When I was a kid, I thought “white Christmas” had something to do with white people, like how picture-perfect it was. Snow on Christmas, or in general, was just something so vague and abstract to me, something you see only in movies and TV. I also thought the intricate snowflake shapes you’d cut out in class were a total invention, and actual snow just shapeless specks. I’ve learned my lesson since then, since I have seen snow and experienced actual cold temperatures, but not like this, not in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island!
The 71st Sapporo Snow Festival
This last weekend, temperatures had ranged from 30° F (-1° C) at the highest to 1° F (-20° C) at the lowest. Wow! In Fahrenheit, for those who don’t think about it much, water freezes at a sensible 32°. So imagine seeing temperatures almost near 0° F! There were snow sculptures really ALL over the city, and even surrounding cities that I went to, but the main attraction was the ones featured at the Sapporo Snow Festival, spanning perhaps six city blocks along Odori Park in the center of the city.
There were also gigantic snow mural walls, and at night they’d do a project mapping and light show. Neat!
Ice sculptures abounded too, and by morning time the nighttime snowfall lent them incredibly A E S T H E T I C frost accents.
While the snow festival was the main reason I took the two-hour flight north to Hokkaido, other highlights included:
The Sapporo Beer Museum, situated inside a beautiful 19th-century brick warehouse with vintage Sapporo ads dating all the way back to the company’s inception in the late 1800s, exhibits of the vats, equipment, and the story of how they brought Western brewing techniques to Japan, guided tours, and of course beer tasting. In Hokkaido you can buy “Sapporo Classic,” based on the original brew and sold only in Hokkaido, while of course you can buy the regular Sapporo Draft anywhere in Japan.
I also spent some time in Otaru, famed for being the best place in Hokkaido for sushi, a prefecture that already in itself is famous for having some of the best seafood in Japan.
Sapporo also has quite a lively nightlife, especially in Susukino, just a stone’s throw away from the festival in Odori Park. I found a place, Gossip Lounge, where the cover charge also included FIVE drinks, and for just another $1 you could increase that amount to ten. Not only that, but for the first time ever, I actually found a few places that would amazingly let foreigners in for free, to varying results of atmospheres. Just as in Fukuoka or Osaka, Hokkaidans were incredibly friendly and welcoming. And you know, for a city where the temperatures got to -20, at the same time you could hardly have expected to feel so warm.
Two years ago, two major things happened: Nagoya, the capital city of Aichi Prefecture, was voted the least appealing city in Japan (or rather, it was ranked lowest among the major cities for its appeal). Then, in April, another stunning revelation to the world– the opening of freaking LEGOLAND Japan, and really the main reason I decided to head up to Nagoya for the weekend.
Just like the city that houses it, Legoland has had a pretty beleaguered reputation, presumably mainly because tickets used to cost near 6900 yen ($69), despite the park being just 23 acres square. For comparison, Tokyo Disneyland is 115 acres, and a ticket there costs 7500 yen. It’s also freaking Disneyland and should not cost just under ten more dollars than Legoland. Also, Legoland opens at 10 AM and closes at 5 PM. That’s right, F I V E P O S T M E R I D I E M
Anyways, highlights included a LEGO factory tour, which ended with you receiving your own special commemorative brick– did you know that Lego bricks made in 2020 will still fit ones made in 1958? Cool!
Naturally, the main highlight was definitely Miniland, where you can find scale models of many famous Japanese as well as Nagoyan landmarks. It’s all there– Tokyo Skytree, Osaka’s Dotonburi River, many of Kyoto’s famous temples and shrines, and other Japanese crap. Akashi Kaikyo Bridge was sadly not represented, despite being the longest suspension bridge in the world.
Not sure how it is in other Legolands, but only Japanese landmarks and scenery were represented. But hey, I’m not going to Legoland Japan to see a miniature Eiffel Tower or Statue of Liberty or something.
All in all, I’d say Legoland is certainly worth visiting once, if you are interested in Lego at all, and yeah, though the park is indeed tiny you could comfortably spend opening to closing hours in the park. The rides were pretty kiddy but still enjoyable; the main attractions were definitely the scenery. And let’s not forget the cute Lego food!
