Hakodate’s Goryokaku Festival and a Visit from our Friends at Sea

In May of 1854, American Commodore Matthew Perry docked in Hakodate with an imposing naval fleet and signed a treaty with the Japanese, opening Hakodate to foreign trade. With more Japanese cities following suit in the coming years, Perry’s arrival was one of several significant events eventually leading to the downfall of the 250 year Tokugawa reign, and the end of the Samurai era. 160 years later, to mark this anniversary, the American missile guided cruiser USS Shiloh pulled into Hakodate Bay, and 380 officers and sailors of the United States Navy came to town.

Commodore Perry opening up the port of Hakodate to foreign trade, as depicted by clay figurines inside the Goryokaku Tower rotuna
Commodore Perry opening up the port of Hakodate to foreign trade, as depicted by clay figurines inside the Goryokaku Tower rotunda

Goryokaku Tower is a modern cream colored pentagonal pillar topped by a two floor glass rotunda that overlooks the star shaped Goryokaku Fort. The fort was designed a year after Perry’s arrival, with the intention of protecting both Hakodate and the main island of Honshu from encroaching Russian fleets, which could have passed through the Tsugaru Strait that divides Hokkaido and Honshu en route to juicier targets like Tokyo. However, rather than defend against Russians, the fort was taken over by Japanese rebels in 1868 during the Boshin War. These rebels, samurai loyal to the Tokugawa Shogun, revolted after the young Emperor Meiji, heavily influenced by anti-samurai advisors, abolished the Tokugawa House. After a series of victories by the new and growing Imperial Army, the remaining samurai fighters established a base at Goryokaku, and, in a very progressive manner, declared Hokkaido a constitutional republic named Ezo. While Ezo’s government was based almost entirely on that of the United States, and even though Ezo held the first democratic elections in Japanese history, the United States refused to grant this infant nation diplomatic recognition. Aided by the French military, Ezo troops put up a strong fight against the invading Japanese Imperial Army the next year, but were soundly defeated, and the flag of the rising sun was raised over Goryokaku Fort on June 27, 1869, thus drawing the Boshin War to a close and ushering in the Meiji Era and rise of Imperial Japan.

Goryokaku Tower
Goryokaku Tower
1880 Japanese painting of the Battle of Hakodate
1880 Japanese painting of the Battle of Hakodate
Goryokaku Fort. This star shaped design is mirrored across the world in similarly designed fortresses, such as the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town, South Africa; Nicosia, Cyprus; and Fort Independence in Boston Harbor.

In present day, the annual Goryokakusai, or Goryokaku Festival, pays tribute to those who died in the final battle of the Boshin War. A parade featuring costumed participants representing numerous Japanese clans, foreign armies, and samurai of the period from 1854-1869 re-enact many of the events that marked these tumultuous years. This year was particularly eventful given the special anniversary of Perry’s arrival, and since almost all of the American sailor parade spots were taken by real servicemen and woman, yours truly played a British flag bearer circa-1860 leading a merry band of Japanese college students brandishing muskets and adorned in lobster red uniforms and pith helmets. Nanae CIR Ben Haydock turned heads in his portrayal of a 19th century cutlass-wielding Dutch naval officer, while other Hakodate area ALTs filled out the parade as officers and flag bearers of France, Russia, and, for one extremely lucky New Yorker who fit into the provided M size trousers, the United States. Under a late spring sun, we band of brothers and sisters marched through Goryokaku’s lively streets, while several Japanese samurai actors held walking sword fights, re-enacting the last battle of 1869. Our party came to a rest within the old walls of Goryokaku’s 19th century castle, where a ceremony recognized the historical significance of those who fought and died 145 years ago. Finally, a brass band played several tunes, western and Japanese, three ancient cannons fired off a few blank rounds, and the 2014 Goryokaku Festival came to a close.

The USS Shiloh‘s senior command leads American sailors down the center of Goryokaku. L-R, Executive Officer Josh Stewart, Captain Kurush F. Morris, and Command Master Chief Kevin Pitre. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Marissa Valentine) 


Susumo Nakano (left) dressed as a samurai general, poses with the ragtag band of gaikokujin flag bearers: (L-R), Stephen Mayhead from the U.K.; somebody from Taiwan; Mark Omiatek of Oil City, PA; Matthew Philbrick of Orlando, FL; Laura Plaisted of Nashua, NH; your loyal ALT blogger; Angela Philips of North East, PA; Nanae CIR Ben Haydock; and Evan Schnoll of Richmond, VA. (photo by Omiatek)


