Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Snowman Construction

For someone living in the northern region of Japan in Nagaoka - one of the region where it snows the most in Japan, I should be too-familiar with the white snow every day. Ironically, for all the time I have been here, I have not made a single snowman at all yet; not even when I was away for my ski trip last month. During the Nagaoka Snow Festival held in my place recently, there was one event which was part of the snow festival called 100 だるま大会 (Hyaku daruma taikai) or literally, "100 Dolls Contest".
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There was not many people who participated in the snowman building contest on that day. The heavy snowfall must be one of the reason why people chose to stay away from the site.
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When I was there, there were only a couple of families who were working hard on their dolls.
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Since I will be at the festival site until it got dark to catch the night illumination and not having much thing to do, I decided to give a try on building my first ever snowman. I signed up my name, gathered all the required tools that were provided to us, which I would be using them and picked a spot to start my snowman construction.
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While walking to my spot, I walked passed many kinds of snowman in various shapes, sizes and names. Surprising enough, most of the teams built stuffs other than snowman. The closest one that resembled a snowman that I could recall was the model of one of the most famous Japanese anime character, Anpanman.
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As for the rest, they opted for animals, like rabbit, bear and even frog.
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Bugs Bunny who is overweight.
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Winnie the Pooh without his honey pot.

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No idea already what is this lah.

The one that left me reminded of the kiasu syndrome was the gigantic snowman built by a team who named themselves Sorimachi. Now I know that Japanese can sometimes act like Singaporeans as well. They can be sure that no one would be building something bigger than their Snowman King.
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All this while, I thought building a snowman is as easy as building a sandcastle. Nevertheless, it was much more difficult than my initial expectations. To prepare the base is one thing, to gather enough snow to make the body of my snowman is another thing to consider. A complete novice like me had to resort to looking at those little kids on the correct way of making a snowball. A perfect snowball that won't fall to pieces when I attach them to the other parts. After putting tiredless effort on my snowman, I finally came out with one which unfortunately, looked more like a cat.
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The most impaired snowman you will ever see.
You know, the cat drawings we always draw when we were in our kindergartan and primary years. Two circles, one big and one smaller, with a tail and two ears, plus the whiskers. My cat snowman however, looked otherwise. Laugh as much as you want. It deserves your laughter. I know my snowman doesn't look as nice as how a snowman should look like, but this is only my first try.
So, give me a break lah, okay?
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Still, I am not sure whether to call it a snowman or a cat without whiskers until today.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Mexican Night

