31 May, 2011

What can I say?

I really don't know what to write today. To tell the truth I am sick of emotional shocks. There have been too many this year already.

Today just before lunch I received an email from my husband telling of a tragedy at school. One of the seniors, due to graduate on Friday, was killed in a traffic accident this morning on the way to school. I didn't know him, but still the thought of a young life snuffed out at this point can be described as nothing other than tragic. 

And all who are left behind. His fellow students who had planned to be celebrating their graduation this week, are now left with mixed emotions. A shadow has fallen over the class. They've already has a tough year. March 11 Japan earthquake and all that went with that; followed soon after by their ministry trip to Thailand where they experienced another earthquake. And his family. Oh, what grief.

We're praying. We're groaning. Longing for the time when there will no longer be any tears, no more pain.

30 May, 2011

Shoes in the rain

I had a rain-shoes conversation at church yesterday. 

I mention it because this isn't much of an issue in Australia. For two main reasons. Firstly, it usually doesn't rain much most of the time (I know that hasn't been the case this year). Secondly, transportation is usually the car, so water-proof shoes aren't such an issue.

So yesterday, the factors I had to consider were:
  1. It was raining fairly hard (rain depression preceding typhoon/tropical cyclone) and unlikely to let up all day.
  2. Though we usually ride to church, that isn't so easy in the rain. Additionally we had planned to walk anyway as we were headed to lunch straight after church via the train and we didn't want to park our bikes (and pay) at the station.
  3. Therefore I needed clothes and shoes that I was happy to wear all day and especially walking in the rain.
  4. I needed comfortable walking shoes. 1km to church, lots of stairs at the train stations and an unknown distance at the other end to get to the restaurant. 
  5. The temperature was forecast to be about 20 degrees.
1. Ruled out moccasins, which would get soaked easily.
2. Meant umbrellas, not rain coats/pants.
3. Ruled out very long skirts, for example.
4. Ruled out my gum boots (US=rain boots?). As they aren't comfortable for long distances. And who wants to wear gum boots to church anyway? 
5. Ruled out sandals. A little bit too chilly.

Hmmm, what did I have left. My snow boots! They are partially water proof, comfortable for long distances and aren't too ugly to wear on a nice occasion. I don't know what I'll do when these boots wear out (they are getting on for eight or nine years old). Admittedly I use them more for rain than snow these days, though they are often still my first choice in cold weather (below 12) because they are warmer than any of my other shoes.

The other ladies in our "rain shoes" conversation both had wet feet. One had crocks on, which are water proof, but don't keep the water out. The other, in the later stages of pregnancy, had flats on that have holes in them. Both are Westerners who find it hard to buy shoes in Japan. (Thankfully I don't have that problem, I'm just on the top edge of the range with an Australian size 8 foot/25cm).

The small challenges in life that a different climate brings! By the way, I don't mind the rain. It keeps the temperature at a manageable level at this time of year. And having grown up in a family where rain was celebrated; and in a country where rain is so rare; I quite enjoy rain and feel a tiny bit let-down when a rainy period is over. The worst thing is just trying to get clothes dry, but this too passes.

29 May, 2011

Celebrating 12 years of parenting

Our son - a month old.
Today is my eldest son's 12th birthday. Wow, what a journey it's been since he was born. We first came to Japan when he was 18 months old. Now he's spent most of his life here.

We tried something different than a home-style party. The friends he wanted to invite came from different parts of Tokyo, so we decided to go to a restaurant somewhere in the middle. Shinjuku, actually. Right next to the busiest railway station in the world. Not that you'd know - we didn't see the station, a lot of it is underground. A little corner of Tokyo that has a population of more than 17, 000 people per square km. Also, I was amazed how much green was around - the view out of the restaurant was great!

The restaurant? Sizzler. Yes, there are a few of these in Tokyo and they are a favourite - in Japan or Australia. Not a bad choice when you are taking a handful of 11 and 12 year olds out for lunch.

Nothing sounds much out-of-the ordinary yet, does it? Just wait.

In the middle of our train journey my husband talks with one of the invitees, trying to get them to the party.

When I was in grade six, if I had a party to go to, one of my parents dropped me at the party and pick me up at the end. Not this party. We all travelled by train - by far the most efficient (time and cost) way to get to Shinjuku. Add to that the fact that we were meeting in Shinjuku. But due to some poor planning, we didn't say where in this huge train station that we were meeting. Add to that one person who was told the wrong time. We spent most of the time from after church (10.30) till 12.30, trying to communicate with these 11 and 12 year olds on their mobile phones (US=cell phone). They were all travelling on their own! They all had their one mobiles! A bit different from when I was a kid.

Eventually, about 12.30, we all met and ventured inside. Phew!
200+ floors in this building - the view from one window.

The other unusual thing for me about the party was that out of four guests, two of them were girls. It is the first party where my son has wanted to invite a girl (I think the other girl ended up coming as a friend of the first girl). Don't get me wrong, there is no romantic involvement here. I think these kids play together still as somewhat equals. A bit unusual, but nice, actually. An all-boy party isn't all that fun (in our opinion) - they do tend to get out of hand very easily. The girls helped balance things out a little. 

Though I realised pretty quickly I'd stepped out into a different world when one of the girls started talking about a boy in the class who'd sent her a text message saying, "I love you." She clarified by saying, "That isn't my real boyfriend, my real boyfriend is --- ." It didn't seem all that serious but still...hmmm. My newly 12 year old isn't quite there in that department yet. Despite these kids being rather independent with their train navigation and mobiles, they really are just big kids still.

