Tuesday, November 29, 2011


I hesitate to say this in such a public place, but there is a deplorable epidemic in the otherwise polite and orderly Japan. The problem of which I speak is the utter disregard for signage indicating which side of the walking path is for walking and biking. I was quite sure that when I went to Tokyo there was an understood rule to walk to the left, but here in Sapporo, apart from the escalators (stand left, walk right), everyone just seems to walk wherever they please. Considering the number of bikers and walkers on the path that I take every day from the bus and subway station to school, this lack of order is unacceptable. When we first arrived, it was still a mystery as to which side to walk on and the only way to know was that in the mornings there was a man standing with a sign saying "keep right" (add one to the list of least satisfying and most pointless jobs). After about a month, nice clearly visible signs were added to the path itself showing obviously human shaped marks keeping right and exceptionally accurate bicycles keeping left (though of course this doesn't stop the guy from holding the sign every morning).

Even with this addition, everyone, bikers and walkers alike, walk and bike whichever way the wind blows, which has a tendency to be toward the wrong side of the path. Gone are the days of the Confucian ideals of adherence to social order and norms. Alas, I fear that these disorderly actions may be a sign of coming societal collapse and I can only pray that I am out of the country before it falls into a state of ruin and chaos.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Chocolate Factory

On Saturday I went with Hanako, Mackenzie and her host sister Yui, Dai, and Julia to Ishiya Chocolate Factory which is apparently pretty famous and has delicious and fancy chocolates. Sweets in general are really fancy and plentiful in Japan and I'm continually amazed at how often my host family and other Japanese people get them, whether it's a slice of fancy cake or a box of fancy sweets. One reason is probably the amazing amount of gift giving that is customary in Japan. It seems that whenever you visit anyone's house or return from a trip you're supposed to bring them a gift, typically one of those nice boxes of sweets. I honestly don't know how they afford it between the high transportation costs (gas prices are pretty much double those in America) and other expenses.

Anyway, we were going on the same day as HI-C had organized their own trip, but we just went earlier and didn't tell anyone, luckily getting back without running into them, though it probably wouldn't have been a problem if we did. Outside the factory was a place to walk around that had little houses and other fairy-tale looking decorations. It would have looked really cool with snow or flowers blooming, but today there was neither. There was however an apple tree that had sensors that triggered a character to pop out of its hiding place and say "I wouldn't touch that if I was you!" in English if you tried to reach in and grab an apple. And at certain times there was a show where automated moving characters came out on the side of the buildings and danced and sang while bubbles shot out from a few different places, fake birds sang and moved, and even one of the trash cans swiveled back and forth to the music. It was definitely more Willy Wonka inspired than I expected.

On the inside, there was a museum that seemed to have no common theme and included old toys, sports stuff, famous singes, model trains, and Star Wars action figures. The paid self-guided tour started out the same way though with a bit more relation to chocolate, with a "hot chocolate cup room", a "package room", a "package label room", and random stained glass and a fountain mixed in. From there it became more of what you would expect from a chocolate factory and had a tunnel that looked like it was made of chocolate with educational videos on the making of chocolate. Then, most interestingly, you could look down through windows and actually watch the chocolate being made and workers doing quality checks as it went by. There were several similar areas where you could watch people work too, which together with the Willy Wonka style music show made it more interesting than the Hershey Chocolate Factory in Pennsylvania as far as I was concerned.

Check out the rest of the pictures here!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving Dinner

Yesterday we had a fairly big Thanksgiving dinner planned for which almost everyone was going to make something and then serve to our host families. Since my cooking skills are limited to sandwiches and pop-tarts and since I'm always busy and/or tired I managed to avoid making anything and just helped out with other people's stuff occasionally.

Things seemed to be going passably well for some of the afternoon, but you could tell the state of things was declining by counting the number of "does this smell burnt to you?"'s per minute. And indeed, almost everything got burnt at least once. But in spite of that we had a pretty wide selection of not bad tasting things: deviled eggs, chicken and beans, beef stew, stuffing, broccoli and cheese casserole, banana banana bread (double banana intentional), and some other desserts. Everyone who made something introduced their dish in Japanese, most interestingly being the deviled eggs introduced literally as "the devil's eggs". In addition to the devil's eggs, there was hot chocolate from the heavens and that casserole that seemed to have gotten singed in a war between the two.

