Friday, April 30, 2010

A Beautiful Winter's Morning in Sapporo

30th December, 2004 - It's a cold, but clear Sapporo winter morning. The penultimate day of the year. A light snow covers the cars, the garden is now well and truly in hibernation underneath it's protective shrouds which had been put on about two months earlier.

The world looks different than it had in Autumn when we were last here.

Yet today is a day of preparation... We've an important job to do. To prepare the Mayudama. Mayudama is a very old custom of attaching ball-like ornaments to branches for hanging at New Years time. Depending on who you believe, they represent either mochi (rice cakes) or silkworm cocoons. If the former they are called mochibana (which are larger). Either way they are meant to represent prosperity for the new year.

I'm not entirely sure what all the other items are supposed to signify however... overall, it feels a bit like decorating the Christmas Tree - but an "olden time" Christmas Tree. Actually these ones are a little strange. They come as two semi-spheres, and you glue them together (around a branch) by adding water to one surface which must soften/break down the chemical bonds allowing them to re-form once you bring the two halves together. It was fun, if a little odd.

Some of us however were less than impressed by the effort. Momo (T-chan's cat) was more concerned about soaking up the suns rays. What a life!

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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Off to Sapporo and Okonomiyaki

28th December, 2004 - It was cold again today (around -4degC - which isn't so bad considering), and the snow was coming down reasonably strong. T-chan and I decided to walk to the subway station to go into town for lunch. Here's the park where T-chan learnt to ski when she was a primary school student (there's a small hill that is ideal for practicing...). The subway station is about 15-20 mins away, so we're quite cold by the time we get into the warmth underground. I love the fact that you can buy hot coffee in a can from just about any vending machine in winter... that's been a common saviour in Sapporo.

Today's lunch is Okonomiyaki... which is like a cabbage/flour pancake filled with lots of yummy things... Generally speaking, okonomiyaki is prepared for you  (in the form of a batter) by one of the staff - and is cooked on a hot-plate in front of you. It's quite a lot like a thicker monjayaki. We often make this at home - it's pretty easy (just ask me for the recipe) - but it's still nice to have out.

In looking back at my photo's, I wonder if perhaps I have a limited number of ways of expressing my feelings towards food. It would appear I have an equal fondness for Mister Donuts (below). This is very Australian (in a cringe-worthy kinda way). Oh Happy Days.... ?;`)

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Christmas Illumination - Sapporo

25th December, 2004 - Odori Kouen is a little different when there's no Yuki Matsuri - however, it doesn't lack colour and light. Each year, Sapporo has lights up to White Illumination, from late November to about the 3rd of January. It's not quite Christmas in nature, but the illumination adds a lot of life to an already thriving park. And if you look hard enough, you can see a little bit of Christmas even here in cold, cold Sapporo.

Actually there's a thriving trade in Japan for Santa Claus, or Santa-san - it's what you would call seasonal work.

The illumination may not be a good win for carbon-emissions, but there's something that's definitely uplifting to see a night-light display.

Even the trees compete for our attention.

 And succeed in outshining even Odori's brightly lit Sapporo Tower.

There's something at once both beautiful and disturbing about this Christmas illuminated maypole... it's a little like a Christmas-themed toy-shop.

Hopeful smiles whilst simultaneously being strangely melancholic.

It's a beautiful time to be in Sapporo if you can't make the Yuki Matsuri.

Come 10:30pm, the lights go out, and it's off to home we go... the boulevard lights remain on to light our way... thankfully, Odori Subway Station is near-by. It's cold, but it's been a great Christmas Day - at my second home, Sapporo.
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Monday, April 26, 2010

Christmas Eve - Sapporo Style

24th December, 2004 - I arrived into Sapporo on Christmas Eve... actually the weather in Japan had been a bit of a nightmare in the days preceding, and there had been many days when New Chitose Airport had been closed. Thankfully, this was not one of those days. I was re-united with T-chan (after too many weeks), and also her wonderful family. My mood had lifted.

Many people ask, what is Christmas in Japan - and that's both an easy and difficult question to answer. In my opinion Christmas is great in Japan... for starters - I can experience a white Christmas (at least in Sapporo)... unlike the hot, dry days we get back in Adelaide.

It's a consumer occasion - and let's face it... some consumerism can be  YUMM-O! One tradition that's developed around Christmas in Japan is the Christmas Cake (kurisumasu ke-ki). It's generally a light sponge cake that's beautifully decorated with cream and edible delights (who can eat Father Christmas though?). I found that Japanese cakes whilst they look like they should be super-rich are generally refreshingly light flavoured. Unfortunately they're just too small for me! ?;-)

There are few if any religious over-tones to Christmas. It's a consumer time of year, most often celebrated as a romance occasion for young couples. However, more and more there is a cultural inclusion of Christmas in Japan - without the Christian core. New Years Day in Japan is much closer to Christmas in the West - with a focus on family gathering.

We certainly had the whole family gathered for tonight, and it was as much a re-union as it was Christmas. Nihon no ke-ki... hisashiburi desu ne! Ittadakimasu.

