Festival immerses regional students in Japanese culture

March 13, 2012

By Tom Corrigan

Students learn the basics of traditional Japanese drumming. By Tom Corrigan

The idea was to allow participants to immerse themselves, at least for one day, in the culture and language of Japan, Liberty High School Japanese language teacher Matthew Harvey said.

About 100 students from the Issaquah School District and other districts as well showed up March 3 for a daylong festival of Japanese culture held at Liberty.

Students attended classes that included Japanese drumming, martial arts, calligraphy, cooking and a demonstration of a traditional tea ceremony.

“It’s just been a fun event,” said Issaquah High School student Jack Gentsch, 17.

He’s been taking Japanese language classes for a few years and said he felt the day would be a good opportunity to learn more about the Japanese culture.

Those language classes undoubtedly came in handy during the Liberty event that was conducted almost exclusively in Japanese, right down to the printed program and the directional signs on the school walls. Gentsch said that, luckily, he understood enough to get by for the day.

For his first class, he joined about 20 other students to learn the fundamentals of Japanese drumming, courtesy of Seattle Matsuri Taiko. Using taiko drums, students were taught to drum in unison, yell at certain times, and use the top and sides of the drums. Taiko drumming is used at various festivals and traditionally accompanied dramatic presentations, said Donna Zumoto, who led the taiko class.

“We like it for the energy of the drumming,” she added.

Down the hallway from the taiko class, costumed volunteers sat shoeless on a classroom floor waiting for tea. They were following a protocol that is at least 400 years old, said event volunteer Ide Yatsuuye Woo, who had a son attending the event. During a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, the specific ground tea used is somewhat bitter, Woo added, which is why those in the ceremony first received a bit of candy or pastry.

For at least the morning classes, a room off Liberty’s gym was transformed into a space for martial arts. First up was a class in kendo Japanese fencing, put on by Seattle Kendo Kai.

Using large wooden fencing sticks, students learned some basic kendo fencing poses and training methods. A line of students held out sticks for attack by others who moved down the line in a specific manner. When instructors moved down the line at the end of the class, they were just a tad smoother than their charges, virtually gliding across the floor and earning the appreciation of the watching students.

“It comes from years and years of practice,” Kendo Kai’s Steve Guidi said.

Students and instructors were barefoot in keeping with tradition, instructor Nao Aki Tanimura said. Ancient fighters wore sandals that mimicked being barefoot, he added. Further, Japanese tradition holds that you don’t wear shoes indoors and that is where most kendo training takes place.

For the second martial arts session, instructor Hiroshi Onaka lined up about 20 barefoot students in order to teach them the basics of Shorinji Kempo, a specific type of martial art. The students learned some basic poses.

“The cultural immersion is nice,” said Issaquah High student Jack Wheeler, 16.

Like Gentsch, Wheeler has been studying the Japanese language for a few years. He’s even considered spending some time in Japan after high school.

“It’s very nice to have this opportunity,” he said of the cultural event.

Harvey said the event, the first of its kind, took months to plan. He went so far as to earn what he called a substantial grant from the Japanese consulate office in Seattle. The hope is to make the Japanese immersion camp an annual experience, held in a different school district each year. Overall, Harvey said he was happy with the way the inaugural camp played out.

“There were a few hiccups, this being the first time doing something like this, but it was awesome,” he said.

Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or tcorrigan@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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