Saturday, October 26, 2013

A Wa-Fu Oasis in Modern Sapporo: Nakajima Park (札幌市中島公園)

北海道札幌市中島公園 Nakajima Park, Sapporo, Hokkaido

(The original post can be found here).

(BGM: "Yozora no Mukou" by Shikao Suga)

Like any young, idealistic American Japanophile raised on a steady diet of imported anime, Kurosawa films and campy classics like The Karate Kid, I expected to see a certain level of wa-fu (J-Style) as I embarked upon my survey of this "strange, new world." The tacky and wonderfully cheesy gift shops at Narita and Chitose airports whetted my appetite and I was ready to drown myself in the Hokusai Wave of sumo wrestlers, kimono-clad geisha and samurai. But two weeks into my Japan experience and I saw nothing but a non-stop parade of Prada and Vuitton models, hi-tech gadgets and uninspired square-shaped buildings! I'd studied about Japanese culture my entire life! So where was it? Where were all the ninjas?

(The ninjas were all training in Shiga Prefecture)
"Where have all the geishas gone..."
My university professor had to explain to me that Hokkaido was the wild and naturally wonderful domain of the Ainu people until the end of the Edo Period (1866), when the tondenhei ("farmer-soldiers") moved up from Honshu to settle, force the indigenous people into compliance and develop the land for agriculture. This explains Hokkaido's lack of pre-Meiji era architecture and shrines so common throughout the rest of Japan.

"But I didn't come thousands of miles across the Pacific to live in a mirror of Western culture" I whined in defiance. "I came to Japan because it always advertised itself as 'exotic!" I just couldn't accept that I would be spending the next year of my life studying an ancient culture in a land where I couldn't even access it. Even the idea of all that wasted time brought pangs of panicky disbelief to my heart.

Knowing just how to mellow me out, my dorm mate, a Sapporo resident, had the perfect cure for my ills. She led me to a quiet, spacious stretch of Zen-inspired heaven only a few blocks' walk from Susukino Alley: Nakajima Park (Nakajima Koen 中島公園. The official park website in English can be found here).

Nakajima Park in the Chuo District of Sapporo City
Unlike downtown Sapporo's Odori Park, Nakajima Koen was recently designed with traditional Japanese style in mind. Sporting two lakes and almost stretching to the Toyohira River, the park provides a real sense of wide expansion and freedom. The lush harmony of over five thousand different kinds of trees clustered around gently sloping patches of green lawn gives the soul a refreshing break from the claustrophobic effect of the ever-encroaching concrete jungle. If you plop yourself down in the sun beside one of the two lakes, watching kids playing frisbee with their dogs with the water stretching out into the distance, it's really easy to forget you're in the middle of northern Japan's largest city. The trees effectively hide the presence of the concrete buildings along the river, whereas Odori Park uses the city skyline as a type of "borrowed scenery." There are plenty of bike-friendly paved walkways that stretch and twist into the park's many different environments, dotted with historical buildings and facilities that compliment the surrounding scenery.

The walkways are very popular with cyclists!

The old tea house Hasso-an, designated by the government as an "Important Cultural Property,"
Perhaps my favorite feature of Nakajima Park is Hasso-an, a tiny, eloquent expression of simple reverence in natural woods and ocher, gracing the north eastern part of the park next to the Hoheikan building. My desire for anything Japanesque was swiftly satiated as I breathed in the antiquity of this government-designated Important Cultural Property that stood well over a hundred years old. We weren't allowed to poke around inside, but just knowing it was here was enough for me. The trickling nearby brook and cheerful screeches of bulbuls in the trees erased the clanging din of traffic that cluttered up my outdoorsy Alaskan heart. We spent a good couple hours aimlessly admiring the gently flowing streams, expansive pond filled with elegantly swimming vividly colored koi that looked like they'd been scribbled on by a creative kid with crayons.

How could anyone not find this relaxing?
According to locals, Nakajima Park is quite famous in the city for its beautiful array of momiji (Japanese maple) trees that transform into blazing fire when the air goes chilly in late October. Hailing from a land where the only deciduous trees take on a single shade of gold, the vision of these maple trees filled me with inexpressible awe. I had no idea such shades of orange, red and purple even existed in nature! A carefully placed stone lantern here, an elegantly arching shrub there, I didn't need the geisha or the samurai to remind me that I was in Japan. I had everything I needed here in this quiet, inspiring garden. With all the pleasures of the natural world here at my fingertips, I had finally achieved inner bliss. There would be no more complaints from me. Spirits refreshed and mind soothed, I was ready to start exploring and enjoying my new home for what it was: a virtual paradise. I found myself delighted by Sapporo's sheer variety of environments that I could easily submerge myself into. And the more I looked, the more options I had. Such is the joy of travel.

Elements of J-Style near the Hasso-an tea house.
Nakajima Park maple trees in all their fiery splendor.
Access to Nakajima Park: Nakajima Koen Station is only 2 stops south of Odori Koen Station on the Nanboku (green) Line.

Update: Apparently Nakajima Park was ravaged in 2004 by a typhoon, so some of the trees and structures pictured here might not be there anymore. But I'm certain it's still lovely as ever and quite worthy of its designation as one of the "100 most popular parks in Japan."

