Sunday, July 31, 2011

Summer Camp

This has been a busy last few days for the Winters. Friday and Saturday were summer camp for my school. We took the kids to Mori no Kuni (Forest Country) also known as Field Athletic at Mt. Daisen. Hana came, too. We had a blast. On Friday, first, we set up the tents. It was kind of camping light comapred to my Boy Scout days. All equipment was rented from Mori no Kuni.Then we had somen nagashi for lunch. Somen are thin noodles. In this traditional way to eat, they take a long piece of bamboo and cut it in half lengthwise. They set it up at a slight angle and let water run down the half-pipe. Everyone stands on either side and gets ready. At the top, they drop in the noodles in bunches and the people have to catch them with their chopsticks as they run down the bamboo. They put them in a bowl with cold broth, then eat. Great fun and cool for summer.

After lunch was the main event, mud play in a rice patty. We all got in the unused, water-filled field. The very knowledgable Mr. Tahara from Mori no Kuni explained how there are many kinds of living things in the field because they don't use any chmicals there. We spent some time looking for creepy crawlies. The kids found all kinds of frogs and bugs. Later, we played games in the mud. It was my first time to play in the mud ike that. Great fun, but I should have worn my water shoes in there because uder the mud were lots of little rocks, ouch. The kids won the kids vs. teachers tug of war, twice. After that we came back, had a shower and some kids went home. The rest of us stayed and had Japanese style barbecue for dinner. Later we went night hunting for bugs and fireworks.

On Saturday, the main event was making pizza from scratch for lunch. We built fires outside and the kids did everything from beginning to end. Wealso had vegetable soup. The kids kept asking for seconds or thirds of the soup. I said you'd never see American kids begging for seconds of vegetable soup. Japanese kids like their veggies. The kids played a lot, then we finally came home. Everyone had a great time, but was dirty and tired like camprs should be.

This busy time didn't finish. Tomorrow, we have a day campat the beach and are going to make a raft. More on thart later, Bye.

New Building

My worst nightmare about our apartment is coming true! They've cleared part of the field next to our place and marked off the ground by the building company. They're going to build an another apartment building there. It will be noisy, but more than that, I hope it doesn't spoil our view of  Daisen. Construction is supposed to be finished in just a few months!

The Meaning of My Daughters' Names

   Flowers have special meaning in Japan. Be careful what you give your girlfriend. Flowers are also a part of my daughters’ names. My older daughter is Hana(花菜) The first character “花” means flower and the second character “菜” means plant or leaf and is used in the word for vegetable. But if you reverse the characters it can be read nanohana(菜の花). This is the rapeseed blossom, a beautiful yellow flower that is cultivated in Japan to make cooking oil and is the same as in Canola oil.

My younger daughter is Rika(梨花), which means “pear flower”. Tottori prefecture, where we live, is known for its big, delicious pears. Pear blossoms are a pleasant sight in spring and are a nice contrast to the more famous pink cherry blossoms. Everyday when I come home, I can see the smiling faces of my two beautiful flowers.

彼岸 Higan and 彼岸花 Higanbana Flowers(Red Spider Lilly)

 Higan is a time of Buddhist reflection. It occurs twice a year for periods of seven days; three days before and after the Vernal and Autumn Equinoxes (shuubun no hi and shunbun no hi). The word "higan" means "the other shore." In Buddhism it refers to nirvana. Japanese usually have some days off around this time. There are three main times a year when Japanese visit their family graves to pray for the ancestors; Spring Higan in March, O-bon in August, and Autumn Higan in September. The Japanese are very quick to say they are not religious, but ancestor worship is an integral part of Japanese culture.
During the Autumn Higan, a common sight are the “Higanbana” flowers that bloom at this time. The higanbana are a very beautiful, but very unusual looking flower. In English, it is “Red Spider Lily” or sometimes "cluster amaryllis". I recently learned a little more about them. There is a white variety which I’ve personally never seen. Now they grow wild everywhere in Japan, alongside roads and rice fields, but at one time they were cultivated. They grow from bulbs which are extremely poisonous and were planted around rice fields and homes to cut down on pests like mice. You won’t find the in flower shops and Japanese people never pick them, partly because the plant is known to be poisonous, but also I think it is associated with Higan ancestor worship. They are blood red and remind you of death. And you never know, they might be the reincarnated spirit of grandma. I once made the mistake of picking some for my girlfriend, now my wife. We were on a road trip and had a fight. I picked some red flowers along the side of the road to make up, but she only got more upset. Please enjoy the scenery during this season in Japan, but remember, “Don’t Pick The Flowers!”

