Friday, September 16, 2011

More Murphy's Law moments

Today I had to go to Oita from 9am and then teach in Yamaga and knew I wouldn't get home till about 5:30pm. The world cup rugby is on in New Zealand at the moment so we have signed up for a free 16 day trial of sky sport and then if New Zealand is still going strong we will sign up for long enough to watch them through to the final. From 5pm tonight there was the New Zealand vs Japan match. My husband came home early so he could watch it. I made dinner before I left at 9am so I could come home and relax and watch it. It hasn't rained for weeks. It is pouring tonight due to a typhoon which is passing in the distance. The rain affects some of the sky channels.... especially the sports channels. So right now we are watching a screen like this photo. Very occasional glimpses of the actual play come and go and we guess as to whether they are replays or not. The score seems to be 69 to 7.... a decent win... would be nice to watch....
I figured I could at least listen to the radio and get the basic idea of what was going on. Only the radio coverage is only available to people in New Zealand.... I guess I'm back to the internet updates..... just glad we are not actually paying for the coverage yet!

Thursday, September 15, 2011


There are three main myths about the Japanese countryside that see a large number of people opting for countryside life as they get older in age. Unfortunately these myths are just that... myths!
1. The countryside is a peaceful place to live. I agree... in the winter! I saw a programme on TV where they measured the level of noise in the countryside vs a big city. Guess what? The countryside was actually noisier! Of course the noise is cicadas, frogs, crickets and quite a few weed-eaters instead of noisy, smelly cars, buses etc., but it is definitely not quiet!

2. The countryside allows you a life of relaxation where you can do everything at your own pace and not have to work your butt off. Mmm... I guess this would be true if you didn't intend to grow anything (which is why most people tend to head this direction), but living in the countryside is actually a lot of hard work - especially as things are not quite so "convenient" so you usually have to do a lot more things from scratch rather than just popping to the closest shop to pick things up. The fact that half the year it is REALLY hot and the other half is cold doesn't help much either!

3. The countryside is safe. I admit we have never really had an issue with this personally -the neighbours keep their eyes open and we have never had any "strange" happenings. Having said this I still don't feel comfortable about leaving my kids alone at home for even a short time. I guess the New Zealand strict laws regarding leaving minors alone has instilled a feeling of insecurity when it comes to this issue. Unfortunately there are no such laws in Japan and it is not unusual for 5 and 6 year olds to go home to an empty home and stay till late evening for a parent to come home. On Tuesday I was stopped by the police on my way to work. They were stopping every single car and checking in the back seats, and asking if we were alone before waving us on. It seemed strange at the time and I discovered that night that a 2 year old had gone missing from a car in a supermarket carpark earlier in the afternoon. The mother had just popped in for 5 minutes to pick up her groceries so she left the car engine going with the child asleep in the backseat, the doors unlocked. This is a very common thing here. The woman has been brought up in the Japanese society where this is standard practice so I don't think there is much point in saying how stupid she was. And of course this is the Japanese countryside where everything is safe. There is still no sign of the little girl. This is not the first time it has happened. I just keep wondering how many missing children it is going to take until Japanese society changes its attitudes to leaving children alone......

Having said all the above... do I like living in the Japanese countryside? No, I love it! I would never consider shifting to the city... despite all the myths!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Gaining independence

I have two children who are 10 and 9 years old. Most of my life now seems to revolve around picking them up, dropping them off, feeding them etc. Because we live in the middle of rice paddies there is no real option for me to avoid a lot of these things and make them more independent outside the house. They can't wander to the local shops, jump on their bike to visit a friend or catch the bus to swimming. Half of me is happy about this as I can control their lives so much more in a pretty scary world, but half of me wishes I could let them become more independent.
One of the main reasons for this last wish is because I look at my mother in law who is now 73 years old. She lives her whole life in this tiny valley and because she doesn't drive she is totally reliant on her husband or other family members to either take her places (on the rare occasion she wants to go) or get things for her. She has no desire to go anywhere, but there are times, like last week, when she needs to go to the hospital. On this particular day both myself and her husband weren't around so she had to get there by herself. On the bus. Which only runs twice a week. For the first time in her 73 year life. I picked her up after she had finished at the hospital and she was so full of pride that she had managed it by herself. The first time she had done so in 73 years..... it made me all the more determined to make my children independent in the very near future! It also reminded me why she is so much in awe of my mother and grandmother who have made it all the way to Japan by themselves - often catching numerous trains to get down to us.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Final stop - Taketa castle

