A Very Thankful November

Let me just start off by saying that thankfulness has not come that easily to me recently. I’ve been kind of homesick, and the grind of daily work has been…well, grinding. Last weekend I was in a bad mood, which made me feel apathetic and somewhat lazy, and this week I caught a cold (again!), and didn’t even have the self-control to go to bed on time this weekend, which might have helped keep me from getting sick in the first place. So I’m disappointed in myself, in addition to my disappointment about getting sick again.

However, this past week I was contemplating thankfulness, and realizing anew how easy it is to focus only on the things that are wrong. Why do we humans do that? I don’t know. I do know that, most of the time, we are surrounded by amazing things which we take for granted – unless we are deprived of them, in which case we quickly start becoming thankful for them again (at least for a little while).

Anyway, my resolution this month is to focus more on thankfulness. Now that I’m sick and feeling down on myself again, it’s a little harder to actually feel genuinely thankful. But FEELING thankful is not as important as BEING thankful, right?

And honestly, I am thankful. Although I miss my family more the longer I’m in Japan, I am thankful to be here, and to have a few months left to enjoy this wonderful country. Although I’m  a bit burnt out with the work culture, I do appreciate the job I have, and I genuinely enjoy teaching and my students.

So, tired and grumpy as I might feel at the moment, it doesn’t mean that I can’t be thankful.  In fact, when I took the picture below, thankfulness is what I had in mind. The happy red leaf was just resting on the ground, in stark contrast to the brown earth around it. I think lots of times we get focused on the earth of our lives, which can be brown, stale, and just so…flat. But we also have  leaves – those pops of color that adorn our lives and give us joy and beauty. All we have to do is notice them.

It doesn’t look like much from up here…
…but it’s really a beautiful leaf!

With that in mind, here’s what I’m thankful for this week!

1. Fall leaves. The foliage here is beautiful. These were some of the vibrant trees near the kindergarten. In the second picture, I love the two tones of the red maple in the foreground, and the tree with yellow leaves in the background.

2. Beautiful fall days. This past week has been unusually warm for this time of year, which has been pleasant and has saved on heating costs! As of last night it’s started to get cold again, but at least we’ve been able to enjoy the mildness up until now.

3. My students. I got to watch some of my students perform at our city’s annual fall concert yesterday, and it was great! I get such a surge of pride and affection seeing my students perform; I guess that must be sort of how a mother feels. Here are a few videos of their talented performances:

Incidentally, the gospel music class that I’m a part of also performed a few songs at the concert. It was fun, but of course it was a relief to have it over with. I guess that’s another thing I’m thankful for!

Those are just a few of the “leaves” brightening the ground of my life right now. What are yours?

Culture Festival!

Hello, blog world, and my favorite blog readers! 🙂

This weekend, my town had its annual cultural festival. Because the town is on the small side, the festival isn’t really that spectacular of an event, though it is interesting. Last year, I went to the community center and browsed the artwork on display, and looked at the wares of the handful of vendors outside. This year, I didn’t really care about looking at the same kinds of displays, though I did walk through the school gym, which had handicrafts made by various community members (I think). However, one thing that drew me this year was the advertisement of a tea ceremony in the informational flyer. I have a fair amount of interest in tea ceremony, as it seems a quintessential part of traditional Japan. So my main goal for attending the festival this year was to get in on that. 🙂

I arrived shortly after the opening time, since the information in the flyer said that the program would close once the tea and snacks were used up. There was a line of people – mostly elderly – waiting their turn to enter the tea room, since the room was small and could only accommodate about a dozen people at a time. Once the first group exited the room, I filed in with the others in my line. The room was a small Japanese-style room, so of course we took off our shoes and knelt Japanese style on the tatami mat.

