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Friday, May 2, 2014

First Day At A Japanese School - Lunch Time

Leave it to me to promise I would write something and then completely forget about it until one of you writes me to say they can hardly wait for the next installment.

Thank you, Vince.

So... it's 7PM on Thursday, I already have everything planned up through Monday, and because I said I was going to do something, I must now do so.

Especially when it's been pointed out to me.

Thanks, Vince.

Okay, I said I would talk about my first experience with a school lunch.

Sure... why not... I never wrote anything down about this for some stupid reason, but having glanced at a photo or two that are seen in this blog, the memories came flooding back like... well, I forget how memories come flooding back, but I'm sure you know what I mean.

So... It's Tuesday, September 3, 1990 and I am at Ohtawara Chu Gakko (Ohtawara Junior High School) for the first time ever. It's in Ohtawara-shi (Ohtawara City), in Tochigi-ken (Tochigi Prefecture) which is strange because it's a city unlike any I have ever seen previously, having come from Toronto.

It's small... only 50,000 people, mostly farmers and other people who work somewhere else.

It's a small town mentality in Ohtawara... I don't know if that's key of not, because I haven't figured out what I am going to write yet.

I have already survived the morning, where I had to give a speech to the assembled students, teachers and parents (HERE), plus given my first three self-introductions in a first, second and third-year classes (HERE).

My fourth period was a spare, and then at 12:35PM, it was lunch time.

I already knew I was to eat my lunch with the 2-2 class (grade 8)... the class I had to give the first self-introduction to.

They were a noisy and excitable bunch who asked me many questions, so I was excited to be going back so soon to see them.

So... I walked to the class with the homeroom teacher, who just so happened to be the English teacher, Kunita-sensei. Cool. At least I would be able to speak English and have it translated and the kids could speak Japanese and have it translated, but really... wouldn't these kids be speaking English to me?

I know... I was pretty naive.

So... as I walk in, several of the students stand beside a chair set out for me, and without speaking they do hand gestures to welcome me to sit.

The classroom was set up for lunch. The desks were arranged in a circle in the middle of the room, and I was directly opposite Kunita-sensei.

Despite being a big guy relative to the average Japanese, I fit into the loose school chair rather easily and can get my long legs in under the desk without any fanfare.

There are four or five kids at the front of the class outside the circle--the circle isn't completely closed off because those kids will be walking through to serve their fellow students the school lunch.

Let me back track a bit.

Each student pays a monthly fee to the school for the honor of eating a prepared school lunch. There is NO opt outs. Every pays and everyone eats with their homeroom class. No exceptions. That's the rule, and being Japanese, you follow the rules (when people are looking).

The students who serve the lunch go to the cooking area of the school, and depending on the food being served, carry up bento boxes wrapped in towels or, in this case, somehow drag up a large steel lidded drum containing a liquidy stew. Oh yeah... someone also had to drag up the large steel vat containing Japanese sticky rice.

Every single meal I ever ate at a Japanese school ensured that rice was part of the meal. 

Another might carry the chopsticks and bowls, and another might bring up the desert... but really, all helped carry the main course in... in some cases, like where the Grade 9s have their homeroom, it means going up to the third floor.

So... the nice-smelling beef stew with potatoes, konnyaku and some sort of radish, onions is ladled out into individual steel bowls. Chopsticks are passed around - or at least mine were. Many students did have their own which they dug out from their backpacks or from within their desks.

I was served first - being the guest of honor. I had no idea what to do, so I waited. Kunita-sensei was served next and then everyone else was... service was fast and efficient.

Then, as soon as the last person was served, everyone bowed a short bow with just the head (we were all seated behind a desk), saying "itadakiamsu", and then everyone snapped their chopsticks apart and dug into the stew, grabbing the large chunks and jamming them into their mouth.

Okay... the boys were doing that.

The girls... they would take a piece of food in the chopsticks, place it daintily in their mouth and with the spare hand would cover their mouth as they chewed. It was very lady-like and I was impressed.

The boys--Kunita-sensei included--they were a sopping wet mess, some with chunks of beef stuck to the side of the cheek and others with rice stuck to their forehead...

Mouths already filled with foodstuffs, they stuffed even more food as they tried chewing, seemed to have forgotten how and swallowed the parts whole. All I can say is thank god no one was ever several a pork chop that wasn't cut up, because these kids (and teacher) would have choked to death.

