Yoi Otoshi O

That's have a happy new year.

As opposed to akemashite omedeto which is happy new year and I will say tomorrow.

The girls and I are in Fukushima with K's parents while K is at home in a nice quiet and sparkling clean (we did the traditional osoji end of year cleaning before we came) home by himself.

The weather in Fukushima can't make up it's mind- rain sleet snow sleet rain sunny rain sleet cloudy- and that was just the morning.

We have been making the most of the non precipitous patches and have walked to the supermarket twice, walked to K's old school (200 and something kids versus Meg's 800 odd she was well chuffed that she goes to a much bigger school) to play in the playground, practised skipping on the road outside the house as a) there's only one more house until the road stops and b) there is zero yard. Really, zero. Then we started playing a game sitting on a gardener's wheeled trolley stool thing and whizzing down the driveway onto the road but the girls kept falling off (to their amusement) but they were wearing complete outfits of new clothing from their grandma and I felt that the muddy bums and knees on day 1 was a tad disrespectful so we stopped that to much dissent.

We are getting the full works traditional Japanese New Year with mochi rice cake making this morning, mochi eating at breakfast, lunch and dinner, a karuta game with everyone playing this afternoon and lots of talking about how great it is to be Japanese all through out the day. Grandpa seems quite convinced that they may have two passports, speak English and look a little foreign but if he can just ensure their mind is 100% Japanese he has done his job. I let him have his way as he sees them about 10 days a year and I can spend the other 355 feeding them vegemite, singing tie me kangaroo down sport and dressing them in coloured undies (shock!) and uggboots (inside- shock!) The girls are inturn bemused and amused by the constant stream of trivia and quiz questions- what are the two kanji that make up new year in Japanese? What Chinese zodiac is it next year? What Chinese zodiac year were they born in? What is the full name of this year in the Japanese calendar? What is the special name for NYE? Why do we eat soba/ mochi/ beans/ amazake at new year? It's quite an education...

I'm sure it's a pretty big intrusion into the rhythm of my in-laws usually quiet and peaceful life to have the three of us here for five days and especially with K staying home on neighbourhood committee duties so I really appreciate it. Especially as Meg and Amy don't see either set of grandparents more than a couple of times a year.

That said though I am dangerously close to my gooey rice cake limit for the season and the real rice cake eating traditions don't even start until tomorrow. Remind me to secret away some muesli, brown rice and non-pickled vegetables in my handbag next time!

Here's to a fabulous, fun, friend-filled, happy, healthy and harmonious year of the rabbit for all.

Yoi Otoshi O


what gaijin *don't* eat

My not-really-nearly-neighbour bastish has a semi-regular feature he calls 'what gaijin eat' where he introduces you to different foods (?) he has been adventurous enough to try.

Yesterday K cooked lunch for the girls. Well actually he cooked lunch for everyone but I was rude enough to turn down the offer of a portion.

See, I'm not as adventurous as bastish.

Not nearly as adventurous as K's gourmet offering didn't even require hunting wild animals or giving birth.

It was still not in the realm of things I will eat willingly and when there is something (anything!) else left in the fridge though.

What was this etiquette defying dish you ask?

See for yourself:

Visually appealing little dish isn't it?

Four ingredients.

Pasta is obvious.

Anyone whose been to Japan for more than a day or two will recognise the fermented soy beans.

And the other two ingredients?

A can of tuna in spring water and....

a raw egg.

And not in a carbonara sauce kind of yummy raw egg way.


In a cold tuna, cold slimy natto and cold slimey raw egg kind of way.

But you know what? All three of them loved it. So much so that he had to make a second batch.

So who am I to turn up my nose at it.

And it's a pretty healthy protein packed lunch, yeah?

Much better for you than my grilled cheese...


Christmas illuminations

We went to the illuminations at Alps Azumino Park again.

Ohhhh M and A were so little!

And here they are this year:

It was freezing cold and snowing to boot but we had fun and that's the main thing, right?

And the illuminations are so pretty!



My friend S had a coupon for the gym in the city so I went along.

The class was fabulous. Really high powered weights and aerobic exercise. Cool music too. And a fabulously inspiring teacher. That's always important, right?

I have co-ordination issues so aerobics isn't usually my thing. I'm worried about:

a) falling and hurting someone else- especially in Japan where they're all so much smaller than me.
b) falling and hurting myself
c) just falling.

But this class was really good. Much more about weights and stretching than fancy 20 step moves.

I was doing fine until I started watching the student standing next to the teacher. She was giving 110%. If the teacher reached to her toes, she reached palms to the floor. If the teacher stretched her hand back to her shoulder blade this girl aimed for her butt.

Well, I'm not competitive with the teacher but this woman got to me. It's kind of in-your-face to stand right beside the teacher and do more than her, yeah?

So safe in my position at the far back right hand corner I decided to match the woman who was over-matching the teacher.

And I hurt.


But at least I didn't fall over!


different story, same message

I'm a romantic. I love happy endings, Hugh Grant movies, rainbows and flowers, puppies and firelight. Especially firelight in winter in Nagano. I like to think the world is a good place full of good people who sometimes hit a bump in the road and wobble for a moment but are basically just good.

So when I arrived at the temple on Friday to pay my respects to my departed neighbour's family and saw her husband racing down the stairs just as I was racing up I first thought 'Aggghhh!!! I missed the entire funeral???' Then I remembered that there were three rows of cars down below me on the baseball ground and noticed that no-one else was leaving and wondered what was up.

Then I walked into the temple and overheard a lot of kerfuffle over the old man who had absconded from the funeral:

Where's grandpa/ the old man gone?
He had his truck here?
Didn't anyone take his keys?
Send someone to go get him!

The old man in question is not a bad sort. Grumpy only in an average for an old man kind of way and he always stops to say hi when he rattles past in his old truck- pity I really can't work out what he's saying- and I think he's one of the more personable old men around here, not that there's that much competition....

So all the way home I was inventing a back story of forever-after love and overwhelming emotion and an old guy who couldn't express himself properly when his wife was right beside him and then found it too hard to say goodbye. The message was obviously tell people how much they mean to you and make the most of the time you have together.

