Monday, February 16, 2009

Sapporo and the Yuki Matsuri

Sapporo - my first experience of a reasonably sized city in Japan - not including, of course, my one night stopover in Tokyo; all I experienced then was airports and buses.

Not being a major fan of cities in the first place, I am interested in Sapporo more for it's festivities than the city itself. I came here to see the Yuki Matsuri (or Snow Festival), a festival in which teams from around Japan and the world build breathtaking sculptures of ice and snow across three different locations. I have been looking at various photos of this festival for several years now, always interested and amazed at the visual detail and magnificence of the sculptures, eager to one day make it to see them for myself.

I arrived in Sapporo on a Sunday at around lunchtime, my stomach growling softly in an attempt to make me aware of my hunger. After perusing the incredibly realistic and declicious looking models out the front of the restaurants - displaying what they have on offer with startling accuracy (honestly, your meal looks almost identical to the model) - I lugged my cumbersome pack and overloaded backpack into the restaurant, indicating with a raised finger that I wanted a table for one. At Furano there had been numerous Australians and other foreigners to break up the Japanese conversation, snippets of English conversation being heard here and there... but not in this restaurant, or most of Sapporo for that matter. My lack of fluent Japanese was keenly felt as I sat down to order from a menu mostly written in Kanji, with very few photos. Despite this difficulty, I managed to make my order understood - but I would be lying if I said I was 100% sure that what I ordered was the dish I really wanted.

A bowl of rice topped with unagi (eel), some pickles, a bowl of miso and a beer later I was on my way to the hotel. By this stage it was snowing heavily outside, propelled by a gusty wind that I would wager could come close to being described as "bone chilling". Arriving at the hotel, I was duly informed that I had two hours before my check in. I asked where I could use the internet, hoping to fill in the time I had before check in without braving the snow to much, and the attendant pointed to a terminal in the lobby, saying the word 'furii' (free). Bingo.

Later that evening I decided to head on down to the Apple store and find myself a power adaptor so I could get online and send some emails - embrace my nerdy side and escape the freezing snow. I discovered the snow had eased by that point, but it was still dreadfully cold. I stopped to check my shoddy, hand-drawn map of how to get to the Apple store from the hotel, and carried on walking a few blocks, stumbling - to my surprise - across one of the locations for the Yuki Matsuri.

I was overcome with a shiver of excitement and a feeling of amazement as I stood there, in front of a fifteen foot tall chunk of snow and ice sculpted in fine detail - this was what I wanted to come and see, and here I was. This was not the first time I'd had this feeling in Japan, and I'm sure it won't be the last. But I'll never forget staring up at the sculptures for the first time, happiness and elation curving my mouth into a joyful grin.

The following day I went to have a good look at the festival, since the night before I was tired, cold and not up for the massive wander it takes to view the entire Odori park location. It's quite a long walk from one end of the park to the other, but along the way are so many sculptures - from a few metres tall to the size of a large building - from movies to historic Japanese locations to random creations such as the man with the spiral face, pictured to the right. There was even a section where teams from various countries all put in an entry.

After weaving my way through the swaths of festival goers, precariously navigating slippery ice-covered ground and wearing an imprint of my finger into the button on my camera, I took a walk down towards Susukino, another of the locations for the festival (I never made it out to the third one, which is a lengthy bus ride away, and from what I'm told more for families). I had read that the Susukino site was best viewed at night, so an early dinner was on the cards.

I set off in search of an area called Ramen Yokocho, a small alleyway full of Ramen shops and supposedly home to some of the best Ramen in Japan! Slowly walking down the alley, the alleyway gave me a quintessential 'I'm in Asia' moment - a narrow alleyway lined with tiny shops, lanterns and small flags, Kanji scrawled over them, hanging from the eaves. I selected a random shop and walked in, greeted by the now-familiar call of "Irrasshaimase!", and asked if the Butter Ramen was only vegetables. My question prompted a response that was phrased as if the shopkeeper said yes, but with a word I didn't understand. I asked again to confirm, and he returned with a "Hai", so I assumed it was all good. I really wished at that point my vocabulary was larger and I had understood what he meant... for the first time in five years, I ate (I think) beef. At first I thought it was tempeh, assuming he hadn't told me incorrectly that it was only vegetables... but as I ate a little more of it, my stomach turned as it dawned on me that it was meat. Not wanting to be rude, I ate as much as I could, eating around the chunks of mince floating in my bowl, glaring at me in silent challenge. I pay my money, thank the chef for the meal and make my escape, my guts churning all the while.