Japanese Flowers: 菊 Kiku

  I love telling this story. It’s one of my more famous cultural faux pas in Japan. It was way back when my wife and I were dating. She had become very ill and had a high fever for several days. I went to visit her at her apartment. I wanted to cheer her up and bring her some flowers. I stopped in at a little corner mom and pop shop near by. There weren’t many choices and I picked some flowers that I thought looked pretty. I came in to see her and happily presented her with my flowers. Her face went pale and her jaw dropped. She explained those were “kiku” flowers and are only put on peoples graves. Kiku is the Japanese name for chrysanthemums. Chrysanthemums are a common sight at florists and other shops in Japan. They are placed on graves when Japanese pray to their ancestors. They are a common motif in Buddhism and also the symbol of the emperor. The position of the emperor of Japan is known as the chrysanthemum throne. The chrysanthemum is the official seal of Japan and appears on Japanese passports. However, me giving my sick girlfriend kiku might look like she’s dying or I want her dead.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Raymen and Croquette

Dinner tonight was ray-men, ramen-like egg noodles served cold with sliced tomato, cucumber and ham and with a white sesame sauce. It's tangy and has a great sesame taste. It's a favorite dish in the summer. Also Junko made croquette with leftover pumpkin and potato salad. It tasted great served with a little okonomiyaki sauce(like Worcester sauce). A road to a man's heart is through his stomach.

My worst nightmare?

Right outside our aartment window is a big open vegetable field. This field is what allows us the great view of Daisen and was one of the reasons I fell in love this place. Last week, they started bulldozing the small fruit trees and we heard the plot was up for sale. I heard it will prbably be another apartment building. My worst nightmare is if they build some big thing and block our view and the sun. I hope not.


Here's what Junko whipped up for breakfast with toast. Ratatouille is a french dish and sounds fancy, but is actuually quite simple. It's stewed summer vegetables; tomatoes, eggplant,  and green pepper with some salt and pepper and cut up sausages. It has a tangy tomatoe and salty taste, delicious. Everytime I think of this dish it reminds me of the animated movie of the same name about the little mouse chef. That was a great movie, the kids loved. Please enjoy this simple taste of summer.

Playing with Cousins, Superball-sukui

Here are a couple of pics from the girls day trip to their grandparents' house, while I was home alone. Junko's sister has four kids, two boys (Tsukasa and Hikaru) and two girls(Azusa and Akane). The girls are almost the same age as Hana and Rika, so they had a lot of fun. Junko brought a game for them to play similar to the famous festival game kingyo-sukui(goldfish catching game). Instead of fish she had a set of hundreds of little superballs and set them afloat in a mini-pool. The kids used little paddles to fish them out. The paddles are made with tissue paper that breaks soon after getting wet, so the challenge is to get as many balls as you can. We bought the balls and setof about fifty paddles pretty cheap. The kids had a great time.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Home Alone

Junko and the girls went to spend the night at their Grandparent's house to play with their cousins. This is Daddy's special time. Don't get me wrong, I love my family, but I really look forward to my private time. I read a quote somewhere online, "Today, I got the best Father's day present of all, an empty house." I hear you, brother. It gives me time when I can write online, on this blog or elsewhere. That's precious time for me. Earlier I was watching a storm roll in from the balcony. Mt. Daisen was invisible behind dark clouds and there were bolts of lightning. Have a good night.


