Thursday, December 31, 2009

Kanji's Birthday Party

I don't know why he doesn't get sick of the same thing every year, but he loves it! I think he's started to really look forward to our little ritual. This year his band changed from the Nakatsu Sex Pistols Metabolic Syndrome to Bug Spray. The above is my rendition of a bug spray can in chocolate cake and chocolate icing, with FU MA KI RA ZU (Fuma Kirazu/killers or Bug Spray) in licorice.

The Birthday Boy and his little treasure our Amaembo princess Erica

Lena eating her curry, with the bread and cheese platter (to keep Mum happy).

Amy and the sashimi


A clearer look at the bug spray

Divine Leftovers

I'm the queen of leftovers. I've never met a leftover I couldn't cajole into becoming a main dish. (though I'm having some challenges with overcooked coconut ice and broken candy canes. Suggestions anyone?). Turkey of course, is the king of leftover food. In fact, I commented to Kanji on Boxing Day that the only reason I really roast turkey anyway is so I can have turkey sandwiches for the next week. That day, we had a roast re-hash, and it was SO much yummier than the night before, when I was rushed and chatting and had had too much champagne. Turkey sandwiches that night, with a soup made from the giblet stock I made on Christmas Day, but didn't use in my gravy, as the gravy was so damn perfect!

On the 27th I took some to a party with two other Kiwi mums and their leftovers. Sandwich again for me on the 28th, as we had lunch at a friend's house and the girls went out with friends for dinner.

On the 29th the day finally came to dismantle the everlasting bird (no matter how many sandwiches we had, it didn't seem to diminish in size at all). I made a turkey quiche (left) and turkey fried rice (right) then divided the remainder into large chunks and small chunks to be frozen and used at a later date. I orginally intended to cook them up into a sauce, which would freeze better, to make turkey pie later on, but I ran out of time. I'll let you know if it works to freeze turkey dry! One more tiny little bowl in the centre is the dry pieces of meat from the edges that were good to nibble on, a kind of turkey jerky.

The bones, skin, some but not all of the fat, and some chunks of leftover stuffing went into the big pot with some onions, garlic, sage and bay leaves to make a stock for soup. I added soup mix (lentils, split peas and barley) then all the leftover veges - kabu (a kind of turnip), carrots, an onion, sring onion, 2 small potatoes and one neglected tiny sweet potato plus some beans, mushrooms and celery I bought specially.

Turkey sandwiches again last night! And turkey soup for lunch. With luck it'll all be gone by tomorrow, though I might keep a plate aside to make a sneaky turkey sandwich, as I might need a break from all that cold seafood and soy flavored Japanese New Year food!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Dinner

We had a massive roast turkey, with roast potatoes, pumpkin and sweet potatoes, cauliflower and broccoli with cheese sauce and peas. And gravy. A simply divine gravy I made from scratch, from pan drippings only, not a drop of packet mix anywhere, and it was SUPERB, the best gravy I've ever made.

As usual I'm too busy eating, drinking and running around getting stuff to take many photos, but here's one with the main elements - turkey and champagne! The turkey being carved by a guest, since Kanji chickened out and I was too busy microwaving mashed potatoes and decanting gravy.

Dessert! From the top, Bailey's cheesecake, Christmas cake, cookies and donuts, pavlova with strawberries, kids' trifle with pink sprinkles and Sherry trifle with chocolate drops being stolen by Erica. At least she fed them to me after she stole them. Note the barely touched turkey...

Cameron and Georgia going to work on the big bird

Left, Cameron the turkey man, right, Cameron and David with Erica the chocolate thief

Kanji's friend Ken, wife Riko and son Sora. Daugher Shido was playing Licca dolls so intently with Amy and Lena that when they left, they left her here! She stayed with Lena in the big bed and game was resumed in the morning. On the right - I really was seriously photographically challenged this night! This is best, the ONLY shot of Cameron and Georgia doing the aunt and uncle thing and playing a game of Life with Amy


Santa got quite a fancy treat this year! Chocolate milk, TWO cookies and a peppermint! He must have been hungry cos he left only one gingerbread man leg and a button (or was it an eye?)

