Gem is officially licensed to tea!
It’s Sunday night of a lovely long weekend here in Nagahama, and we’ve been spending it doing things we like best!
Yesterday, we finished everything that needed finishing (housework, shopping and the final co-op missions of Halo 4) and we’re off to have adventures in the south on Monday and Tuesday, so we’ve spent this Sunday having a lovely, gentle time.
A sleep-in for Kin, while I made a morning visit to friends in Kinomoto, then home to a simple lunch, scavenged from the contents of the fridge (I told you it’s good to keep soup and salad dressing in there!)
Kin then headed out to do some pottery in Kurokabe, while I baked bread, puttered around in my pots and studied for an hour or two. When he got home, we enjoyed afternoon tea together; you may notice we’re eating some of the same banana bread at both lunch and afternoon tea. That banana bread is actually a bit of an accident…
A few weeks ago, my sister inspired me to make a nice, big batch of dulce de leche and, when I noticed our bananas were beginning to look a little sad in their bowl, I thought that I was being provided with a wonderful opportunity to transform my ingredients into a delicious banoffee pie for us to enjoy over the weekend. A little chocolate, a little cream, a drizzle of toffee sauce…. Subarashii!
What actually happened was that I got home on Friday evening, opened the last container of dulce de leche, tasted it to be sure it was still okay and then grew canines, howled at the moon and devoured the lot with a soup spoon.
(I wasn’t really in a fit state to observe myself, you understand, but I’m pretty certain this version of events is pretty close to being true.)
At any rate, I was left with the situation of having a bunch of sick-looking bananas and no caramel, so banana bread was a fairly obvious choice; cold slices for snacks and hot chunks with custard for desserts. Combined with the bread Oinky and I baked, this treat has made our apartment smell absolutely lovely. Outside, the air still carries a fairly heavy chill, but inside, everything is warm and clean and wonderfully fragrant. Life is good.
The indoor refugees don’t seem to be phased by the cold; they’re so happy to be outdoors, they’re shooting up like rockets. The cold, gusty wind is giving my poor snow peas some trouble though. Every time they try to get a grip on the balcony railing, they’re blown off! After this photo was taken, I tethered them with a bit of hundred yen crochet cotton (Kin says the balcony looks like a spider web now!) and that seems to be helping them hang on a bit better.
And now, I’m preparing dinner and listening to Kin sigh while he sketches. I’m so proud of him at the moment, I could explode!
Kin has just completed the Betty Edwards drawing program for the second time, and the results have been phenomenal. You can see his previous “Before” and “After” self portraits here (seriously, go look at them, I want you to see how awesome this is).
Now have a look at this:
That was his latest “After” portrait. Isn’t he amazing?
It’s lovely when we can combine peacefulness and productivity this way. We’re looking forward to exciting times over the next few days of Golden Week, but we’re both very glad we had a little stretch to work and recuperate first.
However you’re spending your week, we hope you enjoy it! Don’t forget to take some downtime.
(For a calorie count of my caramel orgy, or a look at more of Kin’s photos, please check out our Facebook page!)
And an April Fool (we won’t see Shallow again until August).
Very important preparations being made.
By Kin as well! He’ll be studying again in August and is making sure that he’s ready.
Hikiyama Matsuri (one of Nagahama’s most famous festivals).
Time to resume our Lake Biwa adventures!
April was short days, long bike rides and genuine joy at being outdoors. It was time for both of us to shake off our winter blues and get back to work on our drawing, studying and just straight making; food, ceramics and music.
We’re looking forward to a period of rest and focus in May, before we really start to get ready for Australia!
Kin and Gem
Spring! Finally, actual, no-more-wishful-thinking SPRING!
The return of old friends…
Rediscovering that Tokyo is insane.
Parties! Actual outdoor ones, after dark!
Hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) in Yoyogi Park. There were so many different parties going on that they all sort of made one BIG party!
The Indoor Refugees’ triumphant return to the Great Outdoors.
