Posted in Japanese Culture, Visit Japan!

At Home in Rural Japan part 1- The Heart of the Rural Japanese Home

My first article in a new series on Taiken Japan.

Before the sun rises over towns and hamlets that slumber between forested mountains, lights begin to flicker in kitchen windows across the valley. In cold weather kerosene or wood stoves are lit, they bring warmth and light as the heart of the Japanese home is awakened by the woman of the house. In summer, windows are opened allowing the cool morning breezes to refresh while releasing smoke from the gas grill as she grills the morning fish.

Welcome to the rural Japanese kitchen.

READ THE FULL ARTICLE HERE

Posted in Cooking, Food For thought, Japanese Culture, just thoughts

Healthy Eating-Japanese vegetables

This is a shot of a typical grocery haul for us. Notice all the fresh vegetables.

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I was surfing the net not long ago and came across a photo of a typical grocery haul by a family in another country and I was startled because the table was piled high with packaged foods, junk foods, sodas and other non-nutritious foods.

It made me think about how really fortunate we are to live here. Healthy eating is not something out of the ordinary, it’s the norm. At least for us, in this area.

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This is a picture of my typical breakfast: a grilled fish, scrambled eggs with onions, spinach, mushrooms or some other vegetable. Vegetable miso soup, komatsuna-wakame (mustard cabbage and seaweed) with a vinegar and sesame seed oil dressing, 50 grams of rice from our farm-topped with grated daikon radish in the photo.

Hubby eats the same. We wash it down with hot green tea.

This is kind of a typical Japanese breakfast. Add natto for hubby (I can not get past the smell).

I really enjoy cooking with all the wonderful vegetables from the farmers market.

Fresh spinach gets par-boiled, drained and squeezed. Then I cut it up and top it with dried, shaved bonito (fish).

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Eggplant ready for grilling…..

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Lovey vegetable miso-soup. Ingredients are Chinese cabbage, carrots, onion, wakame (seaweed). I use kombu dashi (a broth made from seaweed) as the base and then I add 2 tablespoons of miso paste. Healthy and hearty!

 

 

Posted in Japanese Culture, Trips around Japan

New Year at Hosenkaku Ryokan

New Year’s “get-away” was spent at a Ryokan in Beppu. We had a lot of trouble trying to find a place that had rooms enough for our group of 15 people-all family. It was down to crunch time and hubby and I thought that we would have to spend the New Year holidays at home-which would have actually been okay with me because I was still not feeling very well.

Seems like we always end up in Beppu-quite honestly we would have preferred to go someplace else.

The Ryokan was down on the main road near the beach. An older hotel that has been around at least for the past 50 plus years.

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A couple of photos from the lobby. They had the traditional New Year sake barrels displayed.

I decided that I’m going to write a gut-level honest review of this ryokan because it was expensive and all of us really felt that they could have done much better.

The price was 20,000 yen per person/ per night or about $175.00 per person per night. We stayed for 2 nights. Breakfast and dinner was included in the price.

Our large group arrived  and assembled in the lobby. We have stayed at various ryokan in Kyushu and around Japan and most always we are greeted in the lobby by staff  who assist us by giving us a short orientation of the facility and offering help with luggage and such. We got none of that at this ryokan. It had a rather stiff and “business-like” atmosphere. None of the warmth we are usually greeted with.

The usual check-in business accomplished, we lugged our belongings up to the 5th floor and everyone found their rooms. The hallways were dim and drab. Decorated with bamboo poles, rocks and false kawara roofs didn’t do anything to hide the worn carpeting. A quick look around and it was obvious that the place was in need of repair. The hallways were like a maze-twisting and turning with sets of stairs in between them-not very convenient for the elderly who were with us. Especially since there were no railings to hold on to.

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Several halls were completely dark. We weren’t sure if that was because they were trying to save money or because there were no guests staying in those rooms. We were under the impression that they had a full booking. What ever it was, it didn’t do anything to curb the already drab and dull atmosphere.

