Monday, February 28, 2011

Land of Cute--Hinamatsuri Kitty-Chan Style

Hina-Kitty!  Kawaiiiii--

Is it possible?  Can the Hinamatsuri (Doll Festival on 3/3) be made cuter than it already was to begin with?  Don't be ridiculous!  This is the Land of Cute!  Of course it can be cuter-- via a simple Kitty-fication process.  Anything innately cute can be bumped up a level by making a Kitty-chan version of it;-))

Here's what real Hinamatsuri dolls look like (they have a simple set out at the kids school near the entryway):

p.s.--If you don't know anything about Hinamatsuri, stop by tomorrow!

Mata ashita!

Sunday, February 27, 2011

CrowWatch--An Experiment

Corvus corone...Hashibosogarasu... Carrion Crow

A couple of weeks ago, biologist Jerry Coyne over at WEIT featured a post on Corvid Savants which just fascinated the heck out of me:-))

It reminded me of a TED talk a while back by Joshua Klein on the Intelligence of Crows , which stayed in my mind for a long time after watching it because I agreed so strongly with Klein's motives for studying them.  In his TED talk he says he was goaded into action by an acquaintance at a party, who maintained that crows were incorrigible pests and ought to be systematically exterminated.  Surely humans are inadvertently responsible for enough extinctions already without adding intentional exterminations to the ever-lengthening list of shame?  His response--which I applaud--was to attempt to "turn the longstanding rivalry between man and crow into something profiting both species."

Corvus macrorhynchos...Jungle Crow...Hashibutogarasu
I've been watching crows here in Japan for quite a while--I've always admired their glossy black feathers and cheeky intelligence.  But I watched without looking anything up, and so didn't realize that there were, in fact, two species I was seeing.  Before Cici was born, we lived up in Tokyo, and I (like everyone else) was half fascinated, half frightened of the enormous Jungle Crows who raided trash piles (kitchen trash--they left the plastic trash alone, no fools they;-) around the city.  I remember hearing that they were an invasive species, having come up from Southeast Asia, and that they were becoming unmanageable pests and should be culled.  I personally didn't see why people couldn't simply compost more and devise a better system for trash pick-up than plastic garbage bags on the curb.  Eventually the city ward offices passed out nets, but the problem remains (since people tend not to cover their garbage completely with the nets--again, human fail).  My kitty-cat, Clio, used to get all excited watching the crows at the trash pile outside, lashing her tail and ik-ik-ik-ikking at them.  I just shook my head at her.  *Mercy*--those crows were bigger than she was!  Jungle Crows run to about 56cm in length, second only to Ravens in size.  They'd have carried Clio off like the Winged Monkeys in the Wizard of Oz for sure.

Heckel and Jeckyl;-)
 When we moved from Tokyo to Yokohama, one of the first things I noticed was the absence of crows at the trash pile.  That lasted 'til about 4 years ago...suddenly one day, the Jungle Crows had discovered our trash pick up point (and also, which days were household trash and which were plastic or recyclables and not worth bothering with).  Walking to the road to put out garbage on a quiet Saturday morning, my steps are the alarm--a sudden, yet unhurried, liftoff and nearly a dozen dark shapes rise on a couple of slow wingbeats to power lines and branches overhead.  I've disturbed their feasting--I see someone's had Nabe for dinner, the not-quite-empty crab legs are strewn out into the road now...  If I look up, they watch me watching them.  And though they've repaired to perches out of reach, they don't seem especially disturbed by me.  These are intelligent creatures, no doubt.

These observations were in my mind when I watched--with pleasure, rather than astonishment--Betty the New Caledonian crow's wire-bending accomplishments, and the traffic-light-obeying Carrion crows of Sendai using traffic to crack their nuts (both videos posted in the WEIT article, linked above).  I was interested, too, to learn how long they live (20 years or so!) and how social they are (like many raptors, corvids tend to be monogamous--generally mating for life).  After reading Dr. Coyne's article at WEIT, I looked up Joshua Klein's TED talk and watched it again--and was intrigued by his recounting of the University of Washington grad students who had to wear masks and wigs when banding crows, so as not to be harassed by those same crows for the rest of their grad school days.  Crows can recognize you--and remember you.

