Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Summer heat

Record temperatures are being recorded every day all over Japan at the moment. It is definately one of the hottest, driest summers that I have experienced, but we are finding ways to keep cool! This morning we broke two "school holiday rules" and went for a bike ride. Rule one... we left the house at about 9:15am - rather than waiting until 10am. Rule two... we went biking on the main road - something that is not allowed according to the rules. But, we stuck to the footpaths and I was walking so it wasn't exactly race speed! The kids did really well and made it all the way to the convenience store (about a km or so away) after posting their letters on the way. The lure of an iceblock kept their little legs moving!
On the way back we were able to take advantage of the water for the rice fields to have a quick shower - a big must after a sweaty morning!
I have also been avoiding the heat by getting into the garden early in the morning - 6am to 8am seems to be the coolest time. I managed it this morning, but I'm not sure how long it will last!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

School cleaning

I wonder how many people would turn up in New Zealand if you informed parents that on one Sunday in the school holidays there would be cleaning of the school grounds - beginning at 7am..... That is what we had today and every single child and at least one parent from every household attended - armed with their weed-eaters, digging utensils and gloves.
One of the big differences between NZ and Japan schools is the maintenance of the school and the school grounds. Unlike in NZ, here there are no school cleaners and no caretakers for the grounds. The cleaning of the inside of the school is done by the students every day after lunch and the grounds are usually maintained by staff members who have some free time - the vice-principal seems to spend more time on the end of a weed-eater than a pencil.... The grounds here are predominantely dirt.... no grass to be seen. This is one thing I find difficult, but the kids here seem to be able to play happily enough without the comfort of nice soft grass.
Of course some of the schools in other areas may operate differently, but here in my little town that is how things are done. This way of doing things definately makes the children more aware of the mess they are making, as they know there will be no after-hours cleaner come to clean it up for them, and of course it is one way to get to know the other parents at the school. I can think of better ways, but......

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Roundy roundy dancing

I've just been searching for the entry I wrote last year about the "bon dancing" here in Japan, but either I haven't been looking in the right place or I didn't write one... either way I'm sure you will have forgotten what "bon dancing" is so I will remind you.
Bon Dancing is a dance which is held in almost all cities, towns or small districts around Japan in the middle of August and is held to show gratefulness to your ancestors. What it consists of is people getting into a big circle (often wearing summer kimono called yukata) and dancing around and around and around and around and around and around outside, all doing the same steps over and over and over and over and over again to the beat of the big taiko drum and the wailing of the singer who is on the top of a high platform thingy.
In my tiny district this event takes place on August 16th every year and about 100 people gather and go around and around and around for one hour. During this time some people take a break, but always rush back to the action when the men come out with the big bags containing the "lottery" numbers. Last year the numbers were written on small packets of tissues, the year before it was on match boxes and this year we were presented with numbers written on sponges for washing the dishes..... at least I guess they are of more use than tiny slips of paper!
Anyway, after the dancing there is a big rush to look at the lottery boards and everyone gets very excited as they see their numbers come up. This year we came away with 6 prizes - two of which were the second top prize! We received..... 3 boxes of gladwrap, 1 box of washing powder and 2 big cans of mosquito coils. Oh well, I guess we should be grateful there weren't any towels as prizes!
In some of the big cities the bon-dancing is really pretty impressive, with huge numbers of people attending all in different yukata etc., but in our little district I would have to say it is not so exciting... maybe next year I'll liven it up with a bit of a twirl in between the standard dance steps!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

How many towels can one family use?

There is one "tradition" in Japan that no matter how long I live here I will never understand. That is the tradition of "return gifts". Whereas in New Zealand we tend to give gifts to people who have babies, get married, are sick etc. the tradition here is to give money. And then... the people who receive the money are expected to give a gift worth about half the amount of money received back to the person they received it from. As well as this being a pain in the butt for those who receive the money it is also a problem for those who originally give the money. That is because you tend to get gifts that you have absolutely no need for and have no way to dispose of. Of course as this is Japan all the gifts are elaborately boxed making more and more rubbish to try and get rid of.
Yesterday was the last day of the "o-bon" period here. This is the time of the year when all the ancestors are brought back from their graves (not literally!) and come and spend 3 days with their families before being piggy-backed back to their resting points. If someone in your family has died in the previous year then you have special prayer sessions etc. and everyone comes to pay their respects - giving money and then of course getting something back in return.... As my husband is a town-office worker he seems to have to go to many, many people's houses and pay a lot of money and therefore gets lots of gifts. The most common gifts this year were hand towels (10 boxed sets in total) and dishwashing liquid... I guess you can never have enough of that!
I guess I shouldn't be negative about the whole system, but to me I think it has just become such a big business that is really unnecessary. The waste is incredible and in an age when people in Japan are often not very financially stable it seems much more sensible to simply give half the amount of money and buy things that you actually NEED with the remainder....