Copyright 2013 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Delightful Odori Park (札幌市大通公園)


Sapporo's Odori Park (Odori Kouen) *Map Link Here

(BGM: m-flo "Come Again" )

A moody late September's evening in Odori Park

Sapporo City Archive Museum
Japan is blessed with thousands of parks, but Odori Park (大通り公園)for me will always be the the one with the most soul. Splitting the city of Sapporo in two like a decisive giant cleaver, Odori Park is the meeting place, the chill zone and the undeniable aorta of the city's infrastructure. Sapporo is perhaps the easiest city in Japan for a foreigner to navigate, having been designed using a grid pattern rather than the chaotic, labyrinthine style of other Japanese cities like Tokyo and Osaka. (A comprehensive street-by-street guide of the park can be found here.) It was quite appropriate for my friends to show me this park first, so I could orient myself easily in my first days here. I had the rare pleasure of reveling in the beauty and endless variety of Odori's seasonal wardrobe over the span of a full year as she strutted stunning visions of vividly cheerful flowers, twinkling lights and shimmering sculptures.
Sapporo Terebi Tou (TV Tower)

Smiles as great as the food!
From that very first late September day, I quickly made a very satisfying routine of buying a crunchy, juicy cob of salt-grilled corn from the motherly-sweet toukibi vendor, meandering up and down the course from the romantic Sapporo City Archive Museum (built in 1928) with its pseudo-European design and sweet-smelling rose garden to the inspiring TV Tower at the opposite end of the park on 1-chome street. Odori Park is the perfect place to get your exercise while just enjoying the lulling rhythms of life in all its variety and color.

I would come out here to do homework, make private phone calls, drink in the scent of roses and watch the strawberry soda-colored sunsets until the mosquitoes came out to chase me away. In autumn, the park is awash in lavish golds and reds, the leaves of gingko and Japanese maple trees fluttering like tiny fans. Sometimes, the annual Chrysanthemum Festival is held here, where professionals and amateurs alike prune and pluck their prize giant chrysanthemums for the judges, training each petal with special tools to bring out their classic firework shape. But all year round, the cornucopia of Odori Park's ever changing flower-scape is a feast for the eyes.

The Chrysanthemum's toothy grin
 The name Odori can literally be translated to mean "large street." But in Japanese, it also sounds like the words for "big dance." Every June, Odori Park holds Hokkaido's largest dance festival called Soran Yosakoi Matsuri, where teams from across Japan (and now all over the world), gather to compete with their own interpretations of the yosakoi soran bushi dance. The dance motions are based on traditional fishing movements like pitching fish and hauling in heavy nets. The festival with its nationally-televised climactic parade is ear-shatteringly loud, crowded and vibrant. You can feel the pulsating rhyths taking over your own heartbeat with every snap of the dancers' wooden naruko clappers and droning bass from the sub-woofer speakers resting on the many stages erected down the center of the entire park. The atmosphere is overwhelmingly joyful. (Wearing earplugs to this event is highly recommended!) 

"A dokasho dokasho! A soran soran! A dokasho dokasho!" 

A Kirin stout and pad thai noodles! 
Around the time of the Yosakoi Dance Festival, the park springs to life with the cooling sounds of clinking "joki" beer glasses and sizzling sausages as the major beer companies in the area sponsor the annual "Sapporo Summer Beer Festival," an event that draws tens of thousands of beer lovers every year. Traditionally, "beer gardens" are little more than a makeshift string of glowing lanterns decorating the rooftop or balcony of some building, where office workers can escape the summer heat and share a tall, cool one with their friends. Sapporo's Odori Park, with its patches of soft grass and inviting fountains, makes the perfect backdrop for getting wasted with 13,000 of your buddies. I had a great time by myself just enjoying the ambiance, the bitter nuttiness of my thick-headed stout and the old 1950's rock-and-roll flowing in from one of the beer vendors. And boy, was I ever thrilled to enjoy one of my all-time favorite Thai pan-fried noodles while at it! Score another one for Sapporo!

Winter brings with it the delights of light-play upon gossamer sheathes of snow and ice. In chilly November, just after the snow starts flying, Odori Park comes to life with sparkling Christmas trees and light sculptures in the shapes of Hokkaido's official flowers, lilac and lily of the valley, at the Sapporo White Illumination. Best to come out here with a friend or significant other, however, as the sight of hundreds of young couples in love strolling hand-in-hand can otherwise cause severe depression for the single. You can see more of my photos of Sapporo White Illumination here).

Terebi Tou with Tree Thingie
I'm pretty sure this didn't win anything.
 And just when you think the park is done partying, Sapporo (and the late winter sun) literally "brings down the house" with the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (Snow Festival), where ice and snow carvers from around the globe compete in a cutthroat competition to chip and shape the biggest, most detailed snow and ice sculptures before Mother Nature's fickle heat waves send them crashing down. (More on my day at this world-famous event here). It's not the easiest event to enjoy on foot. People slip and slide, twisting ankles and bruising funny bones from sunrise to sunset, sloshing wetly through puddles of ice soiled by gritty car pollution. But for the chance to appear on Sapporo's local UHB TV and to see some amazing (and not-so-amazing) snow art, it's worth a little pain and humiliation. (Shoes with cleats can be easily secured for cheap at nearby Tanuki Koji Shopping Arcade should you be the type who likes to save yourself any unnecessary pain).

Odori Park has so many delightful events, colors and tastes to enjoy throughout the season that there's always something to look forward to, whether it be a spontaneous flea market, a music festival, or a celebration party after a victorious game at Sapporo Dome. Some events grace the park on an annual basis as weather allows. Other events come and go. (Here is a month-by-month listing of events around Sapporo). But for me, Odori Park never disappoints. I'm pretty sure that if I ever get the chance to return to Hokkaido, right after leaving Sapporo Station, instead of making a beeline for my hotel, this is the first place I will go to stop, savor the welcoming scent of roses, chow on an ear of juicy sweet soy-sauce corn, and feel my heart resonate with the soul of Sapporo once again.

Copyright 2013 Genkilee, Gen. All rights reserved. No part of this blog (written or photo content) may be reproduced or reprinted without the expressed permission of the author.