School festivals!

The first two weeks at school were dominated by the Sports Festival (taikusai) and Cultural Festival (bunkasai). Both took place on the weekends and were a chance for the school and students to show off all their hard work of the previous term and a summer of sports practice.  Essentially it is a competition which covers everything from sport, singing and art.  The three year groups are divided in to five teams; purple, red, blue, yellow and green.  Each team receives points for each event during both festivals and they are totalled up to one final score and one team is declared the winner. From the start one thing was clear: students really, really wanted to win!

Sports Festival

My expectations of a normal track-and-field sports day were completely blown away when I saw practices for many events which were new to me. The 100m sprint was about the only thing the day had in common with a British sports day.  Other events included the 11-legged sprint, a tug of war, skipping with twenty students in time with each other and a relay race with twenty students in each team!

The finale of the blue team’s cheer leading routine

The 11-legged race (before they fell over!)

Running 100 metres with a flag – not that easy!

One event, reminiscent of the Hunger Games, was a game involving car and tractor tyres. Each team, divided in to girls and boys, stood around the edge of a pentagon with a pile of tyres in the middle of the field.  When a gun was shot they all sprinted to the tyres and then ran with it back to their base. The team with the most tyres at their base wins. Yet it was not a simple as it may seem as some tyres were huge and needed at least two people to carry or roll them back to their base.  In the meantime another team may also be after the same tyre so rugby scrum-type fights break out over the tyre.  Even the first year girls were pulling each other across the dusty playing field for the tyre!  In one feisty fight for the last ‘Golden Tyre’ a boy was knocked down and had to be carried off the pitch! I heard he passed out from heat stroke but I’m sure this game didn’t help either. The health-and-safety officers in England would sure close the school down for this but the teachers here were cheering the students on in their conquests!

The tyre-fight!

The principal, dressed neutrally in white, sat and watched the whole day’s activity as did officials from the local area under the shade of a tent.  I expect the way the day plays out affects the image of the school for the next year.  When I stooped in to the gymnasium a previous morning I found all of the 500 students practising siting down and standing up in the quickest time possible!  They also have to sit in perfectly straight rows, and not fidget, even when sitting in the direct sun without no sunhat.  I sometimes wonder if I’m  at a school or an army camp!

The most obvious difference between this sports day and one I’m more familiar with is that it was all about the group doing well. Individual names and times for races were not noted down, only the students colour – which was easily identified as they wore a haki matchi around their fore head.  The games did not test who was the fastest or strongest student but which team worked the best together.  I’d love to take some of these ideas and principles back to the UK as I think we have a lot to learn from this sort of competition. Furthermore, the games are a lot more fun than the normal athletics events I’m use to!

The highlight of the day was the cheerleading contest.  The rules are as followed. Each team must perform a three minute cheerleading routine which includes the sixty or seventy students in each team.  An elected group of third-years devise a routine, with the help of their teacher, and find suitable music to go with it. Then the practising begins.  Like the precision desired for sitting in straight rows, all students must be synchronised to score highly.  So for a week and a half the teams gathered out in the afternoon sun and went through each move of the dance.  The finish products were impeccable and I would’ve found it hard to judge between the routines!

When all the events were over, the closing ceremony begun and the results were announced.  The purple team and green team were in the lead. I saw tears coming from both winning and losing teams and it was clear how much this meant to them.  I congratulated everyone as, in my eyes, they were all INCREDIBLE!

Cultural Festival

So the following weekend the theme was not sport but art and music. As always, it started with an opening ceremony where the teachers and school council members performed a skit. Roles changed in more ways that I imagined.  Both students and teachers cross-dressed, students scolded the teachers and the strictest teacher of them all did a cheer leading routine!  I loved how the teachers got so involved, and obviously enjoyed the excitement of both festivals.

Painting their home room board

On the first day each homeroom class had to paint a two metre by one metre board.  Again, how twelve students worked together to paint a picture, without any squabbling, amazes me!  Then in the afternoon, there was a choir competition.  I was surprised to find myself sat next to the principal, as one of the judges, even though I can’t understand Japanese and am by no means musical!  I did my best to choose the most impressive group, the best pianist and the best conductor.  Again I was surprised to hear even the coolest third-year boys singing their heart out for the competition even when they were not the most natural of singers!

Proud of the final product. Hung up before it is even dry!

The finale of the second day was a brass-band extravaganza which got everyone up on their feet and started dancing! The atmosphere was incredible.  So far I had not played a major role in the festivals, apart from encouraging the students and taking photos. Yet when I was asked if I wanted to be in a dance with other teachers I jumped at the chance to get involved.  So for many hours after work, the English teachers and I practiced a dance to the famous J-pop group AKB48.  On the day I was pretty nervous, but having seen other teachers go and make a fool of them self I thought I didn’t have much to lose!  The kids loved the dance and were standing on their chairs clapping. It was so much fun to be part of it and I got so many comments from students saying the usual ‘kawaii’ meaning ‘cute’!

Everyone up dancing for the brass band concert!

The brass band playing AND dancing!

