (ルパン三世). The 70’s spy disco tune is one of all-time favorite instrumental pieces and the kids did a great job playing it.

When Bikuni’s event broke for lunch, I hopped in the car and drove straight to Hizuka for their gakugeikai. Since Hizuka has only nine students, the event was sure to be on a smaller scale, but with just as much heart. In the beginning, the curtains of Hizuka’s stage were drawn back to reveal two of the youngest students, first grade boys, dressed in authentic kabuki (歌舞伎 – Japan’s classical stage dramas) clothing. My comprehension of the dialogue was very low, but I think they were simply opening ceremonies.

There was something different about Hizuka ES’s school arts festival that was immediately apparent. The audience at Hizuka consistently threw objects towards the kids on stage, much like the stereotypical roses thrown at opera singers. Instead of roses, however, the crowd tossed coins wrapped in paper called o-hineri (御捻り – wrapped offering). This was apparently a tradition originating from kabuki performances in rural areas. Fans would show their appreciation to their favorite actors by throwing o-hineri when the actor struck a pose. Literally tipping for performers, the more o-hineri you have thrown in your direction, the more the audience loves you.

Next, all the students of Hizuka ES assembled on stage to perform a choreographed dance number—all nine of them. (A small village in an isolated area, Hizuka doesn’t have many children.) The kids danced to an AKB48 song, with an impressive “HKD9” poster displayed behind them, complete with anime-style portraits of all the kids.

Since the school body at Hizuka is so small, the families really get involved in school events. The next part of the show was another AKB48 dance, this time being performed by a girl and boy, neither of whom could have been over four years old. Each kid was dressed in only knee-high frilly boots, a sequined bra, and tutu. Those outfits would have been scandalously inappropriate if the kids weren’t so young, and I was honestly hesitant to take a picture of the scene for fear that someone would see it in my photos and assume that I was a member of NMBLA or something. Also, I felt bad for the boy; dressed up as a girl and put up on stage for people to laugh at. He was so young that he couldn’t even do any of the choreography. He just stood there like a deer in the headlights as flashing cameras and camcorders accumulated evidence that his mother would later use to humiliate him in front of his first girlfriend…or so I imagined. Still, it sure made everybody laugh. A second family act followed, as some of the parents performed a Yosakoi dance.

The students showed off their impressive musical talents, first by singing in chorus, then by playing a tune on recorder. Next the kids played several different instruments in concert and performed John Denver’s classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Just when I thought they couldn’t get more impressive, giant drums were arranged on stage and the kids played Taiko (太鼓)! It was simply amazing to watch, as the students were really quite good.

I was pretty blown away at that point…and that was when the unicycles came out. No seriously, there were unicycles! All nine of the Hizuka students could ride unicycles and they took turns performing various tricks, like navigating around cones, peddling backwards, and balancing the unicycle in place while using only one foot. They also all rode together making formations and cycling under other students linked arms. It was very impressive indeed.

After the PTA did a dance number dressed in colorfully ridiculous costumes, the event wrapped up with a student play. In Hizuka’s play, the students were all dressed up as cats, and I’m fairly certain that the prelude music they used at the beginning was actually from “Cats”, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Again I couldn’t exactly follow the dialogue, but the acting was at least better than your average Michael Bay movie.

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Christmas in Sapporo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You actually look pretty good as a woman.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Invasion of the Kamemushi

On October 29th, my exciting Friday night plans included playing Park Golf with PTA in the junior high school gymnasium. Parents and teachers were divided into six teams and we putted around the gym, where random objects (chairs, nets, cones, mats, badminton equipment, etc.) were utilized to make semi-challenging courses. As a golf variant, park golf is similar to miniature golf; however the equipment is a little different. In park golf the putter is quite thick, almost like a driver in normal golf, and the ball is covered with rubber spikes that, I found, slow the ball’s rolling quite a bit. I think that park golf is normally played outside (hence the name) and it’s played with a laidback vibe similar to croquet, so perhaps playing it inside a gym was a bit unusual.

While I was quite terrible at park golf, it was fun to play with the parents. After golfing there was tea and junk food, and everyone chatting and enjoying themselves. The one blemish on an otherwise delightful evening was the presence of a nefarious insect invader, silently lurking about the building…

Japan is a cornucopia of insects and arachnids, truly a bug lover’s dream. My comparison of Shakotan to Nintendo’s life simulation game “Animal Crossing” appears to hold true, as the abundance of fascinating arthropods in real life parallels the collectable critters in the game. The bugs have been a slight nuisance, as one would expect, whether it be mosquitoes invading a barbeque or ants showing up in my apartment. But one species that has begun to encroach on our schools and homes seems to inspire panic greater than that of a potentially stinging wasp: the kamemushi (カメ虫 ).

