Saturday, September 25, 2010

Apple muffins

Thursday was a holiday here in Japan, Shobun no hi- what's that mean?  It's the autumnal equinox, the start of fall.  Well, as far as dates are concerned, it is the official start of fall, but as far as weather is concerned, we are still wearing shorts and my kids were diving into the pool after dinner Wednesday night.  Luckily, Thursday and Friday, the sun was not able to show it's full strength because it was hidden behind some clouds, so it almost felt fall-like with temps only reaching a high of 75'.  It definitely felt like a day to start making apple and pumpkin related food.

My neighbor always sends me links to food blogs, she knows I like to cook, but maybe they are hints.  Anyways, the one she sent me this week had a recipe for Apple Whole Wheat muffins.  I am always looking for good muffin recipes and I LOVE apples.  I broke out my flour mill, ground up some fresh whole wheat flour, with the help of Nathaniel, and got to work.

For the muffins:  (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
1 cup wheat flour
1 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1 TBSP cinnamon
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk or yogurt
1/2 tsp vanilla
2 large apples, peeled, cored, and finely cut up

1/4 cup brown sugar


1) Mix together flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon, set aside.
2) Cream butter and sugars in mixer with paddle attachment, scrape from sides of bowl, add the egg.
3) Here she added the buttermilk to the butter/sugar mixture slowly and warned if you mix too much, it could curdle, I got nervous, switched to the whisk attachment and mixed gently, but not all the milk was incorporated.  I think for the future when I make these, I will alternate additions of milk and flour mixture.
4) Add flour mixture until mixed.
5) I added the vanilla on my own, it was not in the original recipe, there's just something to me about vanilla in almost all my baked goods :)
6) Fold in the apple pieces.  ( I used 2 very large apples, so in the end, I only added about 1.5 apples, don't skimp like I did- add the pieces from both.  I also ground them in my food processor until they were very small.  I don't typically like pieces of fruit in my baked goods, but I think next time I will make the apple pieces a bit larger, so they are noticeably present).
7) Scoop batter into muffin tins, take 1/4 cup brown sugar and crumble on top of batter before baking.
8) Bake at 450' for 10 minutes, then turn oven down to 400' for the last 5 minutes of baking.  ( I made 9 large muffins and 24 mini muffins- the mini muffins were done after the first 10 minutes of baking).

Enjoy!  My batch is almost gone and it hasn't even been 24 hours!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Car related activities

One of my sons LOVES toy cars.  These are a few examples of what I find around my house everyday (who needs toy garages, my couch functions not only as a place to sit, but a parking lot):

It was an easy decision last spring to make one of our monthly topics of study cars.  In fact, that month is this month. Unfortunately, with how sick I've been, I ended up enrolling him in the montessori preschool that both his brothers went to.  He is only there half a day, so he still participates in the few activities I've been able to muster up the strength to do with them.  Luckily, Nathaniel isn't that bothered that I haven't delved into the topic as much as I had planned to.  Here are a few things that we've done related to cars.

We bought model cars this summer for the kids to work on with their dad:

We built a car wash out of a cardboard box.  This is something I've had on my mind for a while.  For Owen's birthday, he picked out a plastic matchbox carwash.  The thing has never been properly put together and the pieces are always falling off.  This one we made from all recycled materials, so if it falls apart, I could care less about throwing it away.  This was a project I had Nathaniel work on with his dad on his day off on Monday.  The middle two "twisting brushes" are vitamin jars hot glue gunned onto the bottom of the box (I realized that because they are child-proof, they always twist).  Then, we hot glued some furry sponges around them.  The water is a cut up gift bag from one of the kids' birthday parties, hot glued to the side.

In action:

Next, we made some cupcakes in the shapes of cars.

My brother gave me this pan to thank me for letting him stay here last week:

Admittedly, I thought it was awesome, so did Owen, but I NEVER thought I'd get them to come out.  Look at this:

I had some energy today, not enough for a cake from scratch, but we did have a box of funfetti cake and Hazel has been begging me to make cake.  So, with the help of Nathaniel, we made the batter and baked the cakes.  Of course, I was worried about what to decorate them with so that you could still tell they were cars, and I did not have the energy or patience to do different colors of icing and carefully put it on in the right places.  I just made a vanilla glaze, set up two bowls, like below, and poured icing on top.

