Memories of Summer, 2017

Summers in high school were family vacations and cross country practices; summers throughout college were long hours spent at part-time jobs with my best friend; but summers here in Japan have been some of the best I’ve ever had.

Summer, of course, is long past, but here are some of the highlights from my last full summer here in Japan:

* A road-trip across Ibaraki one beautiful day in June. J and I hit Ushiku Daibutsu (that huge, famous Buddha), the Itako Iris festival (so many wilting flowers), and the celebrated Kashima Jingu (a shaded shrine where we discovered ponds teeming with crawfish!) before catching up with 20 or so other Ibaraki JETs for the Kashima Antler’s soccer game! It was a great little road trip across the southern part of Ibaraki.

* My high school’s baseball game. I went to Mito with my commercial school to see the school’s baseball team kick off the prefecture’s high school baseball season! And my school’s team absolutely killed it. In the first inning alone, we racked up 11 points… which was exhausting for the poor students in the stands, because in Japanese baseball, every time a team scores a run, the band has to play a specific song and the supporters have to do a specific celebratory dance. Imagine all of that in 95 degree heat and humidity. The poor drummers, draped in ice towels and beating away at their huge drum, kept shooting me exasperated glances every time our team scored another point. “Yeah, we want to win,” their eyes seemed to say, “but calm down and give us a break here. We’re tired of cheering.”

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(Wednesday) Photo of the Week: School Festival

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School festivals are in the fall, so these two photos are a few months late, but I didn’t want to write a full post about it.

Basically, I just wanted to highlight my Commercial High School’s festival from back in October. I help run the English Club at that school, and the girls all worked hard to create a Harry Potter-themed quiz game for the festival. They decorated this science room and hid clues all around — inside the books and behind curtains — so guests could go on a little scavenger hunt to fill out the quiz. Guests who got all the answers correct won a small prize. Surprisingly, we had about 50 people complete the quiz, which surpassed all of our expectations!

Below are all the quiz questions in English. It’s not perfect English, but they tried really hard! Can you get all the answers correct?

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(Tuesday) Extracurriculars: Secret Ibaraki Festival Gems

Silk festivals, peach blossom festivals, chestnut festivals, art festivals… lantern battle festivals that end in flames??? Yep, I’ve attended them all, and all in Ibaraki!

Okay, I know what you are thinking. Karen, what? You can’t call this an “extracurricular activity!”

But let me explain. I only have three real extracurricular activities — Community Japanese class, as I mentioned last Tuesday, and two others that I will write about in the next two weeks. Well, I also practice kimono, but I’ve already written about kimono a few times now. So, I only have three *new* extracurriulars, but there are FOUR Tuesdays in February. Hence, I decided that attending local festivals counts as an extracurricular!

One of the things I love most about Japan is that everything deserves its own festival. A particular flower is blooming? Festival. There’s a local 10k race? Festival. This town is famous for something? Festival. It’s summer? Festival.

Of course, there are the really big festivals, like the Sapporo Snow Festival and the Akita Kanto Festival (both of which I went to in 2016). These festivals are famous for a reason — they are truly amazing! But I think there is also a lot to be said for smaller, more local festivals — these are the hidden gems, the ones that make you feel like less of a tourist and more of a local.

So here is a little write-up about two of the best Ibaraki festivals I’ve attended so far:

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Traveling in Tohoku Part 3: Kanto Festival, Akita

This is the last of my three-part summer series, which is still more of a photoblog than anything else. For Part III’s mood music, I recommend “Changeling (New Beginnings)” by Zack Hemsey. So without further ado, on to our final destination!

AKITA CITY — AKITA

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There are three extremely famous summer festivals held in the Tohoku Region of Japan every year — collectively known as the Tohoku Sandai Matsuri, they are Akita’s Kanto Festival, Aomori’s Nebuta Festival, and Miyagi’s Sendai Tanabata Festival.

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My family only had time to experience one of these festivals, so I chose the one I was most anxious to see — the Akita Kanto Festival.

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Held in Akita City every year from August 3rd through August 6th, this festival features performers who show off their skills of balancing tall bamboo poles (called kanto) heavy with paper lanterns. These kanto poles can reach up to 12 meters in height and 50 kg (110 pounds) in weight! At night, the paper lanterns are lit by candles, and it’s a wonder that none of them catch fire.

