Sports Day Festivals

Sunny days coming and Aomori Prefecture warms up just in time for the Sports Day Festival \O/ This and next weekend will be completely devoted to cheering on my kids as they compete for the greater glory of melon flavored bread and a commemorative plaque somewhere in their schools’ glass cabinets.

Teams are divided into Red vs White and are called Kouhaku (same as the battle of the bands during the New Year’s celebrations). In bigger schools, you’re more likely to find an upwards three or more groups so other colors apart from the traditional red and white are introduced (you’ll find a yellow group in the pictures below). I’m not exactly sure if every school breaks up the same way but one school did the group breakup completely through raffle. The other had less kids so it tested all of them and then evenly distributed the strongest/weakest/median kids into two separate groups. Unlike American sports days (which I remember having jumping, running, sit up/push up/dodge ball competitions), Japanese kids only have variations of a long time favorite: running.

Relays, races, marathons… it’s all basically running. Just about the only competition that doesn’t involve running is the cheer war between red and white teams. And I’m sure the parents are quite grateful to be invited to watch their kids burn all their unspent energies on the track. With the exception of one almost cancelled sports day due to some unexpected rain, for the most part they ran in a smooth and timely manner, with all kids helping to clean up afterwards.

Yuki Akari: Snow Light Festival in Otaru, Hokkaido

Many travel to Hokkaido in February for the sole purpose of visiting Sapporo during Yuki Matsuri season. The grandiose ice sculptures of famous film scenes and historic buildings are phenomenal. It’s not an exaggeration to say that they are quite literally known world-wide.

Otaru. It’s a seaside city about half an hour’s train ride north of Sapporo and known for its thriving music box and Venetian-style glass works industry. It’s well-known if not widely known, but once a year, running at the same time as Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri, Otaru comes alive with a beautiful celebration of the four seasons, of light, and of snow.

Walking through snow mazes barely wide enough to admit two, the white paths are lit only by the muted glow of candles burning inside holders made of flowers and maple leaves frozen in ice. They hang from trees like stars or glow in the hollows of carved alcoves within the snow maze’s walls. Everywhere the brightness of light shines as a reminder that the same cycles of birth, life, death, and rebirth will soon be mirrored yet again in the four seasons.

The music box crafting and the Venetian glass exhibits were all pleasant ways to spend a day about the city while waiting for nightfall. But… spend a single night in Otaru and you’ll have wished you had taken your entire Yuki Matsuri experience and traded it in for more time in the Snow Light Festival. By a stroke of pure accident, Siri was unable to direct me to the main Snow Light show by the Otaru Unga (Otaru Canal). Instead I found myself meandering along snowlit mazes, descending giant snow slides (twice), and really feeling the spirit of the festival with the locals. The whole experience felt as surreal as accidentally stumbling upon a the land of spirits, imps, and demons. It’s a very fantastical atmosphere, one that I would take a whole week to experience if given the chance again.

Yuki Matsuri Day 1

Began the adventure bright and early from Hachinohe Station bound for Sapporo with a backpack full of 5 days worth of clothes and an iPad brimming with reading material.

Most people take the night train to Sapporo to save some serious cash on transport – this is the smart option, the one you should take if you have a chance – but I opted for the slightly more expensive take-the-Shink route for the experience and because some odds and ends cropped up for that Friday night.

It’s not a very straightforward trip as it requires two to three transfers but there are very helpful station attendants along the way if you are in need of assistance. You can opt for reserved or non-reserved seats. For the cost of an extra 200 yen (a small sacrifice, in my opinion, but up to each person to decide) you get a specific seat reservation. Otherwise you may end up in a carriage standing in the back throughout the duration of your trip.

I get motion sickness so having my own seat where I can curl up on the seat desk is non-negotiable. But it’s doable if you don’t mind sitting on the floor or standing for longer periods of time. Approximately a six hour forty minute ride from start to finish.

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Arrived, grabbed refreshments with two friends who had been in the area since six in the morning, dropped of unnecessary items at hostel where I checked in. Before hitting the streets to check out the festival. It’s quite amazing to see these giant, life size statues of buildings and famous characters (everything from Darth Vadar to Alive in Snowland to Kagusa Taisho).

Finished off the evening with a massive enkai at the Kirin Beer Hall. All you can eat meat and famous beer! More pictures and stories to come later. For now… Sleeeeeep!