There was one time that I mentioned how pissed off I was when I was left stranded in one station not very far from where I am currently staying. Kashiwazaki station was that old and small station that I was left with no choice but to overnight there during one part of my summer holiday last year.
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Last weekend, I returned to the very same place - the town of Kashiwazaki, pinning all my hopes that the same thing would not be happening again. Putting hopes on something is one thing, but whether it will happen according to what you wanted it to be is another thing. Pretty exactly to my earlier anticipation that something bad could be repeating to me once again, I was greeted with some gale-force winds in the middle of the chilling snowing night. That was the last thing I would have hoped for.
Anyway, the reason I went to Kashiwazaki was because I was invited by my English Oral Communication lecturer in my college, Mr Mort to join them for some party. If you hadn't heard of Mr Mort before, I have blogged about this American lecturer a few times before this. He is currently living in Kashiwazaki with his family and he does some teaching sessions with the local Japanese in that neighbourhood who are interested in learning some basic English in a centre called Eikaiwa. Apparently, they hold a party every month at the centre and the public are welcome to join in.
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Mr Mort was already at the main entrance of the station when we got there and he guided us to the Eikaiwa centre. Along the way, tragedy stroked. An old man, in his sixties lost his footings on the slippery surface in the pedestrian walk and he remained lying down for some moments there. We didn't hesitate even a second and immediately crossed the road to get into him with two other passer-bys as well. We got him up and asked him whether he was okay. Fortunately, nothing serious happened to that grandpa, who was on his way to the train station. He rested for a while before some people helped him to get himself to the station, while we continued our walk to our destination.
This time I paid extra attention on every single step I took after witnessing what happened to that grandpa. However, another similar incident happened, just right in front of us - this time it was a young girl who slipped in such a stylish way that I reckon that she have had practised her fall many times already. We got that sexy girl her up and continued our walk once again. We had turned into something of the rescuers of slippery-fall victims.
The walk would not have been that long if not for the two incident along the way. After walking for 15 minutes, we arrived to the centre. It was confines in between the shop houses and was quite a small place. The people who have been there greeted us and we have short chats with them, while the girls were busy preparing the food in the kitchen. After everything was ready, Mr Mort had a short talk, thanking all who came. It later continued with a short prayer before we start walloping the food. Unlike my fellow senpai, Randy who got "tricked" into a church, I am not a Christian but I have no problem with them having a prayer before a meal. There is nothing wrong for me to just bow down while they are praying. Every religion has its own prayers and to be fair, we Buddhist by right should pray before every meal, just like the Muslims and Christians, though it is not a compulsory practice for us.
Putting that aside, we started enjoying the meal prepared. It was an opening for us to get to taste some new food other than the daily Japanese food we had here. The Mexican wrap or simply referred to as tacos, was some sort of wrapping a capatti with various filling inside, such as minced meat, onions and tomatoes, mayonnaise, tomato sauce and sliced cheese.
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Similar to the Mexican wrap, paella, a typical valencian rice dish from Spain, has not much difference either. Taking a few bites on it and you will sense the variety of spices and herbs in the cooking. The Spanish rice we had was identical to nasi tomato, but the one we had was a bit moist and excessive use of tomato sauce which made having sourly taste.
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While we were feasting on our food, the kids were having their own fun within themselves. Never in my life that I ever encountered a kid that is so comfortable with me, that she will run herself to anyone without having to call her over. That was until I met with the 7-year-old daughter of Mr Mort. I didn't have to ask her to hug me as she will do that to whoever she feels like doing to.
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The one in front on the left without both of her bunny teeth is the the friendly girl I mentioned, while the centre one in the background wearing a green shirt is Mr Mort's second daughter.
This is the two brothers who I was responsible to block their way at the stairs.
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The younger brother, who was in a red jacket, was the friendlier of the two.
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As for the rest, there were at upstairs playing with their children game. The boys were busy gambling with their cards game;
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While the girls were playing masak-masak jigsaw puzzle, which I helped them to solve it at one point.
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We left the event with one question unanswered. We were curious on why all of the three kids of Mr Mort there don't look like an American at all - they all look really like rojak. The second daughter looks like a mix between Japanese and Chinese, the third spotted a Spanish look but someone told me she looks like Malay, which I could not disagree with; while the last one looks like a pure Japanese. It wouldn't get us into so much curiosity if not for the fact that Mr. Mort’s wife is an American. Both of us were discussing about that on our way home and the most probable would be those children are adopted. I however, came out with a foolish hypothesis. Since Mr. Mort and his spouse have been living here for almost two decades, perhaps the weather here has changed his cells and genes, and hence his children look like Japanese.
I know the former is the one that make the most sense out of the two.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Yuki Akari

雪明り (Yuki akari) which literally means "the light of snow" was the theme of one of the events during the recently held Nagaoka Snow Festival in my place. It was similar to that which is held in Hokkaido; the only difference being the fact that it is in a smaller scale.
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In recent years, it appeared that this is a major attraction of the annual snow festival. If it wasn't for the heavy snow, it would have made the atmosphere just perfect to spend a night there despite the chilling conditions. It was a clever idea by the Japanese to utilise the surrounding which is covered with snow by making rows of holes and later lighting candles in those holes.
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At some spots, they even made the holes come in double layers.
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The feeling being there was serenely beautiful and it didn't come to my surprise that there were many couples were spotted spending their sweet moments holding hands there. It wouldn't get any more romantic than this, with the snow flakes falling down on that night. As for the rest who thronged that area, it would be photography enthusiasts who ignored the freezing wind blowing that night to have their best shots on the illumunated scene from the candles.
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As one of the events for the earthquake recovery invocation, this annual event doesn't fail to attract thousands of visitors each year. This illumination event was cancelled a few years back due the to bad weather but fortunately enough, the weather was rather kind this year. Besides the setting up of candles in the holes, there were also triangular monument made of fibre. To have them going along with the candles, it felt like spending some time in a fantasy land.
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For a person with a cheap camera and without a tripod like me, it was not a simple task not to come out with disappointing blurry shots. The snow, which got heavier as the night progressed didn't make my job any easier. The freezing temperature which I was kept under, made me lost my touching sense on the camera shutter. My numb fingers couldn't even press properly on the shutter and there were several times that I thought I had pressed on it, when the truth is that I haven't do that.
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It should have been better if not for the snowing weather because the fireworks display which was due for later that night was postponed to the next night. I couldn't return to the same place again as I have had another event on that night. It was a disappointment to me for not getting to watch the fireworks display.
However, I know there is always another year for me.
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By the way, that is the word 愛 (Ai) or "Love" at the end of the rows of candles.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Nagaoka Snow Festival