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My parents and I arrived early and grabbed front-row seats on the sidewalk for the festival. For the first few minutes, the performers simply walked around carrying the kanto poles to the beat of the drums, relighting the lanterns whenever a candle would blow out.

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But suddenly, a cry was heard, and all the performers stopped to reorganize. In the darkness, glowing lanterns were hoisted up in every direction — up and down the street, onlookers could see hundreds of lantern-ladden poles rise up into the air. In that moment, on that warm summer night, shivers ran down my spine.

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And the festival had truly begun.

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The performers were absolutely incredible. Men would balance the heavy poles on their palms, on their hips, on their foreheads, or, as the man above is doing, on their shoulders.

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Some of the more practiced performers even showed off their skills by balancing the poles while simultaneously doing a little dance with a handheld fan.

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And even children were encouraged to try their hand! We watched in amusement and subsequent delight as this little boy tried valiantly to balance his “starter kanto pole” while his father looked on. The lanterns on the boy’s kanto pole were not lit, though — and with good reason. Although the father stepped in whenever the pole was teetering, he was not always fast enough. This set of poles crashed to the ground (and onto the audience) more than once!

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In fact, by the third and final round of the festival, even some of the adult performers were losing control over their kanto poles. You could pick these teams out by how many of their lanterns had gone dark, and by how the once-perfect lanterns seemed a little… shredded… by the falls.

There was a particularly… unpracticed… team of performers whose kanto pole went crashing down numerous times. During the second round, they were across the street from us, and we witnessed the falling lanterns with surprised amusement. During the third and final round, however, they were one of the teams performing right in front of us, and it was a little more real.

Of course, there are wires set up above the audience members, so the falling lanterns will be caught by the wires and not do any harm… but I must say that there is something quite exhilarating about watching a 110-pound bamboo pole of candle-lit lanterns falling towards you, and being stopped only seconds before crushing you!

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It was our final night in Tohoku, and I couldn’t have asked for a better ending. Akita’s Kanto Festival exceeded my expectations in every way, and my shoddy pictures don’t do the night justice. Being there was absolutely incredible, and I only I hope to return again someday to experience it all again.

To anyone visiting Japan, especially in the beginning of August, I highly recommend taking a trip up to Tohoku. Tokyo isn’t the only amazing place in Japan! Take the path a little less traveled and see for yourself.

 

The April Blues: Golden Week, At Home

And when I say “at home,” I really mean, “in Ibaraki.”

For the first part of Golden Week (which was really just a three-day weekend), my friends and I headed to one of Ibaraki’s most famous sites:  Hitachi Seaside Park! We were among the horde of hundreds, if not thousands, of tourists eager to see the Nemophila in bloom. Apparently, people even fly in from China and Taiwan just to see these brilliant flowers. Luckily, we only had to travel just under two hours by train.

We visited on April 29th, a breezy, sunny, blue-sky, late-spring kind of day.

I’m not usually one for background music, but if you like to listen while you read (or for this post, scroll through numerous pictures), I highly recommend one of my favorite instrumental pieces by Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi:

Hopefully the melody will give you a sense of my mood on that brilliant first day of Golden Week. The sea breeze, blue skies, and sea of blue flowers made it more magical than I ever could have imagined.

Enjoy these April Blues!

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Probably the most photographed tree in the entire park

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Pale blue ice cream and pale blue flowers!

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Surprisingly, (or maybe unsurprisingly, after you see the photos?) Hitachi Seaside Park is pretty internet famous as one of the many places to see before you die: I’ve seen it listed alongside some of the most breathtaking locations on earth, such as in this Buzzfeed article (it’s #6)!

Moving on from Hitachi Seaside Park…

The rest of our three day weekend was spent in and around Kasama, where my friend S lives. We went to Kasama’s local  ひまつり  or pottery festival, which exceeded our expectations. Honestly, one of my coworkers told me that he and his family go to the pottery festival every year, and I brushed off his suggestion to go — why would I want to walk around and look at plates and bowls for an hour or two?

In the end, though, my friends and I  decided to check it out, only to find out that not only is       ひまつり insanely popular, it’s also a wonderful little outing if you are in the area. It reminded me of the craft shows and the art shows I used to go to with my aunts in Connecticut. Plates and bowls were just the tip of the iceberg in terms of featured pottery: there were all sorts of beautiful and crazy things made out of clay (including a few dinosaurs)!

