Archive for the 'Festivals and Events' Category

England & Scotland

Sunday, August 30th, 2009 by Chris

Trip update: we’ve just completed the UK portion of our trip, spending some lovely time with the wonderful Brits we met in Noshiro during our first two years there.

The first week was in London, where we stayed with Francis, saw the sights (including the wonderfully quirky sport of Bike Polo) and gradually acclimated to life in the big city after three years outside of it.

After that, Frank accompanied us for a weekend in Oxford, where we hung out with Andy, who was coincidentally doing a summer program there as part of his law degree at the Ohio State.

Then it was a week Yorkshire to see Claire, with whom we overlapped during our first year in Japan. This portion of the trip involved visiting the eponymous York, and healthy portions of rambling and croquet. Yorkshire has been described to us as “the Texas of England” in that it has a strong independent streak and resists being characterized as part of a larger country. We are interested to see what Claire, a native Yorkshire girl, has to say about that!

Now we set out on our own to the great repressed nation of Scotland. August is festival month in Edinburgh, wherein the entire city is swamped for the ironically named Fringe Festival (which now dwarfs all the “mainstream” festivals it meant to mock when it started in the 1960s). Edinburgh is a lovely city, managing to feel ancient and modern at the same time. We spent a busy Monday through Friday cramming in as many off-the-wall performances and comedy shows as possible, with about a 50% hit rate for satisfying shows.

We had intended to spend a whole week in Edinburgh, but it was clear that five days were going to be enough. Fortunately, we were able to make a last-minute change in plans by renting a camper van from wickedcampers.com (we had seen tons of these vans in Australia last Christmas and remembered their quirky and very effective self-advertising) for about the same price that we would have been paying anyway for our Edinburgh hostel. So we spent three nights and four days driving ourselves around the Scottish Highlands, pulling off the side of the road to sleep wherever was convenient, and boy are we glad we did. This country is bursting at the seams with gorgeous hills and a truly unbelievable number of waterfalls, and not a few castles as well.

Now we are in Berlin until the end of September, and you can expect a report about that later on!

Things I will miss about Japan

Saturday, July 11th, 2009 by Chris

As we prepare to leave Japan in two weeks, I’ve finally gotten around to something that’s been in the back of my mind for most of the three years we’ve lived here: writing down the things I love and hate about the place. Last week I griped about the things I find most annoying. Now it’s time for the bubbly conclusion.

So here’s the stuff I’ll miss when I go.

(more…)

Winter Wrap-up

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009 by Steph

There’s a bunch of holidays that hit in rapid succession early in the year in Japan, though they often go unnoticed under the shadow of the flashier festivals. Here’s a not-so-brief road map to the winter holidays and festivals we celebrated this year:

New Year’s Day is, of course, a huge deal here but unfortunately I have no idea what it’s like, as I’m always off exploring some other country for winter break. The first holiday that hits me when I return to Japan from abroad is Coming of Age Day, which marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone who’s turned 20 within the last year gets dressed up for fancy photo shoots in anticipation of all the drinking, voting, and smoking that they are now allowed to partake in. Considering I can probably count on one hand the number of people who qualify for this rite of passage in Noshiro, I rarely witness this spectacle first hand.

Instead of reveling in the glory of being 20 (a distant memory for me), I spent the day honoring the deliciousness of unagi. A friend in Tokyo took us to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that specializes in eel, complete with front row seats where you can watch the chef carry out the following process with alarming speed and precision:

Step 1: Place live squirming eel on chopping block
Step 2: Deftly drive metal spike through brain in one stroke
Step 3: Split eel down the middle, removing the internal organs and spine with a few subtle flicks of the wrist

For me, this scene resulted in a complex emotional landscape; my reactions morphed from horror to fascination to scientific detachment as I witnessed the raw ingredients behind the counter go from eel to meal over and over again.

Noting that innards were on the menu, it seemed a shame not to give them a go (they’re certainly not going to get any fresher), so we chucked our hat into the ring and tried a few. I’m certainly no stranger to organs on the table… I’ve gamely eaten my share since moving to Japan, including chicken hearts, raw horse liver, and intestines from anonymous sources. And while I don’t want to be “innardsist” by declaring all offal as, well, awful, I am definitely seeing a clear pattern emerge with repeated culinary experimentation.

A few weeks after this squirmy encounter came Setsubun. This holiday is supposed to be the day before spring, but I don’t really get how this works, as it’s on February 3rd, and still damn cold. Maybe it’s a lunar calendar thing. While you don’t get the day off for Setsubun, you do get the opportunity to toss toasted soybeans from the front door of your house while yelling “Demons out, luck in!” while wearing a kicky paper demon mask. I made sure to throw my beans this year right when Chris was leaving the house… just to cover all my bases.

