Random Festivals are Fun and Delicious.

Japanese schools seem to spend an inordinate amount of time doing things which gave nothing to do with lessons or education at all. I could go on to describe how this is a feature of the Japanese education system and helps to instil a strong sense of community, culture and group think in Japanese students but frankly I’ve already discussed that on this blog.

Anyway the upshot is that working in a Japanese school means that sometimes all the classes get cancelled so we can all do something cool.

As was the case last Friday when school was cancelled and instead we all played games and ate soup. Yay!

Around this time of year there are a few traditional cultural activities. I have done one or some of these at both my previous schools but at Iwaoka they decided to roll them all together into one big day of Japanese winter fun.

The first of these is that at pretty much every school in Japan the kids will play karuta. Usually only the first graders will play but at Iwaoka the entire school shuffled into the freezing cold gym to sit on the floor and play some cards.

Karuta is just the Japanese word for cards but there is a specific card game by that name too. Basically it is snap but rather than trying to match a card your opponent has just revealed you instead listen to what a speaker is saying and try and find the card that matches. I use this all the time in my lessons (Mr. Adam says elephant and all the kids try and grab the elephant card at once for example) but Japanese people do it for fun too.

This particular karuta game though is very special. A speaker reads out the first part of a poem and students have to find the end of the poem on about 100 cards in front of them.

The game requires not only for students to have memorised 100 poems but to be able to listen, come up with the next part, scan for it and move at lightning quick pace.

Consequently even though the cards were printed in Japanese which I could read, the double disadvantage of not knowing any of the poems and having to read in a second language meant that I couldn’t capture a single card in my brief attempt at playing. So instead I mooched about for a bit, had a chat and tried to stay close to the enormous space heaters for fear of developing hypothermia.

The kids got really into it though. Its incredible how much they can memorise and how quick they are.

Seeing that I was not exactly thrilled to spend hours watching my kids play a card game I didn’t understand at all one of my teachers seized me and took me outside.

Where a Mochizuki was occurring.

Mochizuki, or making rice cakes, is a past time for communities in winter in Japan. It is usually done either just before or just after the New Year. Mochi is a kind of very sticky rice cake. Imagine PVA glue. Remember when you were a kid and you’d leave PVA glue all over the outside of the bottle and it would set into a hard rubbery substance? Well just before it set when it was still kind of stretchy, that is the consistency of mochi. That or play-do which is going stale but isn’t quite there yet. It is actually much nicer than I make it sound but I don’t quite know what is appealing about it. The taste is just white rice and the texture is not very pleasant and a bugger to eat. I think it might be that it provides a comforting feeling. It is, to use an expression of my mother’s, food that sticks to your sides. Like dumplings, or a sticky toffee pudding or a doughy pie. Your stomach just feels really full but in a pleasant way.

I don’t know why this time of year is associated with mochi but I suspect that in olden days it was a good way to turn rice from the harvest into something that would store better. Less surface area means it is less susceptible to mold and any rat trying to eat mochi would soon choke to death or drown. It could also be improvised as fly paper or to fill up the cracks in draughty farm houses. In fact, it would probably make a very good insulation, potentially even better than it would a food.

To make mochi first you boil lots of rice without washing it so there is a ton of starch.

Then you heat up a stone bowl using hot water until it is red hot so the rice will stay warm in it.

Then you grind the rice using a big mallet until the shape of all the individual grains is blurred and it looks like a big lump.

Then the important part, one person folds the mochi into the middle of the bowl whilst another hits it with a whopping great big mallet.

Observe this video of just that.

You need skill, speed, timing and trust to avoid getting your hand smashed in whereas the other bloke just needs tireless muscles and a penchant for the repetitive.

This is the second time I have made mochi but the first time I have made it whilst elderly Japanese men criticised my technique. Eventually they so tired of me doing it “wrong” that they stepped in and freed my cold and aching arms from anymore pounding.

I should probably feel ashamed that a tiny old man took over for my strapping young self but I am not because I know the secret of elderly Japanese people. They are not made of flesh and bone but stone and wood. Their skin is aged teak and their bones are granite. Old Japanese people are indestructible. When the apocalypse comes it will be them and the cockroaches.

Once the karuta game was finished the students came outside to watch a massive bonfire.

This bonfire had been assembled the day before of bamboo and various decorations left over from the New Year. New Year decorations have to be burned before the next New Year or else they will become evil spirits, or yokai.

There are plenty of yokai stories of possessed items. Most famously an umbrella with a single eyeball and a man’s leg instead of handle. When you abandon an umbrella in Japan it will turn into a monster and seek revenge. The same goes for unwanted decorations so instead they get burnt.

We all watched as the school principle went inside the fire holding a flaming torch (health and safety existeth notteth in Japan) and then came out again and lit it more safely from the back.

It went up like a shot. Within barely 30 seconds of lighting it there was a hole in the top and a stream of fire issuing forth. It looked like a volcano.

And the noise was incredibly. Presumably because bamboo is a grass and full of water deposits every time one of these pockets superheated and turned to steam it went off with a massive bang. It was like standing in the middle of a gunfight, or a firework show. I have never heard such a violent fire.

Before too long a small twister had formed above the hole and bamboo ash was being strewn wildly across the playing field, in our hair, on our clothes and basically everywhere. It was some sort of ash…like snow.

Hmmm, catchy name that. Would make a good song title.

All in all it took about 15 minutes for the enormous bonfire ( a good 20ft high) to be completely burned to a crisp.

Before the fire was over my students did various demonstrations to their classmates, the teachers, the local people and some school kids from the nearby primary school which had come to visit and watch the show.

Japanese primary school kids are absolutely adorable. Not only are they much cuter than western kids but this natural cuteness is amplified by the matching hats they are all made to wear when they go on trips. Me and most of my female students were in paroxysms of kawaii watching them.

Sadly I can’t show you the videos I took of the presentations for legal reasons. But they included live kanji painting and taiko drumming. Impressive taiko drumming too. I didn’t even know we had a club! They kept that one quiet.

Eventually everyone was released to go do the most important part of the day. Eat ozouni!

Ozouni is a kind of soup whose main ingredients are miso (a salty paste derived from soy and which turns into a soup when mixed with water) and mochi along with anything else you fancy putting in it. Ozouni is associated with New Year’s where everyone eats some for luck. I had eaten some at Fran’s relative’s house this year and the year before Fran made some for just the two of us. It is true comfort food. Warm, filling, sticky and made with all your favourite things.

Together we gobbled multiple bowls of the stuff graciously prepared by local volunteers. I stopped at two but some of my kids ate as many as five bowls! Japanese people can really eat when they put their minds to it.

There was also kinako ( a kind of sweet flour derived from, guess what, soy) flavoured mochi and mochi floating in a soup of red bean paste. I’ve had both of these before and find them too sweet for words. Except possibly words like coma, diabetes, help and blegh! They’re not horrible but they’re so ridiculously sweet so may as well just mainline sugar.

Finally two primary school kids were hauled up to give a speech thanking us all. It was, without hyperbole, the single cutest thing I have ever seen in my life. Any attempt to describe it properly will just end up with me degenerating into baby talk and saying things like “wook ad da widdle hats isn’t it cutes, isn’t it cutes??!” which frankly, nobody wants to see.

And that, bar an assembly, was that.

You’ve got to love Japanese schools sometimes.

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