This is a "Fuurin"(wind bell)" The Japanese are always very conscious of the seasons and Tthe ringing of these cute little bells is as much a sound of summer as the cicadas in the trees. It's customary to hang them outside the widow in summer. There are many different designs, but generally two types: little dark green metal bells that are modeled after large temple bells and glass bells that are often painted with little goldfish or other summer motif. Enjoy the sounds of summer.

Snacks #2 Sakuma's Drops

This is a classic hard candy in Japan. It's been around for decades. The multi-colored candies come on a little tin with a stopper top. The design goes back to WWII. It's still popular. But, everytime I see the can, I'm reminded of that extremely sad animated war movie, "Graveyard of the Fireflies" by Miyazaki Hayao. The brother and sister enjoy the candies together, and in one scene, after all the candies are gone, they put water inside to make a sweet drink. That's the high point. It's all down hill from there.

Japanese Snacks #1 Ghana Chocolate

If you took an informal poll of foreigners living in Japan as to which Japanese chocolate they pefer, probably most of them would say Ghana Chocolate by Lotte. This is my favorite Japanese chocolate. It's got a really rich, expensive taste, but it's really cheap. around 88 yen per bar. In general, I can taste a difference between American chocolate and Japanese chocolate. Japanese chocolate has more of a cocoa taste, more "chocolatey". Many western foods in Japan are modeled after a European taste, not an American one. American chocolate is sweeter and tends to be softer and lighter in color. You can taste the added sugar and preservatives. But hey, I love American chocolate, too. I'm happy I can buy a Snickers bar anytime I want at the local Lawson convenience store and feel "American" again. But probably the best chocolate bar of all is the Willy Wonka Bar. The same from the movie. It's really big and costs about 5 dollars per bar, but it's worth it.

Our Goldfish

Here are pics of our three goldfish. Almost exactly a year ago, we won 7 goldfish in a "kingyo-sukui"(golfish catching-game) at the Gaina Summer festival last year. Of those original 7, these three are the survivors. They've gotten much bigger since then. It's my job to change their tank, something I do about every two or three weeks.  I read on line somewhere you shouldn't use a net to get them, they could get injured, so everytime, I use my hand to catch them. Last month, I really wanted to get two neon tetras for the tank. Junko warned me that her friend said other fish don't do well with goldfish. In my stubborness, I ignored her and got the tetras anyway. They were both dead inside of three days. One of them half eaten.  I should have listened to her.
These goldfish are rugged survivors.

Heart Potato and Snoopy Potato

When Junko and the girls got a surprise from Grandma and Grandpa's garden. One potato looked like a heart and another looked like Snoopy in profile. They couldn't wait to show me. But when Rika who is still fond of breast feeding, even though she doesn't need to(don't get me started) saw the heart potato from the top down, she said "opai!", (breasts). That's my girl.

What's this?

What's this Hana has? It's not an exercise machine to build your arm muscles. Most people in Japan sleep on futons on the floor (we do). On sunny days, people hang their futons or covers over the railing of the balcony to air them out. It's well known that strong sunlight kills bacteria and prevents mold. I don't know the exact name, but this is a futon clip like a giant clothes pin. It keeps the futons from flying away. Isn'tthat interesting?

Japanese Yo-Yo Balloons

These are yo-yo balloons, which are a typical toy and prize at Japanese festivals. They're simple; a small balloon with a little water inside, tied with a rubber band. Put it on your finger and bang away. loads of fun. They're a game prize. All the balloons are put aloat in a small mini-pool. You pay for your chance, and the staff will give you a little tissue paper rope with a little metal hook. You dip your hook and fish for one of the rubber bands to get your balloon. If really good you can hook more than one, but remember, as soon as the paper getswet, it'll get weak and start to tear.


What are these? You see them on every sidewalk in Japan. These tenji-blocks are for the blind. Blind people with a white stick can walk on these releif blocks to know where the middle of the sidewalk is. In addition, many crosswalks feature a cuckoo like beep or even music when the walk changes green, to let the blind know when it's safe to cross. There are even public service announcements to warn young people not to park their bikes on the tenchi-blocks. What a thoughtful country. They're pretty useful when you're stumbling home drunk, too.

