festivals Hokkaido Japan JET Saroma

Of Typhoons, Pumpkins and Hornets

It was an exciting weekend. The Saroma Pumpkin Festival took place, as it does every year on the first weekend of September. Every night throughout the week I stopped by the snow removal center to help with the town hall’s float. This year’s theme was One Piece, one of the most popular manga and anime franchises of all time. In traditional fashion, the float was ambitious, a full size pirate ship and a whole host of elaborate costumes spanning nearly all the major characters in the series.


The completed float on Saturday afternoon, before the rain.

Talk frequently turned toward the weather. Typhoon 12 was slowy approaching southwest Japan, and we had no idea what effect it would have on our festival. The main event, the Cinderella Dream Parade, was to take place on Saturday at 6pm, so our fingers were crossed for clear weather for at least that evening. On Friday, while the typhoon was still centered more than 1,000 miles to the south, near Shikoku, Hokkaido was hit by massive rainbands from the outer edge of the storm. Saroma got four inches of rain in a 12 hour period – other areas got much, much more. By Saturday morning, the weather had cleared up, and with the typhoon still a thousand kilometers to the south, moving at a glacial 10 kph, we were all very optimistic.


The Saroma River on Friday afternoon.

Not only was this the weekend of the Pumpkin Festival, it was also the Eastern Welcome Party, which we carefully planned to occur coincidentally with the festival. HAJET and I received permission from Saroma for 50 ALTs to camp in the main park in Saroma near the gymnasium, and the Town Hall parade entry were excited to have several dozen ALTs walking with them behind the float, handing out balloons and participating in the fun.

But then, after a blustery, halfway sunny, spritzy day full of fast moving scud and fleeting suckerholes, dark clouds appeared on the western horizon. It was around 5pm, and from there, our plans basically laid down and died. The pumpkin parade was cancelled, and rescheduled to take place inside the Townspeople Center. That meant we couldn’t use our float. Some people seriously considered not performing at all so that we could reuse our float in next year’s parade. Meanwhile, 50 ALTs were standing around in a quickly darkening unlit BBQ house, already several beers into the evening, two rainy kilometers away from a festival with no parade. Back at my house were Yoshie and her parents. For a few hours, I ran back and forth between the park, the snow removal center, and home. I managed to get the lowdown on the festival plans (parade: not happening; fireworks: maybe happening; band: happening inside), change into my suit and costume, very poorly learn the group dance performance routine, beg and borrow the generator from the float and some lights, and haul them down to the BBQ house to save the foreigners from the inky black of night. All of this in time to make it back in time to dance arrhythmically, catch the kickass fireworks, down a half dozen beers, introduce Yoshie to all the important and great people I work with, high-five three dozen students, and make it back to the house to share some craft beer with Yoshie’s father and blow their minds with a Google Earth iPad tour of Palmer. It had turned out to be a crazy, but remarkably fun evening. We didn’t get to bed until well after midnight, an unusual occurrence for Yoshie’s parents.


My costume was a naval officer from the anime series, who enforces law and order on the pirate-filled seas.  The costume consisted of my regular suit under a borrowed labcoat from the Saroma Clinic with some cleverly applied yellow and blue tape for insignia.  The back of the coat said “正義” or “Justice.”


Saroma’s performance consists of attractice preschool teachers who know how to dance, and then the men of the town hall, who remain in the back clapping and swaying in an uncoordinated  manner.

But I wasn’t done yet. I had to go check on the generator at the BBQ house and make sure everyone was still alive. And of course, stay there until 3am smoking cigars and talking American politics with a very savvy Kiwi guy until the crowd of those still awake dwindled to a point where the generator could be shut off, and I could commence to chase my wet reflection home on deserted, drunken streets.

Then, on Sunday morning, I went outside and got stung in the head by a hornet. It hurt like a bitch and a half, and I was a little worried I might be allergic, since the last time I was stung was when I was 7 or 8 and stepped on a bees’ nest in the Palmer woods. Yoshie and her parents insisted I go to the hospital, so Yoshie drove me into Engaru, about 40 minutes away. I couldn’t believe how much my head hurt. The pain just wouldn’t stop. After 30 minutes, we went in to see the doctor. He looked at my head, asked me a few questions, and then said “Ok, we’re going to give you some medicine and put you on an IV.” Not only have I never had an IV before, but I had no idea how you said that in Japanese. So, like an idiot, I said “Okey doke” when he told me that. After I realized, I became more worried about the prospect of getting an intravenous drip for the first time in my life than I was about the darned hornet sting. It’s important to understand that this is an extremely routine and almost blanket treatment in Japanese hospitals. I’ve heard of people heading into the hospital because they feel tired, getting an IV for an hour or so, and heading home feeling pretty good. Well, it turned out to be a pretty enjoyable afternoon with my wife. I got to lie down and watch fluid drain into my arm while hornet pain stabbed through my skull, and in the company of Yoshie, it was actually pretty enjoyable. The whole situation was so unexpected, it became a novelty. She even took a picture of me.


There’s a first time for everything.