Inhabitants of western Japan also traditionally celebrate Setsubun by eating a huge uncut sushi roll in one go that’s only slightly smaller than your forearm. I live in eastern Japan, but thanks to the glory of capitalism, conbinis all over the country have taken to selling these seasonal rolls, and now you can find them in Tohoku as well. Chris and I gamely shared one of these humongous rolls between the two of us while facing this year’s lucky direction (N by NE). Only afterward did we learn that you’re supposed to remain silent while you eat it, and eat the whole roll yourself. Double fail on our part. Perhaps two wrongs make a right, and we’ll have a lucky year anyway…

I was still pondering the ramifications of my festive faux pax when Foundation Day rolled around. When I asked my colleagues how they usually celebrate the foundation of their country, I failed to get a satisfying answer. Most people just shrugged and went back to whatever they were doing. This ambivalence was kind of a mystery to someone who’s used to celebrating her own country’s Independence Day with fireworks and BBQs.

A bit of wikipedia research revealed that the low key nature of Foundation Day might have something to do with the history of nationalism in Japan. This holiday (formerly known as Empire Day) used to be all about uniting the country by paying homage to the emperor, and used to be a really big deal. However after WWII, nationalism became a bit of a touchy subject, and this particular celebration was abolished. The current incarnation of this holiday was only reinstated in 1966, and was re-branded to avoid evoking the nationalistic sentiments that are associated with pre-WWII Japan.

In addition to being a bit awkward thematically, Foundation Day is also one of those uncooperative holidays that refuses to stay put on either a Friday or a Monday. In fact, this year, it landed smack dab in the middle of the week. What to do mid-winter with a free Wednesday at your disposal? We tried to make a go of it by hiking through Juniko despite the bleak weather. However after driving for 45 minutes to get to this set of small lakes, we discovered that the park was closed for maintenance. As a fallback plan, we explored the hills nearby, where we discovered a waterfall shrine and a plethora of monkeys. All things considered, I guess monkeys and shrines are as good a way to spend Japan’s Independence Day as any.

Mid-February, of course, is the most exciting wintery time in Tohoku, when snow festivals abound. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, we’ve had very little snow this year, which has detracted from the ambiance a bit. Additionally, winter festivals in Akita are pesky in that they all seem to fall on the same day, making it difficult to see everything unless you live in the prefecture for multiple years. With a few exceptions, we were finally able to see the remaining festivals that had, up until this point, fallen through the cracks. This year’s festival bonanza included:

  • Hiburi fire swinging festival in Kakunodate, Feb. 13-14
    Hiburi’s been a surprisingly elusive festival for the last few years. Kakunodate is several hours away from us by car, and the festival is often inconveniently held mid-week. Last year, we even contemplated driving down on a Wednesday for the festivities, but a snow storm and slippery roads made this trek next to impossible. This year, several events aligned nicely which permitted us to attend. The festival fell on a weekend, and, thanks to a mild winter, ice and snow were not an issue this year.

    The festival is pretty straightforward: anyone wanting to work out their pyromania issues can light a bundle of hay (ok, rice fibers) on fire and swing it around until it explodes in a shower of embers. The fire-swinging was mesmerizing, and on occasion, comic, as old men and little boys almost lit each other’s hair on fire. While it all looked like good fun, I held back for some reason. Maybe the lack of snow and the ample drizzle dampened my ambitions a tad. Or perhaps I felt constrained by the work clothes I was still wearing. Even though this was my last opportunity to see such a festival, for some reason I didn’t seize the moment and participate, a small regret which I carried home with me that night.

  • Amekko Candy Market in Odate, mid Feb
    The gimmick here is that if you eat some candy from the market (which apparently grows on trees), then you will remain healthy for the rest of the year. As someone who consumed a piece of said candy who is now sitting sick in bed, I can assure you that this was NOT a sufficient prophylactic for the common cold.

    From the promotional materials for this festival, I was expecting some kind of tangential activities, like parades or dancing children. However, the little bit of Amekko that I saw was kind of a let down as a) it was just a bunch of people selling stuff and b) the weather was miserable (although, to be fair, the word for “candy” in Japanese is a homophone for “rain”, so I can hardly complain if I got both). But I didn’t mind too much because I was with a bunch of fantastic people, on our way to an even MORE disappointing festival. Which leads us to…

  • The Not-So-Frozen Waterfall Non-Existent Festival, Part II: When Chlorofluorocarbons Attack, third Sunday in Feb. (in theory)
    Last year by some fluke, I had heard about a frozen waterfall just across the border in Aomori. I somehow convinced all my friends that it was a good idea to squeeze into a car and plunge into the snowy depths of the countryside looking for this mythic specimen.

