Life in a Japanese School
By Maiko Covington

Date: Thu, 28 Mar 1991 22:22:53 GMT

Hello, this is Maiko Covington again to say more about Japanese schools. This time I am going to talk about an 'event' that only happens once in a while - the field trip, or 'ensoku'. Once again I offer my standard disclaimer: I have had no training whatsoever in psychology or related fields, so all opinions posted here are strictly my own. Happy reading!

About every couple of months or so, there is an ensoku. Ensoku literally means 'far feet', and often (especially in elementary school) ensoku are actually 'field trips', involving hiking.

The first (and a big) part of ensoku is the preparation. On ensoku, you are supposed to bring your lunch (again, a cute plastic box full of rice and vegetables, or maybe some onigiri (rice balls). On this day, everyone gets their mother to make a lunch they especially like), a thermos full of something to drink, and perhaps the most important thing, some 'okasi', or treats. Picking the okasi you will take is the major part of preparing for ensoku. See, the teacher sets some price, say 500 yen, and you have to stay under that limit. So, everyone tries to get the most candy possible for that price. On the day before an ensoku, the discount groceries are packed with people trying to get the most for their money. There is a certain way to pick what to take. First, you want to get something cheap and large and liked by everyone. Usually this ends up being some sort of chip. This is for trading. Then, you get some thing that you really like, and with the rest of the money you try to get as many small candies as possible.

One option that is really popular is the 'hundred yen bag'. These are little bags that are 100 yen no matter how much candy you put in it. They are clear plastic, usually around 20 cm by 10 or so. So, you stretch this bag as much as possible before putting anything in it, and then as you put each item in, you press it as far as it can go into the corner of the bag, and generally cram it all in to save space. You have to be able to close the bag, which closes like a 'ziplock' bag. Sometimes the bag will break when you try to fill it, and then you have to start over. You don't have to pay for empty broken bags. When your bag is finally full to the way you want it, you go to the register hoping it won't break on the way there. The reason you go to a bargain grocery like Daiei or Maruetu is that at those places stuff that is usually 100 yen is use (oops) usually 84 yen or so, and you can more for your 500 yen. The cheap places are usually well known to all and get really crowded.

The next thing you have to get is your thermos. The most popular things to bring are mugi-tya and 'carupisu', which is a sort of sweet carbonated milk drink. You know how to make tea, right? Well, the carupis is similar - it comes in a bottle of thick syrup to which you have to add water. For any drink you bring, you have to make it more 'koi' or thick than usual, because you put ice in it. Before drinking it, you shake it up well to mix it. All these thermos are like the lunch stuff I explained in the first post - cute, with pictures of anime characters and such on it. Lots of people pack all this stuff in cute little bags, also with anime characters on it.

Another important thing is deciding where you are going to sit on the bus. Just about every ensoku, you go to the place by bus. Just like the seating charts in the classroom, this is usually decided by drawing numbers out of a hat or some such method. Where you sit is important - you want to be near your friends so you can trade your carefully selected okasi and gossip. You don't want to be next to anyone who gets remotely bus sick. On ensoku, you have to wear your school uniform. If you are in elementary school, you probably don't have a uniform, but you have to wear your school hat and the name tag that pins to your sweater. On some ensoku (like the hiking ones) you have to wear your gym suit. If any of you have been to Japan, I am sure you have run into the hordes of uniformed children at places like temples etc. That's ensoku!

Before ensoku, the teachers usually will check your uniform strictly to make sure you aren't wearing anything that is against school rules. I got into big trouble here once - it was high school second year, before we were to go on the week-long "syuugaku ryokoo" (I'll explain about that later). Because it was winter, we had to wear the winter uniform, which was a dark blue pleated skirt (oops, I meant third year - gomen ne), same color vest, same color blazer, and a white shirt. Well, one of the teachers who I didn't like too much to begin with remarked in a condescending voice, "From the back it looks like you dyed your hair." This is true; in winter uniform you don't see much skin, so from the back the only thing that looked not-Japanese about me was my mousy brown hair. Well, I made another bad judgement and shot back, "Well, what do you want me to do, dye it black?" Oh, I got in trouble for that one... more sitting on the knees in the hall - ow. They also make sure that you wear your hair according to school rules, although lots of people change it once they get on the bus and get yelled at later. Let's face it, most people don't like to wear 2 ponytails in high school.

