Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Juice of Bear

Originally posted on facebook on 14th August:

In the guides I had read it sounded like Sapporo Beer had a big complex in this city where the factory museum and beer garden had sort of expanded into a shopping mall and general entertainment suplex. This is not quite the case. There are actually two different locations, the old factory which is now the Sapporo museum and beer garden (apparently great for lots of free samples and cheap beer at the end), and the new complex, called the Sapporo Factory, which is a sort of family SUPER MALL. I don’t really mind malls, but building a huge building with lots of shops is not something that ranks all that high on the scale of human achievements for me, so I could take it or leave it. Certainly the size was pretty impressive, and I got a bit turned around and lost a few times, and the shops showed a strange slant towards outdoor pursuits, and there were wind turbine things (that since they were located indoors, must’ve gobbled up electricity instead of producing it, making them slightly chilling mockeries of real wind turbines), and there was a Sapporo Beer Keller, but in the end it was just a big mall. The concession to the “factory” was a sort of mini demo brewery that I’m ashamed to say I didn’t check out except to see some guys hefting metal barrels through an open doorway. It’s not that big though, so I somehow doubt that all that beer is brewed there. It’s probably not brewed at the old factory either coz it’s a museum now… so where is it brewed? My guess: either at some massive factory in the wilds of Hokkaido that’s staffed by bears, or perhaps… Belgium? So, I didn’t visit the Sapporo Museum, I visited the Sapporo Mall. Not all that great, but that doesn’t detract in the slightest from what a great beer they make. I had a can tonight with dried squid from Hakodate whilst watching SMAPXSMAP. It RULED, except that SMAPXSMAP was a clip show and sort of sucked. The beer and squid RULED though!

But, but, but on a whim, and since the day had been all blue skies and searing heat again I headed up the JR Tower, Sapporo’s obligatory tall-building-with-observation-floor (actually Sapporo also has the TV tower, but that isn’t meant to be as good). Oh my god! So worth it! So beautiful! Sunset over the mountains, turning the sea red! You can see the sea from there! It looks so close, I estimated where I lived to the North of Sapporo and started thinking “surely I can walk to the sea from my house!” (I’m pretty sure that I can do no such thing). The neon walls of downtown, the Sapporo Factory, even that absurd Ferris Wheel on top of a building looks awesome all lit up. If you come to visit me I WILL take you up there, and I can only imagine how cool everything looks in the snow.
I also found a couple of import food deli places which stock lots of American brands and a few British ones too. Nothing to get too excited about really, then again I’m not sure if I would have got that excited about anything since I’m not really craving any products that I can’t get here. Maybe some Reece’s stuff? Anyway one of the shops was in the Sapporo Factory complex which is a little out of the way and I don’t imagine I’ll be going back soon; while the other one is in the labyrinthine tunnels beneath Sapporo Station. Above ground Sapporo is super easy to navigate around, below ground… well I may never see that place again. I have no idea where I was in relation to anywhere else when I found it, I had certainly never been there before and may never be there again. I love this place.
In other news, I bought a guitar! So probably no proper camera for a while, you'll have to make do with these shonky phone pics. They would be better too, but I can't transfer them straight onto computer via USB (probably to do with the Japanese driver) I have to resize them and email them from my phone to my gmail. Oh well.

"So first of all what we do is we lure the bear into a clearing, somwhere quiet, then we send in Big Kenichi. Big Kenichi, he hates bears somethin' awful ever since one stole his pic-er-nic basket when he was a youngling. So the bear starts all gripin' and growlin', but Big Kenichi just strolls up and punches that big ol' bear so hard that it straight up evapourates. So we suck up the bear vapour, run it through a condenser and ship it down to Sapporo. The white bear juice is a bit trickier, we have to filter that stuff but good to get all the brown out of it."

I probably should have bought some of this, I have no idea what it was. More on bears soon, they feature pretty heavily up here.

Art / Crows / Rocking in the Street

Originally posted on facebook on 12th August:

One of my colleagues has a phobia of crows. I thought, well sure, crows are a little creepy, but to be really afraid of them? Oh no, I was assured, crows in Japan are bigger than you think. Yeah, whatever...

So, of course, turns out crows in Japan are bigger than I thought. Some of them are the size of cats, they congregate in packs in all the parks, they tear up bins, they CROW to each other from all around you. They're hunched and wicked looking, and their beaks are like KNIVES of PURE EVIL. Have they been known to attack anyone? No one thinks they have, but no one would put it past them.

