Wednesday, 26 September 2012

My husband the artist

The other day I asked H to tidy up a collection of stones, sticks, pine cones, shells and the like which had found their way into our house. Expecting to come across them all dumped in an old cardboard box somewhere, I was pleasantly surprised to find this little arrangement in the entranceway:

It's not a good photo, but it actually makes a nice little nature corner, and appears quite artfully arranged. My surprise at this, H having a reputation as a Science Man rather than in any way an Art Man, reminded me of a little story from back in March.

When we went to Matsue for the St Patrick's Day parade, there were people doing portrait sketches so we had them draw K and T. Here are the results (by 2 different artists):

Now, they are lovely little pictures of children, but I don't really think that they look like our children at all. The next morning, I came downstairs to find this on the table:

While I had been asleep, H had had a go at drawing K, working from a photo and using K's wax crayons to do it. OK, it's hardly award-winning, but don't you think that it looks like K? A lot more than the other picture anyway, and it's far superior to anything I could have done. The biggest thing though, is that I had never, ever seen H draw anything, ever before. When I've been ineptly drawing Thomas the Tank Engine and little animals to amuse the boys, H just shrugs and says that he can't draw. After 11 years of marriage, I've found yet another side to my lovely husband.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

My Organized Chaos

pin it to win it

The next intake for Jo's e-course, My Organized Chaos, starts soon, and if you are lucky you could win a free place! You can either Blog It To Win It or Pin It To Win It. Click on the buttons above for more information but hurry, the competition ends soon.

Little by little I'm managing to organise my chaos. I've made several small changes around the house but one of the bigger ones was creating this reading corner for K in the engawa. He can keep books out of T's reach there, as well as have a cosy and peaceful place to read or listen to story CDs. I have been known to sit there with a cup of tea and a magazine too...

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Neighbourhood Walk: Take Two

When I took part in Jo's neighbourhood walk around the world, one of the things we had to show you was a local form of transport. Around here we have some interesting trains, but I didn't manage to take any photos of them in time so I posted a picture of our local bus instead. The other day though, out with K, I snapped a few of them for your viewing pleasure.

We live near a short branch line which runs between Yonago and Sakaiminato. One of Sakaiminato's biggest claims to fame is that it is the birthplace of Shigeru Mizuki, a manga artist. His most well-known work is GeGeGe no Kitaro, which features a collection of ghost/monster/other-worldly types. In recent years, especially after a big live-action film was made, Kitaro has become hugely popular and Sakaiminato is making the most of it. The town has a museum, a ghost shrine and a street lined with bronze statues of the characters, as well as lots of souvenir shops and events thoughout the year. Yonago Airport has recently been renamed Yonago Kitaro Airport, and all the stations on the branch line have (as well as their real names) a Kitaro character name. And of course, the trains themselves are decorated too, attracting train-spotters galore...

They are even decorated on the inside! I love the way cat-girl here looks perfectly normal most of the time...

I also got around to finding one of the decorated manhole covers in town. Out here in the suburbs the manhole covers are plain, but in the centre of town you can find ones like this:

If you missed the original post on this visual tour of the neighbourhood you can find it here, and the list of all the other participants around the world is here. Bon voyage!

Monday, 17 September 2012

September is the new January

January never really strikes me as the best time to make resolutions. I know, I know, starting the new year as you mean to go on and all that, but I never feel great enthusiasm to make big changes then. It's cold, dark and dismal; all the excitement of Christmas has faded and there's nothing really to look forward to until spring. It makes me feel more like hibernating than improving my life.

September though? Much more like it. New school year (or back to school after the summer holidays, at least), a change towards more comfortable, able-to-do-stuff weather, and lots of things to look forward to and prepare for (Hallowe'en, my birthday and, dare I say it already, Christmas!).

The other day at yoga, I took the opportunity to run through my to-do list and plans for the next few months in my mind. Yes, I realise that that time was supposed to be for clearing the mind and relaxing, but I need to make the most of any uninterrupted thinking time.

K is back at kindergarten now, and my university classes start again soon. I'm in the middle of re-organising the whole house and am pleased with how it's going so far. We're planning to go to the UK for Christmas and need to look into flights soon I think. I want to get thinking about Hallowe'en costumes in plenty of time, and I want to plan something for my birthday. I'm thinking about another clothes swap party in the autumn, and maybe a regular (once a month?) games night. I want to carve out a little time each day for the piano, choosing photos for a 2012 family yearbook, and a few sit-ups :-)

Today was a public holiday. Did I work on any of those things?

