Saturday, October 11, 2014

Potty Training for Grown Ups, Japan Style

Kitty Litter: The Early Years

I shared a bathroom with my sister growing up.  I was in junior high when she chose a college and from then on, we had a Northwestern Wildcats toilet seat cover.  If it wasn't my favorite color purple, I might have questioned the sanity of the scary decal taking position when I took those midnight potty breaks in the dark.  Little did I know this "wild" experience was just "warming" me up for even stranger days, years and decades ahead.

I probably became adept at using a toilet at around age 2, and was learning to read around 5.  I doubt I was ahead of the milestone curve, in fact I am completely taking stabs in the dark based on educated guesswork in order to set the background to my confession.  Fast forward to age 25: a higher degree, the foundation of a career, and years of travel experience under my belt and I was an absolute failure at using a toilet. Furthermore, just like that 2 year old learning to flush and then subsequently paging through Dick and Jane around 5, I couldn't passably read until the same span of three years later at around age 28, when I subscribed to my first Japanese newspaper.  That first year of using toilets, where no two look, sound, nor function alike, was comprised of 365 nightmarish days of stabbing in the dark too. 

The Outhouse Inside

I went to summer camp throughout elementary school, so I wasn't a novice at using "long drop" toilets.  As far as simple family road trips, I stress that it's the "Buckeyes" that are the Pride of Ohio, not its rest area facilities.  Moreover, I am not above a port-a-potty pit stop at a concert, carnival or circus, and I have survived periods of time without modern plumbing in my (now 45 years) life in both advanced and developing countries. Yet despite the surplus of modern gizmos and the popularity of luxurious hot-springs in Japan, a larger percentage of households here still choose to have a "long drop," eastern style toilet in their homes as compared to any other first world nation. 

This is not necessarily a reflection on socioeconomic status as much as it is a reflection on the age and calibre of the tradition of the house and homeowner. It was only as recent as 1977 that western style toilets overtook eastern style squatters. How does the old school pit toilet impact my daily life? Well, not much, and I do hold an admiration from afar for traditionalists' dedication to historical pre-plumping appliances.  

However, on the third Thursday of the month, the city sewage trucks do their business and make their rounds to suction the "business" out of those homes.  The hose you see on the truck pictured below is lowered into the commode, and the sounds and scents speak for themselves.  I stopped at a yellow light just to create space between the truck and my Honda when I took this photo opportunity, but the idea of the smell lingered throughout the rest of my commute, in the way a dirty cloud follows Pig Pen, or a plume of fumes chases Pepe Le Pew beyond his exit.
Vacuum sewage truck leading the way to my office

Still, there are times when you come face to face with the porcelain squatter in Japan, and you reorient yourself with religion classes by saying a quick Hail Mary, in hopes of not letting your skirt slip out of your strategically pulled to the side grip.  Add a round of rosary beads to ward off the danger that the length of receptacle is shorter than usual and you have positioned yourself too far back. I'm not going to get too graphic, but as you can imagine "accidents" happen, and it is a little harder on the ego once you are out of the toddler biggie girl or biggie boy pul-up a quarter of a century.

Public transportation facility, traditional Eastern-style
I'm not even going to use this space to complain about the challenge of using a toilet on a 3 hour bullet train ride across the country - you don't really have a GPS on the wall in the stall that highlights when the Shinkansen is approaching a curve in the tracks at 200 miles per hour. If you have a sense of humor about you, and moving here solidified that it is my most valuable trait, you can brush off minor embarrassments and add it to the list of been there, done that when gaijin get together and compare horror story notes.

"I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up": The Five Alarm Flush

However, humor can take a back *seat when your systems are down and you take ill.  Being sick (as an expat) invites inking home in front of the word too - the simple equation for homesickness.  Under the weather, patience runs thin when things go wrong (*the "seat," as in toilet seat pun is intended, runs, as in potty talk, is not).  A few weeks after my initial August 1994 landing in Japan, I came down with something.  

It might have been some form of a cold from all I could understand, but I was certain I wasn't feeling well and was completely worn out.  A Japanese mentor with adequate English skills from work accompanied me to a local doctor, and spoon fed me every question on the forms and hung on to my every answer.  No major surgeries, no heart disease in my family...just please get me a big fat Bayer and get me home.

With no effective remedy, I took matters into my own hands and set off for an "International" hospital in central Tokyo the next day. It was over an hour commute one-way, with several train changes, but it did have a familiar feel. It wasn't that local clinic with a mop in a bucket in the corner that visited the previous day; rather, it had framed art work on the walls and plush carpet under foot. Before I went to reception in hopes of getting the bilingually translated forms to fill out, I made a stop at the restroom. I had assumed that decorative lobbies and background muzak equalled a Western style hospital experience.

At least the toilet was western style, which spared my having to crouch down and experience head rush while feeling feverish. I used the facilities and flushed, which is apparently easier said than done in any language. There are more bells and whistles on toilets here than there are on the latest software reveal from Apple. Incidentally, in 20 days, I didn’t meet two toilets that flushed alike. That didn’t seem significant until there were red and green buttons in the restroom. Green means go and Red means stop? Unfortunately, I was not driving the toilet. 

Green set off an alarm. An ear-piercing siren. Nurses charged in the stall to tend to what damsel in distress was having an emergency. There it was, they were coming to take me a way, the little white robed ladies in their little white hats - my "green" light to the padded room. 
Example of one of the millions of variations of a public Washlet

The above story was within the first 20 days of my sejour.  As of this writing, I have entered my 20th year and have never met the same kind of toilet twice.  Washlet and Warmlet are trademarked (and household) names for the beloved luxurious commodes in Japan.  And they are loved: there is a Japanese proverb that states that, "a pregnant woman who keeps her toilet clean will give birth to a beautiful baby."

The Hot Seat 

 Our toilets are the best dressed in my family. They have wardrobes - seat covers, lid covers, carpets and coordinating toilet roll covers. The sinks to wash hands are actually part of the toilet, and many people decorate that sink area by filling it with wishing stones, marbles or plastic flowers. I am not so entrenched in the toilet fashion culture to pimp up the commode at my abode, but I find it pretty daring to post a picture of my toilet on the Internet.  

The following is the "sink" part on top of our toilet.  It's an all-in-one set up to be space efficient, and to conserve water by using clean water to wash hands from the cycle that refills the bowl after *flushing (*I know how to do in my own home). 
Toilet tank is transformed into a sink for space and water conservation.

The European WC (Water Closet) translates here, as nothing else fits in the "powder room." Leaving your indoor slippers in the hallway, you open the WC door to find the required toilet slippers on the one step of space on the throw rug that is fitted around the toilet. Liquid soap is on the window sill, two toilet rolls are vertically stacked in their cozy hanging on the right side wall, and one hand towel hangs on a fitted rack on the left side wall.