It turned out to be a very enjoyable experience, mostly because I really love that type of traditional Japanese activity. There were several female hostesses, dressed to the hilt in beautiful kimono. The ceremony included the deliberate carrying in of the appropriate utensils, along with moving just the right way when turning and getting up. At least that’s the way it looked to me. I’ve never actually seen a real tea ceremony, so I had nothing to compare it to, but I think the hostesses are supposed to be precise and deliberate in their movements. I imagine in a more formal setting the hostesses would probably be even more meticulous than the ladies who hosted today.

First, we were given a Japanese sweet called manjuu (I think) – a baked sweet filled with anko. Next, tea was made, and we each got a cup (more like a bowl) filled with thick, dark green tea. The guy seated beside me, who was actually really good at speaking English, warned me that it was more bitter than regular bottled green tea. It was! However, I drank it down like any good Japanese girl, trying to hold the cup the way we had been shown. As instructed, I also wiped the rim of the cup with my finger after, and then wiped my finger on my napkin. The whole procedure didn’t take very long; after we had finished drinking, the dishes were cleared out, and the hostesses made preparations for the next batch of guests. However, I really enjoyed my brief introduction into the world of tea ceremony!

While we were in the tea room, I asked permission to take a few photos. Permission was granted, but for some reason other people took the photos instead of me. First, the hostess took a picture with me in it, which was great; but then the guest beside me took the camera and took a picture of the room and hostesses, which I easily could have taken myself. Not sure about the logic of that, but anyway: I got my pictures! Here’s the best one:

Part of the festivities included carrying a portable shrine (??) around town. The process involves a lot of yelling/cheering, which I suspect is bolstered by the effects of alcohol. Anyway, even though I wasn’t really interested in the event per se, I managed to sneak up on the overpass to look down on the street and shoot a video. If you notice the obvious white people in the video, those are two of my coworkers, who somehow happened to get right in on the action! Anyway, even though I have a kind of emotional disassociation with these kinds of things, knowing that no made-up spirit or idol can hold a candle to my amazing Father, I still was interested in sharing a slice of Japanese festival atmosphere with you all. Here it is, for your viewing pleasure:

And this week, you also get a bonus track! During the city Sports Day I attended several weeks ago, a women’s drumming band performed, and I completely forgot to upload the video on that blog post! Of course I couldn’t help but think of certain family members who love the deep, rhythmic voice of drums. This one’s for you, Mom!

Snake Tales

Today, I saw my fourth snake of the year.

Why??!!

It was actually kind of ironic. Yesterday, at Japanese class, I was talking to two of the volunteer teachers about the snake I saw a few weeks ago. We got into a discussion about what kind of snake it might be, and one of the teachers informed me that a poisonous snake called mamushi (not the one I saw) might exist on the far side of Mount Katasone. Yes, that is the mountain which I have walked up several times, on the road that leads to the top. The last time I got to the top, I went tromping through the woods with one of my friends, following a path that led to etchings on various stones. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so eager to enter the forest if I’d known about this snake, which also goes by the name “Japanese pit viper.” I mean, my teacher said they lived on the far side of the mountain, but still. Does a snake really know enough not to cross onto my side of the mountain? I doubt it.

Again, today, I got into a discussion about snakes, this time with my friend. I was relating to her the conversation from Japanese class, and she started checking the Internet to see if she could find the kind of snake which so rudely picked up its head to stare at me a few weeks ago. We found something which I thought looked similar. The information was not very consoling. Apparently this snake CAN be venomous, although since its teeth are toward the back of the mouth it’s not super dangerous. I think the source described it as needing to chew on its victim? Not a very happy thought. In any case, for more information, feel free to check out the links below, which were my sources for the facts above. I’m not 100% sure that the snake I saw was the one in these articles (called Yamakagashi or a Tiger Keelback snake), especially since it wasn’t very long. But as far as I can remember, its markings were the same, and it did have that weird way of picking up its head to look at me that reminded me of a cobra. Here are the links, which I don’t recommend checking out unless you are not squeamish about snakes:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhabdophis_tigrinus

https://serbiaflorafauna.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/tiger-keelback-snake/

Anyway, back to my story. It was a beautiful fall day here – akibare, as they call it, or “autumn clear.” I wanted to get out and go for a walk, so I decided to take my usual loop around the river, following the road and crossing the river via the footbridge. As I have written about before, there are also a couple of large rocks which I’m fond of, down near the river. It seemed like a perfect day to go sit on the rocks and let the sun warm me up. However, ever since seeing multiple snakes this year, I’ve been hesitant to go down to the rocks, because I have to walk down the bank through some tallish grass. Because of that, and because I wanted some exercise, I decided to stick to my regular routine of walking on the road around the river.