Hakodate University students dressed as Ezo samurai warriors take a break while the parade halts for a sword fight (photo by Mark Omiatek)


Shiloh officers as the parade was getting ready. Note the float on the left side. A replica of the “black ships” that Commodore Perry sailed to Japan in the 1850s. (photo by Mark Omiatek)
Nanae CIR/ALT sempai/kohai dressed for the occasion

The evening before Goryokakusai, Susumo Nakano, owner of Goryokaku Tower and President of the Japan-America Society of Hakodate, hosted a banquet for many of the parade participants as well as half a dozen officers of the USS Shiloh and two representatives from the US Consulate in Sapporo. After a few drinks, we gaikokujins (foreigners) were brought up on stage to make speeches in Japanese. In awe of military figures since my failed ROTC days, I made up for my lack of formal attire with impeccable Japanese and an English “thank you” to the folks from the Shiloh for their service. Becoming acquainted with those onboard the ship allowed me the rare opportunity of touring a Ticonderoga-class missile cruiser on deployment. In its twenty-year history the Shiloh is known for having launched Tomahawk missiles against Iraq both in 1996 and in the opening salvos of the 2003 Iraqi invasion. It played a major role in relief operations after the devastating 2004 tsunami and is currently on patrol with the 7th Fleet in East Asia.

The Ticonderoga-class USS Shiloh on it’s last day in port. Mt. Hakodate is on the right.

I feel truly blessed to have the opportunity to live and teach in Nanae, becoming immersed in Japanese culture and becoming a part of a very special town. My experience here since my arrival at the end of July, 2013 has been an incredible one, and I recently signed on for another year of teaching English in Nanae’s elementary and middle schools. That said, as visits from friends and family back home are few and far between, it can be easy to lose track of what it is that you are representing beyond the basic structure of a teaching assignment here. Spending time with the people who serve on board the USS Shiloh reminded me that the second purpose of my job here beyond teaching English is to best represent the cultures and traditions of Concord, and the values of the United States as a whole. Many thanks to the folks of the Shiloh, the Japan-America Society of Hakodate, and the countless parade volunteers who made this great weekend possible!

One last view over Hakodate harbor on the USS Shiloh‘s final day in port


Massachusetts Day in Sapporo

Business trips in a Japan are serious business. First, formal documents must be drawn up well in advance (purpose of trip, itinerary etc.) and passed around from desk to desk receiving a “Hanko” (a kind of personalized stamp used in Japan that acts like a signature) from each person in a long chain of command. Once these details are confirmed, a budget for the trip is determined, and each lucky traveler receives a stipend for his/her travel and accommodation expenses in a special envelope. How these amounts are calculated, I’m not quite sure, but they are exact. More often than not, this means receiving an envelope with a mixture of bills AND coins. If your budget is something like $157.45, that’s what you’ll get, including the 4 dimes and a nickel.

MY HANKO It says "Haydock", or "Heidokku" if your Japanese pronunciation is good.
It says: “Haydock” (or “Heidokku” if your Japanese pronunciation is good).

For an ALT or CIR in Japan, these kinds of trips are quite rare, so it’s hard not to feel at least a little excited when the opportunity arises. It was no different in my case when, earlier this month, a small envelop clinked its way onto my desk (yes, there were coins). I was to take a one-night trip up to Sapporo with two of my coworkers, Emi and Teraya-San, to give a special presentation at a “Massachusetts Day” event at the Hokkaido Prefectural Office in Sapporo.

Hokkaido and Massachusetts have been sister states since 1990, and the Massachusetts Day event is held at the Sapporo Prefectural Office to celebrate the date (February 7th) when the two regions entered into this formal relationship.

THE EVENT SIGNBOARD It reads: "Introductory Exhibition for Massachusetts, U.S.A. ~Massachusetts Day~ (2/6~2/7)
It reads: “Introductory Exhibition for Massachusetts, U.S.A. ~Massachusetts Day~ (2/6~2/7)


As a lunch-time guest lecturer I was asked to present a little on the history of the connection between Massachusetts and Hokkaido, as well as Concord and Nanae. Having given presentations on my hometown before, I already had a lot of Concord-related material, especially material which highlighted the similarities and differences between Concord and Nanae. I realized, however, that I didn’t know enough about the roots of the Massachusetts and Hokkaido connection, and so I needed to do a bit of research. For this I turned to sources provided to me by Concord’s Tom Curtin, and I visited Nanae’s History Museum a few times to speak with its curator, a man named Mr. Yamada, who knows a whole lot about early Hokkaido/Nanae history.