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And aside from walking around admiring the craftsmanship of all the pottery, there was THE FOOD. This wasn’t your typical Japanese festival food, either. No takoyaki, yakisoba, and buttered baked potatoes. This was artisan food. It seems like nearly every cafe in Kasama had booked a tent at the festival, and they were serving up gourmet thin-crust pizzas, yuzu sodas, grilled teriyaki chicken and rice bowls, iced coffee, German beer and potato pancakes.

Walking through the sea of blue Nemophila and discovering Kasama’s pottery festival were by far the two highlights of my Golden Week in Ibaraki.

After that lovely three day weekend, it was back to work on Monday (unsurprisingly, there were quite a few absent students) followed by a string of public holidays on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday! My friends and I decided to take paid leave on the Friday and venture a little farther from home…

…to South Korea! But that is for another post.

Plum Blossoms, Peach Blossoms, and Cherry Blossoms, Oh my!

Prepare yourself for all the photos of various blossoms. Because Japan in the spring = flowers. You have been warned.

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Plum Blossoms

Plum blossoms are one of the first signs of spring to arrive on the scene–they range in color from white to pink, and give off a strong, sweet scent. They instantly became my favorite of the flowering trees. My friends and I celebrated their arrival at Kairakuen’s annual Plum Blossom festival back in early March. Located in Ibaraki’s capital city of Mito, Kairakuen is a top 3 famous landscaped garden in Japan, notable for its 3,000 plum trees (hence it really is the ideal place for a plum blossom festival!)

Although the festival is spread out over a few different weekends, we went on a day where they were holding an ume-shu (plum wine) tasting event! For just 700 yen, you could taste all the plum wines you wanted (140+ varieties from all 47 prefectures of Japan) within the 30 minute time limit. All the old ladies pouring the different plum wines were quite generous, filling to the brim our little thimble of a paper cup, and they were all very insistent that you try the plum wines they were in charge of!

I tasted about 27 varieties, ranging from Hiroshima prefecture and Wakayama prefecture to those made in my own Ibaraki.  Notable wines included a ridiculously spicy variety (with a devil on its label) from Fukui prefecture, a plum-wine-and-green-tea mixture from Kyoto prefecture, a rather delicious milk-and-plum wine from Fukuoka prefecture, a not-so-delicious gold-flecked wine from Gifu, and our favorite, a refreshing and sweet plum wine from Hyougo.

Peach Blossoms

Contrary to my own naive belief, peach blossoms aren’t peach-colored. Nor do they signal that fresh peaches will be available in the local markets. But I still love them.

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Following plum blossoms, peach blossoms are next to bloom, and they are absolutely brilliant: a terribly underrated flower in my opinion. The blossoms are a vibrant pink, and although they don’t have a particularly strong scent, their gorgeous coloring well makes up for it. To view the flowers, we went to a regionally famous Peach Blossom festival in Koga, Ibaraki.

One of the fun things about festivals in Japan is that they don’t always make sense. We went to the peach blossom festival expecting flowers and street food, which is exactly what we got… plus an hour-long hip-hop showcase from a local dance studio. It was quite a fun performance to watch, although there were several times where I was thankful that the kids and the audience  members alike didn’t know what the English lyrics really meant.

It was a lovely way to spend a Sunday afternoon — blossom viewing, food, and a great dance performance, all culminating in some well-deserved  peach-blossom-flavored ice cream cones.

Cherry Blossoms

This is what everyone has been waiting for, right? Cherry blossoms, a.k.a. さくら (sakura), a.k.a. the flower that Japan is internationally famous for.

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Cherry blossoms are pale pink or white flowers with a light, sweet scent. Individually, I don’t think that they are particularly more impressive than plum blossoms. However, what really makes cherry blossoms special is the fact that they are EVERYWHERE. The sheer numbers of cherry blossom trees in bloom all around Japan, to me, make them truly stand apart.

Because of this, I can’t say that I viewed cherry blossoms in any one particular place. I saw them in both Shinjuku-gyoen and Ueno park in Tokyo (along with a million other tourists from around the world), I saw them more locally in Koga, Ibaraki, and I even saw them in the tiny park across the street from my apartment.

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While the trip to Tokyo was a lot of fun, I didn’t think Tokyo was necessarily the best place to see cherry blossoms. Too many people. I had more fun at the more local festivals (one of which featured a hula performance for unknown reasons), and even at my local park, where I would see elementary school kids running around throwing fallen petals at each other, and where old friends would meet on the bench and sit late into the night, talking under the blooming trees.