I walked down one side of the road, crossed the river, and prepared to walk back on the other side. I saw something in the road ahead of me. It could be anything, really. I mean, I’m just primed to look for snakes right now. But it just seemed…unusual. Not quite like the twigs and leaves ordinarily in the road. I walked a few steps closer. Could it really be…but yes, it is…it really is a snake!

Umm…didn’t I pick walking on the road in order to avoid snakes??

As I was looking at the snake, which looked like it had already been run over, another car ran over it. However, I could see it moving a bit after, so I knew it was not yet dead. Much as I didn’t want to look at it, I was also curious about if it was the maybe-poisonous Yamakagashi snake that I thought I might have seen before. Picking up a twig so that I’d have something to throw at it if it started toward me, I walked close enough to see its markings, which contained no hint of the red that is on a Yamakagashi snake. Not quite brave enough to pass it, I turned around and walked back the way I had come. For the remainder of my walk, I tried to avoid the edges of the road, just in case another snake had the same brilliant idea to try sunning itself in my walking space. Fortunately, I made it back to my apartment with no other snake encounters, suffering from nothing else but the trauma in my mind.

So that’s end of my snake story, hopefully for the rest of my stay here. Although I detest being cold, suddenly I’m quite excited about the thought of winter. In winter I can walk ANYWHERE, with no fear of being ambushed by a snake. Until those frosty days come, though, I guess I’ll just have to be on the lookout. And now it’s time for me to get my mind onto cheerier topics. Please pray that I don’t have snake dreams tonight. 🙂

Talk to you all next week!

Only in Japan 5

Hi everyone! It’s been another busy week! Last week we had our first “English camp,” which is a day program that our team holds at local schools every October. This year, we’re doing a different school every Thursday for three consecutive weeks. It’s a lot of work, but it’s always fun!

On Saturday, our city hosted an “International Sports Day” for citizens and international residents. We were invited to be a part of that, so in the spirit of fostering community we went and participated in some team-building events such as rolling a bucket around a post using poles (with a partner), or hitting a ball through a croquet hoop and then snatching a snack from a “clothesline” with our mouths! It was fun to spend time with my team and to see some of the people from the community whom we know, as well as other international residents (this area has a sizable population of other Asians such as Vietnamese).

Due to still recovering from my cold, I was pretty tired on Saturday, but since the Sports Day events ended early I decided to take the afternoon train to Koriyama and run some errands. That’s where I met up with some interesting foods, which are the feature of today’s “Only in Japan” segment. Please refer to the picture below to see if you can guess what I ate for a snack! (Answers below!)

First off is the “melon bread” which I bought at a bakery in the train station. I’m not sure why melon bread is called by that name, except perhaps that it is in the shape of a melon? Anyway, it’s very popular here, and is usually plain white or dotted with mini chocolate chips. It is a sweetened roll covered with a crust of sugar. Occasionally, one can find other flavors of melon bread, such as the one above. This one is a pumpkin melon bread, in honor of fall. The outside was dyed green, with a walnut “stem,” and the inside was orange with a layer of pumpkin filling baked into the bread. I even found a small piece of pumpkin skin! (What they call pumpkins here are more like squash, and the skins seem to be edible once cooked. I guess American squash has edible skin too, only no one ever thinks to eat it.)

