30 November, 2011

Express-way refreshments, anyone?

Here is something else we encountered on our camping trip. On the way there we made a quick stop to swap drivers, use the "facilities", and find me a coffee. Express-way stops in Japan are something unusual for Australians. Instead of getting off the toll-way, they provide places where you can do all those important things you need to do when you are driving. They vary in size and flashy-ness. But they all have the essentials, including good basic Japanese food as well as souvenirs. 

The one we stopped at on Thursday was very flashy. It looked like it had just been upgraded. In fact we stumbled upon the opening ceremony (or just before it). There were barriers up and official looking people wandering around inside the barriers looking at and photographing the shiny new facilities. Unfortunately the brand-spanking-new Starbucks wasn't open (it was behind the barriers) and I had to buy my coffee from one of the other venders (they are like Australian food courts). The coffee was awful!

But the "facilities" were pretty special (thankfully they didn't have barriers around them). Check out the board that greeted me at the entry to the Ladies.
Awesome, hey!

29 November, 2011

Random thoughts about our latest camping trip

I feel like I'm paddling through mud today. Not getting very far. Chiefly to do with our mission changing email addresses across the board . . .

Perhaps if I divert my attention with a blog post I'll get motivated to do something about something else!

So I have some random thoughts about our camping trip.

Remember those baggy pants I made my son? Well, they proved to be perfect for layering over jeans to ward off the cold. Unfortunately, though, my 6 y.o. slept in his jeans and, curled up tightly against the cold he caused his "knee pit" (as he calls it) to become sore. It's all fixed up now that he's not sleeping in his jeans any more! But I was happy to see my handiwork put to good use.

We enjoyed the autojo. Parking our car right beside our tent proved to be a time saver. It was much easier to set-up and pack up. At our last campsite we had to unload into a pallet, send it down the hill, hike down there ourselves, unload the pallet, transport it to our tent-site and then, set up the campsite. The reverse on the way home (including hiking UP the mountain). Tiring and time consuming. 

We appreciated the powered campsite. It is the first time we've camped on a powered campsite and though we didn't have much that needed powering, we appreciated the fluro (translation=flourescent light) for cooking after dark and the heater that helped a just a little in the tent (specially when someone's waterbottle fell over and wet my bag and sheets).

The lack of mozzies (translation=mosquitoes) and other insects helped too. Not slathering ourselves in chemicals before leaving the tent was a small compensation for wearing many layers of clothes. Our 12 y.o. has mentioned the irony more than once. Now that there is little danger of being bitten, we have hardly any skin available for biting!

We're very grateful for no rain or even clouds. We struck a very sunny couple of days, and during the daytime it was quite pleasant. I cannot imagine how miserable it would have been to have been stuck inside the cold tent with cold drizzle outside.

This campsite also had excellent kitchen facilities. These huts had hot and cold running water (!!!) and gas on-tap. More than once we went down there to use their gas to hurry some meal preparation along; like when the milk, which had been out all night, hadn't yet defrosted. David and I took it in turns to do the pleasurable job of washing up in hot water (don't tell the boys how good that was).

The toilet seats were heated! Only in Japan! But there was barely room to sit down in the Ladies, the cubicles were so tiny.

Okay, now I'm feeling better. Nothing like a bit of writing to clear the mind. Time to head away from the computer and make some snacks to feed those hungry boys!

28 November, 2011

What are Australia's Christmas traditions?

After my somewhat negative post last week about Americans sharing their traditions with us, I've been asked to share my Christmas traditions with the Grade One class, my youngest son's class. A little bit ironic, don't you think? I'm sure the two things are independent of one another. Nevertheless, I'm encouraged that the class is studying Christmas celebrations around the world and it is an honour to be asked to go.
Backyard cricket last time we were in Oz at Christmas

So, ideas Aussies, I need ideas. 

As I think about it, the big factor is the season. Australian Christmases are very much influenced by it being a hot time of year and many things happen outside, like Carols in the park and fireworks. BBQs, beach, swimming etc. Food too, while some people cling to the old northern hemisphere traditions of a hot meal on Christmas day, more often I've seen cold meat, salad, cold desserts etc. Also the school year has an influence, it being the end of the calendar year and school year, there are many end-of-year/Christmas parties. And children are off school for six or more weeks, rather than just a couple of weeks, so families are taking summer holidays.

But what should I share with the Grade One-ers, most of whom have never experienced a hot Christmas?

27 November, 2011

Camping adventure number three

Yesterday we arrived back from our third camping adventure in Japan. Our third in five months. As I guessed back here, it was different from the previous two, merely because of the season.
Breathtaking mountains
Autumn leaves

We set off directly after school finished. It was a bit of a stressful start, but once we got going we had a good trip. Smooth traffic and once we'd left the city the scenery was gorgeous.

We made the trip in only 2 1/2 hours and began setting up our tent not long after 3pm. You could tell it was the fourth time we'd done it, it went much smoother. Aided greatly by the ground beneath our site. Unlike our previous two camp sites, this one was grassed and without large rocks under the surface. A dream for pegging out. Additionally the boys knew what was coming up and so were generally very helpful.

As you can see from the photo, we were the only residents on the first night and for most of the next day too. The boys loved these grassy slopes (yes, they are grass, brown grass). They ran all over the place, had fun with the soccer ball and generally created their own fun. The first time we went camping back in July they hid inside the tent as soon as it went up and at every other opportunity. This time they treated the whole campsite as their own backyard and had a great time. I loved seeing their creative play.

This photo was taken from a high perch above the campsite. In the morning it was the sunniest spot. It also had the best view of the mountains across the valley. This was the boys' big discovery and they could often be seen up there sitting on their camp chairs enjoying the serenity. These things I treasure in my mother's soul.

