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Both of my schools had their graduation ceremonies on March 1st. I attended the one at Hikone Nishi. It was freezing in the gym, but nevertheless quite an impressive - and emotional - occasion. The parents (almost all mothers), first and second years, VIP guests (the mayor and head teachers from local junior high schools) and teachers assembled in the gym, then the graduating third years filed in. Of course, the ceremony followed a set formula, which involved lots of bowing for everyone present. First was the opening address, then national anthem, school song, and roll-call of graduating students followed by presentation of something (presumably the certificates) to a representative. Then there was the Principal's address, after which the VIP guests were introduced, congratulatory telegrams (or something) were read out, awards were presented for three years' perfect attendance (achieved by nine students) and the third years presented some kind of gift to the school. A representative second year student made a speech called the souji, and a third year girl responded with another speech called the touji. She was in tears by half way through it, and did well to get to the end. After that all that remained was the song "Hotaru no hikari" (a Japanese version of Auld Lang Syne, also played in shops at closing time) and the closing address. By the time they filed out of the gym, most of the third year girls - and a few of the boys - looked as if they were struggling not to cry. I was close to tears myself, even though I couldn't understand what they were saying and barely even knew any of them! I'll be even worse next year, when my 80 current ninensei kateika (second year domestic studies) girls graduate - they're all really nice kids.

After the ceremony, the third years had a homeroom session, then they all went mad with their disposable cameras. I was asked to feature in quite a few photos, even though I hardly knew any of the students.


March 3rd was Hina-matsuri, translated as "Doll Festival" or "Girls' Day". (There is also a "Children's Day" later in the year but that's celebrated as more of a "Boys' Day".) As far as I can make out, Hina-matsuri involves putting a pair of boy and girl dolls on display, and possibly having tea parties and dressing up in kimono. On the 2nd all the female teachers at Hikone Nishi had a lunch prepared by some of the domestic studies teachers, with the requisite dolls on display at the end of the table.

On the day of the festival I visited a lady called Kazue-san who lives not far from me. She'd got my name and number from the guy who collects the TV licence money, and called me out of the blue earlier in the week to invite me to afternoon tea. If a complete stranger called me up like this in the UK then I'd be very wary, but in Japan it's a different matter, so I went along. Kazue speaks very good English, having spent time in the US and studied at Glasgow University for three years. Her husband is a South-African-born German who teaches English at a local university, and she assists him. They have a five- or six-year-old daughter, Erika, who understands and speaks far more English than most adult Japanese, because she's been brought up with English and Japanese being spoken at home on alternate days. The 3rd, being an odd number, was an English day. I was served with a Hina-matsuri trifle consisting of pink, white and green layers with a pair of "dolls" (presumably made of fondant icing) decorating the top, and coconut ice in the same colour scheme. The pink, white and green theme may have been traditional, but trifle and coconut ice are definitely not typically Japanese! There were also some traditional Japanese sweets - also pink, white and green - which tasted like rice paper and probably had much the same ingredients but with a higher sugar content.

"See you again" camp

Another IFS kids' camp took place at Maki Beach, Omi-Hachiman, on 4th-5th March. This was the postponed Snow Camp, which had been renamed to "See you again camp", presumably because of the anticipated lack of snow. As it turned out, it rained all day on the Saturday. Sunday was fine though.

The camp started late on Saturday afternoon with a session of self-introductions, then a getting-into-groups-of-different-sizes activity, then preparation of the evening meal. By the time the meal had been finished and the clearing up had been done, it was a bit late to be organising any more activities, but I somehow ended up teaching the Highland Fling to about half of those present. I was regretting it by Monday; the dance involves a lot of hopping on the ball of the foot, and as a result of my unaccustomed exertions, my calf muscles completely seized up and I could hardly walk for a couple of days!

Highland Fling
Teaching the Highland Fling.

After the children had gone to bed I taught Strip the Willow to the staff, over in the other cabin. On this camp we were sharing the cabins with a group of "carpenters" who were doing some voluntary work around the site. Each group had one cabin during the day, but at night all the kids were in one cabin and the adults in the other. The four staff from the carpenters' group disappeared up to the loft section as soon as we mentioned dancing, but once they'd heard the ensuing hilarity it didn't take much to tempt them down to join us.

The next morning we were rudely awakened before 6am by some carpenter children looking for "Bob", one of their leaders. Didn't get much peace after that. I'll remember my earplugs next time! After breakfast we did a music-based activity where the kids had to count the number of times a particular word occurred in a song. (Finding suitable songs was less easy than you might think; we ended up using "Imagine" (very easy) and then one called "Mary Mary" by an Irish band called Goats Don't Shave.) Next was Strip the Willow, which we managed to teach fairly successfully - though I'd have been struggling if I hadn't already taught it to the staff. However, getting the girls and boys to dance together wasn't very easy. In the end we had them pair up as same-sex couples, and adorned one of each pair with cellophane tape "ribbons" to show that they were the girls. It worked a bit better after that. We also held a race to see which group could complete the dance first.

