Friday, February 23, 2007

Happy Year of the Boar

Erik & Calista left on Tuesday. Sunday was Chinese New Year celebration on Chinatown (we have the largest in Asia). Sadly, I was ill for 4 days with a horrific cold, and couldn't take part in the festivities. But I sent my camera along.

Earlier in the day was Family Fun Day at Horizon International School, where fun was indeed had by all.

M apparently horrified some people with the odd combination of things he put on his make-your-own crepe. Only a kid could eat it. And he did.

M and Ricky as Harry Potter

Alex and new Owen. Figures they'd show up. I've been dying to see this baby!

More pictures here.

Later, everyone went to Chukagai for the Dragon Parade and other New Year stuff. I haven't really explored Chinatown yet, but the pictures really make me want to.

Keitais in full effect

Erik was really excited for everyone to try scorpion-on-a-stick. Alas, they were sold out.

I made them take Flat Stanley along, too

I think these odd jarred things are supposed to be good for your health.

Very pretty portait.

See more fun pictures here.

I think I'm all over my cold and ready to rock again. I start volunteering next week at the kids' school, helping to overhaul and reorganize the library with a couple other moms. It'll give me something to do on the weekdays, and some people to talk to, both of which I desperately need. I have also been recently inspired to start a set of paintings. I don't know why, but I find the amazing aesthetic here almost more intimidating than inspiring. Plus, I miss having a studio outside the house. There are too many distractions at home. But I'm going to make a concerted effort.

Also, I'm going to see if I can convince Shingo to give me Japanese lessons, as the classes I was going to turned out to be very disappointing ever since the nearly-fluent Brazilians showed up to throw off the level of instruction. Who decided to put them in a beginner's class? They will be confused when they are the only ones left in the class, as the rest of us have dumped it. I'm also going to see if Shingo will give me piano lessons. I've always wanted to learn and someone should learn how to play the one we have in Seattle.

Jeff is going out of town next week. Plenty of time to catch up on all the TV shows I've recently become addicted to (told you I needed to get out of the house, didn't I?): Desperate Housewives, Supernatural, and my new favorite: Heroes. Pathetic, I know. I never watched much TV before, but then I didn't seem to have so much time on my hands before. Hopefully, that will be fixed soon.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Sapporo Snow Festival 2007

The Snow Festival began in 1950, when local high school students built six snow statues in Odori Park. in 1955, the Self-Defense Force joined in and built the very first massive snow sculpture, for which the Snow Festival has become famous for now. The Festival has grown from these humble beginnings to become one of the biggest and most well known of Hokkaido's winter events.

Going to Hokkaido was a bit like going back Cleveland. Except the food was a lot better, and I knew that I only had to deal with the snow and cold temperatures for a weekend, rather than 6 months, so I could appreciate its beauty.

We flew up to Sapporo, which is on Hokkaido, the major northern island of Japan. It was a short flight, under two hours, and they had a really nice airport. I found it odd that we never showed our passports, or any other sort of identification, at any time. We took the train to Shin-Sapporo, where the hotel was, and there was Takaki and his wife Chisa, again (we had coincidentally bumped into them on the train ride to Haneda airport on the way, too). You may remember Takaki from the Truck Rally-River BBQ in the fall.

Happily, the hotel was literally a 2-minute walk from the station. The kids got their first chance in the snow. I think they had their first snowball fight (one of dozens) in that initial 2 minutes. The hotel had a cathedral in it. To make it a popular wedding destination, I guess.

We didn't hang out there long, but took another train to Odori, the main festival site, where we were met by Takaki and his wife Chisa, and their friend Aiya . (You may remember Takaki from the Truck Rally/River BBQ in the fall.) We walked around looking at the snow sculptures. You really can't appreciate the scale and skill of these things from pictures. Most impressive was the (shortened) replica of a Thai palace. There were many food and drink stalls, including a Hot Milk Station, as Hokkaido is known for its dairies. There was a 'rock band' performing on an ice stage. An ice slide for the kids.

We were not really dressed for this. I was under the impression that we were meeting for dinner, not wandering around in the snow, so I wasn't wearing any of the clever under-layers I had packed against the winter weather, and neither were the kids. I have memories of Jeff running around Cleveland in shorts and Converse in the middle of January, so I wasn't too worried about him. But still, the novelty of true winter was still there, so we didn't let it get to us too much.

We finally heard from Erik Chelstad and his friend Callista, who had at last arrived in Sapporo after the 11-hour train ride from Yokohama.

How they really got there is a good story. Jeff had hung out with them in San Diego a couple months back, and on a drunken whim, they planned a trip to Japan. Jeff, being who he is, before they could change their minds, took Erik's credit card and booked them plane tickets online. And so...

we picked them up at the train station and headed down a street lined with ice-sculptures, ice bars, and even an ice karaoke box, to dinner, where we were also eventually joined by Macky.

