Friday, 27 July 2012

It's been a busy day

4am - Wake up in K's bed, fully dressed and with contact lenses still in. Get up, get ready for bed, go back to bed.

6am - Get up. Do the things should have done last night instead of falling asleep with K - cook rice, pack T's nursery bag (including swimming kit) and K's 3 kindergarten bags (including swimming kit). Sort out their clothes for the day, have breakfast, take a shower.

7.30 - H, K and T get up. Make their breakfasts (only a matter of toasting muffins and cutting up fruit, but still...). Make K's lunch, largely based on last night's leftovers efficient forward planning. H mentions that the boys will need plain, non-brightly-coloured clothes for tomorrow's memorial service for his grandfather. Check boys' clothes. Distinct lack of plain, non-brightly-coloured stuff. Get K and T dressed, brush teeth, print out some papers for today's classes, have a cup of tea.

8.45 - In the car. Drop K at kindergarten and T at nursery, getting home at a personal best of...

9.15 - Finish getting ready for class, send a few emails, empty dishwasher. Boil kettle for more tea. Proceed to forget about said boiled water until just before it's time to go.

9.57 - Waiting outside Nishimatsuya (opens at 10) to buy plain, non-brightly-coloured shirt for T.

10.06 - Back in the car. Off to Matsue.

11.00 - Arrive at the university. Meet Carmella for child-free, gossip-filled, grown-up early lunch.

12.30 - Back on campus. Last minute prep and then 2 90 minute classes.

4.00 - Second class ends. Back in car, call at fancy lots-of-imported-stuff supermarket for some cheese. End up spending 3,000 yen. Reach nursery at 4.58 - 2 whole minutes to spare. Brief moment of panic that wallet is empty and cannot pay nursery after excessive unnecessary food shopping. Count random coins in the car - I've got enough!

5.15 - Pick up K, head home. Put away shopping. Hide Dairy Milk bar from fancy supermarket in back of fridge. H comes home, all go to local shrine summer festival for brief visit.

6.15 - Home again. H goes out to work party. Make quick dinner for 3. Field endless questions regarding small islands, why they belong to countries on the other side of the world and how long it would take to reach them.

7.00 - Finish dinner. Mess about on Facebook.

7.20 - K finally finishes dinner. T absolutely covered in tomato-ey sauce. Take him directly to have a shower, leaving K with instructions to go to the toilet and get pyjamas on.

7.35 - Out of shower. K comes to brush teeth. Before getting nappy on, T wees on the bathroom floor, his feet and legs. Back in the shower, with strict instructions to K not to move and risk standing in wee puddle. Nappy on, drop screaming T in playpen (out of way of large percentage of T's dinner still scattered on the floor). Get dressed. Clean up wee, and mysterious puddle of water next to bathroom sink. Finish K's teeth, get T's pyjamas on, give him his 3 different cough medicines. Realise he's done a big poo in his nappy. Try to feel grateful that didn't end up on the bathroom floor too. Change him, brush teeth.

8.00 - Head upstairs with K and T. Breastfeed T while reading about the Olympics to K. K then reads 'Monkey Puzzle' to us. Put T in cot, lie down with K and pretend to sleep. All quiet.

8.45 - T standing and screaming.

9.00 - K asleep. Bring T to lie down with us. Pretend to sleep but can't resist opening eyes and smiling at cute little angel pressing his nose against mine and grinning.

9.20 - Little angel progresses onto pushing his fingers into sleeping brother's eyes. Notably less angelic now. Back in cot, more standing and screaming (T, not me). Curse nursery and their long afternoon naps.

10.00 - Back downstairs after settling T by sitting on the bed reading, with one foot stuck in the cot for him to lie next to. H gets home, sets DVD recorder for Olympic opening ceremony. Clear up tremendous post-dinner mess, unpack The Ridiculous Number of Bags. H washes dishes. Print out Olympic opening ceremony bingo cards. Remember the TV show will be in Japanese. Doh.

