Wednesday, March 21, 2012

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

I'm talking about the end of the school year here in Japan. If you're not familiar, the school year in Japan is very different from what we have in the States (and elsewhere I'm sure). There are three semesters per school year with several smaller breaks in between (the shortest being 2 weeks and the longest being 6 weeks). Comparing this to the three month summer students back home are accustomed to, these smaller breaks are probably better for retaining subject matter since your brain doesn't have much time to stuff it in a back drawer. However, having cherished these three months of bliss every year during my primary education, I can't approve of this in good conscious. Plus I think it makes the end of the year more exciting instead of, "oh, I'll be back in two weeks. whatever."

However, as a teacher, it's been pretty great. Especially in this third semester which is broken up into two parts by the winter holidays. Before the holiday break, everything was normal. After the break though, everything has been a drawn-out process of winding the semester down. The kids have review classes, then a week of tests, more review, college entrance exams, rehearsals for graduation, special assemblies, and best of all, half days! I'm not needed fore most of this which has left me to my own devices at work and early afternoons back home. Others may have similar situations, but this has been mine and is not indicative to what the average JET experiences, even in my immediate area. Some reasons may be because:
1. I have high school (whatever unique set of circumstances that entails)
2. I can hit my apartment with a rock from the school (thus I go home for lunch and NEVER COME BACK)
3. Pure luck! (Some other JETs I know have great perks, so this must be mine).

My fellow teachers are of course running around doing things but even they've been more relaxed in general just hanging out, browsing websites, reading the newspaper, or chatting. In any case, this is definitely my new favorite time of year since I can't foresee class in the blistering heat of summer and lack of air conditioning trumping this cozy, undisturbed time in the staff room.

Just to add some color, here is a picture from the aforementioned graduation ceremony.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Winter in Japan

I did a Fall in Japan post and hadn't intended to follow it up with the other seasons but here we are. I rather enjoy expressing my reactions to the seasons in Japan, because I come from a place that only knows 'hot' and 'hotter' for seasons.
Just like in fall, Japan's select winter foods, products, festivals, and clothing are everywhere. Conversations turn to heaters, kotatsus (heated table), nabemono a.k.a nabe (stew) parties, snow festivals, holidays, snowboarding and skiing, crab season, and onsens (hot springs). I've found that when activities become available for a limited time (i.e. snowboarding), it makes the activity that much more fun. Like where I'm from in Miami, we can go to the beach anytime so ironically we hardly do (sorry, that's kind of a misconception for people who don't live in Miami). But in Japan (and other places with proper seasons I suppose), the activities associated with that season become something to look forward to and gives you something to do every weekend. I'm really enjoying that aspect of having real seasons.
These pictures capture most of what I talked about above as well as typical fun in the snow stuff that I never did growing up. All except for the last two snowboarding pictures were taken around my apartment. The Japanese landscape covered in snow, especially in the countryside is breathtaking. I've excluded pictures from my trip to the Sapporo Snow Festival since I dedicated a whole post to that.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Sapporo Snow Festival

The was so excited to go to world famous Sapporo Snow Festival, known in Japan as the Yuki Matsuri. It was near the top of my things to do/places to go list during my time in Japan. I went with my bf and had plans to meet some other friends once we got up there. This is such a popular event that many JETs will most likely make their way there in early February, so it's a good time to coordinate some hang out time with friends from other prefectures.

Before arriving, I made all of my plans through Skymark airlines (a low cost domestic airline in Japan) and Rakuten Travel (great travel site in Japan since they don't require a Japanese credit card to reserve a booking). This is a huge festival so I made sure to do my research beforehand and asked others who have gone to give me some tips. This kind of preparation makes the most of trip and limits your expenses. Also, being from Miami, I was actually scared of how cold it would be on this northern most island of Japan. So I went out, bought the proper winter gear (thick socks, feather-jackets, hats, gloves, snow boots) and hoped it was enough. Thankfully, this was enough to keep me from freezing but at no point was I warm really. One day was so cold that I had to insert hot packets in my gloves and shoes which helped a lot..