Green trees amidst the concrete. Just to the left of the above photo.
It does occur to me that we are perilously close to having a teenager in the house. And once that happens, we will have teenagers in our house for at least 10 more years (though could be longer, depends on when our 6 year old moves out, which also depends on where we're living when he graduates from high school...).

Always new things to learn. I guess it keeps you young at heart. I wonder what will be different after 12 more years have passed in my life? One thing that seems pretty certain - these little boys will no longer be little, almost certainly I'll be the shortest in our family. And by then our house could resemble an empty nest!

28 May, 2011

In the "Nick of Time"

This is another review for http://booksneeze.com/ 
When I saw this book available for review at Book Sneeze, I chose it immediately. I've read earlier books in the series and loved the "Bug Man" mysteries.
This one is a little more romantic than previous ones, but still it grabbed me by the throat and threatened not to let me go until I'd finished the book. Perfect for winding down on a weekend or holiday.
The main character, Nick Polchak, is a forensic entomologist. But in all the novels he goes way beyond the call of his profession to solve one or more murders. He frequently pushing the boundaries of legal investigating, which only increases the intensity of the writing. Nick himself is a curious character who doesn't get along with other people all that well. He hides behind a razor sharp wit.
This time, however, he's about to get married. Unfortunately he gets caught up in a case in the week just prior to the wedding and forgets to contact his soon-to-be wife (I can't figure out how to make blogger type an accent above the e, so I won't use the official word :-) )
The tension rises right to the very end. Both on the "will she marry him/he marry her?" front and the murder mystery front. It is well worth a read, if you like this genre. As is the whole series!

Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of this book was provided to me for review by Thomas Nelson Books http://BookSneeze.com. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

27 May, 2011

Where have you been?

 A friend/colleague who I usually have fairly regular contact with on email wrote the other day, "Wendy, you've been quiet, are you okay?"

The answer is "Yes, but I've been busy." Particularly busy during the day when I get the easiest access to the computer. Once the boys are home they all have school homework on the computer or piano practise that needs supervising and before I know it, it is dinner preparation time and then the push to bed. Next thing we're hitting 8.30 and wanting to relax a little before bed!

To tell you about every day recently would be boring, but let me tell you a little about yesterday.

In the morning my kindergartner had "Round-up" day. Meaning he got to go to Grade 1 for 1 1/2 hours. I joined him for a while, then the Elementary Principal spoke to us for a little while and then  he was dismissed for the day. We shot back home for some morning tea and then took off on our bikes to do some grocery shopping. When we returned I made a start on the cake for our eldest's birthday on Sunday (12, I cannot believe it!!).

Then, not long after noon the others joined us at home. Yesterday was a special presentation afternoon for the seniors at CAJ. They've each been doing a large project and yesterday they did presentations publicly. Because teachers from the whole school are used in grading this particular assessment, all other classes were cancelled for the afternoon. So, we had lunch (and they ate huge amounts, where do they put it?) and then some quiet reading time. 

Cake is in the top tin, tin in the middle is catching more drips.
All this time I was checking this cake in the oven. Because I tripled it, it took a long time to cook. And also because I tripled it, I ended up with this big mess - because there was too much batter for the tin I used!

One of the senior presentations was on Dyslexia, which is a topic of interest for this occasional Occupational Therapist. It was on at 1.45, so with all the kids at home, my plan was to put a movie on and dash down to school, see the presentation and dash back again before anyone had a chance to have an issue with anyone else! And the plan worked. Unfortunately a cake that refused to finish baking wasn't on my agenda. In the end I turned the oven off and left it in there. When I returned I simply turned the oven back on again. Who knows what it will taste like in the end!

Oh, and there was little waste for the cake. See that big glob on the bottom of the oven? My nearly 12 y.o. ate it for afternoon tea, minus the burnt bits!

After afternoon tea we did something very rare indeed. I shooed all the boys into the car and we went shopping. I used to drive boys around all the time in Australia, but it just doesn't happen here. If I hop in the car it is usually on my own during school hours or as a family on the weekend. Most often when we leave the house, though, it is on foot or on bikes. 

As it happens, our son's good friend has a birthday only four days before our son's. And he invited our son to a sleep-over tonight. Finding a present for this friend, within budget was pretty difficult. Our son didn't have any idea what his friend's hobbies were or what he like to do in his spare time. They basically spend their time at school chasing one another and tickling. Our son's never been to his friend's apartment (it is on the other side of Tokyo).

We eventually bought cheap water guns. One in the shape of a fire hydrant, the other in the shape of a banana!

By the time we arrived home it was 5pm and there my day had rushed past and was almost gone. I went to wash up lunch and baking dishes; and soon my husband arrived home.

We tag-teamed it and I dashed out the door after handing over the latest problems to him (like the youngest being banned from playing with the middle son's new $1 slinky due to frequent tangles) and headed to the gym for some exercise and clear head space. I felt much better when I returned in an hour. But my day was gone!

Last night was consumed with email, catching up with my husband and ordering some food on the internet that is hard to get or expensive in local stores.

Do I live an ordinary life? Yes, by all means I do. Lots of the ways I do things are slightly different, but so much is essentially the same as the lives of my sisters in my home country, Australia.