This heartrending tale made me feel all warm and gooey and happy in a sad funeral attendance type way until my ultra-pragmatic, realistic, down to earth and stomp through the daisies to get where you need to get neighbour A dropped in with the goss.

The real story.

That the old man and the old woman had been fighting like cats and dogs. She was bedridden and bored and fractious. He was in the middle of apple season and too busy to deal with it and grumpy, remember. Their son and his wife and their kids were busy too. So they put her in the village respite care facility just until the apple season was over. And despite going from a pretty draughty, pretty old house with an outside bathroom to a pretty new, pretty centrally heated, full service care facility she went down hill and eventually passed away without ever coming home again.

That's such a sad story. And I really empathise with the old man for running away from the funeral.

It's not at all like the story I dreamed up but I think the message is the same:

Tell people how much they mean to you and make the most of the time you have together.


post-Christmas blues...

I think Boxing Day is probably the flattest day of the year. The wait till Christmas is the longest it's ever going to be, the house is a mess of wrapping paper and toys as the kids have started playing with every toy they got but not yet packed up a single thing, you're tired, it's all grey and snow/sleet/rainy (at least here) and it just lacks sparkle and pizazz.

So K, as the least effected by the Boxing Day blues due to placing the least amount of importance on Christmas, decided we all needed lifting out of our funk and we went out for coffee and bubble milk and then...

after 363 days...

we finally got the portrait photos we had taken in Australia framed!

After procrastinating for an entire year they were developed, framed and hung in an afternoon. Wow.

Makes you wonder why we procrastinated so long, huh?


Christmas in pictures

Meg holding the wrapping paper Amy made for us all. How tired do I look, huh?

My wrapping paper from Amy. The opposite side had Japanese. Bilingual Christmas, hey?

Happy to see presents?

Meg, Nanook and a present.

Waiting for Christmas lunch to start

Christmas lunch- ham, cranberry sauce, apple and bread stuffing, roast pumpkin, roast veggies, roast chicken and salad. Amy made the salad. She cut each mini tomato into a rabbit ears shape. Each... and... every... one... We waited quite a while for Christmas lunch!
In the evening we went to a Church/ Community Christmas event and the girls helped decorate the tree. And K helped the girls help decorate the tree.

And they had a santa relay with the kids changing into Santa clothes, running across a mat, putting presents down a chimney and:

eating a cookie before running back, undressing and handing the clothes to the next santa. It was gorgeous as half the kids couldn't work out how to wear the clothes, a lot didn't get that they had to eat the cookie (rather than just hold it) and almost everyone wandered back to mum and dad rather than the group. Very sweet.

Then Santa pulled up in his sleigh- yup, a real live moving sleigh coloured and shaped mobility vehicle. It was pretty cool and the kids had their pictures taken in the sleigh.

And then came inside and told santa what good kids they'd been all year. Only Amy was honest and said she was pretty good. She looked all worried it was so cute and we reassured her that a commitment to being good in the next year counted. Manipulative mummy....

And so she was able to get a present from Santa.

It was a big day and the fun and shenanigans continued all the way till bedtime when Meg went to bed wearing as many of her new items of clothing as she could manage- new socks, summer pj bottoms and then a new skivvy when I vetoed sleeping in the t-shirt that goes with the shorts.

Merry Christmas to all from us all, thank you family near and far for a fabulous day and to all a good night.


Big Christmas Eve

I started today teaching three classes back to back at the elementary school. I was buzzing- I usually only get an audience of 6-8 in my classes and wham! Instant fan club of 35. Quite intoxicating and with Christmas as the theme how could I go wrong and the kids had a ball to boot.

But I finished it all up with a scratchy voice and a farewell fit for a cruise ship just in time to race home and change out of my bright red Christmas shirt and into my sombre black one to race up the mountain to the temple and hand over our money envelope for a neighbour's funeral. It was a huge turn out, the biggest I've seen. There were three rows of cars parked on the baseball ground/ temple carpark. The two female relatives of the deceased manning the reception desk were not locals and I got gobsmacked in duplicate when I turned up with my money envelope and gave them the standard sympathy phrase. Guess I don't really look much like a Fukase or someone you might meet half way up a mountain in apple country if you think about it....

Straight from the funeral to the supermarket to do some Christmas Dinner shopping then home to put stuff away (not really essential as these days the fridge and the kitchen are about the same temperature...) and whip up some royal icing. And I mean whip it up as I don't have an electric mixer. At least I have a whisk now- the first Christmas here K and I whipped cream with a home made whisk- a bunch of forks and chopsticks taped together!

So, amazing bicep building exercise over I collected Meg and Amy and headed off to English playgroup Christmas party to decorate cookies and write labels and play Christmas games.

Phew. We finally finished at 5:30 and I was feeling pretty done in. And of course the real work of Christmas Eve hadn't even started!


a bit more Christmas

Today's a National Holiday. Emperor Hirohito's Birthday. Kind of an odd day to celebrate Christmas but a public holiday only two days away from the real deal? Someone had to plan a Christmas celebration today right?

And they did! Yeah!

It was quite fun once we actually arrived- only two false starts (false stops really) Matsumoto has a weird system of giving community centres nicknames. So Chuo kominkan (central community centre) is also known as M-Wing, Azusagawa community centre is kaizen centre and the community centre where the party was to be held- Castle East Community Centre is called Fukufukuraizu. And that's the name I remembered. Only as it's not the real name of the building it wasn't in the satnav. Never fear, we knew the general direction we were heading in. And we arrived at East District Community Centre and that seemed close enough. Only there were a couple of buildings there and we- K, I, two be-Christmas dressed kids, two bottles of apple juice and a platter of cookies rather surprised the poor caretaker at East District Senior Welfare Services. Oops. He pointed us in the direction of the Community Centre. Which was closed. And locked. And very dark. Hmmmmm... Back in the car, rather less Christmassy spirit as the girls equate getting back in the car with going home and were not interested in that idea.

Never fear, third time lucky and we arrived without (further) incident and enjoyed great conversation, great Christmas food (artichoke dip, home made stollen or dolmades anyone?) and live Christmas carols. Wow. And the kids?

There were chair storage carts with wheels. And six little girls. And a big empty space at the back of the room. So it was endless rounds of go karts/ crashem derbies/ speed demons. Who knew Christmas brought out the reckless in people, huh?


