Holy Hyper Links – Under Construction

Sorry about this.

Turns out that when you export your site from WordPress.com to a different host (and have no idea what you are doing) it kills all of your internal hyperlinks. YAY!

If you click on something and it doesn’t work, I am truly sorry for that.

To make up for it, here is a picture of a pug (I think) in a costume.

Lessons Learned – New Horizon 2 Unit 7 – Anything you can do, I can do better.

Anything you can do, I can do better.

20min – 50min

A team oriented acting game.

About an hour before class one of my 2nd year teachers informed me that this class had English twice that day. She wanted a game to play for the entire 50 minute class. OK. No problem. That worked around the grammar point on page 76 of New Horizon 2. Oh. I sat and thought for about 10 minutes and all I could think of was Annie Oakley.

Andrew, get your pen.

Purpose: A listening exercise using good, better and best.

Secondary Purpose: To add a little levity to the class.

I have only done this activity once and about 90% of the students in that class responded very well. Boys in particular really like this game because they can show off but even some of girls had a good time. However, there was a small cadre of students, 3 or 4, who refused to cooperate. After the class the JTE and I found a solution to this problem if we used the game again the future. Overall this game was awesome. The students were laughing and having fun. Nearly all of them let their “English is hard” shield down. I would definitely do this game again with a few modifications. This is also very similar to the game, “Prove it!” which you can play with the 1st year students using New Horizon 1.

Prep: There is not much needed to prep for this activity depending on how complicated you want to make it. The main preparation is creating a list of actions that are A) easily understood by Japanese students and B) relatively amusing. For “A” asking your students to imitate Barack Obama is going to result in a lot of blank stares and nervous fidgeting. Asking your students to imitate Spiderman will get you further. As far as “B” is concerned the humor will manifest itself if you pick things that are fun, but if you ask them to imitate something that isn’t fun like taking a test or drinking tea, you’ll get more boring versions of those two actions. I have attached my list of actions.

DOC: Anything you can do I can do better

Also bring a deck of cards.

Execution: To start the class, I told each of the students we would be playing an amazing game, but that it was really important that everyone plays. Once they understood ( I had the Japanese teacher explain it too) I started by giving them the vocabulary for the game. On the board I wrote: Act, Make sound like, and Imitate. Imitate was the only word that they weren’t already familiar with but it is important to review to make sure everyone understands. Probably the most important part of the whole activity is the ALT (you!) doing something in front of the class to help loosen them up. I imitated Anpanman, made a noise like a seagull and acted silly to demonstrate the requirements of the activity. Demonstrate at least one of these with the JTE if possible.

Kamen Riders

Have the room break up in to roughly even teams, 5 to 6 students each is ideal. I had them play rock paper scissors to see who goes first but you can choose any method for determining a turn order. Have one student from each of the first two teams come up and give them some sort of action. After they each perform the action independently I had the class vote to on, “Who did it better?” Which ever team’s player did the action “better” got to draw a card and that was their points for that round. Eventually you can get into good-better-best and change the way you call students up each round, as long as each student is from a different team.

let your kids really ham it up

I had a brilliant idea after playing this game, of course, so I’m including it here for your future benefit. Instead of having a winner and loser for each round, I could have used the cards and rewarded them both for doing something way outside of their comfort zone. Each student who does an “action” gets to draw a card and earn points for their team.

After going about 4 rounds total we wrapped the game up with about 5 minutes left in class. Long enough for the JTE to say something or to have a quick review and have them move the desks back. At the end of the class have the teacher give out a stamp, extra credit point or even your own stickers, anything really, to every student who made an effort to do the activity. This rewards everyone, even those who didn’t do “it” better.

A final thought: Another key to making this activity work is having way more “actions” than you will need for the class. I had several instances where students passed on the original action because it was too embarrassing for them or they weren’t sure what to do. Be mindful of the fact that some students do better at the front of the class and others are completely petrified. For the more nervous students I had tasks that didn’t involve speaking as well. Regardless there were still two students who just refused on principal to participate. I did find that even some of my badly behaved students stayed engaged in this activity but even so, a few bad apples made a couple moments of this class super awkward.

Miyagi Zao Sumikawa – DROP THE BEAR!

Zao SumikawaBased on talking to some teachers who grew up around Shiroishi I decided that my next single day trip to the mountains here in Japan was Miyagi Zao Sumikawa. I had also read that Sumikawa was known for its deep snow and back country feel. Despite having only three lifts, the summit at Sumikawa is supposed to be one of the better areas in Miyagi to snowboard. Also interestingly enough it is the only place to see the famous snow monsters on the Miyagi side of the Zao volcano cluster. If you are so inclined, here is the entire list of ski joints in all of Tohoku.

