Year two

I’m about three weeks late on a “back to school” post, which is in fact a consequence of actually being back at school and busy again. But, solidly into my second year here in Japan, the calendar has begun to repeat itself.

The elementary school students have been in a frenzy of preparation since returning from summer vacation, getting ready for their sports day. In terms of preparation and exposure, sports days (undokai) are perhaps the most important of the year for elementary schools. The entire community, from parents and siblings to alumni and neighborhood swells, turn out for the festivities. Although nominally a “sports” day, the agenda calls for songs and dances in addition to displays of athleticism. The entire affair is elaborately choreographed and planned out to the minute.

Tomorrow is the big day, but since my camera is still on the PUP list, I can’t promise any photos. If you missed my post last year, there are some pictures here.

While the calendar is doubling back, I’m understandably in a different place to experience these events than I was the first time around. One of the reasons I came to Japan was to have new experiences, and in that respect, my first year here certainly delivered. Now, gearing up for take two, these experiences don’t seem totally new, but neither are they old hat. I’ve traded a measure of uncertainty and excitement for a little familiarity, and so far, it’s a trade I’m glad to have made.

In that vein, the school year is off to a smooth smart, especially relative to a year ago, when I was still trying to figure out what the expectations were. Like any job, there are occasional frustrations and disappointments, but I feel much better equipped to deal with them now because they are no longer a surprise. My Japanese has also gotten better, and though the improvements are mostly social rather than occupational in nature, every little bit makes life easier.

One big difference is how much busier I am now than I was this time last year. In addition to school, I’m now involved with extracurricular English classes two nights a week. I’m in the midst of applying to graduate schools. And, because I’ve gotten to know some people over the last year, my social calendar has gotten more crowded as well. By and large, these are all welcome additions to my schedule, but they have left less time for things like blogging.

Of course, at this time last year, I was also training for a marathon, which took up quite a considerable amount of time. Finally, after a two-week layoff that turned into ten months, I can say that I am back to running regularly. My injured knee, which sent me to four different doctors and a physical therapist over the last year, seems to be almost totally recovered. That’s not definitive yet–since I started training again three weeks ago, my mileage has been extremely modest, and I’m still experiencing occasional tightness–but the problem swelling is all but gone, and the sharp pains have disappeared completely.

I’m moving forward gingerly, but so far, I’ve got reason to be cautiously optimistic. My conservative goal is to be able to run the Unzen-Obama Half-Marathon in January, a race I registered for last year but was unable to compete in do to injury. If that goes well, I’m hoping to take another shot at 26.2 when I get back to the U.S. But, for now, baby steps.

Now, as I close in on 10 months left in Japan, I’m faced with a new challenge: trying to plan my schedule in such a way that I get to see and do as much as I can before I leave. I was in the neighboring prefecture of Kumamoto last weekend, where I finally got to see Kumamoto-jo, the huge castle that ranks among the most famous in Japan. You’ll recall I tried to go to Kumamoto-jo last year before New Year’s, but was rebuffed. This time, I got in without having to scale the walls, which would be pretty difficult, since they were built at an angle to repel ninja attacks.

It’s likely that more weekend trips like that will be in the offing this year. Partly, this is because I’ve now seen most of what there is to see on the Shimabara Hanto, but mostly, it’s because my Japanese has improved to the point that traveling no longer feels ripe with anxiety. (Though it’s not completely without its travails. We were unable to take the ferry back to Shimabara as planned because a typhoon grounded all ships. I was just fortunate to be with a friend who not only possesses a Japanese driver’s license but also the skills to negotiate a car rental.)

So, while such trips will hopefully make for quality blog material, they’ll further cut into my writing time. I’m not saying the weekly-ish posts you’ve come to know and love are going extinct, but that there may be stretches where I am delinquent. Please hold it against me, and feel free to let me know about it, since animosity is a powerful motivator.

Lastly, I’d like to add that for those who offered condolences in the wake of my last post, fear not. At 4:55pm on Thursday, the Chuck Town Deuce was recovered by chance, having been considerately abandoned at a bike rack near the bus station.

It’s clear to me now, after having two “stolen” bikes subsequently discarded at said bike rack, that the thefts in question are mostly of a joy-riding nature, which is strange, since both of my bikes are uncomfortable and hardly a joy to ride. Anyway, while a culture of liberal bike “borrowing” is preferable to one of out-and-out thievery, I will still be locking the Chucks up from now on. Reunited, and it feels so good.

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Small world, after all

I work at seven different elementary schools, and while they all have their charms, I find two of them particularly interesting. Kazusa has four elementary schools with a total enrollment of slightly less than 300. For a rural area, this isn’t remarkable in itself, but you would probably expect the students to be evenly apportioned amongst the four schools, with 60-80 students attending each. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Higashi elementary school, across the street from my apartment, has about 180 students. Noda, the second largest, has around 70. The last two schools–Tsubami and Yamaguchi–have 18 and 12 students, respectively. All four schools serve grades one through six.

