Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Garden Update

I don't mean to brag, but I grew these two tomato plants from SEED. Have you ever seen how small a tomato seed is? From a little egg carton in my windowsill to this:

That's JL next to it so you can see how tall they've gotten. He's in the habit of making up yoga poses to get a laugh out of me. He called this one "scarecrow pose". No tomatoes yet but they're flowering. The sad thing is we're leaving tomorrow for 3 weeks and won't be able to water. If it stays as hot and sunny as it's been these guys are in trouble. Also, we've got a red pepper that's doing pretty well and while we already got a lot of banana peppers off that little plant, it's flowering again as if it's got another round left in it.

The rest of the garden hasn't done so hot. The basil plants flourished inside but when I brought them out they withered right up. We had some basil, mint and cilantro going for a while but we pretty much used them up and they stopped growing. Two of the tomato plants we bought got big and tall and started growing big tomatoes but they were rotting on the bottom. JL investigated and they had root rot, as we suspected. We're pretty sure we weren't giving the plants good enough soil. I kept buying compost instead of soil accidentally (since I can't read Japanese and hadn't researched garden words/kanji) so we had to use a mix of compost/soil that was probably too much of the former, not enough of the latter.

Our neighbors put us to shame. I should have pictures of the mini-farms they've got going. Rows of beautiful Japanese eggplant plants, corn taller than me, huge tomato plants, etc. Everything is so...organized. It seems like everywhere you go around here there are ancient Japanese folks stooped over tending their large gardens. They're even keeping bees up the mountain from us. The special needs kids at school help the maintenance man grow vegetables and then we teachers buy them--leeks, potatoes, etc. Right across the street everything is growing gangbusters. Then I come home to our straggly plants.

Ah well, it's been fun to come home from work and see how much everything has grown in a day. Practice makes perfect. Hopefully we'll have better luck next year.

The taxi picks us up at 3am tonight. We're headed to Narita airport, Hong Kong for a 4 hour layover, then Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia. We'll be in Bali (and neighboring Lombok?) for 3 weeks. Hooray for paid vacation in exotic locales! We are looking forward to swimming and snorkeling, visiting temples, doing yoga, hiking volcanoes, taking an Indonesian cooking class, clubbing and relaxing on the beach. It'll be nice to have a break from Japan as well :)

Saturday, July 24, 2010


Today we are cleaning the house, grocery shopping and enjoying the rain storm.

Yesterday we were hopping rocks in a riverbed, cliff jumping, zip lining and hurling ourselves head first down waterfalls. They call it canyoning. We call it crazy fun. Here are some pictures:

This was the initiation of sorts-an almost vertical waterfall slide.

This was the top of the "flying fox" zip line. The guide asked me if I was scared and I said that I wasn't. I had done zip lines on a canopy tour in Nicaragua. Since I was the last person, he bounced me around in the canyon for a while--fun!

By far the scariest part was this waterfall. It takes a different kind of courage to voluntarily throw yourself head first down a rock slide gushing with water. The wet suit and helmet make you feel invincible though. Also, there's no other way to go down. There's a significant drop at the bottom making water going up your nose a major hazard, especially when you have contacts and have to close your eyes to keep them in. This made head first seem the easiest way to go.

Unfortunately for me, when I was going down my body sort of fishtailed, putting my back in a C shape. I already have a little trouble with my back so it seized up in a big cramp. When I hit the water I couldn't move my back or the bottom part of my body. I swam with just my arms over to the rocks and did not give the ok sign (fist on helmet) because I was not ok. Eventually my back relaxed and I could carry on the rest of the way just fine. Today it's sore, but I think it'll be fine. I'd do it again.

It's obvious, but we're not getting any younger. We feel grateful that we're healthy enough to do this kind of thing. This is especially true for me since, with my back seizing up, I'm apparently on the precipice of not being able to do this stuff for much longer. It seems all the more poignant to challenge my body now.

