Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Here're some I made earlier...

For several years I have been running a weekly English class for the local Friendship Force club. It's an international group that organises homestay exchanges between chapters in different countries. I feel that there are lots of opportunities for students and young people to do international exchanges but not so many for adults, and this group helps to fill that gap. The local group here makes a trip abroad and hosts members from overseas every year. In recent years they have been to Turkey, the UK, Australia, Germany...

The members taking my class are all ladies who have retired or work part-time and whose children have grown up, giving them the time and freedom to travel. I really enjoy teaching them and have got to know them very well. I'm hoping they'll let me join in their adventures when I retire ;-)

In the run-up to Christmas each year I try to do something a little different to the usual classes. This time, we made Christmas cards. I made samples of 3 different designs, and then gave them written instructions and the materials they needed to make them.

(Ignore the 'Merry Christmas' written messily on the tree)

I found a template for the 3D standing tree on t'Internet, but I'm afraid I can't remember where. The pop-up tree and the ornament cards come from a Japanese book I have on card-making.

We set up 3 areas in the room, one for each design, and the ladies were free to make whichever ones they fancied. It's only an hour class but everyone was able to make at least 2 cards. I noticed two interesting things during this class; one - rather than make their own card individually, each table set up their own little production line, with each person being in charge of one step in the card-making process. I'm sure it wouldn't have worked like that in the UK.

The other thing I noticed was that no-one even glanced at the carefully worded instructions I had made. So much for it being an English class. Instead, they just looked at the samples and the materials and worked it out from there. I can't tell you how many times someone asked me 'How do you .....?' or 'What do I do now?' or some other question to which the answer was always 'Look at the instructions....'

The lesson I learnt? No samples next time ;-)

Monday, 28 December 2009

Further festivities

On Boxing Day (26th) Katherine and Alice went off to Matsue for some sightseeing and we went to Tomonori and Ritsuko's place for (possibly) the last potluck party of the season.

OK, that photo has nothing to do with what I just wrote, but it's cute isn't it?

Anyway, I roasted yet another bird (chicken this time) and took it along...

We had a gift exchange (I took that Little Red Riding Hood bag) and a nice relaxing afternoon together. H and Tomonori were classmates at school, and now they have sons 3 months apart - the next generation!

In the evening we ate Christmas Day leftovers and goodies brought home from the party; lots of lovely food with no cooking required!

Yesterday was Alice's last day here. Katherine, Alice, K and I went to a local hot spring in the morning while H stayed at home and waited for Alice's luggage to arrive. After lunch out all together there was just time for Alice to sort though her bag before she caught the 3 o'clock bus out of town again. She'd brought lots of Christmassy goodies for us all. Here we can see K holding a tube of Jelly Tots and a bottle of pale ale...

There was also a Christmas pudding. If you are a relative or you know my family well, it may amuse you:

After Alice left, Katherine and I went to the Waterbird Park for an hour. It's become one of my favourite low-key places to go - fantastic views of Mount Daisen and (obviously) waterbirds, aided by great telescopes, and near enough and cheap enough to visit often. I'm looking forward to taking K there when he's a bit bigger and can really enjoy it.

Katherine left this morning and we had a Normal Day. K and I went to the play centre and then went out for lunch with Lisa (OK, maybe not quite normal). H was at work today but now the holidays truly begin. He took last Thursday afternoon and Friday off but for most people they were ordinary working days. While I did all my rushing around pre-Christmas and then lazed around for a few days over Christmas, most people here follow that super-busy/taking-it-easy pattern over New Years, and are now about to enter the holiday season. We're all free now until January 4th, when most people go back to work.

A Very Merry Christmas...

... was had in the monkey household.

Things really started to get festive last Wednesday, a public holiday here. I spent most of the day baking - a couple of quiches, some sausage rolls, mini chocolate muffins and some chocolate and nut cookies. In the evening we went to Heidi and Steve's for a lovely potluck dinner (armed with one of the quiches, some potato salad and a bottle of wine). H and K came home early while I stayed until late and then walked home.

Christmas Eve brought last minute errands in the morning, and our friend Katherine in the afternoon. H came home early too and we all had a big nabe dinner together.

After breakfast and turkey preparation on Christmas Day, we revealed the presents under the tree! K is not really big enough to know about Christmas yet, but he knows what to do with presents...

