Campfire Stories from Japan


Back, now, from the summer camp I was trying to prepare for last week when the humidity locked me inside. It’s been blissfully rainy and cool for the past couple of days, which means the door now opens easily and I take advantage of it to the fullest, sometimes swinging it open and shut simply because I can. On the day I left for summer camp, I needed Sean to wake from his peaceful slumber and wrench the door open for me. Neither of us were particularly happy about it: he, disgruntled to be woken before his usual princely hour of 2 p.m. and I, dreading going out to the summer camp in the first place.

The summer camp: an extremely lucrative extension of my company’s English for Tots program. I first signed up for it out of love for my own memories of summer camp but also before I was officially burnt out on screaming, disrespectful children. By the time the day rolled around, I was panicking. 5 days, I thought. Out in the wilderness, with hollering children. And I can’t go home after 8 hours. I said as much, in a gentle, joking way, to one of the staff members who, last week, was wishing me well on my trip. One of our students’ mothers, lingering nearby, snorted: “5 days? Everyday.” I teach her “active” son and immediately fell silent out of respect.

I write to you now a week later, refreshed by the lush, green landscape of the Japanese countryside, recharged by swapping classroom management ideas with other counselors and energized by meeting amazing, adorable new children. Like just about everything I foolishly dread, the camp turned out to be a beautiful thing and I’d wilt in shame if I could stop grinning. What a marvelous thing it is to get away, to dip for even a few days into the “new” and the “other.” The summer camp trip was a blend of both new and old; I haven’t been camping since I myself was a kid, traipsing through the wilds of Lake Tsala Apopka in Florida, drinking bug juice until my tongue was red and making lanyards until my fingers could twist no more. Our company’s summer camp endeavors to be evocative of the North American summer camp experience, but there are still plenty of Japanese touches to go around, adding some blissful new elements to my own camp memories. And thus, without further ado, I give you:

Campfire Stories from Japan

I. Campers and Counselors

I went to summer camp for 5 years, from age 9 to 14. I skipped a summer in 1990 because my homesickness trauma had inspired me to shout, “never again!” but by 1991, the memories came flooding back to me in a wave of lovely nostalgia. Those really had been beautiful s’mores, so much more delicious when roasted by a real campfire. It had indeed been fun to shoot arrows. And what about those sharp yet somehow delicious smells of citronella and penny, bubbling up from the stone water fountains? I returned at ages 11, 12, 13 and 14 but, for some reason, stopped short of returning as a counselor. Looking back on it, this was a silly move. The counselors have a lot of fun in their own right, sometimes even more than the kids, for whom everything from Wake Up Call to Night Night is a seamless magic show. Behind the scenes, the counselors craft, plan, and shoot the breeze in a special, isolated bunk with the A/C cranked high. In the evening, after the kids go to bed, the counselors drink beer, play cards, and commiserate. Had I known this, I might have stayed on at Good Counsel Camp until I moved to New York. As it was, I remained a happy, if bug-gnawed, camper.

Campers, I find, are different now. These days, they arrive fully equipped with water shoes for the river, loads of snacks, and personal water bottles because nowadays, things like heatstroke and dehydration are taken more seriously. One of my most vivid memories of camp was being eternally thirsty, so thirsty even the reeking penny water tasted wonderful. Our little stinkers sipped their green tea all day, keeping cool under floppy brimmed sun hats and baseball caps.

I remember our counselors, even 20 years after the fact. Being silly little girls we, of course, liked the male counselors the best. They must have been teenagers but seemed like grown, hulking He-Men. We giggled over cute Mark (although I secretly preferred funny Pat) and made up stories about how Chris and Teri must be secretly in love. As we headed into adolescence ourselves, we found ourselves almost flirting by leaving cryptic notes in our cabins for the Cabin Inspectors to find.

Apparently, the allure of the counselor is strong, even today. I myself had a little camper who found himself somehow attracted to me and showed it by spanking me every chance he got. Now, I understand the epic power of my arse as well as anyone who’s ever seen it but I’d like to make it just one day without being molested by a Japanese child.

“Stop, Hiro!” I growled, in English. I switched to Japanese around the time he switched to attacking me with kancho and punches to my belly.