On the final day of our trip we stopped off at the castle ruins in Taketa. It was my second visit to the city and I have mixed memories of my first visit there. I can't remember if I've told this story on this blog before, so if I have just skip to the next entry! My first visit there was 15 years ago when I first arrived in Japan. The city had a programme you could join where you could do a homestay with a local Japanese family and take part in the moon viewing festival at night at the castle ruins. My host was a lovely lady and she took me all around the town and to a hotspring to soak before the festival. It was my second time in Japanese hotsprings and I wasn't so sure about all the customs yet so I just followed the "watch and copy" rule and copied everything my host did. Unfortunately she was obviously a regular at the hotsprings and basically just sat and sat and sat in the same spot. Eventually I felt my limit had been reached and decided to be brave and get out and get changed before she did..... only sitting in one place in very hot water for a long time is not always a sensible thing to do. I got dried, my pants and t-shirt on (thank goodness!) and....... woke up a few minutes later sprawled on the floor on the way to the toilet with my host mother looking rather worried! Nothing like fainting in front of a room full of naked ladies! It was probably a good lesson for both of us, but I really hope it didn't put her off hosting people in the future.
This time was far less eventful, although I did think I had lost my daughter for a while there. She was in a bit of a grumpy mood (all my fault of course) and decided to take a different route which unfortunately didn't actually meet up with the same route we were on. A few trips back and forth and she eventually returned to within sight and finally within touching distance at the icecream shop at the bottom.
Although there is actually no castle left at the site, the view from the top is great and I personally love Japanese rock walls - I can never work out how they could make them with no machinery. I think that is basically the end of our three day trip away. Now I just need to catch up on the other things we did with Mum when she was here.....


Final day of trip

No trip away in Japan would be complete without a trip to a flower garden. Unfortunately the problem with flower gardens is that they have often just finished flowering or are just about to come into flower. We ended up at the "Higotai Park" which literally means "Globe Thistle Park" and although there were some parts of the garden that were in flower most of it was pretty bare. The globe thistles were also a bit few and far between, but the view around the mountains was definitely worth the wander.
The real reason we went to the park was not to see the flowers, but to fill in time because my husband really wanted to try a famous omelet rice restaurant and we all decided that 10:30am was a little too early to eat lunch! Was it worth it? Probably. I am always surprised at how busy restaurants in the middle of nowhere are here in Japan. Word of mouth and getting into specific magazines is definitely a positive thing.

New "Things"

My father-in-law is the sort of person that researches everything for months (or years) before he plants anything new and because he does this it is very rare for him to fail at any agricultural venture he tries. On the other hand.... I tend to see a plant on sale, some seeds that look interesting, a tree that I haven't imagined growing before and snap them up, throw them into the garden and hope for the best, with about a 25% success rate.
This year I followed my usual trend and planted sesame for the first time - not knowing what kind of plant it would turn out to be and of course not knowing how to harvest it at all! I think every seed I planted sprouted which meant a lot of thinning. They grew bigger and bigger with pretty pink flowers and now they are growing big and tall and have lots and lots of seed pods (which are covered in bugs). And..... I have absolutely no idea when I should harvest them and what to do with them once they are harvested! I guess I'll do a bit of research on the internet and then decide whether the effort is worth it or not..... I'm guessing I will miss the ideal harvesting time again and they will end up in the compost pile.
I also planted a fig tree last year that has a surprising amount of fruit on it this year .... if only I knew when to harvest them! Again I can see a bit of internet searching in the near future.
The final "new" plant this year is a bitter gourd which basically everyone around here grows. I have avoided growing it until now because I personally hate the taste of them. I have no problem with when to harvest them, just a huge problem with how to cook them so I don't gag when I eat them! So why did I plant them???? Because they were discounted to only 10 yen per plant.... who could resist?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Wrong road