The very next morning, continuing up the river after walking the kids to school, I was surprised to see three crows swoop in to land on the railing *right* next to a woman walking her dog.  When she came toward me, I smiled and said she must have been surprised to have a crow land so close to her.  She wasn't, though.  *I* was surprised when she said that the crows knew her because she always fed them some of her dog's food pellets (the soft kind, it looked like to me) when she walked her dog.  I mentioned that I'd read that crows were actually very intelligent and could recognize individual faces--she said, yes, they did recognize her.  I watched her walk away, and was surprised by how...politely the crows waited for her to put food down for them.  I got it on video, so you can watch, too:-))

Did you see how they sat very close to her on the rail, yet didn't harass her in any way?  No flapping of wings in her face, nor pecking, nor loud cawing.  Two of the three are the big Jungle Crow (the Large-billed Crow--their beaks are a good deal thicker than those of the Carrion Crow, who can be seen right at the end of the video).  Well, I was hooked, I tell you.  I decided right there to try to find some crows a little closer to home to befriend.  Can I get them to recognize me?  The test will be, after I think they *do* recognize me, to go to the usual spot wearing a mask (I'm thinking the Oni Mask from Setsubun will do the trick...;-) and see whether they still come or not.

Next installment:  A Group of Crows Found

Now reading:

Bernd Heinrich's Mind of the Raven
Corvid Cognition (N. Clayton and N. Emery; Current Biology, Vol 15, No3,  R80)
Can Animals Recall the Past and Plan for the Future? (N. Clayton, T. Bussey, A. Dickinson;  Neuroscience Vol 4, Aug 2003, pp. 685-691)

Mata asobou, ne!

On Design-- Laundry Hangers

I know you're all secretly dancing in your bedrooms, seeing our socks and all--but this is about the hanger and the laundry poles.  I bring up this most mundane of subjects because my husband, recently talking about Arizona and using the drier at my parents' house, wanted to know why they even *had* a drier.  I said I had no idea why, since in the summer clothes dry even faster outside than in a drier (and don't shrink up to boot).  But... actually I do know why.  And it's to do with a certain rising level of suburban snobbery that has spread  across America that says "Heaven *forbid* anyone should see my laundry outside."  Never mind the energy savings, the ecological... logicality of it, the fact that practically the whole of the rest of the world does.  Ewww.  That's just so...countrified.  One of the longest comment threads generated (over 450) at a personal finance blog I read occasionally was over the blog author's intention to save money by hanging his laundry outside to dry.  I was both amused and dismayed by the number of commenters who were aghast at his entertaining the idea at all (American commenters, I should say--European commenters couldn't figure out why he was so hesitant to do it and so worried about what the neighbors would think).

I don't need to worry about it, though--there isn't an apartment anywhere in Japan (unless they are *very* tall) that doesn't have hooks descending from the ceiling of the back porch to hold long laundry pole for shirt hangers and multi-pinch hangers.  On sunny days everybody has laundry, futons, blankets, pillows out drying--and nobody thinks a thing about it.  There are, I'm sure, some slightly uptight housewives who take care to hang up the undies inside, but I'm not one of them.  It all goes outside.

*A Digression*
When Teddy was about a year old and had just learned to walk, he used to follow me out onto the porch while I pulled things out of the  laundry basket and hung them up to dry.  It took me weeks to figure out why I kept finding my underwear down below (four floors) on the ground...until I happened to look over at just the right moment and catch Teddy plucking my best pair of underwear (which I trust you can imagine for yourself) from the top of the laundry basket and sticking his little hand into one of the spaces between safety glass panels and poi!  Why--why!--didn't he ever once throw Papa's boxer shorts from our fourth floor balcony??

I love my laundry-pinchy-hanger-upper-thingies.  They have no particular name that I know of, but no matter.  They are unbelievably useful and save me a huge chunk on the electric bill every month. They are inexpensive, lightweight, fold-able, and easily stored.   And, after some initial resistance, I decided I prefer hanging it outside to listening to a noisy drier and the resulting shrunken sleeves and pant legs that fit when I bought them.  On a warm, sunny day when the Uguisu (Bush Warbler) has begun to sing, it's my favorite household task.

