For children in Japan, August is natsu yasumi, summer vacation. Even in the countryside, kids these days find it hard to tear themselves away from their game consoles. If you find a boy or girl playing alone near a pond or a water source, they might well be on a stake-out to catch a Lapras, the rarest water-type Pokémon.
Playing smartphone games may help kids master a digital environment from an early age, but it’s a shame they are missing out on “real” outdoor games and pastimes that can stimulate the imagination and creativity, as well as nurture life skills through interaction with other children.
One popular pastime in the countryside is capturing kabuto-mushi. These are impressive stag beetles. Modern day kids also try to catch them, but it is not as common now and they don’t use the same methods as children in the Taisho or Showa eras in the 20th century. Games include having rival beetles compete in tree climbing, and stag-beetle sumo, where two beetles are placed facing each other on a narrow piece of wood, and the winner is the beetle that knocks the other one off.
Currently Nakatsugawa has very few children, but in the past they would go together to the river or into the woods, with everyone looking out for each other. Playing in the river, catching fish, and jumping off low bridges into the water were all common ways to have fun. Children came up with other ways to entertain themselves, including building “secret bases.”
The photo this month, taken by Ito Jintaro in around 1930, shows his own children and a niece. It was taken in front of his house in Nakatsugawa. Back then, life was tough and kids too had to help out in various ways on the farm and around the house. The limited time they had to play was precious.
Ito Jintaro’s grandson Katsuaki, who is in his early 60s, says that by the time he was growing up in Nakatsugawa, he and his friends could play as they wished during the summer vacation. He remembers spending whole days by the river, eating watermelon, and catching fish and insects. They’d also gather stones and pile them up to mark their own “territory” in the river.
The Shirakawa River in Nakatsugawa still has beautiful, clear water, but almost no children to play in them. In places along the Shirakawa you can catch yamame, a type of fish that is only found in rivers with pure, clean water.