Sunday, September 4, 2011

Winter Wonderland - February 2011

Since arriving in Sendai, I’d been looking forward to the famed ALT Yuki Matsuri trip. Yuki Matsuri (literally “snow festival”) is an event kind of like Winterlude that is held every February in Sapporo. Every year a group of ALTs go to Sapporo together to see the festival, and this year I was part of that group. We had a holiday and also took a few vacation days for an extra-long weekend. On Wednesday evening we took the ferry from Sendai to Hokkaido. I wasn’t a fan of the trip, which saved us money but also made me boat sick. We landed on Thursday morning and were checked into our hostel by early afternoon.

The hostel was relatively nice for a cheap place. I shared a large tatami room with seven other people, where we slept on futons on the floor. The only downside was the showers; they didn’t have individual shower stalls, just one large public bath each for the men and the women. Excuse me if showering in front of total strangers isn’t my preferred way to start the day! I locked myself into the room on the second day so I could have it all to myself, but as that didn’t seem like a good long-term policy, I washed my hair in the sink and otherwise did without for the rest of my stay.

Before the trip, it had occurred to me that I’d probably want to take pictures, and to that end I went out and bought myself a new camera. Up to now I’ve been taking pictures with my video camera, which isn’t very good, but now I should be able to take proper, nice-looking ones. The camera I found is a bit bigger than I’d like, but it has really good zoom and resolution, plus all the manual features I like, so I think it was a good purchase.

It’s a good thing I got it, too, because Sapporo was gorgeous! We had great weather almost the whole time I was there. In Sendai I’d gotten to experience the wussy pathetic snow that falls, blankets everything for a day or two, and then melts again. In Sapporo I was reminded what a real winter is like. The streets were lined with four-foot snow banks – the neatest ones I’ve ever seen in my life! The weather hovered around the –10 °C mark, but it wasn’t the wet, miserable kind of cold that sinks into your bones and won’t let you stop shivering. It was the crisp, dry cold that makes you feel invigorated. We had bright, sunny days with clear blue skies, punctuated with just enough snowy patches to keep everything looking fresh and white.

It felt like home.

On our first night, we went for dinner at the Sapporo Beer Factory. Dinner was yaki-niku (“grilled meat”) tabehodai (“all you can eat”). We grilled lamb with vegetables on Hokkaido-shaped skillets. We were all warned before going that the stink of lamb would get into our clothes and stay there for a week, which is true, but it was worth it for the dinner. Besides, as I realised when I once again found myself taken aback at seeing people light up in a restaurant, the stink of lamb is nothing compared to the stink of cigarettes. I left early. During the meal it had started to snow, meaning that everything outside was looking particularly lovely. I laughed when I arrived at the restaurant to see a Christmas tree standing out front, but the effect it created with the new-fallen snow was truly magical. As I walked back to the hostel alone, I was overcome with the beauty around me, and it was all I could do to restrain myself from skipping down the street. Okay, I admit it: there were a couple of moments where I didn’t restrain myself!

I got up early the next morning and went to see the festival. It was a lovely clear day, and as we were relatively close to the festival site, I decided to walk. On my way there I stopped in at the former Hokkaido Government Office Building. Built in a western style and nicknamed “Red Brick”, this building has a garden outside and an exhibit inside, both free to the public. Eventually I made it down to Odori Park, where the festival was. Odori Park consists of a string of city blocks running east-west through downtown Sapporo. Think of a smaller version of the Mall in Washington D.C., and you’ll have the basic idea. The whole of this park was taken up with the festival.

First I met up with an ALT from Fukushima who had been part of the group that left Ottawa with me. We hadn’t seen each other since Tokyo orientation, and it was nice to reconnect. We spent the afternoon walking around the park. There were lots of snow sculptures, some of them really impressive. There was also ski-jumping, and of course the usual selection of fast food and souvenirs for sale. In the evening we went down to the Nakajima area to see the ice carvings. They were nice too, but not nearly as impressive as the snow sculptures. Although it pains me to say it, I had to admit that Yuki Matsuri is about five times cooler than Winterlude! The only things missing were Canal skating and beavertails, but everything else was awesome!