It isn’t just the tiny size of the schools that I find unusual. It’s that they exist in relatively close proximity to one another. Yamaguchi is 10 minutes from Higashi by car, maybe less. Tsubami is slightly further from my apartment, but it’s on the same side of the river as Noda, so the distance between them is probably around 10 minutes as well. And yet, while it would seem that they have four public schools doing the work of two, Kazusa keeps them all operational and fully staffed.

All this begs the question: why not absorb Tsubami and Yamaguchi into the two larger schools? I don’t know, exactly, but I think there are a few factors that play into the decision. First, busing doesn’t seem to exist here the way it does in America. I’ve heard tell of school buses in other, presumably larger districts, but I haven’t seen anything of the sort in Kazusa. Indeed, the vast majority of students walk or ride their bike to school. It’s hard to say whether that is just a by-product of having four schools–in that one of the four is walking distance from just about anywhere in Kazusa–or whether they have four schools specifically so that all students can commute on foot if necessary. The varied topography of Kazusa also plays a role. Both Tsubami and Yamaguchi are separated from the main part of Kazusa Town by mountains (Yamaguchi literally means “mouth of the mountain”). In addition, having their own elementary school seems to be a source of pride for both neighborhoods. When I was at Yamaguchi, they were preparing the school for Sports Day (more on that in a minute), and at least 15 older men from the community turned up to help out. That’s a considerable show of support for a school with 12 total students.

Lastly, I think inertia is a factor. Tsubami and Yamaguchi both have these wonderful single-story wood buildings that look nothing like the institutional facilities of other Japanese schools. In a way, they would seem more fitting of a museum or gallery than a school, if not for all the cartoons and screaming children. You can tell just by walking through them that they are relics of the era in which they were built, when every neighborhood needed its own school because commuting by car wasn’t a reality. To an extent, I think, they exist because they have always existed, and nobody at the Board of Education can bear to shut them down. Which is a good thing, because they are delightful places to work.

A school this small affords some unique benefits to its teachers. For one thing, it is very easy to engage individually with each student, because there are no more than six of them in a given class (and often four or fewer). This also means that students are very well behaved even by Japanese standards, which is saying something. It’s hard to get away with mischief in the back of the class when there are only three desks in the room. And, lastly, you can actually learn your students names–with only 12 of them, you really don’t have any excuse.

All the elementary schools have Sports Day on the same Sunday, so while I was at Yamaguchi for the setting up, I went to Higashi for the actual event because it’s so close to my apartment. For much of the past month, I have watched the students at my various elementary schools practicing marching and dance routines for Sports Day, and it all seemed quite silly and excessive until the curtain went up and I saw what Sports Day really entails. It is a massive production, with banners and flags festooned all around the schoolyard, and party tents erected all around the track so that spectators can watch from the shade. And there were plenty of spectators. At Higashi alone, there had to be over a thousand people in attendance, making Sports Day by far the largest gathering I have witnessed in Kazusa to date.

And the event itself, my goodness. It lasts for six hours, and apart from a break for lunch, the action is virtually continuous. Races, relay races, marches, elaborate dance routines, wacky obstacle courses, and a tug of war, all precisely scheduled and choreographed down to the minute. Sports Day has everything, except actual team sports, of which there are none. But it isn’t all the students–there are special events for teachers and parents to get involved and make fools of themselves, too. I took some pictures and video, and while I don’t have time to upload it now, it may make an appearance over the weekend.

I’ve got a few other items to relate, but they seem like another post entirely, so I’ll hold off and leave you with another installment of everyone’s favorite serial, Curiosities of Japan. In this episode: Drug Culture in Japan!

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this before in this space, but the Japanese regulate drugs extremely carefully. This includes traditionally controlled substances like marijuana or opiates, but in Japan, virtually all prescription medications are controlled substances. Something as simple as contact lenses requires a nauseating amount of paperwork to bring into the country, even in quantities that are only suitable for personal use.

And yet… one of my middle-school students brings a towel with him to school emblazoned with the phrase, “No Reggae, No Life, No Ganja, No Life.” I asked him if he knew what it meant and he just shrugged, so I’m assuming he just likes the rasta color-scheme. This is amusing to me because the Japanese think that American laws regarding drug use are permissive, but there is no way–no way–a student would be allowed to bring an item like that to school in the US. I have to guess that none of the teachers know what it means, either, because it isn’t like he’s hiding it at all. There’s another student that has a sticker on his pencil case that says “Cannabis” above a picture of a pot leaf.

So the next time a Japanese person tells you that American drug culture is morally reprehensible–which I’m sure happens on a daily basis–you tell him that Peter Tosh wants his towel back.