Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Night life in the countryside

Okay, so we may not have any night clubs close by and there may not be any 5 star restaurants within walking distance, but we do have the power of nature at our back door. Right now it is the start of the firefly season and this year there are more flying around than I have ever seen here before. Right in front of our house there is a small river (which does turn into a bigger river during the typhoons.....) and from dusk until about 9pm the fireflies make their appearance. They are only around for a few weeks (their entire life span is only about 2 months) so at this time of year it is really nice to be able to just sit and watch them flashing away. There is something special about watching the floating lights in complete silence. Please pop in if you are in the area in the next couple of weeks - I can promise you they are better than any neon display in the big cities!
PS - thank you "Rosie" for your comment on my blog. I hope I can continue to make it and share my experience here with you.

Cooking Classroom

On Sunday I had the second "gathering" of the month here. This time 10 "ladies" and 1 man came to learn all about New Zealand baking and herbs. I would have to say that it was a little easier to keep them enthusiastic than the university group earlier in the month, but a little more difficult to get them to leave. The general plan was from 10-12pm, but I don't think the last people left until well after 2pm........ This was after pulling out half the herbs in my garden to take home with them!

So, as my brother asked "what is New Zealand cooking"? I think the main difference between Japanese and New Zealand baking/cooking is the use of spices and herbs. To give them a small taste we made French Bread seasoned with lots of fresh herbs, pumpkin muffins with cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and cloves, citrus slice, and two kinds of herb dressings again packed full of herbs.

At the moment there is a herb boom in Japan, but it usually only goes as far as the garden. Everyone is planting all kinds of herbs, but no one has any idea how to use them. Even simple herbs like parsley and basil are only used for display. The result is that I can say anything vaguely related to herbs and there are gasps of wonder and enthusiasm heard all around the room. Great for the ego!!!
I hope to continue this kind of group and open a "classroom" every couple of months or so. Everyone seems to enjoy it and it is a good way to get rid of some of my extra seedlings, lettuces and of course sell some more jam! Any new members welcome.....

Friday, May 26, 2006

Be in to win!

I forgot to write about our latest competition in my last entry. The prize is unlimited nights in our new "Guest House" (well maybe not unlimited, but a few nights anyway!). All you have to do is name our new house. I know it isn't built yet, but for some reason Tom thinks it is necessary to give our new house a name and so far his only suggestion is "Wind charm". Now I know that there is quite a lot of wind here, but the smell of the chicken farm that the wind brings with it is far from charming! So, help us out and think of a better name - and in the process prevent some marital arguments.
Okay, so you might have guessed that it is raining again today and therefore I have nothing better to do with my time than make silly blog entries! I hope your day is drier in your part of the world.


Despite the continual rain progress is now being made on our new "Guest House". The foundations have been laid and I am slowly beginning to get an image of the final size of it. For anyone who hasn't yet heard of our building plans here is a brief rundown..... We are building a small "Guest House" next to our garage with the following three uses in mind.

1. A home away from home for my family and friends - as the children get bigger it is more difficult to share our space comfortably with family and friends for extended periods of time. Actually it is easy for us, but less relaxing for our visitors! Having a place where people can escape to when they need to will make things easier for all involved. There will be two bedrooms upstairs and reservations are currently being taken!

2. A kitchen for me to start a new business. I will have a small kitchen which will enable me to get a permit to make muffins, cakes, bread etc. My aim is to make this business work within 5 years, starting small and hopefully growing it together with the jam business. Volunteers are welcome to help make and test the products!

3. As a place for people to stay as part of "Green Tourism". This is a concept which is growing rapidly in Japan and is similar to a Bed & Breakfast. The theory is that people come and stay and then have some kind of agricultural experience with the different families. Tom is currently involved with this organisation here, but it really needs a lot more focus if it is to become successful. I hope we can add a slightly different angle to it where we can combine NZ cooking, mountain climbing etc. into the experience. Weekday visits from retired couples would be perfect.......

Yesterday I finalised the colours and it looks like in the next week or so the walls will start going up. It should all be finished by the end of July/start of August (if it is not flooded out first!). The reservation book is now open - we look forward to you coming to stay (you can choose the "yellow room" or the "green room").

The original site.

