Tag Archives: TGIJ (thank god it’s Japan)

Shakotan’s Garbage Rules

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One thing I have come to love about Japanese culture is its reverent appreciation and conservation of nature. Environmental issues always seem to be on the forefront of the national conscience. This means that Japan is (usually) quite an environmentally responsible country. While I had an understanding of this, I didn’t know how it would personally affect me while living in Japan. As I have now learned, the rules and schedule of garbage disposal is significantly more complicated than what I had experienced in the States. Americans with a shaky grasp on Japanese (like me) might initially find the rules a bit daunting, so here’s what I’ve learned.

Growing up in Iowa, we definitely could recycle things like cardboard, but in my experience most people only really bothered to recycle bottles and cans—and then mostly just to get their nickel and dime deposits back. In Seattle, where everybody’s a tree-hugging hippie, each apartment complex would have two dumpsters; one for trash and one for recyclables, like aluminum cans, glass bottles, cardboard, and plastic. Many buildings also had a receptacle for food and yard waste. It was a Planeteer’s dream! Coming from this perspective, I fully expected that Sapporo would be serious about their recycling rules, but Shakotan, being a rural area, would be more lassie faire and simply trash everything. That didn’t hold true.

As I learned, trash in Japan is separated to a few different categories: burnable trash (燃えるゴミ), non-burnable trash (燃えないゴミ), plastics (プラゴミ), metal cans (缶), glass bottles (ビン), plastic bottles (ペート), and paper waste (紙ゴミ).  In Shakotan, special color coded trash bags are used to distinguish between burnable trash (yellow bags), non-burnable trash (blue bags), and plastics (orange bags).

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Burnable trash is what you consider to be regular old garbage and this stuff goes off to literally be incinerated. Disposable chopsticks, used paper towels and tissues, banana peels, egg shells and other food scraps, your general ‘yucky stuff’ all goes in the burnable category.

The plastics category is where things get a bit more interesting. With the exception of plastic bottles that have their own unique group, everything plastic goes into this category—even the plastic bottle lids! This includes all plastic bags, Styrofoam, plastic packaging, plastic wrapping, and pretty much anything made out of polystyrene. This must be separated from your regular burnable trash.

Since so many food products come in plastic containers, especially ready-to-eat items, some of your plastic trash ends up messy with sauce, grease, or some other viscous slime smeared on it. In the US, we would probably call this soiled and toss it in the trash. But in Japan, you are supposed to clean the grease off and put it in the plastic trash. That’s right; you wash your garbage before throwing it away.

Even in Seattle, I remember tossing many a plastic lid, wrapper, or grocery bag in trash can, because I had been told that it wasn’t recyclable. I had always wondered how much such things added up in the grand scale of things. Now, after having collected all my plastic waste in one spot, I tell you that it accumulates pretty quickly. Even just the plastic bags and packaging from one person’s groceries can form a hefty mountain in a week’s time.

Plastic bottles are called “PET” bottles (ペート), referring to polyethylene terephthalate, the polymer they contain. These bottles proudly sport a number 1 resin identification code inside the universal recycling symbol. Clearly, this system was someone’s PET project. (These jokes plastically write themselves!)

Cans and glass bottles are pretty self-explanatory, but paper waste category requires a bit of clarification. Paper waste doesn’t simply mean anything made of paper. Specifically, it’s supposed to be stackable things made of paper. Old magazines, broken down cardboard boxes, and even broken down milk cartons fall into this category. The key is that your stack of recyclable paper needs to be of a fairly uniform shape and must be properly bound with some sort of cord. At school, where a pint of milk comes with every meal, each student is responsible for methodically rinsing and breaking down their own milk carton. These rectangular pieces of cardboard are then collected, and over time form massive stacks until they are gigantic enough for paper recycling day.

And finally, if waste item doesn’t fit into one of the previously stated categories, it probably goes into the non-burnable trash. That said, I have never gotten the waste management crew in Shakotan to take a bag of non-burnable trash from me, ever. So I might not know what I’m talking about when it comes to this category.

The trash is collected on weekdays, and pickups are scheduled both by the week and by the month. For example, here’s what Shakotan’s waste management picks up every week:

Mon:     Burnable trash (燃えるゴミ)

Tues:     Plastics (プラゴミ)

Wed:     N/A

Thurs:   Burnable trash (燃えるゴミ)

Fri:         Non-burnable trash (燃えないゴミ)

The monthly pickups follow a Monday-Wednesday-Thursday schedule that varies from week to week. Since the third week is the same as the first, and the fourth week is the same as the second, so the schedule basically alternates like this:

Odd weeks:                                                                        Even weeks:

Mon – Cans & Bottles (缶・ビン)                           Mon – PET & Paper (ペート・紙)

Wed – PET & Paper (ペート・紙)                          Wed – Cans & Bottles (缶・ビン)

Thurs – PET & Paper (ペート・紙)                        Thurs – Cans & Bottles (缶・ビン)

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Personally, I’ve never paid much attention to the monthly pickup schedule because my apartment doesn’t have a proper bin to leave trash out. My neighbors and I literally leave our garbage out on the corner on the scheduled day and it gets picked up there. In the case of Cans & Bottles Day, someone at my apartment has to put out these specially labeled Rubbermaid baskets or there’s nowhere for me to leave my recycling. That means I just wait until a morning when the baskets appear and toss all my cans then.  Unlike cans and glass, PET bottles get collected in a big green net, which I’ve always liked. It really fits my seaside village.

My favorite part of Shakotan’s garbage collection has to the garbage trucks themselves. Painted baby blue, the smallish refuse collection vehicles have a fairly cute look, but the music they play is just plain adorable. I suppose they play music to announce their presence wherever they go, both to alert pedestrians that a heavy truck is rolling through, and also to remind forgetful residents that they need to take their trash out, posthaste. But when I first heard the garbage truck driving through, I thought the Ice Cream Man had come to town. The trucks play a variety of recognizable songs, most from classic animated series and movies, all played in a tinkly music box style. The themes from Laputa, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, even Lupin III; the trucks play them all.  And always the tune is reduced to its basic melody, played like a lullaby being plucked out on the teeth of metal comb. It was definitely foreign to me when I first heard it, but it is undeniably peaceful and downright relaxing.

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Filed under Educational, Shakotan

Mike Visits Shakotan

During my entire first year living abroad in Japan, I had only one guest; my beautiful girlfriend Marissa. Not only did no one else venture across the ocean to visit the quirky island nation, but none of new the friends I had made within Japan ever managed to visit my humble abode in Shakotan. It wasn’t until June 2012, exactly one year after Marissa’s visit, that I received my second houseguest; my beautiful brother Mike.

Of everyone in my family, Mike was the most appropriate candidate to make the trip to Japan. For one thing, Mike had a strong, long-running interest in Japan. In fact, he was probably the one responsible for giving me the Japan bug, fueling my Nippon obsession with countless hours of Street Fighter battles on the Super Nintendo, Playstation, at the arcade, you name it. Mike had voluntarily taken summer Japanese classes at the University of Iowa—something completely outside his demanding aerospace engineering curriculum—followed by completing every advanced Japanese class that the University of Washington had to offer. He used to spend almost all his free time studying the language, just for fun.

One of the perks of Mike’s job at Boeing is that when the company delivers a new plane to client airlines, some engineers need to ride along and do final diagnostics of the plane in flight. As such an engineer, he might get sent to Australia or the United Arab Emirates or—conveniently—to Japan. Two of Mike’s oldest and dearest friends lived in Tokyo and delivery flights had made it possible to visit them in the past. But this was the first time the stars aligned for my brother to be dispatched to Tokyo while I was around. So this time, he would make the trip north to Hokkaido.

On Thursday June 14th, Mike arrived in Sapporo. Since I was working in Shakotan on that day, I couldn’t meet him at the airport, or even the train station. Instead, the Fukui family (the Sapporo family who had all but adopted me) would take care of him. Hiroko—essentially my Japanese host mother—met Mike at Sapporo Station and graciously drove him all the way to my remote peninsula.

Hiroko’s minivan pulled up to my tiny Shakotan apartment building late in the afternoon and Mike hopped out. Energetic as ever, Hiroko expressed her surprise that Mike’s Japanese skills were so good. She said that he spoke Japanese better than I did! Considering how much time and effort my brother had put into his studies, this made perfect sense. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Hiroko and company hit the road, heading back to Sapporo again. To get Mike acquainted with my little town, we took a walk around Bikuni Marina (美国マリナ), located just behind my apartment building, followed by an introduction to Seicomart, Shakotan’s only convenience store. There Mike got a very Japanese drink, canned coffee.

For relaxing times, make it a Suntory time.

For dinner, I took Mike to Jun no Mise (純の店), one of my favorite local restaurants. The place was rather empty, so we got to chitchat with Mr. Jun and his family. Eager to give Mike the authentic Hokkaido experience, I ordered a lot of separate plates for him to try, like zangi (ザンギ), ika-yaki (烏賊焼き), and a rather pricey kaiyōdon (海洋丼 – literally “ocean bowl”, a bowl of sashimi-grade seafood on rice). I ordered enough food for four or five people, so it was a little ridiculous. On the way back to the apartment, we again dropped by the Seicomart to pick up some Suntory whiskey and Schweppes British Lemon Tonic. This made for some delicious cocktails at the old homestead.

Not as easy as it looks.

To cap off Mike’s first night in Shakotan, we cracked open my Toshiba laptop and set about replacing its screen, which I had broken a week or so earlier. Usually a broken screen is seen as not repairable, a piece of hardware that if damaged, completely totals your laptop. But I love my little Toshiba, and Mike and I were ambitious enough to attempt the replacement. The process turned out to be a bit more difficult than we expected—the screws are really small and the angles can be difficult to maneuver around—but in the end we were victorious. The laptop lives!

I decided to take the day off on Friday to make the most of the limited time that my brother was around. Ironically though, Mike wanted to see where I worked, so our first destination was Bikuni Junior High, the same place I would have been if I wasn’t using vacation hours. The other teachers shyly greeted my brother, and he even got to drop in on a couple classes to be introduced to the students. The social studies class proved to be so interesting that Mike hardly wanted to leave, but there was more to see.

We drove out to one of Shakotan’s famous sites, the Shimamui Coast (島武意海岸). After taking in the spectacular view and snapping some obligatory photos, we had lunch at the shop situated right outside the tunnel entrance. Driving along the gorgeous coastline, the summer sunshine hitting the blue sea made a tremendous view.

When we got to Kamui Misaki (神威岬)—the crown jewel located at the tip of the peninsula and Shakotan’s pride and joy—it looked as though the trail out to the end of the cape was open. However, we made our way out there to discover that less than a third of the trail was actually accessible. Apparently a section of the path had been destroyed in a landslide. Mike took in as much of the epic rocky coast as possible, and we enjoyed cones of the “Shakotan Blue” ice cream exclusively available there. Mike enjoyed the light minty flavor of the blue dessert, and then found himself craving more canned coffee. Luckily, the vending machines were right there.

The original plan was to leave Shakotan early that evening and spend our Friday night in Sapporo’s Susukino. Mike’s only goal in coming to Hokkaido was to sample Sapporo’s legendary miso ramen (味噌ラーメン – ramen noodles in a bean paste broth), so dinner in Sapporo was kind of a given. After completing the prerequisite sightseeing, it was only on a whim that I took Mike into the town office to potentially meet some people, like the mayor. Ihira-san, head of the Shakotan Board of Education, was the first person we dropped in on, and he was very excited to meet Mike. In fact, he was so excited that he offered to treat us to dinner at the finest sushi restaurant in town, Fuji Sushi. It turned out that Friday June 15th was “Uni Day”, the day Shakotan’s famous sea urchin was half price. Since Mike was in town at just the right time, Ihira-san insisted that he had to try the seasonal specialty. In the face of such great generosity, we were powerless to resist, and we changed our plans for the evening.

IP Phone production room: where the magic happens

On the second floor of the town office, the mayor’s office looked especially busy, so I decided not to attempt an introduction. Instead, I introduced Mike to the IP Phone staff, the folks that handle Shakotan’s local videophone network. The group was very welcoming, inviting us into the editing room where they put together the programs that the IP phone broadcasts into everyone’s homes on a daily basis. Specifically, they showed Mike my English conversational program, Lucas no One Point Eikaiwa (ルーカスのワンポイント英会話). This was interesting for me as well, as I had never seen the process past the point of recording my audio. The little room was long and narrow, suspiciously similar to a storage closet. It housed a desktop computer attached to multiple pieces of audio and video editing hardware, as well as an IP phone for testing newly made programs. To illustrate what my English lessons were like, they played the latest one for Mike, giving him a sneak preview of Saturday’s upcoming One Point.

Upon exiting the little IP phone room, we ran into a large group of local office workers that were headed to Fuji Sushi. These folks also invited us to join them for dinner, but I explained that we were already going with Ihira-san. It certainly seemed like a lot of people in the office were planning on taking advantage of the day of cheap uni, although we didn’t quite realize the extent of it. To our surprise, our Fuji Sushi dinner party grew to about 30 men, essentially becoming a huge party.

