Saturday, February 28, 2009

Fire and Ice

I know there are many Strange Island readers who may be expecting a blog entry concerning my recent snowboarding accident. Unfortunately I find a holiday being ruined and the rest of my winter spoilt a rather depressing topic, and given my aversion to making myself miserable, that entry will wait until I’m back excercising again. Rest assured though, the tragicomedy of Phil breaking his ribs and the resultant medical “treatment” will not go unrecorded in these pages.

The accident and my resultant inability to snowboard in Hokkaido is of course best described as a bit rubbish. That said, my holiday with my brother through the snowy roads of Hokkaido was not an entirely ruined venture. In most western countries, a snowboarding holiday would be totally spoilt by a debilitating injury. In Japan however, the numerous winter festivals that take place in the northern rural snowscapes of these strange islands are entirely capable of making a holiday in themselves. Indeed I am already formulating rough plans for a short trip next year to take in as many of these fabulous events as possible. These festivals range from 20 local people gathered round a bonfire, to 2 million people coming from all over the world to see ice sculptures 25 feet high. I was fortunate enough to attend six winter festivals this year, with varying levels of audience participation. I shall now paint six glorious word pictures of each festival, painstakingly arranged in fabulously chronological order. I will write. You will read. The winner will be literature. Pictures courtesy of everyone else's facebook albums.

Sapporo Snow Festival

Sapporo is the largest City in northern Japan, situated on the northernmost island of Hokkaido. In winter it has a reputation for being nadger-freezingly cold, and indeed as me, my brother, an Irish vagrant we had picked up, and my ever reliable Mazda, drove off the ferry into the dark Hokkaidan night, it was pretty damn chilly. If one chose to, exposing one nipples to the outdoor temperature would have created chesticles you could chop carrots with. We ploughed on through temperatures of minus seventeen towards Sapporo, eventually arriving at our hotel shortly after dawn. The temperature was now a tropical minus eight, as we parked up and took the short walk from our Hotel towards Odori Park, the biggest of three areas that host the Sapporo Snow Festival.

The artistry that goes into creating these monoliths of ice is nothing short of jaw dropping. Around 12 of the sculptures towered over the crowds at 25 feet high or more. A depiction of japanese athletes advertised Tokyo’s 2016 Olympic Bid, opposite an even more impressive and intricately detailed tribute to Tokyo Disneyland’s 25th anniversary. Japanese Castles and Korean temples were present, as well as multiple depictions of Japanese cartoon characters. There were whales and turtles made from transparent ice, and the lack of early morning crowds made it all the more enjoyable. Later we ventured into the Susukino part of the festival, in an area of town famous for it’s nightlife (and bizarelly prominent brothel “menus”). Here were smaller statues that were no less impressive, being close enough to touch meant you could see every tiny detail perfectly.

After checking in to the hotel and taking a much needed nap, myself and my brother stumbled out to see the festival at night, where the lights add an extra dimension to the larger sculptures. After a brief trip to an Oirish pub to enjoy the pure unadulterated ecstasy that is watching Man City win while drinking proper English ale, we went to a brilliant Izakaya recommended by a friendly local. If you’re ever in Sapporo, “Hinode” above the mcdonalds in susukino provides a good value all you can eat and all you can drink; ask for a seat by the window for an excellent view of the bright lights of Sapporo. At 3am we stumbled out of the Izakaya and made a snowman before heading back to the hotel.

The following day (after accidentally ending up attending a medal award ceremony for a long distance cross country skiing race) we went to the “out of town” part of the festival, which boasts the snowmen featured in many iconic photos of the festival. A great place to take children, the sculptures here take a back seat to numerous ice slides and snowmobiles pulling rafts around a circuit. For the second day in a row we lunched on “Jengis Kaan” a lamb dish and a delicious Hokkaido specialty nearly impossible to obtain elsewhere in Japan. After my little brother had ridden a rubber ring down an ice slide (after calling me Billy Shit Ribs several times) we jumped into the philmobile and braved the blizzard towards Niseko, where I spent 5 days in a lodge feeling sorry for myself and eating lots of ham and cheese, until…

Otaru Lights Festival

This is a festival where one can truly feel the love. Coming annually just before Valentines Day, this festival comes complete with candles floating along the canal, small ice sculptures lit gently by hundreds of candles, with kissing snowmen (snowpeople? this is homophobic japan after all) resplendent in heart shaped hollows in the snow. The ultimate romantic date venue.

Unfortunately I was there with a romanian orphan who boasts patchy facial hair and a "turd-esque" appearance amongst his physical characteristics, aka my little brother Alex. But I tried to have a good time anyway.

