Saturday, December 30, 2006

Mochi making

One of the traditional foods eaten during the new year period in Japan are "mochi" - or Japanese rice cakes. We make them every year with my husband's family on the 30th of December so today both Hannah and our new visitor, Amanda, both got to join in on the event....
If you are interested there is a very detailed description of how mochi are made (and how to remove them from your throat if they happen to get stuck...) at the following link: Wikipedia Mochi Making
If you want the shortened, photograhic description of how we do it at our house then read on!
First you soak the special rice (different to rice eaten everyday in that it is much stickier) overnight and drain it.

Next you build a fire, put big pots of rice wrapped in muslin-like cloth on top of a big container of boiling water and steam it for 20-30 minutes.

Traditionally you would now get big mallet like things and pound the rice, but with modern technology you can now just put it in a machine, very similar to a bread kneader and watch as the steamed rice is pounded into a sticky blob.

While the blob is still hot it is made into smaller blobs which are then shaped and placed on big trays.
The first mochi are always very big and are placed in front of the altar etc. as a gift to the gods.

After the plain white mochi are made a green "Japanese herb" is added to the final batch and balls of sweet bean paste are placed in the middle. These ones can be eaten just like that, while the plain ones are usually put in soups, grilled and dipped in soya sauce etc.
It sometimes takes a while to get used to the sticky nature of mochi, but Amanda was a good sport and either didn't mind them too much, or just had so much mochi stuck in between her teeth that she couldn't do anything more than smile!

First snow

One of the questions I am always asked from both Japanese and NZ friends is "how's the weather in Japan compared to New Zealand?". I can only speak for the particular area that we are in, but I would say winter is about the same as my home-town, Dunedin - pretty cold, with a few snow falls every year. We had our first snowfall yesterday and although it didn't settle it was still cold enough to get outside and run around for a bit and pretend to have a snowfight.
Although winter is similar summer is another story! Nothing in New Zealand can compare to the heat and humidity here..... I'm sure if you are still reading this blog in August I will be complaining about it then!

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Monkey Magic!

After a hectic week of Christmas build-up and the Kiora Cottage guests we escaped the house today and braved the freezing temperatures to go and see some monkeys! Just out of Beppu City (about 50 minutes from here) there is a mountain called "Mt Takasaki" and in this mountain there are many monkeys.... They have developed an area where the monkeys are free to come and go from in which you can go and literally get up close and personal with them. There are no fences and there are two different groups of monkeys which come down from the mountains alternatively (there used to be three groups, but one has gone off somewhere else) to spend time in the area. They wander around the place happily playing, picking fleas etc. and then all swarm into the main area when the clock hits feeding time to get a peanut or two. It is kind of like in one of those horror movies where there are huge numbers of mice come and take over an area. The group of monkeys there today had about 780 in it.....
I have been a couple of times in the past, but this time was the best I have ever seen (no screeching loud speakers today Dad and Dawn!). There were so many baby monkeys around that had been born over the summer and who were really enjoying just being kids. They have built them a "kindergarten" where there are swings, slides etc. for them to play and they seem to have a ball. I know there are problems with monkeys in the wild in some areas of Japan where they have taken over towns - going into houses etc. to get food. In Beppu there doesn't seem to be that problem and I am impressed at how natural they try to keep everything. No cages, no pressure to stay and no overfeeding so when they spend time in the wild they are unable to survive.
A nice change from washing Christmas dishes anyway!

Second Paying Guests

The day after Christmas Hannah was kicked out of "Kiora Cottage" for the night and we had our first real test of our new business (the Korean group didn't really count as they were only here to sleep!). A family of four saw the promotional piece in the newspaper and booked in for the night. They wanted to interact with our family as much as possible so we made dinner together (pizza, french bread and salad), they played games with the kids, and in the morning we made apricot fudge slice and Christmas cookies together.
I wasn't exactly sure how it would all work out, but I think in the end it worked really well. They retreated to the cottage at about 9pm and played cards etc. over there so we didn't have to entertain them all night and they seemed really happy when they went home - promising to come back in the summer holidays.
The way it is working at the moment is that there is a set accomodation fee which includes breakfast and then I have started making some different things that people can do here if they choose - all with a fee of course...... like the baking we did with this group. It is fun to think of things to do, but now I need to really get around to advertising it properly. The next booking is in for January though so hopefully word of mouth etc. will get the ball rolling! Any ideas/comments welcome!

