Saturday, February 14, 2009


So somewhere someone came up with a list of like 50 things to do/see before you die. I assume this person has been everywhere and done everything and that’s how they know. Regardless, the Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival) in Sapporo Japan is supposedly on the list. I’ve hopefully got a lot of time before I die, but a group of us decided to go and get this one out of the way. And yeah! It IS pretty cool.

Sapporo is the capital city of the northern-most island of Japan, Hokkaido. To get there from Tokyo without a car you can either fly or take a train. The train goes through a “chunnel” kind of dealie. I think it’s actually the longest underwater tunnel in the world, coming in around 53 miles long! At any rate, the trip takes 16 hours and most people do it overnight in sleeper trains. There are all kinds of cool details about the train, but since I didn’t actually take that route I’ll let you do the research on your own. Suffice it to say that I wish I could have gone that way – I love traveling by train!

Instead we flew. This was my first time taking a domestic flight in Japan and man it was awesome. The whole experience was a snap. I’ve spent more time in American security lines than it took for me to get my ticket, go through security, and take off. Then there’s the hour train ride from the airport to the actual city.

Anyway, the first night in town we had a heck of a time finding a place to get a drink. We were kind of late and our group was a bit large. Not knowing much about the town we wandered around from small Japanese izakaya to another looking for a happening place. Not having much luck we settled on one with plenty of seating (i.e. dead) where they put us in our own booth. Maybe they thought we were VIP!

After having a bunch of different meats on a stick and some sake we headed out for Karaoke! Without a clue where to go we started asking around. The izakaya owner was more than helpful and pointed us toward one of the uniquely Japanese establishments where locals go for an evening of Karaoke. For a flat fee you get a private room and all you can drink and eat! What a steal. Of course, being the Gaijin we are, we managed to screw up the karaoke system in our room to the point where they gave up and moved us to a new room closer to the front desk :)

After [another] quick lesson on the use of the karaoke song-selector-computer we were off and screeching out the classics.


The next day was go time! Being a vacation we got a bit of a late start, but the first stop was what we hoped would be the most fun: THE RIDES. We hopped a train and soon we were standing next to this guy,IMG_8174 pointing the way to the shuttle bus, which would take us to the park.

We opted to forgo the the shuttle and walk ourselves there. How hard could it be. And who really needs a map anyway?

After walking a few blocks in the wrong direction we arrived at the arena. Our first snow sculptures! WELCOME TO YUKI MATSURI

So this part of the festival was really aimed at the kids. They were all over the place! Inside the arena they had all kinds of popular children’s characters doing shows, songs, dances, and all kinds of indescribable other things. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any pictures of them. Apparently they take “intellectual property” pretty seriously over here.


The name of the game at this part of the festival was “queue.” Meaning: get in line. We waited in line for everything! Food, drinks, rides, bathroom. Talking to someone recently I heard a story about waiting in a two-hour line when the Krispy Kreme donuts opened in Tokyo. Is the line-up part of the experience??

So since the lines were so long we had a tough decision to make. Not being prepared to stand in line for 1.5 hrs more than once, we had the pick the best ride and commit to it. After the initial survey we opted for the snowmobile tow in a river raft. The loop involved lots of bumps, jumps, and ramps and reminded me a lot of what we used to do with sleds as a kid.


After standing in line for that one and basically getting nowhere we sent out a runner as recon to see if any of the lines were moving any faster. I volunteered to go and checked out the tube slide. There was a large line, but there was a sign with the number 20 on it. Which I assumed was obviously the number of minutes for the wait…


OH BOY. So not only did I choose wrong in terms of wait-time, but as we got further up the slide the wind got stronger and stronger. I can’t remember the last time I was so cold.


We were literally huddled together like penguins to keep warm.

So the ride was clearly totally worth the wait.