Afterwards we cleaned up for quite a long time and had quite a lot of leftovers. Seriously, those clean up and set up times totally weren't worth it in my opinion. Even if I was capable of making delicious food I think I'd rather just get something cheap and easy. Guess I'm not really a food person; I still just eat because I have to.

In other news, I finally got to hang out more with the neighbor kid from my host mom's cram school on Wednesday. As expected, we played a buttload of video games including Smash Bros. Melee, New Super Mario Bros. Wii (totally forgot that had a super fun coin battle mode), Pokemon, and Call of Duty: Black Ops. All the gaming tired me out pretty quickly though (and I was feeling a little unwell) so I ended up going home early instead of going with them to a sushi place for supper. Unfortunately I didn't get any pictures there though. Sorry.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I went with my host mom to Maruyama today which is known for a ski jump used in the 1972 Olympics, Hokkaido Jingu (Shrine), and a zoo. First we went to the ski jump and rode the lift up to check out the view from the top.

I'm pretty sure if I went off that I'd die.

While I was there I got a taste of America in the form of an ice cream float, though unfortunately there's no Root Beer here. There is, however, Melon Soda, which tastes a lot like Cream Soda, which I don't like.

It was sunny when we left the house but by the time we were heading back down the lift it was raining so we hurried into the sports museum that was there. They had typical winter sports stuff on display and more interestingly, interactive games/simulations for ski jumps, ice hockey, speed skating, and bobsled.

After that we went to a pretty fancy French restaurant and had some pretty fancy and very delicious food.

After that it had finally stopped raining for the most part so we walked over to Hokkaido Jingu and took some pictures of the pretty trees and shrine interior. It was a pretty standard shrine which had a place to wash your hands and mouth with purifying water before entering (which we didn't do), a place to buy charms for various good luck (in work, health, love, childbirth, exams, +1 resistance against fire, increases special attack vs skeletons, etc.), a place to insert 100 yen to get a fortune on a piece of paper and a corresponding place to tie up your bad fortunes. Also a place for writing your wishes/prayers on a piece of wood and hanging those up and a place for tossing a coin, clapping, and saying a prayer as well. There were quite a lot of things that cost more money that you would think but I guess they probably help pay for the upkeep of the place.

And yeah, that was about it. Here's the album.
Edit: No, I didn't go to the zoo. It was too rainy or something.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Nobody Knows (Daremo Shiranai) Movie Review

Nobody Knows (誰も知らない) (2004)

This review is a few weeks late, but in my film and Japanese culture class we watched "Nobody Knows" (Daremo Shiranai). The film is based on a very publicized and rather horrific incident of child neglect and abandonment that occurred in Japan in the late 1980s. The gist of it is that a mother of four children, aged between five and twelve years old, hides the children in an apartment and then leaves them to fend for themselves, giving the twelve-year old some money to last them until she returns. But she doesn't return and the situation gradually deteriorates until one child is dead and the others are malnourished and have an uncertain future.

What makes this movie interesting is how unique the cinematography is. It's less like a normal movie that has a plot with a climax, ending, and obvious progression and more like a documentary following the daily lives of the children, particularly that of the oldest son, Akira, the only one allowed to leave the apartment. Much of the movie is filled with repetitive scenes of Akira's daily activities, often with dull colors, little dialogue, and no music. Watching it does not feel like watching a movie, but like actually living Akira's life. But for such a depressing premise, the reality is that Akira (and thus, you the viewer) is rather emotionally numb to the situation and goes about his life in a zombie-like state, doing what has to be done to keep him and his siblings alive. Occasional moments of emotion where Akira is able to act like a kid again are brought to life with colors and music, though these events are few and far between and quickly fade back into the grays of daily life. The intentional lack of emotion in this film is very unique and is done expertly, but as such it is also a chore to watch. By then end, the viewer is left unsatisfied, uneasy, and with lingering feelings for which the director did not give any sort of cathartic outlet.

It was interesting to see a movie so well made and so unique and yet not enjoyable, even in the sense that sad movies can be enjoyable. It simply was. Its purpose seemed to be to inform people that cases of child neglect like this exist and does so by making the story into a normal-looking, everyday life sort of story, communicating that this was not a one-time extraordinary event. That is the movie's one goal and it does it very well, but if you are already aware of the existence of child neglect, I can safely say that there is no need for you to watch this movie. Sad movies can be enjoyable, but Nobody Knows is just uncomfortably numb.

