Tag Archives: sports

Rusutsu Resort

If there is one thing that brings people to Hokkaido, it’s the snowboarding. Hokkaido’s frontier of unspoiled nature makes for some great outdoor activities, and the heavy snow makes winter sports almost compulsory. So throw a mountain into the mix—which isn’t hard to find anywhere in Japan—and you have the makings of the perfect ski resort. So when I received an invitation to join some fellow international interlopers for a weekend of early season slope shredding, I went for it.

Andres, my friend and fellow ALT (Assistant Language Teacher), was turning 30. Being Aussies, both Andres and his fiancée Sarah were culturally obligated to be enthusiastic skier/snowboarders, so a birthday party at a ski resort was fitting. He drew up an invitation over Facebook and 12 of his luckiest friends (including me) signed on to spend the weekend in Rusutsu (留寿都). I had heard the name before, but I really didn’t know what to expect from the place.

On Saturday December 3rd, everyone met in Sapporo, near the town’s epicenter, Sapporo Station. The plan was to board a bus at 8am that would take us to the resort. Andres and Sarah had arrangements well planned out, with transportation, lodging, and lift tickets all covered by one flat—and rather inexpensive—rate. Once the bus got moving, everyone became acquainted with everyone else, which was good, since I only knew three people beforehand. Throughout the two hour drive, fog and falling snow made it hard to observe the natural beauty of Hokkaido, but it was still a pleasant ride.

Rusutsu Resort (ルスツリゾート) is huge complex, and apparently a major destination for skiers and snowboarders. The resort is more than a huge hotel next to the slopes. There are three mountains for skiing, and in addition to the hotel, there are log cabins and cottages for rent. The complex contains several specialty shops, and an assortment of restaurants and eateries. There’s an onsen (温泉), a game center, an indoor wave pool, animatronic robot animal musicians (no seriously), a fountain with its own music-coordinated light show, and a free carousel for the kids. There’s even a whole amusement park that operates in the summer months. Basically, Rusutsu Resort is like a self-contained city. Walking around the resort feels a bit strange, like being in Disney Land or aboard the starship Enterprise. Something about it feels artificial, contrived, but probably with the best intentions.

At least, I think that’s how Rusutsu Resort would normally be. At the time of our arrival, the skiing season had literally just begun, and Rusutsu, just reopened, was still very empty. There were some staff working and a few other snowboarders around, so the place didn’t feel completely abandoned. Still, not everything was operating yet, and a whole wing was basically shutdown. There was a strange vibe in the air, a lot like the Stanley Kubrick movie “The Shining”. Every new theme park-like side attraction we discovered increased my impression that we were in the perfect setting for a horror movie.

When our group first arrived at the resort, the giant carousel caught my eye. Honestly, it was hard to miss. White and red, and crowned with lights, the merry-go-round had two levels of seats. It also featured fantastic creatures to ride; the usual galloping horses, plus a giraffe, camel, pig, and something that was either a dragon or seahorse, I wasn’t sure. Walking up to the oddly placed circus attraction, I discovered that the hallway containing it was even more extraordinary.

The hall housed two stories of store fronts with elaborate facades, exuding the atmosphere of a street in a European village. Since we were still indoors, the outdoor scene greatly lent an amusement park air to the experience. As I explored further down the hallway, I was amused to find that while the European street stretched on for a ways, its architectural theme wasn’t wholly consistent to one country. One part of the street looked very much like Germany, while another bit looked more Italian. It was essentially a “Little Europe”. Speakers pumped out Christmas chorals to add to the winter wonderland aesthetic. These particular versions of the songs were purely instrumental and sounded like they were played on only chimes; the harmonic result sounding like a cuckoo clock striking 12, or being stuck in an elevator at Santa’s workshop. Still, it was very festive.

We gathered in a cluster near the front entrance and waited while Sarah and Andres sorted some business with the resort staff.  Right there we found another odd touch, an animatronic tree and animal scene that performed a song at the touch of button. The tree’s big round eyes opened realistically, as it was waking up, and then it opened its mouth and began to sing. That was probably the exact moment that the near empty resort became creepy.

We were headed for the slopes straight away, as daylight is precious in early December. A few people in our group opted not to snowboard at all; they were just going to relax in the resort. I wanted to snowboard, but first I need to rent all my gear. Jack, another ALT from England who’s quite fluent in Japanese, went out of his way to help me with the rental process. I was extremely grateful for this, for I would have had an impossibly hard time on my own. Since we were renting a cabin, I got a bit of a discount on a two-day rental of a snowboard, jacket, snow pants, gloves, hat, and goggles; although it still wasn’t cheap.

On the bus ride to the open mountain, Leon already began to show his expertise as an outdoorsman. Originally from New Zealand, Leon runs a hiking, camping, and English-speaking tour service based in Sapporo where he leads folks on all manner of cool outdoor adventures. A stocky, powerful-looking fellow, Leon sported a big beard to properly frame his wide smile. He and Andres discussed the various winter sports equipment and apparel, and he offered what sounded like expert advice. In fact, when he heard that I was renting gear, Leon said that he had an extra snowboard just taking up space in his shed. Had he known, he would have been happy to lend it to me.

While everyone else that day had snowboards, Leon was skiing. He wore a large backpack that looked potentially awkward, but handled it like a pro. From the pack, he produced a liquid-containing plastic bag and passed it around, giving everyone the chance to have a drink. It turns out the bag was filled with sake. While it was around 11am, I figured a couple of gulps of alcohol wouldn’t hurt, so I took a swig. To be honest, it really hit the spot.

The actual snowboarding was fantastic. Since it was early in the season, the snow wasn’t as good as it should have been for Hokkaido, but it still made for a smooth ride.  The group of us did a pretty good job of sticking together too, although effort was hardly necessary since there were really only two runs and a single lift open. At the top of the mountain, an epic wind was blowing. While I was waiting for us to start down the mountain, I outstretched by arms, and I swear that the wind actually moved me uphill! The lodge at the base had some delicious lunch options like potato wedges and curry rice, as well as beer vending machines.

After hours of boarding, the bus took us back to the resort and we were shown to the cottage where we’d be staying. The short walk from the main building to our cottage was surprisingly beautiful, and—like much of the rest of the resort—somewhat otherworldly. An idyllic winter scene, the path was a snowy trail of log cabins adorned with pine trees and elaborate, Christmassy illumination displays. The cottage itself was the quintessential log cabin, sporting a woodsy aesthetic complete with a functional fireplace and mounted buck head. There were at least four bedrooms on the ground level and two more on the second floor, with enough bunk beds to accommodate a small army. All the girls were sleeping upstairs, while the guys spread out mostly in the downstairs rooms. We enjoy a few beers as everyone got settled. Our non-skiing friends had started the party early and were clearly several drinks ahead of the rest of us.

Next, the group visited the resort’s onsen (温泉 – hot spring, spa) for a relaxing, post-boarding soak. After a day of physical exertion, lounging in the bathhouse is an excellent way to unwind. Some of the guys were doing a kind of hot/cold circuit, first roasting in the sauna for several minutes, and then dipping into the cold bath for an extreme thermal contrast. While I was curious about the appeal of such a trial, I’m not a big fan of saunas, so I delayed giving it a try. Eventually, I decided to go from the hottest bath to the coldest bath, and discovered that the cold tub was really, really, shockingly cold. Oddly refreshing, though… Only when we were leaving did I realize that Leon had sat in the icy cold bath for at least 15 minutes straight. Total badass.

After the onsen, we went looking for dinner. The resort advertised several restaurants—a German pub, a France restaurant, an Italian place, and so on—so we thought we’d have our pick. However, since the season was just getting started and the resort wasn’t yet fully operational, it came down to only two choices: super expensive Italian restaurant, or slightly less expensive Japanese izakaya. Despite the fact that the birthday boy didn’t particularly feel like Japanese food, we ended up at the izakaya. The food was fairly delicious, the drinks were plentiful, and the times were good.

There was one odd occurrence at the resort’s izakaya. As our mostly-gaijin party ate, drank, snapped photos, and generally caroused loudly, the restaurant proprietors began quietly setting a camera a couple tables away. This was a massive video camera, the kind that you might see a TV news cameraman use, but due to its unwieldy bulk, no private citizen would ever lug around. Since the only other patrons in our section of restaurant had just left, it became clear that they intended to film us. This made several folks in our party uncomfortable, as they hadn’t so much as asked if we would mind being recorded. Being a bit of an attention whore, I wasn’t really bothered, but I completely understood the feeling of privacy invasion and exploitation. If they wanted to use us for some sort of advertising, they could at least offer us some compensation, but they didn’t even do that. Jack acted quickly and approached the unsubtle film crew. Using his legendary Japanese language skills he got them to immediately pack up and go away. While he claimed that he just asked what they were doing and then told them that we didn’t want to be recorded, I’m pretty sure that he must have also slipped in a threat of severe beatings, dismemberment, or other bodily harm.