The darkest days are here

Today's the 22nd.

Of December.

The winter solstice.

From tomorrow onwards it should be getting infantessimally easier to get Meg out of bed of a morning.

And more than that infantessimally easier to get out of bed myself each morning. Because I think that's half the problem- it's really hard to convince someone else how fun it is to get up and get ready for the day when it's still dark when you don't believe it yourself.

Here's to a little more light in our days.


But they're boys...

I have two daughters.

I have a sister.

I have a brother who was more into computers than football or car racing.

I have a niece.

I have met my lone nephew once- and he was 6 weeks old....

I live in a bit of a girly world.

I teach a lot of kids. A lot of girls and a lot of boys.

I enjoy teaching them all but I feel I connect with only about 95% of them.

And the other 5%? All boys.

Don't get me wrong, I am not gender pre-occupied. Infact most of the time I think I teach pretty gender neutral topics/ teaching methods/ classes and I teach a lot of little boys who I connect with just fine so I guess I'm not doing anything too dastardly on that count.

But then there's that 5%... Every now and again I bump into a 5%er boy and I get stuck feeling like I'm observing a foreign species. Alien even. The 6 year old who spent an entire lesson burping out his answers to my questions (wouldn't that much forced burping give you reflux?), the 5 year old who flat refuses to touch a pink crayon, pink origami paper, a bingo card with any pink picture on it etc etc..., the 11 year old who would rather sit out an entire activity- even a game- than pair up with a girl, any of the four girls in the class. Five actually as he refuses to pair with me, either. I'm pretty good at jollying/ convincing/ joke threatening kids out of their petulance but these boys are completely unreachable. Unbending and with great strength in their convictions they leave me scratching my head and wondering what planet they hail from.

I asked a couple of the young guy teachers at work whether they'd had these or similar issues, and about any advice they had. After looking confused for a while they both vaguely nodded and offered that yesssss, maybe they had noticed something like that.

But really it was no big deal.

After all, they're boys....


Christmas at work

I've been busy sharing the Christmas spirit at work, too.

All my little kids classes (2yo-7yo) made Christmas tree pictures:

Where's the English in that?

Well, they learnt/ practised big, medium and small, light green and dark green, numbers, star, here you are, please, thank you, more please etc etc. To get each sticker they stuck on their pictures the 3-7 year olds had to ask a question, answer a question or read three flashcards. The 2 year olds rolled a dice and counted the spots and then counted out the number of stickers. At the end everyone wrote/ traced/ held the pen while I wrote their name on their poster. The 6-7 year olds also copied 'Merry Christmas' off the white board after choosing between Nerry, Melly and Smelly and Merry for the first word.

Phew. It was actually a really involved class and the kids were jumping up and down with excitement when they thought of a new question to ask me. (For my sanity's sake I said we weren't going to repeat questions- there's only so many times you can discuss your favourite colour...)

And doesn't it look pretty with them all up on the wall?


house arrest gingerbread adventure

Amy was a little red cheeked at last night's Christmas party but the room was hot and I didn't think anything of it. Then she came over for a cuddle during the Missionary's Adult English class dramatisation of Tolstoy's 'Where love is, God is also' and I realised she wasn't just the-heater-is-on warm but rather oh-no warm so we made a hasty departure and she was asleep before we left the carpark and didn't wake until morning.

Morning when we were meant to be up bright and early to be down in Nagoya by 9:30 to make a fabulous gingerbread house under the tutelage of the amazing Bonnie-sensei.

Only I really couldn't in good conscience take Amy with a fever so we had to cancel.

Amy was lethargic and slept most of the day, K got on with house stuff he wouldn't have had the chance to do otherwise, I was disappointed but Meg was devastated. She was quite indignant that we should miss out and insistent that we should just take Amy and let her sleep in the car if we really couldn't leave her at home alone- all she was doing was sleeping after all...

So much for fostering compassion and the whole spirit of Christmas thing, yeah?

We needed a back up plan and quick!

So we decided to make our own gingerbread house. Can't be that hard, right?


I think Bonnie should use us on her next flyer:

"We thought we could do it ourselves but soon realised that Bonnie-sensei is an expert and a fantastic teacher. We won't be making that mistake again, sign us up for next year's class already! H.F, Nagano"

It was a long process. Making the dough, chilling for an hour, moulding the pieces, baking, cooling, making the royal icing (no electric mixer here so that in itself was an adventure using just a whisk!) working out the structural engineering aspects of walls and roof and then finally decorating it with all the candy we had bought to take to Nagoya. Phew...

The results are truly hideous. I think it's less of a gingerbread house and more of a gingerbread condemned beach shack. But Meg was mollified with the process even if she was less than impressed with my sugar carpentry "I think you did a good try mummy. It's not as good as Bonnie-sensei but Bonnie-sensei is a real gingerbread maker...."

I don't have an icing nozzle thing and the royal icing was very cement like so making one out of baking paper wasn't really an option so we just slathered the sugar-cement on with spoons and then did the decorations with the candy. I was quite impressed Meg managed windows with broken pocky sticks and really thought about design and candy placement rather than just dumping everything on- even if the end result is probably the same!

I love the roof and especially the chimney with it's smoke.

I have a feeling we might all break teeth when we try and eat it though!

And the over the top style kind of goes with this year's Christmas tree, yeah?

And after a full day lying on the couch Amy felt well enough to eat a smidgen of dinner and went to bed and is sleeping soundly so fingers crossed she is well enough to participate in the rest of the Christmas celebrations!


Putting the Christ in Christmas

I'm not a religious person but I love Christmas. I love Christmas lights, Christmas trees, Christmas baking, Christmas cards, Christmas Stockings, Christmas carols, Christmas Dinner- pretty much everything but the presents. Christmas presents stress me out. Deciding what to buy, going and finding it and then wrapping and addressing and sending them half way across the world just about takes the fun out of Christmas. I just want to give everyone the one thing they always wanted but didn't realise they wanted until they opened it. Not setting the bar too high hey?

I have a lot of issues with Japanese style Christmas, too. But the main one is that children get presents without any understanding of the meaning of Christmas and they don't give anything to anyone. It's just a stand there with your hand out kind of occasion.