Mata asobou, ne!
(p.s.-- Full Disclosure:  During the Rainy Season, I do sometimes wish desperately for a drier and have used laundromat drier to get things dry that otherwise wouldn't dry out 'til August...)

Friday, February 25, 2011

Keeping Warm on the Inside-- A Recipe for Garlic Chives

Allium tuberosum... Garlic Chives... Nira

One of my favorite winter dishes is Nira no Tamago Toji, "Nira" being garlic chives, a member of the onion family.  The strap-like leaves are used in Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and widely in Korean cuisine.  They have a wonderful, onion-y--garliky smell and come loaded with Vitamin A (just the thing for keeping your body warm from the inside when the frost comes and they're also good for anybody with a cold or the flu;-).  You can use it in stir-fry, or yaki-soba and such.

 Nira-Tama, though, is a great side-dish, or even main dish if you're just having a light supper since it's made with eggs.  And the best thing is--I can throw it together in five minutes flat (well, ok--6 or 7 minutes).  All you need are a bunch of garlic chives (which are easy to grow from seed I've been told--haven't tried growing them yet myself), 4 eggs, plus a little powdered dashi, soy sauce, sake, and mirin (serves 4).

Slice the Nira 4-5cm while bringing the soup ingredients to a boil.  Soup is:

240ml dashi (water plus 1/2 tsp powdered dashi)
2 tbsp mirin (sweet cooking sake)
2 tbsp soy sauce
2 tbsp sake

Boil briefly the soup ingredients, add the Nira and simmer 'til cooked.  Let someone who is pestering you in the kitchen break and beat the eggs (bonus feature: this recipe has enough eggs for each kid in almost any family to have an egg to break, thus fulfilling its vital role as peace-keeper).

Pour the eggs over the soup, stirring in briefly, put the lid on and simmer 'til half (or so--as you like) cooked.

 Some recipes make this with half the above amount of soup (about 120ml and 1tbsp each of the flavorings).  I make double the amount because I like the soup itself.  I also sometimes add a teaspoon or two of sugar to the soup since the kids like it like that.  Teki to ni.  Suit yourself;-)  I also let it cook long enough that the eggs look puffy when I take the lid off (4 or 5 minutes over medium heat).

Enjoy!  Itadakima--su!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

thud... Thud... THUD

That last resounding THUD was Mama, felled by Da Floo...

First Cici Sunday night, then Teddy Monday morning, and me later on Monday.  It's bad enough when more than one of your kids has flu, but it's an order of magnitude worse when I get it alongside them... So let me just state right here, in large letters, THANK YOU to my husband who stayed home for two days from work to take us all to the doctor, pick up medicine, go shopping, feed those who felt like eating, do laundry and get office work done on the laptop he'd brought home!!  SuperPapa!!   I'm hoping he doesn't come down with it himself tomorrow...

Colds and flu in Japan mean lots of sleep with extra blankets and an ice pillow for that fevered brow, a custom I thought was somewhat quaint (if not downright dangerous-- "bundling" is bad, isn't it?) until I got sick one time myself with a high fever.  I decided right then and there that ice pillows were a Good Thing.  Ice pillows allow you to make effective use of the body's natural fever defense while helping you feel at least a little comfortable (I won't pretend that running a fever is ever fun;-)).  I picked up on using ice pillows pretty quickly, though it took a good deal longer to figure out why my husband was so adamantly against taking a bath while running a fever (in a country where homes are not centrally heated, the area where the bathroom tends to be is generally *cold* in the winter, hence the bathing contraindication).  For kids, those stick-on cool gel pads for the forehead are useful (especially if you have to go wait in a doctor's office for a while)--and I think I saw those recently in the US.  Am I remembering right?  Have the cool Forehead Sticker Strips made the leap?

And, this bit is the same, plenty of fluids.  Which means usually Pocari Sweat--an Oral Rehydration Therapy drink that is also a popular sports drink.  *Not* the other way around, either, as is Gatorade--Pocari is a real ORT.  I've been given it in hospitals, and advised by doctors and nurses to use it for myself and my kids while running a fever, or when recovering from a bout of stomach flu.  It's good stuff that has the advantage of being both widely available and inexpensive (and, also, a name that gets picked up by English-speaking news media and reported as "a sports drink in Japan called--get this!-- Pocari SWEAT!  Who'd want to drink that?!").

