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Golden Week Part I: Tokyo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tokyo Station

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

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

Mandarin Hotel

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

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

Mandarin Hotel toilet

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

Can you see the 円?

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

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

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

To Be つづく’ed…

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Elementary School Chaos

The elementary kids are generally more rowdy than the junior high students. Although to be fair, the second year junior high kids tend to mix up it more than their first or third year counterparts. Still, the elementary kids maintain a constant buzz of playful excitement that the older students can’t match. Generally the fifth and sixth graders are quite open to English instruction, and while they can be wilder, the classes are very rewarding for a teacher like me.

Near the end of the school year the fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Seo, got quite sick, and ended up missing about a month of classes. During this time, the Principal and Vice Principal had to step in and teach the fifth grade as substitutes. This meant that when I came in to teach English on Tuesday, it all me, a one-man show. This wasn’t a problem at first, but without their regular teacher there to provide stability and discipline, the students began to unravel.

By the third week of Mrs. Seo’s absence, the classroom’s demeanor had changed. Even though the Vice Principal was right there in the room with us, a few of the boys started acting up. They’d randomly get out their seats and walk around the classroom, sometimes leaving the room completely. One of the louder troublemakers would try purposely shouting Japanese obscenities that had the slightly phonetic resemblance to the English vocabulary. (For example, instead of saying “Monday” one student yelled “manko”, a vulgar term for vagina.) One of the quieter troublemakers opted to ignore the whole lesson, simply cutting papers into little pieces with scissors and scattering the pieces all over the floor. The Vice Principal did his best to corral the hooligans, but the students had apparently learned to ignore the sense of groupism and shame that normally guides personal behavior in Japanese society. Besides asking the kids not to act up, there was little the VP could do.

Feeling that the class was losing interest in my lesson, I jumped right into the day’s game. The kids really only enjoy the game bits anyway, so why not, right? The vocabulary we were learning was the names of school subjects (like math, science, social studies, English, etc.), and I had prepared cards for each subject. The game we played was essentially just janken (じゃん拳 – Rock-paper-scissors), with an additional card collection element. Two students have a quick match of janken, and the losing student then asks the winner, “What subject do you like?” in English. The winner responds, “I like music”, for example, and if the losing student has a “Music” card, they have to give it to the winner. Once a student collects five cards of the same kind, they win the game.

I thought the game had a good blend of strategy and random chance, while providing a good platform for using the key phrases in context. Plus, my cards were pure gold – laminated gold – if I do say so myself. But to jump into the game portion of class when your kids aren’t behaving can be a risky move. If you succeed in engaging their interest than you can get them positively involved, sure. But kids (and adults too) can become so fixated on winning a meaningless game that they lose all sense of decorum. And when self-control is already in question, the game can make things worse. Things got off to great start and my gamble seemed to be paying off, but when a girl and boy started physically fighting over the school subject cards, everything fell apart.

The VP separated the children, who had ended up wrestling on the floor. The girl (let’s called her Kinno) laughed it off, while the boy (let’s called him Aki) seemed particularly crazed. (These aren’t their real names, by the way.) Perhaps Kinno had gotten in more hits than Aki had.

The VP physically held Aki back as he tried to push his way through to the girl and continue their fisticuffs. His eyes were intense and teary, and they shot daggers at his target. At some point, the VP left the Aki’s side for just a moment and he promptly decimated Kinno’s desk, throwing her books and papers on the floor, and pitching her pencil case across the room. Upon hitting the wall, the pencil case exploded its contents all over; writing utensils, rulers, erasers, and the like, spilt forth like candy from a piñata. The VP quickly took hold of the boy again, but the class went into total bedlam, as all the girls scurried about, helping pick up Kinno’s belongings. Amidst this chaos, one of the quiet young ruffians took the opportunity to stealthily grab a chalkboard eraser and hurl it across the room as well. Its wall impact was accompanied by a plume of chalky white powder, dissipating into the air like smoke after a bomb blast. Preoccupied with frenzied desk vandal, the VP didn’t even notice this.

It took quite awhile for the melee to calm down, and the all of the girls ignored the VP’s commands to sit down as they were desperate to find a missing lip balm cap. Unsure of how I could help the situation – not to mention what I was and wasn’t allowed to do – I simply stood at the front of the class, silent, arms crossed, and probably with a “you’ve gotta be kidding me” expression on my face. I think we almost regained control of the class by the time the bell rang, but not quite. The VP was extremely apologetic to me but I waved off the concern. It was really him who had it rough, and I felt I should have been the one apologizing.