He got lots of lovely presents, especially books, DVDs and puzzles - 3 of his favourite things.

Unfortunately H's cousin, who was planning to join us for the day, wasn't feeling well and didn't come. On the other hand, we had the welcome addition of Lisa! After most of the presents had been opened, we sat down to lunch...

... followed by dessert. Yes, I made the apple pie. No, I didn't make the cake.

And what would Christmas be without crackers? Thanks Mum for sending them :-)
I nearly left them in the utility room all day, but luckily remembered them between courses...

After our lovely long lunch, K had a nap and H and Katherine went off to meet Alice, Katherine's friend who was arriving from the UK! Sadly her luggage did not arrive with her..

There were still a few more presents to be opened....

... and then it was time for tea - the rest of all my baked goodies and a big bowl of salad.

We spent the evening chatting, playing with our presents and finishing off the lunchtime wine. Festivities continued the next day too, but more about that later. For now, I'll just say that it was the best Christmas I've had in Japan, filled with family, friends and lots of yummy food.

I hope your Christmas was just as lovely!

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Walking in a winter wonderland

Last Thursday the first snow of the season fell here in town, but it was just a few flakes which pretty much melted right away. On Friday morning, we woke up to this light dusting...

...and the water in the stone bowl in the garden was frozen:

Throughout the day it alternated between melting snow under blue skies, and sudden snow flurries with biting winds. By Saturday morning we had a proper blanket of snow covering the ground:

It continued to snow on and off throughout the day. I went to a very cold end-of-year lunch party at the community centre for our neighbourhood's equivalent of the WI, glad that I could go there on foot. I'm a big wimp when it comes to driving in the snow but by late afternoon the roads were completely clear again so I went off to yoga.

Sunday brought more snow which didn't bother to settle, and Monday was snow-free. Most of what has fallen here has melted away now. This morning we had something more unusual than snow in these parts - frost, complete with crunchy grass and frozen puddles. The weather forecast is predicting milder weather for the forseeable future, so no white Christmas this year I think...

Christmas Eve Eve Eve

...and I'm finally starting to feel organised!

Yet again another week has slipped by when I wasn't looking, and nothing has been added to the blog. Sorry. In my free time lately I have mainly been sewing, but it was all for Christmas presents so I won't post the details yet just in case any of the recipients happen to be looking...

The shopping is all done now, apart from a bit of basic grocery stuff; cards have been sent; presents have been completed and the turkey is defrosting in the fridge.

Tomorrow (Wednesday) is a public holiday here as it is the Emperor's birthday, so H has the day off. Christmas Day is a normal working day here for most people but H is taking the day off because he worked last Sunday. Then he'll have one day at work next week, Monday, before having the rest of the week off for New Years, and then all will be back to normal on 4th January.

We're planning a Proper Christmas Day for Friday, with H's cousin Shizuka, our friend Katherine who arrives on Christmas Eve, and her friend who arrives here on Christmas Day afternoon. We also have a potluck party to go to tomorrow night and another one in the day time on Saturday, so tomorrow's main jobs will be baking and cleaning. Since I'll be baking I'm hoping to fob the cleaning off onto H....

Monday, 14 December 2009

Fake Christmas

Last weekend was dubbed Fake Christmas by H.

On Friday night I went to English School's Christmas Party, and even managed to make some sausage rolls to add to the table there. It was a really good night, even though I was driving and could only smell the mulled wine. It smelled really good...

Saturday morning was baking time. I made about 60 cookies, ready for the party yesterday, and completely forgot to photograph them. And now there is exactly one left...

In the afternoon we tidied and cleaned up, and then put up the Christmas decorations. H's brother popped in with a present for K, and joined in the fun for a while. Once K was in bed H and I watched Stardust (his birthday present to me) by Christmas tree light - it really did feel like Christmas Eve.

Which made yesterday Fake Christmas Day - largely due to this beauty:

Friends came round from 12 onwards, with the last guests leaving around 6pm. People came and went all afternoon but we think we had 33 visitors altogether. Here's K and Vivian:

As usual, I did most of the kitchen-based, pre-party preparation but, also as usual, H worked hard during the party and did most of the clearing up. He was also chief turkey carver:

As well as turkey and stuffing, we made roast potatoes, gravy, those cookies and hot spiced apple juice. Everyone brought food or drink to contribute and we had a great spread, with everything from sushi and tom yang kun to mashed potatoes and chocolate brownies. And don't forget the KFC, without which it just wouldn't be Christmas in Japan!