So you see I've got a problem. How do I share my love of Christmas with my family without getting sucked into the whole commercialism thing?

We do a number of things including have the girls make presents for each other and K and I and making cards for the rest of their relatives but the jewel in my Christmas education is the local missionary's Christmas party. It's potluck, there's no Santa or presents and they do the nativity story with hand knitted dolls, a cardboard box stable and a bilingual narrator. It's really beautiful.

And so once a year we get dressed up in our Christmas finery and go and listen to thenativity. And seeing the girls enthralled by it makes my Christmas.


shhhhh don't tell

Made the nozawana pickles today.

This is how I usually do it. As you have to wait until the first snow to harvest to ensure sweet nozawana (turnip greens) it's a cold job washing all those leaves outside in the wind and the cold with freezing cold water.

So I had an idea.

But you can't tell or I'll never live it down...

Yup, in the bath!

At first I was a bit worried about all that dirt going down the drain but then I thought about the state the girls are in some evenings and decided the nozawana wasn't the worst thing that's been in there!

I even dried them in the bath. Opened the window right up, used the bath cover as a drying rack and just closed the door on the whole cold thing and escaped back to the fire. That's the way to do it!

Oh and yes, there's a lot less nozawana this year than most years. A third as much to be honest. Living dangerously and only making 10 kilos this year. There's every possibility we'll run out before the season is over but I'm more than sure we can scrounge up a few kilos from any one of the neighbours without so much as even asking so I'm not so worried!



Mi-ware means split flesh and refers to apples that have splits in them. They split in their bellybutton dimple thing where the stalk comes out. Once they split they are unable to be sold. Even as juice. Because mold can get in to the exposed flesh. Unfortunately for the farmers then you get quite a few mi-ware apples every harvest.

Fortunately for me the split bit is a tiny section of the apple and once it's removed you are left with a juicy sweet apple perfect for eating.

Or juicing.

And so that's what we did today.

Juiced 11 crates of apples into 189 bottles of apple juice.

Only because we were using mi-ware apples as well as the usual washing (freezing water) hauling by the crate load, juicing (freezing) squeezing out the muslin juice collecting bags (freezing) boiling (boiling obviously) sterilising (boiling) bottling (boiling) capping (boiling) washing down (boiling) and cleaning down the kitchen- with toothpicks where necessary (freezing) we got to take a huge and very sharp knife (I have a feeling Japanese old women are thril seekers- their knives are always sooo sharp!) and cut out the dimple bit of each and every single apple. Times 11 crates of apples. Standing in the spray (freezing) from the apple washer.


Still, I came home with 60 bottles of apple juice from half a days work so that's not too shoddy now is it?

Only after all that heavy work in alternating freezing and boiling conditions- and with wet jeans for half the day- I am feeling a bit muscle sore and mi-ware myself tonight....


the Christmas conundrum

I'm crazy busy at the moment. Not just regular lessons but regular lessons and Christmas lessons and Christmas parties (we're up to four now...) and I'm doing four Christmas classes at Meg's school and making juice and pickling turnip greens and .....aghhh! Just thinking of it all makes me tired! Anyway, among all that I wanted to make some Christmas cookie baskets for a few people to say thank you and Merry Christmas. So in all my spare time I've been making cookies:

Chocolate fantasy cookies (thanks Angela!) rice krispie treats, gingerbread (made with real molasses!) and rum balls.

It's been quite crazy but I'm still bopping along. Rather lively bopping as I'm rather sugar fuelled. You see there's the conundrum: you obviously don't want to send out substandard cookies, right? But how much taste testing is legitimate and after what point is it just stealing from the stores? Personally I believe that one cookie from each sheet of baked cookies is absolutely necessary. The vaguaries of ovens and all that. Atmospheric pressure too, yeah? And of course if you eat that one while they're still warm (yum!) you obviously need to re-check when they're cold as they can really change in flavour, right? But what about cold cookies like the rum balls. How often do they require quality control testing?

That kind of deep thinking should be adequately fuelled I feel.

A rumball or a chocolate cookie......


Amy goes to school...

Sleeting today.

Sleeting sideways.

So we decided Meg didn't need to walk. This is a grey area as officially the kids walk every day. Unofficially the 1st grade teachers told us at the first home visit that the little kids are not great at using umbrellas yet (well using them to keep dry anyway) and if we could get them to school dry that would be great. So, the car it is.

Anyway, usually the big girls (Meg and her frienenmy up the road) go in the car together with K or frienemy's dad and then I take Amy up later.

Not today though. Today Amy was ready extra early and extra keen to go with the big girls. So K took all three of them and promised to do the school kids first so Amy could see the school.

Stopped outside the school (brazen K, I hide around the corner when I do the drop off) and K said goodbye.



Luckily K looked behind him when he heard the third goodbye as- yup- Amy had disembarked as well. By the time he cut the engine and got around that side of the car she was already down the stairs and across the courtyard and was surrounded by 1st graders in the genkan of the school basking in the attention and about to take her shoes off.

She was wearing her distinctive yellow bag and red hat while the school kids have navy bags and whatever hat they like so she was easy enough to extract but was all wide eyed indignation at being hussled back into the van. "But I wanted to go to schooooool!"

Only a year and a half to go honey...


Christmas in a bowl- I'm a genius!

I love salads but it's waaaaay past tomato season, my lettuce got done by the first frost and there won't be cucumber for months yet.

What we do have lots of is spinach and pumpkin. Spinach from the garden and pumpkin from the wonderful neighbours.

So far I have made a grain mustard, honey and lemon juice marinaded roast pumpkin and spinach salad, a ginger, soy, honey and sesame marinaded roast pumpkin and spinach salad and....

Christmas in a bowl!

Cranberry and apple orange dressing baked as croutons and added to roast pumpkin and spinach salad. This was amazing. AMAZING!! I ate it three meals in one day kind of amazing. I swear it tastes just like Christmas. Only you get Christmas with crunchy spinach and yummy soft pumpkin as well.