OK, onto mystery food number two. The drink in the picture above is a milkshake from McDonald’s, and was a new flavor which was also in honor of fall. And of course, what fall would be complete without one of Japan’s favorite foods…sweet potato! I really like sweet potato, so I actually enjoyed the milkshake quite a bit! Who knows, maybe it will take off in America in the future…?

In the theme of unique melon bread, here is another melon bread I found at the same bakery this summer. It was colored to look like a watermelon, and contained chocolate chips for the “seeds.” I wonder if it’s OK to call it watermelon melon bread?

Well, that’s all for this week. Hope you all have a wonderful week! Don’t forget to partake of your favorite fall foods, and if you try anything new and unusual let me know in the comments below!

Kindergarten Sports Day, Round Two

Hello everyone! It’s another great day in this wonderful and crazy land called Japan!

First, a short update. This weekend was the last of our long weekends for awhile (sniff, sniff). I was rather excited because I had a day trip planned to a random city in the southern part of the prefecture. It wasn’t anything that special, it just looked like an interesting place to visit. I tend to be a homebody (at least compared with some of my teammates!), so I was pleased to be getting out and exploring this country while I’m still in it.

However, my body had other plans.

Last Wednesday, I could feel just a touch of a cold. I seem to have a rather robust immune system which often gets only the hint of a virus, and usually heals after a couple of days. I credit it to getting plenty of sleep and eating lots of vegetables, although that’s really just a hypothesis. Anyway, I mentioned my mini-cold to my coworkers as we sat in the office waiting to teach, remarking that my colds don’t usually get very bad.

Well, that virus must have heard me, and it was mightily offended.

On Thursday, I woke up feeling about the same – just a little bit of an odd feeling in my throat. I felt rather energetic, and was excited that my body was heading back toward good health. Which was why I was very surprised when I woke up Friday and felt some soreness in my throat. Although tired, I pushed through the day, ending it with fatigue and a headache. On Saturday I noticed that my wee little cold had now morphed into an insidious beast that was starting to reside in my sinuses. Fortunately, I thought, I had planned my trip on Sunday, so I had Saturday to recover first.

On Sunday I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and knew that a trip was not a smart idea. Disappointed as I was, I could feel that my throat and sinuses had not significantly improved, and spending a day gallivanting about instead of resting could potentially make things worse. Not to mention the fact that I was probably still contagious. It turned out that staying home was a good plan, because I ended up feeling even worse in the evening.

Today is Monday, and I feel that I’m finally taking a turn for the better. I’ve been a bit frustrated that I had a whole three-day weekend in which I could not do anything that I had planned. However, it’s been very good for me, since I’m used to carefully constructing my life and schedule so that it follows my ideas and plans. It’s healthy (and humbling) for me to have my routine shaken up once in a while!

I’m sorry to report that, despite having three whole days of doing nothing this weekend, I STILL did not manage to write my blog post until the last minute. Therefore, except for this long narrative about my illness, I’ll keep my words to a minimum.

Basically, this week’s topic is about the kindergarten sports day which my coworkers and I attended last weekend. Since I wrote about it last year, I’ll try to post some videos of things I didn’t cover last year.

This year, again, we participated in two events with the parents. One was a ball-bouncing race (using beach balls, which of course fly all over the place), and the other was a jump-rope race (my favorite!). The parents participated in many of the events with the children, but these two were just the parents and us foreigners. Other events featured just the kids.

My favorite part (which I wasn’t able to record last year) was the kindergarteners showing off their gymnastics skills. The next few videos feature that, so enjoy the show!

Part of the gymnastics display was what I call “dominoes.” I’m not sure what they call it, but it’s my favorite part of the exhibition!

Well, that’s all for this week. Hope you all have a happy and productive week!

Samurai Parading and Boat Rowing

Last weekend, on our second long weekend in a row (yay!), our employers took us to Aizu’s annual samurai parade. Since we went last year, and I posted some pictures and videos of it then, I decided to focus on some different aspects of the parade.

First, the food!