The next week, Tuesday March 6th, Mrs. Seo was still absent. Again it would just be me teaching, with the Vice Principal there to help. While the previous week had gotten a bit nuts, I was confident that as long as the kids weren’t fighting each other, the class should go pretty smoothly. These hopes were dashed promptly, before I even got to the classroom. From down the hallway, about 50 meters from the room, the VP and I spotted the fifth grade boys playing outside of the classroom. One kid had a watering can and instead of garden plants, he was sprinkling the linoleum floor. Another kid was wielding a mop, and I wasn’t sure about it, but he may have been trying to clear up the mess. Last week’s most crazy student, Aki, took off his t-shirt, crouched down, and let the first kid shower his back with water. It was sure to be one of those days.

Inside the classroom, the at least three of the boys had damp clothes or were soaking wet. When I asked them how they were, a few responded, “I’m cold” in Japanese, not even trying to speak English with me. I said to Aki, “That’s probably because you’re not wearing a shirt and you’re all wet.” (If he wasn’t going to work with me, I wasn’t about to speak his language.) Initially, the students – the girls and boys both – refused to begin class with a simple “Hello Mr. Lucas”.

Even after he had his shirt back on, Aki was clearly determined to be as disruptive as possible. He didn’t even have the decency to try and make much vulgar word-based humor by mispronouncing the vocabulary, although he occasionally would still shout some. Instead, he repeated yelled in my direction, asking me who I was in overly casual Japanese. While this stuck as a tad disrespectful and unnecessary, his repeated use of the word temee (てめえ – a coarse, vulgar word for “you”) to refer to the Vice Principal was far worse.

To my surprise, Aki and Kinno were no longer fighting. In fact, the pair must have made up because Kinno was now supporting everything that Aki did. All of Aki’s angst was now directed at faculty and the two of them were both having a grand old time. In the class’s state of disorganization, it was like a Japanese Lord of the Flies (“Rold of the Fries”, if you will), and it was clear to me that we were going to get little to nothing done.

The lesson plan for the day was to wrap up our lessons covering the days of the week and school subjects by giving the kids the chance to make their own ideal schedules and present them to the class. I’m sure you can imagine exactly how excited the kids were to do this. The closest Aki came to participating was to again take off his shirt and tape school subject cards to his nipples. Kinno, who acts as something of a ringleader for the class’s girls, actually filled out her ideal schedule and the other girls followed her lead. As soon as she was done, she started spreading glue on the palm of her hand, and again, most of the girls followed suit. There was only one student who wasn’t taken in by the mob mentality and behaved perfectly amidst all this chaos. This girl’s father was also a teacher, so maybe she took pity on us. I’d occasionally walk over to her desk to check on her work and give quiet praise.

Aki ramped up his rebellion. A couple other boys began acting out a bit too, but their antics were merely mild imitations of Aki. At one point he left the classroom and returned with a camcorder. Where this kid found a video camera is beyond me, but he plugged the adapter into the wall socket and began recording the class. It took the VP quite a while to get the camcorder out of his hands, and after taking it away once, he grabbed it again and again. I almost wished the VP had just let him tape away, because the kid was at his least disruptive whilst distracted by the electronic device. After Aki had moved on from the camera, one of the other students (the erase thrower from the last act) picked it up too. The VP quickly took it from him and he seemed to lose interest immediately.

Still not satisfied, Aki eventually grabbed a wooden dowel from the corner of the room. The staff had probably been part of a large rollout map, but now was just a long wooden stick. Since you obviously don’t want your out-of-control student armed like Donatello, the VP immediately had his hands on the potential weapon as well. The two grappled for control of the stick, the VP trying to be gentle but firm. Clutching the rod the whole way, Aki walked over to his desk and sat down. Still grasping the other end, the VP followed along. Once Aki was in his seat, the VP pulled the stick with more force, yanking out of Aki’s talons with two tugs. This clearly angered the boy and he reacted by throwing a pair of scissors in the VP’s general direction. The scissors didn’t hit anyone, but that was definitely crossing a line. Still, class carried on just like normal – awkwardly.

We didn’t get to introducing the next chapter’s vocabulary like I had intended. I’d say we barely completed that schedule-making activity. There was never enough class cohesion for the students to present their schedules to the class, which was really the only important part of it. By the time the chime sounded, I was more than ready to leave. And I still had the sixth graders to teach!

I left that class feeling bad for the poor Vice Principal, as well as for the one student who behaved perfectly. That girl’s father is a teacher at the junior high, so I know the family pretty well. Sure enough, he asked me about the class the next day. Apparently things were so unpleasant for his daughter that she hadn’t wanted to go back to school the next day.

