Saturday, February 26, 2011

Moving Halfway around the World

I haven't been around much lately because the past month I've been busy packing up all of these:
And this week, I've been busily unpacking them.  I only have about five more to go, not bad for battling a cold, jet lag, awesome pregnancy onset heartburn, and taking care of four kids.

Thank you to everyone who helped me pack, clean up, and try to organize my house and for those who are currently helping me try to put my life back in order- Thank you too.

Travelling with Kids- A Visit from the Backpack Fairy

A few years ago, at the Osaka airport, I let my kids get their first Happy Meals from McDonald's.  The toy that came with the meal proved to be a gem on the flight.  The kids must have played with them for at least two hours each.  The next time I flew with them after that, I put a few toys that I had secretly hidden from Happy Meals in their suitcases and a few toys from the "gumball" machines that are EVERYWHERE in Japan.  The next thing I knew, they started talking about their visit from the backpack fairy, and the tradition was born.

The night before we travel on a big international trip, the kids leave their carry-on bags open next to their beds and when they wake up, they are closed and filled with new goodies for the trip.  It is in a way more exciting to them than Christmas.  It makes the night before traveling a joy for me because they want to go to bed so the fairy can come sooner.  However, the next morning can be a bit chaotic as they excitedly unpack their bags to see what treasures they received and I have to try to make them keep it in the bag and not lose it before the trip.

As we haven't travelled back home in a while and we were moving, this was a BIG visit from the backpack fairy.  Here is a picture of the goodies lined up on the table before I went to fill the bags.  Normally, there is not this much stuff, but since we were moving from our home and all the fun goodies that are available in Japan, I couldn't resist the extra stuff.

Some items that I have put in the bags in the past are:
the plastic bubble toys you get at the outside of the grocery store (I never usually let my kids buy them, so they are a real treat for them to open)
scratch and sketch books
invisible ink books
coloring books
new markers or crayons
a glo stick
a book to read
a magazine
a small stuffed animal
new toy matchbox car
sticker book with stickers
pez dispenser with refill
new Nintendo DS game (if they are REALLY lucky)
new DVD
travel game
mad libs
book of puzzles

Here is a bag open at the airport, while we were waiting to check in:
Thank you backpack fairy for making this move as stress free as I hoped you would!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Saying Goodbye

Today I am saying goodbye to my home in Japan.  I will be leaving a place that is currently the only home my kids can remember.  I started out with a 4 month old, a 20 month old, and a 3 year old.  I am leaving with a 7 1/2 year old, 6 year old, 4 1/2 year old, 3 year old, and one on the way in 6 weeks.  It is hard to believe how quickly time has flown by and how much my life has changed as a result of living here.  My family and I will never be the same again.  The Japanese people and their culture have taught me a lot about living and respect.

I am getting on the plane today with a one way ticket.  It is hard to think I might never come back or to think I might never do certain things that I've grown accustomed to.  I will be starting a new life today, but I will start it with memories and lessons I have learned from the Japanese people.  I am going to use less stuff, be more helpful, care about my appearance, smile more, be more respectful, and the list goes on.

Over the past few weeks, I have not had much time to be sad about leaving because I've been busy preparing my house for the packers and trying to get rid of stuff we don't use or want anymore. As I get in the taxi and leave my house for the last time, I know my heart will break.  It will be weird to wave good bye to all my things for the next few months and my husband for the next few weeks, and possibly some friends forever.  One of the downsides of living abroad is it's never permanent.  You see people come and go all the time.

Recently, while cleaning out my pantry, I found the phone list from when I first moved into my neighborhood.  There were over 40 names on the list.  Now, as I compared it to today's current list, there were only 4 names that were the same, one being ours.  So, three families outlasted us of 40, that's how many friends I've waved goodbye to over the years (and that doesn't include the ones that came and went in between). This is a hard part of living abroad, you get close to your neighbors, sometimes you are all you have, and then you have to say goodbye and it's not just to move to the next town, it's another country, like Africa, Australia, England, America, or China. I often wondered how it felt to leave, knowing you may never come back.  I can tell you right now it feels surreal and I don't think it's as hard for me because I didn't watch the packers put my house in boxes and drive them down the hill. I am leaving a full house and my husband will take on the job of overseeing the packing.

