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Amazing Hokkaido Snow

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Having grown up in the Midwest, I’ve seen my fair share of bitter cold blizzards. And although the drizzly Seattle life might have made me soft, I still hadn’t been too worried by the stories of Hokkaido’s unrelenting winters. After changing a tire on the side of the highway in Iowa, in January, with no gloves, nothing seems quite so bad. And yet, Hokkaido’s winter still amazed me. It would seem that all the tall tales about Hokkaido and its intense snowy climate were quite accurate…

013My first winter in Hokkaido, the snows started in mid-November, and they never stopped. All the way through March, it snowed—with varying intensity—every day. Often times this was just a light dusting. Occasionally it was several inches. Shoveling snow became a regular afternoon activity for me, my new winter workout regimen. The accumulated snow piled up, forming hefty white blankets on rooftops, sometimes over a meter thick. Mountainous piles of snow collected on the sides of roadways, eventually forming walls boardering all pathways; shining white barricades that wouldn’t exist come summertime.

020The first time I chose to walk to school was a crisp winter day. While frosty cold, the air was still, and it felt peaceful. The snow crunching underfoot was especially satisfying. By the time of my afternoon walk back, the sun had come out and the radiant light bouncing off the snow was initially blinding. Once my eyes adjusted, the brilliant colors adorning buildings and signs really popped out; a marked contrast to the vast white cover. Elementary school kids approached me, asking me to participate in a yukigassen (雪合戦), which I quickly learned meant “snowball fight”. They also taught me the words yukidama (雪玉 – snowball) and tsurara (氷柱 – icicle), and I attempted to teach them the English equivalents.

001My second winter in Hokkaido, the snow and the temperature started out much less consistent. And with this inconsistency came turbulent, harsh weather. Whenever the snow hit, Old Man Winter made up for lost time. After a few days of no precipitation—and possibly above-zero, snow melting conditions—the ensuing blizzard would arrive and bury Shakotan. Afternoons might be rather warm and slushy, but by 5:00pm, it was frigid driving wind and heavy snow. Waking up to a foot and a half of fresh snow in the morning was fairly routine.

022So often was I digging out my car in the morning that I stopped bothering to clear off the collected snow from the top of the vehicle. My little Suzuki Wagon R appeared to be wearing its own white beret, a decorative snow hat. This usually made no impact on in-town driving, so I figured it was a harmless habit. On the open road, however, I learned that it wasn’t very safe at all. In the 30 minutes it would take to drive from Shakotan to Yoichi, the car would warm up considerably, and the snow atop the roof would begin to melt just a bit. Then it would only take a slight touch of the brake to bring the whole lot of it cascading over my windshield. The thick blanket was often so dense and heavy that the windshield wipers weren’t powerful enough to move it and they would be pinned down. Becoming suddenly blinded while driving is never fun, but having to pull over to remedy the situation makes it considerably worse.

005Despite my spotty driving record, I managed to make it through my two years in Japan without getting in any vehicular accidents. In fact, even with the long distances I drove during the wintertime, I never got my car stuck in the snow, not once. I kept a snow shovel in my car at all times, just in case, but I never had the trouble. My little K-Car, or kei-jidōsha (軽自動車), handled exceptionally well on snow and ice. Whether this was due to the vehicle’s lightweight, excellent snow tires, or a combination of the two, I’m not sure. Only three times in two years did my car go into a real skid, of the “life flashing before my eyes” variety. And each time I was able to bring the car back under control, right course, and avoid flying off the road. The worst skid Snow pics 008had me sliding at a 90° angle, going 65kph or so, but even then I managed to correct that one just in time to avoid oncoming traffic.

When winter strikes, the Shakotan locals are well-equipped to handle whatever nature threw at them, and the heavy equipment would come out to clear the roads. The snow would be dealt with via bulldozers, excavators, dump trucks, and even loader-mounted snow blowers—which look like terrifying snow threshers, with gigantic rotating blades at the fore for devouring massive corridors of snow.

012Occasionally, the accumulated snow would slide off a rooftop and come crashing down to the ground. This is honestly my favorite part of the Hokkaido winter. There is something mesmerizing about watching a great sheet of snow cascade off a rooftop, an instant sea of heavy white powder rush forward and plummet like a semi-frozen waterfall. If the avalanche is large enough, you can hear it too. Many times I would hear a massive crash from my apartment, a brief roar and then silence; Hokkaido’s winter thunder.