The results (they sort of looked like they'd been through a snow storm:

Owen wanted no one to eat them and me to refrigerate them until June for his bday party.  I convinced him I could make more and they finally got to enjoy them, he still wanted to me to turn out the lights and sing Happy Birthday to him.  His favorite thing to do since we got the pan is ask everyone which car they want for his party.

Here they are with tonight's selections:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Hanshin Tigers Baseball Game

Last Friday night, we went to our first baseball game here in Japan.  Baseball, yasu as the Japanese call it, is the National sport here.  I had heard many things about what to expect at the game, but hearing is one thing, seeing is another.  The stadium we went to holds 55,000 people and I'm pretty sure it was sold out, in fact, I think they may be sold out most nights- not that hard in a city of over 3 million people I suppose. The fans are very involved in the game.  My husband read a book about Japanese baseball and he was telling me that the fan clubs (pep band and cheering squad) have regular weekly practices and that if you miss a certain number, you can actually lose your season tickets and be kicked out.  One day at a local park, we heard the "fan practice", it was for a minor league team- but even they take it seriously.

The team we went to see, the Hanshin Tigers, is the home team for Osaka city and they play in  Koshien stadium.  It is about 45 minutes via train from our house.  I have read online that the team's fans are one of the most enthusiastic in all of Japan (they were compared to Yankees and Red Sox fans in the US).  Now, in fact, this summer, I took my oldest son to his first Red Sox game, and while there were your typical fans all dec'd out in Red Sox gear, it was no where close to what I saw in Osaka.

Almost all of the fans at this game had some type of Hanshin apparel on.  The most popular garb I saw was a Hanshin Tigers towel or scarf tied around their necks.  I'm not sure why this was- but given the humidity, plus high summer temps, and super crowded area, I don't think I could bear to have had anything tied around my neck.  Here is a guy in front of us sporting his towel:

We decided to sit in the left field bleachers to get the true crazy fan experience.  Behind us was the special section reserved for the opposing teams fans.  This day, they were playing the Yakult Swallows,  a team from Tokyo. They kept pulling out these blue and green umbrellas and twirling them over their heads, it was odd to us.  I later found out online that the umbrellas are used after their team scores a run to tell the opposing team's pitcher to head for the showers.

Here is a photo of the umbrellas going up:

This is the Swallow's cheer leader- he even brought his whistle:

How do the Tigers fans cheer for their team?  From what I could tell, this is where their band sat.  You can see the flags going up and waving whenever the Tigers were up at bat.

Here is one of their "cheer leaders", sorry for the fuzziness of the picture, I had two sweaty whiny kids moving around on my lap the entire time.

During the game whenever a Tigers player was at bat, there was LOTS of chanting and bat beating.  By bat beating, I mean these noise makers you buy in pairs- bat shaped of course.  They are hollow, so when you bang them together, they make a nice noise, you can also use it as a megaphone to chant through.  Everyone seemed to be perfectly in sync, it  was incredible- well, not Addison.

There are even kawaii things to wear at the game: (unfortunately I missed the kids with the tiger costumes and the lady in the Tigers kimono)

For the seventh inning, there is no stretch, but balloons.  In the seventh inning, right before the Tigers get to bat, everyone releases a balloon and they whiz up into the air making a whistling noise.  Incredibly not one landed on the field that we could see.

Here at the beginning of the seventh inning, you can see they are starting to blow them up:

Uncle Seth was such a sport blowing them up for all the kids: (he was even more of a sport in his non-breathable Tigers yukata he bought)

Auntie Liz is demonstrating just how big the balloons actually are:

Look at this, they are all blown up and ready to go, this was such a cool sight - I think everyone in the stadium had them:

Here they go:

Towards the end of the game, there was a lot of player changes.  The new player was driven out onto the field in this baseball shaped car, which was definitely Owen's favorite part of the game:

Buying beer at the game was pretty funny too.  The only people we saw selling the beer were girls and they had portable kegs on their backs, with a hose coming around their shoulders to pour it.

