Road to Sapporo Yuki Matsuri in EZO 2010 → Day 5

Until I landed at New Chitose Airport, I did not realize that Otaru's very own winter festival, Otaru Yuki Akari no Michi (Otaru Snow-Light-Street or something) was happening at the same time as Sapporo's big snow thing. I WAS NOT EVEN AWARE OF THIS!!!

Miwako and I left for Otaru in the early afternoon, and my host family came to pick us up at the station near their work. I guess I was never all that clear on what they do... and I'm still not. But we drove past their office building in some weird warehouse district of Otaru that I've never seen before (or rather, have passed by plenty of times but never realize it spreads so far out into the bay) that was like a big maze of warehouses and parked semi trailers and gargantuan snowdrifts. I sort of knew that Papa Ueno was in construction, but it turns out he actually owns the company, and Mama Ueno works there, too. I guess that explains why they can leave work at any time to meet me for lunch. Also how they managed to raise four children and still travel all over the place.

Anyway, they took us to the Otaru Ferry Terminal (a huge building that hosts a ferry once a day that takes at least a day to get to mainland Japan), where it turns out there's both a restaurant and an onsen in the building. Who knew? They knew. The Uenos know every restaurant in Otaru. Papa Ueno had actually briefly met Miwako before, but that was a long time ago. We ate lunch and they told us stories of their adventures, including the ridiculously awesome story of how they met, and how they were in a long-distance relationship between Osaka and Otaru for four years before they got married. I LEARNED MANY THINGS TODAY!!! I think it's pretty awesome that they've been married for probably 20 or so years and are still a very loving couple. Also, they're the nicest people in the world. Sorry, everyone else in the world, but we are all jerks in comparison!

I forgot to include our double date photo in the pictures for today's blog, so you'll have to imagine what the four of us looked like with a sweeping view of the Sea of Japan behind us.

After lunch, the Uenos dropped us off in Minami Otaru, and Miwako and I began exploring the touristy district. In between the thousands of souvenir shops, vendors selling sea creatures in various states of living, and swarms of Chinese tourists were a bunch of neat little snow sculptures.

Walking through the various shops containing glassworks blown in Otaru (oh how I miss the sign that used to say "It blows, glass blowing experience!") always makes me sleepy, and today was no exception. We needed to wait until dark so the candlelit street would make sense, so we had our first real date at a cafe where the two of us have had millions of playdates at in the past.

When we decided we were semi-awake enough to continue on, we went to the park that was built on top of the now defunct site of the first rail lines in Hokkaido. The Sapporo Snow Festival is a really neat thing to see, but Otaru's festival sort of puts it to shame. For one, it's not nearly as crowded, but the people who are there are all taking their time wandering around enjoying the sights. Being in the middle of a big city, Sapporo's festival is also surrounded by the lights of the city (and at night the illumination on the giant snow sculptures is pretty but they kinda don't look like snow anymore), whereas the little railroad park thing in Otaru is mostly dark at night, which makes the various lamps and structures built out of snow look extra pretty and romantic.

When we started getting cold, we took a break to enjoy some hot sake and meat-on-a-stick from the various vendors that had set up festival-style shops. We then moved on to the Otaru Canal, where the canal was all lit up with floating candles, and the sidewalk that runs its length was covered with a million billion more snow and candle creations. Miwako and I have spent a million playdates walking along the canal, so just like the cafe, it was pretty awesome to finally get to have an actual factual date there.

As we got closer and closer to the favorite spot of every tourist to Otaru ever, we started getting really cold, and I had to pee really badly, so we picked up the pace and headed to Hanazono to go to my favorite place in Otaru, Owl's Bar, where I finally got to eat soup curry. Soup curry was just first starting to catch on in Sapporo when I was an exchange student, so Mizue got me hooked on the stuff, and even with only visiting Sapporo once a year, I'm still very knowledgeable about the various soup curry shops in and around Sapporo. Remember: I was into it WAY before it became popular.

After visiting my favorite place in Otaru we then went to Miwako's favorite place in Otaru, Bar Modern Times, yet another place that Miwako and I have gone on a million playdates to. She hadn't seen the owner ("Master") since before she left for Canada about two years earlier, so they had a lot of catching up to do. Miwako keeps saying I need to move to Otaru and work as a bartender there, which would be TOTALLY awesome, except that I don't think he can afford to hire a second person. An interesting fact about Master (who probably has a real name, too) that neither of us knew... in spite of being an awesome and incredibly knowledgeable bartender, he doesn't drink alcohol! ANOTHER THING WAS LEARNED TODAY!!! Unfortunately due to Otaru being a small town, the last train to Sapporo leaves at 11pm, so we couldn't stay for long.