A quick mention for Don. Kihote (i.e. Don Quixote, but I use the phonetic spelling from the Katakana here just incase it makes a difference). Some of my training guys went to a Don. Kihote in Omiya, Tokyo a few times, but I never did, now I wish I had so I could see if it was like the one in Sapporo. The one in Sapporo is maybe six floors high, and has been organised by a lunatic. Or perhaps someone with a severe head injury. There is a lot of stuff. There is TOO MUCH stuff, and while for the most part products are grouped together (cosmetics & lingerie, food, CDs & DVD) there are plenty of crossovers and logical disconnects along single rows of shelving. The camping gear runs straight into the stupid black-light things, novelty items with breasts are all over the place, and stuffed Disney and anime characters are just EVERYWHERE. Everything is packed floor to ceiling, and there is enough room between the shelves to fit one person. Not even a very fat person at that. Whatever you need, they probably have it, but I doubt I could find it for you.

Today I went all over the place! It was hot, but there were blue skies and there was very little humidity. I was wilting certainly, but it was a good heat, not that evil heat that Primal Scream warned us all about. Not the evil heat we've been enduring since last weekend.

I went to two art galleries, the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art was really great. It was packed with people going to see the featured Dali installation that I wasn't all that interested in, but the collection galleries were very quiet. There wasn't a great deal of it, but it was very, very good. After a quiet opener (Art Nouveau glass works hmmm...) came one of the best displays of glassworks, porcelain and so on that I've ever seen! That sounds so geeky! Like I've EVER seen any glasswork or porcelain exhibitions that I found even the slightest bit interesting. Kinda like saying "It was the best Pauly Shore movie that I've ever seen!". But this? Wow! Colours and incredibly intricate shapes and all sorts of strange, beautiful craziness. Upstairs is a great "introduction to art" gallery for kids. Very accessible, colourful and fun. In the lobby they had set up a sort of touring rock-band merch table for the Dali exhibition. Made slightly more surreal by having a Chuppa Chups (the spelling AND pronunciation are up for grabs on that one) machine on the end.

But my real find was that on the way there I stumbled across a small silent, almost deserted gallery devoted to the Sapporo born artist Migishi Kotaro. He died at the age of 31, after a short productive career, full of experimentation and absorbing influences at a hell of a rate. I really, really like his work, particularly the ground it covers, and the atmosphere that almost all his works create. They're sort of creepy, in a good way.

And that was not my only find! Walking down past Odori they had closed off a huge stretch of one of the main roads (haven't been here long enough to know what it's called), for the purpose of ROCKING! That's right, I passed at least two different areas where a PA had been rigged up in the street for bands to play. No stage, no flooring at all, literally playing on the asphalt. It looked really cool, and as you would expect most people seemed utterly nonplussed. It also looked incredibly hot for the first band I saw, who were pinned in a beam of sunshine in the middle of a huge junction while everyone else hid in the shade.

Then I went to Maruyama park, because people had been mentioning it to me, and I'd hit the tourist information place this morning for maps and details. Still on my list: Mount Moiwa (involves a cable car ride, points!), The Sapporo Beer Factory (may just be a shopping mal), some other cool looking park in the north-east of the city (nearish where I live). Anyway it was a very cool place to go because Maruyama Park turns into a hike up a mountain (or at least a big hill) so you really get to see Sapporo run out and turn into forest. One particular view really got me, but I couldn't get a good picture, of the huge, wooded hillside towering at the end of a big urban road. Rurality! Also in Maruyama is the Hokkaido Shrine. Sapporo is not overly blessed with historical shrines,and temples, having been built in the latter part of the 19th century, with the help of savage, heathen Americans, but this was great. It was, like Meiji Jingu in Tokyo, incredibly quiet and peaceful and there was a ceremony going on so while I sat outside, cowering from the sun and from the crows, I could hear drums and flutes. And clapping. For some reason I really like that about Shintoism, that it involves clapping.

My vague aim to learn the Shamisen while I'm here came a step closer on Friday night when I met a guy who thinks that he works with a guy, whose brother may be learning the Shamisen. He's going to look into it, hey, it's something!

Also I may be developing something of a musical infatuation. I've been doing lots of research into J-pop already, trying out artists to find ones that I genuinely like, asking students and colleagues and so on... I'll let you know how this one pans out, but separate to that I was very excited to find out that the bassist from J-pop mainstays Dreams Come True wrote the music for Sonic The Hedgehog and Sonic The Hedgehog 2. That's a hell of a pedigree as far as I'm concerned, although I do like the Sonic 3 music EVEN MORE.

