Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Goodbye Korea, Hello Kitty

About one year ago to the date, I turned the photograph on my page-a-day global calendar to a snowy scene in Japan. The photo was of a night-time scene, and greenish amber lights were cast upon the front of a large, white four-story building -- that was constructed entirely of snow. The caption at the bottom of the photo read simply "Winter Festival, Sapporo, Japan." It caught my imagination and I decided that one day, I would go there.

Saturday became my "one day." After many negotiations at work (whining, pleading, wheedling), I convinced my manager to grant me vacation time for the trip. I managed to get the last remaining ticket, so far as I know, from Seoul to Sapporo during the festival.

I was relaxing in the airplane, drinking a beer at 10:00 in the morning -- disclaimer for the folks at home: not because I enjoy the taste of beer but simply because the stewardess had presented it as an option and I enjoyed the oddity of it. "I'm Canadian," I carefully explained to the stewardess as I reached for my beer. Of course, I'm really American, but I don't like to cast aspersions on my home country by my poor behavior. Everybody loves Canadians, so I figure their reputation can take the hit. Anyways, this is not the point of this captioning (though it's beginning to sound like I'm drinking another beer while writing this). The point of this caption is that while I was drinking my beer, I noticed the entire row of left-side passengers on the plane, the same side on which I was sitting, suddenly lean into their windows. I turned to my window and saw this gorgeous view of Mt. Fuji. Truly, it was so unexpected and breathtaking that I teared up a little when I saw it.

Since finding housing during the Winter Festival proved problematic, I tried couchsurfing for the first time. My host, Nana, was a wonderful Japanese girl, about 28 years old, who lived with her father and grandparents in a large house on the outskirts of Sapporo. She had to work a lot of the time I visited her, but she was very generous in spending her free time with me. We went shopping, ate out several times, visited the Ainu museum (which featured the culture of the indigenous people of Hokkaido) and walked though the snow sculptures. Even though it was the first time I had ever met Nana, it felt like she was a real friend.

Exquisite porcelain dolls, often in royal formation, were on display in the stores for the upcoming Japanese holiday of Girl's Day. These doll sets cost between several hundred to a few thousand dollars. I knew Nana's family was special when she related a personal story about the dolls. Her family had their dolls on display when Nana was still a little girl, and being too young too realize their value, and just old enough to realize the fun of colouring, she had picked up a permanent marker and drawn all over their faces. Instead of the corporal punishment or severe scolding that one might have expected to result, her mother and father simply laughed and said that now the family dolls had facial tatoos.

I spent one morning in an onsen, which is a natural Japanese hotspring. This onsen was in the middle of nowhere, but Nana recommended it as being cheap and in a beautiful setting and she even offered to drive me there. Once I arrived, the drill was somewhat familiar to me, since I have visited the culturally equivalent jimjilbangs in Korea on several occassions. First, and most importantly, I determined which section was for women. Once in the correct section, I slipped out of my clothes and took a preliminary shower. Probably because the onsen was tiny and in such an isolated location, it seemed to only be used by local people. This is great and all -- I really like genuine cultural experiences -- but when you're naked, you don't like being the one who stands out. At least, I don't. I looked around me suspiciously. Then breathed a sigh of relief. I was NOT the fattest one.

First, I stepped into the onsen baths inside the building. Then I noticed the outside baths and went into them. Oh, it was lovely. Lovelier than all imagination. The onsen was so close to the nearby mountain and river that if you'd thrown a snowball with good aim, you could have hit either of them. Then while my body was warm and toasty beneath the hot spring water, the snow starting falling down, blowing across my face, the bridge of my nose, my cheeks, freezing into frosty little stars in my hair. "Why," I thought to myself, "does Heaven smell like sulphur?"

(photo just outside the onsen, since taking a photo inside the onsen would have been weird)

When I expressed the desire to eat sushi, Nana took me to a conveyor belt sushi restaurant. It was the first time I had ever had sushi in Japan, and it wasn't until this exact point in my life that I realized I love the stuff! In the past, at my friends' urging, I've tried choking down dry mounds of sushi made in the Midwest United States. On several occasions, my American friends would even get food poisoning from it. It was both horrible and overpriced, but I would sometimes pretend to like it because it was considered a trendy food item. Sushi in Japan is an entirely different experience. The freshness of the seafood, even at the cheapest restaurants, is indisputable, and the quality of the rice itself differs, with the moistest, fluffiest grains being used in the better restaurants.

Another noteworthy meal I took in Sapporo was in one of the shops along Old Ramen Alley. By this point in my stay, I had left Nana's house and was couchsurfing at another place, with a pile of futons on the floor of an English school classroom. I didn't get to see my actual host for more than 15 minutes since she lived in a separate house with her husband and in-laws, but the location in which I was staying was central to the festival and everything else in town. This left me on my own for figuring out how to spend my time and where to go. In my host's bathroom was a 20-year-old guidebook on Hokkaido. In particular, it extolled the culinary virtues of Ramen Yokocho in the Susukino district.

