Hokkaido: Summer and its festivals

Hokkaido’s Summer Festivals

Summer, to the Japanese, means more than the humid weather and the sweltering heat.

It means FESTIVALS!

And, as mentioned in an earlier blog that was posted ( https://japanlime.wordpress.com/2014/10/27/japan-its-weather-and-seasons/ ), the festivals vary from location to location.

In Hokkaido, it is not very different. There are similar stalls selling familiar festival treats, most persons from the area or neighbouring towns come to enjoin in the festivities . . . but there are subtle differences.

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Cleanliness in the environment is always maintained!

Firstly, Hokkaido is a country that cherishes its environment and nature. Nature is very much respected and despite the occasion or the number of people there on location the area is always VERY clean.

The picture above was taken while at a festival in Kurisawa. Even though there was a lot of foot traffic, the area was spotless and free of litter and garbage.

Everyone found a bin to dispose used cups, bottles and food wrappers – and these bins were promptly emptied to avoid spillage and maintain the beauty of the festival’s location.

Furthermore, in Japan, recycling* is practised. Even at these public festivities, each individual takes the time to throw their used item in the appropriate bin assigned.

This is a behaviour and action that a lot of Trinidadians (on all levels) need to adopt. Most of the time, a sea of litter is often seen after a Trinidadian party – which, by the way, has to be cleaned by other people. But, if we all did our part, started recycling and bins are routinely cleaned; then our country would look just as a beautiful as the picture above.

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Kurisawa’s Summer Festival

Kurisawa's Summer Festival

Kurisawa’s Summer Festival

Secondly, there are more stalls selling fresh produce grown by local farmers.

Hokkaido is a country that is very proud of its agriculture and love their flowers. For example, the melons from Yubari (Hokkaido) are considered the sweetest and most desired in ALL of Japan – hence the reason why it is so expensive!

These stalls would boast a variety of goods – ranging from onions and cabbages to carrots, ochro, chile peppers and tomatoes.And the prices are a lot cheaper!

Stalls selling freshly cut flowers are also a common sight at these festivals.

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Besides the surprise that there was a Red Bull promotion at a local festival in Kurisawa, we all had bags of fresh produce purchased from the local farmers.

Thirdly, just as there were stalls selling grilled meat and beer, there were a number of stalls selling a variety of grilled vegetables… especially corn. This is similar to the corn that we purchase off the highway in Trinidad – all charred, smoky and oh so delicious. But the corn in Hokkaido is on a completely different level! Every bite is filled with a unique juicy sweetness that:

  1. It blows your mind and causes you to redefine the taste of corn!
  2. You swear that it was grown with sugar in the soil!

Even if you may not be a fan of corn, the corn in Hokkaido will definitely convert you!

Ending the festival at Kurisawa with a traditional dance that only females could partake in.

Ending the festival at Kurisawa with a traditional dance that only females could partake in.

Fourthly, each festival continues a tradition that is unique to the location. That is, the tradition in itself is the identity of the area.

For example, in Kurisawa, all of the females – both young and old – dance in a circle to the beat of the taiko drums (played by local elementary students) and the song being played. They have been doing this for generations!

The huge 'Mochi Pounder' that is used for the Iwamizawa Summer Festival.

The huge ‘Mochi Pounder’ that is used for the Iwamizawa Summer Festival.

On the other hand, for Iwamizawa’s Summer Festival, hundreds gather in the street, form long lines and hold thick long ropes that are attached to a colossal mochi pounder. Long ago, it was made from the trunk from a huge tree that was hollowed to facilitate the pounding of the mochi (glutinous rice that is pounded to flour and then used to make the mochi desserts that we are familiar in Japan’s popular desserts like ‘dango’). It is an event that the residents of Iwamizawa partake of yearly – as it bonds them with their past, reunites them with the present and creates new memories for the future.

Do you see how colossal this is?

Do you see how colossal this is?

One thing that I must say that stands out the most to me at these festivals (in all of Japan), is the fact that the teachers from elementary and junior high schools are there WORKING. They form groups with other schools and teachers in the area and patrol the festival area – ensuring that students are safe and not engaging in any illegal or bad activities.

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My Coca Cola was present at both of the festivals in Iwamizawa: the one in the city and here by the temple.

After the Iwamizawa Festival in the city, there is another festival at the Iwamizawa Temple that ends at night.

After the Iwamizawa City’s Festival, there is another festival at the Iwamizawa Temple that ends at night.