The weather here in Tohoku has been a tad temperamental. At sea level it was fluctuating between 40°F to 50°F and then down to high teens and low twenties. These wild weather swings resulted in some massive snow storms but also some, shall we say, unfavorable conditions for snowboarding or skiing.

You would think, with all the snowfall, the conditions would be good. However after assaulting Japan for the better part of two weeks with snow storms that paralyzed many of the major cities, the weather cleared up and was unseasonably warm for a couple days. Thus a thaw-freeze went into effect. At the summit of Sumikawa this created a solid sheet of ice and then covered it the following weekend with about 3 inches of snow. I thought with the fresh snow, “conditions should be pretty good.”

Zao SumikawaI was wrong. Really wrong. You might say that I, “Dropped the Bear.”

My day at Sumikawa was rough. Mostly spent recovering from severe slips as my board scraped all the fresh snow off the ice and refused to give me an edge as if it had never been sharpened. I felt like a baby deer. This was compounded by a couple other major issues with the resort.

The first is that, aside from two runs that the top, the entire place is basically cat tracks up the mountain. There is only 300 meters of vertical at Sumikawa and almost all of that vertical is between the top and bottom of lift 1. The remaining grade is roughly 7° to 12°. Also at the top, all but one of the runs, requires a hike.

Second, the park rats love this place. Not a bad thing by itself but lift 3 ran to the top of the terrain park and nearly everyone who had come to resort was spending their time there. Which means a long line at a place that shouldn’t have one. It looked like it might have been fun if you like landing on your ass.

park rats

park rats

Third the price and the timing is really off. The bus leaves the Sendai area at 8:30AM and arrives at 10:30AM after making multiple stops in the mountain town below Sumikawa. The return trip leaves at 3:30PM. If the snow is good, this is not nearly long enough for 4800円.  For the same price you can get to Eboshi earlier and stay longer, have more lifts and better vertical.

Finally the biggest issue I had with this place is that it could have been awesome. Like really awesome. The terrain at the top was amazing except for the fact that it was covered in a thick sheet of hockey rink. If it had been deep powder snow – “oh man,” Clay Davis is right, that’s how I felt, too.

Sumikawa is intriguing because there are almost no man made barriers or boundary markers. Let it fly. Go wherever. Want to go down that gully? Done and DONE. As long as you can walk when you get to the bottom. No worries. Just, whatever you do, under any circumstance, with extreme prejudice…

DO NOT Drop the Bear.

Check out my other snowboarding adventures: Hakuba Goryu, Niseko, Happo-one, Zao Eboshi, Spring Valley

Sprose – An Introduction

Sprose, Sproetry, Sploetry, Poams Proams… I literally struggled for 10 whole minutes on Sprose. I think this is roughly 100,000,000 times longer than anyone normally looks at spam in their inbox unless they are daft or equally illiterate.

Spam is an interesting phenomenon and every time we see spam, particularly the less inventive ones like, “FREE MICAKEAL KORS AIRJORDAN PRESCRIPTION OXYCODONE HERE NOW NO SIGGNNN UP NEEDED, ANALpr0n – LOL my best friendf s Credit Card NO interest 3.0%E´@™ Johnny Depp PLEASE SEND YOUR ACCOUTN # :) :) L)( FOR REBATEE…,” in my comment inbox we wonder,

“Does this actually work on ANYONE?”

With that in mind we here at Easy Distance though we should share some of these comments as Sprose in our new comedy project. It’s frankly unrelated to anything else other than blowing off some steam.

We get a lot of spam. More spam that site views if you can believe that. Hundreds of thousands of poorly typed barely English words in the comments section of our blog that are somehow supposed to fool us into thinking a real person left us a message.

However the artistic audacity that spam uses the English language with, isn’t something to just be deleted. We think, simply throwing away spam is a tragedy almost as terrible as spam’s butchering of the English language to begin with. We want to provide the spam we get the proper ridicule it deserves. We will do this through dramatic and often sarcastic readings.

Here is the first salvo from “testimonythedvd.com”

Also, apologies to Spam™ for being synonymous with annoyance and poorly typed e-mails.

Enjoy.

To and Frozen – Hokkaido’s Chuo Bus Reviewed

the only way to pass the time on a bus ride

the only way to pass the time on a bus ride

Buses are boring. There is nothing wrong with being a boring bus. In fact, I prefer boring to say… life threatening. Talking about buses is also pretty boring. However I have somethings I think you should know about Chuo Bus in Hokkaido.