“You must have a spankable bottom,” suggested another counselor. “Or he likes you.” I could dig that; I remembered the whole aggressive pigtail pulling nonsense in grade school. Nonetheless, Hiro’s affections were a tad violent and invasive for my taste. There are other ways to show love, after all. I like cookies. I like cards. Why not a pretty little wildflower for Eba-san? Why, instead, pointed fingers to the bum?

By night 4, I’d had enough of Hiro’s cheek-crushing crush. When, at that evening’s campfire, he made for my backside yet again, I grasped him by the shoulders and, in Japanese, said: “Stop it. You are rude.”

Hiro didn’t attack me again. Let that be a lesson in love to him.

II. Showers

It was a blistering week, well over 30 degrees and stiff paper fans were fluttering left and right.

“Atsui!” cried the campers. “Hot! Hot!”

I was sweating in places even udon noodle soup didn’t inspire sweat. Bending over a basketball court to make body tracings, I left puddles of sweat on the floor from the backs of my knees when I stood. One by one, children were sent to the heat stroke quarantine area; forced to look on solemnly as the stronger ones huddled under the shady trees, watching the fat, lazy koi cut listlessly through their pond in between activities. We played tag, made lanyards, searched for leaves, and stood on long, sun-soaked lines to enjoy bowls of curry rice for lunch. At the end of such a sweltering day, the only thing to do is shower and sleep.

In my day at Good Counsel Camp, bedtime showers were both agony and ecstasy. Yes, they were refreshing and washed all of the day’s grime off, but the sheer hordes of campers and the lack of enough showers meant bath time was a savage free for all. The counselors did their best to corral us into lines but we somehow always clotted at the door. Multiple shrieking children were often herded into the same spitting shower stall to save time and we’d be shoved inside by a shouting counselor, forced to be naked with others, shivering with soap in our eyes and sobbing, like something out of a Concentration Camp scene in a Holocaust movie.

To my great delight, at our camp, the native English-speaking counselors would have to deal with none of the bath time corralling. It was up to the Japanese counselors to group the kids together and send them into … the sento. Yes; Japanese kids at Japanese-style Western Summer Camp get to relax in a lovely, rock-filled public bath at the end of a long, fun-packed day. And really, what could be better? Cold shower to clean off. Hot soak. Cool air. Ahhhh. While the children bathed, the counselors drank beer, plum wine and played Uno until it would be our turn to use the public bath.

For all I know, packing that many kids into a sento was something like my own memory of shower time at summer camp. I wouldn’t know. I wasn’t privy to the whole rigamarole of sending troops of naked kids into a hot bath. All I know is that, for us, it was heaven.

III. Messing Around

When you’re up at 7 o’clock and dashing from activity to activity in the blinding sun, your clothes soaked through with sweat, all you can think of is food. How long is it until breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? After hiking, playing tag, and speaking, of all things, Pidgin English, you imagine that anything you eat will be exquisite.

And then you go to the mess hall. Ours at Good Counsel was enormous, decorated with the lopped off heads of wild animals and awards won by campers from years and years ago. The funk from the kitchen flooded through the cavernous hall and stank of reheated canned vegetables and ground meats while the pitchers of “bug juice” sat sweating, already lukewarm, on the long, rough hewn wooden tables. We ate everything, though – pausing long enough in our mechanical gulping to point out how disgusting a lump of meat was. Ugh. Mess hall food. The top prize for keeping one’s cabin the tidiest was a field trip to the Pizza Hut in the neighboring town: it was that thought that kept us going.

In contrast, the Japanese Camp mess hall is one of the tidiest messes you’ve ever seen: air conditioned, with the dishes set out all ready once the children come trooping in. Instead of grace, the camp boss leads the kids in chants and rhythmic hand claps that lead up to a final “Ittadakimasu!” A typical breakfast: miso soup, a piece of omelette, a bowl of rice, a sausage. Dinner: rice, soup, watermelon, fried potatoes, fried fish, a piece of hamburg steak. Unlimited refills of barley or green tea. All of this arranged in a lovely configuration on the compartmented plates, just the right amount to fill a 6 year-old Japanese child’s stomach. These were the rations for the adults counselors, too. Much fevered planning ensued. Many of my little campers didn’t eat much, which meant I could help myself to their discarded, uneaten fried fish or a few of their fried potatoes. I heard tales of other counselors convincing their children that two French fries were a suitable swap for watermelon. One must fight to survive in the mess hall.