The rooms were nothing special and they were very dusty and damp.The ryokan website listed room amenities but when we got there things were different. There was no hair dryer or coffee maker. The “free wifi” was too weak to even try and use.  I’m trying to think of something positive to say but honestly the rooms were nothing special. Everyone felt the same.

For breakfast and dinner all guests were served in the tatami – style dining room. When my husband’s family saw the “tables” they were not happy. The ryokan used tiny tray-like tables that most ryokan do not use anymore simply because they are not at all comfortable to sit at-being only about a foot off the floor and a foot and a half wide they really do not lend anything towards having a fun, relaxing New Year’s meal.

I made no comment about the situation- my review is based upon what my husband’s family thought and they are all Japanese-although I agreed with the general consensus.

The meals , although elaborate looking-really were not. The food was mediocre. A mountain of sashimi that was way too much to eat-no one was able to eat all of it.  It got to be kind-of a joke with everyone trying to pass-off their left over sashimi to the person next to them. The “sashimi mountain” seemed to be served with every meal.

The rest of the food was rather tasteless. Dessert was good-a kind of vanilla pudding with a crusty cookie topping but at a New Year dinner it isn’t the dessert everyone looks forward to. The wait-staff seemed overwhelmed and tired and they came across being cold and grumpy.

The children were served fried rice, fried chicken, sausages, salad, cookies and more. My husband commented that he wished he could order a kid’s meal! If my husband makes that kind of a comment then the food must really be lousy.

The first night when we had returned to our rooms the futons had been taken out of the closet and arranged on the floor for us which is a normal event at a ryokan. In the morning while the guests are having breakfast the staff quickly put them all away into the futon closet again…usually…that is. Not at this ryokan though- much to the chagrin of my mother-in-law who was mortified that the ryokan failed at this basic rule of hospitality-especially since it was the New Year holiday.

One of the main reasons why Japanese love to stay at a ryokan is to relax in the wonderful healing waters of the ryokan onsen-or hot springs. I thought well…at least the onsen should make up for whatever was lacking in other areas.

I was wrong.

The onsen was in bad need of repair. Peeling paint, old, cracked and splintered wood seats and a general lack of real upkeep made the onsen experience at the ryokan super disappointing. The floors were actually dangerous. Many places were covered with reddish-colored mold and very slippery. I had to watch my mother-in-law very carefully because I was so afraid that she would slip and fall. I almost took a spill myself.

My mother-in-law usually loves to take advantage of the rotenburo (out-door pool)  if there is one  but the one at this ryokan was …ridiculous. There were zero privacy screens so anyone in any of the other high-rise buildings in the area had full view of everyone in the out-door pools and, remember in Japan onsen are considered “baths” -we use the facilities naked. Swimming suits are not allowed. Of course men and women are separate (in most places). Needless to say we didn’t use the rotenburo.

Kagami mochi display in the dining room.

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I honestly wanted to post a positive review but then it wouldn’t have been honest. We did not enjoy our stay in this ryokan. Hubby said at the end of the month he is going to start making reservations for the next New Year celebration to make sure we get a decent place to stay so we can really enjoy the holiday. Hotels and ryokan raise their prices almost double for the holiday season! We at least want to enjoy our stay and feel like we got our money’s worth.

 

Posted in Japanese Culture, Little things I love about Japan

Everywhere You Look-Christmas Cake

Cake frenzy is almost here. One more day and you won’t be able to park anywhere near a cake shop. There will be no open parking spaces for miles around.

No Japanese Christmas would be complete without Christmas cake.

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Christmas cake is THE star here on Christmas. I wondered how this custom came about so I did a little research.

