30 November, 2016

Citrus tree at a local house

This last week of the month is once again proving to be very busy. I've got lots going on to write about, but no good time to do it. Hence another short "cheat" post based around a photo.

I took this photo this afternoon. This is a short, quiet street near us that I often walk or ride along, sometimes multiple times a day. I love it that even though Japanese often have almost no yard, they usually use the space well. It is not uncommon to see fruit trees. This citrus tree just looks scrumptious (I'm not sure exactly what kind of fruit it is, though, there are many, I wrote about the most common ones in a post back here in March.)

29 November, 2016

Lego organisation

Now for an unusual post (not that our camping trip wasn't unusual). I told a friend I would "show" how our family organises our Lego. The boys don't actually play with it that much anymore, unfortunately. Though they aren't interested in giving it away. We talked on the weekend about how we could divide it up and "smuggle" it back to Australia as they all gradually leave home over the next eight years.

However, here is the system. The pieces are filed by function/size. So we have a drawer of flat pieces, a drawer of long thin pieces, one of weapons, etc. The yellow set of drawers in the top left has dismembered mini-figures!

The brown drawers are full of tiny bits. The white box has medium bits.

This one is technic lego.

We know people who have their Lego sorted by colour, but my guys are against that, saying that this is much easier to find the functional piece you want.

28 November, 2016

More photos from camping

Here are some other miscellaneous photos from our camping trip.

Defrosting a tea towel over the fire so we could wash-up breakfast on our first morning. Do notice the boy in the background. This guy regularly wears shorts to school in winter, it is notable that he has a hat and gloves on!

Second morning: frozen washer (face cloth).

We needed snow chains just to get into the campsite and out again. These things are tricky to get on and very noisy if you get off the snow onto bitumen as we did on Friday going out to get a couple of extra ingredients for lunch.

We were amused to find this toilet-paper origami chart next to the pedestals. I guess it would be useful if you were planning on spending a lot of time sitting there. 32 steps!

A large icicle found by our youngest. Notice his bare arms! He'd been digging in the snow and got quite warm.

The ubiquitous pickup truck that all campsites in Japan own, as do most farmers. They all look the same as this!

Not the best of photos, but this is snow piled up on a fence. Any slightly horizontal surface catches snow and it piles up: even on power lines and washing lines!

I looked in envy on these on-site accommodations as we set up camp on Thursday. They are still "tents" and you have to bring most of your own bedding but have heaters inside and a covered area with a table and BBQ outside. But we paid a lot less for our little piece of snow-covered gravel, and had the satisfaction of doing a reasonably good job of it too. No one has come home sick or any the worse for wear (except for a bit of weariness).

I can't finish without putting up this amazing view. This David and I both saw on walking back from the toilet block to our tent on the first morning and I snapped it on my iPhone that happened to be in my jacket pocket. I put the photo up on Facebook and to my boys' amazement it garnered more than 130 likes, loves, and wows plus many comments. A friend said: that could be anywhere in the world, but I wouldn't have picked Japan!

27 November, 2016

Our unexpected camping adventure

We're back from our camping trip. It turned into a bigger adventure than we'd planned for and for a little while I wondered if we'd finally bitten off more than we could chew. If you thought we were crazy for going camping at this time of year when temperatures regularly dip below zero, then this story will convince you we really are.
What our journey out of Tokyo looked like.

On Thursday school finished at midday and we planned as usual to leave as soon after that as possible. The unexpected was snow. It snowed all morning!

Digging out our tent site with a borrowed spade. The boys were great,
they just wished that we had more than one spade.

Because we lived in snowy Sapporo for four years (with its average yearly fall of five meters) we aren't usually impressed with Tokyo snow. It's often a small amount and very short-lived. November snow is almost unheard of here. The last time it snowed this early in the season was more than 50 years ago! The snowfall on Thursday was bigger than we expected. We even got stuck behind snowplows on the highway.

We were prepared for cold but not snow. We had to borrow a spade to shovel our tent site. It was covered with several inches of loose snow when we arrived.

There were doubts we would make it but when the boys managed to dig out a rectangle that was the perfect size (without measuring) we cheered. At that moment we realised how experienced we were at camping and from that point doubts drained away.

We arrived only thirty minutes before the sun disappeared, however, so we did much of the extraneous setting up in the dark, including bed-making and fire-starting. Thankfully it was a powered site so we used our one light to advantage as well as the light inside the backdoor of the van. Thankfully, too, I'd spent that morning making dinner (Japanese Curry Rice) so all we had to do was warm it up.
Dessert on our first night: foil packets with bananas, chocolate, and
 marshmallows, or some combination of those. We accidentally left
a left-over banana out of the cooler overnight and it froze!

After dinner we washed up and raced to the ofuro (Japanese bath) then raced back and jumped into our beds still warm.
The next morning we were greeted with an amazing winter wonderland. Indeed it was a gorgeous blue-sky day.
Walking back from the toilet block at 7am.
Lake Sai.
Autumn caught snoozing.

