Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 5) – N(onsen)se in Kinosaki

DSC06717_editIt’s 35 degrees just after three as the train slowly chugged into Toyooka, pronounced Toh-yo-oh-ka (豊岡). If I’m being honest, I didn’t have much of a choice in Toyooka as my base camp for the next three nights. Ideally, I would have snagged a room in one of those atmospheric ryokans lining the banks of the scenic Kinosaki River.

The original plan was to do some onsen hoppin’ in Kinosaki Onsen (城崎温泉) and use it as a base to explore the surrounding locales. However, most ryokans were already fully booked half a year in advance by the time I was looking for accommodations back in March this year. Hence, I had to re-route my plan to Toyooka (豊岡), only two train stops away.DSC06748The idea actually sounds absurd if you think about it. In the simmering Japanese summer heat, who in their right minds would wanna soak in an onsen?

Apparently, plenty.

There are many crazy Japanese out there, and even crazier foreigners.

DSC06778The day involved a lot of moving around, so by the time I checked into my basic but adequate business hotel in Toyooka, I took a quick nap for half an hour after downing a can of Asahi (a much appreciated welcome drink from the hotel’s reception). With not much daylight left, I was just glad to check myself in to Kouno-yū (鴻の湯), the oldest onsen in this vicinity, and soak my fatigue away. It didn’t make sense to go onsen hopping given the approaching twilight.

Maybe tomorrow, I reasoned…

After a good night’s soak at Kouno-yū (鴻の湯), I checked into an izakaya and treated myself to some sushi and local sake.    LSDSC06798DSC06793

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Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 3) – Tottori Off-Track

Leaving Himeji, my next destination was Tottori (鳥取). Frankly, there’s nothing much to see or do in Tottori, a friend once told me. You only go to Tottori to see the sand dunes, and that’s about it.

However, the name “Tottori” kept appearing on the news two winters ago, when it registered the heaviest snowfall in all of Japan that year in more than 50 years – so much so that the accumulated snow threatened to swallow houses and vehicles. My irrational mind was made up that day – I had to visit Tottori one day!

Spanning about 16 km along the Sea of Japan, the Tottori Sand Dunes (鳥取砂丘, Tottori Sakyu) are the result of thousands of years of sand deposits from the nearby Sendaigawa River (千代川). Today, they are the main tourist attraction in Tottori City.DSC06548_editIf I’m being honest, I actually enjoyed the trip to the Sand Museum (砂の美術館) more than the dunes, the sweltering summer heat being one of the main reasons! The Sand Museum is situated one bus stop away from the main entrance to the dunes. I was a little skeptical of the Museum at first, which looked really tiny from the bus as I passed it on the way to the dunes.

However, stepping inside, I was blown away!

Think really massive sand sculptures – so huge that I struggled to get every single sculpture into my camera frame. Each year, the Museum features a different theme and this year happens to carry a Scandinavian flavour – from Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid sculpture (representing Denmark) to the Vikings (Norway) and Alfred Nobel (Sweden).

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The next day, I decided to do a day trip out of Tottori (since I practically ticked all the boxes of “things to see” in Tottori with that trip to the dunes). I was intrigued by a photo of this temple that looked as if it was carved into the side of a cliff.

I only came to know about the Mitokusan Sanbutsu-ji (三徳山 三佛寺) because I got bored on the train to Tottori and decided to browse the travel pamphlet in my seat pocket. To get to the temple, I had to take a train out from Tottori to Kurayoshi Station (倉吉駅), from where a 35-min bus ride would take me to the entrance of the temple grounds.DSC06620Never did I expect that I was in for some serious hiking that involved climbing over tree roots and clinging on to metal chains for dear life. However, the sight of the temple itself was enough to take your breath away, and convince you that it was well worth the hike (or hype).  How was this temple even built in the first place? Or was it really an act of the gods, as the legends would have you believe.

