sapporo, day 6

On the sixth day, some of my Japanese friends who had joined us in Sapporo left to go back to their schools and jobs. The rest of the team split up to do some sightseeing, and I joined a group of twelve who went to visit some museums and hot springs.

We took an hour-long train ride to the small town of Shiraoi where the Ainu museum was located. The Ainu, Japan's indiginous people, had set up a reconstruction of one of their villages, and we spent a few hours walking around there and learning about their history, and watching some traditional performances.

This is a statue at the entrance to the Ainu village.
These are some of the artifacts we saw in the museum. There was also a lot of interesting clothing there; the Ainu do not believe in depicting nature realistically in art, so all of their designs are abstract. While at the museum we also watched some Ainu singing and musical demonstrations, and tried to learn how to play a tiny wooden instrument kind of like a mouth harp. For lunch we ate at a noodle shop, and I had tempura ramen - a bowl of ramen with fried batter-dipped shrimp in it. It was delicious!
After the Ainu village, we went to Noboribetsu, a tourist-y town just a few train stops away. Because of the large amount of volcanic sulfur springs in the area, the region is called Hell Valley, and there are statues of all kinds of demons and ogres all over town. There are also a plethora of onsen, or community baths where Japanese often go to relax and treat their skin with different kinds of mineral water. Above is a statue of an oni, a kind of ogre.
Here is the sulfur springs just before sunset. We hiked some trails through the springs before some of the braver group members went to try out an onsen. The scenery was beautiful, but the smell was nauseating.
This stone marker was near a volcanic cauldron-like crater on one of the trails. The posts were scatterd around the park.

This is a statue in downtown Noboribetsu. The Spiderman figure was placed there by our coach. He always takes Spidey with him when he travels, and photographs the figure in strange or famous places.

sapporo, days 4 and 5

I didn't take any pictures on these days because we were rushing all day to get to performances in different parts of town. Some of the highlights involved dancing for a large audience on a baseball field in front of the Royce' chocolate factory, attempting an odori-style version of our song (dancing in a circle around a platform tower, and dancing our routine six times in a row parade-style on live TV.
We celebrated being the first American University team to be invited to the Yosakoi Soran festival at an after-party the night of the fifth day. We started at our hotel by watching the finals of the competition among the big teams on the TV in our hotel's lobby. Then we ate a dinner provided by the sister of one of our members, who worked at a family restaurant a ten-minute walk away. Then we went to a bar for drinks and food, and even after that some people were still awake enough to go out for karaoke, but a couple friends and I took a taxi back to our hotel to get some sleep. Five performances each day was enough to completely wear me out.


sapporo, day 3

On our third day in Sapporo, we moved from the hostel to a business hotel near Susukino, the downtown entertainment district of the city. Below is a picture of our hotel from the back. From the front it's just a concrete building; I didn't even notice the aqua and red paint until I was walking on the street one day.

After we checked our baggage into the hotel we walked about five minutes to a large open park with a view of the city. We had intended to practice there for our upcoming performances, but since we hadn't been able to officially check into the hotel until afternoon, we weren't able to change into practice clothes. Instead, we spent the morning attending an open house at the University of Hokkaido, a lengthy walk away.
The first thing we did at the open house was try to find lunch. All the different international student groups had stands set up, and everyone wanted us to try theirs.
This is where I was introduced to Japanese "advertising." While American student groups might yell out that they had fresh or hommade food, these vendors would walk around in costumes, carry signs, dress in costumes and practically sing and dance to get people to buy their food. I was accosted by one girl who wanted me to buy her ice cream. She literally grabbed my arm and started jabbering in Japanese. When I said 'wakarimasen' (I don't understand), she switched to English. "You like sweet? Yes? You buy our ice cream!" I didn't want the ice cream, so I settled for taking a picture with her, then moving on.
I actually ended up getting chicken shwerma for lunch. I never thought I'd have my favourite Lebanese food in Japan.
This is an elderly woman doing a watercolor of one of the historic buildings on the university's campus. We actually saw quite a few elderly people doing this scattered throughout the campus.

