Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Food glorious food

A selection of amazing treats we were sent for xmas...YUM!!!

Well this may seem like a bit of a random blog entry but since it is the festive season i guess food is major part of that. Japan doesn't celebrate Christmas, apart from the odd shop playing xmas tunes and a few commercial bits and pieces there is next to no hype, 'happy' feeling, or xmas spirit in the air. After quizzing my students and teachers on how they spend xmas day the main responses were: teachers - working and students - a normal day, maybe hang out with friends or study. So as you can see for a foreigner from a xmas celebrating country might find tings a little dull and uneventful at this time of year. Even our hopes of a white xmas have ben dashed with the recent snow melting away the sun making an appearance today (our washing liked that). S, back to the topic of tonights I feel like showing you a small glimpse of some of the food we make at home. As you'll recall our kitchen is the size of a prison cell and getting anyting done in it requires swiss like precision. We must be swiss as we are very good at it now. Buying/eating anything non japanese around here is near impossible so we try our hardest to make things at home which are westernish. Saying that it's pretty difficult to do so the food cravings come and go! It's nice to get a break from rice and fish flakes sometimes.

Above are two types of dishes we make relatively often. The top one is ramen, basically a style of noodles with veges, meat and in a broth. The bottom one is yaki soba, very similar but without the broth, a little bit more like a stir fry noodle.

Since it's a special time of year we have splashed out and used some of the supplies sent to us to make somethings that are impossible to get here. You can't beat pancakes with caramelised apple and caramel sauce, a cooked breakfast (homemade bread, bacon, hashbrowns, scrambled eggs and BAKED BEANS...omg i love them, little morsels of love in every bite). Finally kings soup and bread.

Well that's all folks. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!! We are heading south to the islands of Okinawa for sun, sand and snorkelling for our holiday so if there are no blog entries for the next 2 weeks don't fear. We are ok and we will be back!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Mochi making

At school last week I had an opportunity to experience another of Japan’s many traditional practices... this time it was mochi making!

I’m not really sure how to explain exactly what mochi is... I guess in English it translates into something along the lines of a rice cake... but if you’re thinking of those dry round crispy rice cakes you buy at the supermarket then you are totally on the wrong track! Think more of a dough-like consistency that has hardly any flavour and seriously feels like chewing gum when you eat it (My English teacher was quick to tell me to make sure I only take small bites at a time to avoid choking!) In technical terms it’s a rice cake made of glutinous rice pounded into a paste and then moulded into shape.

Mochi is one of the many traditional foods they have here in Japan that is made for all kinds of occasions throughout the year... New Years being one of the main ones!

So, like anything here in Japan the day started with an opening ceremony in which we all bowed countless numbers of times... I presume we were thanking in advance all the people from the community who had come to help for the day. We were then all instructed to don our aprons and head scarves... I was a little unconventional an opted for my NZ apron rather than one of their full body smocks and wore my Santa hat rather than a bandana much to the amusement of all the students and old ladies.

It’s important to tell you at this point that on this particular day it also happened to be the coldest day we have had here thus far.... as in it was SNOWING! And not just little flakes falling from the sky every now and again... I mean a full on snow flurry that latest for most of the day!

So once we had all met the inspection of the old ladies who seemed to be running the show we were split up into three groups and each assigned to one of the three processes that are involved in the actual making of mochi.

The process is as follows:

  1. Polished rice is soaked overnight and then cooked
  2. The rice is then pounded with wooden mallets in a traditional mortar. Two people will alternate the work, one pounding and the other turning and wetting the mochi.
  3. The sticky mass is then formed into shapes (we only made circles) and then it is ready to eat!

I worked out pretty early on that despite us being split up into three groups there were definite gender roles... the boys did all the pounding (while the girls in the group stood round outside in the snow freezing... they all had to wear their P.E gear... so shorts!) meanwhile the girls in the groups inside did all the shaping while the boys huddle around the tiny heater.

