Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Out with the old!

Well, this is it! The end of 2008. The end of a whole year of ups and downs, good and bad.

In preparation for the new year, we've been busy cleaning, organizing, sorting, and purging in our house (which as those who have seen it know, is a far overdue task!). Although we won't be done the whole house by tomorrow (DON'T go in those front rooms!), the living room and kitchen look like new places! Haj has been working day and night (late late night!) to get new shelves up, so all our DVD's and videos are finally organized and easily accessible to the kids. One old junky cabinet has been removed, crates (yes, multiple) of dishes have been moved into the storage shed...

We've been living here for 4 years now, so its about time we started really 'moving in'! Better late than never! I'm just excited that its all starting to come together! Now, if I can just get through this mountain of laundry before tonight...

The boys have been pulling their own as well, especially Kai. Jiichan had them sorting and tidying the disasterous toy corner. They'll take a while to get into the habit of really tidying up after themselves every time they play (as will I), but they're really making an effort!

They are down for an afternoon nap right now, as we're planning to be up to midnight tonight, so we can visit the village shrine and watch as they burn all the old house-charms of everyone in the village, then get the blessing of the year and the new charms for the upcoming year. More wonderful old traditions.

Out with the old! We're ready for a new start!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

New friends, old traditions

Today we gathered at the home of a family that Haj knows through the Young Business Owners' Association. It was a chilly but brilliantly sunny day, and the gusty winds of yesterday had calmed to a chilly breeze. There, we met 3 other families, with children who's ages ranged from 3 to 12.

In the center of the garden, one of the fathers was tending a small wood fire burning under what looked like a tiny water tower. This was a traditional old fashioned rice steamer. The man tending the fire said that his family cooked their daily rice in a contraption like this one every day, until he was a junior high school student. The rice we were cooking was not the regular rice eaten every day, but the glutenous 'mochi' rice that is traditionally cooked during the New Year season. We were about to make mochi, a pounded sticky version of the rice.

While the rice steamed, they brought out a large round wooden stump. Too heavy to carry, they rolled it out into the open, then stood it up. In the top was a perfectly carved 'bowl'. Along with this giant 'pestle', they brought out a huge wooden mallet, the head of which seemed ridiculously overbalanced to one end. They carefully washed out the basin, and kept it damp and warmed with piping hot water.

When the rice was ready, they upended the whole pot into the basin. They then started slowly kneading the rice with the mallet, rubbing and pressing it into the start of a ball. Then the fun began. The 'pounder' stood with the mallet raised above his head, then pounded the ball of rice three times in quick succession. Then, the 'turner' (traditionally the wife of the pounder) reached in and gave the hot doughy rice a quick turn. As soon as her hand is out of the way, the mallot smashes down with a satisfying thwunk. As the pair gets moving, a rhythmic movement of ultimate teamwork follows as the turner boldly reaches into the bowl with each upswing, and is out by the time the mallet comes crashing down again. "Swack - Thump - Swack - Thump..."

The 'dough' gradually gets smoother and stickier, until the turner calls 'time' and they pause. The head of the mallet is cleaned off with hot water, and the ball of dough is flipped completely. Then the rhythm starts up again, always with the initial 3 quick thwumps. Apparently this is a bit of a good luck procedure, to keep the rice from sticking, or something like that.

After quite a few cycles, the ball in the basin is a soft glossy white, looking quite like melted marshmallow. Then the women all start squeezing the hot pounded rice into bit-sized balls that look like the mochi we are all familiar with in Japan. The work is hot and fast, as the mochi gets hard as soon as it cools. For variety, we had some with 'anko' (sweet bean paste), some with 'kinako' (ground soy bean mixed with a little sugar), 'karami' (grated daikon radish, green onion, katsuo flakes, and soy sauce), and the ever famous 'ozoni' (hot broth with seaweed). When all the work was done, we all sat down and ate the wonderful fresh soft mochi, and celebrated the end of the year and the upcoming new year.

