Friday, December 16, 2011

Bon Odori - Dancing Through the Veil

14th August, 2010 - Every year, come the middle of August - at least in Hokkaido - something mysterious happens. It's known as Obon, one of the most important ritual festivals in Japan (outside New Years). It's traditionally associated with the return of the spirits of the departed to the world of the living for 3 days of the year (typically the 13th - 15th of the month, but more on that at the end). It's an important part of Japan, yet, I had not experienced it before... and was kind of curious. The original plan involved going to the city to see the Bon dancing in Odori Kouen, however, it was a big day, so we instead decided to have a look at one of the local dances in the neighbourhood. Disorganised as normal, we missed the start... just...

Now I'll give a quick description of the popularly believed Buddhist origins of Obon (as sourced from the Shingon Buddhist site). I say believed, as obon, like Christmas, is most likely an amalgam of different meanings. The day almost certainly takes its name from the Buddhist Urabon Sutra - which itself is a transliteration of the sanskrit Ullambana and which means to "hang upside down". This sutra tells a story of Mokuren Sonja, one of Sâkyamuni Buddha's disciples whom had supernatural powers (of course) which he used to find his deceased mother... only to discover that her soul had fallen into the world of Hungry Ghosts and was suffering immense pain. He then asked Sâkyamuni for guidance, to which he was told to make offerings to the priests coming back from their summer retreat. Which he did, with the result: - problem solved. [At this point in the story, I do pause and reflect on the commercial acumen of mystics back in those days... nice one Buddha!].

It's actually not that easy to find reliable info on the web [the irony of this statement does not escape me], but according to one of my books ("Japan: How We Breathe & How Our Hearts Beat"), obon's origins were in fact found from a much older seasonal tradition. Indeed New Year and Obon marked the transition between two halves of the calendar, and both involving ancestor worship and the offering of crops for thanks and for prayers. It was supposedly later that this was combined with urabon-e, and combined with the Chinese traditions of filial ties. Yet still, at it's heart there lies the tradition that like the Chinese Ghost Festival, or even Samhain (one origin of Halloween), for a short time the veil that separates the living from the dead is lifted. In this case, thankfully only for the spirits return home, to be honoured by their family. Indeed, obon remains a time when families return home from all over Japan to be together.

The dance, bon odori, originates as a welcome to the ancestors spirits, where the dancers would visit homes of people who had deceased during that year. I've also read that the dance may have originated from the buddhist monk, Kuya Shonin in the Heian period, but really the custom that we now know became popular in the Edo period... in fact was so popular and grew to such extravagance that the dance was officially banned between 1673-81 AD. 

The dance itself involves a large open space, in the middle of which is constructed a tower or yagura, upon which the musicians (and drummers in particular) are positioned. Around the yagura are a number of concentric circles, along which the participants dance. The dance is slow, rythmical and often based on local traditions... for example in Hokkaido, the fishing song Soran Bushi is apparently popular (though I can't recall it at this bon odori).

The following video is a bit of a grab-bag of the dance. Unfortunately the video is pretty crappy - apologies for that - but you get a bit of a sense of the music and the movements at our local bon odori. Actually, this was about the end of our videocamera, that just died in terms of it's autofocussing. Perhaps the spirits of the dead didn't appreciate my camera skills [insert spooky music here]...WOOOOoooooohhh.

It's a community event as much as a religious one... and indeed it's perhaps moved beyond religion to be just another thread in the fabric of Japanese life.  It's also a family occasion with lots of small children with the their parents. And indeed the first part of the evening is dedicated to them with fun and games (and even giveaways to the best child dancers). 

It's nice to see the yukata, or summer kimono, which is often worn out to special events such as this (and especially to fireworks for some reason).

