Category Archives: Shakotan

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Shakotan

Driving in Japan

When I accepted my placement in the rural town of Shakotan, there was one aspect of the position that really bothered me. It wasn’t the relative isolation in the country, or the fact that almost no one spoke any English (or so I’d been told). Even the promise of an epic winter with massive snowfalls the likes of which I had never seen wasn’t a worry for me. It was the driving. You see, one simply cannot work outside of major cities without needing a car.

Well, that's informative.

Personally, I don’t have much love for automobiles. It may be un-American to say, but I think the way people fetishize cars is absurd. Some people may see owning a car as liberating, but I see the opposite. I hate being confided to a car seat, obligated to focus on the task of driving for long periods of time. (It’s boring and my legs start to cramp up after a while.) I hate being in – nay, a part of – traffic. I hate all the maintenance that owning a car entails. I hate all the trouble one has to go through with car registration and insurance. I hate the expense of gasoline and the social implications its use. In general, I just hate driving – but I hate parking even more.

One of things I had loved about Seattle was that I had been able to get around the city without needing a car. Sure, Seattle’s public transportation isn’t the best in the world, but it got the job done. Only on rare occasions did I need to borrow my brother’s car for something specific. I didn’t particularly mind riding the bus, and anytime I could get to a destination on foot, I felt especially gratified. But in rural Hokkaido, I needed a car, if for nothing else, just to drive to my more distant schools.

So the day before I left for Japan, I had made a trip to AAA and picked up an International Driving permit. This was a surprisingly quick and easy process, and only cost about $26. The International Driving permit was good for one year, and along with my valid Washington State driver’s license, officially allowed me to drive in something like 150 countries. This seemed far too easy…

The company leased a car for me. I was given a “location allowance” on my paycheck that made my net income look bigger, but it really just covered the cost of the car lease and a little gas. They handled the lease, insurance, registration and the like; they would even cover routine maintenance appointments for me at a nearby autoclub. This made the whole car thing rather foolproof on my end; just don’t get in an accident. (And I’ve been in my fair share of fender benders.) Once my car arrived, it was time to get the hang of driving again, this time on the left side of the road.

Driving on the left is, of course, the biggest difference between roads in the States and roads in Japan, and the one that’s hardest to acclimate to. The first time I drove my car, Yamazaki-san was in the passenger seat as we took a leisurely drive around Bikuni so that he could remind me where the schools were. I absentmindedly turned into the right lane twice with him in car, making him alternately laugh and freak out. While I was awfully careful driving on my own initially, I still ended up turning into oncoming traffic on at least five separate occasions. Parking lots are especially confusing when you’re used to using the wrong side of the road.

But eventually I got the hang of it. The 30-minute drive to Yoichi became routine. I even started making the long drive to Sapporo. This greatly impressed Nozomi-san, as I made the journey on my own, without dashboard navigation or even a map. (The road signs are in both Japanese and English, so I just followed them. It was really pretty easy.) When I had a free day and the weather was nice, I’d explore the coast and the mountain roadways of the Shiribeshi area, driving through Niki, Iwanai, Tomari, Kamoenai, and the like. During the summer break, I drove across central Hokkaido to the town of Obihiro for a massive fireworks display. I brought three passengers along who had naively put faith in my total lack of Japan driving experience.  With such practice, driving in Japan became second nature, and I got used to the little nuances that make Japan’s roadways unique. There were a few things that stood out for me.

For instance, at least in Hokkaido, people will quite often run a red light if it has just turned red. Occasionally, I’d fly through an intersection when the light was yellow – just barely making it legally, I thought – only to have three cars follow behind me. The first driver could maybe have facetiously claimed that the light was still yellow when he entered the intersection, but the second and third drivers definitely ran on red. At first, this slightly amused me as a blatant violation, but then I saw it happen over and over, and I started to wonder if maybe Japanese traffic laws were flexible on the whole “red means stop” thing. I eventually learned what is common knowledge in these parts, that when the traffic signal turns red, there are exactly three seconds before the cross traffic gets their green light. With this three-second gap in mind, drivers will often run red lights, slipping by without interfering with the flow of traffic. So when it comes down to it, green means ‘go’, red means ‘stop’, and yellow means ‘go really fast’. But for a fresh red, see yellow.