Welcome to Beer Garden

Originally posted on facebook on 5th August:

Hey, you know what else? The underground in Sapporo is awesome too! On some of the trains you can see the wheel-arches curving just above the level of the platform, and the trains seem to run on huge rubber tyres! They are pretty quiet on their approach, but when you`re on them the noise from the open windows gets deafening. But even this isn`t so bad because there are no doors between carriages, just big stretched hexagon gaps bridged by metal panels and thick, corrugated rubber; which means that when the train is quiet you can see all the way from end of the train to the other and watch it curling away as you turn a corner. This, plus the tyres means that the tube in Sapporo is kind of like a giant bendy-bus hurtling through a tiny tunnel, deep underground.

Today I went for lunch at a macrobiotic restaurant, good work that was immediately undone by a huge ice cream and perhaps a "flagon" or "tankard" of Sapporo Black at Beer Garden.

Beer Garden is a summer festival here in Sapporo that stretches down Odori Park, a huge segmented public space that runs horizontally across the city. In the winter the Snow Festival is held here, in summer - Beer Garden! Each of Japan`s major breweries has a chunk of park the length of a block and they create huge outdoor beer gardens, in a festival that is less about different sorts of beer than it is about just drinking lots and lots of the stuff. At least in that way it`s more honest than most beer festivals. Today we went to the Sapporo Beer Garden because one of my party was captivated by what we at first thought were children cavorting onstage in cow costumes. I hope they weren`t kids because at the end of the routine the compere woman bounded to the front of the stage, tankards of Sapporo were distributed and they all swug mightily to a rousing "Kampai!" Other entertainment included some guys from a town where they grow melons giving away melons to people whos birthday it was, and a prize draw. You could buy a fish cake in the shape of Hokkaido, though I was pretty daunted by my medium sized jug of beer already, so I passed. The Kirin beer garden was the most lively, as we walked back through there a gravelly voice was booming from the tannoy, leading the crowd in a sing-a-long. Each company had a different giant pitcher thing for groups, mostly in the shape of a keg or something, but Kirin had huge, terrifying perspex towers. Asahi was packed but a bit dull looking. They did have a series of hawaiian dance acts however! And Suntory was pretty lacklustre to be honest, no-one seemed to be having any fun there.

Famillies are welcome at Beer Garden, lots and lots of kids were running around, none of them even seemed interested in sneaking beer from their folks. I think when you`re a kid beer`s pretty gross really. Also it was run with spectacular efficiency: we sat down, one girl sold us beer tickets from a huge usherette`s tray, another girl then scooped up these tickets and went to get our beers. Servings were, as you might have figured, generous.

I also had a bit of a tour of downtown Sapporo this weekend, and learnt that in the winter I can pretty much catch the train to Sapporo and do all my shopping in one of the many underground malls and complexes without ever having to brave the snow and the -10C winds except between my flat and the train station at my end.

Also I can confirm, for at least one person`s benefit, Americans do love both tacos AND freedom.


Originally posted on facebook on 4th August:

Since last we spoke I have shot like a bullet by aeroplane from Toyko to Sapporo. By plane that takes an hour and a half, by train estimates vary from over ten hours to "the rest of the year". I have also spoken to someone who caught a ferry to south Japan, but then got stuck and had to get the train back, which took days...

This week Japan is awesome because:

I watched a TV programme in which two men attempted to roll a garden hose back onto its reel faster than a dog could play "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" on a giant piano.

When I got my Japanese mobile they also gave me a free gift of three cans of Sapporo beer and a litre of iced coffee.

I ate a burger at a tiny, tiny restaurant which felt like someone`s living room, the burger was described as a "House Special Deluxxx Killer Burger" and it was so big it pretty much did just that. It also came with an Ohio potato harvest worth of fries.

I ate Hiroshima-fu Kimuchi Okonomiyaki (okonomiyaki being one of the Japanese foods you just can`t get in the west, and which I loved last time I was here).

That`s it for now. I`m going home to bed. As always, more soon. More sense too.

Asakusa Blow-out!

Originally posted on facebook on 29th July:

Grouchy? Why no, but having spent the evening at the Asakusa summer fireworks festival thing, along with THIRTY TWO HUNDRED MILLION (est.) other people I feel sort of like I've been dipped in honey and left to dry.

Let me bring you up to speed incase you guys don't know yet. I've been training to be an english teacher for the AEON corporation for the last week or so here in Omiya which is part of the Tokyo metropolitan area. The training went pretty well really, I've got my official AEON pin and badge now (nice glow of achievement too) and on Monday I fly to Asabu in Sapporo, Hokkaido where I'll be working. I'm looking forward to this enormously because in Hokkaido it is drastically cooler and less humid at this time of the year. Several Japanese people that I have spoken to have told me that they want to go on holiday to Hokkaido right now to get away from this pervasive, muggy heat.