003The rooftop avalanches can be legitimately dangerous if you’re standing underneath them, claiming a few lives every winter. Tall buildings in Sapporo even have signed displayed on the sidewalks saying, “Beware of falling snow” in Japanese, and often also English. As a result of these conditions, people end up needing to shovel their roofs. If the snow piles up too high, it can cause your home’s roof to cave in, so it needs to be cleared away. People will climb up to the rooftops and shovel away, being very careful where they step. This is straightforward task for people with flat rooftops, but an A-frame home looks quite challenging. I’ve seen lots of people do this, even some elderly folks. You really must remain able-bodied to survive in Hokkaido.

The building neighboring my apartment had a slick-looking slanted rooftop. Wooden crossbeams were mounted across the roof to allow for people to climb up and clear the snow off. During the first winter, I came home while this shoveling was in progress and chatted with the workers from just outside my second-story door. During the second winter, the snow piled up like usual, but no one ever came to clear it away. I kind of figured that it would probably just melt down and crumble away on its own, but that was a poor assumption.

006One March afternoon, when temperatures were above freezing and the weather had turned rainy, I returned to my apartment to discover that the snow from the building next door had cleared itself away. Apparently the wooden crossbeams had given way under 001the massive weight of the accumulated snow and the whole the lot of it had come down. The resulting avalanche crashed into my building with enough force to bust through the wall, driving snow inside the unit below mine, and presumably ruining my neighbor’s day. The damage was so bad that my neighbor was forced to relocate and a crew was brought in the next day to clear away snow and board up the destroyed wall. My room was just fine.

The structure on the opposite side of the slick-roofed building was also affected by the avalanche. An old wooden warehouse that didn’t look very sturdy to begin with, this building actually had large braces erected on one side to keep it from falling over. Time had taken its toll on the debilitated shack, but it was still standing. Thanks to the heavy snow crashing into its side however, it was now leaning steeply to one side. Amazingly, while the new angle of the house had turned the rectangular window frames into rhomboids, the glass hadn’t broken.

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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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Bikuni’s Yume Akari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Rusutsu Resort

If there is one thing that brings people to Hokkaido, it’s the snowboarding. Hokkaido’s frontier of unspoiled nature makes for some great outdoor activities, and the heavy snow makes winter sports almost compulsory. So throw a mountain into the mix—which isn’t hard to find anywhere in Japan—and you have the makings of the perfect ski resort. So when I received an invitation to join some fellow international interlopers for a weekend of early season slope shredding, I went for it.

Andres, my friend and fellow ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), was turning 30. Being Aussies, both Andres and his fiancée Sarah were culturally obligated to be enthusiastic skier/snowboarders, so a birthday party at a ski resort was fitting. He drew up an invitation over Facebook and 12 of his luckiest friends (including me) signed on to spend the weekend in Rusutsu (留寿都). I had heard the name before, but I really didn’t know what to expect from the place.

On Saturday December 3rd, everyone met in Sapporo, near the town’s epicenter, Sapporo Station. The plan was to board a bus at 8am that would take us to the resort. Andres and Sarah had arrangements well planned out, with transportation, lodging, and lift tickets all covered by one flat—and rather inexpensive—rate. Once the bus got moving, everyone became acquainted with everyone else, which was good, since I only knew three people beforehand. Throughout the two hour drive, fog and falling snow made it hard to observe the natural beauty of Hokkaido, but it was still a pleasant ride.

Rusutsu Resort (ルスツリゾート) is huge complex, and apparently a major destination for skiers and snowboarders. The resort is more than a huge hotel next to the slopes. There are three mountains for skiing, and in addition to the hotel, there are log cabins and cottages for rent. The complex contains several specialty shops, and an assortment of restaurants and eateries. There’s an onsen (温泉), a game center, an indoor wave pool, animatronic robot animal musicians (no seriously), a fountain with its own music-coordinated light show, and a free carousel for the kids. There’s even a whole amusement park that operates in the summer months. Basically, Rusutsu Resort is like a self-contained city. Walking around the resort feels a bit strange, like being in Disney Land or aboard the starship Enterprise. Something about it feels artificial, contrived, but probably with the best intentions.