Silly Girls

Here are Hana and Rika showing off the stuff they got at the little festival we attended last night.

Small Preschool Festival

Last night we went to a Summer festival at a small preschool/daycare in Yasugi, my wife's hometown. My wife has an English class there once a month and one of our friend's daughter goes there, so we got invited too. Hana and Rika dressed up in their summer yukatas. It was a lot of fun. They had a obake-yashiki(haunted house) which was just a cardboard tunnel, the kids crawled through. The kids got lots of little presents like a yo-yo balloon, giant glasses with a light up nose and a little toy rattle like drum, the same kind as in The Karate Kid 2. They also had a lot of food; yaki-soba(fried noodles), frankfurters(a hot dog on a stick), furai potato (french fries), and kaki-gori(shaved ice, snow cone in a cup). Everything was free for us! Also, there were some elementary school girls, relatives of the girl we knew, who were so kind to Hana and Rika and really took care of them. It was fun evening.


This iswhat Junko made for dinner the other night. Niku-jaga(meat-potatoes) is a typical Japanese dish. It's like a potatoe stew. It's simple to make, too. All you need is potatoes, carrots, and hamburger meat. You boil everything in the broth. The seasonings are soy sauce, milin(a kind of sweet cooking sake), dashi(fish stock both, my wife prefers katsuo, a kind of fish), and sugar. It's really tasty and has a slight sweetness. The picture shows the dish everyone shared from. Itadakimasu!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

お盆 The Japanese Obon Festival

 お盆 Obon is a Buddhist festival . It is usually celebrated around August 15th for three days. I live in Yonago city, Totttori prefecture in Western Japan. This year in 2009, it is celebrated on August 13th, 14th, and 15th, with the main Obon day in the middle. It is sometimes referred to as the “Day of the dead”, but I think this is misleading. True, it has to do with departed spirits and the TV and newspapers are full of ghost stories. In this sense it is similar to Halloween or Mexico’s “Day of the Dead”. However, at it’s core, there is nothing macabre about Obon. It is a solemn but festive occasion. The purpose of the festival is to honor and pray for the family’s ancestors. It is the time of year when the spirit of the departed family members return to Earth and the home for a visit.


There are two main religions in Japan that most people adhere to. Shinto (native to Japan) and Buddhism (introduced from India via China). There is an expression in Japanese, “Born Shinto, die Buddhist.” This means that Shinto shrines mainly deal with ceremonies of life; birth, christening type ceremonies, ceremonies of good luck before a big event like a sports game or test, and marriages. Buddhist temples mainly deal with funeral rites and memorial ceremonies. With rare exceptions, funerals are never Shinto. Many homes have both a small household Shinto shrine (yashiro) and a family Buddhist alter (butsudan) and pray to both of them all year round. People pray to the yashiro and the Shinto Kami or god that protects the family and community. They pray to the Butsudan for the ancestors and place ceremonial food offerings such as rice, sweets, or alcohol.. During Obon the butsudan is the center of attention. Obon is a time for praying for the ancestor and many households have a Buddhist priest visit the house and perform a short memorial ceremony. Needless to say this is a very busy time for temples, but also very important for generating revenue. Prices vary, but an approximately 30 minute ceremony in the home can cost upwards of $500.00 (this is what my wife’s parents pay in a small town) and with 20 to 30 home visits a day, this can add up fast; not to mention all the people who visit the temple directly.

Feast of Lanterns

 Obon is also called the Feast of Lanterns. Japanese people visit their family graves and wash the stones, place flowers and incense and pray. Next to all Buddhist graves is a stone lantern(Torou). These lanterns are only lit once a year on the three nights of Obon to show the spirits have returned. Families place a small candle inside and put rice paper over the openings. My wife thinks I’m strange, but Japanese cemeteries are really beautiful at this time with all the lights. In addition, in some areas at the end of Obon, they lite small paper lanterns and float them down the river to send the spirits back home.

Horse and Cow?

