Autumn Festival and Goodbye to Kuimaru Primary School

Just when I thought all the eating parties were over, along comes the Flavours of Autumn Festival... not that I'm complaining! Far from it! So here we are with some more food photos - tochi mochi (horsechestnut mochi) being dished out by the lovely local lady here, and below with mushroom soup. And then jyaga mochi, made mostly from potato, looking mostly like a pair of fried eggs. Don't ask me how they did it! It was quite good although a little bit sweet, even for me. I didn't think I'd ever feel that way about anything, but then again life is full of surprises isn't it?

After the festival we went here, to the Kuimaru Primary School, soon to be demolished. It's such a great building and a beautiful spot that it's hard to believe it will be gone soon. The other half of the school will stay around long enough to be used as a set in a film and then it will be pulled down as well. Two local women are trying to start a community cafe called Kachi Kochi Cafe, and they were thinking this could be the perfect spot. But no, the local council decided it was a much better idea to destroy it. Hard to see the logic, and doubly heart-breaking because this was the second place they had found for the cafe only to be told it was going to be pulled down.

The Kachi Kochi Cafe girls decided to hold an event at the old school this afternoon to say goodbye. Quite a few families came along, and Mr T. (heh heh!) brought a whole lot of pumpkins to make jack o'lanterns! The kids drew the faces and he cut them out for them, lots of fun. There were kids everywhere running around, posing with their pumpkins, and checking out the campfire where sweet potatoes were being baked, nice to see. And yes, that's right, more food! Of course. And of course I totally overdid it! Oh well, all in the spirit of things I suppose.

I'm really hoping this cafe gets off the ground. It's exactly what we need around here. At the moment there's nowhere much to go in the village apart from the health centre and the public hall. There has to be a building somewhere around the place that's not about to be pulled down!!


Monkey Pear?

I never knew that kiwi fruit had family in Japan, but apparently they do! Our neighbour brought these around for us yesterday morning, they're called saru-nashi (monkey pear) ...and they have another name but I forgot it already...! They grow wild in the mountains, and I guess they're seasonal because I've never seen them before. Very yummy, a new favourite, they taste like a cross between kiwi fruit and fejoya. Highly recommended!

PS I just had a bit of a look around for more information, the Japanese name I'd forgotten was Kokuwa, and it's botanical name is Actinidia arguta. There's some more information on this site.


Tourist Town Central

A couple of years ago the village we live in topped Japan for having the fastest aging population in the country. Now it's slipped back a few places to 3rd or 4th place, but even still, 54% of people here are over 65 years old. The newsletter that comes from the village office monthly has a little section with births, deaths and numbers of people leaving and moving to the village. Every single month, except the month we moved here, the population has been decreasing. When our neighbour was a kid, there were 3000 people living here - now there are just under 1500. Only five babies were born here last year, and in the whole of the primary school there are just 46 students. With every second house uninhabited, the place feels so empty sometimes!

Anyway, I'm coming to the point of my story here. Y. had the day off today, so we went to visit a neighbouring village. There's an area where old houses have been preserved so tourists can see what life used to be like. It's just one street, mostly thatched roofs, with noodle shops and souvenirs places everywhere. I didn't realise until we got there how touristic it is - they have 1 million visitors a year! Quite unbelievable. We took this photo at the bottom of the street, can you see the tourists having a group photo taken?! It's gotten so big that locally produced souvenirs etc can't keep up with demand, so they've outsourced it all. Down the middle of the street there used to be the river, but they filled it in to be more tourist -friendly.

Apart from the tourist area, this village seemed so similar to our village that it was quite surreal. My first thought was that I'm so glad our village hasn't ended up like that. These people bus in with big tour companies from Tokyo, buy a whole lot of rubbish that's been trucked in from who knows where, take a couple of photos and then pile back on the bus to go home. But thinking again, I wonder what is to become of our village if things continue the way they are now. We have often been told that if they can't turn things around in the next five years, it's pretty much over. As it is, so many people seem to have already given up hope.

