Sunday, 31 May 2009

Sand sculptures

Last Saturday we went to Tottori city for the day, about a 2 hour drive away. Tottori is famous for its sand dunes. Well, actually, Tottori isn't really famous at all and even a lot of Japanese people seem to struggle to find it on a map, but the sand dunes are pretty well known. At the moment they are having an international sand sculpture festival there, so we went to check it out.

We got to Tottori at lunchtime so we parked in the city centre and had lunch and then took a bus out to the dunes. The bus was a special, old-fashioned one, with wooden floors, brass railings and bench seats facing the windows. K seemed to enjoy riding the bus more than anything else that day, standing on my lap and holding onto the railings to look out the window. Even though it was just a normal Saturday there was still quite a queue of cars waiting to get into the car park at the sand dunes, so we were glad we had taken the bus. The bus ride took about 30 minutes but, according to the driver, it took 3 to 4 hours over Golden Week!

I took lots of photos but I will try to be selective here. I just noticed that I have already used 2% of my free photo storage on Blogger! Here's a general picture to give you an idea of scale (and to show you the threatening clouds...)

There were 10 main sculptures, each representing a story or myth from the country the sculptor came from. My favourites included the one from India:

and The Flying Dutchman, which won first prize:

I quite liked this one from China too:

Here's a close-up of the back of the Indian sculpture:

and a detail from the Australian one:

Dotted around the exhibition area were several mini sculptures and at the far end of the park was one huge sculpture. It showed scenes from lots of different classic fairy tales but you couldn't get as close to it as you could to the others so it was rather difficult to see all the detail. If you look carefully here you can see Rapunzel and Cinderella:

and here's Gulliver and Jack and the Beanstalk:

We wandered around the park for an hour or two, looking at the sculptures, browsing the stalls and chatting with a friend we bumped into. This event was the first part of a series of events designed to promote Eastern Tottori and so, as always in Japan, there were mascot characters (like you get for the Olympics) specially designed to reflect the local area. Hence 'Nashiita' (a shiitake mushroom with nashi pears for ears) and 'Kanira' (a crab (kani in Japanese) with shallots (rakkyo) for ears). And you didn't even know crabs had ears, did you? Here's K getting to know Nashiita:

To get back to where we'd left the car we decided to take the train, and headed to Fukube station. H suggested that if we had to wait a long time for a train we could always have something to eat at the station. Luckily we weren't too hungry....
Yes, that's the station. Rather lacking in restaurants. And staff. And, indeed, any way to buy a ticket. Still, a train soon arrived and we set off for home, after a really nice day out.

Saturday, 30 May 2009

A busy week

I can't believe it's Saturday already, especially as I still haven't written a post about last Saturday's day out yet! Hopefully I'll get that done this weekend.

The week has whizzed by with all the usual stuff, plus a few extras - the non-cancelled teacher training workshop yesterday and K's first full day at day care on Tuesday. Unlike Monday afternoons, he didn't cry when I dropped him off in the morning and was still fine, if sleepy, when I picked him up at 5. The staff wrote a little report for me, telling me what he ate, when he napped, the contents of his nappies and what he got up to during the day. Apparently he played happily, looked at lots of books, played outside in the sandpit and enjoyed riding on a rocking-dolphin!

While K was at day care I tried to do lots of things that I find hard when he is around - had a haircut, went fabric shopping, had a nice peaceful lunch and did a bit of sewing. I'm working on my contribution for the monkey swap but I still haven't finished it. Another thing to get done this weekend...

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

The Incredible Eating Machine

or What K Ate Yesterday

I'm always amazed at how much food that little boy is able to eat. He weighs about a fifth of what I do, but he eats well over half of what I do.

So, just to compare, here's what we both ate yesterday. First, breakfast. K had porridge with stewed apple and yoghurt, and a banana. I had a bowl of cereal:

K ate all his, plus a few flakes from my bowl...
Mid-morning K had a kiwi fruit, but I didn't take a photo.
You know what a kiwi fruit looks like.
I had nothing :-(

At lunchtime, K had potato cakes containing mince, pumpkin and spinach, with some turnip, broad beans and mini-tomatoes. A few beans and bits of turnip were left over, but on the other hand he had one more potato cake than in the photo. I had a couple of pieces of pizza from the bakery:

Hey, I was hungry by then! I had to have those few bites to gain a bit of energy for the photography! There was a croissant too, which didn't make it to the photo...

Mid-afternoon I had a chocolate roll (from the bakery. Can you guess where we went yesterday morning?) and K had a raisin roll. Nothing was left over, by either of us...