The following week, Mrs. Seo had still not recovered from her illness. This was my last class with the 5th graders for the year, and I’m proud to say that they probably learned a couple new words, like “iced tea” and “dessert”. (We were learning vocabulary for ordering food.) There was still plenty of craziness, but we got through the lot of new food terms. Even Aki halfheartedly participated, though mostly just to mispronounce “hotdog” as “hot chinpo” (ホットちんぽ – hot penis). I have a feeling that getting Mrs. Seo back in the classroom would have been the only way to restore order. Oh well.

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Japan’s Funny Valentine

"I love cat - Only imflowing you don't flowing imflowing - I must go to you stay a place"

At first glance, Valentine’s Day in Japan seems pretty sexist. And that’s because it is. Women are expected to give chocolate to men, and men aren’t expected to give anything in return. However, the equalizing factor in Japan is a second holiday called White Day (ホワイトデー) that reverses the gifting roles. Just as the Valentine holiday is essentially a marketing gimmick of romantic obligation in the US, Japan has manged to double the profitability of the tradition by splitting the ritual gift giving into two separate events. Let me explain how it works.

Valentine’s Day arrives in Japan on the standard February 14th with all the hearts and Cupid imagery that you’re familiar with. The social expectation on this day is the women will give gifts, most likely chocolates. But the ladies aren’t just expected to give chocolates to their boyfriend/husband/lover guy; they’re also supposed to give chocolates to friends and coworkers too. Instead of being motivated by purely romantic notions, Valentine’s chocolate can be expected out of various levels of social obligation. The prime example is called girichoko (義理チョコ – literally “obligatory chocolate”), the ritual of giving chocolate to your male coworkers, just to be polite. This term breaks down to giri (義理), meaning “obligation”, and choko (チョコ), meaning “chocolate”, just like it sounds.

Quick tangent; when talking about Japanese society, the concept giri (義理) is very important. This social obligation compels one to act in accordance with the rules, but is thought to often conflict with ninjō (人情), meaning human emotion, or more simply one’s personal feelings. You can see this conflict between duty and passion in lots of Japanese stories, from classic samurai tales to modern Japanese dramas. The western equivalent can best be illustrated in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (or my favorite version, West Side Story), where the protagonists are torn between their feelings of love for each other and their responsibility to their respective families. But whereas personal feelings (ninjō) tend to win out fairly easily in western stories, the characters’ sense of duty (giri) proves to be stronger in Japanese fiction. Understanding the giri vs. ninjō dynamic is critical to understanding individuals’ motivations in Japanese society, both in literature and in real life. Now back to chocolate.

"Wow, you made these?...but I didn't get you anything..."

So ladies are expected to give girichoko to their coworkers, without any implication of romantic interest. They might also give chocolate to their friends, which is called tomochoko (友チョコ – friend chocolate). This is already a rather hefty coco-burden, and we haven’t even gotten to honmeichoko (本命チョコ), the chocolate you give to your true love. This word breaks down to honmei (本命), meaning favorite or “one’s heart’s desire”, and choko (チョコ), again just meaning “chocolate”.

It seems plausible that a festively inclined young lady might end up buying a lot of candy for Valentine’s, and from what I’ve read, the confectioners are really counting on that. (Apparently Japanese chocolate companies make about half of their annual sales during the Valentine’s season. They’re cuckoo for Cocoa Profits.) And if that wasn’t enough of a hassle, homemade chocolates are considered preferable to store bought items, so often times ladies will spend a weekend day creating confectionary goodness to distribute on the holiday. This homemade chocolate is sometimes called dekochoko (デコチョコ), or “decoration chocolate”.

Now, it’s not unheard of that a man might step up and give his girlfriend a gift on Valentine’s Day, but it’s definitely not the norm. This is called gyakuchoko (逆チョコ – literally “reverse chocolate”) and as the name indicates, it’s considered the opposite of social expectation. Whereas ladies are almost obligated to give chocolate, the guy who reciprocates on Valentine’s Day is considered funny or weird.

It’s not until one month later that the roles reverse. On March 14th comes White Day (ホワイトデー), the male answer to Valentine’s, the day when men return the gifting favor.  Social obligation dictates that men get something for all the ladies who gave him gifts, so most of the time these gifts also carry no romantic sentiment.