Later in the evening we went to watch some of the bigger yosakoi teams perform on the big stage in Odori Park. This was what we had come for. It was so cool to be in an environment where everyone knew what Yosakoi is, and where competition for the top spot is as competetive as a major US sporting tournament.

I believe this is the team that eventually won second place overall. Teams are judged based on their energy level, costume and makeup, costume changes and use of accessories. There are also requirements for the music. This group did one of the more traditional performances.

This team didn't do a lot of traditional yosakoi moves which kept them from making it to the finals, but it was the most memorable performance I saw. The group were dressed as train conductors, and the music involved a lot of audial cues that were train whistles. The song had a lot of hip-hop influence, and the dancers were the most synchronised I have ever seen. It was unbelievable how together they were - almost robotic.This group was all girls, and did a flamenco-style routine.Another traditional-style group.

This team had a lot of accessories, especially the flags in the back. The taiko drummers in the front were really cool, and there were even two tiny kids doing taiko drums. When the drumming part was over, a dancer picked up the littlest kid and ran off the stage with him to make room for a formation change. In a few days we would be dancing on the same stage.


sapporo, day 2

(More photos on flickr - I seem to have removed my day 2 pictures from the computer. Oops.)

The second day in Sapporo we were a little more oriented with our surroundings, so it didn't take us long to walk to the nearby convenience store in the subway to find something for breakfast. I tried a sesame pastry and some juice that contained fruit and vegetables, notable radishes. That was the one drink I tried in Japan that I would rather not repeat. After breakfast we started practicing the dance routines we'd been working on for months. There was actually a little gym in our hostel so we practiced there. The TV crew came to videotape us practicing; it was a little intimidating, but we learned to ignore the cameras and just perform.
At lunchtime, we walked to the nearby 24-hour supermarket and got some food from its bakery. I learned that in Japan, what appears to be one kind of food is often another once you take a bite. I got a sandwich containing what I thought was a breaded fish patty on lettuce. When I actually bit into it back at the hostel, I discovered that it was some kind of creamy potato concoction that had been breaded and fried. While it was delicious, it definitely wasn't fish. We also got to sample white bean sweets, traditional dainty desserts.
In the afternoon we practiced again, and after practice the Sapporo TV crew took us on a tour of some of the city's attractions to tape our reactions.

This was the first place they took us, Mt. Moiwa. It is a small mountain that overlooks the city of Sapporo. They treated us to melon-flavored ice cream, a Hokkaido local specialty. We also spent some quality time in the mountain's gift shop, which abounded with cell phone accessories, Hello Kitty memorobilia, and trinkets related to the marimo, a strange type of local algae. Of course they had personified it into a living character as well, and there were numerous marimo puppets, dolls and keychains and things of that sort. It seems that every living thing in Japan can be characterised as a cute cartoon character. There were cartoon raccoons painted on the sidewalks telling children to look both ways before crossing the street. There were cartoon stuffed animals of every kind in arcades across the town. My personal favourite was a cartoon crying pudding in a job-searching advertisement. It had a giant animated tear running down its vanilla-flavored face, and sobbed 'Find me a job!'

The next intent of the crew was to videotape me and one of my friends eating ramen in a ramen shop, but when our bus passed by the shop was closed. I was relieved; in Japan there is an art to slurping ramen noodles that I have not mastered, and I'm sure the tape would have been interesting. Of course I'm sure they were counting on some amusing mistakes, but I was relieved all the same.

Instead, we went to a Yaki-Niku restaurant. We received plates of various raw meats in courses, and grilled them over a charcoal grill set into the table in front of us. The restaurant was called Gaja, and the atmosphere was very upscale. There was even live lounge music while we were there. The meats we tried were very good, and ranged from pork and ground chicken to squid, and even beef cutlets, an expensive rarity in Japan. For dessert there was a small scoop of ice cream with the ever-present cornflakes as a garnish.