At least, I think that’s how Rusutsu Resort would normally be. At the time of our arrival, the skiing season had literally just begun, and Rusutsu, just reopened, was still very empty. There were some staff working and a few other snowboarders around, so the place didn’t feel completely abandoned. Still, not everything was operating yet, and a whole wing was basically shutdown. There was a strange vibe in the air, a lot like the Stanley Kubrick movie “The Shining”. Every new theme park-like side attraction we discovered increased my impression that we were in the perfect setting for a horror movie.

When our group first arrived at the resort, the giant carousel caught my eye. Honestly, it was hard to miss. White and red, and crowned with lights, the merry-go-round had two levels of seats. It also featured fantastic creatures to ride; the usual galloping horses, plus a giraffe, camel, pig, and something that was either a dragon or seahorse, I wasn’t sure. Walking up to the oddly placed circus attraction, I discovered that the hallway containing it was even more extraordinary.

The hall housed two stories of store fronts with elaborate facades, exuding the atmosphere of a street in a European village. Since we were still indoors, the outdoor scene greatly lent an amusement park air to the experience. As I explored further down the hallway, I was amused to find that while the European street stretched on for a ways, its architectural theme wasn’t wholly consistent to one country. One part of the street looked very much like Germany, while another bit looked more Italian. It was essentially a “Little Europe”. Speakers pumped out Christmas chorals to add to the winter wonderland aesthetic. These particular versions of the songs were purely instrumental and sounded like they were played on only chimes; the harmonic result sounding like a cuckoo clock striking 12, or being stuck in an elevator at Santa’s workshop. Still, it was very festive.

We gathered in a cluster near the front entrance and waited while Sarah and Andres sorted some business with the resort staff.  Right there we found another odd touch, an animatronic tree and animal scene that performed a song at the touch of button. The tree’s big round eyes opened realistically, as it was waking up, and then it opened its mouth and began to sing. That was probably the exact moment that the near empty resort became creepy.

We were headed for the slopes straight away, as daylight is precious in early December. A few people in our group opted not to snowboard at all; they were just going to relax in the resort. I wanted to snowboard, but first I need to rent all my gear. Jack, another ALT from England who’s quite fluent in Japanese, went out of his way to help me with the rental process. I was extremely grateful for this, for I would have had an impossibly hard time on my own. Since we were renting a cabin, I got a bit of a discount on a two-day rental of a snowboard, jacket, snow pants, gloves, hat, and goggles; although it still wasn’t cheap.

On the bus ride to the open mountain, Leon already began to show his expertise as an outdoorsman. Originally from New Zealand, Leon runs a hiking, camping, and English-speaking tour service based in Sapporo where he leads folks on all manner of cool outdoor adventures. A stocky, powerful-looking fellow, Leon sported a big beard to properly frame his wide smile. He and Andres discussed the various winter sports equipment and apparel, and he offered what sounded like expert advice. In fact, when he heard that I was renting gear, Leon said that he had an extra snowboard just taking up space in his shed. Had he known, he would have been happy to lend it to me.

While everyone else that day had snowboards, Leon was skiing. He wore a large backpack that looked potentially awkward, but handled it like a pro. From the pack, he produced a liquid-containing plastic bag and passed it around, giving everyone the chance to have a drink. It turns out the bag was filled with sake. While it was around 11am, I figured a couple of gulps of alcohol wouldn’t hurt, so I took a swig. To be honest, it really hit the spot.

The actual snowboarding was fantastic. Since it was early in the season, the snow wasn’t as good as it should have been for Hokkaido, but it still made for a smooth ride.  The group of us did a pretty good job of sticking together too, although effort was hardly necessary since there were really only two runs and a single lift open. At the top of the mountain, an epic wind was blowing. While I was waiting for us to start down the mountain, I outstretched by arms, and I swear that the wind actually moved me uphill! The lodge at the base had some delicious lunch options like potato wedges and curry rice, as well as beer vending machines.

After hours of boarding, the bus took us back to the resort and we were shown to the cottage where we’d be staying. The short walk from the main building to our cottage was surprisingly beautiful, and—like much of the rest of the resort—somewhat otherworldly. An idyllic winter scene, the path was a snowy trail of log cabins adorned with pine trees and elaborate, Christmassy illumination displays. The cottage itself was the quintessential log cabin, sporting a woodsy aesthetic complete with a functional fireplace and mounted buck head. There were at least four bedrooms on the ground level and two more on the second floor, with enough bunk beds to accommodate a small army. All the girls were sleeping upstairs, while the guys spread out mostly in the downstairs rooms. We enjoy a few beers as everyone got settled. Our non-skiing friends had started the party early and were clearly several drinks ahead of the rest of us.

