I left after 4 hours sleep.  I've never used powerpoint before.  I've never used USB memory sticks before, I've never parked in the overnight automated carpark before.  I left the house with the girls both in tears.  Not for me, but because Amy said Meg was stupid and Meg took Amy's spoon and Amy pulled Meg's hair and.... all this before 8:00am.  I was nervous for all three of my favourite people and whether they'd survive a sleep deprived absent mummy weekend!

Wonderful, amazing DH who stayed up and tweaked and Windows friendlied my presentation even after I was snarly and horrible and stressed had printed out a copy of each slide with my notes underneath.  I was going to add finishing polish on the train but, having left my mummy bag full of crushed senbei, old tissues and masses of wetwipes behind in favour of a sleek, slim, WHITE bag (fellow mums will appreciate the luxury of that one!) I had left behind all 50 gazilion pens that normally reside at the bottom of every bag I own.  Not a single pen or even a pencil anywhere.  grrrr.  Never fear!  I'm a 21st century woman, I booted up the sleek MacBook and went all paperless.  BUT, I arrived in Kyoto needing to print it out. >_<>

Taken while waiting for the shinkansen on the way home when I realised I hadn't taken a single photo!

Never fear!  Saintly man at Station information told me Kyoto International Salon on 9th floor of Isetan could do the job.  Kyoto Station is HUGE.  Isetan is HUGE.  Noone seems to do the stand to the left, walk to the right thing on escalators.  Kanto/ Kansai thing?  I was wearing my tea dress and jacket and pantyhose and strappy sandles.  Not my usual getup.  I was getting pretty flustered and frizzy (emotionally and physically!)  Got printed out and garnered strength for 9 floors of down escalators. @_@  Then found a fabulous unalarmed door to outside.  Kyoto Station's inside/ outside public space area is beautiful.  And the air is fresh and the stairs are wide and I bolted (gracefully) down to catch my bus to Kyoto Uni.  ETA? 25-40 minutes.  How is that an ETA? It's the Pantene of ETAs 'you will arrive, it won't happen over night, but it will happen.'  Snuck onto a just leaving bus and was blessed with Japan's grumpiest bus driver.  He used his horn more times in one trip than you hear in a month in Matsumoto.  Pretty thankless job though I guess, cars, taxis and daredevil pedestrians kept cutting him off, If you speak loud enough anybody can understand English foreign tourists kept asking him questions and he had a bus full of senior citizens taking their sweet time getting on and off the bus.  Crazy!

Heart in mouth that I would miss my stop and end up in Nara I finally made it to 'Kyoto University Main Gate Bus Stop'.  Safe enough place to get off, right?  The bus lurched away and I was left standing at the corner of a huge intersection with nothing obviously University like in sight.  Ergghhhh.  I had skipped lunch thinking I would eat once I was there and felt safe I had the time to eat.  Now I was supposedly 'there' but didn't feel there and worse- nowhere to eat in sight!  Wandered into a conference hall for World End of Tobacco Related Deaths Conference and got directions and a guide as lucky me there was someone heading to the same building as me.  Yippee!!  Kind of uncomfortable as he spoke to me in halting English.  I have no problem with people practising on me as I did it to every Japanese exchange student I ever met in Australia and figure it's my way of evening the balance.  But now that I am comfortably bilingual I never know whether I should say so.  Is this person speaking English because they want to, or because they think they need too and would therefore be relieved if it wasn't necessary?  We arrived before things got too stilted so safe!!

I arrived in time to hear the Japanese speeches.  Amazing and really interesting.  A muslim Indonesian girl in full headscarf and long skirt talked about her year here and the quest for mutual understanding of her religion and it's effects on her lifestyle.  (No alcohol, pork, barefeet, praying 5 times a day etc).  Then a Chinese student talked about Mass Media and how it influences people's perceptions of other countries with reference to Japan and China.  Really interesting stuff and a great speaker.  Then a 3rd generation Japanese Brazilian woman talked about what each country could learn from each other and the differences between the Japan her grandparents told her about and the one she found.  By now I was feeling seriously out of my depth- these were really interesting topics presented really well.  And I'd realised people put up heaps of dot points and writing on powerpoint slides while mine are 90% photos illustrating what I was speaking about.  Oh oh. :(

After the awards ceremony and break it was time for we English presenters to go.  I was first and was introduced by the funniest, most kick-ass bilingual, bicultural and all around cool guy Japanese person I've ever met.  This is his homepage- it's in Japanese but you get an idea of his personality.

I did my presentation, getting faster and faster towards the end as I was sure I was over time.  I remembered what I love about public speaking- the buzz you get having all those people hanging on your every word.  Make 'em laugh, make 'em cringe, make 'em cry- all with a few well chosen words.  I could have talked for an hour but alas 15 minutes were all I got. :(  During the day my trusty strappy sandals I bought in high school (so probably about $20-30) began falling apart strap by strap.  I kept having to carefully stand on the loose strap as people were taking pictures of us and I wasn't sure how much was getting in the picture, then when I got a moment I would yank the strap off and stuff it in my jacket pocket.  Elegance impersonated!

In Q&A time I was asked what aspects of Aussie culture I share with my neighbours and what about Australia interests them.  Ummm.... thinking...um.... I don't think I've ever talked about Australia with my neighbours.  I don't think many of them would be able to tell you where I was from.  I'd never thought about it before but I am probably known as Fukase-san who lives in the old Nagasaki house, who's in charge of rubbish collection this year, husband works over there at the industrial park, has the wood stove great for offloading unwanted branches, M and A's mum, grows weird veggies, etc etc but not that Aussie shiela.  Gonna have to stock up on souvenir t-shirts next time I visit the folks!!

After the speeches we had a reception in a campus cafe.  Wonderful!!  Skipped lunch, super tired, headache starting- I'm ready for food!  But it was buffet style and every time I got close someone would stop for a chat and, well, being the life of the party is kind of addictive so of course I had to stop and chat and 70% of the reception was Uni students staking out the buffet for a free fill of non-instant food so I managed two glasses of OJ and one sushi roll for the evening. @_@

Fabulous talking to so many interesting people though.  Teachers at the Uni, students, members of Kyoto International Association etc etc.  So many people with so many sories!

After we were kicked out of the reception (literally- time was up, food was gone and we were still talking!) 4 of the speakers went back to our hotel and changed (my sandal was down to two straps) and went out to a great izakaya for dinner and beer.  Chinese, Brazilian, Filipino, and Australian with varying levels of Japanese and English we had a blast talking about everything and anything and trying to find the right words to help each other out.  

I felt about a million years away from my life as a wife and mum to preschoolers in country Nagano.  Like I'd found a time machine and gone back to my Uni years but without the selfdoubt and boyfriend troubles!

Not used to being out past dark and seriously sleep deprived I crashed as soon as I got back to the hotel and- the best souvenir of my visit- I slept until 9:00am!!  woah.

Hurriedly packed and left and headed for home. Cassandra mentioned that one of the reasons she wanted to go away was to feel homesick and I really get that.  I came back (with M's requested souvenir- Mr Donuts. ????) and felt renewed love for my family, my house, my neighbourhood and my life here in general. :)

Kyoto Tower viewed through Kyoto station from the shinkansen track.  Can't say I didn't do the touristy stuff!