There was also a barbecue – Japanese style, which is, in itself, a take off of Korean barbecue. Large, oiled smoking griddles were assigned to each of the counselors, as well as sacks of meat, yakisoba and vegetables to fry up for the kids. I set my sights on the sausages on sticks; they plumped when cooked and oh, yes, they would be mine. The smell was heavenly and we ate around the fiery pits of coal, surrounded by peach trees.

Even more wonderful than the calm mess hall with its decent food and the sizzling barbecue was the amazing, totally Japanese not-even-a-hint-of-American-Summer-Camp-in-it lunch on the last day. Pay attention, because this is your Japanese Culture Lesson for the day.

Nagashi Soumen: “nagashi” means to flow and “soumen” are a very thin kind of wheat noodle. They are so thin because, unlike udon which are cut, these noodles are stretched. Noodles, as everyone knows, are a very popular treat in Japan but in the scorching summer time months, they are often eaten chilled. The “flowing” comes into the equation because sometimes, these chilled noodles are served in long troughs made of split bamboo stalks and piped through with flowing water. At one end; the noodle master plucks the cold noodles out of the noodle pot and feeds them down the pipes. Crowding around the pipes, hungry people pluck the noodles out of the trough with chopsticks and dip them into their cups of soumen tsuyu, or special soy-based dipping sauce. At the other end of the flume is a big bowl to catch the noodles lunchers don’t manage to catch. Lazy, unskilled people rejoice and simply stand by this pot to eat noodles at their leisure. Pansies

Not very summer camp, really. When the noodles are this delicious and fun to eat, though, who cares?

Initially, the idea of chilled noodles horrified me. I’m sort of black and white when it comes to traditional preparations. Sweet bread? No thank you. Sweet meat? Ugh. Meat and bread should be salty. Likewise, chilled noodles? Please. Apparently, enough Westerners feel the same way that when eating at a ramen place and ordering a cold noodle dish, the staff will warn you, “It’s cold,” in case you couldn’t read the kanji for “cold” next to the tasty-looking item. I’ll tell you this, though: while the idea of sweet meats and breads still annoys me, in the realm of chilled noodles I’m a convert. On such a hot day, cold noodles are incredibly refreshing and absolutely delicious.

There’s a trick to getting them out of the trough, to be sure. My first attempts involved plucking with the unwieldy chopsticks but I soon learned that if I merely stood my chopsticks into the water, the noodles would catch on them as they flowed down the pipe and – voila – a clot of noodles all for me. Even better; situated between two campers as I was, it meant I could often get noodle rations meant for them. Again – one must fight to survive in the nagashi soumen line. The tangy, savory dipping sauce and surprisingly lovely texture of the cold noodles remains burned into my mind and we will, I believe, be having them for dinner tonight, even though Japanese people don’t eat noodles for dinner. Well, Americans don’t have nagashi soumen at summer camp. So there.

You all look tired now. I think you’ve had enough campfire tales for one day. Come back tomorrow for more. I’m off to the sento.

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. Margot says:

    As always your pen weaves the sweet gift of bringing long lost memories so pointedly back to life. I was hoping for the “Chi Chi” story though! What a lovely reminder of how sweet those days were. Young girls, unsure of everything, except when it came to air band…So ready to become “women” but pleasantly lost in the world of naive youth… I hope to read much more as your writings inspire my own memories of time lost..

  2. Gnarf says:

    I’ve been reading your lovely blog for a while but never posted a comment. But since I enjoy your writings so much I thought I would let you know 🙂

    I’ve never heard Japanese camp stories before, very interesting and fun! I look forward to your next entry. Keep the good work up!

  3. ieatmypigeon says:

    Hi, Margot and Gnarf! I’m really glad you enjoyed my Campfire stories; I just put up the second installment and, yes, Margot – the Chi Chi story is up there. I’m glad you said hello, Gnarf – I took a look at your site and you have some really beautiful pictures up there. How long were you in Japan?

    Thank you for reading!

    And Margot:

    One word:

    APPLESAUCE!

  4. Me says:

    I love reading bloggy adventures from Americans in far away foreign lands!

    Just wanted to let you know I love your blog!

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