My favorite part about the two weeks of cherry blossoms was a period of about two days towards the end, where the petals were starting to fall off in significant numbers, but where the trees still looked pretty full. One of these days was sunny and breezy, and it resulted in beautiful snowstorms of cherry blossom petals, just like you see in Japanese anime. It’s real, people.

These past two months have taught me that the Japanese truly celebrate all of these flowers to the fullest. The transitory nature of these blossoms is appreciated here in a way that spring has never quite been appreciated where I am from in America.

Daily conversation for the past two weeks has revolved around whether or not you have seen the cherry blossoms, and if so, where did you view them? Where did you eat and drink with friends underneath them? I feel as if the real question is, did you notice? Did you realize the importance — the sadness, the beauty — of these ephemeral things?

And I can say, yes, I did.

8 Things to Do at the Sapporo Snow Festival

Otherwise known as: how to make all your co-workers insanely jealous.

Sapporo’s annual Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri) is arguably the most famous winter festival in Japan. It is THE PLACE to be for the second-ish week of February. Attending the festival seems to be high on most of my colleagues’ bucket lists. Like many of my fellow JETs, I managed to head up north for a few days to discover the magic for myself… and I was not at all disappointed.

Without further ado, here is a list of 8 things to do in and around Sapporo during the festival, especially if you only have a few days to enjoy it all.

1. Pose with all the Snow Sculptures at Odori Park  (and intensely photograph the rest).

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The Odori Site is especially fantastic at night! Everything is lit up, there are illuminations projected onto some of the larger sculptures, there are light shows, and there is hot food and drinks for sale everywhere! There are also a lot of performances. We saw the end of a Shakespeare play (in Japanese, of course), a few pop idols, and a snowboard jump competition.

Star Wars was a pretty popular subject matter this year. There was a huge Attack on Titan sculpture, too (not pictured) that everyone was very impressed with. My personal favorite, though, was the giant cathedral (especially the when illuminated).

Fun fact: members of the Japanese Army, based in a nearby city, build the massive snow sculptures every year. It’s considered an important training exercise!

2. Be a little adventurous… book a Snowmobiling Tour!

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This is also a great alternative to skiing or snowboarding. Because in the minds of many people, Hokkaido = skiing / snowboarding. People expect that you did one of the two in Hokkaido. Surprise them.

My friends and I booked through Snowmobile Land Sapporo. They picked us up at a nearby hotel, and within forty minutes, we were in the mountains above the city, suiting up to snowmobile through an “adventure course.” The scenery was absolutely stunning and the guides were excellent. None of us had ever snowmobiled before (one of my friends doesn’t even have her driver’s license) and yet we managed just fine!

Also, it was a fantastic opportunity to look a little like firefighters. Highly recommended.

3. Eat ALL THE FOOD. 

Because it’s HOKKAIDO. My friend seriously planned our whole holiday around the food we both wanted to eat, and it was AMAZING. How can you resist? Here are my top 3 food recommendations:

1. Head over to Ramen Alley for some ramen, of course! Hokkaido is really known for miso ramen, so be sure to order miso broth. I also suggest trying butter ramen!  I’m sure someone who actually lives in Sapporo could give a better ramen recommendation, but… if you can’t find a local willing to reveal the best ramen shop in Sapporo, Ramen Alley is still a great bet.

2. For something sweet, LaTao Double Fromage Cheesecake is quite sinful (and quite famous). You can find several LaTao shops peppered about the nearby city of Otaru (which you’ll probably end up visiting… because almost everyone who visits Sapporo takes a day trip to Otaru).

3. As for seafood, I really suggest making your way to Sapporo Jogai Ichiba, a roadside fish market located a 15-minute walk from Soen JR station. They sell all types of seafood there, and there are quite a few restaurants serving up sushi, sea urchin, and crab. I splurged for a deluxe crab bowl, and my friends feasted on sea urchin, roe, crab, and slices of fatty salmon. All three of us walked away very, very happy.

4. Release Your Inner Child

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I went to the snow festival with 40 other Ibaraki JETs, but my main group consisted of three friends — one from SoCal, the other two from Singapore. They were ecsatic to play in the snow, which led to snowman-making sessions, snow angels, and snowball fights.

If you really want to act like kid in winter, I suggest heading over to the Tsu Dome Site for a more hands-on experience with snow (like free tubing!). Honestly, this is the designated area for families with young children, so nothing is TOO exciting, but it was still a great opportunity to act like I was seeing snow for the first time again, too.