Now for some totally random snow sculptures on our way back to the main part of the city:

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri 002


Next stop was the Sapporo Brewery and they had spiffed up the grounds for the occasion. This was probably my favorite part of the weekend. Unfortunately the museum portion was closed by the time we got there, but luckily the tasting room stays open a bit later! Between the beer tasting and all the snow lanterns it was a magical experience ;-)

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri 047

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri 008

This is a beer tasting room done right! Turns out Sapporo makes more than one variety!


The crew:

Next we did some walking around the grounds…

Sapporo Yuki Matsuri 036Sapporo Yuki Matsuri 037IMG_8280


Dinner Time!Sapporo Yuki Matsuri 011

The brewery restaurant was yakiniku (grill your own food right at the table) and the grill was in the shape of the island of Hokkaido. For some reason, no one got a picture of the uniquely shaped grill… The whole experience was very cozy. There was even an igloo!!IMG_8256



After the fun experience of the Sapporo brewery we headed back into town to catch the main attraction.

Downtown Sapporo there is a park that runs maybe 20 blocks down the middle of the city. This park is where the REAL snow and ice sculptures are located.

We were all looking forward to seeing the snow and ice sculptures lit up at night. Unfortunately we got there just as the lights were being turned off :-( It was snowing like crazy though, which was really fun.


IMG_6832IMG_6837Look at the size of these things!

One benefit of getting to the park after-hours was being able to watch the maintenance of these enormous creations. As we were walking around all these army trucks started pulling up with tons of guys in camo carrying brooms and other tools. They quickly got to work clearing accumulated snow and touching up various parts of the sculptures! That’s putting taxpayer money to work!

The next day we rolled back to the park to finish seeing all the craziness. It was ridiculously crowded and icy. I’m constantly amazed at the insistence of the Japanese women on wearing heels EVERYWHERE. I’ve seen them all over cities, on HIKES, and now on ice! At any rate, here are more random pictures:

IMG_8328 IMG_8351 IMG_8325

Our favorite snack! Chocolate covered bananas!



Snow Delivery!! Not even kidding :)

After being out in the cold all day (which none of us were quite prepared for) it was a welcome relief to find a shopping mall. Inside the mall, we found a fun pub!


And that was the end of Yuki Matsuri. How fun!

Of course, having lived in upstate New York, I’m used to Winterlude, Ottawa Ontario’s winter festival. While the snow rides and ridiculously huge snow sculptures of Sapporo were an experience, it doesn’t quite match my memories of Winterlude. For those who don’t know, Ottawa has a canal running basically the entire length of the city. Being pretty much located in the arctic, the canal freezes over every winter and people actually commute to work on ice skates! They even zamboni the thing!

So for Winterlude, the idea is the same as Yuki Matsuri: take the ridiculously and consistently cold weather and have fun with it. The canal is lined with all kinds of food and fun vendors and at the lake at the end they have all the snow/ice sculptures as well as a bunch of different games and events, including multiple hockey and broom ball rinks of course. The way it plays out is such a great experience, no buses or trains between sites, no slipping all over (unless you’re still learning to skate), and great food like poutine and beaver tails!

At any rate, I think both are really fun and they could learn a few things from each other to make the ULTIMATE winter festival!


Friday, January 30, 2009

Tenjin Dai (or whatever)

Last weekend was a long weekend. Since it was my first real weekend in town I had barely had a chance to get settled, but a group of coworkers invited me to go on a ski trip and I couldn’t refuse. I had to rent pretty much all my gear since I had shipped all my stuff from home and it had yet to arrive. I was lucky I was able to get out of work early and we caught the train around 7 from Yokosuka. After 2 transfers we made it to the bullet train.


I love the bullet train. It’s the ONLY way to travel. So fast, so smooth, so relaxing. You HAVE to pack a snack and make sure to bring plenty of chu-hi. My usual fare is boxed sushi from the kaitenzushi under the train station, nigiri (rice balls) from the 7-11, and at least 3 tall cans of chu-hi. That will pretty much set you up for any length of bullet train ride.


After about 4 hours of travel we made it to our destination.