Another thing that startled me early on was that the police almost always drive around with their emergency lights flashing. The sirens aren’t on but the reds lights spin around, apparently without communicating any sense of emergency. I wasn’t sure if I should pull over when I first encountered this, but it turns out that the cops just generally cruise the highway like that. In fact, they often leave a squad car parked outside of the police station with its red lights flashing, as if just to remind you that they are there. If I ever do get pulled over in Japan, the cops will really have to use the siren or else I’ll have no idea that they want me to stop.

On the highway and especially in Sapporo, I learned quickly that the lanes are really just mere suggestions. Especially on four lane roads, drivers don’t really hesitate to swerve into the neighboring lane without so much as a turn signal, whether to avoid a park car on the left, or a car waiting to turn on the right. While this sounds dangerous, everyone is usually driving pretty defensively and looking out for what the other cars are doing, so it seems to work out pretty well.

Generally speaking, the speed limits in Japan are slow. REALLY freaking slow. Driving on the highway, I usually see 50kph as the posted speed limit. This is about 31 miles per hour. The fastest speed I’ve ever seen posted was 80kph on the expressway, which is almost – but not quite – 50mph. Yamazaki-san once told me that everyone gets speeding tickets, and with the snail’s pace regulations, I can see why. Still, I suppose it is safer that way.

Through observation and imitation I have learned that you’re supposed to stop and look both ways before proceeding through a train crossing. This is true when the barriers are up, no lights are flashing, and there’s not sign of activity whatsoever; you always have to stop at the train crossing. Also, you are supposed to turn on your headlights whenever you enter a tunnel. During the day, most drivers flip on their lights when they enter the tunnel and switch them off again when they come out the other end. Since there are tons of tunnels in my area (the road from Yoichi to Shakotan is probably more subterranean than open-air) I generally just leave my lights all the time. I hope that doesn’t make me look weird…

There is a lot of road construction in Hokkaido, year-round. Whether they are filling potholes, repairing the damage of the latest landslide, clearing away many tons of snow that necessitates the use of heavy equipment, or even boring huge new tunnels into the side of a mountain, the construction crews in Hokkaido never stop working. They are also incredibly polite. The kanji for construction work is read kouji (工事), not that you’ll ever need to know it, because you’re sure to recognize their symbol; a stick man in a hardhat and safety vest bowing. Their signal gestures to you, whether delivered with illuminated wands or hand flags, are intuitively clear and don’t require any explanation. Although, generally speaking, it helps to know that red means ‘stop’.

Leave a comment

Filed under Educational, Obihiro, Sapporo, Shakotan, Yoichi

Elementary School Chaos

The elementary kids are generally more rowdy than the junior high students. Although to be fair, the second year junior high kids tend to mix up it more than their first or third year counterparts. Still, the elementary kids maintain a constant buzz of playful excitement that the older students can’t match. Generally the fifth and sixth graders are quite open to English instruction, and while they can be wilder, the classes are very rewarding for a teacher like me.

Near the end of the school year the fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Seo, got quite sick, and ended up missing about a month of classes. During this time, the Principal and Vice Principal had to step in and teach the fifth grade as substitutes. This meant that when I came in to teach English on Tuesday, it all me, a one-man show. This wasn’t a problem at first, but without their regular teacher there to provide stability and discipline, the students began to unravel.

By the third week of Mrs. Seo’s absence, the classroom’s demeanor had changed. Even though the Vice Principal was right there in the room with us, a few of the boys started acting up. They’d randomly get out their seats and walk around the classroom, sometimes leaving the room completely. One of the louder troublemakers would try purposely shouting Japanese obscenities that had the slightly phonetic resemblance to the English vocabulary. (For example, instead of saying “Monday” one student yelled “manko”, a vulgar term for vagina.) One of the quieter troublemakers opted to ignore the whole lesson, simply cutting papers into little pieces with scissors and scattering the pieces all over the floor. The Vice Principal did his best to corral the hooligans, but the students had apparently learned to ignore the sense of groupism and shame that normally guides personal behavior in Japanese society. Besides asking the kids not to act up, there was little the VP could do.