Nagoyaites lining up 45 minutes for some Baum Kuchen.  Couldn't you make one yourself in that time??

sports day in pictures

Sports Day was freezing!!!  Not literally but snow did fall on the alps (nooooooo!!!!)  We turned up at 8:00 for an 8:40 start and there were three rows of tarps all the way round the ground. All the way round the ground except for one little patch in row 2 at the far end.  Hmmm?  Seriously there was a row three and then the seat people in row 4 but no row two for a little tarp space.  Fully expecting to be told it was saved/ sacred/ radioactive etc I gingerly placed my tarp and waited.  Row three started up 'good morning!, bit cold, isn't it?' (Just once I'd love to answer 'Cold? you're kidding right?  I'm just wearing this thermofleece snowsuit for fashion- I'm boiling!!' but I didn't.)  Then she went on about how big Amy's gotten and how she used to be in my tummy and now look at her etc etc.  I was getting the horrible sneaking suspicion I should know this obaachan but also the certainty that I hadn't the foggiest who she was.  DH came back from carparking duty and I was hoping she wouldn't know him and would introduce herself but no- 'oh Fukase-san!  Thanks for that thing you did that time' DH deadpanned her with a 'oh no no anytime' and we sank back to watch the sports none the wiser.

First was speeches and official openings 'WELL boys and GIRLS, LOOK at ALL the PEOPLE here to WATCH us TODAY'  Encho-sensei has a really strange way of emphasising too many words.  Seems to work on keeping the kids listening though.  May have to try it: 'LET'S get READY for BED now!'

Then individual class running events.  There are no winners or losers and the prize is a hug for the littlies and a high five for the big kids- and everyone gets one.  I love how it's active without being competitive.  This is Meg's group waiting for their turn.  She's the one standing up, facing backwards and chewing on her shirt (and exposing the fact that she's not wearing white underwear in the process- shock!!)  Her partners in playground crime are the girls standing either side of her and the boy facing this way and perfecting his delinquant out the back of 7-11 squat.  Don't know the girl in the denim shorts standing at the back.  Hmmm think she's going for gang initiation? ;)

M running.  She i quite fast but also really noncompetitive.   If the mood takes her she'll go for broke.  If not, she won't.

Then the novelty events.  This is the 1 and 2 yo class with their parents and teachers after doing a ladybug themed obstacle course and a bottom wiggling dance.  I know it's exploitation because every year the theme is different but the bottom wiggling stays the same and every year there's a collective 'oooohhhhhhh' from the crowd!
I totally missed taking a picture of M's novelty event as DH was busy trying to convince A she wasn't the diva of every event but rather a common spectator and I was trying to do the video ad camera (yes, we go overboard on recording this stuff for prosperity but to be fair it's for my family, too.)  But this is the nencho 5 yo class.  They do a round of the ground on bamboo stilts.  The height of the stilts is adjustable and the kid's who get the hang of it really get up there.  There's a boy at the far left of the photo with no handle length left?  That's how high some of them get.  There's 4 kids with various disabilities in this class.  One boy has permanently bent arms and can't bend his knees properly.  He did a whole round on modified stilts (they had an extension at the back for stability, kind of like geta)  He left in the second group of 5 (of maybe 8 groups) and was dead last coming home.  Everyone started that rhythmic clapping thing and he stopped.  I thought OMG he's realised he's getting this special attention, he must be cringing, poor kid.  But he beamed, waved at everyone like he was a rockstar getting off a plane and kept on doggedly till the end. :)  Got me all teary!

And then there was the mummy and me dance event, the obaachan and ojiichan ball throw event (no winner with both teams disqualified (twice!) for cheating) the little brother and sister event with about 160 kids in groups of 20 toddling across the ground to get an anpanman headband from Meg's class (Amy found it most unfulfilling and did a couple of laps while the other groups were going) and a final everybody together baabaa family dance.  It was really great and the teachers worked their butts off and there wasn't a hitch all day and it ran to time!  Seriously.  And being a hoikuen not a yochien there wasn't even a day off in lieu.  otsukaresama teachers!!


What would you do?

So, the essay contest prize was 50,000 yen.

50,000 yen burning a hole in my pocket.  

What's 50,000 yen?  A loan payment, a night in a fancy hotel, a Michelin star dinner, a super fancy bottle of wine,  1/2 a trip to Australia?

I know if I don't make an effort to buy something with this money I will end up either dipping into it when I'm too lazy to go to the bank until it's all gone or I'll put it somewhere and forget it and my kids will find it when they pack up my stuff after I've gone, either way not a great way to spend my prize.

So, what would you do with 50,000 yen?

I was thinking practical- double glazing for our windows- but that's kind of dull.
Fun- a holiday- but it wouldn't go far and there's really nowhere I want to go right now, anyway.
Kepsake- kind of boring, but I've always loved traditional Japanese furniture.  Something like this.

That's what I've thought of so far but I'd love some ideas!

Oh, I asked the family:
DH: you could buy all that stuff at Costco you said was too expensive. (Hmmm, 50,000 yen worth of sundried tomatoes and porccini mushrooms? Even I couldn't eat that much!)
M: Donuts.  Can we go to the donut shop with the lion cups? (50,000 yen at Mister donuts? ergggh, feeling sick just thinking about it!)
A: I love you, too mummy. (I asked her before bed at the moment when I usually say 'I love you'.  Kinda disappointed she's on autopilot answering already!)

No, I'm not thinking of blowing it all on grapes ;) it's grape season and I lov the way they all look hanging down like that.


What's your t-shirt say?

Meg's sports day today.  Lots to show and lots to say, but I'm off to Kyoto tomorrow morning straight after we do 6:30-7:30am roadside rubbish cleanup.  Crazy- rubbish is not some shy nocturnal animal that runs away when the sun comes up AND there is no ruddy rubbish so we vigorously dig weeds out of the roadside drains and sweep up fallen flowers and weeds. @_@

But before I fall into bed and forget I had to share some t-shirt gems I spotted at the Sports Day.  All those Shimamura and Nishimatsuya shopping folk in their sporty-casual best- goldmine for Japlish t-shirts!

1. Across a mum's shoulders:  Girl Dummy 

2. Across the rather well padded and lycra encased rump of the obaachan sitting next to me:
Naturally square

3.  Above a great tattoo looking dragon on a 5yo's shirt:  Strangest dragon

4.  It would be so cool if it were true award for a 5yo girl' shirt:  I'm a gooner.

5.  On a size 0 waif:  70s hips

6.  On the PTA guy holding the finish line tape:  Carifornia Univ.  (I hope it was a fake!)

7.  On my t-shirt:  A little moment of happiney

Everyone deserves some happiney in their life!

Happy birthday Amy!


Out of the mouths of babes

The Australian Women's Weekly (homemaker/ gossip magazine for non-Aussies) used to have a corner for cutesy/ funny things kid's said.  The winner each week got $50.  I used to think they were all made up.  Now I have kids and I'm not so certain...

Showing Meg this amazing hairy-fireworks suited caterpillar and exclaiming over the fact it's still around this late in the season. M: 'Cool! Can I give it to the chooks*?'  For all the songs about the importance of life and how animals are just like people etc that M learns at hoikuen she has 0 qualms about feeding anything and everything to the chooks.  Granted they put on quite a show of squawking and flapping when you give them an insecty delicacy but still I am sad that she doesn't appreciate the miracle of life and it's myriad forms as anything but entertainment fodder.  Maybe I'm expecting too much of her, I don't know.