With all the heartache and stress of leaving your home country to temporarily live in a new one, and then leaving that country once again to go back to your home again (sometimes even a different city or state, as is the case for us), living abroad was probably the best experience of my life.  I know for my children it is a memory they will always treasure and I will be sure to never let them forget.  I thank my husband for taking us here, even though I wasn't sure of it at all.  I am hopeful for everyone I know that they will have the unique opportunity to live in another country and experience another culture.

As I wave goodbye in the taxi today, I want all my friends to know you will be missed and I am thankful for each and every one of you.  It is my friends and neighbors that have gotten me through this hectic time.  For a week straight, I had friends at my door, willing to help pack and clean up- without you, I'd have been up all night last night.  I want the Japanese people to know that I am thankful for their amazing customer service and help surviving the past few years.  I will be way more helpful to lost looking foreigners after I move home.  Sayonara.

Here is a picture from our first week in Japan:

Here is one from our last month:
Arigato Gozaimashita!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Japanese Grocery Stores

The grocery store is something that I mainly will not miss about living in Japan (with a few small exceptions).

For the most part in Japan, a grocery store is never just its own building, it is usually in a large multi-story complex with other shops, movie theaters, a food court, entertainment center, bowling alleys, you name it!  They can often always be found on the basement level of major department stores.  The grocery store closest to my house is called Saty.  It has made itself a legend amongst many of the visitors I've had over the years.  After many frustrating visits to Saty, I thought I'd write about what I will not miss about going to the grocery store.

Top ten things I will not miss about going to the grocery store:

10) Tuesday is sale day, crowds are unreal and it's all to save a few yen on potatoes and carrots. Why does it seem like I ALWAYS had the unavoidable need to go to Saty on a Tuesday?

9) Prices.  At 100-300 yen per apple at times, or 3,000 yen + for a  melon, I'm ready for savings back home.

8) Fish in 25% of the store or more.  I will be happy never to see a fish with its eye still in tact being sold for dinner, or fish that are tiny and could be mistaken for sprouts, or dried fish flakes to sprinkle on your food, or octopus tentacles ever again!

7) Not knowing what I'm buying (I have bought corn starch once, thinking it was flour).

6) The portion sizes.  The frozen bag of strawberries had 10 strawberries in it (for over 300 yen)!

5) The lack of whole grain bread choices.  Most bread is thickly sliced and comes in loafs of 5-6 slices.

4) The carts- all 4 wheels swivel and it is sooo annoying, especially when your kids are trying to push the cart around the store.  Not to mention, I can barely fit a weeks worth of groceries for my family of 6 in it in one trip.

3) The 1 Liter containers of milk.  I usually buy 24 a week, can't wait to only have to buy 3 gallons.

2) The delicatessen.

(you can see it's not your average deli)

1) The entryway to Saty:

Straight ahead:

To the left:

To the right:

This reason alone could be the sole reason I will NEVER EVER miss the grocery store.  It adds 20 minutes to my trip in and 20 minutes to my trip out of the store.  It is a busy mother's nightmare!

As I mentioned above, there are things I like about the Japanese grocery store:

1) The fruit is always delicious.

2) Meat is quite clean.

3) Everything is always arranged perfectly.

4) Cashiers are very efficient.  Look how she repacked my food in the basket- heaviest on bottom, lightest fragile items on top.

5) You always bag your own groceries, so you don't need to bring home 1 plastic bag for each item.
6) There is a dry ice machine in case you have a long way home on hot days.

7) There are refrigerated lockers so you can put your groceries in them while you scold your children for spending so much time entranced in the arcade.

8)  You can do all of your shopping (not just grocery) in one trip.

9) Thanks to the small portion/packaging sizes, you don't overeat.

10) You buy only what you will actually eat or need, due to the high prices, cutting down on a lot of waste.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Chocolate Chocolate Chip "Brownie" Cookies

Several months ago, I went with my neighbors to a bagel shop that had these delicious chocolate chocolate chip cookies.  I can't even describe how good they were, it was like fudge, brownie, and cookie in one.  Since then, I have been online looking for recipes to try.  I made one last week, while it was good, the outer edge was crisp, more like a merengue, not what I was looking for.  These ones however, might be as good as it gets.