The first night the boys weren't dressed warmly enough. They hadn't really comprehended how cold it would be and I'd given up trying. Therefore by about 6.30pm they all ended up in bed fully clothed — actually with as many layers as they could manage. It was terribly cold so we decided to ditch the idea of showers. After the boys warmed up and we'd cleaned up after dinner we invited to them come out and look at the stars. Wow, what a treat for city kids. We ran around in the dark for a while and then they dashed back into bed.

David and I ended up in bed before 8pm too. First time that has ever happened in our family! It therefore turned into a very long night. I struggled to go to sleep. I wasn't really cold but the wind howled in the tree tops and occasionally dipped down and bothered our tarp. Thankfully the whole structure held, but even though I spent more than 10 hours in bed, I didn't actually get a lot of sleep before midnight.

Three boys getting warm in bed with their books.
 We were all awake before 6.30, even though the sun hadn't reached our campsite yet. And it was still cold! I lent the camera to our 12 y.o. who had a great time taking photos before breakfast. And indeed the view was magnificent at that time of the morning.

Friday was fun. We started with a small walk around the campsite, including back to the spot where we'd seen Mt Fuji as we drove up to the campsite the day before.

David playing park golf.

Mt Fuji, only about 50km away.
Then we hired some Park Golf gear and headed down to the campsite's course. It is a game that was invented in Hokkaido (northern island of Japan) in 1983 (so says Wikipedia) and it very popular up there. We didn't know that there were courses down here in Honshu, but it was one of the attractions for a cooler weather camping trip. It is a very simple game, something between golf and mini golf. It proved to be great fun for our whole family. We spent about four hours doing an 18 hole course, with a lunch break in the middle. (Each hole was about 30-40m.)

After some afternoon tea and a spot of cricket, we headed off to the onsen (Japanese hot spring bath). Wow, that was nice. The bath was about 40-44 degrees Celcius and really warmed us to the core.

Heidi, the book was made into an anime series in 1974 and is still very popular here in Japan and apparently in a number of other non-English speaking countries.

After the onsen we paid a short visit to a local tourist attraction (that was free because we were staying at the camp site, and we got a discount on the onsen too!). Heidi's Village is an intriguing place. Not all that interesting except that they had a large illumination festival. So many lights! But very cold and dinner was waiting to be cooked back at camp, so we had to run off fairly quickly.

Yummy dinner, but almost no one (including myself who had a headache by then) appreciated it. Being so cold, it was hard to get food served at an appropriate temperature. It seemed to go from searing hot to cold in under three minutes!

And the boys were in bed without complaint before 7.30 again. In contrast to our warmer-weather camping, mum and dad didn't hang around enjoying the evening on our camping chairs either. We dove into bed as soon as possible too. This time, though, I was so tired I dropped off fairly quickly.

During the night, though, I woke up to the sound of running water. Like someone had left a tap on, except we had no taps near us. I quickly figured out that someone, for some unknown reason, had turned the water on up the hill to fill up the pond at the bottom of the hill. The drain ran right past our tent and it made a very annoying sound, especially when one was already cold.

The next day we had several new neighbours, a few of whom had put up their tents after dark the night before. It was even colder than the day before, possibly because the wind had died down. Several of our towels were frozen stiff on the line. We found out a few hours later as we left the park that it had been -2 that morning. I reckon it was about that when we were eating breakfast. The tea towels were not frozen when we first got up, but were by the end of breakfast. A bit chilly for my liking.

We were all sick of being so cold and so to pack up and head home was a relief. Even though it meant leaving the beauty of the mountainside behind in exchange for the crowded city. We have our memories and our photos. We also have the satisfaction in knowing that we survived.

On the last morning, at one point, I went up to the sunny part of the campsite where our boys were very sensibly hanging out. One of them said, "Next time we come here we should put our tent on one of these high sites to get the sun." I like that attitude — 'next time we come'. Don't know when it will be, maybe next November, but I do know that I'd like to go there again.

26 November, 2011

We survived -2 degrees

Needle ice (upside down)
We're back from camping! To summarise, I'd say, "beautiful but cold".

This morning was colder than yesterday morning and when we checked out, the receptionist told us it had been -2 degrees Celcius this morning! Ouch.

The temperatures caught the boys by surprise. I had my long-johns, new outside ugg-type boots, spencer, scarf etc. But I was still cold.

Stomping on needle ice
We saw lots of ice heaving or needle ice. This is common in mid-winter in Tokyo (when you can find soil!).

Here's a photo to show the beauty. We could see this by walking about 20m from our tent. A constantly changing view at dusk and dawn. Gorgeous!

We really did have a great time. I'll elaborate tomorrow!

25 November, 2011

More new experiences

Because I'm off dwelling under canvas today, here's a post I prepared earlier.

My 12 y.o. is doing a sport at school this "term" that I've never seen in schools in Australia. He's doing Freestyle Wrestling.

Just to prove to myself that kids do wrestle in Australia, I went looking on the internet and found this young man in Western Australia. But he's having trouble finding people to wrestle. It really isn't a common sport in our home country.

Our son's been training three times a week after school and then coming home and watching Youtube videos like this:

He's really enjoying it, though he hasn't yet had to wrestle anyone his own size who knows what they're doing. 

What intrigues me is that there are only two middle schoolers at CAJ doing wrestling. And it doesn't seem to bother him that none of his friends have joined him. It confirms to me that he's not really influenced by peer pressure. This can be a good thing and a bad thing. There is a certain amount that you can learn from your peers and what they are doing, especially if you have good friends. Peer pressure usually gets bad "press", but to be totally oblivious to it can be a problem too, especially if adults use it to get cooperation from a group of kids. Thankfully CAJ doesn't use that strategy as much as Japanese schools do. To say, "Do it because everyone else is" has a minimal effect, if any at all on our son.

Anyway, back to the wrestling. It is a foreign world to me. He's learning many strange terms and strengthening muscles he barely knew existed. So it is a challenge to talk about it with him, because I feel like he's learning a new language. Oh, and the thing, the outfit they wear, it's called a "singlet" (for non Aussies, that has a different meaning in our country, it means a sleeveless shirt, sometimes an undershirt worn in winter).

