Sunday, December 30, 2007

Mochi making - again!

Things are starting to become very predictable here.... I just checked the archives of last year's blog entries and.... that's right on exactly the same day last year we did exactly the same thing. In fact my husband's family has probably been making sticky rice cakes on December 30th since before the invention of electricity! (it is not possible to make them on the 29th as any day with a nine in it is bad luck...).
Anyway, for anyone who missed last year's blog entry here is a run down on what happens on mochi making day - at our house anyway. Of course with virtually identical photos to last year too!
First the rice is soaked over night (note - the rice is different to normal rice eaten every day in that it is even shorter grained and therefore even stickier....). It is then steamed in a big pot over a fire before being transferred to the pounding machine thingy (similar to a bread kneading machine really) where it is bashed around until it resembles a big sticky blob.
It is then immediately shaped into balls (as this is Japan there is no sitting at tables... squatting on the floor is more appropriate....) and placed on a big tray to dry out. Although it is really sticky to begin with it quickly turns into a very hard thing that you wouldn't want to try and eat unless you had a jack hammer in your mouth. Fortunately as soon as you put it in hot soup or put it under the grill it goes back to its originally sticky stuff - preventing broken teeth, but still giving your jaws a bit of a work out.
There are some made with special sweet beans inside too that have a kind of grass beaten in with them, but this years one's were a little bit of a disaster.... something about not chopping the grass fine enough.
Anyone interested in participating in next year's event... I can almost guarantee that if you are here on the 30th of December you will be more than welcome to help!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas number 1

Despite the fact that it is only the 24th we had our first Christmas dinner for the year today. Although we had it here we organised who would make what in advance so the work load was spread and we had a great meal. With 16 people in total (well 17 if you count 2 month old Marina!) from Canada, England, New Zealand and Japan there was a great mix of food with lots of traditions from each country - turkey, roast veges, salads, trifles, steamed pudding, pavlova, mince pies etc. Yum, yum, yum!
The children all enjoyed swapping presents as did the adults! A nice start to the Christmas season. Now we just have to repeat it all tomorrow and then try to deal with all the left overs.....

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Kindergarten Concert

Despite having a 39 degree temperature last night my son managed to take part in his kindergarten concert today, transforming into a very young Elvis Presley for a "space rock" dance after bashing out a Santa Claus song on the drums. Not too bad for 5 year olds... and of course don't forget the costumes and rocket were made by us Mums! Don't worry these will be the last videos for a while!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Citron and Pumpkins

Today was officially the Winter Solstice in the northern hemisphere - in other words the shortest day of the year. Here in Japan there are two main traditions that you are supposed to indulge in on this day and for once we did both!
The first is to eat pumpkin.... why - because it helps to prevent you catching a cold (my husband eats it every year on this day, but had to look up why he does to explain it to me... I guess that says something about these customs!).
The second thing to do on this day is to take a bath with some "yuzu" or Chinese lemons. Apparently their aroma warms up your body and like the pumpkin prevents you from catching a cold.
As I said, we did both this year, but as my husband just concluded if the effect of these things is so good at preventing colds then we should probably do it before the shortest day and all through the winter as well.... but tradition is tradition!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Piano concert videos

I think I have finally managed to download the videos of the children playing the piano in their concert on Sunday. Don't feel obliged to watch them all! The concert was only 3 and a half hours this time compared with five and a half hours last year... don't worry the 4 videos are all very short!

Saturday, December 15, 2007


This week seems to have been dominated by making gingerbread cookies. As part of an "international understanding" class we made zillions of cookies at school to be iced next week for a Christmas party. Unfortunately we ended up giving half of them to teachers who came to watch a demonstration lesson that I had to do so the teacher called me tonight to ask if I would make some more... it's not as if I have anything better to do on a Saturday night!
The good thing about doing cooking in Japanese primary schools is the fact that they have all the official looking aprons, hats and masks that they have to use for serving their school lunches. Very professional! Of course like everywhere in the world the teachers found it difficult to leave everything over to the students and got very involved!

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Tis the season....

The last few days seem to have been filled with making things for the kindergarten end of year concert. The kindergarten that the children go to is reasonably famous for their concert - mainly because of the costumes, which the MOTHERS make every year. Each child is in one dance with 3 or 4 other children as well as a song and musical instrument performance with their whole class. Fortunately they only need a costume for the dance.... This year my son is in a dance called "Space Rock" so we made costumes in the Elvis theme. The teacher also requested a rocket that the 5 boys could get into and move around on the stage.... another few days work!
Every year I dread the concert, but when I think about it it is really a good way to get to know the other parents and also the pride that the children show when they put on their costumes that their parents have made for them is really rewarding! My son keeps asking me if I was able to sleep each night as he knows I have to spend a lot of the night hours sewing.... the concert is not till the 23rd, but the dress rehearsal has already finished and fortunately there are only a few small adjustments to be made. Roll on next year.....

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The problem with Japan is....

