Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Seika Junior High School Student Presentation Assembly

On Friday October 27th Joel, Chris and I were invited to judge the Seika Junior High School English Speech Contest. We went to Seika Junior High and were able to watch the students perform a variety of presentations for their fellow students, teachers and parents.

The main reason we went was to judge the English Speech Contest but we were also treated to a performance by the school orchestra, class choirs and student dance groups. I was extremely surprised by the skill level of the student’s English as well as their musical talent. The school is comprised of 3 grades and each grade choose about 6 of their best students to compete in the English Speech Contest. It fell on our shoulders to judge and choose one winner from each grade. As all of the students were quite good it was a very hard choice to make and we struggled over our decision. After we finally came to a decision we presented the winners with certificates, congratulating them in front of the students and parents. In America students don’t typically start learning a foreign language until high school so I was amazed that the students here are already speaking impressive English and taking part in English speech contests at such a young age.

The school orchestra played a number of difficult songs and I was shocked at how talented the group of junior high musicians are. Each class also has their own choir which performed 2 songs each accompanied by piano and conducted by members of their own class. As my junior high school in America had neither choirs nor an orchestra I was amazed at the skill and organization of the young Japanese students. It was a really fun day and a great experience for me to be able to watch and judge the student performances. I was very impressed by all of the performances and hope that I will be invited back for future events!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Children’s Festival

On Saturday October 14th the Seika Town Education Committee held the annual Children’s Festival at Mukunoki Center. Hundreds of kids showed up and were treated to a wide variety of games, crafts, activities and entertainment. For a young child this must have been the most enjoyable day of the year! All the children were laughing and playing, happily enjoying all the different booths and events set up just for them. After opening remarks from Mayor Kimura a children’s orchestra played the theme song to Star Wars, and there were even robots in attendance.

As volunteers with Seika Global Network, my colleague Chris Bagwell (Coordinator for Sister City Relations) and I set up games and activities for the children to enjoy while trying to sneak in a quick English lesson. We taught the kids how to play a favorite American game, Twister, and read the children English language picture books. Seika Global Network also had a corner set up for the kids to draw pictures of dinosaurs in preparation for the “Dinosaur Art Contest” set up with Seika’s sister city Norman, Oklahoma.

The Children’s Festival was great fun for the children and also for all of us who worked as staff for the event. The children were so cute and seeing their smiling faces and watching them play Twister was so much fun for me. At lunch the children were treated to free curry and rice for lunch and the whole day was a great success. If the Children’s Festival was any indication of how much fun Seika Town Festival will be next month then I am really looking forward to it.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Agricultural Experience with the Home-stay Participants

Seika Global Network and the Planning and Coordinating Division of Seika Town work together to bring foreigners to Seika for weekend home-stays with local Japanese families. These home-stays are planned during times when there are significant local events going on so that the home-stay participants can take part in local festivals and community events. Last Friday the participants for the Seika Children’s Festival Home-stay period arrived in town for their weekend home-stay.

After picking up the participants and giving them a tour of Seika by bus we went to a local farm for an agricultural experience. We all went to Hanayagi Farms for picking sweet potatoes and black edamame. I have to admit that I am a city boy and so this was the first time in my life that I have actually gone out into the fields and done real farm work. First we went in and got our hands dirty while rooting around in the soil for sweet potatoes. It was really fun to just stick your hands in the earth and feel around until you got hold of the purple sweet potatoes. It was really exciting to grab hold of something unseen and then yank out a really big sweet potato!

Next we went over to where the black edamame were growing to harvest the beans. The farm guide brought a large pair of clippers to cut the base of the edamame stocks, but I thought that was no fun so I asked if I could just yank it out of the ground by hand. At first he looked at me like I was crazy, but said it was fine if I wanted to. Rather than just cutting the stock and walking away it felt like real work to have to rip the roots out of the ground by hand using raw strength. Of course we only pulled one plant each so if we were doing it all day I’m sure I would want to use the clippers.

After we finished our harvests we were surprised to find that we got to take home the sweet potatoes and edamame that we picked! Having a huge bag of sweet potatoes that I doubt I could eat on my own I gave some to neighbors and coworkers. The next day I boiled the edamame and put a little salt on them and they were delicious! My neighbor and her little daughter who I gave sweet potatoes came by my apartment the following day and gave me a dish of the sweet potatoes she cooked up and they too were amazing.

That day that we went out to the farms was a beautiful Autumn day with clear sunny skies and a cool breeze. Right next to the potato fields were rice fields that were also being harvested. All the home-stay participants really enjoyed the agricultural experience and we all had a lot of fun out in the fields picking potatoes and edamame. The participants then went home with their home-stay families and we all parted for the night, but would meet again the next day as we were all going to help out at the Children’s Festival the next day.

