Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sapporo Snow Festival 2010 - Day 2

While the weather was still nice (i.e. sunny not snowing) we decided to head over to the Sapporo Tsudome where there were snow-themed attractions. It was fun, Jeff and the kids went rocketing down a snow slide in inner-tubes and when I say rocketing I’m not kidding. I watched Jeff take down the poor Japanese guy who was supposed to stop him at the end. It was fun but the snow front had moved in, no more nice sunny weather, and it had become wicked cold – I could no longer feel my toes even with toe warmers in place. We warmed up, a bit, inside the Tsudome with some food from the various vendors – don’t ask me what we ate, you have to leave your Western taste buds behind when you come to Japan and just go for it – I think it was squid on a stick, scallop balls and a seafood curry which was really good. The kids all eyed the fare with a lot of suspicion but were game to give it a try.

Since all our kids really wanted to do was to have one massive knockdown snowball fight we headed over to the Government Building which was located close to our hotel and had a lovely garden area. When we first arrived in Sapporo our tour guide had announced that “for those of you who would like to have snowball fights this would be the place to go” … mmm, well at least he didn’t name any names on the bus but this was clearly for the Cleary’s information. While Jeff and the kids battled it out (I did not partake and strangely enough no one even asked me to be on their side. I would definitely be a liability since, well, um - I throw like a girl. The worst girl ever.) I headed out to take some pictures. I love how the Japanese wrap their shrubbery and protect their trees with a winterized version of a maypole and who can resist a beautiful Japanese bridge in the winter snow? With the snowball mania over we headed to the train station to catch a train to Otaru.

Snow Gleaming Festival - Otaru
On some excellent advice we decided to spend Saturday afternoon in the small seaside town of Otaru. The train ride out there was easy and pleasant, the train for a large part of the trip hugs the coastline of the Sea of Japan and from the side I was riding on all I could see were very grey and angry looking waves rolling in, crashing somewhere beneath my line of vision (I tried hard not to think about that too much). When we arrived at Otaru the snow was really coming down and the winds were whipping in off of the Sea of Japan. I have to hand it to the kids, they were really troopers – we have pictures where you cannot see the end of the block because we were in white out conditions. Otaru has a much smaller snow festival than it’s more well known neighbor but I enjoyed this far more. This is an old fishing village with canals and charming old buildings and warehouses from the Meiji and Taisho Eras. Besides the architecture they have become known for their Venetian Style Glass shops and yes, I managed to scoot into one with enough time to make a few select purchases before closing time ( We had tried to time our arrival to have enough time to walk around the city before the illumination began at 6 – by the time we walked back to the canals the lanterns were floating in the water but sadly for us the wind was so brisk that night that nearly all of the floating lanterns were out.

On the way back up the hill to the train station we went down a snow path that was lit by 100’s of candles. It is apparently a park that runs along an old train track, the first train line in Hokkaido. It was such a departure from the crowds and lights and festival atmosphere of Odari – it was beautiful. There were hundreds of little vignettes carved into the snow, there were globe lanterns embedded with pressed leaves and flowers illuminated with a candle resting in the crook of a stick that were charming. It was lovely and with the shelter provided by the buildings lining the route this area was almost down right comfortable – well, as comfortable as you can be in –3 degrees Celsius (not factoring in the wind chill).

We returned to Sapporo by train and again, it was a treat. I love riding trains and this train was one of the older ones I’d been on since arriving in Japan. It had the seats that flip in either direction – I think the kids got a kick out of seeing that. And the train whistle, it was one of those long high-pitched whistles that American trains don’t make. As a matter of fact as I was looking out the window, with the snow swirling by, the train rocking back and forth and the whistle piercing the night sky my thoughts drifted trying to place where I had heard that sound before and then I remembered … one of my all time favorite movies Dr. Zhivago. How fitting.

One more entry to wrap up Sapporo, till next time, sayonara.