On Tuesday I was silly enough to do another cooking class for the lady who came by herself last month. Of course this time she also came by herself, but this time I didn't try so hard to do wonderful things with her in the hope that she won't be so keen to come again next year..... one person just doesn't make for a great day! She wanted to do some "Christmas cooking" so as well as making gingerbread men - well cookies anyway and decorating them, some special herb tea and an eggplant dip (very Christmassy right!) I showed her how to make pavlova. The night before I also made a pavlova so it was going to be like a cooking show where you put one in the oven and miraculously another one is ready. The only problem was that the first pavlova was a complete flop... I have had the same problem in the past where it just doesn't stay crispy on the outside despite looking wonderful in the oven while it was cooking.
Anyway yesterday I finally discovered why after reading a recipe for pavlova that was written in Japanese. They said "if it is raining you should either give up completely or try to dry out the air with the air conditioner etc." Unfortunately Japan's climate just isn't appropriate for making pavlova for most of the year! The summer is far too hot and humid and rainy. In the winter my husband has the fire going far too hot which makes the air too "moist" too..... I guess that leaves the spring and autumn!
Just in case you are wondering... I managed to open all the windows while I was cooking the second pavlova and it was beautifully crispy on the outside and soft in the inside. We enjoyed it for dessert!
Another thing that I have struggled with here is rhubarb. Again I think the humidity is the problem and although I can usually keep it growing for a few months it always dies off in the summer and never appears again. I guess some things just weren't meant to be grown in rural Japan!
By the way - I can't take credit for either of the photos in this entry, but the page looked a little lonely with no photos and the pavlova is gone and it is dark outside....

Friday, November 30, 2007

Family traditions

Christmas seems to have arrived in Japan early - as it seems to be doing in every country around the world now. Here, although they don't understand the origins of "Christmas" at all and have no idea how it is celebrated in other countries they have developed their own traditions - sponge cakes, a day for lovers etc.
In our house we have also started some new traditions - mainly because of a lack of access to things that we would normally be able to get easily in New Zealand. Our main one is the decorations on our tree. Many years ago it was difficult to get any kind of decorations in Japan so we started making our own... with photos! Now every year I make frames and put photos of our family as well as anyone else who has spent time with us at Christmas. This year I left it up to the children to put them all on the tree and they had a great time looking at how they had changed over the years and also remembering all the people who had been here at Christmas. It was really nice to listen to them getting excited when they saw each person - oh look, here's Aunty Megan, here's Hannah, Peter, Rosa, Birgit, Paul, Emi, Mickey etc. etc. etc!
It's time to start making some more for this year, but as there are 13 people (not including us) coming on December 24th for a pre-Christmas dinner and then more on the 25th I think I will be using group family photos rather than an individual one for each person!
Our other tradition is our advent calendar that the children think of as the big thing with pockets full of chocolate... actually there is limited chocolate in it this year and lots of practical things like toothpaste and chopsticks. I wonder what the response will be. Fiona gave us another one last year which is the "adult" one. Now that one is full of chocolate!

Friday, November 23, 2007


As the weather has cooled down I have gradually given up hope that the tomatoes that are left in the garden might ripen and that the cucumbers that have self-sown might actually produce something and have gradually been pulling them out. We had our first frost this morning which also meant the basil and zucchinis which have been producing right up until now are also on their final legs and the garden is starting to look a little bare.
However after a few really cold days we had a great day today and managed to eat lunch outside with another 3 families. The children had a great time running around outside together and I had no messy floor to clean up! I love outside eating. Unfortunately I have the feeling that it might be the last time this year though....
Today was also the day when the local people (and some not so local people) all climbed up the mountain be;hind our house and those who climbed said the weather was so perfect that they could see all the way to the tip of this island. No smog from China today..... All in all in a beautiful day!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A slower start

Last night we had 2 more guests stay as part of the "bike and hike" tours that Joe runs in this area. This time he brought a really nice Canadian woman who came to Japan for a conference relating to linguistics. I'm sure she was fascinated by the strange version of English we tend to speak at our house! After a slow start this morning (thank goodness!) they were off up "my" mountain and then continued on on their bikes to their next stop for tonight.
It has been great to have people stay over the last few days, but I am also looking forward to having a few nights off too....

Monday, November 12, 2007

Early start

It is 5:45am and last night's guests have already had breakfast and are about to make their way to the train station. Apart from the early start they were really great guests - exactly the kind of people that we would like to stay with us. They were a mother and her daughter who are thinking of moving to the countryside with their family. Unlike the last man who came they are making the decision as a family and from the minute they arrived really wanted to be part of our family. They came early in the afternoon and were wonderful with the children. I really enjoyed making dinner with them and Ciel's piano playing has hopefully motivated my daughter to keep going with her piano lessons!
After a few disasters of pavlova making recently (I've decided that the humidity in summer makes it pretty much impossible to make a decent one) I was so excited by the amazingly high pavlova that I produced yesterday....... until I lifted it off the tray and discovered it was like a cave! Pretty impressive though - I bet I couldn't reproduce that one even if I tried.