Next, the group visited the resort’s onsen (温泉 – hot spring, spa) for a relaxing, post-boarding soak. After a day of physical exertion, lounging in the bathhouse is an excellent way to unwind. Some of the guys were doing a kind of hot/cold circuit, first roasting in the sauna for several minutes, and then dipping into the cold bath for an extreme thermal contrast. While I was curious about the appeal of such a trial, I’m not a big fan of saunas, so I delayed giving it a try. Eventually, I decided to go from the hottest bath to the coldest bath, and discovered that the cold tub was really, really, shockingly cold. Oddly refreshing, though… Only when we were leaving did I realize that Leon had sat in the icy cold bath for at least 15 minutes straight. Total badass.

After the onsen, we went looking for dinner. The resort advertised several restaurants—a German pub, a France restaurant, an Italian place, and so on—so we thought we’d have our pick. However, since the season was just getting started and the resort wasn’t yet fully operational, it came down to only two choices: super expensive Italian restaurant, or slightly less expensive Japanese izakaya. Despite the fact that the birthday boy didn’t particularly feel like Japanese food, we ended up at the izakaya. The food was fairly delicious, the drinks were plentiful, and the times were good.

There was one odd occurrence at the resort’s izakaya. As our mostly-gaijin party ate, drank, snapped photos, and generally caroused loudly, the restaurant proprietors began quietly setting a camera a couple tables away. This was a massive video camera, the kind that you might see a TV news cameraman use, but due to its unwieldy bulk, no private citizen would ever lug around. Since the only other patrons in our section of restaurant had just left, it became clear that they intended to film us. This made several folks in our party uncomfortable, as they hadn’t so much as asked if we would mind being recorded. Being a bit of an attention whore, I wasn’t really bothered, but I completely understood the feeling of privacy invasion and exploitation. If they wanted to use us for some sort of advertising, they could at least offer us some compensation, but they didn’t even do that. Jack acted quickly and approached the unsubtle film crew. Using his legendary Japanese language skills he got them to immediately pack up and go away. While he claimed that he just asked what they were doing and then told them that we didn’t want to be recorded, I’m pretty sure that he must have also slipped in a threat of severe beatings, dismemberment, or other bodily harm.

After dinner, the group returned to the cabin for more partying. There was an assortment of snack foods, lots more drinks (of course), a playlist of awesome music compiled by Andres himself, and lively conversation. There may have also been dancing at one point. When it got really late, people started crashing for the night, but for the hardcore, the party kept on rolling until at least 3am. It was genuinely wonderful to get to know everyone.

 

Breakfast the next morning was included in our accommodations, and some of us got up early to make the first bus out to the slopes. As it turned out, breakfast was being served at the German restaurant that had not been open for dinner the night before. The amusement park atmosphere of Rutsusu’s European hallway extended into the interior of the restaurant, which had a Bavarian forest flavor to its décor. The breakfast buffet was breathtaking in its breadth of bites and boredom-bombarding brand of barbecued beef, bread, and bacon. But the spectacle of the decorations again attracted most of my attention. For instance, there was yet another band of animatronic musician bears inside the restaurant, this time wearing Bravaian clothing and playing instruments like the tuba and accordion. It was so weird, it was kind of cool.

The bus ride out to the mountain was filled with anticipation. Fresh snow had fallen overnight and the landscape looked primed for slope shredding. The trees provided the best indication of what kind of dusting the area had received, as snow had accumulated on every individual bow and branch, about four centimeters high. The white scene was naturally quite beautiful, and on its own, was already worth the trip.

Being the first ones there in the morning, along with the fresh snowfall, made us fairly optimistic that we were in for an amazing ride. But to our dismay, the two trails had already been groomed. Even though a layer of powder had just fallen, the snow had been flattened and compacted. Andres, Sarah, and Leon were so disappointed in the surface quality that they turned back after just a couple runs. Luckily the trail maintenance folks had neglected to groom about two meters on each side of the trail, so there was still untouched powder on the edges. That’s precisely where I spent all my time riding, putting down first tracks.