The places and activities on ensoku are all supposed to have some sort of educational value. In the lower grades this can be just a hike in the woods to gather seeds, and you study them in science when you get back. Usually after an ensoku you have to write an essay about what you did in kokugo class when you get back. In elementary school we sometimes get together and make a 'newspaper' about the activities or some sort of group project like that, but by high school you usually have to write something about what you saw, and how it relates to history, or maybe something about people you saw and how they represent Japanese people, you know, more 'term paper' type stuff. Elementary school children often go to places like planetariums and zoo as well. You can tell them because they all wear matching hats and carry cute little backpacks with their supplies in it. Junior high and high school students go to places like museums, temples (oh, if I see another temple I will just...), places of historical battles or events, castles, and the peace memorial. Everyone is supposed to visit either the Nagasaki or Hirosima peace memorial before they graduate. Usually this is done on the syuugaku ryokoo.

At all of these places, either the teacher or a tour guide provided by the attraction leads you around and gives a talk on the significance of the place. Mostly we listen with half an ear, and get into groups of friends and talk. Actually, more fun than the trip itself is the bus trip, where you get to sit with friends and eat lots of okasi, and trade okasi so you get lots of different kinds. Lunch is a big deal too for the same reason. The main prohibition on these trips was: no walkmans allowed. See, sometimes there is a talk given on the bus too, and they want us to listen to it. Often in the upper grades, like high school, on the bus trip back you get to do karaoke on the bus. That was always fun.. except once on my high school syuugaku ryokoo when a demented tour guide thought it was cool that I was American, and made me sing the "Star Spangled Banner" without music... ^_^ The buses you use for long trips like syuugaku ryokou are tour bus type, and a lot of them have the karaoke system built in. Often the bus guide (if there is one) will make us learn traditional songs from whatever area we are in. These are invariably enka type stuff, and are exceedingly hard to sing.

Once at the place we are going to, some of the things we do (as I started to say before - gomen) are look at the people from other schools, talk, go to the 'baiten' (gift shop), and mainly TAKE LOTS AND LOTS OF PICTURES. Mostly we take pictures of our friends. Since you obviously can't take a picture with yourself in it, when we get the pictures developed, we put them all in albums, and pass these around to the whole class. People who want a print write their name beside the picture they want. Most camera stores have something like yakimasi (prints) 30-40 yen each (or at least, in '88 they did!). These pictures become real conversation pieces, with people shrieking, "oh, look at that one! My face..." or "oh, look at Ya-chan!" etc etc... Lots of inside jokes originate with these pictures.

At the baiten, we often buy keychains or something like that that say the name of the place on it. These are sold at every attraction. Often they are metal keychains or "mascot" with the name imprinted there, and cute little characters on it. These we put on our schoolbags when we get back. If it's a temple, often we buy "gakugyou omamori", which are "study/work amulets". These always say the name of the temple you bought it at on it. These are also put on the schoolbag, but are a little more serious. Also, whenever you go on a trip, Japanese custom is that you have to get 'omiyage' for your family who didn't go. On ensoku too people buy omiyage a lot. Usually this is food from the area you went to, or a tea cup, or maybe ear cleaners, or something like that. Also we buy a food (like mochi, or maybe takoyaki) there to eat ourselves, if we are allowed to. One other thing we do if it is a temple or some such with high stairs: always we count the stairs. Sometimes there are as many as 250 or more, and when we get to the top we see if we all got the same number. Often people will call out the numbers as they climb - "nihyakusanjyuu! nihyakusanjyuuiti!" etc.