The dinner took place in a long room on Fuji Sushi’s second floor. Distinctly Japanese in style, the room had sliding doors and a Tanami floor, which the low tables necessitated we sit on. Huge platters of sushi were brought out, each one delivering 40 or 50 pieces of nigiri. Maguro (鮪 – tuna), awabi (鮑 – shellfish), and the like were all impressive, but the uni (海栗 – sea urchin) truly stole the show. Shakotan’s local specialty was pure gold, both in color and taste.

The sheer quantity of sushi was overwhelming and wave after wave appeared on the table. The drinks were equally abundant, if not more so. We started with big mugs of cold Sapporo beer, and this would have been enough for Mike and me, especially when Japanese etiquette demanded that our next beer arrive before we had even finished the last. But then we were offered locally-made wine, which we simply had to try. Then came the sake, also made locally, and therefore similarly obligatory. At one point, Mike had one nearly finished beer and another untouched beer, a glass of red wine, and a small glass of sake which was being constantly refilled for him by a city council member. I started to supplement my beer intake with glasses of water to prevent myself from getting too drunk.

Such an amazing spread of food and drink made for aristocratic social lubrication. Mike and I caroused with the warm and generous Shakotan folks, discussing jobs and schools and foods and sports, etc. The conversation was truly wonderful, and I witnessed Mike’s Japanese become more and more fluent with each drink. Eventually the dinner concluded and the evening went into its second phase, which in Japanese is called nijikai (二次会 – second party of the night, afterparty). Members of the group that still wanted to party headed over to Snack Cocoro (スナック心) for more drinks and karaoke.

Drunken karaoke is a standard Japanese pastime, the place all late nights on the town eventually gravitate towards, and as such, Mike was no stranger to it. This night was special, however, because we weren’t Tokyo or Sapporo or some other sizable city; we were in the middle of nowhere. Instead of a private room for a small group of friends, we were in a small, old fashioned “snack” bar. This wasn’t your typical, urban karaote experience. This was Shakotan. Mike and I impressed the local guys by singing songs in Japanese. I sang my usual “Sake-yo”, while Mike performed the wedding song “Kanpai”. One guy was so delighted by our singing that he passed out. It was either that, or the fact that he was very, very drunk.

On Saturday, we were rather slow to get moving. The previous night’s excessive frivolity weighed us down like a lead vest. Although we had planned on setting out in the morning, we didn’t actually make it out the door until about 1pm. Our first order of business to visit my closest-to-local Mr. Donut (in Yoichi) so that Mike could sample the coffee and doughnuts that drew me out of Shakotan so often. While in town, we checked a market that local wines and sake, as well as a crazy variety of locally caught seafood. Unable to find anything any particularly good souvenirs for Mike to bring home, we bought a couple of soft drinks and set out again.

The fruity, carbonated beverage we chose was called Oronamin C Drink (オロナミンCドリンク). An old fashioned Japanese energy/health drink that comes in diminutive 120ml glass bottles, originally introduced in the 1960’s. Unlike modern day energy drinks which usually contain an unsettling concoction of caffeine, herbal snake oil, and potentially dangerous chemical stimulants, Ornonamin C is really just a vitamin C drink. On his trip, Mike had seen numerous ads for the drink, most of them antique steel posters from a bygone era, starring comedian Kon Omura. Intrigued by the historical significance, we gave Oronamin C a try. It was extremely tart, clearly high in ascorbic acid as advertised, and reasonably sweet. Good, but not that great.

Shiroi Koibito Park

When we got to Sapporo, we made our first stop Shiroi Koibito Park. Shiroi Koibito (白い恋人 – the name means “white lovers”) is well-known white chocolate biscuit only available in Hokkaido, produced by the confection company Ishiya (石屋製菓). The company owns the city’s J-League soccer team, Consadole Sapporo (コンサドーレ札幌), and half of Shiroi Koibito Park forms the team’s practice grounds. The other half—the part we were stopping to see—is like Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.  The architecture of the park’s buildings and various decorations communicates a clearly intentional northern European vibe. Even from the outside, one can see odd touches, like elaborate ivy-covered tree houses just off the side of the road. On the ground floor, immediately inside the entrance, there was an upscale gift shop selling all manner of posh, decadent chocolate goods to adults on the right, and a cartoonish, colorfully over-decorated candy laboratory for the kids on the left. In the center was a grand staircase stretching up to the next floor, which housed a free toy museum and the entrance to the not-free chocolate factory tour.

The unique but inconsistent atmosphere of the whole place was a bit disorienting and surreal. It reminded me of my first experience with Rusutsu Resort. Still, one had to laugh at the sign that proudly displayed the text “Candy Labo”. (Ah, so close to English! Good effort.) The courtyard was even more overdone random additions; a variety of child-sized dollhouses, automatic bubble blowing machines, and animatronic robot singing bakers, just to name a few. We couldn’t tolerate the sensory overload for long. Mike bought some presumably delicious—definitely expensive—chocolates to bring back to his wife and we were off.

When we arrived at the Fukui house, even I was shocked by the amount of food Hiroko had made for Mike’s welcome party! Apparently she had started cooking at 6am, going all day, and crafted a veritable feast. Since Fukui family had really taken me in like an adopted son, Mike too was like another son to them, one that they had never met. Hiroko clearly wanted to make this evening a joyous and memorable occasion. This mindset was evident by the dining room table, now overflowing with food. There was oden, chicken fried rice, salmon, pizza, pasta salad, potato salad, salad salad, an infinite supply of giant crab legs, and more. It was such an impressive spread that it was downright ridiculous. The drinks were equally over the top, with an insurmountable quantity of beer, wine, Champaign, shōchū, and sake available.

My closest friends in the area, other ALT’s based in Sapporo, were also invited to the party. Additionally, there were some guests that were new to me, a couple of young families who were work friends of Hiroko’s. The evening turned into a real family dinner party, complete with younger kids running around the downstairs in a perceptual state of play. A Nintendo 64 was brought out to entertain an older child—if we’re being honest here, it was also for my friends as well—and classics like Mario Kart 64, Pokémon Stadium, and the original Super Smash Bros were played on the TV while the adults chatted about this and that.

After much drinking and merriment, someone suggested we go out to catch the last moments of the Hokkaido Jingū Matsuri (北海道神宮祭り), the annual festival for the Hokkaido Jingū, Hokkaido’s high-status Shinto shrine. In hindsight, in was definitely too late to head out to the festival, and some of us had probably drank too much to go out in the first place. But Mike hadn’t seen much of Sapporo yet, so I felt obligated to try and catch some of the festivities. To exacerbate our poor planning, instead of taking taxis down to Nakajima Kōen (中島公園), the park where the matsuri was being held, we decided to walk there. This walk took approximately 30 minutes. While a nighttime stroll through Sapporo in the summer is quite pleasant, it simply took too long for our purposes.

By the time we arrived at the park, masses of people were leaving and the vendor stands were packing up. The festival had pretty much ended, but we walked in anyway, against the current of traffic, to get a quick look. I even tried my hand at winning a baby turtle, but I failed because there’s a trick to it. (Of course.) Eventually the speakers played an instrumental rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”, Japan’s definitive way of telling people to get the hell out and go home. The festival was over and we had missed it. Instead of walking all the way back to the house, we had the good sense to take taxis home this time.

Shenanagens! Shenanagens!

Mike’s flight on Sunday afternoon gave us just enough time to do lunch before his departure. To make sure everything went smoothly, we decided to eat at the airport, which houses what is essentially a shopping mall. We took the rapid service train down to New Chitose Airport (新千歳空港) early and searched the place for a good lunch venue. Finally, at the tail end of Mike’s trip, we found a nice restaurant serving Sapporo-style miso ramen.  There’s nothing like a lunch of soup noodles and beer to remind you that you’re really in Japan. After lunch, we grabbed one last coffee before Mike went through security, and he was on his way back home.

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Filed under Sapporo, Shakotan

Golden Week Part I: Tokyo

When I first came to Japan in April 2011, I flew into Tokyo a few days earlier than necessary so that I’d have some sightseeing time. I knew a couple guys who lived in Tokyo, both of whom were friends of my brother, Mike. Ryoichi – who often goes by Rio or Leo to make things easier for the English speakers – grew up in Nagano, Japan, but studied aerospace at Iowa State University. Adam grew up in good old Fort Dodge, Iowa, just like my family, and he and Mike have been good friends since their high school days. Fresh off the plane from Seattle, these were the only two people I knew in Japan. Luckily in Tokyo, they were really all I needed for an immensely enjoyable introduction to the country.

Fast-forward 13 months, and having just completed my first year teaching English in Shakotan, I was looking for a good way to use my time off during a string of consecutive national holidays, known in Japan as Golden Week (ゴールデンウィーク).  Right on the heels of Shōwa Day (昭和の日 – the birthday of the Shōwa Emperor) on April 29th, the first week in May hosts three back-to-back holidays; Constitution Memorial Day (健保懸念日) on the 3rd, Greenery Day (緑の日) on the 4th, and Children’s Day (こどもの日) on the 5th. The way these holidays were observed on the 2012 calendar gave me Monday off, followed by just two days of working, and then a four-day weekend starting on Thursday. To make this time really count, I decided to fly to Kanto and ‘Tokyo it up’.

Fun fact:  The Children’s Day holiday was originally dedicated to only boys and went by the name Tango no Sekku (端午の節句 – Boy’s Day Celebration). Inversely, Hina-matsuri (雛祭り – Doll Festival) on March 3rdwas the traditional Girl’s Festival. Boy’s Day was changed to Children’s Day in 1948, to include all children. The symbol of holiday remains the carp-shaped windsocks known as koinobori (鯉のぼり – literally meaning “koi flag”). Leading up to the holiday, each household would traditionally fly one koi streamer for each son in the family, and this practice remains relatively unchanged today.

I arrived in Tokyo on Thursday, May 3rd (Constitution Memorial Day) to an unusual sight: rain. Apparently it’s quite unusual for it to rain in Tokyo during Golden Week, as tsuyu (梅雨), the raining season, doesn’t get going until June. Not only was 2012 a rainy Golden Week in Tokyo, but just to the north in Ikariki-ken, a tornado tore a path of destruction through the town of Tsukuba.  (When it comes to natural disasters, Japan just can’t catch a break.) I loaded my Suica Card up with money and jumped into the Tokyo Subway, doing my best to follow the instructions Adam had given me. Moving about Tokyo with my largish backpack, I surely looked like a tourist.

At the huge, busy, intimidating hive that is Tokyo Station, I encountered a small hiccup in the directions I was following. There wasn’t a way to take the subway line that I needed to reach Adam’s neighborhood. This was kind of cool though, because I got to practice my Japanese skills by asking for directions. To my disappointment, I ended up receiving help for a young Tokyoite who had lived in California for five years and spoke absolutely perfect English. With his trusty iPhone, the young man directed where to go, what line to take to which stop, and how I could switch lines at that station to get to my destination. He was a super helpful guy, a lifesaver really, I just wish his English hadn’t have been so good.

After some train hopping, I arrived in Adam’s neighborhood, Asagaya. We met up at the Starbucks, conveniently located inside the train station, and made the short, scenic walk to his house. While I’ve heard of Tokyo houses being cramped or claustrophobic or noisy, Adam and his family have a lovely home. It was a real pleasure to stay with them while I was in town. Since it was lunchtime, we went to a nearby Thai place to eat, and then Adam and I hopped on the train to meet Rio at Shinjuku station (新宿駅). When we found Rio, he was accompanied by his girlfriend, Akiko, but after a brief instruction, Akiko departed and it was just the three of us guys hitting the town.

We first headed to Harajuku (原宿), a district of Tokyo whose name has become synonymous with crazy youth fashion. The main street of Harajuku is more of an alleyway than a street, but it’s lined with countless shops on both sides and is always crowded with high school-age kids, most of them dressed in wacky attire. Despite the unseasonable rainy weather that day, the street was still packed. A moving canopy of umbrellas spanned the width of the walkway from awning to awning. There were plenty of things for the interested to peruse; lots of bows and lace and bright colors; clothing, and fashion accessories ranging from sickeningly cute to outright audacious. We were really just there for the people watching, taking in the spectacle of it all. Although admittedly, I was momentarily distracted by an impressive display of Super Mario Bros merchandise. Once we had run the gauntlet of kawaii (かわいい – cute), we walked on to the next sight.

At Meiji station, we met up with Kana, my old classmate form Iowa Central Community College. Kana and I had become good friends back in the day, singing in all the choirs and performing together in the school’s many stage productions. We hadn’t seen each other in nine years, so it was pretty amazing to finally get a chance to catch up.