Hokkaido’s Summer Weather

As I mentioned before, the summer in Japan is hot – very hot AND humid. Luckily the summer in Hokkaido is cooler than the rest of Japan. It is hot, but definitely not as hot, humid and sticky as Tokyo ( for example). This is due to its northern location – as evidenced by the heavy snowfall it regularly receives.

Additionally, there are a lot of mosquitoes and bugs that enter your home at this time. Purchasing a bug repellant that diffuses remedies this problem. Once the seal is removed, over time, it diffuses a scent that repels bugs. It is very effective!

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The summer in Hokkaido is very short. Be sure to use it wisely!

Also, another surprise about the summer is the time of sunrise . . . about: 4:00am! You would be fooled several times upon waking up that it is after 7:00am (yes, that is how bright the sun is at that time!). So, be sure to check your clock before rushing to change your clothes and catch the bus to work – you may be too early!

Changing the curtains in the bedroom to darker ones, or investing in a sun blind for the window, would both help to ensure that you keep those extra Z’s that you so badly need to get through your coming day.

Ready for one more surprise?

The summer in Hokkaido is short – very short. About one month and a half – two if you are lucky. By the time what appears to be Autumn in Hokkaido, it is still clearly summer in the rest of Japan!

So, be sure to capitalize on your short summer in Hokkaido!

*We will talk more about recycling in Japan in another post soon!

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Japan: Its Weather and Seasons

Ask a Trinidadian which season they like the most, and they would answer either:

  1. The Dry Season.”
  2. The Rainy Season.”
  3. “Does it matter?”

YES, that’s right – we only have two seasons.

As a Trinidadian, we basically know whether we prefer the sunny weather in the first half of the year, as opposed to the wet, rainy weather that is rampant in the second half of the year. There are no shades of grey. We either prefer the heat or the cold (which to most of us here, means the rain). The topic of ‘the weather’ also seems incredibly boring to us.

But in Japan, the weather is a topic of conversation.

As Japan is a temperate country, its location presents one with the opportunity to experience all four seasons – Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Each period is usually marked by changes in the weather and the environment. These changes also dictate that certain activities, crops and food are only possible for a few months at a time. . . leading to special events to commemorate the beginning of each season.

Spring in Japan is usually highlighted by the blooming of the cherry blossom or "Sakura" trees.

Spring in Japan is usually highlighted by the blooming of the cherry blossom or “Sakura” trees.

Spring (the end of March –  start of June):

Spring is usually celebrated by friends and family meeting under the delicate pink blossoms of the Sakura tree. This is called “Hanami” – meaning “Flower viewing“.

Picnic stations are set under the blooming trees. There, many people can be seen eating either cute bentos (which are home-made) or popular street food (like takoyaki) that were purchased from nearby stands that were set up specifically for this event. While engaged in such merriment, time is taken to enjoy the view of these delicate flowers that are in bloom for such a short time.

The Japanese seem to have attached a deep meaning to the Cherry Blossom and the event of its blooming.Its significance may be tied to important life events and changes in one’s life in Japan.

Unlike Trinidad, Japan’s new school year begins at this time- around April. Government institutions also rotate their staff across different departments / locations / areas too. Seeing the cherry blossoms at this new change and part of life is what may be the key that further resonates a deeper nostalgic and sentimental feeling between cherry blossoms and the Japanese heart.

To me, it seems to represent the fragility and fleeting life of the world and the moments it is made up of. It also seems to signify renewal, or a new, fresh beginning in life.

People also use this time to clean their homes and cleanse it of bad spirits. The Setsubun Festival  celebrates this cleansing at temples all across Japan.

Although Spring lasts for a few months in the mainland of Japan, Hokkaido is different. It could last for only about a month. The viewing of the sakura is also very short – only a few days!

Scattered showers and warm days are typically experienced during Spring. This paves the way for the melting of snow and young, green shoots emerging from the once cold ground.

Preparation of fields for rice.

Preparation of fields for rice planting.

To take advantage of the rainy weather, seeds and seedlings are normally planted during this time. Some of the crops, like watermelon for example, would be ready for consumption by summer. Other crops, like rice, would be ready to be harvested by autumn.

Sorry that this is a little blurry. The Tower of Lights as seen here in Kuki’s Matsuri (Saitama) were spinning so fast! Yes, SPINNING!

Summer (June – Early September)

I remember that the first time that I was going to Japan, my Japanese teachers (who are Japanese) warned me of its summer heat. In my mind, I thought, “I am from the tropics. The heat cannot be worse than here.”

