Thursday, February 24, 2011

Hokkaido: Part 3

Instead of hitting the mountain for another day of skiing (an extra 100 bucks for everything), I decided to join other JETs in visiting Otaru. Otaru is a fishing town about 2 hours from Niseko famous for sushi, glass blowing, and music boxes. I know, pretty eclectic eh?

After we arrived at the main station in Otaru, a Hokkaido JET took us on a quick tour of the town. She walked us down the main street, pointing out the most visible landmarks so we could find our way back. After the grand tour, we chose a time to meet up and we all separated. First on our list was food.

It is unfortunate that in a town famous for sushi, I despise sushi. There were sushi restaurants everywhere. Luckily for my wallet, they were all really expensive which priced myself and one other from eating there. The average set cost about $30. Instead, I ate soup curry. It is just like normal curry, except it is thinner, like a soup. It was good.

I toured the city with another Nara JET. Let's call her Banshee (xmen names). We stopped by a glass-blowing shop to observe the process. It was neat. They even let children come in and try some of the techniques. They let them blow into the tube. I wanted to try, but it seems that children get preference. Stupid children.

After watching the glass blowing for a while, we toured around the city more. There were cute snowmen all over the city. Shops used the snow in their storefront to make snowmen. It definitely seems like each shop was trying to outdo each other.

I bought a music box from a very large music box shop near the town's clock tower. Many of tunes are classic J-Pop or Disney. At another music box store, customers pick the base, music, and decorations. Then they build the music box by themselves. It's really cool. The store gives customers all the materials necessary. It is expensive though.

After shopping for hours, the JETs regrouped and we visited some light festival in Otaru. People has dug holes into the snow and placed candles and fisherman's bulbs inside. Some even decorated their "holes" with hearts and figures. It was pretty, but it got boring pretty fast. There were also candles floating in the canal. We finished our day out at the Otaru Brewery where I ate a steak. Yes, steak. I miss steak.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hokkaido: Part 2

I woke up, dawned my heat tech long underwear, and boarded the shuttle bus bound for Hanazono. I was going to ski for the first time.

I arrived at the resort and checked in with the rental counter. They pulled my reservation and started outfitting me for skis, pants, pole, and shoes. The staff at Hanazono is largely Australian. They must come to Japan seasonally on visas. They were very polite which made the whole process easy. When I walk in ski boots, I look hilarious. In ski boots, I walk heel to toe, but really exaggerated. Someone might have thought I had polio if it wasn't for the fact that other skiers looked just as stupid.

My volunteer Hokkaido JET instructor was supposed to meet me on the mountain at 10. He didn't arrive until about 11:30. While I was waiting, one of the other JETs was kind enough to give me some lessons in skiing. I went down the first hill (it leads to the ski lift) several times really easily. I was picking up skiing quickly. My "instructor" kept reminding me that I SHOULD have fallen by now. I hadn't. When the Hokkaido instructor finally arrived, I was stunned. He was wearing the costume of Hokkaido's mascot: Marimokkori, the marimo with a huge boner:

While I was busy laughing my a$$ off, he explained that he was going to wear this costume so I could find him easily on the mountain. And yes, if you are wondering, the costume came complete with a huge bulge. I looked over at the other Hokkaido JET instructors. They were ALL wearing costumes. One was dressed like Pikachu. Another was dressed like a deer. We are gaijin.

Thanks to an amazing episode of South Park, I already knew about the "pizza" and "french fry" stance in skiing. One is for braking and the other is for speed. I learned how to make turns and how to brake effectively from "Marimokkori." I practiced going down the steeper hills before making my way to the ski lift for the "real" hills. I was having a blast skiing. The JETs who wanted to try snowboarding were ALWAYS on the ground. They just kept falling over, which is why learning how to turn was so important. I needed to avoid crashing into clumsy snowboarders.