We walked over to Meiji Jingū (明治神宮 – Meiji Shrine). Dedicated to the Meiji Emperor, the shrine is one the biggest and most famous Shinto shrines in Japan. It seemed to be intentionally hidden within its own urban forest, as the trail leading to shrine was surprisingly protected from the rain by thick tree cover. Once inside the shine proper, we leisurely looked around. The others had been there many times, it was only new to me, so we quickly paid our respects and were off. All four of our group had attended some college in Iowa and we found ourselves feeling quite nostalgic for the States, so we decided to do something extremely, stereotypically American. We went to Hooters.

There is one Hooters restaurant in Tokyo, the only one in Japan. Just as one would expect, it’s exactly like its North American counterparts; a playfully misogynistic, intentionally classless slice of Americana, transported to the Far East. The interior was their trademark orange, with walls covered in all the tacky minutia that always adorn the interior of chain restaurants trying to look unique. You’ll only notice this collection of random junk if you can avert your eyes from the girls, and of course, that’s what the Hooters experience is all about; the girls. The restaurant did a pretty good job of staffing the restaurant with women that fit the Hooters ideal of feminine beauty—busty, curvaceous, young cheerleader-types that can fill out a tank top and bright orange shorts—despite the fact that Japanese women don’t usually fall into category. The Japanese ideal of feminine beauty is generally considered more slender and waifish. Not only did they look the part, but all the girls talked the talk as well, speaking excellent English—complete with US colloquialisms and Hooters vernacular—to accommodate the surely foreigner-heavy cliental.

To get the full Hooters experience, we ordered a plate of deep-fried pickles, which came with a spicy mayonnaise dipping sauce, and some shakes. At some point, the music changed and the Hooters girls did a little dance for everyone. I had been snapping photos the whole time, but at this point I was told that taking pictures during “dance time” was forbidden—and I’m still not sure why. Eventually we got a photo with our waitress (which I ruined by standing in front and obstructing the view of her body) and we were off to our next spot.

We headed to Roppongi (六本木), the district of Tokyo that’s home to several foreign embassies, including the US embassy. If you are looking for Americans in Tokyo, Roppongi is the place you look. And from what I had heard, the roaring nightlife of the district is extremely gaijin-friendly, to the point of being predatory. Given this reputation, our destination was probably the dorkiest possible. We were headed to a video game-themed bar. Arriving in the neighborhood a bit early, we grabbed some drinks and food at a German pub before taking the nerdy plunge.

At 7:30pm, we entered Luida’s Bar, a standing-room-only establishment, emulating a fictional tavern from the role-playing video game series Dragon Quest (also called “Dragon Warrior” in the US). Rio had made reservations for us a week in advance, which was good because you can’t get into Luida’s Bar without a reservation. Even with your reservation, the Dragon Quest bar only accepts groups of its patrons in shifts, like an amusement park. You are given 90 minutes to immerse yourself in the Dragon Quest experience and then you are shuffled out the door to make room for the next group.

While very small, the interior of Luida’s Bar was impressive. Massive swords and other fantasy relics from the video game world adorned the walls, while the hanging lanterns provided the mood lighting. Flat panel TVs in the corners of the room advertised the upcoming Dragon Quest 10—as well as a crossover party game with Nintendo’s Super Mario and friends—flashing gameplay videos and concept art on a never ending loop. A couple bartender/cooks whipped up orders of game-themed cocktails and novelty foods, while an attractive young lady in medieval garb wielded a microphone and worked the room as the master of ceremonies.

The bar’s menu of Dragon Quest cocktails and food items was quite impressive, if for its ingenuity alone. Everything was shamelessly overpriced, and all hot food items, with the exception of grilled meats, were microwave-prepared junk. But each item was somehow related to the game and all were aesthetically pleasing. Each dessert item we saw was more artistically impressive than the last. Rio ordered a “potion” cocktail that came in the appropriate round glass vessel, like a prop from a medieval play. I decided to try the manjuu (饅頭– steamed buns) filled with anko (餡子 – red bean paste), which were colored blue and shaped like the iconic “slime” characters from the series.

After our time at Luida’s Bar was up, we decided to head to the train station and call it a night. Walking through Roppongi at night was much different than crossing it during the day, as my unmistakable whiteness attracted attention. Every 50 meters or so, a tall African man would approach me, aggressively trying to sell his nightclub and/or hostess bar. Each man came on strong, and their accents were a bit difficult to decipher at first—in fact, I’m pretty sure one guy was alternating between English and French, trying to catch my attention with whichever language my native tongue might be —and it immediately made me feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. Having a large, physically imposing fellow purposely obstruct your path to go for the hard sell is disconcerting, even when he’s showering you with compliments. I didn’t want to be rude to these guys who were surely just trying to get by in an infamously xenophobic foreign country, but I wished they would just leave me alone. After two blocks I had gained a much deeper appreciation for what it must be like for women who endure street harassment. (And they take it all the time!  At least I can just avoid Roppongi at night.)

On Friday May 4th, I met Rio at Shinjuku Station again. Having hit the town the night before, I was running low on cash and growing a bit worried about finding a working ATM. Since I only had a Japan Post Bank account, withdrawing money was usually just a matter of finding a post office. But we were in the middle of a string of holidays, and all the post offices were closed. For some reason, Japan ATMs are generally not open 24 hours; they usually have operating hours much like a bank. The vending machines run 24 hours a day, so I don’t know why ATMs have this restriction.

The previous day’s rain had momentarily cleared up, so when Rio and I set out walking, it was a sunny, gorgeous morning in Tokyo. We first walked to Shinjuku’s gigantic park, Shinjuku Gyoen (新宿御苑). To our surprise, entry into the park was free because it was Greenery Day (みどりの日). An old imperial garden, the park was huge, expansive and impressive. There were forested areas, great wide-open grass fields, ponds with turtles and ducks, even a garden of multicolored hedges. One forested bit in particular struck me as the ideal place to have a samurai duel to the death…or a wedding…whichever one you’re in the market for.

Shinjuku Gyoen reminded me a lot of Central Park in Manhattan, especially with the way scenes of natural splendor were framed by a background of skyscrapers. It’s a bastion of nature hiding among the sprawling urban concrete, an oasis of green amid the desert of grey. Luckily Tokyo has multiple garden parks to provide people with an escape ever once in a while.

After the park it was time for lunch, and Rio and I decided to do fast food, at Mos Burger. It was excellent. I’m probably biased, but I think a teriyaki burger at Mos Burger is far superior to anything that McDonalds of Burger King offers.

After lunch the rain returned and my search for a Japan Post ATM proved fruitless. As I discovered, all Japan Post ATMs were down for the duration Golden Week. What’s worse, all Japan Post accounts were inaccessible! Even third-party ATMs that would usually allow me to withdraw money from my J-Post account couldn’t access it. There was simply no way for me to get to my yen. Luckily, there was no need to panic, as I had my American debit card on me. Using an ATM at a Lawson’s underneath the Tokyo Pokémon center, I was able to withdraw enough yen to get me through the holiday. While there was a sizeable international transaction fee, it really was a lifesaver.

Next we checked out Japan’s capitol building, with its interesting pyramidal stone roof. Rio pointed out that the Prudential Building—the building housing the Hooters restaurant we’d seen the previous day—wasn’t very far away. With the philandering reputation of politicians, this seemed intentional. We walked on, circling the perimeter of the old Imperial Palace to get to the Marunouchi district.

Tokyo Station

Marunouchi (丸の内) is an upscale centrally located neighborhood where all the heavy-hitting financial companies do business. It’s home to Tokyo Station, the massive transportation hub where several metro lines and the Shinkansen (新幹線 – bullet train) connect. Since the station was under renovation, not all of its façade was visible, but one could still see that it has a distinctly western architectural style.

While he wasn’t with us at the time, Adam works for a financial company in Marunouchi, so we decided to check out his building. The outside of the skyscraper looked like an imperial cruiser from Star Wars, but the interior was super posh and classy, with marble floors and gilded accents. We took the escalators up to the 10th or 11th floor, where we found several fine dining establishments. Craving espresso, we found one café to be irresistible, the aptly named “So Tired”. After some delicious cappuccinos and cake, we were on our way.

Mandarin Hotel

Though I’ve only visited Tokyo twice, Rio and I have a started a little tradition. We go to an ultra-fancy hotel—usually one that has their reception on the 40th floor or so—use the restroom, and leave. Yep, that’s all there is to it. We started this tradition when I first arrived in Japan and Rio took me sightseeing all around Tokyo. We headed to the Park Hyatt hotel, specifically because it was featured in the movie Lost in Translation. But since we were only there to loiter, we scoped out the lobby, used the restroom, and left.

The thing is, these hotels usually have a really impressive view of the Tokyo skyline, and you can get a great perspective from the bathroom window. Plus, in keeping with Japanese customer service, the staff is always extremely polite, never failing to thank you when you leave. So we walk in, use the restroom, walk out, and are thanked for our trouble. It’s rather pleasant.

Mandarin Hotel toilet

In keeping with our new tradition, this time Rio and I went to the Mandarin Hotel. It was honestly amazing! From 38 stories up, the bird’s eye perspective on Tokyo is already impressive, but thanks to the newly constructed Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) towering in the distance, the view from the Mandarin Hotel men’s room is unbelievable! And the hotel has made the view as accessible as possible, constructing the exterior wall completely out of transparent glass. Instead of a wall behind them, the four urinals have only giant windows. It really takes the piss out of every other toilet.

Can you see the 円?

After enjoying the Mandarin’s men’s room, and taking plenty of pictures, Rio and I lounged around the lobby, as if we were actually guests of the hotel. When we got up to leave, I took some time to enjoy the view from the opposite side of the building and spotted something interesting. Rio’s friend had told him that the Bank of Japan was shaped like the kanji for yen (円 – actually pronounced “en” in Japanese), but from the building map at ground level, it looked like that wasn’t the case. However, from our view from above we were able to see that the building’s roof really does have a yen kanji motif! It was a lucky find.

Soon thereafter, we perused a store called Sembikiya which has the most expensive fruit I have ever seen. While I’m sure that not all fruit is equally good, that some specimens are more delicious than others, I don’t know how anyone can justify spending Sembikiya prices, even the super rich. This isn’t like your grocer jacking up the prices of organic fruits, it’s complete madness. For example, one apple will run you ¥2100. Two melons cost ¥33,600, 40 cherries for ¥15,750, or twelve strawberries for a mind-blowing ¥6825. That’s hundreds of dollars for a bag of fruit.

For dinner, we went to an izakaya that Rio had personally selected. Apparently the place was known for its excellent Kyushu-style food and it also had a wide selection of sake, which I was excited to sample. It wasn’t until our drinks arrived that I remembered how Rio doesn’t drink. It wasn’t long before we were joined by Akiko, Rio’s girlfriend. Luckily for me, Akiko enjoys sake, so I could imbibe without being the lone drinker. The three of us enjoyed an evening of traditional Japanese fare and partially Japanese conversation. Rio and Akiko were a ridiculously cute couple, so much so that I felt like they could be used as models in a prescription drug advertising campaign. (You know, the kind where the couple is so active, attractive, and incredibly happy that you wish you could have genital herpes too?)

To Be つづく’ed…

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Through the Flames: Bikuni Shrine Festival 2012

In July 2012, just like the previous year, I participated in Shakotan’s Fire Festival, whose proper name is actually the Bikuni Jinja Matsuri (美国神社祭り). The festival is named for the main Shinto shrine in Bikuni town (美国町). Even though it wasn’t my first time at the rodeo, I still came away from the experience feeling like I had learned a lot, yet again. In fact, it was genuinely humbling.

Once again, I was braving the flames and doing hikuguri (火くぐり), the fire walking ritual whose name literally means “through fire”. An older fellow in town had pointed out to me that since hikuguri is only practiced in Shakotan’s Bikuni town (美国町) and the neighboring village of Furubira (古平町), I was almost certainly the first—if not the only—non-Japanese person to do it. (Furubira also has a resident ALT much like myself, but perhaps he is too sensible of a guy to run through a bonfire.)As a cultural explorer, I had found a true frontier in Shakotan, and the concept of my primacy in this iconic ritual really bolstered my ego. But of course, as I quickly learned, this was hubris.

Having done hikuguri and ran through the fire last year, I arrogantly assumed that I had it pretty well down. I certainly gave off a bit of a “been there, done that” vibe. When they asked me where on the omikoshi (おみこし – portable Shinto shrine) I wanted to be placed, I told them, “Anywhere is fine.” I should have taken note of the organizer’s surprise. The man took a moment to draw a squarish omikoshi diagram in the dirt—quite literally drawing lines in the sand—to illustrate the different positions at which one could placed on the heavy portable shrine. You see, the omikoshi are quite heavy and it’s a group effort to haul them. The strength and, more importantly, height of each individual involved makes a big difference. Based on my height and willingness, he placed me at the back of the omikoshi, in the center.

Back… center… I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is not a fun place to be.