After dinner, the group returned to the cabin for more partying. There was an assortment of snack foods, lots more drinks (of course), a playlist of awesome music compiled by Andres himself, and lively conversation. There may have also been dancing at one point. When it got really late, people started crashing for the night, but for the hardcore, the party kept on rolling until at least 3am. It was genuinely wonderful to get to know everyone.


Breakfast the next morning was included in our accommodations, and some of us got up early to make the first bus out to the slopes. As it turned out, breakfast was being served at the German restaurant that had not been open for dinner the night before. The amusement park atmosphere of Rutsusu’s European hallway extended into the interior of the restaurant, which had a Bavarian forest flavor to its décor. The breakfast buffet was breathtaking in its breadth of bites and boredom-bombarding brand of barbecued beef, bread, and bacon. But the spectacle of the decorations again attracted most of my attention. For instance, there was yet another band of animatronic musician bears inside the restaurant, this time wearing Bravaian clothing and playing instruments like the tuba and accordion. It was so weird, it was kind of cool.

The bus ride out to the mountain was filled with anticipation. Fresh snow had fallen overnight and the landscape looked primed for slope shredding. The trees provided the best indication of what kind of dusting the area had received, as snow had accumulated on every individual bow and branch, about four centimeters high. The white scene was naturally quite beautiful, and on its own, was already worth the trip.

Being the first ones there in the morning, along with the fresh snowfall, made us fairly optimistic that we were in for an amazing ride. But to our dismay, the two trails had already been groomed. Even though a layer of powder had just fallen, the snow had been flattened and compacted. Andres, Sarah, and Leon were so disappointed in the surface quality that they turned back after just a couple runs. Luckily the trail maintenance folks had neglected to groom about two meters on each side of the trail, so there was still untouched powder on the edges. That’s precisely where I spent all my time riding, putting down first tracks.

Since I quickly found myself boarding on my own, I lost the sense of pace and rhythm that the group had provided. I began rocketing down the powdery edge of the trail, trying to capture the sensation of flying through clouds. This was pretty magical, and even when I would bail, I’d end up barreling through the marshmallow softness of the powder, taking no real knocks. Eventually my over acceleration caught up with me, and I wobbly lost control precisely at the line separating powder and the compacted snow of the main trail. While I had gained all of my speed inside the safety zone of soft powder, the trajectory of my fall sent my body hurling onto the hard, unforgiving groomed section. My shoulder impacted first, with my lower half following over the top, and I did a couple spiraling somersaults before finally sliding to a stop on my back. It was a good hard crash that managed to knock my goggles off—which I had to crawl about ten feet uphill to retrieve—but all things considered, it wasn’t all that bad. Despite the spectacle of it, I wasn’t injured. Still, it made me think about Marissa, as well as Jackie in Seattle, who would be shaking their heads in disapproval of me not wearing a helmet.

When the day wrapped up, we hopped on the evening bus back to Sapporo. Everyone was pretty wiped out from two days of boarding, so there was plenty of dozing on the road. Leon again reminded me that he had an extra snowboard at home and he even offered to lend it to me for the season. It was a very generous offer that I just couldn’t pass up.

The bus dropped us off near Sapporo Station and I made the walk back to the Fukui family’s house, where I had left my car for the weekend. My snowboarding friends had shared a lot of stories about the dangers of snow falling from rooftops, and during the conversation, I had realized that I had probably left my car in a bad spot. Just behind the house there was an open space that wasn’t being used for anything, and that was where I had parked my car. The problem was, due to the house’s slanted rooftop, this spot was precisely where snow would avalanche to the ground. Arriving at Chez Fukui, I took a quick look around back, just to confirm that my car’s roof hadn’t been caved in, and then went inside the warm house to spend time with the family for the evening.

It wasn’t until I set out for Shakotan that I noticed the snow had actually done a bit of damage. While it hadn’t flattened my car or shattered the windshield, the crashing snow had broken off my side mirror, which now dangled from its wiring on the driver’s side—that’s the left in Japan—of the vehicle. While this was a bit of an inconvenience, I was really pleased things hadn’t been worse.

A couple weekends later, on the evening of Sunday December 18th, I ventured out into northern Sapporo by car, hoping to find Leon’s house so that I could borrow his spare snowboard. He had given me directions and I checked out the address on Google Maps, but I still was certain that I would get lost somewhere along the way. And sure enough, I took a few wrong turns and ended up needing to backtrack a bit. Unlike most cities in Japan, Sapporo is laid out in a straightforward grid, so you would think that navigation would be fairly easy. Still, it seems that they number the city blocks instead of streets, and this difference complicates the simple task of tracking down an address to the proper building. I’m sure I could adjust given enough time and experience, but finding a location by its address is still difficult for me.

Eventually I found myself in what I assumed was the right neighborhood, but I couldn’t find the right block. My instincts told me that I was close, but my brain told me that without more information, I would be wandering the area in hours, so I pulled up to a Spar convenience store to ask directions. I walked right up to the woman behind the counter and politely asked what direction my destination address was in, using my awkward Japanese. To my surprise, the woman responded to me in perfect English.

“Oh, are you looking for Leon?” she said. “I’m his wife.” She then proceeded to give directions, even drawing a little picture to help me. As it turned out, I was only two blocks away. I thanked her for the help and proceeded on to their house.

When I got there, Leon asked if I had had any trouble finding the place. I relayed the story of asking for directions and inadvertently meeting his wife, which made him laughed heartily. Apparently many foreigners have ended up getting directions to Leon’s house from that store, so it’s just extra convenient that his wife works there.

As a compensatory offering for the generous equipment rental, I gave Leon a case of beer. Always friendly and gracious, he even invited me to come back to his house for Christmas. “If you find that you don’t have any other plans, feel free to drop by and spend the evening here. You don’t need to confirm or anything. If you want, you can just show up. No pressure.” I’ve met some genuinely kind people in Japan, but even among such company, Leon is one hell of a nice guy.


Filed under Rusutsu, Sapporo

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.

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Invasion of the Kamemushi

On October 29th, my exciting Friday night plans included playing Park Golf with PTA in the junior high school gymnasium. Parents and teachers were divided into six teams and we putted around the gym, where random objects (chairs, nets, cones, mats, badminton equipment, etc.) were utilized to make semi-challenging courses. As a golf variant, park golf is similar to miniature golf; however the equipment is a little different. In park golf the putter is quite thick, almost like a driver in normal golf, and the ball is covered with rubber spikes that, I found, slow the ball’s rolling quite a bit. I think that park golf is normally played outside (hence the name) and it’s played with a laidback vibe similar to croquet, so perhaps playing it inside a gym was a bit unusual.

While I was quite terrible at park golf, it was fun to play with the parents. After golfing there was tea and junk food, and everyone chatting and enjoying themselves. The one blemish on an otherwise delightful evening was the presence of a nefarious insect invader, silently lurking about the building…

Japan is a cornucopia of insects and arachnids, truly a bug lover’s dream. My comparison of Shakotan to Nintendo’s life simulation game “Animal Crossing” appears to hold true, as the abundance of fascinating arthropods in real life parallels the collectable critters in the game. The bugs have been a slight nuisance, as one would expect, whether it be mosquitoes invading a barbeque or ants showing up in my apartment. But one species that has begun to encroach on our schools and homes seems to inspire panic greater than that of a potentially stinging wasp: the kamemushi (カメ虫 ).

Kamemushi is a stink bug, or to be more politically correct, shield bug. Its brown body is shield-shaped, similar to a turtle’s shell, which might be where the name kame (カメ) originally came from—kame means “turtle” (亀), while mushi means “bug” (虫). This insect has a special anti-predator technique it uses whenever it feels threatened; it sprays a foul-smelling liquid, kind of like a skunk. I have yet to actually see one emit its stink, but I’m told that it’s very unpleasant. And now that I think of it, I’m fairly certain that I have caught a whiff of kamemushi funk around the halls of the junior high and simply attributed it to something else.

Fall is season for kamemushi, as they tend to spring up around harvest time. From what I’ve read, they are a bit of agricultural pest, feeding on crops like soy beans. When it starts to get cold, kamemushi are attracted to the warmth of homes and other buildings, and they tend to crawl inside wherever they can find an opening. This explains why they often appear around doorways and window fixtures. Apparently they are supposed to hibernate in winter, but if they are warm enough in a building then they might remain active. Kamemushi have little wings under their shells, but they’re only capable of limited flight.

Once the dreaded stink bugs began appearing in the JHS teacher’s room, the other teachers gave me the lowdown. Since kamemushi don’t look especially scary, this information was very useful, lest I agitate the little stinkers. The pests would usually crawl along the floor, acting as moving malodorous landmines. Every now and then they would turn up in a more interesting place, like on someone’s shirtsleeve. One particularly memorable moment was when the Vice Principal discovered a kamemushi lurking under some papers on his desk. He let out a small but terrified scream, instantly attracting the attention of every teacher in the quiet room. With a nervous laugh, he apologized for the outburst, explaining that he just startled by the harbinger of funk.

