This last weekend I was able to visit the Ice Kotan at lake Shikaribetsu with two other ALTs. Each year, a kotan (village) of ice and snow is constructed on top of the frozen lake, and stays open for two months. The word kotan comes from the Ainu – the indigenous peoples of Hokkaido, and part of Russia. The Ice Kotan is a popular tourist destination in Hokkaido during the winter.
The main attractions at the ice village include the ice café, snowmobile rides, and the onsen (hot spring). As winter has been very warm this year, fewer buildings than usual have been constructed.
The ice café/ice bar sold an array of hot and cold beverages, with the option of it being served in an ice glass. You could also try your hand at ice carving, and chisel out your own glass for $12. Although it would’ve been cool to use an ice glass, my fingers were already in the process of becoming icicles, so paper cup coffee it was.
Upon seeing my friend’s Vancouver 2010 gloves, the bartender asked if she was from Canada – and then if she was from Stony Plain. I am still surprised when I hear people talking about Stony Plain all the way in Japan!
In a separate room of the café building, there was a small theatre where live music plays on the weekends. Among the seats were two bears, and a mouse.
Snowmobile rides around a portion of the lake were offered for $12 to $24 depending on if you chose to go with a guide, or solo. For all you snowmobile enthusiasts out there, like my dad, they were Yamahas!
For the very brave, you could strip down and partake in the semi-public onsen, which is attached to an ice building on the lake. There was also a foot bath option, but we decided against trying it, as no one was particularly interested in cold, wet socks later on.
Other activities included looking through the ice lens, checking the thickness of the ice, and losing circulation to your toes. Overall, it was very cold, but very enjoyable!
Every day, all elementary and junior high schools in Shikaoi receive a hot school lunch. A company in Shikaoi prepares the food, and transports it to each school via truck in time for lunch. A large metal box on wheels goes to each classroom (if it’s a large school), or to each school (the smallest schools have only 12-16 students). Inside the container is everything from the actual food, to the dishes, trays, and serving utensils.
Each school serves lunch differently. Some do a self-serve assembly line style, while others have a few students or staff serve the food to the rest. Many students wear an apron and hair bandana when serving and handling the food. Students bring their own chopsticks, though sometimes spoons are sent with the lunch depending on the day’s menu.
At the end of lunch, any food scraps are dumped back into one of the containers, which are then packed up in the large metal box along with all of the trays, etc. and are wheeled to where the lunch company truck can pick them back up again.
Each month we receive a calendar detailing the lunches for each day in the next month. The cost of lunch for staff comes to about $2 a day, and is paid monthly. This summer, the new mayor of Shikaoi decided to waive lunch fees for all students!
Lunch time varies at each school, but generally starts around 12:10, and runs for 40 minutes. At Shikaoi elementary and Urimaku elementary, where class sizes are much larger, the English teacher and I will eat in the teacher’s office with many of the other staff. Students and homeroom teachers eat together in the classroom. In the smaller schools, lunch is usually in a cafeteria space with all of the students and staff, though sometimes the English teacher and I will be invited to eat with a specific grade in their classroom.
There are five components to each school lunch.
Tuesday, December 3rd – Day 1
Rice. It is very easy to eat this with chopsticks, because the rice sticks together in large clumps. Japanese rice has a slightly sweet taste on its own. We usually get rice on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Fridays. Sometimes it’s seasoned with vegetables or seaweed.
Soup with tofu, carrot, cabbage, leek, mushroom, and chicken. “No spoon?!” you might be asking. In Japan, chunky soups like these are eaten with CHOPSTICKS! Eat all of the large pieces first, then pick the bowl up, and drink the remaining broth.
Potato and pork salad. Boiled potato is one of the trickiest foods to pick up with chopsticks!
Natto. Natto is fermented soybeans. It is a divisive food in Japan due to its slimy/sticky texture, and powerful smell. We have only had it once before for school lunch, and as a natto-hater, it seemed ironic to get it on the day I started documenting school lunch.
Milk. Hokkaido milk is famous in Japan, and is very rich. Sadly, I had to start giving it away after a couple weeks due to mild lactose intolerance. 😥
Wednesday, December 4th – Day 2
Bread. Wednesdays are usually bread days – my favourite! This bread had a smattering of whole sweet red beans inside.