    Not only did we find it, but we happened to arrive on the one day of the year when the shrine members strap on their drums, dust off their flutes, and honor the god of the waterfall. We were treated to a beautiful little procession which snaked its way up an icy path to a shrine cradled against the rock behind the waterfall. The waterfall, which had become a column of ice, was awesome to behold. Despite my burgeoning jaded expat exterior, I had to admit that the day had a kind of magical air about it. I made a mental note to bring more people back to experience it themselves the following year.

    I followed through and returned with new friends in tow but nature, alas, did not hold up her end of the bargain. Due to an abnormally warm winter, the waterfall this year was nowhere close to frozen. And to add insult to injury, there was no processional to speak of this year.frozenunfrozen

    Our disappointment was palpable, but we made the best of it by taking silly pictures that would immortalize our sadness and act as a warning for generations to come: global warming means no more fun winter festivals, kids.

  • Tazawako Alpine Festival 3rd weekend in Feb. (21,22)
    Unlike the “Fire Swinging Festival” or the “Candy Market Festival”, you never quite know what you’re going to get with festivals named after places. As such, the Tazawako Festival has never been high on my list. It’s just too far away and doesn’t spark the imagination. However, with this being Our Last Winter in Japan, with little else to to, we made the long trek through the snowy mountains to Tazawako to see what all the fuss was about.To my delight, this proved to be one of Akita’s smorgasbord festivals, and featured scaled-down versions of events I’d been to in the past, including hot air balloons, snow sculptures, and holy-cow, Hiburi fire swinging.

    If I’d ever been presented with a bona fide second chance, this was it. Conditions were perfect: the air was icy. Snow was delicately floating down. So despite my continued misgivings about lighting my hair on fire (it would grow back, yes?), I stepped up to give fire swinging a go. After watching fire-swingers in Kakunodate and hearing their plaintive cries (「おも〜い!あっちぇ!」), I was a little concerned about trapping myself in a fiery inferno of my own making. But once I donned the fire-resistant happi and stepped out into the snow-covered clearing, all my worries dropped away. Nothing was too heavy or too hot. At the center of my own universe of fire, it was captivating. I was shocked at how quickly it was over, and giddy from the experience for hours. Swinging fire was without a doubt the highlight of this year’s winter festival season. Learn from my mistakes: given the chance, don’t hesitate to play with fire.

  • Garou Waterfall Light-up in Fujisato, 3rd week of February
    I’m kind of at a loss for words for this one. Not a festival per se, the waterfall light-up in the tiny town of Fujisato would struggle to qualify as an event. As explained in the local newspaper, the Garou waterfall is bathed in an eerie blue light for a few days, and then, in a shocking turn of events, the light is changed to a festive green for the final two days of the light-up. There was also a rather nice snow dome nearby, which was made, if the adjacent obnoxiously green sign is to be believed, by monkeys. Such is small town life in the winter, I suppose. Lest you think me ridiculous for driving half an hour to view this modern miracle, I’d like to inform you that there was also a photographer with a tripod from Akita City in attendance, which means he drove at least 3 times as far as me to capture this moment on film.

After the festival madness comes a big fat girlie fiesta called Hina Matsuri, on March 3. This is essentially an excuse to set up untouchably expensive displays of dolls to honor your young daughters. People in other parts of Japan float dolls made of straw out to sea to get rid of bad spirits. In Tohoku, however, the tradition seems to involve grabbing the nearest female foreigner, slapping a kimono on her, and making her husband serve you green tea.

And then, of course, the ultimate sign that spring is right around the corner: High School Graduation. For my school, this falls without fail on March 3rd every year, regardless of the day of the week.

The morning of graduation we all huddled resolutely in our chairs, shivering in a cold and unforgiving gym that was still icy despite the industrial strength heaters scattered about. After long and lofty speeches by the Principal, the Mayor, the head of the Board of Education, the PTA President, an underclassman, and a graduating student, there wasn’t much left to say. The ceremony closed with my former students filing of the gym, looking either somber, bored, or bewildered at their new status as high school graduates. You can see for yourself below: for such a happy occasion, there seemed to be a lot of crying going on. Perhaps these are the students who weren’t hi-fived by the basketball coach? You’ll have to watch closely and draw your own conclusions:

Onēsan at Last

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009 by Steph

The honorific おねえさん (older sister) was first bestowed on me by the kids in my taiko group simply as a consequence of my age: I’m considerably older than they are, but not quite as old as their parents. My first two years here in Noshiro, I taught practically all of them, and Onēsan seemed like a convenient enough title when we were going about our business in taiko rehearsal.