Some people did their cooking or finishing touches once they got here, and the kitchen was obviously the place to be (isn't it always?). Here's Lisa and the English School Boys:

Meanwhile Emerson was doing an impression of K. Or K was doing an impression of Emerson. I'm not sure which...

After all that excitement, K and I are having a quiet day at home today, with turkey and stuffing sandwiches for lunch while the turkey bones are simmering away into a lovely stock. In other words, Fake Boxing Day.

Friday, 11 December 2009

What we've been up to lately...

The time has really flown by this past week! H had to work last Saturday but he had a day off last Friday instead. He also took a day off on Monday so there was quite a holiday feeling going on last weekend.

H and I took advantage of that time on Friday to both get haircuts, tag-team style - I also cut K's hair the other day, but the less said about that the better... Don't expect to see any photos of him for a while.

On Saturday I took K to the park, and on Sunday Heidi and Lisa came round for some sock monkey making and chocolate biscuit eating. I think I did more of the latter than the former... In the evening I went to an end-of-year party hosted by the Sanin International Friendship Network and then made the most of H's time off by having a lie-in on Monday morning.

The rest of the week has been taken up with classes and their preparations, Christmas card writing, secret (for now) present sewing and getting ready for our Christmas party on Sunday. And in news which hasn't happened yet, today's plan includes lunch with Chieko, the dentist and a party at English School. Yeah! (Apart from the dentist...)

Thursday, 10 December 2009

Late autumn

I won't argue if you says it's winter, but we're definitely still in an autumnal mood around here. We've been having lots of bright, sunny days with temperatures reaching 16 or 17 degrees, interspersed with cold, wet days where it struggles to get to double figures.

When I first came to Japan it was summertime and I was quite disappointed at how early it got dark in the evenings. In the winter though I definitely prefer Japanese daylight hours to British ones. If you get up at a civilised hour (ie after 7 o'clock), you need never get up in the dark. Today I was up at 6.30 to go to university, and it was the first time this season it was still dark when I got up. It soon became light though and, as next week is my last university class this month, I'll probably only have a couple more dark mornings before the spring.

Gardeners - anyone know what that plant/tree above is? It is in our garden but I've no idea what it is, and I noticed this lovely bunch of brown berries on it for the first time the other day. Meanwhile, the sazanqua is covered in blooms...

Looking at the whole tree from our upstairs balcony, you can see just how many flowers there are. You can also see next-door's cat, who entertains K by wandering along the wall at the end of our garden.

And in a rather unrelated note, I've seen a weasel on that same garden wall, and in the field beyond it, several times in the last few weeks. He pops up on his back legs and checks out what's going on, just like a meerkat...

Cards have (mostly..) been written!

Did you know that envelopes in Japan are generally not gummed? It's a bit of a pain really, hunting around for a glue stick when you want to seal an envelope. But I recently discovered the reason why...

Christmas cards are pretty expensive in Japan (this is all related, hang in there...). You can buy some beautiful cards that are a gift in themselves, but you don't get packs of 10 or 20 cards at suitably reduced rates. I usually send about 40 cards, so I really don't want to pay three to five hundred yen per card! This year I thought I'd done well (sounding bad already isn't it?). When I was in the UK last year I bought a couple of packs of charity cards and brought them back to Japan with me.

This week I finally got around to a) finding them and b) writing them. And what do you think I discovered? Yeah, I'm sure you're all ahead of me here. After a hot, humid summer in the cupboard, all the envelopes had sealed themselves shut...

After steaming them all open over a saucepan of water, most have now been written. But if you're on my Christmas card list and you receive a last-season Oxfam card in a wrinkled envelope held shut with Sellotape, that's why.


Monday, 7 December 2009

Christmas Preparations!

Until recently I've been feeling rather pleased with myself on the Christmas preparation front. Back in September I bought a portable DVD player for Mum and Dad so that we can send them DVDs of K in action, since Japanese DVDs won't play on a standard British player. I also got digital photo frames for my grandparents and loaded them up with, yup, pictures of K. Mum and Dad were then able to take it all back with them after their visit here, leaving me well ahead of the game.