Boy. . .  was I ever so wrong!

In Trinidad, even though it is hot, there is still a lot of breeze.

Not in Japan, my friends. The air is still as the heat swells. The body automatically compensates for the absence of breeze to cool the body by cooling it itself.

Basically – you are constantly sweating.

It really is just like in the animes and manga that so many of us are fond of: the complaints of the heat, feeling like passing out, thirsty, fanning, the wearing of lighter clothes, the excursions to the beach and the pool – all in the sake of cooling oneself of the incessant heat. Even the nights are incredibly humid!

Because Japan is environmentally conscious, there is a restriction on how low one can set the temperature of their air conditioning units : 23 degrees celsius.Believe me, you would still feel very hot! That is why looking for alternate ways of cooling oneself becomes so important!

Even when you go to the malls, people distribute free bottles of water to everyone. This is because the heat is so intense during this time, that around two hundred people a year die of heat stroke in Japan!

And during this time, there is very little rain! So the heat keeps building!

As a precaution, be sure to wear caps or hats while out in the sun. Keeping hydrated is also very important during this time.

But in all of this heat, there is one thing that most people look forward to: Matsuris.

A Matsuri or festival is normally held in the local village or town one resides in. Each town has its own traditions – thus the festivals that may be held in one prefecture / county of Japan may differ greatly from each town / village there. That is why people attend so many festivals across Japan.

Carrying of the Mikoshi – a portable shrine of the local guardian – is conducted by some communities before the start of the festivities.

Although a typical matsuri in Japan takes place over two days; in actuality, its preparations start about a couple of months before.

Locals volunteer hours of their time a few times a week after school and work to make the festival a success. They are either involved in practising Taiko (playing of the large drums), cleaning of the shrine, organizing stalls and events . . . just to name a few. It is definitely a local group effort to get everything underway.

That is why on the days of the festivities, locals are so jubilant and happy – they get to see and partake the results of their hard work over so many months.

The first day is normally marked by a brief period of executing the formalities of opening the festival to the public.This is then followed by the opening of stalls and an invitation to the public to partake in its activities. The second day continues in much of the same way, but ends with all persons involved in preparations, etc. go out, drink (even more) and be merry!

                       A stall selling various masks to highlight the festival at hand.

One thing that is present at all matsuris – stalls! The myriad available at times could be astounding!

Food stalls typically offer the Japanese favourites:

  • Yakisoba – noodles quickly prepared on a grill with meat and vegetables.
  •  Edamame – blanched soy beans that are lightly salted.
  • TakoyakiBits of octopus cooked a ball of batter over special grills.
  • Yakitori – grilled pieces of meat offered on skewers.

They also offer a variety of desserts – from bananas covered in chocolate to shaved ice and taiyaki (fish shaped batter that is cooked and stuffed with anko or red bean paste, custard or cream).

There are also a lot of games that one could play. . . the most popular being goldfish or turtle scooping. These stalls are normally teaming with patrons – especially elementary school kids who want to try their best to capture an elusive goldfish or turtle.

Do not be fooled! This is harder than it appears to be! It is mostly due to the fact that the scoop itself is made of a very thin film of paper. Once it gets wet or any weight is placed on it for too long (a matter of seconds!), the paper would break and the goldfish or turtle would fall back into the pool it came from.

Chocolate covered bananas are a popular festival dessert in Japan.

            Chocolate covered bananas are a popular festival dessert in Japan.

As a Trinidadian, when I heard about this festival, its activities and the fact that most of it occurs during the night, I thought that I would be up all night taking part in everything. Imagine my utter surprise when at 10:00 pm all of the music promptly stopped, stalls closed, streets cleaned and police began patrolling the area – ensuring that no one driving or riding home was drunk (in Japan, it is illegal to ride your bicycle drunk). This was my expression: ( ‘.’ ) I was really shocked.

I was so familiar with our Trinidad nature of partying for long hours and days, that I believed that it was the same everywhere. I was speechless to see how early everything finished on both days!

And of course, people look forward to seeing ‘Hanabi’ or fireworks after the festival.

However, in smaller areas, fireworks are not always possible due to the proximity of buildings to each other. But, vast, open areas like by Tokyo Bay, annually have their summer fireworks to mark its end.

In Trinidad, schools are completely desolate. Students are home enjoying the long summer vacation that is given to them.