Progress as of May 20th - the front large square is the living room, the back left is the bathroom and the back right is the kitchen. Upstairs there will be two loft bedrooms.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hansel and Gretel

I think I have discovered what the Grimm Brothers did when they were children. They went wild strawberry hunting! After spending all morning cutting down what seemed like a forest of bamboo to make supports for my tomatoes (currently 7 varieties planted with 4 more in pots....) I took to the wilderness to try and find a few more wild strawberries for my jam. For anyone unfamiliar with wild strawberries they are very similar to raspberries, but they grow wild in the mountains etc. Anyway, I went without the children today so I could explore a little further and I really got the feeling that I was in the fairytale "Hansel and Gretel". Everytime I started to turn away I was lured deeper into the bush by the sight of another red treasure, and then another, and then another...... until before I knew it I was in the middle of the bush with a basketful of wild strawberries wondering exactly where the road was. Thank goodness the wild boars had made nice tracks for me to find my way out again! And of course the sight of a snake made me finish up my adventure a little earlier than planned. It is amazing how when you are in the bush by yourself every sound you hear sounds like a wild boar or a snake coming to get you! Anyway, I managed to pick about 2kg of wild strawberries so I guess my next job is to make some more jam. I think I am going to have to charge double for any jam with wild strawberries in it due to the danger involved in collecting them!

After the rain and then a patch of warm weather the rest of the garden seems to be taking off. Flowers seem to be appearing everywhere in the vegetable garden and I have discovered another great reason to have a compost bin. Not only does it provide you with good nutrients for the garden, but it also acts as a wonderful seed raising mix. All the seeds from last year's pumpkins seem to have sprouted in the compost so I transferred them to them to the bigger pumpkin patch up the hill. I guess there will be no shortage of pumpkin jam and pumpkin muffins this year. The only problem is that I am not exactly sure what variety they are..... I guess it is just another surprise to look forward to!

Compost patch turned Pumpkin Patch and the new pumpkin patch

Gherkin, Tomato, Zucchini and Nasturtium flowers are starting to appear everywhere. The picture at the top of the page is the potatoes - they should be ready just in time for Mum's visit.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Rice seed planting

Along with a "Parents morning" at kindergarten and one full day of work on Sunday, the remainder of my weekend was spent helping out with "rice seed planting". This not to be confused with "rice planting" and is something which is gradually being done less and less by the Japanese rice farmers. These days those who have small rice fields, who have limited time etc. generally just buy trays of "ready to plant" rice seedlings, but at our house....... every year we have the big "rice seed planting" day.
In the past this involved having about 8 family members to help on a chain gang, but with the addition of a fancy rice seed planting machine last year, it can all be done with just 2 or 3 people. Anyway, for anyone interested here is a basic idea of what is done.
Day One: special soil is put into seed trays, evened out and then stacked. this year we made 250 trays.

Day Two:

The trays of soil are fed into the machine on a convey belt (this was my job this year!) where they are first covered with seeds and then covered again with soil. The finished trays are then laid out on the ground, watered and covered with shade cloth until the first seedlings emerge (probably in the next day or two). And that is basically it - until rice planting season of course......

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The rainy season is here

One major difference between Japan and New Zealand is the weather. Spring, autumn and winter are pretty similar, but summer is another story. Right now we are just at the beginning of summer and that means the "rainy season". It is now that I am thankful that I spent the extra hours digging the trenches in my garden as it not only means that the garden doesn't turn into a complete bog patch, but it also means that the children have a fun place to splash around in their gumboots. It has been raining solidly for 2 days now (or maybe it is three, I am beginning to lose count) and with the rain the weeds are appearing in large numbers along with the frogs and crabs. I can't count how many times I've been bitten by a crab as I go to pull out a weed this year!

As much as I hate the rain it is an essential thing for the Japanese rice farmer, which is what my husband's father predominantely is. The rain signals the time to start planting the rice seeds and unfortunately for me that means "MOVING TIME". I have had to evacuate my tunnel house so the rice seedlings can be put in there until June, when they will be planted out into the fields. So now wherever you look around the outside of our house you will see trays full of seedlings. Any little piece of shelter is being used to keep them from being directly drowned by the continuous rain. Tom took 5 trays to the local market today to sell and hopefully, if the rain stops long enough, I will be able to plant some more this afternoon. I'm not holding my breath!

Some of the many trays of seedlings.

On a more positive note, the rainy season also brings on the growth of many plants (if they can fight their way through the weeds). The children and I went on our first "wild strawberry" expedition on Monday and the artichokes are popping their heads up along with lupins, poppies and of course more chamomile......