So the other day, I started thinking... I've only really got my sister and her partner to buy for now. Oh, and K, I suppose. Oh, and H too! Then there's a friend in Canada I want to send something to, several friends here I want to give presents, a couple of H's relatives, something for the present swap at a Christmas party we're going to.... Hang on, I'm not organised at all!

Luckily, the panic has subsided a little now. My sister has suggested a present moratorium this year, since we're all stuck for what to get for each other and it's pointless posting stuff you don't need halfway around the world. So they're off the list :-)

Then the other day K and I made a trip to a lovely little toyshop near here and crossed 3 more people off my list (and only one of them is a child. Technically.) It really is a great shop, selling things that I don't often see in the other shops around here: lots of board games, Lego, Play Mobil, wooden toys and more. The man there entertained K with some of the little-boy toys while I browsed, and made him this balloon car too:

So I think I've finished all the presents which need to be posted now. Time to turn to the big pile of cards to write I suppose. And then I'll set about a few handmade gifts I have in mind for friends here.

There is one present-giving dilemma you could help me with though... What's the protocol for people who we have never exchanged presents with before, but who have now started sending presents to K? Should I be sending them something? Or would a nice thank you letter and a couple of photos suffice? I'd love to hear what you all think!

Thursday, 3 December 2009

A fun day out for all the family!

Lately we've been having little low-key (read, 'free') outings; just enough to entertain a toddler for an hour. We've been to the toy shop to watch the trains going round, and to the pet shop to look at all the animals. Last Saturday our destination was Yonago 'International' (3 flights a week to Seoul) Airport, to watch planes landing...

We discovered that the airport, recently refurbished, has so much more than planes to offer! In the lobby there was a little exhibition of animal sculptures made completely from leather.

Actually the artist is a local man and we went to a big exhibition of his work at the City Art Museum back in the days Before Blog. This time, as then, the giraffe pretty much stole the show...

Also in the lobby was this Christmas tree. Very festive, you may think. But take a closer look...

Did you spot the 'unusual' ornaments?

Yes, crabs and lobsters! The tree was in front of the local-speciality souvenir shop (lots of seafood there), which explains it I suppose.

Then finally, the Tokyo plane arrived! It was a bit grey and wet outside but we still headed onto the observation deck to get a better look...

Where's the plane K?

Now, where can we go next??

Monday, 30 November 2009

My, what big eyes you have!

Do you remember a sneak preview of some cute Little Red Riding Hood fabric a while back? Well, here's what I made with it...

But where's Little Red Riding Hood I hear you cry! Surely not just this little button loop?

Ah, there she is.... Watch out for the wolf!

There's an inside pocket in the brown check material too, but I forgot to take a picture of that :-)

This bag, perfect for carrying goodies for your poorly grandma, is destined to be a Christmas present, but I may make another for the shop sometime. What do you think?

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Hanging out with Vivian

My lovely friend Vivian has been keeping me entertained and out of mischief these past few days.

Earlier last week she invited me and a few other friends to a Thanksgiving-inspired lunch at her place on Friday. However, on Thursday she found out that she had to work on Friday morning... To cut a long story short, the party was still held and Vivian still cooked but the venue was changed to our place! H had a doctor's appointment in the morning and then took the rest of the day off so he was able to join us too, and K was in his best Charming Little Boy mode. In the end 'our' only other guests were Travis and Mio, but that did at least mean that we could all sit around the table! We had a lovely lunch, and as assistant host I got to keep all the yummy leftovers...

Then today Vivian and I had a booth at an international festival, selling toasted sandwiches. As usual, Vivian did all the hard work (shopping and making the sandwich fillings in advance) and I just showed up. By 3.30 we had sold all 130-odd sandwiches! When we had a bit of free time we checked out the other booths and sampled all kinds of tasty treats - spring rolls, spicy tom yan kun soup from Thailand, Taiwanese sausages, deep-fried bananas from the Philippines and more. Oh, I'm getting hungry again just thinking about it all!

There were also stage performances throughout the day. My favourite was a performance by a Mongolian exchange student who played a traditional 2-stringed instrument called (according to, yup, Wikipedia) a morin khuur. The music was hauntingly beautiful and the range of sounds that such a simple-looking instrument could produce was incredible. At times it was hard to believe that we were listening to just one instrument as it seemed to be harmonising with itself!

