School Lunch in Nanae

Nanae <em>kyuushoku</em> in 1889, as replicated by the students at Ikusagawa Elementary. Two rice balls, fish, and a pickled vegetable. While school lunch in Nanae has diversified over the last 125 years to reflect Japan's increasingly globalized society, the core tenants remain.
Nanae kyuushoku in 1889, as replicated by the students at Ikusagawa Elementary. Two rice balls, fish, and a pickled vegetable. While school lunch in Nanae has diversified over the last 125 years to reflect Japan’s increasingly globalized society, the core tenants remain.

The phrase “you are what you eat” was first coined by a nutritionist named Victor Landlahr for a 1923 beef advertisement in a Bridgeport, CT newspaper. Ironically, this household saying originated at a time when American food was becoming increasingly processed, and less of an ideal basis for a healthy self image. For the better part of 22 years, my own red meat and high fructose corn syrup-heavy diet, punctuated by cravings for McDonald’s, has been far from perfect, and is a sad reflection of the poor dietary standards seen across the United States. Eating habits form early in life, and while many factors contribute to the staggering 20% obesity rate among American children, one often criticized ingredient is school lunch in America, which, high in carbs, often low in nutrition, and coupled with easy access to sugary drinks in vending machines makes for a lot of unhealthy and not so genki (lively) kids.

As Nanae’s English teacher, I enjoy the rare privilege of eating school lunch with my students every day. There are many noticeable differences between school lunch in Concord and Nanae besides the food itself, and these differences apply to greater Japan as well. For one, there are no cafeterias in Nanae’s elementary and middle schools. Students eat lunch together in their class with their teacher, and students serve the lunch. There is a rotating shift of classroom duties that students take on, from first grade through ninth, including chalkboard cleaning, trash collection, and serving kyuushoku. Every day at noon, a half dozen students in each class put on white aprons, cafeteria caps and the classic Japanese face mask to dish out the lunch to every student and teacher. After everyone’s seated, we put our hands together as if in prayer and say “Itadakimasu!” and it’s time to eat. Eating in the classroom and self service saves a ton of money. When you build a school in Japan, you can skip the cafeteria. Also, rather than each school employing kitchen staff and servers, the students do the serving and the food preparation for all of Nanae’s 8 elementary and 3 middle schools is done at a single facility.


My favorite <em>kyuushoku</em> of all time. Tofu curry, i<em>ka</em> (squid) tempura, edamame and rice
My favorite kyuushoku of all time. Tofu curry, ika (squid) tempura, edamame and rice




The Nanae kyuushoku center is a relatively small building tucked away behind Nanae Elementary, Nanae’s second biggest elementary school, located in the center of Honcho (downtown). Today I spoke with the center’s head nutritionists (with the translating aid of CIR Senpai Ben Haydock), Mmes. Matsumoto and Ichimura. Together they plan out Nanae’s kyuushoku on a monthly basis.

Unlike in Concord, kyuushoku is only served in elementary and middle schools. Nanae high schoolers are on their own, either bringing a lunch from home or buying food from a small bento (Japanese-style lunch box) store in the school. The Nanae kyuushoku center cooks lunch for 2,400 students and teachers Monday through Friday. In elementary school, parents are billed 230 Yen per lunch, about $2.25, and 270 Yen ($2.66) in the middle school. For this low price, students get a bowl of rice three times a week and a bread roll twice weekly, a carton of milk from an Onuma dairy farm, a bowl of soup, a vegetable or fruit dish, and a main protein-heavy course, usually meat or fish. The kyuushoku milk, like nearly all milk in Japan, is whole milk (3.5%). It may seem strange that a country with such lean people consumes almost only whole milk, but whole milk might be getting an unfair rap in the states. A recent study in the European Journal of Nutrition actually concluded that there is an inverse relationship between whole milk consumption and obesity amongst test subjects in Europe. Like Japan, the European diet relies on less processed food and a lower daily caloric intake than in the states, so a glass of whole milk a day might actually be good for you provided you’re not dunking twelve Oreo’s in it.

Kyuushoku milk, courtesy of Hokunyu in Onuma, Nanae's northern village. One of the students with ownership OCD has written "English Teacher" in Hiragana on it.
Kyuushoku milk, courtesy of Hokunyu in Onuma, Nanae’s northern village. One of the students with ownership OCD has written “English Teacher” in Hiragana on it.

