Snow in Manila? Check out this Manila Cathedral snow sculpture!

There were a lot of amazing snow sculptures at the 66th Annual Sapporo Snow Festival, but the most intricate and artistic of them all was the replica of the Manila Cathedral. How would you rate the resemblance? I was brought back to a much warmer place when I first saw this sculpture a few days ago. Everything from the cross to the stained glass windows to the figurines and Latin script on the front was dead on. I was very impressed. Here is a comparative photo.

Manila Cathedral

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Star Wars Light Show at the Sapporo Snow Festival

This was my favorite snow sculpture at the 2015 Sapporo Snow Festival. Darth Vader and company stood over 30 feet high and were truly remarkable works of art. Each evening at regular intervals, they came alive with light and sound, making a very interesting and memorable light show. Enjoy!

Japanese Temple Projection Mapping Show

Take a journey through one of Japan’s most famous temples courtesy of this spectacular projection mapping light show at the 2015 Sapporo Snow Festival in Sapporo, Japan. Taken with a GoPro Hero 3.

2015 Sapporo Snow Festival: Day 1

Festivals in Japan are some of the most interesting and unique events that take place yearly in Japan. Filled with pomp and circumstance, travelers from all over Japan (and the world) come to these world class events where street food is king. The Sapporo Snow Festival in Sapporo (largest city in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island) is no different. One of my friends and I made the journey up from the Kansai region last week to see why there was so much fuss surrounding this winter festival. After four days, we know why it is such a big deal.

Things all started off at Kansai International Airport with an afternoon flight bound for Chitose International Airport. After a brief delay, we were off and safely in Sapporo after a short flight. I was very excited because I finally made it to one of my two most elusive Japan travel destinations, Okinawa being the other. Once we stepped off the plane, we were greeted with a blast of cold air before hopping on the JR train for a forty minute ride to our capsule hotel, located between the two largest festival sites.

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After a short transfer, we boarded the Sapporo Subway which had impressively wide and spacious cars, joined by very large glass doorways. This is very different than anything I have seen on trains anywhere else in Japan. DSC01430

Next up was check-in at one of the famed Japanese capsule hotels. No matter what you have heard or read about them, the Hotel Refre in Sapporo was a cut above the rest. I have never stayed in a capsule hotel that was as nice as this one or had as many amenities as this one. After showing up with our reservations in hand, I navigated the Japanese-language check in and my friend and I were off to quickly put down our bags and head off to the Susukino Ice sculpture site after finding a bowl of hearty ramen along the way.  Things changed when we found out that the hotel had a very nice onsen, spa, sauna, and steam bath. We wandered the halls for a bit and then were off to start our adventures.

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Our walk for dinner greeted us with some familiar, yet unfamiliar winter things, mainly snow and ice. Having grown up in the Northeast and Midwest, we were accustomed to snow removal, snow plows, plowed streets, and clean sidewalks. Sapporo, as we were to find out, skipped the plowing and shoveling. They even skipped salting the walkways!

Snowy Streets

Anyone who reads this website will quickly find out how much I love meeting new people when I travel and how much I enjoy sharing stories with them. Tonight was no different. As my friend and I approached Sapporo’s famous ramen alley, a soft, American, voice and a tap on the shoulder greeted us. We took photos for her and then she took this photo of us before parting ways a few minutes later. Little did I know, but we would be encountering her again later in the evening.

Ramen Alley on a blustery Thursday night in Sapporo.
Ramen Alley on a blustery Thursday night in Sapporo.

We walked past several crammed ramen shops, including one boasting that Anthony Bourdain had “come to the here” before settling on our final location at the end of this slice of egg noodle paradise.

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At our final destination, we enjoyed some frosty mugs of the Hokkaido-only Sapporo Classic beer and a bowl of spicy ramen. The bamboo stalks and hard boiled eggs which were a part of this broth are what made it the best ramen we ate on this street. The service was also very nice, too. Our server did his best speaking in English and we used Japanese to fill in any communication gaps. It is nice to know that as people come and go the good stores stay and continue to do good business.

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With a full belly and a mouth still hot from the spicy broth, we headed to the Susukino Site, home of the snow festival’s ice sculptures. The Sapporo Snow Festival is broken into three different sites. Odori Park, the most famous site, houses the snow scupltures which tower over visitors, some over 40 feet tall. The Susukino Site boasts many fantastic ice sculptures. Finally, the Tsudome site hosts many children’s attractions, a snow removal experience, and ice and snow slides for visitors.