The Canyons Lodge is an adventure hostel run by a bunch of Kiwis. All of them are super nice and they provided a shuttle from the train, breakfast, and shuttles to the ski resorts each day.


The accommodations were neat. I think it was an old Japanese style inn because the living quarters were set up with tatami mats and paper walls/doors. There was even a traditional Japanese bath house in the basement.

Six bunks were squeezed into a room and they each had a “futon” mattress. Rylynn commandeered the unused futons for extra padding since the beds were so firm. “Lucky” for me, after a week of the bed at my place I barely noticed.

It was snowing when we arrived on Friday and snowed all day Saturday. Which is great if you have goggles, the one thing I neglected to rent.

Still, the powder riding was sweet and we had no trouble finding new tracks even though the mountain was tiny.


I’m amazed at the Japanese ski resorts. They are the smallest little mom n’ pop places, but they will have an enormous gondola to take you up to their three 2-person lifts.

Here I am, cutting it up in my rental gear! Note the pink arm band. No wickets for your tickets here and pink was all they had left! I think it actually goes pretty well with the standard issue blue. IMG_0073

Photo credit: Mike Stevens :-P

Unfortunately, we had one casualty: Josh torqued his knee skiing. I think it was like his second or third time and the powder was probably a bit much for him. He got some great attention by the ski patrol, who spoke no English.


He looks like he was being a good sport. I never actually saw him after the injury, but heard he was in a lot of pain. This picture is of Josh in the gondola on the sled they used to bring him down the mountain. They brought him to the bottom where an ambulance was waiting to take him to the hospital.

Unfortunately he did quite a number on himself and ended up riding the train all the way back to Yokosuka that night. Later that week he was on a plane back to Washington. He was only in Japan for a week.

Despite the loss of a team member, the party cruised on. That night, after Patrick made it back from the adventure in a Japanese hospital with Josh, we ate dinner in the lodge restaurant/bar. It was definitely western-style food, but it was good and hit the spot after a long day.

After dinner we stuck around to watch the Irish band up from Tokyo which was actually really good! Their drummer was the only Japanese member of the band and she was one of the most lively musicians I’ve ever seen. All night she had an enormous smile on her face and the Irish jig rhythms seemed to flow out of her arms and legs.



The band played kind of a short set for what you might expect of an Irish band. We weren’t quite ready to head to bed just yet so we decided to play around on the mechanical bull and skateboard ramp! Conveniently located adjacent to the bar!

Jo wasn’t the only one to get out there, but she had the best poses. The best part is that the mechanical bull was broken, making this shot that much more awesome.

The next morning we hit the slopes again. This day was a bit more relaxed as we knew the mountain a little better, but since it had stopped snowing we had to work a little harder to find the good snow. Along the way we found some good photo ops:


IMG_0103 IMG_0092

Fun stuff!! We even got to have an awesome lunch together.


Here’s Mike getting seriously into some udon noodle soup.

That night we were all broke so we embarked on what has become a perennial mission: International Cash Machine Hunt.

The goal was to find a cash machine on the way to an onsen and then find dinner. The last resort was to walk for an hour while starving looking for the mythical 7-11.

We found the onsen first and scraped up the entry fee using pocket change. After a nice soak in an unremarkable indoor hot spring we set out to accomplish the rest of our mission via the last resort method. At least dinner was good!

Back at the inn we decide to make our own fun for the evening and play Up Dog. “What’s up dog?” you may ask. “Nothing much,” I’d say. Oh man.

Ok, so we’re playing Up Down forever into the evening having a great time and we even got the new roommate (a Japanese guy who knows a little English) to play with us. Nobu was awesome. In fact we just got an email from him last week saying he’s been to Minakami several times since, but misses us. He apparently plays Up Dog regularly now though ;-)

On the way home the next day we figured out how to turn the bullet train seats around.


What a great way to travel :-)

The weekend’s not over! We stopped in Tokyo for some exploring. The weather was amazing compared to the snow and cold of the mountains.