Apparently White Day was first proposed in the 1970’s by a Fukuoka marshmallow company. The idea was that it was only fair for men to give something back to the women that had been so generous to them. And of course, the best way to do that was by buying marshmallows. It was originally introduced as “Marshmallow Day” (マシュマロデー), but the name changed rather quickly thereafter. These days, typical White Day gifts included cookies, white chocolate, and even dark chocolate. In the case of one’s wife or girlfriend, a man might purchase a non-edible gift, like jewelry or lingerie; the latter of which is probably also white. The holiday is celebrated outside of Japan as well, in Taiwan and South Korea.

Speaking of South Korea, they apparently take this tradition one step further, with a third holiday called “Black Day”. Basically like an anti-Valentine’s Day, Black Day is a day for single people. It occurs on April 14th, following the same monthly pattern, and involves single people get together to eat jajangmyeon, a noodle dish with a black bean sauce.

On last thing, it’s worth mentioning that Valentine’s Day isn’t really the big romantic holiday in Japan. That would be Christmas Eve. This is probably why Japan has a seemingly odd attachment to Christmas cake (クリスマスケーキ), the only way to end a romantic dinner on December 24th. Christmas Eve is the prime time for lovin’. Valentine’s Day and White Day take a backseat as (only slightly more) transparent corporate conventions for unloading chocolate.


Filed under Educational

Tales from the Gakkou

A chorus of pencils rhythmically tapping away, it sounds like rain drops. In the quiet of the classroom with a test in progress, this is the sound of Japanese students writing. Each student silently focuses on the task at hand, and the scratching of their pencils is somehow magical. I find an odd serenity in this moment.

Here are some random stories of working as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Japan, straight from the classroom.

My students would often say, “Nice guy! You’re nice guy!” But when I’d respond, “Thanks, I think you’re nice too,” they would wave off the compliment and say, “No, no, not me. You are nice guy.” I thought the students couldn’t be assholes if they were calling me nice, but I wondered why they wouldn’t agree that they too were kind people. Could Japanese culture be so modest that one can’t even accept being called nice? As it turns out, this was really just a miscommunication.

One of the 3rd year JH students showed me a picture of Jonny Depp from one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He pointed to Captain Jack Sparrow and said, “I like, very much. Nice guy.” At this point, it was clear to me that “nice guy” could not possibly have the same meaning for these kids that it did for me. I asked him how you say “nice guy” in Japanese and he said “kakkoii” (かっこいい ). The definition of kakkoii is more like “attractive, good-looking, or stylish”. So when describing a person directly, “nice” would be a mistranslation. That day I taught the students a new word: “Cool.”

In conversation, people will often ask me why I came to Japan. The real answer is a somewhat complicated tale that I usually simplify to: “I’ve always been fascinated by Japan”, or even simpler, to “Ninjas”. But lately I’ve decided that from now on, I will answer the question like this: “The FOOD.” For me, a big perk of teaching English in Japan is the kyuushoku (給食 – school lunch).

While I’ve heard some varying reports from other ALTs, the lunches in Shakotan have been consistently amazing; not only delicious, but seemingly nutritious as well. The average school lunch includes rice, miso soup, a protein-rich food (probably fish), and a vegetable dish. This varies from day to day, but the school district’s dietitian tries to balance every meal according to national guidelines. The aim is to include your carbohydrate, vegetable, and protein foods in each lunch, while keeping the total calorie count below some specific number. Amusingly, they also try to balance lunch foods by color, which means including something red, something yellow, and something green in every meal. Yet somehow, even with these challenging parameters in place, they manage to make lunch delicious day after day. And at ¥4900 a month for five meals a week, it’s a hell of a deal.

Occasionally lunch will consists of western-style foods, usually something using bread, and while this is a disappointment, it’s still of a high enough quality to surpass anything that I was fed in public schools in the States. (Although to be honest, that’s not saying much.) The school’s spaghetti and meat sauce, while not as good as its homemade counterpart, is actually pretty damn respectable. Still, it’s the Japanese food staples that I really love.

I recently discovered that the weekly school lunch follows a pattern for meal composition. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are rice days, meaning the carbohydrate dish will be your standard rice. Tuesday is noodle day, so this is the glorious time when we’ll have a big bowl of udon or ramen, or alternatively, the spaghetti might appear. Finally, Thursdays are bread days. On Thursday we might have hotdogs (which involve a bun), or perhaps we’ll have a baguette or dinner roll, along with a savory soup, like cream of corn or pumpkin. I’m not fan of bread in Japan, so this is usually the least impressive lunch for me.