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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Third Time to Japan - An ANZAC Day Rememberance

23rd December, 2004 - International marriages can have many different characteristics than typical ones - not least the travel. One of the promises that I had made T-chan was that wherever possible, we would return to Japan once a year. An audacious (some might say fool-hardy) promise made with the vigor of youth; and the freedom of someone without a mortgage at the time. ?;`)

As 2004 came to a close, we set out on our third trip to Japan. Again T-chan had returned to Japan earlier; to spend some quality time with her parents - without having to worry about baby-sitting her new husband.

The flight from Adelaide to Sapporo has a number of different paths - and it used to be that you could fly in the morning or evening. The first leg of the journey is to Sydney via domestic airline (approx 1.5 hours), then a 9-9.5 hour flight to Tokyo (Narita airport - the International hub into Japan).

I am writing this on Anzac Day (25th April) - a day synonymous with reflection on Australia's war-history; commemorating as it does the ill-fated 1915 Gallipoli Landings in Turkey by the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). For this reason, it is perhaps fitting to reflect on the events of more than 65 years ago looking out the airplane window...

As the plane leaves the Australian continent, my thoughts turn to Darwin - the Northern gateway to Australia. Darwin was the site of one of the few direct attacks (bombing raids) on mainland Australian soil by Japanese soldiers during WWII... The first such raid occurred on 19th February, 1942 - and whilst this was the most devastating (resulting in approximately 250 dead), there were more than 60 further air raids over the course of the war.

After Darwin, we fly over only one other major land-mass on our way to Japan... Papua New Guinea... Back in the 1940's this part of PNG was actually an Australian territory - and would be yet another battle ground between Australian and Japanese forces. Operations around PNG had commenced at the beginning of 1942, however the mainland engagement commenced in July as the Japanese had starting pushing south towards Port Moresby. In response, the mostly Australian forces undertook the historic Kokoda Trail campaign (over the Owen Stanley Ranges) to repel the Japanese advance - this was perhaps the first time that Imperial Japanese Army had suffered a defeat on land.  Below you can see the township of Lae, which was the location of a huge airbase once it was taken over by the Allied forces in 16 September, 1943.

As the morning turns towards evening, the plane flies almost silently across the Pacific - Guam passes below, hardly looking like a tropical paradise. In July-Aug, 1944 this remote island (some 50x15 km in size) was  the scene of some chilling battles between Japanese and Allied troops. Surrender was not something the Japanese allowed amongst their forces - yet, there are strange stories coming out of wars - such as the story of Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi who was discovered in 1972, after having hidden out in the jungle for approximately 27 years - by himself.

The storm clouds had settled all over the Pacific throughout WWII... how did the world come to this point? It's hard to believe that whilst we now travel backwards and forwards to Japan, not that long ago we were bitterest of enemies - and Pacific ocean was awash with the blood and tears of millions of mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. Lest we forget.

Evening draws in...

The rising moon above the rising sun...

The flight time to Japan leaves you plenty of time to ponder these things - but the world has luckily changed a lot for the better since then. Life moves on.

If you catch a day-time flight from Australia you arrive into Tokyo late in the evening - too late to catch a connecting flight to Sapporo. The connecting flight would inevitably be out of Haneda Airport - which means you need to catch the limousine bus  for the 1+ hour (3,000 yen) trip to Haneda Airport. It turns out if you catch the night-flight, you can generally schedule a flight directly to Sapporo from Narita in the morning. This trip I had to catch the bus to Haneda airport...

In the distance Fuji sits silently; one of the symbols of Japan. It reminds me that I'm in finally back in Japan, and that whilst somethings may change over the decades, thankfully other things remain almost timelessly constant.

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wedding Bells are Ringing in Adelaide. An International Marriage

March 2004 - Fast-forward to our Big Day which has arrived at last. T-chan's family and best friend had come to sunny Adelaide, to Carrick Hill, which is one of the old colonial estates in Adelaide that stands overlooking the city. We had planned for a fairly simple and small garden wedding - but even then it was a major effort to organise! We would have the first half as a traditional Western Wedding - with vows in both English and Japanese - and then we would have a Japanese ceremony at the end.

The day was a beautifully bright day in March (which can be a changeable month in Adelaide). As the harpist started playing the Ave Maria, I watched as T-chan and her father approached down the pear arbour. My heart melted...

The Wedding Ceremony itself went so fast - and we both managed to get through our vows alright. Whew!

The exchange of rings...I do, I do I DO!

Finally... now for the fun stuff...

A few moments to take some photos... 

Our Sakura+Ema Wedding Wishes Trees...

After a short break for people to eat and relax, T-chan and I changed into our kimono. Not a trivial matter - especially for T-chan. Actually, strictly speaking it's a bit strange for T-chan to wear this kimono at her wedding ceremony - but it was going to be last chance for her to wear this kimono (as it's not appropriate for her to wear now that she's married... what a shame).

We then undertook the san-san-kudo Shinto ceremony (meaning 3-3-9 times), which is an elaborate tradition where the groom and bride take three "sips" each from three lacquered cups containing sake. Actually, you only drink the last time. Three is a sacred number, and here each cup represents heaven, earth and humankind. T-chan's mother and aunt conducted the ceremony.