I rounded off the day trip by exploring Shirakabe (白壁), so named because of the characteristic whitewashed walls of the storehouses in that district, and said to date back to the Edo and Meiji periods. It’s one of those nostalgic old towns that get tagged / burdened with the “Little Kyoto” moniker. It’s possible to walk to Shirakabe from Kurayoshi Station (倉吉駅). However, the earlier hike up to Mitokusan had taken the stuffing out of me, so I settled for a bus ride that whisked me there in less than 10 minutes.DSC06688Unfortunately, Shirakabe turned out to be pretty disappointing for me at least, as the buildings were not only poorly preserved, but also, the streets were deserted and the shops closed. Oh well, at least I bought myself a bottle of local sake as a present.     LSDSC06692

Farewell Japan Summer Trip 2018 (Part 1) – Majestic Himeji

I’ve finally said goodbye to Tomakomai and JET. Bizarrely, I feel somewhat relieved. Maybe, I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. However, before I leave Japan for good, I have one last hurrah. I call it my “Farewell Japan Summer Trip”.

At the time of writing, I’m about two-thirds into my trip, and approaching the final few stops in my itinerary. However, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer, because I have so many photos I want to share from this trip. I’m not sure how many parts this travel series would work out to, so please bear with me.

Therefore, the main feature of this travel series would come in the form of short snippets and random musings, rather than a thoughtful (and lengthy) prose. In other words, less text and more images!! So enjoy!!

DSC06324Mounting Himeji

In my bucket-list of things to accomplish in Japan, one of them is to visit at least one place in each of the 47 prefectures in Japan, from north to south. My current record stands at 28, but by the end of this last trip, I hope to hit 30.

My first stop takes me to Himeji, a city I’ve always wanted to visit because of my fascination (read ‘obsession’) with castles!!

Known as the White Heron Castle or Shirasagi-jo (白鷺城) due to its elegant, white appearance, Himeji Castle (姫路城, Himeji-jō) is one of Japan’s most elegant and beautiful castles. It is also one of the first sites in Japan to be listed on UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.

However, I have one regret.

I shouldn’t have chosen summer of all seasons to visit Himeji. In general, August is the month you should do well to avoid Japan (maybe except Hokkaido, because the mercury seldom crosses the 30-degree mark).

This year, however, even Hokkaido was not spared from a massive heat wave that seared the rest of Japan.

Daily temperatures hover in the early 30s. And in Himeji, I was braving 35 degrees and sweating like a pig as I trudged up the uncountable steps in Himeji Castle.

For your info, the castle is six stories high and perched on top of a small fort. Imagine the number of stone steps you would have to climb just to scale this white bird!!

And those were not the only steps I climbed that day. The set of photos featuring Himeji Castle at sundown were taken from a knoll called Otokoyama (男山), a short walk from the park behind Himeji Castle.

After ascending a flight of about 200 stone steps, I found a spot that offered an excellent vista, waited for the sun’s dipping rays to fall on the castle and fed myself to the mosquitoes. Thankfully, the pictures were well worth the sacrifice.     LS

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Goodbye Tomakomai

IMG_20160903_121650_HDRIt’s two days before I finally say goodbye to this apartment where I’ve spent the larger part of my two years in Tomakomai (苫小牧), Hokkaido. Looking back, I remembered during the first few months when I first arrived in this industrial city with a population of a little under 200,000, I would take train rides out every weekend, either to Sapporo or to explore the surrounding areas outside the city. That’s because short of chimneys billowing thick columns of smoke, there’s scarcely anything here in Tomakomai. It’s an ugly city.

