June 5, 2011 – The day began quite early, considering I had spent the previous night partying with my fellow junior high staff. After the previous day’s Sports Day and welcome party (which involved so much drinking), I actually felt surprisingly good. My trapezius muscles ached significantly more than my head, making me wonder if perhaps ramen did have magical hangover-preventing properties after all. In any case, it was ironic to be feeling the effects of high jumping, but not alcohol.
Yamazaki-san arrived bright and early at 8:30 to pick me up, and we headed out. The weather had completely changed from the previous night, and it was now nothing but clear skies and sunshine. While this made for beautiful conditions, I was a little worried about getting sunburned, as I tend to do. When we set out, Yamazaki gave me a canned iced coffee drink, the likes of which I had seen all over Japan, in vending machines and convenience stores. I must admit, the combination of coffee, milk, and sugar was pretty damn delicious, and just what I needed at that moment.
The drive from Bikuni to Yobetsu (余別) was about 30 minutes, and Yamazaki and I talked the whole way there, laughing about my recent exploits with the other JHS teachers. After such a late night, Yamazaki was expecting me to be feeling pretty worn out, as I suppose anyone would, but miraculously I defied expectations. The L-Train just keeps on rolling. (Note to self: remember to edit out that horrible “L-Train” line. It makes you sound like a moron.)
The Undoukai (運動会) at Yobetsu ES was particularly fascinating because the entire school had only four students. Going in, I was wondering how one does a Sports Day with only four kids. As it turns out, the Sports Days in Japan aren’t just for the kids; they are events for the local community as a whole. As I had already seen at Bikuni ES and JHS, the participation of attending family members was a big part of the festivities. At Yobetsu I saw an extreme example of how the show must go on, even when you only have four students.
In attendance at the Yobetsu Undoukai were students from nearby Nozuka ES (which actually has only 3 students), a few junior high students that I had just seen at their event the previous day, several older residents of Yobetsu, and a large group of college students from a university in Sapporo who had come to help out with the event. I also encountered the Mayor of Shakotan, Matsui-san, again. At first I couldn’t remember where I knew him from, but Yamazaki-san helped me out by saying “the mayor” whilst I was shaking his hand. A usual, he was super friendly.
The games played at the Yobetsu Undoukai seemed to be the most fun of all. One of the first games they played, involved one person catapulting a ball off a see-saw-type lever, and the second person catching the ball in a basket. I think the traditional way to do it was to actually wear a large basket, strapped to one’s back, and try to catch the ball that way, but only the elementary school students went to the effort to do it that way. It was quite entertaining.
The day’s activities also included race with obstacles on the track and a 3-legged race, each of which I took part in. (I had been offered coffee, but with so many games to play, I barely drank any.) Like the other Sports Days, Yobetsu utilized prerecorded music to the utmost effect, creating a fanciful atmosphere for physical fitness fun and frivolity. My favorite musical selections were music from the anime series Lupin III, and an instrumental Michael Jackson medley.
Prizes are actually awarded for every game that you participate in at a Sports Day, with 1st place winners receiving different prizes than 2nd place, 2nd place different prizes than 3rd place, and so on. For each of the few games I took part in, I too received some swag to take home with me.
At around 10:30, Yamazaki and I thanked the school principal and left. We had to get yet another Sports Day at Hizuka ES. On our way out, we crossed paths with some other Shakotan education people who were apparently attending both events too, but in the reverse order.
The Hizuka Undoukai was already in full swing when we arrived. Hizuka is an area that boasts spectacular views of seaside cliffs. The school and playfield are set atop a hill in the middle of this, and the view is amazing. The natural spender, combined with the amazing weather, made for an unreal setting that felt like it was out of a movie or something.
Hizuka ES, while it had more students that Yobetsu, actually only had nine kids. When I first arrived they were just starting to perform a choreographed dance number to an AKB48 song. (At Hizuka, most of the music played seemed to be AKB48 tunes, actually.)
One especially funny event they had was the Pantori race (パン取り). “Pan” is Japanese for bread. Basically, a bread or pastry treat is suspended by a fishing rod, and the student has to take the bread using only his mouth. The fact that the bread is packaged in a plastic wrapper really influences how the kids go about taking the bread, sometimes making things easier, but sometimes complicating matters. At Hizuka, a swift breeze was making difficult for some of the kids to catch the bread in their mouths, and it was pretty hilarious to watch them follow the swinging treat with their mouths gaping open like a fish.
Near the end of the event, the students formed a marching band and played the theme from “Mission: Impossible” for everyone. T his was interesting to me for a couple reasons, one of which was that I had never seen a band consisting of only elementary school kids; that alone was impressive to me. Additional, some of the instruments they played were new to me. They had different variations of portable keyboards that I had never seen before. It was quite a treat.
At noon, the Hizuka Undoukai concluded. Between the two Sports Days I had amassed quite a haul of free stuff. The spoils included two five-packs of instant ramen, Jingisukan sauce, katsuobushi , pasta, mayonnaise , a 2-liter bottle of Aquarius (soft drink), and a tea pot. I had actually broken the tea pot that I had at my apartment, so that prize was especially fortuitous.