Yuki Matsuri Predeparture

TO DO
1. Laundry
2. Wash dishes
3. Pay bills
4. Take out money for a couple days of adventuring
5. Shut off water
6. Submit D&D character bio to GM
7. Pack clothes
8. Charge all electronic devices
9. Passport!
10. Coffee

Too much to do and not enough time but half the fun is in the undertaking! Just one more day and three more classes. Then I’m off for another adventure in Sapporo. What is this life?! Never in a million years did I see myself doing something like this on a regular basis. If it’s a dream, no one wake me. If I’m in the matrix, leave me behind and don’t come back for me.

Still, it’s been a rather stressful two weeks. A minor car accident on an icy road just last week, a snow writing challenge that needs to be finished before D&D eats up my every other weekend, D&D bio that had to be written and submitted ages ago, phonics lesson plans and prepping, and potentially snowboarding trip over Valentine’s Day weekend.

And somewhere between all that I forgot about ballet and kendo. Whoops… T.T The fault, however, lies not in my stars but in myself for being an underling.

The Aomori Blues, Part II

Summer time in Japan is unlike any other in the world. This is a time for hanabi (fireworks) and yukata (summer version of the kimono)… and of course matsuri!

Matsuri can occur at any time of the year (for example, Hokkaidou is famous for its winter Yuki Matsuri, or Snow Festival) but for Aomori, the time to come is generally in the summer. The best part: anyone can participate in matsuri! So long as you have the appropriate wear, of course.

Up above you’ll find two example of matsuri-wear, both known as yukata although they serve different functions. The first two are a front and backside shot of summer yukata, which I borrowed from Mina who was also kind enough to help me into it. Yukata can be put on in one of two ways: alone and with great difficulty or with friends who will help you get the job done faster but with more fun! If you don’t want to participate in the local matsuri but would like to experience wearing the traditional Japanese summer wear, there are a stores in larger cities that rent out yukata for a couple of hours at a time. They also help with the dressing and undressing but yukata can be quite cheap to purchase plus make great souvenirs from a trip abroad. Ultimately it’s up to you though they are by no means mandatory to wear if your plan is just to attend as a bystander.

The third picture, however, is of a shorter yukata that is mandatory for participation in the Nebuta Matsuri. Dressed participants will join in, jumping and dancing rhythmically to the chant of: ‘Rasse-ra! Rasse-ra!” Although it’s difficult to see in the third picture, there are small bells attached to the costume. According to popular legend, if all your bells fall off during the dancing then that is very lucky. The only way to make the bells fall? Dancing even harder, of course! Frenzied dancers are oftentimes encircled by their peers as the chant climaxes ever louder and more excited until it finally dwindles down. One of the new JETs had the honor of experiencing this and we were surprised at the extent to which her energy infected the group. Japanese people are almost always excited to find that foreigners love and are more than willing to participate in their culture if only given a chance.

So what goes down at a matsuri? Pretty much the same eat, drink, and party-esque atmosphere that you can find the world over. Amazing street food stalls line the roads, Nebuta floats are dragged through the blood/sweat/tears of children and adults alike, and of course where there’s a party, there will be alcohol.

I apologize for the video. My phone wasn’t sending the important files so you only really get a concise sense of the crazy-ness of matsuri time. It’s actually a quite vibrant and exciting time to be in Japan. Not going to lie though: it’s as humid as the first eight circles of Hell and no joke about it. The further north you go, the shorter the amount of time that the region remains humid. In Tokyo, the humidity levels begin to kick in around late May to early June and only dissipate with the autumn season, which begins around mid October. According to my boss, Shinbori-san, Aomori only really experiences three weeks worth of humidity. On the downside, it gets cold fast… in late September. From there the inevitable but sure progression of autumn to winter commences at an alarming rate. The fact that I’m from California seems to have gone around town at 299,792,458 m/s. It seems as if the first thing people ask me, after inquiring how well I like the region, is this: “So for winter… will you be okay?”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the nice way of saying: “You are oh so very screwed, my friend.” Because in Aomori, winter isn’t coming… it’s arrived before you know it! Take that George R.R. Martin! 😉

Finally we have the absolute most adorable airport mascot in the world: IGUBE THE SEA CUCUMBER! I think he might a bit of a celebrity (similar to Little Sebastian from Parks and Recreation) because my JET colleagues freaked out in the same way the citizens of Pawnee flipped a table over their favorite miniature horse ❤ To be fair, he is this pudgy little sea cucumber with tiny arms and no legs: what’s not to love?! ^-^