Much to my surprise, the Susukino site was dominated by alcohol advertisements turned into fantastic works of art. They are surrounded by various anime characters, dragons, and other spectacular carvings and sculptures. Here were some of my favorite photos out of the set. We even ran into our new friend from California as we traversed this icy landscape.

I will never forget the two sculptures that were waiting for us at the beginning of this journey: The gate made of frozen fish, and the wall filled of frozen crabs and fish. I had never seen anything like this.

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We retreated to our hotel after a long day and prepared for what ended up being a very eventful second day at the snow festival. More to come soon.

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A Solemn Walk

A Solemn Walk

Yesterday I had the pleasure of capturing this image in Nara, Japan, on Coming of Age Day where women who turn twenty years old wear their kimono, put on their best makeup, and go to the local shrines and temples. While there were many kimonos to be photographed, this was my favorite photograph I took of people during the day.

This is a scene which would be hard to replicate outside of Japan.

Into the Izakaya (居酒屋)

Last night, three of my friends and I had a great experience in the most quintessential of all Japanese dining and drinking establishments, the izakaya. People back at home in the United States or outside of Japan may be familiar with the word “izakaya”(Japanese – 居酒屋) and know it is similar to a Western bar or pub, but it is so much more. Last night’s experience at one of the local izakayas in Kobe was an experience I certainly will remember for a long time to come. 

The hustle and bustle of Kobe’s Sannomiya neighborhood is similar to what you find in any of Japan’s major urban centers: people on every street corner yelling for customers to frequent their restaurants, twinkling neon lights glistening on every square inch of storefront, bustling night life, and convenience stores on every corner. I really love urban centers so I like the hustle and bustle of living in one of Japan’s largest cities, but last night was a distinct change of pace merely paces away from all of the glitz and glamor of Kobe’s most lively neighborhood. 

As soon as you reach Ikuta Road’s terminus, you encounter the JR Railway’s overhead tracks which support trains bound for Osaka, Himeji, and a host of other places in the Kansai Region. Directly underneath those tracks is one of my favorite back alleys in all of Kobe. Lining this narrow alley, I encounter what I consider to be quintissential Japan. There are small shops with bicycles and greeters out front, eagerly luring potential customers to their (non-chain) restaurants, izakays, and stand up bars. These storefronts have lanterns shining and large banners and flags outside saying what their stores offer. 

Last night, my friends and I ventured into an izakaya on this street and after we parted the cloth curtain in front of the Japanese-style sliding doors, we entered a place that is the type of place I always image when I think of Japan. 

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There was a large sushi counter and bar right past the main entrance. Older men smoked cigarettes and discussed the past and bygone eras while salarymen unwound from a long day’s work in the nearby entertainment district. Japanese-only menus lined the walls of the store while vacated seats were quickly filled by new parties eager to have a cold Kirin Lager and enjoy some a la carte items, which are standard fare in the izakaya. The atmosphere in this izakaya was electric – men yelled for servers to refill their beer, I yelled for more karaage (fried chicken) and some shrimp sauce, and a couple seated behind us were on a date. 

The combination of the smoke filling the restaurant, the unique aromas coming from the kitchen, the sounds of orders being placed, customers leaving and entering the restaurant, and patrons calling for their next plate all make the izakaya a memorable experience in Japan. American izakayas do not compare to the energy at the izakaya last night. 

I have attached a few pictures to help you feel the mood of what we saw. They do not give the izakaya the justice it deserves. 

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A Kimono in Kyoto

A Kimono in Kyoto

I took this stunning photo on a bridge in Arashiyama, just west of Kyoto, Japan, on Saturday, October 12, 2013. The scenery at this location was truly remarkable, but having the chance to take this candid photo truly made my day. The perfect peach color of her kimono and the bow coupled with the mountainous scenery makes this a photo I will never forget. Erik Jacobs (c) 2013

Sights and Sounds from Elementary School Sports Day

Last week, I had the pleasure of participating in my Japanese junior high school’s sports day, or in Japanese, 体育会 (taiikukai). It was an unforgettable experience where I took part in the teachers relay against the ninth grade students, joined the teachers for a game of tug of war, and even participated in the traditional Japanese game called kibasen (騎馬戦) where four three people hoist another person above them and engage in mock horse battles. The sights and sounds from this day were remarkable, but my elementary school sports day was even more remarkable. 