26 May, 2011

Fish Cakes and a favourite recipe book

When I graduated from university I moved from a residential college, where all my meals were provided, to living on my own in a two bedroom apartment in a country town. It was a huge change. I'd never lived on my own before. I knew how to cook, but rarely had I cooked just for myself. And suddenly I had a decent income and a full-time job. And no friends (but that is a story for another time).

So, learning how to cook for one person took some work. In the midst of that challenge I found this treasure of a cook-book. Oh, I forgot to mention that after four years of (high fat) institutional cooking and almost no exercise, I needed to lose a bit of weight. This book is an absolute gem. 

It is particularly designed for older people who find the same challenges of cooking only themselves or themselves and one other, as well as cooking in a healthy manner. But it is relevant to anyone in that situation, no matter their age. It has basic ingredients that are easily available. I guess that is one reason why I'm still using it. Many Western cookbooks just don't make the cut in Japan because they are full of hard-to-get ingredients.

This book embodies simple, yet healthy cooking. This book holds my basic mince (US=ground beef) recipes - meatballs, spaghetti bolognaise, shepherd's pie. It introduced me to cooking with canned fish. It has basic casseroles and chicken dishes - all in small serves. Though my household has increased five-fold since those days I still use several of the recipes. Trick is, I need to triple them (or more) these days!

On Sunday I posted last week's menu. A couple of people asked about the recipe for Fish Cakes. So, here it is:

Fish Cakes
(This is for one person with a small appetite, for a family with three hungry boys I more-than-triple this and have no leftovers.)

1 small can (100g) fish, drained
1 medium potato, cooked and mashed (until recently I've never used instant mashed potato, but it works well and saves time if you have it on hand)
1 tablespoon chopped and cooked onion (a couple of minutes in the microwave is a fast way to cook it) 
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon skim milk powder
lots of breadcrumbs (I don't measure these, just add them until it holds everything together.)
pepper to taste

1. Mix all ingredients together and shape into four cakes.
2. Either fry in a fry pan or place on an oven tray and bake until brown.

Serve hot with lemon wedges or thousand island dressing and salad or vegetables.

A super yummy, healthy meal to which you can add oven baked potato wedges for a tasty, low fat meal. They also taste delicious the next day (if you manage to produce leftovers) on a sandwich or a roll with salad.

25 May, 2011

Strange English in Japan

It isn't hard to find strange English around in Japan. This morning I saw some medicine labelled "The Placenta". Huh?

Toilet paper packaging provides plenty of entertainment too. Here are some I've seen recently:
Blonde toilet paper?
And what does this mean?
Now the next one isn't strange English. But it is strange packaging. Actually I'm thankful for the English on it because I may have tried to buy it - it was next to the milk and (the milk is in the photo). There is something strange about water coming wrapped like this.

We heard this week that they've finally started a budget airline in Japan. But guess what they called the company? "Peach" and the decor is "a light shade of magenta". Maybe slightly better than the name "Virgin", but honestly, the plane looks like something Barbie and Ken would travel in!

But enough of that. I've got boys to put into bed.

24 May, 2011

Three more photos, then I'll stop.

You'll be sick of my raving on about this magazine soon. Tomorrow I promise I'll write about something else. 

Today, I particularly wanted to post three more photos.
This is where I've been working the last two days. Not a great photo, but the sun was blazing in the window. These wonderful ladies both work part-time for the organisation who publishes this magazine. Japan Evangelical Missionary Association. But these last two days they've been putting in full-time hours.
Just a couple of the multitude of boxes of parcelled-up magazines. 2,400 magazines is a lot. We've worked for two days on these and they aren't finished yet.
At lunch-time I wandered downstairs to the Christian bookstore (this building is a Christian Centre full of lots of organisation's offices, probably the biggest in Japan). There it is - our magazine on display for sale!
But in closing I have to say the most encouraging thing so far was watching my husband avidly reading the magazine in bed last night. His comments were very positive and encouraging. 

I'm too close to it to judge, but it seems like we might have produced a quality product that peopel might enjoy and be challenged by. Waiting to see how God will use this.

23 May, 2011

The day finally came

I've been waiting for today since mid March. The day I could hold that magazine I put so much energy into. Today I finally could flip through those pages that lived in my imagination and then on my computer for weeks. To see it and hold it is very special.

My husband asked me if I read it on the train on the way home. I just laughed. I don't need to read it - I've read it a thousand times (slight exaggeration). I flipped through it, but don't feel the slightest inclination to read it again (I also might find more mistakes that slipped through. I've already spotted two.)

The process has taken far longer than I anticipated, but I am thankful that we do have a quality product to send out to people. 

And that I what I spent all my afternoon doing - helping package magazines up to send out to people. It is very satisfying to be helping at this practical end. It is also the natural conclusion to what I began back in mid-March. And it means that I've had a part in almost every single aspect of this magazine being produced (except printing). Wow, what a way to learn!

Our print run is about three times larger than usual. This is because we have a lot of people who took advantage of a special member's price and bought multiple copies. That also means that posting it out is more complicated than usual. We didn't get it finished this afternoon, so I'm going back in tomorrow to help the part-time office staff finish the process.

In the meantime I'm working on the next edition! Because the "Spring" edition is late out, it is running into the backend of the "Summer" edition. Ah, the fun. At least this time I know a whole lot more about how the whole process works.

