Samurai Dave: The Roving Ronin Report

Rambling Narrative of Travels, Thoughts, and Embellishments

Japanese Golden Week

Golden Week is a spring holiday in Japan when many Japanese travel. May 3-5 and to some degree April 29th are national holidays and the whole country seems to move to the other side of the country. 

Here I talk about the tradition of Golden Week and the hassles of traveling during this time. Still it’s nice to get up to a week off, something we never get in the States.

Here I talk about How I spent my Golden Week Holiday past and present.

The first few years I worked or stayed home. In 2007, I started traveling going to a samurai festival in Yamagata Prefecture then another festival in Hiraizumi in Iwate.

In 2008 I saw ancient Imperial court music known as Gagaku and dance Bugaku at Meiji Shrine on Showa Day – April 29th. Then I went again to the samurai festival in Yamagata and a castle nearby. I went to Hiraizumi again and the day after to a replica of what Hiraizumi once looked like.

This year I went to Tohoku yet again starting in Kakunodate a town with samurai houses in Akita. After that I stopped by Lake Tazawa then went to a Jomon site, a stone circle in northeastern Akita that goes back over 4000 years.

I took a ferry boat from Aomori city that night to Hakodate and saw the last place of defense for the old followers of the Tokugawa Shogunate.

The next day I took a ferry to ShimoKita where I went to the land of ghosts known as Osorezan. It’s a smoky sulphuric dead landscape said to be where people go when they die.

June 10, 2009 Posted by | festival, Golden Week, hakodate, hokkaido, japan, japanese culture, japanese history, Jomon, tohoku, tokyo, travel, video, vlog | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sapporo Beer and Genghis Khan

Museum Offers History and Beer
Sapporo Beer Museum visitors learn about brewing history in Japan while sampling the wares

The Sapporo Beer Museum: A Mecca For Japanese Beer Drinkers

Ever since man raised himself from his animal-like state of existence and achieved conscious rational awareness, he has used his thought process to devise various and illicit ways of removing this burden of consciousness and returning to his former state. One of the earliest relievers of this burden was the divine elixir known as beer. Beer brewing can be traced back over 6,000 years ago to the resourceful Sumerians. The Sumerians were so taken by this brew they dedicated hymns praising their gods for this divine drink. They even had a goddess of beer brewing.

Old Beer Bottles from the turn of the century

Beer came late to Japan — about 6,000 years later. The Japanese, however, were not slack in the “altering of consciousness through liquid means” department. They had been brewing their rice wine for countless generations before beer found its way over. Beer was first tentatively introduced to the Japanese during the nation’s seclusionary Edo Period (1615-1867) by Dutch traders. It did not catch hold at the time.

Geisha and Beer : the perfect combination

In the Meiji Period (1867-1912), Japan opened its borders to foreigners and allowed its own citizens to travel abroad. Seibei Nakagawa went to Germany where he earned a Beer Brewery Engineering License. With the discovery of hops in the northern island of Hokkaido, a beer brewery was planned with Nakagawa as its first brewmaster. In 1876, the first Sapporo Beer was sold in Japan.

A display showing that Sapporo Beer is apparently made by magical gnome-like creatures.

Over the following decades, beer drinking increased in popularity and became an established pastime. These days it’s hard to imagine a Japan without beer, as it has become so firmly entrenched into the Japanese lifestyle. What helped is the fact that a good percentage of Japanese food, from sushi to yaki-tori (chicken skewers), simply goes great with beer.

Commemorative Beer for the 1972 Winter Olympics which were held in Sapporo

The Sapporo Beer Museum in Sapporo is a good place for beer lovers to go to learn more about the history of beer brewing in Japan. The Museum has a collection of beer bottles and cans that date back to the late 19th Century. Visitors can also watch beer commercials that span several decades. There are two small bars where one can — for a small fee — sample the wares. Two of the beers — Kaitakushi and Sapporo Classic — are only available in Hokkaido.

Samples for the studious beer connoisseur

The taste of Sapporo beer, which its admirers harp on about, comes from unique hops that are only produced in certain areas around the world — areas known for their exceptional beers. Sapporo Brewery prides itself in its quality ingredients and the skill of its brewers. Sapporo beer can be seen as a delicious result of German brewing practices and Japanese attention to detail.

At first, visitors to the Sapporo Beer Museum may be a bit shocked to find a red star emblazoned on its building, and suddenly worry that Communist China has gained a foothold in the Hokkaido Island as a precursor to invasion of the mainland. The red star actually represents the North Star, which was the symbol of the early pioneers in the 19th Century. The red star logo was later changed to a gold star, no doubt to avoid any confusion that Sapporo Beer might be a communist brewski.

Genghis Khan: a sizzling plate-grill of lamb meat – ready for the conqueroring

Visitors shouldn’t try to get too involved in their study of Sapporo’s finest brew at the Museum’s bar, however. Attached to the museum is the Sapporo Beer Garten, where for just under 4,000 Yen a person can help themselves to all the beer they can drink for 100 minutes. Accompanying the beer are strips of lamb meat cooked on a grill at the customer’s table by the customer themselves. This dish is named after the famous Mongol conqueror: Genghis Khan. After 100 minutes of incessant beer guzzling and lamb chomping, the only kingdom you’ll be interested in sacking will be the one with the porcelain throne.