That is one pretty cool looking caterpillar, right?

Amy eating the first of this season's pears. 'This is yummy, who did we get them from?'  
Agghhhhhhh!  Amy is convinced I don't shop.  Just hang around home waiting for handouts from the neighbours.  While at times we could easily live on what we receive, we don't.  And I don't want her to start taking 'getting stuff' for granted.  Rather hard to focus on the giving when the getting is so much, so often, and so good though!

*chooks are chickens/ hens for non-Aussies. :)


An apple

My friend Sachiko is living in Detroit for a couple of years.  She writes a blog and it's really interesting to see her impressions of American life.  (If you're on mixi she's さっちゃん)She went apple picking with her family last week and wrote about her experience.  One of the things she said really stuck with me.  She said (my lousy translation) 'In America even the apple trees are really free to do whatever they want.  But it's difficult to find perfection.'  Got me thinking deeply about whether real perfection must be manmade or does it occur naturally?  Then I started thinking about the effort that goes into creating the perfect apple.  The perfectly round, evenly red, uniform size and weight, guaranteed degree of sweetness apple that we barely acknowledge as we peel, cut, salt (why???), spear with a toothpick and eat.

So, from my observations of, and conversations with, my neighbours over three apple seasons this is the road to perfection:

It starts in the deep of winter.  In February rugged up farmers are up ladders pruning the apple trees.  Branches that split with the weight of last years crop, branches with bug or disease scars, branches pointing the wrong way (up) are all cut off and the incisions painted to stop insects using them as a way in.

Apple orchard in winter.  From my back door as I'm a wimp. :)

As soon as the new branches start appearing (early Spring) an intricate system of string, wire and stakes is used to train them in the preferred direction (down and nicely fanned out), again surplus,wayward and weakened branches are removed.

Each string tied of neatly to the stake.  But I just noticed a stray string- shock!

As soon as the apples flower it's time to pollenate.  You can leave this up to the birds and the bees but that's a bit hit and miss when you're striving for perfection so best to buy pollen from JA and do it yourself.  Fluffy mini dusters on long poles are used to pollenate each bunch of flowers.

Ok, the photo is two years old and it's hard to see the apple blossom but wasn't Meg cute? ;)

Apple flowers grow in bunches of six.  Only the middle flower is kept.  The outside 5 are carefully removed.  This is very intricate work but vital to growing big heavy apples as the equation seems to be strength of tree divided by number of apples equals size of individual apple.  So for a good two weeks everybody is up ladders with tiny nail scissor size things performing apple flower surgery.

apple blossom by you.
Can you imagine removing 5/6ths of those blossoms?  And that's just one tree!!

If you pollenated effectively soon you should have tiny green apple embryos appearing on your tree.  Malformed or slow growing applets are removed to avoid wasting good tree strength on them.

By June you should have golfball sized apples.  Time to remove up to half of the apples you have carefully nurtured to this stage.  Anything too small, misshapen, too near a branch or other apple or with uneven colour is discarded.  The last of the spring growth is also tied back before it gets too woody.  From now until after the last harvest there will be village wide spraying, too.  Collect your allotted spray from JA on the specified day, dilute to specified strength, spray in allotted hours on allotted day and return excess chemicals to JA.

All the apples on the ground?  They're not windfalls.  They've been cruelly discarded as not up to standard. :(

Summer is all about the sun.  The colour of an apple's skin is affected by the amount of sunlight it gets.  An apple that is partly in shade will have a corresponding lighter patch.  All the leaves around each apple must be removed and branches tied in such a way as to minimise shadows on the apples.  Keep removing apples that are falling short of perfection.

September.  Time for the early varieties to be picked (more spraying first, of course.)  Each apple must be inspected carefully to look for an opened petal arrangement underneath, good even colour, hefty weight and no damage.  Then carefully lift the apple in a semicircle movement *upwards* from it's position to ensure the stem remains intact and you don't damage the branch.  Stemless apples can only be sold as seconds or used for juice- all that work for 1/3 the price!

Later harvested apples are praying for a frost before the JA contracts are due.  One good frost gives you a massive boost on the sweetness meter (although a frost back in Spring can wipe out your crop so frosts are a mixed blessing!)  Too many frosts or not enough rain and the apples lose weight, (unfortunately the frost diet doesn't work for me- I just stay inside, exercise less and eat more!) a typhoon comes too far inland and you'll be hurriedly selling what's left of your crop as windfall to pity induced tourists before they bruise. (the apples, not the tourists!)

You labour all year in your endeavour for the perfect apple.  You nurture and cull and tend and care and pick carefully and are lucky with the weather and... perfection!  But even perfection doesn't guarantee a good year.  Some years are naridoshi and some narandoshi (on years and off years)  Off years you just don't get lots of apples.  Simple as that.  But even on years can be bad years.  This year is an on year, we've had the right quantities of sun and rain at the right times and there are rosy red apples all around.  Lots and lots of them.  Too many in fact.  The price of apples is way down as Nagano and Aomori both have bumper crops.

Striving for perfection can be a thankless task.

Appreciate your apples!

One street over from our house, that's a few apples!



One of my favourite things about having a big house is how easy it is to have visitors stay.

Granted they have to be rather particular visitors.  Or rather UNparticular visitors to be more correct. :)  But anyone who doesn't mind chaos, exuberant children, sleeping on futons, early mornings and quiet nights (quiet because there's nothing to do and nowhere to go after 9pm and because if you wake my children they're yours for the night!) homestyle food (my very own fusion/ anything goes delicacies), and lots of nature (mostly outside but...) is always welcome.

Tonight a friend and her family have come up from Nagoya.  Hers was the first blog I followed.  About a year ago she was having a rough time and I commented 'Hey, if you ever need a break, come up'.  And rather than thinking I was a raving looney and blocking me from her site she came!!  And despite it raining for her entire visit and getting stuck behind a logging truck in the rain on the way up, and her kid and my kids being on completely incompatible eat, sleep, wake cycles and despite me probably remembering to offer her a drink once in three days, and going out to playgroup while she was still asleep and leaving her alone in the house and a million other social gaffs I'm sure I made but don't remember, despite ALL that, she came back!

And it's great.  Seeing the differences a year makes, seeing what hasn't changed, finding we still have heaps to talk about, meeting her husband, our husband's meeting, me feeling less like my success as a hostess depends on me remembering to offer drinks every hour... ;)

And that Autumn induced funk? Gone!  Feelings of inescapable inaka isolation (III syndrom for short?);) Gone!  So my new get through winter strategy is to surround myself with friends.  New friends, old friends, virtual friends, IRL friends, anybody!

So, interested in a Nagano minibreak?


For a better hostess experience A's your girl. :)

And I said chaos not grot- the dust in the background is from the chimney we were having put in to A's left.


mystery money

               Our famous (and wealthy) dosojin.

Dosojin 道祖神 are cutesy stone sculptures of couples that are randomly placed along the roadsides around here.  I mean really random.  There's one at the intersection up the road, it's an intersection half way up a dead end road and it has it's own dosojin statue.