Speaking of eating, I’ve noticed an interesting digestive phenomenon in Japan: stomach rumbling. If you’ve watched much anime then you’ve almost certainly witnessed a character’s stomach audibly signal that he was hungry with a loud, churning groan. While I’ve certainly heard stomachs make noise before, its prevalence in anime would lead one to believe that it happens every time someone is hungry, probably every day. In my experience, my stomach has rarely, if ever, been vocal. In Japan, however, my stomach really does rumble a lot, like maybe every time that I’m really hungry.

Why would that be the case? I don’t actually know, but started theorizing and came up with a few thoughts. 1) Maybe in America, we rarely let ourselves to get to a point where we’re so hungry that our stomach is trying to digest itself. 2) A diet high in rice provides a more filling, energy-sustaining fuel than a bread-based diet, for instance, but when it runs out, you’ve really got nothing and your body cries out for sustenance. 3) If the TV adverts are to be believed, then drinking the right brand of tea actually starts a blazing green fire in your stomach. This fire simultaneously gives you tremendous energy and makes you thin and attractive. Since I’m from the States, eat rice every day, and drink lots of green tea, I have yet to try isolating any one variable to test each theory’s validity.

When talking about my classes, the other teachers were usually very complimentary. However, I often heard the term “high tension” (ハイテンション) used, which surprised me. Did I appear nervous in front the kids? Were the students frightened to have me in class? What could be the source of the tense atmosphere everyone’s describing? Well as I discovered, in Japanese “high tension” doesn’t mean what you think.

High tension (ハイテンション) means excited or enthusiastic, and it’s a positive word. It’s basically like saying that there’s electricity in the air. I think maybe this phrase originated with high voltage electronics, but I’m not really sure. So when the teachers said that the class was “high tension”, and Yusuke (the English teacher) said it was because of me, he wasn’t blaming me, he was being complimentary. This was a good thing to figure out.

Students at my junior high are so tidy that they always collect the rubber shavings that remain after they’ve erased something. Apparently to just brush the eraser dust onto the floor is considered quite lazy and rude. Yusuke tells me that it’s only common practice in this particular school, and that most kids in Japan are not so meticulous.

After lunch there is a break of 10 or 15 minutes, during which time the students will usually play around in the gym or, weather permitting, play outside. Throughout the summer months I would always spend this time outside, playing soccer with the students, and usually also with Yusuke. Since I missed my soccer team in Seattle so dearly, playing with the kids was a great joy for me. Eventually though, it got to cold and too rainy to play outside, and by December the field was good and buried with snow. With soccer no longer an option, I’d play games with the students inside the gymnasium.

In the gym, groups of boys will often form two teams to play full-court basketball. Meanwhile, groups of girls will circle up to juggle a volleyball back and forth. Often times I’d start shooting around with the boys until they inevitably started a game, and then I’d play too. While it wasn’t soccer, it was still good fun.

Yoshimura-sensei, the social studies teacher, could usually be found playing volleyball with the girls, unless someone set up the badminton net, in which case he’d always be there. The first time I jumped in on the volleying, it was on his invitation. I did my best to keep the ball constantly juggling, but I’m not really that good at volleyball. At one point I instinctively headed the ball, soccer-style, directly at one of the girls. This proved quite amusing to all involved.

One of the teachers told me that I was smart (スマート), a compliment which I humbly accepted. Then she added, “…but muscular” (くきょう). It was then that I realized that she was using to word “smart” in a fashion context, describing me as slim. Here I thought someone was seeing me as more than just a hot body…

One day while eating lunch with the third year junior high school students, a girl commented that my skin was very white. I was wearing a short sleeved shirt at the time, and my arms were looking quite pale, somewhere between alabaster and ghostly transparent. I agreed with the girl and used the term hakujin (白人), which very literally means white person. This might have sounded a tad derogatory, but I was talking about myself, so I figured Japanese etiquette would approve.

The student pointed at me and said, “White person”, then to herself and said, “Yellow monkey.”  Indicating the other students nearby, she said, “Yellow monkey, yellow monkey, yellow monkey…” My jaw hit the floor.

“No, no, no,” I said, laughing a bit at something what sounded really offensive to my ears, but maybe not so bad to the students.  “That’s bad. Don’t say that.”

A little later the same student pointed to me and asked, “White monkey?”

“Yes,” I replied, “white monkey.”

There is a chapter in the junior high first year textbook that features a bonobo named Kanzi. Kanzi is quite an intelligent ape and can do many things; he can even understand about 500 English words. One of the dialogues talks about the different between bonobos and chimpanzees, using the word “chimp.” I wondered if this was a practical joke, since the word “chimpanzee” in pronounced nearly identically in both English and Japanese, but chimp sounds almost identical to chinpo (ちんぽ), the Japanese word for penis.