Everywhere you go there is usually these wooden markers saying what everything is, and we read those out loud too. Sometimes we laugh at them. Often there is a garden too, and we always have to in there, mostly for the teachers' benefit. If there are carp, we feed them. Another thing: often lots of the old temples or castles we go to look like they could have ghosts, and sometimes we try to scare each other. One thing that usually happened if there was a tour guide was that the tour guide would try to read everyone's names (she would have a copy of the bus seating chart to take attendance). See, some people have strange kanji which are hard to read, or that can be read more than one way. I always loved it when the tour guide would try to read my name and usually not make it. 'Maiko' was no problem - it's Japanese. But 'Covington' caused trouble. In Japanese I write it in katakana (ew!) 'Kobinguton', which is six kanas, and most people couldn't read it. I mean, Americans often can't say Japanese or Vietnamese names even when they're written in "English" letters, right? Same thing like that.

Sometimes I would get irritated when we went to a big temple with lots of American tourists, because they would start taking my picture and saying in SLOW, LOUD English, "Do you underSTAND ME??" and then to their companion, fast, "hey, come look at this" and then stuff like "are you JapaNESE??? How come you speak JapaNESE?? Do you understand ENGlish??" or else they would ask for directions, like, "Can you tell me where the TRAIN station is?? TRAIN STAtion." Some people were cool though, and treated me like a normal person, and then my friends would gather around to hear me speak English and gasp (in Japanese of course), "Oh, your English is SO good! How come?? You're so lucky..." etc. etc. That was okay though. Sometimes they would spot a white tourist, push me up to talk to him or her, and then it would turn out the tourist was French or something and I'd have to explain... Another thing that sometimes happened was people from other schools would want to take their picture with me. I kinda felt like a celebrity, but sometimes it would make me late for going with my group. Also I don't like being treated as an object...

If you are planning to be an American tourist, I have this advice. If you come upon an ensoku group, try out your Japanese on the students. They'll love it. They will also call their friends over and start a fuss, though. I think in general if you want to strike up a conversation with a Japanese on the street anywhere, even if you are planning to talk in English, start up the conversation with a bit of Japanese, even if it's just "konniti ha". They will appreciate it, and it will relax them a bit. If you just start off in English, most people I think will get all nervous that their English isn't good and shy away. Well, that's ensoku... I'll explain about the big ensoku "syuugaku ryokou" in a future post, if you'd like to hear... Here is one type of ensoku we had often though:

Those "Gaijin Parties"
There is an international federation called UNESCO (I forget what it stands for, but maybe it was something like UN educational and science something or other). They have an office in Tokyo, and several times a year they would hold a party for all the foreigners living in Tokyo. Remember I said I was in the English club? Well, the English teacher running the club took advantage of this fact, and made us all go to these parties. See, although I didn't live in Tokyo, my high school was within the city limit, and so we went. Mostly there was just lots of potluck type food, and people would just sit around talking. Well, as an assignment, we had to write out these lists of questions and ask them to five people in English, and record their replies. I used to hate doing this because I could ask people questions just fine on my own without a sheet of paper telling me what to say, but I was made to do the paper thing anyway. I remember once we ran into this one lady in a fur coat who said she used to be a hand model in Osaka, and she took away my friend Yuki's paper and started reading it aloud and laughing in a big voice... Also she started petting (yes, petting) me on the head and saying how "Japanese girls have such soft hair", and I kept trying to tell her I was American.. that was pretty lame. Most of the people were interesting though, and would have pretty fun conversations.

I hope you enjoyed reading this long article... Any comments or questions you have should be sent to my e-mail at
Thank you very much.

Maiko Covington

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Additional Info:
Life in A Japanese School By Maiko Covington.
Her text has remained true to her original posting. The overall title of this section was chosen to best represent her articles rather than "My High School Days" as originally titled by Maiko-san. Her articles were originally posted and may be found here: My High School Days. You may reach her at the this email: as email in article is old and defunct.

She has been asked if she will write some more of these and her answer is, "The answer to that question is, not likely in the near future. The events in those posts occurred more than 10 years ago now, and I honestly don't think I could get myself into the same frame of mind."