Another interesting custom is the making of a little horse and cow by using a cucumber and eggplant respectively. People simply take a cucumber and eggplant and stick them with four disposable chopsticks to make legs. On the first day of Obon, the vegetable animals are placed outside at the front gate or door and incense is lit. Why a cow and horse? Well, the ancestor’s spirits ride them between this world and the other. The trail of incense smoke helps the spirits find their way home. After the first day, the animals are placed on the butsudan and given ceremonial food offerings once a day. I saw them there this morning at my wife’s parent’s house. On the last day they are taken and set on the river bank to signify returning to the world of the dead. You never throw them into the water.

Hungry Ghosts

People are happy to have the ancestors back, but there are a lot of bad spirits or hungry ghosts out there too. The term hungry ghosts comes from China and means restless spirits that have no one to perform ceremonies for them. These ghosts are considered dangerous and are believed to cause sickness or death. In China, there is a whole month dedicated to appeasing these spirits. There are some notable don’ts during Obon.

1. Don’t go to the beach or swim in the ocean or lakes or rivers. The spirits of the dead will pull you down and drown you.

2. Don’t go hiking in the mountains. The ghosts will cause you to get lost and try to harm you.

3. Don’t kill any insects, especially butterflies or spiders. They might be the reincarnated spirits of your relatives. I asked my wife if I was ok to kill mosquitos or cockroaches. I kind of got a no comment. No one wants to think of Grandma coming back as a cockroach.

Obon Dance

The climax of Obon is the Bon dance or Bon-Odori. There is a large, tall, square stage set up with festive banners of red and white and paper lanterns strung all around. The singers and musicians play on the stage and the spectators are encouraged to dance around the stage to the music waving their arms in the air. It is one of the biggest and most traditional events of the year for Japanese. The festival usually ends with a fireworks display.

Happy Wedding Aniversary!

 Today is Junko and my 8th wedding anniversary. Where did the years go? We couldn't have possibly imagined our life today with two lovely kids. We didn't do anything too special. We had a busy and fun time last weekend. But Junko and the girls made a cake for us. We had it after I got home. Frosting is not too popular in Japan. They prefer whipped cream. It had bananas and marble chocolates(like M&Ms) on top. Yeah!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Alcohol is the Best of 100 medicines

酒は百薬の長 Sake wa hyaku yaku no cho"Alcohol is the best of 100 medicines." This one of the best proverbs Junko taught me. It speaks for itself.

Rika's Bento Lunch

Here's Rika's "bento" lunch box from my school today. This is a pretty typical lunch that Junko made. It has a rice ball, ham and cheese cutlet, sausage and cucumber stir fry and cherries for dessert. Rika did a good job of finishing everything, just her size. I think a little bigger is ok, too. For me this is an appetizer. Junko also makes my bento everday. Mine's not as cute, but still good.

Japanese Actor Yoshio Harada dead at 71

I was saddened tonight to learn that famous Japanese actor Yoshio Harada died. (February 29, 1940-July 19, 2011). He died of pnemonia and looked well until only recently when he dramatically lost weight. He worked until the end and his last film was released only three days ago. He was an extremely recognizable actor with more than a hundred movies to his credit. He was most famous for his strong, stoic roles. He played a strict father-like figure in the action movie Azumi with Aya Uedo and a similar role in Dororo with Kou Shibasaki. Both were sword-weilding period fantasies. But I knew Harada long before coming to Japan from the action movie The Hunted with Christopher Lambert from Highlander and asian actor John Lone. Christopher Lambert's character is being hunted by ninja assassins and Harada's samurai-like sword expert must protect him, but has an agenda of his own.  There's a great scene where Harada takes on a bunch of ninja on a shinkansen train. He also has several lines in English. He walks in on Lambert and the drunken sword maker practicing swords. When asked what he's doing, Lambert says, "Nothing, just killing time.", Harada responds, "Time cannot die, only people." It was also the first movie I heard the saying, "Sometimes, monkeys fall out of trees." He will be missed. Check out thisscene. Soo! cool.

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