I am writing this in mid-October, a pleasant month in Japan, but we are just a few weeks away from turning our home toilet seats on. In February, the coldest month in Japan, sitting on a toilet seat is probably the warmest you can get indoors.  Warmlets have a heating function. The hallway to the restroom will not be heated, and you can see your breath upon entering the WC, but the commode is a sauna. That's right - modern homes are not centrally heated, nor insulated, but the toilets?  They do everything but whistle Dixie for you.  And by the time I click "post" at the end of this writing session, there will probably be at least 3 rolling off the assembly line that do (more on sound selection to come).  

As a general rule, you keep the lid down to maximize their efficiency. This is an especially handy tip for ladies of the household that don't appreciate when "other users" leave the seat up. When it is a matter of losing heat, wasting electricity, and further deepening your carbon toilet slipper footprint on the environment, even the hardest to train men can comply.  Below is a sign on the wall in the restroom at my local grocery store, requesting the customers' kind cooperation in closing the lid after use.
The yellow dotted line illustration is the "shut the lid" tutorial to conserve energy.
Musical Score

Toilets in Japan come in all shapes and sizes, make all sounds and voices, flush and function options that outnumber the population of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area. Last and least, they come with a rule book thicker than a roll of floral scented TP. Even public toilets sing if you choose.  There is a music button to drown out the sound of doing your business so others in the area can't hear you, and thus break that noise 
pollution-privacy line.

Before the invention of the sound control, women tended to incessantly flush in attempt to drown out nature's unimaginable sound of "going number one." The phenomena led to a company-funded research which discovered that office buildings could reduce utility bills by $38,000 a year by eliminating this free-flushing practice.  Innovation saw the birth of buttons lining the arms of the seat to recreate that meadow-flushing sound along side of the bidet, scent and shower functions.

What is a delicately shy gal who finds herself having to relieve herself in a technologically inefficient lavatory to do? Fear not! There are even portable flushing sound noise makers marketed for such ladies to carry in their purses "on the go," a concept which entertains me even more that the idea that someone funded the studies to find these interventions and inventions necessary. The (above left) guide on a public bathroom stall spells out, in rare bilingual form, a map-like guide to using the Washlet. Note the "sound" option on the lower right, which allows you to control the level of the gushing hum.

DIY Port-o-Potty

I sound almost like a stalker by going into such detail on the "John" topic.  Trust me, I'm not certifiable; rather, certified.  That's right,  my daughter and I recently completed a seminar on how to make your own port-a-potty for disaster preparedness.

Supplies and basic cutting
Seat, lid and fishing touches
When an earthquake, a super typhoon or a tsunami compromises water and electricity, the heated seats and the 5 star flushing options go down the drain. Recalling my rustic camping days in the 70s, the risk of mosquito bites in sensitive areas while using the outhouses, or ignoring the "leaflets three let it be" mantra on long hikes were my only fears.  However, now that we live in a disaster prone part of the world, we periodically update and revamp our emergency evacuation kits. The latest addition to our stash is our biggest yet: A toilet now sits along side our battery, instant ramen and flashlight supply. You can tell from her working form in this photo that she is beautiful, which according to the proverb I cited earlier, is thanks to how well I scrubbed our bathrooms while I was pregnant.  Or, maybe she's average looking and my vision is biased because of all the chemical fumes from toilet cleanser overload, but I'm good with it.
Listening intently for the next step: this photo features the pull-up lid handle.

 Stall and door for privacy,
she labeled it in duct tape,
[トイレ] = "Toilet" 
Though the seat is not heated, it is sturdy enough to hold an adult, and the "bowl" is lined with recycled grocery store bags.  Hana was born and (so far) raised in Japan, so outside of almost drowning in the huge auto-flush toilets at Chicago O'Hare transferring on our visits to the States, her toilet training and preferences are here. So she added the decorative touches and privacy features on hers (a stall and door), which is showcased in her room, now classified a "Master Bedroom" (there are not toilets in bedrooms - she is bi-cultural after all).

Thought I was gutsy for sharing my home toilet tank on the internet?  Add me as the only one of your contacts to post a picture of herself sitting on the toilet seat, lid up, modeling my just made emergency evacuation kit toilet. Later I may add some sound bite options for the flushing sound, and follow the take home accessory ideas booklet of transforming laundered old socks to line the seat for comfort and style.  But the first thing on the finishing touch list is to borrow my child's duct tape to add a "WILDCATS" logo in Japanese, [ワイルドキャッツ] to import a fresh and wild taste of "my" Columbus here.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mother and Daughter Pre-Back to School Day in Japan

The last Saturday of August: It's Pre-Back to School Day!

You read that right, it's not Back to Pre-School, though for this Kyoiku Mama,* who on most days feels barely out of training pants, it really should be. *Kyoiku Mama is a cultural concept/phrase referring to the over-devoted, full-time job of a Mother devoted to her offspring's education. Sure, it's loaded with negative connotations, but not as bad as its counterpart, Mamagon, which is more of the relentless drill sergeant variety, stemming from, "Mama Godzilla."

Saturday School?  Coming from the Midwest, the idea of Saturday School is nothing more than an 80s image of The Breakfast Club.  You must have been vandalising cars in the teachers' parking lot, caught smoking in the bathroom, or just plain having run out your share of get out of the Principal's office free cards.

But here in the Far East, the last Saturday of August solidifies the END of the summer "holiday" from school.  Holiday is in quotations since kids are not without daily homework during the "break."  Hana is in fourth grade.  They begin the school year April first, which is not an April Fool's joke although most days I feel like I live one, and they have summer recess at the end of July around the national Marine Day holiday. This means that she returns after the summer to the same class, same teacher.  Not to waste valuable school time on review or relearning, they are responsible for redoing their entire spring term as well as exploring some new avenues during the month of August.

This required pre-back to school Saturday is scheduled for the sole purpose of submitting their summer homework.  Yup, an entire day devoted to handing in assignments.  If for some reason your family plans, which would have to be a medical emergency, dictate that you cannot attend the pre-day, a room at the school is staffed from 10 AM to 3 PM every day the of the previous week for advanced submission. This strategy eliminates the last ditch to skip the day and pull last minute scrambles crossing T's and dotting I's until Monday. (Note that unforeseeable medical emergencies are hard to know about in advance, so really, everyone shows up with bags in hand, yellow hat on head and boxy backpack strapped on for The Day.)