This is also why one should refrain from using the European “chin-chin” when making toasts in Japan. While it represents the sound of glasses clanging together, chinchin (ちんちん) is also a children’s term for penis, like saying “pee-pee” in Japanese. So when I said the word “chimp”, as one would expect, the classroom of 13 year olds burst into laughter.

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Filed under Educational, Shakotan

Going to the Onsen with Makoto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Invasion of the Kamemushi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Konkatsu (婚活)

Friday September 23, 2011 – At 2:30pm, I climbed into a van at the Shakotan town office. Sawada-san was the driver responsible for transporting five gentlemen and me to Yobetsu (余別) where there the event would be held. After a short but scenic drive to the tip of the Shakotan peninsula, we arrived at Uni-ya-Kinoko (うに-や-きのこ – “sea urchin and mushroom”), a little resort just outside of town. Nestled into the wood surrounding Yobetsu, Uni-ya-Kinoko is an idyllic spot to get away from modern urban stresses. It has hiking trails and cabins to stay in, as well as an onsen (温泉 – hot spring) for the ultimate relaxation.

We were here for a special event called “Konkatsu” (婚活). Konkatsu is basically a mixer for single men and women to meet and find prospective marriage partners. The event was apparently organized by the city of Shakotan and much of the staff I recognized as the same folks who handle the IP Phone; each one of them worked on the second floor of the town office.  For this event, there were 20 men and 25 women contestants. While all of the eligible bachelors were from Shakotan, the women were coming in from either Sapporo or Otaru. Even if the ladies made no love connections, the event would at least serve as a weekend getaway in exotic Shakotan. Since people were bussing in from far away, Uni-ya-Kinoko was a rather ideal venue because after the dinner festivities, everyone could crash there.

When we first arrived, all the men were rounded up for a seminar on how to talk to women. A professional public speaker was brought in from Sapporo to instruct the men on the dos and don’ts of intergender communication. The best part about this was that the speaker herself was an attractive young woman, so any nerves the guys had were bound to surface in practice. There was a lot of rehearsing introductions. The guys were supposed to say 1) their name, 2) their age, 3) their hobbies, and finally, 4) ask the lady something about her interests. While the men had little trouble providing the information, the speaker gave many critiques on their delivery. She encouraged them to speak with confidence, stand tall, and avoid fidgeting with their hands, or so was my understanding. The seminar went on for at least an hour and a half, maybe two hours, and I did my best to follow along, although I my language comprehension was very low.

This is the correct distance to talk to a woman.

Each man received a catalog for the Konkatsu that listed the all of the female participants’ profiles. Like a hardcopy version of Facebook, the catalog profiles featured a picture of each woman, along with her name, age, city she was from, and a blurb of text that I assume must have been a self description. The women also received a catalog of all the men, although the format was different. The women’s version featured much bigger mug shots, as well as a lot more information on each man.

My friend Fukuda Masato, whom I had gotten to know when we traveled down to Kōchi-ken for a Yosakoi Sōran festival, was one of the hopeful suitors participating. We checked out the catalog together and he asked me which of the women looked most attractive. I basically just pointed out the youngest girls on the list, which made him laugh. Most of woman were older than 35, there were a few in their late 20’s/early 30’s, and then three who were quite young, around twenty. The profile pictures also seemed like odd choices, as they were mostly unflattering. Masato-kun showed me which woman he was most interested in, and of course, it was the best-looking picture of the bunch.

After the seminar, I was given a big green “staff” nametag to wear. Iwaki-san tried to give me some directions, but besides the pushing gesture he did, I didn’t quite follow what he was saying. He brought the seminar lady over to translate, as she spoke better English. To my surprise the instructions were, “If any women approach you, please push them away.” This cracked me up.

Eventually it was time for the dinner, the main event of the Konkatsu. The dining hall had three rows of tables; the two outer rows were for the participants’ seats, while the center table was setup buffet-style for the food. The spread was amazing, as I’ve come to find is usually the case at any dinner event in Japan. The far wall had a counter of drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic. The men had been advised to avoid drinking too much, lest they make drunken fools of themselves. Also, when one guy said that he planned on drinking only Coca-cola, the speaker advised against it, saying that cola was a kid’s drink.

There were eight tables for the participants’ seating, four on each side of the room. First, the men were brought in and placed at the outside seats, two men to a table. A few minutes later, the women came in and were led to the seats on the inside of the tables, usually two to a table, but sometimes three per table. (There were more women than men present.) Apparently the initial seating arrangement was determined by drawing numbers from a hat.