Monday, December 25, 2006

Japanese Christmas

I think one of the things that has surprised Hannah is how "Christmasey" things are here in Japan. Considering it is not a Christian country, there are more than enough Christmas carols playing on the radio, in the shops and in the restaurants. There are also more than enough Christmas decorations and Christmas lights to be found everywhere. It feels very much like a normal Christmas anywhere until you realise that the carols and decorations is usually where it ends - oh and the Christmas cake of course. Most people here think that Christmas is the 24th and most families buy a very sweet, very beautifully decorated cake to eat on this night (we had ours donated by Hannah this year - yum!). The cake shops are packed with boxes of cakes with the names of those who have ordered them and in general once the cakes are eaten Christmas is over for another year. Christmas is a time for lovers rather than family and most people are surprised at the way we celebrate it here in our house - a very traditional way with stockings, roast turkey etc.
One other tradition in this area is a big fireworks display in Beppu on the 23rd and 24th of December each year. The Japanese really do love their fireworks and although we were a long way away this year they were still worth going to have a look at. The display lasts for an hour and is just continual explosions of colour - incredible to think how they are made! Also incredible to think how much they cost....
This year we spread the Christmas spirit a little more and did some baking with a friend of mine and her 3 boys. Christmas cakes (well banana cake and chocolate cake sandwiched together and decorated with marshmallow flowers!) and Christmas cookies - you can never get enough of them!
Tomorrow we have a family of four coming to stay in Kiora Cottage. They want to cook dinner together and do some baking together too..... I guess I should think about what to make - or maybe I'll just head to bed and hope I become inspired in the morning!

Yamaga Town

When I came to Japan 10 years ago I lived in a town called "Yamaga". In fact, I still live in the same town, but have shifted from the central area to the very outskirts. When I arrived here the population of the town was over 10,000 people, however the latest count seems to be down to about 8,000 people. In other words it is a small town, but has some very beautiful areas. Whenever anyone comes here I feel the need to take them on a tour of the central part of Yamaga - usually with two main stops. Number one: "Udo Waterfall" - a small waterfall in the middle of the moutains. It is really nice in the middle of summer, but as we discovered, a little chilly in winter! After the compulsory photo there we usually go to the second stop - the symbol of the town - a windmill on the hill (no one seems to know why a windmill is the symbol of this town....), but there are great views from the top. Unfortunately the road is closed for repairs at the moment so we had to revise our plans.
We went to one of my friends houses to have a quick look in her father's amazing room (sorry, the photo is a little out of focus...). He collects antiques and has this incredible room which is just stacked full of old Japanese coins, Samurai armour, old pistols, antique vases, even a very old carp pond! Kevin - you would go crazy in there!
Unfortunately he is now getting too old to make it up the stairs to enjoy his treasures so is thinking of selling them - a sad option for him.
After our trip back to the past we yet again felt the need to go out for lunch - nothing like a basket full of things that you have no idea about what they are. Hannah is very brave though and will at least try most things!

Rakanji Temple

Oops - another bit of a lapse in the blog entries... It isn't that we haven't been doing anything, it is just that we have been doing too much! I'll try to split the entries into smaller parts to make it less daunting to read!

First trip... Rakanji Temple. I find this temple quite amazing. It is built into the cliffs of a mountain about 50 minutes drive from here and is home to 524 stone buddahs in one cave as well as many other buddahs in other caves close by. To get to the temple you can either walk up the steep path or, if you are lacking in time (and energy) - like we were, you can take the ski lift up to the top.
Once you get to the top you are greeted by little surprises dotted in the many cave-like areas that are there. Of course there are stone buddahs everywhere, but there are also a lot of wooden rice spoons with everyone's wishes written on them. The old man who was there told me that as a rice spoon is used to provide you with nourishment, it is seen as something which can make your wishes come true and is therefore used for good luck.
The temple and buddahs were made approximately 600 years ago as Buddhism came to Japan from China. One thing that always surprises me is how they could have possibly brought all the materials up the steep terrain and built such a place 600 years ago. The old man also told me that the stone used for the carvings was brought from another area - making the task even more difficult! I did ask "why"... but wasn't really given a full answer (or one that I could understand anyway!).
Dawn - we learnt well from you and held all our belongings safe in our pockets this time!