This festival is a lot lower key than Sapporo, and you can see most of what it has to offer in under an hour. That said, it's just a short train ride away from the larger snow festival, and if you're in Sapporo for a couple of days it is well worth going to. It is less commercialised than it's big city counterpart, and while it cannot claim the grandiose attributes of the larger sculptures in Sapporo, the romance of the expertly crafted sculptures lit by so many candles could melt the stoniest of hearts. It's as painstakingly beautiful as anything in Sapporo, and given its relative lack of international renown often goes unseen by western tourists.

Two days and one choppy ferry crossing later, your hero of this tale and my romanian sidekick found ourselves taking in sunset on a cloudy day at Lake Tazawa.

After that it was just a short drive to the samurai town of Kakunodate, which every february 13th and 14th plays host to...

The Fire Swinging Festival

Yes it is as awesome as it sounds. A simple concept really. Bonfires are lit along the banks of the river, and bales of rice straw are tied to thin 5 foot long ropes. One then picks up aforementioned bale, sets it alight on a bonfire, and then swings the resultant fireball around one's head, while preferably at the same time screaming "GET SOME!!!!" at the top of your voice, or indeed "I AM THE GOD OF HELL AND FIRE!!!!". Both fine choices.

This festival could justifiably be described as somewhat limited. Activities include: A) swinging a fireball around and around your head and B) watching other idiots do exactly the same thing. That said, ask yourself the question "do I want to swing a fireball around my head while lots of excited japanese people take pictures of me?" If the answer isn't "F#!@ YEH I DO!" then frankly you disappoint me and should be ashamed of yourself.

We spent maybe half an hour at this festival, sharing 5 fireballs between us, and I would heartily recommend making the trip to anyone within 3 hours drive of Kakunodate. What this festival lacks in depth, it more than makes up for in fireball-swinging goodness.

Equally prevalent here was the dearth of japanese health and safety regulations, proven by this picture of a man holding something while he swings a fireball on a piece of string around his head. Is he holding a pineapple? Maybe a dog? No. He's holding a f***ing baby. To put it in context, there were other family members cheering the man on, as the youngest of their number screamed it's head off in primal terror with only centrifugal force between it's tiny frame and a enormous naked flame. No wonder these children then grow up to think kancho is an acceptable practical joke.

After a much needed lie in, Sunday brought around another three winter festivals. These winter festivals are the highlight of any Akitan winter, and yet while the number of festivals easily runs into double figures, the Akita Tourist Board has not spotted the oppurtunity to bring in revenue by having them at different times of winter, and thus one is left to pick and choose between the numerous festivals held on 14th and 16th of February every year. And so on the 15th february thee carloads of enthusiastic festival attendees left Honjo in the early afternoon, to enjoy the delights of the Yuzawa Inukko (dog) Festival, The Yokote Kamakura (igloo) Festival, and the Rokugo Takeuchi (bamboo fight) Festival.

The Yuzawa Dog Festival

After the previous night's fire swinging (an activity exceptionally pleasing to avid pyromaniac such as myself and surely enjoyable even for the most hardened pyrosceptic) the more sedate Inukko festival was a welcome contrast. For about half an hour until "oooo look it's a dog made of snow next to a house made of snow how very lovely" became a tad repetitive. Maybe we had been spoilt by the Sapporo snow festival, but this does not strike me as a festival worth travelling for, even though the food poisoning inducing meat on stick was delicious. That said, if you like dogs made of snow next to houses made of snow, and you like nothing more than these objects poorly maintained and covered with tiny japanese children, then frankly this is Mecca.

The philmobile was loaded with Mimi and Jez for this day of the trip, aka the Chimp Murderer and the Puerto Rican (Jez is called the puerto rican because of her ancestral heritage, Mimi is known as the chimp murderer because she drowns chimps for her own sick perverted entertainment, FACT). After admiring the Pachinko gnome in the car park, we departed for Yokote, and after Jez had bought some nice new wellies to keep her tootsies all nice and dry, we arrived at...

The Yokote Kamakura Festival

Essentially, get a load of igloos, few ice sculptures, stick a few candles around town and ボブは あなたの おじさん です。 As well as bob being one's uncle, another side effect of that is a snow festival with an originality and beauty of it's own that is easily the equal of the efforts of Sapporo and Otaru in Hokkaido. For a start, igloos are cool. Pingu (the ultimate role model) lived in one, so they must be. And Yokote Kamakura festival is all about da iglooz.