Another good story: Macky was there because he was over our house as we were looking online a few months ago at the Snow Festival and talked about how it would be neat to go see it. Jeff decided to see if he had enough points to get a room at the Sheraton. He did, enough for 2 nights it turned out, so he immediately booked said room. And since Macky was there and it was partially his idea, he was invited to come along.

Anyway, this sushi restaurant. This was one of those historically great Japanese meals. You gather together a few friends and family, eat amazing food, drink beer and sake, and hang out in a private room for 2-3 hours. It usually ends up expensive, but utterly worth it. I tried sushi called nishin, which is a specialty of Hokkaido. I learned some stuff from Aiya about sushi: that you are supposed to dip the fish side -- not the rice side -- of your sushi in soy, and let the fish side touch your tongue first. Also, all sushi chefs are men, because it is believed that women's palms are too warm to make sushi, because the warmth lessens the freshness of the fish. Also, women's hands are not strong enough to press the sushi rice together. I postulated that, by this rationale, a strong woman with poor circulation might make a good sushi chef.

Chisa, Erik, Callista


When we left, around 11pm, snow was actually falling from the sky, and it was rather magical.

The gang: Callista, M, Erik, Macky, Aiya, Takaki, Chisa, D (worn out), Jeff:

Pretty much everybody was wiped out from traveling/eating/drinking, so we broke up for the evening and promised to meet up the next day for breakfast and Moerenuma Park.

We missed each other somehow for breakfast, but we all took the bus out to the park. I saw a brochure for the place, and it looked like it might be lovely in the summer. It had all sorts of pyramid-shaped structures and green fields, but I didn't know if it would be very interesting in winter. Well, I figured it would at least be a good place for snowball fights and snowman building.

It was bit of a hike from the bus stop at which the driver mistakenly dropped us off, but this time we were fully geared up with long underwear and new gloves and earmuffs for the kids. The kids (by this I also mean the older boys) had a great time just on the walk, running in virgin fields of snow and throwing snowballs at each other.

It was sunny out, and almost warm. Then we saw The Hill.

Apart from the Hill, there was an elaborate snow-fort of the sort every kid who grows up in real winter wants in his back yard. There were cave-mouths and slides to enter, tunnels leading all directions, some with candles, and, the kicker, a central cave with a disco ball. No shit. My eyes haven't yet adjusted to the darkness and scariness of walking bent over thru winding tunnels made of SNOW, and suddenly I enter a dark snow cave that is swirling with spots of light. Rather disorienting at first, but the initial thought is really "AWESOME!" You can't capture it right with a camera, because of the lighting problems, but here's a picture anyway.

Sleds were available for rent, and everyone but me climbed that thing and raced down it. I was building a snowman most of the time.

After an hour or so had gone by, clouds rolled in and the wind picked up. It was suddenly freezing. D, who on the way had said "I love Japan! I want to live in Sapporo!" was now crying because he had bitten snow on his last run halfway down the immense hill and was done with the snow and the cold. "I want to go home! I hate Sapporo!"

Everyone was pretty much of the same mind after repeated hikes up the hill and the temperature had started dropping. We bussed it back to the nearest station and took another train to the Sapporo Beer Factory Museum (not the same as The factory). We weren't expecting much, but were hoping for a taste of the famous Sapporo Winter Ramen. It turned out WAY better.

We had late lunch/light snack in this huge German Beer Hall-looking place. We ordered the Genghis Khan, which is another area specialty with lamb you grill at your table. They gave us bags to put our coats and stuff in so they wouldn't smell like grilled meat, and gave us bibs. I thought all these precautions were rather silly until I tried to take a picture and got this:

Those aren't spots on my camera lens. Those are tiny blobs of grease hovering in the smoke from all the tabletop grills. The light caught them just right at this angle. Scary. Really delicious, however, and fun to make. Also came with GIANT Sapporo beers.

After our "light snack" we had five minutes to make the last entrance into the museum, so we hightailed it over there, looked at the history displays with their unreadable descriptions and got to the tasting room. We shared a couple of the 3-kinds option. The beer was good for light beer, and fresh, and there was a decent dark one that had a lovely roasted taste. Mmm.

We adults had plenty of good cheer in us by this time, so we were fine with wandering the rest of the environs, especially when we saw the hot wine stand. We discovered, no kidding, an igloo restaurant. The rooms had those table with heaters under them and comforters over them. Looked pretty cozy.

The kids, after climbing up the back of a hill, spied an ice slide where uniformed (police?) men were handing kids (and soon adults) inner tubes to slide down in. We got there just in time to get a couple rides in before they closed down.

They really know how to make the most of winter in Sapporo. No kidding. Free ice slides, cheap sled rentals and giant sledding hills, gigantic detailed snow sculptures, ice bars and snow restaraunts, I mean seriously. So much better than hibernating and grumbling. The kids had so much fun woith the snow. It didn't matter what we were doing. They had fun having snowball fights and building snowmen right outside the hotel.

