What’s the Big Deal with Sumo?

Last monthI was asked to write an article of the Miyazaki International Exchange Report. They ask local foreign residents to write about their experiences in Japan and share them with members of the International Association. I wrote a piece about seeing a Sumo tournament last year and thought it would be fun to share it here as well. I’ve included the Japanese translations (provided by Heyne Kim, a Coordinator for International Relations who works in Miyazaki) just for fun. Enjoy!



What’s the Big Deal with Sumo?

外国人として日本のことを考えた時に、いくつかのものが思 い浮かびます。寿司、着物、金閣寺、そしてもちろん相撲が あります。2年前に初めて来日した時、これらの全てを経験 するつもりでした。都城での初めての食事を回転寿司にしま した。京都に旅行に行って、金閣寺は写真に写っているのより輝いていることがわかりました。週末に は鹿児島の出水市に行って初めて着物を着させてもらい(更にその着物をもらい)ました。この他にも 色々な出来事がありましたが、一年目が終わるのに、まだ相撲の試合を見ていませんでした。

When you think about Japan, as a non-Japanese, there are a few things that likely come to mind. Sushi, kimono, Kinkaku-Ji, and of course, sumo. So when I arrived in Japan for the first time two years ago, I had big plans to make sure I experienced all of these things. I ate at a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant for my first meal in Miyakonojo. I took a trip to Kyoto and found that Kinkaku-Ji is way shinier than the pictures show, and I spent a weekend in Izumi, Kagoshima, where the organizers helped all participants try on (and keep!) our very own kimono. I did all of these, and more, but by the end of my first year I had still not seen a sumo match.

見ようとしないからではありません。8月に都城に着いて間もなく私は相撲の試合が毎年福岡で行われ ているのがわかりました。何人かの友達と連休に試合を見に福岡に行く計画も立てました。ホテルも予 約し、学校に休みの申請もして、チケットの販売を待ちました。こういった努力にもかかわらず、チケ ットを買いにコンビニに行ったら、手ごろな値段のチケットは既に売り切れてしまいました。誰かがチ ケットを全部買い取って、通常の値段より三倍も高い値段で売っていました。我々はとてもがっかりし ましたが、高くなったチケットが買える余裕がありませんでしたので、計画を変えました。翌年にまた 試みることに決め、自分との約束としてカレンダーにも相撲の試合予定日を書き込みました。

This wasn’t for lack of trying. Soon after I arrived in August I learned about the official tournament held yearly in Fukuoka. I quickly made plans with some friends to go over a long weekend. We booked the hotels, applied for time off from work, and waited for the tickets to go on sale. Despite our best efforts, by the time we went down to the combini to buy tickets, all of the reasonably-priced options were gone. Someone had bought up all of the tickets, and was reselling them at three times the normal price. We were all terribly disappointed, but we couldn’t afford the inflated price and so we changed our plans. I resolved to try again the next year, and I wrote the 2016 tournament dates on my calendar as a promise to myself.


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A Day in the Life of an ALT

Now that I’ve officially been in Japan for almost three months, I feel like I’m finally getting into the swing of things. I thought it might be fun to give you a rundown of what an average day looks like for me, and my students.

6:45am Wake up! 

Yes, waking up this early after a year of sleeping in is a bit tough for me, but ya gotta do what ya gotta do. I could probably sleep in later, but I like a lazy morning. Usually I’ll shower, check the news, sip on some tea and eat a bit of breakfast before riding my bike to school.

A bit of scenery near my school
A bit of scenery near my school

8:15 Ohayou Gozaimasu!

Although my contract says my workday starts at 8:30, Japanese “on time” is more like 10 minutes early. Kyushu on time is closer to 5 minutes early, but I still try and arrive on the early side. After leaving my outdoor shoes in my designated cubby I slip into my teaching shoes and make my way upstairs to the teachers’ room. The proper way to enter the teacher’s room is to say “ohayou gozaimasu!” at a reasonably loud volume and with a super peppy (“genki”) voice. This basically means “good morning,” but if I walked into work at 2pm I would also be expected to say this. It’s just what you say when seeing someone for the first time that day (at least in a work setting). Greetings are pretty important in Japan, and not being able to sneak in quietly definitely encourages me to arrive on time. On Mondays there’s a staff meeting at 8:20, and if I arrive a bit “late” I usually hit the middle of it. I’m not really expected to go to the meetings, since they’re entirely in Japanese, but I usually try and make an effort to attend. If nothing else it’s a chance to practice my listening skills.

