This summer, I decided to start my summer vacation a little different than usual. Every year, the Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) in Hokkaido put on an English camp for junior high school and high school students. The camp is entirely conducted in English, and organized by foreign staff, giving 50 students in Hokkaido an opportunity to experience other cultures and put to practice all the English that they’ve learned.
The camp is called the Hokkaido English Challenge (HEC). It starts with a competitive round of video interviews, where applicants answer a series of questions, testing their English comprehension and communication. Yakumo had one short listed student from Nodaoi Junior High School, who demonstrated her passion for English beautifully.
I joined some of the nearby ALTs in driving up to Higashikagura, where the camp is held. One member of our team was the camp’s head chef, so we had to make a stop at Costco for some bulk ingredients. Unfortunately, with four adults and everyone’s luggage in a car that fits five people, we had a difficult challenge trying to fit everything and everyone in the car. Our success in getting everything in is a testament to our amazing tetris skills.
After running a few more errands and dropping the food off in the kitchen, we finally arrived at our destination, lit a few celebratory sparklers, and headed to bed for some much needed sleep.
The next day, the students were scheduled to arrive. My main responsibility was as a team leader for four junior high school students, four high school students, and a junior leader, alongside my trusty partner Kevin. My other responsibility was the ice breaker activities, with a fellow Canadian ALT, Cheri. As the ice breakers would be the first activities of camp, we were hoping to make the students feel welcome, comfortable with each other, and excited for camp. Though the rain clouds were heavy and threatening, we made it through our ice breaker games without getting too wet, and by the end, everyone was familiar with their team members.
The rest of the day and the next day weren’t quite as lucky with the weather. It rained quite a bit, so there was a lot of time spent under the tents writing letters in English, and learning English games. This proved to be a meaningful bonding time, and was valuable for bringing each other together. Gradually as the camp went on, the sun came around and we were able to do all our outdoor activities as planned.
Playing Bananagrams under the tent
The camp is filled with all kinds of exciting English adventures, including a scavenger hunt, dance party, campfire, plays, crazy Olympics, capture the flag, and much more. The students were involved in cultural activities that they would normally only get to try if they went overseas. Also, they got to try a wide variety of international foods. They spent five days communicating in English, making everlasting memories and solidifying their knowledge that their English studies were not all for naught. They all have the ability to communicate anything they want or need in English.
Some of the pictures from my team's scavenger hunt
One of the monsters in the monster hunt
Riding the monorail
HEC spelled with lights at the dance party
School dances are a common tradition in western schools, from elementary school through high school. HEC students learned some English songs and dances before enjoying an evening of dance with a wide variety of English and Japanese popular music.
After singing English campfire songs together, we roasted marshmallows on the fire and made s'mores, arguably the most popular sweet in the western campfire culture.
An abridge overview of the menu
After five days of non-stop bonding and English, we had to say our farewells to teary-eyed students whose only hope was to stay a little longer, and come back next year. Though the camp usually only accepts about 6 students from the previous year’s camp to act as junior leaders, nearly every student at camp signed up hoping to be picked as a junior leader for next year. It was a very moving and life-changing experience for everyone involved. I hope the camp continues to flourish and get the recognition that it deserves.
It has been a long time since my last post, so I’m going to share a little bit about some of my recent adventures in southern Hokkaido.
In early spring, we went to Esan to go hiking on Mount Maru. I was amazed by the steam coming out of the volcano! I had never seen that before. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and the view from the top was spectacular.
The next weekend, we did a fundraising run, called “Run ‘Till You’re Done”, from Assabu to the top of Mt. Hakodate. The purpose was to raise money for the Hokkaido English Challenge, an annual English camp held by Hokkaido’s Assistant Language Teachers. During the event, we ran until we were tired, then were picked up by volunteers and shuttled to the top of Mt. Hakodate. Most people ran a half marathon, I did 27km, and 3 people made it 55km. We all did our best that day, and almost all of us broke our person distance records. Video by Jeremy Blanco: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V026ecZFjBU
Over spring break, we went to Matsumae for hanami. We stopped at Cape Shirakami on the way to enjoy the view from the southernmost tip of Hokkaido. The mix of architecture and nature in Matsumae was stunning. I tried sakura ice cream. It was delicious.