Anyway, the dosojin doesn't seem to do much.  It doesn't have a festival or a day or anything, no-one puts flowers, sake or money there, it just is.

But twice a year the elementary age kids in the kodomo-kai gather enmasse and doorknock the neighbourhood.  '300 yen for the dosojin!' they chorus as they do their rounds.  

I asked the little panhandler who knocked this morning what the money is for and got the same answer as last year- 'for the dosojin!'

I asked one of the PTA mums who was chaperoning Fagin's crew what the money was for and was told 'It's for the dosojin.  For cleaning the dosojin'.

Well, that's more information than I've had previously, and admittedly the dosojin are respectfully moss free and the surrounding soil is devoid of weeds but 300 yen x 30 odd houses on our street and that's a lot of soap and weedeater!


You know, Nagasaki-san

My neighbour dropped by at 7:00am.  
Nothing unusual about that, I'm afraid.  My neighbour is head of the tonarigumi, the neighbourhood association.  He is the distributor of information in the neighbourhood.  Births, deaths, illnesses, accidents, funding drives, sports practice, festivals, changes to rubbish days etc etc he delivers the info to all 18 households and he wants to do it in one swoop so he aims early.  (Well, early for me anyway, most of the farmers are up and out at 4-4:30 and are home for breakfast at 6:30-7:00)

So, I met the already been out working neighbour in my PJs and unbrushed hair looking decidedly just got out of bed.  Damn it, more proof that I am a lazy housewife.

'Nagasaki's obaachan is sick.  She's been in hospital for 14 days so we're taking a collection.'

This is another tonarigumi job.  People who've been in hospital over 2 weeks get 1000 yen from each household as a get well soon gift.  It goes in the red celebration money envelope not the black one.  I know that because I thought illness was not something to celebrate and gave it in the black envelope which is only for funerals- oh oh!  Last year someone actually did die on the 14th day of hospitalisation and there was much consulting around the neighbourhood as to whether to give the 1000 hospitalisation money, the 2000 yen death money or both.  We ended up doing both but staggering it- and different envelopes of course!

Anyway, back to this morning.  I'm trying to figure out who Nagasaki's obaachan is.  All the people in my neighbourhood are obaachan or ojiichan age and about a third of them are called Nagasaki.  (The other two thirds are Mizutani or Nagase and they are about 90% related to each other too!) @_@  At first when my 70 odd year old neighbours talked about their obaachan I was ready to call the Guiness Book of Records.  'Your obaachan is out digging potatoes????' but I have come to realise that obaachan is either the 70 year old wife or the 90 odd year old mother of the speaker.  Confusingly enough they're both called obaachan as noone seems to use the textbook hi-obaachan for great grandmother. 


Yes, Nagasaki down the hill.
(Well that narrows it down to half...)

With the dog, Ryu?

No, the one who lost her baby son in the kotatsu incident.  
(Now like I said, these are all old people, I wasn't born when the kotatsu incident happened.  I am still none the wiser.  These unfortunate events are often used to explain people though.  There's Mizutani who went bankrupt, Mizutani whose Fillipina wife ran away and Nagase who burnt down his house overfilling the bath heater.  Then there's chibi-chan, kuma-chan and miimii-tan and all the other people identified by their childhood nickname- again totally useless to me who has only known them as 60 year olds.  My best bet at deciphering the specific person is 'Nagasaki who farms grapes' or 'Mizutani who does prunes' but as most people do apples so that is still only moderately useful.)  

Oh, how sad.  I'll just get my purse.
(I give up trying to work out who it is.)
Is she alright?  I hope it's not serious.
(Trying to think of anybody I haven't met in the last 2 weeks.)

Oh, she's got pneumonia.  Been bedridden for 7 years now.  Probably enjoying the change of scenery! ha ha!
(Another one??  Since we moved here I have been to two funerals of people I didn't know existed.  There seem to be quite a population of housebound/ bedridden really old people being looked after by the already seriously hard working old people around here.)

I took my after lunch get A to nap walk up the hill today.  I usually go down the hill but still not knowing which Nagasaki I gave money too I didn't want to meet them and not enquire after obaachan's health or worse greet the wrong Nagasaki with wishes for a speedy recovery!

I mean it's not as if I can open with 'Great weather today, hey?  Good for the apples, huh? By the way, are you the Nagasaki who lost your baby in the kotatsu incident?' ;)

The view from my bedroom window.  That's Nagase whose son works at the tomato factory's house and Nagase whose divorced daughter moved home's cypress trees. :)


The beginning of the end...

A expressing how I feel. :(

I had my bath before dinner today.

That's a sign.  A sign from myself to myself to treat myself gently.  It's my way of escaping from the madness and having some selfishly stolen me time.  It's the first time I've done it in months.

I don't know whether I would say I suffer from SADS but I would definitely say I'm solar powered.  I love summer.  I live for summer.  This past week the cold has been creeping back.  I'm wearing longer pyjamas.  I put socks on yesterday.  It rained all weekend and it wasn't that steamy summer rain but the cloying, misty autumn rain.  The weather report keeps saying 'tomorrow's temperature will be 1-2 degrees lower than today.'  The maximum temperatures are in the low 20s.  The minimum temperatures aren't even making that.  The last of my summer vegetables are struggling to ripen.  My poor tomatoes are losing the fight.  They wilt and wither and their fruits rot and split before they change from limpid orange to insipid red.  I feel like I'm suffering the same way.  I need an extra cup of coffee in the morning, I want to spend hours in a warm comforting bath reading chick lit rather than dancing with my kids.  
I saw harvested rice hanging in the fields yesterday.  I wanted to yell 'NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!'

Rice harvesting farmers- harbingers of my personal doom. :(

I'm the only one in the family who feels this way.  The girls love every season and are already planning the snowmen they will make.  DH has an infuriating 'all seasons are equal and necessary and inevitable and I don't think about it, I just get on with my life' attitude that doesn't allow for much wifely winter wailing.  He spent today cleaning the chimney and polishing the stove without even a thought for those poor withering tomatoes.

Having tried wallowing in my misery like it was a big fluffy doona all winter for the last 2 years I am going to make a conscious effort to be positive this year.  Exercise more, get dressed before breakfast, get outside, and keep in touch with my friends rather than spending all day in my pjs, glued to the hearth and hibernating from my social life till Spring.

Who knows, might even take up skiing, become a skibunny and spend next year waiting for winter!

I won't be holding my breath.


Poor sods

There was a fire in the village this morning.  

The opposite side of the village from me but I already know ALL about it.

How?  Thanks to the Village sanctioned gossip machine.  I mean the yusen public address system. ;)


(Cue everyone grabbing the gossip's best friend- the village map book with the name of every householder printed on it.)

(Just in case you still couldn't find it.)

(Ahhh, found it.  Isn't that Jiro's brother?  You know the one with the rather young wife/ failed business/ delinquant son?)

Then an hour or so later.


(Glad one fine firefighter is gainfully employed on the stopwatch.)

(and another one is kept busy taking the roll?)



I know the reason they use the yusen is to summon all the volunteer firefighters but I still always feel sorry for the poor people who not only have a fire but have the entire village know all about it.

One extra incentive to double check the gas is off before I go out!