We were now officially an International Marriage... is that different from any other sort of marriage? Well, yes and no. And perhaps I'll explain as I go in later posts.

After the wedding ceremony, T-chan and I returned home, stopping off in Himeji Gardens on Adelaide's South Terrace which is a very nice (though compact) Japanese garden. 

Today was very much a bonding between Western and Japanese Wedding ceremonies... as well as the bonding between lovers. Husband and wife....otto to tsuma.

For love. Forever.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Shikotsuko - Onsen Fun

5th November, 2003 - T-chan's family had prepared something special for our last week in Sapporo. The whole family including T-chan's brother H-kun were going to go to Shikotsuko to visit one of the nice onsen that sits on the lakes edge, called Marukoma Onsen (sorry the website's only in Japanese)

This onsen had a great view out over the lake - which like Touyako was actually a caldera lake formed from the remaining crater from a former cataclysmic eruption. This area is great for touring around in a car, as you can drive around the whole lake, or go for a bush-walk during the day.

The onsen itself was more the traditional onsen with both inside and outside onsen. The room itself was a large one (easily fitting 5 adults) which actually looks quite open and sparsely decorated during the day. As eveing approaches they start to get the bedding ready. Futons (which are the mattresses) that are stored in the room wardrobes.

The sunset fades to a glorious twilight... the outside onsen is inviting in the clear Autumn night's crisp air. Unfortunately, it's bad form to take photos in the onsen (as you can imagine, people get a little upset when a camera comes out), so I don't have any photos of the inside or outside onsen. One question might be - so what do you do in an onsen? Mostly... nothing. After cleaning, generally it revolves around lying in the 40-44degC (104-111degF) baths... but it's relaxing once you get into the swing of it.

And Shikotsuko has a charm all of it's own. Like Touyako it's a deep lake, and there is definitely a calming presence about the place.

The evening meal! Ittadakimasu (let's dig in!). The clothes (a light yukata with a heavier haori) is provided for your relaxation... so no, we haven't joined the Green Jackets cult.... or have we?... 


Ten things to remember when visiting onsen...
1.  Onsen and Sento (Sento are generally artificially heated baths) normally do not appreciate tattoos - and may in fact prohibit people with tattoos. Tattoos are associated with criminal elements (e.g. the Yakuza).
2. Don't forget to leave your shoes outside (usually in a locker) - indeed in hotels you'll often come to the onsen in yukata (see below)... Leave all clothes in the small wicker baskets provided. Some onsen offer wrist straps for keys for security.
3. Check that you're going into the correct bath - onsen are normally single-sex now and you can easily tell by the colour of the noren (curtain): blue = men, red = women (no prizes). Be careful however - it's common for the baths to swap depending on the time of day
4. Come into the onsen area essentially naked (bring along the small modesty towel... it seconds as funky hat). Shampoo/soap is supplied at the washing seats. Actually that's the badge of the ojisan (older man)... wearing his towel proudly on his head as he's sinking chin deep into water. Seriously - there's not many other places to put the towel as keeping it on the ground would be considered unclean.
5. Wash yourself at the seated shower area (easy to see)... and wash EVERYWHERE. Onsen are not baths for cleaning - you are expected to be clean already. Remove all the suds before you get in.
6. Don't stay too long in any one bath... temperature differential is good for circulation, so getting up and moving about (to different temperature baths for example) is good for your health
7. There's often a basin with cooler water - use the ladle to pour this over yourself (good for getting that cooling to stimulate the circulation).
8. Whilst you want change baths/temperature... don't jump in and out of the baths. Onsen is a soothing time for care-worn Japanese - take things slowly. I'm not sure if there's etiquette involved in where you sit in an onsen, but I know personal space shrinks in the hot, pungent water.
9. Don't forget to hydrate - sitting in a hot bath for long periods can be very de-hydrating. For some reason, a lot of onsen/sento have weighing scales that Japanese religiously use before and after (especially if using the Sauna). Onsen are synonymous with drinking alcohol - remember this is BAD for hydration (and drinks are typically banned from the onsen itself).
10. Try not to wash/shower after coming out of the onsen... this may seem strange if you're hot and sweaty... but the onsen water is thought to be very good for the skin... However - do what you feel comfortable with.

Check out here for a really good resource on the do's and don'ts of onsen etiquette.

After a late night of eating, drinking, and dancing (ok - that was perhaps mostly after the drinking), the morning light shines through strong. Before you know it, the bedding's been taken away, and it's time to head out to meet a new day. Unfortunately, the days have disappeared... and it's now time to come back to Australia.

This is the last post for our second trip to Japan together in 2003. We started the trip (months earlier when T-chan had to go back to Japan to apply for a fiance visa) not knowing if she would be approved for immigration to Australia. It was a stressful time, and quite unlike our first trip which was more about a crazy whirlwind tour of Japan. This time around we were living at home, our second home... and developing our own Japanese Ties.

Thank you T-chan's parents for looking after me so well - and thankyou for agreeing to let me marry your daughter. Arigatou otousan to okaasan!.
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