On the way back, we went through the main city of the area to pick some things up from the supermarket. A rare and exciting opportunity! Going home it's over an hour's winding drive - you can see where we're headed through the windscreen, right in the middle of all those mountains. What a place to live! After being here for four months or so, I can totally understand why people leave and never come back. But right now, there's nowhere else in Japan that I would happily live, and so I feel like we have a responsibility to help to make a future for this place. I guess that's what Y.'s job is all about, but I wonder what I can do? Hmmm, I'm sure I'll think of something!



There's nothing like a bit of dinogami in the evening to brighten up an otherwise average day! Well, today was my first attempt, but I'm very possibly totally hooked, and I'm predicting more dinogami evenings in the near future. Tonight I made Parasaurolophus, as I'm sure is obvious from the picture. As we all know, Parasaurolophus means 'crested lizard', and he/she was a herbivore from the Cretaceous period. This was the easiest thing in the book, apart from the prehistoric fern, and it wasn't all that easy! I'm setting my sights on Stegosaurus, although it could take me a little while to build up my technique, there are 9 whole pages of diagrams! Parasaurolophus was only 3...



Another Harvest Festival, today at the local primary school. This year for the first time the kids grew their own organic rice from scratch, doing everything from planting to harvesting. A representative from each year group read out a little piece they'd written about it all, and the year four kid, who lives in our street actually, wrote a whole speech complaining about how many weeds there were! Ha ha! Anyway, they made mochi with the rice, turned it into various dishes, and we all ate together. It was the first time I've seen mochi being made, and so the first time I'd eaten it this fresh. It was AMAZING!! I'm such a fan. All the kids had a go with the hammer, but it was mostly three of the adults that did the work. I wonder how many people get injured every year making mochi? It's the woman's job to push the rice back into a ball after it's been smashed with the hammer, looks rather hazardous! The lady today did a very good job!

Here's what we ate - this soup was so fantastically good! The white gooey blob is mochi....

Then anko mochi - mochi smothered in red bean paste....

And natto mochi - mochi rolled in stinky fermented beans with a special sauce....

Finally, our baby the superstar! I never knew how much little kids loved babies, and vice-versa....


Pickled Chrysanthemum Petals

I am so excited about this, pickled chrysanthemum petals. I saw them in a book I bought a little while ago and thought they looked amazing but had never had the chance to try them. Someone brought them along to the Harvest Celebration yesterday, and we were even lucky enough to score leftovers! They are pickled in vinegar, sugar and salt and only keep for two or three days. It took a little while to put my finger on what the taste reminds me of, but it turned out to be soap...! In the best possible way I guess. What a beautiful thing to take home. I wish I could take better photos.


Harvest Celebrations and Stuff.

Today was great, I had non-housework related things to do pretty much all day! There's a group in the village for people who have disabilities called Yotsuba no Kai (Four Leafed Clover Club). It just started this year so there are only three members so far. They meet up once a week to do all sorts of different productive type things, including a veggie patch and growing mushrooms. I went along with M. a couple of weeks ago, and it was lots of fun so we became volunteer members. Today was the harvest celebration, so we spent the morning in the kitchen cooking a big meal with a whole lot of the food they grew this year for everyone who's involved with the group - mums, dads, staff and friends. Maitake mushrooms (like in the post below, but we made soup and a rice dish with them), pumpkin, potato, corn, yams, daikon (giant radish) and cabbage. Very impressive! And very yummy! Nice eating lunch altogether too.

Later on at home post-nap, M. and I sat outside in the sun while I shelled the soybeans we grew this year. Quite amazing anything came of it all, they were probably the world's most neglected beans! Anyway, they've dried now, and I need to take them out of the pods so I can dry the beans themselves more. While we were out there, our neighbour came out to finish off for the year in his field that's directly in front of our house. He grows Korean Perilla there, called Egoma in Japanese and Jyuunen in the local dialect. Even though in English it's called Korean Perilla, it's been grown around here for very long time, and the seeds which are used in all types of cooking, sweet and savoury. Jyuunen means ten years in Japanese, and our neighbour says they call it that because if you eat lots of it, you'll live ten years longer! It smells fantastic too, an aniseed-y sesame-y smell. They also make oil by pressing the seeds. I've been told it's used in a similar way to sesame oil, but it's quite expensive so I've never tried it. In Korea they use the leaves for things like wrapping barbecued meat in. Yummy!