It was interesting to watch how the whole process unfolded but I was quick to work out that the shaping of the mochi once the boys had finished pounding it outside was definitely the step to be in on as the mochi is really warm and worked wonders at defrosting my numb fingers!

I never did manage to work out exactly who we were making the mochi for but I think it was for the community to share at their New Year’s celebrations. That probably goes some way to explaining why we made a grand total of 985 mochi!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

A hard days work....

Last Sunday (yes I know it’s a while ago) I had another day out tramping. It was probably the last day until spring as winter has really set in and the mountains are beginning to look whiter and whiter. I jumped on my scooter at 7am and sped into Beppu, about 40mins by scooter, weaving my way down the middle of the road with hardly a car in sight. I met our crew at the train station and we jumped on a bus and headed up into the hills. Out trip leader had decided it was a ‘late’ start so we couldn’t climb the first mountain, instead we’d get the cable car to the top!

I was a little disappointed but you’ll see how it all worked out. We arrived at the summit, without even breaking a sweat, and started off along the ridge. The plan was to climb 3 mountains that are all linked by one ridge. We started out along the track with relatively good 360 deg views, these mountains are often covered in clouds even on the nicest days so it was very lucky to get some ok views, although within minutes the clouds had rolled in and we were sealed off in our own wee world. The track rolled on with the odd up and down and we passed through some very baron landscapes. Winter had truly removed all of the ‘living’ vegetation and the trees were like bare skeletons. The track finally gave way to a muddy path that in some places made you wonder if it was ever used! We stopped at a beautiful flat area for lunch, it is so interesting seeing what Japanese people eat for lunch, basically whatever they have at home/work comes with them into the hills; bento boxes (Japanese style lunch box with rice and a whole lot of small vegetables and meats....and weird stuff... a lot of it), instant noodles, cans of beer!!, pineapple soaked in brandy!!, dried persimmons, hot coffee, tea or a ginger and caramel drink. My sandwiches looked a little out of place!

The next part of the trip is where things get interesting, the lunch break was quickly forgotten after heading straight up the side of our next mountain, the track didn’t zig zag like expected but instead went directly up. Imagine a slippery slide (like in your back yard) but on a crazy angle. One step up, two down. Finally at the top going down was in much the same fashion except on a knife edge ridge, in places you could stand with your arms out and have them both hanging over the edges! Even with the ropes to assist you it was a very slow, careful and steep descent.

After finally reaching the bottom we had one more summit to climb, luckily only 20minutes away. This bought us out onto a small mountain right behind Beppu with views out over the whole area. This mountain is quite an obvious feature as the whole side gets burnt off every spring in a big festival. So every day you look up and see this yellow/brown slope with no trees and wonder what it’s all about, looking down from the top was pretty cool. We raced to the bottom and headed for the nearest Onsen (hot spring) for a relaxing, naked with other men, bath. Only my second experience naked with other men so I wouldn’t say I’m comfortable with it, the fact I’m white makes me a novelty and it was dam cold!

So all in all we spent 7 ½ hrs tramping and didn’t get to the bottom until after dark. Looking back I’m pleased our leader decided on the cable car otherwise we might still be there!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Arctic blast

Sorry for the lack of blogging...a technical glitch on my computer has halted any further use of that machine and without being able to take it to any shops here it has meant a delay in fixing it as i have to contact NZ via email and so on. The joy of the language barrier!

We are currently in the midst of a full on arctic blast, like the rest of Japan, and snow is falling across most of the country. It is suppose to snow here all day Friday and Saturday so we are crossing our fingers and toes we'll have a white xmas!!! It snowed a bit today while we were at school but nothing settled. I've come to the conclusion that Japan is much colder than NZ, even were we are which would be considered a 'warmer' part . Hokkaido (top island) is already regularly -10deg maximum day time temps!!! Scooting to work today the temp gauge said 0deg (at sea level) and as meg has to head in land and upwards she's had 8am! By the time i head home at 4pm its anywhere from 3-6deg. And remember there is no heating in any of the school classes! My teachers told me today that February is the coldest month...yah!