Sapporo Snow Festival 2010

Since we arrived in Japan we’ve had the opportunity to take day trips and see some of the easier sights to get to from Yokosuka but we hadn’t yet ventured beyond a several hour radius of home.

Last weekend we took advantage of a tour trip being offered and we all boarded a plane bound for the northern most island of Japan, Hokkaido – home to the Sapporo Snow Festival. As a family we have a number of trips around Japan that are on our wish list: Hiroshima, Kyoto, Okinawa and Sapporo. This was a trip we had all been looking forward to – while our friends and family back on the East Coast struggle against mother nature and record snow fall, we watch the evening news … somehow feeling like we’re being left out. “It’s not fair” has been declared more than a few times, as all three kids point out they’ve spent their entire lives up until 6 months ago in the current blizzard zone and they are missing out on the fun.

Well we made our own winter fun in Sapporo and we had no shortage of snow. Sapporo has several different venues – the Odari Park Snow sculptures, the Susukino ice festival and the Tudome site, with snow rides and slides. The tour started us off the right way with a stop at the Sapporo Beer Museum/Factory. We had lunch there and all the beer you could drink in 90 minutes. Normally, I am not much of a beer drinker – those days are long gone. But I will have to admit, I am enjoying Japanese Beer. I do not know how it is different from the American Brew but it tastes fabulous. Jeff and I sampled several different types – meanwhile all the kids cared about was the snow and snowballs. Our children apparently entertained a several Japanese as the snowballs flew. I got a couple of questions: “Twins?” “Yes” I would answer with a sigh, “14 and competitive” – they would just chuckle before moving on and I'm yelling out "Don't hit any Japanese!" After the adults were satisfied with beer and the kids with snow, the tour took us to our hotel and then pretty much cut us loose – warning us to make the most of the festival while we could because a snow storm was moving in the next day.

Odari Park
The main part of the snow festival runs the length of Odari Park, a short walk from our hotel. It was cold and snowing lightly but we decided to venture out and take a look until we couldn’t feel our digits. Superlatives (and photos) can hardly do these works of art justice – they are quite impressive. For the larger sculptures it can take up to a month to sculpt and hundreds of truck loads of snow.

The ice sculptures in the Susukino area were equally interesting – especially since a number of them were still being worked on – the buzz of the chainsaws and the ice shavings were flying. It was fascinating to watch.
Close to the ice sculpture venue was Ramen Noodle Alley that we had read about in one of our tour guidebooks. We had heard that Hokkaido is known for their Ramen Noodle bowls, this small alleyway is filled with little noodle shops. We were having a bit of a struggle to find a noodle shop that had 5 seats open for our family but one very insistent shop owner kept popping her head out of the door, loudly claiming “Number 1 Noodle.” My initial reaction was to move on – we were tired and hungry and I wanted some place charming – not a Japanese version of a NY City Diner. But after peering through a number of windows to other shops and realizing there were not enough seats for us all, Jeff and I just shrugged our shoulders, exchanged a look saying “what the hell” and stepped through the “diner” noodle shop. It was a form of entertainment we had not counted on. The female owner was loud and exuberant, she spoke enough English for us to make our selections. Her husband (I’m guessing) was the chef and as we sat at the counter we could see him working fast and furious on our orders. It was in fact quite delicious, and the perfect meal to warm us up after walking around in the snow.

It had been a long day, up at 4 a.m. to make our flight so we called it a day after filling ourselves with delicious ramen and headed back to our hotel. I'll post 2 more entries covering our next two days in Sapporo and the area. So far we were impressed and were already talking about coming back this summer for the fabulous national parks they have here.

Till next time, sayonara.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Tokyo Quilt Show 2010

Nearly two weeks ago I went to the Tokyo International Quilt Festival at the Tokyo Dome. This is the biggie, the mother of all quilt shows on this side of the world. The Yokohama show in the Fall had stunned me with the beautiful craftsmanship and the inspiring displays and if that was the warm up show than I knew I’d be in for a treat with the Tokyo show. I was not disappointed.

