Dick Jokes and Pumpkin Carving   Leave a comment

 

I’m dressed as a spade, and I’m sprinting up a hill. Behind me, four small Japanese boys scream “Ashi hayai ne!!!”  (he runs so fast!) I crest the hill, and in front of me, is an army of little Japanese kids dressed like witches, goblins and ninjas. Giggling and screaming, they dart from place to place, in search of candy. The four boys behind me catch up, huffing and puffing. They point towards a thick grove of trees fifty feet away and we start running again, navigating between little bodies and screaming voices.

 

I’m a counselor at the annual Mikkabi Youth center Halloween camp.

 

Mikkbai is a quiet town about an hour from Hamamatsu by train. The vista I received after stepping off the train was exquisite. In the near distance I saw green rolling hills and fields of tall, dark grass. The surrounding had a panoply of plants and colours. The train station had a quaint touch; it was small and built of wood, and doubled as a bakery. The place immediately made me feel calm and relaxed.

 “From what I heard last time, the camp was a nightmare.”

Another ALT had told me this at a bar after a few drinks three weeks ago. At the time I hadn’t planned to go, and paid it no mind. But I had no apprehensions about doing the camp. At some points, I had envisioned a huge log cabin filled with wild young Japanese kids, screaming at the counselors and wreaking havoc. It wasn’t anything like that.

 

“This reminds me of Jamaica.” I said to Emma, another counselor. I ran into her at the station and we took the train up to Mikkabi together.

“Really? Why?” she replied.

“Well I realized something when I traveled to Osaka a few weeks ago. I noticed that when I got there I felt very calm and secure, but I wasn’t sure why. The Japanese people hadn’t changed, and nothing was horribly different but then I realized that in the distance I could see mountains. Then I said to myself, wow, I grew up for most of my life seeing mountains wherever I went. I even live in a community in the hills overlooking Kingston.”

 

My spiel revealed something else to me I didn’t realize either. Living in a foreign country has certain demands, which are mostly mental after you get adjusted to your work environment. Trying to escape for many people involves engaging in various activites to keep busy, but its not always garaunteed to make you feel that good.
For me I discovered that I had an escape. I just needed to find a place with hills.

 

The youth center was a large modern building that felt like a hotel. We were greeted by staff and a few volunteer high school students. Upstairs was a meeting room with several other counselors, mostly twenty somethings that lived in different parts of the Shizuoka prefecture. It was funny to see so many foreigners in one place. It had been weeks since I spoke much that English on a Saturday during the day.

 

As I sat there, watching the groups interact with each other, I got sudden flashes of the past from living in America and Jamaica; the fleeting glimpses of those memories a quiet echo of my western culture.

 

My charges were four young boys, whom I met at lunch. Kyoko, one of the founders of the event, explained to the children what the events would be. As we started singing songs and playing with the children, I felt more like the sensei  I had become.

 

Watching grown people play with children is always a little weird. In our adult lives we rarely do exaggerated things unless we are drunk or engaging in specific physical activities. Seeing tall young men and women running after little children, making smiling faces and gesturing wildly with their hands was interesting. In a way, I was looking at these people being parents, or practicing. I was seeing how humans are, and how our roles interlink from place to place. Our charges for the weekend were our kids, and we had to watch them and protect them, make them happy and not get exhausted in the process.

 

“Yes we can! Yes we can!” everyone chants after singing a halloween song. Outside, the sky is a cool gray, and the sea is near motionless save a lone boat sliding across its surface. In a gymnasium with one hundred and forty children, twenty counselors and another twenty staff, I feel quiet and at peace.

 

We do some early trick or treating and I change my costume three times before I decide on what I’m going to be, which is a Spade from a deck of cards. My guys are all dressed as a certain Japanese wizard, the name of whom I can’t recall. As night falls and Iget used to the routine of watching my group and playing with them, I learn about the people around me in soft sprinkles of information. The counselors are mostly from America and Canada with a couple Scots and English people tossed in for good measure. I am one of two Jamaicans in residence, which is pretty cool.