At the end of spring break, Fukushimacho held its annual women’s sumo tournament. A few ALTs joined in the games, so we went out to support our friends and watch the matches. Some friends made it further than expected in the tournament, while others were unfortunately defeated by the reigning champion in one swift and gentle movement. It was a very exciting event for everyone involved.
The next weekend, I enjoyed collaborating with some junior high school music teachers in Yakumo and nearby towns to perform in Kumaishi. There were many brass band students and music teachers who came out to enjoy each other’s music.
That same weekend, we went to Toya for some camping, sightseeing, and to cheer on our friends who joined the Toya marathon. It seemed like a beautiful course! I hope to join the race next year.
We went to see the ruins from the eruption of Mt. Usu in 2000. I was surprised by the damage that was left in its wake, and felt it was an important reminder of the power of nature.
From the next weekend, sports festival season had begun. Though there were many exciting events, and many great costumes, my favourite event was definitely kibasen. It looks a little dangerous, and extremely fun. Someday I hope to try kibasen. This year I was able to participate in some of the PTA events, such as tug-o-war, dancing, and otedama. I’m always impressed with the effort of all the staff and students at every school in preparation for their sports festival.
Amidst the sports festival excitement, we managed to escape into the woods for a day and hike up Obokodake. Unfortunately, the top was still covered in too much snow for us to make it all the way to the peak, but we got a nice view of the sea, and had an exciting adventure scrambling over rocks and wading through water. Video by Jeremy Blanco: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=adGbAq__K0I
The next few weeks were spent running. First, the Yakumo Milk Road Race, a beautiful half-marathon that runs by some hilly farmlands while enjoying a hint of cow smell.
Next, we went to Okushiri to join the Moonlight Marathon. It was my first time on the beautiful island of Okushiri. The food was very delicious, and the people were extremely friendly. I ran my first full marathon. It was definitely both a mental and physical challenge. There was a barbecue at the end with a comedy show. It was raining that day, so it was especially refreshing to get out of the rain and have some sea urchin, abalone, Okushiri wine, and other amazing foods.
More recently, Yakumo held its annual lantern festival. This year, I played the big taiko on both Friday and Saturday nights. I was impressed with all the lanterns and dances that everyone prepared. It was especially exciting to see Kumaishi’s floats join the parade this year. Some of my friends came to Yakumo to join in the festivities, and all of them had a wonderful time!
Things are starting to wind down as summer vacation approaches, with the more recent events having been a little more relaxing. I went out to a candle night event for Tanabata, where I learned some belly dancing, and enjoyed some artisanal food and live music. It was nice to see so many stars at night.
The next weekend, a nearby ALT set up a fun obstacle course and water balloon colour fight for us to enjoy at the beach together. Video by Jeremy Blanco: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_51tzJ7WEew&sns=fb
For spring break this year, I went to the south of Japan. My first stop was Yakushima. We took a small propeller plane from Kagoshima airport. It was a clear day, so we could see beautiful views, including Mt. Kaimon, along the way. Once we landed, I decided to take a look at some of the famous landmarks. The island was full of beautiful nature and scenery. There were waterfalls, beaches, lookouts, forests, and more. In the evening of the first day, we visited Hirauchi Onsen, a tidal hot spring that is only accessible during low-tide.
The next day, we drove around the island, enjoying more beautiful views, and monkeys and deer. There were so many monkeys and deer. A lot of them were relaxing on the road so we had to be very careful while we drove. They all looked happy and healthy. In the evening, we enjoyed some tankan juice. It was very sweet, and delicious!
On the third day, I went hiking in Shiratani Unsuikyo. It’s a beautiful mossy forest with enormous old trees. It’s famous for inspiring the forests in studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke.
For my last day on Yakushima, I enjoyed the long hike along the Anbo and Okabu trails. It begins along an old railroad track once used for logging, then continues through the Yakushima World Natural Heritage forest. It led to Wilson’s Stump, the enormous stump of an ancient yakusugi tree that opens out to a heart shape, and ultimately to Jomon Sugi, estimated to be the oldest tree in Japan. It’s estimated to be somewhere between 2000 and 7200 years old.
