June 18, 2011 – On this particular week, there was no work for me to do on Thursday, so I was given that day off. Instead, I was scheduled to work on Saturday, helping the Bikuni Elementary School students plant crops in a pea patch at the center of town. I was told to expect to get dirty, so I wore an athletic t-shirt and ripped jeans, as well as a straw hat that I had purchased for the shade. When I showed up for planting, I was definitely looking the part that my Iowa origins would imply.
Unfortunately, I forgot whether the event started at 9am or 10, and I showed up a whole hour earlier than I needed to. The walk wasn’t very far, so I definitely could have gone back home and returned at the proper hour, but I feared that if I did so, I would simply fall asleep and miss everything. Since the weather was cool, overcast, and humid, I decided to just relax in the park across the street for an hour. Of course, I stand out in Shakotan (especially when I’m wearing a cowboy hat), so it only took about 60 seconds before I was approached by one of the local kids.
The little whippersnapper was playing a Pokémon game on his new (and very expensive) Nintendo 3DS. It actually warmed my heart to see that in the-middle-of-nowhere Japan, parents wisely indulged their children’s interest in electronic games. I mean, what else was there to do in the middle of winter? With pride, he showed me some of the rare Pokémon he had caught, and asked me a couple questions. Since everything was in Japanese, I did my best to keep up, but luckily kids are good communicators. They use lots of gestures and rarely become embarrassed if you don’t get what they’re saying.
A second boy challenged the first one to a Yu-Gi-Oh (遊☆戯☆王) card duel, and they sat down at the top of the playground’s slide to battle. They invited me to watch, so I did a bit, climbing on the outside of the equipment to find a good vantage point. Although I don’t know anything about Yu-Gi-Oh, watching the strategic card play took me back to Iowa, watching my brothers play similar matches with Magic: The Gathering cards. As more kids showed up at the park, I started playing around on the monkey bars.
After many kids had gathered, everyone wanted to play a game of Tag on the playground equipment. We used the ‘Hot Lava’ rules of “don’t touch the ground”, and the person who was “it” was called “oni” (鬼 – Japanese for demon, or ogre). Instead of “Tag, you’re it” the kids would simply say, “Touch” when tagging someone, which in a Japanese accent sounds like “Tah-chee”. I did my best to avoid being tagged, jumping and climbing around the playground like Spiderman. Of course, when they saw my antics, many kids shouted “saru” (猿), meaning “monkey”.
Ten o’clock eventually rolled around, and it was time for farm work. I had been under the impression that the kids would be planting potatoes, but as it turned out, soybeans were the crop on the agenda. I stood around chatting with the other adults present. Kazama-sensei from Hizuka Elementary School was there and we always spoke with a mix of Japanese, English, and French. (Kazama had spent time in Cameroon and actually spoke more French than English.)
After the kids divided into groups and assigned grown-up helpers (two groups of boys had an epic janken battle to decide who got me), it was time to get to work. I was handed a hoe and instructed to drag it through the soil in a straight line to create a furrow for planting. I resisted the juvenile urge to swing the hoe around like a najinata (spear) and got down to business. True to my Iowa roots, I made short work of the hoeing.
With the trenches made, the students could start their part, first watering the soil, and then spacing out the sprouts to be planted. I didn’t have a whole lot to do, so I did my best to look busy and carried buckets of water over from across the street. After one hour, everything was planted, and just in time too, as it started to rain.
Since I hadn’t eaten breakfast, Yamazaki-san invited me over to his house for a coffee. At Chez Yamazaki, we were greeted by Yamazaki’s mother and a couple of friends that she had over. The older ladies were quite amused by the American visiting, especially with me dressed so much like a cowboy. They chatted with me in Japanese and I did my best to keep up.
One of ladies remembered the English language lessons that she had been taught in elementary school, and gave me a couple phrases like, “I wake up at seven in the morning. I go to school at eight.” Apparently she hadn’t studied any English since her childhood, but still remembered these phrases quite clearly, at the age of 74. I was definitely impressed.
We were having so much fun that Yamazaki-san called Fuji Sushi and ordered a delivery of zaru soba (which I love) for lunch. The sheer amount of noodles that were delivered was staggering. I had no idea you could just call and have them bring it to your house. Brilliant!
After a while we were joined by Kawai-sensei, who had been in charge of the students’ planting project. He is kind old gentleman, shorter than average, with a warm smile and firm handshake. He’s part of the staff that runs Shakotan’s gym, called B&G, and from what I’d seen, he seems like quite the outdoorsman.
Kawai-sensei talked about a mountain hike that he was going on the following day. He then asked me if I liked hiking. When I said that I did, he was quick to invite me come along with his hiking group tomorrow. I was equally quick to accept the offer.
I asked if Kawai-sensei if I should wear pants or shorts, and after he was able to stop laughing and catch his breath, he told me to wear pants; definitely long pants. In fact, he recommended long sleeves, gloves, and even covering my neck with a towel something. Then Yamazaki-san asked me about gear, and it was clear that I had none. Luckily, Yamazaki-san was willing to lend me everything I would need. So that was that, I was going on a hike.
Kawai-sensei said that the hike would take four hours. I asked Yamazaki-san if he was going to go as well, and he kind of laughed, but told me that wasn’t going. Maybe I should have read something into that.