 

Later we make Jack-o-laterns. I’ve never carved a pumpkin before, and I take make sure to design the perfect pumpkin for my guys. Yutaro, a small, wide-eyed child with a man’s confidence is fiercely debating how we’ll make the eyes.

“Let’s use this stencil.” One of them says to me in Japanese, pointing at a stencil book.

The image is a frightening pair of eyes and a grisly smile.

“No, we need an original design.” Yutaro retorts, and they eventually decide on eyes that are shaped like Stars.

I’m proud of the finished product and so are my charges. They happily smear fake blood on the Jack-o-latern and disappear to their rooms before we head back to the gymnasium for some more games.

 

By the time the kids go to bed we get some good news. A local hotel, called the Ryokan will be where we sleep. One of the event managers knows the hotel very well; her family owns it. We walk down a quiet street that opens into a wide view of an inland lake. In the distance like a burst of colour, are the spinning lights of a ferris wheel. It’s chilly, and I made small talk with a girl from California, practicing my horrible Spanish.

 

At the Ryokan, the natural progression of events leads to drinking. We all sit in a large room, chugging beers and playing drinking games. As things start to wind down, everyone for some reason starts speaking about names.

“How do you get ‘bob’ from Robert?” someone says.

“How do you get ‘Bill’ from William?” a female voice chimes in.

“How do you get ‘Dick’ from Richard?” a guy name Mike says to me.

I pause, then I respond: “How do YOU get dick from Richard?”

Everyone laughs and this becomes a running gag for the remainder of the camp. The next morning, I wake up to the sound of my phone alarm. Ben, an English guy sleeping in the room with myself and two other guys, groans.

“It’s cold. It sucks” he says from underneath the blanket.

I stumble over to the window, which gives an amazing panoramic view of the lake in the morning. We stand there, the three of us, in our underwear for all of thirty seconds. “Time to go.” I say, rubbing my arms to keep warm. I slip on a sweater, grab my bag and prepare to head out. Ben, still putting his clothes on mentions something.

“I had a friend named Richard.” he said. “He never liked the nickname Dick. It really bothered him.”

“You mean Richard didn’t like Dick?” I said.

Ben laughed.

“I walked right into that one.” he said with a smile.

 

 

The day is a whirlwind of activity including a campfire, toasting marshmallows and trick-or-treating; all things I have never done. As the day progresses, the sun breaks through the gray bank of clouds shadowing the city and it gets warm. The kids feed on this weather with rabid enthusiasm. The day becomes a melee of running, Frisbee throwing and field games.

 

As the event comes to a close and we stand in a line to take pictures with our groups, two small Japanese girls standing in front of me ask to touch my hair.

“Cool!” they say to each other.

I respond to them in Japanese and they proceed to pepper me with questions, tickle me and teach me Japanese words like “bag”, “shoe” and “glasses”.

 

The camp feels like it ended a little quickly. I enjoyed my spirited conversations in Japanese with the energetic little boys, and barking their names whenever they got into mischief. I take a picture with the mother of Ritsuki, the tallest of the group, and she thanks me profusely for showing them a good time. I wave goodbye to Koki, the most shy of the group. Shintaro, Yutaro’s twin brother, gives me a happy high five before he runs to his mother. As they each go back to their parents and start walking away I smile. It feels good.

 

Kyoko’s house is both a school and a residence. It is clean, spacious and has a small back yard. The deck oversees train tracks and hills in the distance. The counselors eat sushi, chips and drink beers while occasionally singing along to popular songs (A counselor named Kat could play the guitar). I was horribly comfortable, singing along to Oasis, trying to play a Bob Marley song in between drinking and snacking on food. The high school students who helped out with the event were in residence too, chatting with each other and occasionally interacting with the counselors.

 

Watching the high school students help over the weekend was like taking a hot bath in Japanese culture. If you didn’t know beforehand they were students, you would think they were employees of the Mikkabi youth center. They did every duty diligently, everything was on time and no one had a sad face.

 

Before I went home I took one last look at the brown hills in the distance, looking at the tall trees which dotted their surface, and the undulating patterns and bumps along their breadth. There I was, standing on a deck in a far off place, and a sharp feeling of familiarity hit me which made me smile, even though I was nowhere near home. Happy Halloween.

 

 

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