Friday, March 28, 2014

Off in the morning

The problem with having family members who have all been to Japan at least once is that they know what we have to offer here and therefore what to order when we occasionally go back to New Zealand.  At least Singapore Air has a very generous baggage allowance and I guess it gives us an excuse to go shopping to fill up the boxes again for the return journey!  
We are off for a very short visit leaving at the crack of dawn tomorrow.  Can't wait!  Hopefully the blog will resume after our safe return....

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bugger off!

I have spent the last few nights sneaking into the tunnel house in the middle of the night with a torch trying to catch sight of the little buggers who have decided that tunneling in my beautiful lettuce patch is a fun thing to do.  Unfortunately I can't actually locate them, but I'm guessing they are moles and not gigantic stag beetles hatching and tunneling their way out.  In fact, I'm pretty sure they are moles who are feasting on the stag beetle larvae...
We often have mole tunnels in the lawn, but stomping on them seems to deal with them okay and they never really cause any damage.  Unfortunately the same can not be said for the tunnel house beds.  It is hard to tell from the photos, but they are pulling everything up from the roots and mixing it all about.  It is definitely time to look into some mole control methods.  Those of you who only know moles from the Wind in the Willows and think they are very cute, think again!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Unusual sight

This is what is left of a house just up the road from us.  There has been no one living in it for a few years now and it has slowly been deteriorating and starting to fall down.  Over the last week there have been trucks coming and going, carting parts of it away as diggers pull it down.  
Considering the number of deserted houses around this area this is a very unusual sight, especially as I'm fairly certain there is no intention of the land being used or sold at any time in the future.  I think the cost of having them pulled down combined with the large amount of excess land in our area means that most people just leave old houses and wait for them to merge back in with nature.  It makes it a sad area to live in..... surrounded by deserted, falling down houses.  Hopefully others in the area will follow this family's lead and our area will become less like a ghost town in the future.  Even better, hopefully many people will see the potential of our beautiful area and come and build houses on all the deserted land - not too many though, I still like living in the countryside!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Small boy paradise

Considering we live in the countryside it has been very noisy around here lately.  For the past week or so there has been a constant beeping outside the kitchen window as concrete mixers come and go.  There is some work being done on an agricultural dam just up the road from us but as the roads are so narrow the big concrete mixers can't get to the construction site without falling into the river.  The car park behind our house has been transformed into a concrete loading zone where the big concrete mixers back up onto a ramp and transfer concrete into the smaller concrete mixers. 
Unfortunately, while they are waiting for the small mixers to come back, the big mixers continually beep... and I mean continually.  Fortunately the last of the concrete was poured yesterday and we are now back to our normal boring, but quiet view out the kitchen window!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The concept of exponents

At the moment my daughter is not particularly enjoying maths.  She is in the "why do I need to learn this, there is absolutely no need for it in the future" phase.  I can remember thinking something similar when we were studying exponents at school, but now I can see exactly how they work and that in fact they are very important in the real world.  It wasn't a textbook that taught me all about exponents, but my daffodils.  I think I probably started out with one small packet of daffodils about 10 years ago and have slowly divided them up around the garden and every year they grow exponentially until they now really brighten up the back garden at the start of spring.
I can remember thinking when I first bought the bulbs that they were slightly expensive, but hopefully would be worth the money.  Now I am convinced that they were a bargain!  It looks like they may need some more dividing next year.... I may need to start taking over a few more rice fields!

Monday, March 17, 2014

A couple more running videos for the family

On Sunday we spent most of the day in the sun at the last athletics competition for the year in Saiki City.  It is close to a 2 hour drive away and we had to be there by 8:15am so it was an early start.....again!
Despite having done athletics as a child, I would have to say I am still very much in the learning phase here.  At this meet I learned all about the effect of the wind on the races.  At Sunday's meet my son broke the meet record for the 5th grade boy's 100m... well he would have if the wind had been blowing 2m/second rather than the 2.2m/second that it was at the moment he ran.  He ran his personal best - 12.90 seconds.  But, because the wind was blowing that tiny bit too hard it isn't recognised as an actual record either.  Apparently it is almost impossible to break records at that particular track as they built it on the top of a hill where the wind whips in, giving everyone a tail wind push.  You would think they would think about that a little more before building it, but obviously not.  Anyway, despite not getting any official records he still came first and most importantly got another medal for his shrine.  At least the wind can't take that away from him!