Apart from the occasional yukata - worn predominantly by the very young and the very old - this was a fairly casual neighbourhood events. It's not quite to the standard that you will see in some areas, but I sort of think that's not important. Instead it's a occasion to bring community together - and I have to say that the dance itself is not unlike the mass-hypnotic dances that you might read about in tribal areas.. it is quite repetitive (in a good way) and quite rhythmical. The beat of the drum stirs something in your heart - even if your not Japanese.

I'm not sure if this is something new - but there was a fairly large emphasis also places on best costume-style awards. Not unlike a Halloween influence. And I have to admit that most of the theme costumes escaped me... for example the person that dressed up as what I think was a Stonehenge megalith. I'm not sure why, but they deserved a prize just for wearing that on such a hot night. And given that it's in the middle of a hot Japanese summer, there's always lots of beer being consumed. So it's quite a lively social event, at least in the neighbourhood. 

And of course - there were other strange costumes being worn. For example some gaijin fool and his child decided to dress up in their jinbei - a traditional summer clothing in Japan, but not the sort of thing you'd see someone wear down the street... let alone in front of hundreds of people. I'm sure most of the people were wondering what the... especially when the two of them started joining in the dance. Ah... what fools... But of course, that's me. And always the shy type, it took a lot of encouragement (yet surprisingly no amber courage) to get me up. Even though we stood out like sore thumbs (even amongst the megaliths) I didn't once feel out-of-place, and indeed I think the festive mood was just positive all around.

Now I have to admit something - until recently (about 5 mins ago) I had assumed that obon was celebrated at the same time everywhere in Japan, but when they switched from a lunar to a solar calendar (way back when...), the nation split on when to recongnize obon - with some areas having a July Bon (especially in Kanto region), others celebrating it in mid August, and even others maintaining the old lunar calendar timings. Supposedly, one of the reasons why obon was held in August was due to heavy farming workload in mid-July that didn't leave any time for preparation. It just goes to show that after many years of going to Japan, that you still can be surprised by things... and no matter how much you think you know, the country defies being defined by any one person.
As the evening wore on, there were less and less people, but as we left, I had the feeling that there was going to be dancing well into the night...

So - obon, and bon odori may not be the flashiest of events once you get into the neighbourhoods... but I suspect that this is where the true heart of bon odori lies. I'm not sure that the veil between worlds was lifted, or that our music and dance welcomed any spirits. It certainly awoke the spirits of those that danced though. And even to this day (over a year later) my son still sings the music (cha-cha cha chan-ko-chan...). And he's not the only one. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Extended Family Lunches In Sapporo

14th August, 2010 - One of the fun things about returning to Japan is that L-kun gets to experience more of an extended family... something we don't really have much of here in Australia. And part of that is visiting our T-chan's Auntie-S with her grandchild... let's call him S-kun. I'm not so good on family trees, but I'm guessing that makes S-kun a 2nd or 3rd cousin...

And of course - there's lots of fun to be had... watching TV is a universal enjoyment for children (of all ages). L-kun only takes a day or two to get back into the swing of watching Japanese TV. And it was good that T-chan's parents would often send us tapes of his favourite children's TV programs.

Not to mention playing ball - hiding balls - or otherwise creating havoc.  But it's nice to visit, as though we have plenty of friends (especially mixed Aussie-Japanese families) here in Adelaide, we don't have any family with children. So family gatherings are nice to see. Even if they do occur only once or twice a year. And L-kun  and S-kun seemed to get along very well (even if there's nearly two years difference between them).

I never get the feeling that L-kun has too many difficulties with fitting into which ever country's children scene. That's the great thing about young children. Doesn't matter where you come from, what language you speak, or what you look like. Children are pretty well much accepting of everyone - until we as parents/society start messing things up.

And the one thing about Auntie-S is that when you go there for a light lunch, you end up coming back a lot heavier than when you arrived. Her lunches are sugoi! Always lots of yummy food - hand-made and much sourced from her own garden as well! And L-kun loves Auntie-S a lot (coz she just lavishes attention on to him).