I started to develop a bit of an ego because I had taken to skiing so quickly. Don't worry though, the mountain was quick to humble me. The instructor and I went up the ski lift to the beginner's run, "Silver Dream." OK, um, it's a little steeper than I imagined, but alright. I got about 1/4 of the way down, then I had to stop. The next portion was STEEP. "Marimokkori" stopped next to me and said,

Marimokkori: Yeah, this shouldn't be here. This part is definitely not beginner.
Me: (pissing my pants) What??!! Is there any other way down?
Marimokkori: Good luck buddy.

This is the part where I started falling, a lot. In skiing, turning slows you down. However, while you are turning, there is a brief second when you pick up speed before the brakes kick in. This is the reason I almost broke my foot several times. Luckily, skis are built with an awesome safety feature where they fly off if twisted too hard. My foot would like to the thank the good people at Demo Ski Manufacturing. When I FINALLY past the steep part, I had a blast skiing the rest of the way.

After I finished "Silver Dream," I joined some Nara JETs for lunch at the lodge. Hokkaido is known for dairy products like cheese, ice cream, and chocolate. I ate pizza and it was delicious. It still doesn't quite measure up to American pizza, but it was close.

Part 3: Coming soon!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Hokkaido: Part 1

Taking advantage of the 3 day weekend, I signed up for a tour package sponsored by the Hokkaido Association of JETs (HAJET). 6 Nara JETs and I took a plane out of Osaka to New Chitose airport. The flight was about an 1 1/2 hours. When we finally started our initial descent, I looked out the window to get a good view of Sapporo (capital of Hokkaido). It was absolutely gorgeous. Snow-covered mountain ranges littered the background and there wasn't a rice field in sight. When we landed, we met up with the HAJET representatives who took us to the train station.

We finally arrived in the city proper and we were given about 6 hours to explore the city. Sapporo is a wonderful city. The 3-day weekend also coincided with one of Japan's most famous festivals, the Yuki Matsuri (snow festival). We toured around the city for a bit before heading to the Snow Festival. We saw Sapporo's famed clock tower (not that impressive) and even happened upon an extreme sports show. I don't think any of the competitors landed their tricks. Snowboarding looks hard.

Once we made it to the snow festival, I was stunned. There were dozens of snow sculptures in the park lining the streets. The sculptures varied in size, design, and theme. I saw giant robot ones, recreations of famous buildings, anime characters. It was really amazing.

There were also tons of vendors selling food and merchandise. I bought green tea-flavored beer. It wasn't that great, but it WAS green. Green beer is always cool. I also bought some cinnamon almonds. Another Nara JET bought pudding in a tube. Hokkaido is really famous for seafood (ie. crab ramen, sushi, etc). It's too bad I don't like seafood.

After the snow sculptures, we made our way to the ice sculptures. These are incredibly impressive. The detail put into the ice is simply remarkable. While the snow sculptures were grand and impressive, the ice sculptures were detailed and beautiful.

After the Snow Festival, all the JETs went to the Sapporo Brewery for a big enkai. There are three big brand names in beer in Japan: Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo. I ate copious amounts of meat, drank alcohol, and schmoozed with JETs from all over Japan.

We boarded the bus bound for Niseko RIGHT AFTER the enkai. The bus had to make numerous pit stops. The ride SHOULD have been only 2 hours. It took 4 hours. We arrived at the Freedom Inn around 2 in the morning. Bleh.

Part 2: My first skiing adventure!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Ramen Challenge

"Some men dream of money, others strive for glory, and still others seek only to go to bed with a full stomach. It is rare that those of all these pursuits can strive toward the same common and seemingly unachievable goal. Not only does such a challenge exist here in Nara, but some would say it is the greatest challenge we might ever hope to rise to meet in our otherwise banal and meaningless existence. I speak, of course, of the... Ramen Challenge.