Matsumoto says that when planning the daily kyuushoku for each month, she and Ichimura look for a balance between a) what the kids like, b) what the school wants them to eat, and c) what meals might not be available at home, either because they take a long time to prepare or because the meal is foreign in origin. For school lunches with a foreign theme, Matsumoto says that they are constantly brainstorming new ideas, and draw their inspiration for foreign menus from the internet as well as Nanae’s sister city. Ichimura says that they often talk to folks at the Kyoikuinkai (board of education) about the foods eaten in Concord and Boston, and try to replicate some of the sister city’s meals. Of the Boston cuisine replicas I’ve tried in kyuushoku, clam chowder was by far the tastiest success, but for some students it remains an acquired taste. As for catering to the students’ preferences, Matsumoto and Ichimura each make daily visits to Nanae elementary and middle school, respectively, to get feedback from students. They also conduct a twice yearly student survey to gauge the most and least popular foods.

Clam chowder day, accompanied by a hamburger with some teriyaki sauce, corn, and a bread roll
Clam chowder day, accompanied by a hamburger with some teriyaki sauce, corn, and a bread roll

Every day, twelve staff members cook enormous batches of kyuushoku from 7:30 a.m. until late morning, when two trucks deliver the food, by now divided into different sized metal containers individually labeled to designate a class section, to each of the eight elementary and three middle schools in town. I was hoping to be able to photograph an Olympic pool sized rice cooker when I visited the kyuushoku center, but due to the sheer volume of rice needed to serve 2,400 students and teachers, Nanae contracts with a nearby bakery that cooks up enormous batches of rice. I’m a big fan of kyuushoku rice, more so than the rice I make in my own cooker, and the reason is a simple cooking tip for all you rice lovers out there. The bigger the batch of rice you make, the more evenly it will cook, so many Japanese households tend to cook large batches of rice and then freeze what’s left for future meals.

Preparing a batch of potatoes with two hours to go before Kyuushoku. Nanae's lunch center is getting a brand new facility in April, 2015.
Preparing a batch of potatoes with two hours to go before kyuushoku. Nanae’s lunch center is getting a brand new facility in April, 2015.

Nanae is home to a great deal of farms featuring a whole range of produce and, season permitting, local ingredients in school lunch take preference over food from elsewhere. The head of Nanae’s farming cooperative determines which farmer will be contracted on a given day to provide the lunch center with scallions, eggs, apples, onions, mushrooms, daikon (Japanese radish), or turnips on a rotating basis. Matsumoto says that the farming community in Nanae works closely with the lunch center and is very helpful in providing local foods. A great deal of the chicken, pork and beef in kyuushoku also comes from Nanae farms, and the only frozen food you’re ever going to see is the froyo.

Making pork chops on the day before elementary school graduation. Most of the meat used in Nanae <em>kyuushoku</em> is local.
Making pork chops on the day before elementary school graduation. Most of the meat used in Nanae kyuushoku is local.

Students at Ikusagawa Elementary recently made a poster showcasing the evolution of Nanae kyuushoku over the last century. Certain dates stand out, such as 1942, during which time there was a significant food shortage. Though the school lunch in 1985 doesn’t appear much different than today, I was interested to learn how school lunch had changed since the nutritionists themselves were students. For Ichimura, as a child growing up in Nanae, the nutrition standards for school lunch were less strict, and while many more of the meals were Japanese rather than gaikoku (foreign) themed, there was a great variety amongst the basic ingredients, including the rice dishes and soups. Today, while the structural layout is less diverse; always milk, a main dish, a soup, and bread or rice, the international variety is far greater.

Ikesagawa lunch over time

This past December I gave a presentation to middle school students in Nanae showing the differences between middle school life in Concord and Japan. A good portion of this presentation highlighted the contrasts between American and Japanese school lunch. My students were particularly fascinated with the concept of choosing what to eat at lunch, be it the hot lunch of the day, a PB&J or tuna salad sandwich, even a cookie or ice cream sandwich for dessert. If a student doesn’t finish their cafeteria lunch, they throw it in the garbage and can later eat a snack that they brought from home. Or in many American schools, they can just buy a candy bar from the vending machine. These options don’t exist in Japanese schools. There is one meal, and everyone eats it. If there’s a food a student doesn’t like, they’re going to learn to like it, because in Nanae learning to try new foods is a part of being a student. And if one doesn’t finish their lunch, they’ll have to wait on snacks until they get home because there are no vending machines. But I rarely see a plate with leftovers.