10.45 - Cup of tea, computer, write this.

11.40 - Sensible option - go to bed. More likely option - watch The Tudors on YouTube, scavenge for snacks and possibly fall asleep on the sofa.

Good night!

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Summer holidays

K's kindergarten finished for summer on Friday. He has just over 5 weeks off, and the first few days back will only be half days. We don't have any big plans; no overseas trips this year! On the other hand, we have surprisingly few completely free days. K will still have swimming class most Mondays, and I'll have a class each Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon. The Wednesday morning mother-and-toddler group will meet twice in August and I've still got 2 more weeks of classes at university too, so that's the next two Fridays taken up. T will go to nursery then as usual, and K will go back to kindergarten! They offer 9-6 childcare in the holidays, at the princely sum of 800 yen a day.

Despite all that, I'm determined to do some special holiday things. K will spend 2 separate days at day camps run by the English pre-school he went to last year. We're planning a little overnight trip to Tottori city in August, and tomorrow we're going to go to the small amusement park in Hiruzen. I'm hoping we'll get some beach days too, and time to do some projects at home. Lately, since the summer heated up, T has been having a nap each afternoon. With a bit of luck this will continue, giving K some time to play without infant interference...

I've got a couple of little challenges set up for K too. He eats well, in quantity and variety, but he is such a slow eater, especially at dinner time. I've made a little arrow to Blu-tak to the clock to show when dinner time ends (40 minutes after we start). If he finishs his meal within that time, he can add a sticker to a special summer holiday calendar I prepared and if he gets enough stickers he can get a present. I know, it's pure bribery, but it's working well so far :-)

I'm also keen for him to get some writing practice in. Now that he's at kindergarten every day, and not going to the English pre-school at all, K rarely writes anything. I'm hoping to fit in a few minutes of writing every day throughout the holidays, whether it's a workbook (he loves those), a postcard to Gran and Grandad, my shopping list or a little holiday diary I made for him (inspired by this one).

I love the things that small children write in their diaries. Yesterday's journal read 'I did go to the airport. The pilots waved to me.' Today's said 'I did go to by singing grasshoppers.' Then he dictated 'I went with Daddy to clean the shrine. I went to a show for schoolchildren. I liked the oni. Hide and Keiko came here.'

And of course we phoned, and later Skyped, my Dad to say Happy Birthday. Happy Birthday Dad!

Friday, 20 July 2012


At the end of June I made some umeshu, plum liqueur. I've been wanting to do it for years, and finally got around to it this year. Now, I say 'made', but it's only really a matter of flavouring ready-made alcohol, as you would when making sloe gin. In fact, it's illegal to make alcohol in Japan unless you are a licensed producer. No home-brew or pea-pod wine here I'm afraid.

Making umeshu is very easy. When the plums are in season (when they are still green), every supermarket has them displayed along with everything else you need (rock sugar, white liquor and storage jars) along with a poster showing the recipe. When I got home I found that the liquor carton and the sugar bag and the label on the jar also featured the recipe for umeshu, though each one was slightly different!

So here's what I did....
Firstly, you have to pick out the stem part from each plum, using a toothpick or something similar. I thought this might be rather fiddly...

...but the stems actually pop out really easily. It was quite a satisfying little job!

Next, wash and dry and plums. Wash and dry the container you'll be using too. I followed the directions carefully and sterilised it by wiping it with alcohol too, but that probably wasn't necessary. Last year, H made a tiny amount of umeshu from a handful of plums from our tree. He didn't have a suitable container so put it in a large Coke glass, with a piece of clingfilm and a rubber band in lieu of a lid. And it was good :-)

So, for a kilo of plums you need 1.8 litres of white liquor (a standard Japanese measure) and between 500 grammes and a kilo of rock sugar, depending on the recipe you use. Not surprisingly, the sugar bag recipe called for a full kilo! I used about two thirds of a kilo bag.

Layer in the plums and rock sugar...