“After World War II, American soldiers led the work of rebuilding an occupied Japan. The Japanese economy was in shambles and food shortages were common. Even rarer were sugary sweets. The sweet treats from the U.S. that the Americans handed out were a memorable luxury to a people still recovering from the ravages of war. Sweet chocolates, above all, given by American soldiers epitomized the utmost wealth Japanese children saw in American lives,” cultural anthropologist Hideyo Konagaya wrote in a 2001 paper on the history of the Christmas cake published in the Journal of Popular Culture. Sweets fed a longing for wealth and a desire to Americanize” full article here

The custom started because American Christmas conveyed an image of prosperity to the Japanese. It was never about religion.

The most popular type of Christmas cake is a type of sponge cake filled with strawberries and whipped cream and frosted with whipped cream. There are usually strawberries on top of the cake along with maybe a little Santa ornament. They are actually really good- specially with a hot cup of coffee.

I read in the article that most cakes are red and white because the Japanese flag is white with a red circle in the middle. So while Christmas cake and “Christmas” represent American wealth and affluence..the cake remains nationalistic. Just interesting information you learn if you dig.

We have never ordered a Christmas cake. They are  fairly expensive-a little cake will cost you 3,000-4,000 yen (about 30-40$$). My husband being a diabetic can’t eat much cake anyhow and my hips don’t need more than half a Christmas cake. Just saying’.

Mother-in-law orders one on occasion and then we go over and have coffee and cake with them. I never say no to an invitation of coffee and cake.  🙂

As you may know, we have a little dog. I stopped by the pet shop a couple of weeks ago and saw that they had a counter set up advertising Christmas cake for dogs!

See this photo below? I took it in the pet shop. All these delicious looking desserts are for DOGS! Not sure if cats might like them too.

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Eighteen bucks for a large sized doggy Christmas cake. With the tax almost 20$.

Japan never ceases to amaze me. I have a blast just walking around in the mall by myself sometimes and looking at all the unusual and different things. Cheap entertainment. Life can’t be all work.  🙂

 

Posted in Food For thought, Japanese Culture

Our Church here in Japan

Last Sunday our pastor held a special service for the children that attend the kindergarten that is attached to the church. The children are mostly from non-Christian homes- Japan is 1% Christian. For the kids to even be attending the kindergarten in the first place is awesome.

If you talk about “Jesus” around these parts most people have never heard of him or have sort of heard of him. They know absolutely nothing of the Bible much less who Jesus was. Not long ago I had someone ask me if Santa was the Christian god. Really.

Our pastor has his work cut out for him trying to explain Bible stories that are so culturally different people can’t imagine what he is trying to tell them. Even in their own language. Many times there are no direct translations of words so it’s hard to get the point across.

On Sunday pastor stood in the front and had big colorful picture teaching cards that he held up in front of him while he told the nativity story to the children and some parents that came.

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Without visuals it is really difficult to try and tell children about the various Bible stories. Pastor did a great job telling the story with a fantastic animated voice. The kids really listened to him. So did the parents.

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It isn’t easy for Japanese to become Christians. Their culture and  religion is ingrained into every aspect of their lives. That’s all I will say about it. Things are the way they are here and I have seen that God is blessing this church.

Christians now a day spend too much time arguing over what is and isn’t the way to lead others to Jesus….and not enough time loving. There is a lot of love in this church. It isn’t the kind of church I imagined God would pick out for us but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt it is where we belong. It is an Anglican church. Many things are different from what I am used to but that’s OKAY-the point is we have fellowship with other believers in JAPAN. We concentrate on loving each other and helping our community where we can.  I’m thankful.

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Posted in Food For thought, Japanese Culture

Japanese word of the day–Ganbatte….

Ganbatte- a very common and deeply meaningful word in the Japanese language. It can be used in many different situations. It conveys a spirit of – do not give up, persevere… Etc. one of the many things that I’ve come to love about living in Japan is this spirit of rallying around those who are facing difficulty. I’ve faced many trials while living here and when friends and family know of my difficulties they bolster me up by saying ” ganbatte!”. They don’t say- ” oh, poor you” or ” I’m so sorry” etc… Oh, no- they rally behind you and hold you up and tell you to be strong and endure! Don’t give up! Keep going! — when I understood the deeper meaning and intention I grew to love this ideology — it’s not just a ” word” there is a whole positive and supportive spirit that is behind it.

