//by Reza Danesh-Pajooh//
Contrary to its daunting square-footage, a common complaint by both ALT and native alike is that there’s simply nothing to do here in Akita. Events are few and far between, and usually end up overlapping with festivals, work-days, or other events. Pair that with the fact that travelling within Akita is both time-consuming and expensive, and that for nearly half the year Akita is almost indistinguishable from an Avercamp painting, then you’ll see why it’s not much of a surprise that quite a few Akitans prefer to spend their time indoors.
Of course, I know I’m preaching to the choir, here. Anyone who’s been here four months could tell you they’ve arrived at the same conclusion. So, why am I even writing this in the first place?
Enter the “Wakamonokaigi” (若者会議) or, literally, “The Assembly of Young People” (the word “young” being used relatively loosely… or accurately, in Akita’s case), a group of people ranging from their 20s to 39 years of age, who come together once a month or so to discuss or create events in their towns and cities. The ultimate goal of this group? To meet and connect with like-minded individuals who share similar goals, explore and celebrate Akita and all it has to offer, and, most importantly, to have fun! Most of the major cities in Akita have chapters of the Wakamonokaigi. I, personally, have been to meetings in both Yokote and Yurihonjo, both of which have active chapters filled with some of the nicest people I’ve met since coming to Japan.
Here’s where I slip in a disclaimer: the meetings are 100% in Japanese, and out of the dozens of people that I’ve met through Wakamonokaigi, maybe three of them are comfortable enough with English to speak it with me. This may be a non-starter for some, but if you can understand Japanese, or at least come in with an attitude of wanting to make friends, I guarantee you’ll be able to have a good time, language barrier aside.
Back in January, I attended a joint-meeting in Yokote between the Yokote and Yurihonjo chapters. It was their first meeting of the year, so it was less of a planning session and more of a “Wakamonokaigi’s Best Hits” year-in-review. At first, they gave a brief summary of the history of the group and talked about past events they arranged, including a beach trip, noodle contest, sake brewery tour, sports tournaments, etc., in order to catch the interest of the unusually large amount of participants. After that, we split up into groups and played some icebreakers to get to know our groups better. What followed afterwards was a competition focused on advertising Yokote or Yurihonjo, with topics ranging from nature and history to events and best spots to eat. The teams each tried to sell the room on their answer, and it was a great way to hear about festivals or places in Yokote and Yurihonjo that I wasn’t aware of, even in my third year in JET. With the conclusion of the main event, we had some free time to introduce ourselves to other people in the room that we hadn’t had a chance to talk to yet, or find people with common interests (which we had written down on our name cards shortly after arriving at the venue). I had been on fire during the food section of the competition, seeing as I almost never cook for myself out of defiance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, so I had been approached by a group of guys looking for the best yakisoba spots in Yokote. At the same time, I was also invited to try soba from a place in Yamagata that had been ranked the second most delicious in all of Japan.
(Had no idea how to contact 30+ people I’ve only met once and ask if I could use their faces)
After this free talk period, we rounded up the meeting by opening the floor to anybody who had a certain event or group that they wanted to advertise. During this time I learned about a group aiming to take on the Tazawako marathon in September, as well as open casting for a community-run musical.
After the conclusion of the meeting came the after-party. Attendance wasn’t mandatory, nor was drinking alcohol, but those who went were able to talk freely in a more relaxed environment as well as partake in delicious food and drink provided by both the proprietor of the bar and members who wanted to share their town’s local specialties.
All in all, the event ranged from midafternoon until the evening, starting at about 1:30 and ending at 4:30, with the after-party opening at 5:30 and closing around 8:00. For a Saturday with nothing planned I think I used my time well (if only to find out about local food spots that I hadn’t already been privy to). But I recommend anyone who’s interested to check out their nearest Wakamonokaigi. They operate pretty heavily on Facebook and reliably post and update events as needed. Just search for “若者会議” on Facebook, and check out nearby events. They’re almost always listed publicly, and they’ll be more than happy to have a newbie drop in!
(You’ll even get a cute commemorative picture out of it, too!)
So get out there, practice your Japanese, and make some friends!