Gem’s birthday! These are my presents from Kin, including Kyoto courtyard gardening books and a gorgeous new (second hand) goldy-green kimono! My parents have a finger lime waiting for me back in Oz as well, so I have a pretty good haul this year. Thank you everyone! – Gem
March began chilly and still, but soon warmed up to be busy, busy, busy, with trips, events and new discoveries popping up every day! March was new blooms, night buses and near-nudity! Well….
Okay, no-one’s actually naked, but now that we’ve peeled off the layers of yeti-skins we’ve been wearing all winter and are walking around in actual human clothes, we feel a bit that way. It’s so lovely to be able to wear pretty clothes again and to just step outside whenever you feel like it! The ducks are back, the bats are back, insects are busy everywhere you look and we have survived our LAST EVER Northern Hemisphere winter! In four months, we’ll be back where the weather is sane!
February’s promise has definitely been met; the earth has warmed, nature is hard at work and it’s time for things to happen. And our countdown to Australia gets shorter every day…
Kin and Gem
…or maybe not. That is my school this morning. What the hell, man?
To an East-coast Australian, ice is NOT a substance that occurs in nature. Ice is produced by machinery and found in drinks. There is no good reason for it to just appear all over the place and even less reason for it to hang around for months at a time, getting thicker and meaner-looking every night. And there is absolutely NO possible excuse for it to roar back again NOW, when both the plum blossoms and my spirit were just starting to unfurl some tentative blooms.
…plum blossoms are tough and there have been some signs today that I may soon get my spring; like the honest-to-goodness waterfall tumbling off the roof of the gym. This morning, it was just beginning to trickle, but it was cascading by lunchtime and now it resembles alpine thaw in a nature documentary, just before the music turns to woodwinds and a time-lapsed field of edelweiss blooms.
I can only hope.
During the relatively snow-free weekend, though, Kin and I both popped on our coats (and hats and gloves and boots and scarves and mufflers and three layers of thermal underwear) and went to meet Gecko Sensei, my Tea Ceremony teacher in a watery little town to the south of Nagahama, called Gokasho.
To Grandmother’s House
Gokasho is one of Shiga’s Omi merchant towns from the Edo Period. The Omi merchants’ business took them all over Japan, but their families and their valuables remained safely installed in exquisite (not to mention highly secure) mansions in Shiga. Omihachiman is probably the most famous of these towns, but I find Gokasho with its spectacularly laid-out gardens and population of fat, friendly carp in the canals beside the roads, far, far more charming.
In theory, we were there to see the town’s Hinamatsuri displays. Sensei is the archetypal Yamato Nadeshiko, so a visit to a girl’s festival is exactly the sort of outing she enjoys. Kin finds Hinamatsuri dolls as creepy as hell, but is fond of Sensei and doesn’t trust her wobbling around unaccompanied when she’s wearing zori (which is pretty much all of the time). I find the displays fairly interesting, but mostly want any excuse to poke around in the magnificent gardens and old family homes (not to mention tickle a carp or two, should the opportunity arise).
For all of this meticulously planned magnificence, Gokasho isn’t imposing in the way that, say, Kakunodate or Nara can be. For one thing, it’s very obviously a little country village, even if it IS a little country village built and maintained by fabulously wealthy businesspeople. For another, any family home which has lasted for more than two generations develops a really awesome “Nan’s place” vibe ESPECIALLY if that home has since been making an effort to hang onto any item of potential historical value. That means that every old box that every Omi Mum has packed away for the last several hundred years has been unpacked and displayed, including the recent ones, so that next to each other are centuries-old teakettles, exquisitely lacquered furniture, plastic elephants on wheels and shelves of things like combs, old toys and tacky seaside ornaments made from shells, glue and googly eyes.
It’s an incredibly relaxing place for somewhere so interesting. And just look at this kitchen!
I’m always drawn to kitchens, but this was a particularly beautiful example of its breed. A person could really work in a kitchen like that.
The Gokasho gardens are surrounded by high walls and each one is different from all of the others.