5.  Feel Like an Adult at an Ice Bar

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Pick your poison.

I seriously thought that this was one of the coolest parts of the entire Snow Festival. For 700 yen, we were given gloves, chisels, and blocks of ice, and we were able to carve our own glasses. We then chose from a selection of alcoholic beverages and sat back, enjoying life.

Mine is the green drink (J kept telling me that it actually looked like poison)… it’s a light, sweet Japanese liquor called “Midori.” J’s drink was a Bacardi daiquiri of some sort, which actually looked way cooler in the ice glass than I thought it would.

We were the envy of all the parents, I swear.

6. Hold some Ice Lanterns at Otaru (and Take Some Couple Pics)

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Otaru is for lovers, apparently. This city has an ice-lantern festival at the same time as the Sapporo Snow Festival, so it’s great to check out both. Otaru is especially pretty along the historic canal, with the huge icicles dangling from old warehouse rooftops.

There’s also a lot of opportunities for slightly bizarre “couple” photos — lots of ice hearts to hold along the canal, and lots of snow hearts to pose in. J and I aren’t a couple, of course, but we were randomly given ice lanterns by some of the festival volunteers and asked to stand in one of the snow hearts, resulting in the above photo! It was really quite funny.

One of our favorite parts of Otaru’s festival was a short, twisty tubing hill built out of snow, and slightly hidden at the old train-track area of the city. The volunteers were so enthusiastic, cheering for every festival-goer who dared to tube down, carrying the tubes up to the top of the hill again, cheering some more. It was really quite heartening.

7. Eat Breakfast with a View

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On our last day in Hokkaido, we headed to the 35th floor of the JR Tower Hotel Nikko for a breakfast buffet with a panoramic view over the city. Although a little pricey, it was a fantastic way to end our holiday. The buffet offers both Western and Japanese-style breakfasts, and we were able to sample all the Hokkaido specialties that we hadn’t checked off our list in the days before. Specifically: soup curry, special Hokkaido potatoes, and Hokkaido milk ice cream.

8. Get a Rowdy Group Together for a good time at the Sapporo Beer Garden

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All you can eat Ghengis Khan (lamb), all you can drink Sapporo beer, 40-some friends. What could be better? It was a very memorable dinner, to say the least. The Sapporo Beer Garden is located right next to the beautiful old museum and it is the perfect place for a party. Fair warning: it’s smokey inside, but it’s also very cheery and cozy. I only wish I had had time to tour the brewery museum! I would have liked to learn more about this famous beer.

BONUS! Buy all the Omiyage!

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Because I am split between 5 schools, and because I used two days of nenkyuu on otherwise normal school days, I bought enough omiyage (souvenirs) for 175 people… and 35 of those people were JTEs or vice principals, so they received an extra gift or two apiece!

My wallet cried. But at the same time, I was more than happy to do it, because of the kindness and generosity I have been shown over the past seven months. (And everyone was very grateful).

Anyways, I recommend heading back to the airport early to buy all your omiyage (you don’t have to worry about it until the end of your holiday). The two most famous (and most popular) gifts to bring back are Shiroi Koibitu and Calbee Jaga Pokkaru — the latter is so popular that there is actually a limit on how much an individual can bring home! Also, note that if you get the bigger packages of Shiroi Koibitu (such as the 34-pack, or the 54-pack), the cookies come in a special tin that some teachers will actually fight over. I also bought some Royce Chocolate cookies as extra, because they were cheap and quite useful to give away to forgotten colleagues.

I’ll end with one last photo. Cheers.

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German Christmas Markets in Tokyo — A Review

I lived for nine months in Strasbourg, “The Capital of Christmas,” on the border of France and Germany, so I am well-acquainted with Christmas markets. And I lived with an Alsatian host family who made honest-to-goodness Alsatian home cooking — so I know (and crave) good sauerkraut when I see it.

Therefore, when I heard that there are German Christmas Markets in Tokyo — well, you better believe that I all but reserved a day to visit. (And then for the weeks leading up to the actual day, I salivated at the thought of all the mulled wine).

I’ll say one thing, right at the start, which we all knew would be true: they couldn’t compare to the real Christmas Markets of Germany and France. My goodness, I mean, this is what they are competing with in Strasbourg and Colmar alone:

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And I don’t even have personal experience at the markets in Germany, which are rumored to be the best of the best! So clearly, the German markets in Tokyo have to step up their game if they ever want to get on France’s and Germany’s level.