Dinner time! First, mine, to prove that I don't survive solely on items from the bakery: a big salad containing lettuce, tomato, beansprouts, fried aubergine and onion, and a bowl of rice topped with chicken, egg, onion and peas.

K had the same, with the aubergine separate and the rice made into little seaweed rolls to make it easier to handle. He didn't eat the lettuce, some of the beansprouts and the last 2 rice rolls:

So there we have it. K will eat pretty much anything, as long as he's left to eat it himself with his fingers. The only thing he'll still let me spoonfeed him is porridge.

On the other hand, he won't drink milk. Up until his birthday, he was a big fan of the bottle but then one day he just refused it. We've tried all kinds of variations: formula/cow's milk, warm/room temperature/straight from the fridge, bottle/sippy cup/straw, blended with banana, at various times of the day..... no luck. He's still breast-feeding at bedtime but, apart from that, he only drinks water. Any suggestions?

Monday, 25 May 2009


We have a lawn!

Well, we have lots of squares of turf laid, which hopefully will thrive in their new home and become a lawn. At the beginning of last week, when we did most of the groundwork, it was hot and sunny but after we'd laid the turf it changed to cloudy and wet - just right I think.

So here's how it looks from the end of the Japanese garden:

And from the patio:

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Rice planting revisited

After writing about rice planting the other day I noticed that there was still one field behind our house which hadn't been planted yet. I kept an eye on it all Friday - nothing. Then, just before we went out for the day on Saturday, planting began! So I got a photo of the little tractor in action for you after all:

The farmer's wife was there too (supervising I suppose...), and she told me a little about rice-planting when she was young. It was all done by hand then, and the people planting the rice would sing songs as they worked. She said that there was a lot more rain at this time of year years ago, and that people wore capes made of woven rice straw to keep them dry. Nowadays a lot of the fields around here are not being used and are just full of weeds, but in the past, when all the fields were being planted, there was often a shortage of water apparently. The farmer's wife told me that people used to sit guard by the irrigation canals overnight, to make sure than no-one was taking water out of turn, and that water was (a long time ago) the cause of more than one fight around here!

Meanwhile Mrs A was spotted filling in odd spots by hand:

Friday, 22 May 2009

Progress in the garden

Previously, on Operation Back Garden.....

H and D pulled up every little weed they could find (plus not a few big ones) and turf was ordered. Has it arrived? Has progress been made? Stay tuned for the next exciting installment!

After all the weeding was done we (and by 'we' I mean 'H') turned over the soil and dug out lots of nasty big weed roots. Then on Sunday we got The Phone Call - the turf had arrived. So after Sports Day H went off to the home centre to collect it. There was no way it would all go in our car and even using the home centre's little truck it still took 2 trips to get it all home.

H unloaded it all and I took it around to the back of the house in the wheelbarrow. Doing physical work outdoors in light rain reminded me of life on the farm in England...

Here it is all stacked up and ready to be laid. There's even some turf secretly hidden under the bay window, can you see it?

On Monday and Tuesday H took time off from work and set to preparing the ground. After all that root removal it really did look as if a bomb had hit the back garden - craters everywhere. But I forgot to take a photo. Oops.

H leveled it all off and worked in some manure. He also re-shaped the sloping bit of the garden to make a smoother, more gradual slope with no steps. Well done H!

(Did you spot the rice fields being flooded in the background?)

After that I raked it all down and then we leveled it off with a bit of wood nicked from H's dad. I'm not sure if it would all meet May professional standards, but we decided that That Would Do.
Here's a view from just over the wall, by the lone hydrangea in the corner, so that you can see the house and the end of the Japanese garden too.

By Tuesday afternoon we were finally ready to start laying the turf. I carried on on Wednesday afternoon when K was napping and now there's just a little bit left to do. So rather than spoil the surprise, I wait until it's all done to post more photos.

Yup, I'm leaving you with bare earth. Again.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Lovely weather for ducks

Today was one day this week that I was out all day, so of course Mr A planted his rice and I missed it. So no photos of his little tractor in action again, sorry.

It was a bit rainy and overcast when I took this picture but if you look carefully you can see the rice seedlings just peeping out of the water, and a duck. The flooded rice fields attract lots of ducks here, and millions of frogs. Every night the sound of the frogs is unbelievably loud, even indoors behind double-glazing!

Luckily I did spot some rice seedlings the other day, grown in little polytunnels and awaiting planting into the rice fields. You'll just have to imagine the actual planting...