All’s Well in Magical Beerland

February 23, 2007 Posted by | alcohol, beer, Blogroll, drinking, Genghis Khan, hokkaido, japan, life, museum, sapporo, sapporo beer, travel | 6 Comments

Hokkaido Drift Ice: Nature’s Masterpiece

Hokkaido’s Drift Ice: Nature’s Masterpiece
In northern Japan, one can commune with nature and hungry sea gulls

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An ice-breaking ship of the Aurora Fleet

Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido offers winter-loving visitors not only incredible man-made structures of ice and snow — the most notably being at Sapporo’s internationally renowned Yuki Matsuri— but along the northern coast one can see nature’s own winter masterpiece in the form of drift ice. From mid-January to mid-April, the Sea of Okhotsk is choked with ice fragments drifting their way south to oblivion in warmer climates. The Hokkaido coast is the southernmost area in the Northern Hemisphere to experience drift ice.

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In ages past, drift ice would be a thing to be avoided at all cost by sea-farers. Though not as dangerous as icebergs, drift ice could catch unlucky vessels in its clutches and hold them for long stretches of time, sometimes till death took the crew. Nowadays, with the aid of modern ice-breaking ships, drift ice has become a tourist attraction.

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In the northern coast city of Abashiri, tourists can take an hour cruise for JPY 3000 (US $25) on the ice-breaker Aurora ships. Abashiri is famous in Japan for a spartan prison that was set up there at the end of the 19th century. Getting sent to Abashiri was equivalent to getting sent to Siberia in Russia. The weather can be harsh and unrelenting in winter and Japanese prisons have never been known for their comfort.

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Seagulls on Ice

Drift-ice cruises offer visitors the chance to catch a rare glimpse of seals and seal pups in the wild. Most of the time, however, the drift ice wildlife around Abashiri is confined to opportunistic sea gulls. Sea gulls follow the ships closely looking for free hand-outs from the tourists. One popular way of feeding the sea gulls is to hold out a piece of bread or a potato chip and let the sea gulls snatch it while in flight.

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The tranquilty of this frozen world of the northern sea is broken only by the sound of the crunching ice under the steel hull of Aurora’s ships and the old Enka music blaring from the ship’s speakers.

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Drift ice has a significant impact on global climate conditions. It redistributes fresh water and latent heat energy, which has an effect on regional climates. The freezing process of drift ice removes the salt from seawater creating freshwater. If too much freshwater is released it can have damaging effects on the climate. It is believed that such a release caused a disruption with the Gulf Stream, resulting in a small ice age 11,000 to 12,000 years ago.

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Hokkaido’s drift ice has unfortunately become a casualty of global warming. In the last twenty years the amount and thickness of the drift ice has lessened. The season for viewing drift ice has shortened, as well.

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An extended potato chip grabs a sea gull’s attention

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January 30, 2007 Posted by | abashiri, Blogroll, drift ice, global warming, hokkaido, ice, japan, life, snow, travel, winter | 2 Comments

Otaru – Snow Gleaming Festival

Otaru Lights Up the Winter Night
Historic Japanese town’s Snow Festival smaller but no less spectacular than Sapporo’s

Visitors walk along Otaru’s Canal, all lit up

Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri — Snow Matsuri — may get all of the international press, and rightly so because of its incredible colossal snow sculptures that dwarf visitors, but neighboring Otaru has a snow festival of its own that, while small and humble, shines or rather gleams in its own right. It is known, appropriately enough, as the Snow Gleaming Festival – Yukiakari no Michi.

A message from Otaru’s citizens

In the daytime, Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri far outshines Otaru’s festival, but at night Otaru puts up some fierce competition in the romantic department. At night Otaru glows from the thousands of candles placed in simple snow structures spread throughout the town, lending it a graceful, magical-like quality.

Snowball modern art

In many ways, Otaru’s Snow Gleaming Festival in its simplicity better represents Japan than does Sapporo’s grandiose Yuki Matsuri. Traditionally, Japanese have often preferred simple austere beauty to that of the grand and ostentatious. The elaborate Toshogu Shrine in Nikko and the dazzling Golden Pavilion in Kyoto are the exceptions, not the rule. The mammoth snow sculptures in Sapporo require weeks and thousands of workers to build. In Otaru, sometimes all that is required is a small hole in the snow and a handmade candle in order to achieve the desired affect.

A Snowman Valentine

Visitors can participate in the festival by purchasing handmade candles and placing them among the many small snow sculptures that dot Otaru.

Among Japanese visitors to both snow festivals, some have the feeling that Sapporo’s Yuki Matsuri dominates the day but Otaru’s Yukiakari no Michi rules the night unquestionably.

A Snow King Kong in Snowy New York

simple but effective

Snow-Fried Chicken, Anyone?