When we went back to the hostel, we were too full to have an intense evening practice, so we just limbered up and stretched for half an hour to get ready for practice the next morning.


sapporo, day 1

There are no pictures of my first real day travelling to Japan. That might have something to do with the 3:50 a.m. alarm before a two hour trip to the airport, followed by a flight to Chicago, then to Tokyo, then finally to Sapporo. On the plane I was either sleeping or talking to the people sitting next to me, who were both around my age, travelling abroad as well. One was returning home to South Korea after backpacking around Europe; one was meeting some friends in Tokyo before heading out to backpack in Thailand and Nepal. When we arrived at Chitose airport in Sapporo, everyone in the group was ready to nod off for the night, but we still had an hour bus ride and short subway trip before arriving at our hostel. When we did finally get there, there were reporters from Sapporo TV there to interview us for a documentary they did on our Yosakoi group, since we are the first American team to ever perform in the Sapporo Yosakoi Soran festival. We settled into the hostel, which was actually very nice, found a nearby convenience store for some food, and then turned in for the night. My photo-taking started the next morning.
This is the bell tower of a Buddhist shrine near the hostel that we ran across while looking for somewhere to eat breakfast. According to Buddhist tradition, you ring the bell to wake the god living in the shrine, then deposit some money in an offeratory box, say a prayer, clap two times, and bow before leaving.This is more of the temple at the shrine. There were other statues and a small garden there as well.This is the vending machine in our hostel. While in Japan, I never saw any vending machine with food, but these drink-dispensing machines were on almost every corner. They had all kinds of drinks ranging from beer to coffee to juice and soda, and even an interesting concoction called a pudding shake that tasted fine, but had a slightly repulsive texture.We finally found a place to eat after checking out all our options. In Japan, breakfast is quite different from the U.S. There are no sweets like the pastries or pop-tarts we might have, and cereal is almost unheard of. A typical breakfast might consist of miso soup, some kind of potato, or salad. This is a rice burger from MOS Burger, Japan's equivalent of a Starbucks for burgers.The MOS in MOS Burger stands for Mountain, Ocean, Sun. This particular one was a very short walk from the hostel, and offered more standard burgers as well as parfaits and coffee. This is a dish called doriye, which I had for lunch. We ate at Victoria, a western-style sit-down restaurant complete with forks and spoons, and a salad and soup bar. The food, though, was uniquely Japanese, and so were the drinks. Soda in fruit flavors like melon and apple are common in Japan. This doriye contained shrimp and squid in a white sauce over wheat noodles.
Later in the day we went to rehearse for the opening ceremony of the Yosakoi Soran festival. This is one team getting ready to rehearse. Across the street is the back of the bleachers where the spectators sat facing the main stage. Announcers and TV crews sat at the top of the platform to film the stage.
After our first performance, we all went to eat dinner at an okonomiyaki restaurant. Okonomiyaki are cabbage pancakes, and we got dishes containing the ingredients for the pancakes, which we cooked ourselves in a small stove set into the short tables we sat around. The tables were only about a foot off the ground, and we sat on cushions around them. There were several other things we could fry as well, such as shrimp and vegetables or spiced rice.
This was dessert. The cup was filled with strawberry milk and cornflakes, which we fried together with the whipped cream and fruit from the top.
Ours turned out a little runny because we added the milk too soon, but it tasted good all the same. It was fun to get to cook our own food and hang out as a group after an exhausting day of getting used to Japan, and ready for the rest of the festival.


coming soon

First, some changes to my format under the assumption that simpler is better.

Also, I'll be recounting my trip to Japan, along with some pictures I took while I was there. All I can say is Sapporo was awesome!


i'm off

Well, I'm off to spend the night at a friend's house, before carpooling to the airport at 4:30 tomorrow morning. There won't be posts for the next two weeks (but you're used to that, right?) Hopefully I'll be able to put together a summary of the trip and some pictures when I get back.