Christmas Morning. I could hear the presents rustling in the sack well before dawn, and soon after heard the tiny peep - can we wake up yet? Lena models her new fluffy blanket. She said this was her favorite gift! It has buttons so you can wear it as a shrug or a wrap, or use it as a knee rug (young women in Japan often take fluffy character knee rugs to work or school to throw over their legs while they sit, it's definitely not an old-lady thing to do here!). They also like to wrap it around their pillow. Erica slept through the chaos. Amy in her fleece nightie, fluffy wrap and matching Care Bear.

Breakfast was choco-crispies (cocopops), here are three of them tucking in, while Lena preferred to draw on her new ice-cream shaped pad with her new mechanical pencils.

Lunch was our traditional Christmas breakfast, ham and eggs. Usually I do this for breakfast, then a big roast late lunch, with leftovers or dessert for supper. This year I decided to have guests over in the evening, so we could have Christmas Day to ourselves and give me more time to stuff the turkey and whip the cream. So I shifted the ham and eggs to lunch and made it special with a Christmas table setting.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Sweet Treats for Christmas

Mince pies glistening on a mikimoto pearl plate. I ate the last one on the 30th.

The cookies I sent to NZ, including tricolor coconut ice, 'Christmas Trees' with white chocolate 'snow' (turned into weird-shaped lumps I'm afraid!), and bourbon-chilli truffles, which my sister heartily declared to be the worst thing she'd ever tasted! Oh well, I'll eat them ALL next year, I love chilli chocolate. And some marbles (pebbles, smarties) for the kids.

Cookies for the cookie exchange I did with a few friends. Afghans, 'no-bowl' slice, chocolate fudge, peppermints and my favorite, walnut balls.
The spread for a party we had on the 23rd. Clockwise from top left: mince pies, ginger thins, chex mix (from a cookie exchange partner), chewy fruit cookies and sugar cookies (from cookie exchange), peppermints, walnut balls and coconut ice, bourbon chilli balls, failed coconut ice that made a not-half-bad biscuit, and the Christmas cake in the centre.

Traditional Christmas treats.

Getting Ready for Christmas

Our real Christmas Tree - well not quite real, the tip of a forestry cedar. I'm thrilled to get anything real though, and extra happy this year, because we read The Fir Tree, by Hans Christian Andersen, which made Lena BAWL her eyes out with pity for the poor tree. So I was able to tell her this isn't a whole tree whose life was cut short, it's the top of a whole tree, and the rest of it is 'probably' still standing in that forest in the middle of the island of Kyushu where it came from. And even if it isn't, don't you think this tip would be so much happier to come to us and be our beautiful Christmas Tree instead of just sitting on the floor in the forest?

Above is the tree all green, below it's started to brown, so we attacked it with canned snow. I might have to research how to keep trees alive, or get it a bit later so it's still green at Christmas time.

Other things to do with fake snow, when you don't get enough of the real stuff:

Left, our entrance hall. In front is the ponsettia Kanji won in a bingo game at his monthly drinking club party. Behind is the little fake tree, this tree gets a matched selection of ornaments and red trimming, while all the hand-made, specially bought, received-as-gifts, historical and totally random ornaments go on the big real tree. On the cabinet is our Advent Calendar/Tree, you take a tiny ornament out of a cupboard for each day of December. Next to it is a My Little Pony advent calendar we also had this year. On the right, a little glass nativity set I picked up at a flea market years ago, and a Christmas village I got off a friend returning to Canada last year.

Left, a few weeks into December and the Santas are guarding an increasing pile of PRESENTS!!! Finally a little fairy who discovered the chocolate cake cooling on a rack in the kitchen.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Toddler Talk

I thought I'd post a little test of toddler talk, for anyone who's interested in taking it, or for us in years to come to see how much I've forgotten!

See if you can figure out what she's saying:

In English:

kissis cheea




door-she-daisho (a character)

gween boon




This one is a movie, see if you can guess which one:


Extra Bonus points, as these ones are REALLY hard - she had to go find a book and show me a picture before even I could get the third one!