So anyway, this is our neighbour bashing the Egoma seeds out of the pods with a stick, and a cute baby watching. After bashing comes sifting, then washing with water, then ready for sale.

These are the empty seed pods, but they look pretty much the same when they're full.

This is what I was doing. Food for the winter time!

All in all it was a very pleasant afternoon, lots of birds around saying pretty things, and lots of insect traffic passing by in front of us to keep me entertained. There was a big fat orange caterpillar who stopped near me, raised its rear end in the air and started looking quite business-like, so I got quite excited because I thought maybe it was about to start making a cocoon. What a cool thing to see, I thought, watched its every move, waited patiently, .....until the caterpillar did a huge black poo and ran off! Quite disappointing, but still something I've never seen before. I guess I should be impressed really, this caterpillar did a poo the size of its own head! Better him than me!


Blue Casserole and Baby Mash

I never thought it would come to this, but I've become a fan of casseroles. Not so much because I'm in love with eating them, but because you can throw them in the oven and come back an hour later and dinner's ready! Well, pretty much anyway. I used to hate casseroles passionately, so this is quite an impressive turnaround. I made this for lunch a few days ago, following a recipe for a beef with red wine casserole, but had no beef or red wine or really any of the other ingredients except for flour and milk to make the dumplings. So I made it with lots of Maitake mushrooms, bacon, pumpkin, sweet potato and white wine instead. Endless variations, just make a stew with all the ingredients on the stove, then make the dumplings (2 cups of self raising flour, 50g butter, 3/4 cup milk and cheese/herbs to your liking), put them on top and into the oven for 20ish minutes at 200 degrees Celsius.

And...in the background can you see the orange splodgy-mush? It's destined for baby M! I'm feeling quite proud of myself for sometimes being able to coordinate parallel menus - he's got mashed veggies from the casserole before the wine and other non-baby-friendly things went in. I'm also very proud because one of my recipes is now on a baby food website! I was trying to win a book voucher, and very narrowly missed out. Oh well. My almost winning recipe and another one too is here at Homemade Baby Food Recipes. Hooray! I was really stressed out about feeding M. until I found this site. It's so nice to know that I can put garlic and turmeric in M's baby mash if I want to!



I had quite an exciting weekend! Well, at least an exciting Sunday morning - I went to help harvest rice in the rice field that Choma Club is renting for one of its projects. There were about 20 other people helping out too, including volunteers from Japan, Russia, Korea, America and Taiwan. I thought it sounded like a potentially terrifying combination, but it was actually a lovely day.

Most people now harvest and dry rice mechanically, but walking around the village you can still see quite a few field where the rice has been
harvested and bundled by hand, and hung up to dry in the same field that it had been growing in. That's what we did on Sunday, and it was really interesting being so up and close with rice while it's at this stage. Usually I just mea- sure it out of a bag and into the rice cook- er!

The top photo here is the rice after it's been cut, waiting to be tied into a bundle with a piece of straw. Once you get the hang of it, it's surprisingly easy to do. The rice is planted in little clumps, which are pretty much one handful. So you grab the clump of rice down low and cut it off with your scythe. With a bit of practice you can do it in just one movement of your arm and without exerting any pressure. It's not such amazingly hard work to do for an hour, but if you had to spend two or three days doing it, it would be a totally different story!

The rice is then hung up to dry as you can see in the next photo, and it stays there for a month. With a machine, the rice is dried overnight though. I'm not totally sure what comes next, but I'm sure I'll find out before too long!

The last photo is an ex-rice field. There is a lot of abandoned agricultural land in Showa Mura, and especially in this particular area of the village. The combination of an aging population, and the urban drift means that uncultivated fields are always increasing. When you think that these fields were continuously farmed for at least ten generations, it really is very sad. So maybe we'll try and grow rice ourselves next year! We're still thinking...