Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Japanese Traffic Stop: Who needs patrol cars anyway?

One of the most unique occurrences I bore witness to happened within my first month in Japan. I was returning home from my local ward office (kind of like a town hall) after obtaining my foreigner registration card, and I could not believe what unfolded right before my very eyes.

Just blocks from the ward office, the Tempaku Police Station sits just off of a divided highway, not unlike county highways in the States, but this stretch of road had several intersections with traffic lights. The station sits squarely between two such intersections.

As I approached the block that housed the station, I noticed a group of officers standing roadside with tall poles. The light changed green and traffic began to stream past the station. Suddenly, the last car through the light was met with a pole in front and behind, and the officers directed the driver to pull onto the side street where another car was stopped.

It was unclear whether it was a routine random sweep or perhaps the officers were gunning for a quota, but I also wonder if the driver ran a close light and got the short end of the deal. Both of the drivers of the detoured vehicles seemed rather annoyed by the inconvenience of this. I, however, was rather entertained at the sheer outlandishness of this style of traffic stop. Well, it sure left me wary of the Japanese po-po. More power to them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Endings are only new beginnings

As you might have inferred from my lack of posts this last month, I am no longer in Japan.

Alone, the natural forces behind the disaster in Japan would not have jeopardized our stay. The uncertainties over the stability of the Fukushima nuclear plant, however, were of enough concern that our program made the decision to withdraw us from our schools, a decision that quickly followed the same announcement by IES Abroad (one of the biggest study abroad programs).

Our early return was arranged in conjunction with our program insurance, and our departments have been working very hard to arrange for the correct appropriation of credit where it is due.

Our withdrawal was abrupt, but I had been anticipating the worst. I was determined to stay unless UW made the call to withdraw us.

The day the verdict was made I woke up around 2:30am with a coughing fit, finding it difficult to breathe due to a sinus infection. Not five minutes later did I realize my notification light on my phone begin to blink at me. I opened the phone to find a message from Jasmine, an IES student. She had just received her withdrawal notice from the program and was devastated. I assured her it was probably only a matter of time before we too would be withdrawn.

Not even an hour later and I got an email from Melissa back in the states. She had seen the news first and apologized. I soon got Facebook notifications from a few other friends with ties to the Japanese department, also empathizing for our situation. I shot a message to Erik to see what the official email said and he was quick to call me back. He shared the contact info for the insurance company, and I made the call right away.

The operator took my information and set me up for a flight the following morning, giving me just over 24 hours to pack and run errands and close important accounts.

My host family (including my host-sister's family who was visiting) was very saddened by the news, but understood the situation. They made it clear that was welcome back at any time, even just dropping by without notice. I wasn't surprised because they had been quite generous to me throughout my whole stay.

I departed that Saturday morning from Nagoya's Centrair Airport, transferring at Tokyo's Narita Airport, and arrived at O'hare Int'l on Saturday morning (irrefutably the longest Saturday of my life). I teared up during both takeoffs, thinking of all of the lost opportunities I had been looking forward to in the following two months. I quickly regained my composure and thought of all of the people anxiously awaiting my return.

The whole experience has been unforgettable, and it's something I am grateful for. I look forward to the time I return to Japan to finally experience the spring sakura blossoms in Kyoto and visit other important cities I had yet to visit.

I won't be back until after I graduate next May, but I guarantee I will make my return.

What will become of this blog you might ask. Well, my blog has not reached the end of its evolution, so I will continue to write about several topics regarding Japan in general. Your continued readership would be utmost appreciated.

In sad farewells and sayonaras there is a glimmer of when we will meet again. Until then, Japan.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Experiencing the earthquake from Nagoya

When I came to Japan, I had anticipated experiencing an earthquake. It's something one should expect when planning a long term stay in one of the earth's most seismically active countries.