I’m certain that the houses and gardens were planned simultaneously, as they complement each other so perfectly and each household seems to have chosen their own aesthetic. One family constructed a fascinatingly erratic landscape with hills, cliffs and a boulder-filled river. Another produced one that was peacefully flat, rambling and flower-filled, except where it rose around the lake (which the house was constructed to showcase).
My favourite garden looks like a small, dry forest with uneven stone paths winding through it. It’s kind of hard to explain what exactly is so breathtaking about that, but somehow this garden manages to feel completely peaceful and separate from the world outside its walls.
And any way, any town where the fish follow you around has to be pretty cool.
(A more complete album of Kin’s pictures can be found on our Facebook page.)
Keeping it cool (unfortunately).
EDIT: Ugh, I’ve just seen some of the photos of Gokasho available online and they give COMPLETELY the wrong idea of the place. It may be time to buy Kin that 32mm Prime lens and let him do it right.
The first faint stirrings of spring!
Indoors, that is.
(This is the Nagahama Bonbai Festival; a lovely collection of plum blossom bonsai.)
Warm times with friends. Indoors.
Peaceful times at home. Indoors.
The first insect of the season! Also indoors; this little guy followed us in with a load of washing and settled straight onto the indoor refugees.
Time for learning.
(You can peek at more of Kin’s practice on our Facebook page)
And time for wine! Although much less than usual; this work with the physio is really paying off.
And time to see how other people feel the change of the season.
February was flowers, fun and frosty mornings. It was brisk walks outdoors and warm cuppas indoors, not to mention some Kansai travel with friends. It was also waiting, waiting, waiting! Waiting for the warm weather; it’s so close now, we can almost TASTE it. Waiting for the school holiday. And waiting for Shallow‘s arrival in March! February was potential; but we are oh, so ready for the actuality of March.
Let’s get this year moving!
Kin and Gem
By the end of this year, we won’t be here any more!
The start of a new year has really brought it home to us; our time in this little apartment, in this little town is going to end in 2014! This place has become so much our own it’s hard to believe that, this time next year, it will belong to someone else. Time is suddenly a limited commodity.
But the start of a new year in Japan is a difficult time to manage any sense of urgency. New Years in Japan is like Christmas in Australia; it’s the time when the whole family get together and then just kind of sit around. For a week, the country shuts down, while people eat, gossip and walk to local shrines to pray for good fortune through the year. It’s not a time for exciting trips or big projects, but for kotatsu-snuggling, cups of tea and big bowls of mandarins.
Not to mention New Year cakes!
And other lovely things!
Right now though, we’re still in Nagahama and we still have things to do. On Monday, Japan restarts itself. Our evening classes will resume, our friends will return from their home countries and we will be back at our schools, doing our best to slide some English into stubborn little skulls.
At Kin’s school, there will be a continuation of the dramatic investigation into the identity of the elusive Dick Phantom; one of the boys (we assume) has developed a taste for penis-based graffiti. The Phantom spent the final months of 2013 creating elaborate, phallic extravaganzas over every wall and piece of furniture a kid that age could reach. These works don’t show a lot of dedication to accuracy, but, particularly toward the end of the year, a real focus seems to have been given to scale. We can only imagine that his scope will expand in 2014.
I never really feel I’ve left my school, as half of it seems to live in this building. The very, very small first-grader with the very, very big eyes has finally worked up the courage to ask why I seem to spend so much time here. Her eyes got even bigger when I told her this is where I live!
Although Kin and I enjoyed the Japanese-style New Year, in time-honoured Western fashion, we have made a resolution or two; or rather, have reviewed how our Tanabata wishes and our everyday goals are going.
This is one of Kin’s tanabata goals… or sort of. He never got to start those glass-blowing classes; the college filled up before his enrolment was processed! Instead, he’s been spending his weekends up to his elbows in clay and is having a wonderful time. His very, very earliest work (above) has just returned from the kiln.
Kin never made it to cooking class either but, on the domestic front, is now single-handedly responsible for the running of our household (a development we will share at a later date) and is getting better at it every day. And on the artistic front, with blue plastic document sheets, sticky tape and a stanley knife, he produced a photographic soft-box that make today’s pictures even nicer than usual!