That's a lot of work Auntie-S... arigatou!

PS - and now we have twin cousins as well... things are getting busy!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Night Stories of Susukino in Sapporo During Summer

13th August, 2010 - I thought I'd add a new post with just a few more photos from the evening... starting off with some good old fashioned neon. There's something about Japan and neon. Like BBQs and snags (Aussie vernacular for sausages), or Kath and Kim (another Aussie-ism). Can't imagine one without the other. Neon signs beyond anything else perhaps let you know that you're in the heart of a big Japanese city.

Tankuki-koji is one of the main shopping malls in Sapporo that runs parallel to Odori Koen and goes for about half a dozen blocks or more. It's also a must visit if you've got more than an afternoon in Sapporo. Lots of little shops to visit.

A haircut anyone - not sure why the barber's pole... but the Japanese love symbols. Especially ones that have a somewhat hypnotic feel. Then again, it's amazing what sorts of things - or people - you'll bump into when travelling....

As an example....we were all heading to the izakaya when we came across a young asian woman with a rather large suitcase, looking obviously lost. Well, needless to say we all decided to help her find her hotel. Not so easy as you might think - even with a bunch of smart-phones at the ready when the address was wrong. That wasn't the interesting part though - turns out the girl was from Australia. In fact Adelaide of all places. Not only Adelaide, but only about 5km from where we live... not that we knew each other of course. Adelaide's a bit bigger than that. She was over in Sapporo attending a Christian mission, and whilst we didn't talk long, it was amazing to think of a young person packing their suitcases for the great unknown for their faith alone. There's a lot of people that do however, and hats off to them. Not that Sapporo was quite the deepest darkest Africa (no offence to any Africans). I hope she had a good time in Sapporo.

It was also about that time that we came across this little Buddha, perched high atop one of the buildings. I'm sure T-chan's friend told me some incredible story at the time - but the reality is a little less mysterious. The shop below sells Buddhist religious items such as Butsudan - or Buddhist prayer alters for the home. Just in case, they also sell Shinto items for good measure - part of the complex fabric of Japanese life.

And speaking of symbols - you couldn't get any more a culinary symbol of Sapporo than a GIANT CRAB! Yes, kani is well worth trying in Sapporo - so fresh and delish. Not quite a staple in Hokkaido, but not far off either. It really is a seafood delight. Of course - if crabs really grew this big, that might be a different matter. 

The Japanese are renowned in the West for their desire to change - to always be re-inventing themselves. Actually, this is not entirely correct. Or at least not the entire picture. There's a strong element of resistance to change in Japan (Ok - that might not surprise people). But what might surprise people is the extent to which individuals feel empowered to fight development. I'll talk a bit later about Narita Airport (the most startling example of this)... but for now, we see yet another example of progress enveloping, but not destroying, the past in Japan.

Now there are a few things that are odd about Sapporo - for example - why you stick a ferris wheel on top of a building - or why, oh why, do you stick a great big clock in the middle of a busy intersection. I can't quite imagine checking my watch for correct time as I'm driving through... oh, and trying not to hit any other cars or pedestrians whilst I was at it. This is the same Nikka corner that I mentioned in the previous post. I seemed to spend a fair bit of time around here....though I might hasten - not for the food. In Japan, McDonalds is known as Ma-ku-do,  or Ma-ku-do-nal-do (very South American sounding... think Ronaldo). That's not the only thing that's a little different. For example - try getting an ebi (prawn) burger in Australia, or having green tea. If you're ever stuck for an idea of what to eat in Japan - don't be too embarrassed or insecure about going to McDonalds... it's a perfectly valid cultural experience. Every now and again.

And for evidence that McDonald's isn't quite the universal constant that everyone thinks... let's just have a quick look at some of their Japanese advertising. Not quite what we're used to here anyhow.

