Staying in a Ryokan on Japan’s Mother Lake

“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.

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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:

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Your own yukata robe, so you can walk around the hotel and bathe in style.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Grand Sumo Tournament in Fukuoka

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!!!

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Get cozy! Featuring my friends Siseko and Jake.

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.

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Grand champion Hakuhō (right) throws cleansing salt in the pre-match ritual– this was our view, no zoom!

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!

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Hakuhō (center, white loincloth) performs his ring-entrance ceremony.

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.

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At the lowest, makushita, divison. Note how the referee’s robes only go to his knees.

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.

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Hideki Imaoka, currently the only active sumo ref at the top division. Credit goes to Ogiyoshishan of Flickr.

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.

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At jūryō, the second-tier division. Still fairly empty in the stands.

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?

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On the very right is Tochinoshin Tsuyoshi (Levan Gorgadze), from Georgia, one of seven foreign rikishi in the makuuchi division.

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.
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  • 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.

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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.

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Asanoyama on the right, his attendant on the left. He weighs over 171 kg (376 lb), while I clock in at about 78 kg (172 lb).

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!

 

 

 

Undotaikai: Japanese Sports Day II

Read about last year’s Sports Day here!

Since I’m here a second year, I also got to experience my second undōtaikai, or Sports Day, which, by far, has been my favorite Japanese high school tradition I’ve experienced. From the students marching in to military cadence, to 40-student dance routines choreographed completely amongst themselves, it’s an entire day filled with spectacle, fun, aesthetic, and of course sports. I’m also glad that I can finally give it proper justice, as ours occurred just less than a week ago while last year’s post had been written nearly two weeks after the fact.

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Clockwise from top left: red team, yellow, white, and blue.

Sports Day kicks off around 9 AM with the student council members marching onto the track with the flags of Japan, of Hyogo prefecture, and of the school itself. The entire school is divided into four teams– for us, it was red, yellow, white, and blue, and each team is made up of at least one or two classes from each of the three grades. They all, of course, sport matching bandanas and flags made by the classes themselves. Everyone lines up in formation, and the principal opens the event with a speech. We all rise for the national anthem as the same three flags from earlier are raised on their poles.

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Note: the color on the back of their PE shirts indicate their years, not teams. First-years are red, second-years green, and third-years blue.

Following that is rajio taisō, or radio calisthenics, all done in unison. It’s to this exact track and this exact sequence, of a man counting with some classical-sounding piano music in the background. You’ll find that military discipline will be a common theme running throughout the event– and speaking of running, there will be a LOT of relay races throughout the day. I still have no idea whatsoever how the brackets work, how points are calculated, or in fact, anything at all about this event that I’m supposed to be explaining to you. I just know there’s a lot of moving around involved.

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I’m the black blur passing all the pathetically slow tiny schoolgirls.

The first few events are regular baton-passing relay races. There’s also mixed relay where for the first 50 meters, they have to skip rope while running, for the next crawl under a net, carry a heavy sandbag, and finally link up with five other students for an epic six-legged race finale. There’s also teachers versus students, which I got to run 50 meters in. I was told that it would be at 3 PM, but when I went to the bathroom around 2ish PM a teacher came running up to me to tell me that the schedule has suddenly changed and I have to run NOW. I was passed the baton pretty much as soon as I got to the track– it sums up what it’s like to be a JET/ALT pretty well, in that last-minute changes and heads-ups will be the bane of your professional life. In fact, the official motto of the Japanese school-ALT relations is “Haha WHOOPS!”

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Before lunch is the dance competition, for which the third-years from each team has prepared their own choreographies to their own chosen playlists, performed in their own chosen matching outfits. I thought red was the clear winner, and naturally I was so mesmerized I didn’t take any pictures or videos of it. The music is usually a mix of J-pop and American pop, though re: Western music I feel like Japan is just around a decade behind. Bruno Mars’s “Marry You” showed up twice. And nightclubs here still play “Shots” by LMFAO really often.

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Anyways, now it’s lunch time. On special school-wide event days like this, the school will have bento lunches delivered to the office. So here’s what a typical, but also slightly fancier, school lunch looks like. Tempura and rice, just arranged more aesthetically than usual.

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After lunch, each of the club activities (sports) teams march onto the track in their uniform, from aikido to basketball to kendo to table tennis. The sports teams also competed against each other in relays, in uniform. Track & field obviously won, although soccer did sometimes come close. The worst runners were the martial artists, but that was mostly due to their uniforms. Since they were so clearly last in every race, they would put on a little demonstration after each lap, like flipping their teammate over with a judo throw as a way of passing off the baton. Pretty cool.

After putting to rest the age-old debate of whether track & field kids really can run fast, the students then change back to their regular PE clothes and now the non-relay stuff (interspersed with more relays) begin!

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Tug-of-war with ship’s rope. The team that manages to knock the flag down toward their side is the winner. This one’s one of the few co-ed events.

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For some reason a girls’-only event, it’s the return of tug-of-pole. Nine large metal poles lie in the middle of the field. When the starting pistol fires, two teams run onto the field and fight each other over them. Once a pole is taken past their own team’s side/endzone, the people who won that pole are free to run back onto the field to help with the stealing of another. This would have been even more badass if they somehow combined it with kendo, or maybe incorporating land mines and robots in some way.

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Kiba-sen (cavalry fight), which I had mentioned before, but now I have slightly better pictures. Three boys form a horse, one sits atop as a rider, and he either wants to knock his opponent off his horse, push his horse out of bounds, or snatch his opponent’s hat off inside a very small (maybe 6 feet/2 meters across) circular ring. Teachers stand all around to catch anyone in case they fall. Besides running in the teacher’s relay, it was the only other time I felt like I was actually part of the event. Everything looks so fun you can’t help but want to participate in all of it.