Road to Sapporo Yuki Matsuri in EZO 2010 → Day 4

Originally when I decided to go back to Japan in winter, I was planning on going for New Years. Besides the fact that I wasn't able to save up enough money in time, I would have had to meet her whole family, and that would have been weird. Oh wait, I guess I did that anyway. I found out that the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (that's "Snow Festival" to you, Whitey) would be held from February 5th through the 11th, so that seemed like a perfect time to go, what with it also being half a year between Rising Suns. I had only been to the festival once before, so I was pretty excited about it.

We set out in the early afternoon after watching most of the rest of Ponyo (Miwako had taped it off of TV (what sort of weird futuristic technology is this?!?), but the tape cut out about 5 minutes before the movie ended). Today we took the 15-minute walk to Zenibako Station, which made me realize just how much I miss living in a place that gets buried in snow in winter. It was already starting to get dark out by the time we got to Sapporo, so we headed straight for Odori Park.

We followed the course of the park for about 4 hours, stopping at all the big giant snow sculptures and both being "too much shy" to ask anyone to take our picture for us after both of our cameras had a bad attitude of letting us do it ourselves. The sculptures themselves were incredible. They're made by hauling in big cubes of snow and stacking them up inside a wooden frame, and then carving the sculpture out from that. I didn't do a very good job of paying attention to what the various structures were... there was a Korean National something something, an American National something something, a Japanese something castle, and a really cool homage to the Asahiyama Zoo in Asahikawa, among other things. There were also a bunch of different series S of smaller sculptures of various themes, and a section that featured sculptures in an international competition, with teams coming from Sapporo's various sister cities around the world (one of which is Portland, Oregon, by the way). The weather wasn't too cold, but a nice medium snowfall made it extra awesome.

I had a list of things I needed to eat on this trip to Japan, and one of those things was ramen. We hadn't eaten since morning, but were afraid that if we went somewhere to eat, we'd miss seeing things all lit up. Also we were hungry and too lazy to try to hunt down food. Since there were a million vendors selling various things right there at the festival, we found ramen there (mine had crab in it, which is unusual but also AWESOME) and ate outside. Before heading back to Zenibako, we went used DVD hunting (I have music DVDs on in the background pretty much all the time when I'm home), and Miwako bought me Love Letter, one of my favorite movies, which was filmed almost entirely within Otaru (specifically, the main character lives in Zenibako, not far from where Miwako lives). Sadly, there were no Fishmans or Unicorn DVDs to be found this time around.

Doesn't that make you sad?


Road to Sapporo Yuki Matsuri in EZO 2010 → Day 3

Because I originally planned my trip around Miwako possibly having a job, I basically scheduled my time so that we'd have the weekends to hang out, and during the week I would try to meet up with other friends when I could. Since she didn't end up getting a job, I kind of didn't really bother contacting other friends. But I still wanted to see other friends, so on Sunday night we decided to gather with our other Otaruian friends from our college days.

Miwako's mom drove us to central Otaru, which took longer than the train would have because she was freaking out over the snow. We met up with Erina and discussed what we should do. There's not much to do in Otaru. We came to the same conclusion we have every time the three of us have hung out over the past 8 years... karaoke. So we stocked up on drinks and snacks and headed out for Toraemon, our favorite place to hang out at in Otaru. And then we discovered it was no longer there. We didn't just lose our favorite hang out spot, Otaru lost an institution. Toramon always gave out coupons for 500 Yen (which used to be like... $5, but is now probably more like... $100000) for the first hour of karaoke, but was still cheap after that (or even without a coupon). Besides this, you could bring your own food and drinks in. If you didn't bring your own drinks in, the drinks there were cheap. The place was awesome. But now it is gone.

After the girls convinced me to not burn the entire city to the ground, we set out to find a different karaoke venue. The other main choice was Thriller Karaoke. For some reason, about 5 years ago there was a sudden boom of horror-themed karaoke establishments in Japan. Why is karaoke in a building filled with Disneyland-like horror-themed objects more fun than normal karaoke? Exactly. But that place was too crowded, so we went to Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Do, which none of us had been to since my going-away party as an exchange student way back in 2003. It was fun, though. Once again, I focused on Unicorn, Fishmans, and Polaris. Since I've tricked Miwako into liking all three of those, it gives us a lot of songs that we can sing together. I also found out that Yurameki in the Air by Fishmans (I posted a link to a video of sorts in my first entry for this trip), which is a 17-minute-long song, actually works out really well in karaoke form. Everybody wins!