Despite expectations, it wasn't until several months into my stay that I first became aware of some tremors early one morning. It was mild, so I was excited to be able to say I had experienced it. Things were quiet for several weeks, and then the disaster in Christchurch, New Zealand occurred. It immediately brought about recollections of how unexpected and disastrous earthquakes can be.

A couple of weeks back I awoke in the early morning to a couple tremors, but I was much more uneasy about it and did not sleep well for several says following. My fear of vulnerability gripped me, convincing me that when I am most vulnerable and helpless is the time I am asleep.

Things calmed again, and life resumed its regular pace. People around me were unfazed.

Friday afternoon came. I finished my assignment early and left class to head to the campus computer lab. No sooner had I sat down and turned the computer one when I felt a tension in my neck. My body seemed to be pulsing, much as if I had sprinted up some flights of stairs, but a bit more pronounced than I was used to. My first thought was that something was wrong with me. I let my neck roll with the tug I felt, but there was a momentum that wouldn't have allowed the roll to stop involuntarily.

I peered up over my computer screen to see a girl to the front of the lab peering wide-eyed back at the rest of the lab. The standing speaker behind her was swaying lazily. The 15 or so students in the lab all looked concernedly around at each other as the floor beneath us seemed to lose stability. The window blinds swayed inward and back into the glass pane. One girl made the move to duck under the desk, while I opted to walk outside.

From the strange sense of instability until full realization of what was occurring about 20 seconds had elapsed. By 40 seconds in, I opted to make the move to go outside. The swaying of the six story concrete building lasted for a good minute, and by the time I had moved outside everything had calmed, save for the eerie atmosphere and silent tension among onlookers. Alexa had been outside the buildings and said the swaying was quite noticeable. Another friend, Jasmine had been walking to the train station when she felt like she had a dizzy spell and couldn't figure out why she couldn't walk straight.

When I resumed my spot in the lab, I immediately checked for updates. My go-to source throughout the past few days has been Twitter of all things. The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) feeds earthquake updates through @earthquake_jp. The first update I came across listed a magnitude 7.9 quake off of the shore by Iwate-ken. Shortly following, a manual message from the account popped up, unusual because it usually runs off a feed. The message explained that the JMA servers had not been able to fully process the information, and that another earthquake had occurred in Hyogo to the south, magnitude 4.5.

I was unsure of which earthquake Nagoya would have caught the crossfire from, since Hyogo is much closer than Sendai. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) indicated that it was actually magnitude 8.8, many times stronger than a 7.9 (and it now stands at a 9.0 classification following further analysis). The news highlighted the length of the fault off the east coast of Japan, and it became quite clear that we had felt the quake from the east.

Continuing to observe the hourly quakes on both sides of the island in addition to the nuclear plant situation is considerably concerning. Definitely plenty enough to retrigger thoughts on existentialism and how quickly everything one knows can disappear.

Please consider contributing a little to charity to help Japan rebuild the towns and livelihoods of the people affected by this disaster.

Canadian Red Cross

American Red Cross

Doctors without Borders

The Salvation Army


Global Living



Canada: Text REDCROSS to 30333 to donate $10
USA: Text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10
Ireland: Text REDCROSS to 57500 to donate €5

Friday, March 4, 2011

W the Japan, W the Fun

With my recent spree of rant posts, I feel the need to lighten things up a bit (just in case more ranting will ensue in the near future). It took me several months before I recognized a perfect example of Japanese innovation (?) with incorporating English into daily life.

In the conbinis (convenience stores) I often saw bags of chips plastered with a giant ‘W’ usually accompanied by a phrase in Japanese about there being more flavor or more volume. I just thought it was something strange that became more widely recognized as meaning “MORE!”

It wasn’t until I saw a TV commercial a few weeks back that I realized exactly what it meant, and it’s easy to infer why.

‘W’ is generally pronounced in English as “double-u” (unless you’re George “Dubbya” Bush). Instead of “double-u,” the Japanese came to understand it as “daburu,” which sounds like the Japanese pronunciation of the English word “double.”