Thursday July 5th, was the first night of fire walking. Since I had spent most of the day pushing a dashi (山車 – float, festival car) around Bikuni with the Tomosukai (灯す会) group, I was fairly exhausted by the time the inferno hour arrived. In fact, I had even taught one English class that afternoon. Right after lunch, I had changed clothes, driven 20 minutes or so to Nozuka Elementary, taught my class, driven back, changed back into my festival garb, and rejoined the others mid-parade. Changing gears in the middle of the day like that had been surprisingly tiring.

When I got to the shrine house, I was given my white cotton pants, shirt, gloves, and two towels for covering my head. I quickly changed and met up with the other fire-walkers outside. I was pleased to discover my fellow junior high teachers there, including Yusuke, the English teacher. Even Nao-kun, the cool, young guy from the town office who had carried the omikoshi with me the previous year was there. We got organized, finding our places on the omikoshi and drank some pre-fire walking sake.

HADOUKEN!

As we were making our final preparations, the Tengu began his own ceremonial hikuguri. From behind a wall of spectators, we could see flames reaching high in the air, illuminating the shine grounds. The crowd cheered with excitement at the Tengu’s performance, while the omikoshi carriers waited. The drunker participants made loud banter. One fellow in particular was overly interested in the size of my penis and repeatedly asked me about it. (Now I see where the kids get it.) The more sober and less experienced carriers fidgeted with nervousness. In the midst of a particularly large flare up, Yusuke let out a sigh of apprehension, while I gave a cocky laugh.

The Tengu is the fire walking master.

“You really like this event, don’t you?” Yusuke asked, giving me a sideways glance.

“But of course!” I replied. “It’s surely the most exciting thing I’ve done in Japan.” I think Yusuke shook his head at me a bit, as he was generally concerned about safety. Fire walking is most definitely dangerous and accidents can easily happen. Even when things go quite well overall, there is usually some collateral scorching. For instance, Yusuke had burnt off part of his eyebrows last year.

We got the signal that it was time to go and everyone took their positions under the omikoshi. At the last minute, Nao-kun changed places and took position in the back-center, just in front of me. With a coordinated heave, we lifted the omikoshi off its sawhorse rests, and supported its weight with the shared burden of our shoulders. As we moved forward, the sea of onlookers parted, revealing the roaring inferno in all its blazing glory. The spectators, in their positions surrounding the two piles of fire, formed human barriers, borders along our track through hell. I realized at this moment this would be the first time that I would be tackling this challenge completely sober, and my sense of self-preservation—my spider-sense, if you will—started going off like crazy. Clearly, this was not the wisest of activities to engage in.

“Wasshoi, wasshoi!” we chanted. “Wasshoi, wasshoi!” But even before we started moving toward the fire, the omikoshi was swaying and stumbling back and forth. The collective guidance of the men of underneath was disorganized at best, disjointed and chaotic. The event staff were there to right the course of the portable shrine, as we veered left and right, unable to stand in one place, nearly crashing into the crowd. The strong hands of these organizers pushed us one way, then the other, but our group had trouble keeping stable footing, like a top-heavy robot dancing on ice.

When we got the green light, the group made a mighty push forward, only to be immediately pulled back before covering a single meter. False start. The organizers nurtured the fire, raking the blaze and throwing on wood shavings to rapidly grow it. We were successful the second time we were unleashed, and we plowed headlong into the blaze. On the way in, I suddenly remembered multiple people telling me that the back of the omikoshi was a hard place to be. This was supposedly because the feet of the men in front agitate the fire, kicking up an even higher wave of flames for those in the rear. It was immediately apparent to me that this assessment was entirely accurate.

Last year’s run in the front of the pack had made me confident that the diving straight through the center of the bonfire—while dangerous—wasn’t necessarily as painful or death-defying as it looked. But that was in front, and now I was in back. This position was a challenge on a whole new level. With my first step into the fire, the flames extended the height of my body, whipping past my face, and the heat enveloped me. Even moving quickly, I thought the soles of my trusty Adidas sneakers were going to melt. After our first pass, the event staff were reaching into our group and slapping people’s bodies, seemingly at random. It took me a moment to realize that they were putting out the small fires that had ignited on people’s clothing. A couple men’s pant legs were on fire, and another man in the middle had a parrot-sized blaze perched on his shoulder. How did I not notice this stuff last year? Apparently being in back also gives you a better perspective of the whole group and just how flammable everyone really is.

With the second pass over the two bonfires, I witnessed Nao, directly in front of me, trying to jump over the center of the fire—the hottest part of the blaze—and instinctively I mimicked his maneuver. But my upward momentum was immediately impeded by the omikoshi above me. It was like finding yourself in a wood burning oven, trying to avoid the searing flames by jumping out, only to hit the ceiling. It felt claustrophobic and instantly terrifying. There was no way out of this.

With each run, the heat felt equally blistering; it didn’t seem possible to acclimate to. My feet were literally plunging into the fire, but it was the rest of my legs that gave me the most intense sensations. The heat would billow into my pant legs, traveling upward quickly, and making me feel like my kneecaps were burning. After the third pass, I audibly expressed my displeasure by saying “Mo yada” (も嫌だ – slang; essentially “I don’t want to do this anymore”). This probably amused anyone who heard it, as it was too late to get out of anything. I had to hope the significant layer of sweat that now coated my body would act as a flame retardant.

After two more fiery passes the ritual was complete, and our ragtag group stumbled and swayed drunkenly to bring the omikoshi to its resting place in front of the shrine. As soon as the weight was off my shoulder, I tore the towel off my face. Boiling with a feverish heat, I needed to breathe the cool night air into my lungs. I so, so glad it was over…for the night. I was still scheduled to have another go at it the following evening.

When I braved the hikuguri again the next night, I made sure to be placed on the side of the omikoshi. This made for some awkward conversation with the organizer, since I had been so supremely confidence before and was now backpedaling. But I had to be firm and stick to a new a cautious plan; there was no way I was going to be running though the middle of a bonfire in back of that beast again. And sure enough, doing the ritual on the outside—even while sober—was far less terrifying and therefore more enjoyable than being in back-center.

In the aftermath of the hikuguri, I found that my shoes had taken much more of beating than they had the year previous. My once white Rod Laver sneakers were now substantially charred; almost uniformly black and gray. In the heat, the tied loops of the shoelaces had fused together. My legs had received a fiery makeover as well, as the lower halves of my shins were suddenly hairless. Some ladies shave, others wax, some use chemical hair removers, but has anyone ever tried simply burning off their leg hair? I can attest to the fact that it works. Additionally, my kneecaps were startlingly hair-free, and my right knee was superficially burned. I’m guessing that the heat had collected in the spot that my pant legs bend. The burn wasn’t severe and pretty much healed overnight.

Despite my best efforts to cover my head, my face didn’t go unaffected by the flames either. My bushy eyebrows got visibly singed, with a small spot in the middle my right brow being scorched off. Even my eyelashes had even been lightly toasted, becoming slightly cauterized at their tips.

Nao, the fellow who had been directly in front of me, was not as lucky as me. His right wrist had sustained a rather severe burn, in about the same place where one would wear a watch. He began icing his injury that very night, but by the next morning, it had formed a large, puffy, watery blister. Yusuke also received blister-inducing burns from the fire walking, but on his neck. Apparently Yusuke always wraps his neck with a third towel. The one time he failed to do this, he got burned.

So the lesson here, kids, is that hikuguri (火くぐり)—running through bonfires—is dangerous. Do not try this at home. But if you happen to be in Shakotan in July, ask about it at the Bikuni Shrine (美国神社). All the cool kids are doing it.

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Speaking Japanese Like a Badass

When coming to Japan, people usually learn basic phrases to be polite and generally get by. Pretty much everyone in the world knows konnichiwa (こんにちは – Good day) and dōmo arigatō (どうもありがとう – Thank you), and almost as many are familiar with the absolutely crucial sumimasen (すみません), which can mean “excuse me”, “I’m sorry”, or even “thank you”, depending on the precise context.  The overachieving otaku have probably mastered sugoi (すごい – amazing, cool) and daijōbu (大丈夫 – OK, alright) from their hours of anime research. But if you plan on being in Japan for longer than a few weeks, you going to want more tools in your verbal arsenal than the barebones basics.

That’s where I come in. Here are some useful expressions for you to use when you really want to sound like you know some Japanese. This is the good stuff that I wish I would have had down on day one. Let’s start with a general tip to assist you in your linguistic journey.

Ano~/Eto~ (あの, ええと、えっと) – The Verbal Pause

If you’re just starting out learning Japanese, or having trouble actually using the stuff you’ve learned in class, I recommend training yourself to use the Japanese verbal pause. Saying ano~ or eto~ is the Japanese equivalent of saying “Um…”, “Ah…” or “Let me see…”, and buys you time to search your brain for that missing vocabulary word when you’re trying to hold a conversation. This was recommended to me way back in the day and I made a half-assed attempt at using it, but never really took it seriously until I was speaking Japanese every day. Basically, when you start conversing in a second language, it’s like your brain changes gears. Stammering with your native ums and ahs will pull you back into English mode and break your rhythm. So remember to falter the way the native speakers do it, it honestly makes carrying on that much easier.

Similarly, when something catches you off guard, you’ll probably want to say, “Huh?” or “What’s that?” But resist this slide back into English. Train your Japanese speaking instincts to respond with are (あれ), the Japanese equivalent. It’s the perfect way to express that you didn’t quite hear the question or didn’t quite understand it.

Iranai de (いらないで) – “I don’t want/need it.”

If there is only one certainty in life, it’s that when you buy something in Japan, they will put it in a bag. Even when you buy a bottle of water at the conbini (コンビに – convenience store), they will bag it. You probably won’t even be asked if you want a fukuro (袋– bag), they’ll just assume you know how this process works. So when you see the salesperson reaching for the bag – and they move with speed and precision – you’ll need to quickly express that you don’t need it. In proper Japanese, you’d say iranai desu, but since you’re a badass, just shorten it to iranai de.

Another important phrase to use at the register is the convenient compound word mochi-kaeri (持ち帰り), meaning “to go”, takeout, takeaway. When buying a coffee at Mr. Donut, you will surely be asked if you want to drink it in the store – they do have free refills on coffee, by the way – or if you’ll take it “to go”. In case of the latter, just drop mochi-kaeri with a cocky smirk.

Chidoriashi (千鳥足) – The Thousand Bird Step

Drinking is pretty popular in Japan in general, and getting sloppy drunk at social outings is not uncommon. Therefore knowing the vocabulary of the yopparai (酔っ払う – drunken person) can be quite handy. For example, how can you express that you – or your friend, yeah sure, we’ll say your friend – is too drunk to walk properly? Use chidoriashi, the Japanese term for a drunken stagger. The term quite literally translates to “thousand bird step”, which I assume must be what a drunkard’s footprints are supposed to look like. It’s really all you need to say to express that you’re not currently able to ride your bike home, operate heavy machinery, or send an ill-advised text message to your ex.

A related term that’s also worth knowing is futsukayoi (二日酔い), Japanese for hangover. It literally means “two days drunk” and is the perfect term to explain why you were late for work this morning.

Otsukaresama deshita (お疲れ様でした) – “Thanks for the hard work”

Speaking of work, if you are employed in Japan, you are certain to hear the phrase otsukaresama deshita, meaning “Thank you for your hard work”. Translated too literally, otsukaresama means “the honorable tired one”, but your colleague is not insinuating that you look tired. This is an old-fashioned expression of appreciation for your efforts. You’ll also hear this said among sports teams, yōsakoi dance groups, when helping a friend move, and from people at the gym. It’s usually said at the completion of something, or when people are parting ways, like a special exercise goodbye.

Also, if you’re asked to do something and you’d like to express that you’re happy to do it, I recommend saying yorokonde (喜んで). Literally meaning “with pleasure”, this phrase is perfect for when your Yakuza boss has just ordered you to rough up that guy, who conveniently, you already had a beef with.

Omatase shimashita (お待たせしました) – “Thank you for waiting”

Another one that you’re sure to hear at a restaurant or at the airport, omatase shimashita is a convenient phrase that you’ll probably want to use yourself. Literally meaning “I made you wait” in polite Japanese, this one is pretty straight forward. In fact, it’s so ubiquitous that you probably didn’t need to have me introduce it to you. When speaking among your peers, feel free to abbreviate it to simply omatase; because you’re too badass to be bothered with the long version anyway.

Speaking of restaurants and being in a hurry, kuinige (食い逃げ) is the Japanese phrase for “dine and dash”, to run away without paying for your food. It’s a combination of the words for eat and escape, but you didn’t hear that from me…

Osewa ni narimashita (お世話になりました) – “Thank you for helping me”

People in Japan are extremely generous, and you’re certain to feel like you owe a debt of gratitude to someone along the way. While you can say dōmo arigatō gozaimasu – and you will, a lot – you might find yourself wishing that you had another way to express your appreciation, something special to convey to this person in particular that they really saved your ass. In that situation, say osewa ni narimashita. This is like saying “Thank you for helping me”, but with gratitude to the point of being indebted. In that sense, it’s a bit more like saying “I am obliged to you” or “Thank you for taking care of me.”