Or did I decide to learn to knit (again)?

Mum has tried to teach me several times and I have, with much assistance from her, made a couple of things over the years but I've never felt confident or managed anything by myself. I'm not really sure how much I want to wear, say, sweaters that I have knitted myself, but I feel like I want to be able to knit. Or maybe I just really, really wanted to try one of the Craftsy courses...

So, I've signed up for this beginners class, and got some needles and wool. Wish me luck!

Sunday, 16 September 2012

The Wheels On The Bus...

...don't actually go round and round. But K doesn't seem to mind.

Having seen the idea in a magazine, K has been wanting to make a bus from a cardboard box for ages. Last weekend we finally picked up a box from the supermarket and set to work.

Painting it blue, because I happened to have a large tube of blue paint

Making wheels of cardboard with tinfoil hubcaps

More foil for windows and doors

Finally, some lights, number-plates, a destination sign and shoulder straps

The bus and its driver in action!

Saturday, 15 September 2012

House tour - part 3

The final part of the house tour - thank you for waiting! If you missed the earlier parts, you can find the upstairs of the house here and the entrance way and bathroom here. Brew yourself a nice cup of tea, there are a lot of photos here. It starts off quite neat and tidy, and then goes downhill all the way...

So, come into the house and turn left. Looking down the hall (with the stairs and bathroom behind you), you can see the door to the living room straight in front of you (complete with baby gate), the door into the utility room on the right and the door into the tatami room on the left.

Here's the tatami room, from the doorway. Traditionally, pretty much every room in a Japanese house was floored with these tatami mats, tightly woven rushes covering a thick core of rice straw. Light green when they are new, the mats gradually fade to a lovely golden colour. Nowadays a lot of new houses use no tatami at all, but we knew we definitely wanted a room like this. It can be a spare bedroom if you put down futons, a dining room around low tables, a train track room (see below), a place for a birthday party or a clothes swap party, somewhere to do yoga, or simply somewhere to dump stuff out of the reach of little monkeys.

The sliding doors on the right open into the living room, although we keep them closed nowadays to contain T. That chest of drawers in the corner belongs in the living room really, but baby K used to use it as a climbing frame so it got moved here for a while. Beyond the paper screens is the engawa, a wood-floored sunroom-type area looking out over the Japanese garden; lovely for sitting and having a cup of tea, or doing a bit of crochet with a baby.

From the chest of drawers, looking back towards the door, you can see the large closet for futons and the display area, currently bare. Set into the wall above the closet is a small Shinto shrine. A lot of Japanese homes have a small Buddhist shrine but a Shinto one is quite unusual. H comes from a long line of Shinto priests though, so this is what we have.

Another angle, revealing the bamboo xylophone from Tim, and the clothes horse in the engawa:

And the engawa again. Behind the floor chairs is another big cupboard. Apart from the walk-in closet in our room, and the shoe closet, most of our storage space is in this room.

The photos above were taken when Katherine came to stay, so we had tidied it up. Usually, it looks more like this:

Back to the hall, and into the living room:

The chest of drawers in the tatami room is supposed to be where the (toy!) Black and Decker workbench is. Well, it will be again in a year or so. The cupboard beneath the bay window is supposed to house photo albums but after an Unfortunate Incident involving baby K, it is now home to toys. More 'baby' toys are in a basket next to the TV and there's a mat for nappy-changing in front of the big window.

Standing in the same spot, turn to the right and look into the dining area. There are sliding glass doors which can be used the separate the living and dining areas, but they are usually left open. Almost out of shot, on the left, you can see the toy piano and a few other big toys kept behind the sofa. In the dining area there is H's computer desk in the far corner, the top shelf of which is one of the few places that T can't reach and is therefore piled sky-high with junk mail important papers. The window cupboard is mainly full of computer supplies and more of H's junk essential belongings.

The play-pen doesn't get a lot of use, but it is still good to have. I often pop T in there after meals while I clear up all the mess on the floor, without him spreading it further afield. The play-pen is big and full of toys and, for limited periods, T is quite happy there. Sometimes K asks to go in too, either to play with T or to escape from him...

Right, the next photo is from the TV corner, looking straight through. There's another glimpse of K's solar system mural, next to a painting he made of H, and another box of toys next to the sofa.

Now from the computer desk, looking towards the kitchen:

More space stuff on the wall there, more toys (and lots of books) on the shelves below the counter, and a baby fence to provide hurdling practice for adults. The counter is higher than is typical, at my request, in an attempt to hide some of the perpetual kitchen mess. At the far side of the kitchen you can see the door into the utility room, next to the covered-in-magnets-and-junk fridge.