On Satuday, I arrived at my school around 9:00AM for the start of my elementary school’s undokai (運動会)and quickly realized how it would be a much different affair than the junior high school sports day in several ways. First and foremost, the size of the crowd was much larger and the sports yard was much smaller than at the junior high school. The subsequent effect was a feeling of more energy and excitement packed into the school yard for all of the day’s festivities. The other main difference was that boys and girls participated in the same events and there was less of the segregation that was present in the junior high sports day. I observed this almost immediately when the elementary sports day started. 

Following an interesting and memorable march into the athletic field under different Western marching songs and the presentation of colors to the head principle at the school, the students took charge and the sports festival was underway. 

Each grade participated in different games and dances/activities that were highly scripted and extensively practiced for the last several weeks. For those of you that went to school in America, you know how lackadaisical people were about field day (if your school even had one), so I was so impressed by the intricacies of the dances and the techniques therein. The second graders did dances and all had different colored gloves. The third graders did a special set of paired dances with hoola-hoops. Fourth graders did synchronized dances with jump ropes and the fifth graders had an amazing synchronized dance to traditional Japanese music. The whole spectacle, much like the junior high school day, was very impressive. After watching both sports days, I wish we had a similar day in the United States. The kids took such great pride in their school, themselves, and their class. 

Sixth graders took part in kumitaiso (組体操), which consists of several calisthenic  exercises which eventually build up to human pyramids and human towers at the end of the event. It was impressive to watch sixth grade boys and girls form pyramids that were six or seven rows high! 

From there, several competitions amongst the students took place. Relay races, games played with throwing balls through hoops, and knocking over targets all were featured prominently. During this time of the day, I mingled with some of my junior high students who have siblings at the elementary school and also chatted with some of my coworkers. It was a great bonding and relationship building experience. 

The final event, and most memorable one for me, was a game in which the students rushed to pass a massive ball over their heads around the 200-meter track with the goal of seeing which team could rest it in place first at the end. Following several failed attempts (and one that almost led to one of the tents being flipped), the white team was able to put their ball into the final position and win the day’s last event. All of the kids were so excited; their screaming, yelling, and frantic jumping to make sure the ball never hit the ground was the highlight of elementary sports day for me. The below photo captures the excitement of the final game. 

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 Next on the horizon for both junior high and elementary school is the culture festival, happening towards the end of November. 

Please leave your comments below the article! 

Japanese Sports Day (体育会)

This weekend, my junior high school in Kobe had its sports day festival (体育会 in Japanese), which is something unlike any event that I have ever seen or witnessed in the United States. For those of you who went to school in the US, imagine something along the lines of field day and combine that with pomp and circumstance and traditional games and activities. The whole day is something I will never forget. 

For the past three weeks, my school and my students had tirelessly practiced, rehearsed, and reviewed for Saturday’s festivities. I did not understand why so much preparation was going into the event, but after witnessing it all unfold, I have such a great appreciation for all of the sacrifices that were made in the weeks prior to the sports festival. 

The whole day started very early on Saturday as I joined other teachers in setting up the seating for parents and neighbors out on the dirt school yard. Once that was finished, the opening ceremony and other festivities finally began. All of the homerooms made their own flags and marched in formation around the “track” on our school yard. As the students marched, Western-style military marches were played to help the students keep in step. It was a remarkable thing to see. Everyone was in step and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. 

Once the opening ceremony was finished, the games began. From relay races to traditional dances, I enjoyed watching the games even though I did not understand what was happening at all times throughout the day. Prior to lunch, our students did some amazing human formations during what is called kumitaiso 組体操。The students made certain synchronized body movements with their hands and arms and then continued on to make human pyramids and towers. No one fell and no one complained about being on the bottom of the pyramids; I will not forget watching it all unfold. 

Following a traditional Japanese bento lunch, I returned to the school ground and was asked to participate in the traditional game they call kibasen (騎馬戦). I was thrilled to be asked by some of the students to participate and willingly joined along for this game. Kibasen is a game where three people hoist a fourth person into the air and walk around the school yard, with the actions and movements mimicking those of a person riding a horse. Once all teams have one of their members atop the “horse,” the teams charge towards each other, with the end goal of removing the hats from opposing teams. I will never forget being a part of such a traditional and enjoyable activity like this. I spoke with many other people who are teaching English in similar situations across Japan and none of them had the opportunity to participate in games outside of the relay, let alone kibasen! I am grateful for this opportunity and will never forget taking part in the game!

My experience with kibasen and being a part of sports day was memorable and is something I will never forget. Everything from the perfect weather the synchronized marches and the traditional games made this an unreal experience on all levels. It was also great to meet many of my students’ parents, as well. 

Below is a photo of me taking part in the kibasen game with some of my students. とても楽しかったです!

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