Otaru lights festival has certainly cornered the market in terms of snow/candle combinations, but the best I've seen this done is actually at the kamakura festival. On the flood plain of the river that runs through the town, the primary school students of Yokote build lots of mini kamakura's, inside each a single candle. It's difficult to capture on camera the wow factor of the resultant display, but I hope some of these shots do it justice.

Kamakura is my favourite non violent Akita winter festival. However the overall winner has to be the festival that followed, as the philmobile ploughed onwards towards...

The Takeuchi Festival

Snow on the ground. Fire blazing. Coloured ribbons soar aflame into the cold night air. And in the middle of this scene 150 men stand either side of the fire, holding 20 foot high poles of bamboo, waiting. A siren wails, a primal roar is heard, and the poles are brought down towards the opposition. Some miss their target and thud into the icy ground. Some narrowly deflect off shoulders. Some crunch and break over helmets. Those with the strength in their arms heave their poles up, their only purpose to bring them once again smashing into the opposing hordes. Some abandon their poles, and throw themselves at the oppositon fists flailing, the burning backdrop illuminating the carnage, as men trapped under poles throw their hands over their heads to defend themselves from every repetitive bone crunching blow. This is the Takeuchi Festival.

Apologies for the overly flowery prose in the preceding paragraph, I got a bit carried away, but if the image you have in your head now is akin to a medieval battle scene, you're on the right track. Firstly a bit of background. Last year I was unable to attend this festival due to illness/being unaware of exactly how awesome it is. Since hearing of the carnage at that year's festival, I was obviously itching to get a pole in my hand and get stuck in.

Basically the event is as described above. Two teams of between 50-100 men line up either side of an enormous bonfire, crucial helmets atop their bonces, and then each man receives a 20 foot bamboo pole and when a siren goes one does one's best to crush the opposition with your mighty stick of justice. This happens three times, the third round being notorious as a bloodbath.

The festival welcomes foreigners who wish to participate, just bring a helmet and get stuck in. Last year a few of those who answered that call got what in common parlance would be referred to as "a right good kicking", involving broken limbs and stitches in faces. Add to this my colleague's warning that "every year, someone dies", and you get a picture of just how fabulously dangerous this event is.

Unfortunately 10 days before this year's festival I had my snowboarding accident, and couldn't participate. The same could not be said for my little brother, who turned up helmet in tow ready to beat up some japanese people with a big stick. With jealousy and a teensy bit of concern (mum would so tell me off like loads if he had died) I watched him walk into the southern side of the battle to receive his weapon.

If I'm honest, after all the build up, the reality was always going to be something of a let down. I am reliably informed by people who attended both that last year's event was a much bloodier affair than this year's relatively tame offering. That said, after two rounds of watching my little brother being totally rubbish at beating people with a stick, in the third round the little man got much more stuck in. He hurled a pole javelin-esque into the opposing "army", and (after retrieving a bamboo pole from the burning bonfire in the middle of the battlefield) cracked a burning bamboo pole over someone's head. I've never been prouder.

For anyone who stumbles across this blog researching a potential winter holiday in Japan, the Hokkaido festivals are longer affairs lasting 5 days or more, usually centred around the 2nd week of february. The Akita winter festivals are often shorter events, and most take place a bit later, between the 11th-17th of february.

Sausage Rolls, Steak Bakes, and a man in a red hat

Right now, I can see a snow capped volcano from my desk. I just spent 15 minutes playing outside in the snow with energetic 8 year olds. I’ve been instructed by my superiors that in future classes at this school I should incorporate more inflatable fruit.

All of these are fabulous reasons why my time in Japan has been one of the happiest periods of my life. I’ve never had a job with such substantial renumeration for doing so very little, which agrees very much with my enjoyment of all things lazy, But…

Sometimes it would be nice if I could understand anything that was said. It would be nice if the beer tasted of something, and if sausages wasn’t just a funny word that Mr Cooke taught us. It would be nice to be able to watch football, or just to talk about it with people who aren’t 11 years old. It would be nice to be able to see my family every now and again. It would be nice to have my girlfriend closer than 8000 miles away.

This is why I chose to go home in August, and then just 4 weeks later, this is why I bought my ticket to go home for Christmas. Christmas in Japan last year was not an altogether pleasant experience. My alarm woke me at 6:30 on Christmas Day. I put on my suit, got in the car, and went to work. The only marked difference in Christmas day compared to any other (despite the impressive amount of decorations adorning shop windows in the month running up to Christmas day), was that instead of “Good Morning Everyone”, I started each class with “Merry Christmas Everyone”. And that was it. My favourite day of the year amounted to two changed words to a class of bored 13 year olds. Admittedly it did improve, although I don’t remember much of the staff party beyond a whisky drinking contest. I was then told the following day (through the medium of mime) that I had in fact repeatedly informed the school secretary (a woman of 55 whose grandchildren I teach) that I loved her very much, and then licked her on the cheek. But I don’t remember it so it didn’t happen. Arguably this is more interesting than a more predictable Christmas of tree/presents/drinking/food, but for me (and Jesus would agree with me here) in some ways Christmas is not about licking old Japanese ladies.