The view of the kitchen from the baby fence:

By Japanese standards, this is a pretty big kitchen (6 tatami mats, if you're interested). The hob is between the windows and the microwave/oven is in the corner, in the centre of the photo. The sink and main work area faces the counter, so I can see what the little monkeys are up to, and the space between the microwave and the fridge mainly now functions as an Out Of The Reach Of T dumping ground.

Another angle, this time from near the utility room door. By now I just wanted to get these photos taken and done with, although you'd think I could have put away those dishes and empty milk cartons first. Oh well...

I forgot to take a picture from in front of the hob, looking back this way at the wall. So you'll just have to imagine it: a world map at K's eye-level, which he spends hours poring over, a wooden chair usually covered in bags and some shelves housing K's DVDs, baskets for the boys' clothes, various paperwork and Other Miscellaneous Junk.

Finally, if you're feeling brave, open the door into the utility room. I suppose, strictly speaking, it's not really a utility room since it doesn't have a sink, or the washing machine or anything like that. It's just a little room between the kitchen and the back door, but we have to call it something...

Despite the mess (which somehow looks even worse in a photo than it does in real life), it's actually reasonably organised in here. The grey shelf unit and the wooden desk next to it hold various files, recipe books, stationery, the nappy and wipes stock and Other Miscellaneous Junk. The pole up high is very useful for hanging laundry, and there's a child-sized coat stand that I use to hang all the bags for the various categories of rubbish and recycling. The door on the right leads back out into the hall, opposite the tatami room.

The big built-in cupboard is under the stairs (it's the other side of the cupboard in the toilet), which also explains that funny square jutting out in the ceiling. Can you see that the floor on the left side of the photo is lower than the rest? Hang on, have a look at the next picture...

The back door is, like the front door, at a lower level than the indoor floor. It's the place where you take off your shoes, and also leave any dirty, outdoorsy things. Not having a garage or a shed, we keep the barbecue, winter tyres and garden things here. To get a bit more space for those things, the under-stairs cupboard is at that level too. Also, when you step down to that level in the utility room, the space between the floor and the ground level is open, allowing us to store (not too big) things under the floor.

Finally, from the back door, looking back in:

There's the door to the kitchen, and the big metal shelf unit which is, again, a lot more organised than it looks. There's the old microwave (useful when the newer one is busy being an oven), the bread maker and the fish roaster; my collection of might-come-in-useful boxes and bags; plastic containers housing cleaning supplies; piles of paper and card awaiting recycling; the very important supply of breakfast cereals and, believe it or not, in this shelf at least, no miscellaneous junk!

So there you have it, the Monkey Magic house. Things have changed a bit now actually, since the boys have started sleeping together in what was the spare room, and since I've been doing Jo's course and getting things More Organised. Time to get the camera out again I suppose...

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


Where has my sweet little baby gone?

And who is this boy?

A few snips of the hairdresser's scissors, and T is transformed. In the flesh he looks even more different than in these pictures.

T will soon be 18 months old and I have to remember that he is not a baby anymore. He walks, virtually runs, climbs; he understands so much and is beginning to talk now too; he can do puzzles, sort shapes and build towers.

But more than any of these milestones, both for T and for K, the one moment when I felt that babyhood had been left behind was this. The first haircut. It's wonderful to see the emergence of a real little boy, to get a glimpse of the future but, at the same time, I'm reminded that we can never go back. The hair will grow again, but the baby is gone forever.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

House tour - part 2

I've been wanting to show you some of the changes I've made around the house since starting Jo's course, but I thought I'd better finish off the original house tour first, as a kind of 'before' series. As with the pictures of the upstairs, these photos were not all taken at the same time; it's not usually this tidy in all the rooms as the same time!

(By the way, and speaking of the My Organized Chaos course, registration is now open and the early-bird special is now on! End of commercial break :-)...)

So, when you come in the front door, this is what you see:

And if you look back at the door from the far end, you see this (minus the plant, which moved outside between photo shoots):

The two little wooden chairs there were a present from Tim when he moved house. We just dropped them down by the front door when we brought them home... and then decided that it was actually quite a good place for them. Nowadays they mainly function as a little Nature Shelf, where K leaves rocks, leaves, feathers and any other treasures he finds when he's out and about. The wooden door on the left leads into the shoe closet.

Now, as you face the front door (as in the photo above), turn to the left and see this:

Directly ahead of us here is the bathroom, and between the bathroom and the stairs on the left is the toilet. On the right, after the slatted wooden screen, is a door into the shoe closet.