This was the 63rd Yuki Matsuri and as usual, it was spread over 3 sites. The main Odori Site is where the largest snow sculptures are along with food and vendors. The Susukino Site had ice sculptures and is located in Sapporo's lively downtown district (very close to the Odori Site). And last, the Tsu Dome site is farther away and requires a shuttle bus (or a couple of train rides) to get to. This site is a family friendly place with lots of snow slides and other activities for the whole family. It took my friends and I a whole day just to cover the Odari Site for three reasons: 1.Sapporo T.V. Tower sits at one end so going up it provides a nice view of the park. 2. We wanted to see the sculptures both during the day as well as lit up at night and 3. It was so unbelievable cold that we just had to take breaks indoors every once in a while. The other two sites could both be covered done in a day.

Aside from the festival, I wanted to see more of Sapporo and Hokkaido while I was there. If you didn't think of it already, Sapporo is has a famous beer brand by the same name, so we ventured out to the Sapporo Beer Museum. I was surprised to find that it was more of a compound than just the museum. The museum portion was great. It was free to get into, not crowded, and short enough to keep your interest the whole time. In another part of the compound were the dining halls. I had read about Genghis Khan style dining being popular in Sapporo, so how much better can mounds of meat get than with some Sapporo beer? It can't. There were several halls but we happened to pick the best one - the Genghis Khan hall. The layout is that of a great medieval mead hall and the food was amazing! This dining style is all about the grill. It's a helmet-shaped, iron skillet where you drape the meat over the elevated middle portion and scatter the vegetables off to the side so they cook but not burn. Between three of us, we tried all kinds of meats, veggies, and side platters. Needless to say, we left there full and happy.

Another deviation from the snow festival was to a nearby town called Otaru. This small, coastal town is known for a beautiful snow light up they do at the same time as the Yuki Matsuri. We took a fairly inexpensive train ride (800en) that got us there in 45 minutes. Going back to what I said about preparation, my friend had talked to someone who had done some glass blowing in Otaru. Glass souvenirs are in all of the shops but without this knowledge, we never would have know that you could have this more unique experience of making your own glass souvenir. Although you need a reservation for this kind of workshop, our pretty faces got us in on the same day (It was either that or because we are gaijin (foreigners) who had that hopeful and confused puppy look). I expected to do more than what we actually did, but I guess it's understandable considering how much skill is necessary for this kind of thing. Our instructor did all of the work with the molten liquid magma stuff while we blew the air that stretched it out and eventually cut if off the pole it was attached to. They needed time to cool so they were shipped to us later that week. I was happy to find that it indeed did have that wabi-sabi, personal touch to it that makes it my beautifully unique, imperfect creation.


The light up itself was enchanting. At first it was snowing pretty heavily which was not ideal for pictures and walking without being pelted in the face, but it stopped after about 20 minutes. People were casually strolling through the scene, stopping to take pictures and being considerate of others by waiting in make-shift lines at popular spots. I especially liked how many of the scenes were set up with photos in mind. Otaru was probably the coldest I was the whole trip but definitely worth it.


The last place we ventured out to was another recommendation that I never would have know about otherwise. It was a Northern Safari that was about 1 hour and 30 minutes outside of the city via train, bus, and then shuttle bus. At first, my feelings were slightly conflicted about this place because many of the animals we saw there were completely out of their element and out in the cold just for our enjoyment. However, this kind of set up is nothing that I would ever get to experience in America and they all looked to be in good health. You were allowed to just approach the animals at your own risk without supervision. You could pet them and feed them with food that was left there (paid for on the honor system). We saw different types of owls, foxes, goats, rabbits, and monkeys. Also, other animals like a snake, piglets, ponies, meerkats, an alpaca, a giant raccoon, capybaras, a zebra, an ostrich, emus and an armadillo. Now, before you get all animal rights activist about this place, all of the animals had shelter and those that were completely out of their element were in heated enclosures. The safari wasn't crowded so we had as much time as we wanted with each of them. All in all, I had a great time going around petting and feeding animals that I never expected have such a close encounter with.

Hokkaido is known for it's great food, especially seafood and dairy products, but there weren't enough meals to try everything unfortunately.. One of the local delicacies we did get to try was butter ramen. It's much like the usual ramen except for the quarter stick of delicious Hokkaido-churned butter on top and a few added ingredients. I was very glad to try this as we were basically on our way out waiting at the train station.

I would recommend for anyone, anywhere to go to Sapporo and the Yuki Matsuri, but especially ALTs who are in the perfect position to do so. It's worth your precious nenkyuu (paid leave) and whatever amount you need to spend. I guarantee that it will be always be remembered as one of the  highlights of your time in Japan.