Coming home to roost

It is a little hard to get a decent photo of this, but... every Monday evening on our way home from swimming my son and I encounter the crows coming home to roost.  There is a long stretch of straight road with huge power lines beside it which become completely full of hundreds, possibly thousands, of crows as the evening gets closer to night.  It is incredible to watch them all flying in in unison and settling on the wires, then all taking off as a silly twit stops their car and gets out to take a photo of them.  They then all fly back in in unison onto a slightly different part of the wires.  
I have no idea who makes the call as to which section of the power lines they will land on for the night, but somehow they manage to get all the birds coordinated and settled for the night.  All I can say is - I'm really glad it is not on the wires outside our house!  The cleanup could become a little repetitive every day!

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Early Earthquake Warning System

Early Friday morning we were woken to the house shaking.  It was an earthquake that was centered pretty close to here and was about a magnitude 6.3 on the scale. It seemed to go on for ages - at least enough time for me to find my glasses and race upstairs to see if the kids were okay.  There was nothing broken and there have been zero aftershocks that we have felt, so here's hoping it was just a strange one off occurrence.  I ended up spending the night on the floor of my children's bedroom just in case there were any extra wobbles.  Usually I would just jump into bed with them, but as they are now bigger than me I tend to have all the blankets pulled from me and get pushed out as they try to turn over.
I have no idea if any other countries have the same system, but I am always impressed about the early earthquake warning system they have here in Japan.  I know it is not always accurate, but a minute or so before the ground starts shaking there are big warnings splashed all over the TV that there is an earthquake on its way so please take cover.  All the cellphones in the area also start bleeping out warnings and then send messages to say how big the earthquake was, where it was centered etc. almost immediately after it has occurred.  
The day after the earthquake I was taking a break at lunch time and watching TV when another one of these warnings flashed across the screen.  I diligently rushed under the table and sat there alone waiting for the big one to strike, images of the kids schools falling down, no one being able to get to anyone else etc.  After a couple of minutes of no movement I decided to come out from my safe spot and saw that the TV was showing that an earthquake of approximately 6.3 had just occurred very close to where we live.  I was a little confused as this time I hadn't felt a thing.  Of course it was then that I remembered that the TV program I was watching was one that I had taped and that it was on at the time of the original earthquake.... I guess at least there was no one there to laugh at me and it gave me a little practice of hiding under the table!
Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 18.15.38

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Umbrella Factory

I'm stealing Dad's photos yet again to update from October - thanks Dad for still wanting to get the camera out during your stays!
Many, many years ago I can remember being taken to a fantastic old umbrella factory in Nakatsu City.  My memories of it were that it was run by very old people who were working really hard to keep an amazing craft alive - paper umbrellas.  The process involved in completing one umbrella was so intricate and intense and of course the finished products were amazing works of art.  I can remember thinking at the time that it was sad that it was likely that eventually the crafting of these umbrellas would die out in this area as there were no young people learning the art.
From what I can tell the factory did eventually close, but I was really happy when I heard that it had relocated and was now open in another part of town.  We went to check it out and discovered that it hadn't actually relocated, but a completely different person was operating it.  It was a man who had decided to start learning the craft to give him something to do in his retirement.  He was very open about the fact that he didn't know the traditional method of making the umbrellas, but that he had developed his own style.  I got the feeling that he had tried to get some of the knowledge from the old factory owners, but they weren't very happy to share.... that could have just been the way I interpreted his Japanese though.  
Where the old factory used to make all the parts necessary, the new factory gets some parts sent from other parts of Japan.  While creating traditional designs he also has ones with popular Japanese beer pictures on them.  He may not be following the traditional methods, but he is keeping the art alive as best he can and seems to be getting better every year.  Here's hoping there will be more generations that can continue on this art for many, many years to come.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Goodbye Alien Status