On Saturday I visited the Historical Village of Hokkaido. This is a large outdoor park where a selection of old buildings have been gathered together. Many of these are comparatively modern buildings in a western style, or combining western and Japanese elements. Hokkaido was only recently colonised by the Japanese, and when it was, a lot of North American experts were brought in with building and farming techniques suited to its boreal climate. That’s part of the reason downtown Sapporo looks so much more North American than other Japanese cities. I spent several hours wandering around, gravitating towards the more traditional and rural buildings. Highlights for me were an old school house, a fishing house, and various family residences.

My ticket to the village also got me admission to the neighbouring Historical Museum of Hokkaido, so when I was done I spent an hour or so there, learning about Hokkaido history. In the evening I went back to Odori Park to see the snow sculptures by night. Many of them looked even better than they had by daylight, and I took lots of pictures of sculptures I’d photographed the day before. For dinner I ate festival food, including a crab and some of Hokkaido’s famous potatoes (which weren’t as good as Yukon gold, unfortunately).

Having accomplished my main sight-seeing goals, I filled up my Sunday with sights of secondary interest. First I went to Shiroi Koibito Park. Shiroi Koibito (literally, “white lovers”) is a white chocolate cookie for which Sapporo is famous, and the park contains a factory-cum-museum where they are made. The place is wonderfully kitschy, from its mock-Tudor façade, to the “passports” they hand out at the door, to the fountain in the entrance. The chocolate factory aspect is not in itself particularly interesting. Shiroi Koibito are basically second-rate cookies glued together with second-rate white chocolate, nothing to get excited about. But the museum was worth it for its collections of antique hot chocolate cups, gramophones, and even vintage toys! If you’re ever travelling in Sapporo with children, this would definitely be the place to take them!

After the chocolate factory, I paid short visit to the Chitosetsuru Sake Museum (really just a sake shop with a collection of cups and decanters) and the Sapporo Clock Tower. For dinner I went to a convenience store for yakitori, a Sapporo specialty my tea lady told me I had to try while I was there. “Yakitori” literally means “grilled bird”, and is usually chicken, but Sapporo yakitori is pork. It was pretty good.

On Monday morning I got up early again and went out for a last look at Sapporo. We didn’t leave the city till the afternoon, so I had a few hours to kill. Yet more fresh snow had fallen, and everything was looking particularly dazzling. First I walked around Hokkaido University, which was right next to our hostel. Then I went down to the Botanical Garden. I’d heard that it contained a museum to Hokkaido’s Ainu people, an indigenous group that lived there before colonisation, and I’d made it one of my top tourist destinations. Unfortunately, that part of the garden was closed, so the only part I ended up seeing was the greenhouse. For lunch I walked down to Sapporo’s famous Ramen Alley, a narrow side street lined with ramen shops, and then found a place selling sakura ice-cream and bought one. That’s ice-cream flavoured like cherry blossoms. It wasn’t bad, although I think I would have preferred cherry.

In the end I wound up at Nakajima park, in the south end of downtown. I’d passed by it many times before, but never had a chance to explore it. I spent my last hour tramping through the snow, marvelling at the beauty around me and enjoying the stillness. Then I rejoined my companions for the bus ride back to the ferry terminal. Having been sick on the trip over, I decided to go straight to bed and sleep right through the return journey. We arrived home on Tuesday morning.

Back at school, I held my second swing dancing class. More students came than to the first one, but they had to leave early. I’ve put up a new English board about colour. At my elementary school, there’s been a kind of sequel to my “Canadian cooking” venture. All the grade two students, the ones I ate lunch with, wrote me thank-you letters, which were then bound together into two booklets and presented to me. I thought it was a really sweet gesture, despite the fact that I can’t actually read any of them. On the bright side, as they’re all written by seven-year-olds, the language in them is actually pretty simple, and they may prove useful down the road when my Japanese improves and I want some reading practice.

In the news this month, there are uprisings in Egypt and Libya. Closer to home, an earthquake hit Christchurch, New Zealand, toppling buildings and killing dozens of people. I don’t know anyone in Christchurch, but there are ALTs here from the city. Fortunately none of their relatives were hurt.

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