-5.9˚C is a record for us!
But it was exceptionally cold. I wore many layers and my core was okay but my feet suffered. As the day wore on it didn't warm up past about 5C but it was enough for the places that got sun to become mush and we were sloshing around by early afternoon. My outside ugg boots got soaked and kept my feet cold.

We walked down the road to see some local lava caves, formed during Mt Fuji's explosion in the 800s. A bit sobering as we realised we were camping at the foot of the giant mountain (though we couldn't see it due to a small mountain between us and it). The caves were pretty cool, however. Just the thing even big boys could enjoy.
Lava cave.
Though most of us weren't prepared for wet
snow, our youngest was, with all his plastic
snow gear and he had fun building snow creations.

As we began to lose light at 4.30 we started dinner (simple hot dogs) with the goal of getting to the bath then bed (and getting our feet into dry socks) as soon as possible.

I think late afternoon as the temperature dipped again was the worst I felt, almost nauseous at times. However, despite what you may suspect we had happy campers 95% of the time. One of the keys was lots of food and frequently!

Our second morning wasn't as cold but neither was it as pretty. The sky was mostly grey and much of the pretty snow had melted or turned into grey mush.

Everything outside was covered in frost and inside the
tent everything that hadn't been touched by the water
seeping up through the holes in the floor was covered in
We took our time packing up and it was a little complex as almost everything was wet, inside and out. We had huge puddles inside the tent but amazingly our bedding was protected by an aerobics mat and thin silver-coated foam that we'd put down for insulation from the ground.

Our trip home was all autumn again. Like the clock had been wound back! 
Autumn leaves on the way home.

People may think we're crazy but we weren't out there alone. There were several other campers, including several who arrived well into the evening on Friday and set up completely in the dark. There were people fishing, even water skiing. As we packed up on Saturday a guy came with his two large parrots and set them up with a playground then put up his tiny tent beside them! If we're crazy, we've got plenty of company in Japan!

These two older guys set up in the dark after we went to bed on Friday night.

We have created some great memories. We'll be talking for a long time about "that time we went camping in the snow"! On our way driving down we introduced the boys to "TheFour Yorkshireman" skit by Monty Python. Our guys now have their very own "you're lucky . . . . remember the time Mum and Dad took us camping in the snow". I personally will treasure conversations had while we washed up (one adult paired with one kid makes for great conversation) and while huddled around the campfire trying to warm our hands and feet.

On Thursday evening when we were nearly set up I realised that everyone was in high spirits. After living with guys for the last 19 years I've gradually realised that guys love to be challenged, especially a physical challenge. Even if you have to boot them into the challenge, they love pitting themselves against the odds and coming out a winner. That is what we've done this time. We pitted ourselves against extreme weather with less than ideal equipment—our tent is not a winter tent and all our sleeping bags are second-hand, not what you'd take to trekking in Nepal. And we survived, not just survived, but came out the better for it as a family, I believe! 

But just so as we're clear, we never planned to camp in the snow and don't plan on doing it again. But we will camp again at this time of year. Anyone know of a warm place we can camp at within two hours of Tokyo at the end of November?

23 November, 2016

Kids Newsletter for Japan – December edition

Our quarterly kids newsletter. It's free for you to use. Email me if you'd like a bigger version or to be put on our mailing list.

22 November, 2016

We're going camping

Temperatures here are bouncing around, but generally heading south as winter approaches, today was a sunny 20˚C but yesterday was a wet and grey 12˚C. Americans are wishing everyone Happy Thanksgiving (although I was very thankful for a friend on Monday acknowledging that that isn't our family's tradition).

Our annual just-before-winter-starts camping trip approaches this Thursday. This is the fifth time we've been camping at this time of year, but this time we're trying a different campsite. I'm looking forward to getting away from Tokyo and the camping, not so much the fact that it's going to be cold and we'll have no heater or anything substantial between us and the outside temperature except what we're wearing. Oh, but the toilet seats are heated!
This is the campsite. There are mountain bikes for hire as well as canoes.
Also a bat cave nearby and we can go for a drive around the lake too, looking
for scenic spots.
Apparently the view from the campsite (from here)
This lake is one of the "five lakes" around the base of Mt Fuji. Among missionaries here, Lake Yamanaka is the most famous because one mission has some holiday houses there. This lake, Lake Sai, is less commonly known, but equally beautiful if the photos are to be believed.
Mt Fuji is in the middle at the bottom here and Lake Sai above that with an arrow pointing at it.
 This gives you some perspective as to where Tokyo is in relation to Mt Fuji and Lake Sai. We'll only be a bit over 100km from home, but a world away. I'm going to try not to look at email for a whole 48 hours!
Each year I look at the forecast and hope for warmer weather. When it's looking like this I wonder if we're crazy and how I will cope (as I'm the one who feels the cold the most of everyone). But we always do. We'll stuff the car full of blankets and sleeping bags and plenty of good food. All key elements to staying warm. 

This year we also have access to free Japanese-style baths that are open until 10pm as well as in the morning until 10.30am, so I will be bathing just before bed and diving in there warm. If I'm cold on Friday morning I can also have a bath.

