Happy Australia Day!

January 26th is Australia Day.

It's the anniversary of the First Fleet landing in Australia in 1788 and declaring it British Sovereign territory

Only the Dutch had 'discovered' Australia in 1606.  And again in 1616, 1619, 1623.... They named it New Holland but mustn't have been that taken by it as they kept sailing on their merry way.

It's a bit controversial as I'm sure all European colonisation anniversaries are and is called 'Invasion day' by some.

But we don't focus on that here, we just celebrate Australia's Birthday.

So we started by singing Happy Birthday to Australia.

And Meg decided that saying 'mate' after every sentence is very Australian:

'Yummy brekky, mate.'

'Thanks mate.'

'Pass the butter, mate.'

'Here you are, mate.'

It got a bit old pretty quick.

But who am I to stop them being Aussie, huh?

We made Anzac bikkies and I took them to my senior English class and then my fabulous neighbour W gave me her pastry recipe and I made a meat pie:

Meg and Amy made a salad and I opened a jar of homemade tomato sauce and we had a truly Aussie meal.

Which I forgot to take a picture of at all until it was completely finished:

The recipe wasn't great, I think Japanese mince is much milder/ blander than Aussie and I tried using mushroom stock rather than beef but it was really popular so I think a re-jigging of the recipe and a take two is in order.

A couple more Anzac bickies for dessert and our Australia Day was complete.

Happy Australia Day!

Hey, I said that!

This is a great article about school lunches in Japan.

People in Japan will nod and say yup.

People who have been reading here for a while will role their eyes and say 'another post about school lunches???' as I have been raving about this since Meg started kinder six years ago.  But you're lucky.  Fact is I have been raving about school lunches since I started teaching here 13 years ago- it's just that my family were my only audience. :)

But I heard from a friend's husband that not all school lunches are created equal though and that some cities with budget balancing problems have tried to economise and ended up with an inferior product (boil in the bag noodles more than once a week?)

I know that many schools/ BOEs struggle to get parents to pay the school lunch fee.  Not because it is too expensive for them (there are waivers/ discounts for low income families) but because some people abuse the service knowing that the school won't/ can't refuse to serve a child lunch.

Our school famously has 100% payment rate which I think has a number of causes- it's directly withdrawn from your account each month so you don't have to remember an envelope of money and if you don't have sufficient funds to pay in your account after a second attempt a week later they send a member of the local PTA around to your door to collect in person.

The shame!  The embarrassment!

May it continue for a long time!



Sex Ed in Amy's class:

It's hard to read but they decided the way you tell the difference between a boy and a girl is not via clothing, hair, muscles or hat. I thought this was a great start- pointing out the similarities before we got to the differences.

Meg's class started off with the same idea and the kids had to guess which was the boy and which was the girl.  Cue mass hysteria when all was revealed.

It was great that the teacher reassured them that this was a subject that made people giggly and it was alright to laugh or giggle but not to say ewwwww! or grossss! as it's all natural and we've all got sexual organs.

Teacher fuzzed out as I'm about to be a bit rude and don't want to embarrass her tooooo much .....


Really hard to see but is it just me or does that boy have rather serious anatomical problems.... He seems to be growing sexual organs on his abdomen, right?

Oh and what she's holding?  A storyboard story about testicles and their uses and origin (up where women's ovaries are- I had no idea!)  And the reason they are called kintama in Japanese is not for golden balls but as a contraction of iki-no-tama where iki is the character for life.  I can stop wondering why balls are considered golden here, then!  

Not sure what it says about me that I was learning stuff in Grade three Sex Ed....

But I think I could teach something about male anatomy here....

She's a great teacher, very young and working doubly hard as she's still studying, so maybe she doesn't have time to get out much....

But really.....



pretty cool stuff happens here

check this video out: click here

I wish my grandma was alive to see this.

She was a teacher.

An amazing teacher.

When I was a kid I occasionally went with her to her Adult Literacy classes.  Some of the people she  taught had really hard upbringings and sad stories.  Some of them were pretty rough.  She treated everyone with respect and to my naive country kid eyes it seemed amazing that she wasn't scared of some of them!

Even after retiring my grandma was very on the ball with the news and sent me clippings (highlighted for my reading ease) about Japan and the Japanese education system (as well as whaling, gender (in)equality, politics, environmental degradation, fair trade and refugee issues.)

She had a pretty poor opinion of the Japanese education system.  Somewhat justified in reality (cram schools and exam hell) but also influenced by often rather sensationalist tv reporting (JHS kids suicide!! PE teachers HIT KIDS!!! Kinder kids forced to play IN THEIR UNDERWEAR in the SNOWWW!!)

The schools and teachers I have known here have been brilliant.  But to be fair, when I was teaching fulltime it was at a village JHS and three feeder schools- the smallest of which had 12 kids....

As a parent I am cautiously happy with school so far.  Very very happy with the experience so far but we're only 3 years into 12... and I have some pretty big worries about what's to come in terms of rote learning and exam pressure.

And while I'm sure not all teachers are as fabulous as the teacher in the video I have to say I think many are.  And I think, at the primary school level at least, there is a system that supports teachers in a way that allows them to be creative and flexible and encourages team building and comeraderie and compassion and empathy among the students.  I saw this after the big earthquake.  There was minimal damage to our area and no fear of tsunami whatsoever but despite this there was ample classtime given to discussion and journal writing about their fears and feelings.  Meg talked about her grandparents house tilting out of whack and having no power or water and her daddy going up there and being out of contact and how scared that made her feel.  The teacher didn't poo-pooh their fears but explained that it's natural to be scared and the best way to feel better is to tell someone how you feel and talk about it.