After karaoke, we slowly wandered our way accross town through the shopping mall arcade thing, which was filled with a preview of the Otaru Snow Light Festival. By which I mean "snow and ice things filled with candles". Some students from the Otaru University of Commerce had a booth set up where they were selling coffee and homemade candles, as well as offering free purikura-style printouts of pictures taken in front of the various snow sculptures. At first, we we all disgusted at the thought that the three of us graduated from their school at least 4 years before they even enrolled, but then we decided to support whatever it was that they were doing.

After this, we met up with Miina and Yuki, and arrived at Maruta, another Otaru staple. It's hard to accurately describe the atmosphere of Maruta. The booze is cheap, the food is cheap, there's a million things to choose from, there's crap all over the walls (which is mostly a list of the things you can eat and/or drink), and you sit on the floor in a big room at a table surrounded by other tables with other people doing the same thing. They had recently moved to a new building which none of us had been to. It wasn't exactly the same (it looked a little too nice to be Maruta), but it still had the same feeling overall.

At some point, Erina and I were talking, and she randomly said that she was happy that Miwako and I were dating. I guess that she probably could have figured it out (actually, she probably should have noticed my giant crush on Miwako years ago), but it surprised me to hear her talking about it for some reason. But then the other two overheard us and went nuts, and it was like a moment from Friends or something. Miwako, being incredibly shy, got all quiet and hid behind me. That's when Miina (who is always coining awesome new psuedo-English phrases) created my new favorite phrase to describe Miwako, "too much shy". Earlier in the evening, Miina and Yuki asked me if I was dating anyone currently, and I sort of dodged the question because I figured that Miwako would probably react exactly the way she did. But eventually she got over it, and now that it was common knowledge, our friends were super excited that the two of us were finally together after all these years.

Because the trains in Japan are stupid, we couldn't hang out for too long, so the five of us took some time to take some ridiculous pictures on our way to the train station, of which this is but one:

Then Miwako and Erina and I rode the train together, and Erina spoke more of how happy she was that Miwako and I were together before we got off at Zenibako and walked through an awesome little park completely buried in snow on the way home. I owe Erina a great deal of gratitude for making too much shy Miwako be slightly less too much shy that night.


Road to Sapporo Yuki Matsuri in EZO 2010 → Day 2

When we woke up in the morning, Taisho made us a fabulous breakcast of curry yakisoba. The four of us hung out for a while and took some pictures. They charted a course to Haneda Airport for me, and said I had plenty of time when we left. Little did they know how horrible my luck is with that stupid airport. By the way, there was a tiny bit of snow left over from when it snowed in Tokyo 3 days earlier (something that doesn't happen all that often), which already got me excited about experiencing a real winter.

Anyway, Minako and I rode the first subway together, then I transfered to my next train. I swear that it said Haneda Airport. I SWEAR. I kept checking to make sure (though the trains in Tokyo are confusing because they don't always follow a non-branching path between 2 points like in places like Sapporo and Chicago). But sure enough, by the time I was in the Yokohama area, I knew something was wrong, and got off the train to ask for help. I found out that when I got on the train, I only sort of had the right one. Two trains show up at the platform at the same time, and only the one in the rear actually goes to the airport, even though they both say they're headed in that general direction. It was the same situation on the train going in the reverse direction. With only about 30 minutes left before my flight left, I figured I was screwed. So I emailed Miwako (even in emergencies, the staff on trains are freakishly stubborn about people not using their phones) and had her contact SkyMark Airlines. Fortunately, they were able to cancel my flight and refund my money, and there was space on the next flight. I know that I once missed a SkyMate Airlines flight to Sapporo by a few minutes, and they let me on the next plane at the same price. But for some reason I feel like this was at least the third time it's happened.

Then I fly, fly, fly through the sky, sky sky.

Then I arrived in Sapporo at the super-familiar and super-tiny luggage claim, and reunited with Miwako after the first 4 month stretch of our long-distance relationship. It turned out it was a good thing I screwed up and flew to Sapporo later... originally she was going to drive to the airport to pick me up, but the weather was crappy (aka awesome) outside, and the highway shut down due to snow. So we took an hour-long train ride back to Kotoni, and she drove the rest of the way. Holy crap, snow everywhere! Holy crap, it was cold out, but not unbearably so! Man, I love winter.