As for the rest of Nagoya, I agree with Stanzi in that it certainly gets an unfair shake among the rest of its metropolitan brethren– it is certainly a living, breathing city with lots of exciting things to do. Another VERY cool thing we checked out was the…
SCMAGLEV and Railway Park
Trains are, of course, a huge part of your life in Japan. Their reputation for punctuality is no exaggeration: there was one week where the trains in my area were weirdly, consistently 2-3 minutes late every day. Then, when I was synchronizing my watch, I realized that… my watch had been running 3 minutes fast all week. The SCMAGLEV Museum, dedicated to those holy electric snakes, is one of the biggest I’ve been to in Japan, roughly the size of a warehouse, big enough to have 39 full-size train cars on its floor!!
Trains from throughout history are featured, all the way from the late 19th century smokestacks to the latest and greatest bullet trains.
They were all fully preserved and completely enter-able, and it was really interesting to see the little things that changed throughout history, such as the post-WW2 trains having ashtrays in every row and mounted bottle openers since everything was still in glass bottles, and heck, even the toilets changed. Seems like soap and non-squat toilets never made it into Japanese train bathrooms until about the 1970s. Yikes.
Exhibits abound, from replica food in dining cars to fake ticket gates where you can print out your own ticket and go through, complete with fake timeboards, and even SIMULATORS where you can play the role of a Shinkansen operator or a local conductor in control of opening and closing the doors. Unfortunately, by the time we had arrived they were all out for the day, so we didn’t get to check them out. I absolutely want to go back. We were there for only one and a half hours, but I could’ve easily spent a few more hours there. By the way, I am by no means a fanatic about trains or anything, but if you have even the vaguest interest in or appreciation for them then this was, by far, my favorite non-art museum I’ve been to in Japan.
As for the rest of Nagoya, well… it is a Japanese city. It comes with all the neat things that nearly all Japanese cities have, that is good nightlife, temples and shrines certainly worth checking out, massive multi-story shopping malls, arcades abound, and their own specialty food. For Nagoya, it’s sweet sesame sauce-slathered fried chicken, called tebasaki karaage, and miso sauce poured over tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet). Delicious!
So, besides our ryokan stay in part 1, there was a lot of other things to do in Shiga Prefecture. Other things we did in and around Lake Biwa were…
The Katsube Fire Festival
When Emperor Tsuchimikado fell sick sometime in the 13th century, a fortuneteller traced the cause of his sickness to a dragon living in a nearby marsh. The dragon was killed and burned, so every second Saturday of January, the Katsube Himatsuri (Fire Festival) is celebrated to commemorate that event. Oh right, and yeah, the emperor recovered after that happened.
So, to presumably represent said dragon, massive torches made of hay are constructed, hauled into the shrine grounds by men in traditional loincloths, and set aflame. As the torches burn, the men dance in circles and chant.
Small fireworks inside the torches go off just as the torches are spent, signifying their end. Then, their remains are hauled out through the shrine gates. Man, Japanese festivals are so cool.
Mount Hiei via the Biwako Valley Ropeway
Biwako Valley Ropeway is Japan’s fastest, and it takes you to the top of the local Mount Hiei in five minutes. Activities included my first encounter with snow this unconscionably warm winter, and my first time sledding in over 15 years.
We also spent what must have been an hour trying to get the perfect picture on the edge of the infinity pool at Biwako Valley Terrace. Perfect for Instagram! Too bad I don’t have one.
Mount Hiei stands at a modest 2,782 feet (848.1m), which still makes for a great view above the clouds.
The Michigan Cruise
Nothing is more Japanese than an American paddle steamboat straight out of 1880s Mississippi River. You can take a 60, 80, or 120-minute cruise on the fantastic Michigan, four stories and also featuring a bar and live performances.
Keeping with the American theme, the performers even sang in ENGLISH, which is always a surprise. It was mostly Disney music, including Moana’s “How Far I’ll Go,” Mary Poppins’s “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” and Jungle Book’s “I Wan’na Be Like You.”