There were kids who suddenly started crying and getting hysterical a month later when they went on a bus-trip past a wrecker yard.  The cars piled up in mangled jumbles reminded them of the tv footage of the tsunami wreckage and they were worried the tsunami had come to Matsumoto.  Again, the teacher was really understanding and they had a big group hugging and back patting session over it all.

I have seen similar caring and understanding about kids experiencing divorce, hospitalisation, disability and death in the family.

So yeah, lots of conservative teacher-centric guff goes on here, Nanny, but sometimes some pretty cool stuff happens here too.


we're doing a good job

My pre-kinder class today.

Just-turned-three R arrived first.

Good morning R!

Mmmmm...... who shovelled the snow?

Well, Heather-sensei did a bit but mostly it was B-sensei and A-sensei.

Hmmmm... they did a really good job.  It was really easy to walk in from my car.  It's not easy to walk to my car at my house.

Thanks, R.  I'll pass that on to them.

Mmmmm... can I get the toy basket out?


Kids notice the weirdest stuff, huh?

I had one boy who used to notice what car everyone drove (four kids in the class plus me) and ask where your other car was and why you weren't driving it.

He was two.

I don't even notice what car people drive!

Still, nice that our snow shovelling is appreciated, huh?



I know I have raved about it before but the school (and kinder) lunches my kids have had here are really amazing.  There is a huge emphasis on fresh food, locally grown vegetables (there's a quota for vegetables grown in the Matsumoto area), their rice is hatsuga genmai germinated brown rice) and often has barley or kibble or seaweed mixed through it, the protein is often fish and every day they are served a main, salad/ vegetable, rice (or bread once a week), soup and milk.  Occasionally fruit or some other dessert is added but not every day.  There is a good balance between straight-up healthy for you food (ginger boiled fish, steamed chicken) and things kids love to eat and look forward to (fried pork cutlets, curry.) The meal is calorie controlled to 650 calories to boot. Even on fried food days which amazes me. On special occasions like Children's Day, Christmas, Equinox etc there will be traditional/ celebratory food served as well.

The meal often comes with an explanation of some aspect of the cooking or a nutrition quiz or some such that raises the kids awareness of nutrition and a balanced diet in a fun and non-preachy way.

And occasionally we break out of straight Japanese fare and the kids learn something of food from another culture- bibimba from Korea and chilli dogs from America come to mind.

The school lunch centre also goes to great lengths for kids with allergies and has individual plans for these kids with what they can eat, what the can't and what to use as a substitute.

Oh and we get a monthly menu in advance so we know what will be served when and really organised mums can plan their dinners around this to avoid doubling up on proteins.  (I'm not one of those mums...)

I knew this system came after the war as a reaction to the malnutrition/ vitamin deficiency caused difference in height and weight of Japanese children compared to their cohorts in other countries.

I also knew that Ken's grandnmother and other people of her generation (she died in her mid )90's five years ago) had it really tough.

But I had no idea that people much younger than her had also had it really tough.

I was teaching a senior English class of women in their mid-60s and early 70s and one of them was talking about her school days.  She grew up in a village that is now an easy 40 minute drive from here and pretty well connected to the rest of the prefecture but at the time was much more isolated.

She said they didn't have school lunch.

They didn't eat rice for lunch at all.

Each child brought a vegetable from home each day and part of the school day for the monitors of this job was cutting up these vegetables and making a big pot of miso soup.

And that was lunch for teacher and students alike.

I told her I loved the cooperative, 'the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts' factor in this and that I thought it was a fabulous idea.

She replied that by February it was almost always just daikon and hakusai cabbage and quite bland and boring and repetitive.

That kind of took the rosy glow off my image of the unifying group lunch a little....

And makes me even more thankful of the fabulous school lunches the kids now have!



Amy made brekky.

She wanted to make yoghurt parfaits but I haven't been shopping in a while and we were out of yoghurt.

Never fear- Amy the inventive is here!

And so we have:

Apple slices, muesli mix, apple shaped apple cutouts, frozen dried persimmon and a whopping garnish of mandarin all liberally drenched in lemon juice.

Yes.  I said lemon juice.

Look hard at the two cups on the right- see the liquid at the bottom?  All lemon juice.

Ewwwwmmmmmmmmmmeeeeeeahhhhhhh!  That was one sour brekkie!

I have to say though, I think it might even work better than coffee at waking you up of a morning.

Not that I am even remotely considering swapping my morning coffee for a cup of fresh-squeezed lemon juice but just saying...


How did that happen?

During the farming season the girls don't get to have friends over much.  Friends who are cool with hanging out in the rice paddy and/or the garden are welcome but they are few and far between.  Which is not to say they don't get to play with their friends.  They do.  They play with the kids who hang out in the field next door while their mum works and they get invited to friends' houses to play too.  But having people over to ours to play at the house is pretty rare so we try to make up for it in the Winter months.

Today I am not sure what happened but we ended up with a houseful!

Meg called her friend who lives at the bottom of the hill and invited her up.  

Amy called her friend and invited him over.

Meg's friend was coming at 2:30.

Amy's was coming at 2:00.

The girls finished their homework in record time in the morning and cleaned their bedroom.

K and I were up and down the stepladder inside the cupboard in the small room putting in the last of the insulation.  It's revoltingly grimy work and you get sweaty to boot so pretty gross.  We were working double speed trying to get it all done by 1:30 in order to be able to clean up and put all the things back in the cupboard and vacuum up the dust that is inevitable in this job before the kids arrived.

At 12:30 the phone rang.  I answered and I guess I put the caller off as there was a lot of silence.  Considering that the only people who call the landline are salespeople, the school and the girls' friends I guessed it was a kid and handed the phone to Amy.  She said hello and this is Amy and there was a long pause and she shrugged and passed the phone to Meg.  We finally got success and Meg had a conversation of sorts and told me it was her friend and she wanted to come over at 1:30 instead of 2:00.  Ok.  No problem.

