The summer of 2014 was my first full summer in Japan. Although goodbye parties and my trip to Australia kept me busy, I still found time to cross two more items off my Japan Bucket List.
First of all, I CLIMBED A MOUNTAIN!
Last fall, when other ALTs started talking about climbing Mt. Chokai – our friendly neighbourhood volcano that is also the second-tallest mountain in Tohoku – I swore to myself that I would never, ever climb it. I’m really not an outdoors person! I thought it would be a good idea to stay safely in my apartment and live vicariously through the other, more adventurous ALTs. :P
Fast-forward to this summer. Sadly, two of my closest ALT friends went home this August and they really wanted to climb Mt. Chokai before they left Japan. Before I knew it, a group of climbers had been assembled and I found myself a part of it! So, on Monday, July 21st (a national holiday – Marine Day!), I woke up at 5:30am and packed my bag for an all-day climb up Mt. Chokai!
There were seven of us in total and we would start climbing from the Hokodate Trailhead in Kisakata, about an hour’s drive south of where I live. As we drove closer and closer to the mountain, I wondered what the heck had I gotten myself into?! The summit of Mt. Chokai is 2,236m above sea level, and even though we could drive up to the start of the Hokodate Trail at 1,100m, that still left over 1,100m for us to ascend (and descend)! My poor kei-car was just as enthusiastic as I was about climbing Mt. Chokai and slowlyyy chugged up the mountainside to the parking lot.
Despite my initial inhibitions, I’m really glad that I did go! We didn’t actually reach the summit – although we started climbing before 9am, we were a little too slow to be able to make it to the very top and back down again before dark – but we did make it most of the way!
We climbed and descended for eight hours up stairs, across three huge patches of snow (HUGE!), over ridges, and down valleys, even eating lunch overlooking a beautiful lake.
The views were spectacular! It was a little cloudy on our way up, but the skies cleared on our way down and we had a perfect view of the Sea of Japan, right up the coast to Yurihonjo and beyond!
So, even though we didn’t reach the summit, I can still say that I’ve climbed Mt. Chokai! It was a great first and last time, that’s for sure. ;)
This summer was also the first time that I got to see the Kanto Festival in Akita City! Kanto is one of the most well-known festivals in Tohoku. Last year, us Group Bs arrived in Akita the day after the festival ended – talk about bad timing! – so I knew I had to see it this year! A group of us drove to Akita City on Monday, August 4th, where we bought festival food and found a great spot on the sidewalk to stand and wait for the Kanto performance to begin!
Performance is a great word for what the festival really is. A Kanto is 24 or 46 lanterns strung on bamboo poles. These poles are then balanced by Kanto performers. The really good performers add height to the poles to the point where some of the Kantos can be up to 12 metres tall and can weigh up to 50 kilograms! The performers balance the Kanto on their palms, shoulders, hips/lower back, and even their forehead! The performers aren’t all adults, either – even young children had a turn (although they were using smaller kanto)! They were adorable!!
There are different teams. Each team has one performer at a time and the other people ‘spot’ the performer – basically making sure that the Kanto doesn’t fall over onto the audience or onto another team’s performer. They will take turns balancing the Kanto until the whistle blows, and then the teams march their Kanto down the street to a new section and perform in front of a new audience.
The entire time that the teams are performing, there are people playing taiko and Japanese flutes, and there’s a singer over the loudspeakers. It’s pretty incredible! But my favourite part was the raising of the Kanto at the start of the performances. I don’t know how to describe it, so here’s a video. It’s breathtaking!
At the end of the night, you’re allowed to walk on the street and have your picture taken with the Kanto, so of course we took advantage of that!
Kanto was a wonderful festival – definitely one of my favourites in Japan so far and definitely another highlight of my wonderful summer of 2014! :)