To be continued…

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Culture Day

As part of Seika Junior High’s Culture Day some of the students learned about the local Yamashiro history from local author and historian Yoshihisa Azuma. Then after the lesson the students took a trip to one of the oldest Shinto shrines in Seika Town. Takenouchi Shrine is one of the oldest shrines in town which has several old buildings and gorgeous surroundings. The resident Shinto Priest, Mr. Tanaka, gave them a brief background lesson about the shrine’s history, showed them some artifacts that date back to the 14th Century and gave them a tour of the grounds.
Even though Seika is a relatively small town it was a long history and due to its rural location the shrines and temples have withstood the years. Seika is located right in between Kyoto and Nara and was part of the ancient roads linking the two important capitals. Therefore Shines like Takenouchi and others were able to flourish during those periods and are now considered invaluable local cultural assets.
It is said that this shrine once sat side by side with Inayazuma Castle, the last remaining fort of the Yamashiro Region Riots which began in the fuedal times of the Middle Ages (17th year of the Bunmei Era-1485) when the citizens demanded peace and a self-government. Some wooden planks on this shrine that date from the Kamakura Period (1318), together with some of the shrine's ornately designed roof ornaments, are designated ‘Important Cultural Properties’ of Kyoto.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Seika Global Network Japanese Cooking Class

Due to the various international research facilities that compromise the Kansai Science City there are about 200 foreign residents living and working in Seika Town. A local NPO called Seika Global Network offers various programs to help support and integrate the foreign population of the area. Not too long ago I was invited by Seika Global Network to come to their weekly Japanese language class that they offer free of charge for the foreign population of Seika. Normally this is a classroom environment where Japanese tutors help the foreigners with their Japanese and also teach some key cultural lessons. The week that I went was a special day and instead of having the normal class we went to the local community center (Mukunoki Center) for a Japanese cooking class!

Mukunoki Center is a new and really big community center that has everything from cooking rooms, music practice rooms, judo and kendo practice areas, basketball courts to an exercise gym. On this day about 40 of us gathered in the immaculately clean and spacious cooking room to make vegetable tempura, sushi and various other dishes. I think for most of us it was the first time we had a chance to make traditional Japanese cuisine and all the Seika Global Network volunteers were extremely helpful and nice in instructing us on the proper way to prepare the dishes.

The foreign population is quite diverse here in Seika and there were people from China, Korea, Peru, Eastern Europe and India. So it was really interesting to meet the people who live in town that I do various things for at work but rarely have a chance to meet face to face.

It was really fun to make the food but as it started piling up and looking more and more delicious it became harder and harder to hold myself back from eating the tempura right out of the fryer. But once everything was done we all sat down and had a big (40 people) group dinner and ate all the great food that we had just made. Everything was good and Nishi Sensei gave us some essential pointers on Japanese table manors.

After the meal everyone pitched in and we washed all the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen. It was funny as having so many people from different cultures together there were a few people that seemed surprised to see men cooking and cleaning! All in all it was a fun night and I think everyone did learn a lot about Japanese cuisine, language and of course about each other.

Sports Day at Seika Junior High School

Children at Seika Junior High are pretty lucky kids! The school semester started about a month ago and already the school has a week long Fall break. Wow, we never had a Fall break where I went to school in the US. Even better than that, they had Sports Day at the school, where the kids can play all sorts of different sports. Unfortunately it was pouring rain today so all the outdoor sports activities including kickball and tennis had to be canceled. But there was no lack of fun to be had inside. When I first showed up the kids were playing Ping-Pong and badminton. I myself play a little Ping-Pong, but these kids were way better than me. Maybe that’s because they are shorter and therefore closer to the table with a better eye on the ball?! No, these kids are just well practiced and intense.

Then they took down all the Ping-Pong tables and badminton nets and set up a soft volleyball tournament. You may be wondering what “soft” volleyball is right? I was wondering too, basically it is exactly the same as regular volleyball except the ball is bigger and softer. Its almost like a beach ball made of soft rubber. It is easier to hit and seems to float more than a regular ball. Along with the kids a lot of the teachers and some parents had come to play and they set up teams to play against the kids.

On a dark rainy day like today having a sports day at the school seemed like the perfect thing to do. It seemed like a lot of fun for the kids and the grown-ups as well. No doubt this was not just set up for the kids to play and have fun. Sports of all types are very popular in Japan and seem to play an important function in society teaching kids teamwork, the value of practice, and the ever present importance of hard work and perseverance. There is a very pervasive phrase in Japanese, “Ganbatte!” It roughly translates as “Do your best!” or “Give it your all!” If you ever go to any sporting event you will hear “Ganbatte” or some of its other forms as reminders for everyone to do their best, and to encourage everyone. But this doesn’t apply to just sports, at work or even when out with friends Japanese people are constantly encouraging others to do their best and persevere. Sports Day at Seika Junior High was great fun for everyone but also a good lesson in the value of perseverance for the kids.