One interesting fact about Japan is that they have various kinds of festival throughout the year. There is hanami (sakura sight-seeing) in the spring, hanabi (fireworks festival) during the summer and momijigari (maple leaves sight-seeing) when it is autumn. Come winter, there will be skiing, snow boarding and snow festivals throughout the country, especially in the northern region where it snows at a large scale.
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Over the couple of days during the last weekend, there was a snow festival in Nagaoka. They called it 長岡雪しか祭り (Nagaoka Yukishika Matsuri), which means Nagaoka Snow Festival. The weather suited the theme of the festivals itself as it was snowing heavily for the whole day. However, when it snows too much, then it will make it unconvenient for people to mobile around the festival site. The matter was made even worse as I went there wearing my sneakers and not my pair of boots; I was practically walking in a soaked socks all day long.
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Since I know I was almost wet the whole body, I thought of why not I have some fun with the soft mountain of snow. While I was walking in one part of the area which is covered with a large amount of snow, I deliberately made my whole body fall onto the snow. Almost one-third of my body was buried in the snow but I didn't get to eat any snow.
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Doing free-fall on the snow however, was not the main reason that made me went to the snow festival. I was there for this.
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Well, it wasn't exactly to have picture taken with the famous Japanese hero. Apparently, there was an Ultraman show in the main hall, which has an interesting name - Hive Nagaoka. This is the same hall in which I experienced an earthquake.
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That Ultraman show aside, there were some other performances as well. Traditional song by some well-known local singer, which I have no idea whatsoever who she is. Not to say that I have interest in classical music, but hearing to her singing that day made me had some eerie feeling, as if I was watching a Japanese horror movie.
Nevertheless, it got better afterwards.
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It was some drum performances by a group of students, comprising of those from secondary school and high school.
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The drums, or taiko as how it is called in Japanese, are nothing different from what we normally see back home during Chinese New Year celebrations. They come in several shapes and sizes, depending on what kind of beat or tempo they want it to be. There were four songs altogether, one each to depict every season of the year.
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When it got dark later that day, there was another drum performance by a different group, this time in the middle of a park called Music Forest with the snow still falling heavily outside.
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Back to the main hall, besides the stage performances, there were stalls being set up. Most of them sold local products like fresh vegetables and snacks while the rest were food stalls. Nothing really caught my eye, but one stall was selling some bun-like thing. It looks like paos and I decided to give it a try. The ingredients inside was some kind of seaweed but I wasn't very sure myself of its name.
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Suffice to say that it didn't suit my taste bud.
What I have explained above doesn't seem to have any relation to a snow festival, isn't? I shall show better stuff from now on, which are of some snow sculptures. The first one is of a puppy, which is the main character of the recently released movie entitled Mari-to koinu. It was adapted from a real story about a puppy who saved the life of the entire family members of its owner during the huge earthquake that occured in Niigata four years ago.
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As for the second one, I couldn't make of what it was. Personally, these snow sculptures is nothing when you compare to those in the annual snow festival in Hokkaido, but at least this offerred some consolation for someone who couldn't afford to make the trip all the way there like me.
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Besides the two huge snow sculptures, there were some activities for the kids as well. They use huge tyre for the kids to slide down the slopes made of snow. If it wasn't the fact that only kids are allowed to get onto that slide, I would have tried it myself.
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They even provided a less steep slope for toddlers to join the fun as well.
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There were a session called 空からの餅 (Sorakara-no mochi) or "snacks from the sky".
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They used two tractors to lift up a few people about 15 meters above the ground and from there, they will throw various kinds of snacks such as sweets, rice cake and groundnuts. The children must be the one who had the most fun as much as the adults from this thing. I joined in the hustling as well. While each of the kids went back with at least a bag full of snacks, here is what I got.
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Even having such height, the kids were way better off in catching snacks from the sky than me.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Snow Grinder

A few days ago, I was mentioning how much it has been snowing in my place, which continued for several days and making the snow accumulating quite high at most places. It got better this morning and this gave the authorities of my hostel the chance to so some snow-clearing work at certain places where the snow is obstructing the way. Initially, there were a group of students from the hostel committee who tried to clear the snow themselves using simple tools like big spade and some trolley-like equipment, but to no avail since the snow was way too much for them. They hardly made any progress in clearing the snow away; in fact, I guess they only managed to clear one percent of the whole area. It is certainly not a simple task when the snow is as high as one meter, and sometimes even reaches the waist level of some people.
The holiday had officially begun at my place today and this is the time when almost all the students staying in the hostel will be returning to their hometown. Bearing in mind that this will be the spring break which will last for seven-long weeks and when they return in a month’s time, most of them will be given a different room, they will take back their entire stuffs home. The atmosphere in these few days in my hostel is like there is a huge shifting carnival going on.
Hence, the thick snow on the road will certainly be an obstruction to the shifting process. The authorities must have known how the students from the committee had failed in clearing the snow using simple tools. This morning, one group of the authorities came with a red tractor which would be used for clearing the snow away. Even using such a huge machine, it took quite some time for them to make a way to the side-door of the hostel. The mechanism of the machine is similar to that of the tractor used when farmers are harvesting the paddy at the paddy field. The ground snow is later released to the side of the tractor. In other words, it is just like a giant ais kacang grinder.
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The will be no way out from the door on the top right if they didn't clear the snow away.
Just the suitable machine to use when you are having an ais kacang party.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

