Thursday, August 27, 2009

Camping at Lake Tanuki

Last weekend I went camping with the teachers, managers and 22 students at Lake Tanuki by Mount Fuji. The kids, age 6 to 12ish, were really well behaved and the campsite was beautiful, but overall I'd have to say the trip was pretty odd, especially compared to camping trips I've been on.

It was supposed to be an English Camp where the kids would earn stamps for speaking English, and all of the information would be in English at least first, then Japanese. Kind of an All English, All the Time type of trip. With such young children, it's understandable that many things had to be repeated in Japanese, but after a few hours, things weren't said in English in the first place. So the only people who didn't understand what was going on at the English Camp were the English teachers. It should've been called Camping with the English Teachers instead.

We left Matsusaka before 9am on Sunday and took a bus for five hours to Lake Tanuki, stopping every hour or so for bathroom breaks. On the bus we quizzed the kids using flashcards and playing games, but that didn't last. Some kids napped which was good, and the rest were happy just talking (in Japanese) or looking out the windows. We had activity teams, each with an English teacher and a Japanese manager (four groups: A, B, C and D - I was B) that we'd stay in during the day, and so when we had a picnic lunch at a rest stop we sat in our groups and had to pick group names. My favorite suggestion in my group was that we call ourselves Team B. It was so bad it was good. After we shot her idea down, the girl then suggested, "Team A?" Another girl named my group the Stars (we were going to be the Superstars, but the boys didn't like it).

We didn't get to camp until around 3pm. Then we had to split the kids into cabin groups, get blankets, and take the luggage to the cabins. Somehow this took hours. The funny thing was, the kids were split into three cabin groups, one for boys and two for girls, and none of the cabins had adults! And though the cabins were in the same area, they weren't that close together! I thought it was odd that the children would be alone all night. The cabins were nice though, with screens so a breeze could go through and they were pretty big... all you needed was a cot or a sleeping bad and they'd've been perfect. Instead, we had two dirty orange blankets apiece. No pillows. It was a delight.

By the time things were squared away we had to start making dinner. The managers organized that because they spoke Japanese, and they put the kids to work. The girls washed the rice and the boys helped with the fire. I watched. I also slipped away to take several (hundred) pictures of Fuji San because the view from the lake was gorgeous. Apparently it's rare to have such a clear view of the mountain because it's usually hidden behind clouds but we could see it all day Sunday. Totemo utsukushii!

Once the rice was cooking the teachers finally started barbecuing the meat. The kids were starving by then and lined up holding plates, begging for food like they were in Oliver! By the time dinner was finished, it was dark and time for showers and then bed, so we were there all afternoon but didn't really play any English games or do anything besides make dinner. The kids ran around and liked being there though, so I don't think they minded.

I was sharing a cabin with Katie, the other American teacher. We are both terrified of bugs and were not so thrilled about the orange blanket situation, so when we finally went to our cabin to sleep, of course I saw the most enormous spider imagineable.

Back up. Though I said I liked the camp, and the cabins were nice enough, the bathrooms were a different story. The bathroom itself was about as bad as a normal camp bathroom, but the showers, which were in a separate building, were horrifying. One of the only two girls' showers was flooded with gross murky water, and so all the teachers used the second. You had to pay 200 yen ($2) for a five minute shower, which was fine because you couldn't possibly stand to be in there any longer. It was like a wildlife show. There were spiders and moths and it was dirty and smelly... you get the picture. Anyways, I shower, and I'm changing in the little area in front of the shower when I notice what's in there with me. Not only is there a moth over my head and a spider just inches away on the wall, but there is the most ridiculous bug on the floor in front of me. It's like a square grasshopper, and it has huge feet. It could wear shoes. If it hadn't hopped out from under my stall, I was prepared to run out into the night naked and screaming.

Which brings me back to the spider in the cabin. I see it there, hanging out on a broom in the entrance area of the cabin. I tell Katie about it. "Where is it?" she asks. "You don't want to see it. We can just pretend it isn't there," I say. "No, tell me!" "It's on that broom."

Katie looks at it, stands up, and goes "Okay... okay.... let's make a plan!"

"I can't go near it," I say.

"Okay, you go hold open the door, and then I'll throw the broom outside."

To do this, I'd have to walk past the spider. "I can't walk past the spider!" I cry.

"Would you rather be the one to pick up the broom?"

I go open the door. You exit the cabin through the entrance area and make a right out of the door onto the porch, then you make a left to go down the steps (follow me?). So if you open the door and throw the spider broom out straight, you'd land it on the porch. You have to throw it out and left to get it in the grass and away from the cabin. I'm standing as far away as I can on the porch, but in front of the door to hold it open. "Ready!" I shout.

"I can't!" Katie screams back. Meanwhile, I have the door wide open and the light is on in the cabin, so every Japanese bug imagineable is flying inside. "You have to!" I shout.

Suddenly, like in slow motion, I hear Katie pick up the broom, run towards the door, and throw the broom. It lands squarely at my feet on the porch.

Well I scream like a psychopath, jump over it as if it were a hurdle, and run back inside. Now there is a giant moth right next to my bed. At this point, I give up, Nature wins, and so I move my orange blankets over and let the moth have most of the floor. I'm done.