The landline rang.  A and I looked at each other.  The only people who use the landline are wrong numbers, sales people and my family and since we found skype we don't call much.

'Hello, is this the Fukases?'
'This is TM Swimming pool.  We have some swimming equipment (suiei dougu) that was found in the park next door and we think it might be yours.'
'Oh?' (completely perplexed.)
'Could you come and get it as soon as possible.'
'Sure, I'll be right over.'

As soon as possible?  What is this swimming equipment?  Bundled A into the car and off we go.  Me naturally taking the wrong unmarked road and having to do a 17 point u-turn with precipitous falls into the rice paddies on either side should I fail. @_@

Arrived at the pool and there was a swim class on.  Lots of people in the pool, lots of mums in the observation room and no-one at the front desk.  Made lots of polite noise and herhermmed and someone came to se me. Explained my situation and was handed a big black bag.  Yup, that's our bag- now for the mystery of the in need of urgent pickup swimming equipment and how they knew where to find me.

Ah hah.  A rather smelly pile of bathers, towels, swimming hats and goggles.  

DH took the girls to the pool on Saturday while I worked.

Then he took them to the park.

Then he somehow left the ENTIRE swimming bag behind.

(Must be a guy thing.  I am so used to carrying around 101 bags to go anywhere I feel weirdly unsettled the rare times I can leave the house with just keys, keitai and wallet.)

That was Saturday.  Today is Friday.  I know why they wanted me to come as soon as possible!

And how did they 'think it might be' mine?

Well it wasn't really a CSI job.  M took her hoikuen swimming hat.  The one with her name written all across the front.  We're the only Fukase in the book.  Lucky we're not one of the three million Nagasakis around here, hey?

So I'm a lucky bunny to get all that back (and luckier than even I thought when DH told me the ridiculous price he paid for his aeronautic antifog precision goggles!)

Well as lucky as you can be in possession of seriously smelly laundry. :)

What is it about swimming hats?  I mean A is only 2 and she's already brainwashed into thinking you even need one in the paddling pool!


It's that time of the year again.  Time to start thinking about heating again.  Nagano is amazing, fabulous, wonderful, heavenly and every other superlative three seasons a year.  Winter is cold.  Cold, frigid, freezing, icy.  Great place for a ski holiday.  A little less fun to live in in an old house.  This is our fourth winter here and it gets easier each time.  Not because I'm getting acclimatised but because I am working on turning my house into an oasis.  I refuse to give up and invest in multiple sets of thermal full body underwear like my neighbours.  I WILL BE WARM!!  

Year 1 we used a candle to find draughts and used tube after tube of sealant plugging them all. 

Year 2 we added a carpet runner in the corridor and invested in sheepskin slippers for us all (go uggboots!)

Year 3 we really went to town and put in a wood stove.  It's fabulous.  No more kerosene fumes.  You can put wood in before you go out and come home to a warm room.  You can burn it all night and wake up warm.  Can you tell I love my wood stove? :)

Ok.  It's not the best picture of the woodstove but I just love Meg's reaction to her b'day kiss.  And for the extra observant- yes, our stove is in the tokonoma.  Don't worry, MIL is suitably horrified. :)
But woodstove's are a lot of work.  While kerosene stoves are packed away and forgotten for 9 months of the year, woodstoves are a year round thing.
Collecting wood.

About 40 minutes up into the mountains, a winding, narrow, scenic, tunnelridden road up into the mountains, there's a depot for all the wood that's fished out of the dam.  You pay 1000 yen for all you can carry.

M the helper.  She doesn't have superhuman strength, something about the water or maybe the type of tree it is or something means that about half the wood is superlight.  Great for funny pictures but not great for burning.

Bring it home.

K trucks have a legal maximum load of 300 odd kilo.  DH doesn't follow instructions very well.

Cut it up

That big space out the front that most people use to park cars in?  Car Park? No way!  That's a woodbay. :)  When things get on top of us this can look like an oversize beaver has taken up residence out there but at the moment it's under control.

Chop, sort and stack it.
'But daaaaaddy's not wearing his shirrrttt!'  And yes, Amy is wearing shorts over her leggings.

As well as the wood from the dam we get wood from the apple orchards around here, from a couple of neighbours who own some of the surrounding mountains, and from people who hear DH using the chainsaw and ask him to clear a tree for them.

It's a lot of work but we do it together and I'm into hokey family activities and hey, it saves us paying gym fees, right?

Amy's the king of the castle!



There is a cable television station in the next town.  A town of 15,000 watermelon farmers have their own cable tv station.  The town benefits from the amazing tv station building with it's floor to ceiling windows and lots of public spaces.  But I have no idea how the tv channel stays afloat.  I have a feeling it's something to do with providing tv to people who can't access regular land reception.  'Where does the money come from?' is a question you often think and don't mention around here. ;)

So anyway a tv station with hours and hours of schedule to fill and only so many stories about watermelon sickness, watermelon favourable weather, predicted watermelon sale price, actual price, season wrap up etc etc.  It seems they use up some of that time with riveting 'Today LIVE from the local kindergarten!!' segments.

How do I know?  Well, this morning I went to the post office, the bank and the jidokan.  And at every stop someone approached me and said 'oohhh, I saw your daughter on TV last night.' The first time I was thinking  eh? I know she broke the sports day hoop thingy but surely that didn't make Japan's most wanted?? ;)  But I smiled and said thank you and did the oh no no no no when complemented on her cuteness etc etc  Finally at the jidokan I was approached by someone I actually knew. (Sticking out as the token white mum means everyone from the woman who scans my groceries to the guy who was manning the road block on my street 'know' me and stop me to say hello while I try not to look blank and- heart beating in case it's someone I SHOULD know- scan my mental address book trying desperately to place that face.) :(  

So, *sotto voice* I enquired as to in what capacity my monkeychild made her tv debut.  Mrs S explained the whole cable tv kinder hook up thing.  Oh, thought I.  Not sure how I feel about random people watching kinder kids play from the comfort of their living room and not sure what innocent reason there is for finding that interesting but if people are telling me all about seeing M running around being a typical genki 5 yo that's nothing to worry about, right?  So it wasn't Japan's most wanted relief swept over me.

Mrs S. 'yes, M was on for quite a while.  And close up.'
Me. (heart starting slow sink...) oh?
Mrs S.  'yes, most kids are really hesitant about the cameras but M was asking the cameraman what he was doing and where he was from and she kept saying 'show me! show me!' '
Me. aghhhhh. (thud. heart sinks)

See we take videos to send to my family.  I ask the girls what they're doing and they talk to my family and then at the end I turn the view finder around and let them be silly while watching themselves on the screen.  They love it and my parents love it, too because I mean if it's your far distant and only grandchildren, ANYTHING they do is precious, right?

So I am responsible for creating the monster.  Have to hang my head in public and apologise for my wayward daughter, hey? ;)  I comforted myself that surely it can't be a very high rating program and I probably just met the only three people who watched it but..

DH called at lunchtime.

One of the secretarial obaachan brigade had cornered him and gone on and on about seeing M on TV and did I know anything about it?


I imagine this is what everyone saw. *^_^*


more musings on life in the country

I was thinking about how I've changed since we moved here.  Some of these things might be age/ marriage/ maturity related but this is what I've noticed.