Posted in House, Home and Family, Japanese Culture

Ladies Group Party

Today was the annual LG holiday party.  This has gotten to be the highlight of our year. I met these ladies the year we moved to Japan and we have been meeting weekly ever since which is actually something rather out of the norm around these parts.

Christmas isn’t really a holiday here and truth be told I’d rather not put up a tree and such but it really blesses my guests so I go ahead and decorate the artificial tree we bought when we moved here. I set up the little snow village under it that I’ve had for years. That village brought my grandchildren so much fun when they were little. Gosh how they loved playing with it.

Memories…

We always do this party as a pot-luck with a gift exchange “American style” by writing our names on slips of paper and tossing them into a box-and then drawing out a name. You buy a gift for the person that you “drew out of the box”.

Japanese stye gift exchange is somewhat different- it goes like this- you buy a gift for a set amount and bring it to the party or gathering. All the gifts are placed together and numbered. The numbers are also written on slips of paper and put in a box and then everyone draws a number out of the box. The number you draw out is the number of the gift that you “win”.

I’ve seen some strange things happen with Japanese gift exchange. Once a friend of mine “won” a pair of men’s socks. I asked her…so, what will you do with them? She said that she would re-gift them. I dunno-that’s no fun. Our group has really come to love the “American” way of gift exchange. The first year that we did it they reported that shopping for a specific person was much more fun and it made the event special.

img_6620_editedThey always enjoy the tree and the decorations. I cleared the regular table out of our TV tatami room to make room for our party. This is an 8 mat room-kind of standard size. Rooms in Japanese houses are multi-functional. It isn’t unusual to clear out a room to make way for a gathering.

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Opening  the doors between the tatami room and the kitchen makes the space bigger. Our old home is very simple but I love it and I’m really thankful for it. The white “thing” in the right corner is a kerosene heater. I had two on today to keep the rooms warm.

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The cozy clutter of a old-style Japanese kitchen that I have honestly come to love. It’s comforting to me somehow.

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One of the ladies brought a mashed potato Christmas tree salad she fashioned. Under the broccoli are mashed potatoes!

My gift was awesome. I was given this interesting kanji book that I love!

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It shows a kanji on one page and a picture of what the kanji means on the other page.

The kanji below is “moon”- tsuki.

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Then there is “shadow” – kage.

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Here is “person”- hito.

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In the gift bag was also a little glass plate panted with pretty flowers.

We always have some sort of activity- this year Mrs. A taught us how to make this little basket. Harder than it looks. I made the green one.

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At around 3:00pm everyone left and I began the clean-up.

Our tatami room, the party set up put away.

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Now for the set up of the kotatsu table. The rug goes down. Then the chairs. After that the kotatsu table frame.

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Next, the blanket is put on the frame.

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Last, the table top gets set on top and we have a cozy place to sit in the evenings which- is where I am writing this post!

We have a typical old home where nothing really matches. The rug doesn’t match the blanket and the curtains (in the other room) don’t match anything but that is one of the things that I have let go since living here- the need to be “perfect” and coordinated. At one time in my life that was something that used to stress me. Not any more. Actually-I suppose we could have things that matched but I buy things that are in our budget-meaning the things that are all coordinated are far more expensive. We are trying to live as minimalist as we can-because we enjoy that life-style. There is a freedom that comes with being satisfied with what you have. We love our cozy little space.

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Just sort of today’s diary post…nothing fancy. No eloquent words- I’m too pooped for anything fancy tonight. Wonderful day today…I’m blessed and very thankful.

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Posted in Around Town, Japanese Culture

Old Houses

Our narrow little lane seemed a bit wider today. I noticed that some of the brush had been cleared from the side. Upon closer inspection I saw what had been hidden under a tangle of vines and bamboo grown out of control.