Chuo bus is very convenient (kind of).

I took 4 trips (2 round trips) on a Chuo bus. We took the bus from Tomakomai ferry port to JR Sapporo Station. Then I also took the Chuo bus from JR Sapporo to Niseko Hirafu and back. Two very different trips but essentially the same things to say. To get from the ferry terminal to JR Sapporo there are four bus pick up times posted outside at the stop. You can take an express train that goes from JR Tomakomai to Sapporo but its nearly double the price of the bus and you have to transfer from the bus to the train anyway. Might as well stay on the bus. In this respect the bus was very convenient.

Riding to Niseko was also very convenient. The bus leaves from JR Sapporo twice in the morning 7:55AM and 8:55AM and arrives at Hirafu just before lunch. The price is very reasonable at 3100円 round trip. There is a large customer service desk that opens at 7:30AM in Sapporo Station to pay for tickets and book numerous other excursions offered by Chuo bus. They also offer services that leave direct from the airport to Hirafu but I did’t explore that option because we took the ferry.

Customer Service

Customer Service

Now the inconvenient elements. Their website is terrible and almost 100% in Japanese. There is an English site seeing page but the ski link goes back to the Japanese page. The bus to Niseko requires a reservation and during peak season you may need one as it might sell out. However, my bus was mostly empty and I left on a Friday morning in peak season. Like Keio bus terminal in Shinjuku there was a massive LED readout listing trips and availability on it. My guess is that even without a reservation if you got to the station at 7:30AM right when the ticket counter opens you could get a seat on the bus to Niseko. I didn’t try that because I had someone call for me and book it in Japanese. There are 3 other main bus services that all make trips to Niseko and when I was at Niseko I saw even more buses that I didn’t find online. White Liner has the best website and you can book in English. The other services are Donan (Japanese only) and Resort Liner (English). Chuo does NOT offer online reservations because, I have no idea.

ski page for Chuo bus

ski page for Chuo bus

Style, Comfort or Both?

I can assure you these busses were completely lacking in style, but were comfortable enough. I wouldn’t take Chuo overnight somewhere as they were pretty standard fare and didn’t have any of the extra sleeping  “comforts” you get with a Willer bus. They did have regular sized cup holders which I thought was nice. The ride from Tomakomai to Sapporo and back was fraught with my largest complaint about buses in Japan, they are too warm. Inside the bus it was blistering and outside it was just normal cold weather for Hokkaido. The bus to Niseko didn’t seem to have this problem. Not sure why but I was wearing snowboard gear and it didn’t feel overly hot to me.

The in-crowd?

The buses we took were all about half full save the bus 3:30PM bus from Sapporo Station to Tomakomai. That bus was jam packed. They even had to bust out the jumper seats to fit everyone. It was a sardine can. Not surprisingly, a super crowded bus can result in a relatively uncomfortable ride. Was it worth paying double to take the train? Probably not, and there is no guarantee that the train would be any less crowded. Plus, once you get to Tomakomai, you still have to take the bus to the ferry terminal.

Something strange also happened at the bus terminal in Sapporo. The guy loading the luggage told me I couldn’t put my bag in the luggage compartment under the bus. His reason, “PASOCOM! PASOCOM.” For those of you not familiar with English words remade into Japanese words, this sounds just like the way it’s spelled: complete gibberish. After about three times of trying to hand the guy my bag we finally figured out that he was telling us laptops can’t go under the bus. Why? Who knows. After we informed him it was just clothes in my bag, he changed to normal polite Japanese, “ONEGAISHIMASU!” It was weird. The Japanese are incredibly paranoid about lithium-ion batteries but this was out of the ordinary. As if all the lithium ion batteries in cell phones, iPads, mp3 players, and laptops are some how less dangerous when raised more than a meter off the ground.

Bus drop off in Niseko

Bus drop off in Niseko

Chuo bus is very inexpensive to get around Hokkaido and it goes almost everywhere a gung-ho tourist would want to go. However, you may hit a language barrier here and there and if something requires reservations you may have to phone a friend. For skiing or boarding I thought the Chuo bus was by far the best option with the best available times. It leaves early enough to get in a solid half day when you arrive in Niseko and leaves late enough that you can have two solid days and only pay for one night in a hotel.

The Joys of Teaching English

While certainly not always a bed of roses, teaching English as a second language can have sublime moments. These can range from a delightful moment of understanding during a lesson, to seeing your students use English of their own volition. One of my favorite activities is reading students’ original compostitions. Not only does it let me gauge their grasp on grammar concepts, it is an opportunity to see their personalities shine through, and understand a little of how they are feeling. Sometimes errors in syntax are downright hilarious, but I especially enjoy learning about my students’ states of mind.