The performances were pretty much the same as last year. But I still filmed a couple of my favorites:

In the video below, I didn’t realize until after I filmed that there is an annoying squeaky toy sound throughout. I guess one of the kids seated near us must have found the toy more interesting than the parade. In any case, it’s a good show!

This year, instead of visiting the nearby castle after the parade, our employers took us to Goshikinuma, a group of lakes in the highlands of Mount Bandai. First we ate at an excellent restaurant which served hamburg, which is kind of like meatloaf but less meatloaf-y. I guess we might call it Salisbury steak in the U.S.

Anyway, after our delicious lunch of hamburg, fresh crusty bread, and cake, we went to the lake. Unfortunately, we only had about an hour to spend, but we used our time wisely by going on a rowboat adventure and then hiking for the remaining twenty minutes.

It was a long day, but packed full of good experiences. I came back with a headache but lots of good memories. I’d really wanted to see the Goshikinuma lakes, so it was nice to be able to cross that off my bucket list, even though I didn’t get to spend nearly as long as I’d wanted to! But it was great to enjoy one of the final warm days of the season. It’s only going to keep getting cooler from here, so I’ll take summer while it lasts!

Only in Japan 4

Today’s “Only in Japan” post actually has two segments.

First “only in Japan:” karaoke.

Now, I’ve never done karaoke in America, so I don’t know exactly how it compares to Japan, but here you rent a small room with your friends. The room usually contains a table, seats, a TV screen that shows lyrics, and a couple of handheld devices with which to choose songs. Many places offer food and drink as well.

Last weekend, which was a long weekend, my teammates decided to have a karaoke night. This team seems to really love karaoke. Me, not so much. I like singing, and I usually sing a couple of songs (think: Disney and musicals), but the inner performer in me (if there is one) just doesn’t like to make much of an appearance in public. However, I do like spending time with my friends, so occasionally I’ll tag along on their karaoke trips.

When we went last weekend, we got the unlimited plan. I figured we’d stay maybe three hours while everyone sang their hearts out. Three hours later, everyone was still going strong. Everyone except me, that is. Somewhere after the third hour, the singer in me gave up, and I looked like this:

Photo credit goes to my friend Endia! It’s only true friends who take pictures of you sleeping, right?

Well, even if it’s not my forte, it’s another Japanese experience I can say I’ve tried!

Before the second “Only in Japan” segment for this post, I have a bit of a rabbit trail. Or should I say, a snake trail.

That’s right. *TRIGGER WARNING.* Snakes. (If you don’t like ’em, feel free to skip ahead to the line of asterisks. That’s where it’s safe to start reading again!)

I’ve gone a year and a half in Japan without seeing a single snake, much to my great delight. Then, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen three – two of them in one day (that’s today).

WHY????!!!!

Actually, I think I know why. The weather is finally getting cooler and dryer, so my hypothesis is that these cold-blooded creatures are venturing forth to sun themselves and warm their cold little hearts.

But it doesn’t mean it has to make me happy. Not at all.

Today, the weather was so fine that I decided to have a picnic. I trotted off to the grocery store to buy some food to take. On the shortcut path, I heard a rustle and looked down. Yes – there, on the path ahead of me, was a small snake. It was disturbed at my approach, and moved close to the stone wall that borders the path. I stopped and tried to regulate my breathing. I decided to be brave and move past it, even though I was afraid it would decide to move toward me instead of away from me. It didn’t. Crisis averted!

But sadly, my poor little heart didn’t know the danger wasn’t over yet. I brought my picnic to a nearby park, walking up the many cement steps to the grass at the top. I watched my step, not wanting to meet with another slithery creature. There was no sign of any reptiles about, so I walked to a bench and enjoyed my al fresco lunch.

Then, on my way back, as I walked down the cement steps, I heard another rustle. What?? Not again!! I stopped, startled, as another snake, this one larger than the first, reared its head up and looked at me. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Why are you looking at me like that, snake? Are you a cobra? I checked out the black and red pattern covering its back, wondering if this was an unfamiliar Japanese snake that could be poisonous. Doesn’t red and black indicate danger? Wait, no, that’s red and yellow. “Red and black, venom lack.” Or is that an old wives’ tale?

