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Ponies, Fire Trucks, and Seeing Eye Dogs, Oh My!

November 29, 2012

Recently, I was lucky enough to spend one of my Saturdays attending my Monday Elementary School’s culture festival. More specifically, the 若竹際 (wakatakesai) or “Young Bamboo Festival.” A culture festival is when a school opens its doors to the public to engage in a variety of activities that the students plan, from games to crafts to running around the school searching for fifth graders representing different holidays — Halloween, Christmas, et cetera — and getting them to stamp a sheet of paper within a certain time frame. For my elementary school’s case, it meant for the students’ families. Usually as students get older and start attending separate schools, they use culture festivals as excuses to visit each other.

I had to be at school by 8:15 in order to report to the teachers’ room and see if there were any last minute preparations that needed to be done. The opening ceremony started at 8:40, and featured short speeches by the principal and the head of the PTA. The morning was filled with activities that each class planned. The first and second graders held a variety of games in the gym, such as spinning makeshift tops out of acorns to see whose would last the longest and a memory concentration game. Before they began the activities, though, they took turns carrying a miniature 神輿 (mikoshi), or portable shrine, around the gym.

Carrying the mikoshi

Even though I was scheduled to “work” that Saturday, my work actually consisted of just being a customer. I kicked soccer balls at plastic bottles filled with water (and got the highest score, to the amazement of my sixth grade boys waiting in line behind me), drew a picture on plastic that shrank in the oven to make a key holder, tried shooting targets using a home made slingshot, and posed for many many pictures with my students.

With one of my fifth grade teachers and some of his students.

After two hours of activities, we took a break for lunch. Usually, the guests had to purchase meal tickets and then exchange them for whatever they wanted to eat, but since I was a teacher I was told to go to the teachers’ room. When I arrived, I was amazing to find a steaming bowl of カレーうどん (kare udon), udon noodles, pork, and vegetables in a curry-based soup; a container of 焼きそば (yakisoba), which are noodles stir fried with cabbage and pork; and a hot dog on a stick. It was definitely way too much to eat, but it was really good!

While the morning was filled with activities the students planned, the afternoon belonged to the parents! The concept was that the parents planned a variety of activities, and let the students know ahead of time what they were. The students could then sign up for one of those activities and then spend the allotted hour and a half doing them. The parents definitely went all out too! Some of the activities that the students could do were attend a presentation by the fire department and then get to use the engine’s hoses to shoot water at targets, ride a pony, make business card holders (taught by the neighborhood women’s society), play a variety of games in the gym, and attend a presentation given by seeing eye dog trainers.

Waiting for the lecture to be over with so pony riding can start.

Japanese Fire Engine

Finishing up a turn.

Since I didn’t sign up for an activity, I was given the freedom to wander around and do whatever activity I wished. I spent a lot of time at the crafts area, where a really patient woman helped me make my business card holder. However, my last stop was the presentation by the seeing eye dog trainers. I’m so glad that I did stop by! As part of the presentation, two dogs-in-training were brought in as a sort of show and tell aspect. I showed up just as the presentation was ending (which was saddening) but since the trainers didn’t have anywhere to be afterwards, I got to talk with them and play with the dogs. I ended up playing with the two dogs for over an hour, while the students were cleaning up and having their end of day meetings. I didn’t get any pictures because my camera battery died.

After recharging my own batteries, it was time to bid a sad farewell to the dogs. Their trainers were really wonderful, though, and before they left they handed me a seeing eye dog in stuffed animal form. “For your apartment,” they said, “since you can’t keep a real dog.” It was such a nice gesture, and I really was touched by it. The dog (I named him MJ, after one of the dogs) now sits on my bed and greets me with big brown eyes when I get home from school.

While this wasn’t my first elementary school cultural festival (TES and WES had their festivals on the same day at the end of October), I definitely had a lot of fun at MES’s festival. I think that American schools should also have something like culture festivals — though, maybe under a different name. I’ll have to get back to you on that. Anyway, I got to go home with the knowledge that I got Monday off as well as loads of prizes.

The loot!

Also, for those of you wondering if I succeeded in chasing all of my fifth graders down to get their stamps, I was one person short. Santa is a pretty sneaky kid.

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