Creativity- home made hats. :)

In Saitama I lived across one busy intersection from a 24 hour supermarket.  I shopped everyday.  Some days more than once.  If I was tired or having a stressful new baby day I'd buy those prepacked souzai bits and pieces and not even cook.

Now I live 15 min drive from the supermarket that closes at 8 (I think, I'm not out at that time of day anymore!)  15 minutes is not bad at all by country standards.  There is no pizza delivery here.  No takeout other than 7-11.  The effort of getting the girls in the car and going and buying something and getting them home again outweighs the ease of not having to cook.

I shop once a week at a supermarket 30 minutes away and we get by on that and FBC staples.  I buy tomatoes, tuna, spaghetti, corn, kidney beans and pasta in bulk.  When there's nothing going dinner wise we have napolitan pasta, or tuna pasta, or vegetarian chilli beans.  I enjoy the challenge of making a meal out of what's left in the fridge and of having an empty fridge the morning of grocery day.  Small, simple, meaningless excitement but you gotta put the buzz in your day somehow!

I have also acquired maestro status in creative recycling.  My lastest creation is the three part bug hotel made out of PET bottles for the suzumushi DD inexplicably brought home from hoikuen.  (At least we aren't meant to eat these ones, unlike the inago she brought home last year. @_@)

Suzumushi cage and A.  Yes, they are our table centrepiece.  Great for stimulating meal time conversations. :)


People who love me would say I'm exuberant and like to run with ideas.  People who are not so kind *might* mention words like impatient, wilful and pigheaded.  :(  When we moved here the pace of life was hard for me.  Everything takes time.  You want a play date with your neighbour.  Just drop by (with the ubiquitous edible gift of course!)? Heavens no.  Walk back and forward in front of their house for a week or so until you can coincidentally bump into them, exchange children's name/ age/ breast feeding/ toilet training statistics, THEN if you're lucky you can organise a date- hmm a week from tomorrow? to go and play.  Seriously.  People are slow to warm to new things and if you barge in shouting about it they'll run a mile.  But play the game- send out feelers, mention to B that you'd like to meet her friend C etc etc and things will happen.  It just takes patience.  Lots of it!  It took me a year to arrange something with my (admittedly quite shy) neighbour across the road but today she was over here all afternoon  cutting two other of my friends hair, eating cake and chatting and then I ate dinner at her's with my tomato sauce and meat and her spaghetti and all our tired kids.  Worth the wait. :)


In Saitama if I wanted to go somewhere I walked to the station and caught a train.  Worst case scenario and a train had just left there'd be another one in a couple of minutes.  Here there's a train an hour.  And it's a 20 minute drive to the station.  And our bus service went bankrupt.  So I have to plan my trips well.  Even driving, the roads are mostly unmarked and the backroads could lead to the next town or the next paddock so I have to plan my drive, too.  And allow plenty of time for being stuck behind a tractor. @_@

Turn the other cheek.

  Naganoites apparently pride themselves on being direct.  They certainly are.  And that combined with the 'it takes a village to raise a child' thing and I have learnt to bite my tongue when random obaachan tell me how to raise my children.  They mean well, they think they're right, they're trying to help, I have to live here with them so play nice etc etc but deep down I'm still the hotheaded adversarial me who wants to scream 'I'm their mum and *I* decide whether or not it's the right weather for t-shirts/ shorts/ barefeet/ waterplay/ watermelon etc etc.

How to freak out the neighbours- let your kid's choose what clothes to wear.  Yup, one in long shirt and trousers and one in t-shirt and shorts and (shhh!) neither wearing obligatory white undershirt. :O

I feel like I have changed so much since we moved here and I think it's mostly positive.  I've only been here four years and I wonder what I'll be like when it's 40? Scary thoughts! ;)


Raising kids in the country

This topic came up on another blog and I've been thinking about it.  We moved from the city to the country when M was 1 year old so I'm not really able to make comparisons (and I was really unhappy in the city so it's hard for me to be objective) so I want to talk about what I see as the advantages/ disadvantages of living here.

First is space.  I always forget how many tsubo we have (maybe 300?) but it's more than three good sized house lots.  Lots of room in the house for everyone and all their stuff and lots of room outside to escape everyone and all their stuff, too!

The front yard is all lawn and with a gate on the front fence the girls can play safely out there with or without me.

The kinder and the ES and JHS grounds are huge too.  They all have their own hatake for the kids to grow vegetables and flowers in.  The kinder and ES have hills and sleds to use in winter.

Then there's the sense of community.  I just posted 2000 words on that one so I won't go on about it again. ;)  But it really is true.  I know all the people in my neighbourhood and they know me and my family.  Well except DH who's always at work and gets freaked out when he's out with the girls on the weekend and random ninja-baachan (am I the only one who thinks that farming get up makes them look like geriatric ninjas?) greet them by name. :)

Ninja at work. :)

Did you know Japan has four seasons?  Just kidding!  I haven't gone over to the dark side but you really FEEL 4 seasons in the country.  In fact you almost feel the old calendars 24 seasons.  Coming from southern Australia I am still amazed at the intensity and suddenness of the changing seasons.  One minute you're complaining about the heat and BAM!! you're searching for the kotatsu lead.   And each season has it's beauty and it's bounty.  Even winter if you're into 20kg buckets of salt pickled greens and dried persimmon.  This celebrating of the seasons is not reserved for mother nature either.  M sings songs at kinder that reflect what's happening outside.  Seriously, you wouldn't believe how many kid's songs there are about tulips, tadpoles, frogs, dragonflies, harvest moons, rain, snow etc etc.

Cherry blossom season.

Laidback lifestyle.  I'm sure some people would think this a huge disadvantage but I am thrilled that fashion hasn't made it to our village yet.  Getting M from kinder half the mums are in jeans and the rest in shorts, trainers, shapeless housedresses, whatever.  There are some women who get dressed up but there's no pressure too.  It's not just fashion either.  There seems to be a thing about not using people's front doors.  Everyone knocks on the 'katteguchi' like a side entrance?  It is a door straight off the kitchen.  It's where I used to keep my rubbish bin until I gave up and moved it so I wasn't always stepping over it!

My kids re probably the only ones quite THIS laidback.

The disadvantages?

Isolation.  It takes a long time and a lot of money to get anywhere.  In winter there are days where I have to stay in as the roads are too icy or the snowplough hasn't been through yet.  (You get snowplough service with 5cm accumulation.  Roads are cleared with priority going to National roads, prefectural roads then thoroughfares.  It can take a while to get to 'dead end road with 30 odd houses of old farmers tucked under their kotatsu until Spring.') ;)

Lack of English speakers.  Wanting to raise my girls bilingually I would dearly love them to have some English speaking friends.  We know of a couple of families but the kids are either a lot older or still babies.  I haven't given up yet though!  There's no English playgroup for native speakers but we travel to three different monthly English playgroups and I started a bimonthly one here in the village so we're getting SOME English anyway.

Lack of educational options.  Nagano has gone for huge regional schools with troops of busses ferrying kids in rather than the little 20 odd kid rural schools dotted all over the place.  That means it's a LONG way to the next school if you don't like the one nearest to you.  International school's non-existent and private ES/ JHS an hour away.

That's all I can think of at the moment.  How do you feel about raising a family where you are?