Matsumoto and Ichimura say they do everything possible to minimize food waste. Every day, each school’s uneaten food is collected and returned to the lunch center, where the waste is weighed before being composted. It’s been a few years since I ate American school lunch, but I don’t remember much food being recycled.

Valentine's Day <em>kyuushoku</em>, with a pork and vegetable stir fry, miso soup, and rice
Valentine’s Day kyuushoku, with a pork and vegetable stir fry, miso soup, and rice

I have lived in Nanae for seven and a half months now. Each day brings a flurry of new information and cultural oddities, and the more Japanese language I pick up, the swifter this flurry becomes, and the more my understanding of Japanese customs and traditions deepens. That said, Japan is not a perfect country. There are times when I find myself frustrated by aspects of daily life here; certain things just seem to run more smoothly in America. But, I would be a fool not to recognize when the opposite is also true. School lunch in Nanae, and across Japan, from the way it is made and served, to its incorporation into education and impact on students’ health and minds is a truly unique and outstanding strength that Japan has mastered, and we in the United States would do well to follow its lead.

Yours truly with Nanae Kyuushoku creators Ms. Matsumoto (left) and and Ms. Ichimura (right)
Yours truly with Nanae kyuushoku creators Ms. Matsumoto (left) and and Ms. Ichimura (right) in front of Nanae’s kyuushoku center

Ice Fishing for Nemo

Nanae’s most unique winter activity, wakasagi tsuri, or smelt fishing, takes place on the frozen lakes surrounding Mt. Komagatake in the northern village of Onuma.


With my mother’s family hailing from northern Wisconsin, I was already familiar with smelt fishing.  In fact, my great aunt was the first ever Smelt Queen in 1936 in Marinette, Wisconsin, a town whose smelt popularity spawned an annual festival.


Great Aunt Donna, 1936 Smelt Queen

That said, I had never eaten smelt before coming to Japan, let alone Hokkaido-style wakasagi, deep-fried, bones and all, on the center of a frozen lake.

On a particularly beautiful Saturday in February, I headed out to Lake Junsainuma with CIR Ben Haydock, who will hereto be referred to as “Senpai Ben” (in Japan a senpai is an older co-worker/mentor). We were joined by some of our co-workers from the Nanae Town Office and Board of Education to partake in a friendly wakasagi tsuri competition.

This supply and gear tent is set up on the lake all winter

I was paired off with Mase-san from the town office, who was coming out onto the ice for the first time. Mastering the right ice fishing methods and strategies takes a little time, but having fished two weeks earlier, I was ready to take on and soundly defeat the two opposing teams. Facing off against us was Senpai Ben and Manabe-san – a Board of Education staffer who hails from Miki, Shikoku – on one team, and my supervisor, Miura-san, along with Ben’s co-worker Tezuka-san, on the other.

Senpai Ben and Tezuka getting ready for the long trek to the center of the Lake

There are five key components to a successful wakasagi catch, listed here in ascending order:

1) Freshness of bait: wakasagi fishing poles are simple in design, with a hand fed spool and line that holds six tiny hooks, on each of which is hooked a tiny pink maggot. The most common method is to bisect the maggot with scissors to attract more fish, a method I found at first to be displeasing and later effective. The bait loses its color after less than thirty minutes in the water, and you’ll be lucky to catch even a bite after it’s been in for an hour, so the occasional change-up is essential to winning a wakasagi competition.

2) Pole placement and reaction time: wakasagi are quick enough to bite the bait and bounce without getting caught on the hook, so like any other type of fishing you have to be ready to yank up the pole as soon as you get a substantial nibble. After an hour of practice one can get a very good sense of the wakasagi’s size based on the pull of the bite. But, these bites are still very light, and unless you have extremely calm hands, it is best to rest the pole on the ice or on your live-well bucket, watching the line for pulls and standing ready to react as soon as contact is made.

3) Depth: wakasagi are generally found within a meter of the surface, and with fresh bait on hand can be found literally within arm’s reach. However, the successful ice fisherman is one who embraces adaptability, so when the wakasagi aren’t biting, it’s time to go deeper… or switch locations.