But I did have some fun with him one morning this week. I've been curious as to how he feels about being touched like this. He's very ticklish, so I wondered if that would be a problem. But he doesn't seem to have an issue. He did have an issue with the tickle-wrestle that I tackled him with in the kitchen the other morning :-) Thankfully it ended in smiles. But he did tell me that tickling is prohibited in wrestling. Good thing because he'd never get anywhere in wrestling if tickling were allowed!

24 November, 2011

Off we go camping again.

We're off camping today. School finishes at 12 and we're hoping to drive off soon after that, very soon, because it's going to take a while to get there and then we have to get the tent up before the sun goes down at 4.30!

A few differences to when we last went camping three months ago:
  • it is unlikely that we'll be bothered by mosquitoes or sunburn
  • we'll have a quite a bit less daylight (sun gets up at 6.25am)
  • it will be considerably colder (Forecast: 14 degrees C max, 2 degrees C min)
  • therefore we won't be swimming
  • and we have more clothes packed
  • hopefully the trees won't all be rid of their leaves and we'll get a feast for our eyes on autumn colours
  • thunderstorms aren't forecast, in fact there is 0% rain forecast!
  • we're going to an autojo. Which means we can park right next to our tent! Less set-up time!
  • it is a powered campsite, but we don't have much that needs powering, though we are taking a heater to warm up the inside of the tent, if necessary
  • we're going south then west, but will end up west of where we camped last time
  • we'll be about 50km north-north-west of Mt Fuji
This is our route to Hokuto-shi, Yamanashi-ken. Can you see we go south then a sharp turn west? It is possible that the drive south on ordinary Tokyo roads will take us just as long as the longer drive west on an expressway, such is life in Tokyo.
 I'll take lots of photos and be back on Saturday to report on how much fun we had! We're pretty wound up at present, so we're hoping this will be just the thing to help de-stress.

23 November, 2011

A letter to Americans outside America

Dear Americans,

I have to admit that I feel ambivalant about your Thanksgiving. 

Giving thanks is important, I acknowledge that and I practise it every day. And I appreciate that your holiday gives us a 3 1/2 day weekend at CAJ — a welcome break from school and work.
But it is your celebration. Not mine. It is full of things that you grew up knowing, food and fellowship that you will always associate with good times.

Where I grew up, this time of year was associated with the increasing heat of the days and nights. With exams, tests and assignment and the imminent end of the school year. With end of year parties. With the anticipation of a long summer break. The cricket season was heating up and the school year winding down. 

But never did I associate the end of November with all things orange and brown. Never did I think about turkey or pumpkin pie. Never had I even wondered what holiday Americans celebrated at this time of year, before I came to Japan. We Australians have no equivalent to your Thanksgiving. Our history is very different to yours in so many ways.

I feel uneasy when you say things like how delighted you are to share American holidays with the rest of the world. I'm part of the 'rest of the world' and I cannot honestly say I share your delight. I feel strangely uneasy at this epidemic of "thankfulness". I'm glad you feel thankful. But at the same time you make me feel like an outsider, more than I do at any other time of the year. I don't share your traditions. I don't even feel a great desire to start to share them. 

I don't ask that you stop. I just ask that you remember that there are people in your midst who don't share your traditions.

Just wanted to let you know.

Your Aussie friend,

22 November, 2011

What's on my mind and to-do lists?

Today I'm feeling a little fuzzy-brained. I'm doped up on painkillers for, well, you know. I'm a woman and this happens every month or so. 

So I thought I'd write a list of some of the things that are running across my to-do-list at present:
  • We have two sleeps till we go camping again. It's going to be cold. Single digits at night. The boys are excited. I'm excited! Things are piling up in our kitchen and entrance in preparation.
  • Big picture thinking about the magazine. I've just had a Skype meeting with the Managing Editor. We did some dreaming, some thinking about the bigger picture than getting the next edition out. It wasn't easy, but I think we have a few ideas that we can begin to work on.
  • We're organising a Tokyo based Writer's Retreat next April (like the one we ran earlier this month). Interested?
  • Writing a Style Guide for the magazine, I wrote a whole post on it here. This is an ongoing project that gets pushed to the background (like my sorting our photos). I'm ahead on editing at present, so I've pulled this Style Guide out again. It is tricky because we're trying to accommodate writers from both an American English background and ones from a Commonwealth background, like myself.
  • My finger nail has mostly come off (first injured on 14th September). It used to look like this. But now I have only half a fingernail. I'm not putting a photo because it has grossed out all my boys and my husband (who refuses to look at it). I'm happy because it isn't painful and I don't have to wear a Bandaid as I've been doing for more than a month.
  • I just received my second paid writing publication in the mail in print form. A meditation with The Upper Room. Nice to hold it in my hand almost two years after I submitted it.
  • Pulling together Christmas presents for our family in Australia and my husband and kids. A combination of shopping we've done over the last few months and some more recent internet shopping. And of course the compilation DVD of the year — fun to remember all those things we've done that we managed to capture on video. No longer the boys crawling on the lounge room floor. But videos of birthday and Christmas celebrations as well as camping, piano recitals, athletics meets. Fun to watch again and compile for family and friends.
  • Thinking about trying out skiing during our holidays in the week before Christmas (I've never snow skiied before, only water and grass). Thinking I might show the boys some "learning to ski" Youtube videos.
  • Yesterday I submitted an article to our denominational magazine based on this post I wrote over a year ago. I'm happy with it and am hoping to get it published in another magazine too. Need to change a few of the Australian language in it, though (like "how're you going?").
  • Oh, and dinner tonight. Nachos to finally use up the salsa we were given back in June.
But now I have two of the boys home it is piano practise and homework.

    21 November, 2011

    Really excited about a "new" shop

    I'm excited, really excited. I've found a new shop! Actually I'm a tiny bit upset that I haven't found this shop before. Or that someone didn't tell me about it. 