My Blog Turns One

My blog turns one today.
If it wasn't for the Chinese New Year celebration more than a week ago, I would have forgotten about this. I only recalled it since I started my very first entry in the wee hours of Chinese New Year last year. Since then, I have covered quite a wide range of topics although my main intention when I first started my blog was to keep in touch with my families and friends back home. In this entry, I will take a look and reflecting at a few highlights from the past one year.
I used to get questions like how could I keep updating my blog on a frequent basis, considering the rather hectic daily schedule I have. That apart, I was also asked how could I find something new to blog almost every other day without touching on similar topics. I guess the idea just comes out randomly most of the time in which I will find the most suitable way to present it in my entries. When I first started blogging, the entries were mainly based on happenings and articles which I see from everywhere. But it evolved into something different since I came to Japan when I mostly blog on my daily life here and the different way of life and how the Japanese look at things which I encountered in this new place. That is when I come out with some lame entries which were still well received by the readers, to my surprise. One of it would be the toilet story when I thought that it would be better if I hire PCK Pte. Ltd. to do the job for me then.

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At times, some of my entries was labelled as contoversial because I didn't consider about the sensitivity of the group I was poking fun at. The one that I could recall instantly would be the sushi and satay story. Please do not click on the link if you can't take lame jokes. It was never my intention to refer that to anyone but some people have taken it seriously, which is why I have toned down quite a lot since then. On a different note, coming to a new country have let me experience a few new things that I would never get the chance to do so back home. You won't get the chance to be hit by a magnitude-6 earthquake and skiing in the snow back in Malaysia, will you?
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How about the amazing fireworks display which is an annual event in Nagaoka? I guess there are not many other places that you can get such an huge and breathtaking night atmosphere. The on-the-sea fireworks in Miyajima was equally beautiful as well. Who would have thought that it is possible to launch fireworks from the sea, isn't it? The harmonic music that followed along every launch of the firework made me run out of adjectives to describe the beauty with my limited vocabulary. Nevertheless, it was just a great experience to see something like that.

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In between here and there, I will also blog about my travels around Japan and the short trips we had among the foreign students in my college. During the last summer break, I have gone to a couple of summer excursion which was really exciting and I learned several new stuffs along the way. That is the period when my blog entries were filled with tons of travel logs. Getting myself to the location when the first atomic bomb in the world was relased at Hiroshima was really an eye-opener to me; besides having the chance to visit some famous shrine in the old city of Kyoto.
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How the city has changed since.
The second part of my summer holiday to Hokkaido was no less exciting either. Every town and city I went seemed to has different thing on offer. The romantic canal in Otaru, the historical buildings in Sapporo, the lavenders in Furano, the Ainu village in Noboribetsu, and the famous morning market in Hakodate. The best thing that I could take from writing these travel logs is that I will be able to recollect those experiences in the latter stage of my life.
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The crab in Hokkaido is damn huge and sweet.
My blog took a different change of dimension late last year, when I returned to Malaysia and getting to meet her. Since then, I guess some of my entries might had made a few of you feel like puking. Yes, they are some who actually came to me and told me personally how they felt about those entries. Ironically, it is these people who will return here every time if they are not feeling well and feel like wanting to puke out. I have no idea whether I should be proud for doing such community service by helping people to make them feel better after coming here and puke out.
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Anyway, it will become an endless list if I were to mention each and every single one of you who has been a frequent to my blog and giving their unweavering support until today. I am aware that there are a number of silent readers out there as well who has been following my blog, especially my senpais. That is why sometimes I will be put into a shell-shock when they suddenly quote something from my blog entries to me. Here is just a simple request from me to these silent readers. Hope you guys could leave some short messages once in a while so that I will know who are actually reading my blog. Doumo arigatous.
Putting that aside, I has made quite a number of new friends along the way, in which I has got quite closed to with some of them. It is quite amazing that blogging has made me attached to one of them, while travelling with the another one, with some small meeting ups with a few others. I hope I will get to meet up with more of them when I return home again later this year. Initially, I only wanted this to be a short and simple entry, but I ended up writing so much. I guess that will be all about it on the review of my blog for the past one year. I don't know what the coming one year has to offer but for now;
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The second candle was a spare one, just in case an earthquake occurs or a heavy snow fall.
Happy one year-old, my blog.