4) Location: unless you’re keen to wake up and hit the ice very early in the dead of winter during prime feeding time, you are unlikely to hit the wakasagi jackpot without changing holes at least once. Half of the group committed the grave error of succumbing to inertia, reeling in only a fraction of the total day’s catch. And yet, even with fresh bait, changing depths and occasional movement, there is one skillset that still remains inherent, and will make the difference between gold and an A-for-effort ribbon, which brings us to #5

5) I am a Wakasagi Whisperer


Arriving at our site

Before any of this could be considered, we arrived at the first empty designated spot more than 800 meters from shore (the lake was packed that day), and, in a group of six, found only four open holes. Using a hand powered ice auger doesn’t look difficult until you start cranking away, and five minutes later find that you have created nothing more than a single centimeter dent. This was the situation I found myself in after insisting on taking over for Senpai Ben, so I quickly handed it back and made myself useful by giving encouraging remarks and watching attentively.

Back-breaking labor for a 2 meter senpai
Ben confirms that cold water is cold
Ben confirms that the water is cold

I was thoroughly impressed with my wakasagi teammate Mase-san, who drilled an even faster hole, but as soon as the lines were dropped in, it became clear that my teammate was more adept in the art of drilling than fishing, and at the twenty minute mark I was the individual leader with a dozen fish, but carrying the team on my back, my partner coming in at zero.




The team quickly emerging as a powerhouse was undoubtedly Senpai Ben and Manabe-san, the former of whom tailed me at ten wakasagi, but paired with Manabe’s seven smelt, was establishing a decisive lead.

Senpai Ben’s first catch of the day


Manabe throwing up the classic peace sign as her hooks wage war beneath the ice

Wakasagi are fast swimmers, and their packs move all over the place, so after one hour my pace was slowing, with twenty total fish, and it was clear that our location was starting to dry up. I looked on in dismay as my teammate continued to hold his pole rather than rest it, likely missing many bites without realizing it. After no action for several minutes on any line, I made the desperate move of drastically increasing my depth from four to nearly ten feet, and this Wakasagi Whisperer quickly collected three unlucky swimmers fin to fin.

Miura scoring a double

By now it was clear that a location change was needed, and so I crossed the ice with Tezuka and Ben in search of more plentiful feeding grounds. It was here that the two of them quickly caught up to my once unbeatable looking individual lead, and I was surpassed by my own senpai after I made the fatal error of leaving my rod unattended  to take pictures of nearby Mt. Komagatake.

The majestic Mt. Komagatake
Junsainuma’s uncharted ice
Ben and Tezuka celebrate their resurgence
Ben and Tezuka celebrate their resurgence

The wakasagi, sensing their whisperer had abandoned them to seek Instagram fame, now gravitated towards Tezuka and Ben. After two and a half solid hours, we returned to the group, where I paired my 39 wakasagi with a mere 8 from my partner, still holding his rod rather than leaving it alone on the ice, and we finished a distant third to Miura/Tezuka’s total in the upper 60s and Ben/Manabe’s 83.


The last step involved oil, breaded wakasagi, and a deep frier. Itadakimasu!



Here’s a video that captures the highlights:


Some New Stuff

A sampling platter of some recent happenings and thoughts:

Bowling observations: Considering how technical Japanese culture tends to be in terms of refining skills and crafts, bowling seems to be an anomaly here. It’s the most chaotic, instinct-based activity I’ve seen in Japan. My score was notably affected by the distractions in the lanes on both sides of me last Friday. I counted, in those two lanes, five times that the bowlers went airborne/slipped and landed on their backs in the lanes and gutters. Lane violations don’t seem to have any meaning in social Japanese bowling, and finger-holes are Continue reading “Some New Stuff”