Oyodo’s very own Rai Rai Han Ten Chinese Restaurant has a standing challenge that YOU can’t finish a gut-bustlingly obscene amount of ramen in the allotted time. Don’t let them insult your gastric prowess; they would tarnish your pride and your family’s honor. The rules are simple: you must eat the biggest bowl of ramen you have ever seen. Once you sit down you may not stand up until you admit defeat or ingest everything in the bowl (noodles AND soup). If you throw up you are disqualified. You may not add ice or water to the ramen in an effort to cool it down (though you may keep ice in your mouth while you eat your ramen). If you finish in 30 minutes your meal is free and your picture will be immortalized on the Wall of Glory with all those others who have stood up to the challenge and lived. If you finish in under 20 minutes you will also receive 3000 yen."

8 Nara JETs challenged (including me). 8 Nara JETs failed. Enough said.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


Setsubun is a bizarre festival in Japan. I know that calling a Japanese festival bizarre is redundant, but bear with me. Setsubun is the day before the beginning of Spring in Japan. It literally means, "seasonal division." Roasted soybeans are thrown at an Oni (demon or ogre), while the people say "Demons out! Luck in!" (鬼は外! 福は内!, Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!?). Although this is not common practice in households anymore, most people attend a shrine or temple's spring festival where this is done. I recently went to Setsubun.

I decided to go to Setsubun with Center of the Universe (Tenri) JETs. We hopped the bus from Tenri Station and walked about 10 minutes to Oyamato Shrine. We walked through the large gate and wandered onto the shrine's grounds. There was a large bonfire, so we gathered there for a moment to warm up. As I was warming my hands, I noticed an older woman walk up to the fire and throw a department store shopping bag into the fire. My first thought was, "Are people burning their garbage on sacred ground?" Turns out, there was stuff inside the bag. Though no explanation was given to me, I assume people burn things that bring bad luck or memories. Again, this is a guess.

The priests had set up a stand selling bags of soybeans. Each bag had a number in it that corresponded with a prize. I won a bag of potato chips. Yay. Another JET won an apple. Um...yay? When the ceremony started, we moved to the action. 2 priests were sitting on stage next to large drums. They said something in Japanese, hit the drum, and reacted as if horrified. The "demons" had arrived.

While standing in the small crowd, I heard, "Aaaaaaaaugh!" I was confused. "Aaaaaaaugh!" What the hell is that? "Aaaaaaaaaaugh!" Ah, holy crap! A demon!

A guy wielding a large club who was wearing a demon mask, fox ears, and leopard skin pants had been making his way through the crowd. Once he reached the stage, he started stomping around with his club. Sometimes, he would stop and pose for a picture. One (cruel) parent was holding her child up so he/she could see the demon. He/she started yelling, "Yaaaaaah, yaaaaaah!" In English, that means "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! NOOOOOOOOOO!" Adorable.

Another demon soon made his entrance. He did the same thing as the first. Now we had two "demons" stomping around the stage and posing. One of them even played "rock, paper, scissors" with the children in the front row. Those children were clearly fearless. When the stomping around started to get boring, our savior arrived! A man wearing very fancy priest-like clothing and a red mask with a LONG nose joined the fray. Using his fake spear, he "battled" the demons until they were defeated. Mostly, he just tapped his spear on the demons' shoulder and they SLOWLY laid on the ground.

Afterward, the priests and the "savior" tossed bags of soybeans at the crowd. I was out-pushed by an old lady who REALLY wanted more soybeans. Honestly...she can have them.

Before leaving the shrine, we spent a little bit more time near the bonfire. Here, I downed all my soybeans. They didn't taste that bad, really. It wasn't until after I finished eating them that I learned the actual tradition:

-Throw the beans at a demon (or oni)
-Eat the number of soybeans equal to your age + 1 while facing south-southeast
-Yell "Demons out! Luck in!" (鬼は外! 福は内!, Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!?)

I have some pretty fantastic pictures AND video of the event. They should be up in the next couple of days.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tales from JET

From a fellow Nara JET:

(Today is Setsubun, a day where Japanese children throw beans to keep demons out of the house. I asked my adult English students why demons didn't like beans, and they didn't know why. I then asked them to make up the basis for other holiday traditions. When I asked why they thought we hung stockings for Santa, one of my students said, "Fetishism?")

I will be attending this festival tonight.