So when confronted with the foul specter of the kamemushi, what do you do? Unlike other insects that you might simply crush for looking at you funny, kamemushi’s rancid fetor makes their bodies into stink bombs. Squashing a stinkbug simply makes the unpleasant potential into a reality. It turns out that most effective weapon is the handyman’s tool of choice: duct tape. As the other teachers demonstrated (quite often), a small square of duct tape can be used to first stick the kamemushi and then encase it in an airtight coffin. It still takes a bit of bomb-defusing calm and precision, but it’s definitely the easiest way to deal with kamemushi.

On Sunday, October 30th, I attended another mini-concert at the Yamashime House, this time for an opera singer. It was great way to spend a Sunday afternoon, sitting back and listening to the vocal styling that Italy is famous for. The female vocalist came out in an extravagant red dress and sang traditional songs, not only in Italian but also in Japanese. My favorite part of her show was the performance of musical show tunes, like “Tonight” from West Side Story, “Memory” from Cats, and “I Could Have Danced All Night” from My Fair Lady. After singing in English, the vocalist admitted to the audience that it made her a bit nervous to do so, seeing a foreigner in the crowd. Apparently, even in Japan, I am clearly a descendant of the British Isles, and I do not look even remotely Italian.

Walking with Makoto-san after the concert, we strolled through a swarm of tiny, white, gnat-like bugs. Since the autumn weather was getting cooler every day, I was surprised to encounter such miniscule insects. Makoto-san explained to me these were called yukimushi (雪虫), literally “snow bug”. Yukimushi swarm together in big, hovering clouds. Thanks to their white abdomens they almost resemble snowflakes, although I think they look more like catkins from a cottonwood tree. Like the kamemushi, fall is apparently also the season for yukimushi.

On November 3rd, the weather was pleasantly cool, but not yet freezing cold, so I decided to go for a run in the late afternoon. After doing the Furubira Road Race, I assumed I’d have to stop running for the winter, but the weather was so inviting that I decided to get out there and enjoy it. As I discovered mid-run, the yukimushi were out in full force.

I had only been out for a few minutes before I ran through my first swarm of snow bugs.  As I hit the cloud of tiny insects, I nearly inhaled several through my nose and mouth, and some of them got caught in my eyelashes. Coughing and spitting, I tried to expel the pests, while spastically waving my arms in front of my face to hopefully shoo them away. The second cloud I hit was even worse, but since I was expecting it, I did a better job of shielding my face, running awkwardly with my hands in front of me. When I eventually looked down, I was shocked to see that my chest and arms were essentially covered in tiny insects. While yukimushi look white in flight, it was their black parts of their bodies that stood out against the white background of my shirt. Luckily, the majority of them were fairly easy to dust off.

When I got back to my apartment, I immediately took a hot shower and threw my clothes in the wash. Yukimushi had stuck my sweaty forehead, hair, and ears. Once the little bastards were washed off I decided to return to my original plan, and not jog again until spring.

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Furubira Road Race

Quite some time ago, I had spoken with Ihira-san, the head of the Shakotan Board of Education, about running. For a silver haired man in his sixties, Ihira-san is incredibly energetic and healthy-looking, and as it turns out, he loves to run. When I said that I also liked to run in my free time, he physically examined my calves as a way to gauge how much I ran. He said that my muscle was impressive, and then showed me his calves, which were incredible, softball-sized rocks hiding under his pant legs. It was clear to me that he was much more of runner than I.

Ihira-san was excited that Shakotan’s resident exotic foreigner was also interested in running, and he invited me to run with him in an annual race in the nearby town of Furubira (古平). He referred to it as the “Furubira Marathon”, which sounded frighteningly long to me. When I was assured that the race would not be the full (or even half) marathon length, I agreed to do it. At that time it was early summer, so the October 10th date seemed a long way off.

Fast-forward to October, and race day was upon us. The Furubira Road Race Taikai (古平ロードレース大会) was scheduled for the second Monday in October because this is a national holiday in Japan, called Heath and Sports Day (体育の日 – たいいくのひ).  Participants could choose between different distances to run; 15km, 10km, 6km, or even 2-4km. I assumed that Ihira-san would be running the longest distance, so when asked I chose the 15k race. Ihira-san actually chose the 10k, so perhaps I overdid it.

The Yamazaki family picked me up around 9:20am. We then picked up Ihira-san, and drove on to Furubira. Yamazaki-san, along with his wife and daughter, was running the 4km distance. While I had been told that it was going to rain on race day, the early morning weather was still dry. It was overcast, humid, and a little cool—so it looked like it had the potential to rain—but when we arrived in Furubira, it just felt like perfect running weather. We picked up our information packets, and Yamazaki-san and Ihira-san explained what each of the enclosed tickets were for; apparently I had hot soup and cold beer to look forward to after the run. We got ready for running and I did some quick active stretching. Then, twenty minutes before the 15k race was set to kickoff, the rain started as prophesized, and it rained hard. Clearly, a very wet run lay ahead.

My friends gave me many a “gambatte” (頑張って – persevere, do your best) as I headed for the starting line. Right before the race got underway, I ran into Kazama-sensei from Hizuka ES. He was actually running the 15k as well, but he told me that he planned on taking it easy, so I shouldn’t wait up for him. Kazama-sensei had spent some time in Cameroon, and was able to speak French and English. For the race, he was sporting a green and red Cameroon national team soccer jersey with his given name, Naoki, and the number 22 (his birthday, in February) on the back.

The crowd of runners, already cold and wet, shuffled around at starting line. There were about 99 people doing the 15k run. At the sound of a starter pistol we were off, a mass of people running down the small, puddled streets of Furubira. I had made a playlist especially for the race, so as we got started Japanese rock and pop songs played through my headphones. I again felt like I was getting a new, unique Japan experience, something interesting that not every foreign visitor would do. And at 15 kilometers, I was also running my longest race to date.  An odd feeling of camaraderie came over me. Here my fellow runners and I were testing not only our endurance on the road, but also our mettle against the elements.

After the first kilometer or so, the track flowed out of town, onto country back roads. Most of the race was run just outside of Furubira and not within the limits of the town itself. The rain did not let up, instead, it intensified. A flash of lightning startled me, with an ominous clap of thunder immediately to follow. Soon it was pouring rain so hard that I could hardly see 20 feet in front of me.  The rain drops themselves became blinding, blowing into my face with stinging velocity.

As my clothes became waterlogged, I remembered why it’s good to wear shorts—and not pants—when going on a long run. The rain got in my ears and my music became muffled and distorted, as if the speakers were underwater. After fighting with my headphones a bit, I came to find that the volume of my iPod had been severely reduced. Whether the problem was caused by wet headphones, or a wet iPod, I’m not sure. In either case, the pounding rain and rolling thunder provided the race’s new soundtrack.

The mountainous hills on both sides of the road, combined with the roar of the thunderstorm, made for an epic race. The run was challenging, but satisfying. The lightning continued for at least the first half of the race, and for a while I was sure that race officials were going to call it off. Apparently nobody saw the storm as a real danger because we all just kept on trucking. Eventually the rain lessened in the second half of the race, but never completely abated. Somewhere in the middle I saw Kazama-sensei; him coming up one side of the road, while I ran back down the other.  We exchanged quick words of encourage and a high five. Kazama-san said “Fight!” (ファイト), a word used often in Japan simply to say, “do your best”.

Coming back onto the Furubira streets at the end, I tried to keep up a decent pace, and sprinted the last 100 meters or so. Yamamzaki-san and Ihira-san met me at the finishline, and after changing into drier clothes at the van, we proceeded inside Furubira’s B&G gym for post-race fun. While I had been wise enough to bring a fresh pair of socks, I had neglected to bring other shoes, so my new socks were quickly soaked by my thoroughly saturated running shoes. Everyone who ran the race received complimentary fish snacks, like hokke, a delicious bowl of miso soup, and one free drink. While some juice or tea probably would have been the healthiest options after running, I chose to get a draught beer. I was celebrating the end of the running season, or so I rationalized it in my head. At some point, Ihira-san surprised me with a second beer, so I ended up having a two-drink lunch.

The post-race festivities involved a little ceremony recognizing the runners with the fastest times, and then a raffle with prizes. As a general rule, it seems that you must always have prizes whenever a big enough group of people gathers in Japan. The gymnasium had plenty of familiar faces, but I was very surprised to run into Marta and Michal Sylwester there. Marta and Michal are a Polish couple, so they stand out a bit in rural Furubira. They live in Sapporo and had come to the Shakotan area for the weekend, apparently fitting the race into their schedule as well. I had only just met them at a party at a JHS teacher’s house a couple days before hand, so it was a pleasure surprise to see them again so quickly.

By 1:30, I was back at my apartment, taking a long hot shower. My official time for the race was just under one hour, 12 minutes (1:11:57), and I had come in 35th place.