EEmon (a character)


Saturday, December 12, 2009

This week's mystery


Japanese speakers will see this and recognize it as somewhere between 'big brother' and 'demon'. This little word, uttered by our two-year old, has been our collective family mystery for the last few weeks. Erica is articulate and has an impressive vocabulary (of course!) but she is also, of course, only just gone two, so most of what she says is incomprehensible babble. Including this little gem.

She has no big brothers, so it can't be that. And when she talks about real 'oni' demons, she adds 'kowai' or 'scary' and hides behind someone. Then I thought it might be Jiichan, if Aunty Toyoko called him o-niichan (big brother), but she doesn't, she calls him 'shatcho' (boss). It wouldn't be such a mystery if she didn't use it ALL the time!

Then finally the penny dropped.

I went upstairs to get her one night when she was crying, and when I entered the room I clearly heard her say 'I neeed you!'. Or, 'aniiju'.

She's saying 'I need some'. Now that's we've clicked, we've noticed that she says it when she's hungry, or wants something.

It's all English, and I was just imagining that she was speaking Japanese. And to think, I get annoyed at strange baachans who assume she's speaking English because they can't understand her babble. Oops.

Ms. Onichan, mystery solved.

Her sisters are known as Ms. 'wait!' and Ms. 'That's What I Thought'. (Lena and Amy respectively)

Friday, December 04, 2009

This Week's Menus

Just a totally random 'What we ate this week' thing. For future reference, or inspiration. I'd love to see other people's menus too, to give me inspiration!

Monday - nabe. Because we had nabe last Thursday only I had just had a horrendous dental treatment and couldn't enjoy it!

Tuesday - chicken and moyashi stir-fry, mashed sweet potato, the rest of the frozen cauliflower and broccoli that won't fit in the freezer in anymore since I put the turkey in there, with cheese sauce, rice and miso soup that no-one ate because there was too much vegetables in it and it looked gross. Even I thought so.

Wednesday - quiche. With all the leftover veg from last night! Such a simple menu after the night before.

Thursday - Amy's 'choose' day and she chose shio saba (salted grilled mackerel). Kanji cooked. He did the fish, tuna sashimi, miso soup (edible this time) and a cabbage stir fry.

Friday - oden. Seemed like an easy option for busy/relaxed Friday. Kanji cooked again. I think he quite likes going shopping and doing the cooking on my work days. I'm not complaining! Even Erica's learned to aim her 'oishii' at him, not me!

Thursday, December 03, 2009

My Work Week

It's Thursday, the middle of my work week (work, that is, the stuff they pay you for, see this for what I do on my 'day off' ha ha).

I hate Thursday because it's a long and busy day, and because it's in the middle. Wednesday has the virtue of being very light - I call it Easy Wednesday to remind myself that work on that day is really not a big deal. And Friday of course, is Friday, with the wonderful bonus feeling at the end of having FINISHED.

Of course, my weekends are usually busy and the kids are home all day demanding snacks, so it's not exactly a holiday, it's more having my mind freed from the responsibility to be somewhere, or to be planning or preparing lessons.

On Wednesday morning I drive all the way out to a tiny country school to teach one 45-minutes class. The drive is 20 minutes each way! But I love this school. There are only 14 students in the school, eight are studying English, rotating between two 1st Grade students and six in a mixed 3/4th Grade class. AND it's this school's last year of operation before it closes and the students have to go to a bigger nearby country school.

This means I have pretty much total freedom in these classes - the small class size means I can do so much more with crafts, and can monitor their individual learning. And being the final year gives me the freedom to splash out and spoil them a bit, since I'm not laying down any expectations for next year! So we iced cupcakes for Halloween, and I was able to bring my own collection of Halloween costumes for them to wear. And I was able to afford to give them a really nice gift pack with sweets and a pencil set and a tiny deck of Halloween playing cards. So I'm having great fun, and I enjoy the drive too, especially when I bring my iPod!

On Wednesday afternoon, I teach a one-hour conversation class with no text book at the City Hospital. I teach the residents, who rotate through the different departments of the hospital every month or two. There are only two at the moment, which makes for a very intimate class - and often no class at all, if they are busy. Yesterday no-one came. That can feel a bit lonely, and you wonder if it's you...but I like to continue the classes because it gives me a forum to ask questions about the system here, as well as an insight into the hospital where my daughters are treated for asthma. For example, I was recently able to ask them about the influenza vaccination schedule.

