Cherry Blossoms
Spring has come and the Cherry blossoms are starting to bloom everywhere. They should be around for a week or so. Three weeks ago the Plum blossoms were out, but now they are gone. The ephemeral flowers are beautiful and smell great.

The other day I went for a bike ride. In the mountains I passed through a small village with maybe 10 homes and farms. I met a very old woman who was stacking fire wood. She said that in her lifetime she has never left this area. I believe the furthest she has gone was to Hytoyoshi (thirty minutes away). She has never gone abroad, never gone to Tokyo and from what I understand, has never been to the big cities on this island. I cannot imagine such a stationary life. The village is quite nice. There, from her house, you can see off both sides of the mountain to the forested valleys and mountains all around.Feeling adventurous, I took a new road down from the village. The road twisted and turned through a pretty dense forest. At one point I heard a loud shriek, so I hit the brakes. Just then, a group of no less than 15 monkeys bolted out of the bushes, crossed the road and disappeared into the trees on the other side. They were no more than 3 feet in front of me. Swinging from the branches and running, these suckers sure moved fast. I could be imagining things, but I think one of the smaller ones pointed at me and said “Gaijin” as he ran off with the others. Further down I saw three more, but even having my camera on and ready to shoot, they were too fast for me to catch.

March is graduation time here. All the Junior High School 3rd year students (US 9th graders) graduated and will be moving on to High School in the next few weeks.

The Ceremony was touching. First, there was the procession, the awarding of diplomas, and a few short speeches. As students names were called, they answered, “Hi” (yes) went to the podium, bowed, received the diploma from the principal, and then bowed again. As they walked off the stage they placed their diploma on a white table before returning to their seats. This continued for all 80+ graduating students. Classical music played over the speakers, and through a podium microphone you could hear the principal whisper his congratulations to the students as they came up to him. There was absolutely no clapping for individual graduates.

After the diplomas had been handed out, there were a few more quick speeches before the 3rd years turned around to face the 1st and 2nd year students. First the 3rd years stood as a group and individuals spoke about their school memories. After a few moments of this, the 1st and 2nd years spoke about their memories of the 3rd year students and then sang them a song. At this point most of the 3rd year girls and half the teachers started crying. Next, a 3rd year student, a leader of his class and one of the Judo club members, started into a speech. When he got choked up in the middle of his speech, that was it for just about everyone in the place. They all got through the rest of the ceremony crying through songs and speeches and then all us teachers went to the door to clap for them as they proceeded out of the gym.

Graduation-parents in classroom (Menda School)

Students regrouped in their home room classes with parents and homeroom teachers. I infiltrated class 3-2s more intimate graduation ceremony. The homeroom teacher, who had worn her best kimono for the day, handed out the diplomas, recovered from the earlier ceremony, for a second time. This time each student gave a brief speech along the lines of, “I had fun with you in Junior High and please do your best in High School.” After half an hour, all was done, and one last time the teacher called on the students to end the class. The students bowed, thanked their teacher and left to take 35,000 pictures before leaving.

That night there was a party with teachers and members of the PTA. I circulated and talked, as best I could, to parents. Now, I see roughly 1,000 students each month, so I am a bit shaky on names. I could name maybe 10 of the graduating students, so I had to fake it a little when a parent would tell me how their son or daughter had enjoyed taking classes with me. One drunken father, who spoke no English, told me he had two children and his daughter was in the 2nd year (8th grade). I wasn’t sure of her name, so he told me about the sports she plays and motioned that she has very large breasts. I smiled and told him (in English of course) that he had just made my new BLOG. He smiled so I guess he didn’t mind.

The Elementary School graduation was similar to the Junior High graduation. Again, the students followed the; “walk, stop, turn right, pause, walk, stop, turn left, pause, walk, stop, bow” pattern. The ceremony was well rehearsed and brilliantly executed. The smallest details are specified and uniformly preformed by all members of the graduating class.

Stand when the graduate two names ahead of you is called. Walk to the stair case, swing arms (opposed arm to leg), pause, when the graduate one before you is called walk to the top of the stairs and face the audience. Pause, when your name is called answer “hi” in the affirmative, turn, walk to the podium, turn. Standing next to the student who has just received his diploma, on cue bow together, take a step to the left as he steps aside, pause, wait for principal to presents the diploma, first grip with your right hand, then a half second later with left hand, put the two ends together in your right hand, bow. Pause, bow, step left, walk to stairs, pause walk down stairs, walk to the white table, turn. Bow to teacher at the white table, present diploma to her, after she has two hands on the diploma, release and drop hands to your sides. Pause, bow, return to your seat using straight lines, 90 degree turns and pause at each turn, swing arms. Sit.

I did not see a single student deviate from this routine. I know they were rehearsing last week, maybe two weeks ago as well. Everything has a proper Kata (form). When writing a Kanji character, an English letter or graduating from Junior High School, one should always follow the proper Kata.

Again, as the graduating 6th graders faced their 4th and 5th grade peers, the exchange moved many to tears. Parents and teachers also had a role to play in the ceremony. At one point the parents spoke to the students, then to the teachers. We stood and sang a song with the parents and students. As is par for the course in these events everyone bows to everyone else at the start and finish of every speech, presentation, etc. After everything teachers formed a receiving line at the
back of the auditorium to clap as they left the room.

During the second ceremony the teachers showed videos they had made of the students using film and photos going back to the first grade. Then they handed out diplomas and gifts, made small speeches and brought to a close the primary school careers of their students. The whole event was slightly less emotional than the one at the Junior High two weeks earlier. Probably because the Elementary School graduates are going on to Junior High School together, unlike the Junior High graduates who will be spread out at five or so different High Schools throughout the county.