Yellow hat, boxy backpack full of drill books, reports and worksheets. Bag full of arts and crafts projects. Note the uniform umbrella remains in the stand, as the 7:30 AM sun shines through. Happy Saturday School!
The page long checklist includes an entire summer workbook, a national publication cleverly titled, "Summer Workbook."  It's divided into two parts - from one end you page through the reading, vocabulary and writing exercises, and from the other you work your way through the math word problems.  In addition to this, they have two complete drill books: one for kanji, and the other math.  They completed these books during the school term by showing their work and answers on separate standardized notebooks, so in the summer, they re-did the problems without referencing their archived work directly in the book. Back to the checklist: Math drills #4, 5, 6, 7, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 23, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 36, 37, 38, 39, 40, 41, 42, 47. The gaps in the numbers are simply pages that had no place to work the problem and write the answer directly.  Otherwise, they pretty much relived April through July in three weeks. Kanji: 8, 14, 18, 22, 28, 34, 38, 42, 52.  These exercises are highlighted in bold type in the book since they are common trouble spots. They tend to pronounce as the write kanji, so I'll hear "government" "policy" "environment" on long haul flights or with a Disney Channel soundtrack piping in the background. (Shhh, that's breaking rules #1 and #2 of the Kyoiku Mama handbook.)

In addition to reteaching themselves the basics, they had a 1200 word book report due, and a minimum of three projects "of different categories" from a city-wide distributed booklet.  The projects range from calligraphy, arts and crafts (invention), science experiments to additional book reports, or essay writing. The city sponsors this project since they are in turn submitted to various organisations for contest or display after they are checked off the "done" list by their classroom teacher.

Separate worksheets cover physical education (jumping rope, throwing, leg extensions, back bends and sit-ups) as well as dental hygiene (coloring in sails of a boat for each morning, noon and night you brush your teeth during the entire break).  There is a small colorful card produced by NHK (the national broadcasting channel) for the morning radio calisthenics program.  The week preceding "pre-back to school day," students go to the local parks or school grounds based on their location where the Mama that drew the shortest straw is center-staged with a boom box with speakers.  I know how out of date the term boom box is, but it's really what it is, with the AM tuner and antenna to boot. The 6:25 AM call leads them through light stretches and non impact aerobics to get their heart rates up and their brains ticking for the day.  A side "educational benefit" is to just get them awake and into a morning routine so the new term time-line isn't a post vacation shock.  They don't complain about this "exercise," probably since they get an attendance sticker on each day you attend, and the color and shape changes so there is not fudging your own grade (though I think that's my American brain looking for ways to cut corners).

The lifestyle worksheet is a large, one page A3 sized paper where you note your daily activity, somewhat like a diary chart.  There are boxes to the side of "what I did this day" to check off if you met your study and homework goals for that day too, as well as a weather box - was it sunny, cloudy or rainy. The weather does dictate that the kids have to do it everyday, and not cram a list at the end since it's pretty for the non internet wired age to arbitrarily make up typhoons and heat waves. 

So bi-culturally and cross-continentally, how do we do it?  My policy is to get as much as possible done in the ten days before we take off to visit family in the States.  She finished the Summer Workbook pre-departure, as well as the math drill book.  She was motivated to finish in part thanks to the help of kids from other schools, including "kids" enrolled at the university where I teach during the week she was on "break" before I was - they love "group work" or at least side by side study (code for what I consider a sad playdate) in this country.

University student support - she's making use of my office hours with two "tutors." She has the  Summer Workbook open in front of her, the pink kanji drill book is on the right, and the math drill book is the blue one in the center.
Kanji is the Achilles heel for most kids, so I knew that one would be coming with us in our luggage.  We were saving the book report and invention and art projects for the week we returned.  Ideally, a book report requires more than a week, but the reality is it's too contextually different for her to read a Japanese novel while we're in the States, but drills, we can muddle through.  Knowing the book report would be daunting, I insisted (good Kyoiku Mama) on finishing the kanji drill book before our final return flight from LAX. It helped that our domestic connection flight had not kids' movie, and when you're 9, the tray table is an appropriate desk size to chalk off a couple exercises. Finally, we were on the layover after a three week trip in an airport restaurant when she finally put her head up, pencil down and declared, "done!" That victory was sweeter to me than sailing through security check lines hassle free. (As an added bonus, her procrastination served us well, since we had to carry on the kanji book, and Delta took even a slower pace at transferring our checked bags to Singapore Airlines - no risk of turning it in late!)

We arrived home on a Thursday night and Friday morning we were at the library when it opened at 9 AM (jet lag dictates getting up early).  We narrowed down the selection of books for her grade level, and swiftly and checked out.  For the next couple of hours we were tooling around town on back-to-life-post-trip errands: bank, post office, the bakery, the grocery store. While driving I had the radio off and was listening to chapter after chapter of the wonderful story of an imaginative girl who liked drawing - everything she painted came to life.  She and a giraffe with a peach colored neck end up saving a forest of animals, after having faced obstacle after obstacle, from a mean orange colored bear.  After having hammered out the read in a day, it was time to outline the plot, how she related to the character, her critique of the story and what left the biggest impression on her, next write, and rewrite in the distributed paper for the final draft.

She chose the original Japanese title on the far left based on its shorter length (that's my girl). I held back from letting her know that the Laura Ingalls Wilder novel in the middle and Ramona the Brave book to the right were titles I could pinch hit in the plot process (two dutiful Kyoiku Mama points there).
We stopped by her school where they were 15 large manila envelopes hanging outside the staff room with the application papers for the various crafts and projects.  Each NPO or public facility that sponsors the assignment has its own form so we chose our 3 projects and gutted our craft, tools and do it yourself stashes in the house.  She chose to do a painting representing Bird Week, so we biked to the local zoo and she propped herself up and sketched two varieties of owls.  One of the others was "the green of Saitama," which she could do with the 5 AM sunlight on jet lag in front of our house and simply doing a "still life" of our garden and tree line.  She invented a pair of water proofed, non - slip shoes specific for the pogo stick as well as a wallet-purse that has separate sections for Japanese Yen, US Dollars, and travel documents out of colorful duct tape.  (Her next challenge will probably be pogo-ing to the States to visit her cousins with that combo of goods.)

As the Kyoiku Mama, my duties were *lite.*  I was to check her work (circle every correct answer, draw and "X" through the incorrect ones) and calculate the percentage out of 100% on every exercise in the bath book and Summer Workbook (we are given answer keys for this chore). Also, there is general policing that everything is getting done, but that severity probably varies from house to house. Our big "show your love and respect for your kid and the school" comes on the Big Pre-Back to School Day.

From left, the project booklet from which to choose 3, the answer key for "Mamas" for the Summer Workbook,  a hint of the assigned paper with squares for each written character for the book report, and math drill answer guide. We are to grade the workbook and drill book, marking answers in red pencil, calculating percentage correct in blue pencil.
Yes, we join them on the blissful Saturday school day where the students lug their summer homework to school. The kids head to their classrooms, the Moms stay in the school yard and WEED THE GROUNDS.  We bring plastic bags, gloves, hand gardening tools and take stake in our allotted plot, divided by class, to beautify the grounds.  I guess this is part of our transition from having provided the healthy summer homework environment during the "vacation" to now release our children back to school under optimum conditions.  I suppose I wouldn't thrive in gym class either if I knew there was poison ivy lurking about near the tether ball pole when I was little either.