8:45 First Class

While classes don’t officially start until 8:45, students are generally at school by 7:30. They have pre-class classes and club activities. I actually don’t really know how they spend their mornings, since I’m never around early enough to see them, and I rarely run into students on my way into school. In any case, there are 7 periods in a school day, I teach anywhere from 0-4 classes a day. Classes are usually 50 minutes long, and instead of having designated rooms for each subject, the classrooms are mostly homerooms. This means teachers are the ones who go from room to room, not students. The only exceptions are specialty classrooms, like science labs or the art/calligraphy rooms, and of course the gyms. This school structure means that each class is a tightly knit group, and they do absolutely everything with their homeroom. Each class has a different atmosphere, and it’s been mostly fun learning how to work with each class.

When I work with the senior high students we usually begin class with a vocabulary quiz. Often I am not a part of this, and teachers will sometimes just tell me to come to class 10 minutes after the bell so they can do the quiz and drill the next day’s vocab words before I arrive. They learn roughly 20 new words a day, but I’d be willing to bet money that most of them couldn’t use the words in a sentence outside of the example provided in the textbook. Japanese testing is all about memorization, reading and writing for tests, with very little time given to producing original content. Learning how to work within this system has been a bit of a challenge, one I’m sure I will never really figure it out, but I suppose that’s just the way it is. Anyway, after the vocab test I will often model a dialogue with the teacher, introduce a topic or activity, or correct the previous night’s homework on the board. Each class is different, and each co-teacher is different as well. Some teachers ask me to prepare entire lessons, while others only want me to prepare a few warm-up activities, or sometimes act as a human tape recorder (ie: reading the new vocab words aloud).

For the junior high classes I get to have a bit more fun, since they don’t take daily vocab tests. Also, university entrance exams aren’t looming over their heads, so they get to do more practical activities, and the teacher is much more open to speaking activities (many of the high school teachers prefer writing/reading activities, as these are more likely to come into play on entrance exams). I think the junior high classes are some of my favorites, which really surprised me, since I would never in a million years describe myself as someone who likes children.

12:30 Lunch Time

Everyone eats lunch at the same time, all classes, all teachers, all staff. We don’t have a cafeteria here, and the students all eat lunch in their homerooms. The junior high teachers eat with their students, but I think the senior high kids are left to their own devices, since the other teachers all eat lunch in the teacher’s room. This would be unthinkable in the US, but here in Japan, it works.

A typical lunch at my desk.
A typical lunch at my desk. It’s always a bit of a mystery as to what I’ll get…

Because there’s no cafeteria, students are all expected to bring their own lunches. Teachers get a bit more freedom. There are two convenience stores (“conbini”) within walking distance where I could grab lunch, but usually I order it in with the other teachers. Every morning there’s a signup sheet where I can order lunch from one of four restaurants that deliver to the school. It costs between $4 – $8, depending on what I order. The delivery person drops off the food sometime mid-morning, and picks up the empty plates/boxes in the afternoon. This is really nice because, although most of the lunches come in disposable boxes, garbage sorting in Japan is… often confusing. Because the school has no janitorial staff (more on that in a bit) I’m expected to take home any food-related trash I create at school. The delivery system lets me skip that step, though some of them do provide real dishes, and for some reason I’ve been told we need to wash those before we return them to the restaurant. There’s a learning curve to everything.

1:20 Cleaning Time

Japanese schools don’t hire a cleaning staff, and this is because all students are expected to take part in cleaning the school themselves. Supposedly it gives them a sense of ownership and responsibility. In practice it means that most parts of the school are only surface-level clean, and dust bunnies are hiding just out of sight everywhere (though the bathrooms are always spotless). You always know when it’s cleaning time because the school blasts classical music over the loudspeakers. I’ve been told some schools play pop songs, but not mine. We have the same exact recording every day. It really surprised me the first time I heard it, but now it’s become a normal part of the day, and I can tell exactly how much time is left for cleaning by which part of the song is playing (cleaning time is generally about 10 minutes). Usually I’ll help students clean the teacher’s room or the hallway outside, and this tends to be a good time to strike up a conversation with normally shy students.

1:40 Back to Class

Classes resume as usual. There are four periods in the morning, and three in the afternoon. I often teach 5th or 6th period, but 7th is technically outside of my working hours. I learned recently that most schools have fewer classes in a day than mine, but because we’re a top academic school, the students are expected to study longer hours both in and outside of class.

4:15 Quittin’ Time!

Riding home after a long day
Riding home after a long day

Well…. Not really. Again, my contract says this is the end of my day, but I think I can count on my hands the number of times this has actually been true. Students still have class until closer to 4:50, and often I’ll be asked to stay late and help students prepare for the English Speech Contest. For speech contests the students must memorize a speech and perform it in front of a crowd and panel of judges. They are judged on their pronunciation, inflection, gestures and general impression. Most teachers are done working with their speech students by now, but because my students won the municipal competition, we’re still working hard in preparation for the prefecture-wide competition at the end of the month. These things are full-day affairs, and I’ve been to two of them already (there are high school and junior high school level competitions, as well as smaller contests from local newspapers or tv stations).