This year, however, I was relocated to a bunch of new schools, and I now no longer teach any of my taiko kids. This has had some unexpectedly delightful side effects, as I’m now free to act more like a sister and less like an authority figure.

Last weekend we all attended a 2-day taiko workshop. At the evening’s enkai,  I finally felt the taiko kids fully embrace the title of おねえさん and all of the responsibilities that it entails. All you older siblings out there know the drill, but I’ll break down my role for the rest of you.

Being おねえさん means:

  • issuing orders and having them carried out. In this case it meant getting an unusually bossy 10-year old to go and fetch a rag to clean up my drink, which she spilled while exhibiting excessive exuberance. The miracle is that she complied immediately and without complaint.
  • allowing fingers to be dipped in beer foam. Foam swiping is all good fun (who doesn’t like a finger or two in their drink?), but the problem was that this then escalated to whining and pleading for beer. When I looked to their usually no-nonsense mother for help, we found her curled up in a corner next to a friend giving us a hopeful and encouraging “thumbs up” sign.
  • making sure that one of the kids keeps my glass full of beer at all times during the enkai. I left this somber and sacred duty to the 14-year old to my left.
  • wiping up spilled alcohol with the children’s socks that litter the floor. This is an excellent alternative which is readily at hand, in case those rags are just too far away.

and, of course, just generally inciting them to silliness.

Other pieces of information gleaned from the taiko workshop include:

  • A time-tested method for finding an enkai’s after-party, which is this: Wander the halls of the hotel which houses all of you, listen for the loudest room, and burst in with a full bottle of JINRO to join the party. I know this because that’s how the TWO roving bands of drunken Japanese taiko players found my modest post-party. By the end of the night, my small two person room contained 9 drunken men (some of whom had to be extricated by force) and one set of bongo drums.
  • How to drum for two days straight with a broken rib, as demonstrated by one participant from Kamikoani. Taiko people are hard core.
  • The first hard evidence I’ve seen in Japan of the global meltdown: enrollment in the workshop was visibly down from last year.

And, lest you think that taiko workshops are all about drinking beer and mistreating children, here’s the new piece we learned in 8 hours:

The Obama Effect

Thursday, November 13th, 2008 by Steph

…wherein I make heroic efforts to avoid words like “historic”, “hope” and “change”.

It started with the bulletin board. I’ve worked here for over two years and haven’t put a damn thing up on that English corner bulletin board. I’m just not a cutesy cut-and-paste scrap-booking bulletin board type. But last month? I finally had something to say.

I usually don’t talk about America in the classroom. I figure the students get inundated with enough crap American culture, I’m not going to force more on them… but, inspired by receipt of my absentee ballot, last month I made an exception and posted some information about the upcoming election. Pictures of McCain and Obama went up, along with a rudimentary explanation of Democrat vs. Republican. High school students began to gather around the board, giggling and pointing, looking confused but interested. This could be good, I thought.

Then last week in the days leading up to the election, I had the good fortune of working with my favorite Japanese teacher of English. Let’s just call him Rockstar, for his stellar teaching talents. Rockstar and I started class like we always do, by asking the students how they’re doing, and they respond in kind. In lieu of my usual schtick however, I responded by physically jumping up and down. Why, you ask? On Wednesday morning, I told them, we’ll find out who the next American president is. Be excited.

We then asked our 13 and 14 year-old students (impartially, of course) who they would vote for, McCain or Obama. To my surprise, everyone had very passionate opinions, like, way more passionate than I would expect from an American teenager. As it turns out, 95% of my students are for Obama.

How to explain this overwhelming majority? Some cynics theorize that Obama is popular in Japan because his name fits nicely into the Japanese syllabary. There’s also the small matter of Obama, Japan, a little fishing village which existed long before Obama the politician burst onto the scene a few years ago. However, Obama’s popularity with the kids is really no surprise… if you’re not avidly watching the campaign unfold, with the policy debates and the supposed scandals, all you have to go on is looks. I mean, who would you vote for, if you were 14? The young, hip guy with a smile or the old codger with a grimace?

My students verified this suspicion when we asked them to explain their reasoning. Most said they would vote for Obama because “He is cool!” or “He is black!” (which seems to lend one a certain mystique in Japanese pop-culture). One student though, blew everyone away when he simply replied: “Because Obama will see everyone as equals.”

Amazingly enough, one girl supported McCain to the bitter end, even after seeing all her classmates go for Obama. In a country that is all about not sticking out, at an age when you are dying to be just like everyone else, I was incredibly impressed that she stuck to her guns. Why does she support McCain? Because “Obama is too popular”. I didn’t delve any deeper, so we can’t be sure if she’s rocking the pity vote, or making blithe commentary on Obama’s messiah-like status. All in all, I was impressed with the students’ ability to express their personal opinion, especially when you consider that they’ve studied English for a year and a half, tops.