Strip the Willow
Strip the Willow.

After that there was some free time, then lunch. Justin produced a pair of drumsticks and made a drumkit out of buckets, parcel tape and pan lids, which proved quite popular.

Kids in a tree.

Justin's makeshift drumkit. This was at a fairly early stage in its evolution; later on the pan lids (and various other hittable things) were suspended from a set of ladders.

After lunch there was a bit more free time, then the children wrote their reflections on the camp before the closing ceremony. Not a very formal ceremony, but this being Japan, there had to be a ceremony of some description!

Traditional British cuisine

Tuesday 7th March was a big cooking day. In the afternoon I made bread and butter pudding, served with custard, with ESS at Hikone Nishi. British puddings are difficult to explain to a nation that thinks "pudding" is a little plastic tub of creme caramel-type stuff, and has no notion of custard other than in the name of custard cream biscuits! Both the bread & butter pudding and the custard were a big hit. We made enough for 12 people, with the intention of giving some away, but when they tasted it the students said they wanted to eat it all themselves! We didn't quite manage to get through it all, but we did pretty well. Actually we did give some to Mori-sensei, who had lent us the oven, and a couple of days later she gave me a thank-you note and some very nice cake she'd made, and asked me for the recipe!

Bread & butter pud Bread & butter pud
Our bread and butter pudding.

Incidentally, we did the cooking in the seminar house. Apparently every school has one of these, and they're used for various club activities such as weekend camps. Going to school for a weekend camp sounds a bit strange to me, but evidently it's quite normal here. Downstairs there's a teachers' room, toilets, kitchen and dining room, laundry room, and store-room, and upstairs there's a big tatami room, a washroom and another room that was locked but, judging by the entrance, looked like another tatami room. Maybe the schools sometimes lend/hire their seminar houses out to other schools or organisations; that would make more sense to me.

That day was also Shrove Tuesday, so I held a pancake party at my apartment in the evening. Can't have Shrove Tuesday without pancakes! (For any North Americans reading this, I believe Shrove Tuesday is known as Fat Tuesday in your part of the world. The British tradition is to binge on pancakes - thin, crepe-y ones, not thick ones. Traditionally they're served with sugar and lemon juice, but maple syrup is also very popular, and of course other fillings can be used too. The roots of this tradition lie in using up all the eggs and rich, fatty foods in the house before the beginning of Lent.)

Pancake party Pancake party Pancake party
Shrove Tuesday pancake party.

English Festival

The English Festival, hosted by my visit school, had originally been planned for late January, but the date had been changed to the afternoon of Monday 13th March, which was after the exams so none of the schools would have any afternoon lessons. This was mainly so that other ALTs would be willing/able to attend. We don't usually work Saturdays - if we're asked to then we're entitled to daikyu (time off in lieu) - and on a Monday afternoon after the exams we'd all have been at school anyway, but probably not doing anything productive. It had been approved by the relevant committee, but then Mr. Tsuji from the prefectural Board of Education unexpectedly stepped in and said (without giving a reason, as far as I can make out) that it had to be at the weekend. Mr. Tsuji being the authority, his ruling could not be questioned; this is just one of those things you have to live with in Japan. So the festival had to be rearranged for Saturday 11th, which meant not only few ALTs but also few students. When my base school received the invitation to the event they told me that I couldn't have daikyu for it, so I said OK, if I didn't get daikyu then I wouldn't give up my Saturday afternoon to do the festival. When I said this my supervisor made a 30-second phone call to the teacher in charge of the festival and everything was miraculously sorted - all that was needed was for her to send an official letter asking me to do it, which of course she had no problem with; she'd already told me that my visit school would be happy to give me the daikyu even if it was unofficial. But my base school was trying to get away with classing the English Festival as a "voluntary" activity - like they do with ESS. I can't really argue about ESS though, because we've only actually had about eight meetings since September (before and during exams there are no club activities, and some weeks they just don't bother to show up), and I do have free time during the day, during and after exams. I could leave school early during exam week if I wanted to, but unless I'm in a hurry to go somewhere I usually stay all day; the staff room is nice and warm/cool, depending on the season, and I can use the time to surf the Internet or study Japanese.

Anyway, getting back to the English Festival...
When I got there, we were expecting a total of ten participants (students) from three schools. The other two schools were Hachiman and Higashi Otsu High Schools; three students, the ALT (Martin and Olivia, respectively) and a JTL (Japanese teacher of languages) came along from each. The beginning of the event was also attended by a guy from the prefectural office who gave a very impressive speech in English. (It was obviously recycled from a speech contest because at one point he said "speech co-" before stopping and correcting himself, but it was all from memory so he did very well regardless.) Our ranks were swelled significantly by a few Hachiman Technical boys who joined us after their basketball practice, bringing the total number of students up to 16.