But for tonight, I'm stuffed (US=exhausted). Time to head to bed.

22 May, 2011

"So, when you're in Japan, what do you cook at home?" #2

Continuing my series on what we eat at home in Japan. This week I've been more organised. I've taken photos of our meals (before they disappeared). We did eat some unusual meals this week, so I cannot say it's been a particularly typical week.

On Monday we had Tandori Chicken with Naan. The tandori paste came from a local import shop. I always enjoy tandori chicken when I'm out, so I wanted to try it out at home. It was a bit dry, though. I don't know how to fix that for next time. The naan comes in large packets from Costco and freezes beautifully.

On Tuesday we had a Japanese dish, Yakisoba. Always a great source of amusement in our house because it is correctly prounounced "Yucky Soba". The Soba being noodles; Yaki, meaning to cook. This dish is called "Fried Pork and Noodles" in my English cook book. And that is a very good description of it. We had less complaints than usual about this meal. It has cabbage, sprouts and shallots in it - enough for boys to make complaints! They'd rather plain noodles with tomato sauce. It is, however, quite a cheap dish to make with local ingredients, so I like it for that.

Wednesday brought the biggest experiment of the week, maybe the month. I am a bit of a meat and carbs girl. I prefer to cook with meat. But in the interest of budgetary constraints I tried a Vegetarian Tofu Curry in the Slow Cooker. I'm not a Tofu fan, but it does have the advantage of being cheap in this country. 

I didn't have a good emotional day on Wednesday and when I found that the potato and sweet potato were still hard at 5.30, it was fuel to the fire of my pessimistic mood. I threw it all in a saucepan and cooked it for another half an hour. I have to say it looked terrible. Like something someone threw up at bedtime and I didn't anticipate it being tasty at all.

As I predicted the boys didn't like it. Especially the younger two. I was surprised that it didn't taste all that bad. I guess when you are in a pessimistic mood you guard yourself against disappointment! 

The bonus for us parents was that Wednesday night happens to be icecream night. Sometimes I deliberately cook a less-than-favourite meal on Wednesday just so I can use the leverage of dessert to get the meal eaten. Didn't have such foresight this week, I just got lucky.

Thursday brought one of my favourite meals. Fish and Chips - home made, of course. Fish Cakes and potato wedges with the skin on. All baked in the oven so very healthy! I'm going to have to make more fish cakes in the future - no left overs from this meal. One fun addition to it was chilli flakes on some of the potato wedges - spiced the meal up considerably.

Friday I came home from the Elementary Field Day with an awful headache. It's days like that that I'm really happy I write a menu plan. I had at least been able to predict that I'd be too tired to spend much time in the kitchen. On the menu? Leftovers - another favourite meal! Biggest surprise was how hot the Tandori chicken had become after sitting a few days in the fridge.

Saturday we went a games night at friends. Such an unusual thing to do in Japan as houses are so small (and our family so large and rowdy). Yet, it felt so normal, harking back to our lives in Australia when inviting people to your house for a meal is how you get to know them. We took a green salad, brownies and some juice. The hosts provided battered fish (also pretty unusual here in Japan) and other friends provided fruit salad. I think we had something like 20 people there, a mixture of Japanese and foreigners speaking a mixture of English and Japanese. And kids from 5 months to 12 years of age (plus a couple of teenagers who board there and showed their faces for the food only). Great night!

Sunday lunch we had our traditional noodles - either udon (fat Japanese noodles) or instant ramen (two minute noodles). Followed by fruit and then Cadbury chocolate (a remnant of the many bars which arrived in Care Packages in December). Tonight is the usual "catch" meal. A combination of leftovers and whatever else we can scrounge out of the fridge and cupboard to fill hungry tummies.

So that is our week of dinners this week. Not a typical week, but then what is? I try to mix it around a bit so I don't get bored cooking and they don't get bored of eating what I cook. Mix around old favourites with less popular meals. Mix up meat meals with cheaper meals. Mostly it works well. Is it what you'd expect? What are you most surprised by?

21 May, 2011

Japan photo #15 solved

This one wasn't too hard. They are snow chains - for a car. 

The sales woman who sold them to my husband was a petite Japanese lady who said she found these very easy to use. They even come with arm-length plastic sleeve covers, so you don't have to get your clothes dirty! Before I drove into the mountains on my own with a bunch of ladies in March, I received instruction on how to use them. Thankfully, though it got very close, I didn't have to apply my shaky knowledge!

To the person who asked about snow chains for bikes. I don't believe there are such things. If it is snowing it is pretty much too cold to ride anyway. I'm not sure that chains would help much on a bike because the chains rely on the weight of the car to give it traction.One of the joys of moving to Tokyo from snowy Sapporo, was being able to use bikes all year round, not just six months a year.

On struggling to be an observer

Recently I've done more spectating than I am used to. This month I've been to a Track and Field meet, a piano recital and a primary school (US=elementary) field day (somewhat like a low key athletics carnival).

The word picture that contrasts players and spectators sticks in my mind. My usual operating mode is a player. In a group I tend to be a participator; not a leader, a participator. My first reaction is to do stuff, not sit back and watch others do it (puts me in great risk when there are appeals for volunteers). When I step back and just observe, I'm stepping out of my comfort zone. 
Spectators hanging out in the shade at yesterday's Field Day.

Somehow being a parent (and getting older) means I do more spectating than I used to. I also do more leading and directing than I'm often happy with.