Feeling that the class was losing interest in my lesson, I jumped right into the day’s game. The kids really only enjoy the game bits anyway, so why not, right? The vocabulary we were learning was the names of school subjects (like math, science, social studies, English, etc.), and I had prepared cards for each subject. The game we played was essentially just janken (じゃん拳 – Rock-paper-scissors), with an additional card collection element. Two students have a quick match of janken, and the losing student then asks the winner, “What subject do you like?” in English. The winner responds, “I like music”, for example, and if the losing student has a “Music” card, they have to give it to the winner. Once a student collects five cards of the same kind, they win the game.

I thought the game had a good blend of strategy and random chance, while providing a good platform for using the key phrases in context. Plus, my cards were pure gold – laminated gold – if I do say so myself. But to jump into the game portion of class when your kids aren’t behaving can be a risky move. If you succeed in engaging their interest than you can get them positively involved, sure. But kids (and adults too) can become so fixated on winning a meaningless game that they lose all sense of decorum. And when self-control is already in question, the game can make things worse. Things got off to great start and my gamble seemed to be paying off, but when a girl and boy started physically fighting over the school subject cards, everything fell apart.

The VP separated the children, who had ended up wrestling on the floor. The girl (let’s called her Kinno) laughed it off, while the boy (let’s called him Aki) seemed particularly crazed. (These aren’t their real names, by the way.) Perhaps Kinno had gotten in more hits than Aki had.

The VP physically held Aki back as he tried to push his way through to the girl and continue their fisticuffs. His eyes were intense and teary, and they shot daggers at his target. At some point, the VP left the Aki’s side for just a moment and he promptly decimated Kinno’s desk, throwing her books and papers on the floor, and pitching her pencil case across the room. Upon hitting the wall, the pencil case exploded its contents all over; writing utensils, rulers, erasers, and the like, spilt forth like candy from a piñata. The VP quickly took hold of the boy again, but the class went into total bedlam, as all the girls scurried about, helping pick up Kinno’s belongings. Amidst this chaos, one of the quiet young ruffians took the opportunity to stealthily grab a chalkboard eraser and hurl it across the room as well. Its wall impact was accompanied by a plume of chalky white powder, dissipating into the air like smoke after a bomb blast. Preoccupied with frenzied desk vandal, the VP didn’t even notice this.

It took quite awhile for the melee to calm down, and the all of the girls ignored the VP’s commands to sit down as they were desperate to find a missing lip balm cap. Unsure of how I could help the situation – not to mention what I was and wasn’t allowed to do – I simply stood at the front of the class, silent, arms crossed, and probably with a “you’ve gotta be kidding me” expression on my face. I think we almost regained control of the class by the time the bell rang, but not quite. The VP was extremely apologetic to me but I waved off the concern. It was really him who had it rough, and I felt I should have been the one apologizing.

The next week, Tuesday March 6th, Mrs. Seo was still absent. Again it would just be me teaching, with the Vice Principal there to help. While the previous week had gotten a bit nuts, I was confident that as long as the kids weren’t fighting each other, the class should go pretty smoothly. These hopes were dashed promptly, before I even got to the classroom. From down the hallway, about 50 meters from the room, the VP and I spotted the fifth grade boys playing outside of the classroom. One kid had a watering can and instead of garden plants, he was sprinkling the linoleum floor. Another kid was wielding a mop, and I wasn’t sure about it, but he may have been trying to clear up the mess. Last week’s most crazy student, Aki, took off his t-shirt, crouched down, and let the first kid shower his back with water. It was sure to be one of those days.

Inside the classroom, the at least three of the boys had damp clothes or were soaking wet. When I asked them how they were, a few responded, “I’m cold” in Japanese, not even trying to speak English with me. I said to Aki, “That’s probably because you’re not wearing a shirt and you’re all wet.” (If he wasn’t going to work with me, I wasn’t about to speak his language.) Initially, the students – the girls and boys both – refused to begin class with a simple “Hello Mr. Lucas”.