We are class 4-3, behind the school pool.
Diagramming weeding plots keeps our
hiding to a minimum and our attendance mandatory.
Once the students submit the fruits of their labor, they and the teachers join us and we complete the job together, according to the map (pictured at left).  We finish according to the minute by minute agenda, and return home (to our garden yard full of weeds on shame display a mere 300 meters from the school).  Saturday school, Pre-Back to School Day is over, and she is absolutely FREE for the first time for rest of the night and Sunday before the term resumes on Monday, September first.  We spent the day restocking school supplies, ironing all the required towels, cloths, handkerchiefs, lunch smocks and reinforcing the elastic straps on her gym and commuting hats.  We will be refreshing the labels of her name and class number on everything through the night, but somehow, we feel the lift of the summer work behind us and are geared up for the daily loads that come home throughout the fall term.  Now that is an American Labor Day in Japan, a day which in the States, even the Breakfast Club would have off. Let Freedom, and school bells, ring!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving in Japan: A Virtual American Feast

It's that time of year again, when the question rings from abroad, "What do you do for Thanksgiving in Japan?"

Japanese "Labor Day Thanksgiving," 勤労感謝の日, usually falls a handful of days before American Thanksgiving.  However, Labor Day Thanksgiving doesn't revolve around poultry dishes or Pilgrim stories, nor is the celebration wrapped around the US Labor Day traditions of outdoor barbecues or back to school shopping blitzes. Nonetheless, it is a red marked holiday giving thanks to laborers for their hard work, and thus granting them a day of rest* from the job.

*On that note, I might have to write some over-time checks for the local team of IT laborers that I had working on placing my Thanksgiving orders on their holiday. That said, I guess I created my own Labor Day (on-line) shopping blitz too.

Thanksgiving Day, the way Americans know it, does have a direct translation in Japanese: 感謝祭 = kanshasai. In reality, it is more widely understood and practiced as, "Thursday," and thus remains school or business as usual. Moreover, Black Friday does not kick off the Christmas shopping season, although my guess is that Cyber Monday deals probably can feed off the World Wide Web-airways' leftovers, even if there is no turkey sandwich or turkey soup to be had while surfing.

Well then, what do I do for Thanksgiving?  I do what it takes to recreate my Mom's dining room setting and menu from 6,600 miles from Columbus and about as far from the necessary ingredients.  The main-dish challenge serves as its own, 2 to 25 pound obstacle. "Turkey" is considered a gamy meat in Japan, and not farmed nor found in or around local or even distant Japanese supermarkets.  That's right, you can find raw sea slug or guts and intestines of almost any animal in the ecosystem at a any random corner stand, but turkey?  Even liberally basted with wasabi and soy sauce, that would be considered "fowl."

The Hunt for Orange October: The following photo illustrates how we weren't going to let the unavailability of American pumpkins stand in our way to make Jack-O-Lanterns at Halloween. With such cultural dedication, we felt Plymouth-rock solid inspiration to forge ahead and create an American Thanksgiving in Japan with limited resources.

Japanese winter melons, 冬瓜 - togan, are dusty green
until you take your daughter's paint set to them.
The past few years I have spent 2 hours each way in the car and $26 round trip on the toll roads to get the coveted, imported bird from Costco, Japan. This year, our family school calendar(s), pocket book and energy level just didn't see the journey as worth it.  Instead I decided to take my stubborn dedication to local markets, including my home computer, which started before Halloween Costco discontinued importing American pumpkins and I dedicated my Pioneer-like efforts to hunt down ingredients locally and see what I could come up with on-line.

(Foreshadowing: we will be giving thanks to Amazon this year.)

We set our Thanksgiving dinner plan for Saturday, November 30.  The Hunt for Traditional Thanksgiving began on November 4, with my first trip to the FarmNo, it wasn't the beloved Tuller's Fruit Farm of Columbus, Ohio, fame - home of the pumpkin patch, every vegetable and fruit in season, and fresh pressed cider and apple fritters by the baker's dozen.  My Honda hayride led me to Kaldi Coffee Farm. You would think I needed the caffeine fuel to deal with my wish list, but no, it's the name of an import mart at the "Mallage" in town. Yes, Mallage is a "cutsie" Japanese-English name of the mall.  

I was able to fill the bag (pictured) with the spices needed to make an onion dip for an appetizer, to make gravy despite the lack of a gravy boat, flavoring for pumpkin pie, and, as well as some baking ingredients for corn bread and pie crusts. It was never a fixed dish at the Zidonis family table in my memory, but while in line at the register my eyes caught a glimpse of the top shelf (in the crowd of shoppers that day, only my eyes could) showcasing a can of cranberry sauce.  I wondered how many years it was there, then nabbed it anyway. After all,  it will at least serve its purpose in the form of adding color and tradition to the table; tradition, that is, according to the slide shows of Thanksgiving meals that I have been showing my students over the years in American Cultural Lectures.  Finally, I've made myself an even more practice what she preaches teacher.

Canned goods and bottled spices, fresh from the "Farm,"
 just the way the Native Indians intended.                                             
Next step: stuffing.  I'm not interested in stuffing. Apparently my Dad was spoiled by his mother's sirloin tips-based homemade stuffing, so any kind of breaded filler never made it near our spread growing up.  But I ordered two boxes of all American KRAFT via Amazon Japan from a company called "Oasis" in order to feed at least two of the Dilenschneider mouths at our table this year, and just to have something familiarly "Thanksgiving" looking to cover up the fact that all else may fail.** Even though I don't need two boxes of stuffing for 4 people, the delivery charge seemed steep for just one box, considering it was the same for two.  I guess I've committed to putting it all together again next year.  High hopes. High apple pie in the sky hopes. 

**At the time of this writing, the French-farmed-frozen turkey on order is a day late on delivery. That detail alone could stand for the "all else" in the "may fail." I'm hoping the President didn't pardon the one bird with my number on it! 

Hoping to "stuff" the guests since the arrival of the elusive turkey is "up in the air."
About that turkey.  I will never reveal how much I am paying per pound, but I spent hours researching it over days, so I would add my labor per hour charge and the price should really be double the already 300% mark-up I put on my charge card.  Maybe I should have heeded that "Labor Day" Thanksgiving after all and not been so quick to mouse-click "add to shopping cart."  

I tried to lessen the yen and dollar damage by going through 17 screens to apply for an Amazon Japan gift card on the reward page of my Japan based credit card.  It was the least I could do, considering the Settlers were learning to build fire to make it all happen at the First Thanksgiving.  Nonetheless, the final screen informed me that I can expect my card to be processed within 8 weeks. Well, that will make for quite an affordable Martin Luther King Day feast, since my attempt at "hunting" down a discount wouldn't work for a purchase this week.