Filed under Furubira, Shakotan

Beyond Sapporo Dome

I had heard that an International Friendly match between Japan and South Korea was going to be played at the Sapporo Dome in August. As a soccer enthusiast, and fan of both national teams as well, I was pretty damn excited at the prospect of actually attending and watching the match in person. Yusuke dashed my hopes though, telling me the match was immensely popular and while he was going to try to buy tickets the moment they went on sale, the odds of being successful were very low. As expected, he wasn’t able to get tickets.

Sometime later, when hanging out with my fellow ALTs, Rebecca mentioned that a teacher in her school was able to get some tickets and she was actually going to the game. My reaction to the news was a little intense, as I did poor job of curtailing my shock and jealousy. Luckily, no one seemed offended. Rebecca was surprised that I was so interested in the match, and very generously offered to contact her teacher friend to see if he had another free ticket. Apparently he was able to buy a whole block of seats! Embarrassed from my outburst, I told her not to go to any trouble, but I admitted that I wouldn’t pass up a chance to attend. A couple days later, Rebecca texted to say that there was indeed a ticket for me and I just needed to bring 7500 yen to pay for it on game day. It was on like Donkey Kong!

Sapporo Dome is a truly massive sports structure. On the outside, it looks like gigantic blob of mercury, a big organic shape with a clean metallic look. Inside, its spacious interior contains not only the playfield, but also several shops and food vendors. What makes the dome especially interesting is that it is convertible to accommodate both soccer and baseball games. Baseball games are played on an artificial turf surface, and soccer is played on a grass pitch. Before a soccer match, the grass pitch is mechanically slid in and the baseball turf slid out. While there are other sports complexes that make this conversion, it seems that the Sapporo Dome is unique in that does it with a fixed roof structure.

The dome’s normal role is as the home to the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters baseball team and the Consadole Sapporo football club. I’ve discovered some interesting things about the names of both of these teams. First, I had thought that Nippon Ham was a strange name for a baseball team, and as it turns out, the name actually comes from the meat packing company that owns the team. In Japan, the baseball teams’ names usually include the name of the company that owns them, and this has been a tradition since the beginning of the league. Other examples include the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks (SoftBank telecommunications), the Yomiuri Giants (Yomiuri media conglomerate), and the Hanshin Tigers (Hanshin Electric Railway Co). The owner of the Hokkaido’s beloved “Fighters” baseball team is Nippon Ham, hence the funny-sounding name. It has only been in the last few years that baseball teams have started adding locations to their names.

Consadole Sapporo was named by utilizing an even stranger idea. The name originates from the Japanese word “dosanko” (道産子 – どさんこ), a term used for people from Hokkaido. When the football club moved to Sapporo, they decided to use this word, but with its syllables in reverse; “ko-n-sa-do”. This already was a strange enough name to use, but they opted to include an extra twist, adding the Spanish ‘Ole!’ to the end. The result was the cryptic and slightly ridiculous “Consadole”, which they use to this day. It’s too bad, I think “Dosanko FC” would have sounded so much better…

On Wednesday, August 10th, I took the Toho subway line southeast, all the way down to its last stop, Fukuzumi Station (福住駅). Just outside of the station, one could easily see the silver blob of the Sapporo Dome, glimmering in the distance. I met up with Rebecca at the station and we waited there for her teacher friend who was supplying the tickets. Once he appeared, the three of us ventured on to the dome.

The Sapporo Dome was extremely crowded inside, packed with people for the popular Japan/Korea match. Just walking through the hallways was an exercise in patience and the sheer body heat of everyone around me made these areas uncomfortably warm. As we entered the main playfield space of the dome, I was impressed by the colossal size of the building; it looked even bigger on the inside. The number seats seemed comparable to what I was used to—the recently renamed “Century Link Field” in Seattle, where the Sounders play—but the fact that the dome had everything contained under one roof was pretty spectacular.

We arrived around 3:30 in the afternoon, which seemed fairly early in the day to having a big game. Once inside, I discovered that there were actually two games to be played! The main event wouldn’t start until around 7:30, but first there was an Under-21 match to be played: U-21 Japan vs. U-21 Egypt. The bonus game was a very pleasant surprise.

During halftime of the first match, I bought myself a Japan jersey from one of the many vendors inside the dome. I opted to buy the cheaper version, instead of the nicer quality, 7000 yen variety. All the jerseys I could find had players’ names and numbers on them, so I picked up a Nagatomo jersey, since he was the Japan player I was most familiar with. (Unfortunately, Nagatomo wasn’t playing that day, due to a dislocated shoulder.)

In between the two games, we ventured into the fray of bodies again, trying to cross the phalanx to retrieve some food. There were plenty of choices; ramen, bento, sushi, Mos Burger, McDonalds, KFC, Subway, but each one had a dauntingly massive line. Eventually we decide that the bento line was probably moving the fastest, and also was most likely the healthiest option, so we stuck in out there. As predicted, the line moved very fast; customers only had to select their option and hand over the cash, and they immediate received a premade box of delicious Japanese food. On the way back to our seats, I also stopped to buy a drink. I couldn’t decide between getting a beer or a juice-box of green tea (both Kirin products), so I bought one of each. This proved most satisfactory.

The friendly between Japan and Korea was part of series of international matches called the “Kirin Challenge Cup 2011”, and clearly, the Kirin Brewery Company was the major sponsor of the event. There were at least two raven mascots present, the raven being the symbol of Japan’s National Team. (Actually, it appears that Japan’s soccer emblem and uniform are based on France’s team, just replacing the cock with a crow.) There was also a white blob mascot, who looked like a cross between a kodama (木霊 – tree spirit) from My Neighbor Totoro and the Michelin Man, but I never did figure out was that was all about.

The atmosphere in the dome was really excellent for soccer. The Japan supporters cheered loudly and constantly, with songs being led by one the diehard group at the far end of the pitch. It reminded me of the Emerald City Supporters in Seattle that energetically lead songs and cheering from the south end of the stadium. This group had essentially the same feel, complete with drums and giant flags. When the squads walked out onto the pitch, the diehard group produced a giant Japan flag and jersey, and dropped banner letters spelling out “KING OF ASIA”. While I thought that the banner displayed borderline offensive insensitivity given the historical context between the two nations, I still admired the fans’ enthusiasm.

The National Anthem of Japan sang by Futoshi (太志) of the rock/pop band Aqua Timez—of which I’m not familiar—and the game was under way. One of the main cheer songs sung by the Japan supporters used the melody from Scott Joplin piano rag, “The Entertainer.” Unfortunately for Korea, Japan dominated the whole match. Considering how well both teams had been doing in international play recently, I expected a pretty good match, but Korea never seemed to step up. In the end, Japan won easily, three to nil. Despite the lackluster game, the experience was fantastic.

Not moving.

Upon exiting the stadium, Rebecca and I discovered that Sapporo Dome’s crowded hallways were nothing compared to the bottleneck of its exits. Getting stuck in traffic while driving is incredibly frustrating, but getting similarly stuck on foot was a new experience. The mass of bodies, all crammed together, moved forward a few steps, and then stopped for perhaps a minute, then forward a bit more, then stopped again. It went like this the whole way out of the building, only opening up out on the street. Thus it took us about an hour just to make it to the subway station. The scene was an agoraphobic’s worst nightmare.

Saturday August 20, 2011, I was back at the Sapporo Dome, this time for a Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters baseball game. There was a group of Shakotan folks bussing in for the game and Yamazaki-san invited me to come along. Since I had plans to be in Sapporo the night before for a party, I opted to just meet everyone at the dome. Completely by chance, I ran into one of the Shakotan guys on the subway heading there, and he led me to the rest of the group.

Along with my ticket, I had been given a Fighters tote bag that included a keychain/cell phone charm, a lanyard, and inflatable noisemaking cheer sticks. Not bad for only 500 yen. The Nippon Ham Fighters have a J-Pop theme song which I could hear from just outside. It’s quite an upbeat, catchy tune, and it quickly got stuck in my head.

Beer: This is how it’s done.

The Shakotan group had a block of seats, apparently three rows worth, behind first base. Inside of the dome looked smaller this time, both the baseball field and the stands seemed to be on a slightly smaller scale than they did at the soccer match. As it turns out, Sapporo Dome has a seating capacity of 67,400 in football mode, but the capacity for baseball games is only 55,000.

My Shakotan friends were very generous with me, and someone returned from the concession stand with a cola and snacks for me. I can’t remember the last time I actually drank pop, but this was a gift, so I humbly accepted and drank it. It was surprisingly good. I also saw many folks drinking beer and iced tea, much like what I had bought at the Japan/Korea match. The food available was your usual ballpark fare; hotdogs, warm pretzels, chirros, etc. The warm pretzel I was given was different than what I expected. It had no salt on it and contained some kind of sweet filling, jelly doughnut-style. More sweet than savory, it was fantastic.

While I’m not really a baseball fan, the atmosphere at the Fighters game was exuberant; great fun to be there with the Shakotan folks. The crowd constantly sang cheer songs, and the fans were always on the same page with each other. Whenever the Fighters were up at bat, the hitter’s name would be worked into the chant. This kind of collective, super-fan behavior is quite common in Japan, and it can make even the most boring sporting events more entertaining. With my friends teaching me songs, I completely forgot how disinterested in baseball I normally am.