It tastes so good it makes you want to have Christmas every day. In fact I might just buy some cranberries and have Christmas again tomorrow...


multi-cultured day

Whirlwind of a day today. K left at 8 for the annual Matsumoto Martial Arts Festival. His Aikido group was performing. (He'd hate that word but I can't think of a better one. Aikido-ing?) The girls and I left at 9 to go watch. The festival was held at the City Gym and it was huuuge and I had no idea how many martial arts there are here. The usual suspects- karate, judo, aikido, taekwondo, kendo, shorinji kenpo and sumo but then also naginata which is a super long stick fighting one practised entirely by women, iaido where they use real metal swords and therefore do no sparring but rather lots of the kata- proscribed movements, jodo- stick fighting with short sticks, kyudo- Japanese archery, Nipponkempo which is a wild mix of judo and karate- you kick and punch when far enough away and then when you get close you use judo moves to bring the opponent down, and Matsumoto Castle gun fighting troupe (very loose translation) a group of guys who dress up like samurai warriors and shoot old fashioned shot guns at the castle. Not so sure that's a real martial art but it was quite impressive....


It was a huge festival competitor wise (another bad word but I'm stuck!) but the audience was almost entirely made up of parents, spouses and children of competitors. Not much of a PR opportunity for all the different dojo. So the girls and I walking in in regular clothes and not obviously attached to a competitor garnered quite a bit of interest from the different sensei. And so we did a round of the gym and watched all the different groups. Meg and Amy's impressions:
Kyudo: They should be careful. Those spears could hurt someone.
Sumo: Their underwear is waaaaay up their bottoms! And you can see their bottoms! (I explained it was a traditional fundoshi and that's how you wear it.) But you can see their bottoms!! Amy liked doing the sumo warming up moves and was very interested in how they tie the fundoshi and who ties it for you but not at all keen at trying one on. Meg wasn't having a bar of any of it.
Judo- the judo sensei was calling out to us to join in as he pushed down on boys backs who were trying to do pushups. Then wedged his shin between a kids legs as he tried to do lunges. Funnily enough neither girl thought judo looked like much fun at all....
Taekwondo- Meg liked the shirts. Amy thought it looked like fun until a little boy caught a kick in the groin and went down sobbing. Then they both thought it looked very nasty.
All the stick fighting martial arts- wide eyed wonder and 'they shouldn't point sticks at people. That's dangerous!'
Karate, shorinji kenpo and nippon kempo- there were no kids training so they thought it was just for adults.
Aikido- they were very worried for K. We've been to the dojo to watch him train before but he is quite high ranked in a class of mostly lower ranked people and so tends to be like the assistant teacher helping out. Today we saw him spar (whoa another no-no word) with Uni students and then with his teacher's teacher. I know you're not supposed to praise your family here but I'm not Japanese so here goes- he looked soooo cooollll!! Seriously. He is very graceful and strong and moves like lightening. Seriously hope the girls got that DNA as it is missing big time on my side! In Aikido they don't do real sparring but rather set moves. K was the throwee and his teacher the thrower. So for about 2 minutes at a time K would approach the teacher who would take him by the hand, elbow, shoulder, wherever and, using minimal effort- aikido style- throw him. As K wears a big flowing hakama over his outfit it looks very impressive when he sails through the air as it all billows out. And sail he did. Sail and crash, sail and crash. That was pretty much the entire demonstration. Meg and Amy were worried about him and Amy thought he should just take out the old man who was throwing him as he was surely bigger and stronger. We sat with some of the lower ranked HS kids from K's dojo and one is a real fan of K's and was explaining lots of stuff to the girls and I which put their minds to rest and was interesting to boot.

So after watching all that what did I do? Go home? Nooooo. Nowhere to buy lunch so I got a yoghurt drink and a hot cocoa from the vending machine (lunch and dessert!), said goodbye to K and the girls and I went to the next building (they share a carpark) and met up with some of my adult students. And what did we do? We watched a 100 strong choir and the Matsumoto indoor orchestra (my translation) perform Beethoven's Symphony Number 9. I'm not really a classical music kind of girl. But once a year I go to this big choral/ orchestral event and I love it. One of my students is in the choir but I think I would go anyway. The amazing sound of all those voices together, the glamour of the guest singers in their beautiful clothes (one soprano, alto, tenor and baritone are brought in from Tokyo) seeing an orchestra live, the shine on all the instruments, the crescendoing music, the energy and passion in the conductor... sigh... it's really almost overwhelming all the sensory input. After an hour and a half in a different, more beautiful, ethereal world I drove home, said hi to the girls and K, changed out of my concert gear and into heavy duty cold weather work wear, picked up two neighbours and drove down the road and went and picked turnip greens. About 40 kilos of them. In the dusk, then the gloaming, and finishing up in the dark.

It really was an odd day- from martial arts to Beethoven to turnip greens in a scant 12 hours....


Oh Christmas tree!

We decorated the Christmas tree today. Yeah!

As a kid we always had to wait until after my sister's birthday on the 17th. Bloody little sisters....

As soon as I left home I decided Christmas started December 1st so I could get the most out of it.

But this year we just got so busy we never got around to it. Well that and the fact that we cut down our big outside Christmas tree so we were kind of at a loss as to what to do.

So we headed to the place you go when you have a problem and need an answer. Nope, not the Wizard of Oz- the local home centre!

And we came back and got started. I really wanted the girls to be involved in the whole Christmas tree experience. All of it.

you know, the mixing of the fertilisers and potting mix...

The filling of the pot and planting of the tree.

And (after a bath as all that gardening made us absolutely filthy) we finally got down to the decorating. Put on my homemade Christmas compilation CD- where else do the Crapenters, Brittany Spears, Bing Crosby and the muppets sit side by side? and got out the box of decorations. Meg was all about speed. How many decorations can I get on the tree compared to everybody else?

Amy was much more methodical. And the problem solver. She tied ribbons on all the ribbonless baubles. Poor kid, she tied them on with that shredded paper you get in gift boxes and they won't last... oh well, she'll have fun re-tieing them I guess...

The finished product- two very happy girls and...

The most over laden, over dressed, higgledy piggledy unbalanced, unthemed, un-cute tree you've ever seen. I think the vision of the designers is best described by Meg when she'd hung the last bauble in the box "Ohhhhh... there's no more and you can still see green...."

