June 4, 2011 – Just a week after the Bikuni Elementary School had their Taiikukai (体育会), the Bikuni Junior High School was hosting their own Sports day, called Taiikutaikai (体育大会). (The names of the two events are pretty much the same, except that the junior high version has the kanji for ‘big’ in it. I learned that the general term for a Sports Day is actually “Undoukai – 運動会”, which almost literally means ‘athletic meet’.) Again, I was invited to attend, but unlike last time, this sports day was going to count as a working day, so I was officially obligated to be there. This was fine with me, because I’ve come to genuinely enjoy these events. Plus, it meant that I’d get Monday off, so it was a good arrangement.
The Taiikutaikai was scheduled to begin bright and early at 9am on Saturday morning. This time, I made sure that I dressed for the occasion, and brought running shoes and sunblock. I left my apartment early enough to walk there, and even stop by the Seicomart for an o-negiri, which was my breakfast. The weather seemed a bit warmer than the previous weekend, or maybe the wind was tamer, but the air just as humid and low clouds still hung ominously overhead.
When I arrived at the field, it looked like the students and facility were all ready to get the party started. The students started greeting me when I was still fairly far away, shouting “Good morning!” and “How are you?” from a distance. When I walked up to main canopy, I was first directed to sit down at a table with the head of the Board of Education, a principal from another school, and some other men in suits. This was just like how the Elementary School’s event had started, so I thought nothing of it. However, I was only seated for a minute or so before the vice principal fetched me and explained that those seats were only for guests of the school; I was officially staff, so I should stand with the others for the opening ceremony. This suited me just fine.
The crowd of spectators was noticeably smaller than the Elementary School had. Since the weather looked equally bleak at both events, I figured the smaller turnout was either representative of the Junior High having a smaller student body, or the fact that elementary sports days are more fun; perhaps a bit of both. The festivities began in the military fashion I expected, the kids marching out uniformly onto the field to music.
Whereas the students at the elementary school sports day wore either red or white caps, at the Taiikutaikai, the students wore different colored bandanas called “hachimaki” (鉢巻). At this event, the colors were red, purple, and yellow. The Junior High’s band actually played the opening and closing music of the ceremony, which was something that I thought my dear old Dad would greatly appreciate. The other music, as expected, was prerecorded and played through a PA system.
After the march out and the presentation of the school flag to the Principal, there were a couple quick opening speeches. Next it was time for the obligatory group stretch to a prerecorded song that chants “1-2-3-4…5-6-7-8” in Japanese. (I’ve found that this warm-up song is standard for most all schools in Japan and absolutely everyone is familiar with it.) Since all the teachers were doing the routine in unison with the students, I joined in too and imitated the moves.
The Taiikutaikai seemed a lot more your standard run-of-the-mill track meet in the beginning. The first competition was the 100m dash, with the 800m, shot put, long jump, high jump, and several relay races to follow. After the lunch break the events included more frivolity, but initially I had wondered if the Taiikutaikai was going to lack the fun that the elementary school kids enjoyed.
During the sprinting races, a couple students tripped and fell, but everyone finished their races and seemed satisfied with the outcomes. While milling around I saw the school nurse applying bandages to scraps, as well as hot/cold packs to muscle cramps. Most often, the nurse was applying anti-itch medication to ailing bug bites. (The mosquitoes and other pesky insects in Shakotan can be quite large, numerous, and annoying.)
When it time for the shot put, long jump, and high jump, the students and faculty divided to different stations, and the three events were held simultaneously. A couple students asked me to come with them to the high jump as a special guest, so I obliged. While waiting for their turn to jump, a few of the third students would occasionally hug one another in a celebratory fashion, and then comically hop up and down saying “Oh Romeo!” and “Oh Juliet!” When they first did it, I cracked up, which encouraged them to repeat the gag. After a while, I explained to them that Romeo and Juliet die in the end the play. This then became part of the gag, as the jubilant hugging was then followed with feigned suicide by poison.