Japan has recently changed a few of its immigration rules and requirements for permanent residents etc.  For the past 17 years I have been considered an "Alien" and have had an Alien Registration card to carry around to prove my Alien status.  However, I recently renewed my New Zealand passport and was informed that I had to get a new Residence Card before I could transfer my visa stamps etc. over to my new passport.  
For anyone who doesn't know, Japan has a history of being the most frustrating country when it comes to paperwork and trying to do anything official.  I had to make a special trip to the immigration department in Oita City to get my new card and I set aside the whole morning, took a book and resigned myself to the fact that even though I had taken the correct sized photo etc. it would be a long, frustrating process.  I arrived just after they opened at 9am and was out of there by about 9:20am... it was almost disappointing!  I didn't even need to have my passport stamps transferred over.  They didn't ask any questions, they didn't require any more than for me to write my name and very limited information on a piece of paper, they didn't require me to go outside to some tiny shop and buy some stamps to pay for the new card - in fact they didn't require any money.  It was almost disappointing.... all finished within less than 20 minutes and out of the office 40 minutes before any shops opened!  Perhaps things are slowly getting easier for those of us living here permanently.  Now if they would just recognize duel citizenship for our children after they turn 20, I might be even happier.....

Monday, March 10, 2014

Moon Viewing Festival 2013, Kitsuki City

Here is another catch-up post... this time from my father's visit in October - and features all his photos!
The longer you live in a place, the less you seem to see of it - for me anyway.  When I first arrived over 17 years ago every free day was spent exploring somewhere new and every festival was researched and attended.  Now our life seems to be so caught up with ferrying kids to sporting events or school functions that there is very little time left over for venturing off to somewhere new for the day.  Having visitors helps to make this possible though and this year I finally managed to go to a festival in my own town that I have always meant to go to, but never quite remembered in time!  
Kitsuki City holds a "Moon Viewing Festival" every October where the whole town works together to put over 8,000 paper and bamboo lanterns filled with candles all around the old Samurai Town.  People are then free to wander around and enjoy the fantastic atmosphere.  Different groups make different displays and in some of the old samurai houses there are performances of traditional Japanese music as well as tea ceremony.  In fact the whole thing started when one group of women asked if they could use one of the old houses to do their tea ceremony on the night of the full moon in October.  From there the festival grew and grew into what it is now.  It is hard to capture the atmosphere in photos, but if anyone is in this area in October I really suggest going for a wander.  It isn't as big as some of the other similar moon viewing festivals around the place, but there are far less people to bump into!

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Gotta love spring!

Despite cedar pollen still making life a bit uncomfortable, spring arriving is still a great feeling after a cold winter.  All my mini daffodils are flowering and the tunnel house is providing enough flowers to brighten up the place.  There is something nice about having a vase of flowers, no matter how small by the front door.  
In Japan the traditional cleaning times are August and December - the hottest and coldest times of the year, but fortunately my children have enough kiwi blood in them to have the "spring cleaning" bug at the moment.  They both spent most of today not just tidying, but also CLEANING their rooms.  I cleaned the windows and the light shades while they wiped down all the surfaces, including washing the floors.  The problem with having children's rooms upstairs is that the older they get, the less you go up there and therefore the less you notice just how much dust is accumulating.  Judging by the colour of the cleaning cloths and the amount of dust in the vacuum cleaner today's efforts were well overdue!