It looks quite good in the dark though:

And they love it and Christmas is for the kids...

And next year hopefully it will be bigger and as long as we don't buy any more baubles we should slowly get the tree to decorations ratio right, yeah?


hard sale time at the shrine

Three men arrived at the door wanting money tonight.

Nothing unusual there.

M and A had thundered down the corridor and answered the door.

Nothing unusual there.

The men asked for K .

Nothing unusual there.

They had to settle for me as K wasn't home.

Nothing unusual there.

They wanted money.

Nothing unusual there.

They wanted 100,000 yen. (About 1000 Aussie dollars)

Noth- what?????

Nope. No mistake. One hundred thousand yen....

The local shrine needs the roof on the antechamber replaced... and the floor.... and while they're at it they want to expand it to boot. This is going to cost a lot of money. 6,500,000 yen (650,000 Aussie dollars) in fact. And there are 650 houses in the shrine's catchment area. 650 shrine parishioners. So a little arithmetic and they worked out that if they just get 100,000 yen from each of us then walah- money raised!

How simple is that, huh?

Well except that we aren't actually parishioners in any way that I know of. We don't attend shrine regularly, we don't have the shrine priest over to bless us, we didn't have either of the girls blessed for their 7-5-3 ceremonies, we don't even have a 'safety drive' sticker on our car!

The three sales people- sorry Shrine elders- were certainly working the shrine parishioner angle though:

"See here on the plans (yup, they brought the plans around) this is the room you were sitting in before your daughter's school entrance blessing."

If that was supposed to make me feel like I owed them one they must have forgotten that we weren't interested in the blessing. ...but were told we had to do it- everybody does it ...and then we were asked to make a donation to pay for it- a suggested donation of 3000 yen. So yeah, sorry no parishioner guilt there.

Then they mentioned that with two girls they will be calling on our house in a few years time for when the grade 5 and 6 girls dance at the festival. More parishioner guilt? Nope. We pay festival 'donation' money every year as well. And a New Year festivities donation as well now I think of it. And as we don't trek down there in the dark and cold to drink hot sake at midnight that really is a donation!

They left me with a greeting, a bow, and the promise to come by in early January to collect the money- whatever I can give- after I've spoken to my husband of course.

That's the way to win me over, hey? Guilt then sexism... sign me up right now!

Oh and I'll be starting my own renovation fund in a few years. I want double glazing everywhere, skylights, storage, insulation, hidden storage, more insulation, an atrium... so ummm I'm thinking I'll need about 5,000,000 yen. How much can I put you down for? You've been here, right? Or you're planning on visiting some time? If your car broke down near here you'd come in while you waited for JAF, yeah?


memorable quotes

30 something mums at cooking class yesterday on seeing a whole chicken for the first time and being asked to drain it:
"Ooh look! It's weeing!"

60 something neighbour on meeting me and the new foreign wife in the neighbourhood together (to her friend) "Yes! There's two of them living in our area now!" (I sooooo wanted to reply all innocent and wide-eyed "two beautiful young women?")

Meg randomly in the car "You're very useful mummy. Especially in the mornings. You do lots of things to help us get ready. I think you're a very useful person."

Amy on me refusing to buy her some random piece of plastic junk she found in a toy catalogue: "I know you always say you don't have enough money to buy things but if you ask daddy really nicely maybe he could share some of his money and then you could by me lots of toys!"

9 year old student on me not using the cheat sheet of words when playing boggle "that's not fair! You didn't use the sheet!" "I don't need to use the sheet, I know the words." His 7 year old brother "She's really old. She's been learning English a lot longer than us."

4 year old student on his way out the door as my next class came in: "Heather-sensei, ganbatte kudasai ne!" Kind of like "do your best", or "you can do it". It was just soooo sweet I smiled through the whole next class!

And finally Meg tonight after getting home to heavy snow, dark and frigid cold. Amy and I raced from the car to the house. Meg?

"How long do you have to stand still before you turn into a snowman?"


Mayonnaise jelly? No really! And snow pic

Poor Meg. Yesterday when we saw the snow had stuck- not much but stuck nonetheless- I suggested she wear her snowboots. Pair one? Too small. Pair two (they need multiples as you need drying time between wears) the written size said they should fit but her squealing and moaning suggested they might be a little on the snug side.... Pair three? There is no pair three...

So Meg headed off in her rain boots.

Luckily the snow was really just a smattering:

I see we're going to end up with the battle of the bamboo again this year. I would really like to keep it but it does threaten to take out the electricity wires every heavy snow. And I do like electricity....

And the mayonnaise jelly?

Mayonnaise is a bit of a joke around here. K is an addict. He will sit down with a whole cucumber and a bottle of mayonnaise and put a dab on each and every single bite... really.

Me? I don't like mayonnaise. I don't like it in Australia where it at least tastes vinegary and I really don't like it in Japan where it tastes like it should be on the dessert stand.

So it was a surprise to us all when one of my senior students made us this dish and not only did I like it but I liked it enough to make again! And even seeing exactly how much mayonnaise goes in didn't lessen my enjoyment of it.

It really is a very pretty looking dish (bad picture sorry) and because it's kanten it's solid at room temperature so great for parties and pot lucks as you don't need to worry about keeping it warm or cold until you arrive. Bonus!

And now the hard sell is over here's the recipe so you too can enjoy the wonder that is mayonnaise jelly. No really.

900 ml water
2 sticks stick kanten or two sachets powder kanten
1 cup mayonnaise at room temperature (yup, one whoooole cup)
1 cup sugar (yup one whoooole cup ony I couldn't bring myself to do it so used 3/4)
1 carrot finely sliced
1 cucumber finely sliced
6 slices of ham finely diced

Boil water and dissolve kanten and sugar.
Cool until just above room temperature (you don't want the kanten to start solidifying but you don't want it really hot or the mayonnaise will split)
Add the mayonnaise and stir well until it comes together. Be warned before that stage it will look like a right mess. Have faith and keep stirring!
Microwave the carrots until just tender.
Add the ham, cucumber and carrot.
Stir to mix and pour into a dish to set.



It's snowing

Winter Denial Bubble well and truly burst.