Since we are on the topic of school here is a pic (off the trusty cell phone) of my desk and part of the teachers room. About 45ish teachers in here.

And this is my new best friend. The only heating in the entire school are 2 of these. They run on some sort of kerosene fuel (in black container on stand far left), a pot of water sits on top and steams away all day (apparently it drys your eyes out without it...), and a long chimney goes up and out the side of the building so we don't all die from the exhaust fumes. Even on the lowest setting my back burns. Still i have the best seat in the house ( my chair/desk is the one on the right). Sometimes the students come and stand here but i have taken to sending them's mine!

Friday, December 11, 2009

TAO - the Cirque du Soleil of drumming

Last night we had the absolute pleasure of watching an amazing Taiko drumming show by a group called TAO. Taiko is a traditional Japanese style of drumming. The tickets were our Christmas presents from Jo and so the 3 of us headed off together.
We went into it with no real expectations as the only form of Taiko drumming we have seen has been at the odd festival, more about keeping a constant rhythm for people to dance to as apposed to being the show themselves.
Well it was another of those truly amazing experiences that you come away from totally buzzing! Our hearts beating a million miles an hour and the sound of drums ringing in our ears. I think we both wanted to quit our jobs and take up Taiko drumming! It is very difficult to explain what actually happened but if you've ever been to Cirque du Soleil you'll have a good idea of what we mean. Imagine that but with drums minus the flying. It was jaw dropping at times.
They have performed in 16 countries, 300 cities and do 500 performances every year. They consist of 2 groups but this concert had both groups together. They have been to NZ twice. Like anything in Japan they have a cult like following here with a fan club and people in the crowd stretching out trying to touch them!
Click here to check out their website, you can watch a video of what they do, trust me you'll wish you were there live!
Their pure strength and stamina was amazing as they pretty much had their hands above their heads beating drums as hard and fast as they could for 2hrs, we were tired just watching! The girls certainly liked their bodies.

Here is a wee clip we took secretly, quality isn't very good so make sure you look at their website!

note: Pics courtesy of their website...go have a look!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Up until yesterday I was pretty impressed to have never seen any evidence of bullying going on within any of the 10 schools that I visit. In fact my overall impression has been that on the whole kids over here respect each other a hell of a lot more than they do at schools in NZ.

Yesterday was a different story entirely but surprisingly is was the attitude of the teachers rather than the students themselves that left me with a bad taste in my mouth and in a foul mood for the rest of the day!
I was on my way to class with my English teacher when we came across a student sobbing her heart out while standing talking with her homeroom teacher. My English teacher happens to also be the disciplinary teacher for the school and so stopped to find out what was going on. After what seemed to me to be a rather heated conversation with the student (resulting in more tears) we carried on our way to class leaving the student who was still crying with her teacher. My English teacher then says to me "she is in trouble" by way of explaining what I had just seen... to which I responded something along the lines of "that's no good". My teacher then went on to say "she is being bullied by her friends." My initial thought was 'oh he's made a mistake... trouble obviously wasn't what he meant but then I remembered the conversation he had just had with this student... a telling off is the same in any language! So using my fabulous journalistic skills I asked a few leading questions which quickly got me to the bottom of it. Here is what I was told... although note this isn't word for word seeing as I didn't have my shorthand notepad handy!
"Her friends are bullying her but in Japanese culture if someone is being bullied than it is because they themselves are doing something wrong." I then said, "what do you mean".... "well if there is a group of students bullying her than she must have done something to deserve it" (these I can assure you were his actual words!). Having been on the receiving end of bullying myself I was totally at a loss for words... thinking to myself, surely he doesn't really believe she deserves to be bullied! Not quite satisfied just yet I then said "what makes you say that". To which he replied, "a group of students wouldn't bully one student if they hadn't first done something to deserve it. A group can't be wrong - if a group are bullying just one student then because there are more of them they must be right."