At Miwako's house (I had stayed there twice before in the past, but never met her family), I finally met her parents. Her mom was most excited to meet me, and had a million billion questions (and a LOT of stereotypes about Americrainians). Her dad is retired and spends most of his time lounging around reading the newspaper and watching TV and never talking to anyone. After we started eating (sukiyaki, something I haven't had in years), everyone started drinking and things got a little less awkward. Her dad only talks when he drinks, and as the night went on, he gradually changed into a completely different person. He also has an incredibly strong Hokkaido accent, which made it extra challenging to understand the extra challenging questions he kept asking me.

So not only did I get to meet the parents, but the next surprise was when one of Miwako's two older sisters, Saeko, came over. With her husband. And their three kids. The kids mostly did whatever it is kids do, other than the youngest, Mi-chan, who was afraid of me at first. But Saeko and Naoya were awesome. Later on, the topic of arm-wrestling came up, so we took to the kotatsu. I've always been terrible at arm-wrestling, and Miwako used to always kick my ass. But after about a half-year or so of attempting to exercise regularly, I finally beat her. So after returning to Japan, Miwako started working out so that that wouldn't happen again. We were about evenly matched, but I still had the upper hand. What was really awesome, though, was hearing that Miwako's sister is comically weak, and then watching her lose to everyone, including her 10-year-old son. The kids all wanted to challenge me, and we all became friends after that. Mi-chan turned out to be adorable once she warmed up to me.

(Miwako is the one on the left, by the way)
(Also, the dog is An-chan)

Eventually, Saeko & Co. left, and Miwako convinced her parents that there would be plenty of time to barrage me with a fury of questions about my culture and such all week long. So we finally had some time alone, and we watched Ponyo until we fell asleep. And I immediately felt at home in Japan again.


Road to Sapporo Yuki Matsuri in EZO 2010 → Day 1

Because my dear frieand Tarbus demanded that I write a day-by-day (bidet) account of my most recent trip to Japan, and because my Flicker account is now something like... 15 years behind, I'm going to start that today.

When I go to Japan every year during summer (except for 2008, that jerk), my goal is to travel around to see as many of my friends as possible, to go to karaoke a lot, to eat a million tasty things, to waste time and money hunting CDs, and to see as many shows as possible (besides Rising Sun Rock Festival). Every summer, I tell my friends that I need to come back in winter, especially to Hokkaido. This past summer, I told Aya and her parents that I would for sure come back to visit. Probably.

Then Miwako and I "officially" started dating after a million billion years. Not only does she provide the motivation I really needed to start working on a plan to moving back to Japan to live, but it made going back in winter seem not just like something I really wanted to do, but like something I HAD to do. Because the point of this trip was to see Miwako, I barely told my other friends I was coming to Japan. Some of them didn't find out until they got an email from my Japanese cell phone when I was on the train from the airport to central Tokyo. And yet, a million of them still did whatever they could to find time to hang out with me, and to remind me of how much I love that place.

Okay so anyway, there's the rambling back story. The side stories (main stories?) for each day probably won't be so wordy.


I won't count the day of life I lost due to travelling to the future. I watched a Japanese movie called "Kaiji" on the plane (which was pretty good), and I already forgot the other one, though I think it was also Japanese. A big fat man sat in the aisle seat next to me and had his arm well over the armrest for the entire 9-or-something-hour-long flight.

In Tokyo, I reactivated my phone, called Miwako, and then called Takkun, since he was basically the only person in Tokyo I contacted. I met up with TAKMIZ and Tsukuru in Shinjuku, and then we went to an izakaya and met up with a bunch of other people.

Mi-kun and Sachikun were there (two old friends I first met on the gyoza tour of '02 where Mizue first met Takkun and I woke up one morning and realized I could suddenly speak Japanese), as well as Yukari, my first Japanese friend at WMU, who first introduced me to Mizue. Then there were some people who's names I forgot, Minako (whom I first met in the hospital last summer when I went to meet Mizue), and Taisho and his wife. I also first met Taisho at the gyoza tour, but he is always at Rising Sun without fail. I met his wife Hitomi for the first time at RSR09. Got all that straight?

After eats + drinks + catching up, I presented TAKMIZ with some souvenirs of Mizue's favorite American junk food, and then as we were walking out I said "so, uh, by the way... I don't know where I'm staying tonight". After some discussion, Taisho and Hitomi decided to take me in. Ahhh, I love that I don't have to plan things when I go to Japan. I was a little disappointed that I didn't get to go with TAKMIZ to meet their cats, though. So when we got outside, everyone besides TAKMIZ and the people I didn't really know decided that karaoke was in order. Hell yes to that, I said. To that. To them.

