Undotaikai: Japanese Sports Day II

Read about last year’s Sports Day here!

Since I’m here a second year, I also got to experience my second undōtaikai, or Sports Day, which, by far, has been my favorite Japanese high school tradition I’ve experienced. From the students marching in to military cadence, to 40-student dance routines choreographed completely amongst themselves, it’s an entire day filled with spectacle, fun, aesthetic, and of course sports. I’m also glad that I can finally give it proper justice, as ours occurred just less than a week ago while last year’s post had been written nearly two weeks after the fact.

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Clockwise from top left: red team, yellow, white, and blue.

Sports Day kicks off around 9 AM with the student council members marching onto the track with the flags of Japan, of Hyogo prefecture, and of the school itself. The entire school is divided into four teams– for us, it was red, yellow, white, and blue, and each team is made up of at least one or two classes from each of the three grades. They all, of course, sport matching bandanas and flags made by the classes themselves. Everyone lines up in formation, and the principal opens the event with a speech. We all rise for the national anthem as the same three flags from earlier are raised on their poles.

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Note: the color on the back of their PE shirts indicate their years, not teams. First-years are red, second-years green, and third-years blue.

Following that is rajio taisō, or radio calisthenics, all done in unison. It’s to this exact track and this exact sequence, of a man counting with some classical-sounding piano music in the background. You’ll find that military discipline will be a common theme running throughout the event– and speaking of running, there will be a LOT of relay races throughout the day. I still have no idea whatsoever how the brackets work, how points are calculated, or in fact, anything at all about this event that I’m supposed to be explaining to you. I just know there’s a lot of moving around involved.

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I’m the black blur passing all the pathetically slow tiny schoolgirls.

The first few events are regular baton-passing relay races. There’s also mixed relay where for the first 50 meters, they have to skip rope while running, for the next crawl under a net, carry a heavy sandbag, and finally link up with five other students for an epic six-legged race finale. There’s also teachers versus students, which I got to run 50 meters in. I was told that it would be at 3 PM, but when I went to the bathroom around 2ish PM a teacher came running up to me to tell me that the schedule has suddenly changed and I have to run NOW. I was passed the baton pretty much as soon as I got to the track– it sums up what it’s like to be a JET/ALT pretty well, in that last-minute changes and heads-ups will be the bane of your professional life. In fact, the official motto of the Japanese school-ALT relations is “Haha WHOOPS!”

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Before lunch is the dance competition, for which the third-years from each team has prepared their own choreographies to their own chosen playlists, performed in their own chosen matching outfits. I thought red was the clear winner, and naturally I was so mesmerized I didn’t take any pictures or videos of it. The music is usually a mix of J-pop and American pop, though re: Western music I feel like Japan is just around a decade behind. Bruno Mars’s “Marry You” showed up twice. And nightclubs here still play “Shots” by LMFAO really often.

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Anyways, now it’s lunch time. On special school-wide event days like this, the school will have bento lunches delivered to the office. So here’s what a typical, but also slightly fancier, school lunch looks like. Tempura and rice, just arranged more aesthetically than usual.

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After lunch, each of the club activities (sports) teams march onto the track in their uniform, from aikido to basketball to kendo to table tennis. The sports teams also competed against each other in relays, in uniform. Track & field obviously won, although soccer did sometimes come close. The worst runners were the martial artists, but that was mostly due to their uniforms. Since they were so clearly last in every race, they would put on a little demonstration after each lap, like flipping their teammate over with a judo throw as a way of passing off the baton. Pretty cool.

After putting to rest the age-old debate of whether track & field kids really can run fast, the students then change back to their regular PE clothes and now the non-relay stuff (interspersed with more relays) begin!

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Tug-of-war with ship’s rope. The team that manages to knock the flag down toward their side is the winner. This one’s one of the few co-ed events.

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For some reason a girls’-only event, it’s the return of tug-of-pole. Nine large metal poles lie in the middle of the field. When the starting pistol fires, two teams run onto the field and fight each other over them. Once a pole is taken past their own team’s side/endzone, the people who won that pole are free to run back onto the field to help with the stealing of another. This would have been even more badass if they somehow combined it with kendo, or maybe incorporating land mines and robots in some way.

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Kiba-sen (cavalry fight), which I had mentioned before, but now I have slightly better pictures. Three boys form a horse, one sits atop as a rider, and he either wants to knock his opponent off his horse, push his horse out of bounds, or snatch his opponent’s hat off inside a very small (maybe 6 feet/2 meters across) circular ring. Teachers stand all around to catch anyone in case they fall. Besides running in the teacher’s relay, it was the only other time I felt like I was actually part of the event. Everything looks so fun you can’t help but want to participate in all of it.

