Thursday, February 16, 2012

Beginning the New Year, Japanese Style

Okay, okay.  I know that I have not posted in FOREVER.  I know that you are anxiously awaiting an update.  I apologize.  Things are back in full swing for the new year, and I haven't had a chance to sit down and blog!  I will try to catch you up, or at least touch the highlights.

There are several New Year's customs in Japan, and my school has accomodated most of them.  One of the first is making mochi.  Mochi is a type of food that is traditionally made and eaten at the start of the year, I believe similar to eating black eyed peas.  Mochi is made by cooking white rice and and then beating it with a mallet until it is extremely sticky and you can no longer see the grains.  At this point it doesn't even resemble rice.  It is then made into balls and cooked in a soup.  Shortly after school resumed, the students were gathered in the parking lot about an hour before lunch.  There were three groups, each group with a hollowed out stump (serving as a 'bowl'), and two large wooden mallets.  Some of the mallets were pretty heavy.  The teachers started out by beating the rice, each time to a loud cry of "Raisha!" (my best guess at translation is that its something like oomph!) until it was mostly beat.  Then the students each got a turn, as well, cheered on by the others saying Raisha.  When the mochi was completely beat, the cooks whisked it away and served it to us at lunch time, about an hour later.  The students were all eager for me to try my hand, so I took a turn in each group using the mallet.  They were quite impressed.  Who knew I could put my farm girl skills to work cooking Japanese food!?

The second week of January, the teachers took an evening for a New Year's party.  We met at a hotel for dinner, ceremony, and games.  It cost about $75, but the school covered half of it.  The dinner lasted for 2-3 hours, with around seven courses of very fancy Japanese food.  Most of it was pretty good!  They recognized new teachers (including me), talked about some other things that I couldn't translate, and played a trivia/guessing game, a game that combined pictionary and telephone, and of course, Bingo.  I have discovered that Bingo is very popular in Japan.  The bingo continued until every one had a Bingo, and all of the teachers received a gift.  It was a good way to experience the culture of a celebration, and I had a good time, as well!

The entire time I've been here, the students have been training to run a 'marathon'.  I believe it was closer to 1500 meters, but that is still far for elementary students.  The marathon was held last week, on what was probably one of the coldest days so far.  It lasted for three hours, as each class ran two heats.  First there was warm up, then a ceremony, and finally the marathon started.  There was a total of 12 heats, and then a ceremony at the end.  I believe it was around 25 degrees ferenheit.  I asked why they chose to run when it was cold instead of after things warmed up a bit, and I learned that it is traditional for marathons to be run at the first of the year.  Most students did well, but everyone was cold and some students were crying towards the end of their heats, either from pain, cold, or disappointment.  It was very competitive.  I'm not sure I could run that far!

The final New Year's event that takes place was February 3rd.  It is customary to throw beans inside on this day to bring in good luck, and to throw beans outside to cast out devils.  Children especially have a really fun time with it.  I was invited to participate with a second grade class, and had a lot of fun.  The children (and adults) yell "oni wa soto!" (devils out!) as they throw beans at each other as they're running around.  Sometimes one person will wear a devil mask and everyone tries to throw beans at it.  It was a lot of fun to participate.
Something that corresponds with the American January is that this week the sixth grade students have been performing three paragraphs of Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech.  They have been studying it since before I arrived in December, but were tested over the material this year.  About half of the students memorized all three paragraphs, and the majority of students had memorized at least part of the speech.  I was very impressed, as I know of very few American students that have memorized past 'I have a dream'!

January was very cold here, one of the coldest that anyone seems to remember.  The highs were generally in the low forties at best, and it would get in the twenties or lower at night.  Although it gets this cold in America, Americans have a different way of dealing with the heat.  In Japan, there is no central heat.  You turn on a heater mounted on the wall when you enter the room and turn it off when you leave it.  It is not uncommon for there to be only one heater per floor (such as in my apartment).  The school is the same way; heaters are not left on overnight.  There is no heater in the bathroom, and now the heated toilet seats make much more sense.  In America, the toilet is at least heated to the temperature of the room, but here it is fairly common for the air in the bathroom to be below freezing!  Additionally, many people walk quite a ways in the cold.  For example, the walk to my bus stop is about ten minutes, and the walk to the train station is around twenty.  It's not uncommon for me to be walking at least an hour a day, and that makes it seem even colder.  I got in the habit of wearing 3-4 layers of clothes regularly.  Fortunately, it has started to warm up a little, and although it is still cold I can feel that spring is around the corner.