Gratuitous mountain shot. :)


dusk (again)

Remember I said I love going anywhere because the view on the way home is amazing?  Well this is the view on the way home from the swimming pool.  Taken from my car window at the traffic lights so not a great shot but you get the idea.  Not bad, huh?

Oh and the pool?  I DON'T recommend taking an adventurous 5 year old who wants to swim 'in the like the olympics pool' and a dreamy 2yo who wants to spend forever activating the autoshower at the entrance to the pool swimming by yourself.  @_@


the essay

I was thinking about what Gina was saying about the sense of community etc in the country and it is exactly what my essay was getting at so I decided to blog the essay.  It's really long, you have been warned! @_@

Oh and I was writing to impress- I'm really much more laidback than I come across. :)

Living The Local Culture- The Importance Of The Chonaikai

It is August the 7th.  My daughters and I are hanging the origami representations of Orihime and Hikoboshi on the bamboo branch outside our front door.  Our neighbor from two doors up calls out ‘ima daijou?’ and opens our gate.  She has brought celebratory sekihan rice made with sweet amanatto beans as her daughter just had a baby.  She reminds me that the meeting to make paper flowers for the floats in the upcoming festival is this Saturday….

Most visitors to Japan have at least a cursory knowledge of Japanese culture before they arrive.  For many it is part of their motivation to visit.  Be it the romantic image of a young maiko tottering through Gion, the fighting spirit of the samurai warrior, the mystique of Zen Buddhism, or more recently the doe-eyed girls and troubled boys of anime, they come with expectations of what they will encounter.  Through western interpretations of Japanese culture such as Memoirs of a GeishaThe Last Samurai and The Karate Kid movies these impressions of an exotic fantasy culture are perpetuated even as they cease to have relevance to most Japanese people’s lives.  I’m sure I’m not the only naïve tourist disappointed to arrive at Narita and not see kimono clad women gliding gracefully through the arrival lounge.

It is no longer even necessary to visit Japan at all in order to experience the culture.  Many aspects of Japanese culture have been exported and enjoy popularity on the global stage.  The martial arts, ikebana, and taiko drumming are all practiced throughout the world by people who in many cases have never set foot in Japan.  It is not just these traditional arts that are proliferating outside of Japan either.  Japanese pop culture is tremendously successful throughout Asia and, albeit to a lesser extent, in other countries too.  With the ease of information exchange facilitated by the internet, intricate origami instructions, compilations of multilingual Zen Buddhist koan, and images of the Nebuta Matsuri are only a click of a mouse away.  Bootleg copies of Tokyo Love Story can be bought in Melbourne’s Chinatown, and the number of anime clubs at Universities worldwide rivals even Tezuka Osamu’s prolific output.  More than ever before a plethora of cultural practices are readily available to interested parties irrespective of their physical location.

However, this is true of only some aspects of Japanese culture.  Just as important in defining what makes Japan unique, just as worthy of the label 'culture' as the examples listed above, are those observances, celebrations and practices partaken by people in their homes and in their communities during the course of their daily lives.  Varying from locale to locale and often organized not for tourists or an outside audience, but for the very people they are organized by, these aspects of culture are such an integral part of an individual’s identity as to be the very fabric that makes someone who they are.  Elements of life such as regional dialects, local lullabies and variations on children’s songs, a certain way of decorating the home for tanabata, New Year or obon, and local specialty foods.  Can you imagine Aomori without Aomori-ben ? Okinawa without sanshin music?

Much as the host of regional bon dance variations appear homogenous at first glance, these aspects of culture are not immediately apparent to the tourist overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of Tokyo or Osaka.  It is only by becoming part of the community that you can understand its distinctness.  The fastest way to become part of a community is through involvement with the chonaikai.

Roughly translating as neighborhood association, at the local level the chonaikai is the facilitator of many of the cultural events that define a region.  My chonaikai is instrumental in the planning, orchestrating and supporting of the majority of annual observances for the fifteen households that make up our group.  Each season has its events and outings. The year starts with the New Year’s Day sake party for the head of each household (at 10am!!) and distribution of sweets to the children.  Sankuro, the burning of last year’s daruma, New Year decorations and calligraphy on a pyre, signals the end of the New Year holiday period.  Spring has the bus trip to pick sansai and soak in an onsen together, summer, the early morning baseball matches, and autumn the highlight of the year- the inter-chonaikai sports day.  The chonaikai plays a part in the personal milestones of its members too.  Monetary gifts are collected and presented to newborn babies, children entering school, people building new houses, turning 20, getting  married, undertaking extended stays in hospital and finally the family of a departed member.  In fact, when it comes to funerals most of the organization is undertaken by the chonaikai.  From the door knock to inform everyone of the passing, the meeting to plan the ceremony, the nighttime vigil, the procession to see off the dead body in the morning, the funeral itself, and finally the meal for the visitors after the funeral.  With a minimum of fuss and great value placed on continuing tradition, the members of our fifteen households are rallied in various combinations for a plethora of reasons.  Our interactions are not restricted to the celebratory and support spheres either.  We gather for far more menial tasks on what I found at first to be a frighteningly frequent basis.  Collecting Red Cross donations, manning the rubbish station, cleaning and weeding around the dosojin, delivering the municipal newsletter and participating in road safety campaigns are just a few of the tasks that have come our way.  

Having moved to the country from the city for the express purpose of spending more time together as a family, I was resentful of what I perceived as an intrusion into my personal time and space.  As an Australian I considered friendly relations with my neighbors desirable, but placed far higher priority on spending both quality and quantity of time as a family.  It was therefore with little grace and a heavy sense of obligation that I attended my first few chonaikai gatherings.  Now, three years later, I appreciate the extent an active chonaikai enriches the lives of its members.  This has been a slow process- more of a gradual understanding than a blinding flash of realization.  Burning New Years decorations, doing rajio taiso during summer vacation, and barbecuing yakisoba are all things we could do as a family.  But would we?  So much easier to toss the decorations in the garbage, to sleep past 6:30 am when the calisthenics are broadcast and to cook indoors on the stove.  The chonaikai serves as a great catalyst.  Traditions and annual observances we would let slide due to lack of time or motivation are there for the partaking.  

But the value of the chonaikai is more than just the events it holds.  It’s the enabling of interaction that is the core of its importance.  For interaction facilitates learning in the most ancient form- passed down from generation to generation.  While we are able to learn about many things from books and the internet it is not the same as experiencing them.  It is the difference between shiru, to know, and wakaru to understand.  I can tell you that daijou is the local dialect for daijoubu. That in this area we make sekihan with sweet amanatto beans.  Or that we celebrate tanabata according to the old calendar and therefore a month later than the usual July 7th.  But I can’t share the feeling of community when thirteen people turn up on your doorstep to pay their respects to the new baby, and express their delight that it’s a girl- they’ve had problems finding the required numbers of elementary school age girls to fill the festival float in recent years.  That is something you have to experience to really understand.  To wakaru.