My next stop was Ibusuki. There, I visited Chirin Island. It’s accessed by walking across a sand bar that only appears during low tide in spring time. Later, I went to a suna-mushi sand hot spring. There, the onsen staff cover you in naturally heated sand along the beach. The warm sand feels so nice! After about 10 minutes, it’s time to leave your sandy cocoon feeling refreshed. I liked Ibusuki very much. It was very peaceful there.
After Ibusuki, I headed to Sakurajima. It’s a beautiful and powerful volcano. There were often large clouds of ash coming out of the volcano. The eruptions sounded like thunder. We saw an old shrine that had gotten buried in a previous eruption.
There was so much ash everywhere!
For my last stop, I stayed in Kagoshima city. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom, so there were a lot of people were celebrating hanami. I spent most of my time exploring the city, and trying the local food. I especially enjoyed black pork (kurobuta), raw chicken (torisashi), satsumaage, kibinago, shirokuma, and satsuma shochu.
I enjoyed Kyushu very much, and hope to go back soon for another visit.
Last month, Yakumo held its annual Samui Beya matsuri. On Saturday night, I played some music with some excellent musicians and music teachers, and enjoyed the fireworks festivities with friends.
After an exciting time of making music, we went outside to get the last of the delicious barbequed scallops. Before closing down for the night, we made sure to make a few runs on the ice slide. The ice slide is probably my favourite part of this festival. That night, I lit a senko hanabi for the first time ever. It was so beautiful! I want to try it again.
The next day, I met with some friends to try the banana boat. I definitely thought I, or one of my friends, was going to fall off, but we held on tightly until the end. I recommend the banana boat.
Next, we tried some Yakumo beef, carrot mochi, and spinach mochi. Of course, everything we ate was delicious. We later joined the bingo game, and won some sweets and windshield wiper fluid.
Before heading home, we caught some mochi from the sky, in my new favourite Japanese traditional event, mochi throw.
This year, I enjoyed a Japanese style New Year celebration. My friend kindly invited me and another ALT to join her family for Oshougatsu. We did a homestay in Hakodate for 3 days and 2 nights. On the first night, we enjoyed some home cooked New Years food. It was very delicious! Once we had eaten plenty, we headed over to the shrine where my friend’s father is a member.
We prayed for the New Year, and shared the offerings to the gods of food and drink. I was excited to find out that the Priest’s wife was from Yakumo! Everyone there was very friendly, and the priest’s son offered us good luck tokens to keep with us in the new year. My token is for safe travels. We also got fortunes. I liked mine, so I kept it.
The next day we visited another shrine where we got bitten by the Shishi. There were so many people who came to the shine, so the atmosphere was very lively.
That night, we had a new year’s dinner with my friend’s family. There was so much food! Everyone was well fed and was of high spirits.
It was an exciting cultural experience for me, and I hope to have many experiences like this in the future.
This month, Yakumo’s junior high school students have been working hard on preparations for their culture festivals. I enjoy watching the culture festivals because they’re always fun and creative, and a result of hard work. I was so impressed with the creativity that was expressed during these festivals. In Otoshibe, I attended the students’ dance presentation, promoting their school’s festival. It was so hot outside, so I was extra impressed with their energy.
Everyone expressed so much of their artistic talent, making mosaics, creating costumes and dramas, acting, singing, dancing, and much more. They also demonstrated their strong teamwork, efficiently preparing so many presentations in such a short period of time. I was thoroughly impressed! Good job!!
To support some friends and enjoy some cultural exchange, I joined my fellow ALTs in various nearby festivals.
In Hakodate, I learned how to do the squid dance. This was my favourite of all the festival dances that I learned. After watching most of the teams go by, we decided to join the dance at the end. I was amazed at how crowded it became near the end of the squid dance! Because there were so many people, I was worried that we wouldn’t be able to find our friends. We weaved through the crowds, and sure enough, we spotted them, a head taller than anyone around them.
The Mori town ALTs invited me to join their team, a group of vibrant and energetic ladies, for their town festival. We wasshoi’d from beginning to end. The portable shrine was surprisingly heavy! We had a team of strong men to take over if any of us got tired, but we were all too excited to let anyone take our places. The highlight for me was a race between all of the teams at the end. Each team had four members run as fast as they could while carrying a portable shrine. Our team was fun to watch! The winners were a team of young men who ran like the wind.