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


One thing that most people associate with Japan is the traditional dress - the kimono. They are becoming popular again here at the moment among the younger generation as designers are making new designs and accessories that are making it "cool" to wear a kimono again. Of course traditionally they were worn every day - in the ricefields, to the office etc. Now they are mainly seen at festivals and tea ceremonies, but there are people who still wear them everyday.
Today my mother in law took charge of Hannah and put her in a kimono - not as easy as it may look!
The first step is to get the socks on...they have the big toe separated to allow you to put your shoes on and need to be a tight fit!
After the socks (you need to put them on first because after you have your kimono on you are unable to bend down to reach your toes!) the first layer is put on. Usually you would have one more layer under this but we just did the shortened version today.

Next comes the actual kimono - they are all basically the same size, but are adjusted by folding them up in the middle to make the correct length. Many small belts are The big "obi" or belt then hides the folds and keeps it all in place.

And there you have it - the finished product. You can't move or breathe - but it is good for a picture!

Monday, December 18, 2006

One of Japan's best things...

Today we continued Hannah's introduction to Japanese culture by going to one of my favorite places. I discovered it after having an argument with my husband and needing a place to just relax for a few minutes. It served its purpose more than adequately and has been a favorite place to go to ever since.
Of course what I am talking about is one of the Japanese hot spring baths, or "onsen". This one is up in the mountains and has an inside bath as well as many different outside ones, including a cave, a waterfall and a head rest! The main difference between New Zealand hotsprings and Japanese ones is that here you have to take all your clothes off before you get in. You can use a little towel to hide some of your important "bits" if you want to and they are usually separated into male and female baths, but it definately takes a little bit of getting used to. My first introduction was when I first came to Japan and went on a trip with the teachers.... nothing like really getting to know your new co-workers! Now that I am used to it I find it is a great way to relax and I don't think anyone takes any notice at all of the other bodies in the bath with them (mind you I take my glasses off before I get in so I can't actually see if everyone is staring or not!).
One word of warning though - the hot springs are often up to about 42 degrees so if you sit in them for too long without moving you are likely to get a little light headed when you get out. In worst cases you may even faint in front of the toilet before you manage to get your trousers on. This may be a little embarrasing - especially if you are being taken there by a host family.... something that I know from personal experience!
In Japan it is also very common for children to take a bath with their parents and it is usually the father who does this. I know that if this happened in New Zealand there may be many questions asked if the child went to school and told their teachers etc., but here it is simply a way for parents to talk with their children while getting the job of getting them clean done. This is one part of the Japanese lifestyle that I really like and sometimes wish it could be a more natural thing in New Zealand too.

Saturday, December 16, 2006


Apologies for the lack of posts lately. Hannah has been away and it has been too cold to go into the garden so I figured you weren't very interested in seeing pictures of me cleaning the bathroom or reading my book....
Hannah is back now though and this afternoon we ventured a little further (about 40 minute drive) to the "resort" town of Yufuin for a couple of hours. We started at the folk museum where you can see a variety of traditional crafts being done - paper making, traditional dying, bamboo crafts (we were shown about 30 of the 400 different ways in which you can weave bamboo), glass blowing and my favorite of all - spinning top making! The man that was making them today took great pride in the tiny ones that he made. The tiny one on the coin in the picture is less than 4mm in diameter. It is perfectly made and spins just as well as a big one (if you can get your fingers around it!). I always enjoy watching the traditional craftsmen at work, but talking with them today it is obvious that it is just a tourist attraction in many ways. Although they are very skilled and make beautiful things they know that they can not sell the goods that they are making - they are just too expensive compared to the cheap imports made from plastic etc. They were confident though that people will soon turn back to using quality goods and are therefore trying to keep their crafts alive.
After the folk village we had a quick walk to the lake (which is warm as it is part of a hot spring) then we headed for an icecream (I know it is winter, but the kids were determined...) and spent a while feeding the carp. For anyone who has never seen carp in action I highly reccomend it. The ones that we saw today were just babies, but even so they are pretty impressive. Carp are often seen as an important element in Japanese gardens and as one person wrote
"Japan is a country where a large population leaves little land available for flower gardens. The Japanese, therefore, have found places to grow living flowers, the colored carps. Carps can live for up to 50 years. In Japanese culture, they are a symbol of strength and perseverance."
They are definately strong anyway - you wouldn't want to put your hand in there at feeding time!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