And I mentioned the famous Nikka corner... well, I suppose it's also rightfully known as the Kirin corner. Depends on whether you're a beer person or a spirits person. Not sure what you call it if you're both (or don't drink alcohol). This is looking away from the clock in the middle of the road...

And Japan is a beer country - they have a number of mega-brands. Asahi is one of the more well known ones, though not my go-to-beer if I have a choice. The fact that in the heart of Susukino, Sapporo, their signs are written more in English says more, perhaps, about the investment opportunities they see for their beer than anything else - that and that Japanese actually love to appear international.

And as is often the way of things - we ended up back a Tanukikoji....where we had started. There's an underground shopping district (see the stairs going down) that heads to Odori Koen, and is known simply as Pole Town. Not a pole in sight however... but it's a good place to shop if your in Sapporo. The shops may have closed at this time however, but there was still plenty of life in the city.

And so all good things must come to an end. At midnight (around the time of the last subway from Odori station), it wasn't quite as deserted as this photo makes out. Indeed, the last subway is always a bit popular. And you'll find plenty of people that have had just a little too much good cheer during the preceding hours. But people pretty well keep to themselves, and behave remarkably well considering. In fact, I've never felt unsafe at all in Sapporo at night - though I have to admit that my wife has may stories of coming across MANY unsavoury characters on her way home from the train/subway at night. Being a single woman at night in Japan is not always quite so safe or pleasant... but that's another story.

The Night Out Continues... Cocktails and Cake

13th August, 2010 - After a great meal at the rather "themed" izakaya, none of us were quite ready to call it a night, so we headed around to a small little bar that sits on the famous Nikka Susukino corner... if you've been in Sapporo at night, you'll know which corner I'm talking about.

The bar is called....well, to be honest we can't remember what the bar was called. T-chan's friend knew about it, and we were happy to follow along. When (and if) we remember we'll post an update. It was fashionable however - and I might add - a very popular bar, and indeed we were lucky to get a seat. We think it was called Doa or Door or something like that...

You can tell it was fashionable as for some reason they had a thing for chain-mail curtains. A decidedly odd choice I might add, but a good opportunity to try out some chain-bokeh, and manual focus fun.

Ok... now the photo below is meant purely to demonstrate one thing - T-chan's best friend is very much single, so if you're living in or around Sapporo and you'd like to meet a wonderful, intelligent, attractive and very funny Japanese woman... well... drop us a line. [only great guys need apply!]. Ok - my wife's almost certainly going to kill me for that.

And just so you know - this is not my drink. I had a whisky... maybe a triple. On the rocks - and I mean rocks. I scooped a handful of them off the road on the way to the bar. Delicious. And not at all cocktail-ish. Actually, this was my wife's drink... or was it her friends?

And yet another drink that wasn't mine... not sure why I didn't take any photos of more manly drinks... er... perhaps I did, but by that time they were all a little blurry... much like my head.

And it wouldn't be a good Japanese bar if you didn't have something to nibble on... 

And the good thing about this sort of bar is that you can quite happily enjoy a dessert with your drink. Not frowned upon at all in Japan... however, I can't imagine strolling into a bar back at home and ordering a mixed cake platter....And this was a great little assorted platter here! Yummy.... but expensive. I can't remember just how much this was, but I know it wasn't cheap. The good (and bad) thing about alcohol is that your judgement about money can be a little altered... and things start seeming much more reasonable after a few drinks.

In fact I was so happy... with my whisky that I had another go at the old chain-bokeh....*hic*... no seriously, this is exactly what I meant to do. Actually, I thought then that we often don't intentionally de-focus our images. Not sure this is a wonder for anyone else but me, but I kinda like that raw 70's noir look to it.

Now - perhaps just one more whisky....