The mystery bird: appropriately out of focus
I found a couple of options.  One would have been an easy, quick-fix, boneless wonder that would just require an hour in the oven to give it that baked feel.  But I went for the whole beast, and narrowed down the company based on the size and the price were not going to cancel Christmas.  I purchased the poultry delight on Amazon Japan, from a company called, 男の台所 = otokonodaitokoro. The vender's name might have been my first clue of trouble.  Translation: Man's Kitchen. Well, it's a day late so far, and if the CEO of the company is anything like the man in my house growing up or the men of the house now, the package might contain a box of popcorn, a bag of beef jerky and a copy of the 2006 Ohio State vs. Michigan game.  But we are giving Thanks after all, so this is all coming from a place of love and respect. Besides, it is those fond memories I am trying to recreate, remember?

I lifted the digital image of the mystery bird (above right) from my account purchases page on Amazon.  If it doesn't make the scheduled delivery, we might just be licking the screen.  I'll break open that second box of stuffing if need be, however, since I am not going as far to order Yankee Trader turkey scented candles for effect. Even I have my on-line shopping limits this holiday season.

How to roast a turkey without a conventional oven
If I am going to roast an animal, I need some supplies.  An oven.  That's right, there are no conventional ovens in Japanese homes.  They are equipped for boiling seasoned mountain vegetables, stir frying, deep frying, and there is a drawer extention of the range that serves as the fish grill.  So I have 2 microwave ovens: one if for reheating purposes, the other has a rudimentary "oven" function.  Both are small, but that's par for the course in Japan (well, courses have 18 holes, but fees are steep, and we're back to the detour of an underlying yen-based theme).

I needed to order a roasting bag to get this baking process right, and to have a chance at "authentic" tasting oven baked delicacies.  Also, to be safe and consistent, a meat thermometer. The safe part is to thoroughly cook the beast, the consistent part, was not to botch my shopping record by ignoring the, "people who also bought "A," also bought "B" notice on my account update. Those accessories came directly from Amazon Japan with no middle man (or Middle Man's Kitchen), therefore, it was a next day delivery, to the university where I work.  I think the secretary that signed for the package had stories to tell at her dinner table that night.

My next step was to be a little stress relief.  Get some local goods to actually have something that didn't come in a cardboard box with bubble tape and packaging receipts.  I went to a local farmer's market for the Japanese pumpkins (kabocha, often called "winter squash" in English) and other fresh produce for vegetable dishes and casseroles.  A neighborhood farmer has a stand on his property with a small "100 yen" deposit box where I loaded up on home-grown potatoes and yams.  So the mashing and starch dishes are covered.* (*I couldn't resist the covered dish/pot-luck reference.)

Neighbor's farm plot: The potatoes (far left) and chives (far right),
 and Japanese radish in the center will meet our table.
Local shopping was successful, and I could count on the 業務スーパー = gyomu supa grocery store to provide the beverage and dairy in bulk!  The basis of any American feast begins with a bulk cart load, and 業務スーパー is the closest I can get to a made in Japan big haul.  Wine and spirits for the cook and guests, milk and ingredients for cheesecake and pastries and just in cases are now covered.

It's Wednesday evening in America. My friends and family are either pre-baking, pre-basting, or hitting the roads to beat the weather or the traffic to see relatives.  I will oversee my daughter on her homework, and set our family of 3 off for school in the morning, a Thursday as usual.  But not a Thursday to take for granted.

No day of the week, month or year that our family is "in our usual" routine is taken for granted.  Hopefully I'll sign for that frozen turkey that will fly in tomorrow from France, via the Man's Kitchen in Japan, and start my pre-baking on Friday. We'll welcome my Tokyo-based brother-in-law, Joe on Saturday for a grand feast of fun family and conversation.  I'll be exhausted and exhilarated and on every level. On Sunday, we'll wake up to actual coffee from Kaldi Coffee Farm and I'll begin counting down the days until I round up the challenge next for an American Thanksgiving in Japan, 2014.

Uncle Joe and Hana, an American Thanksgiving in Japan 2012

Bob, Hana and Uncle Joe: Trimming
the tree preview, an American
Thanksgiving in Japan 2011

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Undokai: The National Fountain of Youth-Sports

うんどうかい=UNDOKAI=Sports Festival:
Not your usual podium shot of the winner's circle
うんどうかい=UNDOKAI=Sports Festival:
More than a national mini Olympics
Field Day!

Specifics escape me, but I vaguely recall Fishinger Elementary School holding a Field Day Event, staging the two 6th grade classes against each other in some form of a track meet competition on a grassy field (hence the name) behind the school.  I was mid-race - perhaps a loosely measured 100 yard dash, when I encountered my first and only bee sting to date.  I don't remember what place I finished, or if our class won, but I can almost still feel that nasty bite.  Despite a general liking for school and sporting events, and a not-so-bad taste for "OFF" bug spray, without the yellow jacket to my right thigh, I might not have had any prize recall of that day at all.

Elemetary School Field Day in Japan (Contrast):
No record of my elementary school race--
it wasn't exactly an event that had a stadium audience,
or even one devoted parent with a Polaroid.

Preschool Field Day in Japan: How can you forget an event with such cute 50 meter dash training? 

In Japan, "Sports Festivals," (運動会, undokai) are unforgettable milestones, and not soley because they are red marked on the calendar allowing the entire country to revolve around the fan-fare. The undokai is a one-day event, an all day event. Meticulous preparation "false starts" begin an average of a half year in advance, while the recovery period "cool down" requires an average of double that time (I give myself another fortnight until I'm back up to average speed this round). 

The typical program kicks off with a 35 minute opening ceremony, followed by 20-some events administered on precision time protocol, and a 20 minute closing ceremony (scoring system also noted on right).

Cliff Notes: History in Brief

The annual event dates back to the Meiji Era (1868), and the ritual of the undokai propelled into a national requirement in more recent history, during the Showa Era (1966).  Since the event had been in practice since the 19th century anyway, the government declared "Health and Sports Day" (体育の日, Tai Iku no Hi) to be a holiday in Japan for the first time on October 10, 1966, in commemoration of the pomp and circumstance surrounding its formal version: the Opening Ceremony of the 1964 Summer Olympics.  
Families take refuge in their UVA protected
tents (also on the checklist) from the often
sweltering Sports Day heat, which serves as the
locale for the 45 minute  lunch break.

That's right, Japan hosted the summer Olympics in October, during the month which most of the globe dubs fallThe coaching strategy on that calendar move is said to be three-fold: to avoid 1) the wetter than the synchronized swimming pool rainy season from June to mid-July, 2) the hotter and steamier than the torch temperatures of late July and August, 3) and the riskier than the platform diving typhoon season in September.   