As you can see, I didn’t learn to braid my hair; I cut it all off, instead! In my defence, though, this has made it a lot easier to reach my goal of learning to swim properly and I HAVE successfully poached an egg, so I think I’m still ahead of the game. I also finished my first knitting project!
Kin’s scarf is so long that he can (and does!) wrap it around his entire head to keep the wind off his face when he rides to work. I’ve started a scarf for myself, now and once that’s done, I’ll be ready to get a little more ambitious.
Learning to draw underwent a lengthy hiatus during our illness, but during this week of shutdown Japan, I’ve picked it back up. Kin is excited to share his skills with me; I think he’s too optimistic, but I’ll keep trying.
We’re ready for you, 2014. We might end the year in New South Wales, but we’re starting it in Shiga, and we’re going to enjoy every single day of both!
What a year it was and what a year it will be!
There we were in January 2013, huddled in our new(ish) Japanese apartment, sick, isolated, wretchedly cold and watching cloudy grey skies dump another few feet of snow on our already-buried bicycles (not to mention our defunct kitchen herbs). Venturing outside was frozen torment, while staying inside was chilly, miserable and soggy! The only place to find relief from the cold was the bathtub, but even this wasn’t safe. Both of us were so ill, the hot water made us horribly dizzy and, on at least one memorable occasion, almost knocked out a struggling Kin (who was running a spectacular fever at the time).
Here we are, in January 2014, in the same apartment in the same town, with the same grim skies dropping the same white stuff on us in big, crunchy drifts. We’ve even had very near facsimiles of the same viruses! But in 2013, we gradually learned things we needed to know to work with the situation. And this year, we’re warm, happy and having a great time!
We learned how to dress. Such an obvious thing to Northern Hemisphere folk, but a total mystery to two clueless Australians, whose usual response to winter is to simply pop a coat over their regular clothes. Here, we had to learn how to add layer upon layer before we stick the coat on top, then carefully plugging up all of the gaps with gloves, woolly scarves, mufflers, big socks, hats… you get the idea. It’s a complex process and we were starting from scratch, adding one element at a time, desperate to escape the horrible, face-freezing, bone-hurting cold outside. This year, our apartment is toasty warm, thanks to Kin developing sealing techniques with foam tape and our discoveries of various active heating methods, involving location changes, sunlight, cooking warmth and a small, very well-researched kerosene heater. Our most valuable plants are enjoying above-zero temperatures in a sunny space indoors and, importantly, we’ve learned that it is impossible to get around in snow without boots. Now that we know about boots and about which back roads regularly see the snowplough, isolation is no longer a problem.
The rather laboured point I’m trying to make here is that, during unhappy times, it isn’t always your situation that’s the problem. Once you’ve learned how to deal with a situation, a lot of the problems will vanish. Last year we were suffering. This year we aren’t. All that has changed is what we know and do. And the reason I’m making this point now, is that the internet is currently full of joy and optimism regarding the New Year (which is great!) together with happy certainty that this year everything will be different (which is NOT!)
This time next year, Kin and I will have left Japan behind, to return to Australia. On the outside, everything will be different. But when you look at our basic situation, nothing is going to change. We’ll still be married, so we’ll still spend each day experiencing the rewards (and demands) of life with another person. We’ll still need to earn money, maintain our home, nurture ourselves and manage our growth. And we’ll need to learn the skills and the information necessary for us to be able to do those things in the manner that we choose.
Were you suffering in 2013? What do you need to learn so that you don’t have to suffer any more? If you have no money for things that you need, perhaps you need to learn from a financial advisor. If you are miserable in your job, perhaps you need to learn work skills that will allow you to leave. If you are surrounded by people who are unkind to you, perhaps you need a counsellor or a sympathetic friend who will help you learn that you deserve kindness.