And I hated it here.IMG_20161113_150720_HDRAs I count down to the last week in this city, I found myself re-visiting some of the places that I had initially explored when I first arrived two years ago. First up is Midorigaoka Park (緑ヶ丘公園), the largest park in the city. Tomakomai is not blessed with wonderful weather. It’s grey and cloudy most of the time. In other words, depressing! So on days when the sky’s perfectly blue and clear, and the sun is shining at its brightest, people head to the parks or to climb Mount Tarumae (樽前山).IMG_20161113_150055_HDRDuring my first visit to the park two years ago, I got lost. It was a cool late autumn evening, and I decided to explore the woods that connect to the park. But as I ventured deeper and deeper, I felt something amiss. I was the only one in the midst of the greenery. However, I kept on walking further and further into the foliage, despite the waning sunlight. What really set alarm bells ringing and prompted me to turn back was when I came across a wooden sign with the words that warn of bear sighting in this part of the woods. Terrified, I promptly retraced my steps as quickly as I could, and only breathed a sigh of relief when I heard sounds of passing traffic.IMG_20161113_152346_HDRThis time, however, I opted for a less adventurous approach. Having bought a bento box of stir-fried Chinese noodles and a can of beer from 7-Eleven, I headed to the Kintaro Pond (金太郎池), where I found a shady spot under the trees. I dug into my lunch, while watching gulls and Mandarin ducks paddling leisurely and dogs chasing after frisbees.IMG_20161113_144601_HDRSufficiently fuelled up, I ambled towards the observation tower, which offers a 360 degree panorama of the city. On a clear day, you could probably see as far as Mount Tarumae and the peaks around Lake Shikotsu (支笏湖).  But today is not the day.IMG_20170727_151403Many thoughts clouded my mind as I surveyed the scenery before me, the grid-like city layout, the ugly chimneys and billowing white smoke, the oil tankers dotting the port of Tomakomai. How did I end up here in the first place? I made a decision to take a sabbatical after getting worn out at work as a teacher in Singapore. I had become disillusioned in a job I used to love – teaching. The more years I accumulated in the teaching service, I found myself doing less of the job I was initially called to do.IMG_20180727_162553And at that time, JET seemed like the most attractive option. I had always wanted to explore living and working in Japan – and the inspiration behind this, would you believe, was after watching a Japanese TV drama called “Beach Boys” during my teenage years. That drama followed the adventures of two Japanese executives who quit their jobs and left their highly stressful urban lifestyle behind for one summer and stumbled upon a pension by the sea.IMG_20161027_074440_HDRI figured spending a couple of years in Japan could allow me to get away from the mundaneness of working life, from Singapore for a while. I must admit, a part of me had secretly wished I was posted to some rural city / town by the sea. Maybe then, I could live out the laid-back life as portrayed in that drama I watched more than 20 years ago. But a part of me was also worried about being posted to the countryside. I am such a conflicted individual. However, as it would turn out, I got neither of those. I was posted to Tomakomai.

Sometimes, I wondered if I had, as a friend put it, committed “career suicide” by coming to Japan. Would I still be able to return to Singapore and carry on working as I had used to?

If I have a second chance, would I do this JET thingy all over again?

Probably not.

Maybe if I had a more “exciting” posting (say, Sapporo, Osaka or Hakodate), maybe if I had a larger circle of JET friends, an endless list of maybes. There’s a cliché that you will often hear in JET, and that is ESID – Every Situation Is Different. Perhaps, that is true to a large extent. But ultimately, we make our own choices, given the cards we have been dealt with. There are definitely highlights from this experience, as much as regrets.

But I would not have known, if I have not tried it.

That, was my choice.     LS

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Golden Week 2018 Special Feature (Part 1) – Hongdae in a Heartbeat

Hongdae is never the same.

Every time I visit Seoul, there’s no other place I would rather base myself at than in Hongdae (I stayed in Mangwon during my first visit there five years ago). The reason?

Firstly, guesthouses or backpackers’ hostels are aplenty here, and features some of the city’s more stylish and hippest ones too.

Secondly, you are smack right in the middle of possibly the most “happening” districts in Seoul. Hongdae is the heart of Seoul’s youth culture, and possibly a few subcultures as well. The district is abuzz with people (mostly teenagers, college students and young working adults in their twenties), pubs, cafes and restaurants .

Speaking of which, I realised during my second visit in November 2014, that my favourite chicken and beer restaurant, endearingly called 치맥 (read as “chimaek” by the locals) has vanished without a trace during my second visit. And for subsequent visits, I also realised that some other shops have gone. Longevity is a real issue here in Hongdae. Because of stiff competition and high rental leases, today’s “go-to” pub / restaurant / café quickly becomes nothing more than a memory tomorrow.

Hongdae is never the same.

Even the people that frequents this area of Seoul has decidedly changed over the years.

These days, the crowds have become more varied, not only in terms of age groups, but also more cosmopolitan. When in the past, you are more likely to find enclaves of foreign tourists in specific areas (for example, Americans in US-millitary stronghold Itaewon, Asians in Insadong or Myeongdong). Today’s Hongdae draws an increasingly international hoard. It is a hive of activity here almost 24 hours a day, and even more so on weekends, when buskers (mostly “K-pop idol” hopefuls in their twenties) draw huge audiences and cause massive “traffic jams”.