And so homewards! Unknown to my family (who believed me to be in Hong Kong) I boarded a Virgin Atlantic VS900 flight to London Heathrow on December 18th. I took the underground from Heathrow to London Euston, and then (34 hours after leaving my front door in Honjo) I boarded the 2 hour 14 minutes service from London to Liverpool Lime Street. I collapsed shattered into my girlfriends arms and bid weary greetings to the merry band of friends who had gathered to greet me. I have never felt so tired in my life, yet the wonderful familiarity of my surroundings perked me up a bit. I would also like to note at this point that Rachel (aforementioned girlfriend) proved herself to be the best girlfriend in the history of awesome girlfriends by greeting me at the station with a Steak Bake from Greggs the Bakers. If I said I only love her for her pastry bringing abilities I’d be lying, she has a very nice bottom too.
A few glorious alcohol fuelled days followed, during which I reaquainted myself with some of the things I love so much about living in England. I spoke to people in a language I was fluent in, and was able to engage strangers in a conversation beyond “hi I’m from England. I don’t like fish. Bye!”. I drank beers that had a variety of flavour and depth. I ate crisps that weren’t seaweed flavour, and I ate a fish deep fried in batter, as god intended. I went to the cinema with a beautiful lady and watched the new Bond film. Just to complete the weekend I managed to get to a pub to watch Manchester City lose a game they were expected to win, completing the perfect example of a boozy weekend in an English city.

After a sublime weekend that was a feast for all the senses, I boarded a train at Liverpool Lime Street that would take me to York, where I would change for Darlington. I had been pondering for months the best way to make my entrance. My family were entirely convinced that I was in Hong Kong, I’d even researched a potential itinerary to tell them about. I liked the idea of climbing down the chimney santa style, but this solution was not entirely pragmatic. I toyed with the idea of rigging up 100 fireworks around the house and then letting them off to announce my arrival, even considered hiring enormous speakers to play “The Boys are Back in Town” as I burst through the front door. Ultimately though my solution was much more low key.
I donned a santa suit (to give the arrival a christmassy/slightly surreal mood) in the toilets of the train to Darlington. I then sat down at my chair and started going through my wallet to get the change for the bus, before an aggressive voice from behind me said “that’s not yours mate, put it back”. I turned round to face my accuser, saw in his face a flash of recognition, and then he apologised profusely. It was a tad bizarre, but I have to admire the man for standing up to a potentially dangerous thief, and having the cynicism to think that a man would dress up as santa claus to go pickpocketing.

35 minutes at the bus stop. 30 minutes on the bus. 2 minutes walk. An 8000 mile journey had been completed. And being the sentimental prat I am, I had to pause before I opened the front door, just enjoying the moment, the anticipation. I swung open the front door, and bedecked in my father christmas finery, declared loudly “HO HO HO, MERRY CHRISTMAS” and walked into the living room.

My sister and my parents were watching TV. As I walked in I raised my arms aloft in greeting, and as I did my parents jaws hit the floor. My sister smiled a huge smile, as I went over to hug my mum and dad. I pushed the table out of the way, something hitting the floor as I did, and flung my arms around my mum, who barely returned the hug. My dad carried on looking at me with same stunned look on his face. Their facial expressions did not change for at least twenty seconds as they stared amazed. And then my dad spoke. After I’d travelled 8000 miles, spent days on trains planes and buses, the first words my dad said to me were “you spilt my beer!”. Charming.

Over the next few days I fed from the trough of English awesomeness. I went to the pub and drank Richmond Station Ale, I had bacon butties for breakfast. On Boxing Day I watched Man City knock 5 goals past Hull, and finally saw the team I’d been unable to watch for nearly 2 years. I went to the local farm shop (where for some reason they have a camel and lots of llamas) and cooked the best sirloin steak in the world. On Christmas day we went to richmond waterfall in the morning for bucks fizz and hot chocolate, and a Christmas dinner of fine wines, a big roast ham and roast potatoes soon followed. I think I can safely conclude that Christmas Dinner tastes a lot better than Japanese Old Lady.