Back to Nanae

I got back to Nanae two nights ago – I spent 10 days with my family in Concord, one night at a hotel in Hakodate (city next to Nanae), and 3 days at Niseko (big ski-mountain in Hokkaido). I’ve made two large cultural transitions now: one when I arrived in Japan and one visiting Concord. Both times, I didn’t deal with the change very well. The mindsets in each culture are entirely opposite for me, and shifting between them has been difficult. In Concord/Boston, historically I’ve found personal peace through being efficient and staying a step ahead of whatever I see happening around me, and in Japan I’ve found it by letting things unfold in their own time and way. I haven’t really bridged the two ways of life at all. I don’t know yet if they can be. I have formed a new type of relationship with the world around me in a very short time in Japan. It’s something I could not have imagined before experiencing it, and it has come hand in hand with an immense feeling of potential. The only thing that makes sense to me unconditionally is to continue to let it develop and be at its whim – doing so thus far has yielded life-changing results. I don’t know how much of this way of life is a product of Japanese culture, how much is from my specific environment/situation here, and how much of it is due to my personality. I do know that this is the only place I have felt it though, and after a very stressful few days of travel on airplanes and trains between America and Niseko, the mindset reemerged on its own within the first day of being back in Nanae. The last few months have been an amazing experience for me mentally and emotionally, and it has opened up parts of me that I didn’t know could be built on or developed. I believe this is a pivotal moment in my life that can’t be turned back.


Month #2

I am now almost two months into my time in Nanae. I have had a lot of ups and downs, plus a little time in between. My ups have been much richer than usual. Some of the connections I’ve experienced here (with people, culture, and myself) have felt very lucid to me – exhilaratingly real at times. They have also felt very normal, which is refreshing – generally, I find normalcy to be frustratingly elusive. My downs have been amplified a bit too – the support structures I am used to (family, long-time friends, and an adjustable environment) are non-existent here. That leaves me as the only one to catch myself if I become unbalanced.

Something that has caught me totally off-guard is how genuinely nice people my age are here. They are unguarded, open, and pro-actively friendly. I am not used to it at all, and don’t know how to react sometimes. I like it though.

Here is a short “Best of Japan” list I’ve started:


“Kurenai no Buta” (directed by Hayao Miyazaki): I have a zero-tolerance policy for giving anything away about good movies, so I’m not going to comment much on this, but it’s a Japanese anime movie I watched last weekend and loved. My only commentary is that I highly recommend it, and I suggest watching it in Japanese with English subtitles. I watched the first 5 minutes in both English and Japanese, and they were noticeably different.


Odango: These are small, sticky spheres of compressed rice – they come on little trays with maybe 12 balls. Different sauces are put onto them (soy, sesame, and pressed red beans), and you eat them by spearing the balls with toothpicks. I consider it to be a very domestic form of hunting. I imagine a lot of cool things could be done with this concept – the balls are like a benign template for tasting the flavors of different sauces, so they could be used to make tasting samples of a really wide variety of sauces or toppings. I think they could be popular as an appetizer in the US if used in a creative way. The toothpick part is also fairly entertaining for at least the first five balls of each tray.


Capsule: Capsule is awesome. It’s a Japanese electronic artist I’ve been listening to a lot. I am pretty sure it is one man (producer, music-writer) and one woman (singer), and it’s one of my new favorites. Some good songs to preview on iTunes: Jumper, E.D.I.T., and Flash Back. These three are among many others.

Miscellaneous things without an obvious category title:

Haircuts: The haircuts in Japan should be used as a model for the rest of the world. I have been to a barber once here. My hair was cut well, but that’s not what is important – it came with an hour’s worth of extra add-ons that I didn’t know I’ve been missing my whole life. For example: head massage, hot towel on the face, straight edge razor shave (which is difficult to find near Concord, MA because the barbers are afraid of the liabilities of using straight edges), and an ear-cleaning. Ben (Nanae’s ALT) apparently gets more elaborate massages where he goes, so I will be exploring this more in the near future. My favorite part was the straight edge razor – I got a slight adrenaline rush out of it, and I left feeling like I survived something dangerous. I’m curious how many casualties there are annually from straight edge razor shaving when earthquakes hit (it requires a steady hand). I probably won’t research this. The ear-cleaning was terrifying – the tools were metal, and no warning was given beforehand. I’m still not sure how I feel about that part. I need more time to reflect.

Sensible things the US should import or recreate:

Heated toilet-seats: At first I didn’t like mine. I was worried it would make my day so easy and comforting that I might lose perspective on my life. My opinion changed very quickly. It has never been unplugged.


Yes, I’m alive.