Ojama shimasu (おじゃまします) –Entering someone’s home

Since we want to be refined, classy badasses, and not chavy thugs, it’s best to say ojama shimasu when entering someone’s home. You’d usually say this when you’re talking off your shoes at the genkan (玄関 – entryway), so it’s kind of like saying “excuse me for intruding.” Remember this pleasantry so that you don’t look uncouth. And remember to say it again when leaving, except use the past tense version, ojama shimashita.

Saru mo ki kara ochiru (猿も木から落ちる) –Old Sayings

You might find that’s helpful to know a few classic Japanese idioms, just in case someone uses one in conversation with you, or you find yourself in the perfect opportunity to reference one and sound like a badass. There are tons of these to potentially learn, but I’ll just give you a couple examples.

The first is my absolute favorite, Saru mo ki kara ochiru. Literally meaning “even monkeys fall out of trees”, it’s the Japanese way of saying that everyone makes mistakes. While I don’t know of an equivalently poetic phrase in English, the closest one by meaning would probably be “that’s why pencils have erasers.”

Next is a phrase that’s rather famously Japanese, Derukui wa utareru (出る杭は打たれる). It literally means, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” A profound commentary on conformity in Japan, this old adage is saying that the best policy is to keep you head down and never stand out, lest society has to put you in your place.

And lastly, another cool saying is Uso wa nusubito no hajimari (うそは盗人の始まり). This translates as “lies are the beginnings of thieves”, which is fairly self-explanatory.

Okagesama de (お蔭様で) – Under the Gods’ Shadow

Anyone who’s spent any time in Japan has experienced the Genki Conversation, the common pleasantry of inquiring about someone’s wellbeing. This is the How are you? Conversation in English, the Ça va Conversation in French, and it usually goes something like this:

A) Konnichiwa. Genki desu ka? (こんにちは。元気ですか?)

B) Hai, genki desu. Anata wa? (はい、元気です。あなたは?)

A) Hai, genki desu. (はい、元気です。)

Not that there’s anything wrong with always repeating this basic conversation, but a badass doesn’t stick to generic pleasantries. To shock native speakers with your comprehension of Japanese language and culture, when they ask if you’re genki, reply with this: Okagesama de genki desu (お蔭様で元気です). I guarantee that they’ll be impressed.

What you just said was very humble. You see, Okagesama de generally means “by assistance”, and potentially “by your backing”, indicating that while you are well, you’re not taking any credit for it. In fact, depending on the context, you might be crediting the person you’re talking to for your position, like saying, “Thanks to you, I’m fine.” By itself, kage (蔭) means shade, shadow, or “the other side”, while the ‘o’ prefix and ‘sama’ suffix are both honorific. Since westerners sometimes have a hard time not taking absolute credit for the circumstances in which they’ve found themselves, and an even harder time giving this credit to other people, this humble phrase is sometimes translated as “by the grace of God” or “under the Gods’ shadow”.

In a related tip, if you get tired of asking people if they are genki, I recommend using the phrase Choushi wa dou desu ka? (調子はどうですか?) This is like saying, “How’s it going?”

Kyoushuku desu (恐縮です) – The Ultimate Japanese Phrase

No matter where you go in Japan, you are sure to encounter compliments. Japan is a famously polite nation and the people generally like to make you feel comfortable. They will compliment your Japanese language skills, even if you can only say one word…badly. They will compliment your looks, prepare to be told that you have a tall nose and a small face – they’re apparently good things. They will compliment your physique; you’d never guess that you were so tall and muscular until several Japanese grandmothers tell you so.

But Japan is also a famously humble nation. Try and return a compliment to a Japanese person and you will be brushed off. To give is better than to receive, and Japanese people do not accept praise. Seriously, you can’t even compliment someone’s family without them waving it off, lest a part of the praise reflect positively on them. (“Your wife is very attractive.” – “Oh, her? No! She’s actually quite ugly without all the makeup.”) Well now, I bet you feel a little embarrassed for agreeing with all the nice things they said about you. Clearly, no one here ever accepts a compliment.

So what’s a foreigner to do when you’re complimented on your ability to use chopsticks for the millionth time? Use this phrase to surprise and delight any unsuspecting Japanese person: Kyoushuku desu (恐縮です).

While it literally means to shrink (縮) with fear (恐), kyoushuku desu would best be translated as “that is too kind of you” or “stop, you’re embarrassing me”. This, my friends, is the ultimate tool in your Japanese arsenal. With so many compliments to brush off, you’ll never run out of opportunities to bust it out. And the best part is that no other foreigners ever seem to use it. You’ll look like a Japan Studies scholar and the reactions you’ll get will be priceless. Just be careful not to switch the vowels and say, Kyūshoku desu (給食です) – that means “school lunch”.

You can even use the same words at the beginning of sentence to politely ask a favor, just add the particle ‘ga’: Kyoushuku desu ga… This is like starting off your request with “I’m sorry to trouble you” or “I’m embarrassed to say this”.

And if you end up using kyoushuku desu to death – remember, with great power comes great responsibility – you can always shake things up with osore irimasu (恐れいります). Using the same “fear” kanji as kyoushuku, this phrase has almost the exact same meaning in conversation. Now go turn down those compliments like a true badass.

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Bikuni’s Yume Akari

The second week in February is supposedly when Hokkaido’s snowfall reaches its apex. From that point on, the snow will gradually decline, until spring finally appears in all its flowery glory. It’s during this snow peak that many cities in Hokkaido plan their winter festivals, celebrations of snow, lights, and hot beverages. While the winter solstice events were quite beautiful, this week is Hokkaido’s true time to shine, and shine it does.

One of my students had talked up the winter festival in Bikuni town (美国町) quite a bit, so I had high expectations going into it. On Saturday February 11th, the day had arrived for the event called Yume Akari (夢明かり), meaning “Dream Lights” or “Dream Illumination”. My understanding was that everybody in town would be making snow and/or ice lanterns, turning our village into a twinkling, wintery fairyland for one evening.

The Board of Education had scheduled me to participate in an event with the elementary kids that morning, presumably constructing the lanterns and such. I woke up early, donned ski apparel like snow pants and a giant frumpy jacket, and trudged out to the community gym, called B&G. It was a cold and blustery walk, and the snow that blew into my face felt like a bad omen for a day of outdoor winter fun. Still, I enthusiastically pressed on. At B&G, I was directed inside to a meeting a room, where several kids were assembled around tables, like a tiny, warmly-dressed board of directors. Kazama-sensei and Suzuki Harumi-sensei from Hizuka ES were there for adult supervision, as well as Kaneko-sensei from Nozuka ES.  The B&G staff, led by Kawai-sensei, facilitated the event, and my friend Yamazaki-san from the BoE was also assisting.

At 9:30am, the day got started with the students decorating clear plastic bottles. Using markers and colored transparency sheets, each student turned a few plastic bottles into beautiful, modern art candle holders. The multicolored tealight vessels would be used in the center of the snow lanterns, each forming a luminescent core. I walked around the room and enjoyed the out pouring of youthful creativity until the fumes from the giant makers started to make me a little dizzy.

Outside, Yamazaki and the B&G crew were hard at work, turning a mountainous pile of collected snow into a mini sledding slope. I came outside to assist with this effort, but just too late to really contribute. The slope appeared to be smoothed out and Yamazaki had dug some very respectful, architecturally sound snow stairs, right into the hillside. At that point, they really only had use for a test run of their creation, and this honor fell to me. They handed me an inner tube—which was referred to as a “tire tube” (タイヤチューブ)—and slide down the hill, head-first, like a penguin. Not bad at all.

When the kids came outside, we all climbed onto the snow started making lanterns. (I say “climbed onto the snow” because the height difference from the parking lot to the snow covered yard was about five feet.) Kazama-sensei showed me how to make snow lanterns using only a bucket and a gardening trowel. First, you stuff the bucket with snow, packing down into a dense frozen block. Next, you use the trowel to hollow out the center of the bucket, creating a cylinder shape that can house a candle. Then use the trowel to carve a little opening out of one side of the snow cylinder. This will become the viewing window. Finally, you tip the bucket upside-down, give it a few gentle taps to loosen the contents, and carefully place your snow lantern in the desired position. Done.

The school children and I made tons of these snow lanterns. Some ambitious kids even stacked lanterns atop other lanterns for a totem pole effect. Snow was packed down on the edges to form a ledge for display our frosty masterpieces. Additionally, recesses were carved out of the snow wall to create niches from which more lanterns could be displayed. Once the ornately colored plastic bottles were placed inside the snow lanterns, everything started looking quite festive.

After the work was done, and some of the kids had destroyed me in an impromptu snowball fight, it was time to rock the mini sledding slope. The kids took turns flying down the slope on inner tubes and sleds, and a good time was had by all. Eventually went back inside B&G for refreshments. A kind, grandmotherly lady had made lots of handmade doughnuts, as well as a giant cauldron of atsui cocoa (熱いココア – hot coco). Both were excellent and I end up drinking three cups of the chocolaty rich coco.

After the winter fun at B&G, Yamazaki invited me over to his house for lunch. Grandma Yamazaki made soba, which was excellent, and we sat around talking while I drank far too much coffee.  Since it was so close to Valentine’s Day, Saya gave me a box of chocolates. Handmade and delivered in cute pink and red polka dot bag, the chocolates were so incredibly nice that I felt unworthy of receiving them. That day I started a Choco-list, keeping track of who gave me chocolates, for I would need to repay the favor come White Day in March.

Eventually, Yamazaki, Saya, and I ventured outside to get the house all festive for Yume Akari. Using the same technique I had just learned at B&G, we made some snow lanterns using a bucket and trowel. Next, we carved several small hollows out of the snow wall, cave-like recesses just big enough for a tea candle to illuminate. The snow lanterns would crown the top of the snow wall, while the candle hollows would dot the broad side. While Saya and I worked on this wall, Yamazaki-san carved a big heart shape out of another. To keep things interesting, we perforated the heart with candle niches as well. Throughout the process of making snow-candle decorations outside, my hands became more and more cold. I think my hands are generally pretty weak at handling subzero temperatures, but repeatedly packing down snow while wearing subpar gloves led to painful aching. I persevered through the frozen hands though, especially since the snow sculpting was rather fun.

After we had completed our work and returned to the warm house, Grandma Yamazaki had rewarded us with amazake (甘酒). Made from fermented rice, amazake is a sweet white drink, served hot in the wintertime, much like hot coco. The name literally means “sweet sake”, but the drink usually has little to no alcohol left in it – although recipes vary. (I’d assume this is because ethyl alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so boiling your alcohol tends to make it less alcoholic.) The drink is given to kids all the time and is even considered a heath food of sorts.

At four o’clock sharp, fireworks went off to signal the beginning of the Yume Akari festival. I couldn’t see them; only hear their bomb-like blasts. At this point, Yamazaki, Saya, and I headed off to the Yamashime House which has having a kodomo no ennichi (子どもの縁日), or “kid’s fair”. Much like other festival events I have seen, they had lottery games, a popgun shooting gallery, and a candy carving game called katanuki (カタヌキ). In katanuki, you are given a flat, brittle, pretty much tasteless sugar candy with an image imprinted on it. Using only a toothpick, you try to carve out the image following the mold imprint. You have to be very careful to scrape out your shape without breaking the candy, and if you are patient and skillful enough to succeed, you receive a prize. (It’s actually harder than it looks. I’ve tried the game on a couple separate occasions and never succeeded.)

The fair had a very cozy feeling about it, seeing as how outside of the historic Yamashime house was a frosty white blizzard of death – or a winter wonderland, depending on how you look at it – while inside was a safe and joyous occasion. The fiery blaze inside the space heaters kept the chilly old building warm enough, and Yasuda-san used a microwave to prepare takoyaki for anyone peckish.  The power would go out relatively frequently and the lights would go dark, with the crowd of people always producing a sigh in union. Everyone was fairly certain that the building’s electrical system couldn’t handle Yasuda-san’s microwave after all.

Later on, we walked to the center of town to check out the snow lantern displays. The snow had starting falling and whirlwinds were blowing it around everywhere. With the sun long gone it was quite cold. Still, the blizzard conditions made the festival of lights even more magical. Many people had created some sort of wintery decoration outside their houses. Some folks had made snow lanterns, but others had somehow made crystal clear ice lanterns. Many homes – I’m assuming homes with kids – had carved their own elaborate snow sculptures. I saw a couple different One Piece sculptures, including a giant Toni Chopper head complete with colored surfaces reminiscent of a snow cone. One family had done a huge Super Mario head, while their neighbor around the corner had made a near life-sized Mario and Yoshi sculpture that I found incredibly impressive.  Even the Seicomart had a modest display, an old school snowman carrying a broom and a small bottle of sake.