I had just split my chopsticks in two... had noticed all the kids rubbing them together to remove any of the splinters... and with my awkward chopstick grip that I had only learned two weeks ago from my Board of Education boss Hanazaki-san, and then promptly bastardized into a slightly different version that gave me speed and dexterity, though not as much strength in my grip as the standard way... I plunked my chopsticks into the stew, picked up a nice hunk of beef and lifted it up to my mouth.

I leaned over to place it into my gaping maw when I noticed through the top of my eyes that every one was staring at me... with the room quiet except for one student's loud thumping on the back of his friend who was choking on something unchewed.

I stopped... looked at everyone... smiled that smile I smile and popped the food into my mouth and chewed it.

Although many of the boys had already finished their meal, one of the young girls had just finished swallowing her first bite and removed her hand from over her mouth to ask me in English: "Oishii-desu ka?"

Okay, that was Japanese, but my raised eyebrows towards Kunita-sensei translated immediately for me "Is it delicious?"

"Hai! So desu! Yes, it is!" I gave them an answer in Japanese and English. Aren't I great? LOL.

Some of the boys tightened their lower job sticking it out slightly and nodded in appreciation of me being able to eat Japanese food - or at least thinking it was good.

Confident, I began eating a bit faster - like the men... when Kunita-sensei asks if I would answer a question from (I'm lying if I say I know his name) Kobayashi-san.

"Mmf" I say as I nod in the affirmative.

He asks: "Can you use chopsticks?"

I'm using chopsticks right now... I've put at least four mouthfuls into my full mouth and am trying to jam in a fifth without chewing or swallowing.

With liquidy stew juice dribbling down my chin I look at him and grin and tell him another Japanese word I learned all on my own.

"Bakayaro! (Idiot!)" and then pick up another chunk of meat and try to find room in my mouth and finding none am forced to swallow the soft squishy vegetable bits that slide down easily.
I taught these kids the Vulcan salute, but if you look closely, you'll see that not everyone can bend their fingers into the correct pattern. Yeesh. That's what happens when I run out of hair gel.

I put down my chopsticks and begin top laugh.

Everyone else does, too... including my poor victim who bows in apology.

I say in English: "Yes, I can use chopsticks. I just learned two weeks ago, but I can use chopsticks."

Lots of oohs ahhs and thumping on the back ensues.

At exactly 1PM - a brief 25 minutes to choke down my lunch (everyone made it somehow!), everyone bowed and said "gochisōsama-deshita (It was a feast)" went up to the front to give their bowls (stew and rice) up to the servers, who placed them all into one of the large vats. I got up to give mine, but I was quickly cut off my my apologetic friend with the idiotic question, who grabbed my bowls for me.

I bowed to him and said "domo arigato gozaimasu (thank-you very much)", which must have surprised him because he said 'ohf" as he turned to give me a quick stare and another short bow.

The servers quickly hauled the containers back down to the school kitchen (food, by the way, seems to be prepared by some of the student's mothers - and not hired out to any type of foodservice company). The plates are cleaned out - leftovers to the garbage, or if still in the vat, would be placed in clean bowls and refrigerated... I don't even want to tell you how many free meals I got this way, but I got plenty - especially when natto (rotting fermented soy beans) was being served... as I became the only foreigner to enjoy eating the smelly, goopy mess. But that's another bunch of stories that I have previously written (back in the day when I might only get 400 readers in a month... I get that in a few hours now).

In the homeroom, the remaining students move the desks back into their ordered order and then... well.. up next comes a bit of lunch time play time... I'll tell you about that first day on Monday, followed by a Mister Sparkle event.

Can you believe it? We're at the half-way mark of my first day at a Japanese junior high school.

In another blog, I'll try and write down some of the great and not so great school lunches I was served.

Thank you, Vince,

Andrew Joseph
PS: For the record, the photos in this particular blog were NOT taken on this first day - no one had a camera... except for me giving my speech in the morning... these photos were from a first time visit with one of the other seven schools I visited that month - Kaneda Minami Chu Gakko (Kaneda South Junior High School).
PPS: It's 7:59PM. I just have to find the photos and scan them and upload them. Later, though. My ass hurts from sitting on this hard wooden chair. I still have to italicize the Japanese words and write the cutlines for the photos and come up with a headline.

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