Thursday, April 28, 2011

Cherry Blossoms and Magnolias

Monday, April 25, 2011

Japanese luncheon

Our adult ESL students had us over for a luncheon. Here's the spread we encountered when we walked in.

There was fruit, pickled vegetables, homemade bread, tofu, tempura and plenty of beer and wine.


Maki sushi

We were really drawn to the host's garden.

John with our host.

She does "sado" (tea ceremony) so she whisked us up an amazing cup of matcha in lovely chawans (tea bowls).

Our host's house was a beautiful old labyrinth of fusuma doors and shoji screens, scrolls and sculptures with tatami mats everywhere. What a lovely afternoon we had.

It seems anyone who lives in Japan encounters questions like, "Can you use chopsticks?" and "Can you sit Japanese style?". These are strange for 2 reasons. 1) They're assuming they're the only ones who use chopsticks or sit on the floor when lots of the world does those things. 2) It shows how they see us as almost another species who may not be able to do the same basic things they do every day. But they're just so sweet, naive and well meaning about it all. They're just curious and want to make sure we're comfortable.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Mountain Walk: Part 2

In Part 1, I showed the nice parts of this walk. Here I'll show the not so nice. We told you we live in the "real Japan".

In Japan they really love their nature but what they love more is controlling it.

All the way up the mountain a stream flows next to the road. They've paved under the entire thing. They're also currently paving under the big river that flows into the lake. Next they'll pave under the lake!

Here's where the guys are always burning garbage.

Here's where people just dump their garbage.

This appears to be where people open their car doors and ditch their McDonalds wrappers.

It just feels wrong to garden so near the cemetery.

Along the way one must be careful not to fall into the gaijin trap gutters.

It's mostly a lovely town but if you go back up into it a ways this is the kind of thing you'll find. Random garbage dumps. Abandoned cars and shacks. If I could vote here, I'd be asking the politicians (who have recently been riding around in vans waving their white gloved hands out the windows and blaring messages over loudspeakers) about these spots. Also, we can't understand why they don't bury their power lines - they muck up the mountain vistas.

Most days all we notice is the beautiful (like cherry blossoms and Mt. Fuji views) but some days it's the ugly things like these that stand out.

Mountain Walk: Part 1

About 4 times a week I walk up the mountain while reading my book (just finished The Corrections by Franzen) . Here are some of the lovely things I see.

Daffodils at my school.

These flowers at the neighbors'.

Jizo statues.

There are a few cemeteries scattered about.

Soon I feel the air get cooler and I know I've come to the little stream and this mini-shrine. Power spot!

The houses and their topiary look like this.

There's an old guy who tinkers on his bonsai in his little makeshift greenhouse. Cute elderly couples head up into the mountains, maybe to collect mountain vegetables.

Rice paddies.

A cute resting area.

The High School. Every day of the week uniformed teenagers come and go along this road.

Sakura (ok, only for these 2 weeks or so).

Another little neighborhood mini shrine.

Sometimes I loop back through Akimiya Shrine.

I like to see this little pond there.

It's about an hour walk up and back - perfect for some exercise and fresh air. People from this area can be a little standoffish; maybe it's the mountains factor. Not many people initiate a greeting with me but if I say "konnichiwa" they're obligated to respond in return. I force a lot of people into interacting with me in this way - I play on their politeness :)

Psst - these are the good parts of my mountain walk. See Part 2 for the bad bits.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Tempura Thursday

Yeah, we know Tempura Tuesday would sound better, but that's not how it went down. When we do tempura, we go all out. No use in stinking up the kitchen and making a mess with the oil if you're not going to get serious about it.

We've been calling the green leaves "sesame leaves", but some searching makes it sound like they're perilla or shiso in Japanese. Basically, it's Japanese basil. It seems like whenever we get tempura at restaurants this is always one of the bits you get.

We laugh now at our horrible attempts at tempura before we came to Japan. We're no experts now but we know enough to use ice water when making the batter and not make it too thick. We're not making onion rings - although, in a sense, we are, aren't we? Yummy!

We're obsessed with this tempura paper that we buy at the dollar store which soaks up the oil. Also at Daiso we buy oil filter papers so we can clean and reuse our oil. Brilliant.

The sauce we make is just a basic tempura sauce, but it tastes like Japan to us now. I think it's this recipe. Japanese sauces are really sweet. We use a vegetarian dashi stock bouillon cube we get at the organic store the next town over.

We're always kind of subconsciously hoarding ingredients that people have brought or sent us or that we've bought in a big city. But now that we're leaving much earlier than we thought we're pushed to try to use these things up over the next few weeks. I have an almost full bottle of blackstrap molasses, so in that vein, I made ginger snaps and these gingerbread scones (with carob chips and orange flavored cranberries (thanks Gina!).

Sunday, April 17, 2011


Due to a confluence of circumstances (none related to radiation) we will be leaving Japan at the end of May and moving back to our home town. We were expecting to stay another year but things changed quickly and we had to roll with it. Now that the decision is made and tickets purchased we're excited to enjoy our last 5 weeks in Japan seeing, doing, buying and eating things we haven't gotten to yet. Mostly though we're excited that we'll be home this summer. After being here for 16 months going home seems like a vacation - homecation?!

We want to thank our family and friends back home for not forgetting about us. Check out the wall o' love now! We can't wait to hug you all soon.

It's getting warmer and we're almost ready to put the kerosene heaters away. Also, the cherry blossoms are starting to bloom. John got a few shots last weekend in Matsumoto.