In case she lost her balance, they all had knee pads on:

I'm pretty sure glass and aluminum were not allowed in the game because on the way in, the only thing they were searching bags for was glass or cans.  If you wanted, you were allowed to bring in your own beer from outside, but they asked to pour it into their own paper cups- could you imagine having that happen in the US?

Here is a sign from one of the food vending places- yes there were hot dogs, but not ball park beef franks like you'd expect.  How about some curry rice to enjoy the game?:

It was so hot, I got the kids an ice cream- soft serve in a squeeze bag- how cool- maybe that's why the name of it was "Cooly's":

Here's a picture of the field being cleaned off, we thought it was interesting how the field was all dirt, not just the baseline:

The only thing I missed getting a picture of was the train station at the end of the game.  Unfortunately (not really) I left early with three whiny, sweaty kids, so I missed the crowds.  But, later on Seth showed me a picture and it was wall to wall people in the train station- it was a mob, worse than Fuji for sure.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Obon Holiday and Bon Odori Party

Living abroad, sometimes you could almost live a holiday-less life (the ones you find important might not be recognized and the ones they celebrate, you might not recognize).   Here, in Japan, a buddhist country, many holidays are not shared, such as Christmas, Easter, then the non-religious ones like Thanksgiving and Halloween.  Of course, I LOVE holidays and we don't let any slip by unnoticed.  For the past few years, mainly when a Japanese holiday comes along, I celebrate by being able to see my husband on his extra day off of work, and I stay off the roads to avoid the crowds.  This year, I decided to take a particular interest in the Japanese holidays, how they are celebrated and what they mean.  They, afterall, do take a liking to our holidays for the interest in a foreign culture.

This year, I bought a book to use for homeschool called Around the World through Holidays.  We love to base a lot of our lessons on holidays, and it seemed appropriate to study many world holidays since not only do we live in a foreign country, but we live with people from many other countries who have their own holidays too.  In this book, each month focuses on one country that has a major holiday occuring, there is a play about the holiday, and then suggested cross-curricular activities to go along with it.  Oddly enough, the holiday for the month of August was from Japan, the Obon Holiday.

Before now, I'd say this holiday to me was a three day extension of my husband's summer vacation without having to use actual vacation days.  Here's what it really means:

Being a mainly Buddhist and Shinto culture, the Japanese believe that their ancestor's spirits can return to  them to visit and this is during Obon Holiday.  It is usually celebrate for three days in mid-August.  Families place things by their home altars to remember their lost loved ones, they visit their graves and clean off the stones, and light lanterns to help the spirits follow them home from the cemetery.  A white lantern is used for a person who died less than a year from the last Obon holiday.    After the spirits spend three days with their families, there is a dance performance, called Bon Odori, and a drum performance- they believe the music and dancing comforts the spirits.  On that last evening, family members then have a ceremony called Toro-Nagashi, where they light lanterns again, and float them down rivers to help send the spirits back to heaven.

You know, the neighborhood club here where we live has had a Bon Odori party that we have attended for the last four years and I never knew the meaning of it.  Every year, there is a Bon Odori dance contest and they hire Taiko drum performers to come and they have lanterns all around the pool.  Everyone in the neighborhood comes in Japanese attire and we eat, drink, and the children get to play lots of fun games.  I am sorry that I did not take the time to learn earlier what it was all truly about.

Here are some pictures from our Bon Odori party:

Me and the kids (Dave was out of town for a work trip):

All the ladies in the neighborhood:

The lanterns around the pool:

Kids playing a popular Japanese game, where you are given a paper wand and you dip it into a pool to fetch rubber bouncy balls.  Each kid was given a plastic fish in their bag of balls, in real Japanese events, I have seen them getting real goldfish.

Taiko drum performance:

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Other side of living abroad

To you, it may seem as though I am living the life.  The thing is, most of the time I am, great husband, great kids, great family, nice house, travel opportunities, goldmine of daily adventures, being able to experience another culture- BUT there is another side to this story.  Most of it I have always been completely aware of, but pushed it aside because I am too busy taking care of my kids or out exploring the city I live in.