Before I could devise a plan of attack, the snake moved into the grass by the side of the path. I couldn’t see it anymore, but to make sure, I threw a piece of stick in its direction. I could then see that it definitely was moving up the hill and away from me. I continued down the steps, but not without keeping a sharp eye out for any more reptiles.

Much to my shame, I opted not to take the shortcut path home. I looked at it, knowing that I should be brave, but not willing to risk another encounter with a snake. Two is enough for one day. Actually, it’s enough for the rest of my time here. I don’t like winter, but I’m almost glad that soon the ground will freeze and put a little distance between me and slithery things. I try to look at my fear objectively, to remind myself that snakes won’t hurt me, that they’re more afraid of me than I am of them, etc., etc. But still, when I see one slinking along the ground, or even worse, rearing up to glare at me with its beady little eyes, all of my logic flies out the window. I’m sorry, snakes. I know you really don’t mean to appear creepy and evil. You just can’t help yourselves.

Anyway, back to the rest of my post…

**********************************************************************************************

Only in Japan, part two!

Last Monday, which was “Respect for the Aged Day” and a national holiday, one of my Japanese acquaintances took a coworker and I to a European-style coffee shop in a nearby town. It was nice to have the chance to go there, since it’s only accessible by car. On the way, we happened to pass some tanbo art displays. Tanbo art, or rice field art, is made when farmers plant different colored rice in a specific design. When the rice ripens, the design is revealed. Kind of like a corn maze, but…not.

I was actually really excited about the tanbo art, because I’ve heard about it but never seen it. Apparently there are some really large tanbo art displays in some other areas of Japan. These were quite small, but I still enjoyed seeing them. There was a platform set up in front of each display, so I clambered up each one and took some photos.

It’s Doraemon! (He’s one of Japan’s well-loved cartoon characters.)
A cute little pug.
A depiction of Takizakura, the thousand-year-old cherry tree that the town takes pride in.

Well, that’s all for this post. Between karaoke, snakes, and rice art, I think I’ve covered enough topics for one week. Check out my post next week to see about my adventures of this weekend (which happily was another long weekend!).

See you next week!

So Long, Summer

Well, last weekend came and went, and I realized that I did not write a blog post. Oops. This weekend is a long weekend – in honor of “Respect for the Aged Day”- so I really have no excuse.

Work has been normal, but busy. I never seem to have enough time to do everything I want to do, especially Japanese study. But I guess it’s better than being bored.

Last weekend I and the three other Wakakusa teachers participated in the kindergarten “summer” festival. (Originally it was supposed to be held in the summer, but because of the extreme heat this year, it was postponed until September). In keeping with tradition, we offered face painting to the children. Face painting is rather a novelty here, I understand. This year we had a very steady stream of children who wanted to have their faces (or hands) painted. It seemed like there was a lot more interest than last year. In fact, even after we were officially “closed,” some children still kept trickling in.

Since there were only three painting stations, I acted as facilitator, greeting students, keeping my teammates supplied with brushes, and taking photos – as you can see below.

My artistically talented teammate drew this advertisement for our face painting enterprise. She drew each of our faces, along with the four different symbols that we were offering to paint on the children’s faces.

All the students were wearing their yukata (summer kimono), and they were so beautiful!

There were a few lulls, but often we had students lined up waiting for their turn. Two of my coworkers and I also wore our yukata.

Guess who else wore a yukata this year? That’s right, good ol’ Colonel Sanders. This congenial fellow stands beside the KFC counter that’s inside my local grocery store, welcoming the Japanese population of KFC lovers. He seems to have a new outfit every season.