...and then pour in the liquor.

And that's it!

Now for the hard part: leave it in a cool, dry place where it won't be disturbed for as long as you can bear to wait. Again, the recipes varied but the general consensus seemed to be that it needs at least 3 months, but 12 months or more is better.

Like most Japanese houses we have a trapdoor in the floor downstairs, opening into the crawlspace. It allows (reasonably!) easy access to all the pipes, and lets fresh air circulate, coming in through vents in the walls. It's also the perfect place to store umeshu...

Here's how it looked after a week. The plums were starting to float and the sugar was largely dissolved:

I looked again this morning  and the sugar had completely dissolved. Now I just need to try and forget about it for a few months. Maybe I'll crack it open for Christmas...

Monday, 16 July 2012

Summer time

This year's rainy season seems to have dragged on forever. Weeks have passed under grey skies, clouds preventing the sun from easing the stifling humidity. The heavy downpours bring some relief and cooler air, but opening the windows to take advantage of that also allows the rain to come in...

If I were writing haiku, hydrangeas and frogs would be suitable (if obvious) symbols for the season. Instead, here's the photographic version, from our garden on Saturday:

Tiny little frog on a camellia leaf

 Late afternoon on Saturday, the clock/weather station in our living room reported that it was 27 degrees and over 80% humidity. Not comfortable.

Yesterday brought a sudden change though. The sun came out, the clouds disappeared; the temperature rose and the humidity dropped.... well, a bit. Our living room hit 34 degrees, with a mere 55% humidity, and today has been similar. For both days, a heat stroke warning was issued. At least yesterday there was a breeze and, in the late afternoon in the shade of the big tree, it was lovely in the garden. T was napping upstairs, H was preparing dinner in the Dutch oven, K was reading and I was relaxing. I just lay on the grass, watching the swallows in the blue, blue sky and enjoying the breeze and the absence of mosquitoes.

Today was Marine Day (海の日、umi no hi), a public holiday in Japan. With no wind, we couldn't bear to be outside and finally started using the air conditioning. I always try to put it off as long as possible because of the Pringles effect; once I start, I won't be able to stop using it until autumn.

We didn't really do anything special over the long weekend (see above). I worked most of the day yesterday, K had swimming today and we went out for lunch a couple of times. I also finally finished a little sewing project I've working on for ages, but I'll tell you about it later. Mainly we just had a bit of a rest and tried to stay cool, unlike the participants in yesterday's triathlon here in town. They swam for 3km in the sea, cycled up Mount Daisen and back and then ran a full marathon, all in temperatures in the mid-30s and under blazing sun. Impressive? Of course. Insane? Maybe...

Friday, 13 July 2012


July 7th is Tanabata, or the Star Festival. There are several versions of the legend, originating in China, but all involve a pair of separated (star-crossed?) lovers. The princess Orihime (represented by the star Vega) and her lover Hikoboshi (represented by Altair) are separated by a river (the Milky Way) and can meet only once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month, and only then if the weather is fine.

Sadly for them, it was a rainy Tanabata this year. On the evening of the 6th K's kindergarten held its summer festival. The boys put on their jinbe and went to enjoy some typical festival fun, such as fishing; firstly with a hook for a bag of snacks...

...and then with a spoon for little bouncy balls:

The main Tanabata activity nowadays is to write wishes on a strip of paper and tie them to bamboo decorated with paper/origami ornaments. The wishes are generally about self-improvement or goals for the future. Children often write wishes like 'to be good at baseball' or 'to be able to eat all my vegetables'. K's class all told the teacher what they want to be when they grow up, and she wrote all their wishes onto paper strips for them. K said he wants to be the kindergarten bus driver...

Even at the little nursery where T goes once a week, they had a little Tanabata celebration. T came home the previous week with some origami paper for us to make decorations with and some paper strips to write his wishes on, all to be taken back and tied to the big bamboo branch at nursery. So what do you think T wished for? Well, H and I did our best to read his mind and wrote 'to be able to talk soon' and 'to be able to play together well with K'. We brought home a section of the bamboo with his decorations on...