There is no grand finale, really. The final event is the final relay race. But again, I have no idea how the heck the whole thing works. Every team participated in every event; it didn’t look like there was any elimination, and I noticed the same students doing multiple events regardless of whether they had won or lost the previous ones. During the ending ceremony, during which all teams line up again in formation, and sit on the field, the student council announced the team winner of each single individual event. There were so many winner announcements that I really, truly, have no idea who actually won overall. I know, this is not Sports’ Day’s fault. I just don’t speak Japanese. It probably is an accumulated-points system. Either way, I asked the next day and it turns out white team won. Nice!

 

 

Staying in a Capsule Hotel

Nightlife in Japan is ruled by an incredibly powerful force, one that many seldom dare reckon with– the last train. If you miss your last train home, usually around midnight, the choices are slim: you can either take a taxi at exorbitant prices, or stay out, hopefully intoxicated, till the first train about 5 hours later. You could also get a hotel, but that’s a little too expensive for most people. $100 just for a bed to sleep in for 8 hours? No way!

Or, you could stay in a capsule hotel for about 1/3 of the price.

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Instead of rooms, capsule hotels are made up of individual Space-age-looking pods, essentially human-sized drawers containing nothing but a bed, and perhaps a small TV on the roof your capsule. A typical one measures maybe 6.5 feet (2m) long by 3 feet (1m) tall. There’s just barely enough room to sit up properly. Thanks to this, the use of space is incredibly efficient– what you see above is enough accommodation for 12 people!

There are communal bathrooms, as well as showers. Some extra-fancy capsule hotels will even have their own onsen (public baths). It’s really the perfect solution for a cheap and quick overnight stay– the one we were at, the Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi located in Amerikamura, Osaka, was only 3000 yen ($30) a night. The Asahi Plaza, by the way, was one of such hotels with an onsen. Nice!

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Common in Japan but uncommon in hotel lobbies, we had to take our shoes off at the front. In such situations, lockers are provided so the front doesn’t get so cluttered, and I suppose so people won’t steal your shoes. However, we had to surrender said locker keys to the front desk, and we’d have to ask for it back any time we needed our shoes. The only key we were given at check-in was for a locker to store our stuff in. These lockers were in a room separate from the capsules, on the first floor. Up to the second floor we went to find our capsules. Exciting!

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The second floor was essentially a series of hallways shooting off into capsule rooms. Each room contained about 16-20 capsules. Efficient!

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Interior view facing in, back of TV on the top left.

Lo and behold, my “room” for the night– surrounded by plastic, on top of a rather thin mattress pad. A small nozzle in the back blows heated air, which you can manually point or close but otherwise not control the temperature. Other amenities included a TV, control panel, shelf, some cubbies, a power outlet (had for an extra 400 yen/$4), and a mirror. I crawled inside, and was happy to find that there was enough room to turn around, albeit kind of scrunched on all fours. Spacious!

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Interior view facing out.

Rather than any type of door, you get a thin pull-down blind, kind of like a straw mat. That is all you get for security/privacy/noise-cancellation– there are no locks anywhere on or in the capsule. In fact, according to their website, “hotel industry law” dictates that locks are straight-up not allowed in capsules. I suppose that might put claustrophobics a little more at ease. Sensible!

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The control panel is of the same sort you might find at any hotel, but I included a picture for posterity’s sake. Functions include alarm clock set, TV on/off, radio on/off, lights, and, unlike most hotels, an “emergency button” on the bottom left, protected by a swing-out plastic cover to prevent accidental pressings. Sorry to say, I have no idea what it does. I imagine it either summons an employee to your capsule or launches it towards Rigel 7. Handy!

In conclusion, for its combination of novelty, price, and convenience, I’d absolutely do it again. And, before I forget to mention, it was about as comfortable as it looks– you’re not sleeping on a cloud, but it is perfectly adequate and I slept like the dead anyways. One might even say… like a body in a morgue :^)

 

What NOT to Do in Japan, According to Their Signs

There’s more to the signage in Japan than just poorly translated English. There’s also Japanese signs in perfectly-translated JAPANESE, warning you about the strangest things or otherwise just being really cute. All captions are translations/rough translations, not my commentary:

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“Please don’t feed the deer, it makes them get sick.”
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Beware of your valuables when visiting relatives’ graves. There’s thieves about!

 

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Train emergency stop button.
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Train manners: don’t block the doorway like this chameleon.
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Watch out for your baggage bumping into people.
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No right turns, but going straight and left turns are okay.

Lost in Translation: “Engrish” Signs

Poorly translated English is still hilarious to this day. Why it happens, I couldn’t say. The only thing I can attest to is that machine translation, like Google Translate, still does a pretty poor job. Try conversing with someone in Japanese (or most any Asian language, for that matter) with Google Translate as the middleman, and you’ll get results like this:

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What my mother actually said: “P, I want you to take good care of your teeth. Brush them well, and I forgot to tell you: the dentist said that candy and chocolate are fine, just don’t keep them in your mouth for too long.”

So, maybe Google Translate screwed someone over, or maybe the dude they put in charge of it just dropped the ball. Here’s some of the great signs I’ve seen so far (across all my trips):

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Actually tonkotsu ramen, which is usually topped with pork belly. Spotted in Kyoto.

 

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Seen at Akashi Kaikyo Bridge Exhbition Center. Technically not Engrish, but it still works.

 

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Look above the word “Cherry.” Seen in Kabukicho, Tokyo.

 

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Seen at Osaka Castle Park.