My neighbors had a sayonara party for me this week and I needed to bring something to share.  It was a perfect opportunity to try out a recipe for the perfect chocolate chocolate chip cookies I had been searching for.

I found the recipe on a blog called Brown Eyed Baker, and the thing that immediately drew me to the recipe was that she got it from Baker's Illustrated.  They are a part of Cook's Illustrated, my favorite cooking magazine, if you didn't already know.  First of all, I can't believe I don't own that cook book, it is definitely going to be a gift I am giving myself for my birthday this year.  Seriously if you ever want to get yourself a cookbook, get the Cook's Illustrated Family Baking Book, Best 10 years of Cooks Illustrated, or Baking Illustrated.  I have never made something that didn't turn out good from their recipes.

Triple Chocolate Cookies:

Oven:  350'

2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
16 ounces semi-sweet chocolate, chopped (I used Nestle choc. chips)
4 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
2 tsp instant coffee or espresso powder
10 TBSP (1 1/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup sugar
12 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used mini, wish I used the regular sized)

1) Mix together flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt in medium bowl, set aside.

2) In medium bowl, whisk together eggs and vanilla.  Add in coffee powder, set aside for coffee to dissolve.

3) In either a double boiler or microwave (alternating 30 seconds of heating and mixing), melt the 16 oz. of semi- sweet chocolate.  Let cool slightly.  Meanwhile, in bowl of mixer, cream sugar, brown sugar, and butter.

4) While mixer is on low, add in the egg mixture.  Scrape down sides.  Add in the melted chocolate and beat until combined.  Slowly mix in the dry ingredients until combined.  Fold in the chocolate chips.

5) Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit for 30 minutes.  Mixture will thicken and become fudge-like. Drop cookies onto prepared baking sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes.  (I opted to put Candy Cane Hersey Kisses on the tops of some of my cookies after they were removed from the oven).

Wouldn't your Valentine just love a plate of these?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Travel Play mat for Babies

If you have a young child, you will know how much they love buckles.  When my kids were babies, they would always head straight for an empty car seat or high chair to do the buckles.  I always wanted to make some kind of buckle toy to keep them busy.  With my recent "obsession" of making travel play mats, I had the idea to make this buckle one for my nephew, who will be turning one soon.

I bought 3 buckles at a craft store here and used one set from an old high chair we were throwing away.  I used leftover strapping from the library bags I made for my kids to anchor them to the fabric.  I also decided to throw in a zipper for fun.

In the zipper pouch, baby can keep all their favorite things, like a picture of mom and dad and of course, their toy cars!

All rolled up and ready to go in the diaper bag:

Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Princess Bella Dress

I bought this dress pattern called Princess Bella by a company called Izzy and Ivy about a year ago, starting to prepare for summer dresses for Hazel.  I cut out the fabric before homeleave LAST year, but never got around to sewing it.  With being sick, pregnant, packing, etc, I never got around to sewing it. Now that I'm to the sad part of packing where I'm putting away all my sewing stuff, I found the fabric pieces I had cut out.  I thought I'd use it as stress relief and finish it before I move so there's no unfinished projects waiting for me six months from now when I'm unpacking.

Honestly, the pattern made me nervous because it involved two things I'd never done before, rolled hem and shirring.  I even had my sister send me the rolled hem foot for my sewing machine (too bad I can't find it, so I just pressed and ironed the hems like I normally do).  As for shirring, I tried every tutorial under the sun and every combination of things to do and not to do when shirring and I couldn't get it.  I had some success, but not what I envisioned, maybe when I get a new machine someday, it'll have an instruction manual...

The straps were supposed to be all shirred, I sewed rows and pulled elastic in between them, I love how they came out.  This pattern was okay, but for the price, and the fact that there were no pieces to trace, it was all by measurement, I think it would be a better download for a cheaper price.  In the instructions, there seemed to be some missing steps or hints, definitely seems like they didn't have someone test it out to see how they went with it.  In the end though, I will be making this dress again, but I think next time, I'll eliminate the front bow- it makes the dress seem so bulky.

My little princess loves this dress and has been doing a lot of twirling today, there's definitely a lot of room for twirling.  This is going to be perfect to wear over sweats like she is doing now, as a sun dress in the summer, and a tunic next winter.

The back:
Some twirl action: