Freezing water and no bathing suits? Ahh, let’s jump in anyway.

Thinking back on my trip to Japan makes me pretty 懐かしい– nostalgic. I mean, we saw some amazing stuff. Mt. Fuji. Massive temples. Clothes-eating deer. The awesome giant Gundam statue in Odaiba, Tokyo.

One of my favorite days from that trip, however, was at a place I had never heard of. None of us knew this place before our trip. It was a little town in Hokkaido known as 小樽市 (Otaru-shi, or Otaru City) located by the sea. The city has been declining in population for several years, but is still popular as a tourist destination.

Nobody really knew what all this meant, but at this point in our trip, we had learned to just roll with it. People rarely knew what we were doing on our trip until the day before– our sensei, determined to take us as many places as possible, was constantly shifting and editing our itinerary.

In fact, I didn’t know we were going to Otaru until one day in Japanese class. The Japanese student I was practicing with told me,

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It’s the sad truth. Knowingly or not, our group was going, and we hopped the train to Otaru. I spent the hour-long ride enjoying the train signs.

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So, what is Otaru famous for? Well, it has a long history as a center of trade in Northern Japan. It was the site of Hokkaido’s first railroad line, even. You can still walk along the tracks today.

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Otaru was a center for maritime trade as well. The city has preserved the canals that ships used to carry goods back and forth from the warehouses. Today, it makes for a nice stroll.

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Otaru used to house a big bit of the Bank of Japan, but the building has since been converted to a museum detailing Japan’s financial history. Here, we got to see curiosities like old 1-yen bills.

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As a port city, Otaru is also famous for its seafood! We went to a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, as I’ve posted about beforeMy friend also nabbed some huge grilled prawns from a street vendor.

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As a tourist town, Otaru has plenty of souvenir shops as well. We encountered glass shops…

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…more glass shops…

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…and even more glass shops.

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Well, Otaru isn’t exactly like Cape Cod. I don’t think the Cape is famous for selling… music boxes?

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After looking around the shops for a while, we took a ferry out to see the 鰊御殿 (Nishen Goten, aka the Herring Mansion.) For some reason, our sensei encouraged us to feed the seagulls on the boat ride there.

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We discovered that admission to the Herring Mansion wasn’t free. So, we wandered along the shore for a while…

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When someone suddenly decided:

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None of us had bathing suits, of course. Also, Otaru is in Hokkaido. Aka Northern Japan. In other words: the ocean’s not going to be warm.

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It would be more accurate to say that the ocean was freezing. Did I jump in? You bet I did. I almost chickened out, I admit.
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Our sensei thought we were nuts.

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The other Japanese people in the area also thought we were nuts.

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Afterwards, we dried off, boarded the bus, and went home.

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The day we spent in Otaru is one of my fondest memories from Japan. Sure, maybe it wasn’t the flashiest city with the most impressive sights. But it was a day spent with friends, food, and our sensei yelling at the peeping Japanese boys. What more do you need?

What sensei told us: “You’re going to be walking in a parade!” What she should have told us: “You’re going to be walking in a parade for 7 hours straight!”

There’s this festival that takes place in Sapporo every year celebrating the Hokkaido Shrine. One of the ten largest celebrations in Japan, it takes place in mid-June to welcome the summer. The Hokkaido Shrine Festival, as it is creatively named (also known as: the Sapporo Festival) features a parade with floats, music, and four mikoshi (portable shrines) that are marched around the city.

I believe the mythology is that four deities reside in the Hokkaido Shrine: Okunitama, the god of the land in Hokkaido, Onamuchi, the god of developing the land, Sukunahikona, the god of healing, and the soul of Emperor Meiji. According to legend, these four deities ride around Sapporo in the four parade mikoshi. That way, they get to view the city, see how their people are doing, and basically check in on how the world is doing.

It sounds like an interesting parade. Luckily for my group, it was taking place our last weekend in Japan. We would get to see it! Right?

Not exactly.

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The sensei who led our trip was actually from Sapporo before moving to America. We discovered that she had all the connections. One of these connections was somehow getting the city to let we Americans march in the parade.

But not only were we marching in the parade…

We were:

  1. Pulling one of the floats.
  2. Wearing traditional Japanese yukata provided by the city.
  3. Going to not only be in the parade, but also be at the front of it, as the leading float in the whole shindig.

I still have no idea how our sensei pulled that one off, but she did. So, a few days before the parade, she took us to see the monster we were pulling…

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And then, unbeknownst to us, the people in charge of the parade also had a yukata for us to try on. They just wanted to make sure it fit. Our sensei heard this—and immediately shouted,

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So, once again, I found myself being forcibly dressed into Japanese clothing:

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After fitting several kids in the yukata– and determining what sizes would be needed– we were ready. A couple days later, the morning of the parade arrived. We woke up at the wonderful hour of 5 in the morning and bused over to the preparation building, where not just I, but everybody got prepped to look like a true Nihonjin:

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We discovered, to our great relief, that the float was actually pulled by a cart. We would only have to walk in front of it, symbolically carrying two ropes attached to the front.