Living in an older neighborhood of farming families these traditions are followed to a greater extent than they presently are elsewhere.  Many of my neighbors have more than one house on their land.  Hiojiichan and Hiobaachan in the old house, ojiichan and obaachan in the main house with the ‘wakafufu’, or increasingly, the wakafufu in a new house with the grandchildren.  Apple, grape and tomato farmers, they have a strong physical attachment to the area.  They live, work and play in the same neighborhood.  With farms passing from father to son and going back generations, their ties to the area are as deeply rooted as the gnarled apple trees they tend.  Intermarriage means most of my neighbors are also related in some way.  The fourteen other households in our chonaikai share a total of only four surnames.  In such a close knit community it is not difficult to see why people are willing to invest time and effort in continuing the tradition of the chonaikai.  This is not true of all communities.  Even within the area that, pre-amalgamation, was my village, in many places the burden of time and money that is necessary to ensure the smooth running of a chonaikai is not considered worth the effort by the residents.  An aging population, greater proportion of nuclear families, more transient lifestyles, and greater ease of mobility all contribute to a gradual minimizing of the role of the chonaikai.  Rather than fight to preserve this tradition, increasingly people are choosing to opt out of it.  A Japanese friend moved into a new housing development where the seven households agreed to a chonaikai in name only.  They pay no monthly dues and have no neighborhood events.  The formation of the chonaikai was simply a formality to appeasecity hall.  All seven households are nuclear families with young children.  The housing development was built on reclaimed farmland and none of the families are originally from the town they now live in.  Similar housing developments are springing up all over rural and semi-urban Japan as a generation of wakafufu decide against taking on the farm and sell up to the insatiable big housing companies.  I feel sorry for the people in these developments with no organized interaction with each other- sorry for what they’re missing out on, and sorry that they don’t appreciate that they are missing out.  It’s definitely a matter of perception though, the friend I mentioned earlier loves to be regaled with tales of my chonaikai’latest activities.  She shudders and blanches the whole way through my enthusiastic recounts and, I’m sure, goes home reassured she made the right choice in escaping all that.

It’s easy to dismiss any regret at the decline of community involvement as nostalgia for a past viewed through rose colored glasses.  When we can log onto the internet and find communities of people with the same interests and motivations as ourselves, separated by distance and yet merely the click of a mouse away, is it really necessary to sacrifice precious leisure time to observe a traditional celebration we don’t fully understand with people whom we have nothing but proximity in common with?  It would seem that the answer for many people is no.

Increasingly education, employment opportunities and marriage all serve to uproot people from their hometowns and distribute them across the country, across the globe.  Thus uprooted they lose contact with their heritage, with the local culture that made them part of where they are from.  While some of this migration is city people looking for a simpler, quieter life in the country- the so called I-turners, it can’t compete with the exodus of (particularly young) people from regional areas to the city.  Cities serve as great melting pots- high-rise towers full of families from the length and breadth of Japan living cheek by jowl with streamlined and pared down neighborhood relations.  I lived a year in a large apartment complex in Saitama.  My husband is from Fukushima.  My neighbors were from Niigata and Kyushu.  There was no kairanban, no neighborhood celebrations, and our interaction with each other was completely optional and therefore, in many cases, nonexistent.  Long work hours and long commutes- often for both partners, served as a physical limitation on neighborhood involvement.  The proximity and abundance of family leisure attractions meant you could find all the entertainment you could wish for without any more effort than handing over some yen.  Living elevated from the ground as we were in our complex, we were literally and figuratively out of touch with the local community.   

Thus removed from both our hometowns and the local community, my friends and I, by virtue of being the wives of sarariman, shared a common culture.  Saying goodbye to our husbands by 6:00am and virtually single parenting our children while our partners arrived home after midnight, we lived a life of time sales, park outings, play circles and lunch dates.  Ninety percent of the time we were interchangeable with each other.  But, underneath the patina of bed town housewife lay strong ties to our different heritages. A request for information on how to make the traditional New Year soup ozoni turned into an extended discussion as the merits of soy sauce and chicken Tohoku style were pitted against miso and satoimo Kansai style.  Similar discussions ensued concerning the words to folk songs and the particulars of the traditional celebration of a child’s first birthday.  It was occurrences such as these that provoked my interest in the role of local culture in the forming of identity.  Watching for these subtle cultural influences, I began to see them in many of the people around me.  Removed from their environment the importance of these aspects of every day life previously taken for granted had become apparent.  The pride and longing with which they talked of their 'furusato'.  How quickly they reverted back to the dialect of their hometowns when speaking to a fellow local no matter how long since they’d left.   The cravings for a particular dish, cooked in a particular way, which symbolizes home.

Australia has a white settled history of just over 200 years.  While commentators like to debate the differences between Melbournians and Sydneysiders, and the extreme differences in geography do play a part in shaping the inhabitants of each state, there hasn’t been enough time for emotional and physical attachments between people and their locale to form in the same way as Japan.  It was therefore difficult for me to understand the passion with which my host family in Fukushima’s Aizu-Wakamatsu city regaled the region’s pride in being the last people to fall to the Emperor in the Boshin Civil War. They spoke of the injustices and hardships of 150 years ago as though they happened yesterday.  While I don’t think anyone who is not from the Aizu region can ever fully understand those feelings, I find myself identifying with my region (in my case the pre-amalgamation village) rather than my new city in the same way so many from the Aizu region introduce themselves as such rather than as being from Fukushima. 

I am not alone in this reluctance to embrace post-amalgamation reality, and sadly distinct local cultures are not just at risk from the changing lives of the local people but from the changing political map as well.  There have been three major amalgamation movements since the Meiji period, each working to erase hamlet size villages from the map and rewrite it as a more financially viable and easily governable one.  The village my family lives in disappeared in the last of these, the Great Heisei Amalgamation that ended in 2006.  Once an apple and tomato growing village at the foot of the Southern Alps we are now part of a sprawling megacity- an amorphous conglomeration of distinct communities yet to gel as one.  For, while it only takes a day for your address to change and you to geographically become part of a city, it takes a lot longer for your identity to change, if ever.  As if sensing the emotional needs of its new citizens, the city has been gentle and gradual in effecting change- but it is inevitably seeping in.  Funding for chonaikai has been cut and the four annual sports meets have been trimmed to one.  Of course, there is new to replace the old- we were invited to enter a local team in the city’s annual bon parade.  Volunteers even came out to the community centre to teach us the particulars of the city’s version of the traditional bon dance.  As with all change, there were those who eagerly embraced the opportunity and those who preferred to bemoan the intrusion of alien culture and the loss of the old ways.

I, too, fear that the local traditions and celebrations, the local culture that is so much of why I love my adopted furusato, will face extinction or relegation to the city museum as it is swallowed up by the city or dies from the roots up as community involvement decreases.  But it is futile to pine for the way things were.  It is up to us, as individuals, as families, as members of our chonaikai- and by extension as citizens of our villages, towns and cities, to seek out the local culture, to ask about it, understand it, participate in and support it, and then to impart it to our children and the children in our neighborhoods.  

And that’s why, come next August you’ll find me out on the front step with my daughters again.  Stringing up the tanabata dolls.  I hope my neighbor will bring her granddaughter over to toddle on the lawn with my children while she explains the schedule of festival preparations.  Then again, maybe our roles will be reversed as next year it’s my family’s turn to head the chonaikai.  A native of Fukushima and his Australian wife overseeing the continuation of grassroots culture in a handkerchief sized piece of central Nagano.  Wish us luck!

Edited to add gratuitous mountain shot. :)