One of the best things about going on a road trip where nothing is really planned is that you can take as many wrong roads as you like and in doing so you can find some pretty amazing places. On the second night of our trip we were staying in a cabin in a camp ground and needed to go somewhere for dinner so we studied the area a little and decided on a pretty standard restaurant a few kilometers away. FORTUNATELY I took a few wrong turns and although we were heading in vaguely the correct direction we stumbled across an udon noodle shop on the way and on the spur of the moment decided to try there instead.
It turns out that this restaurant was another example of a city family that had moved to the countryside after retirement and they had started the restaurant a couple of years ago. They do no advertising so were wondering how we stumbled across it..... my bad driving! Anyway, the food was great (the son and mother make the udon by hand), there were no other people in the restaurant and best yet the owner carved noh theatre masks.... He spent a lot of time telling us how they are carved, little snippets about secrets of the trade and best of all let us try them on. Apparently it is very unusual to be allowed to look at the back of these masks (trade secrets....) and to be able to actually touch them is virtually unheard of. It was really interesting to learn a bit more about the intricate painting process, the tiny details which make each mask unique and the different angles that they should be held in order to convey the intended emotion of each mask. The owner was particularly proud of the mask in the top right of the top collage - proudly pointing at the beard and then pulling on his ponytail..... nothing like putting your whole self into your craft!
I would definitely recommend this restaurant.... if only I could find it again!

Mt. Aso

The order of our trip away with Mum is probably getting a little bit higgledy piggledy, but I think the next thing we did after the cool ravine was go to the opposite extreme and go and look into the craters of an active volcano - Mt. Aso (which I've just discovered is the largest active volcano in Japan - glad it has some claim to fame!). It was good for the kids to be able to see the volcano at such close range and be able to try and explain to them how the surrounding area was formed etc. I don't think they really got it though and were more worried about how we would escape if it decided to erupt then and there. We were just trying to reassure them that they have such sophisticated monitoring equipment that they would know well in advance and we could escape without any problem when the loudspeakers started blaring out that the gas levels had just risen dramatically and it was necessary for everyone to leave the basin area. We had done enough peering into the craters anyway so it was a quick trip back down the mountain to "safety".
The area around the volcano is really nice - very green and open. I think it is worth the trip if you are in the area....

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Taking a bath

One of the main reasons the chickens love getting let out in the late afternoon is so they can have a dirt bath. They seem to have favorite parts of the garden to hang out in depending on the level of weeds, recent rain and position of the sun and until now they have bathed in groups of 2 or 3. However, recently they all seem to want to go to the same place at the same time - in front of the Buddhist statue in our garden. My husband prays to this statue every morning and gives it offerings of rice and water in the hope that it will keep us safe in our daily lives. We are heading back to New Zealand in December for a few weeks and we have been discussing saying goodbye to our current chickens before we go and replacing them with younger ones after we get back.... I'm thinking that perhaps the chickens have overheard these conversations and are getting in a bit of early praying!

Monday, September 05, 2011

A good morning's work

After over a month and a half I finally got into the garden for the morning. When it gets to this stage I have to put blinkers on and work out a line of attack which leaves me feeling like I actually achieved something rather than pottering here and there and not actually clearing very much. I'm looking forward to making some more raised beds in the future to make this a bit easier. I have to admit that I cringed a little when my mother-in-law also turned up and started doing some clearing, but I must have educated her well enough about where she is allowed to weed and where she can't enter and she stayed to the horrible edge bits that I never get around to while I managed to make pretty good progress in the central areas. I cringed for a second time when my father-in-law also turned up with the weedeater.... he works under the assumption that if there are weeds then there can't be anything else there worth saving and therefore cuts down everything in sight. I had visions of all my pumpkins being cut down (again), but fortunately I seem to have educated him pretty well too and he stayed away from the pumpkins and only cut weeds. Miracles never cease!
I won't have any chance to get into the garden for the next few days, but hopefully the progress will continue and there may be some bare ground ready for autumn planting.... or perhaps it will rain for the next week and all my weeding will be in vain - either way it felt good to make a few weed piles today!

