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Friday, February 25, 2011


On March 1, it will be exactly six months since I landed in Japan, and on March 7, it will be six months since I first set my foot in the city of Kyoto. During these six months, I have been telling you all kinds of different things about my experience in Japan, but I have touched very little on the topic of the city that I live in. Let me tell you more about it.

You should know, if you have been reading this blog carefully, that between the years 794 and 1868, Kyoto served as Japan's capital. You should also know that it is located in central Japan, in a region known as Kansai. It lies about an hour northeast of Osaka, Japan's second biggest city, and an hour north of Nara, Japan's oldest permanent capital. Kyoto is surrounded by scenic mountains to the East, North, and West. These mountains not only provide a picturesque view of the city, but also act as its natural borders. Thanks to this topographical feature, Kyoto is not as big as Osaka or Tokyo which lie on enormous flat plains near the ocean. In fact, wherever you are in Kyoto, it will not take you more than forty-five minutes to walk to the nearest city's edge and disappear into the surrounding hills.

Now let me tell you about the things which you may not know. First, because of the fact that Kyoto was Japan's capital for over a millennium, it contains many old, beautiful buildings. These are usually Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, but there is also a castle and an enormous imperial palace complex. Though these buildings are old, there are rarely any which are older than a few hundred years. This is because many times throughout its long history, the city of Kyoto was burnt down by fires, destroyed by wars, or both at the same time. Even though the Japanese took many construction technologies from the Chinese, they did not take over the use of bricks, but instead built their buildings of wood and covered them with paper walls. Thus with any major fire, the whole city burnt down to ashes, and then had to be rebuilt only to be burnt down a few years, decades, or centuries later. Because of this, there are only a few buildings which are actually a thousand years old and even the buildings which claim to have a thousand year old history are mere replicas built after the last time they burnt down. This, though, does in no way take away from their beauty. The most famous structures in Kyoto are the Nijo Castle, the Kiyomizu Temple (the pictures of which I used to accompany two of this blog's entries), the Golden Pavilion, the Silver Pavilion, the Meiji Shrine, the Kamo Shrine, the Kamigamo Shrine, the Shimogamo Shrine, the Enryaku Temple, the Nanzen Temple, the Tenryu Temple, the To-ji (also a temple), and so on and so on. There is, as you can see, little point in me listing any of these buildings' names as they will mean little to most of you and because the list would be inexhaustible. The point is that wherever you go in Kyoto, you are bound to bump into a temple or shrine within the next one minute, and into one listed by UNESCO as a world heritage site every half hour. Literally.

Despite having all these old, pretty temples, shrines, castles, and such, Kyoto is also known to be the city of modernity. By this I mean that these old buildings are mixed with modern glass buildings which serve as the headquarters of many famous companies. The most well-known one is Nintendo, every Japanese teenager's first love. Another well-known one is the advanced ceramics producer Kyocera, in Japanese 京セラ, which literally means Kyoto Ceramics. There are numerous others, more or less known, such as Intelligent Systems, which produces games for Nintendo, or Kyoto Animation, another animation and game developer. Kyoto is also famous for its film and Manga industry, both of which attract many foreigners into the city. Two other buildings of note are the Kyoto Tower and the Kyoto Station, both controversial because many people see them as too modern, not fit for a historical city like Kyoto.

The point is that Kyoto is a city of contrasts, a place where the old and the new meet to create a unique mixture unseen anywhere else. Old and new buildings stand next to each other and people wearing Kimono are almost as frequent as people wearing suits. In fact, the city promotes its centuries old identity by providing discounts for people who are wearing a Kimono. If you wear a Kimono, you get discounts on all kinds of things, from taxis to dinners in expensive French restaurants; a smart way of investing money into the city's beautification.

On March 1, it will be exactly six months since I landed in Japan, and on March 7, it will be six months since I first set my foot in the city of Kyoto. On February 27, it will also be exactly two months before I depart this amazing place for my beloved homeland. Because there are so many places in Kyoto that I would like to visit before this happens, I have created a checklist for myself. This checklist is, just like the number of potentially interesting places in Kyoto, almost infinite. Every day since I created this checklist, I have been trying to visit at least one of the places on it, but with every place I erase from my list, I add two others, getting one point closer and yet one point farther away from my goal.