After the IV finished (I was very worried about air being inadvertently injected into my artery, so I pressed the call button for the nurse really early) we got some prescription cream for my head and paid the bill. After insurance, the total bill was 2,400 yen, about $30 bucks. The real bonus of the trip, that I can thank the hornet for, is that we grabbed kebabs on the way back out of town.

So, I didn’t get to participate in the parade, my ALT friends didn’t get to participate or enjoy the festival at all, I got stung in the head and missed the whole main day of the festival, but I actually had a pretty great weekend.  And today, Mr. Ikeda from the town hall came out to my house in his bee suit and took out the hornet nest that had been in my shed.



festivals Hokkaido Japan Saroma travel

Saroma Pumpkin Festival 2009


This weekend marked the 22nd annual Pumpkin Festival here in Saroma.  It’s by far the biggest event of the year, with the whole town coming out for a weekend of festivities revolving around the famous local pumpkins.

The Pumpkin Festival weekend kicks off every year on Saturday night at 6 pm.  As it gets dark, the Cinderella “Dream” Parade begins at the Town Hall and ends about two hours later at the Citizen’s Center where there are fireworks, vendors, and a band.  That’s right, the parade lasts two hours, enough time to allow each group in the parade to do a performance at several locations throughout the route.  These are elaborate performances, with costumes, choreography and fantastic floats.  People spend weeks preparing for the parade and it’s definitely the main event of the festival.

bike festivals Japan Saroma travel

Okhotsk Cycling 2009

Okhotsk Cycling

Make that the International Okhotsk Cycling 2009.  Including myself, there were three non-Japanese among the 982 participants.  Good thing we participated, or they would have had to change all of the signage.

Over the weekend, I rode 212km (132mi for those in the dark ages) over 2-days with 981 other people, by bicycle, along the Sea of Okhotsk from Oumu to Shari.  It was good.  Kind of weird, but good.

There are some definite advantages to riding with such a large group.  When you ride alone, you usually don’t have a cheering crowd and different refreshments in each town you pass through, nor brass bands and cheerleaders performing for you when you depart.

When you’re alone, though, you can go as fast as you want.  You can stop whenever you want.  You don’t have to listen to Mr. Sato from Sapporo’s misaligned derailleur grind along for kilometer after kilometer.  You don’t have to wake up at 4 AM if you don’t want to.

The race entry fee and the fee for the town cycling club trip to the race and back was 24,000 yen ($260).  For that, I got:

A ride and bike transport to Oumu, luggage transport from the start to the finish, a place to stay for two nights, two breakfasts, two lunches, two dinners, and quite a few cans of beer.  Fresh milk, cheese, and sports drink jelly in Okoppe, more sports drinks and snacks in Mombetsu, ice cream in Kamiyubetsu, hard candy and dried scallops and barley tea in Yubetsu, bananas and juice in Saroma, bread, tea and juice in Abashiri, and potatoes and butter in Koshimizu.  I even won a gift box of various kinds of sugars in the drawing at the end of the race.

Overall, not bad.  A good way to meet other cyclists, drink beer, experience the different towns along the coast, and generally have a good time with other people.  I also got to show off my weird bike and all my cycling gear, including the cool Alaska “gold rush” license plate jersey my parents got me.  Check out this picture: (don’t I look cool?!)

Me and bike

English festivals JET Middle School Murakami


teacher meToday I ended my six-day week with an 80 minute lesson for my middle school’s annual culture festival. Over the past few weeks, I managed to overprepare while still squeezing in a good amount of procrastination. My goal for the lesson was to have students practice natural greetings. “I’m fine thank you” is perfect English, but it’s boring as hell and the students know it by rote, not by creative, situational choice. First, I taught simple greetings, like “yo, hey, howdy, what’s up, whassup, ‘sup, what’s happenin’, how’s it goin’, what’s goin’ on.” I made the students form a circle and pass some balls around to the right, each time saying one of the greetings, which I had magnetized to the board for their reference. Second, I taught answers to “How are you” besides “I’m fine, thank you.” “sleepy, awesome, great, OK, so-so, super, good” all topped the list. I also showed them which words could be intensified by “really.” I then made them toss one ball across the circle from person to person, after which the tosser and tossee would have a little conversation. They weren’t allowed to answer “I’m fine thank you.”

festivals Murakami travel


You never get enough ketchup for your fries here.

I actually just have some catchup to do. Good thing I didn’t spell the post title ‘catsup.’ What a stupid spelling.

Back in August, I went to a festival in Sekikawa (25 minutes to the south by car) called the Taishitamonja Matsuri. The name is a pun – taishita means huge or significant, mon sort of means the thing that is huge or significant, and ja is a slangy negative sentence ending which sort of indicates disbelief. Cleverly, though ja also means snake. So the effective nuanced meaning is something like “The most unbelievably big snake I have ever seen Festival.” It holds the world record for the longest big huge snake that people carry around a town. Yes, people carry around a 300-foot long, 2-ton snake for several kilometers through the town, all the while chanting and drinking beer and trying to make the snake crash into bystanders. I finally put up the pictures from this interesting event.

Check them out: Big Huge Snake