Even after he had his shirt back on, Aki was clearly determined to be as disruptive as possible. He didn’t even have the decency to try and make much vulgar word-based humor by mispronouncing the vocabulary, although he occasionally would still shout some. Instead, he repeated yelled in my direction, asking me who I was in overly casual Japanese. While this stuck as a tad disrespectful and unnecessary, his repeated use of the word temee (てめえ – a coarse, vulgar word for “you”) to refer to the Vice Principal was far worse.

To my surprise, Aki and Kinno were no longer fighting. In fact, the pair must have made up because Kinno was now supporting everything that Aki did. All of Aki’s angst was now directed at faculty and the two of them were both having a grand old time. In the class’s state of disorganization, it was like a Japanese Lord of the Flies (“Rold of the Fries”, if you will), and it was clear to me that we were going to get little to nothing done.

The lesson plan for the day was to wrap up our lessons covering the days of the week and school subjects by giving the kids the chance to make their own ideal schedules and present them to the class. I’m sure you can imagine exactly how excited the kids were to do this. The closest Aki came to participating was to again take off his shirt and tape school subject cards to his nipples. Kinno, who acts as something of a ringleader for the class’s girls, actually filled out her ideal schedule and the other girls followed her lead. As soon as she was done, she started spreading glue on the palm of her hand, and again, most of the girls followed suit. There was only one student who wasn’t taken in by the mob mentality and behaved perfectly amidst all this chaos. This girl’s father was also a teacher, so maybe she took pity on us. I’d occasionally walk over to her desk to check on her work and give quiet praise.

Aki ramped up his rebellion. A couple other boys began acting out a bit too, but their antics were merely mild imitations of Aki. At one point he left the classroom and returned with a camcorder. Where this kid found a video camera is beyond me, but he plugged the adapter into the wall socket and began recording the class. It took the VP quite a while to get the camcorder out of his hands, and after taking it away once, he grabbed it again and again. I almost wished the VP had just let him tape away, because the kid was at his least disruptive whilst distracted by the electronic device. After Aki had moved on from the camera, one of the other students (the erase thrower from the last act) picked it up too. The VP quickly took it from him and he seemed to lose interest immediately.

Still not satisfied, Aki eventually grabbed a wooden dowel from the corner of the room. The staff had probably been part of a large rollout map, but now was just a long wooden stick. Since you obviously don’t want your out-of-control student armed like Donatello, the VP immediately had his hands on the potential weapon as well. The two grappled for control of the stick, the VP trying to be gentle but firm. Clutching the rod the whole way, Aki walked over to his desk and sat down. Still grasping the other end, the VP followed along. Once Aki was in his seat, the VP pulled the stick with more force, yanking out of Aki’s talons with two tugs. This clearly angered the boy and he reacted by throwing a pair of scissors in the VP’s general direction. The scissors didn’t hit anyone, but that was definitely crossing a line. Still, class carried on just like normal – awkwardly.

We didn’t get to introducing the next chapter’s vocabulary like I had intended. I’d say we barely completed that schedule-making activity. There was never enough class cohesion for the students to present their schedules to the class, which was really the only important part of it. By the time the chime sounded, I was more than ready to leave. And I still had the sixth graders to teach!

I left that class feeling bad for the poor Vice Principal, as well as for the one student who behaved perfectly. That girl’s father is a teacher at the junior high, so I know the family pretty well. Sure enough, he asked me about the class the next day. Apparently things were so unpleasant for his daughter that she hadn’t wanted to go back to school the next day.

The following week, Mrs. Seo had still not recovered from her illness. This was my last class with the 5th graders for the year, and I’m proud to say that they probably learned a couple new words, like “iced tea” and “dessert”. (We were learning vocabulary for ordering food.) There was still plenty of craziness, but we got through the lot of new food terms. Even Aki halfheartedly participated, though mostly just to mispronounce “hotdog” as “hot chinpo” (ホットちんぽ – hot penis). I have a feeling that getting Mrs. Seo back in the classroom would have been the only way to restore order. Oh well.

Leave a comment

Filed under Shakotan, Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Educational, Shakotan

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sapporo, Shakotan, Yoichi

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Shakotan

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Shakotan