In some ways I envy these kids. They get to participate, to do stuff. I have good (and nervous) memories of those days when I got to do stuff like this. Now I get to stand by and applaud (I can't even scream anymore). But I am not good at standing by and watching. Especially if it involves long periods of hanging around doing nothing. Especially if it involves long periods of exposure to nasty outside elements (cold, wind, heat etc.). Does this make me a bad parent? How do I improve my attitude to these things? Because I know we're only just at the beginning of many long years of spectating.

I guess watching track and field and piano recitals are also reminders that I used to be able to do that stuff, but cannot anymore. Good memories, but regret that those days have passed.

So somehow this non-spectator is going to have to tame that wild participatory side of her to cheer on her kids. 

One hint - I've found a good book to be helpful in passing the time at Track Meets (even if it makes me seem anti-social and cast me back to those years when I was seen as a weirdo in Primary school for hanging out in the library at lunch time).

19 May, 2011

Bits and pieces from today

Today a Japanese friend asked me if Australians wore hats a lot. Her observation was that foreigners generally don't wear hats. At CAJ that is largely American foreigners. It is true - the Americans notice the strange hat-wearing Australian family in their midst. Why other Caucasians don't wear hats, I don't know. Perhaps Australians are more sun-aware because of the high skin cancer rate in our country? 

Then later some Asian and partly Asian classmates of my sixth grader asked me why my son's skin was so pale. I didn't say a word - just showed them my winter-white arms. They got the picture very quickly! He is one of the few 100% Caucasian kids in his class.

Are you getting a picture of CAJ? A totally Caucasian family is pretty rare here.

This morning I had coffee with a couple of friends, a meeting that might not have taken place except for this blog! It was an encouraging time, one we hope to do again in September.

This afternoon the kindergarten class went on an excursion to the local bamboo park along the local "river". They've been studying river life, so it was a fun way to make that learning more true-to-life, even if we didn't see an awful lot of such wildlife on our walk. It was a pleasant walk too. A number of the mums were there, but I was the only first-language-Caucasian there (we do have a Romanian). Come to think of it, I'm not sure if there are any other such mums in the class. We have a number of such dads. I frequently found myself talking with the American teachers who were with us. Probably I have more in common with the teachers than the other parents in the class. My role at the school is mixed - not only am I a parent, I am also a staff-wife and friend of many of the staff members. It can get complicated. Speaking of hats - I often ask myself, "Which hat am I wearing now?"

Date and dried apricots, pineapple and kiwifruit.
Someone told me about a shop on the concourse at our local train station that sells dried fruit, dried fruit not being easy to get in Japan (in my local shop I can only buy raisins). I stopped in there today and found dried fruit I've never seen before. Of course they sell a whole lot of dried seafood too. Actually a lot of stuff I have no idea what it is. Plus boiled lollies (US=candy), jelly lollies and the ever present sembei (Japanese rice cracker). But I was very excited to see dates. I don't think I've ever seen these in Japan, and they're in my own suburb!?! They were about A$17 a kilo, how does that compare to dried fruit in Australia?

Now I have a cross-stitch to frame. I've finished my latest birth sampler. Will take a photo and show it to you later on (after the recipient receives it). I'm very pleased to have finished another biggish project. My next project? I have a backlog of smaller cross-stitch kits that are clogging up my craft drawers. I'm going to have a go at getting some of those stitched. It will be nice to do something smaller (and hopefully less complicated) for a change.

18 May, 2011

Japan photo #15

I haven't really had a great day. For a variety of reasons, most of which I cannot publish here! So I'm feeling pretty emotionally flat and discouraged. 

However I can provide you with something to think about. Another photo. What do you think this is? I'll give you the solution in a couple of days.

17 May, 2011

Japanese friends

2008: English club learning to make chocolate chip cookies.
In April 2006 when my middle son entered Japanese kindergarten at age 3 1/2 he joined a remarkable class, from my perspective that is. 

His year level was split into four classes. In his class, a group of only about 12-15 kids (my memory is already fading), two of the mothers, spoke some English. Not too long after that the three of us started up a fortnightly English club for mums of kindy kids. A club that we ran for the three years that our children spent at the kindergarten. During those years I usually saw those two ladies twice a day five days a week. It is when you spend time like that with Japanese that you make friends.
In 2007 our English Club did a bilungual puppet play on The Hungary Caterpiller for the whole kindergarten (300+ kids).
Today, five years later, I have proof. I went to one friend's house and my other friend along with another mutual friend from that first kindergarten class joined us there. Wow. My Japanese friends. We haven't been all together since they farewelled me two years ago when we left for Australia for a year.
2007: Me with my two friends on my left. I taught them how to make Apple Pies, in 30 degree heat!
You might find that a strange thing to be excited about, Don't you have heaps of friends? Actually no, not Japanese friends. It is hard to make good Japanese friends, especially when you speak Japanese as badly as I do. I am very grateful for these three ladies. 

Thankful too that they've agreed to get together every month or so. To practice their English and just to enjoy one another's company. Yay! None of them are Christians. They're not even particularly interested, as far as I can tell. But if they do become interested, I'll be around...

16 May, 2011

What're you doing over the summer?

There are only 18 school days left for my kids. So we're getting this question.