My research focused on two men from Massachusetts: William Clark and William Wheeler, who played a huge role in the early development of Hokkaido. Clark is famous throughout Hokkaido, and greater Japan, for establishing Sapporo Agricultural College in 1876, which would go on to change its name in 1947 to Hokkaido University and become one of Japan’s top schools. Clark only served as president of the college for about a year before returning to America, but it’s clear that he made a lasting impression. At the moment of his departure, Clark famously turned to his Japanese students and shouted, “boys, be ambitious!” Every Japanese person I have met to date knows this phrase. There is even a shady karaoke bar in downtown Hakodate (the city adjoining Nanae) called “Boys Be Ambitious” (playfully nicknamed “Boys Be”).

Reading about Clark, it becomes clear that he had a very charismatic and impacting personality, which sheds some light on why his memory is still so well preserved here in Japan. Students are quoted as remembering his ethics lectures in which he implored them to “be gentlemen” above all else. He was even able to convince those around him, including the Governor of Hokkaido, Kuroda Kiyotaka, to look aside as he used bibles in the classroom to teach his students Christianity, a religion that was still banned throughout the island at the time. Many of his students would go on to convert. Clark fit the role of mentor and leader perfectly for a region of Japan that was just starting to develop.


William Wheeler was a born and bred Concordian. He studied under Clark in Massachusetts and came along to Japan in 1876 to help him in establishing Sapporo Agricultural College. Wheeler would go on to become the second president of the school after Clark returned to America. Whereas Clark’s personality and leadership seemed to resonate with his Japanese students, Wheeler’s impact was more concrete. Most famous among his various engineering and architectural contributions to Hokkaido is the main building of the Sapporo Clock Tower, which he originally designed to be a drill hall for students at Sapporo Agricultural College. The Clock Tower remains one of the oldest buildings in the city, and a major tourist attraction.


It’s important when reading about these men to remember that these were some of the very first westerners living and working in Japan, not to mention Hokkaido. The Meiji Restoration, which largely signaled the end of Japan’s long period of isolation and began its rise as an industrial power, had occurred not ten years before Clark and Wheeler arrived. Wheeler writes in letters that he and Clark stopped to watch street performances in Tokyo, but that the crowds of people stopping to stare at them soon grew larger than the audience for the performers. I can only imagine what an adventure it must have been for these two guys from Massachusetts to travel by steamship half-way around the world, and arrive in 19th century Japan. Not to mention, when they got there they spent much of their time riding horses around Hokkaido, at that time still essentially a wilderness, surveying roads and railway routes. Badass!

You can view more images and information related to Clark and Wheeler, and the history of the Massachusetts and Hokkaido relationship here: https://concordnanae.org/the-connection/

And now I’ll fill you in a little on the trip:

We drove up to Sapporo from Nanae on a Wednesday morning using one of the Nanae town vans. The drive usually takes around 4 hours using the expressway in good conditions, but we decided to take the local roads to avoid paying the tolls. Hokkaido was being particularly Hokkaido-ish on this day, and with some heavy snow falling throughout most of the drive, it took us the better part of 6 hours. My boss, Teraya-san, was stoic the whole way, assuring Emi and I that we needn’t volunteer to sub in. I knew better than to question his resolve, and reclined my seat in the back to sleep for most of the drive.

As luck would have it, that Wednesday (2/5) was the first day of Sapporo’s annual Snow Festival (Yuki Matsuri). The Snow Festival is massive. It lasts for one week in early February and attracts around 2 million people each year. The main attractions are its giant snow and ice sculptures, which are illuminated at night. In recent years they’ve added a towering “big-air” jump where snowboarders perform tricks during the day. Most of this is set up in Odori Park, which runs the length of a large boulevard in the heart of the city. This made booking a hotel for Wednesday night particularly tough, but Teraya-San had somehow managed to find us one in the city center.

After a quick tour of the presentation space for the next day, and a few meet-and-greets with people at the Prefectural Office we headed back to the hotel, and then out for dinner and drinks at a nearby Izakaya (a type of Japanese eatery where people often sign up for special “all-you-can-drink” deals and order a lot of cheap food, tapas style). In Japan, the ritual of bonding with your coworkers through drinking is central to business culture. Throughout the year, workplaces schedule special banquets (always with “all-you-can-drink” options) at Izakayas, with the idea being that it helps people blow off steam and grow closer with their workmates. Based on this experience, I got the impression that business trips contain a similar component of team-bonding, and I really enjoyed the opportunity to have a fun night out with Emi and Teraya-San.

