Saturday, February 28, 2015

yuki matsuri

We came to Japan for many reasons, but the reason we came in bitter cold February is for the "Yuki Matsuri" Snow Festival. The festival started in the 1950's when some high school students built some over the top snow statues, then later the local military groups joined forces and started building massive snow sculptures. It has become a yearly event with up to 400 snow and ice sculptures and brings in well over a million visitors each year. Even years when accumulated snowfall is low, snow is brought in from outside Sapporo and the festival goes on.
There is a live snow statue competition built by teams from other countries. There is a design or drawing in front of the workspace so you can see what the eventual sculpture will be and it is fun to see the ongoing carving. Sapporo's sister cities are often involved including Munich Germany and Portland Oregon. There were 10 countries competing this year. Apparently Hawaii isn't considered part of the US because there was a Hawaii team and a US team.
The festival is held in Odori Park - a big park one block wide by maybe 10 or 12 blocks long right in the middle of the enormous city of Sapporo. There were sculptures, stages, performances, ski and snow board demonstrations, kiosks for souvenirs and trinkets, food vendors, commercial booths etc etc. Another part of town hosted the ice sculptures and carvings. They are much like you would see at a fancy wedding or bar mitzvah, or on a cruise ship buffet, but larger than life. Many were commercially sponsored and had a product themed design. The third area of the festival was a playground for families and kids. Slides built of snow, mazes for the kids to go through, zip lines, games and again food, food, food. 

These are built larger than life out of compressed snow. Amazing to see during the day, then light shows transform them at night.

Here's what's weird. The population of this entire country wears dark and conservative colors and clothing styles. Everywhere we went, every single day. Then we came to this park geared for families and all their toddlers wore adorable prints and fantastic colors!  At what age do they put these away and vow to wear only black and tan for the rest of their lives?


oh . . . the toilets!

This very ultra modern country of Japan had some surprises in store. It is a country of opposites. It is extremely clean - no litter to be seen anywhere. Yet, there are no trash cans anywhere. You would see people picking up litter - other people's litter - and putting it in their pocket. I suppose everyone took home their garbage to dispose of at the end of the day. Also on the spectrum of opposites, many many people wore face masks. White surgical face masks. Germaphobes? maybe, but do you know what is missing in their whole entire country? soap at the sinks in their public bathrooms! Like 1 out of 10 bathrooms have soap dispensers. Weird. I ended up carrying my own. 
Also another extreme. Most bathrooms had all kinds of electronics and gadgets on the toilets - heated seats, bidets with several water and pressure settings, a button to turn on water sounds to mask out any human sounds I suppose. Then you'd go into another bathroom and be met with this! 

What??? The first one I encountered was in the Tokyo International Airport and I had a sudden worry that I wouldn't be able to use the bathroom for the next 2 1/2 weeks. I backed out of the bathroom and looked at Dave with a panic   "I . don't. even. know . . . . . ". Luckily, it was in an older section of the airport and we looked for another bathroom and then I discovered that some stalls have these (again, don't even know what they are called - squatters?) and some stalls have modern western style toilets.
Almost all the bathrooms come with instruction manuals posted on the walls. There are so many options, bells and whistles. And although there is most often no soap offered at the sinks, there is quite often a soap and towel systems that you can use for wiping the toilet seat before you use it. So the toilets you can clean, your hands you can't.   

 And of course it's always good to get a tutorial for basic toilet usage in general.

This one cracked me up. My take away from these signs are: If you have wide shoulders, use the blue bathroom. If you are fat or pregnant, use the red bathroom.

This one had no other instructions except "Push this Button".  And there were TWO choices! I was worried it was a panic button "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up"

And this little gem was in the ELEVATOR! It was a sign over a box installed in the corner of the elevator. Apparently you can sit and "have a little break" while you ride the elevator OR in the event of an emergency you can use the box for a toilet! And inside this little toilet you can also find drinking water, emergency light, toilet paper and deodorant!
 How many times have women gone into a bathroom and there is nowhere for baby while you do you business? All the stalls have baby seats. Dave was just disturbed that it faced the toilet. Who needs someone watching you?

I think this was one of my favorites though. Actually I'm not sure what this did, but I liked the illustration.  I think this one just had music in case you wanted to sit on the toilet fully clothed and read a book.

trains planes and automobiles (and subways)