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Toastie Tootsies

Like the majority of Japanese houses, we only heat our dining/living room area.  It means that when you need to go to the toilet in winter you hold on as long as you can and then make a dash for it to the little room and feel very grateful that the toilet seat is heated!  It also means that the bedrooms are very cold so you learn to love the fluffy Japanese blankets. 
I personally don't mind having a cold bedroom, but I do like to have warm feet so I always take a hot water bottle with me to bed to take the chill off.  Last night I went to fill up my hot water bottle, that is usually waiting for me in the bathroom, when I couldn't find it.  I was about to accuse one of the kids of stealing it when I thought I'd check in my bed first.... oops... not only was there one hot water bottle, but there were actually four of them hiding under the blankets!  I felt slightly relieved that I didn't go storming up to the kids rooms before checking..... I guess I am the only one actually using them in this season!

Friday, March 07, 2014

Changes in the countryside

As I have said before I am lucky in that my family often comes to visit us.  In general they must arrive with a sense of comfort in the knowledge that here in the countryside of Japan nothing really changes.  A few more houses may become vacant, but in general there is nothing "new" happening.  However in the last couple of years  there is one thing that has had both my parents wanting to snap photos - solar panels.  They are popping up on every vacant lot, no matter how big or small.  There are advertisements on T.V. all the time asking if you are making the most of your vacant land and whether you want to invest in pumping electricity back into the grid.  
When they first started appearing I thought it was fantastic.  After the nuclear disaster in Fukushima I thought it was great that they were using unproductive land to create an alternative source of electricity.  The faster we can get rid of all nuclear power stations the better in my opinion.  However lately the solar power movement has been getting slightly out of control.  Originally it was all on a small scale, but now there are huge blocks of land that are being converted into solar panel jungles.  As well as being very ugly, they are also reducing the amount of land that could be used for agriculture in the future.  According to one website Japan currently imports a total of 60% of its food.  No one seems very worried that in the future this could lead to huge problems and that they need to be using their own land to increase the production of food for their own consumption.  
There are also areas nearby that are trying to promote the beauty of their area for tourism purposes, but are battling big companies wanting to build mega-solar farms in the middle of these areas.   It is a hard issue - as I said I would love to see the end to nuclear power, but.... I'm not sure that these huge areas of solar panels are the answer. Hopefully there will be a good balance struck soon.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Health Check Day

Right now I am supposed to be at the hospital sipping tea and waiting for lunch after the first half of my annual (oops... keep forgetting to do) health check. There were only 5 of us there today though so we were rushed through and I was all finished the morning session by 10:30am.  The nurses seemed a little confused as to why I wouldn't want to hang around and have the hospital lunch.... I prefer a slice of cheese on toast at home!  I have to head back this afternoon to have my private parts examined and the results told to me.
I wrote about my previous full health check here - and as it is basically the same I'm not going to write all the details again.  The one thing that did change was that on top of all the blood tests, hearing tests, mammograms, heart checker thingies, urine tests, blood pressure tests, eye tests, ultrasounds etc. etc. I decided that because there weren't many people there I would be brave and have the barium swallow test....   has anyone ever had it?  I really had no idea what to expect, but it was very strange - and actually had me laughing at some stages.
First I was given a tiny cup with powder in it and told to just put it into my mouth.  Next came a slightly larger cup of water which I then had to wash the powder down with and do whatever I possibly could to not burp!  I discovered later that it was citric acid mix and it was designed to blow up my stomach so it could be coated more easily in barium.  Next I was given a huge cup of barium and told to take one sip and hold it in my mouth before swallowing.  A few photos were taken and the process repeated a couple of times.   No where near as bad as I had envisioned....  I thought it was all over.....  unfortunately not!  Now came the acrobat part of the show.  I was then told to swallow the remainder of the entire huge cup of barium and hold on tight to the bars on the side of the platform thingy I was standing on.  From then on in it was about 15 minutes of the table thingy moving in all different directions, me having to roll over and over and over, me literally being turned upside down and hanging on to the handles for dear life.  All the while the lovely young man was snapping x-rays of my stomach... or at least I think that he was doing.  I'm hoping I don't end up on the next "candid camera" show.....  As I left the reception area I was discreetly asked if I poo regularly and handed a couple of pills to take in the case that I don't poo within the next day or so.  I'm thinking that perhaps I'll skip this particular test next time!
This site has some information about Barium Swallows if anyone is having one in the next wee while.... 

