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!