Oh and JL made some amazing food last week.

Curry potatoes in a sweet soy sauce, roasted red peppers with a basil/mint/oregano sauce, corn fritters with avocado sauce and gazpacho (it's been really hot). I was busy making desserts; rhubarb crisp (yes, it made a comeback at the grocery store!) and a vegan dark chocolate cake with peanut butter/chocolate frosting for JL's birthday.


Monday, July 19, 2010

Rice Paddy Volleyball

I went camping for a night with some friends just an hour away from here. On the way to the campsite, we saw this:

Japanese people throwing caution to the wind, having FUN and getting dirty! As with any Japanese event, it was thoroughly photographed.

Camping was great. I got to be surrounded by green mountains, swim in a cold river and even eat s'mores by the campfire. The stars were amazing. There was great company and great food. I brought lavender blueberry muffins and sesame coconut shortbread cookies.

The sunny 3 day weekend is winding down but that means we only have 4 days of school this week. Then it's JL's birthday on Friday!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Field Trip

Yesterday I found myself on an impromptu field trip with the kids. Apparently it was a rare opportunity to see behind the scaffolding at Akimiya (the big shrine up the hill from school/my house). This is the main building at Akimiya:

(Photo credit: George Shardlow)

However, there is a bunch of scaffolding behind this structure and I had heard vague pounding going on. It turns out they are constructing more buildings behind there, in a really painstakingly Japanese way with nothing but natural materials.

First we all sat in folding chairs under a tent. A shinto priest came out in full garb and blessed this stick with white paper hanging off of it. Next he blessed us with the stick while we bowed. Then there was a lot of explanation, of which I understood very little even though there were some pictures in the program. Then we donned hard hats and went behind the scaffolding.

Yes, it was about 80 degrees, sunny and humid and my kids were in full polyester track suits. Go figure.
We watched as a young man used a very sharp, small, machete-like knife to cut wood into very thin shingles. Then he filled his mouth with wooden nails, let one hang out at a time, grabbed it, banged it in with the middle of the hammer in one feel swoop and then gave it a few bangs with the head of the hammer. Except he did all of that in about a 1/2 second. It was like magic.

Here's a video of some other guys doing it on the actual structure. Sorry it's at an angle. Please turn your head to the left for just a few seconds!

I don't think they're going to be done any time soon.
I feel lucky to have gotten to see how they make these auxiliary shrine buildings.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Sunday Food Day

On Sunday we were up early (despite staying out late Sat. at a party in Matsumoto) to skype in for my nephew's 1st birthday party. It was fun to talk with our family and friends and, of course, to watch the little guy open his presents (or, play with the wrapping paper, as it were). We were too awake after that to go back to sleep so I made us breakfast--blueberry walnut wheat pancakes. We like to put yogurt on top so we don't have to use as much expensive maple syrup.

It was a rainy Sunday so it only seemed right to indulge...

We watched an episode of Mad Men, did our budget, talked about our upcoming trip to Bali and then John made sweet and sour tofu with this recipe. Our version wasn't vegan because we used real egg instead of egg replacer. OISHI! (Delicious in Japanese) It was restaurant quality, people. We had a craving for take out from Evergreen Chinese Restaurant and this definitely satisfied it.

Can you tell John's taking the food photos now?
That night we had our Spanish friend over to show us how to make tortilla espanola. I've been making it since I lived in Spain 10 years ago, but it never turned out like I had it there. I had a sneaking suspicion I wasn't using enough oil. Boy was I right. The only plates we had were the exact size of the pan so it was quite a feat for him to flip it. He struck this triumphant pose after he did.

We didn't just have him over for a free cooking lesson though. We made a big salad and green goddess dressing plus these black bottom coconut bars I had made the day before. My friend brought me a kilo of coconut from the Brazilian store so I've been trying to use it--ironic since it's hard to find in any real quantity here and now I've got tons of it.