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The old house had been buried under thick vegetation for years. In the six that we have lived on this little lane it was the first time that I had seen more than just the toilet pipe sticking out of the bushes.

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This is what the first homes built in this area looked like.

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There is no insulation in the walls. They were hot in the summer and cold in the winter. There is one next to it that is still in fairly good condition on the outside. At least twice a year I see a group of elderly folks cutting the grass and cleaning up around yard. I’m sure the house isn’t habitable anymore. A while ago I saw a mother cat and her kittens had made a home here as she was carrying them one by one inside through a hole in the wall.

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Right across from our house there is one of these old homes.

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It’s been two years now that Mrs. K has passed away. She had lived here all her life and was almost 90 when she died. Often when I am in the front garden in the morning my gaze rests on her home and I remember her beautiful voice as it came lilting into my garden. She was a karaoke teacher and used to practice singing  in the early morning.

Part of our house still has these type of walls- as the original home was actually one of these. It had been remolded a bit many years ago. The newer part is about 45 years old…the older parts 70 or so.

Hubby and I were chatting this morning over tea. He recalled his childhood winters. Of course there was no central heat in the house.  The ofuro (Japanese soaking tub-or bath tub) was not attached to the house-you had to walk a bit across the yard to get to the wood slat shack it was housed in. There were gaps in the wood walls and the winter wind whistled in making bath time pretty chilly in cold weather. He remembered one winter there were little piles of snow inside along one wall where the wind had driven snow through the cracks. When he was old enough it was his job to start the fire and heat the water for bath time.

How starkly opposite of how I grew up and yet here I am…living in rural Japan…without central heat all these years later. Life is interesting sometimes-isn’t it?

 

 

Posted in Around Town, Japanese Culture, just thoughts

Cold Has Come (and 0ther odds-n-ends)

After hauling the laundry out of the washer my hands were numb. The washer sits outside of the ofuro (tub room) in a little tin-roofed mudroom type area that is attached to the house. Temps have been dropping into the 40’s and 30’s. Not bad I guess if you live in a country where homes are centrally heated-unlike Kyushu Japan.

The first year here was hard. Mornings were the worst. The alarm would go off at around 6am and I’d have to use all my willpower to make myself get out of bed and face the freezing kitchen. Before leaving the bedroom which has an electric heater / AC type wall unit (too expensive to put into every room) I’d don sweatpants, knee socks, a long-sleeved undershirt, sweatshirt,  neck warmer , long fingerless “house” gloves, slippers and my sweat jacket.

Once in the kitchen I hit the power button on the kerosene stove and then the coffeemaker switch. After I fired up the gas stove to cook breakfast things heated up pretty quick. There is a thermometer on the kerosene stove that registers the indoor temp-most mornings during the winter the room temp is around 10-12 degrees c-about 50 degrees F. Last winter it was around 8 degrees c for a while or about 46 degrees F.

Most mornings before the kitchen heats up you can clearly see your breath when you talk or exhale just for the fun of seeing your breath in the kitchen.

You can always see your breath in the toilet room. Thank goodness our toilet seat is heated.

Nothing much has changed except that we are used to it now. Except the freezing cold tub-room. You never really get used to that. No heat at all in there. There is a technique to surviving taking a bath in the winter. The trick is to get into the hot tub as fast as possible and sit in it until your body is heated. Then getting out and scrubbing down isn’t so bad-it’s almost a relief when you are super heated from the hot water. The Japanese ofuro is hot-really hot. Specially in winter and now I understand why. Sure feels awesome on a cold winter’s day. I still think it’s funny how steam rises from your entire body when you first get out of the tub.

So the days have become cold now and we are wondering how much snow we will get this year. This area doesn’t get much but, it does get cold. Rumor has it that this winter will be a very cold one with more snow than usual.

At the moment we are at the end of our extended autumn. The ginkgo trees seem to be at peak and the leaves are starting to fall off.