This, believe it or not, is made out of 500 pieces of A4 paper, all painted by the first-year students… MIND BOGGLING!

Throughout the day parents, younger siblings and friends came to the school to enjoy the free soba-noodles and take part in the students’ activities, like the House of Horror they had made. It was a fantastic weekend and one in which I was repeatedly amazed at the talent and the effort of the students and teachers! Now I wonder, what will a normal school week be like?

Echizen coast, Ono and meeting my host family

Summer is on the cusp of autumn. Rice is being harvested and dried, big ripe apples have come into season and Halloween decorations are in all the stores.

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On a top of a hill over looking a city surrounded by mountains. This is a restoration of the original castle, which was destroyed during the Meiji era in the 18th century.

More importantly, the weather has finally changed. I now don’t have to have the air-con on in my apartment, but a fan still helps to keep the humidity at bay and I still average three showers a day! The heat feels worst on days when it is overcast and a tropical storm is on its way. The thunder storms here are like nothing I’ve seen before. Sometimes lightening can be seen far away, even though you can hear no thunder. Other times it can strike what seems like metres away from you and the thunder rumbles through the ground! But one guarantee is that it will quickly pass and an hour or so later the sky will be clear, like nothing ever happened!Image

Freedom has come in the form of a blue banged-up Suzuki Alto. It’s automatic, has four seats and chugs up the hills like an old pony. The rules of the road have not been a problem, mainly as they drive on the left. The main roads here are based on American suburbs, with wide lanes and big superstores, restaurants and pachinko parlors on either side. Traffic lights every 100 metres means traffic is slow and you can’t go far wrong. A result of this is that there’s a noticeable number of people who jump the lights!

One thing I still have not mastered is the art of bowing, especially bowing in the car. It is not uncommon for other drivers to give you a polite head bow if you let them out but one truck driver gave a full on bow to me. Not something I am going to try! After having my new buggy filled up with gasoline at a local service station, I get a full 90’ bow from the service workers. That’s pretty special! In the office I’ve also seen my vice-principle bowing whilst speaking to someone on the phone. I had to try hard to suppress my laughter!

My little car has already made trips through the mountains to my visiting school as well as to the coast. After a single-track road which carved down the mountains the road took us through a line of houses which backed on to the sea. I didn’t see anyone under sixty in that seaside village! It’s easy to have a skewed view of the population balance in Japan when you work in a school, but from that experience I can understand what they mean by Japan having an ageing population!

Another Suzuki adventure I’ve had, is to Ono, a famous castle city and onwards to an infamous camping spot in the mountains. Named by an ALT many moons ago, ‘The Watering Hole’, most probably based on the tradition of going there on the last weekend before school starts and enjoying the last taste of the summer with a trunk full of beers. So after a long and treacherous drive to the hidden spot, I was ready for a swim in the river to wash away the stickiness of the humid air. My friend and I tepidly got in the water with no idea what could be under the surface. It was turquoise and clear so we trusted old ALTs which assured us there was nothing to be worried of. Thankfully, they were right. I’m not sure if it’s a safe option to be in a river whilst there is a thunderstorm but it certainly was atmospheric! Other ALTs joined us and we had a great evening with a campfire and sharing food people had brought. Teari, the most ‘Amercian’-American I’ve ever met, and also the friendliest, brought a kilogram of tortilla chips and homemade salsa. A welcome change from rice and noodles!

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I was too busy swimming to get a good photo. Just imagine the 500 m gorge this is at the bottom of!

I’ve also met my host family for the first time. This was set up though a volunteer organisation promoting internationalisation in Fukui. Families sign up to meet someone different and perhaps to practice their English on us ‘hosties’, as we’re called here! I have been extremely lucky in being welcomed in to a Japanese family who live just a five minute drive from my apartment. ‘Ko’, a cheeky seven year old, doesn’t get that I can’t understand his Japanese but chats away at length to me!  ‘Azu’ is 10 years old and her older sister ‘Chi’ is 13 years. Their mother ‘Mayumi’ is an afterschool English teacher and their father ‘Manubu’ works in a local micro-chip factory.

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Yes I ate one of those disgusting looking sea snails! You can imagine it wasn’t the best!

Last Sunday I was invited there for a family BBQ and had no trouble finding their house. Ma-chan, as Mayumi said I could call her, loves the story of Anne of Green Gables. So much so, that her and her husband designed their house based on the house in the novel! It has a green roof, red brick and a veranda out of the front. It feels like stepping into an American home more than a Japanese one with rose petal wall paper and vintage ornaments. The one Japanese they have is filled with English materials as it’s where Mayumi has her classes. So it is home from home.

After only going there a couple of times Mayumi has made me feel like part of the family. I have already made Crispy Cakes with the girls and Mayumi has taught me how to make gyozas, or Japanese dumplings. I know look forward to seeing the family every Sunday evening and playing games with the children. I hope I can be a suitable big sister for the girls but I’m sure they’ll teach me more than I can teach them.

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Mayumi, Azu, Chi and Ko putting soy sauce on the sea snails (whilst they are alive) before they go on the BBQ