My jaw dropped!

On the flip side I had a great day today making Christmas hats with my students!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Climbing a mountain

On Sunday, feeling the need to stretch our legs a bit and do some exploring, we joined up with Jo and the kids to climb their local mountain. Here is a collection of a few pics from the day's outing.

The Mountain (our summit on the right)

The gang (at this point still all feeling genki)

The kids blazed the trail

A sacred mountain with 80 odd praying places along the way, lots of these wee chaps to bring a smile to your face (and an excuse for a rest), a common site in Japan.

Go Meg Go! It was said at one point "I'm not sure if its better to know whats coming or not"
Megan can assure you it didn't matter either way - steep!!!!!
The victory dance

A good example of the landscape we live in. Mountains, valleys and rice fields. Jo's house at the bottom.

More of the rugged landscape. No volcanoes here sorry.

The captain admiring the view.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

It's SUMO time!!!

The stadium

Yesterday's experience would have to rate as one of the best we've had in Japan so far. In fact for pure insight into a countries historic culture and sheer enjoyment maybe one of the best experiences we've ever had! To use the word 'amazing' would be an understatement!
The entrance ceremony

Sumo wrestling must be one of the worlds most ancient sports dating back about 1500years. According to legend the very origin of the Japanese race depended on the outcome of a sumo match. It's origins were religious and contained rituals dedicated to the gods in hope of bountiful harvests, in the 8th period it was introduced into the imperial court and a tournament was held each year. A period of warfare broke out across Japan around 1192 and it wasn't until 1603 when a new Shogun (commander or military leader) took control and restored peace, that Sumo took it's place as Japan's national sport.

Moving on from the history lesson, there are now six grand national tournaments a year and thankfully one of those makes it's way to Fukuoka, a 1.5hr drive along the expressway from us.
Before each match the wrestler's sponsors are displayed

Each tournament lasts for 15 days and each rikishi (wrestler) fights only once each day against a different opponent. The rikishi with the best W-L record is the winner of the tournament. There are about 800 professional rikishi in the world so it's a very exclusive club! Sumo is actually a very complicated sport with so many different ranking levels, rules, ceremonial stuff and techniques. It may not look like it but there are 70 winning 'tricks' most of which are achieved by maneuvering your opponent with a grip on the mawashi (nappy). Basically the aim is to get the other dude to touch the ground first (with any body part excluding their feet) or to throw them outside the ring.
A match in progress and the gyoji (ref)

The atmosphere was electric and as the day progressed and the top guys started wrestling things really heated up! Hopefully the pics will do it justice!
Here is a sequence of one of the more exciting matches

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Yufu Dake

During the weekend I headed out to climb another mountain with some of the local alpine club members. It was my second trip with some of them and it`s starting to become a regular occurrence with a few more in the pipeline before winter really hits. This time we headed for Yufu Dake, 1583m, it won`t win any records for it`s height but it`s location, views and looks are certainly up there. Like most mountains in Japan it is an extinct volcano with a perfect cone like formation and 2 craters, it has 2 summits the East and West peaks which I`m guessing where formed when it last blew off some steam.

It is only a 1hr drive from our place through the steaming hillside of Beppu and the drive up the mountains out onto the Kijima Plateau is beautiful. The trip started out across large fields of bamboo grass, one of those plants that looks comfy from afar but you wouldn`t want to roll around in! Once you’re in the forest the track steepens a bit and the going gets a little tougher, before long you find yourself panting your way up one of the 24 zig zags in the track. The last few hundred meters get really steep before popping out at the saddle between the 2 peaks.