I have just been to Kyoto - the ancient capital of Japan to see my mother for a few days. She was heading to England so had a short stop on the way. It was not my first visit to Kyoto, in fact I think it was my fourth... but each time I go I find new things to see and am always amazed by the history and beauty surrounding the city.
Kyoto is one of the few major cities in Japan that was not bombed during the wars. A lot of the buildings we were wandering around were built in the 1600s or even as far back as the 12th century. Pretty hard to imagine when you come from a country such as New Zealand which has such a short history!
The gardens in Kyoto are definately the major highlight and as there has been a mild autumn this year we managed to catch the last of the autumn colours. We wandered around the streets at night - it was incredible to see the differences between each street - one minute you are on a street in which you feel like you have been transported back in time and then you turn the corner onto a neon-filled street packed full of young people out on the town.
One of the places we stayed was up a tiny cobbled street and when we arrived the first night there were no people, no shops, nothing -just a great atmosphere. When we came back the following afternoon we literally thought we were on the wrong street as it had been transformed into a very busy tourist alley - with shops and people everywhere.
Anyway, I could write pages and pages about our trip, but in summary Kyoto is definately a city you should go and visit if you come here to Japan. There are too many photos to put on this blog, but if you want to see a few more I have created an account at If you want to check it out please send me an e-mail at and I will send you the username and password.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Birthday party

Okay, so I said I wasn't going to write for a few days, but I just thought I'd better let you know that we didn't completely ignore Hannah on her birthday.... In between school and a pre-funeral mourning service we managed to have some roll your own sushi and a cake.

This photo was taken at the mourning service for my husband's great uncle tonight. In a strange way I find the way Japanese people deal with death and the funerals etc. very interesting. It is a much more involved process than we generally have in New Zealand and I feel that it really pays respect to the deceased. The deceased is brought back to their house as soon after their death as possible (if they died in hospital etc.) - often within hours of dying. They are then placed on their own futon for the close family to mourn and then placed in a coffin which is surrounded by hundreds of flowers etc. The coffin stays in the house right until cremation. There are many more interesting stages invovled, but I really need to get ready for our Kyoto trip tomorrow now. Please let me know if you are interested in hearing more details about the process here in Japan and I will try to write another entry later.
Okay - this really is it until Monday or Tuesday.....

Happy 21st birthday....

Today is Hannah's 21st birthday. For any Japanese people who are reading this blog - in New Zealand turrning 21 is a big event. Usually people have big parties and it is traditionally on this day that your parents give you a big key.... to what I'm not totally sure, but it is tradition to receive a key!
Anyway, as Hannah is not in New Zealand right now she got to have a really exciting birthday at a Japanese primary school... I had to teach all morning so she came along and was a good sport joining in with the kids. The school we went to is a rural one - with an average of 2 or 3 children in each class.... one class only has one student, but they have their own classroom and their own teacher - it is about a 10 minute drive from there to another bigger school...... crazy, but true!
I am teaching them about traditional New Zealand christmas stuff at the moment as well as English conversation so among other things today we made popcorn strings (not that I've ever actually made them in NZ....) and played "Guess Who" - what better way to reinforce the grammar structure "Do you have"!
After the exciting classes we got to eat school lunch with the kids before coming home to the nice warm fire - no heating in the schools makes a jacket essential inside wear!
We were planning to go out for dinner tonight, but as Tom's great uncle died last night it looks like Hannah will be on babysitting duties again while Tom and I go to the memorial service.... things have definately not been going to plan for Hannah's trip so far!
Tomorrow we are off to meet my mother in Kyoto (the ancient capital of Japan) for a few days so there will be no blog updates until at least Monday. Thanks for all the comments etc. lately - its good to know some people are reading my dribble!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Mountain climbing

Before I start this entry I would just like to remind you that all the activities that we have done with my cousin so far have been within about a half hour drive of our house. Following in this tradition today we decided to keep the car in the garage and wander up the mountain at the back of our house. Actually it is a 529m high mountain and the route we chose to take was far from a simple wander, but a really nice outing all the same.
According to our tour guide (my husband...) about 200 years ago the mountain area was filled with Buddhist priests taking part in strict training. Then about 80 years ago there were 88 different statues of buddhas placed around the area and now you can climb up the mountain and pay your respect to all the different statues on the way. There are two basic courses - one that goes straight up the mountain and another more challenging one that goes around all the different statues and is basically vertical a lot of the way. We took the challenging course on the way there and then came down the fast route. I think it took about 2 and a half hours on the way up and 1 hour and a bit on the way down.
Tom took about 80 photos so here are just a small selection.....