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And the parade began! We walked…

…and walked…

…and walked…

…and walked…

What our sensei hadn’t mentioned was that the parade was going to last, oh, like seven hours or so. And we were all wearing traditional Japanese geta sandals, which aren’t the comfiest.

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At least the seven hours weren’t nonstop. We did have a lunch break in the afternoon, with free food!

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And I– don’t hate me for this– cheated at the end. At the very front of the parade were three rickshaws for paraders to ride in. Our sensei, unable to walk for so many hours, had cozied up in one the whole time. That left two available for us. I’ve never ridden a rickshaw before. This was my chance!

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The crowds that came out to see the parade were incredible! My gaijin group was especially ogled over.

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Walking with your friends, getting treated to breakfast and a buffet lunch, getting to wear traditional yukata, and being gawked at by passerby? It was super fun. I still have no idea how our sensei managed to hook us up with this. It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing.

So, at the end of the parade, sore feet and hungry stomach regardless, I felt extremely lucky.

Even the bruises from my tightly-wrapped yukata couldn’t bring me down.

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In which I go all-out-full-on-nude (in front of strangers, no less)

Time for more Japan!

While my group was in Sapporo, we took a break from city life to go to… well, another city.

This city, known as 登別市 (Noboribetsu-shi, or Noboribetsu City) isn’t very big– the estimated population is around 50,000 or so. It is famous, though, in Hokkaido. First, it’s part of 支笏洞爺国立公園 (Shikotsu Touya Kokuritsu Kouen, aka Shikotsu-Tōya National Park) which is famous for its beautiful mountains and volcanic calderas. Second, volcanic activity means volcanic hot springs– and, accordingly, 温泉: onsen. 

The term onsen, as I understand it, literally translates to hot springs. It can also refer to the resorts and hotels built around those onsenJapan is a volcanically active country, so there are lots of spots for people to build these resorts– and they might as well, since onsen are popular in Japan.

And we were going to find out why.

Our amazing and awesome sensei scheduled us to stay at Noboribetsu for a night! In an onsen, of course. We were all pretty psyched– at this point, we had been taking classes, meeting with conversation partners, and running around Sapporo nonstop! Even in Japan, we were ready for a break.

However, before I go on, I should say this about onsen:

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Oh. Okay. What are there, then?

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Yup. The Japanese usually go to their hot springs totally in the nude, not unlike Germans and their saunas. We were all aware of this. How did this make us feel?

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America is, for some reason, a nudefearing country, so none of us were used to, well, being naked in front of others. In addition, the Japanese are polite. Accordingly, we had a lot of bath house etiquette to learn before our excursion.

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This, more or less, is the lesson we received from our sensei. Despite our nervousness, we were still excited! I mean, every single manga has at least one hot springs scene, right? And, out of 18 kids, I’m pretty sure only two or three kids weren’t into manga/anime… so… that was that.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Before we got into any sort of onsen, we decided to tour the natural wonders of Noboribetsu’s volcanic landscape. More specifically, we took a hike around Jigoku-Dani, also known as

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The valley is home to a number of volcanic lakes and streams, leading to stunning scenery like this:

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And that steam is no joke! The water was scalding– too hot to the touch.

Though we didn’t get to bathe in the lakes, we did get to enjoy some of the naturally-heated water. Our group took a hike through the forest, where we encountered this:

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And, naturally, we took the chance to enjoy it!

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I could go on and on about our hotel, too. The traditional rooms with its sliding doors, low tables, and tatami mats. The luscious, Japanese-style futons. The open buffet with all-you-can-eat crab and miso soup and much, much more. Most importantly, there was an arcade in the basement with a giant Pikachu.

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But instead, I’m going to skip to the best part: the onsen.

The onsen.

Was amazing. 

We went in there at night, which was no problem– the baths open early and close late. There were two separate baths, one for women, and one for men. There’s an indoor section, with a number of different pools set at varying temperatures. We ventured there first.

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After puttering around there for a while, we noticed people were walking in from the outside. Meaning there was an outside. We decided to venture outside.

And it was…

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Photography typically isn’t allowed in onsen, for obvious reasons. I’ll try to make do with description: the onsen was softly lit, surrounded by graceful trees and rocks. It was drizzling gently outside, a nice cool contrast to the steaming water. There were well-placed boulders sticking out of the pools, serving both as organic ornament and a place to lounge. And, before I forget: there was a water slide.

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You know, words can’t do it justice. Instead, I’m going to put up some photos I found of our hotel. (Err, at least, I think we stayed here. The name of the onsen eludes me.)

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Three hours later, we were still there. And then, after staying up late, some of us woke up early to go again before we had to leave the hotel. Because it was just so… relaxing! Or, as the Japanese would say, 気持ちいい! (Kimochii— feels good!)

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I mean…

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It’s like any new experience– it may be uncomfortable at first, but you can have a great time if you just put yourself out there!

Literally this time.

So that night, I cozied up in my (hotel-provided) yukata…

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…and fell into one of the deepest, most satisfying sleeps I’ve ever had.

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I’d do it again anyday.