IMG_20180427_175013Likewise, during my most recent visit, I have chosen to base myself in Hongdae. Stepping out of Exit 3 of Hongik University Station to Yeonnam-dong, I was greeted by a familiar vibrancy. Groups of young Koreans sat on picnic mats strewn across a long green patch of lawn. I dragged my suitcase past trendy cafes, where people not only congregate to chat and have coffee, but also to see and be seen. And just as I was about to turn the corner to cross the street, I discovered that Yeonnam-dong has changed too. A section of the road at the end has now been completely paved over, and now spots an artfully designed water feature and sculpture installation.

Hongdae is never the same. But I will always choose to stay here in a heartbeat.    LS

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Spirited Away (Part 3)

DSC04240The sprawling grounds of Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera, coupled with its abundant spiritual energy, makes it a top draw among ‘power spot’ hunters. But what if you could visit a whole city and feel the same positive energy throughout the city?

Look no further than Nara (奈良), Japan’s ancient capital before Kyoto, and home to some of the oldest and most magnificent Buddhist temples in Japan. Less than an hour from either Kyoto or Osaka, Nara can easily be covered as a day trip or if you have some time to spare, spend a night or two in this peaceful spiritual enclave.

A Google search on “Attractions in Nara” will probably turn up more than a dozen results on Buddhist temples and “tourist brochure”-eating deers. In fact, so brazen are these deer that a recent article in the newspapers warned tourists against these deer and attempted to educate the same tourists how to use sign language to convince these roving (and hungry) stags that they have no more food in their hands. Remember, like us, a hungry deer can become an angry deer, no matter how cute they may be.

But we’re not here to talk about deer, are we?

Tōdai-ji, Nara

DSC04183Now, if time is of the essence, skip all other temples and head straight to Todaiji (東大寺), home to possibly the largest temple in Japan constructed entirely out of wood. It also houses a massive 15-metre tall Buddha (or the Daibutsu), the largest in Japan.

DSC04186The real ‘spiritual’ experience, however, is not only found at Todaiji (東大寺), but also in slowly exploring the vast temple grounds, which overlaps much of Nara Park (where the hungry deer freely roam). Take a leisurely stroll through the adjacent smaller temples like the Nigatsudo Hall, the Hokkedo Hall, the Kaidanin Temple, the beautiful foothills of Wakakusayama (which can be covered in a short hike). Feel your skin glow and spirits awakened in this oasis of zen.

DSC04222DSC04259On the way back to JR Nara Station, you will also pass Nara’s most celebrated Shinto shrine, the Kasuga Taisha (春日大社), with its enchanting stone lanterns. If you have a penchant for Japanese Buddhist art, pop by the Western-styled Nara National Museum. Finally, the two-hour circuit ends at Nara’s iconic symbol, the Kofukuji (興福寺), built in AD710 and its name literally translates as “the temple that generates blessings”. What a way to end off your spiritual sojourn!    LS

DSC04270Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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Spirited Away (Part 2)

Kiyomizu-dera, Kyoto

DSC03862From those previous two experiences at the Fuji Sengen Shrine and the Fushimi-inari Shrine, I realised that perhaps, I am more sensitive to the ‘spiritual’ aura of a place. At the risk of sounding bonkers or hallucinatory, especially to those skeptical of the existence of ghosts or the paranormal, I shall let you, the reader decide if you believe or not.

Of course, not all temples and shrines in Japan are spooky. Take Kyoto, for example. Feudal Japan’s ancient capital probably has the largest concentration of temples and shrines in a single city. However, on one of my visits to a temple, a Buddhist monk actually told me a very interesting fact about the temples in Kyoto.  According to him, many of these temples have a secondary function. They serve as auxiliary military outposts, where armies can be gathered / hidden, and also from which armies can be deployed to launch a surprise attack on the enemy.

DSC03845Many temple grounds in Kyoto are uncannily palatial and are often built with ‘secret’ chambers or passageways. I’m not sure about your reaction but a light bulb instantly switched on in my head when I heard this. Of course it all makes sense to me now!! Temples are not only meant for monks or shinto priests. They may even have served as the secret hideouts of fugitive lords.

Many temples and shrines in Kyoto are designed like forts, if you think about it. Consider Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺, literally “Pure Water Temple”), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A long passageway lined with stalls (i.e. the Higashiyama District) is now a bustling tourist attraction. However, during the days of yore, it may have served as both a merchant town and important ‘refueling’ stop for the feudal lord’s army. Kiyomizu-dera’s outstanding feature, a massive wooden stage that offers spectacular views of the old capital, could have served the dual role of a lookout in its halcyon days.