Sadly, yukata season is now coming to an end, and fall is beginning. In fact, I think Mr. Sanders is now sporting a Halloween outfit. It makes me feel melancholy to see summer go, but I shall attempt to look forward to the refreshing fall scenery, more three-day weekends, and the upcoming school events such as English camp and kindergarten Sports Day. I’m sure it will be a good season even if I’m not surrounded with my beloved summer heat…

 

Not About Japan

This has nothing to do with Japan, just something I’ve been thinking about lately in my own life. That deep, deep thirst within us that we try to satisfy with so many other things. It’s true that those things can be satisfying, but only one thing – one Person, rather – can actually touch that underlying craving within us. Why is it so easy for us to be distracted by other things, to ignore something that can so fully complete us?  I guess because we’re just so human…

On Water

Thirsty, so thirsty

We spend our lives

Chasing rivers,

Lakes, and ponds

Oceans of salt,

Puddles, mirages

Sipping, gulping, each

Swallow

Making us more

Parched

Than before.

Not daring

To taste

The one living Spring

Not daring

To drink

From a Fountain

That might set us

Free.

 

“Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water…Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst.” – John 4:10, 13a (NIV)

Camping with Kindergartners

View of Lake Inawashiro from the hotel.

Well, this year was a first for us. Our boss asked us four American teachers who work at the kindergarten to join the five-year-olds for their annual overnight camping trip, which was held last weekend. Although we weren’t too excited to have nearly a whole weekend taken away (though we did get some mornings off in exchange), it seemed like a good opportunity to spend quality time with some of our students.

On Saturday morning, the kindergarteners boarded buses and we teachers boarded a van, and away went our caravan to Lake Inawashiro. This, I was told, is the fourth largest lake in Japan. The surrounding area is covered with rice paddies, with Mount Bandai in the background. The rice is getting ready to be harvested, so it made for a pretty sight:

The overnight portion of the “camping” trip was to be spend at a hotel near the foot of the mountain, so that was where we all got off. We gathered in a lodge near the hotel (the hotel and surrounding buildings are used as a ski resort in the winter) and played some games led by the P.E. teacher, then sat on mats for a picnic-style lunch. Instead of sandwiches, we had the classic Japanese finger-food meal – onigiri, or triangular rice balls with different fillings (such as salmon flakes, pickled plum, or seaweed) covered in a wrapper of seaweed. Fried chicken provided some protein, which my American taste buds greatly appreciated.

After lunch, it was time for the kids to get in the pool, although the weather had turned overcast and windy. But the activities went ahead as planned, and since the whole idea of me and my coworkers’ going was to be involved with the children, my friend and I put on our swim gear and joined them. The pool time got cut a bit short when it actually started raining, but we still had the chance to get wet and have some fun with the kids.

The pool time was followed by another game time in the lodge. Some of the many adults in attendance (most of them kindergarten teachers and PTA members) dressed up in costumes and were the “judges” in a competition involving the students’ abilities to answer questions about cartoon characters, play hand games, and more. Dinner, which was held at the hotel, was the good old curry-and-rice standby (a favorite here in Japan!), followed by an outdoor campfire.

The campfire time included some children’s songs, a rather mysterious campfire-lighting by white-robed parents who recited wishes for the children (at least as far as I could understand), and some silly songs and dances which the parents and teachers performed.

Oh, and did I mention we had been asked to participate?

At the beginning of the week, my boss had asked my coworkers and I to figure out something to perform for the children. The winning idea was acting out the story of “The Three Little Pigs,” since it’s fairly easy to understand even across language barriers. We spent several hours that week gathering materials, thinking of lines, and running through the play a couple of times. Though it was quite an amateur job, involving a lot of fumbling and mumbling, we did manage to pull it off and I think at least be partially understood. The kids got a kick out of the “wolf,” played by my friend, who pretended to eat the children before turning on us, the three tasty-looking pigs. Instead of ending with a fall into the fireplace, which our flimsy one-dimensional foam “houses” simply would not accommodate, the wolf met her well-deserved end by huffing and puffing herself into a faint, whilst I (the sensible, brick-house-building pig, as decided by my friends) chased her off with a hammer.