As Wednesday morning rolled around and electoral votes trickled in, I was on some kind of giddy caffeine-induced news high, drunk on information overload. Simultaneously chatting with friends, family, and my husband, we made the play-by-play back and forth as results began to pop up (Look, quick! Before it flips! Texas is blue! Go Dallas!) News began to trickle in about the rest of you as well: driving voters to the polls in Miami, last minute campaigning in Seattle, working long shifts at the polls in Ohio, stuck in chem lab in Texas, on the edge of your seat, waiting breathlessly in Harlem. As Obama’s electoral votes continued to inch towards 270, I raced off to teach for two hours. As usual, Rockstar and I brought up the election in class, that it was happening RIGHT NOW people, THIS IS NOT A DRILL! and if students wanted to know the results, they could come and ask me in person around 2pm to find out.

Little did I know that the entire school had been working on a research project about their hometown, culminating in an all-afternoon presentation. While this was a pretty awesome project, it may have stolen a little thunder from my election-fever. No matter… I went around from poster to poster, listening to students give speeches about the elementary schools they all came from, or what kind of fish swim in the river, or the best season to enjoy the local park, and it was incredibly sweet, actually. What a lovely way to celebrate and take pride in small town life (you know, the REAL Japan where the hard-working people with values live… ).

Then 2 o’clock rolled around. We were still rotating around the gym from presentation to presentation. But during those in-between moments, students inexorably gravitated towards me from across the room in groups of 3 or 4. In hushed conspiratorial voices, they would ask me「オバマかマケンか誰勝ったの?」After making them ask in English, and making a big “O” sign with my arms (also the sign for “Yes! Correct!” here in Japan), they would jump up and down, giving me high fives and celebratory terrorist fist jabs, then rush off to tell another cluster of students, who would approach me to start the process all over again.

But the most compelling moment was yet to come, when I returned to school on Thursday. Rockstar-sensei and I were on our way to class when he asked me to explain a little bit about Obama’s speech to the students. Unbeknownst to me, he had burned a copy of Obama’s acceptance speech to CD, and printed out hard copies for all of his students. I didn’t really have anything specific prepared. My impression was that he was planning on a 10 minute discussion, tops. To his credit, when I asked how much time I could use to discuss the speech, he replied “Take as much time as you want.” Anyone who has taught English in Japan while bound by protocol, anyone who has attempted to reach outside of the textbook, or tried to teach something which doesn’t fit neatly into the rigid government-determined English framework knows that setting aside agendas and schedules to learn from current events using real English is nothing short of miraculous.

We spent the entire hour going over the last 11 paragraphs of Obama’s acceptance speech, the part where the 106 year-old lady shows up to vote, and we stop for a moment to consider all she’s been through, to consider not only the hardships we’ve overcome in the last century, like war and inequality, but also all the progress society has made through technological breakthroughs.

To their credit, the junior high school students were familiar with just about every historical event mentioned in the speech (although it kind of blew their minds that this lady was born in a time without planes or cars). They nodded with hesitant familiarity as we went over (in English!) World War II, the first man on the moon, and even the Berlin wall coming down. They could understand how decades and decades ago, people were prevented from voting because of race, gender, or lack of money. What they hadn’t heard of and could barely comprehend was the Civil Rights Movement.

Using basic English we explained to our students about segregated buses and stores. We identified the “preacher from Alabama” as Martin Luther King (flashes of recognition here when Rockstar mentioned his name in Japanese) and that even though this man believed in protesting non-violently, he was still killed for his beliefs. When we stressed that all of this had happened less than 70 years ago, that was the kicker. That’s what they couldn’t believe. And that’s when it hit home, how this woman mentioned in the speech had been born some 40 years after the end of slavery, and had experienced the Civil Rights Movement and then lived long enough to witness the election of first African-American president. You could see the light go on, as students recognized the continuity and proximity of all these events, as they understood the context that makes this election’s results so extraordinary.

I am not a sentimental person. As such, I refuse to disclose the number of times that tears have come to my eyes since the election was called last Wednesday; frankly, it would be embarrassing. But I will tell you that each time we began this lesson, my tear ducts would ambush me. First it was discussing the Civil Rights Movement. When I got that under control, I then lost it when we got to WWII, which Obama describes as the time when “bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world”. Try translating that as an American standing in front of a class of Japanese school children. But the amazing thing was… we could all soberly acknowledge that this event happened, free of animosity on either side, knowing that even though our countries fought against each other in the past, we don’t have to be pigeon-holed by history. Tissue, please.