After dinner, we headed over to check out the snow sculptures in some heavy snow:

GRADUALLY BECOMING SNOWMEN WITH TERAYA-SAN (this sculpture is of the "Sultan Abdul Samad Building" in Malaysia)
(this sculpture is of the “Sultan Abdul Samad Building” in Malaysia)
WE MADE SOME NEW FRIENDS These Australians are enjoying some "chu-hais" (a type of sweet, carbonated alcoholic beverage specially designed in a Japanese lab to ensure head-splitting hangovers)
These Australians are enjoying some “chu-hais” (a type of sweet, carbonated alcoholic beverage specially designed in a Japanese lab to ensure head-splitting hangovers).


The next day we got up early and headed over to attend the Massachusetts Day event and to give my presentation.

Audience Shot


Teraya-San set up a small booth there to give out samples of Nanae apple juice.  Nanae was the first place in Japan to grow apples in 1868, and they remain a major source of pride for the town. Many families in town will “buy” one of the trees at the local orchards for a year, meaning that they get the right to all apples that grow on that tree in that season. They’re that good!



My presentation lasted for about 45 minutes. The lobby where I presented is enclosed in tall glass windows, so the light that filtered through washed out my slides a little bit. That being said, I was happy with how it went. When I present in Japanese, I’m always torn between pronouncing English names and words in the correct English pronunciation, or changing them to match the sounds that exist in Japanese. For example “Concord” becomes “Konkohh-doh” in Japanese. I usually end up doing a mix of both.

POWER POINT (showing the size difference between Concord and Nanae)
(showing the size difference between Concord and Nanae)


Below I’ve uploaded a short clip from my presentation, where I talk about the “Concord Grape”:

On our way back to the car we bumped into this little guy in front of the former Governmental Office of Sapporo. Cute (“Kawaii”) characters are extremely popular in Japan.

WE LOVE HOKKAIDO This mascot's costume seemed really restrictive.
This mascot’s costume seemed really restrictive.


After another long drive we arrived safely back in Nanae.  Mission Accomplished.

Until next time!

The Mochi Guide

Last month, I attended two mochi-making events at nursery schools. Mochi is rice-paste made from pounding sticky rice with a wooden sledgehammer (kine). The rice is hammered in something that looks like a partially hollowed tree trunk (usu). Usually, several people take turns hammering with a continuous rhythm, while one person quickly readjusts the paste-ball between each drop of the hammer. Once the rice is all homogenized into one uniform ball, it’s divided into bite-sized mochi-balls. Via chopsticks, they are dunked into Continue reading “The Mochi Guide”

License to Terrify

One of the nursery schools invited me to participate in a special event last week called Setsubun. It’s a cultural event celebrated all over Japan. To celebrate, some people dress up as demons, and others throw beans at the demons. The point of throwing the beans at the demons is to make them run away so they can’t scare people – the whole event symbolizes warding away evil each year. I participated in the demon class. This class has the oldest kids in the school. We spent a week making paper-mache masks. I was meticulous with mine. The morning of the event, one of the teachers told me if the younger kids were crying, I did my job right. I was supposed to actually terrify them. The purpose of the event is to teach the kids to confront real fear and overcome it over the course of several years’ events. I liked the idea – teaching kids to deal with powerful emotions like that through actual experience seemed like a valuable lesson to me. All of the kids were showered in candy to reward them for their bravery at the end of the event. We (the demons) were given tinfoil machetes to top it all off – I thought it was a nice touch. Some kids responded better than others (see Emi’s nephew in the blue coat).




















































































Ben Mirin Performs at Nanae Akai Hane (Red Feather) Charity Concert

By Ben Mirin, CIR

Saturday, December 17th, 2011.

Thirteen contestants performed in Nanae’s annual karaoke contest at the Nanae Bunka (Culture) Center in pristine Pioneer Hall.  Out of all thirteen singers, twelve sang Enka, a traditional form of Japanese folk music with vast appeal among the predominantly middle-aged and elderly people who filled the auditorium.  One contestant, however, chose to be different.

In a shamelessly narcissistic post, I thought I’d share the videos of my performances from that day.  I was very pleased with how they turned out, and had a fantastic time participating in the competition.

Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”:

Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” (ft. a Georgia Coffee can):

Continue reading “Ben Mirin Performs at Nanae Akai Hane (Red Feather) Charity Concert”

Nanae Bunka-sai (Culture Festival) (3 videos) by Ben Mirin and Ben Haydock

Post by Ben Mirin, CIR
Videography by Ben Mirin and Emi Kimura

The following are three short videos shot independently with my iPhone at the Nanae Bunka-sai on October 30th, 2011. These were originally filmed for upload on my live video feed at qik.com/benmirin/videos. However, due to some persistent problems with my account, I am re-posting these videos here. The quality is…well, iPhone quality. Enjoy!

