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.