The rest of the night was uneventful, though I slept curled in a ball completely under my orange blanket for fear of crawling things touching me. It was also hard to sleep on the floor when I'm used to a bed. On top of this, we heard the kids talking or laughing all night long. Our cabin was the furthest from them, so I can't imagine how loud they really were. The next morning we asked the boys how many hours they slept. "Zero hours," said one boy, smiling. "Eleven minutes," said another.

We'd gotten up at 5:30 am to watch the sunrise. It's supposed to do this diamond reflection thing directly over Mount Fuji only two weeks every summer, but of course when we get to the lake it is cloudy. You can't even tell Mount Fuji is there. We, and a crowd of other disappointed photographers, wait anyways to see if the clouds will clear, and we're able to see half of the diamond effect which was cool. The kids were very good about hanging out in a field staring at clouds. Then we did exercises and ate breakfast.

This whole time the kids have been pretty much able to do whatever they want. If they weren't good kids, there was nothing to stop them from wandering away. So after breakfast, I was taking one kid to the bathroom when I pass a boy (the boy who said he slept zero hours), walking back from the main building where there are vending machines. He has this look in his eyes like, "you caught me," and he's drinking something.

Then I see: he'd bought an iced coffee! This eight year old boy is drinking iced coffee! He smiles and since I can't yell at him in Japanese, I bring him to one of the managers to yell at him for me. Funny thing was, I think he ended up being able to keep the iced coffee, or maybe he'd pretty much finished it by the time we caught him. Either way we didn't really yell at him; it was pretty funny that he went and did that in the first place.

After breakfast we cleaned up, packed, and got back on the bus to go to a nearby farm. It was a great place for families: it had playgrounds and you could pet all kinds of animals. We could only stay an hour which was a shame, but we split up into our groups again and took our kids to as much as we could. Parts of it were cool, but parts were sad. There was a rabbit room where the kids could go in and feed the rabbits or pick them up, and each bunny had a crazy wide-eyed look that said "just kill me now." The kids would shove carrots in their faces, and the bunnies would sit there, letting the kids poke them in the mouths repeatedly. It was sad.

While the bunnies had it bad because the kids could pick them up, the horses had it worse because they were tied down. People took their pictures in front of the horses and fed them, but the horses couldn't go anywhere. Maybe since it's a farm, they only have to do that a few hours a day and then they can roam around the rest of the time, but I doubt it.

The only happy animals were the medium-sized ones, like the ponies and the sheep. You could go right into a pen of sheep. The kids would walk towards the sheep, thinking, this animal looks nice! Then the sheep would see the kids and think, hey, they might have food! Cut to many sheep chasing many screaming children.

From the sheep's pen you could enter a guinea pig room. It had a giant table in the middle that held about ten guinea pigs, and the kids could feed them or pick them up. I was in there with four of my students and another family.

So all of my students are holding guinea pigs. Then someone in the sheep's pen opens the door, and suddenly there is a sheep in the guinea pig room! The kids scream and the sheep chases them around the table. They're running, all still holding guinea pigs, and the guinea pigs, who until then looked miserable, now look miserable and absolutely terrified. This parade of guinea pigs held by children chased by a sheep continues for several laps around the table. I try to herd the sheep out the door by walking behind it, but there is no one to block it from going around the table again and again. Finally, a man grabs its food bowl and lures it out that way. Only in Japan would a sheep get stuck in the guinea pig room at a petting zoo.

One other attraction at the farm that we didn't have time to do was goat walking. I thought this was hysterical. For 300 yen ($3) you could borrow a goat. It would have two leashes attached to its collar, and usually a kid would hold one leash while a parent had the other, and they'd march around the farm walking their goat. After 20 minutes you'd return it. If I'd known about it sooner, my group would totally have had a goat with us as we walked around the petting zoo. Sad things.

After the farm we went to the gift shop where the kids bought presents for their families. It was adorable. Both boys in my group bought jars of milk for their mothers (cute!) and the girls bought stuffed animals for their siblings or mothers. Then one of the boys tried to buy a hotdog. He got so far as to be handed it on a plate, when Mayu (my group's manager) caught him and took it away. Poor kid. All the kids were starving when we left the farm, and we still had to visit the waterfalls before lunch!

The Shiraito waterfalls were beautiful but uneventful. We marched the increasingly exhausted and hungry kids down to see them and then had to practically carry them back up the hill again. Afterwards, we went to lunch at a restaurant that was expecting us (the kids sat in their own separate room which I thought was odd) and then within moments of boarding the bus to go home, everyone was asleep. I've never seen so many kids passed out on a bus. My favorite was the boy who'd drunk the iced coffee. He was sitting up with his head slumped back, sleeping with his mouth wide open and snoring loudly. I have a picture of him on Facebook. He was so soundly asleep that when we stopped for a bathroom break and everyone made noise, he didn't stir.

All in all it was definitely a good trip and we were lucky the kids were so great. I would go back to the lake and the campgrounds in a heartbeat, but next time I'd bring a sleeping bag and a large can of Raid. Oh, and something has to be done about the bathrooms.

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