This weekend was my school’s Undokai, or Sports Day. OON-DO-KAI… It’s kind of a big deal – not like back home where you partake in a shitty egg-and-spoon race in front of X amount of parents who can be bothered to show up. The kindergarten I teach at is actually bigger than the primary school I went to as a kid, and the performance they put on yesterday outdid anything I ever took part in in all my years of schooling. As I arrived bleary-eyed at the school at 8am there were already parents (vultures) queueing (lurking) outside the gates to blag the best viewing spots for the day. Some were armed with rugs, some with cool boxes. Others simply had a steely look on their face that said “my three-year-old son better perform today or I will be utterly ashamed and disown him and never be able to show my face in public again.” Not having to queue myself, I strolled on past them like a VIP guest about to attend a surreal concert featuring 300 kids, 600 parents and more J-Pop songs than you could throw an onigiri at.
My job for the day was simple: hold the finish-line tape, smile and be a foreigner. Easy enough I hear you say – but kneeling on your honkers for an eternity in obscene 28-degree October heat isn’t exactly the most thrilling start to a Saturday morning. Saying that, the expressions on some of the kids’ faces when racing was worth the pain. If you have never seen a group of four-year-olds race each other with pure grit and determination then I urge you to herd up a group of your own at your local park and try it out for yourself. Please, do it now. Risk imprisonment. It really is quite endearing – especially the kids who have no idea where they are, what they are doing or why that strange white man at the end of the race is smiling and clapping like a deranged lunatic.
Sports Day in Japan isn’t like back home. Yes there are races, but it’s more performance-based than anything else. The kids and teachers have been practising for this day for nearly two months. The school becomes obsessed with it. Every day after English I would look out over the balcony and see the kids rehearsing all sorts of mad, interesting looking routines. The nen-shos (three-year-olds) did a surreal dance with rabbit masks on their faces; the nen-chus (aged four) did a complicated hot-air balloon performance, while the five-year-olds did a gymnastics-style routine that culminated in a 100-strong row of human dominoes. It was pretty impressive, and definitely beats the time one of my friends pissed his pants during Sports Day when when I was nine years old.
As is the case with all these kinds of events in Japan, the day was all about ceremony. Lunch was spent with the encho-sensei (headmistress) and other head honchos. It was an elaborate sushi bento that I could only eat half of (I don’t really like raw fish) mixed with awkward silences. The Japanese really are the masters of small talk. Topics of conversation included how people in Japan don’t eat the skin off grapes and whether or not we have cake in Northern Ireland. It was one of the weirdest lunches I think I’ve ever had, second only to the time in 2008 when my old boss took me out for lunch in Fukuoka. On that occasion I had drank heavily the night before and was presented the next day with fishy egg custard on a raging hangover. No thank you. I think I excused myself to be sick about three times during the course of that wretched, yet expensive, 10-course meal.
After more races, a tug-of-war and a close call when a kid nearly shit himself, Sports Day came to a close. There was a fun enkai (party) afterwards at a local izakaya which involved eating stingray and drinking mega strong whiskey-cokes. Oh, and my camera got stolen at the kindergarten by some absolute bastard – either that or a kid lifted it by mistake. I’m praying for the latter.
They say a picture paints a thousand words. But I guess for the time being a thousand words will just have to paint the picture.