My visit to Minami Arima School

Exactly one week ago, I visited Minami Arima Junior High School in Minami Shimabara, Nagasaki, in southern Japan. I had been invited to a local race (the 27th Minami Shimabara Hara-jo Marathon) the previous day, and asked the organisers if they would like me to visit a local school while I was there. Thanks to their efforts, I was able to visit Minami Arima last Monday – and it was terrific!

The Head teacher, Mr Oshima, gave me a really warm welcome when I arrived. Then I met the pupils and they introduced me to themselves and their school. They had taken the trouble to prepare an impressive presentation about a year in the life of their school. It made me feel like I knew them very well, even though I had only just met them!

Then we talked in English and the pupils asked me some great questions – who is my role model in the marathon? What is my favourite food? I got in a bit of a twist explaining all the different names we use for the UK – the United Kingdom, Great Britain, England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland…..if only it was as simple as “Japan”. Then I discovered that there is a food in Japan called “Igirisu” which is the name for the UK in Japanese – one student had kindly bought me a packet of it. You learn something new every day!

We also talked about one of my favourite things about Japanese culture – the custom of saying a special greeting at the start (Itadakimasu!) and finish (Gochisousama deshita!) of a meal. The meaning of these two phrases is something like “Thank you for what I am about to eat” and “Thank you for what I have just eaten”. So they make you acknowledge the hard work that has gone into producing the food we all enjoy, and showing appreciation for the fact of having food. Neither greeting has the religious connotations of saying Grace, which is the only equivalent I know of in English – both greetings are much simpler. But another thing I like about them is they signal the start and end of a meal, and fellow diners typically wait for everyone to be seated before saying “Itadakimasu!” and starting to eat. I like this because it shows respect for the people eating with you, and also it means you can concentrate on your meal and everything about it – conversation, enjoying the food, feeling full etc – rather than doing anything else (in an age when everyone seems to be on their smartphones all the time, this is even more important!).

Then I gave a talk about how I became an Olympic athlete, realising your dreams, the ups and downs of being an elite athlete, and how I combined working with training and competing. I told the students about races in Japan when I was still a full-time athlete – winning the 2008 Osaka Ladies’ Marathon on the same course as the previous summer’s 2007 World Championships when I screwed up my tactics – I had learned from my mistakes which made the win even sweeter. And the 2006 Marugame Half-Marathon when I finished 3rd behind then Olympic champion Mizuki Noguchi, and realising that she was just a normal person like me rather than a superstar who existed in a different universe.

What I will remember most about my visit is how terrific the pupils were – they listened quietly when I was talking, they asked me some great questions, they took pride in their school and activities, they showed respect to each other and their teachers, they showed interest in me and where I was from….I could go on and on but suffice to say they really inspired me!

A big thank you to all the students at Minami Arima Junior High School, Head teacher Mr Oshima and his colleagues, race organiser Mr Taguchi and his colleagues, Mayor Mr Matsumoto and Head of Education Mr Nagata and their colleagues, and Mr and Mrs Matsushima who were instrumental in enabling me to visit Nagasaki. I will remember my visit for a long time! Thank you!

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