Upon leaving Hizuka ES, Yamazaki-san invited me to a Yakiniku (焼き肉) party at his house that evening. (Yakiniku essentially means “roasted meat”, so barbecue is actually the most appropriate translation, I think.) I, of course, gladly accepted the offer. Then, just about the time when I was deciding what to do with the rest of my day, Yamazaki-san proposed hitting the onsen (温泉 – hot spring) our way home. This idea too, I also approved.
This was just the second time I had been to the onsen. Yamazaki had also brought me the first time, along with his family. While at the onsen, I do what I normally do in Japan; imitate what others do and try to look natural. Socially, the experience is much like entering a big sauna or locker room, where men and women are separate and everyone’s walking around naked. You carry just a small towel around with you and use it to modestly cover your junk as move from pool to pool.
An important distinction between the Japanese bath (風呂) and western bathing is that the bathtub itself is not the place to actually wash. One washes their body outside of the tub or spring, and the hot water is essentially just there for soaking and relaxation. Considering that my muscles were aching and I was still feeling residual hangover effects, the onsen was especially pleasant this time.
After getting our money’s worth of soaking, Yamazaki-san and I had lunch right there at the onsen building. Since we were going to be doing yakiniku later, we opted for something light, choosing zarusoba, cold soba noodles. While we were eating, I asked Yamazaki about the name “zarusoba”, thinking that maybe “zaru” meant “cold”. As he explained, the name comes from the fact that the soba noodles sit on top of a draining basket formed by a bamboo sieve. The sieve itself is called a “zaru”. I suddenly made the connection with the race at Bikuni ES’s Sports Day that involved dragging a mesh disk with a basketball on top. It was called “zaruhiki” (笊引き), essentially meaning “sieve pull”. (As I have also learned, “zaru” can be used as a term to describe a person who can drink a lot without getting drunk. I suppose this is because liquid just passes right through them.)
As we were driving back to my apartment, Yamazaki-san noticed that a historic building in Shakotan was open for the season. It was an old house, about 100m or so from my apartment, which apparently had been the home of a fisherman boss. We stopped in to take and look, and to say ‘hi’ to the nice ladies who were operating the place.
The inside of the house was beautiful, exactly what I think of when I imagine a traditional Japanese home. Walking from room to room, admiring the shogi doors and tatami mat rooms in the sparsely lit building, I was reminded of the ninja video game Tenchu. (Of course, I kept that to myself to avoid embarrassment.) There were also several large prints on display, beautiful color photos of the natural spender here in Shakotan. Yamazaki-san made conversation with the ladies who were working there and I did my best to keep up with conversation. Basically, I was only able to say where I was from, when I arrived, and the fact that I’m still working on speaking Japanese.
After the historic site, we went straight on to Yamazaki’s house for Yakiniku (焼き肉 – barbeque). Yoshimura-sensei (whom I knew from the Junior High) was already there, along with his wife and two daughters. Conveniently, Yamazaki-san and Yoshimura-sensei both have kids of the same ages, so the kids can play while the parents hang out. I think that the families have become very close this way.
Yoshimura- sensei I obviously knew from school, but I recognized his wife from somewhere, and I mistakenly thought it must be from school too. An awkward conversation ensued where I asked if she was a teacher too and she said ‘no’, that she was a teacher’s wife, and due to my lack of understanding Japanese, this exchange was repeated like three times before I understood. Then I was told that she worked the corner market where I bought all my vegetables. Finally, the mystery had been solved.
The spread at Yakiniku was pretty amazing. The first thing that caught my eye was three whole squids, which Yoshimura-sensei just tossed on the grill, without any preparation, or even marinating. There was a variety of meat, including not just standard beef and chicken, but also cartilage, intestines, and lamb. In Hokkaido, mutton or lamb is often called Jingisukan (ジンギスカン), literally meaning “Genghis Khan”. There were also veggies being grilled, like onion, red bell peppers, and a green onion-like plant native to Hokkaido that they called “Ainu negi” (アイヌねぎ), or “Ainu onion”. And, of course, there was able beer to be drank.
As it was just starting to get dark, Takano-sensei, the Yamazaki children’s piano teacher, also joined the shindig. I’m proud to say that throughout the whole barbeque Japanese was spoken, and I did a pretty good job of following along and contributing to conversation. It helped that much of the conversation was about me; everyone was trying to keep me included. We also talked a lot about vegetables and sports, and the different preferences that are common in the US and Japan.
The bugs were really pretty bad, with mosquitoes incessantly attacking any exposed skin. It was oddly nostalgic for me, as it made me think of Iowa. Everyone was pretty well prepared with bug repellent incense burning, as well as applying and reapplying a kind of pleasantly scented bug spray. Still, despite my best efforts, my ankles wound up riddled with itchy bug bites.
When it was quite late, everyone cleaned up the yard in the dark and retired inside Yamazaki’s house. We hung around and drank tea in the living room/kitchen area, which was nice for me, because I felt like I had been drinking beer to excess all weekend long. Chikaru, Yamazaki’s son, invited me to play video games, so we played a little Smash Bros and Wii Sports before everyone called it a night.
In the end, the Yoshimuras graciously drove me back to my apartment, and I was home by 10:30. I had ended up having an even busier weekend that I was anticipating, but luckily I was given the following Monday off to recover. As it would turn out, there wouldn’t be a weekend in June where I didn’t have something Shakotan-related to attend, and I would end up being quite busy indeed.