In Australia it is usually framed, "Are you doing anything over Christmas?" or "Are you going away in the holidays (US=vacation)?" Because, of course, summer coincides with Christmas and New Year in Australia so "Christmas" has a broad meaning usually including holidays and often going away somewhere.

In an international environment the question gets ramped up a bit, "Are you going back home over the summer?" This is much bigger, because it involves an expensive aeroplane trip, not just loading up the family car. And "over the summer" is the usual phrase. We don't say that in Australia, it seems to be an American phrase.

It makes for a good conversation opener, but recently we've been asked this a lot and it can be tiresome. And the answer is "No, we're not flying back home to Australia." Often I am talking to someone who has fewer family members than I. When I point out how expensive it is to take a family of five on an aeroplane trip to Australia they quickly understand why we might be staying put this summer. Besides which, this is the first May in three years when we haven't been planning to change countries in a month or so. I'm very happy to not be doing some major packing right now!

So what are we planning?

I mentioned back here on January 1 what our summer plans were.  We're planning to do some camping. And we're thinking of buying a family yearly pass to a "somewhat" local water/amusement park. Trying to think "cool".

There is one other event we're looking forward to, and that is having some friends visit for a fortnight in June/July. It's been a long time since we've had people come to Japan just to see us. Our friends have two young children about the same age as our own, so it should be a fun, crazy time. Over the weekend I wrote out a rough schedule for the two weeks they'll be here. Phew - I think we'll need a holiday to get over the holiday! We're going to try to cram a lot of stuff in. Museums, lots of parks, trains, a volcano, waterfalls, the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Metropolitan building (202m observation platform) and maybe even Tokyo Disney.

It should be fantastic fun. They've never been to Japan before, so we're playing the tour operators. It will be nice to have an excuse to play tourists. Anyone noticed that in a place where you live you don't do the touristy stuff unless you have visitors or make a special effort?

So, in case you're thinking of asking me "the question", you already know my answer and we can move onto more important things like..."How are you really?"

15 May, 2011

A church doesn't need a car park

Every church I'd ever known had a car park (US=parking lot) until six years ago. It was inconceviable that a church would not. If the church didn't have on-property parking, the streets around it were free for parking. Australia; the land of free car parks, most of them long and thin.

The first church car park I remember was the unsealed one I spent all my childhood arriving in, running around in, waiting for my parents to stop talking in and finally driving a car into myself and parking it. This one even had it's own climbing tree - not that I did that in my "Sunday best"!

The second church I ever spent significant time in didn't have a car park, now that I think about it. But it had the next best thing. It had unregulated parking in all the streets surrounding it. We never hesitated to drive to church.

Our church in Sapporo with the car park out the front.
The third church I became a member was a country church. It was just down the road from my house and I now shudder with disbelief as I recall driving such a short distance to church! There were a few placed on the property around the church to park, but again street parking was never a problem.

Even a little church we worked in in Sapporo, northern Japan had a car park - for four cars. It seemed small until you had to shovel it in the winter time!

Then we moved to Tokyo and discovered a church that truly didn't have a car park. Nor did it have street parking. People walked, trained or rode to church. Unless, like us, they lived too far away and had a mob of little kids to transport to and from church. We drove to church every Sunday and paid about 400 yen to park our car in nearby paid parking. 500 yen if we talked a bit longer.

We are still at the same church and are grateful to live close enought to be saving 400 or 500 yen a week by riding to church. Here is where we park our bikes - behind the church in a free, but crowded double-level bike-park.

Have you ever ridden a bike to church? Some of my "Sunday best" isn't that great on a bike!

14 May, 2011

"So, when you're in Japan, what do you cook at home?" #1

Progressing on from my last thought in my last post. Here is what we ate at dinner-time a couple of weeks ago, I guess photos would have been good, maybe next time.

Monday May 2 Tuna Mornay on brown rice with veggies. A nice easy meal, cooked from scratch.

Tuesday 3rd Slow Cooker BBQ ribs with vegetables and pan fried (heart-smart) potatoes. Mmmmm. Yum. This is a relatively new meal for us. Both because ribs are a pretty rare find in Japan (these came from Costco) and we're still fairly new to the slow cooker crew. The finely cubed potatoes only fried in 1 1/2 tablespoons of oil, but flavoured with pepper and with their skins on - they were yummy too.

Wednesday 4th Sweet and sour pork with brown rice and veggies. Also very yummy. This is a old favourite that's recently reappeared on our menus. I stopped cooking it for ages because of all the complaints about the capsicum (US = bell pepper, I think) and pineapple from the kids. However David and I love it. So now I cook the meat and sauce separately (and from scratch). So the boys don't have to have their meat contaminated by the sauce. The aroma from this meal cooking is scrumptious. Wednesday night is icecream night (along with Saturday and Sunday nights). So, no doubt that is what we ate.

Thursday 5th Chicken Paprika with mashed potatoes and veggies. This was a new slow cooker recipe. A bit of a failure because the chicken was so dry. Not sure how to improve this for the future.

Friday 6th Left-overs. Usually I only cook five dinners a week. One week night and Sunday nights are left-over nights. Love these meals. The boys do too, usually. Because they get to choose what they eat. Only rules - they must have some protein and veggie (the last one is usually no problem).