Daycare for K

Last month I was asked to do a couple of workshops for Japanese teachers who teach English to children. The workshops, scheduled for 2 mornings next week, are completely organised by the company employing the teachers and all the materials are provided. I thought it sounded interesting, and a little pocket money is always appreciated, so I said yes.

This brought us to child-care for K. First, a bit of background: until April, the only time that someone other than H or I took care of K was a couple of hours on Thursday afternoons when H's mum looked after him while I taught a class. From April I started back at the university and my classes happened to be on Thursday mornings so H's mum was promoted to all-day-Thursday-carer (well, until about 3.30). At the same time I started taking a dance class on Monday afternoons. The centre that runs the classes has set up a deal with a nearby day-care so that anyone taking a class can leave their little one there for 200 yen, just for the duration of the class. A friend was already using that service and said that her son loved playing there, so I went for it too.

Unfortunately, the dance class is in the early afternoon - baby nap time. When I take K there he is sleepy and grumpy, and all the other children are napping. He cries when I leave him, eventually has a nap, and then I go to pick him up again just as everyone is waking up. As a result, he doesn't play or seem to have any enjoyable associations with the place and a feel like a meanie every time I take him there.

Now, this day-care centre also offers one-off full-day day-care (does that make sense?). I've been thinking for a while that if I left K there for a full day he would be able to play with all the toys and other children and might actually enjoy himself. Plus, I would have a day off :-)
So, getting back to those workshops, I decided to take K to day-care for one of the days, and ask H's mum to look after him for the other. The workshops are only actually in the morning, so on day-care day I would then have the afternoon free to do whatever I wanted (get a haircut! get a haircut!). So I've booked a place for K for Tuesday, and a hairdressers appointment for me too.

Sounds good eh? Just one snag - they called me this afternoon to say that the Tuesday workshop has been cancelled. Boo. I thought about trying to change my bookings to Friday, but that day's workshop is in the next town over and I wouldn't be able to take K to day-care and then get there on time. Anyway, I guess I'll just go with the original plan and have a full day off on Tuesday. Unfortunately, this means that Friday's pay will already have been spent, on day-care and a haircut....

OK, rant over. That turned out to be a longer post than I expected!

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Rice growing

Our house backs directly onto some rice fields. Every year I think that it would be good to document the rice growing, and every year I fail to do it. So this year, for the benefit of those of you who do not have rice fields on your doorstep, here's what is happening...

The fields are left fallow over the winter and so this is what it looked like a couple of weeks ago:

Then our neighbour Mr A (otherwise known as The Strawberry Guy) got his little tractor out and worked it all down:

All finished!
After that it was a matter of waiting for the water. Around here the water for rice growing is mainly provided by snow melt from the mountains, which makes its way to the rice fields via a combination of natural rivers and manmade channels. Little sluice gates in the channels are closed to stop the water to allow it to be diverted into the rice fields. Once the fields are flooded the gates are opened again and the water carries on to fields further downstream. Here we are quite a way from the mountains so we have to wait until everyone upstream has got their water before it reaches us. Here's one of the irrigation channels near us:

And here's a field being flooded that I noticed last week:

On Saturday, after flooding began, the field behind our house looked like this:

After more flooding and weekend rain, it was time for Mr A to get his little tractor out again and churn it all up into a nice muddy soup, all ready to be planted:

More rice growing news as it happens...

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Sports Day

Today was the local area Sports Day. Unfortunately the weather was bad so it was held in the primary school gym and was over by lunchtime. Now, it's called Sports Day but the most energetic thing that I did all morning was run back to the car in the rain at the end. The events are more like games than races and are designed so that everyone can participate, regardless of age. Even if you can't walk yet, you can still join in:

Yup, that's K and H taking part in 'Snacks please!'. This involved walking (or running if you felt like it) from the start line to a table where a nice lady would give you a box of biscuits. That's it. Any pre-school child could join in and everyone got biscuits.

Next, H and I joined in this game:

2 teams compete to throw as many beanbags into the basket as they can in 20 seconds. We lost. I like this game because if you're rubbish at it no-one notices because the whole team is doing it at the same time.

Other events included a tug-of-war and a 'race' for the over-60s which seemed to entail walking to a card on the floor, picking it up, and taking it to the finish line...

Today's grand finale was a relay for teams of 4 primary school children, 4 junior high students and 4 adults. The team members round around the track and either pick up a sweet from a plate of flour or pick a bread roll in a bag off a clothes line - both feats to be achieved using only your mouth of course...