Some days I’m also asked to stay late to supervise the English club, which meets once a week. While clubs in Japan tend to be serious business, with students coming in on weekends and over holidays to participate in club activities, the English club at my school is very informal, and in the past two months I’ve had a max of five students attend the meetings. I enjoy English club, since we usually just play games or practice conversation, and the students are really funny.

On top of speech contest and English club, sometimes I just stay late to chat with students or finish marking compositions, usual teacher stuff. I’d say on average I leave work closer to 5:30 or 6:30 most days, which is still way earlier than the Japanese teachers. Teachers in Japan work some of the longest hours of any country in the world, and it’s not unusual for them to arrive around 7 and leave closer to 8 or 9. In fact, one day I forgot my keys at school, and when I came back to pick them up around 7:30 almost all of the teachers were still working, tutoring students or preparing lessons for the next day. I’ve heard from other ALTs that teachers sometimes stay as late as 11pm, even if they have families back home. It’s a bit difficult for me to understand the system here. I’ll write a bit more about Japan’s work culture in a later post, but suffice it to say, it’s a bit different than the US.

As with when I arrive, leaving school also requires a loud goodbye to the rest of the staff. “Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu!” roughly means, I’m sorry I’m leaving before you! And is usually met with a call of “Otsukare-sama desu” which literally translates to something like “you must be tired” and implies that you have worked hard today. I was really confused when I got here because I hear people calling “ostukare” all the time, and it’s used as a greeting. I’ve been told this is a Kyushu thing…

6:30 Tadaima!

Time to return home! Most days I’ll run by the grocery store and grab a few things for dinner or snacks, return home and try to throw together a meal. I’ve slowly been building up a schedule of weekly commitments, such as Japanese lessons, but for the most part I just sit back and watch tv or read a book when I get home. Sometimes I’ll go down and chat with my neighbor over tea, or meet up with friends for dinner, but most weekday nights are quiet.

So that’s an average weekday for me! Weekends tend to be a bit crazier, and since summer and fall have lots of events I’ve been running around trying to see everything before the weather gets cold. I’ll write more about my weekend trips soon, and I promise those will have more pictures 🙂

Month One – A Quick Summary

Hello everyone!

Pancake breakfast with friends before a roadtrip
Pancake breakfast with friends before a roadtrip

I’m so so sorry I’ve neglected my blog since arriving in Japan. It’s been a fantastically busy month, and every time I’ve sat down to write, something fun has popped up and I couldn’t say no. So, while I’d love to go into detail on all of my adventures thus far, I’ve decided to at least start with a quick summary and lots of photos!

Bonchi Matsuri

Ready to dance!
Ready to dance!

Before I’d even left St. Louis, I signed up to dance with the Miyakonojo International Association at Bonchi Matsuri, the city’s largest summer festival. I showed up to city hall on Saturday afternoon and was promptly helped into a yukata (a summer kimono). The process was fascinating, and there’s no way I could have done it on my own.

All dressed up in a yukata
All dressed up in a yukata

Once we were all dressed it was time to learn the dance! For the festival, lots of different groups around town each learned a different dance to the same song, and we all performed together on the city streets. In what I would learn is typical matsuri fashion, the streets were lined with food stalls, offering all sorts of food on sticks, shaved ice, ice cream, and tons of other tasty treats. These proved to be very distracting during the actual dance, when after 20 minutes we all wanted to take off the tightly-bound yukatas and gorge on yakitori (chicken on a stick) and nikumaki onigiri (fried meat rice balls. These turned out to be delicious). But somehow we made it through the dance without messing up too badly, and were able to change back into our normal clothes for the rest of the night. If you want to see us dancing, click here for the video!

Tasty treats! (Photo by Lauren)
Tasty treats! (Photo by Lauren)

The evening wrapped up with a fireworks show, because Japan loves fireworks.

Himawari Matsuri (Sunflower festival)

Look at all the sunflowers!
Look at all the sunflowers! (photo by Meagan)

The following weekend I set out with some friends to check out the Takanabe Himawari Matsuri. The entire event was essentially a giant field (usually used for farming squash, I think) was covered in thousands (possibly millions) of sunflowers, and somewhere in the middle they set up observation decks and food stalls. That’s basically all it was, but it was pretty stunning to look at. We also quickly discovered that one of the stalls sold authentic Chinese food (the owners were from Taiwan) which was amazing. While I have yet to grow tired of Japanese food, my companions were entering into their 4th and 5th years in Japan, and were overjoyed.