Finally, on the 7th I made Tanabata Curry. OK, so it's basically just curry trying to look pretty...

The rice in the middle of the plate represents the Milky Way, separating the two sections of curry. In Tanabata Curry world the weather must have been good, because there's the (shredded omelette) bridge joining the two sides. Then we have some carrot and omelette stars and some sliced okra (conveniently naturally star-shaped) for added celestial goodness. The only snag was that K didn't want to spoil it by eating it...

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

A trip to the hospital

T gave us a bit of a scare last night, but worry not, he is fine now.

While happily eating his tea, his whole body suddenly went stiff, with his head back and his eyes fixed and staring at the ceiling. At first we wondered if he was falling asleep (which has happened before), and then we worried that he might have something stuck in his throat. He was breathing normally though, and his colour was good... he was just completely unresponsive.

H called for an ambulance, which came promptly, luring all the neighbours out of their homes. Before it arrived though, T gave a little cough and slowly began to come around. Carrying T, I went outside to meet the ambulance-men and there, in the parking area, he was sick. The ambulance-men's main reaction was 'Wow, he eats a lot!' and mine was 'Well done for not doing it in the house or in the ambulance'.

T continued to improve after that, but they still took us to a nearby hospital. The siren and running of red lights felt rather unnecessary! There the doctor decided it was probably a fever-induced seizure. Apparently 1 in 10 children under the age of 5 experience this type of seizure and it has no harmful after-effects. It's caused by a sudden fever; indeed, I didn't realise T had a temperature until I picked him up during the seizure. There's a 30% chance of reoccurrence but it stops as children get older. T had had a slight trembling in his arms, but none of the convulsions usually associated with seizures. And the cause of the seizure-causing fever? Doctor: 'the common cold'.

The doctor ran some tests to rule out other causes (all clear) and gave T a drip to replace fluids lost from being sick. By 10 o'clock we were all done, and H came to pick us up, while K stayed at H's parents' place. T fell asleep in the car and stayed asleep while H put him into bed, sleeping right around until morning. Today he has been playing happily; a little under the weather with his cold but eating well and generally happy.

The silver lining to all this was the reminder of how good the medical system here can be. The ambulance came quickly (they even phoned us on the way to check how T was doing) and the paramedics were calm, friendly and reassuring. The doctor and nurses at the hospital were also very good, taking the time to explain things well and checking that I understood, without being patronising or panicking that they had to deal with a foreigner... And the cost, under public health insurance, for the ambulance, various tests, treatment and prescribed cold medicine? 530 yen.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

A neighbourhood walk around the world

Have you been looking at all the great pictures people have been posting of their neighbourhoods? K and I have been checking them out; he has enjoyed seeing what colour post-boxes are in different countries and then finding the places on his world map.

Today it's my turn to show you around our neck of the woods. We live on the Sea of Japan coast in Western Japan and it's pretty rural compared to the image many people may have of Japan. Our house is on the outskirts of a small city but it's not a modern suburb; the area was a village in its own right which has now been overtaken by the expanding city.

The rules for this series stated that we should post 12 photos, including...
1. a post box
2. a local store/cornershop
3. a manhole cover
4. a park/play area
5. a view of a typical street
6. a local form of transport
I've skipped the post box though, since Jo has already shown you a Japanese post box and ours are pretty much the same. I also crossed 'rice paddy', 'shrine gate' and 'temple statues' off my list after seeing her post!

So, without further ado, welcome to Yonago...

Our postman on his rounds (instead of the postbox!)

Our nearest shop. It's an old, family-run store selling everything from fresh fish to bedding plants.

Lots of places in Japan have beautifully decorated manhole covers. Ours is not one of them.


Our bus, on the old main road into town.


The local park, deserted at 9.30 on a weekday!


A typical residential street around here, just wide enough for a car to get down.


