The Undōkai (Explained by a New ALT)

“So, Karen-sensei, how does this compare to Sports Days in America?”

A coworker asked this question as we watched groups of students racing to snag bags of bread hanging from a pole above the track using only their teeth, then sprinting to the finish line.

“Um… even if we had high school Sports Day in the US, there could be no comparison.” I replied.


One of my students designed this awesome cover for the schedule of events

The week leading up to Halloween was occupied by a string of Sports Festivals (otherwise known as undōkais) in three of my five schools, as well as a two-day Culture Festival in one of my other schools. Needless to say it was a pretty crazy week. And amidst all the fun and games, I found myself, at times, to be terribly confused by what was happening. I was expecting relay races and tug-of-war and maybe some basketball or soccer games, but… I was not expecting bread or battles.

The first thing that happened at each of my schools? An opening ceremony with lots of speeches. I really shouldn’t have been surprised by that.

After the speeches, a student (or three) would stand on the podium. High-energy pop songs were blasted through speakers and the next thing I knew, all the students (and half the teachers) were going through a series of stretches that seemingly everyone except me were familiar with. (I just stood in the back and tried to copy what they were doing.

Then came the races. The very first race  of my very first undōkai was the aforementioned bread race (the beginning of which featured students diving under hurdles and kicking two soccer balls duck-taped together for 100 meters, so all-around hilarious to watch).

Another race featured description cards where the participating students would have to pull someone from the crowd who matched the card (ie “Someone who wears glasses,”) into the race, and the two of them would run together, carrying/dragging a sack full of sand to the finish line. This one was even more fun to watch, because while some of the description cards were pretty tame, others were a little bolder (I later found out there was a “Someone you have a crush on” card. Hence I learned why some of the students pulled from the crowd led to a burst of cheers).

By far the most anticipated event of the day, though, was the Cavalry Battle (which was only held at one of my schools).

Cavalry Battle

For the sake of making explanation easier, I added a visual. However, the above photo is NOT my photo, and those are NOT my students. As a safety and privacy precaution, I will not include any of my students in my blog. Anyway, each team in the Cavalry Battle consists of 3 “horses” and 1 “rider,” and the riders fight it out to the death to either knock the other rider off their horses, or to grab the other rider’s team headband, thus earning a point.

As the battle played out in front of me, I just wondered how fast lawsuits would be filed if Cavalry Battles were part of American Sports Days. Fifteen teams of high school boys running around, kicking up dust, tackling their classmates in midair and wrestling them to the ground for the sake of a point in their team’s favor…

Despite the risk of injury, it was the highlight of the day for everyone watching and participating.

I will note that the Cavalry Battle was reserved for male students; female students had their own water-balloon race and then rushed over to play spectator to the fights.

Of course, not all events at Japanese Sports Days are so novel as the Cavalry Battle or what I’ve dubbed the “Bread Race.” There were classic relay races and three-legged races and  tug-of-war events, too. But in between these normal events came races where students had to pop balloons by sitting on them… or twists like “8-legged races.” All the undōkais I attended really kept me on my toes, wondering what they could possibly do next.

The fun and games weren’t only for the students, though: there were plenty of opportunities for teachers to exert some energy, especially at my Halloween undōkai. That school is much smaller than my other schools, so us teachers had our own team competing in nearly every event. I participated in the 10-person jump rope challenge (where we never made it past 14 consecutive jumps before someone’s feet caught the rope) and the plain-and-simple relay race (where the P.E. teachers really shone, rocketing us from 5th to 2nd place).

While some events at the undōkais puzzled me a little bit, it was honestly a very enjoyable — and, at times, amusing — experience. I personally liked not knowing what exactly was coming and trying to figure it out as the races unfolded. I liked the novelty of the events, the playful competition in the air, and the effort exerted by my normally-sleepy students. I really loved seeing them so happy and so alive, even if they all dragged their feet a bit in the beginning.

I probably didn’t explain everything accurately, and I probably missed a lot of details, but here you have it: the events of a few small-town undōkais from a relatively rookie perspective.


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