Happy Mondays Never Get Me Down

Fast forward to the Heisei Era (2000), and Health and Sports Day is no longer held exclusively on 10/10; rather, it's observed on the second Monday of October, thanks to the government's adoption of the "Happy Monday" policy* in favor of a man-made three day weekend. *I approve of the borrowed use of the English word "Happy" in this case, as well as the importation of the made-in-the-USA "uniform holiday bill" act to create an extended weekend. Kompai (Cheers) to Health and Happiness!

Tai Iku no Hi sets out to "foster an enthusiasm for health and fitness," or, in layman's terms, to foster a cut throat rally in the form of an all out Tug of War (always the apex on the Sports Day program), and in the end, opponents march off the battle ground, sing in harmony, and pose for a memorable group photo. The Summer Olympics is returning to Tokyo in 2020, and trust me this host nation is not rusty in the ceremonial or planning department. Thanks to hundreds of years of sports festivals, these mini Olympic level dress rehearsals have been in full force at every sector of society: from nursery schools to senior centers; to convenience store to Ginza department store staffs; to political parties to entertainment industry party circles; to thumb wrestler hobbists to sumo wrestler stable masters and beyond.  

Red vs White Olympic Competition

I'd judge Japan to be the defending gold medal champions of mass enthusiastic participation, themed ceremonies, and finely tuned agenda execution. The scheduled "Happiness" on the programs has united the country on fields across the landscape for centuries, and in seven short years from now, the world joins in on the 2020 Summer Olympics stage. To illustrate a lane of this undokai track picture in Japan, I'll focus on my experience with the school field days, and you can let your imagination sprint off the blocks from there.  

First, classes don't face off the way our gym teacher Mr. Rohal rallied the Fishinger Bulldogs. Instead, with the flip of a reversible gym hat, the whole school divides evenly at random, with mixed ages, classes, levels and sexes.  The team names even take the Japanese flag split down the middle: Red vs. White.

The Face Off: Red vs. White

Students divide for the all or nothing
Red  vs. White Tug of War.

Varsity Preparation 

Preparation starts an academic year in advance, when school calendars are set and distributed to parents.  Several months in advance rain date details are confirmed.  In our case, East Elementary's Sports Festival was on a Saturday.  If it rained, it would take place Sunday. If it rained on Sunday, the second rain date was scheduled for Tuesday. There would be no school either way on Monday in compensation for an intended weekend school day.  If it rained on Tuesday, rain date #3 was set for Wednesday.  In the event of a Saturday or Sunday meet, students and families were to bring obento, or packed lunch.  If rain date #2 or #3 on Tuesday or Wednesday were enforced, the students would be served the scheduled school lunch, but families and guests would need to bring obento for themselves.  Again, there would be no school Monday no matter what the weather was that week and thus no lunch policy to note.  Are you following this? Well, it doesn't matter because Saturday was sunny anyway.

Olympic Brown Bag Lunch

The above is a snippet from the annual school calendar. The left side indicates that undokai is scheduled on the 28th and maps out potential rain dates for the week that follows.  You are not expected to understand any of the mess I cut and cropped and lined up here, just feel the pain in the form of still fresh tug of war rope burns as a type.

Not exactly your peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a brown bag:  The obento (stacked lunch box) for undokai is a home made creation with decorative, sports-themed love. Note the characters on the rice, elementary school kid in center, and bunnies on either side represent the Red and White team rivalries, crafted from fish paste.

がんばれ!(Good luck) written on sausages out of cut seaweed, blue ribbon winning hopefuls in the fruit dessert tray, and various blends of flavored rice in the form of cute little athletes from the mother's love preparation end. Cups are filled to the brim with regulation barely tea, a caffeine-free favorite.

Collection from Toe to Head

Now that were clear on the date and lunch policy, the notices including calls for round-ups of random goods begins from head to toe.  We'll start with toe.  Literally, the first thing we need to do is follow fixed measurements to make fitted bootees for the students' classroom chairs.  On the day of the festival, they take their chairs outside to the dirt-ground assigned spot under the "just for that day" awninged tents.  When they bring their chairs back in the school at the end of the closing ceremony, they would otherwise track small stones and sand into the sacred no-outdoor-footwear hallways of the building.  Twenty years in the culture and I'm quite accustomed to the slipper rules, but for inanimate objects, this was a first for me.

I took the sketch and instruction handout to the fabric store and my daughter selected a pattern. She was free to choose color and design, as long as there were no logos, TV anime, or famous manga character involved, as those potential invaders distract from the educational process. The bootees need to be submitted a month in advance so that the students can practice their "agenda time trial" dress rehearsals during gym class.

Fresh from the tailor, "Reform." Material: $3.95,
Handiwork: $11.95. Years saved in sanity for not
attempting myself?  Countless.
My daughter was in first grade at the time and thus I encouraged her to look into the future of her likes and dislikes in order to use the same pair, one day a year, through 6th grade.  I imagined over 99% of the PTA population stitched their own child's chair bootees.  After all, or above all, there is a direct cultural link between the amount of love you have for your child to the effort it takes to hand make everything. We drove our fabric and instructions straight to a tailor, assured we could pick up the professionally finished product in 7 days or less.

Foul Called by (Seam) Line Judge

Mid-week I received a phone call from the seamstress, asking me to confirm the measurements.  She had an order from the parent of a 4th grade boy at the same school and his numbers differed slightly.  After further investigation, I learned that student chair and desk sizes are slightly smaller 1st through 3rd grade therefore the booty measurements grow with their leg sizes from 4th grade on.  Fast forward to present day, as a Mom of a third grader, this marks the last year for our pink bunny bootees.  I didn't bother asking the tailor if I was the only one of the two cheating mothers she second guessed (perhaps assuming I misread the details) on the centimetres in the orders placed, which preserves my mental state at least until the next item is rounded up.  Thanks to the leaked intel on said 4th grade mother, perhaps I can adjust my statistical analysis to only 98% of the parents stitched their own.

Classroom chairs line the grounds.  Notice the dirt accumulation on the blue booty on the far left.  That saved the grace of the interior of the school from the impure soils of the outdoors. The desk chair leg protector!

Trash Collection: Not so fast, everything can become school supplies!

First graders cut, sized and donned
colored capes for their dance routine.

Soon after the bootees were toted to school with a 4 week wiggle room window, the call came for paper fans, disposable chopsticks and a multi-colored hula hoop for dance numbers. In addition, they required white rice grains or bright red beads (depending on if you represent the White or the Red team) to fill 1 quarter high of 2 drained, rinsed and de-labeled water bottles for noise makers. If you've ever had the pleasure to attend the happy madness of a professional baseball game in Japan, or even get a glimpse of the highlights on TV, you will understand where that precise, uniform and on-beat cheering blaring from the stands is mastered.

