Hokkaido & The Sapporo Snow Festival

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

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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.

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There were also gigantic snow mural walls, and at night they’d do a project mapping and light show. Neat!

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Ice sculptures abounded too, and by morning time the nighttime snowfall lent them incredibly A E S T H E T I C accents of frost.

While the snow festival was the main reason I took the two-hour flight north to Hokkaido, other highlights included:

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An intimate jazz concert in Susukino featuring Mori Yamato, voted the best young guitarist in the WORLD for the year 2019.

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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.

FOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOD

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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.

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Clockwise from top left: revolving sushi at Hanamaru, considered one of the best in Japan, soup curry, otoro (well-marbled tuna), miso butter ramen, kaisendon (sashimi bowl), stuffed crab shell, and some cute parfaits, as Hokkaido is also known for its dairy.

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 (but not others), 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.

Travels in Shiga, Part 2

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

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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.

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Before…

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.

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During…

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.

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After.

Mount Hiei via the Biwako Valley Ropeway

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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.

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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.

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Mount Hiei stands at a modest 2,782 feet (848.1m), which still makes for a great view above the clouds.

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The Michigan Cruise

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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.

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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.”

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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

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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.

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An actual candid of me mid-taking off my scarf. Thanks to Stanzi for the picture!

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!

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LIVED: Hyogo, Osaka. VISITED: Kyoto, Nara, Tokushima. STAYED: Fukuoka, Hiroshima, Okayama, Shiga, Mie, Shizuoka, Tokyo, Chiba

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:

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Thanks to Stanzi for this one too.

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 ;^)))

The Higashi-Harima Culture Festival

Oh, how time flies! I can hardly imagine a more idyllic lifestyle than that of a high schooler in the Japanese countryside. For better or for worse, your school becomes your life– from so-called “club activities” that practice till sundown, through vacations and holidays but never rain; sports days of mass competition; school festivals complete with food booths and massive banners nearly 20 feet tall; to finally, random days where students don’t have classes at all and can just have fun, be it a school-wide dodgeball tournament or spending some time playing an ancient poetry card-matching game.

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This last Thursday, June 6th, was Higashi-Harima’s bunkasai, or culture festival. It’s the equivalent of an American school fair, but with a little more school spirit and performances instead of rides. It’s important to preface that each grade, from first years to third, are divided into “homerooms” of about 30 students each, and from the very beginning of their school life they are encouraged to stick together and be the best 1-1, 2-6, etc. they can be. Within the first week of being a freshman at Higashi Harima, you are thrust into a school spirit battle with your fellow homeroom classmates, where new students spend a whole day learning how to sing the school’s alma mater, how to march in unison, and discovering how many times your entire class can skip a massive jump rope.

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On this same day, classes also chose which modern Japanese era (a brief explanation of eras can be found in my blog post here) they wanted to represent, anywhere from the Meiji period of the 1860s to the current Reiwa period. Based on this, classes created massive mosaics to be displayed in front of the school, probably measuring 20 feet tall and made up of many individual little paper squares. Classes also made their own flags for display in the gym during the other festivities, of which they could pick any theme they want, which is the picture at the top of this post.

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Not sure which Japanese era dinosaurs are from.

As for the performances, they of course took place in the gym, with appearances from broadcasting club, who emcees every school event, to drama and band, to my very own English club! English Speaking Society (ESS) is an extra responsibility nearly everyone on the JET Program takes on, and naturally they must perform at every year’s bunkasai. What exactly they do is up to the ALT in charge. Last year, my predecessor and they put on a production of The Little Prince, and this year I decided with my rudimentary editing skills to do a live dubbing of famous anime scenes. I removed all sound, added new music, sound effects, and Foley, while the students read their prepared translations as the characters on screen. So, imagine your favorite anime, translated by real Japanese people, read by real Japanese people, but in English, and devoid of any emotion whatsoever. That is to say, even if kids who joined English club are presumably interested in English, it’s still not enough to get them to say a line like “Ow, that hurt” with any kind of verisimilitude or effort whatsoever.

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Also co-starring me as Blueno, a villain from One Piece.

By the way, another worthy thing to mention, the quintessential Japanese experience of being miserable in the summer. Like the rest of the school, the gym has no A/C. The only way to cool it at all is to just open the windows. Performances have to take place with the lights down so you can see the stage lighting, so all the doors and windows must be shut up. It couldn’t have been more than 80 F (26.6 C) that day at the hottest, but with humidity also in the 80s, it felt like a broken sauna. The this-sucks-so-much-it’s-funny part was waiting for them to fix technical issues with showing the ending video, so we got to bake in a dark, humid gymnasium for 20 minutes just watching the staff unplug cables and slowly troubleshoot their Windows 7 laptops at the front of the gym. Despite this, students I have asked overwhelmingly prefer summer over winter.

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Students also set up booths selling standard festival food fare, from A to churro and yakisoba. It was a fun day, and you can tell that, at least for that day, everyone was loving their lives. Myself included!

