Monday, September 6, 2010

Roadtrip Out East (In the Far East)

With a weather forecast calling for typhoon rains, I and a few other Sapporo English teachers headed out on a camping roadtrip to the eastern side of Hokkaido for the weekend to attend the HAJET (Hokkaido Association of Japan Exchange and Teaching) Eastern Welcome Party.

Our destination was a (typically) 5-hour drive away at Lake Akan (Akanko), an area known for its beautiful nature, as well as for having one of the largest remaining populations of people with native Ainu (pronounced i-new) ancestry and heritage.

The Ainu were Japan's indigenous people who were native to northern Honshu and Hokkaido, that is until the 1800s when Japan declared that it had NO indigenous people and instead forced the them to assimilate (such a familiar story). You can read more about this fascinating group here.

As the Ainu weren't declared an official indigenous group by the Japanese government until 2008 (!!!!!!!!), their culture has pretty much been pushed into a few overly touristic remnants and smatterings, hence the Ainu Kotan Village:

Akan Lake itself is beautiful, clear, and especially appealing during a "typhoon":

This weekend gave me the opportunity to hang out with a few new JET is our album cover:

All nature and indigenous folk aside, the Akanko area is perhaps best known for its marimo, or green algae balls which grow at the bottom of the lake. According to most Japanese, Lake Akan is the only place in the world where one can find marimo, although Wikipedia tends to disagree a bit.

And it wouldn't be famous in Japan unless it was personified and made into a mascot! I present to you, Marimokkori, our--ahem--well endowed green algae friend! His name is basically a play on words in Japanese: marimo of course being the algae balls and mokkori meaning 'erection.' All over Hokkaido, you can buy EVERYTHING Marimokkori, from keychains, blankets, and stuffed dolls, to Hello Kitty, plastic toys, and toothbrushes. Of course, he even has a girlfriend:

As well as his own cruise ship, which will take you out on the lake to a little island in the middle which is home to a marimo research center. This was definitely a necessary trip:

Marimo in their full glory!

The main activity of the weekend was mingling, barbecuing, and camping with other JETs from around the island at the Hajet Eastern welcome's always a good chance to get to know others whom we rarely see (especially us "poor" city folk who have a hard time getting past the city limits!):

So now with a little roadtripping aftertaste in my mouth, I'm anxious to get out and explore more of Hokkaido this autumn! Honda Rental, here I come...

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Highway to Hell

It's the end of summer here in Hokkaido, and that can only mean one thing: time to take a trip to Hell. I wrote about our little jont to the Noboribetsu Hell Festival last year, and it was so much fun that a few other gals and I decided to take a short road trip there for the festivities again this year.

Behemoth fiberglass roadside characters on the way to Noboribetsu were obviously a necessary addition to our journey this year:

Oni (devil) mask? Check. Two bottles of Rogue brewed Ezo beer? Check. A town buzzing with the excitement of dancing around the Buddhist King of Hades? CHECK! Let's party!

The whole shin-dig kicks of with a couple of demon figures being zig-zagged though the streets with children on the sidelines scurrying like mad to avoid them! Hellacious.

This year, Norboribetsu experienced what us foreigners refer to as a major Gaijin Smash. Basically, that translates to a whole lot of foreign English teachers descending upon the town for the big event. This is usually both frightening to the locals and confidence-building for the foreigners, but here in Noboribetsu, it just resulted in a massive amount of fun:

One of my most favorite things at the Hell Festival is watching the incredible taiko drummers doing their thing. You don't know talent (or ripped arms and abs for that matter) until you've seen as intense of taiko performances as these:

The main hellish hoopla of the evening is a "parade" of different costumed teams. I use the term parade loosely because basically everyone dances the Oni (devil) Dance up and down the main street in an organized-ish looping style, so you get pretty familiar with everyone by the time the whole thing is said and done:

And the Gaijin Smash partook in the parade dancing as well. Duh!

Me and one of the devil kings (who strangely enough is totally channeling the Wise Man look here):

And, just when most of the children are at their pre-sleepy crankiness, out rolls the massive devil-mobile with the King of Hell strutting his normal spooky-self amidst a cloud of red smoke. He kind of makes you forget all about the chocolate-covered bananas in the street stalls for a bit:

The Hell Festival is the perfect combination of spookiness, Japanese festival tradition, Buddhist influence, and FUN!! I'd say the demons over in Noboribetsu know how to throw a pretty good time...definitely one of my top Hokkaido experiences for sure!