So those extra delicious, almost American size chip bags aren’t just more flavor and/or more volume. They are double!

I only realized this after seeing a commercial for laundry detergent where the only thing the lady says while holding the bottle emblazoned with a ‘W’ is, “Daburu.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Hokkaido Trip Day 3: Yuki Matsuri/Snow Festival

The opening day for Sapporo’s widely known Yuki Matsuri came upon us quickly. We headed out around 8:30 am, not realizing that the festivities didn’t start till around 11:00.

The main festival grounds at Odori Park were about a 15 minute walk straight up the street from our hotel. On the way we quickly met with one of my former co-worker’s two sisters who live in Hokkaido. It really makes the world seem a lot smaller by being able to almost spontaneously meet relatives of good friends from half way around the world.

When we reached Odori Park we took a few photos of the large snow sculptures closest to the TV tower. We then decided to head up to the souvenir shop on in the tower, which is as high as you can go without paying admission. After loading up on a few gifts and locally limited snacks, we headed below ground for a quick breakfast at a bakery and ran into Aya, a friend who studied abroad at UW two years ago. Our encounter was very brief due to Aya having a very important presentation, but she made the trip into town on very short notice especially just to see us.

When we later surfaced from the underground mall, we began working our way up the long park. I regretted not having a better lens than just the standard for when we were watching the snowboard ramp. I could have stayed there all day jamming to Japanese punk rock, but it was chilly and we still had plenty to see.

There are several types of sculptures at the festival. The six main attractions are the massive and complex sculptures that make up the backdrops for the stages. The smaller snow sculptures vary from company sponsored advertisements to contest entries. There is a sculpture contest, and teams come from all around the world to give their best shot at sculpting. There were many works-in-progress since it was still the beginning of the festival. It was really cool to see ideas jump from small paper sketches to large and lifelike melt-able art. The road leading to our hotel was the setting for sculptures carved from ice.

Alexa and Melinda made an earnest effort to be interviewed on Japanese television, lowering their hoods and flashing their blonde hair, but the cameraman and interviewer practically ran in the other direction when the girls tried cornering them. Erik and I, however, participated in a short interview a little later for a documentary piece being put together by a man from Nagoya who now lives in Los Angeles. We were told it should be on Youtube by June.

When we had walked about half the length of the park (which is several blocks in length), the sky spontaneously burst forth snow that created white out conditions in merely minutes. We decided then was as good as any time for lunch, and headed to the station to find a ramen shop recommended by our friend Mike who had studied in Hokkaido last year. Ramen is a Sapporo specialty, so we figured with a recommendation from someone who wrote a ramen blog for a school project we couldn’t go wrong.

We headed to Sapporo station in search of Ichi Ryuan for their Genki no deru miso ramen (translated: makes you healthy/energetic miso flavored ramen). The restaurant was in the basement level of a building just outside Sapporo station, and when we arrived there was already a line out the door. The wait ended up being about 40 minutes, but they took our order ahead of time so we could eat soon after being seated. The shop was quite small with only three tables and a lunch bar. The ramen was definitely worth the wait. It was the perfect thing to get me warmed up from the inside and geared up for more strolling in the show.

We then returned to the park and picked up where we left off, the snow having now dissipated. With the departure of the snow, however, the temperature took a dive and made our journey a bit uncomfortable. We ran into a sign for free coffee service at the church across from the park, and took the opportunity to warm up inside. The people operating the coffee service didn’t make an effort to talk to us much because they thought we probably couldn’t speak Japanese, but we snickered over our coffee and chocolates while listening to them debate trying to talk to us. The girls wrote a message in their festival guest book, so they probably realized afterwards that we understood what they were talking about. The coffee was tasty.