    Well, to be truthful, many people have mentioned "the meat shop". But no one has given us directions. Either they couldn't or the conversation happened at a time/place when it was difficult to do so. "The meat shop" gradually got a name, "Hanamasa", but I didn't pursue finding this illusive shop. It wasn't until I was invited to a friend's birthday party at a restaurant next to Hanamasa and an address that I was able to look it up on the map. 

    It's still taken me a while to finally get around to finding this shop. And it's bowled me over. All I knew was that it was a meat shop. And yes it does sell meat, lots of big chunks of it (rare in Japan). No one told me they also sell a lot of other foreign stuff like large bags of dried fruit, tins of Evaporated Milk, large bags of grated cheese etc. I'm shocked.
    Not a great shot, but these are large bags of sultanas, raisins and mixed fruit. I've never seen large bags of dried fruit like this in Japan since I left Sapporo and the "import" shop we patronised there.

    And where is this shop? Less than 1km from our house. An easy ride (especially if there is no road works that force you to detour up a steep hill like I did today). Australians might wonder how someone can not know where something is that is only 1km from their house. The truth is that Tokyo roads are narrow and twisty. They don't have names. If you aren't deliberately orientated by someone or happen to walk/ride/drive past something you can easily miss something. It turns out that we've driven within 100m of this shop numerous times, but it is just around a bend so that it is impossible to see from the road we were driving on.

    It has also got something to do with where we used to live in Tokyo. Here is a simplified diagram to explain. Make sense?

    Obviously we need to push that purple circle out a bit on the lower side. That is exactly where today's shop was located, just to the "south" of that purple circle.

    Moving to a new area isn't easy. It really does take time to figure everything out, and more so, I think, when you don't speak or read the host language very well.

    20 November, 2011

    Do you have your coffee white or black?

    I've had some very interesting exchanges on Facebook recently over words and word usage. Because I have FB friends from many different countries, my profile page is an interesting place to interact with people about language.

    Jumpers and all things confusing
    For example, my recent post that included jumpers caused a long discussion about what people call various types of long-sleeved garments that you wear over shirts in winter.

    I hope I have this right, of course it isn't a comprehensive survey, just what people stated on  my blog. I found within country variations too: for example, an Australian who used the word sweatshirt, but we ended up with:
    Australian jumper = US/UK sweatshirt = South African (SA)  = UK pullover?
    Australian knitted jumper = US sweater = UK jumper/jersey/woolie

    Australian jersey = US/SA/NZ rugby shirt (I think) / long-sleeved polo shirt
    US jumper = Australian/UK pinafore

    Australian/NZ skivvy = US turtle neck = SA/UK/India/maybe NZ polo neck

    And in the US, skivvy = men's underwear, to this Australian household's intense amusement!

    Obviously very confusing.

    Musical notation

    I've also had a FB conversation about Australian/Commonwealth vs US musical note names, which is less confusing, at least there isn't regional variation as there is for clothing.

    Bedding terminology
    The bedding FB conversation was pretty interesting, though. I wrote about it here.

    Do you have your coffee white or black?

    As a coffee lover, I'm a little bit behind the times, however. I think it has a little bit to do with the proliferation of the coffee shop business while I've been away from Australia. So I'm not really up with all the different names that they give coffees. A cappuccino has been the safest, but I've learnt in Japan that Cafe au lait (although the pronounciation is a bit different) is good too.

    The other day I said to an American that I have my coffee "white" and I got a blank look. Obviously I'd made another cultural blunder. In Australia, at least when I was growing up, we had our coffees "white" or "black", "with" or "without" sugar. Those were the choices. But obviously that isn't the way Americans describe their coffee. Up till now I've assumed the "flat white" that I periodically see in writing, equals a "white coffee", but after Googling it, I'm no longer certain of that. It seems that a "flat white" is closer to the Japanese Cafe au lait that I've been enjoying.

    Fun or just frustrating?
    As an editor who is Australian and working with an American editor, I end up having these kinds of conversations all the time. It is often fun, but can be confusing or frustrating. I'm sure those working with ESL students are frustrated too. I know that when I was teaching an English Conversation Club for kindergarten mums a couple of years ago I was frustrated at times. The book we were using was American and I often had to say, "I don't know exactly how Americans use this word." or "We don't call it by that name, but I guess Americans do." But I'm not sure whether that was helpful or just confusing to my students. I'm just too honest to pretend.

    My editing colleague, I think, finds it more fascinating than I do. I think that Australians are more aware of American terminology, in general, than the other way around. It has a lot to do with American movies and books that have pervaded the world. We non-Americans can get tired of trying to be bilingual in English, for example, having to think, I'm speaking to an American, so I shouldn't use the word 'toilet'. For Americans, the terms we use are often novel, and fun (or in some cases offensive, like toilet, thongs, rubbers [that all Aussie kids take to school], and skivvies), but not something they have to learn in order to make themselves understood or learn in order to understand the movies they watch or books they read.

    Well, this started as a fun post and turned a bit serious on me. Can I finish, therefore, with something a bit lighter?

    This comes from here:
    In business in Britain, to table something means to bring it TO the table for discussion. In the USA it means to put it aside. I was in a meeting when an American suggested tabling a topic - and a British colleague opened a whole discussion around it. The outcome wasn't as planned. The American got annoyed with what he saw as English arrogance and someone who deliberately did it to make him angry, while the Englishman was bemused at the lack of interest and hostility around the table.

    19 November, 2011

    A wet day in which I baked, sewed and answered the phone

    Today was most suitable to a "home day". Cold and miserable outside, being inside was perfect. 

    I started the day with a long list of things that needed to be done (by us both). Unfortunately last night I developed an achy knee. No idea why, but it was achy enough to make it difficult to go to sleep last night. And achy enough to make the vacuuming and cleaning part of my list fairly unattractive. (Mind you it doesn't take much of an excuse for me to forgo cleaning!) But it did make me a little regretful that when I'd had a healthy body last week I spent a lot of time sitting down (but I was working hard, I did a lot of editing and other computer work this week). Ironic that now I'd planned to do some cleaning, my knee was playing up.