Friday, November 18, 2011

First Snow

Yesterday we got our first significant snow accumulation! *waves arms in the air* Actually, to be honest, I wasn't all that excited. It just meant being colder, wetter, and having more people on the bus.

The roads near my house were surprisingly uncleared too.

Although those roads weren't very clear, I did see on TV a couple times that there is a train with a plow on it that really eats up and spits out the snow. I'm not sure if it's something new or if it's just famous and they show videos of it every year or what.

The walking/biking path to school was worse.

Then after class, a snowball fight had erupted in the middle of campus and some of the students were waiting to ambush us as we left the building. It was quite a cruel and intense fight and the snow perfect for packing. I pretty much just watched and stayed out of the way.

Afterwards I went with some people to Bikkuri Donkey (Surprised Donkey), a restaurant chain that is known for its hamburg (not to be confused with hamburger). I was surprised by the reasonable price and welcomed the wondrous cheesy and meaty flavor. The warm and relatively familiar food was definitely appreciated after walking there through the snow.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Elementary of Surprise

Today I went with several other of the English-speaking study abroad students to visit a Japanese elementary school. We first saw a class sitting in a line outside, perhaps out for recess or leaving for a field trip. They all had matching red caps on which is something that elementary school students often have when they go out as a group, I assume so that the teacher can easily identify which students are his own. After removing our shoes at the door and putting on guest slippers, we made our way to meet who I think was the principal. Although we removed our shoes, most of the children were wearing indoor shoes, just the same as normal shoes but worn only indoors so that they remain clean and keep the building clean as well. In the principal's office we got a quick rundown of the schedule and were served hot tea even though we only had less than a minute to drink it before going to meet the students.

Walking down the empty hall, we could see a room full of students at the end of the hall and when they saw us coming they cheered, getting louder as we got closer. It felt like being a celebrity going out on stage to perform. Once there, we introduced ourselves in simple English: "Hello." (enthusiastic "HERRO!") "My name is Ryan. I'm from Pennsylvania in America." ("America!" *clap clap clap*) "Nice to meet you." ("Nice to meet you!!"). For some reason I was the first to get a round of applause and they seemed to think it was amazing that I was from America, though so was everyone else with the exception of Tom (England) and Julia (Canada). From there we split into pairs and each accompanied a 6th grade class back to their room for English class.

Our teacher was enthusiastic and fun, but he didn't seem fluent in English. But for the topic at hand, telling time, he was more than sufficient and seemed like a great teacher. We helped out by asking students what time they get up in the morning and by telling them what the time was where we're from. We also read a conversation that they would normally listen to from a CD about the time differences in different countries. The classroom was pretty normal and had the usual chalkboard, desks and chairs, and educational posters up on the wall. One cool thing was that the windows were decorated with Mario characters, items, and blocks. The class was pretty big but surprisingly well behaved, compared to how difficult it is to get all six cram school kids (who are in middle school) to pay attention. I heard from the other people afterwards though that their classes were much rowdier.

After class, we went to the gym and taught the classes English games like Simon Says, Red Light Green Light, and Duck Duck Goose. Simon Says resulted in confusion and disinterest. Red Light, Green Light resulted in people running a little too long after the red light and nobody having the heart to tell them to go back to the start (or in one case, the kid just refusing to go back). Duck Duck Goose seemed to work fairly well but I don't think anyone ever was able to tag the "it" person and my class didn't get to play it for very long. At the end of that, we did a big game of Simon Says with all the kids while we did it on the stage. It wasn't a total failure but when we started adding in things like doing two actions at once and then stopping one but not the other, there was a unanimous "wut". Basically, Simon Says went over like an analogy comparing cinderblocks and pretzel rods, that is, not well and with confusion.

After the games, we returned to our classrooms for lunch which was delivered on a cart and was distributed by the students (mostly just the female ones, but that might have been a coincidence). Those who were helping with the food tied a bandana over their head like "Cooking Mama" and passed out the milk, rice, fish, seaweed stuff, and soup to everyone as they walked past. Everyone had their own cloth placemats on their desks as well and each group of students (the desks were put together in groups) competed with rock paper scissors to see who would get to sit with Maggie and I. We talked a little and asked simple questions while we ate. When I said I like video games, the girl next to me started asking "Do you like Mario? Zelda? Do you have Nintendo 64? Do you know Zelda: Ocarina of Time? Pokemon?" and they seemed to be impressed that I knew all of these games. I also got them all laughing by making a funny face where I stretched my lips out. At one point, one of the kids tapped my back and asked if she could touch my hair. They also thought that Maggie's hair was cool since it had some purple in the front.

