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 Thus Far: Kinosaki Hot Springs

Would you travel four hours in order to get naked around a bunch of strangers? If you ask me, the answer would be “absolutely!” In a country that holds 10% of the entire world’s volcanoes, this also means that selfsame volcanoes are heating up and mineralizing wonderful spring water for your bathing pleasure. There are thousands of onsen, or hot springs/public baths, throughout Japan, both indoor and outdoor, and this weekend I made a trip up to Kinosaki Onsen, on the north coast of the Hyogo Prefecture, to enjoy a few.

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After a grueling, though still physically comfortable 4-hour train ride, we were first greeted by a quaint (read: frustratingly primitive) train station where you have to pay in cash for transportation instead of the usual tappable, reloadable IC card. That’s okay, though, there’s a very nice anime lady welcoming us to Kinosaki!

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In front of Kinosaki Station.

Kinosaki is an onsen resort town, home to dozens of onsens along their main street, all within walking distance and set amongst scenic stone bridges overlooking a river teeming with koi, and traditional Japanese restaurants where best-of-your-life meals await. Since this is an onsen town, it is de rigeur to walk around in kimono and wooden block sandals (geta), and your hotel will even provide these for you, free of charge!

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Edited slightly for increased aesthetics.

At each onsen, you walk in, take off your shoes at the entrance, and head on over to the locker room. They, and the baths themselves, are separated by sex, and there are a few simple rules to follow: one, you must be naked. Two, you must shower before actually entering the water. Thirdly, you can only take with you a small towel, which you can use to cover yourself if you so wish, but more than that it’s for drying off. And don’t dip it into the water either.

If you felt a little nervous about being naked around other men, well, it’s pretty easy to cast that aside straightaway, because the moment you walk into the tatami-matted locker room, you’ll immediately see guys casually walking around completely in the nude, as well as guys dressing down to get to that state. Walk through another door, and there are rows of sit-down showers, with stools and shampoo/soap provided. Wash well, put your lone towel on your head (the cool way) or over your modesty, and head on over to the many facilities offered, from steam saunas to mineral pools and private one-man tubs.

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Inside Goshono-yu. Not my picture as you can’t take picture-taking devices with you. Credit goes to Shogo Nishiyama

Take some time to ponder the age-old question, “could I possibly be any more relaxed?” as you soak in the hot, silky, and mineral-rich waters of Japan, blessed by the heat and material bounties of Earth itself. It is said that the dozens of onsen around Kinosaki all have different specialties– one has waters good for fertility, another has waters good for successful marriage, another for general fortune, and so on. We did not check which ones were which, so I couldn’t tell you whether you’re reading the words of a luckier man today, or a more fertile man. At this stage in my life, I’d rather the former.

After some time, you’ve realized you shouldn’t get too comfortable and basically die here, it’s time to head to the next one. Put on your hotel yukata (male kimono) and wooden sandals, and clop on over to the next one. Yukata are fashionable as hell, as well as being practical for onsens, since it’s a robe that takes seconds to put on, and it helps dry you as you walk since you don’t wear anything but underwear underneath. Just make sure to tie your obi (belt-sash) behind or to the right, as wearing it in front was originally associated with prostitutes, and wrap the yukata left-side over right. The other way around is for funerals.

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In case you were wondering, geta wooden sandals are slightly more comfortable than they look, and are in fact superior to pathetic Western shoes– just kidding, they’re blocks of freaking wood, so they are not really comfortable either. They were a little awkward to walk in, and I had a feeling that you’re supposed to walk differently than with normal shoes. I also nearly fell over any time I had to bend down to pick something up. I’m sure I just have to learn the technique and/or practice, and in no time I’ll be running full-speed and striking down peasants with my katana.

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The exterior of Goshono-yu.

All in all, we visited three onsens, one we nicknamed “Splash Zone” for the drunk guy trying to pick a fight by deliberately splashing us (another behavior considered very rude), in actuality Goshono-Yu, Mandara-yu, and Ichino-yu. Since I couldn’t take pictures of the interior baths owing to the no-cameras rule, take a look at the tourist website!

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That concludes the onsen portion of my post, and let me make a brief, very honorable mention to the other Kinosaki specialty, snow crab.

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Yes, it was delicious. Quite possibly the best crab I’ve ever had in my life. It was fresh, of excellent flakiness, succulent, and tasted like it had been *just*! perfectly salted.

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Featuring the ” we” component. Clockwise from top right, myself, Siseko, Danien, and Cameron.

Wash it all down with sake, and that’s sayonara to a supremely blissful experience at Kinosaki.

Christmas and New Year’s in Japan

KFC, disease-curing water, ominous fortunes, bar-hopping in Osaka, traditional New Year’s osechi-ryori, the reappearance of glorious festival food– the holidays in Japan were just as magical as they can be in the US.

“Kentucky for Christmas”

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The order form at my local KFC.