Sunday, September 04, 2011

Kikuchi Ravine

I've given up with the "Three day trip away - Part ???" titles - too difficult to find things when I am searching in the future!
The one place I wanted to go on our trip away was Kikuchi Ravine. My daughter's teacher had recommended it and like the gold mine it sounded like a cool area so we built it into our flexible schedule and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who loves wandering around in nature and wants a break from the heat of Japan's summer.
Kikuchi Ravine is in Kumamoto prefecture and has some of the most beautiful blue water I have ever seen - which is probably why it is on the "Japan's 100 remarkable waters" "Best 100 forest relaxation spots in Japan" and "Best 100 waterfall in Japan" lists! We wandered along the paths, paddled a little in the water and basically just enjoyed the beautiful environment. There weren't too many people which made it even better.
Someone has made some pretty good videos on Youtube for anyone interested in seeing the area in motion. This is number one of many!

Three day trip away - Part 4

Our final stop on the first day of our trip away was a chance for us to do a bit of study while also having a nice, relaxing evening. We stayed at a couple's house who is also involved in the "Green Tourism" organisation and so effectively we were doing a homestay at their house. The wife is an amazing cook so as soon as we arrived we were fed and fed and fed some more (oops no photos... too busy eating!) and then after dinner the husband took over the entertaining and plugged in the karaoke machine for our children to try karaoke for the first time - yes they are very deprived Japanese children! After lots of embarrassment and lots of searching for the perfect song both children and Tom sang a couple of songs followed by the husband who had a pretty good voice.
I found it strange staying in someone's house and not having the freedom to fully escape when I wanted to. But having said that it was nice to be waited on for a change and be able to just walk away from all the dishes, the dirty sheets etc. It was also interesting listening to their stories of coming from a bigger city, settling in the countryside and then trying to get the locals enthused about trying something new and trying to rejuvenate the dying community. I found myself nodding away and thinking "it is the same all over Japan"!
Fortunately the kids haven't been asking to go back to karaoke again, but I'm guessing it will only be a matter of time....

Three day trip away - Part 3

As I have mentioned before I am not really much of a "tourist attraction" lover and find a lot of the Japanese attractions even less attractive. But, when it is 35 degrees outside and very humid and only 14 degrees inside I am more likely to be tempted to at least go and see what the attraction is all about. We had a few hours to spare before we checked into our accommodation for the night so we went in search of somewhere cool with a little bit of gold thrown in! In Hita City there is a gold mine that was actively worked for 80 years from around 1894 and which has a total of 110km worth of tunnels leading to depths of 500m. They have opened up about 800m of the tunnels and put up really good displays and information about how the mining was done which gives you a really good idea of how it would have been in the mines. They had enough English to make it worth taking Mum there too. After so many mining disasters lately I found it really interesting to get a feel for what they would have gone through. I can't imagine having to work in that kind of environment every day. The display I found the most interesting was one which showed how the very first gold mining was done. Incredibly hard work in incredibly rough conditions.
After our wander the kids did a bit of gold panning and came away with a few little flakes of gold... all found by the demonstrator - it is definitely harder than it looks!

Deck Cleaning... again

I love the fact that we have a large deck where we can sit, hang washing, the kids can waveboard and generally enjoy outdoor life. Unfortunately having a deck also means that you need to take care of it... which lately we haven't done enough of. It has been a couple of years since it has been painted and is in desperate need of a really good clean before it can be painted again. Unfortunately I am the one who always gets the job of cleaning it with a scrubbing brush and end up with wrists that won't move for the next few weeks. This year I just couldn't face it so we invested in a water blaster. Why on earth did we not invest in one sooner? In between heavy showers the kids and I managed to get most of the deck cleaned off and can now actually walk on it while it is wet without slipping and sliding on all the gunk that had built up all over it.
Now I'm wondering if I just put the paint into the water blaster and turn it on and aim in the general direction of the deck if it will paint it as easily as it cleaned it?