This picture was taken at the Imperial Palace. You can actually see the only visible part of it just above Patrick’s head. The water behind us is the moat!



Patrick gets the fun pic of the post:


Friday, January 23, 2009

Second First Week

And what a week it’s been! 

I arrived jet-lagged to pouring rain, lugging a bike box and 94lb suitcase which cost me $84 and $252 respectively to check on the plane.  Luckily the shipyard was able to stick to its promise of finding us at the airport and providing a ride to our accommodations since they weren’t able to give me an address of my apartment beforehand.  After a long bus ride we arrive to some random bus stop at Yokohama station where half of us get off the bus.  It’s cold and, as I mentioned, raining.  We’re standing around while the people “in charge” untangle themselves and find taxis for everyone and their luggage.  Of course I’m the last one since my “host” is the only one of the group who speaks Japanese.  We walk around the plaza, literally, three times dragging my stuff in the pouring rain looking for a taxi before we end up right where we started (where everyone else had already gotten taxis).  We pile my stuff in the back seat because it won’t fit in the trunk and then somehow squeeze ourselves in too for the 5 min ride to my building.

I’m staying in the Yokohama “Urban Tower” which is in the new part of the city.  I say “new” because they literally just created 21 acers of land by filling in part of the harbor.  It’s called Minato Mirai 21 and I live in one of its dozens of luxury high rises.  I have a studio apartment with a full kitchen, a balcony, and a nice view of the Yokohama Bay Bridge (if I crane my neck just right).  The studio actually has 4 rooms.  The main room:

CIMG5793  CIMG5794

The bath room (which is actually two rooms because the Japanese-style bath has a door on it) and the toilet room!






Complete with bidet and heated seat of course!



The apartment has a couple of curious features.  At first I thought I’d been slighted by the management when, after a 14-hour travel day, I crawl into bed only to discover they’ve given me a box spring and no mattress!!  Or at least that’s what I thought.  It turns out this is just a standard Japanese bed.  Well… I guess it’s good for posture, right?



The other interesting feature is the in-unit washer and dryer.  The washer isn’t too difficult to get the hang of, especially with the instructions/translations I was provided for each of my appliances (stove, microwave, rice cooker, A/C, and washing machine all have their own sheet).

However, the dryer is unlike anything I’d ever heard of before:  After your clothes are finished spinning in the washer you hang them up in the bathroom, close the door and press the “dry” button on the wall!CIMG5686


I still haven’t figured out how to get the wrinkles out, but I suppose it has something to do with the iron and ironing board in my closet.  Suggestions?




The first week was pretty hectic actually.  Between getting settled in the apartment and figuring out the commute I didn’t have time for much else really.  My train ride is about 30 mins and it takes about 15 minutes to walk to the station from my apartment.  Then, on the other side, it’s a serious hike between the train station and my office on the boat.  I’m working swingshift so I don’t get home until about 11:30, which doesn’t leave much opportunity for exploring the city.  I ended up renting a bike in Yokosuka and have been wrestling with where to park it.



It turns out next to the train station with a bunch of other bikes isn’t right for some reason  ;-)   My next project is to find a cheap folding bike I can take on the train with me. 


Of course I made time for a little bit of fun on Sunday night.  I was out biking around Yokohama and decided to drop in on the Fab Four after I stumbled upon their neck of the woods.  They were properly surprised and agreed to meet Igor and me for dinner later that night.



Igor, Toshi, Andy, and me!  Eriko didn’t come out for some reason.





They took us to an international buffet place in the main train station.  There were all kinds of Asian foods, Italian foods, etc, most of which wasn’t too far off from what you might find at a buffet table at a wedding.  Nothing too special really, but it was good to hang out with everyone. 

I got yelled at for trying to eat curry with chopsticks.  Apparently spaghetti is OK though. 




Eisuke reaffirms his love for Jennifer Aniston.









I hope to meet up with them again soon.  I wanted to have a little party at my place, but I ended up going snowboarding last weekend instead.  Some other time.

Next post: Snowboard trip!