As the game was getting into the last inning, the Shakotan group collectively made our exit. The Fighters were up 2-0, so the game wasn’t exactly in the bag, but having seen the nightmare of Sapporo Dome’s exits clogged with bodies, I thought this was a wise move. My good friend Harima Makoto-san hadn’t been able to take the group bus, and had driven his car (a Mercedes, no less) to Sapporo. In his endless generosity, he offered to drive me to dinner in Teine (手稲) and back to my car in Nakajima Koen (中島公園), just so that I wouldn’t miss out. I seriously owe him one.

Dinner was at a “Viking” (バイキング) restaurant, meaning that it was an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink smorgasbord. Being an American, I have seen my fair share of all-you-can-eat buffets, but Japan’s “Viking” style is, far and away, the craziest conglomeration of food that I have ever seen.

First off, the restaurant was a yakiniku place, with grills installed in every table. There was a buffet of raw meat and vegetables, basically all the things that might want to barbeque. That alone makes for a big meal, but there was more! There were several buffets, each with a variety of options; sushi items, noodle dishes (like spaghetti and yakisoba), fried stuff (like fried chicken and spring rolls), a full salad bar, a huge variety of fruit, a soup bar (complete with white rice, fried rice, and curry). And obviously there was also unlimited beer, soda, iced tea (of many kinds), even a coffee drink machine.

And then there were the desserts. They had a variety of ice cream in tubs, as well as a soft-serve ice cream machine. There was a bunch of cakes (chocolate, cheese cake, etc), cream puffs (and other pastry stuff), and more traditionally Japanese mochi (糯) and anko (あんこ) desserts. What blew my mind was that they had a crepe station! But the kicker had to be the cotton candy (綿菓子 – わたがし) machine. Just grab a stick, sweep it around the bowl, and you had yourself a sugary treat. A gluttonously good time was had by all.

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Super Sports Day Sunday

June 5, 2011 – The day began quite early, considering I had spent the previous night partying with my fellow junior high staff. After the previous day’s Sports Day and welcome party (which involved so much drinking), I actually felt surprisingly good. My trapezius muscles ached significantly more than my head, making me wonder if perhaps ramen did have magical hangover-preventing properties after all. In any case, it was ironic to be feeling the effects of high jumping, but not alcohol.

Yamazaki-san arrived bright and early at 8:30 to pick me up, and we headed out. The weather had completely changed from the previous night, and it was now nothing but clear skies and sunshine. While this made for beautiful conditions, I was a little worried about getting sunburned, as I tend to do. When we set out, Yamazaki gave me a canned iced coffee drink, the likes of which I had seen all over Japan, in vending machines and convenience stores. I must admit, the combination of coffee, milk, and sugar was pretty damn delicious, and just what I needed at that moment.

The drive from Bikuni to Yobetsu (余別) was about 30 minutes, and Yamazaki and I talked the whole way there, laughing about my recent exploits with the other JHS teachers. After such a late night, Yamazaki was expecting me to be feeling pretty worn out, as I suppose anyone would, but miraculously I defied expectations.  The L-Train just keeps on rolling. (Note to self: remember to edit out that horrible “L-Train” line. It makes you sound like a moron.)

The Undoukai (運動会) at Yobetsu ES was particularly fascinating because the entire school had only four students. Going in, I was wondering how one does a Sports Day with only four kids. As it turns out, the Sports Days in Japan aren’t just for the kids; they are events for the local community as a whole.  As I had already seen at Bikuni ES and JHS, the participation of attending family members was a big part of the festivities. At Yobetsu I saw an extreme example of how the show must go on, even when you only have four students.

In attendance at the Yobetsu Undoukai were students from nearby Nozuka ES (which actually has only 3 students), a few junior high students that I had just seen at their event the previous day, several older residents of Yobetsu, and a large group of college students from a university in Sapporo who had come to help out with the event. I also encountered the Mayor of Shakotan, Matsui-san, again. At first I couldn’t remember where I knew him from, but Yamazaki-san helped me out by saying “the mayor” whilst I was shaking his hand. A usual, he was super friendly.

The games played at the Yobetsu Undoukai seemed to be the most fun of all. One of the first games they played, involved one person catapulting a ball off a see-saw-type lever, and the second person catching the ball in a basket. I think the traditional way to do it was to actually wear a large basket, strapped to one’s back, and try to catch the ball that way, but only the elementary school students went to the effort to do it that way. It was quite entertaining.

The day’s activities also included race with obstacles on the track and a 3-legged race, each of which I took part in. (I had been offered coffee, but with so many games to play, I barely drank any.) Like the other Sports Days, Yobetsu utilized prerecorded music to the utmost effect, creating a fanciful atmosphere for physical fitness fun and frivolity. My favorite musical selections were music from the anime series Lupin III, and an instrumental Michael Jackson medley.

Prizes are actually awarded for every game that you participate in at a Sports Day, with 1st place winners receiving different prizes than 2nd place, 2nd place different prizes than 3rd place, and so on. For each of the few games I took part in, I too received some swag to take home with me.

At around 10:30, Yamazaki and I thanked the school principal and left. We had to get yet another Sports Day at Hizuka ES. On our way out, we crossed paths with some other Shakotan education people who were apparently attending both events too, but in the reverse order.

The Hizuka Undoukai was already in full swing when we arrived. Hizuka is an area that boasts spectacular views of seaside cliffs. The school and playfield are set atop a hill in the middle of this, and the view is amazing. The natural spender, combined with the amazing weather, made for an unreal setting that felt like it was out of a movie or something.

Hizuka ES, while it had more students that Yobetsu, actually only had nine kids. When I first arrived they were just starting to perform a choreographed dance number to an AKB48 song. (At Hizuka, most of the music played seemed to be AKB48 tunes, actually.)

One especially funny event they had was the Pantori race (パン取り). “Pan” is Japanese for bread. Basically, a bread or pastry treat is suspended by a fishing rod, and the student has to take the bread using only his mouth. The fact that the bread is packaged in a plastic wrapper really influences how the kids go about taking the bread, sometimes making things easier, but sometimes complicating matters. At Hizuka, a swift breeze was making difficult for some of the kids to catch the bread in their mouths, and it was pretty hilarious to watch them follow the swinging treat with their mouths gaping open like a fish.

Near the end of the event, the students formed a marching band and played the theme from “Mission: Impossible” for everyone. T his was interesting to me for a couple reasons, one of which was that I had never seen a band consisting of only elementary school kids; that alone was impressive to me.  Additional, some of the instruments they played were new to me. They had different variations of portable keyboards that I had never seen before. It was quite a treat.

At noon, the Hizuka Undoukai concluded. Between the two Sports Days I had amassed quite a haul of free stuff. The spoils included two five-packs of instant ramen, Jingisukan sauce, katsuobushi , pasta, mayonnaise , a 2-liter bottle of Aquarius (soft drink), and a tea pot. I had actually broken the tea pot that I had at my apartment, so that prize was especially fortuitous.

Upon leaving Hizuka ES, Yamazaki-san invited me to a Yakiniku (焼き肉) party at his house that evening. (Yakiniku essentially means “roasted meat”, so barbecue is actually the most appropriate translation, I think.) I, of course, gladly accepted the offer. Then, just about the time when I was deciding what to do with the rest of my day, Yamazaki-san proposed hitting the onsen (温泉 – hot spring) our way home. This idea too, I also approved.

This was just the second time I had been to the onsen. Yamazaki had also brought me the first time, along with his family. While at the onsen, I do what I normally do in Japan; imitate what others do and try to look natural. Socially, the experience is much like entering a big sauna or locker room, where men and women are separate and everyone’s walking around naked. You carry just a small towel around with you and use it to modestly cover your junk as move from pool to pool.

An important distinction between the Japanese bath (風呂) and western bathing is that the bathtub itself is not the place to actually wash. One washes their body outside of the tub or spring, and the hot water is essentially just there for soaking and relaxation. Considering that my muscles were aching and I was still feeling residual hangover effects, the onsen was especially pleasant this time.

After getting our money’s worth of soaking, Yamazaki-san and I had lunch right there at the onsen building. Since we were going to be doing yakiniku later, we opted for something light, choosing zarusoba, cold soba noodles. While we were eating, I asked Yamazaki about the name “zarusoba”, thinking that maybe “zaru” meant “cold”. As he explained, the name comes from the fact that the soba noodles sit on top of a draining basket formed by a bamboo sieve. The sieve itself is called a “zaru”. I suddenly made the connection with the race at Bikuni ES’s Sports Day that involved dragging a mesh disk with a basketball on top. It was called “zaruhiki” (笊引き), essentially meaning “sieve pull”. (As I have also learned, “zaru” can be used as a term to describe a person who can drink a lot without getting drunk. I suppose this is because liquid just passes right through them.)