Yesterday morning a lovely lady came for a "cooking classroom" (I know I told myself I wouldn't accept groups less than four, but...) so we had a really nice time making apricot fudge slice, pumpkin muffins, foccacia and basil pesto. Money wise the calculations don't work, but it meant I didn't need to make anything afternoon tea for the guests last night and could also use the muffins for breakfast this morning.

Tonight more guests are due so at least having today's guests leave early means I have plenty of time to get the cottage ready!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Fun at the festival

Yesterday we spent the whole day at the local "hometown festival" where the Green Tourism group had a booth. I finally got around to making some more jam and managed to sell about 60 small jars. Maybe it was the smiling face behind the counter that helped! I used up all the bits and pieces in the freezer and ended up with 6 different types:
  1. Strawberry - boring, but always a best seller!
  2. Plum
  3. Marrow and ginger - often bought simply because they can't even imagine what it tastes like!
  4. Pumpkin and apricot - thanks to Trev and Gill (and Mum) I have a great supply of dried apricots to make as many jars of this as I can sell.
  5. Loquat and apricot
  6. Rhubarb and banana - my personal favorite and the first to sell out... not that there were many jars to begin with! Thanks Grandma for the recipe (and Dad for typing it out...)
Beside our booth there was a young man drawing people's pictures so the children had theirs done. It filled in 10 minutes and they are very happy with the results - maybe because they make them look a little more "angelic" than they actually are.....
Tomorrow I start a real test into how organised I can be. In the morning there is a lady coming to do a cooking classroom then in the afternoon 2 guests arrive followed by 2 different guests the following night. Fortunately my husband has the day off tomorrow so he can do the school dropping off and picking up!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Preparing for winter

As the weather cools down it is time to start getting the bees ready for the winter. They have definitely been less active lately and over the weekend my husband started to wrap them up (literally....) to prevent them catching a cold! It gave us a chance to have a look inside and see if they have actually made a reasonable hive inside the boxes or not. From the original 6 boxes we had we only have 4 left (the others ran away....) and they all seem to have made a reasonable home for themselves. The real test will be if they have made a big enough supply of honey to tide them over the winter.
Over the weekend I also helped to instruct 18 children and their parents in the art of making pizza in the pizza oven (no, still not our own....). I am slowly getting it down to a good art - but with so many pizzas to make the person putting them in and out of the oven deserves a medal.... those ovens really do get hot!

Saturday, November 03, 2007


November 15th is officially the day in Japan where girls who are aged 3 and 7 and boys who are aged 5 dress in kimono and go to a shrine to pray for health and long life. We jumped the gun a little and went today - along with quite a few others! According to one homepage I read 7-5-3 began in medieval times when the samurai and aristocratic families did the following: Boys and girls aged three stopped getting their hair shaven and were allowed to grow their hair.
-Boys aged five put on hakama for the first time in public.
-Girls aged seven began using obi sash to tie their kimono, instead of cords.
As time went by the "commoners" also started to take part in the rituals and today almost all Japanese children "celebrate" this day.
Things have changed a little over time and the standard thing to do these days is to get dressed in a kimono (easier said than done - especially for girls!) and then get your hair done and makeup done before going to a photo studio to get photos taken. Boys wear a "hakama" over the top of their kimono, which is like a big long skirt.
After the photos we went to the shrine to take part in a special ceremony to pray for the children's good health and long life. Unfortunately there was a wedding ceremony just at the time we went and the wait was going to be too long so we just prayed and went home! The only thing the children were disappointed about was the fact that they missed out on getting some more of the long "chitoseame" - which is basically a long stick of sugar... which translates into "thousand year candy". It comes in a lovely long bag which has pictures of cranes and turtles on it - of course symbolising long life again. At least after today we should have ensured that our children will still be around and well long enough to look after us in our old age!

Thursday, November 01, 2007

More bikers

My crazy friend Joe brought another guest to stay on Tuesday as part of his biking and hiking tour. She seems to be surviving better than most - his tours really are pretty "adventurous" in that often they consist of biking for long distances, climbing big mountains then biking some more to that night's accommodation. Not for the faint hearted, but definitely a way to see the countryside of Japan (I can think of better ways....).

Since I have come to Japan I have learned a lot about New Zealand. Strange but true! I guess we just take for granted what we have in our own country and don't often think too much about the way we do things until we see a different way or are asked a question relating to our country. This month I have to do some teaching at a school where they want me to teach them all about New Zealand... today it was a quiz and in the process of making it I discovered a whole lot about New Zealand frogs... yes I have a bit of a fascination with frogs considering we have so many living all around us here! Anyway, it turns out that unlike here the frog population is somewhat under threat. It also turns out that there are 4 species of native frogs in New Zealand, one of which (Archey's frog) is pretty special because it doesn't go through a tadpole stage at all - it's eggs hatch straight out into frogs.... With the estimated population of these frogs down to less than 1,000 and the fact that they are highly camouflaged you are less than likely to come across one sitting around on your clothesline. I guess if you want that you will need to come and see us here!
Just a little bit of pointless information for you to fill in time before the big event this Saturday.... 7-5-3! Stay tuned for more information!