Since I quickly found myself boarding on my own, I lost the sense of pace and rhythm that the group had provided. I began rocketing down the powdery edge of the trail, trying to capture the sensation of flying through clouds. This was pretty magical, and even when I would bail, I’d end up barreling through the marshmallow softness of the powder, taking no real knocks. Eventually my over acceleration caught up with me, and I wobbly lost control precisely at the line separating powder and the compacted snow of the main trail. While I had gained all of my speed inside the safety zone of soft powder, the trajectory of my fall sent my body hurling onto the hard, unforgiving groomed section. My shoulder impacted first, with my lower half following over the top, and I did a couple spiraling somersaults before finally sliding to a stop on my back. It was a good hard crash that managed to knock my goggles off—which I had to crawl about ten feet uphill to retrieve—but all things considered, it wasn’t all that bad. Despite the spectacle of it, I wasn’t injured. Still, it made me think about Marissa, as well as Jackie in Seattle, who would be shaking their heads in disapproval of me not wearing a helmet.

When the day wrapped up, we hopped on the evening bus back to Sapporo. Everyone was pretty wiped out from two days of boarding, so there was plenty of dozing on the road. Leon again reminded me that he had an extra snowboard at home and he even offered to lend it to me for the season. It was a very generous offer that I just couldn’t pass up.

The bus dropped us off near Sapporo Station and I made the walk back to the Fukui family’s house, where I had left my car for the weekend. My snowboarding friends had shared a lot of stories about the dangers of snow falling from rooftops, and during the conversation, I had realized that I had probably left my car in a bad spot. Just behind the house there was an open space that wasn’t being used for anything, and that was where I had parked my car. The problem was, due to the house’s slanted rooftop, this spot was precisely where snow would avalanche to the ground. Arriving at Chez Fukui, I took a quick look around back, just to confirm that my car’s roof hadn’t been caved in, and then went inside the warm house to spend time with the family for the evening.

It wasn’t until I set out for Shakotan that I noticed the snow had actually done a bit of damage. While it hadn’t flattened my car or shattered the windshield, the crashing snow had broken off my side mirror, which now dangled from its wiring on the driver’s side—that’s the left in Japan—of the vehicle. While this was a bit of an inconvenience, I was really pleased things hadn’t been worse.

A couple weekends later, on the evening of Sunday December 18th, I ventured out into northern Sapporo by car, hoping to find Leon’s house so that I could borrow his spare snowboard. He had given me directions and I checked out the address on Google Maps, but I still was certain that I would get lost somewhere along the way. And sure enough, I took a few wrong turns and ended up needing to backtrack a bit. Unlike most cities in Japan, Sapporo is laid out in a straightforward grid, so you would think that navigation would be fairly easy. Still, it seems that they number the city blocks instead of streets, and this difference complicates the simple task of tracking down an address to the proper building. I’m sure I could adjust given enough time and experience, but finding a location by its address is still difficult for me.

Eventually I found myself in what I assumed was the right neighborhood, but I couldn’t find the right block. My instincts told me that I was close, but my brain told me that without more information, I would be wandering the area in hours, so I pulled up to a Spar convenience store to ask directions. I walked right up to the woman behind the counter and politely asked what direction my destination address was in, using my awkward Japanese. To my surprise, the woman responded to me in perfect English.

“Oh, are you looking for Leon?” she said. “I’m his wife.” She then proceeded to give directions, even drawing a little picture to help me. As it turned out, I was only two blocks away. I thanked her for the help and proceeded on to their house.

When I got there, Leon asked if I had had any trouble finding the place. I relayed the story of asking for directions and inadvertently meeting his wife, which made him laughed heartily. Apparently many foreigners have ended up getting directions to Leon’s house from that store, so it’s just extra convenient that his wife works there.

As a compensatory offering for the generous equipment rental, I gave Leon a case of beer. Always friendly and gracious, he even invited me to come back to his house for Christmas. “If you find that you don’t have any other plans, feel free to drop by and spend the evening here. You don’t need to confirm or anything. If you want, you can just show up. No pressure.” I’ve met some genuinely kind people in Japan, but even among such company, Leon is one hell of a nice guy.

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New Year’s in Japan

While the big, heartwarming, family holiday in the States is Christmas, in Japan it’s Shōgatsu (正月), New Year’s. In fact, ritually speaking, New Year’s Day is probably most important day of year in Japan, and the party extends from New Year’s Eve to January 3rd. Since I was spending my winter break at the Fukui house in Sapporo, I had a chance to legitimately experience New Year’s the Japanese way, with family.