We left after they took down the sign since they seemed to be finishing up. By then we had seen all of the Odori features during daylight and wanted to wait for after sunset when the large sculptures get lit up. To waste a bit of time we headed to Don Quijote’s, a popular chain store filled with pretty much everything strange and entertaining. After sunset, we headed back to the park and snapped photos of the lit up sculptures.

On our way back to the hotel, we swung by all the ice sculptures for some photos. We had initially planned to go to the Kirin Beer Garden for dinner, but upon viewing the prices on the menu inside the lobby we opted to run right back out the door. We consulted the front desk at the hotel (who could imagine an inanimate object would be so informative) and found a nearby izakaya (seated bar and grill). The nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) and grill specialty skewered meat sticks were a much more affordable and ultimately fun way to end our trip.

After returning to the hotel we got caught up in philosophical conversation (well, as philosophical as you can get while drunk and with Alexa donning her new Rilakkuma pajamas) till the wee hours of the morning, leaving little time for sleep before our early departure for the airport. I doubt any of us regrets it.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Failure of Priorities: Examining Japanese news

As a student of journalism, I have a tendency to analyze news critically. What I observed yesterday on the evening news frustrated me greatly.

First, ask yourself what news journalism’s primary purpose is (or is supposed to be). Hopefully you will realize that conveying important and relevant information in an objective manner is what news should ideally be. Relevance is relative to audience, whether local or national, etc. Already you’ve probably started realizing the failures of your own “news” organizations, and I strongly suggest not forgetting that.

News broadcasts in Japan have proven to be no different than broadcasts back home in the sense that their priorities are quite off. What adds to the frustration is that time allotted for news broadcasts here are significantly less than back in the states, making that time even more valuable.

Instead of spending that time wisely, last night NHK spent the first 15 minutes out of the 30 minute broadcast on a single story of cheating on a college entrance exam.
College entry in Japan is quite challenging and thus highly esteemed. Preparations for the test consume countless hours of high school students’ time. It is often the cause for a lot of anguish. Performance on exams is the key to getting into one’s college of choice, and many jobs hire only students from the top colleges in Japan.

Yesterday’s coverage involved an isolated incident of one student cheating. Online evidence showed that a student had been using a cellular phone to ask questions on the Japanese version of Yahoo Answers. The news detailed exact times when questions and replies were posted, emphasizing that it had all occurred during the exam time.
This type of coverage serves little purpose for most of its viewers other than sensationalizing an event for entertainment or a topic of conversation. It could possibly be intended to pummel fear into students to prevent attempts at teaching. Does it really require broadcasting on national television taking up precious news real estate?

Following the exam incident coverage, a very short mention of Bahrain was given, but I caught no update on the situation in Libya. The remainder of the broadcast was dedicated to the daily update on New Zealand, primarily centric on the fact that there are several Japanese people still missing and their families travelled to New Zealand to assist in the search.

I look forward to going back home so I can observe whether our news is so centric only on elements related to America when natural disasters occur. Japanese coverage has been almost entirely on elements related to Japan.

There is little to no competition among news corporations on local broadcasting from my observations. However, my host family has less than ten channels via analogue. News broadcasts seem to be limited to NHK. Therefore, ratings seem to be little incentive for sensationalized stories. Still, news in Japan needs to reassign its priorities (and certainly back in the states as well).

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The problem of Shouganai: What can be done?

Shouganai is a widely used phrase in Japan, but the philosophy behind it goes much deeper, embedded at the very core of the society. Erik recently wrote to great extent about this phrase over at his travel journal. I also have come to feel the desire to examine the phenomenon of shouganai.

Shouganai (しょうがない) is actually a shortened or slurred way of saying shiyou ga nai. Directly translated, shiyou ga nai means, “there is no way of doing/going.” It is used interchangeably with shikata ga nai, which translates identically.