Soup. Today’s soup was cabbage, spinach, and pork.
Tomato macaroni salad with corn, peppers, and ground pork.
Fried fish, with a tartar sauce packet. I find Wednesdays often have more Western-style foods, which might also explain the presence of a spoon instead of chopsticks.
Thursday, December 5th – Day 3
Ramen. We usually have noodles on Thursday. Today, we had ramen in a dark soy sauce soup. The noodles come cooked and warm in a plastic bag, which we dump into the broth. The soup had pork, cabbage, onion, leek, carrots, and bamboo shoot.
Cucumber, bean sprout, and chicken salad, with a creamy dressing.
An orange! We don’t often get fruit with lunch, so this is a special treat! I bought a bag of 10 small oranges like this last week, and it cost ¥450, or about $5.50 CAD.
It’s nice to not have to prepare my own lunch everyday, and to be able to try more authentic Japanese foods. Restaurants, while delicious, are often limited to curry, noodles, tempura, or other popular dishes. Many of the dishes in school lunch are more akin to what would be prepared in someone’s home.
Thanks to school lunch, I have been able to try many traditional Japanese foods that I otherwise would not have experienced, or been aware of. Yum!
During my stay in Shikaoi, I was given the absolute pleasure of taking part in English Camp! Hosted in Shikaoi’s “Pure Malt Clubhouse”, the goal of the event is to get the Japanese junior high students to use mainly English for the day. The event spanned from 9:30am to 2:30pm, and is packed with fun games, workshops and big group cooking activity. The 3 English speakers involved were Kelsey (JET ALT) and Megan (Stony Plain ALT) me. We were each given a similarly sized group of students to oversee. Despite being a younger group, their English level went above and beyond all expectations. The level at which many Japanese people can speak English is very impressive.
We had a fun video chat with people from Stony Plain during English Camp. The students all got to ask some questions and talk to some children their age. They were split into 3 groups again to ensure every student was given the chance to talk. Megan and Kelsey each led a group activity. Megan had the students design an all English comic book cover, Kelsey had them write up an all English postcards to send to their grandparents. My responsibility was figuring out what meal to make for 40 people. It also needed to have some relevance to Canadian culture. With snow on the ground, and a bitterly cold breeze, there’s no food I wanted more than chili. Maybe not a traditionally Canadian food, but definitely an adopted one.
The hardest part of making chili in Japan is finding kidney beans. There are a lot of foods that Canada has in abundance that are entirely unobtainable in Japan.
I had 10 Japanese students carefully cutting vegetables, while 2 poor souls were in charge of browning a ridiculous amount of meat. All of the students were given English instruction throughout cooking, and all of them handled it very well. The chili went over great, and one of the teachers suggested adding it to a school lunch rotation. It’s wonderful to see so many people in Shikaoi so interested in English and Canadian culture. Experiences like these are what you should look out for if you ever get the chance to take part in theLong Stay Program! Many fun things are constantly taking place in Shikaoi and the surrounding area. Don’t hesitate to ask about upcoming events and festivals.
In late September, Halloween began creeping it’s way into Japan, manifesting first as bags of candy in the supermarket, and strange hybrid jack-o’-lantern / Christmas tree displays in department stores. In October, Halloween themed items became easy to find at many stores and restaurants.
Classic orange pumpkins aren’t commonly found in Japan, instead, kabocha, also known as Kent pumpkin, is widely available at grocery stores, as well as the michi no eki roadside station – where handmade goods and locally grown produce can be found. Pumpkin spice and other pumpkin flavoured desserts and snacks are popular in Japan at this time of year. Café Mahalo in Shikaoi is serving a seasonal pumpkin parfait – which is delicious. I also recently picked up an insanely good pumpkin custard from the 7-Eleven.
Throughout the month of October, the English teachers and I held a Halloween party at each of the elementary schools in Shikaoi. The class began with a slideshow about popular North American Halloween traditions, and a brief history of the holiday. This was followed by a true-or-false quiz, a trick-or-treat costume relay, and spooky origami – all accompanied by classic Halloween tunes. I came to school dressed as a witch, Kiki, from the popular Japanese animation Kiki’s Delivery Service. The teachers even lent me a bamboo broom to complete the look!
