Journey to the Great North, kind of

The island of Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s main islands. It is viewed much like the Alaska of Japan: a mountainous frontier populated with wild animals such as foxes and brown bear. In winter, Hokkaido transforms into a legendary winter wonderland when the cities host snow festivals and the northern coast along the Sea of Okhotsk develops sea ice. That’s right, I said sea ice.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized that Japan’s Great White North was at a mere 44 degrees North latitude, which puts this drift-ice-laden island south of Portland and even Rome. It’s not exactly the North Pole.

The other remarkable thing is that Hokkaido wasn’t developed by the Japanese government until the 1800s, though there was of course a native population and remote outposts long before then. This means that the island doesn’t have the 1,000+ year old temples and other historical sites typical of Japan’s other islands. Instead, Hokkaido has farms and cities that are modeled after western countries, due in part to American agricultural consultants that were hired during the formal development years.

All of this gives Hokkaido a flavor very unlike the rest of Japan – and we had to go see it.
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Cherry blossoms and a samurai battle (just another weekend in Japan)

Whew, am I behind on updates or what? The past few weeks have been busy busy busy, what with my mom in town and all sorts of traveling and sightseeing to attend to. This time of year has more festivals than you can shake a samurai sword at, so my time has been spent doing “blog research” (nothing but the best for you) instead of on the laptop. Now that I’ve taken a nap and had a chance to sort through some photos, it’s time to work through some recent history.
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In search of ume and other signs of spring

Yesterday’s temperature was nearly 10 degrees C, which was a wonderful change from the cool, rainy days of the past week or so. I’m trying not to do mental conversions and just take the temperature scale for what it is, but for the sake of understanding, that works out to about 50 degrees F. It is definitely starting to feel like spring is in the air.

The ultimate signs of spring in Japan are the famous cherry blossoms that turn the country pink and fill every square inch of park space with revelers. While it’s not quite time for the sakura to make their appearance yet, we are approaching ume (plum) blossom season. I set out on my bike towards Meijo Koen in hopes of finding some early ume flowers.
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Welcoming spring at Setsubun

Today is Setsubun, or the changing of the seasons (in this case, the start of spring). I know you’re thinking, surely there wasn’t another festival so soon? Oh yes, there was. The Japanese definitely know how to celebrate! According to the traditional Japanese calendar, today was the day of transition from winter to spring. I don’t know much else about the traditional calendar, but I am a strong supporter of any system that bids farewell to winter in the first week of February.
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Nara City – history, deer, and a flaming mountain

This weekend we took a westbound train across the mountains to visit the city of Nara. Having been the capital of Japan from 710-784 (no, I’m not missing a digit there, I really mean the 8th century), the city is rich in history and cultural heritage. It was difficult to really get a grip on the scope of the history – I was contemplating this as I read the sign in front of the Five Storied Pagoda explaining that the original building was built in 700-something, but regrettably the one before me was a reconstruction dating from 1400-something. In the 1400s, my country was still an unknown “New World”, possibly off the edge of a flat world – and here, they were already rebuilding massive structures of historical significance. Incredible.
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New Years Eve at Atsuta Shrine

Happy New Year! We celebrated the last hours of 2011 with thousands of others at Atsuta Shrine in the southern area of Nagoya. This huge shrine is where Shinto practitioners come to pray and make offerings to the local deities. It’s an especially important place on New Year’s Eve, because many people come to pray for the upcoming year – for good health, financial success, etc.

Here are some pictures and a brief tour around the grounds of the shrine, as well as the party that started once it started getting dark…
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