Went back to helping K at more than double speed now and at 1:20 the doorbell rang.


It was a different one of Meg's friends.  Totally cool with that- we were having kids over anyway and what's one more but how could Meg have a whole conversation with her and not know who it was and how could the little girl go a whole conversation and not pipe up that she wasn't who Meg thought she was?  Weird!

The girls played in the playroom while K and I packed up all the stuff in the small room and cleaned and tidied.

2:00 and Amy's friend turned up- with his big sister.  Again, totally cool, what's one more kid?  But a surprise none the less.  I'm not sure if it's a culture thing or just a me thing but I wouldn't send Amy along on Meg's playdate.  At least I didn't think I ever would until Meg's friends started asking why Amy wasn't coming along, too?  I guess everyone just thinks what's the difference between one kid and two, huh?  But yeah, unexpected extra play-date visitors is something that still surprises me.

By 2:30 Meg's friend turned up- with her little sister!  Why not?

I have to say, kids here arrive at playdates with enough snacks for a week, so it's a pretty low-stress playdate.  More trouble to send the girls off to play at someone else's place to be honest!

So, we now have our two and five playdaters.  The three 9 year olds were upstairs playing DS with the 5 year old little sister looking on.  The 7year old and two 6 year olds were downstairs playing with the dollhouse and drawing and colouring.  I invited the 5 year old down to play if she wanted and she just shook her head but then a couple minutes later her sister brought her down to play.

The four kids got on like a house on fire and before you knew it it was snacktime:

Unintentionally blurry but consequently privacy-protecting picture.

Then the 6 and 7 year olds decided to go out and make a snow slide for the sleds.  I offered to lend the 5 year old a snowsuit if she wanted to play too but she chose to stay inside.  Don't blame her- warm room vs cold icy yard?  Hmmmm....

The snow players had a fabulous time and we could hear shrieks of laughter from our nice warm room.

The five year old started dressing the dolls and was taking it all very seriously and kept coming over to ask me where this doll's pants were or which doll wears these shoes? 

So I gave up on making flashcards and went over and played dolls together.

Until Amy's friends were picked up and she took over for me.  And the 5yo seemed to approve of Amy's bossy mothering style way more than my quiet and cooperative one.

Oh well!

And now Amy wants to have a sleepover...


SanKuRo 三九郎

Sankuro again.

Bonfire night.

Amy was sooooooo excited.

As a bona fide big girl school kid now she is invited to the whole shazam and not just the evening entertainment with the rest of the kinder kids.

8:30am they headed down to the community centre with their 300 yen to go around the neighbourhood collecting 300 yen from every house and all the new year's decorations and paper ready to fuel the bonfire.

They came back about 10:45 after having had a ball stuffing paper and big red daruma papier mache dolls into the bonfire pyre.

I chopped up a big bag of potato, daikon, sweet potato and carrot and come 12:00 they headed down to the community centre again for a New Year Party of sushi and fried food (Meg was wide-eyed in amazement as she reported that they had 'sushi AND fried food!!!!' poor deprived child...) and bingo.

They got back at 3:45 and we had to get ready for the whole family to go up to the temple grounds for the bonfire.

Traditionally the sankuro bonfire fare are little rice flour balls of gooeyness called mayudama.  I tried to make these one year and it was a huge muck-around for not very delicious results.  Two years ago I decided to rebel and took along marshmallows.  It was a huge hit and I ended up being quite the contraband dealer sharing out our marshmallows.

Last year there were quite a few kids with marshmallows but still about equal numbers with mayudama.

This year?  I saw one child with hand-shaped home-made mayudama.  I also saw masses of marshmallows, sausages, cheese-filled fish sausages, mochi rice cakes, jacket potatoes, sweet potatoes and the odd dried-squid.  I feel a little guilty that I've corrupted the neighbourhood.... but the kids are rapt and the mothers reckon it's so much easier!

Those vegetables I cut up in the morning became the basis for huge vats of pork and veg soup served off the back of a k-truck with chili powder which was the perfect antidote for a bitterly cold night.

The men had their own k-truck off in a corner serving 'hot water'.  This do not drink and drive hot water stall used to be next to the pork soup but the fire brigade (who monitor all bonfires) commented that it wasn't appropriate to be serving hot water at a kids' event.  Never mind- now the hot water is a good 50 steps away in a 'completely separate but simultaneous' event.

Heading off to sankuro- looking cute is more important than staying warm.  Brrrrrr!

Meg went for the all-squished-together marshmallow method.

Fire's on

So hot we had to stand back- weird to be burning hot on your front and freezing cold on your back at the same time!

Amy refused to wear her snowboots and vehemently declared that she wouldn't be playing in the snow anyway.  Yeah right.
I counted no less than 4 kids in their sneakers though so she was in good (albeit frigidly cold) company!

Let the cooking begin

Everyone watching the fire brigade.  It scares me silly all that highly flammable ski-wear just centimetres from a bonfire....

And that was sankuro 2013.  Done for another year.  The countdown is on until I am one of the mums on the organising committee.  Aghhhh!!  Dum da da dum!


more snow pics

I'm a bit disappointed with this snow.

It's not playing by the rules.

This isn't Sakae Village where Bastish lives.

It'S not even Hakuba where the ski fields are.

Our snow is supposed to look pretty for a day so we can take some pictures and then all the snow not in the north facing areas is supposed to melt nicely away and leave us in peace for a while before another bunch of well-behaved and very pretty snow falls.

But not this time.

Temperatures so cold we made the national news (really!) and the snow is still hanging around with a vengence.  

