Monday, October 20, 2008

Sports Day!

Growing up in Minnesota, my elementary school had field day. It was a once a year opportunity to skip classes for an extended period of gym. It seems the youthful jocks could not make me feel inadequate enough during our regularly scheduled gym class, so they got a special holiday for just that purpose. That was my adolescent outlook on physical education, anyway. I have since improved my ability a bit, and my attitude more so.

From what I can see, every Japanese school has a special day that translates as Sports Day. It is like American Field Day, plus a truckload of steroids. The format is as follows: Sports Day is on a Saturday. The entire school (staff & student) attends. Everyone gets the following Monday off. Everyone is divided between two teams, red and white. The day is an excuse for teachers to wear their new tracksuits. They all do. There is a great deal of pride involved, and the losing team cries. But to be fair, the victors may also cry.

I have heard accounts of these Sports Days from other ALTs. Being at a mountain school, my day was slightly different. Ikawa Junior High is the smallest junior high in the district, so they combined with the elementary school and kindergarten for a total of 22 students. This was still not enough, so the teachers and townspeople joined in. With a local population of 700, we had a turnout of roughly 200 people at the Ikawa Sports Day.

To prepare, students and staff left school after lunch on Friday and met at the elementary school, where the bigger field was located. There, a healthy handful of locals came to assist with setup. Tents were hoisted, a track was chalked, international flags flown high, and various items carried around. The tents were substantial, but probably did not require the two-dozen people that helped to put each one up. If I stood still, I was asked to help, and when I helped, I was in the way. Every age group assisted, but the retired old men ran the show. Readily available, and eager to make something, the majority of the two-dozen tent-raisers were in the retired old man faction. You have never seen such incompetence as a collection of competence with the same goal. Two-dozen master chefs destroying a simple broth. I stood aside, and the tents eventually found their way up.

The next morning, I walked with the teacher group to the elementary field (all the teachers live in the same dorm). Townsfolk trickled in, and we saw to the final touches of setup. A group of women working over numerous cutting boards and two cauldrons, oversaw the miso soup that would be for lunch. They faired much better in the group effort than their male counterparts.

There was an opening ceremony, where a guy who must be important talked, the kindergarteners took turns speaking to announce something, and the three sixth graders played some huge mountain horns that the elementary school saves for special occasions (they let me blow one once). Then everyone participated in a group stretch routine. (you saw the photos in the Thriller post) They played some goofy and really perky song over the loudspeakers that barked commands in Japanese. I started out mimicking other’s movements, but was soon very lost. I later heard that everyone learns that stretch at a young age. I missed out

The games began. The first was a goofy relay for the elementary and kindergarten. Little kids rode on shoulders as the bigger kids ran fifty paces to a pole. On the pole were loosely clipped packages of individual rice crackers. The kids grabbed them in their teeth and rode their partners back to the starting line. Then roles reversed, and the little ones led their bigger, and now blindfolded, partners to the rice cracker distribution pole. Too much fun to quit, the organizers summoned the principals and me to participate. Once blindfolded, I was given the hand of my partner. It was tiny. I was teamed with a three-year-old boy. Adorable, but not the greatest competitor.

Throughout the day the events varied greatly and had multiple categories. Men’s, women’s, youth, adult, and elderly. And not just athletic competition, but there were also exhibition events. A group of women performed as a dance troupe in special colorful outfits. Japan loves these dance routines, and makes use of them at many festivals. The same dance number was repeated a few times, and more groups joined in. There was a tug-of-war that I joined in on, losing once and winning once. The final athletic event was the adult relay, a 4X150m (approx) foot race. This was the one event I new I would be participating in with advance notice. For everything else I was dragged out. We got fourth of five.

After all the events, the fire department (who had competed, as well as the police), made use of the assembly to give a fire safety seminar and demonstrate their equipment. People took turns spraying the extinguishers in the dirt and hoses in the trees. The day was a fantastic time, and an all-around positive sporting experience. Being off in the mountains, Ikawa is free to do things a little different than the city folk. They dropped the competitive edge, and boosted the community engagement. I cannot remember if I was on the red or white team, but I do recall we lost by a small margin. I did not see any tears.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Townspeople spontaneously perform Thriller

Combating the monotony of mountain life, at least one hundred Ikawa residents performed segments of Michael Jackson's popular Thriller dance routine.

"Like nothing I have ever seen," said an undisclosed source.

The performance contained representatives of every age group, but was primarily the elders of the community. Many had track suits, but few had rhythm.

Asked for comment, temporary village squatter, Davin, said, "I am not entirely sure that this happened. In fact, I do not think it did. Hey, you don't look like a reporter?"

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Engineered Slop Appeal

As I sit down and type, I have just returned from my first kanji lesson. This morning I was invited to sit in on Vice Principal Mochizuki’s calligraphy class with the 7th grade students. I started out by writing my name in Katakana. Ms. Hanamura, my tutor for the class, laid my name out on a sheet of paper so that I may use it as a guide. I went through seven or eight sheets practicing my stroke order and brush control.

I might as well had used a magic marker. My quickly scrawled Japanese John Hancock looked dull and malnourished when compared to the juicy lines of what I was trying to emulate. Ms. Hanamura and Mr. Mochizuki determined my best piece and placed it aside. Before tackling the next word, I wandered the room to see how the students were fairing. The word of the day that I would shortly join them in practicing was “dream.” The first thing I noticed was the speed, or lack of it, with which they moved. I understood that we were practicing writing, and so I wrote quickly. My results were ugly. What they were doing was closer to drawing.

I set to work on “dream.” The word comes in two vertically stacked parts, the first in nine strokes and the second in seven. I slowed down for this round, and plumped up my lines. This time they were thick. Too thick. There was no variation. Thick lines complimenting thick lines insults the art of Kanji. My fat little dream stared up at me, wanting a Snickers bar. A few more passes, and things improved. Seems more esthetic than practical, but I would like to learn more Kanji.

What struck me the most was the control. Not just of the brush, but the whole outcome. Every shift and shuffle of the brush is an intentional move. The contact when it first engages the paper is angled just right. Pressure is lifted then reapplied and the stroke thins and thickens accordingly. And to finish, the stroke slowly trails off, immediately lifts, or thickens and then cuts to a sharp point. The last one is lovely and most difficult for me. Each of the motions is practiced, the final result being organic, flowing, and casual.

The casual presentation is in truth completely intentional. It is like the model with a hairstyle that looks fresh off the pillow, but we all know a world class stylist spent a great deal of time to primp it just so. The manufactured natural look.

Regardless of the language, I have always been a fan of the unique traits that appear in writing. A flick of the wrist and pen or brush trails off. Too much ink and you get a bulge or drip. The beauty is born of those fine serendipitous details that occur. But here, where such unteachable things are taught, we learn a uniform uniqueness. It is said of Japan, that the nail who sticks up shall be hammered back down.

So then it is okay to draw outside the lines, just so long as that is the way you were taught…