Monday, August 13, 2007

Summer holidays

As I have previously mentioned it is now the summer school holidays here... fun for all! Last night one of my friends came to stay with her 3 boys and after the usual pizza making we did the standard summer thing here and had fireworks. I'm pretty sure in New Zealand most fireworks are prohibited, but here in Japan they are nightly entertainment over the summer. Each town has a huge fireworks display, but you can also buy BIG bags of fireworks at basically every shop you walk into. There are many different kinds of hand-held ones and although I love to see the delight on the children's faces as they are swirling them around I never feel particularly at ease when little 3 year olds are swirling their sparklers around amongst the other children. Every Japanese person I have ever mentioned it to can't understand why I would have any problem with it... I guess yet another cultural difference revealed!
This morning all the children made their own lunches and we set out on a huge hike to the local train station... a whole 1km through the rice paddies! Well we did take the "long" route over the river and stopped for a spot of "fishing" with plastic bags and some crab hunting before arriving at the shady trees of an abandoned temple to eat our lunch before another summer speciality arrived - a huge downpour! We had made it to the station (aka shack by the side of the railway line) by then though and the kids had a great time running along the platform getting absolutely soaked. Our friends headed off home on the train and we wandered back home in the rain singing "galoop went the little green frog" as loudly as we could! A nice summer holiday memory!

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Kiwi Resort in Rural Japan

The "slogan" for Kiora Cottage is "A taste of New Zealand in Rural Japan" - aimed at giving Japanese people a chance to experience some kiwi culture here in Japan. However, this year I'm thinking about changing it to "A retreat for New Zealanders in Rural Japan". There are a number of family visitors due this year (and of course already gone home) and the other day we also had a visitor from Auckland who was part of the "Bike and Hike Tours" that a different Joe runs near here. Of course it is a great thing to have many kiwis here and to see their eyes light up as you produce a big piece of homemade bread and a jar of vegemite for breakfast. Somehow the fish, eggs, seaweed, miso soup and rice breakfasts loose their appeal for most visitors to Japan after the first or second day!

Apart from that I am busy trying to fill in the school holidays with my daughter... 44 days in total. Just to let you know some of the differences which frustrate me most between school holidays here and New Zealand ......(relating to primary schools)
  1. The children are giving HUGE amounts of homework which needs to be done every day and therefore there is limited time for playing
  2. The school enforces a rule that children may not leave the house until 10am and must start going home by 5pm - the parent's aren't allowed to make this rule
  3. The school also has a huge list of rules which dictates what the students may do in the holidays and what they may not do - I asked the teacher directly "what is my responsibility as a parent"? I got a mumbled response!
  4. The school pool is open between 10:30am and 12pm and the parents take turns to look after the children during this time. This is a welcome break even though I have to take her there and back each day. Even one hour of free time is a blessing though!

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Friendly rivalry

My brother and I have always had a kind of "friendly rivalry" going. Washing the dishes was never quite as simple as one person washing and the other drying... I'll leave the rest to your imaginations! Anyway, he is now obsessed with chillies and manages to grow some really good ones on his window sills in the middle of London. So not to be outdone, I also planted lots of chilli seeds this year - habanero, tabasco, carribean hot mix etc. The first ones are now colouring up nicely and volume wise are looking pretty good.
The only problem is ... I don't even like chillies! Of well, I guess sometimes you should think a little more before trying to compete with people just for the fun of it!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Perfect timing

A few days ago (sorry I have been a little slack about updating lately...) we had a really nice family come and stay at the cottage for 2 nights. They had lived in America for 2 years and so the daughter could speak really good English and seemed to enjoy playing and reading together in English. Of course they played a lot in Japanese too, but it was really good to have a friend for my daughter to play with during her long summer holidays..... It was also good having them here for 2 nights as it meant we could go to the cool river pool near our waterfall, pick lots of vegetables in the garden, do baking, hunt for creepy-crawlies in the river etc.
They seem to be a family that has exceptional luck... They were originally booked in for one day later than they came - fortunate as the day they left we were hit full force with a typhoon. The train they had booked home was also the last to run that day.... the rest stopped because of the typhoon. I hope they bought a lottery ticket!
The areas around here made national headlines regarding typhoon damage, with rivers causing huge damage and people being evacuated etc. Fortunately our house (and bees!) seem to have been unaffected and the summer heat has returned. Long may it last!