This time I was most fortunate to have two Japanese friends accompany our group. They acted as translators for us – which was particularly helpful when we happened upon two demonstrations in the special exhibit “The Beauty of Indigo – The World of Japan Blue.” This exhibit was of particular interest to me with my current study under Master Shibori Artist Hiroko Andou. If you would like to follow my experiences with shibori you can go to:

There was a beautiful exhibit “Technique and Sensibility: Nubi Quilting by Korean Artisan, Hae-Ja, Kim” and a whimsical special exhibit called “Welcome to My Room” where nine different artists came together to present their works on different themed rooms.

This quilt was the first place winner in the Traditional Quilt Category. It’s called Ocean of Trees by Keiko Morishita. Thank you to who provided the translation on her blog and this description:

“After taking a trip to Hokkaido, she could not forget the quiet and depth of the forest there, and recreated it in basic squares. But in order to convey the far depth and heaviness, she put the seam allowances on the front, and to prevent fraying, all pieces were cut on the bias.
From a distance, it looks like a regular quilt. But up close…
The pieces are what you normally see on the back of a quilt top. Look closely, and you can see how all pieces were cut on the bias (to prevent fraying), and the seam allowances show on the front. The quilt was finished in a regular way–quilted, and with a solid backing.”

There were several special exhibits in addition to the winners and entries in a numerous categories. There was so much to look at and really, I think next year I would like to go twice. And lets not forget the vendors … oh, so many cool Japanese sewing and quilting supplies. Yes, I bought – spent pretty much all my allotted Yen, saving only enough for the train ride back. I have more projects and a cute apron is one of them. But it requires a sewing machine … mmm, not sure how I’ll get around that requirement. Was reading about a Babylock serger on the moving hands blog – that could be a fine compliment to my Bernina. Wonder what Jeff would say to that one? For the amount of money I spent on my Bernina (which he calls the Ferrari) I believe he thinks the darn thing should be able to make and sew anything and everything by itself.

I absolutely loved looking at the craftsmanship of these quilts. I know, for some of you (including my immediate family members) it would be like watching paint dry. But the attention to details, the innovative combination of machine stitching, hand stitching and embellishment left my head swimming with ideas. I picked up some projects – mostly hand work, and tried to keep reminding myself that one of my goals while I’m here in Japan is to just be a sponge. To learn all I can about all that interests me, let it percolate for the time I am here and when I get back to the states we’ll see what starts to happen.

So for now, I will be content to observe and appreciate, to take classes when I can and to be thankful again to have this wonderful opportunity to live in Japan.

Till next time, sayonara.

A very special thanks to Kim Jordan and Valerie Okon who lent me their cameras and patiently took oodles of pictures for me. When I arrived at the Tokyo Dome I pulled out my camera only to discover the battery was dead. Lesson learned, always, always check the battery level the night before.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mt. Nokogiri Adventure

It was billed as a day of hiking and a ferry ride across Tokyo Bay – sounded like a chance for some fresh air and exercise while seeing some more sights in Japan. Sign me up. But as with many adventures, expectations and reality don’t always mesh.

We set off from the Kurihama Ferry Terminal, located just south of Yokosuka. It was a breezy day but fairly clear and the crossing was nice. Did I mention it was breezy? Well just file that fact … because it will come into play later in the day in a couple of ways. We were headed by ferry across Tokyo bay to the small port town of Kanaya. This is where the Daibutsu of Nihon-ji is located, the largest stone Buddha in Japan.