Although not as widespread as, say, the idea of turkey or ham for Christmas is in the US, it’s the closest you can get to the idea of a “traditional” Japanese Christmas dinner in a nation that’s 1.5% Christian. But don’t be mistaken– it absolutely is a thing, with reservations opening up weeks in advance, and hours-long lines on Christmas day if you failed to make one. KFC even offers a bottle of “shanmerry” (their words) alongside their whimsical Christmas-design buckets. I made my reservation about a week in advance, and even by then, they had already run out of said buckets and said champagne.

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Grungy 1980s aesthetic courtesy of Polaroid.

How was it? Well, they don’t change the recipe just for Christmas, but you better believe that combining that warm Christmas drunkenness with greasy, salty fried chicken makes for simultaneously one of the best and worst meals you’ll ever have in your life.

Osechi-Ryori: New Year’s Cuisine

The prevalence of Christmas in Japan is more for marketing and as a couple’s holiday than for religion or family. Instead, New Year’s Day is the most significant holiday in the Japanese calendar. The first part of this is osechi-ryori, traditional New Year’s food. It always comes in a special box, and although you traditionally cook it yourself, it has become much more common to order it instead. Most of the food is pickled, boiled, steamed, and the like: basically, food that could’ve been prepared a few days beforehand and would’ve kept well until the actual holiday.

img-2881It is, of course, best enjoyed with sake.

Hatsumode: Hiraoka Shrine and Saijinja

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Hatsumode is the tradition of visiting your family’s shrine to make prayers and offerings. Each shrine houses a particular god, and there’s a specific way to make a prayer:

  1. Throw a coin into the donation box at the front.
  2. Bow twice.
  3. If there’s a bell, ring it.
  4. Clap twice, to get their attention.
  5. Tell them your deepest desires and wishes.
  6. Bow once more as thanks.
Hiraoka Shrine, my girlfriend’s hometown shrine in Osaka. The rope in the middle rings a bell.

My girlfriend, her grandparents, and I also took a short hike up to Saijinja Shrine in Nara, famed for its mountain spring water with healing qualities.

linecamera-shareimageThe water was dispensed from this stone fountain thing, where people were waiting in line with empty bottles or standing by with metal cups provided by the shrine. It tasted fresh, very mineral-y, and exactly how you would imagine the boulder above to taste, but of course there was no sediment or anything like that. I definitely did feel a little more invigorated, enough to decide to buy some of it bottled– only 100 yen ($1)!

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Click to listen to the meditative sounds of Saijinja Spring!

There was also a bamboo stick piped into the spring, where you could listen to the wonderfully comforting sound of dripping water, echoing deep inside the recesses of of the Earth. Forgiving the background noise of passersby, you can listen a recording I made here!

IMG-6899.jpgYou can also get your fortune, omikuji, at shrines. They are printed on tiny scrolls of paper, and the one you get is determined by shaking around a bunch of sticks inside a wooden box. One stick comes out, and the number printed on it tells you which one to ask for from the shrine maiden. Now, these are the most legitimate fortunes I have ever received: firstly, they contain many different sections, from romantic relationships to your studies to that thing you lost. And they are not always positive or platitudinous either– one year, Rika’s mother got one that essentially said “You will never be happy or successful.” Mine told me to stop eating junk food, and the one I got for my friend told him to stop being lazy, and that the “person you are waiting for, will not come.” Dream-crushing fortunes, now that’s something I can get behind!

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Photo credit goes to Rika’s aunt.

For the price of another coin, you can wash down the sorrows of an outrageous fortune with a pour of sake.

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A shrine maiden pours sake in the background.

Hiraoka’s offering was very light and a little syrupy, with a hint of flowery sweetness.

img-3220Festival food makes its reappearance too– one of these is tamago senbei, which translates to the much less sexy-sounding “egg rice cracker.” It’s a shrimp-flavored rice cracker topped with takoyaki sauce, crunchy bits of tempura batter, and an egg fried sunny-side up, finished off with a generous squeeze or two of Japanese mayo. If you like eggs, or delicious food at all, I’m sure you’d love tamago senbei. As a bonus, the eggs are sometimes fried in fun shapes, like hearts.

That was all New Year’s Day, January 1st. As for New Year’s Eve and the countdown to the beginning of 2019, it’s very much a party atmosphere like anywhere else. I spent it outside a club in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. The name and the details, I can no longer recall.

26 Things You Can Do and See at a Japanese Convenience Store: From A to Z

To see the heights to which the concept of convenience can reach, look no further than the humble, ubiquitous konbini— the Japanese convenience store. To avoid saying konbini 800 times, I will just namedrop all the chains I’ve ever seen. Here are 26 things you can see/do should you ever find yourself in one:

  1. American dogs. Konbinis feature both American and Japanese junk food. At the hot food section, you may be able to buy an American dog, i.e. a corn dog.