Halloween isn’t celebrated much in Japan beyond the spooky aesthetic making occasional and sometimes confusing (re: Christmas tree inspired) appearances. Large bags of Halloween-themed treats are sold in stores, but children don’t typically go trick-or-treating, or wear costumes to school.
It was a lot of fun to teach the kids about Halloween, and some popular Canadian traditions. The students all had a great time putting on costumes, doing crafts, and trick-or-treating in class!
Lake Shikaribetsu is about 30km north of Shikaoi. Nestled up in the mountains, it is one of the highest elevation lakes in Hokkaido, and incredibly beautiful.
I was invited to go canoe-ing at Lake Shikaribetsu by my fellow Shikaoi ALT. I’m averse to nature (where the bugs live), or being trapped in a small boat in 300 ft deep water, but I decided to give it a shot! We also went with another new ALT from the nearby town Shimizu. We had a great time!
The drive up to lake Shikaribetsu is both terrifying and stunning. The road curves sharply, and at times has steep drops on both sides, but the scenery only gets more beautiful as you go on. As you might realize, this can be an especially dangerous combination.
As you approach the main lake area, you will first drive through a long tunnel, before being greeted by three large buildings; the nature centre, where you can sign up for activities such as canoeing, or rowboat rentals; Café Mubanchi, and the gift shop, which are are located in the same Tudor-style building; and the hotel.
There is another restaurant at the hotel with a lake view, and on the drive to Lake Shikaribetsu, there are also a handful of other places to eat. Roadhouse Nest is about 20 minutes from the lake, and has the best pizza I’ve had in Shikaoi so far!
After registering for the 2pm canoe session, we went for lunch at Café Mubanchi, where we got our fill of stew, bagels, and awkward English printed on tiny decorative napkins.
The guides spoke enough English to teach us the basics of canoeing, and then sent us off on the water. I opted for the canoe with a guide, since we were an odd numbered group. Right away, the guide asked me if I was from Stony Plain, and then told me that his daughter is one of my students! What a small world! The relationship between Stony Plain and Shikaoi can be felt so strongly here.
The sky was cloudy, but thankfully we avoided any rain during our canoe trip.
For those in Stony Plain, please stop by the “20 Years of Friendship” mural in Shikaoi Park and look for Lake Shikaribetsu in the background!
week of our exchange was busy and exciting. On July 8 and 9, we split into 2
groups and started our school visits. On
Monday we went to Shikaoi Elementary, Shihoronai Elementary, Sasagawa
Elementary and Shikaoi Junior High School, Urimaku Elementary, Tsumei
Elementary and wrapped up at Urimaku Junior High. We enjoyed lunch at Shikaoi Junior High, where
we ate in the classrooms with the students. Lunch was delicious and it was interesting
to see how the students at the school participate to serve lunch, and clean up
afterwards. On Tuesday we visited Shikaoi High School where we met the students
that will be travelling to Stony Plain in October. We also participated in a
cooking class and made our own bento lunch of ginger pork, rice and salad.
While at the schools we participated in traditional Japanese games, songs and
dances. All the students we excited to teach us their culture and have us in
their schools. After our visit to the high school, we toured the Shikaoi Fire
Hall. It was really interesting to see how they handle emergency calls and what
their fire trucks are like inside, being that they are smaller than ours in
Stony Plain. We then headed to the Aozora Kindergarten class where we met the
young students who delighted in showing us their games and having us play with
them. It was so much fun!
On July 10
we started our journey to Sapporo. We took the train from Shintoku to Sapporo
where we arrived in a bustling station/huge shopping centre. We enjoyed lunch
at “The Buffet” where we tried many different types of Japanese and Western
cuisine. We walked to our hotel to check in and drop off our luggage and then
enjoyed some free time checking out Sapporo and doing some shopping in the
Tanukikoji Shopping Arcade, a 1.5 km long covered street filled with shops and
restaurants . The next day we walked to the Sapporo TV Tower where we went up
90 meters and enjoyed seeing the view of the beautiful city. We then toured the
Former Hokkaido Government Office Building and the beautiful grounds surrounding
it. We found a cute little restaurant where we enjoyed lunch and then headed
off to do more sight-seeing and shopping. The group enjoyed dinner where they
cooked their food directly at the tables. The following day we toured the
beautiful Hokkaido Jingu Shrine and then headed to the Shiroi Koibito Chocolate
Factory. It was the grand re-opening, so it was quite busy, but interesting to
see how the famous Shiroi cookies and cakes are made. We all got ourselves and
our families some tasty treats from the gift shop. Then, it was back on the bus
to start our drive back to Shikaoi. Once we arrived, we met up with our host
families to spend the weekend with them.