Graduation time involves one more issue here than back in the States. Japanese teachers and principals frequently move from school to school. This is because no teacher is allowed to stay in one school for longer than seven years. Principals are limited to two or three years. In practice, few teachers stay for the maximum 7 years anyway. The premise behind this system is that workers who move from place to place don’t get complacent. (The same rule is applied to police officers and to a lesser extent the town’s bureaucrats, who are moved from department to department every few years.) Next month I will be meeting and working with a number of new teachers as the new school year begins.

[Note from Adam: This system has the additional, perhaps primary benefit of keeping all government officials unsettled and without roots. This way they pose less of a threat to Tokyo’s authority]

Beach Trip
It was a bitter cold morning last month. I woke up beneath 4 heavy blankets. I was wearing a sweat suit with a fleece hat on my head. As I lay in bed watching my breath in the cold morning light, I decided, this would be a great day to go to the beach. I put on my heavy coat and warmed up my car to melt the ice off the windshield.

I met a friend in Taragi, and then drove on to Miyazaki to see the world famous “Ocean Dome”. This is the largest indoor water park on earth. The dome is 300 by 100 meters and has a giant retractable roof. The entire building is heated to about 85 F, so even this cold day I could swim in the ocean. Under the artificial sky, as heaters pumped in the warm breeze, I swam through artificial waves, and then sat on a beach of white pebbles. I also checked out the waterslides and a virtual reality theme park type ride.

The story of how this beach came into being is fascinating, and is reported on in “Confucius Lives Next Door” by T.R. Read. The short version is that there was a large steel concern that had a boat building division. This group manufactured world class icebreaking ships. Due to rapid appreciation of the Japanese currency in the 1980’s these boats became too expensive to produce in Japan. So the company decided to exit this line of business.

The companies’ management gave the boat building division an assignment. They had 10 years to become profitable again using the technology, skills and expertise they had and whatever resources were necessary from the parent company. After a few unsuccessful starts in a variety of ventures, they decided to use their expertise in precision steel work, design, and machinery that can manipulate water to come up with the concept for the Ocean Dome. Today the division is still in existence building ocean domes and indoor skiing domes all around Asia. I imagine if US Steel, GM or Ford found they had a division that could no longer be profitable, management would have fired everyone, closed the plants and giddily issued themselves a boat load of unrestricted stock options for executing a brilliant cost cutting strategy.

Fire Swinging Fun
Aso is a city built in the crater created by volcanic explosions thousands of years ago. There are still a couple active volcanoes that surround this city including Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan, and one of the largest on earth. So, you ask, how do these folks celebrate the spring and ask for a good year? FIRE. March is when folks celebrate the Aso Fire Festival.

AsoFire — Fire Fire Everywhere!

On Monday night my group arrived at the main shrine just before the festivities were to get under way. We were standing on a dirt road in a crowd of people when two participants came running down the road with hay, baled up as torches. These were thrown on the ground. Then some of the organizers took made up bales of hay with woven hay rope, lit them and started swinging them around over their heads. One man, maybe an event organizer, wanted the crowd to move back, so
he started walking towards us with his swinging bale of flaming hay. As more space became available around the front of the shrine, more and more people started spinning with the fire.

A piece of rope, woven from hay will burn through in somewhere between 20 and 60 seconds, depending on the intensity of the fire, the speed at which it is being spun and where the flaming bale of hay is the hottest. When this rope breaks, the burning hay goes flying off in any direction it chooses. Rarely, it falls straight to the ground. Sometimes it hits another participant or a spectator. I saw one bale hit a small child before landing at her feet. Oh yeah, the fun part, anyone, like myself for example, is allowed to grab some hay and give it a whirl. This was without a doubt, one of the most dangerous events I have ever witnessed / participated in.

Mt. Aso

After the fires had burned out we had a big Enki for about 60 JET’s who had come from near and far for this festival. Then we headed back towards the bungalows for the night. I went with my friend Molly who was a designated driver and some folks who had a car but no DD. We first went about looking for the car. This took about an hour and a half as we were walking around, not quite sure where the car was in relation to the shrine or for that matter, where the shrine was. We finally found the car and started driving. It took us about 2 hours to get to the bungalow that is 10 minutes away.

The next day we drove to the Kurokowa Onsen, also in Aso. (For fun, try saying “also in Aso” 10 times fast) There we visited two onsens. The second one was easily the most spectacular onsen I have visited. This open air onsen is built between two mountains, on the bank of a river, overlooking a waterfall. You can sit on one side of the tub under a stream of hot water pouring out of a bamboo pipe. It was paradise.

Driving to the onsen, I observed one more part of the fire festival. Farmers were burning their fields all up and down the mountain. It was definitely a little strange driving down the road with fires blazing all around, but hey, when in Rome. I guess.

I have started taking an Aikido class in the Dojo near my home. While Judo is about throwing your opponent off balance and lifting their weight, Aikido seems to be based on the premise that, in any situation, you can grab and twist someone’s arm off their body as you drop them to the ground. There are two teachers who are probably in their late 60`s if not older. They are always gentle with me as they know I have no idea what I am doing. There are only about 10 students and for the most part, they are also quite patient with my utter incompetence.

One student however, a white haired man in his 50’s seems to get frustrated when he is paired up with me. He speaks no English and apparently doesn’t understand any of my Japanese. He takes out his frustration at our inability to communicate by doing the moves at full speed and full force. So I can go from standing to face down with my arm and hand perpendicular to the ground and my body in about 3 seconds flat.

That’s all for Today
Only 4 months left here in Japan. In a few hours, I will leave for a trip to Korea and Taiwan. I will be back here in early April. Sayonara.

Josh Bernstein
JETAA 2005-2006
Asagiri, Kumamoto Prefecture