The Red Team in action cheering students on with their
emptied, drained and decorated water bottle noise makers.
The advance collection is less in part of giving the parents time to accumulate supplies (which I suspect would be more of the American way), yet more to get these miscellaneous items to school for the students' hands-on preparation and practice drills. Even the rice grains go to school in a zip-locked bag or tupperware, separate from the empty bottles, so the students can construct their noise makers in science class, experimenting with different amounts and levels of rattle or flash. 

Synchronized Education

Undokai may be a one day event, but considering the integrated curriculum, each subject manages to incorporate the build up, or "training," as a significant part of the students' education. For example, her weekly schedule listed a scattering of sports day prep class activities on a daily basis for at least 2 months preceding its execution.  In addition to the obvious gym class and previously mentioned science class lesson plans, math class dictates that they mock up agendas and time tables, in civics they draft invitations to the city officials, in art they design and construct themed banners, illustrated programs, and cheering paraphernalia, and in calligraphy they take their brushes to the ink wells to scroll massive banners scripting the chosen theme of the year.

Coloring vinyl trash bags, finely chopping them and
fastening them to laundry clips make for art class pom pons.

Coordinated formations at the Kindergarten demonstrate the 101 uses for the modern hula hoop.
Save and wash your take out meal chopsticks
 to build your own flags for jazzercise.
Four to five weeks in advance marks the deadline for applications for parent-participation events. Immediately following the "voluntary"contract of agreement submission, diagramed instructions and applicable rules are distributed within 3 weeks prior to game day, for parents to study and master.  After all, academic preparation of associated regulations are mandatory in order to maximize levels of "happiness" and execution.

On "field day," two events line up in the gullies while one has the main ground, so if you are educated in advance on the how-to, the agenda can go as planned, printed and published.  I don't want to be the first one to set those itineraries off by even a New York minute. In Japan, I'm convinced that scheduling and timed agenda following are Olympic events, and from my judgement, they are defending gold medal champions in both sports.

Waiting in starting block position on deck for the next parent-child
tether ball-like event.  All participants jog on and off
the field for every event-to keep time and maintain fitness.

Parents' (In)voluntary Involvement

Participation from parents is a requirement. It's not written per se, but you do tend to walk around with a euphemistic Horrible Mom/ Deadbeat Dad sign across your forehead if you're not out there in your Richard Simmons "Sweating to the Oldies" gear right along side of the kids. Plus, sign-up sheets are signed, stamped and returned with enough advance warning that the wrath of the failed to-even-intend-to play family might blackball the child from future entry into the right schools and thus advancement into prestigious company of employment.  Okay, it's not that harsh, but you get the idea -- everybody joins in and actually enjoys it.  The latter is not a requirement, but it tends to be the consensus.

Run within the Lines, Sign on the Dotted Line

My involvement in this race was really more
as a traffic guard, otherwise the sandbox
might be the finish line (refer to alternative
result in photo at left).

There's always"one kid" who finds
 her own way to race.
 My field day background doesn't
match the lifetime experience that
my counterparts in Japan have.

親子ゴロン:BigBall Relay rules, objectives,
procedure and diagram

The form at left is dated 9/10,  the bottom portion had the dotted line to clip and submit the sign up by the 9/13 deadline.  Detailed instructions and rules dictated four Big Ball Relay Race teams of 4 members.  The 3rd grade student-parent groups take the east end of the grounds while the 4th grade students and parents start from the west end.  The rules, objectives and instructions are clearly spelled out, numbered and detailed.  If you are more of a visual learner, the diagram illustrates the position of the students and parents, placement of the cones, game ball and goal.

The link below provides a snippet of the highlights of the Big Ball Relay.  You get a taste of the peppy music, the collective understanding of the rules of play for the one time only event, as well as the graceful and timely execution of the race.  Oh, the highlight really is that our team (peach colored headbands) won the relay.  It was a non-scoring event, but the competitive spirit the government set out to foster through the Happy Holiday, was felt by all.

Click here for video:

Non Regulation Jerseys Permitted

Parents don't have a uniform like the kids for our sports day athletic pursuits, yet we are not without a guiding handout that goes only slightly beyond the international standard of common sense that would simply infer loose fitting clothing and shoes we could move easily in.  I find Thanksgiving dinner pants work well for the 3 legged race since they do get tugged around, and Converse-style tennis shoes tend to better than running shoe soles since they have absolutely no lift, which prevents injury when you are dodging cones, ring obstacles, or other children during mad dashes.

Moms double up on pairs of giant sandals for a shuttle run here.
Although you can't see the footwork, we are smiling happily,
and sporting our uniform colored headbands.
 My Richard Simmons fashion reference was no joke.

The fine print on the left reads, "We are not alone," in English.
The graphic to the right? I'll leave that to your imagination.
The school teachers don't assign themselves a required uniform to sport that day.  However, in the uplifting group spirit that Health and Wellness activities strive to promote, they design, order and model matching collared shirts, showcasing the theme of the year.   In case you were feeling lonely or under appreciated in your quest to meet the supply lists demands and obento preparation expectations, you can be assured by the mass-produced slogan of the year, "We are not alone!"

Civilized Food Fight

Any event involving food will have a strict code in the presentation category.  Items are wrapped and individually packaged so mess on clothing and potential contamination is diverted. In the bread eating race relay, contestants dash across the field, and mid-way, use only their mouths to retrieve a sweet bean paste filled or melon flavored roll, then continue to the run to finish line.  Organized, civilized feeding frenzy at its finest, participants are free to eat the baked delights during the 30-45 minute lunch break scheduled on the program. Snacking and drinking during non regulated periods is poor manners, though there is no point penalty.  

Gentle reminder, "We are not alone" in our break times, so schedule your hunger and thirst needs accordingly. I've introduced "bobbing for apples" to play groups and American culture classes over the years, and the disgust of sharing spit water has always been a barrier.  After participating in such kinds of obstacle courses, I'm thinking if I peel, chop and wrap apple slices and clip them to a poll, I might forge new territory in cross-cultural celebrations.  Just 7 years until the olympics to execute that plan.

Two teachers hold up a limbo-style bamboo bar and load and reload the melon rolls and sweet bean buns in rotation for each heat.  The staff's speed and efficiency is even more impressive than the participants' sprinting abilities.

White-gloved Tug of War

One could think the mass events are militaristic. Besides, Tug of War competitors are issued 軍手 (guntei), which literally translates as, "army hands" (students already have their own in their supply stash, as we were assigned to stitch their names in the thumbs of both weeks ago). The white cloth standard are described in English as "white working gloves," and serve as essential gear for gardening and handiwork in Japan, in addition to being ubiquitous during school events.  The guntei are to be donned again at the end of the event for clean-up and pack-up participation. Post closing ceremony clean up is not required, but you may find yourself bumped to the top of the list of rainy season patrol duties during its next revision if you are caught sneaking home early. On a related note, the same gloves are "coincidentally" distributed for "voluntary" seasonal weed the school grounds events.

