Hokkaido, Is Home

IMG_20180216_150556It’s that time of the year again, when winter puts up a valiant fight with spring in a tenacious tug-of-war that manifests itself in the daily temperatures in Japan. Last week saw a violent blizzard pummel the whole of Hokkaido, forcing schools to close and kids to stay at home. (Teachers, of course, report for work as usual. Don’t ask me why, because this is Japan. Logic doesn’t hold much sway here).

That same weekend, in the aftermath of the blizzard, temperatures rose across Japan, hitting as high as 21 degrees Celsius in Kagoshima. To put things in perspective, 21 degrees is equivalent to early summer temperatures in Kyushu. But we are still, apparently, in the throes of winter.

IMG_20180129_081012I can’t wait for winter to pass. Winter sucks. I hate being woken up by frozen toes in the early hours of the morning. I’m sick of having to do a merry dance to the toilet, which for some reason only the architects in Japan know, is situated next to the door to my apartment. I resent having to pile layer upon layer of clothing, and yet my fingers still freeze every time I head out. In a nutshell, I hate winter, and I’m more than happy to see the last of it. Yet, every evening when I watch the news on TV, I’m reminded that I live in Hokkaido, where winter lasts half a year. Even as daily temperatures rose across Japan, here in Hokkaido, we are still mired in sub-zero temperatures.

But Hokkaido is winter. Winter is Hokkaido.

IMG_20180211_210634Its powder draws avid skiers and snowboarders around the world to its numerous ski resorts. The annual Sapporo Snow Festival is a top tourist draw, transforming Odori Park into a winter wonderland. Many cities and towns in Hokkaido, too, have their own mini version of snow / ice / winter festivals, not so much to celebrate the cold as to find an excuse for debauchery.

IMG_20180210_131734In February this year, the Winter Olympics was held in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Olympic fever gripped Japan, its athletes dominating daily news headlines in a country that is always eager to celebrate and worship sporting excellence. The press hailed the graceful performances of male figure-skating champion Hanyu Yuzuru and praised female speed skater Nao Kodaira for her display of sportsmanship in embracing a tearful Lee Sang-hwa.

Pyeongchang 2018 Winter OlympicsChinami Yoshida (second from right) celebrates with Japanese skip, Satsuki Fujisawa and other members of the Women’s Olympic Curling Team after edging Britain to the bronze medal at the Pyeongchang Olympics, South Korea. Source: Reuters Pictures.

Hokkaido, too, crowned its own sporting champions. A group of young women from a nondescript city in Hokkaido propelled the profile of a nondescript winter sport (at least where Japan is concerned) to the national psyche. That sport, in question, is curling.

The Japan Women’s Olympic Curling Team may have only bagged a bronze medal in Pyeongchang, but their sporting achievements have struck gold back home. All five members on the team hailed from Kitami, a city with a population of just under 120,000. Average attendance in the city’s curling facility spiked during the Games. In the city’s souvenir and pastry shops, you can find the cherubic faces of the women curlers plastered all over boxes of Kitami omiyage, including the cheese cake that the ladies were filmed snacking on during their breaks. There’s even a shrine where you can pick up an omikuji (a Japanese fortune-telling charm) in the shape of a curling stone.

curling charmsSource: Kyodo News.

In the words of Chinami Yoshida, a member of the Women’s Olympic Curling Team (pictured above): “Never in my dreams did I imagine that one day, I would be an Olympic champion. In this town where there is basically nothing. However, I’ve learnt that it doesn’t matter where you’re from. It matters to have a dream. And that dreams do come true.”

I definitely do not share the same lofty ambitions or dreams as Chinami, but I do remember that my personal little dream is to experience living and working in Japan since deciding to study the language more seriously more than five years ago. Cliché as this may sound, I’m currently “living my dream”. In addition, I’m living in Hokkaido, a popular holiday destination choice among my fellow countrymen back home. Yet, here I am, lamenting the freezing winters in Hokkaido. I suddenly realized I have many reasons to celebrate and to be thankful, even in the freezing depths of winter.

Like the people of Hokkaido, I find myself unconsciously cheering for the curling team as one of my own. And as much as I hate the cold and the fact that we have six months of winter here in Hokkaido, I’ve also come to realise that Hokkaido, is home.   LS

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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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