We wrapped up the lesson by discussing the “American Dream”, mentioned in the last paragraph of the speech. Until we began this conversation, I was unaware that many teachers and students alike in Japan have a very specific understanding of the American Dream. As it was explained to me, the Japanese interpretation has to do with the opportunity (possibly the right) to become rich and famous if you live in America. I explained my broader interpretation of the American Dream by making a list of some of the classifications that have divided our country in the past. Black and white. Rich and poor. Gender. Religion. And (in light of Prop. 8, thank you very much) gay and straight. And that no matter how you identify yourself, no matter what mix of all these things you are, you (should) have the same rights as anyone else. And (call me sentimental if you will) that if you work hard, you can achieve anything (even being rich and famous, if that’s your thing).

Now forget for a moment the larger-than-life oratory, the rhetoric, the poignant references to Lincoln and JFK and Martin Luther King. Forget the beautifully constructed arc of the speech, how Obama calls upon the citizenry for “service and responsibility,” the (dare I say it) historic drama of it all. Instead take in these words for a moment: “While the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility…” Humility. A word I’ve scarcely heard in the last 8 years, certainly not from anyone in the reigning administration, certainly not regarding current American policy.

While it remains to be seen if Obama will be an effective president, he is already having a profound effect in my small community here in Japan. Instead of asking in class “People who understand, raise your hands”, Rockstar-sensei now says “Yes We Can people…?” and arms shoot enthusiastically into the air. The English teachers aren’t the only ones who are jumping on the band-wagon. The Japanese teacher also took in a translation of Obama’s speech to study with his class this week.

As for the two of us? The night of Obama’s victory we went out to carouse, euphoric on an election high (just like the rest of y’all, apparently). I wanted to run like crazy through streets packed to the gills with humanity, but this being Tohoku, I had to settle for something a little more modest in scale. Eager to share our good cheer with someone, we headed to a familiar restaurant where we know the folks who run the joint. We shared the room with one other Japanese couple. The TV was on, rehashing election results, mostly just showing clips from Obama’s acceptance speech. As the Japanese translation scrolled by on the screen, we could hear the general consensus in the room: “Dude, I totally can’t understand him but he’s SO COOL!”

We knew, all of us, that despite the excitement, that despite all the hype, he’s not the ultimate solution to all things. He’s not our fairy godmother. Of course he’ll make mistakes. But for that moment, we allowed ourselves the luxury of basking happily and without reservation in the election afterglow, drinking beer, feeling that all was right with the world, even if it’s not. At the end of the night, making our way out the door, we congratulated the two lingering couples on Obama’s victory. In return, their cheers ushered us out into the night, all of us flushed with mutual good feeling (and, let’s be honest, alcohol).

I’m not sure how election night unfolded for you, where you were, what you felt, when you heard. But that’s how it all went down here, in the boondocks of Japan.

Dos and Donts of the Road

Friday, August 15th, 2008 by Steph

Even though in your heart of hearts, you want to travel all 280 km from Noshiro to Aomori City by pedal power alone, do take a car along on your first long-distance bike trek. Do bring friends and travel in packs, terrorizing innocent bystanders in narrow countryside streets with your badass gaijin bicycle gang. Do stop for ice cream at every opportunity, even if the only available flavor is carrot. Do keep an eye out for monkeys crossing the street, and continue to stare in awe as they nonchalantly disappear with a rustle into the trees.

Don’t be so goal-oriented that you neglect to stop and explore the Shinto shrines tucked away by the side of the road. Do imitate superheros at every available opportunity. Do accept the vacuum sealed cobs of cooked corn from the nice man at the restaurant who just took an hour and a half to make you 4 pizzas. Don’t attempt to eat them, however, (the corn, not the pizza) as mold has infiltrated the packages and is inching its way between the starchy kernels.

When you realize that you have two more hours of biking to reach your hotel and only half an hour before check-in, do ditch your bikes in the boiler room behind the local temple gift shop and hoof it by car to your destination. Don’t feel guilty; it’s not cheating, you’re on vacation.

If at all possible, do reserve a room in a swanky onsen hotel for one night. Do take full advantage of the private onsen on your porch overlooking the Japanese-style garden as the sun sets. Do try to eat everything that is brought to your room for dinner, though this will take a good part of the night, as you wade through a cornucopia of sashimi, sea urchin, grilled fish, savory custards, abalone, pickles, rice and hotpot soups.

When you resume biking, and you pass a bus full of Japanese children on the road, DO make sure you ham it up by mimicking the one physical punch-line of every Japanese comedian you’ve never seen. This will bring you good karma with the transportation gods.