So, here is the toilet:

Exciting stuff, eh? The cupboard on the left is actually in the under-the-stairs space, and is one of the few places in the house we have at the moment for displaying art or ornaments. It's also the only bit of wall that isn't papered white, making it a nice little display spot. Apart from, you know, the fact that it's in the toilet. At the moment we have a piece of marquetry made by my grandad, a piece of digital art by our friend Shuko and a weather glass that H bought last summer at Barometer World (no, really). The little sink has a feature that impresses people in Japan despite being run-of-the-mill everywhere else; it produces warm water! Wow!

Next, the bathroom. When you open the sliding door you are in the washbasin/laundry area, featuring our fancy new washer/dryer. On the left side of this photo you can just see the doorway into the bath proper.

And here it is. It's a moulded plastic, all-in-one wet room, a standard set-up in Japan.

 Everyone in the family uses the same bathwater (either in turn, or all together), so you first shower to get clean and then just use the bath to relax. The tub has a lid to help keep the water warm until everyone has finished with it. Like everything else in our house, the bath is controlled electronically. One push of a button will fill the bath to a predetermined depth, at a predetermined temperature. While you're in the bath you can add more hot or cold water, or add more water at the same preset temperature if you just want it deeper, or press a call button to get your wife to come and collect the baby you've been bathing. And of course there's a selection of bath toys, a map of Japan and yet another times tables chart!

A quick look from the bathroom back out through, including the laundry basket and some plastic drawers holding towels and other various bathroom bits and pieces.

Next, come out of the bathroom and look to your left, through the doorway just visible in the photo above. This is the 'shoe closet':

I'm sure you all know that in Japanese homes shoes are removed at the entrance-way. That means that shoes are all stored there too, along with umbrellas, outdoor toys, barbecues and anything else at all 'dirty' (unless you have a garage or shed). A lot of new houses now have a little room like this off the main entrance-way, to store outdoor-sy things and help keep the area around the front door looking neat and tidy for guests.

The big cupboards hold shoes, as well as coats, roller skates, vases, butterfly nets, fishing nets, baby carriers... Then there's space on the tiled floor for K's bike, the pushchair, patio furniture, and that white cabinet under the letter box which is a temperature-controlled insect incubator. No, really.

And from that end looking back into the house, with a view of the coatstand and bag corner too:

Finally, look up. The shoe closet has a very high, sloping ceiling, and a mysterious internal window at the top. That opens into a little tiny loft space above the bathroom, leading off the upstairs landing, which was supposed to prevent H's stuff taking over the house...

And I think that will do for today, although we haven't really got very far around the house. Next time I'll show you the tatami mat room, the living room and kitchen. I've already taken some pictures, so you shouldn't have to wait a month for the next installment.
*** Edited to add: here's part 3! ***
Coming next though: T's first haircut! Stay tuned :-)

Thursday, 6 September 2012

Abstract art

One last summer holiday art project for you, once again based on an idea from Jo's blog. Do you notice a pattern here?

We criss-crossed a 'canvas' (painting 'board' from the 100 yen shop) with masking tape, and then K filled in the spaces with paint. He chose to use red, blue and green and tried not to let the same colours touch each other.

We usually do this kind of activity on the dining table, but it's difficult to do when T is around, and I don't really want K using paints in the tatami room (his Out Of T's Way room). This time we hit on one of those Why Didn't We Think Of This Before? solutions - working on the kitchen floor. Just behind K in the photo above is the little gate keeping T out of the kitchen and in the living room. K could happily work out of sight and reach of T, but I could easily see and talk to both of them and hop over the fence to spend a few minutes with each of them in turn.

So what was T doing?

Building towers.

The best thing about this little activity was the confidence-boost it gave K. When we started he repeatedly said 'I'm not good at painting'. I don't know where that came from, but as he worked he started to enjoy it more and more, ending with 'I did a good job on this, all by myself!'. Perhaps the abstract nature of the work allowed him to focus on the physical act of painting, of using a brush, without having to concern himself with what he was painting a picture of, or how best to do it.

I definitely agree that the process is more important than the product when it comes to children's art, but I was also happy to see K's pride in his work when we later peeled off the masking tape for the big reveal. Well done K.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

My Organized Chaos

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If you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll probably already know all about Jo, who blogs at A Bit Of This And A Bit Of That. She always has great creative ideas for activities with kids which I love to steal try out. Her son is a few years older than K, and she too lives in Japan, so it's fun to browse her archives and and find suggestions for books, activities and more. Jo's blog is also where I first heard about the Montessori style of education, the spirit of which I have tried to introduce into our home.