Bonsai at Nanae Bunka-sai

Bonsai at Nanae Bunka-sai Part 2 Feat. Ben Haydock

Apples at Nanae Bunka-sai

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Nanae Hosts Fukushima Kids’ Summer Camp

photo by Ken Ikeda

By Ben Mirin, CIR

July 27th, 2011

NANAE ONUMA—On the morning of July 26th, twenty-four of Nanae’s government employees arrived at the town office in outfits that undoubtedly broke Japan’s “casual bizz” dress code for summer.  Instead of collared shirts, slacks, and indoor slippers they tramped inside with dusty sneakers, cargo shorts, bandanas, and the occasional apron.

Moments after the morning bell rang I ran outside with this already sweaty entourage and piled into one of several cars bound for Nagareyama Onsen in the neighboring town of Onuma.  When we arrived crates of vegetables and packs of ice were already streaming across the spa’s luxurious grounds.  An early start was critical; soon, 235 children and parents from Fukushima would arrive for an all-day barbecue to kickoff the first season of Fukushima Kids’ Summer Camp, and to enjoy their first leisurely day outside in over four months.

“You are wonderful hosts!” exclaimed the Camp’s founder Toru Shinshi.  “Normally we have about 80 volunteers with us on the program, but today there is a great local turnout.”

Not thirty minutes had passed and already Nanae’s task force was greeting the first waves of students and summer camp staff.  As they arrived, so did volunteers from Nanae’s Board of Education and from the Higashi Onuma Elementary student body and Parent-Teacher Association.  Groups from all around Nanae would arrive that day to help the Summer Camp achieve its simple, heartfelt goal:

“All we want is for these kids to be able to play outside again, especially during their summer break,” Shinshi-san explained.  “Towns throughout Fukushima Prefecture have cancelled all of their student programs for the summer of 2011 because of the accident and unfolding crisis at the [Fukushima Daiichi] nuclear power plant, and children are being forced to stay indoors.”

photo by Ken Ikeda

Continue reading “Nanae Hosts Fukushima Kids’ Summer Camp”

Marching in the Meiji Restoration Parade

By Ben Mirin, CIR

As seen in the Concord Journal bi-monthly column, “The Japan Connection.”

May 22nd, 2011

Ben Mirin (CIR) in full costume for the Meiji Restoration Parade. Photo by Hisao Higuchi

Any crowd of foreigners in Hakodate is usually very conspicuous, but in my search for the starting point of this year’s Goryokaku Festival, I knew I had no way of asking for directions. Asking passersby downtown where I could find a crowd of foreigners in 19th century military garb surely would have drawn blank stares.

Now in its 42nd year, the Goryokaku Festival is never complete without foreign volunteers. Festival organizers use word of mouth to recruit them to march as soldiers and flag bearers in the Meiji Restoration Parade. Every year on the Sunday after the third Saturday in May, this huge event commemorates the end of Japan’s Boshin War period with reenactments of the Battle of Hakodate in Goryokaku Square.


Hearing my name with perfect American pronunciation catches me off guard nowadays. My friend Bill Bowman, a 10-year veteran flag-bearer for the Parade, was waving to me from across the street.

“Let’s go get you into costume,” he said. For the first time, I noticed his mid-western accent, or what was left of it after 16 years of living in Hakodate.

We walked together for a mere five minutes before the clang of Japanese katana and synchronized shouts from reenactment volunteers were clearly audible in the Sunday morning stillness. I passed through crowds of Japanese high school students dressed in the colors of the Meiji and the Tokugawa shogunate armies and ascended the stairs to the costume room.

Upstairs, a man in a shogunate uniform greeted me and gestured to a group of boldly dressed men at the far end of a large tatami room.
Continue reading “Marching in the Meiji Restoration Parade”

Taiko Drumming at Concord-Carlisle High School

By Ben Mirin, CIR.

Members of the community Taiko club at Concord-Carlisle High School describe witnessing Taiko drumming during a visit to Nanae, Japan, and how that experience encouraged their study of the traditional Japanese art form.  The students featured here are Mark O’Toole (’11) and Nathaniel Ridpath (’13), both of whom were members of the Concord delegation that visited Nanae in April 2010.

Continue reading “Taiko Drumming at Concord-Carlisle High School”