Saying my farewells to Ramen Yokocho, I start to wander through Susukino, immediately taken in by the detailed ice carvings lining the street. By this point it was snowing again, a delightful addition to the atmosphere of the Snow Festival. As long as the wind is not driving the snowflakes towards me at insane speeds, carrying with it a way of extracting the warmth right out through my skin via osmosis, I'm quite delighted to be out in the snow. It falls so gracefully, fluttering to the ground in any random direction it feels like. I'm sure those who see it often get a bit sick of the sight (or perhaps not), but coming from an area where it never snows, I love watching it.

The remainder of my time in Sapporo was spent exploring the city and just wandering around. I have never been too interested in city sights (museums and the like), so I struggle to find things to interest me. I wanted to go up the Sapporo TV Tower at night and see the Yuki Matsuri from above, but upon arriving at the ticket booth I discovered it was not only 700yen ($12 or so AU) but a half hour wait, in the cold and snow. Needless to say, I ditched that idea and just went for another look at the festival, seeing a few bands performing at the various stages.

I went to the Sapporo Clock Tower, a historic site that is very famous in Japan. The clock tower has been there for over a hundred years, and supposedly has never missed chiming the time on the hour. I had a look inside, read about (some) of the history (most of it was in Japanese, and I could only read tiny bits of it) and saw some photos, then loitered outside to await the chiming of the clock at 3pm. Sure enough, it chimed three times, confirming the fact that it was indeed a clock that chimed on the hour. Riveting.

Alright, so it was somewhat interesting. But only somewhat...

There was another place I was very keen to get to around Sapporo - Hoheikyo Onsen. Their website shows photos of the onsen in each of the seasons and, knowing I was going to be there in winter, I couldn't resist the lure of sitting in a hot spring surrounded by a beautiful, silent winter landscape. After an hour-long bus ride from the center of Sapporo, I arrived at the onsen and went to the counter to collect my ridiculously small towel, along with a towel with which to dry myself afterward.

For those who have never been to an Onsen, or who have no idea what it involves, the basic process is as follows. First, you remove all your clothes in the change room, then make your way into the onsen bathroom - with your tiny towel for modesty, if you can fit it around you. Some people don't bother, some people wrap it around their waist, some people just hold it to cover themselves up. You wash yourself while sitting on a little stool, clean yourself thoroughly with soap and then rinse yourself off. Only once you are clean can you enter the onsen. I bypassed the indoor bath and went straight for the outdoor one. Sitting in the outdoor bath - hot beneath the waterline and cool from the winter breeze above - was very relaxing. Sadly the photo looked a whole lot better than the reality, but I still got to have a nice hot bath in an onsen on a winter's day. Quite the sausage party, but hey, it's only a bath, and that's how it's done in Japan.

After five days in Sapporo, I took a flight to Tokyo... but that's something that will have to wait until another day.

I have loads more photos of the Yuki Matsuri, and a few more of Sapporo. They're all on Facebook, so if you have me on there you can view them via my profile. If you're not on Facebook (kudos) and you want to view them, send me an email or get in touch somehow and I can send you a link.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Chasing a dream

Sitting here in Furano, sheltered from the below-zero temperature outside by the warmth of Pension Furanui, it's difficult to imagine I was in the heat of the Australian summer just a few days ago. It's quite surreal being here - I have been planning and dreaming of coming to Japan to live for three or four years now, and here I am. Not where I plan to be living and settle down for the year, but nevertheless I'm in the country.

It was quite an emotional journey getting here - sadness at leaving people behind in Australia, anticipation and a little fear of what lay ahead as well as a somewhat-buried excitement. It was a long and exhausting trip, but once I was on the bus heading from Narita airport in Tokyo to Haneda airport and my accommodation for the night, it clicked that I was in Japan. That I was finally here pursuing the dream I had for so long. It's a great feeling!

