Thursday, December 26, 2013

Party Time! Excellent!

On a night usually spent enjoying the company of family in the warmth and hospitality of my grandparent's house, I was in Japan celebrating the end of the year with my co-workers at the annual "bounenkai" (忘年会). The Chinese characters in the word literally mean, in this order, "forget", "year", and "meeting". In other words, it's a party to forget the past year in order to ring in the new one. Since each school will have their own, assistant language teachers who teach at more than one school have a pretty busy (and expensive) couple of weeks ahead of them if they choose to go to all of them. Thankfully, I only had one for my middle school and one for my elementary school.

Popular venues for bounenkai's usually amount to large "ryokan" (旅館), or traditional Japanese
hotels. Since all schools in the immediate area hold their parties around the same time, the competition to reserve one of these places is pretty fierce. The fees per person can get pricey ranging from 5,000 - 6,000 yen and up (about 50-60 dollars). As traditional establishments, ladies dressed in kimonos greet you at the door to check your shoes (which you are required to take off) and guide you to your reserved meeting room. The room itself is a huge tatami (straw mats) room with low food trays and seat cushions lined up around the room.

There will usually be some traditional Japanese art behind the main row at the far end of the room where the higher-ups sit.

Your tray will already be loaded with food when you get there, but don't eat yet! After the bounenkai formally starts, there will be a few words from the principal. Everyone will then pour drinks for each other (never pour your own drink) for a "kampai"(乾杯), or toast. Then the eating begins.

During the 3+ hour duration of the party, kimono-clad ladies will continuously clear your dishes to make room for more and more food. It seems like a lot, but the portions tend to be small. If your drink gets low, don't worry- your neighbor will fill it up for you (and it's expected you will do the same for them).

The brown, ceramic-looking thing in the upper-right is actually a little pot set on top of a candle burner. At the start of things, the waitresses will come around and light your candle to start boiling
whatever's in the bowl on top.

Throughout the night, people will come sit in front of your tray to talk to you and fill up your glass and have their's filled in return. You'll probably hear the phrase, "What are you drinking?" about a hundred times before the night is over.

Next order of business is some sort of presentation of the year's top ten "big news" items. These can range from huge victories at competitions to recent marriages to snakes being found in the school entrance (unfortunately, I didn't get to see said snake...). A person related to each news item will make a short speech and recieve a small gift.

After another brief pause for socializing, a series of games begin. People are divided into teams depending on where you sit and either entire teams participate or select a member for each round.
Games can be just about anything, but here are the ones I got to play:

Hirasawa Elementary School Bounenkai:

Bingo- self-explanitory. Each bingo you got earned points for your team.

心の一つ (kokoro no hitotsu/ "one heart") Each team recieves a laminated piece of paper and a marker. The MC will name something and end it with ~と言えば (...toh iebah/"Speaking of..."). For example, they might say, "speaking of mom's home cooking" or "speaking of sushi filling". Then each team member must write down an example of or something related to the theme without looking at each other's answers. When they've finished, the team will line up in a row facing the audience and reveal their answers at the same time. The team will then recieve points based on how many answers are the same. In other words, the team must become "one heart".

Nikaho Junior High School Bounenkai:

一流 (ichiryuu/"high-end" or "top rank") Each team selects a member to participate each round (we had four rounds). In each round, the participants are given two of the same food or beverage samples. However, one will be a generic brand and the other will be a fancy, high-end brand and each participant must guess which is which.

Gesture Roulette- pretty self-explanitory except when a gesture is guessed correctly, the gesturing person goes to the back of the line and the person at the front does the next gesture. Try to guess as many gestures as a team in one minute. This can get pretty silly with alcohol consumption (which there was plenty).

J-Song (Japanese song) Each group selects a singer who will recieve a list of songs to sing the melodies to (lyrics not required). The group must guess as many songs as they can within a time limit.

For some reason I didn't pick up, one team got penalized and each member had to recite a Japanese tongue twister. My JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) got "Boku Bobu"- literally "I'm Bob."

After all games have been played, points are tallied up and groups come up to receive their prizes. Everyone gets a prize; the games just denote who gets first pick.

If the reserved time is up, then closing words are spoken and the party comes to an end. Usually there will be a 二次会 (nijikai/ literally a "second meeting"). These after-parties are optional and usually have karaoke involved. People take taxis there and back.

While expensive, I think it's well worth the food, hospitality, and activities. You'll also get to interact with your co-workers in ways you can't in the everyday workplace. Japan being Japan, teachers work insane hours and are busy people. It's no wonder why they take the time to drink and unwind from a busy year and celebrate their accomplishments. ALT's, don't miss this opportunity to participate in a part of Japanese culture rarely seen by anyone else.

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