Ōmisoka (大晦日 – New Year’s Eve)

Ōsouji (大掃除) super cleaning in progress.

Hiroko-chan explained to me that in preparation for the New Year, the whole house needed to be cleaned, room by room. This major cleaning, which she called “ōsouji”(大掃除), takes place over the last few days of the year. Since I was staying in the guest room, I was responsible to clean my room just like everyone else. Luckily, since the room was sparsely furnished (just a bed, lamp, mirror, and chair), the dusting and vacuuming were easy to do. However, Yujiro was responsible not only for his own room, but cleaning the bath as well.

When I woke up on New Year’s Eve, Ukai-san was in the kitchen turning huge pieces of raw fish into a beautiful tray of sashimi. His four year old son, Taichi, was running around the house, playing sneaking games with Shun. At some point, Shun took a break and I stepped in to sneak about the house, ninja-style, with little Taichi. Eventually, Ukai-san’s sushi masterpiece was finished, and he and Taichi departed. That was time for me to clean my room.

That evening there was a small dinner party where the sushi was eaten. Some of Hiroko and Hiroshi’s friends came over to share in the merriment. Along with the feast of exquisite sea food, there was much sake to be drank. I had started a Skype video call with my brother in Seattle just as dinner started, so I missed the beginning of the meal, but luckily there was plenty of sushi still waiting for me. The older folks had also had plenty sake by this point.

Kouhei, a young man who lives next door, came over with his girlfriend. There had been much anticipation about this because no one had met the girl before, and everyone was curious about what kind of person she was…as well as how she looked. I’m happy to report that young lady exceeded everyone’s exceptions. While this was a rather crucial moment for new couple, for some reason people insisted that Kouhei drink sake, and they aggressively refilled his glass. I don’t understand why getting him drunk would be considered a good idea, but perhaps the fact that everyone else was several glasses into the night had something to do with it. At some point, Kouhei left to take his girlfriend home, but he returned later on. For a thin guy, I saw him drink a ton of sake, and he ended the night by passing out on the floor. (An older couple also fell asleep in the living room, so it was a natural move.)

If I had so desired, I could have walked down to Odori Park for a Times Square-style countdown.  But that would have involved braving the cold and I was enjoying chilling out at the house. We probably could have at least tuned into a channel that was doing a countdown, but instead the TV was set to a bizarre program with a panel of comedians trying not to a laugh as other comedians were humiliated in various ways. I wasn’t really watching it, but I did catch a part where guys wearing next to nothing had to pour buckets of hot candle wax on themselves. It looked quite unpleasant. While everyone drank and hung out, I watched the time on my laptop.

Toshikoshi soba. Mm-mm-good...

When midnight finally came, I played the Barenaked Ladies rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” from my computer and everyone who was still awake had a New Year’s toast. Just a moment later, Hiroko-chan reappeared—I had thought she had gone to bed for the night. She seemed surprised that it was already 2012 and began feverishly working on toshikoshi soba (年越し そば), literally “end of the year” noodles. Apparently eating long noodles is symbolic of crossing over from the old year to the next. We ate the buckwheat noodles zaru-style; plain noodles from a drying basket that you dip in men-tsuyu sauce (麺汁) before slurping up.  Hiroko also whipped up some shrimp tempura to go along with the soba. It was one hell of a midnight snack.

Since I didn’t venture out for the countdown, I also didn’t have an opportunity to hear the bells tolling out the old year. I’ve been told that with the New Year, each Buddhist temple rings their giant bell 108 times. It’s called joya no kane (除夜の鐘), meaning “New Year’s Eve bell”. According to Buddhist tradition, 108 is the number of earthly desires of man that lead to suffering, so that’s where the seeming random number originates.

Shōgatsu (正月 – New Year’s Day)

Having been told that there was a holiday meal planned for the morning, I made sure to be up and out of bed by 9am. Coming down stairs, Hiroko and Hiroshi greeted me in proper New Year’s fashion. In fact, Hiroko-chan had me repeat the words back to her until I had learned it well enough to properly greet the others. It sounds like this, “Akemashite omedetou gozaimasu. Kotoshimo yoroshiku onegaishimasu” (明けましておめでとうごうざいます。今年もよろしくおねがします。) Pretty long, right? Essentially, the first sentence means, “Happy New Year,” while the second bit roughly translates to, “Please treat me well again this year.”