Five days after the snow and we have this:

LOVE bamboo, green all year and it bends double under snow and still doesn't break.  Go bamboo!

The view from the road.  The roads are down to one lane in places as they haven't been ploughed properly.  Thanks to amalgamation we are waaaaay down on the city's snow ploughing priority list.  Never fear!  We have a whole army of guys with tractors and clip on snow ploughs.  Some of the bigger tractors have ploughs that clip on the fornt but the smaller ones clip on the back.  Which means you have an old farmer driving down the road in reverse beeping away like mad trying to plough in a straight line by looking over his shoulder.  Is it any wonder we have less than perfectly ploughed roads?

The path K shovelled for me to get around the back of the house.  Worth his weight in snow shovels is K!


Bigger icicles.  The school has a very strict 'don't play with icicles' policy as if they fall on you they're pretty dangerous.  This is more than fine with me.  So it was quite a surprise to hear that normally stringently rule abiding Meg had a 'pet' icicle she has housed/ hidden in a snowbank outside her classroom and checks on regularly. She swore black and blue that she hadn't broken any rules.
Then how did you get the icicles?
Well, the teacher said you can't go near eaves or houses and you aren't allowed to go into anyone's property and I didn't do any of that.
Now I was really confused.  Where did you get the icicle then?
Well, you know down by the post office they have the road blocked off? And it says construction site on the signs?  And there's the poles up there?  Well, I went around the back of the barrier and there were some great icicles on the construction signs!  

I have now added 'construction sites and anywhere else with do not enter and or danger signs up' to Meg's personalised list of places not to go to collect icicles.

Walking to school in the snow again:
Keeping a steady supply of clean and dry snow gear available for the girls is becoming quite stressful.  I ended up drying Amy's snow boots with a hairdryer the other day which was quite effective but really disgusting- phewwwwwwww!

I got a chance to go out a tramping with friend S though and the blue sky and white snow combo is stunning!

It was quite the workout though with the combination of snow and snow boots and a 2 hour walk.  I went for the conversation and came back feeling like I'd been at the gym all morning!

The river with snow.


something to go with your tea.....

I teach a number of senior English classes and they all love a snack before/ during/ after class.  Usually this is some kind of souvenir sweet or home produce.  It's usually really yummy and I definitely consider it a perk of the job.I have eaten some pretty wild things in my teaching time- tofu jelly anyone? pickled shitake mushrooms? okara tofu-lees in cookies, cake, dip, jelly, you name it!

It's usually just a couple of morsels but sometimes it gets a bit out of hand.

Today was one of those days:

tea. red bean rice, fu (wheat gluten) boiled with veggies, pickled greens, dried persimmons, mandarins and (out of shot) some jellies.

Phew!  I didn't need lunch after all that!


Icy Tuesday

What better way to follow a white Monday than an icy Tuesday? Yuck!

I do not enjoy driving.

In any conditions.

I really can't understand people who say they enjoy driving.  It's so stressful and tiring and you have to concentrate on the road and other drivers rather than the scenery and your thoughts.

Then again I love teaching pre-kinder classes and I know a lot of people shudder at the thought of that so I guess it's courses for horses again, huh?

Anyway, yesterday K was able to drive me to work as it was a holiday but today I was on my own.

Today I sent the girls off on their merry way:

And they really were merry as they love snowy days as their school has a fabulous playground with a mountain and a creek and a whole lot of play areas.  While sleds aren't allowed (too dangerous with so many kids) they can take cardboard to slide on and many just slide on their bums.  They also 'skate' down the frozen creek.  As it's lined on both sides with rocks I consider this quite dangerous too but the school is fine with it so they have a grand time with it all.  They have even more to haul to school than usual though as they need a change of socks (Meg) and complete change of clothes (Amy) for if they get wet.  The teachers have set up clothes drying racks in the classrooms to air their snow gear/ wet clothes so that is a bonus but still....

 After the girls left I got ready.  I left an hour and a half for a 30 minute drive and thought I was probably being stupidly over cautious but was happy to wear that.

Turned out I needed every minute of that hour and a half!

The roads into the city were bumper to bumper traffic.  Even when you could move noone was going more than 20km/h which made me really happy as I like to crawl along when slipping and sliding are on the menu and hate it when you get some over-confident evil-kenevil type overtaking and driving way too fast on ice.  

Kept driving and thanks to the great viewing from the front window of the Delica was able to watch a truck come off the road:

The guy in blue is the driver.  After spinning his wheels for a while he ended up with powder coating his tires.  He took the chains off the back tires and put them on the front ones.  They still just span around and around and he started bashing at the snow with more chains and then he started walking down the row of cars apologising.  Seriously.

Luckily for us all the car one behind the truck was another truck.  A small one but one with grunt it seemed as after they both stamped down all the snow on the roadside the gas truck was able to drive around the big truck and tow it out backwards.  Rather them than me!

After that the drive was uneventful but a lot snowier and icier than I had expected.  I thought as soon as I got into the city proper it would be all smooth sailing (well driving anyway) but it was icy the whole way in.  I arrived stressed and with 5 minutes to spare.  Aghhhhh!

Sometimes I don't love living here as much as I do the rest of the time!


white monday

9:00 in the morning:
Hmmm, we're not gonna be working on the woodpile today...

Off to feed the chooks:

The view of the deck:

Even my snowshoes are sinking:

K shovelling snow and Amy backing up with the very important stamping job:

It's sideways but Amy's snowstamping dance makes me giggle no matter how many times I watch it!


warmer by the day...

Not the weather.


Our house.

Startling discovery- we had no insulation in the roof.
None.  Nada.  Zip.

Our ceilings are plywood-weight wood panels.  They are slotted together in a very groovy (haha!) puzzle kind of way.