The village Shinto shrine.

The local community centre.


A typical house in the area.

A grave.


A field of banked up Japanese leeks (negi), a major product of the area.


A new house being built next-door.


A police car.

Well that's it! I hope you enjoyed it. There were lots of other things I wanted to show you too. In the past I've posted a variety of photos of everyday things from our life here in Japan so if this is your first time to visit my blog, do please have a look around. If you have any questions or comments about today's pictures, please add it to the comments section, I'll reply there too.

And the tour continues... You can find the rest of the tour dates here. It's New Zealand tomorrow!

Monday, 2 July 2012

A weekend away

The 4 of us recently spent the weekend at Tamatsukuri Hot Springs, about an hour away from home. H's younger brother got married that week but didn't have a ceremony, so the 2 families gathered for the weekend at a traditional resort to celebrate and get to know each other.

The ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel) we stayed at was quite big and very fancy. The entranceway (pictured below) overlooked a lovely garden and there was a roof-top open-air bath as well as the 'ordinary' hot spring baths on the ground floor. H's brother had said that it would be a casual weekend, but I knew that his parents would ignore that and dress quite formally, so I didn't want to turn up in jeans. For the boys I appliqued matching neck-ties onto plain T-shirts for a bit of smart-casual fun. K is very proud of his ability to hop and stand on one leg lately, hence the Long John Silver pose...

In the evening we ate dinner in a huge banqueting hall, rather over-the-top for our party. The happy couple sat at the head of the room, in front of the gold screen, and the 2 families sat in lines facing each other. It's a typical setting for this type of party, but not really very good for getting to know each other I think. H's brother is the youngest of 3 brothers and his wife is the youngest of 3 sisters. All the elder siblings are married and have at least 2 children each, so it was quite a lively get-together. Oh, look, there's H's dad in a grey suit and his mum (only half in the shot) in a black lace dress - I knew it!

In traditional fashion our meal was served on individual tables and brought out little by little, although not in 'courses' in a Western sense. There was sashimi, crab, steak, deep-fried goodies cooked in the room in front of us and all kinds of little dishes of who-knows-what. This photo is of K's meal - I think he got the best deal actually, especially as he got an adult portion of crab from his allergic cousin.

Once the meal was over, the children enjoyed running riot around the room, and I was happy to let H's mum be on T duty for a while...

After taking the waters, it was time for bed. The hotel provided yukata, light-weight cotton kimono for wearing around the hotel and as pyjamas. They even had K-sized ones...

While we were downstairs, the maids laid out the futons for us. H had a headache and soon fell asleep. K and T, however, were very excited and didn't settle for a long time. It was the first time for T to spend the night out of the confines of his cot and he continued to explore the room long after K had fallen asleep. Actually, I fell asleep before him too! I woke up a few times during the night, and found T fast asleep in a completey different place every time. I got up first in the morning, while the other 3 were still asleep, and here's what I saw:

I forgot to take a good picture of the room, but it was big! The screens in the top-right of the photo above opened onto a view of the gardens. It was a corner room and behind me, as I took this picture, was a small seating area in front of windows overlooking the town. There was a full bathroom, a large entranceway to the room, and a whole other small room, which we simply used to put our bags in.

Down on the ground floor there was a small courtyard in the centre of the hotel, where you could sit and dangle your feet in the hot spring water. K and I tried it out after a big breakfast, back in the banqueting hall again.

Everyone went their separate ways after check-out at 10am, but it seemed a shame just to go home. A 20 minute drive brought us to a small aquarium, mainly featuring aquatic life from the 2 nearby lakes. These lakes are actually joined to each other and finally open onto the sea, so the water in them grows increasingly salty as you head east, creating interesting and varied eco-systems.

Both K and T enjoyed looking at the fish, especially in this 'bubble-head' tank!

After lunch we drove further around the lake until we got back to Matsue. I'd heard there was a nice park there for young children so we stopped for an hour and K had a good play, before heading home again once more.