Much like the Naruto cruise in Awaji, you can also feed the birds here, since they follow the boat the whole time and are pretty unafraid of humans. I had a perfect moment of symbiosis with one particular gull, who snatched my stick of Pretz right out of my hand. They flew a little too close for comfort a lot, even when we were just leaning on the railing looking out at the scenery.
Daiichi Nagisa Flower Park
Conveniently located a several-mile walk next to turbid rivers, Communist-block architectural monstrosities, rice paddies, and homes for getting to a train station in less than half an hour is only a dream, is Daiichi Nagisa Park, where you can catch over 12,000 early-blooming rapeseed flowers.
So now, thanks in large part to Stanzi and others encouraging me to travel more, I’ve made a not-insignificant dent into the prefectures of Japan!
To end on a more interesting note, Ogoto, the immediate area of Shiga that we stayed in, has a little bit of a seedy undertone and history to it. Our lovely 4-star hotel was right behind a huge pachinko parlor, and closer to it still was this:
A “soapland” in the process of being demolished. Soaplands are essentially brothels that just barely, barely skirt by in the eyes of Japanese law. We saw them dotted all over our travels across Shiga and around the lake. Oh well, perhaps on my next solo travel trip ;^)))
“Have you gone to Kyoto? Have you gone to Tokyo? What about the mother lake of Japan?” nobody ever has often asked me. Sticking with my program of travelling only to places that people probably never Google, this last weekend I took a trip to Lake Biwa, the largest lake in Japan, one of the oldest on Earth at 4 million years, and located in the Shiga Prefecture, which is next to Kyoto. It’s shaped like a dog, apparently.
First and absolutely foremost, this was a golden opportunity to stay in one of the nicest, most expensive hotels in my entire life, in a traditional Japanese hotel, or ryokan. My girlfriend Stanzi and I stayed at Kyo Oumi, located in Otsu, the capital of the prefecture, whose population numbers only 300,000. Very inaka!
A stay at a ryokan, especially a fancy one, entails the following amenities:
Your own yukata robe, so you can walk around the hotel and bathe in style.
Kaiseki (multi-course, ultra-traditional) meals, the local delicacies and specialties of the region. For Shiga, it is tai (red seabream); Omi beef, in the same class as Kobe beef; fried and smoked fugu (poisonous blowfish); and of course fresh sashimi, local umeshu (plum wine), and also apparently edible chrysanthemum flowers.
My personal favorite was absolutely the third day’s course, shabu shabu hot pot, where you swish thinly-sliced meat back and forth in boiling broth with your chopsticks, and it cooks almost instantly owing to its thinness. Traditional-traditional Japanese cuisine is such a different animal from regular Japanese cuisine, where you go from fried meat cutlets, curry, and ramen to steamed, boiled, pickled, or uncooked… somethings from the ocean. Absolutely delicious and memorable, but my mind wasn’t blown all across the dog-shaped lake as one might’ve expected.
Finally, the most amazing thing about a ryokan is the room itself.
It was absolutely massive, big enough that I could run laps around it (which I did upon excitement first coming into the room). It is all tatami, featuring the main room, a sitting room, windows with views of the lake, and an onsen-style (sitting) shower complete with a bathtub ACTUALLY big enough to lay down in!
Without a doubt, the pièce de résistance of the entire thing, really the main attraction aside from the kaiseki, is your own. Private. Onsen! That is, your own private hot spring, overlooking Lake Biwa. Absolutely magnificent.
One final note about ryokan hotels, is that there is no bedroom. You sleep on the floor, really wherever you’d like, on a futon. Each time we came back from our kaiseki dinner, the staff had already laid them out for us! Otherwise they are stored in closets, and you can lay them out yourself.
And that was all just the hotel! Lake Biwa had much more to offer than just our accommodation of course, which will follow in part 2… and, unlike Fukuoka, I swear I totally will write one.