When the older boys were doing their high jumping, I was encouraged to join in. I removed jacket and warm up pants, and before entering the fray I asked Itagaki-sensei (the school’s English teacher whom I work with everyday) about the rules. All the students were doing the standard backwards high jump method, but I didn’t have any experience jumping that way, so I asked if jumping forward was permitted. Itagaki-sensei assured me that anything was fine and told me to do whatever I wanted. In that case, when it was my turn to jump, I took a small run and dove headfirst over the bar, flipping around at the height of my jump to land on my back on the mat. I think it’s fair to say that the students were amazed and they cheered like crazy. Itagaki-sensei also appeared to be shocked by my unorthodox jumping style.
As I found out later, a key rule of high jumping is that you have to jump off one foot. Since I was essentially running straight at the bar and diving over it, I’m pretty sure that I used both feet, and therefore, was cheating. Still, everyone enjoyed the spectacle of it. One-by-one, the students reached their limits and the event was finished. Just for fun, Itagaki-sensei had me do a few more jumps to see how high I could go. In the end, I managed to clear 160cm.
The next event I took part in was a relay race. Each student had to run 200 meters, in teams of four. The teachers formed a team of eight runners, so each of us only had to run 100 meters. (This seemed a little unfair to me, but I guess us teachers are old, in theory.) Even with the handicap of the elders only having to run half the distance of the students, the teacher’s team only managed to win by a slight margin. The junior high students proved to be quite fast!
After lunch, the activities were of the more lighthearted variety, starting with a rather unusual circuit race. At the first station, racers had to jump rope, and at the second station they had to circle a baseball bat many times with their forehead on the handle. Next, they dizzily staggered to the third station, which was a race to drink a soft drink out of plastic cup by a straw. Participants couldn’t move on to the next station until they had completely finished their beverage. The forth station was actually a quiz. Participants picked one of many envelopes strewn out on the ground, and brought it up to the emcee, who asked the question into the microphone for everyone to hear. If the answer was incorrect, the participant had to run back and retrieve a new question. As if the race wasn’t sufficiently wacky already, the fifth and final station involved putting on a randomly selected costume, and then running to finish line in disguise. Will all the craziness involved, this was definitely the most interesting event to watch.
The afternoon also included a tug of war, which the student team leaders seemed to take pretty seriously. It was particularly humorous when the PTA came out to square off against the winning student team. The PTA competed twice (once without me and once with me jumping in) and were victorious both times. I found it delightfully amusing to see a group of mothers and grandmothers best the young folk in a competition of brute strength.
Each grade competed against one another in a couple events, a three-legged-race (of sorts) and a massive group jump rope contest. The three-legged-race involved a line of around twelve or thirteen students, all with their bound together. As quickly as possible, they had to cover about 50 meters. This required careful teamwork, and the teams would chant “いち, に, いち, に” (1, 2…1, 2…) as they bounded toward the finish line. As impressive as it was when they flawlessly made in to the goal in good time, I enjoyed it even more when someone fell and took the rest of the team down like dominoes.
The massive jump rope contest involved one long jump rope, with twelve or so students all jumping in unison to see how many jumps they could do without failing. After three rounds, the grade with the most successful jumps recorded was the winner. By this point, the weather had worsened and a light rain had started to fall. Perhaps it was the inclement conditions, but the jump rope contest appeared to take on a distinct intensity. For some of the students, group jump rope seemed to be taken the most seriously of all the events. In a surprising upset, the first year kids managed to secure the win over the senior third year class. I actually saw some tears from a couple of the third year students, which may have been out disappointment over the loss, or the fact that this was their last undoukai (運動会).
Afterwards, there was one more relay race and the Taiikutaikai concluded. This turned out to be very well-timed, because the precipitation went from Seattle-style drizzle to heavy rain. Everyone took temporary refuge under the canopies, before retiring to the school gymnasium for closing ceremonies. Ironically, as soon as everyone was in the gym, the clouds parted and brilliant sunrays shined from the heavens. This was probably fortuitous for me, as I was finding it hard to avoid sunburns anyway.
The Taiikutaikai was all finished around 3:30, which left me just two hours before my welcome party with the junior high teachers at 5:30. The party was held at Kasai, a fairly fancy establishment that I think might actually be a hotel. We had about twenty people total, and we were all seated at one long, low, Japanese-style table.