Thursday morning is the class I look forward to the least, two in a row at a much bigger primary school, with 25-30+ students in each class! This limits what I can do, because even games, with that many kids, take a lot of setting-up and policing and always get rowdy! Plus it's a new class, so I still don't feel very confident about what I am doing and where I'm going, since I'm taking over from someone else, trying to use and adapt her routine and plans.

Thursday and Friday afternoon are classes at OIT, the classes I lost for a year. I kept expecting something else to come up, but nothing did, so I am very grateful to have them back! I missed the little touches, like knowing about what music and clothes young people preferred, and I used to always check out young men on the street - just to make sure it was/wasn't my student, but I'm sure it looked like I was checking them out! I used to have to check the wait staff at the places I went to eat and drink weren't my students too. I was beginning to feel out of touch! And I just like students that age. So, suitably humbled, I am both enjoying, and putting more effort into these classes, well aware that it may only last until February anyway (short contract, and we have no idea what the school's plans are after that - I feel like I'm on trial!)

Friday morning is a Day Care centre, I teach a class of 23 5-6 year-olds. They will be going to school next year, so their class is run more like a kindy. I still can't get over the bare rooms kindies have here, none of the bright colors, loads of toys and play stations they have in NZ kindies. Or are NZ kids being over-stimulated and undisciplined? Who can say. Anyway, they enjoy their English class with the unbridled enthusiasm of kids up to about age 8.
I have a text that I work very loosely from, just for curriculum basically, and then fill ine gaps between targeted language with songs, books, and games.

And that's it! Not much listed, and it's a mercifully short week. Friday night I often have a few drinks anyway! I usually run errands on Monday and do a big cleaning job on Tuesday so it does feel like a full week. Then back to the start again!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Anniversay to Hell and Back

Honestly it only occurred to me two days before our 10th Wedding Anniversary that spending it in Hell was a little ironic.

We went to Beppu, the hot springs resort town nearby. The idea was to stay in a really nice ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, with a gorgeous bath and superb dinner, then spend the next day touring around Beppu before taking the kids to the monkey mountain the next day, since they'd never been there before.

And touring around Beppu generally means visiting the 'Hells' or thermal areas, with a geyser, bubbling mud, shooting, hissing steam, and 100degree plus boiling pools. There are eight of them, each with its own theme and special attraction. (More below)

We got a recommendation for a nice hotel from a friend of Kanji's. The room was basic, but the bath overlooking the ocean was brilliant. There were two outdoor baths, a salt bath a hot spring bath, both just metres away from the sea.

The dinner was superb, I might have to devote a different blog entry to just the food we ate! Just what I wanted, a very special, multi-course Japanese feast. The girls got a very elaborate bento each, and Erica ate off our plates. They laid out a plastic chair and baby cutlery for her, and even brought her blocks to play with! I love that even really fancy Japanese restaurants are kid-friendly!

The next morning we had an equally special breakfast, then headed back to our room to change - the whole time we were in the hotel, we wore hotel-provided yukatas (cotton summer kimono) only they were not the usual bland hotel design - they had a room with a selection of pretty, patterned ones like you wear to festivals.

Back in our room, the kids played and danced to the iPod and K and I laid back on the futons and rested. Hey, the kids said, I know we're going to Hell today, but this is Heaven! And it was. Just us and a six-mat tatami room and we were in Heaven. The above is a photo of the happy family, in pretty yukatas, after only about twenty attempts to get the self-timer to work!

Earlier, before breakfast, we were up in time to watch the rise over the ocean. The hotel gave us the exact time so we could be sure to catch it. It would have been gorgeous, if not for the thick cloud cover. We finally glimpsed the disk of the sun at breakfast.

Totally superfluous shot of running naked baby - isn't she cute? And very hard to catch on camera!!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Skating Sucks

Except for one single turn around the circuit when I glided with the wind in the smooth invigorating coolness.

Apart from that very brief interlude I had a dreadful day.