Saturday 7th Cheese and Tuna Quesadillas. I'm really glad I planned this meal for Saturday night because we left home at 6.30am to go to our 11 y.o.'s track meet and didn't get home until nearly 6pm. This was very easy and well received. Merely sprinkling grated (US = shredded) cheese and tinned tuna with tomato sauce (US = ketchup) on a tortilla (sourced from Costco) and plopping on on top, then put the whole "sandwhich" in a dry frying pan to brown and melt. The adults had a couple with Sweet Chilli Sauce instead of tomato sauce.

Sunday 8th "Catch" (or shake-the-cupboard-and fridge-and-see-what-falls-out). I think there were a few leftovers, perhaps we had some toasted sandwiches, I cannot clearly remember. Sunday nights are usually very relaxed. For lunch on Sunday (in case you think we never eat Japanese food) we ate Udon. A common, thick wheat-based Japanese noodle dish.

That's probably enough to digest (excuse the pun). I'll give you another week at a later date.

12 May, 2011

Cool rainy weather is good for one thing

The weather has been challenging recently. It's been up and down. I am thankful that we aren't walking around in coats, scarves, gloves and hats anymore, but I have struggled to get my clothing right. Just this week we had Tuesday at 25 -17 (I'm talking Celcius if you're wondering) and Wednesday was 17-14. That is a big drop. I don't like it either way, to be truthful. Suddenly getting hotter or suddenly getting colder, especially in that range. A sudden drop from the 30s down to the high 20s is fine, but jumping back and forth over the 20 degree mark is more difficult.

Pikelets. Some strangely shaped, but they all tasted great.
But, the advantage of a cold rainy day is that I felt like spending time in the kitchen (felt like lying down with a good book, but that wasn't an option). Here's the result - pikelets for afternoon tea. Now I know that is a good Aussie phrase. Pikelets are small pancakes, usually eaten with jam and cream. "afternoon tea" is the snack you have in the afternoon. It is what my boys are always clamouring for after they get home from school.

Our middle son's plate (before salad). He did a great job!
I also had a triumph in the dinner department. I cooked Chilli con Carne in my slow cooker. I guess this is what Americans call "Chilli". We ate it in a mexican-type fashion, with corn chips, sour cream, guacomale and salad. David and I like the meat on top of the chips with cheese etc, but have long known the boys don't like it that way. So we assemble everything at the table according to our desire. Us adults pop our plates in the microwave and very easily get the melted-cheese look that we love. Though I have to admit my 8 y.o. did a nice job of arranging his plate! 

Do the corn chips look strange to you? I don't think I've seen this shape in Australia - a small cone, like a tiny icecream cone shape. It is the first time I've used them. The shop I went to buy corn chips from only had the chilli variety of the usual sort, so these were the only alternative for the boys who aren't yet sophistocated enough to enjoy a chilli chip. I think I'll buy them again, though. They boys loved them. Put them on the end of a carrot stick and they look distinctly like rockets or spears...

Just wondering. When we're in Australia people sometimes ask us what we eat in Japan as a family. Would people be intersted in occasionally seeing a list here of what we've eaten over the past week?

11 May, 2011

Style with a different twist

Doing something fun today - writing a style guide for the magazine I work for. "What is that?" you ask. It is the document that tells you how to use punctuation, capitalisation, spelling of tricky words, how to write dates etc. And is particularly useful because if you follow it you will hopefully end up with a magazine that is internally consistent.

 Me with my Managing Editor, Gary Bauman.
It is a particularly difficult issue for us because this magazine is published in a non-English speaking country and is put together by people from different "English" backgrounds. Just my presence on the editorial team puts a spoke in the works. For example, I automatically want to correct things to match my Australian English background. However the magazine has an unofficial policy of sticking to the rules from the author's country of origin. 

My American Managing Editor has an American English style guide, but not one for Commonwealth English. So I've now got the job of trying to put together a unique style guide that expresses how we're going to get some uniformity into our magazine editing.

I'm learning some of that grammar that they were skipping in the 70s and 80s in Australian schools. Plus the different words that each country uses for different grammatical elements. 

Some I knew like full stop vs period. I didn't know that American's use of "brackets" differed to the Australian use. These: ( ) are "brackets" for Australians. Americans call them "parentheses". Americans call these "brackets": [ ]. Australians call those "square brackets".

Americans put periods after anything that has been abbreviated, but Australians don't do it for contractions. For example, "Mrs" doesn't have a full stop in Australia, but it does in American.

Then you have dates. Australians write dates Day/Month/Year, Americans write it Month/Day/Year and Japanese write it Year/Month/Day. Totally confusing if you have something like 4/5/11!

Fascinating - yes? Sigh. I might be learning some, but it is tedious. I suspect this is one part of editing that I dislike the most. Details aren't really my thing, though I can push myself to focus on them if I concentrate. And some days are better than others.

10 May, 2011

New haircut one week on

Last Monday I cut off a lot of hair, you might recall the photos. I bought some mousse and have been working on getting a little less fly-aways. It's worked fairly well and without a hair dryer most days. Here are some photos from Sunday.

But the things that has surprised me the most has been the number of "hair" conversations I've had in the last week with other missionaries. Not just - "I like your hair." but about their own struggles with their hair, hair dressers in Japan etc. 

Hair concerns most women to a greater or lesser degree. Missionary women are the same. Some have a very utitarian haircut that requires little time or money. Many dye their hair and have frequent cuts. Very few have permed hair in Japan. They are expensive and most of us are on fairly tight budgets.

However near "the edge of ordinary" we are, we do still have many very ordinary concerns!
Got those fly-aways almost under control, but I forgot to wear my glasses for the photo.

