Thursday, January 29, 2009


According to the news the whole world seems to be in a recession. However here in our house in rural Japan it doesn't seem to affect us much. One of the reasons for this is that the amount of money we spend on food is generally very low. We grow our own vegetables, we grow our own rice, we lay our own eggs (well our chickens do!) and we also have people who give us all their "extra" things that they don't need. We then give eggs, cookies and smiles in return. It is a great system... most of the time! The only problem with it is that we often get given huge bags of things that I have no idea what to do with. The latest was yesterday when a kindy Mum came (and stayed till 1am... a long story....) and gave us a huge bag of tiny shrimps that were trying to crawl out of the bag (literally) and some other funny shrimpy things that have so little meat on them that you end up with a huge pile of shells and smelly fingers, but an empty stomach! I know I should be grateful, but.... sometimes I wish they would just give us a big piece of fish - already filleted and ready for the pan! Half the shrimps have been given away and the other half are in the fridge.... help!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Stress relief?

Japan seems to have developed some great ways for people to release stress. One of them is the traditional Japanese custom of making sticky rice cakes by pounding the cooked rice until it is a sticky blob. I have posted about "mochi making" before where we used modern technology to beat the rice, but today we reverted to the traditional method of literally bashing the cooked rice with wooden mallets at my son's kindergarten. Although it is traditional for the men to do the smashing and the women to do the shaping afterwards I can see that for stressed mothers it would also be a great activity to relieve a bit of tension. Today it was down to the fathers and children though and they all did a great job. Usually they have about 3 people all pounding the same bowl of rice at the same time so the coordination between the 3 is very important. There is then another person who puts extra water on the rice to stop it sticking - this is done while the mallets are still coming down so whoever draws the short straw or anyone who has particularly quick hands gets that job.
Over the new year my parents-in-law told us stories about how in the past everyone got together to make mochi at new year - starting at about 4am and pounding away a total of more than 60kg of rice over a whole day. They would then store the mochi and use them all year long in soups etc. Thank goodness for the invention of mochi making machines and other delicacies which reduce the need for too many of these sticky little balls!
This was the last big event for the PTA at kindy so I am looking forward to giving up my reign as chairperson in the very near future. A word to anyone who is being bullied into doing this kind of job.... don't do it!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Bigger is better?

Sometimes when I take friends and family from New Zealand to the supermarket here they look at the prices in the fruit and vegetable section and say "That's not so expensive". And then I explain to them that the prices on the fruit are not for 1kg (as they are in New Zealand", but for ONE piece. ONE kiwifruit averages about 99 yen ($NZ 1.80) and ONE apple is about 150 yen ($NZ 2.80) or more in the supermarkets near me. Having said that it is often difficult to compare the fruits in Japan to New Zealand fruits due to the size difference. Big definitely seems to be better here. The apples are about 3 times the standard size in New Zealand and now strawberries seem to be heading the same way. The other day one of my friends brought me some punnets of strawberries - they were the biggest strawberries I have ever seen. The heaviest one was about 44 grams..... although they are not the perfect strawberries for making jam they definitely make taking the tops off them fast!
In other news.... our chickens seem to be going through a very rebellious stage at the moment. The other day I went outside after making some strawberry jam from very big strawberries to find that one of the chickens had somehow managed to push their way out of their "cage" and was wandering around my garden. A bit of chasing and a few anxious minutes as it looked like it was going to make a break for freedom by jumping into the stream behind our house (a long drop....) and it was back into its pen with all its other friends. They also seem to be breaking all the "rules" of my chicken bible too. The bible said that they lay on a 25 hour cycle and that seemed to be the case for the first while. It also said that as the winter sets in they will lay less. This morning I went to collect the eggs at 7am after making my daughter's lunch (yes it has been a long day) and found 2 eggs. Not so unusual if the hens hadn't been laying the day before, but...... there were 4 eggs the day before (for anyone new to this blog we only have 5 hens) and for the week prior to that we had 5 eggs every day. Today there were a total of 5 eggs too - with the last ones being laid before 11am. If you do the calculations my chicken bible just doesn't work! Not that I am complaining. I have been making lots more tofu so that I can reward them with the bi-product - the munched up soybeans. They love them! I've also been trying out a bit more cheese making - this time with a milk and lime mixture which made a fantastic cross between cottage and cream cheese. Mixed with honey and spices it is delicious! The hens then slurp up the whey.
I have been enjoying a little bit of extra time lately due to the fact that all the schools I am teaching at seem to have been struck down by influenza. It spreads fast here and at the school I am supposed to be going to tomorrow an entire class has been sent home for 2 days to help them recover. Here's hoping our family some how manage to avoid it...