Hiraoka Matsuri: A Japanese Festival

The beating of drums can be heard from miles away. Dozens of men chant and carry around a taikodai, a mobile drum platform as heavy as a car. It’s to celebrate the local god’s birthday, and it’s quite a spectacle to behold.

This festival was in Hiraoka, my girlfriend’s hometown. Each taikodai represents a different section of her hometown, so they are all uniquely decorated, and carried only by residents of that part. Taikodai roughly translates to “drum platform,” conveyed on large logs and housing, of course, a big drum in the center, where several men also sit and beat on it. They parade up and down the pathways of Hiraoka Shrine, to the adulation of many townsmen and women alike, who’ve been attending this festival since they were children.

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It was Packed with a capital P– shoulder-to-shoulder wherever you went. There were at least a dozen taikodai, and as each one went down the street, the other residents would follow. There were designated leaders on both sides, and when they blew their whistles the men would turn the entire thing around. Wow, was it impressive! You can tell just how heavy these are, from how much you can see the carriers struggling. It’s so miserable that it’s tradition to get drunk, because how else can you carry a freaking car on your shoulder? On top of that, the shrine grounds were built into a hill, so you get to see them do a half-drunken, completely human-powered, about-face turn on a 30-degree incline! More than once, some men would lose their footing and they would sway side to side, pushing the crowd into each other and almost knocking over food stalls. It was awesome.

Speaking of food stalls, if you will allow the comparison, a lot of the festival reminded me of LA County Fair, or American county fairs in general. There were whole grilled squids, takoyaki (fried balls of batter with octopus, topped with Kewpie mayonnaise and a teriyaki-like sauce), okonomoyaki (savory cabbage pancakes, usually with pork, squid, and a fried egg), yakisoba (stir fried noodles in soy sauce), karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken), freshly-baked rice crackers, castella (Japanese sponge cake), taiyaki (fish-shaped pastries often stuffed with sweet beans or custard) and hell, even corn dogs and French fries. Point is, there was a heck of a lot of traditional Japanese comfort and junk food, and there were even booths to catch goldfish and various games like shooting galleries.

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Of course, it is all to honor the local god to whom Hiraoka Shrine is home. A dazzling spectacle, steeped in hundreds of years of tradition.

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A closeup of Rika’s hometown taikodai.

Japanese Sports Day

This last-last Thursday (13th) was Sports Day, where the entire school comes together to kick each other’s asses at various activities and… sports. It’s a national tradition practiced from elementary to high school, basically a random (but meticulously well-planned) opportunity for kids to relax and have fun. At my school, this repertoire of revelry ranged from relay races, to dance competitions, to my first time witnessing the Japanese game called kibasen (cavalry fight).

The entire school was divided into four different teams, in this case into colors. Sports Day begins with these teams marching onto the high school track, wearing matching headbands and waving flags made by the students themselves. When I say marching, they really are marching– high knees to a military-esque anthem played by the band. The Japanese, prefecture’s, and school’s flag were raised on the flagpole, and then each sports team marched onto the track, dressed in their appropriate equipment and uniform. It was INCREDIBLY aesthetic, like something out of The Great Escape but without the Nazis.

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I can’t tell you why it took me two weeks to get around to posting, so since I already forgot half of what happened, here’s the highlights:

Kibasen (“cavalry fight”)

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Blue manages a last minute hat-snatch, clinching the victory!

Three people under you serve as the horse, carrying you on their shoulders as the cavalryman. It’s basically chicken fight, but with a cooler name and even higher stakes. The match takes place inside a small circular ring, and the goal is to either push your opponent out or to snatch the bandanna off their head. For safety, both fighters are surrounded by teachers to spot and catch anyone that may fall off their “horse.”

Tug-of-Pole

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Left: poles won. Center and right, teams fighting over poles.

Two teams stand across the field from each other. In the middle, several long metal poles. The starting pistol fires, and the teams do battle to try to pick up and retrieve as many poles as possible. Once they cross their own line with a pole, it’s theirs. They are rather large, so you need several people to pick one up and maneuver it.

Mass Calisthenics

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Another moment that makes you go, “damn, Japan is aesthetic,” the entire school did exercise in unison to music. It was mesmerizing to watch.

Relay Races

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No sports day would be complete without a relay race. There were several events, from good old-fashioned relay sprints, to jump-rope running, tire dragging, three-legged races, to the much anticipated teachers vs. students. I ran 100 meters in the relay myself, but sorry to say the teachers were no match for the best of the track-and-field kids.

Tug of War

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Another classic, it’s no-frills, honest-to-God tug of war.

Besides these, there was also a dance competition, where each team performed their own choreography, mass jump-rope to see how many the whole team could skip without messing up, and even an awards ceremony at the very end. It was a great day, a great spectacle to watch, and we got to enjoy a day of no class to boot.

I regret to report that I have no idea which team won.