January 28, 2007 Posted by | entertainment, festival, hokkaido, japan, life, matsuri, otaru, snow, snow festival, snow gleaming, travel, winter, yuki matsuri, yukiakari no michi | 4 Comments

Sapporo’s Snow Festival: Wintry Delight

Yuki Matsuri: A Frozen Delight
Sapporo’s Gigantic Snow And Ice Sculptures

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The Great Buddha of Bagua Mountain representing Taiwan

Every year huge crowds descend upon Sapporo, the capital city of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido, to gaze and gawk at staggeringly huge monuments constructed of snow and ice during Sapporo’s week-long Yuki Matsuri — Snow Festival. Numerous sculptures of ice and snow of various sizes are on display day and night. Some sculptures are small and require only a small number of builders to construct, while others are of such enormous proportions that they require thousands of workers to complete them.

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A bird’s eye view of the Yuki Matsuri in Odori Park

Sculpture content runs a wide gamut of themes. One can see popular anime (animation) characters, depictions of Japanese TV celebrities, movie characters, Japanese castles, mythical creatures, and so on. Some of them enact scenes from movies or books, sporting events, or popular folktales from around the world.

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Two snow sculptures that illustrate the attention to detail by their builders

The history of the festival dates back to 1950. It started simply with a group of high school students in the post-war era building a number of snow structures that gained the attention of other residents. It quickly became a yearly event. In 1955 the self-defense forces lent their aid and expertise and today they continue to contribute with two large structures and one medium one.

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Sapporo eagerly awaits the release of the film: “Narnia”

The biggest draws of the festival are the massive snow sculptures that tower over visitors and dominate the area. These enormous ones often display a scene or a landscape. On average, they stand 15 meters high and 20 to 30 meters wide. The largest one ever built at the festival was in 1972, the year that Sapporo hosted the Winter Olympics. The sculpture was 25 meters high and, aptly enough, represented Gulliver among the diminutive Lilliputians. The cost for such gigantic construction projects can run upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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The Royal Exhibition Building of Australia, recently named a World Heritage site

The Yuki Matsuri is held the second week of February, but the planning for it begins as far back as July. At this time, designs are considered by groups for the next year’s festival. Once a theme has been selected, if a design is based on an actual building, group representatives will travel there to collect data and even blueprints to aid them in their construction. Models of the projects are then made. Later these models along with models of past projects are displayed at the Snow Festival Museum.

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Mythical Creatures depicted in ice in the Susukino Entertainment district

Fresh snow is trucked in when the actual building process is set to begin. Several thousand truckloads are needed every festival. The Gulliver sculpture from 1972 alone used over a thousand truckloads. The snow is packed into frames and left for a week or so to form into solid blocks of snow. Therefore, anyone thinking they could leap onto one of these snow sculptures and receive a soft landing would find themselves rudely surprised, not too mention in a hospital, perhaps.

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Angkor Wat – one of the most popular sculptures this festival

Carving begins in rough fashion with a lot of hacking out of excess snow before the refining touches are begun. Molds are made for those projects requiring reproduction of similar designs, such as with Japanese castle sculptures. The builders begin at the top and work their way down. Once completed, finishing touches are applied with fresh snow slightly melted. It can take up to a month sometimes to finish one of these massive sculptures. Touch-up work is generally done every night during the festival to keep the sculptures’ design integrity intact from the effects of the weather.

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Ice Karaoke Bar – sing “Great Balls of Fire” through chapped blue lips

The snow sculptures are displayed in Sapporo’s Odori Park which stretches several blocks west of the Sapporo TV Tower, an imitation of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. South of Odori, visitors can view ice sculptures in the Susukino entertainment district. Some of the sculptures have a more functional purpose, as they are constructed to become temporary food stalls and even a small karaoke bar!

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Teen golf-pro sensation Ai Miyazato from Okinawa gets her own Snow Sculpture

For visitors who like to watch a little destruction, staying a few days following the festival allows one to watch the dismantling and demolishing of all the sculptures. As mentioned before, a destructive-minded visitor should think of participating only if they have a wrecking ball or bulldozer on hand, as these sculptures are quite solid.

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Three Sculptures built by International participants from Australia, Korea, and China

Snow Sculpture represents history and unity 
First Buddhist Temple in Japan celebrated

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A Snow Sculpture depicting Horyuji Temple

The Snow Sculpture representing the oldest buddhist temple in Japan embraces Asian unity via Buddhism. Buddhism was introduced to China from India and later it was transmitted to Korea. In the 6th Century, Buddhism made its way over to Japan.

The Emperor Yomei decreed a temple should be built to house a Buddhist image. This temple was the Horyuji Temple built in 607 AD. UNESCO has listed the temple as the world’s oldest wooden structure.

Some more Photos:

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Ampan Man – Superhero who keeps your bread fresh or something to that effect

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The Legendary Hard Gay Gets His Own Snow Sculpture

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The world famous … what was this thing called again?

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January 26, 2007 Posted by | Blogroll, festival, hokkaido, ice sculptures, japan, matsuri, sapporo, snow, snow festival, travel, winter, yuki matsuri | 5 Comments