By now, however, I have visited more places in Kyoto than most of my Japanese friends who have been living here for three or four years. They all have the same excuse as to why they did not explore the city too much: there is always a next time, they say. However, because their time in Kyoto as well as their lives are finite, and because the list of interesting places in the city is not, I hope for their own sake that they will one day be able to say that they really lived in Kyoto. Kyoto, however, is not the only interesting place in Japan or around the world. Whatever place on this planet you are in, I am sure that there are many interesting things to see and do. More, in fact, than you will ever have the time to visit. Therefore, go out and explore! It will be worth it in the end.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hokkaido, Take Two

One of the largest snow constructions at the Sapporo Snow Festival, featuring Sapporo's two symbols, and owl and a fox. Courtesy of Irene Hofstetter.

During the week of Feb 7-13, high school seniors from the Kansai area as well as from the rest of Japan flooded the Imadegawa campus as Doshisha University held its entrance examinations. Because they had been working hard to prepare for the exams, Doshisha granted the stressed high-schoolers a quiet environment by sending its students on a week long vacation. In fact, for the Doshisha students, a month and a half long spring break started that day, while we at the AKP got just a week of vacation. Though far not as long as the Doshisha break, I took advantage of the opportunity and visited for the second time in my life the snowy island of Hokkaido with four other AKP friends. We spent two days in the city of Sapporo enjoying the atmosphere of its famous Snow Festival, and then went off west to the renowned Niseko ski resort, where we enjoyed three days of amazing powder skiing. Let tell you the whole story.

Every February for the past sixty-two years, the city of Sapporo has been regularly attracting over two million tourists from all over the world. They all come for one main reason: they want to to see with their own eyes the amazing snow and ice statues exhibited at the week-long Sapporo Snow Festival (札幌雪祭り). The conditions for the festival are ideal: Sapporo is the biggest city on Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, and thus gets very cold in the winter, and is also large enough to absorb the visiting crowds. Designed by American architects during the last third of the 19th century, the city resembles an American city by its uniform grid system as well as by its young age. The majestic Ōdōri (大通), or Great Street, leads through the city from East to West, and serves as the main exhibition ground for the festival. The festival is a great way for companies to make money: during the week that it takes place, the prices of accommodation in the city virtually double, as does the price of transportation to the island. Nevertheless, I still decided that since I am in Japan I should not miss out on such a wonderful opportunity, and became one of the two million tourists who visited the festival this year. The festival features many ice and snow statues impressive in both their size as well as level of detail. These are built well in advance by artists from all over the world, including those from countries which I doubt get any snow at all, such as Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia. The artists use no backward technologies: armed with electric chainsaws, hot air blowers, and flame throwers, they cut through the ice blocks as if they were butter. Among the statues are huge snow castles and ice stages, a museum of ice dinosaurs, a park full of cartoon characters, an animal zoo, and an enormous area full of small random statues built by all kinds of festival sponsors. Though the statues are still beautiful to see during the day, they reveal their true beauty at night when they become lit by various colorful lights. Next to the statues stand hundreds of petty food and souvenir stands, selling anything from mulled wine and sausages to cigarettes, T-shirts, and toys. The rest of the space is filled by ice slides, heated smoking corners (though surprisingly no heated non-smoking corners), a skating rink, and an enormous ski jump featuring flying snowboarders every other hour. As one would expect of Japan, the festival is extremely well organized. There is a large medical tent in the middle, the snowboarding events start on time, hundreds of policemen regulate the traffic, and after a snow flurry, the statues are always cleaned into a perfect condition. To be sure, the organizers left nothing in the hands of fate, making the festival a truly supreme experience.

One of the stages at the Festival, featuring the Lion King in the back. Courtesy of Irene Hofstetter. 

An ice pavillion. Courtesy of Irene Hofstetter.

One of the statues at the Dinosaur Museum at night. Courtesy of Irene Hofstetter.

Cleaning the same dinosaur after a snow flurry. Courtesy of Irene Hofstetter.