Kamemushi is a stink bug, or to be more politically correct, shield bug. Its brown body is shield-shaped, similar to a turtle’s shell, which might be where the name kame (カメ) originally came from—kame means “turtle” (亀), while mushi means “bug” (虫). This insect has a special anti-predator technique it uses whenever it feels threatened; it sprays a foul-smelling liquid, kind of like a skunk. I have yet to actually see one emit its stink, but I’m told that it’s very unpleasant. And now that I think of it, I’m fairly certain that I have caught a whiff of kamemushi funk around the halls of the junior high and simply attributed it to something else.

Fall is season for kamemushi, as they tend to spring up around harvest time. From what I’ve read, they are a bit of agricultural pest, feeding on crops like soy beans. When it starts to get cold, kamemushi are attracted to the warmth of homes and other buildings, and they tend to crawl inside wherever they can find an opening. This explains why they often appear around doorways and window fixtures. Apparently they are supposed to hibernate in winter, but if they are warm enough in a building then they might remain active. Kamemushi have little wings under their shells, but they’re only capable of limited flight.

Once the dreaded stink bugs began appearing in the JHS teacher’s room, the other teachers gave me the lowdown. Since kamemushi don’t look especially scary, this information was very useful, lest I agitate the little stinkers. The pests would usually crawl along the floor, acting as moving malodorous landmines. Every now and then they would turn up in a more interesting place, like on someone’s shirtsleeve. One particularly memorable moment was when the Vice Principal discovered a kamemushi lurking under some papers on his desk. He let out a small but terrified scream, instantly attracting the attention of every teacher in the quiet room. With a nervous laugh, he apologized for the outburst, explaining that he just startled by the harbinger of funk.

So when confronted with the foul specter of the kamemushi, what do you do? Unlike other insects that you might simply crush for looking at you funny, kamemushi’s rancid fetor makes their bodies into stink bombs. Squashing a stinkbug simply makes the unpleasant potential into a reality. It turns out that most effective weapon is the handyman’s tool of choice: duct tape. As the other teachers demonstrated (quite often), a small square of duct tape can be used to first stick the kamemushi and then encase it in an airtight coffin. It still takes a bit of bomb-defusing calm and precision, but it’s definitely the easiest way to deal with kamemushi.

On Sunday, October 30th, I attended another mini-concert at the Yamashime House, this time for an opera singer. It was great way to spend a Sunday afternoon, sitting back and listening to the vocal styling that Italy is famous for. The female vocalist came out in an extravagant red dress and sang traditional songs, not only in Italian but also in Japanese. My favorite part of her show was the performance of musical show tunes, like “Tonight” from West Side Story, “Memory” from Cats, and “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. After singing in English, the vocalist admitted to the audience that it made her a bit nervous to do so, seeing a foreigner in the crowd. Apparently, even in Japan, I am clearly a descendant of the British Isles, and I do not look even remotely Italian.

Walking with Makoto-san after the concert, we strolled through a swarm of tiny, white, gnat-like bugs. Since the autumn weather was getting cooler every day, I was surprised to encounter such miniscule insects. Makoto-san explained to me these were called yukimushi (雪虫), literally “snow bug”. Yukimushi swarm together in big, hovering clouds. Thanks to their white abdomens they almost resemble snowflakes, although I think they look more like catkins from a cottonwood tree. Like the kamemushi, fall is apparently also the season for yukimushi.

On November 3rd, the weather was pleasantly cool, but not yet freezing cold, so I decided to go for a run in the late afternoon. After doing the Furubira Road Race, I assumed I’d have to stop running for the winter, but the weather was so inviting that I decided to get out there and enjoy it. As I discovered mid-run, the yukimushi were out in full force.

I had only been out for a few minutes before I ran through my first swarm of snow bugs.  As I hit the cloud of tiny insects, I nearly inhaled several through my nose and mouth, and some of them got caught in my eyelashes. Coughing and spitting, I tried to expel the pests, while spastically waving my arms in front of my face to hopefully shoo them away. The second cloud I hit was even worse, but since I was expecting it, I did a better job of shielding my face, running awkwardly with my hands in front of me. When I eventually looked down, I was shocked to see that my chest and arms were essentially covered in tiny insects. While yukimushi look white in flight, it was their black parts of their bodies that stood out against the white background of my shirt. Luckily, the majority of them were fairly easy to dust off.

When I got back to my apartment, I immediately took a hot shower and threw my clothes in the wash. Yukimushi had stuck my sweaty forehead, hair, and ears. Once the little bastards were washed off I decided to return to my original plan, and not jog again until spring.

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Koto at Yamashime House

On Thursday, September 22nd, I found myself contemplating how I was going to spend my second three-day weekend in a row. Monday the 19th was Respect for the Aged Day (敬老の日), or “Old Folks Day”, as I like to call it. Then Friday the 23rd was Autumn Equinox Day (秋分の日). Since I worked in the public schools, this meant that I had not only two three-day weekends in a row, but I worked only a three-day week in between. I sincerely love Japan’s national holidays.

The trouble for me was that I hadn’t really bothered to make plans for any of this wonderful free time. The result of my procrastination and laziness was that I didn’t do much of anything on the first weekend; I just relaxed at home, playing guitar, playing Nintendo, and watching rented movies. As I finished up my work on Thursday afternoon, I started to worry that I would again squander value opportunities to really live the Japanese life. Channeling this nervous energy into forward propulsion, I went for a 10k run immediately after leaving the office.

