Nakasato Elementary Exchange (Winter) Part 2

This is the second part of this post.  Checkout the first part too!  Don’t miss the video at the end.

Every winter fourteen fifth grade elementary students from Kume Island’s 6 elementary schools travel to Toakamachi.  In the summer, a group of Tokamachi students from 3 elementary schools return to visit Okinawa.  In 2013, I was invited along as one of Kumejima’s representatives (read cameraman).  I live-tweeted the event and you can catch a record of the trip here (I know, strange title but we left on Valentine’s Day).

IMG_5180The first and last days of the trip were mostly travel.  Though Japan’s system is convenient, it took us two flights, four trains, and a bus to travel between Kumejima and Tokamachi. If you’re starting out from Tokyo, you would have a much shorter trip, but that goes for just about anywhere inter-regional.

That first night everyone stayed at a local Japanese-style inn were guests were welcomed to their rooms with a local variation of sasa dango.  They were tea flavored mochi filled with azuki bean paste and wrapped in tea leaves.  Unlike other dango, they weren’t skewered or wrapped in bamboo leaves (sasa is a type of bamboo).

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IMG_5589We had dinner together with many dishes featuring local foods.  Many of the dishes included river fish, which the Kumejima students had rarely, if ever, eaten.  There were small dishes of everything from sushi to tempura.

The second day marked the real start of the exchange. We ate breakfast together, this time at a breakfast room rather than in the large tatami room from the previous night. Like dinner, the breakfast was a wide assortment of small dishes.

After breakfast, we walked over to a local school for the opening speeches by local officials and students of both regions.  Students formally exchanged presents.  Our students gave miso and sugar cane cookies, kokuto, and Okinawan doughnuts, while the Tokamachi students gave green tea cakes.  Later, the Kumejima students and teachers broke up into three groups to go to the three local schools.

Opening ceremonies at school

I went with two of our students to a school with just over 30 students.  Fifth year students from both schools presented their local culture and landmarks to a gathering of the entire school.  The Kumejima students worked hard to memorize speeches about themselves and their homes.  If for no other reason, it gave the students a good chance to practice public speaking and build confidence in talking to people outside their usual group dynamics.

After the presentations, and a song from the students, we were given a tour of the school, followed by lunch.  The school we were at was small enough and remote enough to have a lunchroom rather than the more common family style dining in their classrooms.  Our meal was a beef bowl with salad and a chocolate cake.

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IMG_6402After lunch, the students played organized games in the gym.  One was similar to “red light, green light” but with a lot more variations, such as “go to sleep,” “sit,” etc.  We were treated to another recorder performance and then it was time to go outside.  Each school had different activities for their visitors.  At the school we visited they ‘let’ us have a try at snow shoveling for a bit before a scavenger hunt for candy in a snow-covered field.  I routinely sank down to my knees or higher.

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When all the candy was found, we sledded down a steep hill behind the school.  At one of the larger schools, the students build snowmen and had a ‘dodgeball’ fight with snowballs. There were also relay races and plenty of other games for the tropical kids to enjoy.

School ended and the students departed with their host families.  Each student spent the rest of the evening with their counter part’s family.  The teachers and staff went back to the ryokan to plan for the next year and have a welcoming ceremony.  It was interesting to see the differences in culture between Okinawa and Niigata during the event.

IMG_6749In Okinawa, its common for people to do a “cheers” when they walk over to talk to you.  They say “kanpai” and clink glasses before drinking.  In Niigata, it is more common for the hosts to arrive with a bottle and pour more in your drink and encourage you to drink as they chat.  The local songs and dances were also quite different.  The night ended with a “bonsai” which I’ve never seen in Okinawa.

The third day we met our students and their host families at the nearby Nakasato ski resort.  We all spent the morning skiing (I snowboarded).  Our students were taught by their host parents and a group of ski instructors while the teachers were herded along by some of the local organizers.  It was windy and snowed through most of the morning, creating wonderful powder conditions.

We had lunch at the resort, it seems curry rice is common since we had the same thing while skiing on the Junior High school trip.  After lunch, the teachers and students once again split up.  Students went with their host families.  Some went shopping, others hit some of the many local onsen, while others visited the snow festival.  The teachers were treated to some amazing tickets at the Tokamachi Snow Festival.

Our last day started at the school where we met our students and had a farewell ceremony with more speeches.  The bus ride back to Eichigo-yuzawa station was a spectacular view of the wide open rice fields and towering mountains… all covered in a clean cover of new snow.  We followed the same course we had taken to get there and eventually landed safely on Kumejima later that evening.  Along the way I got my first views of Mt. Fuji and the Sky Tree in the distance.

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I felt I got a lot from the trip, so I know it will have a huge impact on the students who were lucky enough to go.  It is sure to give them great memories, more confidence, and a desire to seek out more information about the greater world.  A few days after the trip, the students presented to the rest of Kumejima’s fifth graders so that the experiences could be shared as widely as possible.

To show my gratitude, I made sure every student got a CD of all the pictures I took during the trip plus a video I cut from that taken from one of the organizers. A short version is below.  Thanks for reading!