I was most recently reminded of this after reading my eighth grade classes’ original poems. Among the laugh out loud comedy of some of their work, I was more often struck by the truth of their sentiments. The mixture of their childlike wonder and budding adult mentalities was sweet and moving. My students have asked me why I wanted to be an English teacher. Perhaps some of you are wondering it too, and I know there are days when those of us here dejectedly ponder this very question. So I am writing this now to remind myself on a day such as that, why things like this make everything worthwhile.

The students were given this very basic outline: write a topic and some words about how it makes you feel. The results were wonderful. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.

esl poetry

Who hasn’t marveled at the parallelism of “earth as it is in heaven”? Or taken joy  in the brilliance of fireworks:

esl poetry

Or felt the effect of weather on one’s mood:

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

My personal favorite, on the drudgery of daily life:

esl poetry

On a happier food note:

esl poetry

esl poetry

Have you ever had fried chicken so good you wanted to write a poem about it? Heck yes I have!

A practical student, she finds contentment in the act of commerce:

esl poetry

While others have larger monetary aspiriations:

esl poetry

Identity crisis:

esl poetry

A call to self-reflection:

esl poetry

The beauty of space:

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

Hope for tomorrow:

esl poetry

In my imagination, I see these poems alongside poignant illustrations, a la Shel Silverstein books. Unfortunately, I lack the artistic skill to depict what I envision, but I created some meager power point images to bring their writing to life. Perhaps one day I will do them justice…Why don’t you send us your take on these delightful poems and we’ll put up on our tumblr and here!

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

esl poetry

Site News

who moved those topiaries?

So after actually reading The Shining, I have decided NOT to construct a life size cyborg version of Jack Torrance. However, I am going to use my now ample free time to switch hosts for my website this weekend. Probably sometime late Saturday night (Japan time) and in the event that you happen to visit our site and its down I am very sorry.

At least initially there will not be any major changes to the website but in roughly a month or so we will be making some aesthetic changes and some minor additions.

However, there are some REALLY TRULY AWESOME things we are going to do in the near to immediate future.

The AWESOME list:

SPROSE

Sprose is a new comedy project from easydistance.com. We get a lot of spam. Hundreds of thousands of poorly typed barely English words in the comment section that are somehow supposed to fool us into thinking a real person left us a message. However the artistic audacity that spam uses the English language with isn’t something to just be deleted. We think, simply throwing away spam is a tragedy almost as terrible as spam’s butchering of the English language to begin with. We want to provide the spam we get the proper ridicule it deserves. We will do this through dramatic and often sarcastic readings.

Also, apologies to Spam™ for being synonymous with annoyance and poorly typed e-mails.

Enjoy.

KumamonDo You Want Stuff From Japan?

We are giving you the opportunity to have us do your shopping for you in Japan. Your wish is our command. More coming very soon!

Wish I Was There Photo Competition – Al Fresco Holidays Blog

Most things in life, even if they are advertised as free, are not.

Case in point. I would like the free camera offered in this photo contest: Al Fresco!

To get extra entries in to the Wish I Was There contest you can add a blog post about the contest. I assume everyone who is entering the contest is doing this. What is the price I am paying to increase my chances to win? Bombarding my social media connections with unpaid advertising. HOORAY! Just imagine me really happy with my new camera. Are you imagining it? Like, REALLY imagining it…? Ok good.

I have to tell a story with my photo sooooo…

Venice

Here is my story for this photo: I wish I was there. Venice breaks something inside you. Spoils you. Every step you take in Venice is somehow filled with wonder. Sure, its expensive. Sure, its touristy. There’s a reason it’s popular but my first glimpse of Venice was, shall we say, unconventional.

My wife and I spent part of our honeymoon in Venice. After a … rough… day of travel we finally arrived in Venice around 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. When we got to Venice we thought the best way to get to our hotel would be water bus because our hotel had its own stop. This… at least from the perspective of a couple of tired and relatively cranky travelers was a mistake. From a budget perspective, it made a lot of sense because private water taxis are very costly. How long could the water bus take anyway?