If you have to ask for weeding gloves when you "volunteer,"
consider yourself busted for not having
signed up for the Tug of War.
Tug of War: Parent teams and student teams
compete separately. It's not age discrimination - parents'  events are not scored. All events are co-ed.
Checklist Finals

The "to bring" list on the day of the games for the kids is not overwhelming, considering the small cargo loads of random supplies that have been going from home to school for 6 weeks by now.  That said, there is a final checklist with two boxes by each item for the student to tick and the parent to double check. Event day is considered an official school day for the kids, thus they leave the house to meet their assigned walking groups as usual around 7:30 AM.  They have the privilege of wearing the backpack of their choice for the day, not the regular boxy Randoseru backpack designed for carting school textbooks.

The contents: lunch, thermos, and "bonus" beverage - for this day only they are allowed to have up to 500 ml of non carbonated sports drink in their bottles, but never juice or pop.  Usually on school hiking or field trips, they are limited to iced green tea, barely tea, or water. Other pack contents include their pair of indoor shoes in its fitted cloth sack (since those are sent home every Friday and they will go to their classroom before and after the festival for meetings), gym uniform shorts and shirt, including the red/white reversible gym hat. They wear the standard issued yellow hat for the walk to and from school, but the gym hat they wear shows the color that represents which undokai team they are on: Red or White. The hat trick could be considered the loose equivalent of the US "shirts and skins" pick up game of basketball, but much more refined, and not bordering on R rated).

Ariel represents the okay for the day pack.
Under her chair is the permitted for the day sports drink
in orange tote, thermos of ice water,  and
chair leg bootees (I take every chance to point those out).
The gym hat elastic band has been refreshed (tightened) at home and pre-approved by the staff.  Etiquette essentials such as a handkerchief, a towel (not for showers, but in case they need to wipe their brows from sweating to keep time), a plastic bag for toting their dirty and dusty chair leg bootees home, and their renrakucho notebook to record notes and homework assignments at their final meeting in the classroom, and a pencil case rounded out the list of requirements.

Masters of Ceremony

Taiko drum roll: Live shot of the Opening Clap in action
following 35 minutes of opening speeches.
City Mayor and city VIPs cheer along during the pep rally.

Opening and closing ceremonies include: Speech making, marching bands, school songs, national Sports Day and National (Kimigayo) Anthems contribute to the main ingredients in any Japanese event, and I'm not even referencing the obento here. I'm convinced that without the opening and closing claps anchoring an event in Japan, the Happy Monday ships would sink.

School Band gets us feeling "On Top of the World"
during the Opening Ceremony.
Cue the Carpenters

Although making props by hand is part of the education surrounding undokai, I'm not referring to the handy-man carpenter here, rather, the singing sibling duo composed of Karen and Richard.  They have been gracing the opening and closing ceremony of all kinds at least since I landed nearly 20 years ago, and presumably for decades prior.  They really have a song in their repertoire that can weave into any mood or theme, whether it's a field day, a graduation, a wedding or a funeral (they have piped through them all).

School Song (upper left) printed on the back of the program.
The front cover (right) is drawn a student sketch, illustrating
the traditional timed fill-the-net with red or white balls contest.

National Undokai Song: I'm not sure if it's official, as part of the Health and Wellness Holiday, but the upbeat melody makes for a Happy Monday.

The festival music covers the map, the Japanese and world maps, in all different directions, level of formalities, and genres.  The opening ceremony features a flag raising ceremony while the band plays the national anthem.  During the dances, Japanese pop music chosen by the student performers blares through stereo speakers. Meanwhile, athletic obstacle or racing events feature some kind of upbeat motivational or "pace-up" soundtrack.  The adrenaline was flowing while skipping off the grounds to ABBA at my recent big red ball relay debut.  We won the event that round, and I attribute part of my confidence in the success to my years of karaoke experience at "Dancing Queen." 

The "Opening Clap" kicks of the ceremonies,
as team representatives salute the principal,
and prepare the field for warm up stretches.
Standing at attention to line up for pre-game and post-game student led stretches. Guests, parents, and faculty join in on the side lines,  echoing, "We are not alone."

After the closing clap, signaling the end,
athletes march back to their assigned seats.

This isn't an "everyone gets a trophy" society. Red has slaughtered
White the past three years, and my daughter is determined to be on
a winning team one day. So far, the arbitrary team assignments
has flipped her hat to the red side since 1st grade. 

Final Medal Count

The majority of events count toward the Red or White Teams' final score, yet grade-level-wide dance numbers and any competition involving parents are for exhibition purposes.  Apparently school officials know better than to put more pressure on parents than the already cut-throat competitive duty of multi-tasking: organizing the kids' to do and to bring list, while crafting the perfect obento and finally pitching the tent.  Although there is a closing "award" ceremony at the end of the games, it is without individual or team prizes in the form of gold, silver and bronze medals, let alone even a podium pose in the sense of a mini Olympics.  The score is displayed on large colored boards with hand-flipped numbers throughout the contest, and each triple digit number is announced via loud speaker at the end of the day.

The results generate rowdy applause for both sides, yet a more racous roaring for the winning "color."  Though tears are shed, fun is had by all.  My daughter, Red Team member defeated 3 years in the running, declared with cheer at bed-time that night, "I only wish undokai was every day!"  If that's the cheerful attitude she takes from her semester-long experience, then I suppose the gold medal goes to a successful chapter of this integrated slice of education. In contrast, from the judge's panel where I'm sitting, I felt more along the lane lines of needing a complete year to recover, a declaration I delivered internally, without the accompaniment of a megaphone or converted coke bottle noise makers. 

I confess a preference to buy my time by taking the next six months to round up the necessary supplies for the new colorful sets of cheering gear and get a "leg up" on placing the order for her slightly longer 4th grade chair bootees for next year. Perhaps her advancement to the next grade will flip her luck to the right color side, the "winning" side, of the hat. In the meantime, she continues to be motivated to run, skip, hop, tug and dance, thanks to experiencing all of the stages that the Health and Wellness Day events "fostered," while she counts down to next year. The make-it-yourself pom pon tables have turned and it's my daughter cheering me on to rally for the next round. Undokai can a fantastic experience for all ages, so with my thermos of 500 ml non-carbonated Fountain of Youth-Sports, I toast to another successful Happy Monday policy.  And I would award the day the Gold even if that (now) 32 year old bee found it's way through my Tug of War white gloves. 
Agony of "de-feet": Red team loses. The athletes try to lift their egos along with their dusty chairs equipped with protective slippers make the trip back to the  classrooms.  Next year the kids, and the chairs, will be back for a fresh round!