If it had been held outside there would have been a few 'proper' races, such as 50m and 100m running races for kids and a relay for teams of 8 men and 8 women whose combined age exceeded 500. There would also have been a lot more comedy events, including a 3-legged type race for teams of 10 (so how many legs is that?). The funny thing about these Sports Days is that they are not confined to neighbourhood events or even primary schools. When I first came to Japan I worked at a high school (for students aged 15 to 18) and the Sports Day there was just the same!

Another great feature of local Sports Days is the prizes. Everyone gets something for each race that they take part in. These prizes are usually something useful for the house, from the 100yen shop. Today we got a ball of string and a tub of wet-wipes, as well as K's biscuits. No, really:

And we all got lunch too:

What more could you want?

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The Gospellers

My friend Chieko is a big fan of a Japanese band called The Gospellers. They're a 5 man vocal group who started as an a cappella group and now also do a lot of light pop and soppy ballads. It's not really the kind of music I usually listen to but when Chieko wanted to someone to go to a concert with back in January 2007, I was happy to oblige. It was a fun night out so last night we went to see them again!

I wish we'd been able to take pictures because I really want to show you what they were wearing. Hot pink lame suits. With hot pink shirts (of a slightly different hue). Later things improved when they changed into white shirts and trousers, but then they went and put on white jackets with sequin-encrusted lapels... Another amusing element of the concert was the dancing. Those guys really can't dance. They do all the little moves that seem to be compulsory for Japanese boy bands but they just don't really seem to pull it off.

But one of the things that I like about this band is that they don't take themselves too seriously. They had a good rapport with the audience and just seemed to be down-to-earth guys. At one point they performed the Boyz II Men song 'I'll Make Love To You' and while singing the line 'I'm gonna take my clothes off too', one of the guys unbuttoned his shirt. The reaction from the 99% female audience of adoring fans? Frenzied screaming? Nope. Laughter. And so he was then ribbed by his mates after the song...

And another thing I like about them? They really can sing. Last night, in a cappella mode, they did a version of Billy Joel's The Longest Time that was really good. Here's a bit of it (this time in tuxedos...). And here's a clip of one of their hits, performed live, that's worth looking at if only to see what they are wearing. See? And you thought I was joking. Finally, here's the video for one of their most recent singles, called 1,2,3, for 5. Check out the dancing! And I bet you thought you were watching Sesame Street to begin with didn't you?

And yes, that guy does always wear sunglasses.

Thursday, 14 May 2009


Thursday is Going Out To Work day for me, which means an early start and a 45 minute drive to the university in the next town over. It's a bit of a pain in the winter when it's dark and potentially snowy but most of the time I enjoy the drive. The roads aren't too busy and I get views like this when I'm stopped at traffic lights:

After classes and lunch it's an hour drive back, straight to my afternoon class at a community centre. H's mum comes over to look after K while I'm out and I usually get home again around 3.30. Today when I got back I took K out for a walk and managed to take a picture of some koi-nobori, the carp banners I wrote about the other day. Don't they look great?


Everybody needs good neighbours! (Have I got you humming the theme tune yet?)

Spending time in the garden (=weeding) has proven to be a good way to interact with our neighbours. The old lady from next door has hopped over the wall several times (it's a small wall) to offer the use of tools, entertain K in his pushchair and repremand me for not wearing a hat. Yesterday the old man from next door on the other side gave us some young cabbage plants to put in the vegetable patch. This brings the total contents of the vegetable patch to asparagus, which has yet to come up, and cabbages...

Finally, the old man from 2 doors down whisked H away yesterday and sent him back with a big box of strawberries. I think he wins Neighbour Of The Week in my book.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

To do, doing, done!

Now that Golden Week is well and truly over, I thought I'd better look back at that list of things I was going to do....

Perhaps not surprisingly, all the planned socialising was done, and more (as written about here). The chair was put together, the clock put up, and H's birthday present and cake made. On Saturday before yoga I finally got out the stamp-making kit and made a little practice stamp - a nice little strawberry that didn't turn out too badly. The latest monkey-related project hasn't been finished yet, but I do have all month for that. On the other hand, I got to spend more time with friends than I had expected, went to the cinema to see Gran Turino and generally had a nice relaxing week, with H doing most of the cooking...