After lunch, the kids all worked together to put the chairs on top of the desks and push the desks to the side of the room while other kids swept the floor and cleaned the erasers (they have eraser cleaning machines outside the rooms!). Then it was time for us to leave so we said goodbye to everyone and went back to the college.

Full album here!

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Today I took a somewhat long ride on the bus, subway, and train with my host mom to Otaru. On the way we were able to see the ocean too (actually, it was probably technically just a bay). Otaru is a fairly popular tourist spot which is famous for its handmade glass and music boxes as well as some sake breweries and sushi shops. The first thing we went to see was a big store filled with fancy music boxes as well as less fancy music boxes. Before coming I considered music boxes to be appropriate in only a few situations: old fashioned toy shops, times of reminiscence (usually involving a flashback to one's childhood which progresses the plot), and in horror movies. These music boxes though, had a range of music from the good old classics to the Beatles and Studio Ghibli film scores. Of course they all sounded like music boxes and if I had been there alone at night and heard the cacophony of different tunes playing, it probably would have been a little creepy. But as it was, I ended up finding it more interesting than I expected.

From there we meandered down the street and stopped in at a character shop, which had various Disney and Studio Ghibli products. After that we went into this place that for some reason had tunnels of ice with things frozen in the them as well as beds and slides made of ice.

Then we went to an apparently somewhat famous cafe called LeTAO and had a super good dessert thing and tea. After that we spent a while walking around and looking in shops, many of which had handmade things and fancy glassware.

After we had our fill of the main Otaru street, we took a bus to Otaru Tenguyama, a mountain that is also used as a ski slope during the winter. We took a ropeway up to the top and enjoyed the awesome view while eating awesome seafood gratin.

Check out all the pictures in yet another new album!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Children's Hall 20th Anniversary

Today I went with my host mom to the place where we read the picture book to the kids, a jidoukaikan (児童会館) which means Children's Hall apparently. It's like a sort of public day care / place to bring your kids to hang out and play. Today they were celebrating their 20th anniversary and quite a few parents and children came for the occasion. I'll put up the pictures and videos at a later time but basically they introduced all of the people who helped with the place, then there was a picture slide show (with the Totoro theme music playing), then some kids played recorders and danced. After that there was a rather impressive and funny juggler / magician who performed for a while. The event ended with the opening of a big gold party ball which showered confetti and released a "Congratulations" banner. Overall, it was quite a bit more fun and interesting than I was expecting. And as I said, I got some pictures and video but haven't uploaded them yet. But since I'm going to Otaru tomorrow and will probably have more to write about that I figured I should get this written up before I get swamped.

Edit: A few photos are now up in the Japan 2011 album!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Historical Village of Hokkaido

It's 11/11/11! Here in Japan, some are using that as a marketing scheme and calling it Pocky Day (since 1s look like pocky). I don't think I'll be buying any more pocky than usual though.

So here's something random: when you're doing a speech or presentation in front of a lot of people and you get nervous, instead of imagining everyone in their underwear as might have been suggested in American schools, you can try the Japanese method which is drawing the kanji for person (人) a few times on your hand and then pretending to swallow them. As should be obvious, you will have now consumed some of the audience and will have less people to perform in front of. Or something like that.

After class today, I went with Mackenzie, one of her host sisters, and Hanako to a/the Historical Village of Hokkaido, a recreation of one of the first Japanese towns on Hokkaido. Also, apparently this and several other tourist places are free to overseas students, so that meant I got in free. The first thing I noticed was that even though we went in the afternoon, there was almost nobody else there. There weren't very many employees walking around either so we just went into various old-fashioned buildings on our own and walked down the main street which had a railroad track with a horse-drawn cart on it going back and forth. In one area was a playground with old toys to try including stilts, tops with string, and the good old hoop and stick.

Close to there was a place where someone helped us make little noise makers out of some household objects. In the same building were other toys and games that kids would play with including kendama, puzzles, a pin the tail on the donkey sort of game, a paper sumo wrestling game, and a game where you had to toss a bunch of sticks in the air and catch them all together again.

