When my sister was backpacking across Europe, she had the good fortune of staying with a friend of hers in England. This friend was an exchange student back in their high school days. This friend of my sister’s looked at my sister and said, “All of England is open to you! Where do you want to go in England? What do you want to see?” My sister had one very clear goal, and she told this to her friend. My sister wanted to see Stonehenge. This puzzled her friend. She had never been to Stonehenge, and thus didn’t know where it is. Her friend pulled out a map, found Stonehenge, followed the winding roads back to her home, and made a startling discovery. Stonehenge was just 10 minutes away. When my sister was telling me this story, I was agog. How could you live just 10 minutes from Stonehenge and not know it? How could you live just 10 minutes from Stonehenge and never go?
I had been in Japan for about a month, when I was blessed with my first ever long weekend. I had no idea what to do for this long weekend, as I was still relatively new and was still finding my way around. My boss was suggesting that maybe I hop on the train and go into Tokyo. The one idea that had been tickling the back of my brain was to take the train in the other direction, to the mountains that are near Kumagaya. I soon discarded both ideas, though, for fear that I’d get lost on the trains and spend the rest of days wandering the Japanese country side, desperate to reach my home. No, I finally decided to just stay at home, relax, read a few books, and try to write one. Then I was told of the festival.
When I first signed on to Kumagaya, I was told that this town has three big festivals a year, and that, lo and behold, one was coming up. The train station, where my office was located, was to be party central. This is where the majority of booths and stuff would be located. The assistant manager of my school tried to entice me into going by telling me about her favorite food. I forget her complete description, but I did manage to pick up “deep fried octopus.” If I haven’t mentioned it yet, my apartment is just a 10 minute walk from the station. How could I be just 10 minutes from party central and not check it out? Suddenly, I had a plan.
I spent most of my Sunday just sitting around idly, occasionally going for a walk. I wandered in the direction of the station, and was saddened to see that many of the booths were still setting up. Surely, the majority of action would be in the evening. Having gotten very little sleep the night before, I went home and had a nap. When that was done, I made myself some supper. I didn’t want to blow all my money on deep fried octopus, after all. When the dishes were done and put away (so as not to attract that damn cockroach), I headed out for the festival.
I headed the route I usually take to the station, which involves going through this underground tunnel. There’s a pedestrian walkway to the tunnel, and then the main street area for the cars to drive through. The streets, though, were blocked off for the festival, and so I felt free to walk through the car part of the tunnel. I figured why not. I headed underground, through the darkened concrete walls. I walked down the middle of the road, with no fears of cars coming through. I started climbing up, the other side, and soon, I was in the middle of it.
I was reminded of the few times I had been to Klondike Days back in Edmonton. The streets were now closed off, and lined with booth after booth of someone selling food, drinks, and merchandise at discount prices. And the people! Men dressed in shorts and T-shirts! Women in their finery, or dressed like tramps, depending on their age, mostly. And, as in all the great areas of family entertainment, kids! Kids everywhere! Oh, there were so many people. I wish I could be hip and tell you that I hadn’t seen this many people since the opening of some exclusive nightclub, but no, I’ll be honest and let you know how much of a geek I am.
I hadn’t seen this many people since the dealer’s room at my last Star Trek convention.
I didn’t know what to do at first. It seemed that some basic reconnaissance would be in order. I would just wander around and check things out first. I pressed forward through the crowds. I looked left, and saw popcorn booths, corn dogs, chocolate covered bananas, and what I think was the deep fried octopus booth. I only think that because there was an octopus on the sign and some freshly sliced tentacles on display. I wasn’t that hungry just yet, so I kept pressing forward.
I came to one of the main intersections. There was a stage set up, and on it were two women, singing to the crowd. The crowd was getting thicker, and I knew it was time to start unleashing one of my superpowers. For the record, my superpowers are:
1) I can make any baby smile.
2) I can select the perfect greeting card for any occasion.
3) No matter how thick the crowd, I can successfully maneuver through it without touching anyone, or having to say “Excuse me.”
The first one was handed down to me by my politician mother. The second one I just sort of picked up. And the third one is, in fact, a finely honed skill that was first learned in those Star Trek convention dealer’s rooms, and perfected on several Boxing Days in West Edmonton Mall. It consists of movements so complicated and rhythms so intoxicating that I’d be one hell of a dancer, if I could replicate them on the dance floor. I began twisting and weaving my way through the crowd, my only thought on successfully getting through them. Twist, turn, speed up, slow down, STOP! Jump left, jump right, put your whole self in and shake it all about. I am truly a superhero.