The idea of “it can’t be helped” or “nothing can be done” isn’t distinctly a Japanese idea. Americans like me occasionally encounter situations that we have no way of handling the outcome. The difference is that Americans don’t live their lives by this continual acceptance of defeat and helplessness. I like to think that I take great interest in the direction of my life and enthusiastically put forth the effort to ensure that I’m headed in a favorable direction.

The problem of shouganai is so deeply ingrained into the very fiber of Japanese society. There is an understandable degree of shouganai toward being nonintrusive to others, but by my observation Japanese people allow their acceptance of situations go far beyond just being considerate to a point where it’s self degrading.

Japanese society has created a tense atmosphere where the expression of opinions contrary to the popularly accepted (in other words, the first expressed idea unconsciously absorbed and allowed to take precedence) views is looked upon unfavorably. Even with the chance that a new opinion would be seen more favorable than the presently existing view, the idea of shouganai suppresses the desire to allow that opinion to be suppressed. One fears being stigmatized if they express their ideas.

Even worse, the response of shouganai is met with agreements and praise. I hate using the expression, but when I do my dislike for it is only strengthened when the Japanese listeners respond with, “Oh, you understand shouganai well. Good for you!” The same goes for responses to Japanese people, “That’s right; there’s nothing that can be done about the situation.”

There comes a point where one questions whether people are just too lazy to put any effort into improving situations and outcomes. Surely not everything in their life is the result of things unrelated to their own doing. Japanese people need to take the reins and recognize the outcomes of their efforts and either accept that it is good or accept it as a self failure and quit relying on the umbrella of “things are out of my hands.”

Granted, there are some situations where shouganai is appropriate in meaning, such as the weather, but the feeling behind it is still overwhelmingly like the emotions of a beached whale (I don’t like that such a metaphor popped into my head, but it seemed to sum things up most, and not to mention the irony of comparing Japanese people to whales… but that’s another story).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

It’s not a cold!: On colds, flu, hygiene, sanitation in Japan

There are many discrepancies in the Japanese language that I have become aware of since being here, whether it’s words with double, conflicting meanings, or just plain lack of clarity. One of the hardest to discern happens to be kaze, what we are taught to understand as a cold.

You would think that clarity in medical terms would be important. The word either has a broader meaning than cold, or there is something strangely different about the medical understanding of a cold in Japan.

A cold, as I have grown up to understand it, is a respiratory problem. Sinuses stuffed, cough and/or runny nose? That right there is a cold. In Japan, however, the term kaze is also used to diagnose digestive symptoms like diarrhea.
With some of the strange explanations from Japanese medical professionals I’ve heard vicariously, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Japanese perspective of a cold greatly differs from the west. Kaze could be more accurately compared to the non-technical phrases like “caught a bug.” It seems to be much more encompassing than just a respiratory cold.

A couple times a week, it seems, I overhear the phrase “choushi warui” being exchanged between my host parents. It’s basically a shrouded statement, “My condition is bad,” most commonly used with reference to digestion. You can almost always assume it means, “I’m irregular.” What immediately follows without fail is the comment, “I hope it’s not a cold.”

Let me quickly give an example of what I have heard.

Host dad: “My condition was bad this morning, but I got better throughout the day. I’m glad it’s not a cold.”

I have never connected a cold with excremental problems, and I doubt I will ever be convinced of that. I can say by simple observation that any problems with digestion are not likely caused by a cold, rather food preparation and sanitation if anything. Leftovers at my homestay do not get packaged up and refrigerated. They get placed in a covered pot on the stove or lightly draped with a sheet of saran wrap on the table and left to sit overnight. The lack of dish soap usage is concerning (it’s there, please use it). Not to mention the handling of meat products… and wooden cutting boards. [I often drizzle some dishsoap on the scrubber when my host parents aren't around to feel a bit more comfortable]

Several weeks ago Alexa came down with a fever. My host mom’s reaction was immediately that it must be a cold. When Alexa went to the clinic, however, she tested negative for influenza. She was told it was probably still influenza, but that it probably “hadn’t reached” her nose where they tested. What?! Something seems a bit wonky to me, and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that.