Let down by global warming again. (Must go and buy more aerosol cans.... and see if Meg's dog allergy will still allow us to keep a few methane producing cows...)

Must look into my contract and see if I can take hibernation leave....

*sigh* it's snowing.

The girls will be thrilled.

K will be relieved that all is right with the world.

No one will wallow in self-pity and moan about the cold and the wet and the ice and the cold with me.

It's snowing.

That's all.

I'm going to bed.

Call me when you see tulips.


the fairy tale grinch.

I'm the fairytale grinch. I really don't like a lot of fairy stories-

Snow White- she leaves a horrid stepmother and runs off to the woods to shack up with seven sexist men who make this too good to be true offer: "If you will keep house for us, and cook, make beds, wash, sew, and knit, and keep everything clean and orderly, then you can stay with us, and you shall have everything that you want."

Wow. Really. How could she say no to that? Seriously. All that housework times seven men? And they're miners so imagine the laundry.... In my version she sets up next door, lives free of obligation to anyone and suggests the dwarves try living in more manageable numbers before looking for a live in unpaid cleaner.

Cinderella- I'm all for a tale of good winning over evil and all but she meets the guy for two (chaste) nights and then decides to marry him. Oh and forgive her evil sisters and have them marry lords. Forgive me for thinking that if they ever featured Cinderella on 'where are they now' it wouldn't be quite so rosy...

The North Wind and the sun- sure the wind blew fast and furious and that wasn't very nice but really the sun beating down hard and hot was just as much bullying right? There goes the moral of the story...

But the tale that annoys me the most is a Japanese one called kasa-jizo or hats for the jizo statues. There are a number of variations on the story but basically an old man and an old woman are dirt poor and the old man goes to sell hats to buy food for his wife waiting at home. Only he doesn't sell anything and gives the hats to the jizo statues. And in the middle of the night the statues come alive and deliver a bounty to the old couple. Moral- being kind (even to inanimate objects) pays. My problem with it? Irresponsible foolish husband goes soft in the head and heart and leaves cold and hungry wife as is. Enough said.

So, I re-wrote it. As you do, right? It's quite long but here's my version of kasa-jizo. What I reckon really happened:


Not so long ago there was an old man and an old woman living all alone quite a way up a mountain deep in the country. They didn’t used to live all alone, there used to be a whole hamlet of houses around them but over the years all the young people moved to the city and the old people passed on or were put in homes by their 5th floor 3LDK city living children until there were only the two of them left. They didn’t have any money as the government pension for farmers was hardly worth the long trip down to the post office to collect it but they didn’t need much money as they had always been smalltime farmers eking out a living year to year and season to season. As they got older, slowly, one field at a time, they decreased the amount of land they tended until they were left scraping out a living subsistence farming one last field as the surrounding land returned to nature. They lived simply and ate sparely, simply and seasonally. In winter here deep in the mountains that meant they were eating a lot of pickles, a lot of daikon, hakusai and negi and not much else.

One day, on the last day of the year, a day when they woke up with frost on their noses- old houses and insulation and all that- the old lady served up the same old breakfast of hakusai and daikon miso soup, pickled daikon, salted hakusai, negi-miso baked rice balls and green tea that she’d been serving three meals a day for weeks and she sighed and said “Old man, tomorrow is New Years Day! I want something different to eat. I need a change from all this monotony and I want something without salt!”

“Is that so?” The old man mumbled through a mouthful of soup. He wasn’t really listening, the old woman had been talking his ear off for over 50 years now and it had faded into a background hum to his daily life about 45 of them ago.

“Old man! I said I need you to buy us some food- I want some fish! Maybe some meat!”

“Ok, ok.” The old man sighed into his tea. “No need to carry on.” That’s what you get for marrying someone who had been used to the finer things, hey? he thought as he remembered his father in law and the shop he had had on main street. Back when there was a main street…

“Stop your fussing and I’ll go and sell some of those straw hats we made on all those rainy days lat month. I’ll get us some money and buy your fish if you just promise to let up on the caterwauling and let me eat my meal in peace old woman.”

They finished their meal as they usually did, without talking and with only slurping and chewing sounds to break the silence of a snow bound winter morn.

The old man headed off on the long tramp down the hill with a ‘yoisho’ and a groan for effect as he stood up with the five straw hats tied to his back and his own battered straw hat pushed down hard on his head.

On the way down the mountain he passed six stone jizo statues, nodding to them and commenting on the cold as he passed. With noone else but the old woman for company the old man had grown quite fond of the jizo. Feeling a sense of comradery with them and sometimes envying their peaceful existence.

After an hour and a half of trudging and slipping and sliding and tramping down the mountain the old man made it into town. It was New Year’s Eve and the streets were crazy, all those city folks back for New Year driving like they were still in peak hour city traffic, the shops were heaving with be-aproned women searching for last minute osechi ingredients and everyone was meeting friends, neighbours, colleagues and acquaintances needing a cheery but hurried New Year greeting.

The old man sat down in a corner of the park with his straw hats at his feet and watched all the scurrying. It all rather overwhelmed him to be honest.

It was a cold winter day but there was no wind and the old man basked in the weak winter sun and wiled the hours away without anyone so much as throwing a glance in his direction. The thing was, very few people even used straw hats anymore. JA handed out baseball caps for every new campaign, you could pick up a made-in-China, snugfitting, bow-closing, floral all-in-one hat and scarf from the home centre for 198 yen on sale. The cumbersome and non-sweat absorbing straw hat was an endangered species almost exclusively worn by those who had made them themselves.

As the sun began to sink behind the mountain tops- around 3:00pm up this high- the old man unwrapped his negi-miso baked rice ball and chewed it purposefully before slowly and with much effort unkinking his stiff muscles, restrapping the straw hats to his back and- avoiding the splash from an under-occupied 7-seater people mover taking a corner too tight and too fast- he started off on the long journey home. The sunshine had created an icy crust on the snow, a breeze had picked up turning a cold day into a frigid late afternoon and the old man leaned into the mountain as he took each slow, heavy and deliberate step back up the mountain.

Half way up the mountain the wind turned into a howl, the sky darkened prematurely and the snow that had been fluttering down lazily quickly became a white out of fat, fluffy flakes that taunted him by stinging his cheeks and finding his eyes no matter how far he bent towards the mountain unconsciously trying to make himself a smaller target.