One more batch of mochi was made, and this time we rolled it into larger discs and powdered them with cornstarch. These we left out to dry and harden. On New Year's Eve, every household displays a two-disc tower of mochi to bring in the new year. So, our New Year mochi preparations done, we cleaned up and headed inside, where the kids enjoyed a karaoke competition on a big-screen projector. Great fun, great new friends, and great old traditions.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Roots Christmas 2008

Well, we did it again!!

We had our biggest party ever this year, with 35 kids and about 20 adults in attendance! We rented the local community centre for the event, and I think it was a roaring success!

We started out with a fast-paced limbo session, and then did some Christmas musical 'cards'. To help them calm down a little, we then got out our pencils and did a fun Christmas crossword activity. I'm always impressed at how well the kids write (with hints of course!) and they have more concentration than most of my university students!! I think (hope!) the parents were sufficiently impressed as well!

After a hard activity of work, it was time for a little fun (and chocolate of course!) so we played the M&M relay. Each team had to pass a tiny cup of M&M's player by player up the line, and the last player ran to dump the load into the team's bowl, then returned to the beginning to start the next round. The kids had such great teamwork skills, with the big kids helping out the little kids, and nobody really getting too angry with the few littlest kids who did their best to disrupt the line. They were all really happy in the end when they got to divide their big bowl of candies among the team members.

We then moved upstairs to the kitchen, and had snack time. I got smart this year and had each family bring a bag of snacks or a bottle of juice, so I didn't have to provide the whole feast! Many thanks to the big people who worked hard to set up the snack stations during the games, so we were able to enjoy our treats right away! We also had a nice piece of chocolate cake! Yum!

After the snacks, we brought out the gingerbread house kits! Each station (5 total) built a house. Only one had a bit of a disasterous roof-collapse! Oops! The rest came out beautifully! The big people did the main building, and all the kids got their hands into the decorating process. The grade 3 girls did their whole house by themselves, showing again great teamwork in building the structure!

We all then moved back down for a little bit of quiet time, and watched the DVD "How the Grinch Stole Christmas". We had read the book in class the week before, so everyone was familiar with the story, and everyone got a good laugh at seeing it on the screen!

A good group song came next; "What do you want for Christmas?" The final line of the chorus is "Santa's on his way". I got the kids all riled up asking "WHO is coming???" and when they had shouted "Santa!!" loud enough, the great man himself came bounding into the room!! Santa had a giant sac of gifts to give out to all the good little girls and boys! Family photos were followed by a big group photo, and we ended right on time!

A great sucess, with the help of many friends and parents. What a fabulous way to end 2008!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

nice people do exist

I was driving around in an unfamiliar area the other day, with the help of my handy-dandy GPS navi system. It directed me right to the place I was looking for (a school where Kai needed to sit a test in a couple of hours), and I was looking around for a cafe or some place to have lunch and wait for the test time. Unfortunately, there was very little in this area as far as any resting area was concerned. It was a small residential area near a larger commercial area that I knew was nearby.

As I drove around, roughly guided by my navi in map-mode, I found myself suddenly met by a dead end meeting the train tracks. There was no indication on my navi that the road didn't continue. A small delivery truck had been driving ahead of me, and at the end of the road had looped around, and then pulled off the road just behind me. I guess I stopped dead in the road, which just stopped dead in front of me, and then eventually followed the example of the delivery van and turned around in what seemed like a little parking area.

As I got ready to head back the way I came, deciding the 7-11 I'd passed was about my only option for a break and lunch, an older man hopped out of the delivery truck and started to flag me down. "I hope this guy doesn't expect me to give him directions!" I thought, as I wound down my window. I was completely confused when instead of asking directions, he started giving them to me.

"Keep driving up this road, and you'll see a 7-11 on the right. On the left there's a school. Turn there, and follow that road over to the next street. Turn left there, and you'll be on the road that will take you to the other side of the tracks."

I thanked him, and drove off in a daze, following his directions. He had obviously deduced that I had been trying to get across the tracks by driving down the street we were on. Seeing as we did have a couple of hours to spare, and this kind man was so sure of where we should have been going, I did exactly as he said, and ended up in the middle of the urban shopping area on the 'right' side of the tracks.