Lately, being sick has made me homesick.  I'm sure most people now know that I am pregnant.  For those of you that know me, you know that I get very very sick when I'm pregnant (hence my absence from the blog)- when I was pregnant with my first son, I once threw up SEVEN times in an hour.  Luckily, I was able to get my medicine before coming back to Japan, so I do have that saving grace.  However, being sick in a foreign country isn't fun to begin with, but couple it with the fact that I have four young kids to take care of, laundry to do, meals to cook, things to put away, and...... a husband that is ALWAYS working and it's even less fun.   Yes, I have wonderful neighbors that offer to help, but they too are in a similar situation to me, the weeklong struggle to make it on your own with your kids, while your husband is "living the Japanese dream"- where family only seems to have a place on the weekends.

Do you know about the Japanese work ethic?  Well, pretty much, they go to work early in the morning and don't come home til 10 or later at night.  There is definitely a hierarchy to follow in the Japanese society, for instance, in the workplace, there is an unspoken rule, you do not leave until your boss does- imagine that?  Luckily, the foreigners do not have to follow this one.  Most days, my husband leaves the house before 6:30 AM and does not return until after 8 PM.  A few times a week, he'll blow in the house, grab a bite to eat and sit down on our personal house phone and have conference calls until 10 or 11 at night- so while he's here, he's not.  Sometimes, he has late meetings, with people from the US and Europe, and he stays at the office for these and doesn't get home until after midnight.  There were weeks when he worked his forty hours in three days- I think you get the point- we NEVER see him during the week.   A running joke we have when we go to bed on Sunday night is, "see you Saturday".

This brings me back to homesick- of course, I am homesick for all the comforts that home brings, but what it really made me realize is that I am homesick for my husband and a normal work schedule.  I can't even remember what it was like to have him home for dinner by 5:30 EVERY NIGHT.  My kids are used to the fact that they don't get to see their dad during the week, sometimes the two that go to school during the day don't see him for the entire week.  This was part of my decision to homeschool the older one, it seemed to affect him that he never saw his dad, with more flexibility with our schedule, he can stay up later to see his dad, and do some of his schoolwork with him (if he gets home on time).

Now, before you completely feel bad for him and all his work, let me tell you another part of the Japanese work culture, the social part.  It is common for a Japanese co-worker to be very "quiet" about their opinions of your ideas in the office, but if you establish a relationship with them, like go out for a few drinks, they are more frank and willing to work with you.  This means many dinners throughout the week for him, whether it be to welcome someone to the group or say sayonara.  The company finds it important enough for him to attend these, that they even pay for some of them for him.  Yes, he gets to go to dinners and parties for work, of course at the end of the day (wives are not invited).  And, sometimes, after these parties, they are already out, so the obvious thing to do is go to a bar or do karaoke.   Something became evident to me last night when I went out.  YES, I WENT OUT.

I asked my husband to stay home so I could get out, since I hadn't had a moment to myself in over 2 weeks.  It just so happened he had a potential going away party for a co-worker of his that same night.  Many of the co-workers and husbands of the neighborhood showed up at the bar we were at and everyone kept asking me where was Dave?  I realized something, when they are out, no one ever asks them where their wife is and why she isn't out.  I met a few co-workers and I was introduced as Carlson-san's wife, which makes sense because they know him, but I realized that I've lived here for almost four years and I've never met a lot of my husband's co-workers, the people he spends most of his time with, and how excluded wives are from a major part of our husband's lives here.

Don't get me wrong, the weekends are ours, there is no yard work, we do a lot, but by the weekend, I am so exhausted, that I often find myself trying to kick him and the kids out so I have a little bit of peace and quiet.  But, he gets no sleep or rest during the week either so sometimes Saturdays are a wash because he needs downtime too.

So, next time, you think how cool my life is here, and all the trips I get to take- remember that those vacations are one of the only times in the year that I am actually spending quality time with my family as a family.  And many of my adventures end up being alone during the week, without my husband.  Be glad the next time you are sick and your husband is home to make you dinner or stop by the store to pick you up popsicles on his way home.  Enjoy it when he is there during the week to see your kids play a game or take them to the movies.  I hope I don't sound too doom and gloom, but I felt the need to express that there is a dark side to living abroad.