In addition to all that (oh, and did I mention that she's a designer and seamster too?), Jo is now launching an e-course entitled My Organized Chaos. What's more, she invited me to be a tester! Now I do consider myself to be a generally quite well-organized person but I have to admit that things have been slipping lately, especially since T became mobile. Previously established routines and systems have been allowed to slide, and things have become increasingly disorganized.

Although I haven't finished the course yet, things have already improved considerably. The boys are a lot better about putting away their toys themselves now, K has a proper area set up for writing/art/craft with all the things he needs easily accessible and the drawers for the boys' clothes are all cutely labelled so that K (and H...) can find what he's looking for and put away the clean clothes himself. I'm looking forward to the next part of the course, concentrating on planning activities for your children.

Now unfortunately Jo's course does not come with magic powers, nor is she volunteering to come over and sort out your house for you. I'm afraid you will have to do the work yourself. However, she is a great source of ideas, inspiration and encouragement, cute printables (I love a good worksheet, me) and community, using the course's Facebook page. A lot of what I have done was already in the back of my mind beforehand, but doing the course has given me the push to actually get it done.

Anyway, Jo will soon be opening the doors for the course, with an early-bird special for those who sign up soon. At the moment, you can sign up for her newsletter here. Even if you don't think that you're interested in the course, I'd recommend the newsletter, for ideas, free printables, special offers, competitions and more. I should say, in the spirit of full disclosure, that if you do sign up for the course after following one of my links I may get a little reward :-)  But at any rate, go for the newsletter, it's free!

Sunday, 2 September 2012


Now all I have to do is find the time to practice.

Oh, and learn how to play properly...

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Summery summary

Ah, September 1st. And in keeping with Japan's habit of matching its weather perfectly to the calendar, it has been cool and cloudy today. I know we'll have more hot weather before autumn truly begins, but it was a welcome respite today.
K's kindergarten started on Wednesday, although he's on half days until Tuesday. And of course, 'half days' means '2 hours after you dropped him off'. Still, this all points to summer winding down, and I thought I'd mention a few things from August which may otherwise drop through the blogging cracks.
Firstly, Katherine (and, briefly, her friend Dani) came to see us. K was very excited and was easily persuaded to clear up all his train tracks since it was 'for Katherine'. We (big K and I) had a good night out with Cian, and little K enjoyed playing his Olympic board game:

We didn't spend much time outside over the summer holidays, and completely failed to get to the beach. We did manage a couple of little park outings though, and even took the tricycle with us once. K tried his best to make a get-away, but T caught him and had a go too...

In term time T goes to nursery every Friday, while I teach at the university. He's very happy there and waves me off without complaint, and I am keen to keep it that way. So even though it wasn't strictly necessary, he's been going there once a week though the holidays too, to maintain the momentum. On one day, I gave a speech on the UK at an old people's home, and K spent the day at Daisen with his old English-language pre-school. For the last 3 weeks though, K and I have had a day to spend together and do Big Boy Things.

K is still very keen on trains, so we went for a little ride one week. We simply took the branch line from the station nearest our house to one near the centre of town, walked through town stopping for lunch on the way and then got the train home again. He. Loved. It.

Waiting expectantly

Riding the train
 Another day I took him to a play area in a department store, which he sees every time he goes swimming and which I've been promising to take him to since, well, he started going swimming. It's a 3 floored structure with a ball pool and slide at the bottom and a 2 floored playhouse above it. Can you spot K here, playing the piano right at the top?

It's a good thing I took him there when I did, because we then discovered that it was closing down on August 31st. Can you imagine the reaction if I'd finally agreed to let him play there only to discover that it had gone? Eek.

Other bits and pieces.... a day at Hiruzen amusement park back in July, a fair bit of Olympic watching and related activities, 2 visits to the paddling pool at the mother and toddler group, an afternoon with Lisa and Jason and his family, and the dressing-up box (and yes, K does have gloves on his feet as well as his hands here).

Oh, and last week was a big one - K was ring-bearer at Vivian and Noboru's wedding!

And finally, a few (shock, horror), non-child-based items. The perpetually lucky H won a ham gift set and the even luckier me got to share it with him. Hmmm, bacon...

I had a couple of evenings at the beer garden, a lunch with some of the new English teachers in town, taco night hosted by James and a great day out at the Daisen Beer Festival. Cheers!