Two wrestlers enter the sumo ring. Together they might weigh as much as a BMW Isetta. They drink water from ceremonial cups, served to them by the last opponent they defeated. They throw salt in the ring to spiritually cleanse it. The judges signal they can start– but not yet, the match starts only when both wrestlers put both their fists on the ground, and the timing of that is completely up to them. There’s a lot of psyching out, feinting, and intimidation. They crouch, ready to clash, but then stand up again to the cheers of the crowd. They slap their bellies, stomp on the ground to drive bad spirits away, and some throw even more huge handfuls of salt to really be theatrical. This pre-match metagame is sometimes more intense than the match itself, which often last just a few seconds. This is, of course, sumo, and last-last weekend I took a trip to Fukuoka to watch Sumo Kyushu Basho, or the Kyushu Grand Sumo Tournament, one of four annually around Japan.
Firstly, it was held in Fukuoka Kokusai (International) Center, and you know what’s cool about sumo? You sit on the floor! So Japanese!!!
There’s also chair seating, but those are in the very back rows. We instead opted for a “box seat,” where instead of buying individual seats, you have to buy the whole “box” of floor space and four cushions. The cost was a flat ￥46,400 ($427), regardless of whether one, two, three, or four people sit. These were the third-best seats, with the first being ringside, where you might actually get to experience a sumo wrestler falling on top of you, then the front row, then us.
Sumo tournaments run for about two weeks at a time, and every rikishi wrestles once each day. Their rank/division is determined by their win and loss record by the end of the tournament. Think of it as working the same as relegation in the English Premiere League, and the tournament being a squashed-together season. The current grand champion, or yokozuna, is actually a Mongolian rikishi named Hakuhō. This elusive rank has been given to less than 100 people since 1630!! Adding on to the fun, sumo tournaments start around 8 in the morning, with the low-tier divisions going first, up till 6pm when you get to see the grand champion himself!
There’s just so many neat things I really like about sumo. While I can’t claim to be a super-fan (nor can I with soccer, despite my many references to it thus far), I think that in sport there is beauty in simplicity. When there are so much fewer rules, then you must strive for absolute perfection in every little aspect. Two ways to lose– be pushed out of the ring, or touch the floor with anything but your feet. Despite this, there are over 82 recognized ways to win a sumo bout, which is included in the referee decision at the end as well as statistically tracked. There’s also, amazingly enough, a few foreign sumo wrestlers, the top division having a few dudes from Mongolia, and then Georgia and Bulgaria. Especially impressive because they are required to be fluent in Japanese, take a Japanese name, and live the entire sumo lifestyle.
We got to Kokusai Center around noon because of quite a night the night before, which’ll follow in part two. The stadium was nearly empty for the makushita division, the third-highest and the lowest featured at Kyuushu Basho. Even the wrestlers looked smaller. The gyōji (referees), whose outfits change from tier to tier, are barefoot and their robes a lot less elaborate. Compared to the top division, it seemed like the bouts lasted a little longer on average, as well as a LOT less pre-match feinting. It also seemed a lot less serious; there was one particular bout where the wrestlers were just staring each other down, and the gyōji yelled out something that sounded like “Wake up!” which even got some laughs from the crowd.
Yet another just absolutely badass thing about sumo– the gyōji at the topmost rank, called tate-gyōji, carry daggers in their belt to signify their willingness to commit suicide if they make the wrong decision. But as a perk, they DO get more elaborate robes, as well as wearing tabi socks and zōri straw sandals instead of barefoot. From what I’ve read, though, they don’t actually need to commit suicide if they make a wrong call, and no one has done it in modern history. At the current time there is only one referee/gyōji at this level, named Hideki Imaoka.
Anyways, the Center didn’t start getting packed until around the afternoon, near the end of the second-tier jūryō and the beginning of the top-tier division, makuuchi. One of the first things that happens is all 42 wrestlers of makuuchi file in, wearing banners made by their sponsors. They bow one by one as they are introduced, make a circle around the sumo ring, clap, pull up on their banners, and raise their hands to the air. Perhaps calling the attention of the gods to bring prosperity to their sponsors?
In the same vein, before every bout a few attendants will circle around the ring holding up the match sponsors’ banners. Another small TERRIBLY interesting point– the rikishi are referred to west vs. east, rather than left vs. right. Seeing as each makuuchi wrestler wrestles 15 times, if their wins outnumber their losses, they’ll be promoted within the division. And vice versa, they may be demoted, or perhaps even relegated (at least I assume they would be). Simple, simple!