The town’s main intersection was the epicenter of snow lanterns. One corner had a giant heart-shaped sculpture displaying the text Yume Akari (夢あかり), with descending levels of lights underneath it. On the other side of the street, a great dome of snow had been covered with candle niches, now illuminated. A small wall, similarly dotted with fiery hollows and crowned with more snow lanterns, formed a fence-like border.  As the bitter wind picked up, the contrast of warm festival lighting against the dark winter bleakness became more apparent.

While the lights were truly beautiful, the wind wasn’t letting up and eventually I felt good and frozen. When Yamazaki’s son Chikaru met up with us, we took refuge in the white food tent that was set up for the event. Like an igloo, the tent felt quite warm on the inside. The ground was still packed snow, but the tent’s canopy captured all the steam and warmth of the food preparation going on in the corner.(Also, by simply eliminating the wind chill, the interior of the tent felt infinitely warmer.) The festival staff was busy making large cauldrons of oden (おでん – a popular soup dish consisting of multiple disparate ingredients floating in a clear-ish, soy-dashi broth), as well as ika-age (いか揚げ – fried squid) and zangi (ザンギ – fried chicken, as spoken in Hokkaido dialect). Oden can be found at most festivals, especially in the wintertime, and many convenience stores sell it as well. While the individual ingredients can vary greatly, I’ve almost always seen hardboiled egg, daikon, chikuwa (竹輪), and konnyaku (こんにゃく) included. Everyone has their own favorite oden ingredient, but if you prefer something over the daikon, you are wrong. (It’s clearly the best part.)

Yamazaki had purchased meal tickets ahead of time, so after a surprisingly long wait in line, we got our hands on the food. Maybe I was super hungry by that point, or maybe there’s simply nothing better than a hot soup on a cold night, but the food was unbelievably delicious. With each slurp of soup, each bite of fried chicken, I felt like my body was coming back to life, reanimating after cryostasis. After dinner, the Yamazakis returned home for the evening.  Although it was only 7:30pm, with the blizzard conditions out, I too decided to head home. I needed to get up early the next day anyway, for a Sunday trip to Sapporo.

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Tales from the Gakkou

A chorus of pencils rhythmically tapping away, it sounds like rain drops. In the quiet of the classroom with a test in progress, this is the sound of Japanese students writing. Each student silently focuses on the task at hand, and the scratching of their pencils is somehow magical. I find an odd serenity in this moment.

Here are some random stories of working as an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) in Japan, straight from the classroom.

My students would often say, “Nice guy! You’re nice guy!” But when I’d respond, “Thanks, I think you’re nice too,” they would wave off the compliment and say, “No, no, not me. You are nice guy.” I thought the students couldn’t be assholes if they were calling me nice, but I wondered why they wouldn’t agree that they too were kind people. Could Japanese culture be so modest that one can’t even accept being called nice? As it turns out, this was really just a miscommunication.

One of the 3rd year JH students showed me a picture of Jonny Depp from one of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He pointed to Captain Jack Sparrow and said, “I like, very much. Nice guy.” At this point, it was clear to me that “nice guy” could not possibly have the same meaning for these kids that it did for me. I asked him how you say “nice guy” in Japanese and he said “kakkoii” (かっこいい ). The definition of kakkoii is more like “attractive, good-looking, or stylish”. So when describing a person directly, “nice” would be a mistranslation. That day I taught the students a new word: “Cool.”

In conversation, people will often ask me why I came to Japan. The real answer is a somewhat complicated tale that I usually simplify to: “I’ve always been fascinated by Japan”, or even simpler, to “Ninjas”. But lately I’ve decided that from now on, I will answer the question like this: “The FOOD.” For me, a big perk of teaching English in Japan is the kyuushoku (給食 – school lunch).

While I’ve heard some varying reports from other ALTs, the lunches in Shakotan have been consistently amazing; not only delicious, but seemingly nutritious as well. The average school lunch includes rice, miso soup, a protein-rich food (probably fish), and a vegetable dish. This varies from day to day, but the school district’s dietitian tries to balance every meal according to national guidelines. The aim is to include your carbohydrate, vegetable, and protein foods in each lunch, while keeping the total calorie count below some specific number. Amusingly, they also try to balance lunch foods by color, which means including something red, something yellow, and something green in every meal. Yet somehow, even with these challenging parameters in place, they manage to make lunch delicious day after day. And at ¥4900 a month for five meals a week, it’s a hell of a deal.

Occasionally lunch will consists of western-style foods, usually something using bread, and while this is a disappointment, it’s still of a high enough quality to surpass anything that I was fed in public schools in the States. (Although to be honest, that’s not saying much.) The school’s spaghetti and meat sauce, while not as good as its homemade counterpart, is actually pretty damn respectable. Still, it’s the Japanese food staples that I really love.

I recently discovered that the weekly school lunch follows a pattern for meal composition. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are rice days, meaning the carbohydrate dish will be your standard rice. Tuesday is noodle day, so this is the glorious time when we’ll have a big bowl of udon or ramen, or alternatively, the spaghetti might appear. Finally, Thursdays are bread days. On Thursday we might have hotdogs (which involve a bun), or perhaps we’ll have a baguette or dinner roll, along with a savory soup, like cream of corn or pumpkin. I’m not fan of bread in Japan, so this is usually the least impressive lunch for me.

Speaking of eating, I’ve noticed an interesting digestive phenomenon in Japan: stomach rumbling. If you’ve watched much anime then you’ve almost certainly witnessed a character’s stomach audibly signal that he was hungry with a loud, churning groan. While I’ve certainly heard stomachs make noise before, its prevalence in anime would lead one to believe that it happens every time someone is hungry, probably every day. In my experience, my stomach has rarely, if ever, been vocal. In Japan, however, my stomach really does rumble a lot, like maybe every time that I’m really hungry.

Why would that be the case? I don’t actually know, but started theorizing and came up with a few thoughts. 1) Maybe in America, we rarely let ourselves to get to a point where we’re so hungry that our stomach is trying to digest itself. 2) A diet high in rice provides a more filling, energy-sustaining fuel than a bread-based diet, for instance, but when it runs out, you’ve really got nothing and your body cries out for sustenance. 3) If the TV adverts are to be believed, then drinking the right brand of tea actually starts a blazing green fire in your stomach. This fire simultaneously gives you tremendous energy and makes you thin and attractive. Since I’m from the States, eat rice every day, and drink lots of green tea, I have yet to try isolating any one variable to test each theory’s validity.

When talking about my classes, the other teachers were usually very complimentary. However, I often heard the term “high tension” (ハイテンション) used, which surprised me. Did I appear nervous in front the kids? Were the students frightened to have me in class? What could be the source of the tense atmosphere everyone’s describing? Well as I discovered, in Japanese “high tension” doesn’t mean what you think.

High tension (ハイテンション) means excited or enthusiastic, and it’s a positive word. It’s basically like saying that there’s electricity in the air. I think maybe this phrase originated with high voltage electronics, but I’m not really sure. So when the teachers said that the class was “high tension”, and Yusuke (the English teacher) said it was because of me, he wasn’t blaming me, he was being complimentary. This was a good thing to figure out.

Students at my junior high are so tidy that they always collect the rubber shavings that remain after they’ve erased something. Apparently to just brush the eraser dust onto the floor is considered quite lazy and rude. Yusuke tells me that it’s only common practice in this particular school, and that most kids in Japan are not so meticulous.

After lunch there is a break of 10 or 15 minutes, during which time the students will usually play around in the gym or, weather permitting, play outside. Throughout the summer months I would always spend this time outside, playing soccer with the students, and usually also with Yusuke. Since I missed my soccer team in Seattle so dearly, playing with the kids was a great joy for me. Eventually though, it got to cold and too rainy to play outside, and by December the field was good and buried with snow. With soccer no longer an option, I’d play games with the students inside the gymnasium.

In the gym, groups of boys will often form two teams to play full-court basketball. Meanwhile, groups of girls will circle up to juggle a volleyball back and forth. Often times I’d start shooting around with the boys until they inevitably started a game, and then I’d play too. While it wasn’t soccer, it was still good fun.

Yoshimura-sensei, the social studies teacher, could usually be found playing volleyball with the girls, unless someone set up the badminton net, in which case he’d always be there. The first time I jumped in on the volleying, it was on his invitation. I did my best to keep the ball constantly juggling, but I’m not really that good at volleyball. At one point I instinctively headed the ball, soccer-style, directly at one of the girls. This proved quite amusing to all involved.

One of the teachers told me that I was smart (スマート), a compliment which I humbly accepted. Then she added, “…but muscular” (くきょう). It was then that I realized that she was using to word “smart” in a fashion context, describing me as slim. Here I thought someone was seeing me as more than just a hot body…

One day while eating lunch with the third year junior high school students, a girl commented that my skin was very white. I was wearing a short sleeved shirt at the time, and my arms were looking quite pale, somewhere between alabaster and ghostly transparent. I agreed with the girl and used the term hakujin (白人), which very literally means white person. This might have sounded a tad derogatory, but I was talking about myself, so I figured Japanese etiquette would approve.

The student pointed at me and said, “White person”, then to herself and said, “Yellow monkey.”  Indicating the other students nearby, she said, “Yellow monkey, yellow monkey, yellow monkey…” My jaw hit the floor.

“No, no, no,” I said, laughing a bit at something what sounded really offensive to my ears, but maybe not so bad to the students.  “That’s bad. Don’t say that.”

A little later the same student pointed to me and asked, “White monkey?”

“Yes,” I replied, “white monkey.”

There is a chapter in the junior high first year textbook that features a bonobo named Kanzi. Kanzi is quite an intelligent ape and can do many things; he can even understand about 500 English words. One of the dialogues talks about the different between bonobos and chimpanzees, using the word “chimp.” I wondered if this was a practical joke, since the word “chimpanzee” in pronounced nearly identically in both English and Japanese, but chimp sounds almost identical to chinpo (ちんぽ), the Japanese word for penis.

This is also why one should refrain from using the European “chin-chin” when making toasts in Japan. While it represents the sound of glasses clanging together, chinchin (ちんちん) is also a children’s term for penis, like saying “pee-pee” in Japanese. So when I said the word “chimp”, as one would expect, the classroom of 13 year olds burst into laughter.

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International Exchange Event

The bus barreled down the expressway, chartering 12 college students from the bustling metropolis of Sapporo to the sleepy fishing village of Shakotan. Just after noon on Saturday, November 19th, the gray, rainy weather promised to spoil the day’s sightseeing plans. The bus’s windows fogged up with everyone’s breathing—conversation condensation—making it difficult to even enjoy the dreary version of the view. But despite the inclement weather, the student visitors already seemed to be enjoying themselves, awaiting a unique cultural experience ahead. This was the Shakotan Board of Education’s pride and joy, a special international exchange program called Kokusai Kouryuu Kai (国際交流会).

The 12 college students hailed from nine different foreign countries; China, Korea, Brazil, Paraguay, Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Finland, Bulgaria, and Germany. Everyone was able to speak at least a little Japanese, but due to the varying levels of proficiency, the common language among everyone was actually English. (Thanks to the conquests of the British Empire and the rise of the Internet, English has solidified its position as the standard international language. Thanks chaps!) In the front of the bus, there was a representative from the Hokkaido prefectural office, Keiko-san.  Fluent in both Japanese and English, Keiko-san was able to act as translator for everyone. Yamazaki-san and I were also present, acting as tour guides and representatives of Shakotan.

The bus stopped made a brief pit stop at the Space Apple Yoichi (スペースアップルよいち), a science center/museum dedicated to space exploration. I found the Space Apple to be rather perplexing, both in its fruit-based name and its location in quiet Yoichi (余市). After a little research, I discovered that the Space Apple was built to honor Mōri Mamoru, a Japanese astronaut and scientist who was born in Yoichi. If I had to venture a guess, the “apple” name comes from the local agriculture, which is famous for producing delicious fruits, such as apples and grapes. (I have yet to check out the actual science center, but it looks like a cool family destination, reminiscent of the Science Center of Iowa that my dad used to take my brothers and me to.) Once we made it to Shakotan, Yamazaki-san tagged out, and Fujiki-san and Katsuo -san tagged in, and the bus proceeded on to some picturesque sights.

Our first destination was actually the same place that Yamazaki-san had first taken me when I was new to town, the Shimamui Coast (島武意海岸). The bus wound its way up the steep mountain road just outside of Hizuka town and stopped at the presently deserted parking lot at the top. The college students were already impressed by the view of the mountains and valleys facing the direction we had just come from, much like I had been when had first been here, but that was nothing compared to the coastal view. After everyone passed through the claustrophobic, dark and dripping tunnel to emerge on the seaside, the sense of awe really hit.

Everyone genuinely enjoyed the scenic vista. Aki, from Finland, and Daniel, from Bulgaria, seemed especially impressed. Aki went so far as to say that he loved it so much, he wanted to move and live at this very spot. We took some group photos, and the BoE personnel insisted that jump in for pictures, as if I too were a visitor.