DSC03857Looking out from the stage, you can feel the calmness and serenity of the vast temple grounds. The same tranquillity can be keenly felt in the other shrines and features, for example, the Jishu Shrine famous for its matchmaking prowess, the Otowa Waterfall, whose waters are said to bestow longevity and prosperity, or the vermilion Zuigudo Hall. The positive energy that exudes from Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺) makes this a powerful ‘spiritual spot’ in Kyoto.   LS

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(to be continued in Part 3)

Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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Spirited Away (Part 1)

DSC03904I’ve been toying with the idea of this post for a while, but haven’t really got down to penning it until today. Spring vacation has just started, and it’s a much needed welcome change to see more of the sun. It’s also a time for many going away for short trips to recharge their batteries.

I’m not sure how this idea fits in with spring or cherry blossoms but nevertheless, if you’re planning to visit these spots, just read this with a light heart. What’s all this mystery ’bout, these spots, you might ask. I’m of course referring to power spots in Japan. Now you may have come cross this term from your research on the Internet, Tripadvisor or Lonely Planet. So I’m going to put forth a few disclaimers before we dive right into them.

Disclaimers:-

1. The term “power spot” started gaining traction in Japan since the 1990s, and as defined by All About Japan.com, these are sites that exude a particular energy based on concepts of feng shui. You don’t have to possess a ‘sixth sense’ to feel this spiritual energy. The site goes on to list the top 20 power spots in Japan. Now, this post is not about those ‘power spots’, although some of the listed sites may also be classed as such. Therefore, I would like to propose the term “spiritual spots” when referring to the spots I’m going to introduce in this post.

2. Those who are familiar with the concept of ‘power spots’, or who have read articles on them may find that the sites I’ve listed are not the same as the ones they have read or come across. Again, let me reiterate that I would prefer to call these sites “spiritual spots” instead of “power spots”. These sites do exude a particular energy. However, this energy may not be the positive energy associated with ‘power spots’. In other words, or in more layman terms, some of these sites are possibly ‘haunted’.

3. The experiences at these ‘spiritual spots’ are personal and are based on my own experiences on my travels. However, based on other articles I’ve read or researched, I can say with a certain degree of authority that these experiences are legitimate. You, the reader, have the choice to believe it or not.

4. It’s no surprise that many of the spots listed in this post are temples or shrines. After all, many of these revered places of worship have a history dating back hundreds or even a thousand years. In addition, many temples and shrines also serve as the final resting places of the deceased. Temples and shrines are used to refer distinctly to Buddhist (temples) and Shinto (shrines) respectively.

With these disclaimers in place, let’s jump right into these sites.

(Kitaguchi Honguu) Fuji Sengen Shrine, Yamanashi Prefecture

IMG_4306I first visited Japan in December 2011. That was also the year of the Great East Japan Earthquake that decimated a huge area of the Tohoku region and placed Japan on every traveler’s warning list for countries to avoid, not so much due to the possibility of another major earthquake or tsunami but rather the nuclear fallout from the Fukushima Dai-ichi power plant in Sendai. However, I went against convention because air tickets to Japan plummeted that year. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of finally visiting the country of my dreams.

Like any first-time visitor to Japan, I headed to Tokyo and took a day trip out to see Mount Fuji. Knowing that it’s early winter, and that hiking trails to Mt. Fuji were closed, the sole purpose of my visit was just to see Mt. Fuji from afar and to explore the Five Lakes area round Mt. Fuji, that is, Kawaguchiko (河口湖).

IMG_4269Not sure how this shrine appeared on my itinerary, but I remembered reading about it somewhere that the entrance to one of the hiking trails to Mt. Fuji actually starts from the shrine’s backyard. Sounds like an interesting place to explore, doesn’t it? A Japanese colleague to whom I recently spoke to about this shrine as a ‘spiritual spot’ did a search on the Internet, and burst out in laughter. Apparently, according to what he found online, this place is also famous as a “love shrine” – one of those shrines that are popular with women seeking a romantic or marriage partner. Hmmm…from these pictures I took, I could never have known. Could you?

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Fushimi-inari Shrine, Kyoto

DSC03890I know what you’re thinking when you see this name. Of course, this has to be a ‘power spot’. This is probably one of the top three most popular shrines in Kyoto, and possibly also the most photographed besides the Golden Pavilion Temple. However, I would like to offer my own take on this shrine to you. This shrine is really really creepy!!