There is no need for you to suffer this year. You have the right to be happy. It is GOOD that you are full of joy and hope; a new year has just begun and wonderful things ARE going to happen in it. But that’s because we’re going to make them happen.
Don’t say to yourself “This year, things will be different.” Say “This year, I will be different!”
2014 is going to be an amazing year, because all of us together are going to MAKE it amazing! We will be positive! We will set goals! We will love and be loved! What will you learn?
Bring on the new year!
The day that ALTs from all over Shiga come to chat and play games with our sixth graders, giving them a chance to meet people from a variety of nations and, hopefully, give them a chance to use their English in a social-setting. The kids spent several weeks making decorations and preparing little speeches and interviews for their guests, while Nanook took them through some small-talk conventions and discouraged them from yelling “BUTTS!” when there was a gap in the conversation.
As well as Nanook and I, the children were going to meet Prozac, Tank, Angel, Sailor and both Timbuktus.
The original Timbuktu was having a difficult English Day. Kin, as part of his long-term campaign of harassment, had recently decided to rename her. (Kin is actually quite fond of Timbuktu, but her anti-gay attitude infuriates him; in earlier semesters, they could talk reasonably about these things and for a while he had her converted, but since then he’s worked less at their shared school and she got a new homophobic preacher, so she’s unfortunately regressed. Q-tip, who attends the same church, has thankfully not picked up this attitude.)
“I’ve decided,” announced Kin, flinging an armload of sketches onto his desk, “From now on, I’m going to call you “Bigot”.”
Timbuktu, who is a gentle spirited person despite the inner nastiness encouraged by her church, cringed, certain she knew why, but still unable to resist asking.
“Well, with the new JETs here, we have two Timbuktus. Both of you are about the same height, so we can’t do “Big and Small Timbuktu”. You’re both from the U.S., so I can’t differentiate by nation. BUT, only one of you is a bigot! So, I can call you “Bigoted and Not-Bigoted Timbuktu, only yours turns into “Bigot” for short! It’s perfect!”
Deciding not to argue (in the interest of the illustrations he was currently producing for her) Timbuktu made her weary way to Nagahama Elementary, taking the chance to plead with me as we put up posters and stuck balloons on the wall.
“Can you do anything, Gem?”
“Nope.” I grinned a bit too, but compared to Kin’s, my grin is nothing. “We’ve got gay friends visiting again soon, and you’re going to embarrass everyone if you don’t get this out of your system.”
Timbuktu knows when she’s beaten, so she just set her shoulders and prepared for an afternoon’s chatter with dear little innocents.
…whose first question to her was “Do you have a girlfriend?”
“What?! No, I… Gem, what are you teaching them over here?”
“Don’t look at me,” I smirked, surrounded by my own little gang of journalists. “I haven’t taught these kids since February. Now, what were you asking me, Taro?”
“Where are you from?”
“Minna, shiteru! You know this! Where am I from?”
“Guys, come on, I taught you for almost a year. Kazoku ni atta! Where am I from?”
The kids shuffled a bit and whispered frantically to one another, while I glowered around the circle.
“Don’t say America! She gets really pissed off if you say America!”
“Where else is there?!”
The group searched their folders, rolled their eyes desperately around the room, then, noticing the last ALT they had spoken to, lit up with new confidence.
“The… The USA?”
“That’s America again!”
Over their protests that there WASN’T anywhere else, I only just heard Timbuktu snigger.
Prozac, meanwhile, was having his life-choices evaluated by three earnest-browed girls in cardigans.
“How old are you?”
“I’m twenty six years old.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“No, I don’t.”
“HOW old are you…?”
While Tim was wondering if she needed a stronger moisturizer.
“How old are you?”
“I’m twenty two.”
Deeply unhappy with the direction our lives were taking, the children fretted, tutted and advised us to change our ways.
Sailor’s group commiserated with her on her failure to find a husband (“Kids, I’m twenty eight!”) and wondered aloud if, at this age, she would ever manage to catch one. Mine expressed doubt as to whether my decrepit ovaries would ever be able to kickstart themselves when Kin and I finally decide to reproduce. Prozac’s desperate assurances that he just needed to meet the right person were met with skepticism so great it bordered on disdain. At our ages, the children felt, we were already halfway dead, yet none of us were doing anything worthwhile with the limited time left to us!