After the opening ceremony, the first activity was "Find someone who" bingo: each person was given a bingo grid and had to go round asking questions until they'd filled in their grid by finding someone who lived in Otsu, someone who liked swimming, someone who had an email address, and so on. Next, we split the students into three groups by giving each one a sheet of paper with a city name written on it; each student had to work out which country their city was in and attach themselves to the appropriate ALT: Martin for Canada, Olivia for New Zealand or me for the UK. Each group then chose one of six Japanese fairy tales and had to prepare a short play to act out the story. (We'd considered using Western fairy tales but decided that it would be a daunting enough task for them to perform even familiar stories in a foreign language.) The preparation took quite a long time and they were still under-rehearsed when the time came to put on the performances, but we were all in the same boat so it didn't matter. Most of the students were pretty self-conscious about the acting side of it though. I would have been too, in their position, but this had been the central activity used in previous English Festivals and I'd already changed most of the other activities so I didn't really want to replace this one too. Once the performances were finished, we gave them the choice between learning a Scottish dance (you guessed it, Strip the Willow) and playing bingo. Bingo won, so we did that until we'd had a few winners and then it was time to finish.

English Festival English Festival
English Festival.

Sagi-cho festival

The English Festival wasn't the only festival in Omi-Hachiman that weekend; there was also the (considerably more popular) Sagi-cho matsuri, held in the area around the Hachiman-gu shrine. This was a sight worth seeing!

A Japanese city consists of a number of chos, formerly small towns, and each cho had spent the last few weeks - and a considerable amount of money - building a float, or "mikoshi". The centrepiece of each mikoshi was a dragon (this being the year of the dragon) and background, both composed as far as possible of food. They were really impressive, many of the dragons with scales composed of thousands of small fish. There were 13 floats altogether, each carried by about 25-30 drunken men, most of them disguised as women and with their hair dyed outlandish colours. Apparently they used to wear kimono, but their mothers and grandmothers must have got sick of their expensive kimono being ruined! A few ALTs were involved, and I saw a few of my students too. I only spotted one who was helping to carry a mikoshi - he was one of my Architecture students at Hachiman Technical - but no doubt there were also others whom I didn't recognise!

Mr. Mori & friend
One of my students from Hachiman Technical, with a friend.

All day on Saturday they paraded around the area chanting "yada yada" (I have no idea what this means) and frequently collapsing under the weight of the mikoshi - or maybe from the alcohol - then on Sunday they did the same again, but this time holding random battles between mikoshi as well. They would ram each other and then yell "sei no sei" repeatedly as they tried to tip each other over. As for safety, if you didn't want to get injured then it was your own responsibility to get out of the way! A lot of mikoshi seemed to disappear for varying periods during the course of the day, presumably for repairs and recovery, but they all reappeared in the evening, when they lined up in the space in front of the shrine and were set alight. Four or five were burned at a time, each one separately, so there were several bonfires, most of them with a few fireworks built in. Again crowd control was left up to the crowd; there were a few firemen present, but they didn't appear to have a water supply at their disposal!

Dragon's head made of fish Sagi-cho Sagi-cho Sagi-cho Liquid sustenance
Mikoshi and inter-mikoshi battles.

The canal in Omi-Hachiman (that's a mikoshi on the bridge).

Burning mikoshi Burning mikoshi
Setting the mikoshi alight (and dancing/staggering round the fire).

The Sagi-cho matsuri is held on the middle weekend in March, so if you ever find yourself in the Shiga (or Kyoto) area around that time then it's well worth going along. In the summer there seem to be festivals going on all the time, but at this time of year they're relatively few and far between.

Weather and blossom

The weather for the first week of March was mostly fine and relatively warm, but the snow wasn't over yet. It got considerably colder about a week into March, and we had a couple more days of snow.

The NHK morning weather report now includes coverage of the state of the different types of blossom in various parts of the country. They seem to be talking mainly about plum blossom at the moment, but cherry blossom (sakura) is the big one. I think this is because the weather is getting warmer by the time the cherry blossom flowers, so you're less likely to fall victim to hypothermia if you have too much to drink at a "hanami" (flower-viewing) party and pass out for the night. I found a website showing the optimum cherry blossom viewing times across Japan; the date for this part of the country was April 3rd, but maybe the current cold weather will delay it a bit. Hikone Castle has a lot of cherry trees so it's particularly popular at sakura time. I've also just found out that as a Hikone city resident I'm entitled to a free pass that gives me three years' worth of entry to the castle and Genkyu-en garden, which is obviously good news!

Off to China

Early in the morning on March 16th, I departed on a 2½ week trip to Hong Kong and China. The trip is covered elsewhere on this site.

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© Lynne Donaldson
This page last edited 18th October 2002