To find the famous Susukino corner, just head down Sapporo Ekimae Dori... you can't miss it. The bar is on the 2nd floor of the Susukino building itself... I think. Good luck. Just look for the chain-mail curtains!
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Friday, November 18, 2011

Izakaya Dining Through Time In Sapporo

13th August, 2010 - One of the fun times we have whenever we go back to Sapporo is when catch up with my wife's best friend, T2-chan. We always try to find somewhere a little different to go. Of course, Sapporo's well known in Japan for having some of the tastiest food... comes from the beautiful farm lands, and wonderful seafood. So dining out in Sapporo's always pretty good. This night we certainly found an interesting new izakaya to eat at - good food, but so much more into the bargain.

Cultural note: izakaya are a Japanese equivalent of a pub, where people go to eat, drink and be merry. It's often associated with the purchase of lots of small tapas style dishes that are shared around amongst the group. They can often be quite raucous affairs, but there's a growing trend for more upmarket izakaya as well for smaller groups and dates.

First thing - off to Suskino. Sapporo's night-time entertainment heart. And if you're a young adventurous guy, this is also the seedy part of the city. At least at night (during the day it's unrecognisable). As for me... No longer young - and was I ever adventurous? Still, there's plenty to do here - and eating's one of those things. 

Head to the Hikaru Building - the one with great big Sapporo beer STAR sign, and find an elevator to the 8th floor.

The place we were visiting is called : "Yume ya kyou koi shizuku"... a bit of a mouthful and is hard to translate into English... one translation might be the Falling Dreams of Kyoto Koi Restaurant. Even my wife doesn't know exactly the best way to translate. This is part izakaya, part historical wonderland... as you leave the elevator, and are greeted by a torii walkway, you know you're in for an interesting dining experience.

Inside there's a range of different dining rooms, each leading off a nice open space, with it's own faux bridge... of course. We selected one of the booths.... my stomach had already been alerted by my eyes that it was time to get ready. Juices started flowing.

It may not be quite an authentic edo-era izakaya... but you can at least feel like your definitely in Japan. Even if it's a post-card version.

The menu is very Japanese, and a combination of some more exotic dishes, and some classic izakaya fare. And the good thing is that they cater for English speakers as well. I wouldn't say that this is a tourist-specific place however - so you don't need to worry about hammy-ninja's flying out from holes above your head. It's targetted more as a date-spot than a tourist trap.

Here's just a few of the dishes we selected... yaki-mentaiko (grilled spicy tarako)... tarako is salted roe or fish eggs. This was for me the stand-out surprise for the night... it was really delicious. There was a hint of citrus/lime in the accompanying relish. Really complimented the dish.

We also went some old favourites - chicken was the theme... and whilst the teryaki-style chicken would be familiar... but perhaps people would be much less familiar with nankotsu. My wife calls it "chicken bones"... which may not sound overly appealing, but it's not really bones at all. It's actually chicken cartilage. Ok about now you might be thinking that doesn't sound that appealing either. But this is deep-fried nankotsu karaage, and it's my must-have dish whenever I visit an izakaya. If you haven't had the pleasure, ask for it next time you can. I just wish I could buy it here in Adelaide.

Another dish that we love, that my wife introduced me to, is gyutan or beef tongue. Ten years ago I would never have eaten beef tongue. I was quite a sensitive young man.... ?;-)  Now whilst we love gyutan a lot, I have to say this was the one dish that disappointed during the evening. Really too thick, and there's one thing about eating tongue, if you eat a big chunk it's pretty well like you might expect it to be. Chewy. Apart from the thickness of the cut, the taste was nice. Zannen! What a shame.

For something a little lighter, we tried some tempura vegetables as well.

And  yaki-soba, or grilled soba noodles. A balanced meal.

So we had a great evening... though this was just the start of the night out. My wife T-chan and I always enjoy our evening escapes into Sapporo when we get the chance. And this is where my lovely wife makes a cameo performance... her hair isn't quite as camera-shy as the rest of her!