Suzanne said she heard from a friend that had visited Japan that the public transportation was one of the trickier aspects of the country so she suggested watching youtube videos and tutorials. That was an excellent idea. We also purchased an all-access train pass. The trains covered all our travel between cities and a lot of our travel within the major cities. But we also had to learn the subway systems and the city bus systems. We found that we had about a 24 hours learning curve and we were in each city for about 48 hours so we'd learn the system, enjoy our vast knowledge for a day, then move on to the next city and repeat.
Before we even got to try out the subways and trains, we flew into Tokyo late in the evening and had an early flight out the next morning to fly to the northern island of Hokkaido. We booked a hotel room near the airport and got in a cab. We asked him to take us to the Royal Inn Hotel Haneda (Haneda is the name of the Airport too).  He took a minute to figure out where this hotel was. We figured if he was driving at the airport, he would know the hotels in the neighborhood, right? Surely this wasn't more than 5 minutes away. He asked if it was a new hotel? Then he laughed and said "this is IN the airport!" Then he started driving while laughing. Then we thought, wait, if this is IN the airport, where is he driving us? He is just going to drive us to the other end of the terminal, to the door of the hotel. He wasn't really familiar with it, but knew it was at the end of the terminal. He drove us down to the end, no entrance. He drove us the other side, no entrance to the hotel. He drove us around the airport terminal for 5 minutes or so then drove us back to the EXACT SAME CURB where we got in and finally figured out that if we walk back into the terminal, go up the escalator, turn left and walk 100 yards or so we would be there. Then he charged us $13 for our ride. Yes, a ride to the exact same pickup location. I asked Dave later why didn't he argue the fare. He was literally so exhausted and didn't even have the words in Japanese to argue - easier to just pay and get to the hotel on foot!
Transportation on the first day in Hokkaido was a bit traumatic. The first resort we stayed in the first day in Sapporo assured us they had a shuttle - which somehow did not pan out for us so we took a city bus way out of town. The trains and subways had a lot of instructions and helps, but the city buses did not. We hopped on the bus hoping it was the correct one, could not understand the announcements, weren't sure what time we would expect to arrive at our stop, weren't sure we could hear the announcement for our stop, the bus was SUPER crowded, and we had a little bit of a panic attack and we realized if we missed our stop (which was supposedly a 2 minute walk from our hotel) and the sun was going down, and it was getting colder and colder and we were farther and farther from the city center (access to taxis) and we were hauling our luggage, we weren't sure what our Plan B was, and if we went past our stop we weren't sure how to get back. As it ended up, (all while we were in a panic) more and more people were getting off the bus, it was getting emptier and emptier (thus enforcing the idea that we probably missed our stop) then the bus came to a stop right in the parking lot of our resort, the end of the line for the bus driver for the day! Yay. It also made it easier to get back on the next morning knowing we'd be the first ones on and were assured an actual seat.
The other crazy  transportation situation was a day we tried to do maybe too much. We were staying in Kyoto and decided to do two out of town things in the same day. We left our hotel at 6 am and took the "Shinkansen" bullet train to Hiroshima. We spent about a half day there and then wanted to also visit an island called Naoshima. To get to Naoshima from the bullet train required us to transfer to a local train, hop on a ferry, then take a local city bus across 20 minutes or so across the island to where we wanted to go.  In order to do this all in one day, we had to make sure we were on the last ferry off the island so we could be on all the connections to get back to the last bullet train of the day. If we missed the bullet train, we would be on a local train and would turn a 90 minute trip into a 3 1/2 hour trip back to our hotel.  We were also expecting a call from Melanie as she was leaving the MTC that morning (our night, her morning) and needed to be back at our hotel to get her call. Naoshima was one of our favorite places so we were glad we made the effort to go, but we were worried about making all the right connections to get back to Kyoto by the end of the day. We were on the far side of the island with quite a walk to the bus station.  At one of the museums, there was a chartered shuttle bus for the local resort peoples. It was heading the in the direction we needed to go so Dave and I jumped on and we just sat down and took a ride back to the resort, hoping no one would ask for a ticket or verification that we were staying at the resort. We made it to the bus stop, made it on the ferry, ate dinner at the 7-11 as we were walking to the train station (they sell egg salad sandwiches everywhere), made it to the local train connection, then when we were running for the connection to the bullet train, Dave heard it coming in (and they only stop and open the doors for exactly 60 seconds - I timed it - and close the doors and take off). We were running for it and rounded the last corner and looked up at THREE FLIGHTS OF STAIRS! Oh my heck we did a lot of stairs in and out of the subways this week! We made it to the top as the buzzers were going off for the doors to close. We dived in the closest door and they shut. I was asking Dave if we were actually on the right train. "I think so". But since we jumped in the closest door, we had to hike through 12 cars on the train to get to our assigned seats. Then we anxiously waited for the digital board to show the next stop to verify that we were actually on the correct train barreling down the tracks at 150 miles an hour.
I don't think it felt any different to ride the bullet train than it felt to ride the other trains, but another day, we watched a couple of the fast trains go by before we boarded our. The speed was impressive! Or maybe I'm just easily amused.
All in all we utilized - planes, trains, automobiles, monorails, taxis, trams, buses, subways, cable cars, escalators, elevators, and our poor tired feet. I think we used everything but bicycles and a rickshaw.

lost in translation

I loved our experience in Japan. I went knowing that Dave was going to be our translator and I would have nothing to worry about whatsoever. Although he says he is rusty, when I hear him  speak Japanese he sounds very fluid and very fluent,  As the days went by, Dave found himself quickly remembering and re-learning the language and becoming more and more comfortable with what he used to know so well. He was even complimented on his Japanese. However, even as fluent as a missionary is, there are certain topics and certain words they never used. Their days were filled with talking about gospel topics. Fortunately for us on this trip, missionaries also become very good at finding addresses and navigating around public transportation. However, Dave's Japanese skills were all verbal. Missionaries, of course, never learned to read kanji. We ran into problem when we were asking direction to a place we wanted to visit. We were doing pretty well navigating our traveling, but this particular museum seemed to be on the outskirts of town so we wanted to verify because we had limited time that day. So we asked the hotel clerk for some directions. She jotted down some directions and this is what we got.