Above the ceiling is a whole grid system of beams and trusses and supports.  Quite reassuringly sturdy and beautifully made from real trees with all the undulations of real-tree wood.

And the main beam in the house has some beautiful brush-drawn calligraphy written the length of it that K assures me is some kind of blessing and not 'Property of the railway.  Fine for removal, ¥500,000' or somesuch.

But between these beautiful beams and the plywood thickness underlayer on the rooving tiles?  Nothing.

A whole lot of air and some dust (not near as much dust as the money shot on gekiteki before and after and as I have never vacuumed up there I'm now suspicious about those walls of dust they always show...) 

Air, dust and sunlight.

Yup.  There are little gaps and crannies in the roof that are open to the elements.  This is apparently so the house can breathe.  Pah.  When it getts too cold I can't breathe so the house can just deal I reckon!

And so this morning K and I spent our time in the roof space putting down glass fibre bats with a R rating of 2.  Yup, I now speak in R ratings.  But not very well.  K was trying in vain to explain to me why we couldn't get a super-duper R rating of 4 (most scales only go to 3.5) by just doubling up our R2 rated insulation batts.  Makes sense to me- 2+2=4!  I was getting as bamboozled as when he tried to explain that UV ratings on sunscreen are not a matter of simple arithmetic either and gave up.  Oh well, even one layer is still a whole heap better than plywood, dust, air and sunshine, right???

It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, very difficult to take pictures inside the roof crawl space but I had to try so:

You can almost see the curve on the main beam there.

Pink batts going in:

It's getting warmer!  I'm getting excited!  We're gonna be cosy!


we didn't have a fire here today

Lazy Sunday lunchtime.

We ate a late brekky so we were still just lolling around come the official 12:00 must-eat-lunch-now chime.

I had pulled the massive bucket-shaped iceblock out of the chooks water bucket and was around the front filling the watering can with more water when I looked up and saw the neighbour's wife running around the side of their house with a big roll of garden hose.

I had seen the black smoke billowing up from behind their house but you know, the good citizens of this neighbourhood haven't heard of the Kyoto Protocol and not only do we burn off regularly but we use various accelerants to boot.  What better way to recycle engine oil and old kero, right?

But something just seemed a little odd here...

My neighbours aren't known for their love of running...

And that really was a lot of very black smoke....

I walked back into the house and suggested K go over and see if they needed help as the smoke was getting worse not better.

Went back round the back and filled the chooks water and commiserated with them for a bit over the cold and thanked them for continuing to lay eggs anyway and wandered around the front again and was taking off my shoes when the in-house PA kicked into action that there was a fire.

In my neighbourhood.

At my neighbour's house!

Shoes back on and I ran out to the road and watched the neighbours heads pop out their driveways one by one by many like so many meerkats.

The neighbour immediately up the road from the fire and I went over the orad together and found the neighbour directly down the hill from the fire looking panicked and racing around.  The billowing black smoke was coming from the back corner of the neighbour's house and right up against (one of) her sheds.

You OK?

Until now I had thought that all Japanese people were pre-programmed at birth to answer 'you ok?' with 'No problem' no matter the situation in some stiff upper lip gaman perseverance thing.  I guess there's two of us in the neighbourhood at least who will tell it like it is, hey?

Anyway, we followed downhill neighbour around the side of her sheds and saw the fire.

It was a huge pile of rubble.

Really huge.

Imagine you had built a new house on your land and instead of paying for the (exorbitant) fees a construction company would charge to have oooohhhh three or so outbuildings demolished and carted away you just had them all bulldozed into a pile and then one winter day you decided to do something about that and started burning off.  Well, it looked something like that.

A lot like that.

The bonfire was right up against a retaining wall metres from a brand new house my neighbour's son had built where some three or so sheds used to be, and the downhill neighbour's sheds.

The morning news had forecast a south wind that would mean the flames were drawn away from the houses and out toward the empty (at this time of year) fields.

All morning when the neighbours had been tending the fire the winds had gone according to plan and all was well.

So well that the fire was burning low and they came in for lunch and were having a post-lunch rest when the neighbour's wife thought she heard an odd crackling sound.

There had been about 10 minutes of really weird winds.

I had noticed it when I was out doing the chooks stuff as my hair kept blowing this way and that and getting in my eyes no matter which way I turned.

Those same winds had hyper-energised the fire and the flames had lept up and were being blown up against the downhill neighbours sheds.

Old, wooden sheds with leaves in the gutters and on the roof that were now smoking and smouldering.

We don't have a neighbourhood volunteer fire brigade anymore as it was a victim of amalgamation induced down-sizing but we do have a lot of men who were on the defunct neighbourhood firebrigade for many years.  Many many years.  Decades in fact.

So, before the volunteer fire brigade men responding to the village PA had even arrived the neighbours were out in their helmets and their fire brigade caps and had unrolled the big hoses from both corners of the block and had the water on high and the fire under control.

They were out inspecting a perished section of hose where a fountain of water was escaping when the k-trucks of volunteer fire fighters started to arrive from other neighbourhoods.

If this was Australia there would be a street number clearly printed in a place highly visible from the road so emergency services could find you easily and quickly.

But this being Japan and not Australia, we don't have street numbers- we don't even have street names! but rather non-sequential block numbers.  A block number being the number that was allotted when land was subdivided.  Land that was subdivided at the same time has sequential numbering but then there can be a big gap in numbers between neighbours.  And with multiple residences on the same block sometimes sharing a block number and sometimes having their own it all gets a bit crazy.  We have a separate address for the kitchen-less, bathroom-less, water-less outbuilding we use for K's doomsday supply of toilet paper, tissues and laundry soap for example.  (Should you want to send him supplies directly, let me know and I'll give you the address to avoid confusion.)