Usually I enjoy my outings with the kids. I think I was extra tired today, I certainly had very little tolerance for stares and stupid comments. I wanted to pack it all in, stay home, and fiddle about with various computer job I have to do while ignoring the mess in the kitchen.

First, lots of stares. That always happens when you leave the confines of the big city and head into the hills. The skating rink is in a small village, where, despite my going skating every year, no-one seems to have seen a foreigner before. I'm usually very good with kids staring, I just start to talk to them, and having someone talk to them in normal Japanese and ask them the usual questions (what school do you go to? What grade are you in?) puts them immediately in the position of answering politely like they know they are supposed to do and treating me like an other adult who asks them the same boring questions! But today, I just wanted to poke my tongue out at them. I only just managed to restrain myself.

Worse, one of them asked Amy if she was a gaijin (foreigner). Amy looked at her like she was an alien and just said NO, and we skated off.

Then the staff annoyed me. I always forget to buy the boot hire tickets at the vending machine, no problem there. The guy even came out to help me press the right button for chair hire (see photo). I dutifully took my two tickets back to the counter, only to be told I had to put on my skates first THEN come back with the ticket to get the chair. God knows why, it's MUCH harder to walk to the rink gate holding the chair while on skates than it is to do it with your shoes on! That didn't annoy me too much as the guy who told me I had to do this had this kind of half-laughing look on his face like he KNEW how ridiculous a request it was! But this is Japan, and you gotta follow the rules.

I finally got my skates on, got the chair and got Erica loaded into it and took off. Just as I was half way round the circuit, I noticed that Erica didn't have her gloves on and stopped to put them on her. At that precise moment another staff member approached me and told me to put gloves on. I look up at him, rather dumbfounded as that was quite obviously exactly what I was doing, and anyway, why was HE telling me to put gloves on?? 'I'm already putting them on' I said, and he continued to stand there.

I was getting annoyed, so I did something I don't usually do and confronted him,

"What is your problem?"

"Mother too..."

he said, clearly conflicted between his fear of me, fear of communicating, and fear of not doing his job properly and policing gloves on the rink. Well, tell me how I am supposed to slip woolen mittens on a baby's hands with gloves on? Hello? Do we have a brain in there? NOT TO MENTION surely as an adult I have the right to decide whether, and when I will wear gloves. OF COURSE I want to wear them - landing on ice is damn cold and hurts bare hands, I know that, I don't need you to tell me, so SHUT UP AND GO AWAY! I just forgot for ten bloody seconds!!!

Okay I didn't say any of that but you can see why I was getting mightily pissed off. Not wanting him to 'win' I took out my camera to take a photo of Erica, another thing I clearly could not do with gloves on. He finally went away.

A few more turns around the rink and another staff member approached me. Not the same one, I had obviously scared him off speaking to any foreigner ever for the rest of his life. THIS one came bearing a gift, a little wee pair of skate boots for Erica. 'Just to wear' he assured me - she could stay seated on the chair, but obviously someone, somewhere, had devised the rule that all people, even those on a chair, had to be wearing skates.

I was confused, but this is Japan, you gotta follow the rules. So back I go to dit down and struggle getting them on her wee feet. Of course she had no interest in sitting down on her chair once they were on, so quite inadvertently she ended up having her first go at skating! At least they didn't charge me for them, but it made my job a whole lot harder having to support her all the time - I'm not all that great a skater myself!

She wouldn't sit down, but she was happy to hang on to the back of the chair and get dragged along! Lena taking a tumble

Rules, rules, rules. One of the things I hate about Japanese society is the rules. Sometimes I feel like fun itself is outlawed, in case someone is hurt or there is a 'problem'. It's never clear what that problem might be.

That's the problem of course - Japanese like to do things by the book, so they can be sure they are doing the exact right thing, because to do it differently would be wrong and would show you to be arrogant and careless. So they are terrified of unspecified possible problems that would put them in the position of having to deal with a situation without a script. Hence the need to have clear rules about everything.

Knowing the reason for the rule is not necessary. Westerners need to understand the reason a rule exists, then they will follow it. They need to agree to the rule and approve of it. If they don't, they won't follow it. Japanese have no such need. Following the rules of a certain situation or establishment is par for the course. Even if they secretly disagree or think a rule is stupid, they still eagerly and energetically follow it, no-one would want to stand out from the pack and be seen as stupidly and arrogantly insisting on special treatment for oneself.