The three demure pigs and one scary-looking wolf. I’m the pig in plaid, with the least artistically designed mask. Oink, oink.

Although I enjoy drama in general, performing is not my strong suit, so I was relieved when it was all over. Fortunately, we were able to have some free time after the campfire, so we polished off the evening with gift-shop and vending-machine snacks and a few rounds of Bananagrams.

Day #2 started off with a morning meeting and breakfast at the hotel. I was hoping for a Western-style breakfast, but was not very surprised to find that it was Japanese-style. The breakfast was a simple one – rice, miso soup, a couple of small sausages and pieces of weakly cooked bacon, and a “salad” consisting of dressing-topped lettuce leaves with a cherry tomato. We did get a cup of yogurt, which I was grateful for, and a carton of milk accompanied our standard glass of green tea.

After breakfast we officially left the hotel, although we spent the rest of the morning in the nearby lodge. Due to iffy weather, we did some exercises and games in the lodge in lieu of a hiking trip at the park, which to me was somewhat disappointing. What’s the point of a camping trip if you don’t spend much time outside? Although the view of the lake from the hotel window was gorgeous, I’d been really hoping, since we were so near it, to have some activities that were actually by the lake. Oh well. We did have the opportunity to “paint” (i.e. draw with markers) on some little traditional bobble-head type dolls, which are shaped in such a way as to always bounce back upwards even if they are pushed over.  I was happy to have a small souvenir to take away from the trip.

Lunch was another “picnic” indoors, at which onigiri was again the featured staple. Baked egg pieces and fried chicken were also provided, and of course, a bottle of green tea! It never ceases to amaze me at the amount of green tea that even the children drink around here. I guess everyone’s bodies must be loaded with antioxidants, or whatever green tea is known for.

Although it had been a good trip, we were all ready for departure time, which came shortly after lunch. It felt good to arrive home in the early afternoon and to be in my own apartment again, with some mental space to relax and decompress. Even though it was a type of “work,” I am glad that we had the opportunity to attend the trip. Every opportunity like this is a chance to learn new things and spend more time with the kids.

The weekend’s experience provided my coworkers and I with a lot of chances to compare and contrast Japanese and American culture. One thing that is hard to wrap our American minds around is the number of meetings that are held here. For this two-day trip, there was a meeting after lunch the first day, a morning meeting before breakfast on the second day, and a farewell meeting after breakfast that same day. The meetings consisted mostly of speeches, which in my opinion are difficult for five-year-olds to concentrate on. However, the students are taught to sit still and listen, and there are even expressions letting them know how to sit and stand. There’s an expression, often used at schools, which means “Let’s have good posture,” and the kids instantly know that they’re supposed to sit (or stand) up straight. I mean, where in the U.S. do schools place such an emphasis on good posture?

On this trip, I realized anew how important it is for the Japanese to have clear-cut beginnings and endings, and to spend almost as much time talking about activities as they do implementing them (or so it seems to me!). Several times over the weekend, the students were reminded either of the upcoming activities or of the ones they had already participated in. “What are some of the activities you did today? That’s right, you had lunch, you went in the pool, you played some fun games, you had a delicious dinner…We have more fun things to do tomorrow, so let’s get some sleep tonight and participate in them energetically tomorrow!” I’m very loosely paraphrasing and melding together bits of the different speeches I heard, but that’s the basic idea. To us Americans, for whom action and forging ahead with life seem to be the standard, taking time to repeatedly review past and future activities and remind students of correct behaviors can seem a bit superfluous to us.

Looking back, I suppose this trip was just as much a learning experience for me as for the kids. Learning about another culture is so fascinating, and even though it can be frustrating to actually live it out and have to deal with the differences on a day-to-day basis, it’s also a good way to widen my one-dimensional point of view and to think about different ways of doing things. There are probably always things I’ll never quite get used to in this culture, but there is so, so much that I appreciate. I’m thankful for the opportunity to participate in every aspect of this culture, meetings and all!

Talk to you next week!