The spread for the sushi dinner was simply amazing. The assorted sashimi and nigirizushi were stellar; the chawanmushi and horumonyaki were both delicious; but the star of the show had to be the nama uni (sea urchin). The Shakotan area is famous for its fresh uni, which is available from June through August. While I had heard a lot about uni this was my first time eating it, and it was raw too. I’m very happy to report that uni lived up to the hype. It has salty sea water kind of flavor and really melts in your mouth like butter. Yeah, it’s like sea butter.
The food was so awesome that I was just tearing through it, my chopsticks moving with surgical precision. Tanaka-sensei, the vice principal, explained to me that the Japanese way was to “triangle eat”, as he put it. Basically, instead of finishing one dish and moving on to the next one, you go from food to food in a sequence, trying not to finish any one item too quickly. I’m sure that this principle had been taught to me before, but it was nice to have a reminder.
I also had my first experience with proper Japanese alcohol pouring etiquette. Rule number one of drinking alcohol in a formal setting is that you don’t pour your own drink. Rule number two is that you always refill other people glasses, especially your superior’s. Tanaka-sensei told me that for tonight, it would be ok for me to pour my own drinks. Since I had been trying to learn to sing the classic Japanese song “Sake-yo”, I was familiar with the term “te-jaku zake” (to pour your own drink), but I understood it to be kind of a pitiful move, so I tried to refrain from doing it. Only once, after much beer and sake, did I reach for the bottle for myself. Being seated right beside the principal, I made sure to offer to fill his glass whenever he ran out.
The weather had actually gotten stormy, and conversation was occasionally punctuated with a clap of thunder. I thoroughly enjoyed this because I love thunderstorms and Seattle doesn’t ever have them. At one point, Miyakawa-sensei (the school’s new PE teacher) and I were supposed to officially introduce ourselves to everyone. Nishikawa-sensei had prepared a questionnaire form that we had each filled out earlier in the week, and copies were passed out for everyone to look at. This was very helpful because when asked to stand and speak, I seemed to forget all of my Japanese altogether.
Miyakawa-sensei had actually given a couple of questionnaire answers that I almost chose, like Curry Rice for his favorite food, and flexibility for his specialty. To demonstrate his specialty, he did the splits for everyone! At 23 years old, Miyakawa is the youngest teacher at the school and which actually makes me feel kind of old.
After a long enjoyable dinner and many libations, the “nominacation” was working wonders and I managed to communicate surprisingly well with my limited Japanese. Since the purpose of the party was to welcome Miyakawa-sensei and I, we weren’t supposed to share in paying the bill, which was nice because the bill came to almost 60000円 (around 750USD). Since we were having such a good time, some the teachers decided to continue the party with more drinks and karaoke at Snack Cocoro.
Cocoro was relative quiet, with just us teachers an pair of older ladies being the only people there. I sang my usual Beatles tunes, Queen, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”, and Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”. The other teachers genuinely impressed me with their own vocal skills, rocking Japanese songs and showing me little dance gestures to go allow with them. (I swear, everybody in Japan can sing.) When asked if I could sing any Japanese songs, I said that I kind of knew “Sake-yo”, which they then immediately brought up for me to sing. My performance wasn’t perfect, but I think I sang it pretty decently for my first attempt.
One highlight of the evening for me was when someone brought up Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and I was given the mike to sing it. When it came to the refrain (“Don’t wanna close my eyes, don’t wanna fall asleep…”) everyone else sang along in a joyous drunken chorus. I don’t particularly like Aerosmith, but it was a beautiful moment. All and all, it was fantastic karaoke outing.
After Cocoro, the night still wasn’t over, as what was left of our party headed to the ramen shop. I have learned that when you’re out late drinking in Japan, you have to finish the evening with a bowl of ramen. We went to Yamatomi (山富), which to my understanding, is the only ramen shop in Bikuni. We continued are lively discussion, which was well lubricated by beer, and I learned a couple of the teachers nicknames. The only one I remember was Masui-sensei’s nickname, “Nasu”, meaning eggplant, which he received simply because he doesn’t like eggplant.
After ramen, the night came to end, and I walked back to my apartment, which was only a little ways down the street. I believe I was home by 12:15 or so, which was good, because I needed to get up early the next morning for two more undoukais at Yobetsu and Hizuka Elementary Schools. The plan was for Yamazaki-san to pick me up at 8:30am. I brushed my teeth, chugged a couple glasses of water, and passed out on my futon.