Our vacation culminated with a visit to the Komazawa Girls’ School Festival, a destination truly off the beaten track. For those unfamiliar with Japanese high school culture, these festivals or bunkasai are as commonplace as homecoming or prom in the United States. Watch any Japanese drama or anime with a high school setting, and you can pretty much count on a bunkasai episode. Having seen so many anime/drama depictions, we wanted to experience the real deal. Not all are open to the public, but thanks to an Okinawan friend, we found one scheduled at the time of our trip.
We knew nothing about Komazawa other than it was an all-girls school prior to our visit, and we were floored by what we found. Located in the affluent suburb of Inagi City, Komazawa is actually a middle school, high school, and university and definitely on the prestigious end. The campus is huge, boasting a gorgeous track and koi pond, and the girls bathroom was bright and shiny as a Yogurtland parlor.
But even though Komazawa is a high-class place, its bunkasai contained many of the elements we’d anticipated: various booths, handmade posters, high school boys coming to check out the girls. The main stage was in a courtyard surrounded by food stalls selling curry, noodles, hot dogs, tapioca drinks, takoyaki, and cotton candy. There were no plays the day we attended, but they had several music and dance performances.
Based on the three rock bands we saw, there’s some correlation between Japanese rocker wardrobe and cosplay. One band dressed like nurses, and another had a drummer that looked just like anime idol Hatsune Miku. We didn’t know any of the songs, but watching them play their hearts out to the cheers of their fans (a few in cosplay also!) was pretty cool.
As for the dancers, their performances looked like music video dance routines. The music was all canned, but most girls lip-synched as they did their best idol group imitations. Again, we didn’t recognize any the songs or groups, but they drew a huge crowd and we had fun watching them.
Other festival entertainment included various game booths, most of which required 100 or 50 yen to play. In the gymnasium, however, the sports clubs had free games. From the looks of it, they were simply trying to promote their clubs. The kendo club had a whack-balloon-with-shinai (bamboo sword) game; the soccer club had a kicking game; the softball team had a throwing game; and the archery club had a shoot-the-balloon game (with a real bow!). We don’t really see kendo or Japanese archery at home so it was cool to see students in hakama showing people the proper way to hold a bow or shinai.
Over by the main school building, the students had rearranged and decorated their classrooms just like we’d seen on TV. In manga, you can pretty much count on a bunkasai with a haunted house or a butler/maid café. As it turned out, Komazawa had no maids; the closest we got was green tea and manju served by the kimono-garbed tea ceremony club in its tatami-floored classroom (though that was quite fun).
However, we did see one classroom swathed in black plastic sheeting. Thinking it was a haunted house, we went in. Inside was a maze made of cardboard and black plastic. But when we turned the first corner, instead of a student in a scary costume, we were greeted by a girl holding up a sheet with a question on it. As it turned out, it was a Halloween (?) themed quiz game! We encountered four more girls with questions in the maze, and fortunately it was multiple choice. In the end, I won a prize for getting three questions right while my husband got a smaller prize for one correct answer.
Apparently, challenges were all the rage for this school. Another class had a four-part challenge consisting of a timed chopsticks skills test, a throwing game, name that tune, and a model strut (yup, they had a little catwalk set up in the classroom). We had a lot of fun with that, thanks mainly to one girl who had a decent grasp of English. She was able to explain all the rules to us, though it took a bit of charades to get the idea of the model strut across.
Although that girl and her class were the most memorable for us, we enjoyed interacting with all the students. Some got quite shy when they realized we were from America while others got super excited and wanted to pose for pictures with us. You could tell they hadn’t expected random foreigners.
Neither did the faculty and parents. Several adults were lending a hand at booths or taking their families around. In particular, there were a bunch with children all wearing the same elementary school uniform. Prospective students, maybe? Anyway, occasionally my husband and I would be trying to decipher what a particular booth or display was about, and a parent or teacher would offer us an explanation in fluent English. As it turns out, many within this community go to university in the United States. And after helping us out, they inevitably asked, “So why did you decide to travel here?”
Inagi City is over an hour by train from Tokyo, and school festivals are local events. My husband and I were pretty much the equivalent of foreign tourists to San Francisco taking a detour to Walnut Creek for a high school homecoming game. I don’t know if they thought we were nuts to make so much effort to visit Inagi for the reasons we did, but they all did their best to make our trip worthwhile.
The girls, I think, were amused by our presence. We stayed until closing, and by that time, a good portion of them knew they had Americans in their midst and waved as we went by. One group trying to sell the last of their festival merchandise rushed up to us in hopes that we’d make a purchase.
We bought two bags of their sugar butter toast snacks. They were trying so hard to make their sales pitch in English we just had to reward them.
Like I said, this experience was definitely off the beaten track, but it turned out to be the highlight of our trip, and we’re glad we could experience a bit of Japanese culture most foreigners don’t get to see.