There was so much that went on, compounded with my bad habit of writing blog posts WAY after the fact, that it’s difficult to me to lay out what happened chronologically, so a few highlights:
Finding that slapping is allowed, as well as open-palm thrusts. Some matches were basically just giant slap-fests, so intense that the sounds echoed across the stadium.
Seeing Yuta Tomokaze get injured falling out of the ring, and being taken away in an (admittedly, comically large) wheelchair. In fact, it was pretty strange. After he fell out of the ring, he didn’t get up. It took a few minutes of confused silence before anyone even came to help (and they didn’t look like paramedics), and even then Tomokaze mostly had to get up by himself. It looked like he either broke or dislocated his leg in the fall from the ring. Luckily, not career-ending, but he did have to withdraw from the tournament.
The final match of the day, which on this one was Hakuhō versus Hayato Daieisho, happened around 6pm. It was actually over in less than a few seconds: the refereed decision was Daieisho won by oshi-dashi, or by simply pushing his opponent out of the ring. And wow, the grand champion had lost! Now it is day 12 of the tournament, and Hakuhō is currently 11-1. So we were privileged enough to witness his only loss thus far. Wow! If this had been the last day, and Hakuhō had lost the match, there’s a tradition of the crowd straight-up picking up their and throwing their cushions at the ring. This also kick-ass practice was banned 11 years ago, but people still do it, Shinto Buddha bless them.
And lastly, the day’s action is concluded with yet another ceremony, this one called yumitori-shiki. A wrestler from the makushita division twirls a huge bamboo bow in the air and sweeps the ground with it to even further drive away bad spirits and cleanse the ring.
Coming away from the tournament, you (slash no one) may be wondering, “But Patrick, who is your favorite wrestler after all?” And of course, I’d have to respond “Why, it’s the world fourth-ranked Hideki Asanoyama!” because of all the wrestlers we ran into outside, he was nice enough to let me take a picture with him. Now, I’m a fan for life!
Himeji Castle was built in 1333. Since then, it has never been burned down, and it survived the bombings of World War II, even as the city of Himeji himself was leveled twice, leaving it as one of only twelve “original” castles left in Japan. Apparently, at one point over 5,000 existed. Fret not, the Allies did not destroy exactly 4,988 castles. A lot of them were lost in, you know, regular war between shogunates in Japan back when that was en vogue, and utterly bizarrely, many were just straight-up intentionally destroyed as part of the Meiji Restoration, that period of modernization following Japan’s opening itself to the world again. Then, though yours truly has visited the area and park several times, this past Saturday was the first time that I actually went inside the castle.
First off, the way up the castle is winding and rather steep– a way to force attackers to have to take as convoluted a route as possible, while at the whole time keeping them in clear/open sight from inside the castle. Those holes you see in different shapes are sama, their being different shapes for different ways to shoot at invaders: oblong for bows and round/triangular/square for different types of guns. I wonder if way back when, Tanaka-Samurai ever tried to fire a blunderbuss out of a arquebus hole or something and his friends made fun of him all day at work the next day. Just another day at the office!
I also forgot to mention that Himeji Castle is one of the best-preserved castles in Japan. The all-wood interior is still intact, and you have to take your shoes off before traversing up all six floors to the top. Which, by the way, you are given a plastic bag for to carry in until you reach the other end, a pretty common practice in shrines, temples, and other such historical places. Even inside, you can still see how invader-centric the construction and layout is. Stairs are very steep and narrow, and there’s even rooms with “high windows” designed for the express purpose of allowing gun smoke to escape should there ever be such a melee. I hit my head on a low ceiling going up one of the floors, so I guess that’s where I would’ve died had I been invading. Much better than my unfortunate friend Stanzi, who had foolishly stopped to take a picture around one of the sama holes. Well, I did too, but I was much more ninja-esque about it of course.
It’s finally cooling down from summer in Japan, so that may have contributed, but there was just amazingly refreshing, constant wind flow through the windows at the very top. It was definitely a lot more pleasant a temperature compared to outside, and I find it really fascinating to think about how things like summer climates affect architecture and building design, as well as what passive/electricity-less solutions existed before A/C was invented, such as the windcatcher towers of the Middle East. Re: the other point, older Japanese apartments and schools, for example, all doors directly communicate with large sliding, screen-less windows to create channels for airflow. I really couldn’t tell what exactly made the air so refreshing in the castle aside from us being so high up, but I’m sure there was more to it than just there coincidentally being a breeze that day.