So, I bounded off the subway at around 10:30 pm in Susukino, and in typical fashion of my traveling style, I didn't know where the famous Ramen Yokocho was located, nor did I realize -- here is where you may begin hitting the palm of your hand against your forehead to produce sympathy pains for my stupidity -- that the Susukino district is filled with "nightclubs" and is, in fact, the only dangerous area in the entirety of Hokkaido Island.

Blissful in my innocence, I merrily bounded along the hooded backstreets (while wearing my little kitten hat) until coming to the conclusion that: A. I was really, really hungry and B. I would never find Old Ramen Alley simply by wandering aimlessly. Both these realizations led me to seek help from a nearby stranger who just happened to be standing on the street corner in the driving snow, doing nothing apparently except enjoying the near-freezing temperature. He was a tall, slender, young Japanese man, so tall and beautiful that he looked like the muse for an anime hero. He seemed rather annoyed when I asked him where Ramen Yokocho was located, but I simply smiled and waited for him to help me. He called over another man who was also apparently just standing on the street corner in the driving snow and doing nothing but enjoying the near-freezing temperature, and together they held a brief discussion in Japanese. Maybe it was just my fine-honed sense of intuition kicking in, or maybe it was because his friend was dressed like a gothic vampire, but I began to think, "Something's not right here." At any rate, the first guy from whom I'd asked help, after consulting with his friend, simply said "Come," and grabbed my wrist, leading me down a twist of streets and alleyways. At last, we ended up at an alley with a dozen or so ramen shops on either side. "Oh, thank you!" I exclaimed and bowed to the man. His face lit up briefly with the only smile I'd seen him make, and then he disappeared back into the black of night.

Later, after having finished my ramen and walking back to the subway, I looked more closely at the street corners. They all seemed to have one or two well-dressed men loitering on them. As I began to pay more attention to details, I noticed that most of them were holding papers that they would show to other men as they passed. These papers were photos of scantily dressed, or even undressed, women along with their corresponding prices. That's right. I had asked for directions from a pimp. Odd as it may sound, I felt sorry for him when this realization struck me. I wonder what had driven him to such a place and had the feeling, derived largely from the underlying unhappiness that seemed a part of his being, that he was not the top in command but merely another pawn being played by someone more powerful.

The main drag through Sususkino was well-lit and safe enough. It was also decorated with hundreds of ice sculptures, many of which had mythical origins. In the night, with the city light shining upon them, they shone like crystal.

Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me. Try waking up every morning and loving the world all over again. That's what takes a real hero.
~ Brian Andreas

The best snow sculpture, Nana and I decided, was the large one of the zoo animals. There was something about the variety of animals (gorilla, cheetah, bears, eagles, etc.), as well as the life-like features that had been carved into them, that made the sculpture seem special to us.

Just as a scale to the size of these photos -- the sculptures don't look as impressive on film as they do in real life -- here is a photo where a man is cleaning the sculpture after the previous night's blizzard covered some of the features. That tiny blur on the cheetah's back is the man.

One of my days in Hokkaido, I noticed a postcard with the image of a snow and ice playground. I made it my mission that day to find the playground. It ended up being on the outskirts of Sapporo; I took the subway and then a bus to get there, but it was worth it. There was a giant stadium, inside of which short K-pop performances played continuously. Outside the stadium, there were three giant slide sets (meaning each slide set had about 6 different paths to make for minimal waiting in line). The smallest one involved sitting on a little plastic square and sliding down packed snow. This resulted in much bruising. The next one was made entirely of ice. It looked stunning, but the slope was too gentle to thrill anyone but kids. Finally, there was the master slide, which as Goldilocks herself might say, was just right.

From the top of this slide was a great overview of the city, and to descend, you had to sled down via intertube. The photo doesn't make the descent appear very steep, but that's something of an illusion. One of the adults next to me was frightened enough by the height that she refused to go down it after waiting in line, which was a pity because it was soooo much fun.

Now for some gratuitous "I was there" photos.

Here I am standing in front of a snowy replica of the Korean Baekjae Palace. I am wearing the coat of a used kimono I bought in town, and snow is blowing down at an angle. For all those reasons, this is one of my favourite photos of the trip.

And here I am with the spirit from Princess Mononoke. This photo was taken at dawn, which adds an eerie rose-grey backlight to the scene. Also, the dark tree branches sprouting at odd angles behind the spirit give it a sort of alien quality, don't you think?

There is no story behind the Totoro statue, but I find the child-loving monster to be adorable in all his incarnations.


  1. Your exploits bring me joy. :D


  2. You lied about being Canadian?! (Not actually upset; that part made me laugh quite a bit)

    The Totoro sculpture is great; I just watched that movie about a week ago :D

    It looks like you're still having a fantastic time, and I just want to say congrats on getting your story published :) I'll have to have Casey take me to B&N next time I'm visiting, unless I can find it here..