And this izakaya was a good evening out. Food wise it definitely wasn't the best we've had, but for an overall experience (something different) it more than met our hopes. If you're a tourist in Sapporo, and you'd like to visit a more stylised izakaya then I'd definitely recommend this one. 

Prices weren't excessive, with dishes costing around 300-700yen typically... so a night out for a group of three might come up to 3-4,000 yen per person (if you don't drink much that is). Still, you get to enjoy the ambience of the place for free...

Sapporo Central South West 3-1-1 4 3, Hikaru Bldg, 8F
Tel: 011-522-1650
Opening hours: 5pm to 11:30pm

View Sapporo Map in a larger map

We'd love to hear any dining experiences you've had in Sapporo... so drop us a line, or leave a comment!

This is my submission for the November's Japingu J-Festa Theme... it's been a little longer than expected between contributions! Enjoy the other contributions when it goes live, and check out some of the older themes.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sapporo's Mighty Beer Festival of Beery Delights

13th August, 2010 - Now the one thing about Japan is that they love to drink. And I mean drink. Yet for all that you rarely evidence of drunken violence or aggression. Unconscious salary-men that didn't make it home from "working late" the night before yes. Hooligans no.

The one thing about Sapporo is that come summer-time, it's also the home of the Beer Festival. What was that I hear you ask. I know that the Japanese love festivals... but one dedicated to beer? Where do I sign up? Well... not only is it a festival (of sorts), but it's also a month long. And it's epicentre is right smack bang in the middle of Odori Koen in the city centre.  Now I had gone with Otousan (and the rest of the family) into the city with the thought that we'd share a few drinks whilst my wife and Okaasan did some shopping. I had brought in my camera gear thinking that I'd take some nice shots of the park and of the beer tents. Indeed each of the major Japanese brewers has a large open air tent, or Odori Beer Garden, situated in the long Odori Koen where you can find beer and food ready to be sampled.

Before I had managed to even warm up the camera, otousan and I had found ourselves ensconced in the Sapporo Beer Tent... pitchers in hand. Well... I'll have just the one - not to be rude. I did have serious photos to be taking after all. And food to be eating (though a word of warning - the food is best consumed after copious amounts of alcohol, as it was definitely not up to usual Japanese fare). 

Speaking of copious amounts of alcohol.... we quickly set about improving our appetite. And tried our hand at making good old, "half and half" - half standard half dark ale. This is of course also known as black and tan... or just a ripping good drink. Though for the two of us, we seemed to be ordering one for the table too. The table became our instant best friend. 

Mental note - after having consumed large amounts of alcohol, expect to be deleting most anything you took a photo of. And for crying out loud - don't give your DSLR to the waitress whose idea of a camera sits on her phone and expect a good picture. Life's lessons.

Actually - beer is a good socialiser. There's no doubt about that. And there's things that can be talked about that often never otherwise find a place in the conversation. I heard a lot more about otousan's youth, and we  were able just to chew the fat. However - all good things must come to an end. And we had our wives to meet. Somewhere. Courageously we made a move... to find the next nearest stationary object (a park bench) upon which to wait. Looking ever so much like we hadn't just downed half a bathtub of beer each.

And we waited... and waited. I am sure at this point, we were wondering if there was enough time to head back for just one more, when T-chan and okaasan arrived with L-kun. I suspect that when T-chan took the above photo that she was already smelling us (from 100 paces).

It was however a very nice day. Hot (like a good summers day should be). And designed perfectly for drinking beer. Even if your thoughts of capturing it in pixels didn't quite go to plan. By the way - it may be a festival, but the beer and food is not cheap cheap. It is however abundant - although I understand that there's been a drive to constrain the festival more and more... now with the last drinks sold at around 10pm. Well... I do suppose you have a whole month or so to come back and fill up with more.... The dates around the 20th July through to the 20th August (or thereabouts). Check tourist info for more precise dates.

Alas - my time in Sapporo was coming to an end... again. But I will always remember that afternoon fondly. Arigatou otousan!