As we were driving back to my apartment, Yamazaki-san noticed that a historic building in Shakotan was open for the season. It was an old house, about 100m or so from my apartment, which apparently had been the home of a fisherman boss. We stopped in to take and look, and to say ‘hi’ to the nice ladies who were operating the place.

The inside of the house was beautiful, exactly what I think of when I imagine a traditional Japanese home. Walking from room to room, admiring the shogi doors and tatami mat rooms in the sparsely lit building, I was reminded of the ninja video game Tenchu. (Of course, I kept that to myself to avoid embarrassment.) There were also several large prints on display, beautiful color photos of the natural spender here in Shakotan.  Yamazaki-san made conversation with the ladies who were working there and I did my best to keep up with conversation. Basically, I was only able to say where I was from, when I arrived, and the fact that I’m still working on speaking Japanese.

After the historic site, we went straight on to Yamazaki’s house for Yakiniku (焼き肉 – barbeque).  Yoshimura-sensei (whom I knew from the Junior High) was already there, along with his wife and two daughters. Conveniently, Yamazaki-san and Yoshimura-sensei both have kids of the same ages, so the kids can play while the parents hang out. I think that the families have become very close this way.

Yoshimura- sensei I obviously knew from school, but I recognized his wife from somewhere, and I mistakenly thought it must be from school too. An awkward conversation ensued where I asked if she was a teacher too and she said ‘no’, that she was a teacher’s wife, and due to my lack of understanding Japanese, this exchange was repeated like three times before I understood. Then I was told that she worked the corner market where I bought all my vegetables. Finally, the mystery had been solved.

The spread at Yakiniku was pretty amazing. The first thing that caught my eye was three whole squids, which Yoshimura-sensei just tossed on the grill, without any preparation, or even marinating.  There was a variety of meat, including not just standard beef and chicken, but also cartilage, intestines, and lamb. In Hokkaido, mutton or lamb is often called Jingisukan (ジンギスカン), literally meaning “Genghis Khan”. There were also veggies being grilled, like onion, red bell peppers, and a green onion-like plant native to Hokkaido that they called “Ainu negi” (アイヌねぎ), or “Ainu onion”. And, of course, there was able beer to be drank.

As it was just starting to get dark, Takano-sensei, the Yamazaki children’s piano teacher, also joined the shindig.  I’m proud to say that throughout the whole barbeque Japanese was spoken, and I did a pretty good job of following along and contributing to conversation. It helped that much of the conversation was about me; everyone was trying to keep me included. We also talked a lot about vegetables and sports, and the different preferences that are common in the US and Japan.

The bugs were really pretty bad, with mosquitoes incessantly attacking any exposed skin. It was oddly nostalgic for me, as it made me think of Iowa. Everyone was pretty well prepared with bug repellent incense burning, as well as applying and reapplying a kind of pleasantly scented bug spray. Still, despite my best efforts, my ankles wound up riddled with itchy bug bites.

When it was quite late, everyone cleaned up the yard in the dark and retired inside Yamazaki’s house. We hung around and drank tea in the living room/kitchen area, which was nice for me, because I felt like I had been drinking beer to excess all weekend long. Chikaru, Yamazaki’s son, invited me to play video games, so we played a little Smash Bros and Wii Sports before everyone called it a night.

In the end, the Yoshimuras graciously drove me back to my apartment, and I was home by 10:30. I had ended up having an even busier weekend that I was anticipating, but luckily I was given the following Monday off to recover. As it would turn out, there wouldn’t be a weekend in June where I didn’t have something Shakotan-related to attend, and I would end up being quite busy indeed.

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Bikuni JHS Taiikutaikai

June 4, 2011 – Just a week after the Bikuni Elementary School had their Taiikukai (体育会), the Bikuni Junior High School was hosting their own Sports day, called Taiikutaikai (体育大会). (The names of the two events are pretty much the same, except that the junior high version has the kanji for ‘big’ in it. I learned that the general term for a Sports Day is actually “Undoukai – 運動会”, which almost literally means ‘athletic meet’.) Again, I was invited to attend, but unlike last time, this sports day was going to count as a working day, so I was officially obligated to be there. This was fine with me, because I’ve come to genuinely enjoy these events. Plus, it meant that I’d get Monday off, so it was a good arrangement.

The Taiikutaikai was scheduled to begin bright and early at 9am on Saturday morning. This time, I made sure that I dressed for the occasion, and brought running shoes and sunblock. I left my apartment early enough to walk there, and even stop by the Seicomart for an o-negiri, which was my breakfast. The weather seemed a bit warmer than the previous weekend, or maybe the wind was tamer, but the air just as humid and low clouds still hung ominously overhead.

When I arrived at the field, it looked like the students and facility were all ready to get the party started. The students started greeting me when I was still fairly far away, shouting “Good morning!” and “How are you?” from a distance. When I walked up to main canopy, I was first directed to sit down at a table with the head of the Board of Education, a principal from another school, and some other men in suits. This was just like how the Elementary School’s event had started, so I thought nothing of it. However, I was only seated for a minute or so before the vice principal fetched me and explained that those seats were only for guests of the school; I was officially staff, so I should stand with the others for the opening ceremony. This suited me just fine.

The crowd of spectators was noticeably smaller than the Elementary School had. Since the weather looked equally bleak at both events, I figured the smaller turnout was either representative of the Junior High having a smaller student body, or the fact that elementary sports days are more fun; perhaps a bit of both. The festivities began in the military fashion I expected, the kids marching out uniformly onto the field to music.

Whereas the students at the elementary school sports day wore either red or white caps, at the Taiikutaikai, the students wore different colored bandanas called “hachimaki” (鉢巻). At this event, the colors were red, purple, and yellow.  The Junior High’s band actually played the opening and closing music of the ceremony, which was something that I thought my dear old Dad would greatly appreciate. The other music, as expected, was prerecorded and played through a PA system.

After the march out and the presentation of the school flag to the Principal, there were a couple quick opening speeches. Next it was time for the obligatory group stretch to a prerecorded song that chants “1-2-3-4…5-6-7-8” in Japanese. (I’ve found that this warm-up song is standard for most all schools in Japan and absolutely everyone is familiar with it.) Since all the teachers were doing the routine in unison with the students, I joined in too and imitated the moves.

The Taiikutaikai seemed a lot more your standard run-of-the-mill track meet in the beginning. The first competition was the 100m dash, with the 800m, shot put, long jump, high jump, and several relay races to follow. After the lunch break the events included more frivolity, but initially I had wondered if the Taiikutaikai was going to lack the fun that the elementary school kids enjoyed.

During the sprinting races, a couple students tripped and fell, but everyone finished their races and seemed satisfied with the outcomes. While milling around I saw the school nurse applying bandages to scraps, as well as hot/cold packs to muscle cramps. Most often, the nurse was applying anti-itch medication to ailing bug bites. (The mosquitoes and other pesky insects in Shakotan can be quite large, numerous, and annoying.)

When it time for the shot put, long jump, and high jump, the students and faculty divided to different stations, and the three events were held simultaneously. A couple students asked me to come with them to the high jump as a special guest, so I obliged. While waiting for their turn to jump, a few of the third students would occasionally hug one another in a celebratory fashion, and then comically hop up and down saying “Oh Romeo!” and “Oh Juliet!” When they first did it, I cracked up, which encouraged them to repeat the gag. After a while, I explained to them that Romeo and Juliet die in the end the play. This then became part of the gag, as the jubilant hugging was then followed with feigned suicide by poison.

When the older boys were doing their high jumping, I was encouraged to join in. I removed jacket and warm up pants, and before entering the fray I asked Itagaki-sensei (the school’s English teacher whom I work with everyday) about the rules. All the students were doing the standard backwards high jump method, but I didn’t have any experience jumping that way, so I asked if jumping forward was permitted. Itagaki-sensei assured me that anything was fine and told me to do whatever I wanted. In that case, when it was my turn to jump, I took a small run and dove headfirst over the bar, flipping around at the height of my jump to land on my back on the mat. I think it’s fair to say that the students were amazed and they cheered like crazy. Itagaki-sensei also appeared to be shocked by my unorthodox jumping style.

As I found out later, a key rule of high jumping is that you have to jump off one foot. Since I was essentially running straight at the bar and diving over it, I’m pretty sure that I used both feet, and therefore, was cheating. Still, everyone enjoyed the spectacle of it. One-by-one, the students reached their limits and the event was finished. Just for fun, Itagaki-sensei had me do a few more jumps to see how high I could go. In the end, I managed to clear 160cm.

The next event I took part in was a relay race. Each student had to run 200 meters, in teams of four. The teachers formed a team of eight runners, so each of us only had to run 100 meters. (This seemed a little unfair to me, but I guess us teachers are old, in theory.)  Even with the handicap of the elders only having to run half the distance of the students, the teacher’s team only managed to win by a slight margin. The junior high students proved to be quite fast!

