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Summer Programmes

Adventures in Yamagata: Part 3

5 August 2017

At long last, here is part three of my adventures in Yamagata. My apologies for the delay – it’s been a pretty busy week as usual.
To pick up where I left off, we’d collected our new translator and then immediately after we visited a Japanese castle. We made a quick stop at a foot onsen; a shallow onsen where people sit and soak their feet in the natural hot water. And when I say hot, I mean hot! Most of the group couldn’t stand putting their feet in, but eventually I managed to soak mine for a good 5 minutes. My feet were red up to the calves afterwards but it was worth it for the, uh, relaxation. We then made our way up to the castle which in actual fact was a reconstruction of a previous castle and inside was a museum detailing the history surrounding Kaminoyama city. There was a story about how a travelling monk witnessed a crane soothing its injured leg in a natural hot spring which really appealed to me. We also got to look at the view from the top of the castle of the city and the surrounding mountains covered in wisps of fog. Afterwards we went to a shop selling konnyaku; a jelly-like substance made from potato starch, where I also bought some delicious cherry ice cream. All in all it was a good day, despite the pouring rain.
Another adventure was when we all got to experience zazen, a type of Buddhist meditation. The process of the meditation was incredibly detailed down to which hand you use to hold things and what direction you turn in. But that wasn’t all – if you are doing something incorrectly or you have “impure” thoughts, the head monk comes around with a large wooden stick and whacks you on the shoulder! Apparently we were all quite bad as we all got whacked, one after the other. It didn’t really hurt much but he might have gone easy on us volunteers judging from the terrifying sound that came when he hit our boss! It’s not every day you can say you were whacked by a Buddhist monk, and I certainly will have fun telling that story in years to come.
Another highlight was when we all got to go to the beach with the boys. It took a good two hours to get there but it was worth it for the impressive views and the amount of fun we all had. It was especially nice to play with the boys in the water, particularly when we all wanted to get on an inflatable boat and were warding off attackers who kept stealing the oars. Even though there is a language barrier between us, it’s so nice being able to connect with the boys through playing with them, and I definitely felt closer to them afterwards. We also went exploring and I and another volunteer found a large rock pool we nicknamed an “onsen” because the water inside was nice and warm. We also got to do something slightly terrifying: jump off a large rock into the ocean. Although 5 metres doesn’t sound that high, once you’re at the top it suddenly doesn’t look too inviting. After a few minutes spent convincing myself I wouldn’t die, I managed to jump and, with a lovely scream, hit the water. Our boss on the other hand was doing flips and somersaults like it was nothing. Still, I was proud of myself for actually managing to do it. Just before we went home we found a little caravan selling shaved ice made from real frozen strawberries with a dollop of ice cream on top. After a day of swimming and climbing rocks it was sweet and refreshing and just what we needed before the long journey home again.
We also got to go to the rice paddies again, this time to fertilize them. It was actually quite fun grabbing a fistful of fertilizer and chucking it over the plants, and I lost count of the amount of fields we ended up covering. It’s just a shame we won’t get to see the final result of our hard work. Another small thing is that we found out that Sango is actually a girl – oops, I’ve been calling her a he this whole time. As someone who gets annoyed when my own dog is called a he, I felt particularly ashamed. She’s still my favourite, though, and I don’t think she holds it against me.
Another interesting thing we got to do was see the boy’s rooms. Apparently the boys don’t really get embarrassed, but they certainly seemed to be when we came round as they alerted the others and hesitantly followed us around the whole time. The rooms were…well, like you’d imagine a group of young men’s rooms to be like, really. We all certainly didn’t feel up to the challenge of cleaning them! It was nice to know that we had managed to make them show emotion like that. I really feel like this week we have bonded with them.
Finally, I have to talk about my favourite part of the trip so far: the summer festival. Summer festivals happen all over Japan at this time of year and are events where you can dress up in traditional yukatas, play games and eat festival food. We started off the day by volunteering, handing out leaflets to the public who had to witness our stellar understanding of the Japanese language. But after a few hours of humiliating ourselves we got to stop working and put on yukatas. The boys got dressed first while us girls had our hair done. I told the stylist to do whatever she thought would be best and it ended up being a gorgeous side bun with plaits, a flower pin and some chopsticks. We also got to choose our yukata fabric and were dressed into them. It was a tricky process and took a while, and the whole ordeal reminded me very much of my school prom. However, once it was done we all looked really beautiful and fussed over each other, taking lots of pictures of ourselves in various poses. We also ate dinner, taking advantage of all the different festival foods available. I tried hashimaki; a savoury pancake wrapped around some chopsticks, filled with vegetables and coated in sticky okonomiyaki sauce, as well as some yakisoba, some honeydew melon shaved ice and a chocolate banana crepe. It was all delicious and I’m definitely going to go back to a Japanese festival someday for the food alone. We also got to watch the fireworks when it got dark with the boys. The fireworks were to some popular Japanese music and were the best fireworks I had ever seen – they were massive and some even sparkled like falling stars as they faded away. Apparently I had a smile permanently stuck on my face while I was watching them. It was one of the best evenings of my life and I’m so thankful I got to experience it.
So, that about covers the past week. With just a few days left of the project, I’m beginning to feel very sentimental about leaving. Not once have I felt homesick during the whole project and I have loved both the country and the people I’m surrounded by. It’s going to be hard to leave, but until then I’m going to make the most of my last few days here. Until next time. またね。