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School-Organized Overnight Camp

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Students enjoy learning in the great outdoors.

For many Japanese students in their first and second years of middle school, one of the most fun parts of summer vacation is going to "School in the Woods" or "School by the Sea." This is a sleep-away camp outing organized by the school. It starts around the end of July, as soon as summer vacation begins, and lasts three or four days. If the camp is in a mountainous or wooded area, it's called "School in the Woods." If it's near the coast, it's called "School by the Sea." These days, most schools are sending their students to "School in the Woods."


At School in the Woods, students get a chance to spend time with their classmates in a natural setting. They go hiking, play games, and sit around the campfire. One of the big events is when the students have to make a fire and cook their own rice in a tin. The students are eager to try their hand at this unfamiliar skill, but it isn't as easy as it might sound. Electric rice cookers have been available in Japan for about 40 years, and now almost every Japanese household uses this convenient appliance to cook rice. Hardly anyone cooks rice in a tin over a fire anymore.


The students begin by making an oven out of stones. Then they build the fire, using wood they have gathered from the forest. The fire won't start, so they fan it. This makes the fire so smoky that nobody can stand to open their eyes. Finally comes the moment the students have all been waiting for: the time when it seems like the rice should be done. But when the students check the rice, they find that it's either totally burnt, or just barely starting to cook. Even so, the curry they eat with rice they cooked themselves is the best meal they've ever tasted.


Because School in the Woods includes many outdoor events, everyone worries about the weather. One year, a Tokyo junior high school had its School in the Woods at a lake in the mountains. Unfortunately, a typhoon was in the area. On the second night, as everyone was eating dinner in the large dining room, the power suddenly went out. Candles didn't do much good in that huge dining room. The students had to fumble around in the dark to finish their meal. "We had no idea what we were eating!" the students reported the next day.