This week was Valentine's Day, and we made valentines in the first grade classes.  We explained to them about Valentine's Day in America, because although it is celebrated here it is celebrated differently.  For Japanese Valentine's Day, girls give boys chocolates. That seems to be the extent of the holiday (no other special celebration, dinner, or gifts), and my first graders were appalled when they heard that in America boys gave gifts to girls!  There is another holiday next month called White Day, that as far as I can tell is when the boys treat the girls.  The first grade students then colored four valentines cards and gave one to their family and three to teachers at the school.  We taught them to say "Happy Valentine's Day!  I love you! Thank you!" as they gave the valentines.  Some students remembered, and some didn't, but the goal was for them to say Happy Valentine's Day rather than just shoving the valentine at the teacher.  One boy came up to me and shoved the card at me, so I cupped my ear with my hand for him to say Happy Valentine's Day.  He looked confused, mumbled "I love you" and ran away.  It was so cute!!
Jared and I celebrated an American Valentine's Day.  I gave him chocolate (in the spirit of the culture) and other small gifts, and we took a taxi to an authentic Italian restaurant by the ocean.  He had surprised me with a purse as an early Valentine's Day present a few weeks ago because mine was about to break, and at dinner told me that he felt bad he had nothing for me, but I had already gotten my gift.  I didn't mind because I understood and didn't expect anything else.  When we were leaving the restaurant to walk (in the rain) back to the train station, he surprised me by opening the back door to a car for me, where there was a card, chocolates, and red roses.  I was so surprised!  He had arranged for one of his friends to take us to the station and to hide the gifts until then.  I was caught completely off guard and very surprised.  It was a wonderful Valentine's Day!  :)

I'd like to take a minute to thank those of you who sent me cards and gifts for Christmas.  To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement, as I didn't expect to receive anything.  You are so supportive and I really appreciate it.  It was a little difficult to have Christmas so far from home, but you sent Christmas to me and I am so grateful.  God has blessed me with the most incredible friends and family I could ask for.  You're amazing!

I'm sorry this post is so long, and that it was so long coming.  I hope to blog more regularly, but it takes a certain chunk of time to update, and I hate leaving anything out because I know you are very interested in knowing about the culture, differences, and what I am doing.  I am going to try something new for the next post and ask YOU what you want me to blog about.  Comment on this blog or my facebook with one of the options below and I will blog about the winning option next post (hopefully in the next week or two).  I hope that this way I can focus more on what you want to know about and keep the post a little shorter (and more doable).  Of course, I'll still share with you any other special things that are going on!  So, your options are:

  1. Food
  2. Work/School
  3. Weather (including earthquakes)
  4. Church

Let me know your choice by commenting here or on my Facebook post!

I hope you are well and that you have had an enjoyable new year thus far.  I've heard that the winter is fairly mild at home, and I hope that has brought some relief.  Please continue to pray for me and the people I encounter while I'm here.  I haven't been able to help with the recovery efforts from the earthquake yet, as most groups have been going for the entire weekend and Sundays are one of my busiest days.  I hope to be able to make a trip in the spring, and will let you know as soon as I know.  Thank you again for your love and encouragement!




  1. I love hearing about your cute kiddos and what they think is funny about America. I wish I could visit you and see, Cassie-sue!

  2. I, as your aunt, want to hear EVERYTHING about where you are and what you are doing!

  3. Just enjoying reading about you! I would like to hear about Christianity in Japan. Love you Cassie! You probably heard Landon is getting married June 23rd? We are very excited for him! Buffy