Coronavirus Strikes Japan!

I have lived through many health scares, from avian flu to zika virus (that is, they existed while I was alive), though they have never personally affected me. I thought coronavirus would be much the same, but little did I know that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would create some ripples on Thursday the 27th by suddenly requesting ALL SCHOOLS in Japan to close the following Monday. This sent schools into a panic, in a bureaucratic system where I am required to submit “travel reports” for a 200-yen ($2) train fare that must be stamped by hand by me, office staff, the principal, and the board of education before I get it deposited back into my account weeks later. Not only that, but many schools are still finishing up final exams, and some haven’t even had their graduation ceremonies yet.

Yet, today, Monday, students are still streaming into schools. In fact, from what I heard most schools hated the move. Many, including mine, agreed in contravention of Abe’s advice to have one or two more days of school to finish up exams, and then close. And guess what, schools being closed just mean students don’t have to come. We teachers still have to.

This has been a rapidly developing situation, and it has finally given me enough material to make a blogpost about it. Although it had been happening all over Japan, first nearer Tokyo, and then down as close as Osaka, I thought it was only a matter of time before a case popped up in Hyogo. And one did, just last night! My local community center has cancelled all events for the next month. Trains were a ghost town on Saturday night, and as always, people are wearing surgical masks (which, by now, are almost impossible to find in stores). It has affected bigger things too, for example the Grand Sumo Tournament in March being closed to spectators. Things are happening, but there is no widespread panic you see in day-to-day life as the news are implying. At the end of this all, I hope that if nothing else, back in the West this’ll bring masks into vogue, because what’s not to love? They cover half your face and look good too! More to come soon, of course, as coronavirus starts to ravage Hyogo.

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

IMG-1897

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.

IMG-1764

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

IMG_1916

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:

IMG-1545

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

IMG_1912

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

IMG-1648

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.

IMG_1920
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.

Legoland Japan & Japan’s Most Boring City

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.

Legoland Japan

IMG_E0786

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

IMG_0393

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!

IMG_0397
The pagoda at Sensoji in Tokyo.

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.

IMG_0449
Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto, as Mount Fuji rises majestically in the background.
IMG_0416
Tokyo Tower and Tokyo Station
IMG_0407
A mysteriously empty Shibuya Crossing.
IMG_0425
The Shinkansen bullet train speeds past Tokyo Sky Tree, Japan’s tallest structure.
IMG_0444
Dotonburi River, Osaka, complete with “Glen Co.” Man!
IMG_0418
Osaka Castle, unfortunately missing the freaking glass-and-steel elevator they recently installed on the side of one of the keeps.

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.

IMG_0511
The central rectangle is the entirety of the park. Even in LEGO scale you can kind of tell how small it really is.

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!

IMG_0386
Don’t look at my face, look at my adorable Lego sandwich!

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

IMG_0989

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!!

IMG_0849

Trains from throughout history are featured, all the way from the late 19th century smokestacks to the latest and greatest bullet trains.

IMG_1062
The distance from Tokyo to Osaka is 246 miles (395km), and the Shinkansen takes about 2.5 hours. This bad boy could make it in less than an hour.

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!

IMG_0348

See you again some day, Nagoya!