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    A bento lunch from 7-Eleven. Includes rice, pickled radish, Hamburg steak (basically Salisbury steak), a piece of fried chicken, a potato croquette, a piece of salmon, and tamagoyaki (rolled omelette). Will set you back about $4.70.
  2. Bento boxes. They’ll heat it up for you, too!
  3. Cash withdrawal. Every konbini has an ATM, which are necessary in the land where banks close at 3 PM on weekdays, are not open on weekends, and are much less widespread than 7-Eleven and friends.
  4. Dine in. Some konbinis have small dining areas so you don’t have to wait another moment to enjoy that steaming bento box!img_3801
  5. Erotic literature. Are you, too, a Harvard-educated man/woman who still enjoys the high-class art of printed pornography? Then support your local giant-boob artist and head down to Lawson’s today.new doc 2018-12-14 08.35.01-1 (1)
  6. Fried chicken… for Christmas. Did you know that traditional Christmas dinner in Japan is… Kentucky Fried Chicken? Reservations open weeks in advance, and if you miss the deadline then it’s okay, you can still go with the equally-as-good konbini versions.
  7. Get your Amazon package. You can order things online and have them shipped to your local Sunkus for pickup instead. This may be beneficial because deliverymen will not leave packages if you are not home, you have to deal with the dreaded redelivery notice instead.
  8. Hot bottled drinks. In addition to cold bottled drinks, there will also be a hot bottle section to get your portable tea/coffee fix.5f960e39-540c-42d8-a6c1-c63117a3f26d
  9. Instant ramen. If you weren’t really a fan of it before, you’ll probably become one once you’re here. From seafood to curry to Pringles, the possibilities are limitless.
  10. John Player Specials. Likely one of the coolest-named cigarettes ever, konbinis also offer an outside smoking area where you can enjoy it. Unlike the US, where smoking is allowed nowhere indoors but in practice is allowed EVERYWHERE outdoors, Japan is the opposite. Smoking on the street is a kind of no-no, but there are many designated outdoors smoking spaces and indoor smoking rooms.

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    This bag includes 3 miso Kit-Kats! See bottom right.
  11. Kit-Kats. It’s popular to bring back strawberry or green tea kit-kats as a souvenir for people back home. But, that’s only the tip of the iceberg– there’s flavors that we in the States cannot even fathom, from pumpkin to miso and wasabi.
  12. Lemon Coke. And to round it out, there’s peach and even coffee Coke!
  13. Mail packages and lettersScrew the post office, come to Daily Yamazaki instead!
  14. Nigiri sushi. I believe American 7-Elevens also sell sushi, but for some weird reason I can’t figure out, there’s just something about sushi in Japan that seems less shady. And would you believe, in general I have found cheap sushi in Japan to be just “OK,” not much different from cheap sushi in the US.
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    Utsunomiya City omiyage. These are rice crackers in the shape of gyoza dumplings, which they are famous for.
  15. Omiyage. Omiyage are regional souvenirs, usually in the form of individually-wrapped cookies, rice crackers, pastries, etc. with a flavor/design unique to that region. It is a societal expectation to bring back omiyage for your coworkers whenever going somewhere. For this reason, many konbinis in touristy/well-traveled areas will sell such souvenir boxes.
  16. Postage stamps. You can buy stamps at the konbini too, how exhilarating!
  17. Quaff a beer or three outside. Public drinking is not against the law in Japan, so aside from perhaps a few glances, you are free to sit on the curb and slug one back with the tomodachi, unharried by policemen.
  18. Rice balls. Onigiri (Japanese rice balls) are the grab-and-go equivalent of the sandwich. They come with different fillings from mere seaweed to salmon to bulgogi or pork and mayo.img_2625
  19. Strong. Even better than beer is Strong, a vodka-based carbonated cocktail-in-a-can, boasting percentages as high as 9%. If you’ll be drinking in Japan, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be pre-gaming with a Strong or two. That’s the strength of two standard drinks for less than $2.
  20. Trash cans. Public trash cans, like out on the street, simply do not exist. You don’t even find them in most public bathrooms (which is why many people still carry handkerchiefs). Even people climbing Mount Fuji are told to take their trash to the peak and back with them. Why so few trash cans? Apparently, they were taken away in response to a 1995 terrorist attack involving nerve gas bombs being dropped in places on the subway– it’s one less place for terrorists to plant something in the future.
  21. Utility bill payment. Your utility bills come with bar codes that can also be scanned and paid for in cash at the local konbini. That’s how I keep my water, gas, and electricity flowing every month.

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    The Ponta Pointo card, used at Lawson’s.
  22. Verify your point balance. Every chain has their own rewards card, of course featuring a cute animal mascot. You can earn points towards future purchases, and even win prizes like stuffed animals during special promotions!
  23. Warm up. Found yourself woefully underdressed for winter? Stop in FamilyMart and equip yourself with some gloves, a beanie, or a scarf.
  24. Xerox a document. Most konbinis have printer stations.
  25. Yogurt soda. Carbonated Yakult? Yes! Yes!
  26. Zoo tickets. Concert tickets, sports tickets: anything you can buy online, you can also arrange to pick it up at the konbini.