After all this, Takaki and Chisa headed off to an on-sen, Aiya went home, and the rest of us headed back to town in search of the fabled Sapporo Winter Ramen. It was harder to find than you would imagine. We, well, OK, Macky, asked the festival people for a nearby place, but it took awhile. Apparently, people in Sapporo don't eat Sapporo ramen. They eat what is exotic to them, like Tokyo ramen, or Kyushu ramen. Anyway, we finally located an underground street of ramen and each got a steaming miso-based bowlful. Yum. M, after such a full day, passed out on the table.

Back at the hotel, everyone complained of being sore or having broken feet and went to bed, so Jeff and I headed up to the 31st floor Star Bar where we enjoyed Manhattans, 7 year old Cuban rum, a view of the snowy city from 31 floors up, and each other undivided attention for once. At least until Jeff started nodding off. In his defense, I hadn't climbed that hill 5 times.

The last day was the snowiest day. The skies changed rapidly back and forth from sunny to white-out conditions every ten minutes or so. Here's a view from our hotel window:

And the same view five minutes later:

We undertook a perilous blizzardy journey to a bookstore that once we reached, Jeff had to immediately stop the kids from entering. I don't know if all of you know Japan's reputation for readily-available porn, but this was a mind-blowing collection of naaasty books, magazines, and movies, all shelved among the more pedestrian forms of literature.


The amount of snow did not deter us from the Davis mission: famous Hokkaido ice cream. Good ice cream and mediocre coffee in a charming shop in the nearby mall. Mine was so pretty. Green tea ice cream with sweet red beans and those chestnutty things I love on pastries. Mmmm.

Then we pretty much split up. Erik, Callista, and Macky headed off to Otaru, on the coast, while we Davises headed back to Yokohama. The train ride to the station through snow-covered landscape was really pretty.

Erik and Callista will make a brief stop back in Yokohama tonight an their way to Kyoto. Next weekend, Chinese New Year in Chinatown and the mochi-pounding festival are on the agenda.

Oh, I predicted that D's tooth, which had been hanging by a thread for the last week, would not still be in his mouth by the time we left. I was right:

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone, and if you can't think of what to get for your sweetheart, you can always get a fancy-wrapped 3-pack of energy drinks (and a Kit-Kat bar) for the romantic evening ahead.

Want to see more pictures of Sapporo, with descriptions? Of course you do! Go here. Do it.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Setsubun, Samantha, and the National Science Museum

Happy Setsubun

My own little oni

From Wikipeida:

In Japan, Setsubun is the day before the beginning of each season. The name literally means "seasonal division", but usually the term refers to the Spring Setsubun, properly called Risshun (立春), celebrated yearly on February 3. In its association with the Lunar New Year, Spring Setsubun can be thought of (and indeed was previously thought of) as a sort of New Year's Eve, and so was accompanied by a special ritual to cleanse away all the evil of the former year and drive away disease-bringing evil spirits for the year to come. This special ritual is called mamemaki (lit. bean scattering. Mamemaki is usually performed by the toshiotoko of the household (i.e. the male who was born on the corresponding animal year on the chinese zodiac, or else the male head of the household. Pan-heated soybeans (called irimame) are thrown either out the door or at a member of the family wearing an Oni (demon or ogre) mask, while the throwers chant "Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!" (鬼は外! 福は内!). The literal meaning of the words is something like "Demons (or evil spirits) out! Luck (or blessing) in!" The beans are thought to symbolically purify the home by driving away the evil spirits that bring misfortune and bad health with them. Then, as part of bringing luck in, it is customary to eat soybeans, one for each year of one's life, and in some areas, one for each year of one's life, plus one more for bringing good luck for the year to come. In the Heian era, a famous Buddhist monk was said to have driven away oni by throwing beans.

We did our own version, everyone getting a handful of beans to throw out. Then we ate some. D really liked them, so he ate a lot of extra luck.

The blossoms have already started: see it really is spring!

At the Blue Corn, someone gave Helen a Samantha doll, from Bewitched (the TV show, not the awful movie). It was soon discovered that she was wearing underthings. Just add alcohol and a camera. More pics here.

What she gets for acting like such a tramp

Sunday was the family trip to the National Science Museum. It was amazing. Any visitor to Tokyo needs to go here. Seriously. One of the best museums I've ever seen. I took a ton of pictures. Go see them here. You really should. Here is a really small sampling:


Matrix: Evolution

No, this is not a fake. See the photoset for details.

Jeff went to Akihabara last weekend. He wanted me to share some photos with you.

They blocked off the street for Sunday shopping


Yeah, that's a guy

Scary oldman face and Puppygirl

Erik Chelstad and Callista (I think I met her once) are showing up on Tuesday night, to go to Sapporo with us for the Winter Festival. AND we got our tickets to Singapore!