Of course, we didn't know it at the time but this was a preemptive victory dinner for him because Spain won the world cup a few hours later!

Friday, July 9, 2010

Rice Cooker Frittata

Can you believe that I made this:

in this?

Yep, it worked! I'm trying to build up the courage to make a cake in my rice cooker so I'm taking baby steps by starting with this frittata. I will say I finished it off in the oven for a few minutes to get it a little crispier on top. However, it was about the easiest thing ever. Here's the recipe. Normally I have to substitute like mad with recipes but for this one I actually had everything I needed and even added a few things to spice it up a bit (like basil from our tiny garden and more vegetables).

I highly recommend getting creative with your rice cooker, especially if it's taking up as much room as ours. The least it can do is multi-task a little!

Monday, July 5, 2010

5 Things We've Gotten Used to Here

1) Taking our shoes off. At school we have a cubby for our "indoor" shoes (tennis shoes!). When you are a visitor at a place you are given tiny slippers that only half of our feet fit into. Now we're getting better at bringing our own indoor shoes or slippers for these scenarios so we're not tottering around quite so ridiculously.

Then again, recently I went to see my students play volleyball at a gym in the next town over. I got to the door and all the parents were taking their indoor shoes out of bags. I had forgotten you have to take your shoes off to enter a gym (the building itself, not just for the courts) so I had that awkward moment on the threshold of the entrance where I just kind of looked around and then quickly went in, wiped my shoes well and continued on. Here's the thing--indoor shoes look JUST like outdoor shoes. Once you're in, no one can tell. Also, Japanese people are too polite to call you out on it (especially if you are a gaijin).

2) Bowing. It's really not even conscious anymore. We find ourselves half-bowing to the over-polite clerks at the bank or 7-11. Even when you say good morning to every one of your co-workers individually you do a tiny bob/bow of the head. You can usually figure out when a more significant bow is required--ie when apologizing, meeting some one formally, etc.

3) Praying. I know, I know. We're not religious. But Japanese people say "Ittadakimasu" before they eat and "Gochisousamadeshita" after the meal. Then again, maybe it's not a prayer. Some translations say it means "Let's eat!" and some say it's about honoring the food and the people who made it. It's kind of like how in Peru we got used to pouring some of our water or beer on the ground before drinking it as an offering to Pachamama.

4) Pit toilets. Ok. They call them "Japanese" toilets here. I suppose in the rest of Asia they call them "Asian-style" toilets. However, they are essentially pits in the floor and that's what we called them in Morocco, India and Argentina when I saw them there. I was already accustomed to using these in those countries but the teacher's bathroom at my school has these so I'm getting a quadricep work out a few times a day now.

5) Communicating in broken Japanese and gestures. Our Japanese is not awesome yet. We know a lot of words and phrases but stringing sentences together evades us. However, we have become pretty good at being understood anyways. When we bring our phrase book along, we can amaze ourselves. More often than not though we forget it and then it's back to our random smattering of Japanese words, expressive faces and body language.

I suppose we should be bragging about how much we Japanese we already know. Instead I find myself telling John how I got cough medicine at the pharmacy without the phrase book or even any cold related vocabulary--just gestures! Or how I went to the doctor with a few key words written down (the Japanese for sinus infection, antibiotics, etc.) and returned triumphantly with 3 different kinds of medicine!

I guess this brings me to another thing we've gotten used to--understanding almost nothing of what is spoken around us and being able to read only the most basic things (and even then not knowing what they mean oftentimes). It's a mysterious world when you're illiterate and essentially a deaf/mute.

Then again, last night we watched Lost in Translation for the first time since being in Japan. It was a very different experience now that we've been here 5 months. That movie is right on and we understood what seemed like a lot of the Japanese this time around!

Humans are so adaptable. I guess that's one of the reasons we like living abroad so much. It's amazing to see how easily you can adjust to another lifestyle and culture. Also, it's a good exercise in lowering your expectations and then being pleasantly surprised when things go well.