    After a late breakfast my husband set off for the hardware store for some much needed bits and pieces (including a gas canister for our up-coming camping trip) and I sat down to finish off one of the track pants (US=sweatpants, nothing at all to do with being required at school, by the way). All I had to do was hem the pants and tidy up the waist-hem. It took me a long time, however, because I kept getting phone calls. 

    My eldest son had gone to a birthday party. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Particularly as he could get himself there independently on the train. But there there was a problem, in fact there turned out to be a few problems. They were to all meet at one station. But 45 minutes after the appointed time, one boy hadn't arrived. Obviously these boys aren't all that "connected" because though many of them had mobile phones (US=cell phone), no one seemed to have this boy's number! I didn't either, but I did have his mum's number, I guess that I why I got the call about their dilemma. 

    Well then it got really complicated. Especially as our son often didn't answer his phone when we called him. Not sure why, maybe because the background noise covered up the phone sound? Maybe he was having such a good time with his friends that he didn't hear. Anyway, it turned out that the other boy had forgotten about the party (so glad that happens to other people). It took a while to hook the boys up, though! 

    Then I got another phone call about an hour later. The boy they'd been waiting for had arrived at the station and there was no one there. He'd rung his mum (who was working at the church, they are missionaries) who'd run her other son at home who'd rung me, at least I think that is how it went! It turns out the guys had gone to the house of the birthday boy to play Twister and had been so embroiled in a 45 minute round of Twister that no one had answered their phones. Oh dear. 

    Our son isn't home yet (4.33pm), and I haven't heard from him. I hope they all had a good time in the end (it was supposed to be an outdoor party at an amusement park, but given the weather they had to find other things to do).

    I did eventually get the pants sewn. Here my youngest son modelling them. This is a flattering view. Less flattering is with the legs separated, but I won't show you that. He's happy with it, especially with the pockets!

    From the left, clockwise. Melting Moments, Cherry Oat Slice and Jam Drops with Monster Eye Biscuits.
    After lunch I took painkillers, and then baked. Our house was desperately in need of some morning and afternoon tea snacks. I love it when the cupboard is full like this:

    But I guess now I should get back to my list of things to do. I have a choice of packing some things for our camping trip or doing some more sewing on the second pair of pants.

    18 November, 2011

    Japanese puzzle box

    Last week our 12 y.o. son first met a Japanese puzzle box. He loves manipulative puzzles and very quickly decided that he had to have one for himself. He very rarely spends money on anything, so we took notice. It turns out that these are only made in one locality in Japan. Believe it or not, the place down near Mt Fuji where I went last week (only days before I knew he wanted one). 

    This is an amazing piece of work. The design on the side isn't painted on, it is all separate slivers of wood. The technique is called marquetry, read more here and about the unique Japanese style called yosegi here.

    They aren't cheap, nor are they sold in many places. They are made by hand and there is only one type of wood that can be used for the interior to make it move smoothly. We found some online and our son is very pleased with his new acquisition. Here is the video of him opening the box (he's memorised the 14 moves). Sorry that the sound isn't very good.

    17 November, 2011

    An outing to fix the sewing disaster

    Today I tried to fix the sewing disaster by going to a different, bigger shop in a nearby city (eight minutes by train) to get the one remaining metre of black knit material that I needed to make the tracksuit pants (US=?sweat pants) for my eldest son. Of course they didn't have exactly the same material, in fact I was surprised at how little of this kind of material they actually had in any colour and how expensive it was. 

    After I bought some material close to the material I already had, I wandered around the seven storey department store. I located the kids clothing and found I could have bought a very nice pair of tracksuit pants for each of my sons at half the price it's cost me to make the pants. So that's it. I'll finish these three pairs off and I'm not going to try it again. Much easier, less stressful, and to top it all off, much cheaper to buy them from the shop!

    All three pants that I'll eventually get finished will likely end up as pyjamas anyway. Lacking a good pattern they've ended up too baggy in the crotch area, but they'll make comfy PJs . . . with fancy pockets, no less!

    In order to feel as though I hadn't wasted a day on fixing this mistake, I included a couple other things while I was out traipsing around. I finally found some plastic cutlery for our camping trip next week. Our silverware was too heavy to put in our hanging cupboard under the awning of the tent. But you wouldn't believe how difficult it is to find plastic cutlery in Japan. Disposable spoons and forks . . . oh, and chopsticks, of course. But not knives!

    I found another small Christmas present for the boys, ate some lunch and headed back to the train for the trip home. On the way home I'd planned to stop at our old station and drop in on a friend at her shop. She's usually very busy, so I was surprised when she had time to go for coffee across the road. After we caught up I walked down the road to the hairdresser for a trim, which included a shampoo which was delightfully relaxing. And then I caught a train home again, feeling satisfied that my outing hadn't just corrected a mistake, but had achieved something positive too!

    16 November, 2011

    Winter's coming

    This morning after breakfast our outside thermometer read a hair under 10 degrees (Celcius). I know to some of you this isn't so cold (it's been snowing in northern Japan, where we used to live), but to others, especially Australians, this must be winter. For us this is getting close to the end of the downward slide. Tokyo's average daytime temperature in January and February is 10 degrees.
    This is all the sun we got downstairs yesterday.

    Actually we've had some gorgeous days. Sunny with bluish skies (Tokyo rarely gets as blue as Australian skies) and little wind. But unfortunately, many days I'm stuck inside working at this computer! Inside is often cooler than outside (if you don't heat). One sign for me that winter is close by is that the sun is rapidly disappearing from my office/dining room. Though we have a small garden (enough that it needs weeding!), the house behind us is too tall and too close to allow the sun to reach our ground floor during winter.