After lunch, the activities were of the more lighthearted variety, starting with a rather unusual circuit race. At the first station, racers had to jump rope, and at the second station they had to circle a baseball bat many times with their forehead on the handle. Next, they dizzily staggered to the third station, which was a race to drink a soft drink out of plastic cup by a straw. Participants couldn’t move on to the next station until they had completely finished their beverage. The forth station was actually a quiz. Participants picked one of many envelopes strewn out on the ground, and brought it up to the emcee, who asked the question into the microphone for everyone to hear. If the answer was incorrect, the participant had to run back and retrieve a new question. As if the race wasn’t sufficiently wacky already, the fifth and final station involved putting on a randomly selected costume, and then running to finish line in disguise. Will all the craziness involved, this was definitely the most interesting event to watch.

The afternoon also included a tug of war, which the student team leaders seemed to take pretty seriously. It was particularly humorous when the PTA came out to square off against the winning student team. The PTA competed twice (once without me and once with me jumping in) and were victorious both times. I found it delightfully amusing to see a group of mothers and grandmothers best the young folk in a competition of brute strength.

Each grade competed against one another in a couple events, a three-legged-race (of sorts) and a massive group jump rope contest. The three-legged-race involved a line of around twelve or thirteen students, all with their bound together. As quickly as possible, they had to cover about 50 meters. This required careful teamwork, and the teams would chant “いち, に, いち, に” (1, 2…1, 2…) as they bounded toward the finish line.  As impressive as it was when they flawlessly made in to the goal in good time, I enjoyed it even more when someone fell and took the rest of the team down like dominoes.

The massive jump rope contest involved one long jump rope, with twelve or so students all jumping in unison to see how many jumps they could do without failing. After three rounds, the grade with the most successful jumps recorded was the winner. By this point, the weather had worsened and a light rain had started to fall. Perhaps it was the inclement conditions, but the jump rope contest appeared to take on a distinct intensity. For some of the students, group jump rope seemed to be taken the most seriously of all the events. In a surprising upset, the first year kids managed to secure the win over the senior third year class. I actually saw some tears from a couple of the third year students, which may have been out disappointment over the loss, or the fact that this was their last undoukai (運動会).

Afterwards, there was one more relay race and the Taiikutaikai concluded. This turned out to be very well-timed, because the precipitation went from Seattle-style drizzle to heavy rain. Everyone took temporary refuge under the canopies, before retiring to the school gymnasium for closing ceremonies. Ironically, as soon as everyone was in the gym, the clouds parted and brilliant sunrays shined from the heavens.  This was probably fortuitous for me, as I was finding it hard to avoid sunburns anyway.

The Taiikutaikai was all finished around 3:30, which left me just two hours before my welcome party with the junior high teachers at 5:30. The party was held at Kasai, a fairly fancy establishment that I think might actually be a hotel. We had about twenty people total, and we were all seated at one long, low, Japanese-style table.

The spread for the sushi dinner was simply amazing. The assorted sashimi and nigirizushi were stellar; the chawanmushi and horumonyaki were both delicious; but the star of the show had to be the nama uni (sea urchin). The Shakotan area is famous for its fresh uni, which is available from June through August. While I had heard a lot about uni this was my first time eating it, and it was raw too. I’m very happy to report that uni lived up to the hype. It has salty sea water kind of flavor and really melts in your mouth like butter. Yeah, it’s like sea butter.

The food was so awesome that I was just tearing through it, my chopsticks moving with surgical precision. Tanaka-sensei, the vice principal, explained to me that the Japanese way was to “triangle eat”, as he put it. Basically, instead of finishing one dish and moving on to the next one, you go from food to food in a sequence, trying not to finish any one item too quickly. I’m sure that this principle had been taught to me before, but it was nice to have a reminder.

I also had my first experience with proper Japanese alcohol pouring etiquette. Rule number one of drinking alcohol in a formal setting is that you don’t pour your own drink. Rule number two is that you always refill other people glasses, especially your superior’s. Tanaka-sensei told me that for tonight, it would be ok for me to pour my own drinks. Since I had been trying to learn to sing the classic Japanese song “Sake-yo”, I was familiar with the term “te-jaku zake” (to pour your own drink), but I understood it to be kind of a pitiful move, so I tried to refrain from doing it. Only once, after much beer and sake, did I reach for the bottle for myself. Being seated right beside the principal, I made sure to offer to fill his glass whenever he ran out.

The weather had actually gotten stormy, and conversation was occasionally punctuated with a clap of thunder. I thoroughly enjoyed this because I love thunderstorms and Seattle doesn’t ever have them. At one point, Miyakawa-sensei (the school’s new PE teacher) and I were supposed to officially introduce ourselves to everyone. Nishikawa-sensei had prepared a questionnaire form that we had each filled out earlier in the week, and copies were passed out for everyone to look at. This was very helpful because when asked to stand and speak, I seemed to forget all of my Japanese altogether.

Miyakawa-sensei had actually given a couple of questionnaire answers that I almost chose, like Curry Rice for his favorite food, and flexibility for his specialty. To demonstrate his specialty, he did the splits for everyone! At 23 years old, Miyakawa is the youngest teacher at the school and which actually makes me feel kind of old.

After a long enjoyable dinner and many libations, the “nominacation” was working wonders and I managed to communicate surprisingly well with my limited Japanese. Since the purpose of the party was to welcome Miyakawa-sensei and I, we weren’t supposed to share in paying the bill, which was nice because the bill came to almost 60000円 (around 750USD). Since we were having such a good time, some the teachers decided to continue the party with more drinks and karaoke at Snack Cocoro.

Cocoro was relative quiet, with just us teachers an pair of older ladies being the only people there. I sang my usual Beatles tunes, Queen, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing”, and Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”.  The other teachers genuinely impressed me with their own vocal skills, rocking Japanese songs and showing me little dance gestures to go allow with them. (I swear, everybody in Japan can sing.) When asked if I could sing any Japanese songs, I said that I kind of knew “Sake-yo”, which they then immediately brought up for me to sing. My performance wasn’t perfect, but I think I sang it pretty decently for my first attempt.

One highlight of the evening for me was when someone brought up Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” and I was given the mike to sing it. When it came to the refrain (“Don’t wanna close my eyes, don’t wanna fall asleep…”) everyone else sang along in a joyous drunken chorus. I don’t particularly like Aerosmith, but it was a beautiful moment.  All and all, it was fantastic karaoke outing.

After Cocoro, the night still wasn’t over, as what was left of our party headed to the ramen shop. I have learned that when you’re out late drinking in Japan, you have to finish the evening with a bowl of ramen. We went to Yamatomi (山富), which to my understanding, is the only ramen shop in Bikuni. We continued are lively discussion, which was well lubricated by beer, and I learned a couple of the teachers nicknames. The only one I remember was Masui-sensei’s nickname, “Nasu”, meaning eggplant, which he received simply because he doesn’t like eggplant.

After ramen, the night came to end, and I walked back to my apartment, which was only a little ways down the street. I believe I was home by 12:15 or so, which was good, because I needed to get up early the next morning for two more undoukais at Yobetsu and Hizuka Elementary Schools. The plan was for Yamazaki-san to pick me up at 8:30am. I brushed my teeth, chugged a couple glasses of water, and passed out on my futon.


Filed under Shakotan

My First Taiikukai

May 29, 2011 – All elementary and junior high schools in Japan have a special Sports Day of outdoor athletic games called a Taiikukai (体育会). I was invited to come to the Taiikukai at Bikuni Elementary School on May 29th. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, except that the teachers really wanted me to come, and even participate in the games somehow. It was scheduled for a Sunday morning, when I usually prefer to be unconscious, but since they asked so nicely, I decided to come and check it out.

I was awoken by my alarm at 8:00am and went straight to the window to see how the weather looked. Yamazaki-san had told me that if it was raining that the Taiikukai would be canceled or postponed, and it had been raining all night, so it looked pretty bleak for an outdoor sporting event.  In that case, I wasn’t going to be in a big hurry to be down to the Elementary school by 9:00.

Luckily, I didn’t just assume that the Taiikukai would be postponed, because when I arrived at Bikuni Elementary School, the scene was busy with families setting up shop right beside the track. They laid out picnic blankets and set up the kind of portable canopies that you see at soccer tournaments. I was honestly kind of shocked that I saw so many people, as I didn’t think Shakotan even had that many residents, but clearly the event was on. The students were gathered on the other side of the track, sporting caps that were either red or white, which as I learned, was an important part of the Taiikukai.

In the Taiikukai, students compete in various athletic games, while being cheered on by their family. Some games are individual events, like the 60m dash. Other games, like the tug of war, involve most or all of the students, divided into two teams, and that’s where the red and white hats come in. With each event throughout the day, the score is recorded for red versus white, so that by the end of the competition, about half of the students can feel a bonus boost of glory for being on the winning side.

When the Taiikukai began, the weather was overcast, with low-hanging clouds and a chill sea breeze that made me wish that I had worn more layers. The tree-covered mountains directly behind the school yard were visible at their base, but upwards they disappeared into the mountain fog. I milled around behind the families’ base camps, trying to find a good vantage point for the proceedings, without having to stand on ground that was too saturated by the previous night’s rain. Along the way, I was greeted by many parents and children alike; the former greeting me in Japanese and the later in the English we had worked on in class. (One eighth grade girl in particular always responds to “How are you?” with “I’m sleepy”.)