Japan’s solution to influenza and colds is wearing a facemask. I’m more than skeptical on the true effectiveness of a piece of paper preventing contraction of germs or a virus. At least it’s something, but there are other factors to Japan that I find to be blatantly ignorant.

Proximity is probably the biggest problem Japan has when it comes to spreading sickness. Population is dense, and a huge portion of the population relies on public transport for their daily commute. Said public transport is a deathtrap, being crammed shoulder to shoulder and breathing the same air stuck in an underground, enclosed train car. There was even a news feature recently along the lines of “Ride bus = Get influenza!” They recognize it too.

It’s true that many people do not wash their hands after using the restroom, but as a person who absolutely does, I am often struck clueless as to the unavailability of soap in many public restrooms. If soap is available, it’s quite watery to the point where one might assume it’s been diluted. Not to mention that sinks do not produce warm water almost anywhere. Often there are air driers for some peoples’ cold rinsed hands, but in some places there are none. Automatic air driers are a good step in the sanitary direction, but often it is expected that people carry their own handkerchiefs for drying their hands, if they feel like rinsing them that is.

The common advice for preventing colds and flu? This gets even more frustrating.
• Wash hands
• Gargle
• Wear a mask

I’ve already expressed my lack of confidence in masks and the complications for accomplishing a real hand washing, but gargling? Gargling is going to do nothing against those pesky germs and viruses out to get all of us. It just doesn’t make sense. It often feels that the Japanese are living under this veil of illusionment, but no one is going to speak out about things because that is just the way they are and expressing one’s own view is not commonly accepted.

It’s almost just as silly as being warned that if you only take a shower and not follow it up with a bath you’re going to catch a cold. Come on already! Taking a bath after a shower in the near equivalent of a rickety outhouse in the middle of winter is not going to make any difference. Your body is wet either way, and it’s just plain cold. The same rule still applies during summer.

Colds are the result of germs and viruses, not skipping a bath. I’ll stick to just my shower, thanks.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hokkaido Trip Day 2: Shiroi Koibito chocolate factory, soup curry and Sapporo Beer Museum

From Shiroi Koibito
We started off our day early, looking to give ourselves time to thoroughly enjoy the few places we anticipated visiting. Top of our list was the Shiroi Koibito chocolate factory. Japan has many regionalized treats, and Hokkaido is the place to go to get Shiroi Koibito goods. Shiroi Koibito (meaning “white lover”) is most easily compared to a Milano cookie, but they do exhibit some differences. The factory/museum is very quirky, but fascinating. A lot of it is small collections of western retro goods and antiques, and the building is not at all what we had expected. There is a cost for admission, but it does come with a cookie.

After loading up on souvenirs to share with our host families and families back home, we sought out a soup curry restaurant recommended by Rebecca, our UW classmate who is studying in Sapporo. The restaurant is called Tiger Curry, and the walls are lined with tiger photos. The vibe of the joint is really relaxed and casual with mellow hip-hop playing in the background, so it was quite comfortable and not one bit uptight. You order by picking the type of dish you want from several combinations of veggies and meat, the type of broth and the strength of the spices mixed in. I ordered the kigeuma pork curry with ryuu no shiru (dragon’s broth) at spice level 2.5 (which is the highest you can go without being charged extra) out of about 5. It took a little while to prep up, but when it was finally delivered I knew just by looking that it was going to be worth the wait.

From Hokkaido
When I say worth it, however, I was not fully prepared for exactly how worth the wait it really was. It turned out to be the best tasting meal I have had in Japan, and I could not stop commenting on how utterly mind-blowingly delicious it was. The massive hunk of pork was tender and juicy, and the mix of potatoes, carrot, kabocha (pumpkin/squash) and beans took on the flavor of the broth with ease. If you are ever visiting Sapporo and need an idea for a meal, do not pass this up. Sapporo is known for its curry (almost as much as its ramen), and my experience at Tiger Curry demonstrated exactly why.