weekend in Shikaoi was spent with our host families, enjoying pancakes at the
Heisei Hall, and participating in the Shikaoi High School Festival. Due to the
rain, the parade was cancelled, but the presentation that the students put on
were fun and exciting to watch. Even the teachers were involved! After the
presentations, students participated in games and activities, while others did
some shopping and toured around the Town. On Sunday the High School students
were making and selling treats and snacks in their classrooms. The atmosphere
was fun and you could hear laughter everywhere.
It was also great to see the Stony Plain students involving themselves
in all the activities. That night, the teachers and chaperones spent time
together over dinner and then enjoyed some fun Karaoke singing. Monday was the
national holiday, Ocean Day, so there was no school and a lot of host families
did not have to work. Our host families took us shopping, out for a round of
golf, and for a final authentic Japanese dinner. Our last night was spent with
our new families and cherishing the time we had.
our farewell breakfast. The Town of Shikaoi presented the Town of Stony Plain
with a gift of a Celadon pottery jar. After breakfast and many tears, we got on
the bus and sadly waved goodbye to our new and old friends and families. We
waved out the windows until we could no longer see them and started our long,
9700 km journey back home. We were excited to see our families after two weeks
away, but sad to leave a town and the people in it we had all come to love.
Until next time Shikoai, mata oai shimasho.
Kelly Maluta, Community Services Coordinator for the Town has Joined the 2019 student delegation. This is their experience thus far:
“We arrived in Tokyo an hour behind schedule. All the students were really excited to be off the plane to begin their new adventure. We traveled by bus to the Haneda airport, where we checked into our hotel and then went out for dinner. It was fun to try new foods in Japan. We all went to bed early, for all of us were very tired and adjusting to the 15 hour time difference. “
“The next morning we took a flight to Obihiro, where we were picked up by the kind Town of Shikaoi staff. We rode on the official town bus to Shikaoi and were immediately greeted by residents and staff. We toured the Town Office and met the new Mayor of Shikaoi, Mayor Kii. We enjoyed our time visiting with him and meeting the rest of the Town Office staff. We then walked to the new International Exchange Centre where we enjoyed a coffee, juice and some homemade deer shaped crackers. Afterwards, we went back to the Chomin Hall (Stony Plain Hall) where we got ready for the welcome reception with Mayor, Council, board of education officials and our new host families. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner of local foods and then headed home with our host families.”
“The next day (Friday), we visited the Shikaoi Shinto Shrine, Kanda Nissho Memorial Museum, tried our hand at Park Golf. We then drove up the mountain to see Lake Shikaribetsu. It was so foggy we couldn’t actually see the lake, but we still enjoyed ourselves and the footbath in the natural hot springs. We then went to the Shikaoi Tokachi Geo Park where we learned about the Tokachi area from hundreds of thousands of years ago. It was really interesting to learn about the volcanos that were in the area as well as how the river was created. We returned to the Chomin Hall where we ended our day and went home with our host families.”
“Our weekend was spent with our new families and friends. Each of us did something different; helping to get projects ready for the upcoming High School Festival, shopping in Obihiro, working in the garden and planting vegetables, attending the White Snake Festival at Lake Shikaribetsu, and touring the lavender fields of Furano.”
The Town of Stony Plain has been a Sister Town to Shikaoi, in Hokkaido, Japan for the past 34 years – quite a milestone! From the Shikaoi Exchange Long Stay Volunteer Program to the Student Delegation, Shikaoi and Stony Plain are always connecting through unique travelling opportunities. Many memories have been made and there are more to come.
This is the first post on the new blog. Long Stay Volunteer Program and Student Delegation participants will now have the opportunity to share their adventures and stories on this blog during their Japan stay. Make sure to subscribe to get notified when we post new updates.