Today was the first day we all ate actual food instead of just O-Chazuke and Pocari sweat, and I managed to be up most of the day with no nap.  And now it's 8:30pm... and I'm about to fall face-first into my keyboard, and I have no idea whether I'm writing sentences that make sense or not.  Tomorrow should be better...right?

O-Yasumi Nasai!
(p.s.- we did get Tamiflu, which knocked my daughter's fever out in 36 hours and mine and Teddy's in 48 hours.  Not bad!)

Saturday, February 19, 2011

On Design-- Pencil Cases

My kids' pencil cases for school in the photo above (Sugar Bunnies for Cici, Pokemon for the boys).  From the day Koshi started first grade (or rather, slightly before, when we got the list of things to get *for* first grade), I thought these were the coolest pencil cases I'd ever seen.  Seriously. 

...Look at this!  I'm slightly jealous of my own kids, they have such awesome, well-designed pencil cases.  I *know* I didn't ever have anything this cool when I was in elementary school...

...see how the sharpened pecils slide right down into their own little sleeves?  And how the whole piece lifts up (you can see my fingers over there, holding it up) for ease of putting in and taking out?  That way you can go to school prepared with nice, sharp pencils that won't break on the way to school--an important consideration for first graders:-))

And there's plenty of space for erasers, and even a built-in pencil sharpener that actually works well...

Can you see how to use the pencil sharpener?  You don't have to take it out to use it (though it comes out to dump out shavings)...

Ja jan!  There's a little door that slides to the right on the outside--just slide it over, and sharpen away!  Take that piece out and slide the end open to dump the pencil shavings

Teddy's pencil case..

...and that's not all!  That's Teddy's case above, and flipped over in the photo to the right.  The underside has storage for extra pencils, small rulers, erasers, or whatever.   (For the Sharp-Eyed Reader:  yes, Teddy has managed to lose his pencil sharpner out of this case, which is fairly typical...)
To be completely honest, though, I don't know how much studying I'd get done at school if I had a pencil case that fun...

Mata asobou, ne!

Friday Field Notes--The Park of One Hundred Blossoms

Plum blossoms washed by a morning rain...

The plum blossoms are most of the way out--my favorite of the flowering trees because of their elegant, faintly cinnamon scent.

White plum and lichen...
...this morning I had to wait 'til the rain stopped before going to take a couple of pictures of my favorite weeping plums up the road...

...taking a detour on the way home, I discovered that one of the neighbors had  a lovely weeping plum bonsai out front (beside which a pair of cats sat growling at one another, for what reason I was at a loss to understand)...

But, as I mentioned last week, Mr. Harris who lives up in Tokyo invited us to visit a beautiful park filled with plum trees near his home.  So, after some checking of optimal viewing days and scheduling around baseball games and such, we took the Keio Line to Mogusaen--a park named "Hundred Blossom Park". 

the entrance to Mogusaen
This park is situated on a steep hillside--infinitely more enchanting than the flat, spread out "park" I had imagined, and well-suited, somehow, to displaying the plum trees. 

...stone steps and narrow, twisting paths that echo the fantastically twisting branches of the trees...

plum blossoms and blue sky

In spite of snow two days earlier and rain the day before, we were lucky to have a gorgeous bright blue day on Sunday...

...I notice that I keep taking the same picture;-))  Bright pink blossoms against a brilliant blue winter sky...

This particular tree is a good example of the severe pruning plum trees are subjected to in order to achieve those curling shapes...

Roubai...Wintersweet...Chimonanthus praecox

As a matter of fact, Mogusaen has quite a variety of trees and flowers, though the ume are the main draw.  At the top of the stone steps at the entrance, I was attracted to a small tree with interesting waxy yellow flowers that I've seen elsewhere without knowing what they were called (I just can't stand not knowing what things are called...).  It's called "Roubai", literally "Wax Plum",  and it has a heavenly sweet scent.  My mother-in-law has some in her garden, and often has a bouquet of the branches in a large vase in her genkan, which makes the whole genkan smell wonderful...