Luckily, when I visited the markets a few weeks ago, I didn’t go into the day with grand illusions of Strasbourg in Tokyo. All I was hoping for was some good sauerkraut, some sausage, some mulled wine, and–if at all possible–some spätzle.

There were three main Christmas Markets advertised in Tokyo — the one in Roppongi Hills, the one at Soramachi (Tokyo Sky Tree), and the Tokyo Christmas Market at Hibiya Park (this last one had the backing of the German Embassy). My friend and I decided to visit the latter two, as Roppongi is apparently a super-touristy, slightly kitchy, area of Tokyo.

First up was the Hibiya Park market.

My ranking: two thumbs up. This is the market with the backing of the German Embassy, and I found their food to be pretty authentic. We tried mulled wine from three different stalls, feasted on sauerkraut and sausage, and even tried some beer-batter french fries (so crispy, so delicious!). No spätzle, but I figured that was too much to ask for, anyway.

The Hibiya Park market was rather crowded, and not super big, and it didn’t have a lot of crafts or decorations to buy, but despite all of that, it had a little of the magic of the Strasbourg markets, so I really enjoyed it.

Next up were the  Soramachi markets at Tokyo Sky Tree.

My ranking: mehh. Okay, so this market was even smaller than the one at Hibiya. I didn’t really find the food here to be authentic German food. It definitely looked more like tourist-trap fare. And it was a bit more expensive, too, so we didn’t really eat anything (instead, we went into the Sky Tree shopping mall and had a fantastic Korean dinner). However, the one thing this market had going for it was the “illumination” / light show that went off every thirty minutes. It was pretty cool, so that makes it worth checking out if you’re in the area.

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I wish I had had an opportunity to visit some of the other Christmas markets as well, but we were only in Tokyo for the day. I’m pretty sure the one in Roppongi is bigger and more German-craft-oriented than the two I visited, so maybe check out the Hibiya market and Roppongi market if you happen to be in Tokyo around Christmastime.

Unfortunately, all the Christmas markets in Tokyo ended on Christmas day. But I’m already looking forward to visiting them again next year, if only for some sauerkraut and mulled wine!

Winter Illuminations in Ashikaga

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Honestly, I was a little worried that December in Japan would be terribly depressing–no Christmas lights, no Christmas spirit, and no family to celebrate the holidays with. Then November arrived and my worries were put to rest: Japan LOVES Christmas. They love the lights, they love miniature Christmas trees, and they love blaring holiday songs in major shopping malls. It’s almost like being home, except for the prevalence of KFC Christmas chicken and the advertisements for strawberry-and-cream Christmas cakes.

It’s been fun to discover what they know about Christmas as well. For the past two weeks, I’ve been playing Christmas Jeopardy in many of my classrooms (with a short introductory PowerPoint covering important vocabulary and major traditions)… so here is what the typical Japanese high-school student knows about the holiday:

  1. Even after stressing that stockings are called “stockings,” my students still call them socks. Always.
  2. But for some reason, everyone knows that American children leave milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve.
  3. The word “Candy Cane” is a struggle because they don’t seem to exist in Japan. So my students call them “Candy Sticks” or “Candy-Candy” or, inevitably, “Candy Crush!”
  4. When asked to name  Christmas carols, the most popular (in order) are Jingle Bells, Last Christmas, and White Christmas.
  5. They only know one reindeer, and his name is apparently “Red Noze.”
  6. When asked what they will be doing over winter vacation, everyone replies that they will either “go ski” or “play ski.” So I expect the slopes in Nagano will be crowded.
  7. Even though I never review the word, everyone can correctly identify “snowman.”
  8. Most of my students know that Americans don’t eat Christmas cake (but most of my JTEs think that we do!)
  9. Stories like The Night Before Christmas and The Polar Express aren’t famous here. I had to delete questions about them, because students were mystified.
  10. When asked to name a Christmas movie, the only one that comes to mind is Home Alone.

Winter Illuminations

Moving on from Christmas in the Classroom… a few weeks ago, J and I took a trip to Ashikaga Flower Park in Tochigi Prefecture to see the park’s “Winter Illuminations.” We honestly weren’t expecting too much… but then we arrived.