I continued my movements through the crowd, and all this work was making me rather thirsty. I could really do with a drink. Actually, what I could really do with was a Slurpee, but to my horror, they don’t have them in Japan. I made my way to a less-crowded area so I could give my powers a rest and start scanning for drink vendor. Yeah, there are those vending machines everywhere, but in a place like this, who needs them? There was a beer man, there was a Coke man, but that wasn’t quite what I was looking for. And then, I saw it. A snow cone booth! Not quite a Slurpee, but it’ll do the trick. It was even a self-serve place, where I could select which flavor syrup I wanted and pour it on myself. Excellent! I went to the vendor and shelled out my 300 yen. He gave me my plain snow cone, and I started scanning the flavors. Luckily, there were also picture showing my what the flavors were: cola, melon, banana, orange, palm trees (palm trees? WTF?), and…grape. Hard to go wrong with grape. I opened the tap and gratuitously poured on the grape syrup. I feared that I may have put on too much syrup. I took a sip, and almost gagged on the sticky sweet artificial grape flavoring. It coated my tongue. It stuck to my throat as I swallowed. My mouth actually puckered at how sweet it was. It could use a little more. With one last dab of grape syrup, I continued into the night, snow cone in hand.
I continued walking along the booths. So much food, so many people. Not much of the actual merchandise was catching my eye, so I just pressed forward, wondering what I should attempt to try. And then I saw it. Something recognizable, and something I like. Pure beef. On a stick. Barbequed right before your eyes. Pick the one you want, pay the man, and he slaps it on the fire. I’m still enough of an Alberta boy to love my beef, and if there’s one thing I learned my few times at Klondike Days (and at the trucks at countless auction sales) it’s that some of the greatest food in life comes from a cart or stand, and is served on a stick.
I pointed to the skewer of beef that looked most appetizing and paid the man. Of course, I don’t speak a word of Japanese yet, so when the man started asking me a question, I just stared blankly at him, and did the universal speak-up gesture. You know, open your eyes wide, lean forward, and go, “Hmm?” This went on about three or four times until he finally pointed at a bucket of BBQ sauce next to his roaster. He was asking if I wanted BBQ sauce on it. I nodded, and so the man took the skewer of beef of the fire, dipped it in the sauce, and handed it to me. I had a snow cone and beef on a stick. I was at a festival. I wanted to find a quiet place to sit and eat my foods.
I sat down, looked at the crowds around me, and then was finally compelled to look up. The sky was dark and clouded over. There was this occasional flash of lightening and rumble of thunder. It was all very dramatic, and added quite an air to the proceedings. Luckily, though, it hadn’t brought any rain yet, so the throngs continued moving with nary a care. With my snow cone empty and nothing but a stick remaining of my beef on a stick, it was time to move on.
I continued amongst the crowd, occasionally stopping at a booth to check out the wares and give my superpower a rest. That has always been the main problem with coming to these things alone. Without anyone to talk to, they get boring really quick. I mean, there’s no one to look at you and say, “Dare you to try the octopus,” or, “Wow! Look at how cheap those Pokémon cards are!” Even at the Star Trek conventions I at least had my mother. Here, I had no one, and it was starting to get rather boring. I called it an evening after an hour and a half.
Despite my sticky sweet snow cone and belly full of beef, I was getting quite a thirst. For a different way home, I decided to cut through the train station. That’s when it also occurred to me that I didn’t get what you have to get at all these things: some of that cheap merchandise, so you can at least show it to people and say “Hey! Look what I got when I was there!” I was thirsty and I needed a cheap souvenir. Be careful what you wish for, for as I was passing the Lotteria fast food place, I noticed that even they had a booth set up outside their place, and what were they selling? Digimon water bottles. Now, I had never been a fan of Digimon, dismissing it as some inferior Pokémon clone. But this would fill the cheap souvenir requirement quite nicely. I walked over to the booth and started looking over the bottles. One of the clerks noticed me, and came up to me and started rattling things off in Japanese. She was no doubt giving me the sales pitch. I grabbed the bottle I liked and I presented it to her. She had made the sale! She then asked me a question. I did the “speak-up” motions again. We did that for a few times, and finally I knew it was time for a direct approach. I said, in my flawless Canadian English, “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Japanese.” Finally, she said a word I recognized: “Drink.” They were going to fill it for me! That satisfied the drink requirement.
She presented a list of what beverages were available. I didn’t feel like mentioning that I didn’t read Japanese, either. Let’s see, most fast food restaurants #1 beverage of choice is cola, so I pointed at the one at the top of the list and hoped it was cola. Fortunately, the price was in clear view, so there was no problem paying the woman. I was presented with my full water bottle, and went on my merry little way. I cautiously took a sip. I was ecstatic to know that it wasn’t just cola, but the nectar of the gods that is Pepsi. I had a snow cone, I had food on a stick, and I got a cheap souvenir. All in all, a successful festival.
You’ll never know what’s just outside your door. Sometimes, people get so caught up in going to other places and other lands that they’ll simply overlook the fact that there are so many things to do right outside. So please, just life your head up every once in a while and see what there is to do around your hometown. Who knows? You may even learn that Stonehenge is just 10 minutes away.