It's been fun, and there are already lots of things to relate, but I'm going to start with the huge firework display at Asakusa that we went to tonight. Asakusa is sort of thought to be the old-ish looking bit of Tokyo with lots of temples and stuff. This was the second time I've been there and I really couldn't get much of an impression since it had been turned into a sort of flow-chart of city blocks, where policemen and men and boys from what I'm almost certain was the boy scout movement were directing thousands upon thousands of people in an attempt to get them to a gap in the skyline where they could watch the fireworks. We ended up just sort of grinding to a halt by a cordon at the front of a mass of people who were sitting and standing staring expectantly into an open sky. The whole thing was flawlessly implemented by the Japanese police, and I would imagine it was pretty painless for the Japanese, but since we had no idea where we were meant to be going or what any of the temporary signs and maps said, and since there was 8 of us and manouvering large groups through larger groups can be hairy, it was a little stressful. Only a little stressful mind, because in the end it was good fun and Jeff did a phenomenal job making some sense of the signs (Jeff's on facebook, but I don't think I've friended him yet so...).

The firework display was, much like the one I saw in Iizuna last year, spectacular but unsubtle. It was all big fireworks, and every now and then it would build up to a crescendo where they would set off about a hundred of the same one and blow the crap out of the sky. There wasn't a huge amount of variety, but it went on (including the first set of fireworks that we couldn't see because of our angle) for an HOUR AND A HALF and it was HUGE and it was DEAFENING. At a couple of moments and especially during the finale there was so much smoke drifting around that the next set of fireworks just lit up the huge cloud from within, with only a few punching through. It looked amazing. I gotta say too though, the Iizuna fireworks were much more spectacular and much more fun. Seriously, this business was big, but the Iizuna ones were pounding on your chest. If they do that every year then I fear for the architecture and the windows of that town a great deal.

After that - ramen! And after that we found that loads of people were hanging out around Sensoji the huge temple in Asakusa so we walked around there a little bit. It takes something really special to inspire awe and wonder even when surrounded by dozens of gaudy fast food tables and hills and mountains of litter, but it looked amazing.

I'm running up on the time limit I've set myself here so I'll just shoot some ideas out. It's cool seeing the Japanese youth turn out to these mass public events in super-colourful kimonos and elaborate make up, weird seeing people in spectacular kimonos crouched down in groups between dumpsters eating yaki-soba from plastic trays. The super-organised Japanese crowd control system started before we'd even got to Asakusa, at Ueno station they were highly organised, and yes! We did get squashed onto the train by white gloved hands! Not an urban legend! Shutterbug Rose got an amazing video of it, I hope she ups it somewhere as it'd make a great piece of documentary footage.I don't own a camera, though I'll be picking one up ASAP. In the mean time I'm going to try and steal everyone else's pictures tomorrow and upload one or two to illustrate what's been going on for this first week.

Ja matte ne, A.

Big In Japan

Originally posted on facebook on 28th July:

In Tokyo right now it is so hot that you CAN'T not do anything.You have to not do anything somewhere with air conditioning.

Raaaargh! Kumaboshi is born!

Hey everyone!

I've been posting on the despised "facebook" since I've been in Japan, but probably most of my family and friends still aren't on that particular social networking thing so I thought I'd be good and friendly and start a regular blog too.

I'll probably just be posting the same things in both places, but now my folks (Hi Mum! Hi Dad!) can read too.

Kumaboshi seemed a little too clever at first, then I decided it was too good a play on words not to use. Kumaboshi!

Kuma means bear, boshi means star (in Japanese, dingus), it sounds like umeboshi (a japanese pickled plum, a sort of taste bomb that can reduce grown men to tears), and the North Star is sometimes called Kumaoe Boshi which may or may not mean "The Star Carried By A Bear". My research skills are not what they were. Anyway the North Star and bears are both big things up here, both being symbols both of Sapporo, and Hokkaido. There are stars everywhere, on the logos of the big companies, the flag, buildings. Mostly five pointed, but sometimes eight pointed, or six pointed and made to look like snow-flakes. Bears too, there's a type of brown bear that still roam wild in the national parks to the north of the island, and yesterday I saw some really tacky, cheesy Hokkaido Bear merchandise that I nevertheless thought was thoroughly awesome. I will get a crappy bear t-shirt soon, mark my words.

One last paragraph of explanation before I repost all my facebook crap here. In case you don't know, I'm living in Sapporo, which is the capital and the biggest city of Hokkaido, the most northern island of Japan. Hokkaido is mostly rural with only a few cities dotted around. There are lots of mountains (some small but impressive ones I can see from the city), lots of fishing and agriculture (Hokkaido is meant to have the best food in all Japan because everything's so fresh) and in winter lots and lots of snow.