I am amazed still that on a grey rainy day, in an old residential area of back-street Japan, this man not only sensed my plight through his rear-view mirror, but also went so far as to offer unsolicited advice to a gaijin woman in a bright yellow car. So have faith all, there are still nice people out there.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Being happy

There has been a lot of negative energy floating around my circles of late, and perhaps this musing would be more productive in a more public setting. I am, however, a chicken at heart, and so I write here, in the safety of my own circle of family and friends.

People will always find things to complain about, be angry about, and even quietly feel unhappy about. I'd really rather focus on things to be happy about. I like being happy. I do feel that I've had a very generous dose of luck/fate/blessing... whatever you'd prefer to call it. I certainly can't complain about my life. But is it really just my circumstances? Am I really that much luckier than others? Or is it just that I don't/can't/won't see the negative stuff around me.

I often joke with my friends that I live in a bubble of sorts. I let all the negative stuff at work, school, in the neighbourhood bounce off my bubble, while I stay snug and warm (well, not always warm) inside. In a lot of ways, I'm very naive, I'm sure. I'm certainly not very worldly. I never watch the news or read newspapers. I get snippets of the happenings around me through pieces my dad sends me (thanks Dad, keep 'em coming), through articles brought to my attention on the many web-groups I subscribe to, through overhearing conversations at work and at home. I'm a 'bad' citizen I suppose, living just for myself and my family (and my students, and the univestity, and...) And for me, that's enough.

Because, I'm happy.

I like Japan. I like living in Japan. I like my Japanese family. I look at all the crazy, unexplainable, sometimes unforgivable stuff that goes on here, and I don't need to try and change anything. I can choose my place in it all. There are things I will not bend to, and I'm lucky because I don't really have to. I have a lot more freedom here, I think, than Japanese women do, because I have the loophole built into my face, my 'alien-ness'. I'm quite obviously not Japanese, so yes, I quite obviously do some things differently. And that's ok. I know that when it's hoped or even expected that I do things in certain Japanese forms, it doesn't mean that anyone is trying to change 'me'. I can choose to do or not to do, and I understand the weight of this decision each time I make it (which is usually pretty much every day, in some form or other).

I hope that my happiness affects the people around me. I hope that others will find some way to see more happiness in their lives. I hope my children are learning from me to be themselves, to make their own decisions about what they want to do (unless its something I've told them to do - ha ha), and to find happiness around them, no matter where they find themselves, and what they are doing.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Happy Birthday Taiga!!

Taiga celebrated his big "5" yesterday!

He was excited all day long about two things...
1) his present - he'd requested a specific game for the DS
2) his first day joining Kai's shorinji kempo class

We went to shorinji right after preschool, and Taiga was very keen to stand alongside Kai and go through the moves. Kai was a good, if a bit too strict, teacher. He enjoys being the one who 'knows' what to do, and its a good experience for him to show off as well. I'm glad that the two of them are finally doing an activity together. Up to now, all the extra activities we've done have been just for Kai.

After class, we headed to the restaurant for cake. Taiga loved his chocolate cake with Pokemon characters, just like he'd requested. He got his DS game cassette, plus a great Pokemon play kit from Kai, and a new DVD from Grandma and Grandpa, and a bit of cash from Jiichan and Baachan to pick his own gift from. He went to bed a happy 'big boy'.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Pit of Darkness

A friend of mine e-mailed me the other day, saying that he was on his bike heading toward Hasunuma. Unfortunately, I wasn't home at the time, so wouldn't be able to entertain him. The next day, he told me that he had a horrible time trying to find Hasunuma, and managed to get completely lost and turned around, while some maleficent force (apparently me) mischeiviously altered the roads as he traveled them, ensuring that he never reached his destination.

Later on, as I contemplated his story, it occurred to me that he had been attempting to find Hasunuma by bicyle, in the dark. He had emailed me at some time after 5 pm, and our area is in the full clutches of dusk by then, with 5:30 bringing on full darkness. Add to that the ongoing joke (which is quite true) that Hasunuma is located in the "pit of darkness", and it is no wonder he never found us. I began to wonder exactly what he was planning to find at the end of his great journey, which would reveal to him that he had discovered our fair town. A bustling city? No way! A cozy cluster of warm shops? Nope. A spattering of random lights? Not likely. In fact, without a specific and quite exact destination (the ramen shop, for example) there is really no way to distinguish any point of Hasunuma from any other expanse of dark field and random home.