Thursday, January 15, 2009


While my mother was here we talked a bit about stereotyping and how I find it quite frustrating that people will often make broad statements about people from a certain country based on very limited information etc. I try so hard not to do that living here, but sometimes it is just too hard to be open minded to the ways that people do things here. Today was a prime example of that..... I am currently teaching a few hours each week at two different schools in my town/city (there are about 15 different primary schools in this "city" since three towns merged into one a few years ago) and both schools are getting funding from different places to pay for me to come. Today I went to the board of education to discuss something about one of the schools and as I was leaving I made a comment about whether they really don't have enough funding to get more English teachers into the primary schools here (it seems pretty unfair that some schools can get teachers but not others). Although I have questioned them on this many times in the past their response was.... "We have just applied to get funding for you to teach at all the schools next year. When it has been confirmed we will probably contact you to discuss it".
How does this link with not stereotyping people? I have never said that I would be willing to do any additional teaching for the town. They have never mentioned this proposal to me before. We have never discussed how much time I would be available to teach if I was in fact willing to teach at all. Of course no discussion has ever been made as to how much I would be willing to do any additional teaching for - if in fact I was willing to do any. But.... a proposal has been made to the city to employ me (I have no idea for how many hours a week) from April this year. In my experience this is quite a common thing here - get all the details sorted out to such a point that it is impossible to actual negotiate or say no. Start at the end and then keep your fingers crossed that the person involved will actually agree to it. Don't bother to get any input into how things would work best from the people who will be most involved before you actually make proposals etc. I could go on all night!
I'm not saying I wouldn't be interested in a little more teaching - there are not so many jobs I can do during school hours here so I can be home for my children after school. I am just saying there are more logical ways of doing things. I wonder when they would have informed me if I hadn't happened to "pop in" today..... the day before I was due to start? Perhaps the funding won't go through and this whinge is all for nothing anyway!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Another productive day

Yesterday I started on another new adventure - cheese making. Starting simple I made some cream cheese from yoghurt (to be honest I'm not really sure what it is called, but it tastes exactly like cream cheese to me. Basically all you have to do is mix a teaspoon of salt with a litre of yogurt (we make our own caspian yogurt) and then hang it in a bag for 24 hours. Yum! I will definitely be making more!
Of course cream cheese is no use unless you have some delicious bread to go with it so it was fortunate that my friend Sunny stayed last night and brought her bread making bag with her - complete with all the necessary thermometers etc. We made (well really she made...) some delicious bread with natural yeasts and I now have a great container of raisin natural yeast in the fridge that I need to learn how to use properly and how to feed properly to keep it alive. This months challenge! We also had a fantastic chicken curry last night courtesy of Sunny - having visited India to study cooking and also having worked in a curry restaurant for over a year it was definitely delicious! Thanks Sunny!
In other news.... we have hit a really cold patch here. The snow has gone, but it is freezing outside every day. That hasn't stopped the chickens from laying though - still 5 each day with the occasional 4 thrown in every now and then.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Tofu making

In an attempt to clean out the cupboards as well as become more self sufficient I have started making tofu. My parents-in-law grow soybeans and bought a special machine which makes soy milk from the soybeans that they never use and therefore gave to me. It has been sitting collecting dust for too long now and so I decided to try making tofu - two times, two successes which just goes to show it is not a very difficult process!
For anyone interested the basic procedure is:
  1. Take a cup full of dried soybeans and soak them overnight.
  2. Put them into the machine and let it do its stuff. Or if you have no machine you can boil the beans, put them through the blender then through a cloth to separate the milk off (far too complicated for me!).
  3. Let the soy milk cool till exactly (or approximately in my case) 75 degrees then add a couple of tablespoons of a special salt brine that curdles the soy milk. Stir it then leave it for about 5 minutes.
  4. Add another couple of tablespoons of the salt brine - this time do not stir it! Leave for another 10 minutes.
  5. Scoop out the curdled bits (not such a nice job after the recent memory of sick children....) and put them into a wooden mould lined with gauze.
  6. Put a can of pineapple on top (I'm sure any can would do!) to remove any excess water and ... voila - fresh tofu.