About 3 hours later we were still on the boat. However, call it kismet, good fortune, destiny, or just plain coincidence but we ended up getting a (mostly) free sunset tour of Venice. For one reason or another, the water bus kept stopping in the middle of the really big canal. Because the boat was mostly stationary we were able to lean out the windows and snap some great shots of Venice that would have been hard to obtain otherwise. This photo above is one of my absolute favorites from that boat ride. Not just because it captures some of Venice’s heart gripping, breath stopping beauty or the elegance of a perfectly placed sunset in a famous location. Not because it was on my honeymoon and blah blah kisses kisses… but because it’s a reminder that even when things seem really annoying/awful/stupid/unbelievably inane, you’re still on vacation. Take a picture.

I wish I was there, in that boat, again, taking this picture.

So there is that. I hoped you liked my story.

With that I am entering this contest. You can check the formal details at the link above, what am I your lawyer? However here are the basics of what you need to do if you want to enter the contest.

“How to Enter

There are a number of ways to enter, all of which are simple and easy. Whichever method you decide to use, we want you to let us know the location of your photo and the reason why you wish you were back there!

The entry methods are as follows:

  • Tweet us @AlFrescoHols using the hashtag #AFWishIWasThere
  • Post your picture on Instagram using the hashtag #AFWishIWasThere
  • E-mail your photo into alfrescoholidayscompetition@gmail.com”

The contest submission deadline is Feb 28th, so get on it!

That’s all for site news. Stay tuned (what do you do if it’s the internet, stay logged in?) for all those awesome changes that are coming.

Andrew & Shana

Lessons Learned: New Horizon 1 Unit 10 – “I can ______”

Here’s a really simple, no-prep activity for New Horizons 1, grammar point “can and cannot.” This is part writing, mostly speaking, and lot’s of listening in an interactive setting. I have done this activity five times with my seventh grade students, and it was a lot fun. Time : 25-35 minutes

Purpose: to practice the grammar point “can” through speaking, writing, and listening

Secondary purpose: to help students be creative and think outside the box

Prep: Prepare a list of things you “can do.” If you can, have students use a page of their English notebooks, otherwise a small piece of scratch paper for each student is necessary as well. You can also use this attached worksheet, which has multiple activities for can and can’t.

PPTX: can and can’t

Execution: You can do this activity before teaching the material on pages 94-95 as an introduction, or afterwards as a review. I used it as an introduction. I started by demonstrating a couple things I can and can’t do, really stressing the new words can and cannot/can’t. Things included clasping hands together behind my back, reverse Namaste (making your hands touch in prayer behind your back), curling my tongue, trying to touch my nose to my elbow (can’t, obviously) and others. Any cool or weird physical ability you have works great, even knuckle cracking or whistling. Once the kids understand the meaning of can and can’t, write them on the board with the definition if necessary. Have all the students stand up, while you write “I can _____________.” on the board. Explain that you will make a statement. If they too can do it, they remain standing, if not they sit down. You can draw little figures sitting and standing next to the words can and can’t. They don’t have to sit down permanently, so if they sit and the next statement is something they can do, they stand back up. You can also do the same thing with hand-raising if you want. I thought that all the restless boys would appreciate a little action, but I’ve realized that they simply do the opposite of whatever you’d like them to do, so they just stopped standing after a bit. Fickle little monkeys… Do the first round with just you speaking. Mix in some easy things with some more challenging ones to keep them going up and down. Good actions include:

  • Swim
  • Roll or curl my tongue like a hot-dog bun (this one’s genetic)
  • Wiggle my ears
  • Whistle
  • Cross my eyes
  • Use chopsticks
  • Make origami
  • Touch my tongue to my nose (I can actually do this one)
  • Ski or snowboard

The physical ones are fun because it’s a kick to watch your students try them. Whenever you’re ready for it to be over, just say something you know they can’t do: drive a car, ride a horse, play an instrument, speak a foreign language, drink sake, etc. The next step requires scrap paper or notebooks. Have students write their own achievement, “I can __________” but explain that this time they’re playing against each other. If they are the only one that can, they are a winner. Offer a prize as an incentive, near of the end of the year they definitely need some external motivation. There is no limit to the amount of winners, but they have to write something special, not just “play tennis,” “speak Japanese” if they want to win. Give them 5 minutes to do this, and help students with spelling and inspiration. If it is a specific action they have to demonstrate, have them write “I can do this” instead of trying to explain it in English.

Impress your students with this, or scare them…

Once time’s up, have them all stand (or stay seated if using only their hands) and start at one end of the room. Each student must read their sentence and perform the action if necessary. Help them repeat it louder if students can’t hear. Go through all the students, calling “Next” after each is determined winner or not. Keep the game on pace so it doesn’t drag. When a student is a winner, write their action on the board. You will always get bad students who don’t write anything, so just make them say “speak Japanese, read kanji, walk” or some such blanket statement. If you know what they do for club activities you can use that, but “I can do nothing” is not an acceptable answer. When all the students have gone, review the winning statements and continue on to the writing portion of my attached worksheet, or whatever textbook work you need to get done. Hopefully, connecting an action to a word will make this activity a memorable experience for your students.