I checked into my hotel at Haneda airport (so far, everyone I had dealt with, in the hotel and airport, spoke enough English to make it easy for me) and headed out in search of dinner and a much desired glass of cold beer. At that moment, I truly knew I was in Japan. I could see no other foreigners in sight, only Japanese people, and a bunch of shops either selling sweets or offering meals to weary travellers, the shopkeepers and workers blaring out what I assume were promotional spiels for the wares they peddled. After traversing the restaurants on offer, I found one with a reasonably priced (which in Japan, at least from my experience so far, still means quite expensive) meal I was interested in - fried Salmon steak, rice, miso and the cold beer I sought. This was my first Japanese-only speaking experience, and it went okay. At least at restaurants you can point and just hand money over.

The next day I caught my flight to Asahikawa, on the northern island of Japan, Hokkaido. When I got off the plane it was -7 degrees outside, which I'm pretty sure is the coldest temperature I'd ever been in (so far). I caught a bus to Furano, and stepping off it, Laden with my 25kg pack (I managed to avoid two excess baggage charges with that one, too!) and smaller backpack, I of course slipped over nearly straight away on the snow. It so happened that an American woman was walking by and saw me, and told me about a guy she thought was Aussie who ran a shop ten metres down the road that sold snow grips for shoes. Of course, the next stop was that very shop, and 1500 yen later my dignity was saved. Turns out the guy was Kiwi named Jaan, and I hired my gear from there too.

I checked in and had some dinner at a nearby ramen restaurant. The lady was very nice and spoke a little English. I spoke to her in Japanese, exhausting nearly every grammar point and sentence I knew how to say, but it was good practice, and I'm very glad of the study I've done over the past two years to get my Japanese to at least a basic level. Unfortunately the pumpkin ramen, while delicious, came with two rather large slices of pork in the bowl (I didn't think it would, considering it seemed vegetarian, but I'm starting to learn not to assume that in Japan). I didn't want to be rude, so I ate around them and was thankful for the fact they didn't secrete their meaty taste into the soup. She offered me an origami crane, a Japanese good luck charm, which was great.

That brings me to today, my first full day in Furano. I had some breakfast at the pension (western style, sadly - I was hoping for Japanese style, but I'm not going to turn down a free meal when it's all so pricey) and dressed to go snowboarding. I soon remembered what I had learned the first time snowboarding in New Zealand, and had some fun crusing down the slopes, trying my best not to take out every other skiier and boarder on the hill. I think I looked the part too, in my brand new ski jacket and pants - warm, comfortable and stylish (as well as being green and brown :P).

After lunch I had a lesson booked in. I had asked for the lesson in English, since I didn't think my Japanese would be good enough to survive an entire lesson. Turns out I was correct, despite the fact that my instructor didn't think so. I learned a lot, and spoke a fair bit of Japanese. The instructor would speak to me in Japanese unless I didn't understand, which was really good practice.

Despite the fact that the sun was out for most of the day, towards the end of the lesson it started snowing heavily and the wind picked up. As a result it got very cold, very quickly. My instructor thought it was about -10 degrees, ridiculous! I intended to do some more boarding after my lesson (it finished at 3:30, my pass was until 5:30) but after one run my fingers were so frozen they were practically numb, so I decided to call it a day. A nice warm shower later and I'm sitting here writing this. It's about time to seek out some dinner and a cold beer, then have a quiet night. I'm pretty tired after dragging my lazy arse up and down the slopes all day, but I feel good and happy to be here.

They have vending machines everywhere here... there's one sitting just out in the middle of the snow outside, it's crazy. You can buy cold beer from some machines too, which is a nice touch. I've been drinking Japanese beer like it's going out of fashion! Sapporo beer tastes so good on tap.

Alright, the ramen are calling and I've crapped on long enough - perhaps you're not even reading this anymore. It's annoying typing on a Japanese keyboard- hopefully I can get an adaptor for my Mac tomorrow and charge it up; there's free net here, I just need power.

Photos coming soon! They require the aforementioned power adaptor for my mac.

Matta ne!