Concluding my run in the usual way, I sprinted past Shakotan’s historic building, called the Yamashime House (ヤマシメ番屋).  The old home of a fishing boss, it originally housed an entire team of herring fishermen. The Yamashime House has since been restored to its old-timey state, and now serves as a heritage site, as well as a venue for the occasional mini-concert. I learned that “Yamashime” is actually just a nickname for the building, symbolized by kanji-like symbol that may have simply been made up. The site was originally called the “Fukui House” (福井家), from the family name of the original owners.

Normally the side street would be deserted, but on this particular occasion, lots of people were gathering. Some men wore happi coats, like you would see at a matsuri (祭り – festival), so I figured that there was a special event happening. After sprinting past the house as a white blur, I walked around the block to cool down, and passed the building again at a normal walking pace. One of the men in a happi coat ran up to me and told me that a show was going to start in about 30 minutes. When I was slow to understand what kind of show it was, he dragged me inside to get a look at the instruments already set up. A group was going to play the koto (箏), a traditional Japanese string instrument similar to a zither. (It’s kind of like a hammer dulcimer, except this instrument is plucked.) There was no way I was going to pass up such a show.

I hurried back to my apartment and my phone rang; Harima Makoto-san was calling to invite me to come to the koto concert with him. It was wonderful, people in Shakotan were clearly trying to include me in things, and it probably helps that the venue was about 100 meters from my apartment. Skipping my usual post-run stretching, I jumped in the shower, changed, and made it to the Yamashime House five minutes before show time.

The Koto (箏) concert was a lovely, distinctly Japanese, cultural experience. The audience could sit on folding chairs directly in front of the performers, but Makoto-san and I sat on the side, opting to kneel on pads placed on the Tanami floor. The band consisted of five women playing koto, one man playing limited drum percussion, and a bearded gentleman playing the shakuhachi (尺八), a bamboo flute that resembles an alto recorder. The women were dressed uniformly and each had a giant red flower pinned to their shirt. The koto has moveable bridges for its 13 strings, so the women would quickly tune their instruments before starting a song.

Think of the most stereotypical Japanese music you can. Good; that is koto music. The sound of the koto, especially when played together with the shakuhachi, instantly conjures mental images of samurai and feudal Japan. Kneeling seiza style (正座) and enjoying the traditional folk songs was a satisfying “I’m definitely in Japan” moment, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Once the performance had concluded, I walked up front to get a closer look at the instruments. The bearded flute player noticed my interest and invited me to try and play one of his shakuhachi. Up close, the shakuhachi is just a carved bamboo shaft, and yet somehow it’s strikingly beautiful in its simplicity. The flute player and Makoto-san were amused by my attempts to make a tone with the flute. After fervent blowing, I was able to generate a piecing screech or two, but I mostly just succeeded and making myself dizzy.

You've learned the Song of Time!

While leaving the Yamashime House, we ran into Yasuda-san, and the three of us decided to get dinner at Heihachi (平八), a delightful izakaya just down the street. We entered the restaurant to a warm reception. Although I’m always recognized around Shakotan, people’s reactions to me have recently changed, thanks to my “One Point” English lessons on the town’s IP phone (ルーカスのワンポイント英会話). The proprietors of Heihachi mentioned “One Point” when they greeted me. I was surprised that everyone seemed to have watched it.

Since I hadn’t seen Makoto-san or Yasuda-san for a while, we got caught up over food and beers. Although Shakotan is famous for its fresh seafood, one very popular dish is fried chicken, and we ate a lot of it. In Hokkaido dialect, fried chicken is called “zangi” (ザンギ), while in the rest of Japan it’s called “kuraage” (空揚げ – くらあげ). At one point, the Heihachi folks asked me what kind of cake I preferred, vanilla or matcha (抹茶). When I chose matcha, they gave me a boxed matcha pound cake, free of charge. It was a fantastic gift.

Matcha cake in a box

While hanging out at Heihachi, we encountered Iwaki-san, my neighbor that lives in the apartment below me. We exchanged pleasantries and Iwaki-san asked me what plans I had for tomorrow. Embarrassingly, I had none, and he invited me to come along with him to an event of some kind. At first, I thought we were talking about a wedding, or maybe just wedding reception, so I jumped at the chance to go. Yasuda-san laughed at my enthusiasm, and explained what the event was a little a better.

The type of party was called “Konkatsu” (婚活), a mixer for single men and women looking for someone to marry. It was going to take place at a resort in Yobetsu, and many of the people would be spending the night. I would be there as part of the staff, helping out the organizers in some fashion. While it didn’t exactly sound like the raucous party I had first imagined, it did sound very interesting, and definitely a unique culture experience. I told Iwaki-san would be happy to lend a hand with their “Marriage Party”. It’s not like I had anything better to do anyway.

To Be つづく’ed…


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