Around 10am or so, the family assembled for a big meal of osechi (お節 – traditional New Year foods). Hiroko-chan gave me the honor of opening the elaborate box in which the food had been delivered.  Inside the cardboard box was another box, carefully wrapped in ornate red and white cloth. Unwrapping the cloth, I discovered that the square structure was actually three separate bento-style boxes stacked atop one another. When the boxes were opened and spread out on the table, a veritable holiday feast was revealed. We opened a big bottle of sake, and poured little cups for everyone. Then with a “kanpai”, we commenced eating.

The osechi foods were simply amazing; in taste, but even more so in extravagance. The magical box contained lobster, shrimp, goose, foie gras, and shark fin, just to name a few. There was even fugu (河豚), the distinctly Japanese delicacy of blow fish. Fugu is poisonous, and if not properly prepared, eating a toxic bit can be lethal. Hiroko-chan invited me to try the fugu since it was normally extremely expensive, but I had actually just promised my brother—not 24 hours beforehand—that I wouldn’t eat the potentially deadly fish. So I sampled most of the dishes, but passed on the fugu.

Many of the osechi foods had special meanings, derived from a play on words with their name. For instance, Hiroko-chan tried to explain to me the significance of konbu in New Year’s dishes. As I understand it, konbu (昆布) is the word for seaweed, but it’s associated as a sort of pun with yorokobu (喜ぶ), meaning “to be pleased.” So konbu is eaten as a part of osechi for good luck in the New Year. Many of the New Year foods were also very sweet. For example, there was a sweet black bean dish, and a sweet rolled omelet called datemaki (伊達巻). I’m not usually into the sweet stuff, but both with incredibly delicious.

As we ate the New Year meal and reflected on the past and upcoming year, we talked a bit about my plans. While I hadn’t officially declared any plans for the future year, Hiroko-chan was fairly certain that I would return to the US in April to be with my girlfriend. When she began talking about my leaving she actually shed tears, momentarily overcome with emotion. It was a bittersweet moment.

After everyone had their fill from the osechi box, we also ate a traditional mochi soup that Hiroko-chan had prepared, called ozouni (お雑煮). In the States, the only experience most people have with mochi is as an occasional glutinous covering for balls of ice cream. However, in Japan this pounded rice cake is rather prevalent, especially in festive dishes.

After we concluded the most epic brunch I have ever experienced, Hiroko-chan told me that more food was on its way. “Today is endless eating and drinking,” she said. “It will make you tired.”

In the afternoon, five of us guys braved the winter cold to walk to a Shito shrine, as is customary on New Year’s Day. This tradition is called hatsumoude (初詣); hatsu means “first”, while moude means “pilgrimage”. There was a building within a few blocks of the house that I had thought was a shrine, but apparently it was actually a Buddhist temple, because we walked past it, on to another location. We ended up walking for about 20 minutes, going almost all the way Susukino. The weather chill felt stronger with every block.

Eventually we reached our destination, Miyoshi Shrine (三吉神社). Right in the middle of an urban area, Miyoshi Shrine and its pine trees stand out as pleasantly old-fashioned scene; a spiritually charged anachronism. With everyone flocking to shrines for the ritualistic New Year visit, the place was pretty busy, and a long line extended out from the main building.

First we took part in omikuji (おみくじ), a kind of fortune-telling lottery. I put a coin into a collection box and drew out a folded piece of paper. Unrolled, the paper gives you a random fortune for the year, ranging from super great, to not very good at all. My particular fortune was called sue-kichi (末吉), which was first translated to me as “future blessing”. I thought this sounded pretty good, but they explained to me that it was a low blessing, the sixth best out of seven possible “good” fortunes. In fact, a better translation is “uncertain luck”, as in luck that might become apparent as time passes. In other words, it’s the equivalent of a magic 8-ball telling you to try again. (Sounds like the most honest fortune ever, actually.) When the fortune is bad, one can fold up the paper and tie it to a rack on near the entrance of the shrine grounds. Kouhei must not have liked his results, because he did this.

Next, we got in line for the osaisen (お賽銭 – monetary offering), which I consider the main activity of a shrine visit. When you get to the entrance of the main shrine building, there’s a large box for monetary offerings. You pitch your coin in the box, much like making a wish at a fountain, and then perform the following actions to appease the kami (神):

1) Bow. Of course.