So anyway, when the PA system tells the volunteer firefighters where the fire is they give the nearest landmark.  And in this case that was M. Construction company 'just across the road.'

Which is true.

The block next to ours on the uphill side is M. Construction company's storehouse and heavy equipment carpark.  Un-signposted and narrow witha clear view through to the veggie garden I co-farm with neighbour A, it is far less well known than M Construction company's sawmill and storage shed 100m up the hill on a corner.  The very corner with the firehose connection the neighbours were springing into action to use.

You can see where this is heading right?

Yup.  All of a sudden we had k-trucks pulling up with men riding Chariots of fire style on the back grinding to a halt at the sawmill and jumping out ready for action and- stopping.  Peering. Craning their necks...  Fire??

Meanwhile the neighbours were yelling and waving and pointing out the house with the fire.  Some men jumped back in their cars and came screaming down the hill.  Many more just ran the short distance leaving trucks and cars parked on both sides of the narrow road, on an intersection, effectively blocking it to through traffic.

One of my neighbours is a professional emergency services worker and he called out to me and uphill neighbour to grab some towels and wet them as the wife had burnt her face.

I ran home and grabbed a towel (without taking off my shoes- the horror!) and met the uphill neighbour in the neighbour's genkan where two volunteer firefighters and the emergency services guy were trying to calm the neighbour's wife down.  (Uphill neighbour had walked into the neighbour's own bathroom and grabbed a towel from there.  I am disappointed that I have lived here too long and it never occurred to me to go past the public genkan and enter the private sphere of the inner house for a towel.)

Poor neighbour's wife was in shock and shivering and incredibly embarassed at all the fuss.  We had wet towels on her head and face and she wasn't allowed to remove them so it must have been really unsettling with a stream of people coming to the door and asking questions and lots of noise and movement but not being able to see what was going on around you.  I really felt sorry for her.

From my seat in the genkan I saw the silver space-suited professional firefighters from the town next door (closer to us than our village's fire brigade) jog past and then more sirens and someone announced a brigade from Matsumoto had arrived.  Wow, this was a lot of action for a fire that had seemed almost out with the efforts of the neighbours and the neighbourhood firehoses....

Next uniforms past the genkan were the police.

I counted four police officers.

Then the towels were removed form the neighbour's wife's face and it was deemed that while there was no blistering, it seemed she had singed her nostrils and there was some concern that she might have inhaled smoke so an ambulance was called.

The neighbour's phone was ringing hot and the uphill neighbour had been answering it and relaying messages to the wife (having a fire at your house announced over the village PA is a definite recipe for popularity!) but for some strange reason it wasn't reassuring the wife to know that every Taro, Dick and Hiro in the village was calling up to check she was OK and get the lowdown on her predicament and the emergency services neighbour firmly instructed us to let everyone go through to the answering machine.

The police came in to enquire about alternative access to the property as the ambulance couldn't get up or down the road at the moment what with two fire trucks, police cars and a whole slew of other vehicles out there.  Emergency services neighbour went out and with a glance identified the offending vehicles and gave the police the names of men who would need to go and move their trucks into the spare driveways around the place immediately.

The ambulance arrived and agreed that the neighbour's wife seemed fine but was most definitely in shock and needed to be checked out at the hospital.  Poor neighbour's wife was beside herself at the trouble she was causing and all the fuss and the more worked up she got the more she shook and she started coughing.

At the first coughing the ambulance officers started checking her eyes and pulse and trying to ascertain the probability of smoke inhalation.  Poor neighbour was trying to explain between coughs that she has had a cold for a week and has been coughing for much longer than the hour since the fire.

The ambulance officers wanted someone to ride to the hospital with the neighbour's wife but her husband was still needed for the fire investigation, so neighbour up the hill was elected.  (They are related in some indirect way I have never quite got clear) She baulked as she was in her roomwear and apron and had nothing on her, so emergency service worker neighbour threw his pocketbook at her- which of course landed in a slushy mud puddle when she fumbled it and the next second there were a scurry of people scrabbling around for cards and coins in the mud.  Neighbour's wife, still unable to see with a wet towel pressed to her face insisted she couldn't possibly ride in an ambulance in her dirty work boots which reassured me more than anything else that she was definitely going to be ok and I guess the ambulance officers and I were the only ones who thought that footwear wasn't an issue as two people jumped up and went and got her spare shoes from the family entrance to the house. (Most houses here have a front entrance for the postman and visitors and a kitchen/ family entrance for the day to day comings and goings of the family.)

The ambulance was directed out of the neighbourhood with the neighbour's wife with her towel on her face and the uphill neighbour in her apron holding the emergency service worker's pocketbook and things quietened down.  After a conversation with neighbour A and my downhill neighbour about the recent spate of treefelling in the neighbourhood, the resulting extra sunlight, and the surety that neighbour A's carefully (but quite severely) pruned Japanese maple would look stunning come Spring time we said goodbye and drifted back to our houses.

I consoled Meg who had been quite upset to hear the PA and open the front door to see half the neighbourhood and a fire truck outside her gate but no mummy (inside the neighbour's genkan) or daddy (out with hose on the fire).  Amy wandered in from a different room complaining that Meg was crying too loud and she couldn't finish the letter she was writing.  I got them both quieted down and explained what had happened and what everyone was doing out there and used it as an opportunity to reiterate our family fireplan as well.  Meg was calmed and reassured.

What fire?

Amy had somehow missed the whole thing and just ignored the PA to boot.  Wow.  Talk about being into your work, huh?

About a half hour later K got back muddy and wet and after cleaning up explained that their hadn't been a fire.


It seems the fire brigade has to classify a callout according to set criteria and fire is pretty heavy but 'patrolling a suspicious burnoff' or some such is much less so.