A comic duo, one man and one woman, were the emcees for the evening, and they gave instructions via microphone and a small PA system. The night began with an initial round of individual introductions, first the men then the women. (Just like the seminar, each person gave their name, age, and hobbies.) Afterward, everyone got up to grab food and drinks. Once the participants were seated again with their dinner, they chatted with one another and leisurely got acquainted with everyone at their table.

For my staff dinner, I was seated behind a folding screen in the corner of the room and given a bento box and beer. From my vantage point it appeared that everyone was having a legitimately good time, as no one appeared nervous or having any trouble communicating. Even the guys that had appeared shy during the seminar were chatting up the ladies with no trouble at all.

After 15 minutes or so (they didn’t seem to keep track of time very precisely), all the men got up and rotated positions to the next table. In this way, all the all of ladies would meet all the men, in turns. The round-robin arrangement reminded me of the “speed dating” we have back in the States, although perhaps all formalized matchmaking systems are run in a similar way.

As I sipped my beer, I made conversation with the other staff. The evening seemed to be going rather well and everyone was happy. In the frivolity, I helped myself to a cup of “goma” pudding (胡麻プリン) from the dessert table. “Goma” means sesame seeds, and the pudding was so delicious that I ended up eating four servings before the night was over.

In the middle of the dinner, one of the male participants had to leave; for what reason, I don’t know. To my surprise, I was asked to sit at the table in his place. Since I had been specifically asked to “push” the women away, I double-checked that it was alright for me to sit at one of the tables like a suitor. The seminar lady clarified, “Just talking is OK. Show your nametag too.” I then wondered what kind of behavior would justify the advised pushing, and a zombie survival scenario ran through my mind.

As instructed, I sat down at the table with another gentleman to help make conversation with three eligible bachelorettes. I greeted them with, “Konbanwa. Gaikokujin desu” (こんばんは、外国人です。- “Good evening, I’m a foreigner.”). Due my limited Japanese, I wasn’t actually able to contribute very much to the conversation. Out of respect for the male contestant I was paired with, I didn’t really want to talk too much anyway, lest I take away from his spotlight. To be a good wingman, I mostly just nodded quietly.

At the second table we moved to, one of the women shocked me by speaking perfect English! When I looked totally lost, she would take a moment and translate a summary for me. It was very kind of her. At the final table we ended up at, the conversation was really dead. While it was fine for me to sit in silence, the awkwardness of a table of people not talking was just too awkward. I tried to ignite some discussion by asking the youngest girl there what kind of music she liked. Impressively, the girl managed to still kill the conversation by saying something about not knowing any band or song names, and doing so with an expression that said, “I don’t care for music.” She was truly a fun assassin.

When the men had completely circumnavigated the room, it was time for climax of the evening; the actual matchmaking. One by one, the men were to come up to the front of the room and choose one of the ladies he’d like to date. The chosen lady would then come up front too, making for a very public proposal. The man gives a short appeal into the microphone, then reverently bows to the woman with his hand outstretched in offering, and says “please” (おねがいします). Then there’s a dramatic pause where everyone wonders if she’ll take his hand or just say “I’m sorry” (ごめんなさい).

To make things even more interesting, if one man chooses a lady that another man also wants to ask out, the second man can shout “Hey wait!” (ちょっとまって), and run up front as well. It’s kind of like that line in movie weddings; you know, the “speak now, or forever hold your peace” bit. In this scenario, the two men both give a short appeal into the microphone and then bow simultaneously, each with his hand outstretched. The woman then gets to pick whichever suitor she prefers by taking his hand, or she can choose to reject them both. Yes, the Konkatsu has it all; love, rejection, conflict, conquest, all you can eat shrimp! It’s very dramatic.

To explain how the process works, the staff gave a theatrical demonstration. Iwaki-san ran up to me a minute before to give me hurried directions on how I was to participate. Due to the language barrier, I double-checked and triple-checked with him that I had it right, as I didn’t want to make (too big of) a fool of myself. When Sawada-san demonstrated choosing the seminar lady, I yelled “Hey wait!” (ちょっとまって) loudly from the back of the room, ran up front as quickly as possible. This surprise proved to be even more comically effective than anticipated. Hopefully my brief performance was good enough to warrant the amount of alcohol and dessert that I consumed.

When the first contestant went up front and chose a lady to ask out, the nervous tension was palpable. As he bowed and offered his hand, everyone hoped for a love connection and waited with baited breath for the lady’s response. When she shyly apologized, the whole let out a collective “ahh”, empathizing with man’s rejection. While we felt bad for him, he laughed it off. The fun was only just beginning.