Most tourists to Fushimi-inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社) are fascinated by the thousands of crimson and vermilion torii gates that wound around the hill on which the shrine is situated. Do you also know that many tourists do not make it past the half-way mark up the hill? Because, frankly speaking, the shrine grounds are huge, and the trek up the hill takes some effort. Most tourists make it as far as a pond which leads to a cave-like path that is dotted with fox (or kitsune) figurines. I say “cave-like” because the fox shrine is dark even during daytime. There’s even an urban myth that you should not go beyond this point.

For those who have, however, you will soon reach a cemetery built on the hillside, so there are steps leading to the tombstones, many of which are guarded by these fox figurines. Foxes or kitsune, have a long storied history in Japanese folklore. They are believed to possess supernatural abilities and are said to be able to shape-shift, taking on human forms. Some stories tell of fox spirits with nine tails, and possessing wisdom and magical powers. You can easily do a search online for spooky tales regarding these parts of the Fushimi-inari Shrine.

My own experience tells me that perhaps on hindsight, I should not have taken pictures here. I definitely felt the creeps here, and ‘power spot’ or not, I would advise you to be very respectful if you’re exploring these parts of the shrine.    LS

DSC03942Any images published in this article, unless otherwise stated, are owned by the author. Any unauthorised reproduction or use of these images in any form is strictly prohibited. Please kindly write to me for permission to use any of the images. Thank you very much. 😊

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(to be continued in Part 2)

Summer Sojourns (Part 2) – Tohoku’s Big Three

DSC03736Summer is not only a wonderful time to hit the wild outdoors, but also an occasion to indulge yourself in food and drink! Across Japan, many cities and towns will have their own version of a summer festival, usually characterised by a marketplace of food stalls (yatais) selling anything from yakitori, karaage or the usual bar grub to choco-bananas and candy strawberries. Some may be held on the grounds of the town/city’s patron shrine or next to a port (for seaside towns).

DSC03899Perhaps the most famous of all these summer festivals or 祭り (matsuri) in the Tohoku region of Japan are the Nebuta Matsuri (ねぶた祭り) in Aomori, the Kanto Matsuri (竿祭り) in Akita and the Tanabata Matsuri (七夕祭り) in Sendai, collectively known as the Tohoku Sandai Matsuri (東北三大祭り), or Three Great Festivals of Tohoku.All three festivals are held during the same period, and may overlap each other on certain dates. The Nebuta Matsuri kicks off in Aomori City on August 2 every year till August 7. Starting a day later is the Kanto Matsuri in Akita, followed closely behind by the Tanabata Matsuri in Sendai.

I have had the opportunity to witness all three up close and personal, in a whirlwind trip that took me from Aomori to Akita, and then on to Sendai, covering a distance equivalent to a third of Japan.

DSC03799First up, the Nebuta Matsuri in Aomori. Every night, from August 2 – 7, gigantic lantern floats are paraded throughout the city’s streets at night. Followed closely behind by a team of drummers banging away on enormous taiko drums (太鼓), most also feature a contingent of musicians on flutes and tiny cymbals. The floats typically feature scenes from Japanese mythology or history, so expect to see some really frightening scenes such as gods, ghouls, demons, dragons, snakes and multi-eye ogres.

Hotels are typically booked out way in advance, so do lock your dates and make reservations early. Otherwise, you may end up like me. For example, I had to set up base in Hirosaki because accommodation was full in Aomori. Fortunately for me, Hirosaki also has its own local version of Nebuta, which features the ougi-neputa (a fan-shaped neputa). The floats here may be of a smaller scale compared to Aomori, but they make for spectacular viewing nonetheless.

DSC03998Over in Akita (August 3 – 6), rows of lanterns hung on bamboo poles and balanced by skilful performers take centre-stage. In the day, different groups show off their skills to the beating of drums, flutes and chants of “dokkoisho, dokkoisho” as they compete to see who can hoist the poles the highest while balancing them on their foreheads, waists and shoulders. You can catch the various groups at different venues around Akita Station and the Museum of Art outdoor performance area. At night, the lantern poles are paraded along Chuo Dori street in the city centre.