After Shimamui, we went straight to Kamui Misaki (神威岬), the surreal, rocky cape that serves as Shakotan’s most renowned tourist attraction. Unfortunately, in addition to the rain, it was also very windy at the cape, so the trail to the point was closed. Everyone was still able to view some magnificent rock formations, but no one was allowed to make the walk out to the lighthouse and legendary Kamui Rock (神威岩). When I told Fujiki-san that the weather had been bad for four of my five visits to Kamui Misaki, she called me an ame-otoko (雨男 – literally “rain man”), a man who brings rain with him wherever he goes. I apologized, explaining that after living in Seattle for many years, that label was probably accurate.

After the cape, we stopped at my favorite onsen (温泉), Nozuka town’s Misaki no Yu Shakotan (岬の湯しゃこたん) for some soaking relaxation. Due to the potential social awkwardness of getting naked with a bunch of strangers, the invitation to actually go into the bathes was completely optional.  Apparently in the previous year, less than half of the participants chose to test the waters, while the others had drinks and kicked back in the facility’s commons area. This year the participants were more adventurous, and only three students opted to keep their clothes on.

As usual, Misaki no Yu proved to be a top-notch, relaxation experience. The view alone was worth the price of admission, but the BoE had provided free passes for everyone, so it was an even better deal. My new Finnish and Bulgarian friends seemed to be connoisseurs of saunas and bathhouses, and they agreed that this onsen was something special. Aki again expressed a desire to move here. After about an hour of leisurely soaking, everyone boarded the bus again to head back to Bikuni.

The college students were dropped off at the inn where they would be staying, a fancy place called Kasai (お宿かさい). While they started a fancy sushi dinner there, Katsuo-san, Fujiki-san, and I headed over to Fuji Sushi to eat. After the meal, the plan was to have a little party with the BoE staff. When the three of us met up with Ihira-san and Yamazaki-san at the inn, where they were preparing for a traditional Japanese dance performance. The dancer turned out to be none other than Yasuda-san’s mother-in-law, Kawasaki-sensei; the lady that I affectionately refer to as Baba-chan (祖母ちゃん – grandmother, “Granny”). It was great to see Baba-chan again, and especially interesting to see her in full geisha garb.

Baba-chan gracefully performed a traditional dance piece called “Wakamurasaki” (若紫). [Wakamurasaki means “light purple” but the title actually comes from a chapter of the ancient Japanese novel, Tale of the Genji (源氏物語).  In the novel, Murasaki is the name of a little girl, so in that context, Waka-Murasaki could be translated as “young Murasaki”.] After the dance, many drinks were poured and bags of okashi (お菓子 – sweets, candy, junk food) were opened. I convinced Baba-chan to stay for a quick drink with us (non-alcoholic beer, of course) before she headed home.

Ihira-san made a quick speech to toast the occasion and Keiko-san translated so everyone could understand. The gist was that the event was a very proud moment for Shakotan, and it made him very happy that everyone could come. It was the first time they had hosted people from the countries of Bulgaria, Bangladesh, Paraguay, or Kazakhstan. It was also the first time 11 different nations had been represented. (That’s 11 counting the US for me, and Japan as the hosts). It was a rousing speech and I think everyone was genuinely moved with a feeling camaraderie. We all raise our glasses and gave a “kanpai!”

Partying with the college students and other BoE staff was fantastic. Conversation—both in English and Japanese—was engaging, as everyone had a unique story. We all came from different places, grew up in different cultures with different perspectives. Yet our common similarities felt strong somehow. For instance, everyone present seemed to highly value education, and an insatiable curiosity seemed to be common amongst us all.

As some point, people were asking me the inevitable “why” question: Why did you want to come to Japan? And for these guys it was even more specific: Why did you want to come to Shakotan? I explained that I had studied a lot about Japan in college, and I had also been considering becoming a teacher, so teaching English in Japan was seemed like a good fit. Aki was also studying to work in education. He asked, “But why here? Why did you choose to teach in Japan instead of just teaching in the US?”

“Well, because the US sucks,” I said dryly, and paused for comedic effect.

No one laughed. Not even a smirk. The faces of genuinely interested people stared back at me, waiting for me to go on. While I had meant my disparaging comment in irony, the silence gave me the sobering realization that the sentiment wasn’t at all ironic. To an international crowd, the idea that the US was a broken country worth taking a break from was a legitimate opinion, perhaps even a sensible one.

I explained further that I thought it would a good experience to see how another country does education, to get a different perspective. The funniest thing about studying Japan is how much I’ve unintentionally learned about my home country. In order to see how Japan was different, I needed to compare it to the US, which in the case of things like international relations, involved a lot of research on both sides. However—as I clarified to cosmopolitan buddies—I’ve never bought into the ideology that people of different cultures think in a fundamentally different way. Society might shape our customs or philosophies in different ways, but at the end of the day, people are people.

The following day, Sunday November 20th, it was time for the International Exchange Event to take place in Shakotan’s schools. Zhaina from Kazakhstan, Rai from China, and Daniel from Bulgaria got truly unique experiences; they visited the rural elementary schools on the peninsula, Nozuka, Yobetsu, and Hizuka. These schools had only three students, four students, and nine students, respectively. The rest of the visitors were divided among Bikuni ES’s six grades and Bikuni JH’s three.

I also spent the day at Bikuni Junior High, so I got to see the presentations from three of the visiting college students. The morning started with the kids gathering in the gymnasium, and a projector being set up. Marie from Germany, Habiba from Bangladesh, and Lee from South Korea were brought in and introduced to the student body. Since English was still the common language, Yusuke, the English teacher, assumed the new responsibly of translating.

Each of the college students had prepared a PowerPoint presentation on their home country, highlighting facts like population and currency, cultural points of interest and particularities, popular traditional foods, and sometimes pop-culture trivia. In the case of Korea, for example, K-Pop music is extremely popular worldwide, especially in Japan. Korean TV dramas and movies are also making waves these days, even on Japan’s shores, so the kids were familiar with that.

Throughout the presentations of all the exciting and interesting content, poor Yusuke furiously scribbled down notes. Every couple minutes, the presenter would pause and Yusuke would deliver a rough translation of the specifics that the kids probably could not ascertain from spoken English. This is not something Yusuke usually has to do and I suspect that, even under ideal circumstances, it would be fairly difficult to manage. But things were definitely made even more challenging by exotic vocabulary words that couldn’t be translated, and instead needed to be explained. By the time the presentations were completed, Yusuke looked completely exhausted, like his brain had just run a marathon.

After the presentations were complete, the classes split up to spend quality time with one visiting college student. Lee and I were assigned to the 3rd Year class, and it turned out that we were going to play PE games in the gym.

This picture has been distorted to protect the identities of the children. Or maybe it's just blurry.

First we played “Hand Baseball”, a baseball variant akin to kickball, except that you “bat” by swinging your arm. As a big fan of kickball and soccer, I can’t imagine why anyone would ever choose to play this game, but we had fun nonetheless. Next we played basketball, which was also fairly enjoyable. Lastly, we played the Japanese version of dodgeball, which I can honestly say was awesome.

In Japanese-style dodgeball, there is only one ball. Two opposing sides must stay within the boundary of their own square courts. If a player is struck by the ball, they must leave their court, go to the other side of the area, and take a position outside the opposing team’s court. From there, out-players who get the ball can take shots at in-players of the opposing team, creating a situation where no one is ever knocked out of play. While I also appreciate the American version with several balls flying back and forth in a constant melee of projectile warfare, I found Japanese dodgeball’s egalitarian twist charming.

After the games, it was time for lunch. The visiting college students ate with the kids, much like I do every day. After lunch, everyone returned to the gymnasium for some music. The school band played, and then all the students sang as a choir. The music, as always, was quite impressive. While everyone was still in the gym, we took a group photo (the most Japanese of all activities) to commemorate the event.

By 3pm, the international event had concluded, and the college students boarded a bus back to Sapporo. While I didn’t witness any emotional goodbyes at the junior high, apparently there were some tears at the elementary schools. The kids truly enjoy the event every year, and sometimes they form a bond with the visiting college students rather quickly. Unlike me, these super interesting foreign nationals wouldn’t be in town tomorrow. In fact, the kids didn’t know if they would ever see them again. At the end of a day filled with excitement, wonder, and international intrigue, the young ones had to say goodbye to their new heroes. And it was, quite possibly, ‘goodbye’ forever.

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Mini Volleyball

I was lesson planning in the teachers’ room at Bikuni Elementary School when the Vice Principal asked me if I would participate in their upcoming volleyball tournament. Without knowing the details of the plan I agreed to come. Any physical activity sounded good to me since I had gone several months without the weekly soccer matches I had enjoyed in Seattle. The Vice Principal was delighted and told me that I could play on his team, along with the Principal and a couple other teachers. Seo-sensei, the fifth grade teacher, then explained that the game we would be playing was Mini Volleyball (ミニバレー).

Mini Volleyball (sometimes abbreviated to “Mini Volley”, or else called “Soft Volleyball”) is a variation of volleyball that’s played with a rubber ball. The ball is lighter and much softer than your usual volleyball, like a cross between a beach ball and the red kickball you remember from elementary school. This makes it easy to volley around and yet forgiving enough to absorb any impact. Having the balloon-like ball spiked directly into your face is startling, but not likely to do any damage whatsoever. The game is played on a badminton court, and with the reduced area the game is played four on four.

On the evening of Tuesday, November 8th, I showed up at Bikuni ES to find the gym was buzzing with activity. Volleyball nets had been set up and several clusters of adults were bouncing neon-colored balls back and forth, warming up. The Vice Principal found me and led me to the rest of the team. We formed a circle and volleyed our own ball back and forth, much like the other teams. It was good to get a feel for the ball, which was incredibly soft. There was never any forearm-stinging pain like you generally encounter with a normal volleyball. This game was clearly nerf’ed to be accessible to anyone. It was like the bumper bowling of volleyball.

The “real” tournament was scheduled for Friday, so Tuesday was more of practice round. All the teams were all assigned a different grade year, which I assumed had to do with who had kids in what specific grades. That would explain why the Yamizakis and Yoshimuras were each split playing on the teams for 5th Year and 7th Year—since both couples had a child in 5th grade and a child in 7th grade. My team was the 1st Year team. Incidentally, we had no parents on our side; just two teachers, one principal, one vice principal, and me. It was quickly evident that I—the young American—was supposed our team’s secret weapon. Considering that the average age of folks participating was probably around 45 or so, this didn’t seem like a bad strategy. Except for the fact that I hadn’t played volleyball in years and I wasn’t especially good at the game to begin with.

Six teams were distributed among the three courts and the games got underway. I was a little tentative at first, as my team seemed to want me to relentlessly block the net and/or spike the opposing team into oblivion. With such a forgiving ball in play, one would think that this would be a task easily performed with a clear conscience; no one could be physically hurt, even if you went all out. But the first team across the net from me was four elderly ladies. While they looked fairly robust, they were still old, and they were women. I felt that they deserved my respect and reverence, and trying to spike a rubber ball in their faces—even just in their general direction—seemed a bit uncouth. In the spirit of compromise, I decided to block the net as much as possible, but never spike on them.

While many of the teams were comprised of older folks, there was at least one team with younger, more athletic players. (By “younger”, I mean that they were probably in their mid 30’s.) This athletic team seemed to be more serious about their Mini Volleyball than the rest, and I suspected that they played together regularly. They were extremely good about recovering from awkwardly received balls, and they deftly set up an attack with every possession. Even their serves were executed skillfully. While I had been reluctant to spike on my elders, this team consistently spiked on everyone with vicious proficiency. They were the Cobra Kai of Mini Volley; they showed no mercy.

By the end of the night, all the teams had got plenty of playing time in. The athletic folks had dominated play in all their matches, handing my team our one loss for the evening. All the parents and teachers got some quality exercise and a good time was had by all.

The next evening, on Wednesday (November 9th), I headed to B&G for a workout, part of my usual routine. I was hungry when I arrived there, as I had not yet eaten dinner. By the time I had lifted weights for about an hour, I felt like I was starving. Coming downstairs from the weight room, I crossed the entrance to the gymnasium to get a sip of water from the drinking fountain. It was then that I noticed something was going on in the gym; the usually empty space was filled with people. And to my surprise, everyone was playing Mini Volleyball.

Walking up to the glass door to sneak a peak of the action, I was spotted by Hitomi-san, a young lady who works in the town office. I gave a wave and started toward the exit, but Hitomi actually came out to say ‘hi’ and to invite me to play. As she explained, this large group played Mini Volleyball at B&G every Wednesday and Friday. On this particular night, a few folks hadn’t showed up, so they were short on people. It seemed that my participation would even the numbers and help everyone out. For a brief moment, my stomach battled my sense of social obligation. Then I agreed to jump in and play.