And, well, imagine that my neighbour is a quite well known and influential man in a number of fields in the village.  And imagine that it might be quite embarrassing to have his name and fire listed together in whatever official records are kept.  I'm not suggesting at all that he asked them to fudge things.  I don't think he would do that.  That said I don't think he would need to.  I wasn't there and I didn't hear it but, this neighbourhood being what it is, I can well imagine any number of neighbours having a word in the fire brigade's fire inspector's ear about it.

So, the police get their prompt from the fire brigade.  And if the fire brigade says it wasn't a fire then the police have nothing to investigate.  K says the police were a little surprised it wasn't a fire they were observing but they agreed that they take their cue from the fire guys so no fire is no fire.

Apparently all emergency personnel were quite astounded at just how big a pile of rubble was out there.  I didn't know this but the fire brigade doesn't go until the fire is out.  Not just under control but out, kaput, dead.

So after they doused the top layer they moved it all aside and wet down the next layer.  And then they realised there was even more and they moved that layer.  By layer four eyebrows were definitely raised and it was strongly suggested that this 'little burnoff got out of control' should have definitely been handed over to a professional removal company to deal with.

And that was the fire we didn't have here today.


Rice harvest 2012

Ahhhh rice harvest again.
A year on and we are a year wiser.
After last year’s debacle with the skinny metal home-fashioned rice drying legs that buckled and bent and broke and sank and took out a car jack as collateral damage (what we lack in know-how we make up for in out-of-the-box thinking), anyway, after all that, we decided that maybe rather than trying to reinvent a very well-functioning and time-tested wheel we should just get us some of those wooden rice drying stakes all the other farmers use.
It seems drying rice in the sun is a dying art with the all-powerful JA rice drying centres and industrial sized combine harvesters pushing the wooden stakes and straw ropes aside. There are little bunches of beautifully-tied and squared and covered rice drying poles scattered around our neighbourhood’s sheds and barns. Practically begging to be used again.
But, while my dear old-fashioned husband has never read Shakespeare, he shares Polonius’s loathe of borrowing and lending and baulks at the merest hint of me casually enquiring whether old Mr M would mind lending us his dusty cobwebby drying poles that have been ever so neatly stacked against his shed undisturbed for all eight years we’ve lived here.
Nope. Absolutely not.
He did magnanimously agree to putting an ad in the local paper’s classified section asking if anyone had any poles they no longer needed that we could come and collect. Yes!
Our local paper is an enigma to me. Everyone seems to read it. Everyone but me, anyway. It has a page devoted to each village and town in the area, features on super-sized agricultural produce, school excursions, kinder events, recipes and even a haiku corner.
They even have a box-ad inviting people to call the paper for a journalist/ photographer to come out and document your event.
So, we bought a paper to see how to submit an ad. 
Easy! Online ad submission.
We carefully worded our ad and pressed send.
And send again.
And again from a different computer.
The next morning K called the paper.
“We tried to submit an ad through your website ad submission form?”
“Ahhhh it doesn’t work. What would you like to submit?”
And so we got our ad submitted. 
How much would it cost?
The first submission is free. And if you get no response within two weeks you get to resubmit for free.
And when would our ad be published?
Ahhhh, sometime within the next two weeks?
Yes. Nothing more concrete than ‘sometime within the next two weeks’.
Completely understandable, really. Because you see the paper likes to keep a good balance between items wanted and items free to a good home so keeps our ad until there is an imbalance in the ‘wa' super complicated Japanese harmony of the classified section or something.
Other than buying the paper every day for the next two weeks how were we going to know if our ad came out? Was this some kind of cunning free-classified-for-newspaper-purchase marketing genius?
Well, we didn’t have to wait long to find out how we would know when the ad came out as a mere two days later the phone rang.
At 6:15am.
It was rather a pleasant anti-climax to realize it was an answer to our ad as phonecalls at that time of the morning send me into a panic imagining catastrophic events befalling my nearest and dearest but nope, it was a farmer.
A very chatty farmer.
Twenty minutes later we had ascertained his address (40 minutes away), his offer (6 six-metre poles and accompanying legs) his preferred pick-up time 5:00 am Saturday (Say wha??) and a whole lot of history about his rice farming experiences. K is really not the chatty type and was physically squirming by the final final goodbye. Phewwww! We have rice-drying poles!
Ring ring ring!
Phonecall number two.
And then three.
And four.
And five.
Five before K left for work at 8:00.
Another two more during the day.
And one the next day and then phone silence.
Wow. I guess people who get the local paper read it early and quickly, hey?
So, Saturday dark and early (it was too early for bright and early) K set off with his list of houses, his maps and GPS and oodles and oodles of homemade muesli biscuits wrapped up in culturally appropriate decorated bags tied off with cute matching ribbons as token thank you’s.
And all day he was back and forth with our poor long-suffering k-truck weighed down with rice drying poles of all shapes and sizes and running the whole spectrum of stability from completely worm-riddled and rotten (waste-not-want-not- perfect firewood) to mint condition.
But not just rice drying poles. 
Oh no.
Some combination of muesli biscuits, K’s earnest demeanor and old farmers getting nostalgic about people still doing things the old-fashioned way brought out the Christmas Spirit a few months early.
At the end of the weekend we had accumulated more than twice the poles we needed.
And a metal rack for holding poles and the corrugated iron sheeting for waterproofing.
And a 100 kilo scale.
Three different rice paddy leveling tools. (The old-fashioned push kind.)
And 50 frost tunnel making plastic hoops.
And about the same of long plastic coated garden stakes.
And three large soybean-drying metal containers.
And two pitch-forks- from the same person.
What a weekend!
Poor K. You’d think that was the end of the story, right?
But nope.
His boss from work saw the ad and accosted him Monday morning. “Fukase! Why didn’t you ask me for poles? I’ve got plenty!  Come around next Saturday. 7:00am?”


