Way back when it was still snowing (and still Winter… start of February), I took a trip around Japan from Kyuushuu to Hokkaido, mainly to visit the Yuki Matsuri (snow festival) taking place in Hokkaido's biggest city – Sapporo. This is severely out of chronological order now (cos of how many pictures I wanted to add, I kept putting it off…), but finally here's a rundown!
My first stop was down in Japan's southernmost island (excluding Okinawa), Kyuushuu. I have a fellow NZer down there so I went to visit her for a few days.
Fukuoka was really nice. It's a big city, perhaps about the same size as Kyoto – not crazy big like Osaka or Tokyo. And being significantly further south, it was a nice warm place to visit in winter! Happily, while I was there, an important annual event took place – Setsubun.
This is when everybody spiritually clears out their house a year of bad vibes and ushers in good ones. The chant that goes along with the ritual is along the lines of "out with the devil, in with good luck!", and while saying that, people throw special beans at a figurative "devil", who is often a child of the home in costume, who can run around and pretend to be chased out. Of course, the local shrines also have festivals, so we went along to one of those.
The place was packed! People were making little prayers to shrines, and throwing old protection charms into a big fire, to later be replaced with new ones. People dressed as the shichifukujin – the seven dieties of good luck – tossed bags of beans and other little goodies out into the crowd from on high, while everyone scrambled to collect as many of these special beans as they could (although, actually, they looked like they'd just been bought from a supermarket).
People were wandering around dressed as resident demons for people to throw beans at, and to take photos with. The kids (who are always a cutesy highlight of Japanese festivals) were mostly excited about seeing them…
…but not all.
From Fukuoka, we travelled together up to Sapporo in Hokkaido! The Snow Festival is an annual event in the north where alot of snow falls. People celebrate it and hold events, and the Japanese as well as representatives from all over the world make huge sculptures out of ice and snow for people to enjoy.
This was a remarkably warm winter for Japan, so sadly, some of the sculptures had suffered as a result. But shortly after we got there, we had about two days of solid heavy snowfall, which pretty much absolutely ruled. The downside of that was that some of the smaller sculptures got so covered in snow that it could be hard to see what they were underneath! There was a team who went around with long-handled brooms trying to continuously brush off excess snow.
Sapporo is a relatively new city in Japan. And it was beautiful. The streets were nice and wide, and there were a nice homely number of people (until the big weekend of the festival when the population just exploded). The people were all super-freindly too. I don't know if it was just the festival spirit, but the entire time I was there (4 days, 3 of them before the official start of the festival), the entire city was probably the friendliest place I've been to in Japan! The whole place reminded me alot of my old University city, Dunedin, which was a feeling that could only be nice 🙂
So, we wandered around and spent our time (except for a day of snowboarding) looking at the extreme supply of sculptures in the sun during the day, and under lights during the night. There were amazing, and I took a ridiculous number of photos. Here's a select few. Remember, they're all made from ice or snow. Amazing!
^^ (real fish frozen into the walls!)
^^ (Japan is recently celebrating the anniversary of an event that took place where a Japanese ship made an expedition to the South Pole, and then returned, leaving behind two dogs. On a subsequent expedition, they found the dogs still alive. They're like national heroes now. I haven't got a satisfactory answer to the question as to why they were left behind in the first place…)
^^ (winner of the International Section – from Hong Kong)
There was also a little park area set up a little way out of the city, where alot of people were taking their children to have a day out doing things like ride mini-skis, go on snow slides and through snow mazes, make a snowman (and add him to the snowman village), enjoy the various displays by the art schools from around the area, throw small children down a lane in a form of human curling, and generally enjoy themselves.
It was there that I saw Yosakoi dancing, and instantly fell in love with it. It's a form of traditional dancing to a beat based on taiko drumming, wearing traditional clothes and telling a story. It really had an amazing feel far out from the city on a freezing cold and stark white day, with the wind blowing strongly through their clothes and flag. As they say themselves, the very essence of the dance is the spirit behind it, and so they must give it 100%. It really looks like they do so too, and they even came down into the crowd at the end of the performance and intermingled with us, teaching us the dance as well! Although for one particular routine, I'm not too sure how they avoided death from exposure…
^^ (Alright! Got videos sorted! Click on them! But unfortunately, my camera's memory stick is tiny, so I can only record small vids at the moment… anyone wanna buy me a bigger one?)
The other really noticable point about Hokkaido was the food. It was absolutely delicious. If there's one thing the Japanese love (aside from random festivals, American rap, and nonsensical ads, and the word "crazy"), it's food. They talk about it constantly. And everyone agrees that Hokkaido is where it's at. Most especially for seafood. I'm not much of a seafood guy, so I wasn't so worried about that, but once I got there, that all changed. I had crab, shrimp, fish eggs, sea urchins, and the lot. And it was all fantastic (albeit pretty steep). Those were some of the most enjoyable eating experiences of my life 🙂 Of course, they can't all be winners…
All in all, I really enjoyed every minute I was in Sapporo. I would love to live there someday. If you ever come to Japan, be sure to visit! I hear it's beautiful in the summer too, and lacks the absurd heat of the rest of the country.
As my trip was coming to an end, I went home via a couple of days in Tokyo. I stayed with a friend who I met during my brief stint in Australia early last year, who it turns out, lives in a nice spot just outside the central city (but still well within the actual city, due to Tokyo's completely insane size).
I don't really know what to say about Tokyo that you won't already know. The entire place has just lost its mind. I was there for Japan Foundation Day, so got to watch a nice ceremony at a very old shrine.
Strangely, this shrine is nestled within Harajuku, which is probably the most consistently densely packed place I've ever been to – when you get off the train, it takes about another 10 minutes just to get through the crowd for the following 50 or so metres to leave the station! It's not surprising that with all those people, it's notorious for being where all Japan's crazies gather.
My friend has a relative who owns a sushi shop, so we got to go there for dinner one night, and have an open menu. Anything I wanted, all for free? Was another great eating experience! Finally, I got to spend the last evening of my trip watching the sun set down behind Mount Fuji, from the top of Tokyo Tower, looking over the city stretching in every direction as far as the eye can see.