Kanaya is a little bayside town, probably the most hoppin’ thing it has going on is the ferry terminal. There is a little shop in the terminal building that has lots of packaged local food items for sale. Apparently this part of the Chiba Prefecture is known for its peanut production – and having grown up in Georgia I was fascinated by all the different types of peanuts. There were cocoa peanuts, wasabi peanuts, pepper peanuts, miso peanuts, yogurt peanuts, sugar peanuts – all with little containers for you to taste test. I had a good time trying to figure out which ones my family back in the states would actually like (and eat) and felt a bit like Goldielocks as I tasted them – “too hot,” “too spicy,” “ohhh, way too different they wouldn’t like that at all (miso),” “not different enough (sugar).” But I really felt like I scored when I ran across the Japanese version of boiled peanuts. Now you really can’t claim southern roots until you’ve experienced boiled peanuts or as my grandfather used to say “baaaaawwl’d peanuts” – for the longest time as a kid I thought we were eating bald peanuts, gotta love that southern accent! Not sure my fellow adventurer’s were too enamored with these culinary delicacies but I loved them. Different from the “bald peanuts” of my childhood (enough sodium in those puppies to make you retain water for a month) they were good nevertheless.

We headed out from the terminal and walked to the rope-way gondola. It was a nice ride up the mountain and we had great views of Tokyo Bay. But it was windy (did I already mention that?) and a tad unnerving as the gondola swayed back and forth – we all reassured each other that the Japanese were all about safety … right?

Once at the top we all broke off into different groups – some wanted to see the Kwan-non and others wanted to see the Buddha. The group I was in headed down the hill in search of the Daibutsu. We passed by the Tokai Arhats, the 1500 Stone Figures that were carved from 1779 to 1798. Many were destroyed or damaged during an anti-buddhist movement in the Meiji Era. There is now an ongoing restoration effort.

We finally reached the bottom of the hill, after going down countless steps and we were rewarded by a magnificent stone Buddha (Daibutsu) carved into the side of the mountain. This Buddha took three years to carve and was completed in 1783. It was constructed as a symbol of world peace and tranquility. There is a lovely view from the area looking out over Tokyo Bay and from there we planned to hike back up all those steps to the gondola. But the forces of nature had a different adventure in store for us. We found out that the gondola was now closed due to the windy conditions. We were now faced with how do we get back to the ferry? There was an attendant at the Daibutsu and she assured us that once we reached a lower parking lot we would be able to grab a taxi back to the ferry terminal – sounded like an easy solution. However, something must have been lost in translation because when we reached the parking lot – there was not a soul in sight. The five of us decided to forge ahead and hope for the best – which ended up being a pseudo 5K run back to the terminal. We had to pass through 5 tunnels with no pedestrian walkway and the tunnels here in Japan are narrow. We sprinted through the tunnels and walked the straightaway’s laughing for the most part at what the Japanese drivers must be thinking as five crazy Gaijin’s were playing a tunnel version of “chicken.” Finally, we were out of the tunnels and could see the terminal … and our ferry, which had already left for the return trip home. No worries, we would catch the next one.

It is a bad sign when the ferry you are sitting on is rocking back and forth because of the waves, and you haven’t even pulled away from the dock. Even though I am married to someone in the Navy, I am in no way shape or form a sea-worthy kind of gal. In fact, I really hate being out further than I know I can swim back to shore. But there was only one way that day to get from A to B and it meant crossing Tokyo Bay with swells high enough to make the horizon line disappear. That wind that had forced the gondola to be closed was kicking up some might fine swells. Thank goodness, my motion sickness that can pop up if I happen to go over a speed bump too fast stayed away that day. I think it was the pure terror of being on a ferry, with compatriots who were looking to see where the life jackets were that sent an adrenaline rush coursing through my body and kept my lunch down where it should be.

Once home and safely on land – I relayed the day’s events to my family. Jeff, the former Navy line officer sort of rolled his eyes as I described the white caps and swells. Yes, yes I know – if we’re comparing “war stories” I will never be able to top his in a Spruance Class Destroyer off the coast of Japan in Typhoon season. And my children were no better in offering any sort of empathy – “really, you were on a ferry and there were swells? Cool, when can we go?”

We’ll go when mom has checked the small craft advisory, done a visual and see’s nary a white cap in sight and the flags are hanging like limp rags.

Till next time, sayonara.

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