But, in Japan it is different. Schools are only closed for ONLY one month – August. Although there are no classes, teachers still come to school every day to prepare their lesson plans for the next semester, while students still come to school to partake in club activities!

The arrival of Autumn could be seen in the changing colours of the leaves.

      The arrival of Autumn could be seen in the changing colour of leaves.

Autumn (Late September – November)

As it gets closer to the end of September, the days get a little cooler and the sun seems to set a little earlier. The rains return once more.

Of course, as Trinidadians, we have our fair share of rain and take it a bit lightly.

But the rain in Japan is not just rain. . .most of the time, there are thunderstorms! And when I say thunderstorms, I mean storms with heavy rain, very strong winds and very, very, very loud booms of thunder followed by the cracking of lightning.

You will notice a lot of Japanese people screaming at the thunder, cowering and even not allowing anyone to leave a compound due to the thunderstorm.

This is because it really is a serious matter.

With the rain falling so heavily and lightning is everywhere, it is easy to get electrocuted or injured in some way.

Plus, the torrential downpour of rain is so much at times, that when riding your bicycle to work, you end up completely drenched. More than once has that happened to me, despite wearing a raincoat.

The following precautions and preparations should be made during this time:

  • Invest in a very good raincoat.
  • Always have an umbrella.
  • Make sure your bag is waterproof. If not, place all of the contents in your bag in a plastic bag that could fit in the bag that you are using. This would protect your stuff from getting wet and damaged.
  • Buy a good pair of rain boots or shoes that could withstand moisture.
  • Pack an extra set of clothes for changing.
  • Prepare an emergency kit at home in case electricity goes – canned items, first aid kit, bottled water (and Coca Cola!), batteries, torch lights, candles, matches, portable charger for your cellular / mobile phone.
  • Make sure that your bicycle tires are not smooth and are fully pumped with air.
  • Pack two extra small towels: one to wipe your bicycle seat and the other for you.

Preparations for the coming winter are also done in the colder parts of Japan – but that we would cover in another post.

Harvesting of rice crops, sweet potatoes, mushrooms, etc, are also done during this time. To commemorate the harvests, on the day of the Autumn Equinox, families often gather in the late afternoon and have bar-be-ques at home. This includes the roasting of vegetables and meat over an open flame.

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Snow covered trees in Iwamizawa City, Hokkaido

Winter (Late November – March)

In most of Japan, the weather is a lot cooler now and gets colder as the months pass by. Keep warm by investing in the following:

  • A scarf
  • Mittens – waterproof is best.
  • Hat
  • Heat tech – these are garments worn under your clothes to keep you warm. The store Uniqlo normally offers a wide selection of heat tech for both males and females.
  • Warmer shoes / boots with grips.
  • Small heating packs that come in a variety of sizes for your back, shoes, socks, stomach – even to just hold in your hands. Those that come with the sticky glue are to be stuck on your garments in the specific area – not on your skin! Also, please avoid falling asleep with them on as they could burn your skin! The hand held ones would not burn your skin though.
  • A winter coat / jacket
  • Sweaters
  • Finer yet warm clothes that facilitate ‘layering’ (this will be explained more in another post).
  • Portable heater (if your place does not have one or you have several large rooms and need to provide heating in more than one).

Depending on the area that you are residing in, you may need more items (like if you were living in Hokkaido) or less (living in Tokyo or Kyushuu for example). Be sure to ask people around you what are their normal preparations for winter, as well as figure out what works for you.

A thorough list of winter preparations would be presented in another post.

During this time, one would notice that the vending machines would now offer a variety of hot drinks along with their cold selections. Be sure to try the hot cocoa (very delicious and chocolatey – yum!) and corn pottage! It really warms you!

Hokkaido, the most northern point of Japan, generally has a lot of snow during winter.That is why they host a number of snow festivals – particularly in the month of February – when the snowfall is at its highest. A later article covering Hokkaido’s winter in detail will be posted soon.

Forgive me for the length of this post, but I hope that it provided you with a general insight and understanding of the weather and seasons in Japan, and how greatly it affects and guides the daily life of the Japanese people.

Winter's arrival

Winter’s arrival

A bit of Akihabara in Sapporo

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Having fun at the Pokemon Centre in Esta Plaza, Sapporo.

Mandarake, Sapporo

 

Although Hokkaido is a long way from Akihabara – the Electric Town that is heaven to many lovers of anime, manga and cosplay – it does not mean that you cannot get that Pokemon fix you most desperately need.