From Sapporo Beer Museum
Overflowing with satisfaction from our delicious lunch, the five of us hopped back on the train to go find the Sapporo Beer factory. Our maps showed the factory as being closest to Odori station, but please heed this warning. When we arrived we discovered that “Sapporo Factory” is actually a mall. The real factory and museum is closer to Sapporo station, but we got directions from the mall personnel and set out on the hunt once more. It turned out to be about a 20 minutes’ walk from the mall. Admission to the Sapporo Beer museum was entirely free, and the tour route ends at a large hall with a bar for trying out different Sapporo brews. One beer is 200 yen, but you can opt in for the three brew sampler for 500 yen. It doesn’t get much cheaper than that in Japan!

All in one day we were able to experience several elements of Sapporo’s reputation. Sometimes I can’t help but feel that big events overshadow some of the truer aspects of a locale, so it really proved to be to our advantage to experience Sapporo before the big festival.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hokkaido Trip Day 1: Luminaries at Otaru

With Nanzan and Keio Universities going on break, several of us students from the University of Wisconsin made plans to meet up in Sapporo, the capitol of Hokkaido (Japan’s Northern island), for the beginning of the annual Yuki Matsuri (snow festival). We came across some great deals for transportation and lodging online. Prices jump for the week of the festival, so we made the decision to go two days early and only stay three nights, through the first festival day.

From Hokkaido
There are many options for domestic transportation, ranging from inexpensive but time-costly to pricey but fast. With pressing international transaction fees and the terrible exchange rate, we have all been looking for ways to stretch our funds. Luckily, Melinda and Alexa found highly limited discounted airfare from Skymark airlines. The trick is that the discounted tickets go on sale two months before the flight date, and they sell out on the first day. We snagged flights to and from Sapporo for between 5000 and 8500 yen (~$60-100). Hostels seemed to charge more than hotels during the festival, so we booked two rooms in a business hotel for 2500-3500 yen per night.

Our flight to Hokkaido had a short layover, where we were made to get off the plane with our carry-on bags and go through a security checkpoint again, only to get back on the same plane. Ibaraki Airport, outside of Tokyo was very small and crowded, so our flight left late because not everyone could get through security quick enough since it was already backed up when we got there. When we later arrived in Hokkaido we hopped on a crowded train to Sapporo station and transferred to a subway. Our first real step into the Hokkaido climate finally came as we exited the subway station near our hotel.

The moment we surfaced we simultaneously blurted, “Holy crap. It’s winter!” The ice encrusted sidewalks, towering snow banks and biting wind chill were much more what we had all been accustomed to growing up in the Midwest.

We checked in to our hotel, but being a bit tired from our travels we all seemed to be operating on separate wave lengths. This ended up causing some confusion at the check-in counter and we ended up paying the price of three rooms, not two. We realized this after we set out for the rest of the day, but the staff corrected the mistake when we explained the mess we had created.

From Otaru
After dropping our bags off in our rooms, we set out on our mission for the day to see the luminaries in Otaru, about 30 minutes from Sapporo by train. It’s shocking how quickly short distance travel costs rack up in Japan, with our first day easily being the most expensive taking into account trains to and from the airports followed by our excursion to Otaru.

From Otaru
Cities in Hokkaido were built up more recently than Nagoya, Kyoto or Tokyo, so Sapporo and Otaru were designed around a grid system, and the buildings are much more reflective of western style with red brick and multi-paned windows. Otaru is a quaintly unique little hotspot that warrants a visit. During the Yuki Matsuri, Otaru has its own little luminary event, lighting up candles in the canal and sculpting a nighttime wonderland walkway of luminary sculptures along the old railway. The locals were very enthusiastic about the event, and everything came together beautifully.

Don't forget, more photos over here:

From Otaru