And still the old man pushed on, thinking of the old woman at home waiting for him. She’d have the fire going well in the irori by now, soup keeping warm in a corner and his mat pulled up close to the heat ready for him to sink down and get warm.

She was a good woman and it was a happy life they had together. Their two sons had long ago left the hamlet for the city and didn’t come back anymore. Too far, too busy, nothing for the grandkids to do and their wives both hated visiting the old and draughty house with it’s lack of gadgetry. They missed their boys of course but it was easier this way. Just the two of them. They had their own routine and their own way of doing things and it worked just fine for them.

The man was so consumed by his reverie he almost missed seeing the jizo statues. Well the vaguely jizo shaped snow mounds by the side of the track anyway. Stopping to untangle the knots in his back with a few groans and yoisho’s he put down his load of hats and scooped the snow off the jizo and gave them a solemn “Tadaima.” They looked so longsuffering just standing there in the cold, unable to even turn their backs to the wind. He looked at the pile of hats he had offloaded and frowned thinking of the ear chewing he was in for when he got home. He looked at the jizo again, already wearing a thin powdering of fresh snow, and with a shadow of the cheeky smile he had so often worn as a much younger man he tied the straw hats on the heads of the jizo, giving his own hat to the last jizo with a final pat. He stepped back and nodded a final greeting to the jizo as he smiled at his handiwork, slapped the snow off his trousers with yet another yoisho and trudged the last few minutes towards home in the fast encroaching dark.

When he slid open the rattling old door to his genkan with a weary ‘Tadaima’ he sighed with contentment at the warmth and the smells of home- wood smoke, pickles and the slightly musty smell of damp washing.

“Okaeri!” He heard from the hearth. He straightened his shoulders and rubbed his stubbly chin as he shucked off his boots and yoishoed his way up into the house. He was in for it over those hats. He sent up a prayer that at least she’d serve his dinner before she got stuck in to him. If she got distracted ranting she could be standing their waving that ladle around in the air for emphasis for an age while he sat there hopefully in front of his empty bowl and the soup sat patiently in it’s pot in the corner.

“You must be tired.” she greeted him and then, looking up saw that he was carrying no shopping, in fact carrying nothing at all. “Old man what have you been doing all day? I bet you didn’t even sell a single hat! Did you even take the hats to the JA office to see Tetchan’s son? You know he always buys them up and puts them around the shop. You didn’t did you? I bet you spent the whole day sitting around down there doing absolutely nothing and gazing off into the distance. You forgot? Again?! How can you forget something we do every time we go into town? Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to do with you. What did you do with those hats then? What?? Oh you really are an infuriating man! The least you could have done was bring them home so I could take them down to town and sell them myself when the snow lets up. Hats on statues? You must be funny in the head I swear. And to think I waited for you for dinner! I haven’t got anything organized you know. Ahhh I was going to boil the fish for tomorrow and use the broth for some really good soup tonight. And now what are we going to do? And what are you doing just standing there dripping all over the place. Come over by the fire and get dry at least. You’ll catch your death of cold I swear. And what good will you be to me then, hey? Oh well, I suppose there’s always pickles and I can add some more hakusai and daikon to the left over miso soup from this morning. And the hearth is hot we can have roasted rice balls with negi-miso. Same old, same old. It could have been fish! It could have been something different. You hopeless old man, you. I don’t know why I married you somedays.”

The old woman kept right on ranting as the old man sighed contentedly and sank down by the hearth creeping forward until his toes peeked over the side of it and warmth and feeling returned to his feet and he watched his socks let up wisps of pungent steam. It was good to be home. It sure was good to be home.

As the snow shushed down relentlessly outside the window and settled heavily on the trees and bushes and the jizo’s straw hats that were warping and showing the strain (well, the three that hadn’t already fallen off into the snow anyway) the old year crept to a close and the old man and the old woman settled in for the night under layer upon layer of chest-compressingly heavy futons and said a weary goodnight to each other.

And they slept uninterrupted through a long quiet night and woke the next morning to the dawn of a new day, a new year and another meal of hakusai and daikon miso soup, pickled daikon, salted hakusai, negi-miso baked rice balls and tea.


coming up for air

Phewwww the Christmas rush is well and truly on.

Busy busy busy and we now have daily family schedule double checking time in the morning. Just so we make sure the girls both get a lift home in the evening and I know whether and at what time K wants an evening meal. You know, just the little stuff like that...

Today was a nice break though.

We went down to Fujimi city for a lovely lunch. Another place I that's not that far away but that I had never been to. An amazing bay blade collection, a fully apped-out ipad and the most gorgeous little almost two year old playmate kept the girls happy, K found a room full of unique and very old (early Taisho- 1910's) books that thrilled him and me? Fabulous conversation? In English? Delicious food? Authentic foreign food? I had a ball!

Group photo minus family that needed to go home early.

The littlest photographer. Still haven't checked out the photos she took but not holding my breath!

Amy in love and a toddler with power. Both M and A were desperate to play with her. Little S could bring forth smiles or tears with a nod or a shake of her cute curly head and the taking of one hand or the other.


how do you take your tea?

As in do you drink it or eat it?

Had a very odd conversation today.

I was talking to someone at work.

I thought I was speaking English- our common language.

But things got all complicated when I told Meg and Amy to go get their stuff together so we could go have tea as I didn't know about them but I was hungry.

Tea? Hungry?

Seems in the US you only drink tea. And you eat dinner.

Me? I eat dinner twice a year- Christmas Dinner and Birthday Dinner, I eat tea every evening and prefer drinking coffee to tea.

I was asked if all Australians call the evening meal tea and I couldn't answer. Hmmm.... noone in Australia has ever looked puzzled when I said it so I'm thinking I'm not the only one anyway...

So, aware now that I was having a cross-cultural conversation I asked Amy to go to the bathroom before we left remembering that toilet is a bit of a dirty word in North America. Well, this time it was M and A's turn to be confused.

"You have a bath at work?"
"Why does Amy have to have a bath before dinner?"

In the end I had to use the t-word to sort things out anyway.

I feel like one of my students:

"English is so difficult!"