Surprisingly, Sapporo is home to a number of stores that are dedicated to all things for the anime / manga / cosplay otaku.

Look no further from the Sapporo train station to the Esta Plaza . One of the floors of this giant multi-tiered mall is dedicated to all things anime – from Naruto and One Piece to Pokemon. Even the games that they have for young children are adorable – especially the huge sand box that would simulate the feel of a beach and fulfill the desire to build a sandcastle in the middle of winter.

 

Another store to look out for is ‘Mandarake‘.

It is a popular chain of anime stores all across Japan – and luckily there is one in Sapporo! This store has everything for every type of otaku!

One day is definitely not enough to see all that this store could offer: original sketches from some of your animes, limited edition figurines and art, cosplay outfits as well as long lost forgotten treasures that only past generations could truly appreciate.

Need help to find a particular item in this vast store? No problem! Just ask one of the many assistants who are FULLY dressed with makeup as popular characters from anime and manga.

 

Another popular chain of stores is ‘The Village Vanguard’.

Sure, it may not be the typical anime otaku store, but you are guaranteed to find at least one thing there that appeals to the collector in you.

It is actually a quirky store that offers a lot of novelty items that are considered ‘retro’. Little toys like ‘Smurfs’ circa the 1980’s are still available here at an affordable price! This was also one store where I could find Coca Cola memorabilia as well as some funky items that you could not find anywhere else.

 

There are also some hidden stores that could be found in the underground mall of the station (which extends quite a few blocks from the station underground) that have all of those figurines, DVDs, manga and cosplay that you so desire. You just have to be patient, wear sneakers and be sure to visit a few times to be able to really see where it is. Or, you could ask some of the local persons of where to find such stores.

Usually, these stores are smaller . . .  but do not be deceived! They still offer a good variety of stuff at very good prices!

 

And on another note . . .  DO NOT DISCOUNT your local convenience store and toy store!

You would be surprised to see some of the latest anime figurines that are available for a limited time only.

 

But, if you do decide to undertake this trek in Sapporo, BE WARNED!

For a person who is not familiar with massive crowds, huge multi-tiered malls and an intricate network of closely woven malls, stores and roads with gigantic lit signs – the experience could result in sensory overload and disorientation.

Be sure to research the places that you would like to visit before going. Get maps and be sure to keep your mobile (with an installed map app) with you at all times.

Read signs! Most of the signage in Sapporo are in English.

If you do become lost, enter a nearby store, police box or reception area of the mall and ask questions. If you are still unsure, ask them to draw you a map with landmarks.

But the best way to venture out at first would be with a group or with a couple of persons who know the area. This would give you the chance to familiarize yourself with the area,the stores and offer guidance with directions to the places of your pleasing. It will also provide a support system and security if the group becomes lost.

 

So, rest assured that you could indeed find some semblance of Akihabara in Sapporo!

Iwamizawa to Abashiri

Iwamizawa to Abashiri

These beautiful pictures were taken while on a train from Iwamizawa (central of Hokkaido) to Abashiri (to the somewhat northern tip of Hokkaido).

My fatigue of the day’s work completely melted upon such beautiful images that whizzed past on the five hour train ride (one way!).

Although it is possible to take an airplane to Memanbetsu (a small town just 20 minutes away by train from Abashiri), that would have definitely saved HOURS – it definitely cannot replace the sights to be seen in a naturally beautiful and pristine country as Hokkaido.

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Sapporo Oasis

Sapporo Oasis

Our orientation for the JET Programme took place in Shinjuku.

But for those of us who were supposed to work in Hokkaido, another orientation and conference was organized for us by HAJET (Hokkaido AJET). That meant two days of training and seminars in none other than Sapporo.

Very blessed that Iwamizawa City itself is just about an hour by bus or 45 minutes by train.

Even within the city, this beautiful oasis was found in the park at the heart of Sapporo.

DSC_0031 Sapporo Oasis

First Picture – First Everything

First Picture - First Everything

Yes – I do love my Coca-Cola.

And what would be more fitting than to take a picture of my favourite size of Coca-Cola in my new apartment.

Sitting on a tatami mat and basking in the sunlight of the Japanese summer – is none other than this glorious cold can of Coca-Cola.

Truly a refreshing taste!

I wish that Trinidad had this size of Coca-Cola.
After a long, hard day or a hot day like this, somehow, the taste of this Coca-Cola just hits the spot and all troubles disappear.