There is no grand finale, really. The final event is the final relay race. But again, I have no idea how the heck the whole thing works. Every team participated in every event; it didn’t look like there was any elimination, and I noticed the same students doing multiple events regardless of whether they had won or lost the previous ones. During the ending ceremony, during which all teams line up again in formation, and sit on the field, the student council announced the team winner of each single individual event. There were so many winner announcements that I really, truly, have no idea who actually won overall. I know, this is not Sports’ Day’s fault. I just don’t speak Japanese. It probably is an accumulated-points system. Either way, I asked the next day and it turns out white team won. Nice!

 

 

Staying in a Capsule Hotel

Nightlife in Japan is ruled by an incredibly powerful force, one that many seldom dare reckon with– the last train. If you miss your last train home, usually around midnight, the choices are slim: you can either take a taxi at exorbitant prices, or stay out, hopefully intoxicated, till the first train about 5 hours later. You could also get a hotel, but that’s a little too expensive for most people. $100 just for a bed to sleep in for 8 hours? No way!

Or, you could stay in a capsule hotel for about 1/3 of the price.

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Instead of rooms, capsule hotels are made up of individual Space-age-looking pods, essentially human-sized drawers containing nothing but a bed, and perhaps a small TV on the roof your capsule. A typical one measures maybe 6.5 feet (2m) long by 3 feet (1m) tall. There’s just barely enough room to sit up properly. Thanks to this, the use of space is incredibly efficient– what you see above is enough accommodation for 12 people!

There are communal bathrooms, as well as showers. Some extra-fancy capsule hotels will even have their own onsen (public baths). It’s really the perfect solution for a cheap and quick overnight stay– the one we were at, the Asahi Plaza Shinsaibashi located in Amerikamura, Osaka, was only 3000 yen ($30) a night. The Asahi Plaza, by the way, was one of such hotels with an onsen. Nice!

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Common in Japan but uncommon in hotel lobbies, we had to take our shoes off at the front. In such situations, lockers are provided so the front doesn’t get so cluttered, and I suppose so people won’t steal your shoes. However, we had to surrender said locker keys to the front desk, and we’d have to ask for it back any time we needed our shoes. The only key we were given at check-in was for a locker to store our stuff in. These lockers were in a room separate from the capsules, on the first floor. Up to the second floor we went to find our capsules. Exciting!

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The second floor was essentially a series of hallways shooting off into capsule rooms. Each room contained about 16-20 capsules. Efficient!

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Interior view facing in, back of TV on the top left.

Lo and behold, my “room” for the night– surrounded by plastic, on top of a rather thin mattress pad. A small nozzle in the back blows heated air, which you can manually point or close but otherwise not control the temperature. Other amenities included a TV, control panel, shelf, some cubbies, a power outlet (had for an extra 400 yen/$4), and a mirror. I crawled inside, and was happy to find that there was enough room to turn around, albeit kind of scrunched on all fours. Spacious!

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Interior view facing out.

Rather than any type of door, you get a thin pull-down blind, kind of like a straw mat. That is all you get for security/privacy/noise-cancellation– there are no locks anywhere on or in the capsule. In fact, according to their website, “hotel industry law” dictates that locks are straight-up not allowed in capsules. I suppose that might put claustrophobics a little more at ease. Sensible!

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The control panel is of the same sort you might find at any hotel, but I included a picture for posterity’s sake. Functions include alarm clock set, TV on/off, radio on/off, lights, and, unlike most hotels, an “emergency button” on the bottom left, protected by a swing-out plastic cover to prevent accidental pressings. Sorry to say, I have no idea what it does. I imagine it either summons an employee to your capsule or launches it towards Rigel 7. Handy!

In conclusion, for its combination of novelty, price, and convenience, I’d absolutely do it again. And, before I forget to mention, it was about as comfortable as it looks– you’re not sleeping on a cloud, but it is perfectly adequate and I slept like the dead anyways. One might even say… like a body in a morgue :^)

 

What NOT to Do in Japan, According to Their Signs

There’s more to the signage in Japan than just poorly translated English. There’s also Japanese signs in perfectly-translated JAPANESE, warning you about the strangest things or otherwise just being really cute. All captions are translations/rough translations, not my commentary:

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“Please don’t feed the deer, it makes them get sick.”
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Beware of your valuables when visiting relatives’ graves. There’s thieves about!

 

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Train emergency stop button.
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Train manners: don’t block the doorway like this chameleon.
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Watch out for your baggage bumping into people.
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No right turns, but going straight and left turns are okay.