Workers building an ice slide. Notice the chainsaw. Courtesy of Irene Hofstetter.
Two of the many large smoking spaces: the one on the front is an ice building, and the one in the back is heated. Like I said earlier, too bad they had not heated non-smoker spaces. Courtesy of Irene Hofstetter.

A boarder at the show. Courtesy of Irene Hofstetter.

After two days spent in the confines of Sapporo City, our group of five made its way west to the famous Hirafu ski resort in the village of Niseko. Located on the slopes of the 1308m tall Mt. Niseko Annupuri, the Hirafu resort is not famous for its size, which can not outmatch that of the resorts in the Japanese Alps around Nagano, but for probably the fluffiest powder snow in the world. Also, Niseko is known for being located next to another mountain, the imposing Mt. Yōtei (羊蹄山), an active, 1898m tall volcano in the shape of a perfect cone, resembling closely Mt. Fuji. The Niseko resort is so renowned that not only does it attract residents of Nagano, but also a sizable international population. Interestingly enough, the most represented country at Niseko is Australia. With no exaggeration, the number of Australians at the ski resort probably outmatches the number of the Japanese! They not only come for vacation, but also to work here during the ski season. There are Australian-owned restaurants, there are Australian employees at the hotels, Australian ski instructors, and even an Australian Cultural House. Indeed, the Australians love skiing in Niseko so much that some of them even left their recently flooded houses in Queensland and came to ski instead. One of them clearly explained his priorities to me: "My house got all flooded, but I don't care until I'm done skiing, mate!"

The view of Mt. Yotei from the ski lodge we stayed at.

Before I went to Niseko, I expected the ski resorts to be filled with people. However, to my very pleasant surprise, despite the fact that most Japanese universities are out of session and the fact that two million people were in the nearby Sapporo, the lines at the lifts were close to inexistent, and the amount of untouched powder snow close to infinite. After one night of an all-out snow storm, the skies cleared out and hundreds of powder-hungry skiers and boarders including myself woke up early that morning to get the most of it. First we rode what was served by the lifts, but the most exciting attraction was the opening of the top of the mountain at 10a.m. No lifts led there and thus everyone was forced to hike from the top of the highest lift. By 10a.m., the count of people in front of the gate to the top reached over three hundred, and the atmosphere could only be compared to that before the start of an important marathon or Olympic race. After all, the first prize was worth more than gold: a ride from the top to the bottom of Mt. Niseko Annupuri through an infinite field of powder snow, with a prime view of Mt. Yōtei. When the gate opened, the powder-hungry crowd started started to quickly make its way up to the top of the mountain. When looked from far away, the scene must have looked like a skier exodus. The hike took me approximately twenty-five minutes, and despite starting from the back rows, I was the fifth person to reach the summit. I wasted no time, put on my snowboard, and became the second person to board down that enormous powder field. Literally, there was no one in front of me but a powder heaven all the way down the mountain. The three or so minutes it took me to board down the slope were probably the best ones of my career so far. At one point, I paused and looked behind, only to see a hundred or so skiers and snowboarders screaming out loud with happiness, leaving their tracks in the powder, transforming it into ugly moguls. Within ten minutes after the first skier went down, the powder on the top of Mt. Niseko Annupuri was completely gone. Luckily the rest of the ski area offered lots of glades with plentiful powder, and the overall experience was absolutely stunning.

In the nights we would cook our own dinners because it was too expensive to go to the restaurant. Afterwards we went to relax our muscles to the Onsen (温泉), or public bath, and also made some Australian, Japanese, and European friends along the way. In all the senses of the word, our time in Hokkaido was an unforgettable experience. When I returned to school on Monday, I was sad to find the campus almost empty, with most students gone for the next six weeks-probably for a Hokkaido vacation. And the moral of the story? If you ever get the chance, do not hesitate and make your way to Hokkaido; it will be more than worth it.

The line in front of the gate to the top, at approx. 9.45a.m. By 10a.m., the amount of people waiting probably more than doubled.

The only half-decent picture on the way down from the top, taken with my phone. Unfortunately I put my finger in the view.

Me almost on the top, with Mt. Yotei in the back.

Riding some pow.