Rice harvest 2011


Is this post mis-labelled?


It's a little known (and even less cared about, I'm sure) fact that I write a column in the AFWJ journal about my exploits in this fair neighbourhood and I have been known to steal content from this fair blog to complete said column.

I was looking through past blog posts and realised that I hadn't posted the 2011 and 2012 rice harvest wrap up.  

What a shocking oversite!

Luckily I wrote about both events for the journal so I still have a record.

In order to learn from my mistakes it's important to record them in all their embarrassing glory afterall, hey?

And so, here you are, rice harvest 2011:

In the long and comical-if-you-were-watching-not-participating saga that was rice growing, harvesting the rice was a finale that fit the whole process. And, while at the time I really couldn’t see anything funny about it at all, now, sitting back safely a couple of months the other side of rice harvest I can see the humour in it. Almost.
Due to the fickleness of the weather and rice maturation the week we had all blocked out in our schedules as HARVEST WEEK arrived and went before the rice was ready. We ended up doing a lot of that farmer type staring up at the sky and frowning and sighing and smushing rice pods between our fingers guessing at the moisture content of the rice. And then, being the cutting edge farmers we are (and utterly without confidence in our abilities to read the skies or feel the water content in rice to a precise 13%) I whipped out the smart phone for a long term weather forecast and we went down to a friend with a rice moisture calculator machine (technical name) and came up with a revised harvest schedule.
Before it rains next week.
Setting up
We decided to harvest our rice using the sundried method. To do this we needed drying poles. Long 4 metre plus horizontal poles and short 1.5 m legs. Between the two families we have a k-truck, a 4 tonne dump truck and two swarthy men. Unfortunately none of the above were ready the day neighbour W and I decided to start setting up.
So, she loaded up the wheelbarrow with a whole pile of metal stakes we were going to use as legs. They were a little too big to fit in the barrow so she lay them across the barrow and just pushed it while half crouching to keep the barrow as close to horizontal as possible.  Every 10 or so metres adjustments would need to be made or poles would clatter clang crash to the bitumen and the loading would start again.
I was carrying the 4 metre pole. Convinced of my strength and power and impatience at pushing the pole-loaded wheelbarrow I jumped at this option.
For the first 5 metres or so of our trek I was convinced I had made the right decision. Then I realized that it wasn’t just strength but balance too that was necessary. If you don’t have the exact middle of the pole resting on your shoulder and hold it just so it swings around all over the place and your shoulder muscles will begin to whimper then howl then scream so there was a lot of stopping and adjusting and shaking out of shoulder muscles going on. I also couldn’t turn my head to look behind me or take corners with any grace at all so it was a very slow and clumsy shuffle-stop shuffle-stop journey punctuated with the clang of poles hitting the ground out of the barrow.
Rounding out our party were Meg and Amy. Meg was wearing a princess dress and fairy wings and pushing her doll in her stroller.  Amy was wearing a pink and frilly Pretty-cure character bathing suit, red gumboots and pushing her doll in her stroller. Yes. Just a bathing suit. In Autumn. In Nagano. Just don’t ask!
And this was the strange sight that met our neighbours as we walked the 200 metres or so down the mountain to the rice paddy from our houses. I said a small but fervent wish/ hope and prayer to the mountain gods and anyone else who was listening that we would not meet any of the neighbours on our trip.
Well, they weren’t listening and we passed three cars worth of neighbours. One of whom mentioned the next time she saw me “I saw you last week. What on earth were you doing? We were going to stop and give you a lift (they were driving one of the ubiquitous k-trucks) but we couldn’t work out what you were all doing….” I kindly suggested that should she see us doing anything that looked arduous even if a little odd she should definitely stop and inquire next time!
Can’t touch this!
We did get to the rice paddy eventually.
And we did get the rice harvested eventually.
And so one day neighbour W and I were down the paddy (again) and we noticed that the narrow metal stakes we were using as legs on our rice drying racks seemed to be sinking…. That 4 metre long pole that was now laden with drying rice seemed to have developed both a pronounced bow in the middle and a decided tilt.
We walked over and hmmed. And hrmmmed. And gave the nearest leg a little thump with the toe of our boots. And hmmed again.
Having satisfied all the tests that any farmer worth their salt would, we went to opposite ends of the pole and decided to see of we could give a good old coordinated heave ho to the left and right things.
The mountain Gods were obviously still not listening and not only had the heave-ho not worked but it had had the opposite effect.  The leg at W’s end had now completely sunk causing the one at my end to buckle. Without thinking W and I had taken the weight on our shoulders. Something we were not going to be able to keep up for the next 5 minutes let alone the 2 weeks it takes rice to dry! Looking desperately around for someone to miraculously turn up to help us we spied an unknown young man running down the dead end street leading to our paddy.
But before we could summon up the courage to ask for help the truth of our prospective savior’s identity came to light as the local JA co-op’s rent-a-harvester combine harvester came rumbling around the corner and the initial young man waved it over to the paddy next door.
Ohhhhhhhh…. of all the people to see us struggling with our knocked together and decidedly unorthodox rice drying racks!
Gritting our teeth and trying to look nonchalant until the two young men had jogged back up the road and out of sight around the corner we heave ho-ed the rice as far as we could (not very far) in the direction of the grass bank surrounding the paddy and sat down in despair to plan our next move. The absurdity and comedy of the situation wouldn’t become apparent for a long time to come.
Not until we had done a lot more re-stacking of rice, replaced a handful more bent and busted poles and broken a car-jack in a never-before-seen unorthodox attempt to create a new rice-drying system.
But, you know what? That eventual first bowl of rice has never tasted so good!