Hello everyone,

it has now been a little over a month since I arrived in Nanae. In that time, I have home-stayed for two weeks, moved into my apartment, explored the town by foot, been upgraded to a bicycle and eventually a car, learned to play shogi (the original form of modern European chess), lost in shogi, won in shogi, eaten pig-heart, attempted to eat dried squid (similar to beef jerky… but squid), joined a basketball team, broken my apartment’s Japanese toilet by dropping a bleach-puck into the water tank, had my boss come over to fix my broken Japanese toilet on a Saturday night because I thought my apartment was flooding (toilet’s instruction manual is in Japanese), and renounced all candy from my diet out of fear of getting diabetes from the overwhelming amount of office-snacks.

The adjustment here has been difficult for me at times. I am giving a short speech tomorrow night at my office’s welcome dinner for me, and in it I describe the adjustment from American culture to Japanese culture as similar to being in a river and feeling the current change directions entirely. This has never happened to me in a river, but I imagine these two things to be similar. My instincts, mentality, and habits are all designed for an American environment. In some parts of my life here, it feels as though I am restarting at the first, most basic steps of day-to-day life. It can be very frustrating for me sometimes.

I have put a significant effort into reorganizing the apartment here. For me, the environment I am in affects my state of mind heavily, so it is an important part of my adjustment process to redesign my “home-base” to integrate well with how I live. The most interesting part of this process so far was when I put pictures of my family on the wall. These are the first decorations I have hung; they are about 20 photographs my parents gave me before I left – photos of my nephews, niece, brother, sister, brother-in-law, sister-in-law, mom, and dad (many being of me with them). The effect they had on me was immediate once hung. In college, some of my friends were from other countries, and I couldn’t relate to why they often hung flags of their home-countries on their walls. I wondered why people want physical symbols of their home when abroad – why the mental and emotional bridges to home that people carry within themselves aren’t enough. I now have an understanding of why it is important to people after feeling the impact of the pictures on my wall. When immersed in a new culture 24/7, the external presence of something familiar brings my state of mind to a place that feels like home in a way that I can’t capture in my imagination alone, and it feels revitalizing for me to have that connection. I didn’t expect the impact to be so dramatic.

Following the elections in the US from Nanae was also very interesting. I stay very up-to-date on the news at home, and I have CNN set up on my iPad here so I can watch it when I have time (and when my internet works). Maintaining a sense for what is going on politically and economically in the US is much harder to do from here. I expected it would be, but it is very apparent to me that a big part of keeping an awareness of topics like those stems from actually existing within the environment where they are taking place – from being able to gather information from news, conversations, personal experience, and a variety of sources all around. Just reading articles and watching the news here really doesn’t suffice to get the same understanding of what is going on at home as I can get when I am actually there. I think this concept says a lot about having an understanding of international events – namely, how inadequate international news must be for really capturing the substance of what’s going on around the world. The information is one or more steps removed from life experience.

My favorite part of this job so far is working in the nursery schools. I started this week and go once or twice per week. It is a ton of fun. As a 23-year-old who has to follow certain codes of conduct while I am here, the adjustment of living within new social boundaries is made much easier by having time to just screw around without any rules – which I think can really only be done hanging out with kids.

In other news, Japanese curry is incredible, and we need it in the US. Someone please take care of this before I get back.

Anyone who is curious about what it is like here or has any questions – feel free to ask anything you like, and I’ll try to get more information to you about your area of interest.




Ben Mirin Performs at Nanae Akai Hane (Red Feather) Charity Concert

By Ben Mirin, CIR

Saturday, December 17th, 2011.

Thirteen contestants performed in Nanae’s annual karaoke contest at the Nanae Bunka (Culture) Center in pristine Pioneer Hall.  Out of all thirteen singers, twelve sang Enka, a traditional form of Japanese folk music with vast appeal among the predominantly middle-aged and elderly people who filled the auditorium.  One contestant, however, chose to be different.

In a shamelessly narcissistic post, I thought I’d share the videos of my performances from that day.  I was very pleased with how they turned out, and had a fantastic time participating in the competition.

Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean”:

Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” (ft. a Georgia Coffee can):

Continue reading “Ben Mirin Performs at Nanae Akai Hane (Red Feather) Charity Concert”

Nanae’s Summer Festival: Carrying the O-Mikoshi

Photo by Emi Kimura

By Ben Mirin, CIR

August 8th, 2011

Nanae’s new Assistant Language Teacher (ALT) and Concord native Ben Haydock arrived sweaty and exhausted at Hakodate airport on July 28th.  He had a full week of festivities for the Hakodate Port Festival to look forward to, but his true initiation as a member of the Nanae community would not come until the following week.