Of course, I forgot to take the camera with me today so no pictures I'm afraid. Instead, here's a bit of Youtube morin khuur fun for you (although I think today's was better...). Enjoy!

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Daddy took us to the zoo yesterday! (sort of...)

Monday was a public holiday here, and a bright and sunny one at that. We 3, plus Uncle H, headed up Mount Daisen to a little petting zoo there. K loves spotting cats and dogs when we're out and about, but he's not too keen on dogs barking or getting too close. I thought we'd just look in at the animals from outside the enclosures....

I was wrong!

Yup, that's K feeding a kangaroo. I couldn't get over how completely unafraid K was!

(And doesn't it look like they're in someone's garden?)

For the goat/sheep/pot-bellied pig enclosure we stayed on the outside though. I'm wary enough of goats for the both of us.

After watching the pig racing, we went and met some guinea pigs and rabbits. K fancied playing with a little black rabbit, but it just wouldn't let him catch it. The guinea pigs though were easier to corner:

We also saw a llama, some hens and a strange-looking giant rodent apparently called a mara, or Patagonian hare. The most popular section at this place though is the dog enclosure. I'm not a huge dog fan, especially in large numbers, but these guys were incredibly quiet and docile, just lying around in the sun. I even wondered if they'd been doped...

Not a single one barked or jumped up, so K was quite happy trotting around after the few that were actually moving...

All in all, a nice, relaxing, low-key day out.

And I still can't get over that kangaroo-feeding...

Monday, 23 November 2009

You know Christmas is coming....

...when the Colonel gets his Santa suit on.

Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets across Japan have a statue of Colonel Saunders outside, and during the festive season he does double duty as Father Christmas.

KFC has become the standard Christmas food in Japan. They are taking orders now, for particular time slots throughout Christmas week. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day the road in front of KFC is always clogged up with cars waiting to go through the drive-through and collect their orders. I suppose it's the closest most people can get to a roast chicken, let alone turkey...

I, on the other hand, have just ordered two turkeys online; a little one for Christmas Day itself, and a bigger one for the annual Monkey Household Potluck Christmas Party. Consider yourself invited!

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Garden update

This afternoon I finally found an hour when it wasn't raining or blowing a gale, I had nothing urgent to do and, crucially, K was asleep! So I nipped outside and planted those bulbs - yes, those same ones I was going on about not having planted yet about a month ago. A couple of clumps of grape hyacinths, a couple of crocus clumps and one of snowdrops. I hate seeing those kind of flowers planted singly, in rows, so I tried to make natural-looking groups. However I put them though, they seemed to make straight lines from one angle or another! So now they'll probably just look as if they were planted in rows badly....

While I was out I took a few photos of the garden. Back at the start of October, Mum and Dad very kindly bought and then planted some shrubs for us. At the same time, H helped his Dad dig up some things from his garden and wheelbarrowed them over here (for Mum and Dad to put in!). I, er, supervised...

So now, at the side against next-door, we have: a couple of little broom plants, a great big camellia from H's dad, a nobotan (Asian melastome according to Google), another huge camellia from H's dad, a straggly purple-flowering thing, the third and final camellia from H's dad and a little hydrangea in the corner.

From the corner, looking back along the end of the garden: another, bigger, hydrangea, a cherry tree (currently well disguised as a dead stick), a murasaki shikibu (Japanese beauty berry according to Wikipedia!), another nobotan, a satsuma tree and another cherry tree (slightly less dead-stick-looking).

Those photos were pretty useless at showing the plants though, weren't they? Mainly you can just see the stakes supporting the 'trees'. Still, it'll be good to look back and compare pictures in the future, and writing all this down will help me remember what we've got where. Or rather, it will be here to refer to when I've forgotten...

You can also see that the lawn has filled in quite well now. There are still lines between the pieces of turf, but no real gaps. This type of grass is very resiliant and can survive the very hot summers here better than the type you usually find on English lawns, but it does go brown and dead-looking over the winter. I'm assured it will green up again in the spring!

While we're at it, here's the Japanese garden:

Can you see some pink flowers on the biggest tree there? It's a sasanqua, similar to a camellia, and it is absolutely covered in buds...