From there we checked out part of an old dormitory for Hokkaido University which was pretty spiffy as well. And that's about all there is to say about it.

Check out the full album here!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Ryan's Laxatives of Despair (Calligraphy)

Today me and almost everyone went to a calligraphy class that we signed up for at the beginning of the semester. I was pretty impressed to see how nice everything was. We weren't just using a calligraphy pen, we had a brush and ink to dip in and a cloth to put under the paper and a metal bar to keep the paper in place.

At first it was kinda frustrating because I couldn't get things to look how I wanted them and because we were just practicing with simple kanji. Though in retrospect some of it doesn't look half bad.

Then I started doing more serious things like how my host mom's friends decided to write my name in kanji that one time and words like "honor" and "wisdom".

And then I and some of the guys around me decided to start just doing random words from my dictionary. Nick did "niku" (meat) because it sounds like his name. Chris did "sky" + "walk" which he said meant "Skywalker" (as in Star Wars). Tom did "natural gas" and some other really random word from my dictionary, and I did "despair", "laxative", and "digestion". Seeing the reactions of the Japanese people was pretty funny too; everyone was laughing at the unexpected kanji we were writing.

And at the end we displayed them up front and showed off the ones we made one at a time.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Pottery and BS Television

Last Saturday I returned with my host mom, Daisuke and his coworker, and Nick to the pottery place to finish what we started last time (Mackenzie was going somewhere that day so she went on Sunday). Our pottery had since been cooked (or whatever it's called) and was now a white color. We painted blue "anti-paint" on the bottoms and then dunked the whole thing in a paint color of our choice. The "anti-paint", as I call it, kept the normal paint off of the bottoms. And that's about all we did there. Today I returned and picked up all of our pottery which was now shiny and fabulous. Mine wasn't quite the perfect circular shape that we all dream of, but with the paint it still looks pretty spiffy.

Of no relation to that, last night my host dad printed out instructions for how to play shogi, a Japanese board game that resembles chess. The instructions were in Japanese but he did a good job of explaining the basics to me too, though of course his explanations were also mostly in Japanese.

Also, tonight I finally asked him to explain more about how Japanese TV worked. I had learned that on the remote you could get to more channels by switching between "[something something]D" and BS, and there was also a CS button next to them. If I understood correctly, the one with the D in it is digital channels, BS is like an analog broadcast sort of thing, and CS is extra channels that you have to pay for. Both digital and BS had seven free channels that all seemed to come in perfectly clear. I explained to him how American TV worked (how most people pay for extra channels and we just have digital now) and also why having a news program called "BS News" was amusing in English.

In class we're having a bunch of tests most of this week again which means less homework at last. Also, rumor has it that from now on there will be less kanji to memorize for each quiz, which is very good news for me since I've been barely keeping my head above water with that (actually, by most people's standards, I wasn't even doing that). So if that's the case, I'll mostly just have to worry about the speech at the end of the semester and having bad days that coincide with large amounts of homework.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Yesterday's sheep + Hokkaido University and Genghis Khan (Jingisukan)

Yesterday I went places with my host mom! First, a small but delicious tempura restaurant.

And then a place with a bunch of sheep and a museum about the Sapporo Snow Festival.

And then a sweets shop (there are a lot of them in Japan) that had really red vines and really yellow flowers on the building.

And finally to a place that had a bunch of really red trees and other plants.

Then today I went with Mackenzie and her host family to Hokkaido University, one of the top universities in Japan where Mackenzie's host father works. Right now there's a road that has a whole bunch of ginko trees that are all yellow and so a lot of people go there to see them and take pictures.

We also went to a museum on campus and a bread shop and just walked around. The campus was quite big and very pretty.

Then we went back to Mackenzie's house to eat and study kanji for a long time... and in the evening we went to Sapporo Beer Garden for Genghis Khan ("Jingisukan" in Japanese), meat and vegetables that we grilled ourselves on Genghis Khan's helmet-shaped pans. We got paper bibs and there were also plastic bags to put our jackets in so that they didn't get infused with the smell of cooking meat, though I personally don't see why that would be a bad thing. It was very delicious.

Check out the full album for lots more pictures!
And the Japan 2011 Album for yesterday's sheep and stuff.