Culture · Kindergarten · Living in Japan

Japanese Kindergarten Adventures: Handmade Bags

It’s been almost five years since I last logged on here and wrote about my life here in Japan. MUCH has happened in this span of time but rather than provide a lengthy recap of events – which is likely to be more for my benefit than any of my readers – I am instead going to just dive right into the present. Which is only a slightly terrifying thing to do considering how stressful and overwhelming (but in ironically good ways) I find my situation to be.

One of the most monumental things to occur these past four years is that I have become a mother. My son was born January 2, 2013 at 10:06 am and now has a little under a month before be begins kindergarten. Finding a kindergarten and enrolling was a process in and of itself – something I will no doubt blog about again at a later date – but what currently has my undivided (an anxious) attention is all the preparation necessary to be done before the opening ceremony on April 11th.

The most daunting of all? Ironically not weeding through and translating school documents and hand manuals to make sure I understand everything. Unlike in America where one just skips on down to the local K-Mart or mall or what have you to pick up a backpack, in Japan mothers are expected to hand sew several bags that will then be used for the next three years of kindergarten. Now, to be fair, some schools are perfectly okay with you purchasing a pre-made set from a department store and do not require that you sew anything. I picked the short straw and selected a kindergarten that has very specific size requirements that are not made anywhere else than by hand. When was the last time I actually sewed anything? Probably third grade in my doll making class and those were by hand and made with the fabric from old socks.

Mission impossible? It sure felt that way looking over the pamphlet given to me by his kindergarten listing no less than six bags that he would be required to have come the start of the school year. So after I cried myself a river internally and figuratively blew into a brown paper bag for about a week (I kid, I did none of those things. But I did pretend that this whole sewing thing was just a figment of my imagination for a while) I took a trip to the local craft store, walked in, found a clerk, and instantly played the dazed and confused foreigner card. Thankfully the woman was incredibly patient and willing to literally walk me around the store gathering all the supplies I needed to make all the bags on the list. The most enjoyable part was that I got to let my son pick out the fabrics – even if my OCD for needing things to match died a little inside when he selected three different fabrics. None of which match at all except for them all being blue and have some sort of train pattern.

materials for this kindergarten mama adventure!
What all am I required to make you ask? Well, here is a short and handy little list for you:

  1. 通園連絡袋 (Kindergarten “contact” bag)
  2. 上履き袋 (bag for school shoes)
  3. お弁当袋 (bentou bag – bag for boxed lunch)
  4. 歯磨きセット入れ(bag for toothbrush set)
  5. 体操着袋 (gym bag)
  6. ハサミ袋(bag for scissors)

Daunting? Oh yes. But thankfully a mom who I met at the park about two years ago (who has a daughter around my son’s age and are very good friends) offered to let me borrow her sewing machine so we could suffer through this process together. The goal was to get through all six of these today…but that did not happen as we spent about an hour just trying to make sure that we had the measurements correctly and then procrastinated by making tea and eating cookies while watching the kids build block towers.

Eventually, we DID get down to business and I was able to cross off the first two items on the list.

shinkansen (bullet train) quilted fabric
My son’s absolute favorite fabric in the store was the one pictured above. He loves trains and shinkansen are his absolute favorite – particularly the green one seen in the image – and he picked it for his kindergarten contact bag. You should basically think of this as a book bag (although the school ALSO provided him with a small backpack as well). It will carry books, pamphlets, drawings, art projects, and other such things home with him each day. Most of the pre-made options are 30 cm by 40 cm…but as luck would have it this kindergarten asks for 32 cm by 45 cm. Some schools give these as guidelines to ensure that no one comes with anything massive or too petite, the pamphlet from school gave no such indication of this…thus sewing happened.

more shinkansen fabric
As luck would have it, there was only ONE sample left of my son’s favorite shinkansen fabric and thus we had to find another suitable option to be used for his shoe bag. Now, this bag and the book bag have to be made from a special quilted fabric because it is more durable. But wait, did I just say shoe bag? I did indeed. For those who do not know, in Japan you wear a special set of shoes indoors. These are called uwabaki and for kids in school tend to be solid white to show cleanliness.

So, three hours later and after very few finger pricks with needles and pins, I somehow managed to sew together two bags that I am quite proud of. Perhaps the most rewarding part of it all – besides being able to give myself a pat on the back that I can in fact sew in a straight line – is that everything was picked out by my son from the fabrics to the color fabric used for the handles.

finished products
The whole ordeal wasn’t nearly as traumatizing as I thought it would be and I actually rather enjoyed it. So much so that I wouldn’t mind buying a sewing machine in the future and actually trying my hand at making other things, either for myself or to sell online. I hear etsy shops can be quite fun.

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