Five hundred pounds, dripping with golden chains and clamoring bells, Nanae’s O-Mikoshi (mobile shrine) emerges from the stores of Nanae’s Mishima Shrine only once a year, on the shoulders of two-dozen men.   At 7:30am on August 8th, Ben and I suited up in traditional happi robes and joined twenty other local volunteers to carry this cherished relic up and down the streets of Nanae for the town’s annual Summer Festival.

“After dancing the Ika Odori (squid dance) in the Hakodate Port Festival, I didn’t entirely know what to expect from Nanae the following week “ Ben said.

“I knew we would be carrying something heavy, but it wasn’t until we started down the street, with the O-Mikoshi in tow, that I realized my role in this festival was more as a laborer than as a carefree festival goer.”

O-Mikoshi all over Japan travel annually among the neighborhoods that worship at the Shinto shrines where they are kept year round. They serve as vehicles for particular Japanese Shinto deities, traditionally believed to reside in the principle shrines themselves.  As they are bourn along the avenues of their respective districts, the O-Mikoshi spread good fortune to deferential residents who emerge from their homes and shops to pray and offer donations that support the festival for the following year.

Photo by Emi Kimura

That day our task was to cover all of Honcho, a district in Nanae that proved far larger than either Ben or I had imagined.  At eight o’clock sharp, we shuffled into place around the O-Mikoshi’s wooden supports and prepared to march as five pairs of Yakko, or fan-bearers, took their places at the front of the procession.  They carried long staves capped with masses of decorative feathers.  Two by two they stepped forward and, swooping down to a crouch, swung these ornaments low over the ground with choreographed precision.   They were clearing a path for our shrine to travel.

Photo by Yuki Tanaka

The last of the Yakko moved off, repeating their ritual every few meters.  The veteran marchers began shaking the O-Mikoshi enthusiastically to set the mood for the festive procession.  This continued for several minutes until a shout came from the front of the group.  As one we hoisted the O-Mikoshi over our heads and marched forward from beneath the shade of Mishima’s iconic curving rooftop. Continue reading “Nanae’s Summer Festival: Carrying the O-Mikoshi”

The Mirin Family Visits Nanae

By Ben Mirin, CIR

As seen in The Concord Journal column, “The Japan Connection.” Stay tuned for pictures on Concordnanae’s Flickr Photostream and Photo Gallery!

July 4, 2011

Hold the bachi at your navel. Is it touching the surface of the taiko? If not, go lower.

With this mantra in mind, I assumed an increasingly strenuous stance alongside the rest of my family as we merged mid-song into the ranks of Nanae Danshaku Daiko Sosakukai, the Nanae taiko drumming ensemble. Before an audience of nearly one hundred Japanese town office workers, English students, and high-school students, the latest delegation from Concord, MA, struggled to keep the beat.

Like every other day in Nanae, tonight was another chance for my family to be a part of something extraordinary. Eight days had passed since their bleary-eyed arrival at Hakodate Airport. Now, at the farewell potluck party in Nanae’s Bunka Center, Japanese friends from every part of my multifaceted life in the sister city had converged in one place, to treat us one final time as special guests in their community.

The days leading up to the farewell potluck were filled with a rich variety of events and excursions. At the center of the schedule were the routine responsibilities of the CIR. My family visited four of my six English conversation (eikaiwa) classes, toured the town office, ate dinner with Mayor Nakamiya, and made origami with the children of Donguri Kindergarten. With incredible help from Koji Teraya and Emi Kimura (International Relations), we also managed to go sightseeing in Onuma Park and Hakodate. We played park golf, went fly-fishing in Nanae’s Ookawa River, and went bird watching in Onuma and southern Kameda. We even attended a big-band jazz concert in Hakodate’s Public Meeting Hall, and enjoyed a fabulous cooking class with my eikaiwa student, Yoko Sato.

Our final day in Nanae began with a visit to Nanae High School, where we arranged to have a special meeting with Principal Kogoshi before attending the Tea Ceremony and English clubs and the brass band rehearsal. Enthralled by the brass band’s final piece, a stellar rendition of the Super Mario medley, we barely made it to the Bunka Center before Nanae’s Vice Mayor, Shuichi Baba, began his official address to open the Mirin family potluck party. Continue reading “The Mirin Family Visits Nanae”