Do visit Goshogawara for their Tachineputa festival. Do arrive before dark so you can stroll down the street where festival floats are lined up and float pullers are diligently preparing for the night ahead. Do get a good look at the crazy vertical hair that the good people of Goshogawara force upon their children. Don’t expect to find much in the way of dinner. And for god’s sake, DON’T mess with the policemen. They are cranky and not happy to be working crowd control. Also… don’t idly stand in front of any food stalls while watching the festival or you will be soundly bitch-slapped by the authorities.

Do reserve a room in Aomori City for the Nebuta festival, and do it as soon as possible, say, early April. Do take advantage of the bleachers that hotels have set out just for their hotel guests. Do catch bells thrown by members of the parade for good luck. Don’t miss the ample product placement by convenience stores and beer companies. Do feel free to laugh at the effeminate gymnasts in full body unitards who want you to buy their particular brand of sports drink. Don’t spend too much time wondering how someone snuck an Egyptian pharaoh into the parade.

Do have more than a passing understanding of the festival schedule. Don’t assume that all parades are at night, and don’t park underground only to find when you’re ready to leave town that the exits have been closed off for a mid-afternoon parade for the next two hours. Don’t get grumpy when this happens to you. Hug a traffic cone instead. It understands your plight. Do understand that most of these week long nebuta festivals will probably culminate with an afternoon (not evening) parade. Corollary: Don’t be surprised when you drive to Hirosaki on the last day of Neputa only to find a ghost town when you arrive at night.

Do go into the Spanish restaurant you find while looking for okonomiyaki. Do eat the entire two baskets of bread and fresh butter that miraculously appear at your table. You’ve lived in Japan for two years. You’re worth it. Do order copious amounts of the lovely cinnamony sangria that is beckoning to you from the menu. It is just as good as you imagine.

Do go to as many onsens as possible while you’re in Aomori, but DON’T expect them to have soap and shampoo. This, apparently, is a quaint Akitan custom. Don’t pick your onsens indiscriminately or you may find yourself in the Onsen Of Death, where the air is saturated with steam hotter than hell itself.

Do take a ferry to tiny fishing villages in the middle of nowhere. Don’t listen to the guy at the dock who claims that you have no time to stop and pet dogs before the ferry returns to pick you up. Do find a tiny shack of a lunch place to order and conquer the uni-don. Do listen to the cute old lady who’s serving you lunch when she tells you that you’re about to miss the one and only ferry back the mainland. Don’t forget to buy a few kakigori on the way out the door to thank her for her kindness and attention to detail.

Do set out on your return trip home on a bike with gears, if your return trip involves biking over the Shirakami mountains. Do be on your best behavior at all times when traveling, as you will inexplicably run into your landlord’s neighbor and several members of your taiko group, even though you are cycling far from home. Don’t pull into a rest stop swarming with cops if you are a foreigner driving without a license. Do lose your bike tire patching kit in lieu of actually popping a tire. Do make the slight detour to view fields of tri-tone rice that form a giant canvas upon which famous Japanese masterpieces are re-created.

Don’t hesitate to stop at a friend’s house to crash, covering his entire floor with futons for the night. Do recuperate from your travels at a local bar, sipping on beers from Belgium and Mexico while you watch the opening ceremonies of the Chinese Olympics, surrounded by friends from Canada, India, and Japan.

Do breathe in the intoxicating summer air, thick with the smell of greenery growing furiously under a bright blue sky as you return home. On your last day out, do find as many dead ends as you can, while you follow your river back home through the countryside, thus elongating your trip as much as possible. Don’t forget to look for herons tucked stealthily among the rice fields. Do stop for a moment to marvel at the din of chirping cicadas screaming over each other to be heard, their collective discord making the air shimmer in a tapestry of sound.

Do return home exhausted and collapse on your couch with schemes for future bike trips already taking shape in your head, the last thing you remember before sleep claims your weary limbs.

Spirited Away

Thursday, August 14th, 2008 by Steph

I like to bike through the Buddhist temple district on the way to school. The road is lined with trees, and the temples add an air of serenity. The path is generally free of students, which means I don’t have to fight my way upstream against an onslaught of preteen boys fiddling with their cellphones on their way to the junior high by my house.

But today, the atmosphere had changed.

The streets were clogged with cars. Temples which are usually in a state of stasis had their doors flung open, with visitors milling around inside. Vendors were starting to assemble their kakigori stands, with the usual 氷 flags. Old ladies sat by the side of the road calling out “ikaga desu ka?”, trying to get me to buy ice cream that has been carefully molded into a pink and yellow flower bud. I know from first hand experience that this calculated presentation is a trick, that their product is an assault to the taste buds, a horrid concoction of banana and artificial strawberry that has somehow come to represent summer in Akita.