Exceptions such as speeding on the expressway or illegal parking are explained by the fact that EVERYONE does it, so the person doing it doesn't feel like they are leaving the safety of the pack.

When I want the freedom to follow a rule or not, I don't consider it selfish of me because I would extend that same freedom to everyone. Of course, no Japanese would join me in my bid for freedom.

The desire to move with the group is a powerful motivator. Often when I DO question the reason for a rule in Japan, I'm told that 'everyone has to do it'. This functions on two different levels - as a justification and as a warning. Both 'It's okay, it's not anything about you, it's just the rule' and 'watch out - if you don't toe the line you'll stand out and be embarrassed!'. I KNOW that if I'd asked why I had to wear gloves, I'd have been told 'everyone has to wear gloves'. That that just prompts me to ask once again 'But WHYYYYY' like a two-year old!

'The Way' also feeds into this. There is ONE way things are done in Japan. This is true of the arts, driving, writing a letter, anything really. There's ONE way things are done, and you had better find out what that way is and do it, or you'll be in danger of, yes, sticking out of the crowd looking stupid and arrogant again. Westerners of course, think that there's several 'ways' for different situations and types of people, none of which are necessarily superior, so questioning a certain method doesn't imply that you think it's wrong or stupid. However it can have that nuance in Japan, like you have no respect for whoever it is who created the rule (and surely they are experts and know more than you).

I realize this isn't true all the time that other people will think you are stupid and arrogant when you decide to do something different. Often they are fine with it, even silently cheering you on, but they fear what other's might think of themslves if they stick out from the crowd. Add in a dollop of Respect for Authority - better people than humble old you have set their minds to thinking about this, who are you to question them?

I don't know if being here so long and really understanding why makes it any better either. Newcomers exist a bubble of lovely positivity, surrounded by polite and helpful Japanese people. It's only with time and better language skills that you begin to realize how much of a lie it is, and realize what people are really thinking, all the internal cultural dynamics going on under the surface.

Phew. You can see why this kind of situation can really bother me. On a good day I can laugh it off as another mad 'Only in Japan' moment, but like I said, I was tired and couldn't be bothered with the crap.

But back to the skating, honestly this wasn't meant to become a rant!

I finally had enough of trying to coordinate two kids, one very slippery toddler and my goddam gloves and called it a day. Amy and Lena wanted to continue, and since I'd promised I let them go and took Erica for a walk around the complex. The rink is part of a community recreation centre. There's a cafe, indoor seating, a museum, a theater and a library. I found a small playroom upstairs near the library, and a ball!

And I encountered my final annoyance for the day, a girl outside the theater who approached me with the brochure of the movie she was promoting, 'Birth of Buddha', in very broken English. Other foreign residents in Japan will vouch for how annoying it can be to spoken to in very bad, broken English. I agree that it's totally unreasonable to feel annoyed, as they are only trying to be helpful and wouldn't it be nice if people in other countries made such efforts to communicate with foreigners? But it IS nevertheless very annoying! I pointed out the toddler toddling along beside me, and pointed out that it was quite impossible for me to watch a movie. 'Oh she can't see a movie' she answered, happily switching to Japanese.

Erica had already started to move on. The young woman then asked me where I am from. This is another immensely annoying question, which I also agree is unreasonable to get annoyed at because it is so innocent. I usually try to pretend I'm in a play and I'm acting and this is the FIRST time I've had this conversation, not the 1000th, and act like I'm really interested in answering it....

...but not today. Today I gave the answer 'Nakatsu'. Now I know fully darn well that she meant 'Which country', but the fact it, I consider 'Nakatsu' or 'Takajo-machi' to be a more appropriate answer anyway, in many circumstances. Answering with your country pegs you as a tourist visiting. Answering with your town or suburb implies you are just here for the same reasons as everyone else - come to skate, not to 'visit Japan'. I really think Japanese people need to start thinking of foreigners as people who are living here, for various reasons and not just tourists or cultural ambassadors on exchange.