A final thought: The “five” minute writing portion of this activity was not very successful in most of my classes, and usually ended up taking fifteen minutes of individually coaxing students or trying to get them to leave their neighbors alone and focus. I’m not sure how much easier it could have been. I wrote multiple examples on the board and all they needed to do was write two words at most: I can swim, whistle, draw, do this. I don’t attribute this to the activity being tough or their lack of ability. They write much longer, whole sentences on a daily basis. I attribute it to my school’s lack of discipline and my lack of authority. Be prepared if you have a naughty or difficult class to extend this activity or simply cut the writing portion out. The JTE for this class is the opposite of strict, so the students know they can get away with disrespecting me and refusing to follow my instructions. If I spoke better Japanese, I might be able to command more authority with them, but the boys in general could not care less about obeying a foreign woman. If you don’t have these problems at your schools, you should be fine, but even so, I was able to make this activity work. If your students are genki, it will be a blast. If you have problem classes like me, simply skip the writing and play a few rounds with only you making the statements. It’s still fun that way, and you can perhaps include a speaking component where they must answer each with “Yes, I can” or “No, I can’t.”

Fare is Fare – Taiheiyo Ferry – Reviewed

Recently we embarked on a journey to Sapporo for their Snow Festival. We live in Sendai and there are only two airlines that have regular service to New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. Nearly all flight plans will take you through Osaka or Tokyo a.k.a. “the wrong direction” before they put you on the frozen tarmac of Hokkaido’s main airport. Flights are around $230 one way from Sendai! Then there is shinkansen or hi-speed train. If you live in Aomori City that is probably pretty reasonable. If you live in or around Sendai its about $180US one way and takes forever with multiple transfers. There is highway bus, but to go such a distance would likely take two full days of uncomfortably warm bus rides and two full nights of sleeping really poorly if you can even find a bus that does that particular route.taiheyo ferry

Then I stumbled across Taiheiyo Ferry. Taiheiyo Ferry services the ports of Nagoya, Sendai and Tomakomai. For prices as low as $40US one way you can get a ride from Sendai to Hokkaido in about 14 hours. The trip is done over night rather than during the day. This sounded like a pretty sweet deal so I decided to jump ship on land travel and head for the open sea.

The Digs and the Ride

The ferry is awesome. I’ve been on a few ferries and this one was very steady. There were times where I felt the pitch and yaw of the boat but not like the catamarans in Greece. The common areas are definitely nice. The decor is a little bland but its basically a floating hotel, unlike an overnight bus, which is basically a rolling prison sauna. There is a game center, 24 hour vending machines (with beer in them), karaoke room, several bars (with terrible hours but I mean, thats what the vending machines are for), ventilated indoor smoking rooms for those with a tobacco habit, a restaurant, a movie theater, live entertainment. Its basically a cruise ship lite. Incredibly clean restrooms, public bath (onsen style) although it’s more like a wave pool because of the constant swaying of the boat, as if it were on an ocean or something. The slippery floors in the onsen can be quite hazardous with the unsure footing of a sea faring vessel. There are a few comfy couches in the lounge area and some really not so comfy ones. Lots of plugs to charge electronics as well.taiheyo ferry

Sleeping arrangements were mediocre although we bought the two cheapest rooms available. I can imagine the suites and first class cabins are quite nice and on par with the common areas. On the way to Tomakomai we had individual berths which work like a capsule hotel and start at 5,000円 each, one way. Two levels of capsule style berths are available, one has a TV in it, the other doesn’t. We found that the berths with the curtains drawn got very stuffy and quite hot through the night. There is not a lot of room to store your stuff so I ended up cuddling with my snowboard. I was gentle.

The common room or “Japanese style” is the least expensive at 4,000円 per person one way. These are large tatami rooms with roughly twenty sleeping pads arranged around the room to fit as many people as possible. If the ferry is sold out (which I think is unlikely) you will get to know the people to your left and right very well. There are only about 5 or 6 inches of space separating the sleeping pads. Also the pillows in the common rooms are basically bricks. I’m not exaggerating. They are shaped like bricks, and while made of fabric, have zero give to them. Perfect if you are Japanese, horrible if you are used to actually being comfortable while you sleep. There are ladies only common rooms that require a key card if you are a lady and traveling by yourself.