A great many of the plum trees in the park are very old, so the larger branches have wooden supports  lashed in place with rope beneath the cantilevered branches... this tree--so old, that half the trunk had rotted away.  This one, too, had several supports under branches that were too heavy, as well as under the main trunk--hollowed out, covered in a thick layer of moss, twisted like a moebius strip...

They had an unusual winter-blooming iris as well.  It's name in Japanese was, appropriately, "Kanzakiayame",
(pictured below)

Iris unguicularis

...which means simply "Cold Blooming Iris".  It reminded me a little of the beautiful purple bearded irises my mom grew in Indiana.  I wonder if I'll be able to surprise my mother with this one..?

If the winter iris doesn't do it, the vining pine trees surely will.  Japanese gardeners can get any plant to do anything they want--they can even, with various clever tricks, make a pine tree grow like a morning glory.  A sturdy pole and an umbrella of neatly tied off ropes, and voila! ...a vining pine tree...

Adonis ramosa...Pheasant's eye

In the center of the garden, under the oldest and biggest tree in the park were blooming cheerful yellow flowers I'd never seen before:  Fukujusou, whose name is composed of the kanji 福 ( fuku: fortune, blessing, prosperity, happiness, wealth), and 寿 (ju: longevity, celebration, felicitation).  I certainly felt fortunate to see golden flowers blooming on a cold day in February...;-))

Fortunate, indeed--there was even a hybrid bonsai ume with special bi-color blossoms that everybody was taking pictures of.  Kawaii desu, ne!

But by far the most amazing thing in the park was the gigantic ancient plum tree in the center...

click to enlarge

...words fail me to describe this tree, and photos nearly fail at the job as well...

If this licorice-twisted branch didn't grow this way naturally, how was this accomplished?  By horticulturalists who moonlight as shamans?

...pale, delicate blossoms grace moss-covered curves...

Prunus mume

I hold no supernatural beliefs--but gazing for any length of time at a tree this gnarled, this mossy, this contorted , you expect elves...or gnomes...or Totoro at least to step out of the base and give you a wink.

...It was nearly time to go.  That is, everybody else was ready to go home.  Except for mama--who had to tear herself away from pink-and-white cinnamon-scented blossoms ("you don't *really* need dinner, do you?")...

Looking down on the park from the top of the hill...

...Kohaku-- white against red...
...the darkest pink-red blossoms in the park...
...the Main Gate--made of bamboo, held together with ropes and moss and ferns...                                       
   Even the train station was decorated with plum branches...

Mogusaen-- Sayonara...

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Beyond Plain Rice--A Recipe for Shiitake Gohan

Ichi Go... One "Go" of rice in a wooden "masu" (also used for drinking sake)

Don't think I'm dissing plain rice--we eat it nearly every day, and I would hardly know how to cook any more without my Suihanki (rice cooker).  But sometimes it nice to gussy it up a little...

We had Shiitake Gohan for dinner yesterday--which everybody loves, especially the rice along the sides of the rice cooker that get a little extra brown...

If you have soy sauce, sake, mirin (sweet cooking sake), some powdered Hon Dashi (stock), 3 pieces of Aburage (fried bean curd--the light yellow stuff at bottom left in the photo), and 300g of shiitake... then you can make Shiitake Gohan!

Wash 3 "go" of rice, and set aside to drain...
Slice the aburage in half lengthwise and width wise, then into thin strips.  Pull the stems off the shiitake and slice the caps thin.


600ml dashi (= 1 tsp dashi powder into simmering water)
3Tbls soy sauce
1Tbls each sake and mirin

Dump the rice into the rice cooker Kama (the inside thing--no idea what that's called in English).  Dump the sliced aburage and shiitake on top of the rice, and pour the warm soup on top of all that.  Mix it up a little.  close the lid and push the Cook button!

Dekiagari!  Oishiiii, ne!  Daisuki na Shiitake Gohan!

Give it a try next time you're tired of plain rice:-))  Leftovers are no problem--this rice makes great onigiri, too!


Mata asobou, ne!