    Upstairs is much nicer, sometimes I contemplate taking my laptop upstairs and sitting on the floor in my bedroom, but the glare gets too much.

    Another sign that winter is near is that my "Christmas" or Denmark Cactus is about to bloom. I love cleaning my teeth near this little bit of beauty in the mornings. And while leaves are falling down and flowers outside are dying, I have this cactus as well as the ongoing flowers of my geranium. Gorgeous! (Not to mention that they've both survived over 12 months under my not-green thumb, so they're survivors.)

    The other sign that winter is practically here is something I cannot photograph. The smell of kerosene has entered our house as our kerosene heater gets fired up to warm the main living rooms. Oh, and that my die-hard shorts and tee-shirt boys went off wearing long pants and jumpers (US=sweatshirt) without a protest this morning. That's got to indicate a change of season!

    15 November, 2011

    Do you know your sweet spot?

    I read this book last month. I'm very excited about and a I've wanted to blog about it but have been putting it off, not sure why. It is a terrific book.

    The title is curious. "Why do I need a cure for my common life?" one might think. But the angle the author's coming from is that most people are not living to their capacity, they're not doing the very things God specially designed them to be good at and enjoy. In fact most people are doing jobs they hate. Here's a shocking statistic from the US: "Seven out of ten people are neither motivated nor competent to perform the basics of their job." How miserable!

    So the book motivates and helps us to find our "Sweet Spot", how we were uniquely made. Max takes us back to the past to find times that we've just loved doing something, an activity that made "time stand still" for us. Once he's helped us explore that he shows how we can use that unique gift to "make a big deal out of God wherever we are". So no, this book is not about moving into a life as uncommon as a missionary's life, but it is calling you to consider how you can better serve God by being the person he made you to be in the place he's put you.

    Of course there is much in our lives that needs to be done, just 'cause it needs to be done. For example: changing nappies (US=diaper), cleaning toilets, washing clothes, paying bills, confronting children etc. Of course finding our sweet spot doesn't exempt us from doing these routine daily tasks. But if we have those things which we do find thrilling to look forward to in our days and weeks, the things we have to do, but don't like, can be more easily borne, I think.

    I was privileged to speak to a group of Japanese ladies from our church (with translation, unfortunately my Japanese isn't good enough) about this very topic a few weeks ago. It came into the context of my testimony of how God has lead me to what I'm doing right now in Japan. I can see that during our last term in Japan God led me to find my sweet spot, to find ways to serve him in Japan that weren't "what everyone else was doing" nor particularly what seemed to be expected of me. And now I can see that the paths he's led me down are not only very suitable to how he's made me, but necessary. My skills are needed, even if they don't fit what I (or my organisation) thought were important for a missionary to be skilled at. 

    The ladies seemed impressed that God would call someone to be a missionary, but not a church planter, as that was their image of a missionary's role in Japan. I was so glad God could use my story to encourage them that God can use "ordinary" people (read 'not-church planters') too.

    If you haven't read the book, give it a go. Max's writing is very accessible, very easy to read. You might discover something about yourself that you didn't know. You might find a way that God is calling you to serve that will just light up your days. Don't settle for a common life that is making you miserable.

    14 November, 2011

    Get real

    J, shared this link after my post yesterday. I just have to put a link to it here because the author just says so well what I wanted to say, but probably didn't say all that well yesterday. Especially this quote:

    "I realized that by acting like I had it all together, by never asking for help, by wanting to appear perfect, I was actually isolating myself and robbing others of the joy of knowing me and being able to serve me." 

    I had a major conflict with someone I've known all my life early this year about this very point. Unfortunately because we still disagree about it, we cannot maintain the close relationship we should have. Still makes me sad. 

    13 November, 2011

    Giving of yourself in relationships

    I was trawling for ideas for a blog post for today and found the start of this one in my drafts:
    Love this verse: "For if you give, you will get! Your gift will return to you in full and overflowing measure, pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, and running over. Whatever measure you use to give – large or small – will be used to measure what is given back to you."
    Luke 6:38 TLB
    I guess I've generally thought of it as a verse about financial matters. But apply it to relationships and communication and you open up a whole new world. The more you give of yourself to others, the more you receive in return. And the opposite is true too. The less of yourself you give to others, the less you receive from them. WOW.

    I've seen this happen so many times. When I reveal something painful or difficult to another person, very often others share something about themselves in return, either then or at some later date. Actually it has happened with this blog and a little bit with Facebook too. People seem to appreciate a glimpse behind the "perfect" mask?

    Of course it can backfire on you too, and I've had that happen. But if we all sit behind our little walls of defence taking no risks then no real connection will be made at all. That is how we have so many lonely people in our world, I guess. People are too scared to reveal their true selves, or even just a glimpse, just in case someone uses that to hurt them. By all means we need to be wise in what we share with whom, but I cannot let the risk of hurt stop me connecting with people altogether.

    So the challenge to start the week? Find some way to give of yourself to someone else this week, in a deeper way than you have before and see what happens.

    12 November, 2011

    Wrinkles in my creative sewing

    Creating is all very relaxing if it goes well, but I've "got a wrinkle" in my current creating. I wrote back here about sewing some long pants for my boys. But I keep running into problems and it's getting annoying. Most of the problems are my mistakes, so I'm annoyed at myself. 

    For starters the pattern I'm using is for small children, so I've had to add length and width – not too much of a problem, but not as easy as just tracing a pattern, pinning and cutting out. It takes me a while to get my head around the spatial issues with sewing; it really is my chief problem (and with packing boxes too). This all added the issue of how much material I should buy, which has turned into a major problem, as you'll see.

    Then the boys requested pockets, which weren't on the pattern. I thought I was doing well when I found this blog by an amazing Indonesian lady who lives in Japan. I love the name of her blog: VeryPurplePerson. She makes her own clothes and blogs about them very well. Here I found a helpful tutorial about putting side-pockets into pants/trousers (whatever you like to call them). 