2) Bow again. You’re greeting a god, show goddamn some reverence.

3) Clap twice. This alerts the spirits to your presence while simultaneously showing appreciation. Apparently it’s also thought to ward off evil spirits, who—contrary to heavy metal philosophy—don’t like loud noises.

4) With your hands together in front of your heart (namaste-style), bow once more. You didn’t really think you could walk away without another bow, did you?

Before we left, Kouhei decided to buy a lucky charm amulet called omamori (お守り). The word omamori actually means “protection” and the amulets are thought to provide you with some form of protection or luck. They might be dedicated to a particular kami or Buddhist figure, and can dangle from your cell phone, bag, or even rearview mirror. All of the omamori I spotted were on sale for either 500 or 600 yen.

As we were leaving the shrine grounds, I noticed the hand washing basin and realized that we hadn’t done the ritual purification when we entered. Considering how cold it was, getting my hands wet sounded unpleasant, but I realized that I just performed my Shinto rituals in an impure state. Visit ruined!

That night, we had kimchi nabe (キムチ鍋) for dinner. Nabe means “pot” and it’s a Japanese style of dining that basically involving stewing everything in one big pot. While I already liked nabe, doing it with a spicy kimchi soup base was spectacular. I was so satisfied after dinner that I drifted off into a little nap. I think I’ve found a new favorite dish.

In the late evening, Shun, Yujiro, Kouhei, and I walked out into the falling snow to make a 7/11 run. Our timing was very good as we ran into Ken, who was on his way to the house on foot. The five of us ended up throwing a lot of snowballs, trying to peg a stop sign from about 25 or 30 meters. Shun had declared that no one could enter the house until all five of us had hit the sign, but it soon became evident that the feat was harder than expected. Everyone’s hands were freezing by the time we succeeded.

Once back inside the warm house, we ended up playing some video games, starting with the always festive Smash Bros. Brawl. Next the Nintendo64 was dusted off for some old-school gaming. Diddy Kong Racing, Mario Kart64, and Mario Party were fun, although they hadn’t aged well. Eventually, my eyelids were too heavy to continue and I called it a night.

Tuesday January 3rd, a woman visited the house right around noon. At that time, Hiroko and Nozomi had gone to the nearby onsen, and Aika and I (two Americans) were the only people home and awake. So when she arrived, we greeted her at the door and she explained that she was there to change the house’s kami-sama (神様 – Shinto spirit, god) for the family.

Household Shinto shrine, kamidana (神棚)

We let her in and she proceeded into the butsuma (仏間). This is the room in every Japanese home that contains the 

, the household Buddhist alter; sometimes called the “ancestor box”.  Also contained in this room was the kamidana (神棚 – household Shinto shrine), which was a decorative wooden shelf with what looked like a model of the front of a Shinto shrine building. The lady stood on a chair to reach the kamidana and proceeded to replace one thin envelope with a new thin envelope. My understanding is that the envelopes were meant to contain the kami.

The ancestor box, butsudan (仏壇).

After making the switch, the lady knelt on the floor seiza-style and performed the kami greeting that I described earlier (bow-bow-clap twice-bow again). Aika and I just stood there awkwardly with are hands in the namaste gesture; complete foreigners to the ritual. Next, perhaps to be extra respectful, the lady also knelt in front of the ancestor box, rang the bell, and appeared to say a quick prayer. She gave us a couple proselytistic pamphlets and was on her way. Aika wasn’t impressed, but I was rather fascinated with the custom.

There are three days of celebration for Shōgatsu. Most people have January 1st, 2nd, and 3rd off work and they often spend a lot of money, living it up. For example, we ate sashimi everyday during the holiday period. As Hiroshi-san explained to me, after the excessive extravagance of these three days, when you have no more money, you can’t let on that you are now poor. Even if you are doing without, you put on airs (見栄を張る – みえをはる). Nozomi-san added, “If you’re hungry, you act like you’re not hungry.”

As easy as it would be to judge these customs as unnecessary, or fiscally irresponsible, I can’t help but be reminded of the Christmas tradition in the US. There people feel obligated to unnecessarily spend tons of money on gifts for their family and friends, often buying their loved ones random, unwanted gifts just so that can give them something, anything. And why? To honor the incorrectly dated birthday of an ascetic minimalist, who preached the forsaking of all possessions. While living beyond your means for three days might be a little silly, I think America still has the prize for stupid holiday customs.

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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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