When the summer vacation is just too long


Just try to find something for foreign kids to do in Japan in the summer. There aren’t many options, even if your children speak Japanese, as mine do. The most difficult period of all is the five or six weeks after international schools close down but Japanese schools are still in session.

This wasn’t an issue when both my kids were in Japanese school, where the summer holiday exists in name alone. The six weeks they call “summer vacation” are peppered with school activities including swimming lessons, review classes and tons of homework.

But now that my older boy attends an international middle school — it finished June 9 and won’t resume until Aug 25 — we’re on our own when it comes to organizing summer fun: There are no school activities, no club meetings, not even a scrap of homework.

My son watched over my shoulder as I counted up all the days he’ll be on vacation. “You’re torturing yourself, Mom,” he said gleefully as I tallied — 76 days! His younger brother, who goes to a Japanese elementary school, only gets 42 days.

I’m sure you understand my concern: I’m going to have one child heading diligently off to school every morning while the other lies paralyzed on the sofa. And since I work at home, that sofa is in my workspace. Close your eyes for a moment, please, and imagine yourself in your office, a full work-day ahead of you. Now add a 13-year-old wandering in and out, breaking your concentration with sighs of “I’m boooored.” And, “Why is there never any food in our refrigerator?” And, “If you had a choice, would you rather be eaten by ants or lions?”

It was this prospect that mobilized me to look for something for my son to do. We could have enrolled him in the summer session at his international school, but it’s expensive and too much like what he does during the school year. We considered summer camp in the United States, but I felt uneasy sending a young teenager that far away on his own. He didn’t want to attend the neighborhood middle school for a few weeks, which would have been difficult to arrange anyway because he didn’t graduate from a Japanese elementary school.

I knew what I wanted for my son. I wanted him to be busy and active. I wanted him to have fun, new experiences. I wanted him to use his Japanese and learn something new about Japan. There had to be some program, somewhere, that could do all of this. But I had a heck of a time finding one.

I researched. I phoned. I tried free schools and youth organizations, but came up with nothing. I started feeling desperate. I quizzed anybody who would listen, hoping for a lead. Finally, I hit pay dirt with a teacher at my younger son’s school. “Have you looked into sanson ryugaku?” she asked.

I’d never heard of it. The teacher explained that it’s when city kids go to rural schools to experience life in the countryside. The phrase was coined about 30 years ago by Sodateru-kai, a youth organization that promotes outdoor activities as a means to help children develop self-confidence and a positive attitude to life. The group operates four sanson ryugaku centers in Nagano Prefecture that offer year-long stays as well as short programs during school holidays. Sodateru-kai also staffs two other centers, and has helped spread the concept of sanson ryugaku across Japan. There are now more than 100 rural communities that welcome city kids for both short — and longer — term visits.

But once again I hit the problem of the international-school schedule. There were no programs during those weeks before Japanese schools finish for the summer. But Sodateru-kai helped me find a small town in Niigata that was willing to make special arrangements so my son could visit for two weeks in early July. He’ll spend part of the time in the town’s sanson ryugaku dormitory, and the rest staying with a family and helping out on their farm. He’ll visit the local schools, but he won’t be able to attend full-time (not that he’s shedding any tears over that). His schedule includes a lot of outdoor activities and a two-night camping trip.

We decided to go there last month to check things out and participate in a weekend program for families. The dormitory is Japanese-style: We took our meals sitting on the floor at low tables. The baths are communal. The sleeping quarters are big tatami rooms — one for boys and another for girls. Everyone lays out their own futon at night, and folds it into a corner during the day so the room can be used for play.

The kids do all the cleaning and help out with meals. They also do their own laundry, as I discovered when I wandered into the laundry room to hang up my towel. A 12-year-old boy, who had arrived from Tokyo the month before to spend a year there, was hanging out his washing.

“Wow, you wash your own clothes,” I said, impressed. He nodded solemnly, and explained that it was a big responsibility because “here, no one will hang your wet laundry for you if you forget.” Then, earnestly, as if he were imparting the scientific discovery of the century, he said: “Did you know? If you don’t hang up wet clothes right away, they get really, really stinky!”

It was a fun weekend. We hiked to a mountain plateau that still had snow. Later, we went out to collect wild mountain vegetables, gathering a dozen different plants that we turned into a sumptuous feast for 26.

My son obviously had a blast. On the train home, I asked him why. “You get to do a lot things you can’t do in Tokyo, like snowball fights in May and hunting for frogs. And nobody’s telling you what to do all the time,” he said, looking pointedly at me. It surprised me that he felt freer despite the schedules and chores. “Well, group living is different from being at home,” he explained. “It’s fun for a change.”

He’s looking forward to going back. I’m thrilled he’s happy with his summer plans. I predict he’ll grow up a lot during those two weeks, and come home more confident and more independent. And he’ll even know how to do laundry!