So we went back upstairs into the same building and sang some karaoke. I pretty much eliminated everything from my repetoire besides Unicorn, Fishmans, and Polaris. Those are listed both in the order of number of songs you're likely to find at karaoke places (Unicorn a million, Fishmans a decent amount, Polaris very few), by the way, as well as the likelyhood that someone will sing with me. Everyone else sang a bunch, too, but Sachikun (she's a girl, by the way, even though "kun" normally indicates a boy) rocked out the most.

After getting drunk on cheap-ass-karaoke booze and singing until the last trains were in danger of leaving, Minako decided to join the myself and Taisho & Hitomi for a sleepover. So we went back to their place, where the former three of us (Hitomi was too drunk on cheap booze) continued drinking. Then I remembered that I was exhausted and that I get sick if I try to sleep while I'm drunk. Good thing the exhaustion took precedence over the drunkenness.

Okay I lied, this description was way longer than it needed to be. Maybe because I was drunk when I wrote it. Or maybe because I like typing, and it's way easier to do it this way than to email people individually.


Song of the Month 2010.01 - VATLVA

First, some back story (I know right, words on my blog! weird!) to what you're about to experience. You being... wait, does anyone even read my blog?

My biggest dream in life (or at least longest-lasting one that I haven't given up on yet) ever since high school has been to make music. I'm really good at starting songs... but I suck at finishing them. I'm sure it's because I'm too critical of my own work. I'll be happy with a song, and then get stuck somewhere and refuse to move on with the song until I've figured out how I want to proceed. I'm also not a fan of letting people listen to anything I've written unless I'm completely happy with it. Which never happens, of course.

I spend so much time thinking about how much I want to do music, that I decided it's about time I actually do something about it. So my plan for 2010 is to "release" a new song, one per month, every month of this year. They don't need to be perfect... in fact, I'm sure they won't be. They just need to have a start, a middle, and an end of some sort. I would like to make a demo CD at some point, but the first step of that process is having songs. So by forcing myself to examine some of the old songs I've started and attempt to finish them, I'll be slightly closer to that goal. It's ridiculous how ambitious of an idea this seems to me... all I have to do is just make demo versions of 12 songs, and keep on working on them until I've decided they sound the way I want whenever I'm able to. 12 songs in demo form is better than 12 unfinished songs.

I already have a pretty clear idea of 11 of the 12 songs I want to unveil this year (and when I want to unveil them). I will give advance warning NOW so it doesn't seem like I'm making up excuses later... my song for July is both a gift, and has lyrics... so there's a pretty good chance I won't share that with the public. If I'm able to, I'll have a public-sharing song in its place, but it's very important to me that I finish that song, so I'm going to focus on it whenever I can.

So there you go. Please cheer me on, I could definitely use the support. Feel free to comment on any of the songs I upload, but please, be gentle. You all know how I pretty much never stop crying. Most of all, enjoy!


Song of the Month 2010 #1

Song title: VATLVA
Audio file:
Date Recorded: 2010.02.04
Equipment used: KORG DS-10, KORG D888

Concept: I started this song on the Mosquito Fleet school bus on the way back from Atwater, California, where we had gone to witness the Polini Cup Finals. Travis had recently picked up a KORG DS-10 for his Nintendo DS, as had Alan of Landsquid fame. I brought both of my DSes and 2 copies of the DS-10 along for the trip, so during the 36-hour bus ride home, Zach from Portland and Travis and I played around with our music toys. I think this song started as a parody of that cake video that the Landsquids destroyed our brains with... but it slowly changed into a collection of me playing around with random weird things. Eventually I grew to like this song, and it became one of several songs that I would work on regularly while walking to/from work. The title is, like most things in my life, a reference to something that means nothing to anyone other than Chris Salmonson and Brian.

Process: As my first song for this project, I realized that it's not going to be easy, but it IS going to be great for forcing me to work on what I want to work on. There are a few little details I need to work on, but overall I'm happy with how things sound. Various limitations to the DS-10 (for example, fading out a single instrument while changing patterns around is nightmarishly difficult) made recording the song difficult, but I also just need to practice it more. There is one more part that I want to add that will serve to tie various elements of the song together and provide a more interesting ending, but I ran out of time to practice it, so it didn't make it into the January version of this song. I'm probably going to be saying that a lot this year.

Comments: I almost had this thing out before February, but for some reason the "noisy" part on my DS-10 didn't work the way it was supposed to unless I stopped and started the song. So there are some choppy punch-ins in the song where I had to repeatedly re-record the parts I kept messing up. I suppose knowing how to use my mixer and practicing the song more would have made things easier. Oh well, I'm happy that I got through the end of a song, and I'm excited to continue working on this year-long project!