As I normally do when lifting weights, I had worn a sleeveless shirt to the gym that day. When I took off my track jacket to reveal my bare, alabaster arms, I got immediate reactions from people. While everyone’s comments were complimentary (they were mostly saying that I had big muscles), it still made me feel quite self-conscious. I found myself legitimately embarrassed, wishing I had dressed a little more conservatively, even just a t-shirt that still had its sleeves would have done.

I played several games of Mini Volley with them over the course of two hours. As I was the substitute, I ended up playing on several different teams throughout the evening. Unlike playing with the PTA, where an organized squad was the exception, the general skill level of everyone present was quite high. There were also more young people present, like Hitomi-san and Masato-kun (who I knew from our trip to Kōchi-ken in August), so play proved to be more challenging.

When I really started to get into it, I started diving after any and all wild, mishit balls, adamantly trying to keep my side afloat, even when someone made a mistake. While this did help my side out on a few occasions, my enthusiasm more often than not was fruitless, and I ended up bruising my knees on the gym floor. During the last game of the night, I made the split-second decision to go for a very unlikely save, laying out and diving for an unreachable ball. I crashed into the gym floor with a bang, landing hard on right elbow. This was not only painful at the time, but continued to ache for the rest of the week.

When I finally headed back to my apartment at 9pm, my arm was swollen and throbbing, and my stomach was angrily grumbling. I was ravenously hungry, thoroughly exhausted, and I had injured myself to boot. And in the midst of all this, I hadn’t managed to win a single game all night. It actually felt great.

Later that week, on Friday (November 11th), the Bikuni Elementary School PTA held their Mini Volleyball Taikai (ミニバレーボール大会). Tuesday had been practice, but Friday was supposed to be the real competition—as real as Mini Volleyball can be, anyway. There were 11 teams competing and the captains drew numbers to determine their teams’ places in the bracket.

I noticed familiar faces this time—from playing Mini Volley at B&G—and discovered that there were actually two teams of serious competitors. Knowing that we were guaranteed to lose when we went up against them didn’t make the evening any less fun, however. Without a challenge, the evening would have been considerably less enjoyable. Sure enough, the skilled teams were too much for my 1st Year team to handle.

Win or lose, everyone had a great time. The evening had its fair share of brutal spikes, fantastically unlikely saves, and wonderfully coordinated setups; entertaining plays produced by every match. I especially enjoyed playing against Yamazaki-san’s team, as games are always the most fun when played with close friends. Playing against Yoshimura-sensei team’s and Nishikawa-sensei’s team was also great. Spiking on your coworkers never feels rude, for some reason.

That week was my introduction to Mini Volleyball, three days of lighthearted, ball bouncing merriment. There would be more Mini Volley events in the future; random drop-ins on B&G’s Wednesday and Friday nights, and more special events, like nights specifically for teachers to play in the junior high gymnasium. In every instance, this volleyball variant has proved to be great fun, good exercise, and easily accessible, even to the older folks.

Speaking of which, I have really been impressed with ability of the older Japanese population to stay fit and physically active as they age. Between Mini Volley, walking all the time, Yosakoi dancing, and shoveling their own snow, elders in Hokkaido manage to get a lot more exercise than their American counterparts. Recreational sports are just one part of this lifestyle, but it’s a fun aspect to examine.

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School Arts Festivals

While I would have preferred to sleep in on Sunday October 2nd, I instead got up early enough to make it to the junior high by nine o’clock. This was the day of Bikuni Junior High School’s gakkoukai (学校祭), the school festival. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, except for a band performance and possibly some singing.

The building had clearly received an artistic makeover since Friday, when I last saw her. The hallways leading to the gymnasium now proudly displayed the students’ artwork. Paper hearts hung from ceiling throughout the length of the corridor, suspended like raindrops frozen in time, and an upside-down umbrella positioned like a chandelier, added to the rain imagery.  Every student had made a self-portrait and they covered the walls along with other art projects. There were interesting silhouette landscape pieces, and drawings in the ukiyo-e (浮世絵) style, many a recreation of kabuki actor Otani Oniji II’s famous portrait. Tables in the hall also displayed hand sculptures and papercraft models of sports cars and construction vehicles, like a backhoe.

The windows of the school’s main entrance were decorated with a colorful stained glass design, made from colored transparency sheets and black cardboard paper. With the morning sun streaming through, it made for quite a beautiful addition. Just inside the gym, I discovered another student art production; a giant papier-mâché Anpanman. Nearly two meters tall, this Anpanman was taller than any of the students who constructed him.

Families had piled into the gymnasium and found places to sit, either in folding chairs or on the floor. The homey floor seating was set front and center, a picnic-style ground cloth designating where groups could assemble, while the chairs were farther back. Spotlights had been set up on each side of the gym, with students and a couple teachers trading off the responsibility of running them at different times. After a quick speech by the Principal, the event was underway.

The first bit of the festival seemed to be a formal recognition of the decorating crew for all their hard work. This focused on the rapid production of the stain glass windows and the giant Anpanman. During the ceremonious presentation, students carried the papier-mâché idol on stage, the gym lights were turned off, and Anpanman was lit up. It turns out that his hollow body was equipped with light bulbs. It was an impressive spectacle, especially when you think about how quickly they put him together.

There was also a presentation of a giant photo mosaic that one of the teachers had made for the students. It was a massive picture of the students—probably around five feet by seven feet—comprised entirely of smaller photos, which also pictured the students. I couldn’t understand the explanation of how it had been put together, except that some special software had been involved. It was a stunningly cool gift.

The next part of the festival was the premiere of two plays, each written, directed, and preformed the students. The first play used well-known anime characters like Doraemon and Detective Konan, and told a story about time travel. The second play seemed to be about a struggling savings and loan, and at one point, almost all of the characters on stage were shot. (It then turned out to all be a rouse to trick another character.)  Both plays were rather lengthy and impressively complex…I think. I had difficulty understanding any of the dialogue, so I could only follow along by the actions.

Right before the lunch break, the PTA performed the inexplicably popular Maru Maru Mori Mori dance. I participated in this and actually had a lot of fun with the parents and teachers at our two practices. When we started learning the dance, I was already fairly familiar with it, having danced it multiple times in Shakotan’s Fire Festival with the Tomosukai group. As annoying as the song is—or rather, should be—it really grows on you after a while, and I came to genuinely enjoy the tune. Perhaps one can grow to like any song by mere repetition alone. Right after the break, the school band performed and truly rocked the house. I’ve been consistently impressed with everyone’s general musicianship in Japan, the school bands being a prime example.

Next, a series of musical performances took place on stage, some involving actual singing and others involving lip syncing and dancing. Most of the performances were renditions of recent chart-topping pop songs, but a couple songs were actually classic enka (演歌 – traditional Japanese folk ballads).

Popstar Idol Superstars: AKB48. Way too popular...

At this point, I need to explain that the boy band/girl band fad that swept the world in the late 90’s with the likes of the Spice Girls, N’Sync, and the Backstreets Boys, is still flourishing in East Asia today—in fact, it’s gotten rather out of hand. Pop stars of this variety are called aidoru (アイドル – from the English word “idol”), and they are omnipresent. Male singing groups like Arashi, EXILE, and SMAP continue to be immensely popular and the female groups like Perfume, Kara, and Girl’s Generation (those last two are from South Korea, by the way) dominate the airwaves. The epitome of this trend is the mega-pop juggernaut known as AKB48, but if I get started on that bizarre phenomenon now, we’ll be here all day.

The most entertaining musical act was a group of boys—all from the badminton team, I believe—dressed in drag and dancing to Kara’s song “Mister”. Apparently the boys did an accurate job of replicating the choreography from Kara’s music video, because the crowd went wild when they shook their asses around in a circular motion. I hadn’t seen the video beforehand, so I didn’t quite get the joke. It was surprising that parents and faulty alike applauded the lewd dancing, as I had been told that Japan was a conservative country.

The final part of the school festival was a choral performance. Each of the three grades sang a song, during which time I was quite intrigued because the performances were completely student directed. One student conducted the choir while another student played the piano accompaniment. It happened this way for all three grades and there was no staff involved in the actual performances. As a finale, the entire student body assembled on stage and sang together. The song was incredible beautiful, with male and female voices singing complimentary parts in harmony. There had been one morning, when I was feeling particularly homesick, that from the hallway I had heard the kids practicing that song. It had literally moved me to tears on that occasion. Therefore when I heard it performed at the festival, I was prepared and ready to keep my game face on.

Since the school festival was held on Sunday, school was off the following Monday. On Tuesday, with the kids back in school, there was a morning cleanup. In the aftermath of so much frivolity, the kids were required to take down all decoration and return the gym to normal. The stain glass window art got to stay up for a time, but everything else was taken down. It was particular sad to watch the kids dismantle the giant Anpanman, as they basically punched his papier-mâché head in and took him apart from the inside out. There really is nothing permanent is this world.

On Sunday, October 23rd, the elementary schools held their own gakugeikai (学芸会), or school arts festivals. Similar to the scheduling of the undoukai (運動会 – field day) events in the summertime, the elementary schools of Shakotan’s various villages were doing their school arts festivals on the same day. This meant that I was attending the morning portion of Bikuni ES’s festival, and then after lunch, I was headed to Hizuka ES for their event.

Since Bikuni is the big elementary school, their school arts festival was a spectacle to be enjoyed my many families, and the gym was pretty packed. Luckily, folks can sit on floor just as easily as in chairs in Japan, so there was ample space for everyone.

One highlight of the show was the first graders dancing to the song “100% Yūki” (100% 勇気) from the children’s ninja anime Nintama Rantarou (忍たま乱太郎). The cuteness factor was taken to extremes with each of the youngsters performing their dance in colorful ninja garb.

Besides the ninja the dance, my next favorite part was the school band, which impressed, as always. They even performed the theme song to the classic anime series Lupin III (ルパン三世). The 70’s spy disco tune is one of all-time favorite instrumental pieces and the kids did a great job playing it.

When Bikuni’s event broke for lunch, I hopped in the car and drove straight to Hizuka for their gakugeikai. Since Hizuka has only nine students, the event was sure to be on a smaller scale, but with just as much heart. In the beginning, the curtains of Hizuka’s stage were drawn back to reveal two of the youngest students, first grade boys, dressed in authentic kabuki (歌舞伎 – Japan’s classical stage dramas) clothing. My comprehension of the dialogue was very low, but I think they were simply opening ceremonies.

There was something different about Hizuka ES’s school arts festival that was immediately apparent. The audience at Hizuka consistently threw objects towards the kids on stage, much like the stereotypical roses thrown at opera singers. Instead of roses, however, the crowd tossed coins wrapped in paper called o-hineri (御捻り – wrapped offering). This was apparently a tradition originating from kabuki performances in rural areas. Fans would show their appreciation to their favorite actors by throwing o-hineri when the actor struck a pose. Literally tipping for performers, the more o-hineri you have thrown in your direction, the more the audience loves you.

Next, all the students of Hizuka ES assembled on stage to perform a choreographed dance number—all nine of them. (A small village in an isolated area, Hizuka doesn’t have many children.) The kids danced to an AKB48 song, with an impressive “HKD9” poster displayed behind them, complete with anime-style portraits of all the kids.

Since the school body at Hizuka is so small, the families really get involved in school events. The next part of the show was another AKB48 dance, this time being performed by a girl and boy, neither of whom could have been over four years old. Each kid was dressed in only knee-high frilly boots, a sequined bra, and tutu. Those outfits would have been scandalously inappropriate if the kids weren’t so young, and I was honestly hesitant to take a picture of the scene for fear that someone would see it in my photos and assume that I was a member of NMBLA or something. Also, I felt bad for the boy; dressed up as a girl and put up on stage for people to laugh at. He was so young that he couldn’t even do any of the choreography. He just stood there like a deer in the headlights as flashing cameras and camcorders accumulated evidence that his mother would later use to humiliate him in front of his first girlfriend…or so I imagined. Still, it sure made everybody laugh. A second family act followed, as some of the parents performed a Yosakoi dance.

The students showed off their impressive musical talents, first by singing in chorus, then by playing a tune on recorder. Next the kids played several different instruments in concert and performed John Denver’s classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Just when I thought they couldn’t get more impressive, giant drums were arranged on stage and the kids played Taiko (太鼓)! It was simply amazing to watch, as the students were really quite good.

I was pretty blown away at that point…and that was when the unicycles came out. No seriously, there were unicycles! All nine of the Hizuka students could ride unicycles and they took turns performing various tricks, like navigating around cones, peddling backwards, and balancing the unicycle in place while using only one foot. They also all rode together making formations and cycling under other students linked arms. It was very impressive indeed.

After the PTA did a dance number dressed in colorfully ridiculous costumes, the event wrapped up with a student play. In Hizuka’s play, the students were all dressed up as cats, and I’m fairly certain that the prelude music they used at the beginning was actually from “Cats”, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Again I couldn’t exactly follow the dialogue, but the acting was at least better than your average Michael Bay movie.

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