The interior was, again, all-wood, and pretty barren. Obviously, none of the original furniture or whatever else that may have decorated the inside remains. Just a lot of big, flat, empty wooden rooms. I really do wonder what this castle would’ve looked like in its heyday– there’s just so much usable space. What were the entertainment rooms like? What would most of the castle rooms have in them/be used for anyways? The only relic that remained was an incredibly well-preserved flat screen TV.
One of the only rooms I saw for whose purpose was obvious was this armory.
Another, located in the “west bailey”, another section of the castle devoted to living quarters, contained the only tatami room to be seen, and this very creepy statue of Princess Sen, famous resident and wife of the original owner of the castle, Honda Tadatoki.
Besides the history, the castle is also amazing from an architectural standpoint. Above is the interior framework of the castle. And also, did you know, Japanese castles are built without nails? Instead, they’re completely made out of interlocking wooden beams. If I’m not mistaken, it was borne out of necessity because the quality of Japanese metal was pretty poor. I must admit, high quality woodwork is a lot more impressive than high quality metal… existing.
I also wondered what the actual surrounding area of the castle would’ve looked like in its time, and there was a nice miniature scale model to answer that question, and a map as well. Neat!
Anyways, at the very top floor of the castle had been a small shrine, which I totally forgot to take a picture of. It was apparently moved from somewhere else on site. For modern times, our tour ended with the prospect of making a wish to the protector of Himeji Castle, who’d kept it safe for nearly 700 years. In less modern times, who knows what awaited a plucky samurai who managed to make it past the moat, gunports, stairs, and ambush rooms and made it to the top?
A massive earthquake has struck Akashi. Or perhaps, a tsunami. Evacuate! To your nearest disaster center! And this area’s happens to be my very own Higashi-Harima High School. Today* was a mass disaster drill, where students gathered in the gym and practiced things like using blankets as stretchers, getting a taste of hinanshoku, or disaster food, and how to make platforms out of boxes, I guess. Green-jumpsuited members of the Nihon Bousaishi (Japan Disaster Prevention) Society were also present to look cool and show us the proper way to do things.
It started in the morning, with all the kids running onto the school field to line up and take attendance. The atmosphere was very lively, kids were chatty and laughing, and we even had a few photographers there as if this were a really exciting, commemorable event. Everyone was in their athletic clothes, except for me in a shirt and tie. Opening ceremony was supposed to be the same day but it got cancelled for some reason.
After that, we went onward to the gym. Several members of the community had also shown up, mostly the elderly since this was a weekday morning. The good Bousaishi people (whose logo is the photo atop this post) gave us a peppy lecture about proper disaster practices. I couldn’t pick up much, sorry to say, so far all I know they could’ve been saying “cleanse the sinners with tsunamis” or “ALTs should jump into earthquakes” and I would just be nodding vigorously.
Despite this being a drill, we were still given real disaster rations and encouraged to consume them. It was a bottle of “Postonic Water,” basically like unflavored Gatorade, and some incredibly bland fried rice. I think there was some chicken, vegetables, mushrooms? But almost no flavor at all. Even plain Japanese rice has more flavor– the Bousaishi people explained that disaster food should be easy to digest and as inoffensive as possible. Looks like the only disaster that day was the food, haha! Really, I appreciated it, of course. It was homemade by volunteer moms, and they had to have made hundreds of these for all the students and community members attending.
After the distribution of blankets to each row of kids, the bousaishi members demonstrated how to make them into improvised stretchers– lay a kid in the middle, and roll it up on both sides towards them. Wow!
Then, how to make platforms from cardboard boxes. Put together, they are surprisingly capable of supporting several schoolgirls, or schoolboys. Perhaps it’s for an impromptu hospital bed. Whoaaaa!
Anyways, that’s pretty much it. Stay safe out there!
* This actually took place a month ago, but I hadn’t published it till now.