Basically, it was your typical, everyday conversation with twelve-year-olds. It was a relief when the interview section was completed and we moved on to activities. Each of us had prepared a game or dance, all of which went down well with the kids and we gradually got them to forget what miserable failures we all were as people. After collecting our autographs, the kids gave us each an origami crane covered in English messages and we all exited the gym.
Cheerful, despite a remaining trace of uncertainty regarding our life choices, we teachers retired to the meeting room to devour Pocky and minestrone-flavoured chips.
“It could be worse,” pointed out Tank, on his seventeenth stick. “Last week my second graders asked their teacher if his wife is cheating on him.”
“My third graders learned to say ‘SEX!’ from someone,” added Sailor. “And when they learn a new word, it’s all I hear.”
“Mine just learned how to say ‘Poop’,” confirmed a gloomy Tim.
“If only mine learned ANY English,” sighed Prozac. “My first graders spent our last lesson having a farting contest. The winner got to fart in anyone’s face.”
Pocky froze between packets and mouths as we all waited.
“I was too tall,” he added, and everyone relaxed again.
Aren’t children just a joy? Does anyone else work with the little darlings? What do yours come up with?
As ever, all drawings were produced by Kin. Don’t tell him I used these ones though, because he doesn’t like them much!
Yesterday, we waved farewell to the other Shiga JETs, as they set off on their Halloween adventures in Kyoto and Osaka, and we’ve been living vicariously through our newsfeeds as they party on down (in costume) across two cities and three prefectures. It appears that a good weekend has been had by all, with only minimal vomiting (which is nice).
The two of us, however, are not the most active of beasts, so we decided to take advantage of a weekend when no-one would be attempting to lure us out by lurking in our apartment and embracing the Lazy.
It has been wonderful.
We’ve enjoyed the sort of breakfasts that you simply can’t whip up in under fifteen minutes on a weekday morning. We’ve dug out scarves and gloves from summer storage to help keep out the new nip in the air. We’ve aired our futon and other bedding while there’s still some sun to do it in, as well as catching up on pre-winter cleaning tasks.
I’ve planted the very last crops we’re likely to harvest before the cold really sets in; new spinach, lettuce, coriander and rocket seedlings, as well as some Asian greens and chrysanthemum seed that I don’t really expect to do much before the snow falls. Still, it’s good to hope.
Kin has worked on his T-Shirt design for JETs in our prefecture (yes, that is a scrotum; google “tanuki” and you’ll understand).
We’ve rugged up and gone for lovely walks (before the temperature gets too low), and enjoyed the Nagahama sights.
We’ve caught up with beloved friends in Australia and sent lots of long-awaited emails to our wonderful families (aided by rather too much red wine in the evenings). I’ve also dug out the scarf Kin has been waiting so patiently for and have added another couple of feet to it. We’ve had a couple of full-day meetings, so I’ve had plenty of time to get my speed up. I think he’ll finally get to wear the thing this winter!
…and then start complaining that real wool is itchy and never put it on again, I bet.
We went to Hard Off (our local second hand store) and bought a lovely new (ish) nabe pan for delicious winter hotpots. Our old one was looking a little ill and had an unsettling crack in one side that was getting longer and longer every time it was used! I also bought this wonderful book, full of simple sewing patterns that Beans can hopefully help me work out when I’m back in Australia. I can’t sew at all, but I’m definitely ready to learn!
Goodness me, looking back at all of that, it looks as though we’ve had a very busy weekend! Somehow, though, there’s still been plenty of time for Kin to play Pokemon and for me to catch up on Downton Abbey (and my ironing, damn it).
A few more of Kin’s shots can be seen on our Facebook page.
We may or may not be back in the social whirl next week, but whatever happens, we’re both so grateful for this downtime together. It’s lovely to be lazy!