DSC04036_copyWhile both the Nebuta and Kanto Festivals feature parades, drums and flutes, and a chorus of chants, the Tanabata Festival in Sendai (August 6 – 8) has none of these! Instead, tall, gigantic and colourful handcrafted streamers hang from bamboo poles decorate the entire stretch of shopping arcades along Ichibancho-dori (一番町商店街) and Clis Road, about a stone’s throw from Sendai Station. Some feature paper cranes, paper strips with handwritten well-wishes or other forms of origami. These streamers are also the first sight that greets you when you exit Sendai Station. At the end of the shopping arcades at Kotodai Park, stage performances featuring live music and dance as well as a huge open-air carnival of food stalls complete the festivities.   LS

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Yosakoi Soran Festival 2017, Sapporo

DSC03495 cropCries of “Yaaaaaaaaaa…Yaren Soooran Soooran…Hoi hoi!!” continued to echo in my ears as my train left the platform at Sapporo Station bound for Tomakomai. I had gone into town over the weekend to catch the annual dance extravaganza in Sapporo that is the Yosakoi Soran Festival.DSC03527Held at Odori Park during early June every year, this dance fest, which drew its name from the original Yosakoi Festival of Kochi Prefecture, attracts Yosakoi dance teams from all over Japan. In its 26th edition this year, the festival boasts some 270 teams and close to 30,000 participants. The festival has indeed come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1992 with only 10 teams and 1,000 dancers.

Weather forecasts prior to the festival had not been promising, with grey skies and rain predicted over Sapporo and in fact, much of Hokkaido. Watching the preliminary performances on TV that morning, it didn’t seem very promising to be honest. Even the event hosts tried valiantly to wear a smile, despite being pelted with rain on their faces.

Needless to say, I was in two minds whether I should make the train ride into the city in the pouring rain. Perhaps, to convince myself that maybe I should sit this one out and watch the performances on the TV, I made one last-ditch attempt to search for an available hotel / hostel on Booking.com. And against all odds, I found one!

A few days ago, all the hotels I scoured were either fully booked or had jacked up their prices by a few times, so to find a place with a reasonable price was nothing short of a miracle! Granted, it was a capsule hotel / hostel, and I have my doubts about capsule hotels in Japan. I was never a fan of confined spaces, especially shared ones. However, the newly opened Grids Sapporo Hotel & Hostel in the heart of the boisterous Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade in downtown Susukino, was a pleasant surprise. It exceeded my expectations of a capsule hotel on all counts.

When I reached Sapporo Station, the first sight that greeted me was dancers in brightly coloured costumes scurrying across the station. I later learnt that this was because in addition to the stage performance in Odori Park, there were also various performance venues scattered along streets in and around Odori Park. So it was a pretty fascinating sight, seeing all these dancers in heavy makeup and psychedelic costumes rushing from place to place, sometimes, with prams and kids in tow, on foot!!DSC03501Over the course of the weekend, I would, too, scurry from place to place, camera in tow, trying to catch as many of these street performances as possible. It’s nearly impossible to catch everything, of course, and because the performances were simultaneous at the different locales, you are bound to miss out on some of them.

Still, I would run the length of Odori Park, from 5-chome to 10-chome, hoping to catch the major attractions – those teams that have been tipped for a run-in for the best dancers. And even though the rain threatened to dampen my spirits, the performances from the yosakoi dancers were like energy boosters. The rain served only to make their cries louder and more defiant.DSC03474When the music starts, the dancers – men, women, students and children – burst into a flurry of movements, gyrating, spinning, fist-pumping, cheering, shouting, and always smiling. Costumes changed colour every few seconds. Flag bearers waved and swiveled gigantic flags with grace and finesse. Some teams even had a humongous dragon head or parts of a ship, in addition to terraced paper lanterns strung on bamboo poles.

DSC03513Adrenalin and emotions poured out from their faces, all the months of sweat and toil distilled into that five minutes in the limelight. They seemed to lap up the energy from the crowds, the applause, the rallying cries from their peers, and hearty waves from friends or family members who had come to support.DSC03571Personally, I enjoyed watching the university teams the most. The energy and drive that these youths displayed were amazing, not to mention the perfectly executed dance routines. One girl was hobbling on crutches at the dancers’ holding area backstage, her right knee heavily strapped. But when it was time for her team to perform on stage, she tossed her crutches to the ground and rushed onstage with her peers for one last hurrah.

I find myself lost for words to describe the emotions that were running through me as I watched team after team of bullish youthful exuberance exploding on the stage.

It was simply, breath-taking!  LS

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