Culture Exchange

Rook Before You Reap

Since there’s nothing much in The Village beyond farms and hot springs, every year all of the smaller schools lease a rice paddy from a local farmer so the kids can learn how to grow rice. By random chance, I happened to be at Monday Elementary for Planting Day, Harvest Day and Threshing Day, so they decided to reschedule one of my visits so I could also attend their final Mochi-Making Day.


“Mochi” is generally translated as “rice cake,” but that doesn’t give you the slightest idea of what it actually is. It’s essentially pounded, pasteified rice that’s very sticky and stretchy when fresh or reheated—similar to bannock, in a way. It was traditionally kept as a long-term staple and carried by travellers to eat on the road.


Modern mochi is made by putting rice into a vibrating bowl and intermittently adding drops of water until it’s smooth and pasty. At Monday Elementary we did it the old-fashioned way, by thumping the rice over and over with a big-ass lopsided mallet. This was of enough interest that the kids’ moms and grandparents came out to participate, helping to prepare a massive lunch for what amounted to about 80 people.


I took a few shots at pounding the rice. It’s placed in a big, heavy wooden bowl, and you initially use the mallet like an oversized pestle to do some preliminary grinding. When you start swinging the thing above your head, you need someone to fold the rice over and add water to it between thumps. My forearms were hard as rock within a few minutes, but the old grandpas could just go on forever. I watched as one old guy consistently came within inches of hitting the little grandma leaning in to fold the rice, and neither seemed in the least concerned.


The kids and their moms then put the mochi into snacks and soup, covering it in sweet bean spread (“anko”) or wrapping it in seaweed with a piece of cheese. Then we all sat down to enjoy the lunch we’d been growing since May.

Christmas in December

The double Christmas setup
Two trees and two fireplaces for forty kids

The maddening coordination of my Christmas lesson plan is well underway. Last year I only had time to do it at my smaller schools, but this year I planned ahead and even rearranged lesson days so I’d be able to do it at my big school as well.


My big concern with the Christmas lesson is always finding someone to play Santa Claus. Santa has to deliver presents and candy and consume cookies and milk while the kids are practicing a Christmas carol in the music room, and he has to do it all fast enough that I’m not stranded practicing the same carol sixteen times. The other concern is that I need an hour between lessons to set up presents since I use the same boxes for each class. I unfortunately hadn’t been able to arrange a meeting to sort out the details with all the teachers as I’d wanted, but I’d left this in the hands of the English coordinator, who’d assured me I had nothing to worry about.


Friday Elementary tends to suffer cut classes due to meetings and school sports events, so we’d arranged to trade the junior high for a few Tuesdays. As this happened to be one of those weeks, I arrived on Monday afternoon to start setting up for the next day and immediately tossed my Santa suit to the teacher I was told would be playing the role. He just looked at me in surprise.


“Aren’t you playing Santa tomorrow?” I asked.


“I have a business trip tomorrow,” he replied.


“Ah. Shit.”


And it seemed that the English coordinator was away on a business trip himself. I also learned that there would be no classes after 4th period, so I had to do all three lessons one after another with ten minutes of prep time in between.


I conscripted help and got my two fireplaces and Christmas trees in place, and even got the school nurse to volunteer as a replacement Santa. By the next morning I was quite determined to talk to the English coordinator about what happens if you leave tasks incomplete when others are relying on you. As far as I could tell, he hadn’t spoken to anybody at all.


There was, of course, a reason for all this: I was supposed to be at this school on Friday. The Tuesday swap was next week. It only dawned on me to double-check the schedule when I got to school on Tuesday..


I spent the morning feeling mortified, but we ran Christmas anyway.


When I came back a week later for the session with the upper years, the day began with my stressful grade 4s—who are less capable of self-organization than the grade 2s—and gradually improved until I had my grade 6s after lunch.

"Christmas Morning"
"Christmas Morning"

When we returned from singing carols and the kids opened their presents and stockings, I was surprised to see that in addition to the mini Kit-Kats I’d bought, there was also a wafer cookie in everyone’s stocking. T-sensei, their teacher, had brought her own stocking-stuffers as well. I thought this was absolutely fantastic. Nobody had ever done that before.


Then, while preparing for our closing salutations, I turned around to find all thirty-six kids wearing Santa hats. My mouth dropped open into the kind of awe-mingled smile you’d see on the face of a kid who’s just walked into the biggest toy store ever. The kids had been hiding the hats all lesson; they’d even been sitting a little funny to avoid crumpling them.


Then they went over to the piano and sang the song they’d performed at last year’s music day, after which every single kid gave me a hand-made Christmas card. Some were even pop-up.


This is precisely why I love these kids: I’m more than just their teacher, and they’re so much more than just my students. This class was a large part of the reason why I’d decided to stick around The Village for a second year.


After all this, I finally had to clean everything up. “This is the annoying part,” I commented to T-sensei as I left the teacher’s office. And no sooner had I started pulling the tacks out of one of the fireplaces while guiltily munching Santa’s leftover cookies than six grade 6s arrived to help. Luckily, there were exactly six cookies left.

On the Horizon

I am once again joyously slated to go to Hokkaido and ski over Christmas. And this year on Christmas Eve, I will be eating ham steak and listening to live Christmassy jazz in the fantastic Otaru Beer Hall… and not sitting depressed eating dinner at McDonald’s as I did last year.


After that, I’m going to Kamakura with A before she heads home for New Year’s. I’m presently waiting to see if my company can get me a position closer to Shizuoka starting in April.


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December 2003