New Years or 'Oshogatsu' in Japan is a very important holiday. Each year in Japan is considered to be completely separate from the others so the start of a New Year is a way for people to start over with a clean slate. People decorate their homes with a traditional decoration of pine and bamboo called a Kadomatsu. People set a pair of Kadomatsu on either side of their front door to welcome the harvest spirits. You also see very fancy Kadomatsu in front of businesses. Another traditional decoration is the Kagami Mochi. It consists of two mochi rice cakes stacked on top of each other with on orange on the very top. The mochi rice cakes represent the going and coming year while the orange represents continuation of family. Generally these decorations are placed in the household Shinto altar but some people will put a few in various rooms of the house.
At the end of December many coworkers and friends have Bonenkai's (forgetting the past year party). These are drinking parties were everyone forgets their troubles of the past year. My friends and I had one on the 28th and everyone easily forgot their problems as it was a Nomikai (all you can drink party). On December 31st many people eat soba and watch the music show "Kohaku". This show is a competition of the most famous and popular Japanese enka and J-pop musicians. They are divided into a red team (female vocals) and a white team (male vocals). I did not watch the show but the winner this year was the J-pop boy band Arashi (Japanese version of Backstreet Boys). On New Years day children get Otoshidama from their parents and relatives. Otoshidama are essentially fancy envelopes with money inside. A lot of my Junior High School asked me for Otoshidama.
During the first few days of January people eat a traditional meal called Osechi. This is a meal consisting of seaweed, fish cakes, black beans, herring roe, egg custard, mashed sweet potatoes, and various vegetables. This meal was originally eaten because families could not buy food as nobody worked for the first few days of New Years. Another tradition that happens within the first few days of the New Year is Hatsumode. This is when a person visits a shrine for the first time that year. During the visit people buy new Omamori (good luck/protection charms) and return their old Omamori which are burned at the shrine. People also buy Omikuji which are fortunes written on small pieces of paper. The bigger shrines in Japan will attract a lot of people for Hatsumode. One year the Meji shrine in Tokyo attracted 3.4 million people in only 3 days.
For those that don't know, the 'Kancho' is the bane of the ALT (Assistant Language Teacher). You take your hands and clasp them together with both index fingers pointed out. Your hands should look like a gun, the index fingers being the barrel. Now you simply wait until one of your friends has their back turned, then ram your index fingers into their butt and yell "Kanchoooooo!". In the States this would be considered sexual harassment or even assault, in Japan this is considered a hilarious joke.
School age children do it to each other all the time and sometimes they do it to their teachers. I have been unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of more than one Kancho. This is by far the worst part about being an ALT. On the other hand, there is a feeling of acceptance because the students don't do this to random people. If you are Kancho'd then it means they consider you a friend. This is simply part of being a foreign teacher in Japan and is a right of passage that all ALT's eventually go through.
The Kancho is not the only thing in my students' arsenal of physical and mental assault. Several students have slapped my butt, caressed my chest, and tapped/poked my groin. Last week one of my students managed to slap my taint then drag his hand back between my buttcheeks. I never thought I would have to use that much self restraint not to strangle a 13 year old boy. For reasons that I cannot explain, it is always the boys that do this, which is one reason I tend to enjoy talking to female students more.
Another thing students enjoy is saying dirty words in order to get a rise out of me. This is better then being physically assaulted, by far, and the first time a student says "special penis" is even kind of funny. But after being asked "Do you like big bust?" for the tenth time that week by the same group of 12 year old boys, it gets annoying. Another question that they have started asking is "Do you have big penis?" to which I mentally respond "bigger then yours" or "your mom doesnt seem to mind".
A few weeks ago I planted rice with the 1st and 2nd year students at my Junior High School. The field was about 4 or 5 blocks from the school in a seemingly random area surounded by houses. I am not sure if the field belongs to the school or is privately owned. The students went in 2 goups (1st years, then 2nd) out to the field. Of course, before they went to the field the principle gave a speech (I have learned that speeches will happen before every event) and then a farmer told them the finer points to rice planting. Each group spent about 1 hour planting rice and then cleaning up after. I went with both groups and forgot my sunscreen, I was rewarded with a minor sunburn.
The students each took a small clump of rice plants, which contained about 40-60 small stalks of rice. They would break off about 2-4 stalks to stick into the mud. They kept the plants in nice rows by planting along a string which the teachers moved when the students where done with that row. Most of the girls screamed when getting into the ankle deep mud or whenever they saw an animal crawling threw the muck. Some of the boys started minor mud fights, getting incredibly dirty. Overall it was a hilarious spectackle.
More photos are here.
Some videos: - -
A few weeks ago my Junior High School, Hokuyou, had its annual undokai (sports festival). In Japan every Elementary, Junior High, and Senior High school have these once a year, generally during spring or fall. Starting on monday the students begin to prepare for the undokai which is held on a Saturday or Sunday. Everyday the students practice for the various events and clean the schools field where the events takes place. The undokai is a spectator sport for the parents and family of the students. The event takes all day and many families have a picnic at the school.
At my school the students where divided into three teams designated by headbands (pink, purple, and yellow). Each team has a mix of students from 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades (ages 12-14). At the start of the event the principle gave a speech and then the students sang the school song and national anthem. After this the competitions began. The teams mostly competed in various relay races but there was also some tug of war matches and a jump rope competition. I got to participate with some of the other teachers in a relay race and the tug of war, the teachers won both times.
More pictures of Hokuyou Sports Festival.
I also took some videos, check them out: , , and .
I have been in Koshigaya Japan for the past 2 months and life is finally starting to settle down. I have more free time now so I will finally start to blog and post pictures here. I am an ALT (Assistant Language Teacher) at two Junior High Schools, Hokuyo and Eishin. Both schools are in the city of Koshigaya which is about a 1 hour train ride north of Tokyo. Hokuyo is a country school and is one of the smallest schools in Saitama prefecture with about 245 students. Eishin on the other hand is the 5th largest in Saitama and has almost 1,000 students. They are very different and so far my experience at both has been pretty good. Yesterday I was planting rice with the 1st and 3rd year students at Hokuyo and last week I was helping the Japanese Teachers at Eishin make English listening tapes for midterms. Hopefully I will be getting pictures of both schools up soon.