The graveyards adjacent to the temples were the hoppingest place in town at 8:15 in the morning. Families greeted each other with a smile or a wave, and gathered around graves, bringing flowers, money, and sake to family members who have passed on. A monk in a conical straw hat meandered among the gravestones, ringing a bell, ready to offer blessings to the deceased.

Welcome to the first day of Obon, where everyone in Japan returns to their hometown to be with their family and pray to their ancestors. I don’t really have any family to be with or ancestors to pray to here in Japan. But I am content to pause for a moment, to be part of this landscape for a brief few minutes on the way to work, to slow to a crawl on my bike, weaving in and out of traffic in my own private trance, dodging pedestrians and taking in the scene.

Iwate Earthquake

Saturday, June 14th, 2008 by Chris

About 20 minutes ago there was a large earthquake in our neighboring prefecture of Iwate. The epicenter was right around the “tri-state area” where Akita, Iwate, and Miyagi meet.


Amazingly, I was watching the news when the earthquake happened, and an earthquake alert popped up on the television about 10 seconds before the earthquake actually arrived. The shaking was not heavy all the way over here in Noshiro, but it went on for over a minute. It felt like being on a boat, with a kind of constant vibration accompanied by big, slow swaying back and forth. I went outside and noticed all the powerlines swinging all over the place. Our landlord’s gardener was out there and didn’t seem to be noticing anything though!

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I Can’t Hear You

Friday, March 14th, 2008 by Chris

As you surely know if you follow us religiously (and who doesn’t?), Steph and I have been playing with Noshiro Belabo Taiko,* a local drumming group, since last summer. We’ve had a few performances around town, and have gradually gotten better as we settle into the physically demanding technique that this activity entails. But as much fun as we have had, I don’t think anyone would describe us as “hard core.”

Well that all changed last weekend, when we attended a two-day taiko workshop on the nearby Oga peninsula. This is a yearly event put together by Akita-area taiko groups, where master senseis come and impart their wisdom to us regular Joes.

Most of Belabo attended, including all three of us foreigners (Frank, Steph and me), and we were happy to see a few other JETs from around the prefecture as well.

There were a variety of courses to choose from. Being the manly men that we are, Frank and I chose the ?daiko (???, literally “big drum”) course. We even went so far as to purchase the biggest sticks we could find for $25. This course consisted of seven guys and the teeny instructor (Go sensei, who I believe was 27 years old) who whipped our asses into shape. After the first day’s three-hour session, I had more blisters in a smaller area than I had ever known possible. Fortunately the second day (and four more hours) didn’t make them much worse, thanks to some strategic taping.

Steph took the “new song” course, which is the general one for experienced players who don’t need to develop any particular skills. Since most of the people attending the weekend are experienced players, “new song” was by far the biggest course with around 85 people.

At the end of the first day, everyone (about 130 people altogether, as Go sensei gleefully kept reminding us we’d be performing in front of) gathered at the conference hotel and got together for a giant dinner and drumming party. A huge tatami room was lined with four rows of exquisitely apportioned individual dinner tables, complete with every kind of gross seafood you could ever not want to eat. After the food was out of the way, the room was cleared and a rollicking drum party commenced. I hope there weren’t any other guests in the hotel because this was one seriously loud party. (I love a country where you can even have drumming conventions in a room with paper walls.) Each visiting taiko group got to get up and play a piece, and there were even a few widely-known pieces where everyone who knew it was able to get up and play whatever drum was available. At the end of the night, a spontaneous pulsing beat started up and everyone was either dancing or drumming. It was probably the most fun I’ve had in Japan.

We all dreaded the second day, with our bleeding hands and sore muscles. Fortunately it was less painful than I had feared, and Sunday afternoon closed up with a fun performance where all the classes showed off all the fancy skills they had acquired over the weekend. The ?daiko performance was a big hit (am I right, ladies? <wink>) and the 85-person new song was amazing. If you ever get the chance to see 85 people beating the crap out of some big drums, don’t pass it up. Here is a postage-stamp-sized video (starting with Steph at the very beginning!) taken with my cell phone from the second floor:

New Song

Although the pain and fatigue were intense in the course of the workshop, we had a huge amount of fun and are excited for next year. Perhaps then I’ll take a decent camera and get some better pictures and videos.


* If you follow that link, there is a (very bad) picture of us on the front page! It’s our first performance after we had been playing for all of two weeks. ?

Festival Roundup

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008 by Steph

We’re now coming to the end of February Festival Madness. Tohoku is a flurry of winter celebrations all month long, though for some reason we squeeze most of the action in somewhere between the second and third weekends. Allow me to sum up:

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