I'll report back when we get back on the weekend about how it went (hopefully with some awesome photos).

21 November, 2016

Confusion about spelling Japanese names

Nothing to do with the blog post, except
that this is what we're seeing around the
place at present. Autumn colours are in
full "bloom".
It amazed me the other day to witness an email exchange between two translators who were trying to figure out how a Japanese name was pronounced. 

The translators had the name written in the usual complicated characters (kanji or sometimes called "Chinese characters"). But all kanji can be pronounced at least two ways, if not more. As a result when you sign in on a waiting list at a restaurant or at a doctor, you're always asked for the phonetic spelling of your name in one of Japan's two "alphabets", otherwise it could be very embarrassing for those who are reading out your name.

For example these names:

齊藤 or 齋藤 or They all say "Saitō".

 東海林 can be read "Tōkairin" or "Shōji".

So whenever you fill out a form here there is room for the kanji of your name as well as your phonetic spelling. As foreigners, we don't have kanji, but we do have two spellings of our name: we have our usual way with Roman letters, but also in Japanese phonetic alphabet.

My name is:

Wendy Marshall
マーシャル ウエンデー (pronounced "Maasharu Uendi") Yes, last name goes first. 

So in some situations I also write my name twice. For example, once in Roman letters to match my health insurance card and a second time so that the Japanese person reading it knows how to pronounce my name with minimal difficulty (not saying that there aren't some Japanese people who could easily pronounce my name from Roman letters).

However back to the email exchange I witnessed. These translators eventually called the church concerned to check the spelling of the name in the article so that they could render it correctly in Roman letters.

Amazing and not terribly efficient!

20 November, 2016

Some easy slow cooker recipes

One of my slow-cooker recipes, but it requires tortillas,
not a common thing to find in Japan (we get ours from Costco).
I love my slow cooker! I periodically hear people ask for good low-fuss slow cooker recipes.  Low-fuss cooking is my speciality, so here are some of my favourite slow cooker recipes. I'm sorry they aren't typed out beautifully, I don't have time for that just now. If you can't read the details, email me and I'll send you the full file.

The following recipe is badly written. I basically throw the meat into the slow cooker (gently) and turn it on. Not long before I want to serve I make the BBQ sauce. From there you can add the sauce to the meat in the slow-cooker, or you can serve them separate. This recipe works for any type or meat (I haven't tried fish), and tastes just as good on any type of carb you might like. All in all a very versatile recipe. We ended up with too much BBQ sauce last time and so I bottled the remains, which we've used on pizza bases, sandwiches, etc. It's delicious, with a slight bite.

18 November, 2016

Photos of our city #4

Our city has one train line running through it called the Seibu Ikebukuro line. It is owned by a private company, Sebu Railway, and originates at Ikebukuro station, a large railway junction and city centre on the west of the metropolitan Tokyo area. As of 2013 Ikebukuro station has more than 910 million passengers go through there every year or about 2 ½ million a day, making it the third busiest station in the world (the other two busier ones are just down the line at Shinjuku and Shibuya), see this article. It is huge and I remember those early days: it took me a while to feel comfortable going through there on my own.
This is a photo of our city centre, where the train station is. It was taken as I walked home from school today. You can see again, the mixture of urban and rural.
The main Seibu Ikebukuro line extends westward from Ikebukuro through and beyond our city. It also has three branch lines (Toshima line, Seibu Yūrachō line, and Seibu Sayama line). Below is a diagram of the Seibu Ikebukuro line. Thankfully at all the stations in Japan the names of stations are written in English letters as well as Japanese, making it a lot easier for us foreigners.

People from this city rely quite heavily on the train line. From here, on trains, you can go east into Tokyo city to connect up with other lines or west a couple of stations to where there is a line running north and south. The other option is to catch a bus south to catch a train from a parallel line five kilometres south (Seibu Shinjuku line, owned by the same company) or seven kilometres south (Chuo "central" line which runs all the way to Tokyo station).

Here's a photo of the actual station. It was redeveloped a few years ago and the station precinct includes a number of shops including a favourite place of mine to meet people: Tullys coffee shop.

Here's a view of the station area from the west side as I rode home along one of our rivers the other day. We live on the east side of the station.

Catching a train in Tokyo isn't as simple as finding the right platform and hopping on the first train. Trains provide different services. Some stop at every station: locals. The rest have varying numbers of stops. The list is long: semi-express, commuter semi-express, rapid, commuter express, express, rapid express, and limited express. I know now that if I hop on an Express train at Ikebukuro to come back home, I need to change trains at the stop just before our city because expresses don't stop at Higashi Kurume. Often there is another train waiting (usually a local) for the express, so you just walk across the platform for your final life home. So convenient! This photo is of just that scenario on Monday: I'd hopped off the express (blue train) and was about to jump on the waiting local (yellow).

Here are a couple of diagram of the wider train network that I found. The first are the lines owned by the Seibu company.

The second, as you can see in its title, are the railway lines in Tokyo. Can you find our line here? Tokyo's train system is amazing, but also can be thoroughly confusing and quite intimidating at first.