The Assabu ALT invited some friends to join the Esashi Ubagami festival so that we could meet some of the new ALTs while experiencing a festival for the oldest shrine in Hokkaido. We visited a friend of a friend’s house to eat a delicious spread of sashimi. They were so kind and welcoming! Because of this, it was my best experience of the summer festivals. There was a strong wind and heavy rain while the floats were being pulled through town, but that didn’t stop anyone from giving their all. The floats were draped in plastic raincoats, and the festival went on as planned.
Finally, I attended the Fujishiro Mikoshi festival, a small festival in Nanae. This festival was a little different from the other traditional festivals that I attended. There were the usual food stalls with yakitori, yakisoba, and other delicious fried food, but there was also a stage with singers and dancers performing all evening. It was very dynamic and exciting. At the end, there was a bingo game. I got lucky and won a large box of delicious leeks.
During summer break, I visited Aomori with some ALT friends, Mark and Angela, and Yuko Sensei, an English teacher in Kumaishi. Aomori is Yuko Sensei’s hometown, so we were treated with the utmost hospitality.
I was warned ahead of time that Aomori gets very hot, much hotter than Yakumo, but I was still surprised by the heat that I felt as we walked off the train. Suddenly, it was another climate. Mark and Angela’s hometown is about the same temperature as Aomori, so they felt very comfortable in Aomori’s climate.
Our first stop was The Nebuta Warasse. They had some Nebuta on display from previous years, and we could see the process of making Nebuta. I was amazed at how big Nebuta really are! They are huge.
Next, we visited the Nebuta houses. We had some Aomori-style ice cream to cool off while we looked at this year’s Nebuta.
We spent the afternoon at the Aomori Museum of Art. It’s an amazing art museum, and I loved the whole thing. I especially enjoyed looking at Yoshitomo Nara’s works, and I found Shiko Munakata’s works very inspiring.
Afterwards, we visited the Sannai-Maruyama site, where we learned about some Japanese history.
That night, we were treated to front-row seats to watch the Nebuta festival. I was again amazed at how big and beautiful the Nebuta are!
The next day, we visited the Towada Art Center. I had been looking forward to seeing Ron Mueck’s Standing Woman for a long time, though everything in and around the art museum was very interesting. I was surprised to see so many art pieces around outside the museum!
After visiting Towada Art Center, we hurried back to Aomori to put on yukatas and dance in the Nebuta festival. There was so much music and energy at the festival! I enjoyed handing out bells to the people who were watching.
The next morning, we went to go see the Inakadate-mura rice field art. It was very popular and crowded, and for good reason. It was a spectacular sight! We walked through the fields, which served to demonstrate how big the artwork is, and how difficult it must have been to make.
Overall, I enjoyed my stay in Aomori very much, and am very grateful that we had the chance to spend time with Yuko Sensei and her family.
After much preparation and anticipation, I attended Yakumo’s biggest summer festivals, Yakumo Shrine Festival, and Lantern Festival. I had been looking forward to these festivals for a long time.
The Yakumo shrine festival was filled with a lot of delicious food! My favourite snack looked like fried spaghetti. I don’t know what it was called, but I recommend it. There was also a booth where animals were being made out of candy. It was my first time to see someone make animals out of candy. It was amazing.
I watched Yakumo Junior High School’s brass band perform at Hapia. They were fun to watch. After a short time, I joined some music teachers from schools in Otoshibe to play some music there, too. It was windy, so it was a little difficult for people to hear us play, but we enjoyed playing very much! Maybe next time we will try to play a concert indoors.
The next festival was the Lantern Festival. On Friday, I joined the Town Office team to do the Octopus Dance. We had been preparing for several weeks, so I was looking forward to the actual event a lot.
On Saturday, some Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) friends of mine came to join the festival with me, including Daneille, the ALT who works at Yakumo High School. In the evening, we watched some of the performances from the various teams at the Town Office. I tried to pick a favourite, but they were all so good! That night, we played the giant taiko drum. My friends were so surprised to see how big it was! It was one of the most exciting things any of us had ever tried.
Next year we all want to join the festival again.