    All very good, except that the pattern doesn't include a waistband and you have to make your own pattern. No worries, I added some length for the inbuilt waistband. But it turned out I didn't add enough. The pocket openings are too small to fit their hands into. So I've had to do some (and yet to do some) serious modification. In the case of one pair, I will have to add an extra bit to the waist and in the case of another, will have to add a bit to the top of the pocket lining. All very frustrating.

    But the biggest frustration is my miscalculation on how much material I would need. I got it right – but only if the material was 1.20m wide. As it turns out the material is only 0.9m wide. So I went back to get more material for the third pair, but I didn't get enough. I figured that out as soon as I laid it out for cutting. And dashed back for the third time the next day for more. Unfortunately I encountered every sewer's worst nightmare: they'd run out of the material I was using. The lady who'd served me the day before kindly explained that they had some 20cm sections I could buy if I wanted. (I could just imagine the back of my 12 y.o.'s pants made up of a patchwork of 20cm sections of material!) Then she said they'd reordered it and it should come in about a week . . . IF the manufacturer was still making that colour. Arggghhhh!
    (Mind you I was pretty happy that I'd managed all of this in Japanese!)

    Today, nine days later, I dashed back to the store in the hopes that it would be there. But no, it isn't. This shop attendant could give me any information I didn't already know.

    So I'm left with two alternatives. I wait another week and drive back again (getting annoyed at going to this shop, however, it is not too far away, but means going across railway tracks and heaps of traffic lights, though I guess I could also ride). Or I can take a sample and catch a train a few stations to a different shop and hope for the best. This is just taking too much time and money for my liking, if only it were simpler. I really don't like it when things take up more time that I'd like them too. 

    So, a creating project that is turning bad on me. Maybe I should have a go at overcoming some of the pocket issues tonight and maybe then I'll feel a bit better about the project. It is so easy to give up on something like this when you hit a snag.

    11 November, 2011

    Fun and piano

    Last week we had parent-teacher interviews at school. As almost an afterthought our youngest son's school-based piano teacher offered us an interview time too. I'm glad I took him up on the offer because I gained a better idea of his style of teaching and his goals.

    This is the first time one of my sons has learned "my" instrument. I learnt the piano from the age of 4 until I finished school at 17. However my teacher was a strict, no-nonsense kind of teacher. Many students were quite scared of her.

    For some time my lessons were before school at 7am on a Monday morning. Really tough. But we weren't allowed to yawn! So besides teaching me how to play the piano, my teacher taught me how to yawn without opening my mouth — a useful skill.

    But anyhow, my piano education was along a classical line. My 6 y.o. is being taught in a slightly different way. Hard to exactly define, but his teacher is into electronic music and jazz a bit too, so his method is probably a lot more fun. He's encouraging our son to hum along while he plays. He was happy to hear that our son had experimented with playing Jingle Bells with a drum sequence that our Clavinova produces. I'm pretty sure that my childhood teacher would have been horrified. 

    It is not easy to teach a lively 5/6 y.o. boy to play the piano. But we seem to be succeeding (I include myself there, because I think he'd be floundering without my help during practises). One way is obviously to keep it a bit fun. And when you're thinking about fun and piano, it is great to take a look at Victor Borge, a comic pianist. Here's a Youtube clip to show you what I mean:

    10 November, 2011

    Train travel in Japan is different

    Manners on trains are different in Japan to Australia. Here's one example:

    Here's an example I mentioned some time back where this "rule" wasn't observed and thereby inconveniencing thousands of people. However in this case I wonder if it was "ruder" to start a fight than to talk on the phone!

    In fact in trains there is very little talking. Most people sleep, read, listen to music, or play/work on their mobile phones or DSes.

    Nor are feet allowed on seats. I sat in a train for hours yesterday with a seat directly facing me. Most of the time someone was sitting there (knee-to-knee, thankfully I don't have long legs, the seats were very close), but when they weren't the temptation to put my feet up was quite strong.

    You are not supposed to drink or consume food either, but that rule is gradually relaxing, especially with children.

    I've never seen a rule about rowdy kids, but I'm sure that if a mobile phone conversation is bad, then rowdy kids are probably growled about once the travellers get home. One reason why we've not taken our kids on trains very much. Here's a glimpse of a train journey we took 2 1/2 years ago.

    Thankfully our boys have grown up a little since then. Actually quite a lot. However train journeys can still be painful. But then car journeys can be painful too, however you don't have to deal with public perception in a car journey!

    09 November, 2011

    My little two-day adventure

    I was at the star. Had a lovely view from the mountain-side hotel down to the sea.
    I've just been the furthest south in Japan that I've ever been (not counting a stop in Osaka airport on our first ever day in Japan). Actually it wasn't all that far south...

    And it was the closest I've ever been to Mt Fuji too. Here is the view we had this morning.

    And I've just gone the furthest I've ever gone in Japan on trains and buses. I travelled there with other attendees but made my way home all by myself. It took over four hours. And it is the first time I've ever been to Tokyo Station...ever...and all of this I did by myself, without having a heart attack or cold sweats! I must be getting used to the place.

    But why was I away down there? I had my magazine editor's hat on. But the story goes back to my writer's workshop that I went to in Hong Kong last year. There, among many other things, we were given ideas about hosting writer's retreats in our host countries. The idea of a writer's retreat is to provide some encouragement and incentive to other writers. Writing is a lonely business. When you are busy with other things, as most writers and certainly missionaries are, it is also hard to find the time to just write. It is also a time to pray for one another.

    I mentioned these ideas to my Managing Editor and together we came up with the idea of hosting a writer's retreat/workshop in the 24 hours prior to a major mission conference here. It turned into something of a publicity event too as we spent time with those who came talking about our new Writer's Guidelines for the Magazine, which includes Editor's Tips for good writing. 