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Double Glazing

Two years ago we decided to bite the expensive bullet and double glaze our big sliding doors.
Like any big investment it is always a bit of a gamble as to whether it will be worth it or not. But... looking at the windows this morning I would have to say it is probably the best investment we have ever made.  As you can see in the photos our big doors are completely dry, whereas the small windows beside the big doors (which are not double glazed) are completely covered in condensation and dripping water all over the window sills while pumping out cold air.  
We were able to use our original frames and they just put the new glass into them, saving us some money, but we did choose to go with the more expensive ones rather than the medium quality ones.  My advice to anyone thinking about it... they are expensive, but yes -they are worth it!  And no, I'm not getting sponsored to say that!

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Tunnel house update

I have to say I am really enjoying having the tunnel house operational.  I harvested the first real vegetables from it today - lots of mesclun salad mix and some baby spinach.  I also compared some spinach that was planted outside about 3 weeks before the tunnel house spinach.  The tunnel house spinach is miles ahead and much more tender.  Even the beans that I threw in on the off chance they might sprout have managed to germinate and will hopefully give us a few beans before it gets far too hot in there for anything to survive.
If you flick back to this post you can see how much the things have grown in there in about 2 weeks.  Today I brought in a few old desks which hopefully will help to keep a lot of the junk that is being dumped in there under control.  As soon as my finger heals I'm hoping to make at least one more garden in there too.  I could become obsessed!
Outside spinach

Inside Spinach

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Single handed

Yesterday I did a stupid thing.  I put an axe into my hand.... oops!  Unfortunately it went through my glove.  Fortunately it stopped just before the bone - although it did leave the bone visible... apologies if you were eating while you were reading that!  Fortunately the cut was not very wide and I am not very squeamish so I think I managed to wash it out well and have managed to keep it stabilised enough that it looks like it will fuse together without the need for a trip to the hospital.  Unfortunately it means that I have very limited movement of my index finger on my left hand.... I am discovering just how much you actually need your index finger!
Today I had to participate in a Green Tourism "Slow Food" event.  We all had to take two different dishes for at least 50 people to sample.  There were then about 200 people who rushed in and scoffed up as much food as they could off 9 different groups tables in just over an hour.  It was interesting to see what was popular and what was not.  Anything containing meat disappeared in seconds, while pickles stayed around right till the end.   I made my standard pumpkin muffins and some citrus cookies.  Usually it wouldn't be too hard to make 60 muffins and 60 cookies, but with only one hand fully functioning it took a little more effort than normal!  Fortunately they all disappeared really fast and I wasn't left trying to sneak them into the bin so people didn't notice that they weren't popular. 

Here is my pumpkin muffin recipe for those who asked - sorry, I kept forgetting to post it.  It is from Alison Holst's Marvellous Muffins book and uses New Zealand measurements (ie 1 cup = 250ml)

2 cups self raising flour (I use 2 cups baking flour and 2 teaspoons baking powder)
1 1/2 cups brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

100g butter
2 eggs
1 cup cooked pumpkin, mashed.  (I use butternut pumpkins - cut them into small pieces and microwave till soft then mash.  When I have lots that need to be used up from the garden I make big batches and freeze in 1 cup quantities)

Measure the first 7 ingredients into a large bowl.  Toss with a fork to combine thoroughly.
In another container, warm the butter until melted, add the eggs and beat well.  Sir in the mashed pumpkin (I also add a bit of yoghurt... it seems to make them softer).
Combine the two mixtures and fold together without over mixing.

Pour into 12 greased medium muffin pans (or paper cups).  I sprinkle with cinnamon sugar before baking.  Bake at 200 degrees Celsius for 15-18 minutes until golden brown and until they spring back when pressed in the centre.  Cool on a cooling rack.  
Note: the cooking time varies a lot so check them from about 10 minutes onwards.
If you don't have all the spices just add a bit extra cinnamon.