Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Sapporo Snow Festival

COLD!!! That describes a snow festival. Cold enough outside to keep large blocks of ice frozen for weeks. The 61st annual Sapporo Snow Festival ran from Feb. 5th to Feb 11. We arrived on the 4th, so we saw the works in progress.

Our day began early. A taxi picked us up at 5:10, (the bus doesn't run that early). So... train to airport, Tokyo Int'l to Sapporo, then a train to the city.

We started with a walk down this street, where teams were sculpting blocks of ice with chain saws, and chisels. There were fish and a mermaid with very intricate gills and scales.

The artists did amazing things. This street was all ice sculptures and as we walked, we got to a park area that was filled with snow sculptures.
This palace is one of them. Didn't I say it was amazing?

There's a Disneyland in Japan, so I guess that the 20 foot Mickey and Minnie was sponsored by them.

There were several other very impressive sculptures close by, and then we reached a spot where 3-man teams from around the world were creating pieces from 15-foot cubes of packed snow. One team was from Portland, Oregon. We talked to them about Brian and Portland. Their block of snow hadn't taken shape yet, but we promised to come back on Saturday to see it.

Mickey and Minnie are universal.

At some point, we stopped for a hot chinese lunch, and were warm for the time it took to eat. After almost 5 hours of touring, we got back to our hotel around 4:30. It has several restaurants for dinner, but we usually like to find some little hole-in-the-wall place that has really great food for very little yen.

It didn't matter, by 5:30 we were both asleep. Remember, we got up way before dawn, traveled half way across Japan and trudged around in a blizzard for hours.

The next day... Friday was the official start of SnowFest, but it was also our only full day in Sapporo. We called some new friends that we met only once, at a barbeque at Yokota Air Base in early January. Allan found out that they would be in Sapporo when we were there, so we planned to get together.

They joined us for a trip to Otaru, a small town 25 minutes away by train.

Otaru is famous for blown glass, and I got to make a cup. I'll explain the procedure... first they put a tiny bit of molten glass onto the tip of a 'blowing tube'. You blow it up a little bit - just enough to make a cavity. Then, they dip it again (left photo) and you blow it up to size. The next step it to flatten the bottom (right photo) with a paddle. The tube is constantly rotated while all this is happening, otherwise the molten glass would simply drip onto the floor.

Another tube is attached to the flattened bottom, and you make a indention around what will be the top, and tap the blowing tube to break away the glass. If you tap too hard, as I did, it breaks the glass. After the whole thing was heated again, Issey cut away the broken part with a pair of scissors (right photo).

Then we used very large tongs to open up and shape the top (still rotating). Issey put on the handle and my initial. Voila... here's the finished cup, a little shorter than planned, but beautiful none the less!

That's not all we did in Otaru. We shopped in glass shops (what else?), ate sushi and drank sake and beer. And we attended the official opening of the Otaru Snow Festival, complete with acappella gospel music (truth is stranger... ). After all the usual tourists stuff, we got the train back to Sapporo. At the Sapporo station, there are hundreds of shops and restaurants, so as you'd expect, we shopped and ate, including decadent desserts - American desserts, (because Japanese desserts are barely sweet and have very little goo).

Breakfast was included with our room. On Friday, we had the English breakfast and planned to try the Japanese breakfast Saturday. We thought better of that plan, because the English breakfast included rice, miso soup and tofu. If that's English, we didn't want to find out what the Japanese breakfast was.

We had a short day, but we toured the area where teams were still working on sculpting blocks of packed ice for judging on Monday. The Netherlands had a unique idea. With saws, they were cutting their block into 9-10 inch cubes, then wrapping the cubes with ribbon and giving them away as gifts. Though they tried, they were unsuccessful in getting me to accept a big block of compacted snow to carry around. A big mug of cocoa would have been nice though.

Since you can get canned hot cocoa from a machine, along with coffee, hot tea, cold drinks and watered-down bourbon, that idea wouldn't have had the same uniqueness.

Allan noticed the StingRay Bar sign across from our hotel. But I wondered how many men have the chutzpah to get a tattoo from this place.