In order to somehow come to closure on this traumatic journey, I invited him over for dinner last night. We traveled by car this time. As we drove, he tried to pick out landmarks that told of his previous path of travel. This proved very difficult, as one curve seems much like the next, and rice fields don't offer much in the way of distinguishing characteristics. I'm not sure if he was really prepared for the 'non-existance' of Hasunuma. It turns out he actually had ridden right into Hasunuma, and only a dozen blocks from our home, in fact.

So much for 'following the lights'. They certainly won't lead you to my home!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Happy Halloween!! (5 times over???)

Well, we managed to survive Halloween again this year, with 5 different events under our belts this time!

We started things off with pumpkin carving at IBA, the language school I sometimes help out at. We had about a dozen kids come out to help us carve the biggest darn pumpkin I've ever seen!! It was sure a lot of work (ahem) FUN!! The finished product was definitely worth all the ooey gooey slimy gut-pulling.

The following night we were back at IBA for their Trick-or-Treat event. There were about 40 kids there, ranging in age from 3 to maybe 13, with some older high school kids helping out. The place is always done up in amazing style, with black light and spooky sounds... A real treat! The atmosphere is pretty wild, the kids are even wilder, and my voice after the night is pretty much toast. Its a lot of fun for the kids though, and this is the only time they get a chance to do 'real' trick or treating through the neighbourhood in the dark. Too bad they have to travel around in one huge mob though. Its just not the same that way.

After a one night breather, we were off again with my own Halloween bash for my weekend kids. We had about 35 kids, with 5 or 6 parents helping out. My former student Kazumi was also on hand and was a huge life-saver! Much more organized than the IBA event, we had pumpkin carving (5 teams), a giant bingo-style game, and then game stations done on a rotation.

After all that, we headed out for a walk around the neighbourhood for a little trick-or-treating of our own. It was mid-afternoon, and they only actually visited 4 houses (including the ramen shop), but as a first experience for everyone, it was a great success. I'm hoping to be able to get more neighbours to help out next year. We actually traveled around in small groups, so it was a bit more 'real' feeling to me.

The next day found us out on the other side of the Chiba peninsula at the Wives' Club party. This is always great fun, for both the boys and for me. I love that the kids amuse themselves, and other than helping them load up their plates at lunch (its always a potluck), I can almost forget that they are there at all. This year's party was at a great house with a bamboo forest in the back, and lots of space for the kids to explore and get really really dirty. There was a whimsical enchanted forest populated with an amazing assortment of beanie babies and other 'creatures'. The kids got their third round of trick-or-treating in as well, going around to selected neighbours houses.

Finally, on the last day (a holiday Monday), we were at a community center helping out another teacher I've recently become good friends with. Most of her students are quite small, so it was a very cute event with activity stations and some pseudo trick-or-treating. A nice way to finish off Halloween.

I wonder what we'll find in our schedule next year!! I'm already planning our costumes...

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Little Chef

The other day, Kai decided to make dinner for everyone. He chose to make 'omu-rice', a dish of fried rice wrapped in an egg omelet. He had to fry the rice up first, made traditionally with ketchup for a nice red colour. Then he fried up the egg omelet, added some rice, and 'folded' it all up to make a nice little packet. A final garnish of ketchup, and it was all done! And very tasty, I must say!! Good job Kai!

We're back!!

Ok, after a series of issues with our Yahoo 360 page, I've decided to have another go with this one. I hope you'll all be able to view this page more easily, and I hope I'll be able to keep up with my entries. I have to remind myself that I don't need to wait for a significant event to write, and I don't have to write in pure chronological order as well. So, be prepared for snippets, essays, rants, and random thoughts. I'll try to post things as they come up, but if I skip around a little, please forgive me. Such is the state of my mind and my life. Anyone who has seen my house can attest to that!

So welcome to all of my dear friends and family. Sorry for the long silence. We're ready for a fresh start.