Eventually I found was seemed like a pretty ideal spot to stand, and if not, it was at least at a point where lots of people who walk by me. Hopefully, someone would tell me if there was something I was supposed to do. Almost immediately, Yamazaki-san came by. His family had settled not far from where I was standing. We chatted a moment about my haircut (I had finally found where I could get a cheap haircut after several days of fruitlessly searching), and then he directed me to a large canopy at the end of the field which had tables and chairs under it. I was seated in a seat labeled as number three, between the head of the Board of Education and the Principal of the Junior High.

As the Taiikukai got underway, I was simultaneously surprised by two things. One surprise was the how the students marched out in an extremely military fashion. While they were clearly more organized and well-behaved than your could ever expect American grade school kids to act, the overwhelming military vibe with which the opening ceremony was imbued was a bit unnerving for me.  I could only imagine an old WWII veteran watching the proceeding with great distain. Luckily, the general military nature of Japanese organization wasn’t brand new to me.

The kids marched out by grade order, moving in perfect rhythm to the music that was being pumped through an outdoor PA system. That was the second thing that surprised me; the song that they marched out to was an instrumental version of Abba’s “Dancing Queen”.  Now that I think about it, it’s kind of hard to feel intimidated by the military style of kids marching when they’re doing so to an Abba song. Another tune I recognized was a J-Pop hit by AKB48 called “Heavy Rotation”.

I have been really impressed with Japan’s general utilization of music, which seems pretty much omnipresent, and the use of music at the Taiikukai was actually quite brilliant. Throughout the day, music would be played at every opportunity; while things were being set up for the next activity, after an activity concluded, to signify breaking for lunch, etc. Music would be even played during events, which combined with the sound of families cheering, created a motivational akin to what you get when you watch an inspiring sports movie, like “The Mighty Ducks” or “The Sandlot”. I felt a little jealous that I didn’t have this kind of thing when I was a kid.

The day began with all the students lining up, in strict military fashion with flags and marching and everything, in front of the Principal, Vice Principal, and a couple of other people. A few quick speeches were given, the school song was sung, and a flag was ceremoniously presented to the school Principal. After that, the students marched back to far side of the track and the day’s activities got underway.

First, the students ran the 60m dash, five at a time, and faculty kept track of who came in first, second, third, and so forth. A very nice lady came around the tables at which I was seated with cups of coffee for the assembled panel. I appreciated this very much, because the cool breeze was cutting right through my track jacket, and I was starting to freeze. It was then explained to me that I was going to be handing out certificates to the students. (It was probably explained to me many times, but I finally understood at this point.) My “number three” seat meant that I was handing out certificates of merit to the students that came in third place.

The kids seemed pretty excited to see me, even though most of the certificates didn’t had furigana on them so I wasn’t able to call them by their names.  (Furigana is the phonetic pronunciation of kanji, usually written in small print above or below the characters to help people read kanji that they don’t know.)  One adorable little first grader who always wants me to pick him up was particularly happy to see me, and kept breaking ranks to walk up to my table and say, “Hello!” Then he would stare at me with wide-eyed fascination. One teacher basically had to drag him to his next destination.

The first team game that the students played involved throwing plastic balls into basket. Each team had their own basket and they were atop a pole, about 10 feet up. The plastic balls were color-coded for each team (white for white, red for red) and were about the size of a baseball. Both teams went simultaneously and had a set amount of time to get as many balls into the basket as possible.

Another game that the children played was a race that involved carrying boxes of various sizes on a stretcher, around obstacles. I’m sure the game was supposed to encourage team work, as the two students needed to work together to complete the course as fast as possible. It was hilarious to watch, and actually reminded of helping a friend move from one apartment to another.

The nice lady came round the tables again, this time with tea. Again, I was very grateful because I was shivering. The head of the Board of Education asked me if I was cold and I said that I was indeed. He disappeared for a minute and then returned with a windbreaker for me to where. It was an extremely nice gesture that I appreciated much more than I had words to express. Eventually, Yamazaki-san came to get me, as it was time for me to actually participate in a game.

The first game I was asked to take part in was a basically an egg-and-spoon race in which I was competing with the PTA. To make the game easier for the elderly, the spoon was more of large ladle and the egg was a hollow plastic ball, the kind you find in a ball pit at an indoor playground.  People raced in waves, and I won my wave fairly easily. Everyone was given a prize afterwards. I think that there were slightly different prizes for the winners, but in any case, all the prizes were things like a roll of aluminum foil, dishwashing soap, and paper towels. (I must be getting old because I thought that these were great prizes, they’re very useful.)

Next I participated in the adults’ competition of tug of war, which in Japan has the more literal name of “rope pull” (綱引き).  We did two rounds, both of which my team won, but I didn’t feel like I actually contributed that much to the victory. I was surprised that everyone on my side pulled the rope with a sharp jerking motion, all in the same rhythm. That must be why we won, strategy team work instead of brute force. Again, I received a bag of goodies.

I also participated in a relay race called the zaruhiki (ざる引き). Instead of passing a baton like a normal relay, racers drag a slightly concave mesh disk (a sieve made of bamboo) by a rope… and there’s a basketball on top of it. As it turns out, it’s actually pretty hard to tow the disk at a higher speed without the basketball rolling off, especially when rounding the corners of the track. I was the anchor for my team, going last. When it came to my turn, the other team had a slight lead, so I tried my best to catch up. Unfortunately the basketball rolled off the zaru-thingy twice, which was quite a setback. I did manage to get a good pace going in the homestretch and the crowd cheered louder and louder as I came closer and closer to pulling off an upset. I came very close to overtaking my opponent, but I ended up being just a second behind as he crossed the finish line. Still, the race must have been pretty entertaining because everyone cheered like crazy.

Around noon, the Taiikukai broke for lunch. This was probably the most amazing part of the day, as the Japanese really know how to picnic! By this point, the weather had completely cleared and sun was shining affectionately down on one and all. The families all opened up their bento boxes to reveal a hidden feast of Japanese culinary deliciousness. Yamazaki-san, in his endless generosity, was kind enough to invite me to have lunch with his family. This was great not only because the food was amazing, but also because the grandparents were there, so I got to meet more of the Yamazaki family.

The food was spectacular. Onigiri, inarizushi, shrimp tempura, barbeque chicken drumsticks, teriyaki meatballs, tamagoyaki, steamed asparagus, baby tomatoes, fruit salad, watermelon slices, etc.  Yamazaki encouraged me to eat-eat-eat, but the food was just so good that I knew I’d keep eating until I felt ill, so I restrained my gluttony. I did my best to converse with Grandpa, although my Japanese just wasn’t good enough to say much at all. I was able to understand when he listed the English speaking places that he had visited, with included Hawaii, L.A., the Grand Canyon, and New Zealand.

Since the weather had gotten so nice, I went from being overly cold to being fairly hot, and potentially getting sunburned. As I tend to do, I took refuge under my track jacket, wearing it on my head like a robe.  As lunch was wrapping up, the festivities got back underway with a traditional Soran dance (ソーラン) performed by the students. They had donned happi coats and headbands, and had in hand naruko (wooden clappers). The PA system pumped out a more upbeat, techno version of the Soran than what I was accustomed to hearing and the kids impressed with a well-rehearsed dance routine.

After the dance, it was back to athletic games.  One of the funnier races actually involved candy. Running down the track, the kids had to get their body through a hula-hoop, crawl underneath a balance beam, then without using their hands, find a piece of candy in a baking tin that was full of white powder (powder sugar, I believe), and finally crawl under a net on the ground before running to the finish line. This was hilarious to watch because every kid came away with ghostly face completely covered in white powder. (Some kids, I noticed, neglected to brush the powder for rest of the taiikukai.)

The final event of the day was called the “rental” race. Students picked up cards on the track, and each card had written on it something that the student needed to find and bring to the goal to finish. Items on the card included a ball, a jacket, a shoe, a bento box, a family member, and even specific people, by name. I had been warned in advance that one of the cards would have my name on it, so some student would be running up to me and that I should run with them to the finish line. Ironically, Yamazaki’s daughter Saya ended up getting my card. She knew right where to find me because I was still sitting with her grandparents, and when she ran up shouting “Lucas-sensei” we bolted to the goal. I think she got first place in her group for that one.

The Taiikukai wrapped up around 3:00, with some closing ceremonies that were similar to the way the day had begun. I helped Yamazaki-san carry his picnicking stuff back to his van, said ‘thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ to the principal, and headed home. It ended up being quite the cultural experience and I had the vicious sunburn to prove it.

[**I neglected to bring my camera to this event, so all pictures shown are from other websites. In a related note, I wouldn’t recommend doing a Google image search for “taiikukai”. Apparently it’s also the name of pornographic publication or something.]


Filed under Shakotan