But of course, it's easy to do a list of fun things. I know what you're all wondering really - did she do any gardening? Well, with the help of Katherine, H and I completed Phase 1 of Operation Back Garden - it has been weeded and turf has been ordered! And here's the proof:

Well, OK, there is a little patch there in the middle that still needs doing. I was going to do it this afternoon but it's raining. And of course, a garden of bare earth is hardly something to be proud of but it's definitely An Improvement. And I wanted to get a picture up while the azaeleas were still flowering.

(end of excuses...)

Monday, 11 May 2009

Happy Birthday H!

Yesterday was a day for celebration here at the Monkey household: H's birthday, and Mothers' Day too. I made thick, American-style pancakes for breakfast (well, H's breakfast. More like early elevenses for me and K) and we swapped presents. I gave H a book cover (which I had made) and a bookmark (which I hadn't) and he gave me a game for the DS! Don't expect anything too constructive from me for a while now...

Manly denim on the outside. Cute little animals on the inside :-)

All 3 of us went out for a nice lunch and later in the afternoon we had birthday cake.

Do you think H might be getting too old for a cake with candles? No, of course not. A couple of years ago I bought a birthday cake at a cake shop and the woman on the till asked me if I wanted candles for it. When I said yes please, she asked me how many....
Oh, well, it's not for a child (embarrassed smile)...
That's OK, how many would you like?
.....35 please... (blush)

So, hope you had a good day H, and that all you mums celebrating yesterday had a good day too!

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Boys' Day

One of the holidays last week, May 5th, was Children's Day or, more traditionally, Boys' Day. There aren't really any special events associated with the day, but many families with boys do put up some kind of decoration. Here's K with ours (enjoy this photo. It took ages to get him to look at the camera rather than behind him at all the cool shiny stuff...):

This set came from H's parents, who used to put it on display when H and his brothers were little. In the centre is a samurai-type helmet, at the sides are lanterns, banners, a sword and a bow and arrows and in the front is a fan and an unidentified round gold thing :-)

** H has just come to tell me that the unidentified round gold thing is actually some type of helmet and that all the items are connected with samurai and have connotations of strength. Thanks H! **

One of the sets of banners is shaped like koi (carp), which is a common theme for Boys' Day. It's said that koi swim upstream and become dragons at the end of their lives so, once again, a strong and rather cool image. A lot of people put up big colourful koi banners outside their house, which look fantastic swimming in the wind. I just went out to take a sneaky photo of some impressive koi-nobori that I'd spotted down the road but they've been taken down :-(
I suspect that's only because it's very windy today so if they reappear I'll post a shot then.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Top secret monkey news

I have signed up for my first blog-based swap, and it is monkey themed! It is top secret, so no pictures of what I'm making or info on who I'm sending it to yet, but here is Claire's blog where it all started. I will post here again when it's all finished. Isn't it exciting?

In non-monkey but nonetheless top secret news, I have finished H's birthday present (some would say this is still monkey-related...). It hasn't turned out quite as well as I had hoped but I'm hoping he won't mind too much. All will be revealed tomorrow!

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Fun with friends

Golden Week ended up being mainly about hanging out with friends this year. Last Saturday we had a picnic lunch with Tomonori, Ritsuko and Rensei up at Muki-Banda-Isekei. K seemed to enjoy crawling round on the grass and didn't object too strenuously to his new hat (size 3 to 4 years...).The weather was lovely and we had a great view over the whole peninsula:

The next day it was picnic time again (Yumigahama Park this time). Bad weather had cancelled our attempt at an International Family Picnic the week before, but this time the weather was perfect. We didn't have as many people as I think would have come the week before, but we still had a good time, and I hope we can do something like that again soon.

Apart from that we hadn't really had any big plans for the holidays, until a phone call from Katherine! I knew she was hoping to come down for a few days but nothing was really set until the last minute. Having her stay with us for a few days (and having H around of course...) created a real 'holiday' feel for me, and acted as a catalyst for seeing more friends. Miho popped in a couple of times, we all had lunch with Miki on Monday and then she brought lovely little Rento round on Tuesday night. It was the first time (at almost 4 months) that I'd seen him and, after K, he seemed so small and light. A proper 'baby' baby! It's hard to believe that K was like that less than a year ago...

Katherine and I also went for a little drive around Daisen and were very excited to think we had found a 'Bear Observation' place. Sadly no bears were to be seen after all, so we had to make do with tofu doughnuts instead (and sorry again H for not bringing any back for you...).

Of course, we couldn't let Katherine stay here completely free of charge and so we set her to work on the weeding! Progress has been made, and I have the blisters to prove it, but we're not exactly at the 'after' stage yet, so you'll have to hang on for photos...