The whole gang - all of us are ALTs in Miyakonojo
The whole gang – all of us are ALTs in Miyakonojo (Photo by Eddy)

Continuing the foreign food trend, we joined up with another group of festival-going JETs and stopped by a Thai restaurant in Miyazaki City on the way home. It was delicious, and it was nice to learn that Miyazaki has a decent selection of foreign foods, since I know come winter I’ll be missing certain foods.

Posing with the Miyazaki Ken, and my friend Phil (photo by Meagan)
Posing with the Miyazaki Ken, and my friend Phil (photo by Meagan)

Miyazaki Orientation

Seemingly everyday things here still amaze me. For example, how did everyone fit their cars into this lot, and how on earth will they get out???
Seemingly everyday things here still amaze me. For example, how did everyone fit their cars into this lot, and how on earth will they get out???

While not quite as exciting as the previously mentioned festivals, the official orientation in Miyazaki City was a big part of my first month, and it gave me a chance to see a bit of the capital of Miyazaki. As with Tokyo Orientation it was three days of lectures and seminars, but this time much smaller, and with a bit more focus on what we will actually face here in Miyazaki. I enjoyed trying out local restaurants during lunch time and spent one night in the city with friends, which was a lot of fun. It was also my first time using trains in Japan, and the experience proved to be very easy and comfortable. Sadly, trains aren’t as convenient here on Kyushu as they are in other parts of Japan, but I’m sure I’ll use them at least a little in the coming year.

Driving back from Miyazaki with Molly, as she learns to drive on the left side of the road. (Photo by Phil)
Driving back from Miyazaki with Molly, as she learns to drive on the left side of the road. (Photo by Phil)

Kumamoto Day trip

Lots of Buddha statues in Kumamoto
Lots of Buddha statues in Kumamoto

The weekend following orientation I went to Kumamoto City with two friends who were meeting up with someone visiting from Tokyo. Kumamoto isn’t too far away, and turned out to be a much bigger city than Miyakonojo. We went to a temple with 500 Buddhas, which was apparently known as the location where a famous book was written. We didn’t really know much about that, but it was pretty.

Kumamoto Castle
Kumamoto Castle

Then it was on to Kumamoto Castle. It was hot and muggy and there were tons of people around, so we decided against going into the actual castle and instead went to the nearby shrine. Turns out that’s the best place to get photos of the castle anyway, and far less crowded.

Castle selfies w/ Maegan and Eddy, and the castle's mascot (notice how everything has a mascot here?) (Photo by Meagan)
Castle selfies w/ Maegan and Eddy, and the castle’s mascot (notice how everything has a mascot here?) (Photo by Meagan)

We wrapped up the evening by walking around the city center, and I had my first experience with “purikura” photo booths. I gotta say, I think these things are kinda scary. The idea is that they take photos and automatically make them glamour shots by whitening your skin, enlarging and brightening your eyes, and generally making you look like an alien. But it was a lot of fun, and I’m sure it won’t be my last time.

"Purikura" falls somewhere between ridiculous and a little be scary, but it's all good fun
“Purikura” falls somewhere between ridiculous and a little be scary, but it’s all good fun

Day Trip to Aya

Aya Suspension Bridge
Aya Suspension Bridge

For the last weekend of the month I had planned on going to the Cape Toi Fire Festival, but sadly the event was rained out. Instead a group of friends took the day to drive up to Aya, a mountain town nearby. It’s famous for a massive suspension bridge between two mountains, and a castle.

First up we visited the bridge, and it was amazing to look at. I’m proud to say I walked all the way across and back, and rewarded myself for the feat with mango soft serve on the way out. One thing I’ve recently discovered is that Japan has pretty fantastic soft serve ice cream, and I foresee this becoming a bit of a problem…

Aya Castle

After the bridge we went to Aya Castle, which had a small museum inside and offered a nice view of the town from the top.

Group photo at the castle
Group photo at the castle (photo by Maegan)
The view from Aya Castle
The view from Aya Castle

We ended the day with burgers back in Miyakonojo, at this adorable diner. The owner is apparently obsessed with American diner culture, and makes a mean burger. I’ll definitely be back!

Look at that beautiful American-style burger!
Look at that beautiful American-style burger!

That’s about what I did for my first month in Japan. I’ll write more about where I live, what it’s like getting around, and what the food is like in a later post. A quick word about my school though, because I have been asked about this recently. Student privacy is taken very seriously in Japan, and as such I will not be posting photos of my students, school, or anything else that could be viewed as an invasion of privacy by the school. Toto, we’re not in Vietnam anymore.

Japanese Countryside in Kumamoto
Japanese Countryside in Kumamoto