    This magazine suffers from a lack of new writers and I'm seeing this as one way to engage and encourage new writers, particularly inexperienced writers and new missionaries. Trouble is, lots of people couldn't come to this one. So, it looks like we're going to have to travel more! I have this idea of putting on such events a couple of times a year in various places around Japan. Certainly the participants in the inaugural Japan Harvest Writer's Retreat/Workshop were enthusiastic about what we did and about future events. Yay! 

    I ended up doing some other things while I was there, including talking to a publisher about a  book that a colleague is translating and wants to publish and meeting a Speech Pathologist from the US and talking about a little boy who she's seeing who also needs some Occupational Therapy input. Nothing like chucking on a couple of other hats while I'm at it!

    To change tack slightly I want to show you a couple of photos of the venue. It was an old hotel, at least the part I spent most of my time in. The location was pretty isolated for Japan. But it looked over, not just Mt Fuji, but out to sea as well. 

    More especially, you could look out to sea from the shared Japanese bath. Huge floor to ceiling windows on the seventh and eighth floors (one floor per sex). Can you see the windows in the photo? Awesome, but at night it was best to stay away from the window while bathing!

    I had a traditional Japanese room. No toilet or bathroom in your room, because of course you want to go and luxuriate in a huge bath with everyone else (toilet was less glamorous and just down the hall like at college). This truly has taken some time (like 11 years) to get used to, but I can say that I enjoy a good Japanese ofuro every now and then. Yesterday's was particularly luxurious. In the changing area there were massage chairs (for a price) and a whole row of mirrors and chairs with all sorts of lotions and potions, hair dryers, etc. that guests were free to use.

    In the bath itself there was the usual row of hand-held showers where you use soap and cleanse yourself before hoping in the communal bath. Then the bath was so lovely. Nice view! HOT, but with places where you could sit in bubbling water or still water or with jets pointed at your back. If you got too hot you could slip over to the chilly bath. If you weren't hot enough you could mosey on into the sauna. I came back to my room beautifully relaxed.

    But this post has gone on long enough. Nearly bed-time. And tomorrow I'm going to have to get back into the urgent things on my calendar as well as do some follow-up on some networking that I did during my time away.

    06 November, 2011

    Trap of comparison

    I've just found a great post here by my friend Cath about the trap of comparison when you're a mum (but it really applies to whatever you are, however mums are particularly vulnerable). She wrote it nearly three years ago, but it is just as applicable now as then.

    Settled down yet?

    Yesterday the boys dragged out some memories. Today I'll drag one out for you. Tonight friends/colleagues are coming to dinner (Lord willing). It set me thinking to the first time we had a meal with these friends and it was Christmas Day, only a couple of weeks after we first arrived in Japan. The top photo is a photo of the occasion.

    In the top photo, can you see the two kids in high chairs? They are our eldest son and our friends' youngest boy. They are now in the same class at CAJ.Tonight they won't be sitting in high chairs!

    In the bottom photo our eldest is blowing out the candles on his cake (long story about the cake, ask David one time!). Next to the birthday boys is the same friend who is in the high chair above.

    An aside is that I'd forgotten we had an Australian visitor that first Christmas. Helen is the second from the left in the top photo. She and her family are still our good friends.

    I think of people in Australia who say to us (explicitly or implicitly) that we should think about "settling down". And I think of all the memories we've encountered this weekend. Do we really seem that unsettled? Maybe to people who don't see how our life in Japan has progressed, who don't realise that we've got "long-term" friends here now too. To people who don't realise that our lives here has really become the "norm" for us and our kids. A life that is full of enjoyable experiences, of memories, of struggles, and triumphs. Of work, school, and holidays. Of the normal routines of life.

    We're settled, regardless of what people think. And this evening we're going to enjoy the time with our friends, friends we've known for more than ten years.

    05 November, 2011

    Another day another park

    If you've been reading this blog for a while you'll know that on a day off, we're very often headed for a park, if the weather is fine. Today we headed to one of our standard parks, Koukuu Park (Aviation Park).  Here's a post about another time we visited there.

    Gorgeous autumn colours.
    It is six years since we first started coming to this park and a few things have changed. Not the park, but for us. Since we've moved further away it is now easier to catch a train to the park. Our boys have also grown up a bit. So they all walk under their own power. I remember chasing boys around this park while pushing a pram (US=stroller?). I even lost the two older ones one day when I was here on my own with them. That wasn't fun.

    A spirit of nostalgia seemed to grip our boys today and we had lots of "I remember when..." conversations. This park is full of memories for them. We've had kindergarten outings here, visited the Aviation museum a few times, brought friends here (see this post), our eldest ran a cross-country relay here and of course, many just-family days in the park. 

    One of the nostaligic places is a fabulous climbing tree. We found this tree the day we moved out of our previous house in Tokyo, only days before we returned to Australia for our Home Assignment in 2009. I brought the boys to the park to allow David time to complete the final bits and pieces of cleaning out the house and they found this tree. 

    Today we "found" it again and the boys had a great time. David and I did too. We set up our picnic mat, pulled out some relaxation material and let the boys go at it. They played in the tree for a while, then wandered off to the play equipment a couple of hundred metres away. They followed the small stream down to the pond too. All without need for our supervision. It was blissful. We told them to come back when they got hungry.

    After lunch we wandered off to another favourite corner, the stand of Gum Trees!!! And went hunting for fresh gum leaves on the ground. We were rewarded with a few and the boys got all nostalgic again with the scent from a crushed leaf, "Aww, I'm Australia-sick." they said.

    Hunting for gum leaves.
    The pile of gum leaves that we collected (and brought home).
    Then a brisk game of Frisbees and we were headed home on the train again. Via the Doctor for a Flu injection and then the promised reward, Mister Donuts. Lots of conversation as we walked; they often run ahead of us, but today they hung around and talked. Lots of comfortable companionship. Our boys are growing up, and it's enjoyable.

    You will see from the photos that it was a grey day (not good for photos and I forgot my good camera anyway), but the clouds were high and the temperature moderate (low 20s). So it's been a very pleasant day-off all round. Just what we needed.