We had another day of quite heavy snow today so it was a nice activity to do with the children. Tomorrow we are going to try using black soybeans..... the joys of living in the countryside of Japan never cease!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Continuing Themes

At Christmas time I managed to recycle quite a few milk cartons in the form of Christmas wrapping paper and today my children worked hard to continue this recycling effort and made themselves a money box out of a milk carton. This money box also continues on with the theme from yesterday too in that it is for their egg money. I am trying to help the children understand the concept of saving.... which is a little difficult in a society which seems to throw money away on silly things all the time and in a society where most children don't have to work to get anything... including a university education (but that is another whinge for a rainy day....).
Back to the savings idea... today the children sold their first eggs to our neighbour. The plan is that whenever we have an excess of eggs they are able to sell them to anyone who wants them (I think I convinced them that 200 yen for a pack of 10 might be a little more realistic than 1,000 yen, which is what they were planning on selling them for!). The only condition on this is that the money goes into the money box and stays there for one year.... at which time they can count it and use it how they please. They won't become millionaires, but hopefully it will show them that by saving they can actually get better things than the horrible little gacha-gacha toys (sorry I can't say this in English....) or the cheap toys from the 100 yen shop that break after one day of playing.
If we increase our hens next year then I figure they will then need to pay for the hen's food etc. out of their profits too.... I'll have them making millions by the time they are 10 so I can retire to a life of leisure!

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Applying maths to the real world

There were so many times at school when I wondered when on earth I would use the maths that I was learning. However, our new chickens have been a good way to show my daughter that you can in fact use the maths you are learning for a practical purpose. We now have an egg book where each day the number of eggs collected are graphed (okay so I started the colour coding and straight lines thing....) and then at the end of the month multiplication is used followed by addition to work out exactly how many eggs our lovely Boris Brown hens have laid for us. Of course once she has moved onto division we will then be able to work out the average number of eggs laid each day, but for now addition and multiplication are all that are needed. So... according to her calculations the 5 chickens laid a total of 78 eggs in 20 days (which calculates to an average of 3.9 eggs a day and an average of 15.6 eggs per hen over the 20 days, which means each hen laid an average of .78 eggs each day or 1 egg every 1.3 days.... ). The theory that they lay on a 25 hour cycle seems to be holding true and hopefully as the weather gets warmer with spring (still a while off) the average number of eggs laid will increase a little more. But for now we are more than happy and still enjoying becoming slowly more self sufficient.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The Eagle has Flown

I have a love-hate relationship with airports. From a young age I have travelled between families for holidays and arriving at a new place and meeting family then arriving home to reunite with other family members was always a great feeling. On the other hand airports are also a place for farewells and usually I get to the airport thinking of many things that I should say, but can never find the words to say them as I always choke up with the thought of people leaving us (or us leaving people) again. Today was yet another one of those days when we farewelled my mother in Fukuoka. We had a great time with her (thanks for some great memories) and yesterday we decided to go to Fukuoka for the night to avoid a 5am trip on the icy roads. A quick stop in Hita for a wander and lunch and then we made it to a movie in the afternoon. My daughter managed to cry in terror the whole way through the movie "WALL-E" (if anyone has ever seen it you will know there is nothing scary about it at all.....) and then we had some pretty bad okonomiyaki before settling in for the night.... I think we were all in bed by about 8:30pm!
After another sad farewell we did our big shop at Costco then headed home - with an impromptu stop at the ice skating rink. The children tried it for the first time and again their personality differences were very obvious. Where my daughter was extremely cautious, my son was overly confident - literally sliding all over the rink (usually on his bottom). Where my daughter cried each time she fell over my son laughed his head off as he sprawled across the ice.
When we got home we found out that my friend Keiko had delivered her baby at last too so all in all it was a nice end to a sad day! Congratulations Keiko, Chris and Ken!

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year

Happy New Year! This year I managed to skip most of the house cleaning but did manage to clean most of my insides out by catching the same bug that my son had. I think all is well now and most of the traditional Japanese obligatory things are now over for another year. We went for an outing to Yufuin to see Bob and Mickey before New Year and fed some carp (totally unrelated to New Year, but still a nice outing) and then it was mochi making on the 30th. Mum got into the spirit with her apron and managed to make some nice round mochi. For anyone who is new to this blog or who wants to be refreshed about what mochi making is please check out last years blog entry here.
Last night (31st) was spent at the in-laws house eating - the kids spent most of the time finding 101 ways to use crab claws. Mum then went to the temple to ring the bell with my husband at about 11:45pm and they managed to be the first ones there - starting off the ringing for the night - a total of 108 times to (and again I quote from Wikipedia): "announce the passing of the old year and the coming of the new. The reason they are rung 108 times is because of the Buddhist belief that human beings are plagued by 108 earthly desires or passions (bonno). With each ring one desire is dispelled."
Usually each person only rings the bell once, but Mum was given the honor of ringing it twice... maybe they thought she had more desires or passions than most Japanese people which needed to be dispelled!