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Three day trip away - Part 2

Next stop on our mystery tour was the The Kokonoe "Yume" Otsurihashi suspension footbridge. It is famous for being the longest and highest of its type in the world.... whatever that type is! For engineering geeks click here for the technical information!
The children had already been there before and weren't particularly keen to wander again, but the bribe of an ice cream got them to keep us company and feel seasick together.
As much as I don't usually like "tourist attractions" this bridge is actually a very good example of a small town that has managed to bring in a lot of money for themselves through their creation without ruining too much of the environment. A few years ago there was a big push from central government for towns to all merge together to make bigger cities and most towns chose to do so rather than risk big cuts in their income. Kokonoe Town however was one of the towns that resisted this move and decided to stick it out alone and from what I have heard have managed to not only survive, but with the help of the bridge have actually managed to make money, which they have put back into the community through projects such as making all health care free for students right up until they finish junior high school - rather than until they begin primary school, which is standard in most towns.
As for the bridge - I actually quite enjoyed wandering over it. It was definitely high and I can imagine that in autumn the views are even more beautiful - although from what I've been told you can't really enjoy them as it is completely packed with tourists!

Three day trip away - Part 1

Because it was the school holidays while Mum was here we felt the need to take the kids away for a few days on an "adventure". It wasn't a wilderness adventure, but more an adventure into the unknown and unplanned - which for two control freaks like myself and my mother is a real adventure! We had accomodation booked for two nights in different places, we had the car navigation system and we had my husband. What more could we need! It turned into a really great time away - probably because we didn't have anything planned and could therefore go whichever direction we felt like, not have to watch the clock and worry about not being somewhere "on time" and not feel pressured to do anything if we didn't feel like it.
The first stop was for the kids at a town called Kusu (I'll try to work out how to get a map up later...). There is a huge natural "slide" there called "Ryumon no Taki" or Dragon's gate waterfall. Once you got over the nervous twitching as you watched kids flying in all directions and adults flying in even more directions (usually after being bashed into by other adults flying down the slide) it was actually quite fun to watch. I didn't feel tempted to have a slide, but got my feet wet as I tried to waddle across to the only bit of shade in the whole area.
I am always torn at places like this. I love the fact that everyone is having a lot of fun in "real" nature. I love the fact that there are no boundaries, there are no people at the top controlling when each person should start off down their slippery slope and that there are not thousands of signs with things that are prohibited in the waterfall. I think that in so many countries now there are so many rules about keeping everyone safe that people no longer learn to think for themselves about what is safe and what is not, about what their own capabilities are and whether it is appropriate for them to do certain things. If there is an accident there is always a need to try and blame someone for not controlling the environment enough rather than taking responsibility for putting yourself in the situation where the accident occurred. I love the fact that Japan does not have the "suing" culture that America has.
But... having said that I am still not so perfect at letting my own kids learn through their mistakes and spend half the time biting my tongue or clasping my hands so tightly that I get fingernail prints in my palms! The truth is there are probably far less accidents at this waterfall than there are at the river bed my mother slipped in the previous post! All in all a nice adventurous start to our trip.

Bon Dancing 2011

Because Mum was here in August this year she was "lucky" enough to come to the Bon-Dancing events. For anyone new to Japanese traditions this is an event where everyone gets together to dance around and around and around and around to give the ancestors who have been back visiting over the past few days a safe passage home. This year we went to two quite different gatherings - the first our small local one where Mum outdid herself by not only learning how to dance around and around and around (while I chatted with friends on the sideline), but also picked up some of the top prizes in the lottery held at the end of the night. Our area always gives out washing sponges with numbers on them (no idea why, but actually quite useful) while you are dancing and then at the end of the night you watch with anticipation to see if your number wins a prize... something exciting like glad-wrap or washing powder! Mum came away with a bucket of car washing stuff and a can of mosquito coils... which we inherited - thanks!
The second bon-dancing we went to was in Bungo Takada and was on a bit bigger scale, but of course still consisted of people dancing around and around in circles. This time they were all in teams and the best dancers won prizes - the rest of us were just there to watch. Although it wasn't ultra-exciting, I do enjoy the atmosphere of lanterns, street stalls and Japanese drumming. The team in orange below are the firefighters. Somehow I just can't see many New Zealand firefighters willing to dance around and around in a circle slapping their fan for over an hour... perhaps I am wrong!
right - I think that is enough catching up for this morning.... the garden is now in some desperate need of help! I hope that satisfies you for a few hours Mike.....