I wish I could say I was lucky with the weather but after climbing 4 peaks in Japan I still haven`t had any with perfect weather! The temperature was probably only 2-3degrees and combined with the wind chill would have easily been below freezing, in fact you`ll see by the pictures it was probably more like -5 and hasn`t been any higher in a long time! 100% of the flora was frozen and in some places the ice build up on plants was 20-30cm long! It was a true winter wonderland! Being a tough kiwi I was the only one wearing shorts and every single person we passed on the way commented on how the hell I was ok. My motto is `walk cold, stop warm` so while we were moving it was no problem. After about 10seconds at the top I quickly changed into some pants much to everyone`s relief. I`m sure the non English speaking Japanese thought I was way outta my depth but I had no way of explaining I knew what I was doing.

We headed for the more challenging West peak first and as the guide book said we were greeted by a long section of chains to assist us. Most of these weren`t really needed but one section in particular required a 7m climb up virtually vertical rock, no problem in summer but covered in snow and ice the chains were very helpful! After lunch on the west peak summit we headed back to climb the much easier east summit and then off back down the hill to the cars.

On the way down we met a volunteer who builds tracks, benches and markers on the mountain, he climbs it 40 times a year! He also told us last year he walked the whole length of Japan in 90 days! And he's 70!

Another fantastic day out which could have easily been mistaken for a trip to the Antarctic!

Monday, November 23, 2009


A couple of days ago i finally got my hands on a scooter! After having survived my first few trips to and from school on it i can now safely blog about it. There are a ton of scooters all over the show, most with little old lady owners who speed around the narrow streets on their daily shopping outings etc. i figured it'd be pretty easy to get my hands on one. Unfortunately this was not the case! After a solid 2-3month search I'd almost given up hope and had come to terms with the fact I'd have to put up with the 2.5hr daily commute to and from school. I didn't really have any problems with catching the train and bus, it was more of the annoying waiting in between because some bright spark hadn't though of scheduling them in a user friendly way that i found frustrating. Most of the scooters in the shops sold for anything over 75,000 yen right up to the price of a car!!! My ideal amount was considerably less. Luckily after taking a slight driving detour one day we came across a shop i hadn't seen before (ironically i walked about 100m past it every day for 3 months). A long story short it was a good shop to find!

So wee Mr scoot works hard everyday racing it's way along the busy main road taking me to school. If a big truck goes past we shake a little and the 'speed warning' light flashes at 37km/h (I've been 40! wow) but it's a hell of a lot of fun!!

Friday, November 20, 2009

School lunches!

Before I get started I warn you now that I get the feeling that this is going to be a reoccurring blog entry - because when it comes to school lunches I’m never anything short of amazed (disgusted is probably more accurate) about what I find dished up on my plate!
On the one hand I love school lunches because it means I have one less thing to worry about before I head out the door in the mornings but on the other hand (and this hand is much much bigger) I HATE school lunches with a passion! I realise that my hate of school lunch stems from the fact that the food we are given each day is clearly not the type of food I am used but in my defence I do always try everything on my tray before politely declining to eat anything further and resigning myself to the fact that yet again I will go hungry!

Check this little gem out... he was on my plate at school last week....isn’t he delightful!?

Most days when I get given my tray I seriously have no idea what the heck is in front of me. I can usually spot the rice or the bread (although sometimes they put so much weird stuff in it it becomes barely recognisable) – my favourite is when they put tiny little white fish with big black eyes all through the rice... let’s just say I’ve got pretty good at picking up single grains of rice with my chopsticks!
Whoever led us to believe that Japanese food was really good for us was lying! I’m sure back in the day when it was just miso soup, fish and rice it might have been but if the amount of fried food we are served up is anything to go by then these days a long gone! I absolutely refuse to eat anything that arrives on my plate that fits into the deep fried category given that just touching it with your chopstick causes it to oozes fat! My guess is that combined with the full fat milk that is given each day too (my schools think I have a milk allergy...) this goes some way to explaining why there is an increasing number of overweight kids here!