There were plenty dating proposals that were accepted, including my friend Masato-kun, who was extremely pleased to pair up with the girl whose picture he had picked out as the cutest in the catalog. Similar tastes between suitors led to several two-man proposals. There was even a three-man proposal for one young lady. In all but one of the multiplayer proposals, the woman rejected both men. In the case where the woman picked one man over the other, the crowd gave a scandalous cheer for new couple, and then applauded the loser for his courage. There was also at least one gentleman who decided not to ask any ladies and just bow out.

For the most part, the Konkatsu seemed like a lesson in gender roles.  That was turned on its head at one point though, as one of the women went up front to ask out a guy. In this reverse situation, she made the appeal and bowed to him, and he was the one to take her hand and accept. At first I thought that all the unpaired women would get their chance to go up front, but it became quickly apparent that it wasn’t usually done that way.

After the excitement of couples pairing off, the dinner came to a close, and the party moved to three of Uni-ya-Kinoko’s cottages. Everyone piled into the cabins, leaving an impressive collection of shoes in the doorway. While each cottage had a table and chairs in the main room, these obstacles were pushed aside, as every got comfortable on the floor. There was still of bit of alcohol remaining, so drinks were poured and snack food was spread out on paper plates in the center of the room. Everyone just kicked back and hung out, chatting about this and that.

One young man was fairly jumpy, and every time the cabin door opened, he would dive out of sight. When people started asking him what was up, he explained that he was desperately trying to avoid his new date. I realized that he had been the guy asked out in the role-reversing proposal at the end of dinner. Apparently he had interrupted the lady’s pursuit of him as a lighthearted gesture, maybe even a joke, and accepted her proposal playfully. She, on the other hand, had been quite serious, and started an intense discussion on their relationship and potential marriage straight away. The young man was so freaked out by this that he avoided her for the rest of the night.

It was fun to chat everyone, and it made for some great conversation practice, but by 1am, I was ready to crash. I found a room with four bunk beds upstairs and went to sleep. I later learned that most people kept the party going until 4:30am!

The following morning a friend woke me up at 8:00 and let me know that I needed to eat breakfast before 9am. I got dressed and made my way back into Uni-to-Kinoko’s main building. Luckily I ran into and Sawada-san, who was headed to breakfast as well. The breakfast was an impressive buffet-style affair, with your usual western foods, like eggs and bacon, as well as Japanese dishes, like miso soup and curry rice. I grabbed a large portion of scrambled eggs before seeing the tamagoyaki (卵焼き – Japanese block shaped omelet, usually sweet tasting), which I would have preferred. My real mistake was picking up nikogori (煮こごり – にこごり), as it turned out to be jellied fish. I think I might be able to stomach a small portion of cold jellied fish as a dinner side dish—maybe—but as a breakfast food, I found it to be quite repulsive. The coffee was very good though.

After checking out of Uni-to-Kinoko, the party moved on to Yobetsu Elementary School for a cooking seminar. I got there early, with most of the staff. When the participants showed up, I was a little surprised to see only the women. Apparently the cooking activity was not intended for the men. Again, gender roles. I couldn’t help but think that the guys were missing out though, because the cooking lesson was epic.

Five sweet old ladies were the cooking instructors, and they taught the Konkatsu participants how to prepare salmon, as well as a kind of pumpkin hotcake. The ladies started with a whole salmon, head and all, the kind of giant silver fish you would see hurled through the air at Pike Place Market. With terrifying speed and precision, the sweet old ladies made short work of the fish, chopping off the head and fins, and deftly filleting the body with their knife. In some instances, the salmon was female and two large egg sacs would be carefully removed. Salmon roe (イクラ) is extremely popular in Japanese cuisine, so the eggs sacs are especially precious. After all the ladies had tried their hand at fish butchery, a multitude of salmon fillets were ready for everyone to take home. Even though I didn’t really help out at all, I too received five or so fillets, as well as freshly canned salmon roe. It was amazing.

The Konkatsu events were supposed to go on until 3:30pm, but by noon I was ready to be on my way. I caught a ride home with some of the other staff, including the speaker lady from Sapporo and the female half of the comic duo who emceed the previous night’s dinner. We stopped at a sushi restaurant in Yobetsu to grab some lunch before our drive. As you might have expected, it was amazingly delicious and just the right amount of food too. The quality of sushi on the Shakotan peninsula is so good that I’m wondering if it will ruin all other seafood for me, by comparison.

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Fireworks in Obihiro

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

This wasn't the gridlocked part.

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

This sign indicates that you've been spotted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don't remember this part.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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