We came close to being snowed in, but the snowplows cleared the runway, so our plane left 30 minutes late and made up some time in the air. We had Sunday to relax and get ready for the week. I did lesson plans for my Monday and Tuesday English students, and Allan prepared for the week by watching 5 hours of television.

I'm not sure what my next adventure will be. I'm going to Kyoto with Brian next month. I hope it will be a fun story.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

It's good to see friends and family

It snowed here last night and the slushy remains lay atop half walls and car bumpers this morning as I made my way to the bus en route to base. I haven't lived in snow territory for many years.
Ben and Olivia Schreiber's father visited us this past week. Allan's cousin Paul is always a fun guest. We met at the airport and went by bus to the American Military Hotel, the New Sanno, in Tokyo.

He stopped in Japan on his way to Bangkok, India and (I think) Hong Kong. It was business for him with, we hope, a little fun added.

We had been to the New Sanno for a holiday party, but we didn't meet Natasha during that visit. She's a very sweet cat who stays at the checkpoint. She was so calm, we weren't sure she was live! Seeing another cat makes us miss our two guys, Joey and Sam.

The best thing about this hotel is American mattresses. Whatever horror stories you've heard about Japanese beds is true. We've been to 4 hotels so far and the beds are like granite! We are soft Americans, I admit it!

After a little rest time we hit the town. Our first stop was dinner. Kenji, the manager of the restaurant where we ate, is Cuban and Japanese. We mentioned it to Paul, so when he stopped at the table, Paul spoke to him in Spanish and they were old friends in no time.

Allan really likes sake, and doesn't miss too many opportunities to try different kinds. He and Paul had a mini sake tasting.

I headed back to the hotel early, leaving the men to see the sites of Roppongi. Our plans were to see the Tokyo fish market early in the morning, and I need more beauty sleep than I once did.

We got up early to schlep to a grimy, smelly, fishy place. It's famous and has to be the largest fish market on the planet. Why they allow tourists here is a mystery. These carts (above) are zipping around everywhere.

If you don't get run down, you could easily get slimed by a guy in a rubber apron covered with fish guts.

We snacked on some steamed crab claws, (at 7am) but most of what we saw was headed for restaurants and markets. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me (never again). We heard from Paul that he went back the next morning, and in fact ate in the same sushi place where the three of us had breakfast. It was good, but I'm trying not to make my entire blog about food, so I won't dwell.

On our way to the Imperial Palace, we came to this building. Does this look like Independence Hall or what? You know, Philadelphia, the Declaration of Independence, John Hancock - those other rebels. Well, I say 'yes'. Except I think the one in Philadelphia has a bell tower. I seem to remember something about a cracked bell.

This is the Imperial Palace, which is of course, where the Emperor lives. We got a little closer, just to the right end of that bridge. As you'd expect, lots of tourists were looking and photographing the guards and the palace.

The Palace is open to the public two days a years, the Emperor's birthday (in late December) and New Years Day. Japan is not actually run by the Emperor. They have a Prime Minister and a congress of sorts called the Diet. The current Emperor is Akihito. The period of his reign is the Heisei Era and this is the 20th year, so on government documents, the year is listed as Heisei 20.

Some nice tourist took this photo of the three of us. That building is the guard house to the left of the bridge.

Buses dropped off groups of tourists and this field trip of junior high school boys. You can tell by the military looking uniform. High school boys wear a blazer, slacks and tie (and very often, penny loafers).

The palace was directly behind me when I took this photo of the Tokyo skyline. That's Allan and Paul in the foreground. We headed in that direction, and found the Ginza District, which is the Rodeo Drive of Tokyo. I actually made a purchase - no, two purchases.

Justify FullOn the way to Ginza, we passed through a park where this fierce Samurai warrior stood guard.

Paul spotted a cute bag (purse) and asked the young lady carrying it for a photo. When I reached them, she was telling him and Allan that she was from Hong Kong. Of course she spoke English. Everyone from Hong Kong that we've met so far speaks very understandable English. Her two friends arrived to ask if she were becoming an international model. She said 'No, just the bag'.

Before heading home we stopped here. Weary travelers everywhere can hit the 7-11.

We took the train to Yokosuka and Allan worked a half day.

Paul, we had fun. Come again and bring Henry!