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It turns out that Ashikaga Flower Park’s illuminations were voted one of the best in Japan last year, and they didn’t disappoint this year, either. It ended up being a perfect little evening excursion: we wandered around the park for three or so hours, marveling at all the lights and warming ourselves up with food truck fare, everything from corn soup and ramen to hot chocolate and sweet crepes.

Ashikaga Flower Park’s Fantasy illumination runs through February 4, 2016, so if you are in the area, be sure to check it out!

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The Undōkai (Explained by a New ALT)

“So, Karen-sensei, how does this compare to Sports Days in America?”

A coworker asked this question as we watched groups of students racing to snag bags of bread hanging from a pole above the track using only their teeth, then sprinting to the finish line.

“Um… even if we had high school Sports Day in the US, there could be no comparison.” I replied.

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One of my students designed this awesome cover for the schedule of events

The week leading up to Halloween was occupied by a string of Sports Festivals (otherwise known as undōkais) in three of my five schools, as well as a two-day Culture Festival in one of my other schools. Needless to say it was a pretty crazy week. And amidst all the fun and games, I found myself, at times, to be terribly confused by what was happening. I was expecting relay races and tug-of-war and maybe some basketball or soccer games, but… I was not expecting bread or battles.

The first thing that happened at each of my schools? An opening ceremony with lots of speeches. I really shouldn’t have been surprised by that.

After the speeches, a student (or three) would stand on the podium. High-energy pop songs were blasted through speakers and the next thing I knew, all the students (and half the teachers) were going through a series of stretches that seemingly everyone except me were familiar with. (I just stood in the back and tried to copy what they were doing.

Then came the races. The very first race  of my very first undōkai was the aforementioned bread race (the beginning of which featured students diving under hurdles and kicking two soccer balls duck-taped together for 100 meters, so all-around hilarious to watch).

Another race featured description cards where the participating students would have to pull someone from the crowd who matched the card (ie “Someone who wears glasses,”) into the race, and the two of them would run together, carrying/dragging a sack full of sand to the finish line. This one was even more fun to watch, because while some of the description cards were pretty tame, others were a little bolder (I later found out there was a “Someone you have a crush on” card. Hence I learned why some of the students pulled from the crowd led to a burst of cheers).

By far the most anticipated event of the day, though, was the Cavalry Battle (which was only held at one of my schools).

Cavalry Battle

For the sake of making explanation easier, I added a visual. However, the above photo is NOT my photo, and those are NOT my students. As a safety and privacy precaution, I will not include any of my students in my blog. Anyway, each team in the Cavalry Battle consists of 3 “horses” and 1 “rider,” and the riders fight it out to the death to either knock the other rider off their horses, or to grab the other rider’s team headband, thus earning a point.

As the battle played out in front of me, I just wondered how fast lawsuits would be filed if Cavalry Battles were part of American Sports Days. Fifteen teams of high school boys running around, kicking up dust, tackling their classmates in midair and wrestling them to the ground for the sake of a point in their team’s favor…

Despite the risk of injury, it was the highlight of the day for everyone watching and participating.

I will note that the Cavalry Battle was reserved for male students; female students had their own water-balloon race and then rushed over to play spectator to the fights.

Of course, not all events at Japanese Sports Days are so novel as the Cavalry Battle or what I’ve dubbed the “Bread Race.” There were classic relay races and three-legged races and  tug-of-war events, too. But in between these normal events came races where students had to pop balloons by sitting on them… or twists like “8-legged races.” All the undōkais I attended really kept me on my toes, wondering what they could possibly do next.

The fun and games weren’t only for the students, though: there were plenty of opportunities for teachers to exert some energy, especially at my Halloween undōkai. That school is much smaller than my other schools, so us teachers had our own team competing in nearly every event. I participated in the 10-person jump rope challenge (where we never made it past 14 consecutive jumps before someone’s feet caught the rope) and the plain-and-simple relay race (where the P.E. teachers really shone, rocketing us from 5th to 2nd place).

While some events at the undōkais puzzled me a little bit, it was honestly a very enjoyable — and, at times, amusing — experience. I personally liked not knowing what exactly was coming and trying to figure it out as the races unfolded. I liked the novelty of the events, the playful competition in the air, and the effort exerted by my normally-sleepy students. I really loved seeing them so happy and so alive, even if they all dragged their feet a bit in the beginning.

I probably didn’t explain everything accurately, and I probably missed a lot of details, but here you have it: the events of a few small-town undōkais from a relatively rookie perspective.