Sunday, May 14, 2006

"Agricultural Experience"

Friday = beautiful weather. Saturday = rain all day. Sunday = beautiful weather. Therefore, as supported by Murphy's Law, a group of 6 university students came to our house as part of their orientation for an "agricultural experience" on Saturday. So, what can you do with a group of only vaguely interested Economics Majors on a rainy day??? Of course start by winning them over through their stomachs then put them to work!
I made some pizza dough and let them at it - they seemed to enjoy trying to twirl them on their fingers and they definately demolished enough pizza to topple the Tower of Piza! Add a pavlova and the day started off okay.
Instead of going into the fields to help plant some "long, sticky potato" Tom's father came and showed them some photos and some of the tubers in the tunnel house and then I put them to work separating out some of my millions of seedlings. I am not at all confident of the result, but it filled in half an hour. I gave them the choice of lettuce, tomato or herb seedlings to do and they all opted for herbs. I was interested that half of them also took home lots of herb seedlings to raise themselves. Maybe my image of what "boys" are interested in is a little wrong!
My original plan was to take them to a patch of bamboo and get them to cut it down then make their own original designs for my tomato supports, but..... that idea was reduced to playing inside with disposable chopsticks and string. They came up with some good ideas, but I'm not exactly sure if they will survive the typhoon season! Anyway, we managed to fill in the day and although the level of interest varied a lot between the participants (to be expected when they are on a compulsory field trip) I think most of them enjoyed the day. My next challenge is on the 28th when a group of ladies are coming to do a herb workshop. That is likely to be a little easier!

Pizza and Pavlova making

Tom's father showing them the sticky pototo tubers

Pricking out seedlings and Tomato trellis construction

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A little help from my friend!

My friend Sunny (aka Yoko) came to WWOOF at my house for a couple of days this week. For anyone unfamiliar with this term it doesn't mean that she came to bark at the ever growing chorus of frogs in the ricefields, but it means that she came as a "Willing Worker on Organic Farms". Actually I am not officially a member of this group, but what it means is that people come to work for you in exchange for a bed and meals. A good deal for all involved.
For me it was a really nice time to share some of the things that I have been trying to develop here and to have someone to talk with during some of the more tedious jobs. There are only so many hours you can spend picking chamomile flowers before the "beautiful smell" becomes too familiar and the satisfaction of separating seedlings becomes more like a chore. We talked a lot about different ways that we could make ends meet doing things that we really want to do and also a lot about the importance of making bridges between different people who are trying to do the same. As soon as everything you do is focused on profit it seems like the fun disappears and the reason you started the business disappears with it. However, without even a small profit the business cannot survive..... As always my life seems to be coming back to a balancing act!
Anyway, thank you Sunny for helping me - you are welcome back any time (I promise Masaki will even take his cup into the kitchen all by himself next time .......). Thank you also for the following photos. Anyone who is interested in looking at Sunny's own blog the link is: http://sunshinefarm.blog33.fc2.com/ It's all in Japanese, but the photos are great!

Chamomile flowers - before and after being picked

My back-yard garden and some of the millions of lettuces in it.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

New Challenges

It is currently "Golden Week" here in Japan. This is a string of public holidays which means that everyone is going away somewhere. For me that signals that I should stay at home and get all the jobs done around the place rather than sitting in a car battling with all the other traffic, which is basically what we did. There was also a festival here where I was able to test the market a little more and had some successes as well as some failures - everything is a learning curve at the moment! My biggest success was selling some of the extra seedlings that I have at the moment. In total I managed to sell about 100 lettuce and tomato seedlings which is much easier than actually planting them, watching them grow, packaging and taking them off to the market! I also sold out of all my jam (I'm now waiting for more fruit/vegetables so I can make some more) as well as my latest product - "Herb Infused Olive Oil". I only made 6 bottles of this for a start, but sold out of them on the first day of the festival. I think that this could also prove to be a reasonably successful product if I can market it well.
I had less success with selling fresh herbs. I made some bundles of mixed herbs and included a recipe with them, but as most of the customers were older people they didn't sell well at all. Fresh chammomile flowers were better, just....

My garden is starting to fill up quickly. I have now completely planted 3 out of 6 rows and another half row was planted in the rain this evening. The tunnel house is slowly emptying out of seedlings, which is lucky as I think I have to vacate it for about a month while the rice seedlings are growing. After rice planting I will begin the challenge of growing things in the tunnel house over the autumn and winter.
Within the garden I am trying to do some "companion planting", but I am never exactly sure what they mean when they say to plant "together" - how close do different things need to be in order for them to be beneficial and how far apart do "enemies" need to be? Under my gherkin wigwam I have planted lettuce plants which will hopefully benefit from the shade and there are carrots under the first tomatoes - apparently they are good partners. There is also thyme under the brussel sprouts. I have no idea whether it will make a difference or not, but anything is worth a try!

Three completed rows - until the lettuce plants are harvested.....

Gherkin and lettuce wigwam - the advantage of living in a country where bamboo is almost considered a pest is that there is a ready supply of "building" materials.

Tomatoes planted with carrots - my latest companion planting book is called "Carrots Love Tomatoes" so it must be a good idea!