(The cafe shakes… a lot)

I was a little disappointed with the lack of an outdoor deck because I am insane and I wanted to feel how crazy cold that siberian ocean air was.

My biggest complaint is very silly though. I understand that it is silly, but I’m still going to complain about it anyway. There was not even a pay as you go wi-fi available on the boat. Its like being transported back to the early nineties (the color scheme on the boat helped with the illusion of a time warp) when you didn’t have constant access to the interwebtubes. If we can get wifi on a plane, we can get it on a boat. Get with the 21st century. We brought our WiMAX+ device but at times out on the ocean we didn’t have any signal. Don’t count on any streaming services and download everything you want to watch/listen to on the boat before you get on the water. Service is shoddy after the boat leaves the harbor.

Pretty nice overall, the spartan sleeping conditions not with standing. B+

But how convenient was it?

taiheyo ferry

japanese page

Booking online is by no means particularly easy. There is a lot of rigamarole involved with an online ticket. First you have to sign up for an account and be able to use katakana on your keyboard. I also had numerous problems with their web page rejecting common characters as invalid inputs even though they were in Japanese. Adding Japanese characters to your computer input is easy. Just Google what you need for your operating system.

The process works like this: Fill out an online application form with your personal info to open an account. Once you get the email confirmation you can log in (you need a phone number for this, likely a Japanese one). Once you have confirmed your account you start by finding the route you want to take, then you’ll get a calendar and you choose your dates. They do not allow you to book very far in advance but if you wait too long the special deals will not be available. About 8 weeks before the departure date is ideal. The online advance booking price is half of the normal list price. You must book online and you must pay in advance.  Our berths would have been 10,000円 and 8,000円 each respectively if I hadn’t booked online during this special window. To book a return trip is really easy because you can go into your confirmed trips and click a button that says book reverse direction.

English reservation page

English reservation page

For online booking, it’s one of the more headache inducing set ups I’ve worked with, but you can book online so there is that, brush up on your Japanese for a successful booking. B-

The Value

I waited a bit too long on the return trip and they had “sold out” of their capsule berths at the 5,000円 price, so I booked the common rooms instead of which there were only two spots left. One in the all women room and one in the standard. Once we got on the boat I decided I would inquire about the upgrade price to regular berths. If you do change your mind about your quarters the upgrade price to change rooms on the boat is equal to the remaining half of your advance booking price plus the difference in price between the two berths or rooms.

My berth was 4,000円 (regular price is 8,000円) which I paid in advance. To change to the capsule berth, one grade above the common room was an extra 6,000円, more than I paid for the room in the first place. The regular price for the capsule berth is 10,000円 so they figure if you really want it you should pay regular price.  I didn’t pay for the upgrade but it did make me think, “Did they just preserve their pricing structure or did they lose a sale?”

rage face

rage face

I went and had a peek back in the capsule berths, an entire wing of them was completely empty. I don’t know if they have security do a bunk check or anything but after 9:00PM I didn’t see any staff from the boat wandering around. If you hate your common room you can probably find and empty capsule without paying for it. What are they going to do, kick you off the boat? Since they had unsold berths, I would have gladly paid the 1,000円 difference in my booking prices to upgrade, but not more than I paid for my original berth. So they effectively turned away a sale which they didn’t have in the first place. You could sell an extra two bunks for 1,000円 each or make no money at all and have empty sleeping quarters that wont be filled because the boat already left the dock, which makes more sense?

Enough of that, it’s just bad business to turn away money.

Speaking of extra cost, getting to and from the ferry terminals was actually much easier than I thought it would be. Once in Hokkaido there is a Chuo bus (reservations not necessary) and Donan bus (not sure about reservations) that go to Tomakomai station and Sapporo JR station. If you are planning on using JR trains to get to central Sapporo from the ferry terminal its about 2,200円 one way. If you fly to Sapporo your extra train cost is about 1400円 from the airport to downtown. The Chuo bus is 1,270円 all the way to Sapporo and you’ll have to get on that bus anyway unless you take a taxi to the train station. I would recommend taking the bus all the way; no transfers, it saves you money and it isn’t that long of a ride. In Sendai there is a city bus that goes from Nakanosakae station to the ferry terminal, but in the evening the timing may not be reliable. We took a taxi and it was 900円 to be dropped off right at the door.

