AIU Festival–Fun, but Exhausting

The AIU Festival has been finished for two weeks.  It was a whirlwind of events, and (a little surprisingly) it lived up to expectations.  All the hard work that the students put in payed off and to be honest the festival was much better excuted than its American conterparts.

I spent Saturday watching a few friends rehearse and getting a start on my homework before I headed to the dormitory kitchen to help out the Czech students.  There are only two Czech students on campus so they needed all the help they could get to run their booth.  We spent the evening making signs, cabbage stew, and bramborakMy job was blending the potatoes, which meant that I spent a lot of time kneeling on the floor over a blender.  (Hooray for student cooking!)  The bramborak, which were full of garlic and just a little chicken, were delicious, and we gave out samples to a lot of the international students.  Everyone loved them, and I’m hoping to cook them this winter as comfort food because that’s truely what they are.

Preparations and paper-cutting went on late into the night.  I started hearing people say “otsukare” (~”you must be tired”) around 3 p.m.  Usually this is reserved for late at night or after work, so it was easy to see that everyone was tired from working long hours.

The first day of the festival dawned cloud and rainy.  My friends and I wrapped up all our new signs in plastic wrap before hanging them out in the rain.  After that, I wandered the festival for a while, looking at all the vendors and rooms that had been set up.  When the food began running low in the afternoon, I helped out again with peeling potatoes and garlic.  Because we got so far behind (everyone really loved them) we even had a few volunteers who came and helped.  A few parents brought their kids and helped us peel the vegetables.  Later on, they got to try the first pieces of the new batch for all their help.

One thing I loved about the festival was that it was a chance to see Japanese people who were excited to see us.  Many students travel there to look at the university, and for people nearby I think it’s a fun local event.  One of the men who helped us with the potatoes said that he had come from Sendai (the next prefecture over).  L’s grandparents came for the entire weekend to watch her.  I’ve done a bit of traveling in Japan, and often times people are a bit wary of foreigners–they don’t understand us well, or they think we look funny.  But in this case, everyone was eager to talk and interact.  Also, people dressed to the nines!  Lots of students were in costume (a bear to sell fried bananas(?), zombies for the zombie room, halloween costumes for the kid’s halloween room), and there was also a lot of tradition dress and lolita outfits walking around.  It was great to see.

A Korean girl from one of my classes wearing a hanbok.

The second day was more exciting because that’s when the majority of the performances took place.  The sun was out bright and early and everyone was ready to go!  I helped out at the Czech stall again, but first we had a mandatory break to watch the EAP performances.  All the freshmen at AIU have to complete a set of English (something) Profieciency classes.  At the festival, they celebrate the end of these classes by creating a class performance.  (This is part of why my roommate didn’t sleep in September.)  One of my favourite groups did a skit about a Japanese girl introducing her American boyfriend to her father, after which they broke into a song from Hairspray.  They ended up getting second place in the competition.  One of my other favourites was my friend L’s group.  They created a scene with no words but sounds from pots, pans, and utensils that turned into a song.  It was fantasic!-and really challenging because it required them to work together to get the choreography just right.  Unfortunately, they didn’t place at all.  My roommate’s group won first place with a scene that intertwined Japanese calligraphy with English words.

After that I made bramborak for the rest of the morning.  I had a break for a kimchi (Korean) pancake, and some ice cream, and then at 2:30 I left for good.  First stop: watch Good Morning Toast, my friends’ new band, on stage.  They were pretty good!  I also got to see a few of the other bands on campus–very cool.  Afterwards, we all headed outside to watch another group of friends (^and the girl in front) do a swing dance number that the crowd loved.  They were followed up by the school’s dance club (all four sections of it).

The evening didn’t exactly wind down after that, but it did change direction.  The next performance was called “Namahage Drumming.” (nah-mah-ha-gay)  Drumming is an old part of Japanese culture and it has a lot of ritual and tradition that goes along with it.  As for the namahage, they are the resident boogey-man of the Akita region.  They are meant to come and scare bad fortune out of houses in the winter time.  They also scare children (kids who don’t work hard enough or ‘t behave well enough might be carried off into the mountains!) . The performance started with two people drumming, while three namahage danced, drummed, and then ran off into the crowd to do their job.  They had some fun growling at the international students, but they definitely made the little girl behind me cry, not to mention quite a few others.  At least in Akita, things that go bump in the night are still scary….   After that the three drummers returned without their costumes and began drumming.  They were really phenomenal.  The drums they use reverberate in your chest and your bones, and the drummers have very stylised, iconic arm movements.  Combined, it’s easy to imagine how menacing they could have been in the time of feudal Japan when they would have been used on a battlefield.

The last performance before the competition results and a student film was presented by the kanto group on campus.  Kanto refers to the eastern/northern region of Japan and it’s traditions.  The men carry out a large framework full of lighted lanterns.  While a group plays music  in the background, the participants raise the framework up into the air (it’s at least 20 feet tall).  Then things start to get exciting.  The crowd starts up a call and response chant with performers, and one by one the men add 4 ft staves to
the base, while balancing the entire apparatus.  As if this weren’t enough, the men aren’t simply holding the lanterns in their hands, they balance the posts on their palms, shoulders, backs, and heads.  And when they’ve really achieved something, they show their skill by opening a large fan in one hand.  And if they’re absolutely amazing, they next open a parasol in the other.

It’s incredible to watch them do this.  I was a little worried at first because soon after they got the lanterns into the air, one crashed into the building right in front of me.  (Fortunately it was just a mass of paper lanterns with lit candles falling into some crowded steps… …. )   But after that team got under control the performance was really amazing.  And one guy did manage to open a fan and a parasol while balancing it on his shoulder.

AIU Festival was a ton of fun.  I was really proud of my friends–everyone’s hard work paid off, and it was awesome to have a weekend of junkfood.  And I’m really glad I got to see the namahage and kanto performances because they really reminded me why I love Japan, even though I’m not always sure what I’m doing here.

Japanese word of the day:  otsukare-sama deshita / おつかれさまでした   (oat-scar-ray-sa-ma-desh-ta)  formal phrase, said to persons leaving work, or seen at the end of a long day.  Between friends: otsukare.  Often replied to with “Arigatou/Thank you”.

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