Preview 'my' magazine

Well that title is a bit presumptive, but it is true that you can see the cover and first seven pages of the upcoming Japan Harvest. Go and have a look at this website.

09 May, 2011

Japan photo #14 solved

 On Saturday I gave you this puzzle.

What is it? In this case context means an lot. Yes, it is from a grocery store. You find it at the cash register. As well as encouraging you to not use plastic bags, it smooths communication between the customer and the person serving you. If you have brought your own bag and don't need a plastic one from the register operator you grab this little tag and drop it into your shopping basket. It eliminates that little conversation - "Do you want a plastic bag?" "No." 

I appreciate this because there is another shop where we buy our milk that doesn't have this system. They assume you want plastic bags. If you are off your game or just distracted and don't inform them upfront, they just give you bags anyway. And then it just gets awkward - do you hand them back or take them and leave them on the packing counter? Or even if you aren't off your game they feel awkward using my bags and apologise before they put anything in my pre-offered bag. All terribly awkward!

Packing bench (counter). Where the customer puts their already-paid-for groceries  into whatever bag they have. Different to Australia!
But apart from that I just think this little tag is very cute!

08 May, 2011

Cross-cultural sporting experience

Yesterday we spent all day at our 11 y.o.'s track meet. Throughout the day I couldn't help remember...those years when I was a participant, not a spectator at such events. And also on the differences between the way Americans seem to do school sport and the Australian way.

Australian schools, in my experience, generally have three different streams of sport going at school. 
  1. They have PE classes during school time, the number of which varies from school to school. This is compulsory for much of one's school career, or it was for me.
  2. Once a week they have an afternoon dedicated to sport or some other non-curricular activity. There is a mixture of interschool team sports as well as within-school options like Ten Pin bowling, cricket, netball, soccer etc. During that time I even participated in activities like chess, film appreciation (really - that is the first and last time I saw "Psycho"!) and Tai Chi. These options generally change every term, four times a year.
  3. Our high school had four different annual events that directly related in interschool events. They were the swimming carnival, athletics carnival (which involved track and field), cross country and ball games (the latter comprising of team events like captain ball, tunnel ball etc.). Each of these were all-school events where classes were cancelled, the first two being all day or day-and-a-half events. They were conducted as competitions between school "houses". A great deal of school spirit was involved in each these events, though many fellow teenagers chose to just be physically present, rather than spirited! These events, especially the first three, were primarily concerned with choosing the best athletes to represent the school in later regional events.
Our experience here within the international school arena in Japan is quite different. I don't know about other schools, but this is my understanding of CAJ's system.
  1. PE classes extend from Kindergarten through to Year 12. And more frequently than we (that is my husband and I) had in state schools in Australia.
  2. The elementary school has an annual Field Day. This is relatively non-competitive and encouraging event. It has no long-term goal such as selecting the fastest or highest or strongest for inter-school competition. Middle and high school have no such event. No swimming carnivals or all-school cross country events.
  3. The international schools have interschool competitions in various sports organised during out-of-school hours. These sports include basketball, volleyball, soccer, cross-country, track, field hockey and wrestling. They have three seasons - "fall", winter and spring. 
Here are some things I find strange about the system we find ourselves in:
  • The number three (above) competitions are totally extra curricular. You only "go out" for them if you want. The teams are selected from those who try out. I find this particularly strange for athletics - how do you know that you have the best athletes representing your school? How do you even know if you have your athletes doing their best events. 
  • No weekly sports afternoons. If you want to pursue a sport you do it in your own time. This makes it hard if you are struggling to achieve academically or struggling to get homework completed. Though I do remember that my high school inter school sports teams did sometimes have after school training.
  • They train very hard. High school teams train five days a week for two to three hours each day during their season. Middle school teams at CAJ are limited to three times a week. Even that was a lot when it was basketball training and it started at 6.30am! Consider that a number of students travel for over half an hour or an hour to get to or from school and there is a lot expected of those who take on sport.
  • It has taken a while, but early on terms like "Varsity" and "Junior varsity" were very confusing. For those who don't know. Varsity is the school's best team. Junior varsity is like the B team.
  • There are no age levels in the cross-country and athletics events. So our 11 y.o. was competing against all middle schoolers - some of whom are 14 or 15 years old (and looked it). Same for high school.
  • Finally on the comparison front, I don't ever remember driving for two and a half hours to go to a simple inter-school event. We did that yesterday to watch our son run and throw. It was only 36 km, but very orderly Tokyo traffic includes hundreds of traffic lights in that short distance.
Whoa, this is already a long post. My thoughts yesterday didn't just encompass the above. You see, I was a runner. I even was a part of Little Athletics club for a few years.

My thoughts yesterday roamed into sympathy for the longer distance runners (400m and above). Been there, done that. In sympathy for the hurdles runners who slammed into hurdles. I never did like that form of the sport. I flinched as people jumped over the high jump. I remembered how I used to "eat up" the track when I ran and how that feeling suddenly began to fade at around 14 years of age. That was a strange feeling. I remembered running in a school relay race against Cathy Freeman (famous Australian Olympian now). My claim to reflected fame!

At the end I remind myself that it is just different, not wrong. Another thing to get used to that is not particularly a Japanese cultural difference, but because we're in Japan and have our kids at an international school, that will be what we have to work with for the next X number of years.