The value compared to the very pricey travel methods of flight and hi-speed rail is phenomenal, especially if you book in advance. From Sendai, it’s sort of like paying for one night in a hotel, except you can’t leave the hotel, well, you could… but … never mind. What I’m saying is, if you can book in advance and don’t mind the sleeping arrangements, it is by far and away one of the best ways to get to Hokkaido. If you are on a tight schedule or prefer regular accommodations, the value starts to slip as you will eat up a lot of time getting to and from the ferry (and being on it). Lastly if you have to pay regular price, you are looking at 20,000円 round trip for a private sleeping berth. Flights start to look much more attractive at that price and if you live near a major hub, like Tokyo or Osaka, there are probably less expensive flight plans than what Sendai has to offer.

B provided you book far enough in advance to get the half price tickets. C- if you don’t.cost chart ferry

Overall I thought the ferry was actually pretty cool. We had a really good time hanging out, playing cards, drinking beer and just relaxing in general. It is a very hassle free way to travel. If you are in Sendai and want to go to Hokkaido in summer or winter, the ferry is a good way to go.

Sapporo Snow Festival – Yuki Matsuri

We can finally check another island off our list! Since moving to Japan, we have visited over twenty cities, but never left the island of Honshu. Two weeks ago, we went to Hokkaido to see the famous snow festival in Sapporo. Besides yuki matsuri, we fit in a couple other sites in Hokkaido, and slept on a ferry for the first time. You can read about the ferry experience here (Coming Soon!).

Yuki matsuri is a yearly 6-day winter wonderland where people from all over the globe create massive snow sculptures that remain on display day and night. It is rated as one of those must-see experiences, and it was definitely impressive. February is arguably the “worst” weather period for Hokkaido, as it is below freezing and often snowing. The festival coordinators do their best to provide fun winter activities throughout the day, but there is only so much fun one can have for extended periods outdoors in -7°C degree weather (even colder at night). Lots of food stalls line the main sculpture park, offering temporary respite from the cold, and since the festival features works from many countries, it is a great chance to get non-Japanese food. We particularly enjoyed the fantastic Indian cuisine in front of the huge snow Malaysian temple.

You can also watch singers and dancers perform on frigid outdoor stages, partake in ice skating and sledding, and see Japanese snowboarders and skiiers do tricks off an Olympic-style ski jump. One 14 year old snowboarder was fantastic and apparently devoid of fear. And… that’s about it. You can make a nice day of it, or day and a half, since there are three separate locations for ice sculptures, but with five days scheduled in our trip, we realized we’d have to fill up the time elsewhere.

While I’m sure Sapporo is a happening place in the summer, it can be a bit dull in the winter. What there is to do and see may be dampened by perpetual snowfall. Indoor activities it was then! Luckily, Sapporo boasts a nice subway system that is concise and easy to use, so you don’t have to do a ton of outdoor walking. I especially recommend the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art. The temporary collection is rotated often, but contains many works by Japanese artists schooled in French impressionism and École de Paris. A five minute walk from the Nishi 18 Chome station, in winter the museum observatory overlooks a snow filled garden where you can relax on a couch with a good book (I took this time to read a personal account of autism by a Japanese teenager, check out The Reason I Jump for a fascinating narrative).

The special exhibit was a fantastic collection of the works of Ken-ichi Kuriyagama. He was a wonderful Japanese artist who created paintings of Hokkaido for tourism posters. 120 posters were on display along with 40 of the original paintings on canvas, in colors even more vibrant than the posters can imply. The paintings were not only stunning in their beautiful simplicity, but the collection led one back to the times when advertising was actual art. Frankly, it was very hard to go back to the subway station and look at all the heartless, digital ads after viewing that exhibit. When did we lose the desire for beauty in our search for commodities? Needless to say, it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in Japan.

Close to the art museum, one subway stop west at Maruyamakoen, is a bona-fide Louisiana-style southern restaurant, Dixie-Roux. If you are in the area (especially if you live in Japan and are a little tired of the culinary monotony) you must give it a try. Perhaps the number one selling point for me, outside of the fabulous inner décor, great service and wonderful food, was the drink menu. Nowhere in Japan have I seen mint juleps, hurricanes, or the crème-de-la-crème, a Cosmopolitan.

Yes, you heard right. What is a ubiquitous cocktail back home is impossible to get here. I have never seen uh cranberry, let alone cranberry juice, in Japan. How they can live without it is a mystery, so I immediately ordered one. It was perfection, although in the spirit of all things Japan, too small. The food itself was equally reminiscent of home and authentic. I sampled some local Hokkaido cheeses and bread and had a big bowl of brown roux gumbo. Sadly there were no fried green tomatoes or shrimp and grits on the menu, so I consoled myself with a second Cosmo and enjoyed the jazz music on the radio.

When the weather gives you snow, make snowmen; or hang out in museums…you know, same difference.