"Ok, thanks, We will spend the rest of the day at the train station looking for a sign that 
matches this one."

There was a vending machine in the hallway of the hotel. It looked like soap for the laundry, but it wasn't near the washer/dryers. It was closer to the snack vending machines. I put in money and wasn't sure if I was buying soap or cigarettes. And if I was getting soap, I was hoping it was packaged and not just a spout that we had to catch the detergent in a cup, or in our case we were ready with the palm of our hands. I have definitely taken reading English for granted.

 We also wanted to drop a letter in the post office. We searched for somewhere to buy some postage stamps for quite a while. People kept telling us the post office was right around the corner or right down the walkway. We couldn't find it so we'd try again the next afternoon, carrying this letter around with us for 3 days. If you are not familiar with the logo of the post office (an orange T) it is hard to find. I was subconsciously looking for a red white and blue eagle logo. When we finally found some postage stamps, the clerk sent Dave outside to the sidewalk to drop it in the mailbox. He walked down the sidewalk several minutes before coming back. The clerk walked out with him and pointed out the very obvious "snowman?" postal drop box.

 There was quite a few businesses that were familiar, of course - McDonalds, Gap etc, and many billboards. Johnny Depps movie posters were everywhere.

 I absolutely loved the English translations on many signs. It was clear they used Google translate and trusted it to be accurate. "Please stop the act to feed a fish and a bird"

and "It is off-limits of the graveyard this ahead excluding parties concerned"

There were many signs that had helpful English translations thankfully, but still had to be interpreted to an extent. "Please go backward"

And then surprisingly, after being frustrated all day trying to figure out products and packaging, there are the products in full English labels. How are their Japanese customers at the hotel going to figure out which one is shampoo?

We were stumped at the laundry mat. It was a little neighborhood laundry mat with lots of washers and dryers, but there were 4 styles of machines so we weren't sure which were washers and which were dryers, but by the process of elimination we decided on a machine we would try. It clearly had a water sealed door and a locking latch, but the sign taped on the front for an English translation said: "Instructions for using a Dryer" and in other labels at the bottom it said "Please don't put detergent absolutely". So we were questioning if it was just a dryer. But the cost was about $9 so it didn't seem like it would be the right price for just drying. Actually there were several cost options, $9, $7, $6 or $1 Very confusing. (Read the photo below "How to use a Dryer" . See of you can figure it out!) And no one else was there doing laundry so we were on our own. 

Finally, someone else came in and Dave asked for some instruction and help. The machine will wash AND dry in the same machine, and you don't put detergent in because the detergent is automatically added. The choices were heavy wash, light wash, dry only, or a quick dry. Simple!

I have to say though, the funniest conversation I heard him work through was a situation regarding the jacuzzi at our resort.  We were staying in a Japanese style Onsen. I thought this word meant village or resort, but I later learned it means hot springs, and sometimes used to describe the bathing facilities and inns around the hot springs. This would have been important information to know because Dave and I brought our swimming suits because the Japanese website (translated into English) said the resort had an outdoor heated pool and jacuzzi. How awesome would it be to sit under the snowy trees in a hot jacuzzi? I was picturing something like this:

When we arrived and realized how Japanese traditional styled it was, Dave decided he'd better verbally investigate the "pool" because there were also signs for the bath house - a very different concept than what we were going for. He asked a someone at dinner and the conversation went something like this (to the waiter who spoke broken/limited English):
Dave: Is there a pool here in this hotel?
Waiter:  . . . ? . . .
Dave: A pool, for swimming?
Waiter:   . . . ? . . .
Dave: Is there a bath house in the hotel?
Waiter: there is a bath in your room and there is a bath on the second floor.
Dave: The bath house on the 2nd floor, is it a swimming pool where you can wear a swim suit in the water?
Waiter: A suit? in water?
Dave: No, In the public bath rooms, downstairs, do people wear swim trunks?
Waiter: . . . trunks? . . . ? . . .
It went on and on like this, as Dave realized there are no translations in his vocabulary for swim trunks, co-ed, segregated, family friendly, jacuzzi, nude, swimming pool etc etc. Hilarious.
Sadly, there was no jacuzzi under the stars for Dave and I to enjoy. There was a beautiful sauna and hot tub and steam room - segregated for men and women -  but if you are an American and planned to wear a swimsuit, you would not be welcome there.

Then one last thing -- this little boy was sitting next to us eating lunch at the festival. Dave and I were just talking and this little boy kept staring. Finally Dave turned to him and said something friendly to him in Japanese. I don't know what he said, but we clearly look American. The little boy's eyes got real big and he turned to his mom and said (in Japanese)  "I CAN UNDERSTAND ENGLISH!!"