If you or anyone you know wants to apply for our jobs this is our company's website:
They're a great, small company. Our jobs are easy and close by (John recently changed jobs) and our 2 storey house is gorgeous, frankly. We're hoping they find some cool people to replace us to hang out with our awesome friends here.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Flat Maya

We have the cutest, coolest and smartest niece and nephews ever. There, we've said it. We miss them bunches, especially when we skype them and they ask us awesome questions and sing us songs and make faces in the webcam and show us stuff they've made. We want to hug 'em not skype 'em!

This post is about our one and only niece Maya. She's in 2nd grade. Her class did a cool project where they read a book called Flat Stanley (where Stanley gets flattened and starts mailing himself places in an envelope) and made their own flat selves to send places. It's part of the Official Flat Stanley Project - basically it's like the traveling gnome thing but with a literacy component. Maya made a full size cut out of herself and sent it to us in Japan. We showed her around our town and wrote up a little report on it.

First we took her to the little fox shrine. Awkward smile alert!

We stopped by one of the big shrines. It was windy and it was hard to get Flat Maya to stand still for a photo.

Of course we had to show her the Buddha.

There were some women visiting from Tokyo at the Buddha who were courageous enough to ask us about Flat Maya. We explained the best we could. Then one woman said she'd once known a foreigner named Kyle and was John's name Kyle? Yes, all of us white foreigners may look the same to you, but no - we don't all have the same name.

We sent the pictures and the Flat Maya back so they can put them on the map at school with all the other flats. What a fun geography project!

Attention Twins fans: We're sorry Nishioka broke his leg already. Don't forget about him yet though - he'll be back better than ever. We promise! One of our adult students tells us that the field is harder in the US than he's used to. They play on softer dirt over here. That explains it right?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Teaching Special Needs Class

I don't know if this is common in Japan or what, but they let me teach the kids with special needs. I get to create the curriculum, plan the classes, teach them (a Japanese teacher is there to help) and make the tests. They don't especially care what I teach them but we still have to test them - that's Japan for you. I teach them twice a week and most other students only have me once a week. Also, I cleaned with them every day last year. We're pretty tight.

I can hardly express how much I enjoy these kids. Last year there were 5 and this year there are only 4, but they're the same kids. The girl in particular is such a sweetie. When I first met her she was so terribly shy. She would hardly look through her thick glasses to glance up at me. It took her ages to even repeat an English word. How she has bloomed! She shouts out answers with the boys, runs around looking for hidden flashcards and otherwise participates just as enthusiastically. When I say hi to her in the halls she smiles a big goofy smile back at me (almost as goofy as mine) and says hi back.

They don't tell me what makes the kids "special" and I clearly have no training in this sort of thing, which is pretty messed up actually. Luckily, they're all really bright and high functioning. We just focus more on speaking and listening than reading and writing.

The special needs kids have it pretty good. They get to go on special field trips, plant stuff in the garden, bake treats they sell to us teachers and do other fun projects the other kids don't get to do. They all know each other really well and it's nice they get their own supportive group to be in. It's interesting to see how different cultures deal with differences.

There are a few kids who probably should be in the special needs class who are integrated instead because their parents want them to be. Then, last year there were a few girls who had no special needs but simply didn't like being with the other kids so they let them be in the special needs class. Finally, there are about 10 kids who should attend our school but are "hikikomori" and stay home instead. I think my school may actually be more progressive than others. At one of John's old schools they relegated the special needs kids to a trailer out back and he hardly ever had classes with them.

All I know is I have pretty severe patience problems so it's been good practice for me to teach these kids. As they say, I'm probably learning more from them than they are from me.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Shodo - Japanese Calligraphy

I've felt turned off by shodo until recently. It seemed so serious. Some of my students have been learning since kindergarten. Like all Japanese traditional arts there is a definite right and wrong way to do it and it takes years of practice to even get close to doing it right. This is one of those times when I realize how American I really am. It feels like the Japanese way takes all the fun out of everything. One of my friends did an ikebana class (Japanese flower arranging). She said they were given no freedom. It was the floral equivalent of paint by number and the closer to the teacher's model you got, the "better" you were doing. The Japanese way is to try to perfect the form and reproduce the masters' as closely as possible. The American way is that every individual is their own creative master and whatever you make is unique and great because it's yours. Yes, this creates people with undeservedly large egos and high self-esteem, but it also makes the creative arts a bit more accessible and fun.

What changed my mind? I read the book Lost Japan by Alex Kerr. While he is fluent in Japanese and Chinese and definitely knows the kanji characters, he also talked about doing calligraphy in a bit looser way. He says the old zen masters would stay up late drinking sake and doing calligraphy. He himself plays with the rules, using different colored inks and whatnot. I got interested in doing shodo in this more Kerouacian zen way (I'm also reading Big Sur right now). I remembered seeing calligraphy stuff at Daiso (the dollar store) so I went over and bought up everything I needed for about $10. I'm just a beginner and just playing around so I don't need fancy stuff. I did some last night and it was fun and relaxing, as it should be. It takes all the cool parts of Japanese and leaves the boring memorizing. While they seem really esoteric and complicated, kanji are basically hieroglyphics so it's fun to read about each one's meaning while trying to reproduce them with the big ol' brushes.

Plus I have such a cute place to do it.

And I get to use that kanji book that's been collecting dust...

By the way, we're happy to report that John has perfected his black bean veggie burger. Yes, we can get black beans here. They're just expensive and dry so we have to soak them overnight and cook them for hours. It's based on this recipe but he tweaks it by adding carrots, broccoli and olive oil. For my part, I made homemade burger buns the other week and was pretty pleased with how they turned out.