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My inner child loves shuffling through the golden leaves on the way to the store. I never get tired of shuffling thru autumn leaves nor of the earthy smell that rises up from the chilly ground.

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The photo above invokes feelings of sadness-not sure why.

Our front momiji will soon be bare. It didn’t “autumn” nicely this year like it usually does. It went red quite suddenly and developed a scraggly look. Perhaps the scorching summer had something so do with it.

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Hard to believe that in a little over three weeks the New Year will be upon us. Local grocery stores are starting to display New Year decorations. Actually they are more than just decorations, they each have a cultural and traditional significance.

Pictured below is a bin of shimekazari-sort of a wreath you hang on the front door.

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I wrote a blog post a while ago about the meanings of the Japanese New Year decorations:

Shimekazari, Kagami Mochi, Kadomatsu and the kami

Just for the fun of it-a quick snap of our local grocery store. It’s kind of a mini-department store with groceries on one side and clothing / blankets / carpets etc on the other. There is a pharmacy way in the back and a new 100 yen section too. This is my usual go to store-about a 15-20 minute walk from the house. In the center they set up some tables and chairs and you are welcome to buy pre-cooked bento or a sandwich and eat at one of the tables. I actually do that sometimes. Makes life interesting and sometimes I end up meeting someone new. People are curious about “foreigners” and often approach me with questions. Now that my Japanese is better I don’t mind.

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We have yet to secure a ryokan for our annual family New Year. Several years ago-since we moved back to Japan actually, MIL decided that she wanted the family to spend the New Year holidays at a traditional Japanese inn where no one would have to cook. Cooking traditional foods is a huge part of the New Year celebration in Japan. Each dish has a special significance (post to come later). It is quite a lot of work for the womenfolk.The menfolk have the task of keeping the plastic tubs full of ice and beer and drinking it.

This year hotels and ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) are full across Kyushu. We may have found something in Nagasaki but- not sure. Everything is up in the air right now and one possibility is that our home turn into “ryokan” for the event. Not something my husband nor I really want but if there is no place else to go then that might be a possibility.

And just a postscript: for those that don’t know-I have a separate blog where I blog about my Christian faith and related issues Ordinary Faith

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Posted in Japanese Culture, Little things I love about Japan

That time of Year Again

As I’ve said before the time before New Year is a busy time in Japan. Wrapping up the old and getting ready for the new. There are a lot of year-end parties going on- although I don’t have any on my schedule to go to. Hubby does.

My year end schedule consists of getting the osoji ( big cleaning) completed. It is customary to do a general cleaning and get did of this year’s grime before ringing in the new year. Not that we have a lot of grime to get rid of. I will say that old Japanese houses are magnets for dust and mold though. No matter what I do I just can’t keep this house clean.

This past weekend was spent on osoji activities. Three closets were cleaned and rearranged and we even got the pole installed in the big futon closet that we use for a clothes closet. Japanese homes are lacking in closet space. They have big huge closets that are meant for storing futons….but not for clothing.

We now have a huge pile of futons and other items that are bound for the dump. It is difficult to throw out these sorts of items here and I suppose that is why many homes here are liked high with junk because it’s so hard to throw them out. It’s not cheap to get rid of garbage in Japan. The futons need to be dumped because they are old and dusty and beyond cleaning- they belonged to my sister in law’s mom.

The supermarkets have kagami mochi on display…. these were cute. More about New Year traditions later…

Tonight we went out to our favorite family restaurant and four big sumo wrestlers were there for dinner.

They sat in the next booth. You can see the traditional hairstyle peeking over the booth divider.

They were nice enough to take a photo with me…I’m actually a fan of sumo wrestling. I have a friend in town whose son is a famous sumo- Kaiyo Hiroyuki. There is a big statue of him in front of the train station.

Looking forward to getting the cleaning and such behind me. Pardon the rather blah post. The daily grind is exhausting even here.

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