A giant painting greeted me at the school gates last Saturday: green dragon, blue tiger, and red hawk for the senior (Grade 3), junior (Grade 2), and froshmore (Grade 1) classes. The students impressed, in their color-coded jerseys and seamless choreography, as they fought the sun to compete on the annual Sports Day.
Ignorant of the schedule, I missed the opening ceremony (a combination of patriotic singing and coordinated warm-ups, if the closing ceremony gave anything to go by) but arrived in time for the opening sprints. Every year, it seems, students fall prey to the heat and dehydration, and that day was no exception. Besides a respectful silence, no one seemed unduly concerned when an ambulance arrived to ferry a fainted runner away.
The schedule mixed eclectic and traditional events to break up the intensity of typical field exercises. An obstacle course relay featured hoops to shimmy through, a net to crawl under, car tires to roll, and puzzles to solve with pen and paper before the final dash. The youngest students triumphed at tug-of-war, beating their elders handily. Then came an island special: hauling a 25kg bundle of dried sugar cane around the cones.
Before we broke for lunch, each class performed. Grade 1 hiliarated us with a bamboo trunk relay, where a team of five pivoted fiercely first one way then the other around traffic cones before staggering back to hand off their burden. More than one runner hit the dirt, but they all sprang up to rejoin the race, undaunted.
Grade 2 outdid everyone with a performance of eisa, an island drum dance, complete with costumes and one song performed on traditional instruments: a kind of snakeskin-bound lute. Grade 3 rounded off the occasion with an adorably awkward couple dance.
After a luxuriously long break for lunch, thanks to events running well ahead of the timetable, we reconvened for more light-hearted events. The students paraded in their club uniforms, an impressive array from the colorfully attired modern sports to traditionally-outfitted disciplines including karate, kendo, and kyudu (Japanese archery). They then faced off in another relay, where baseball and soccer outstripped everyone in a fierce battle to the finish.
To my surprise, I found myself roped in to participating in the parent vs teacher tug of war! Later a teacher confided that the parents should have allowed us to win at least once in the best two-of-three bout, but they were ruthless in claiming victory over the mainlanders. I can only confirm the rumors about Japanese competition culture: ties are preferred.
After declaring the youngest students the victors, we all retired gratefully from the field – ready for a rest after a exhilarating but exhausting day in the sun.