August 2009 Archives

旬: Crickets, Matsutake, & Howling Dogs


Autumn is on its way early this year. I have been hearing crickets since last week. Normally I notice them at the very end of August or the beginning of September. This year they have been chirping night songs since August 19th and early mornings for the last few days. I love autumn so this makes me happy, but it was a very short summer. What will this mean for food prices and winter weather?

Matsutake are creeping into the produce aisles now. These fragrant fall mushrooms will become more prominent on the shelves with their other fungal brethren in coming weeks, but I am always happy to see the early ones. Late summer is wonderfully abundant time for vegetables and fruits. As the weather cools I get hungrier and there is all this marvelous food waiting for me. Thank you, Mother Nature.

Election season is upon us as well. There are station-side rallies every day and loudspeaker trucks are driving around shouting out props to the people and politicians. Across the way a neighbor's pet beagle howls every time the female voiced trucks pass by. Poor puppy, I know how you feel. I want to scream at the political jargon and noise, too.

No Shopping Report #8


This month has been illuminating.

As seems typical, very few of my purchases will remain in the house. I've bought gifts for friends' birthdays and supplies for Spin Matsuri and other hooping events. I think I can justify these things without guilt. I splashed out on a trio of Uniqlo shirts & a pair of purple leggings to fill in little gaps in my wardrobe - I've already worn all of them but I could have survived with out them, so that was a fail. I bought a hat at a flea market. The woman and her smiling baby made me feel good about it, so not too much of a fail.

I also put together an emergency kit in case of earthquakes - resupplying our stock and adding some new essentials. That is a "I hope this is never consumed" item that I do not regret or feel at all guilty about shopping for.

Tod & I started tracking our daily purchases, including monthly bills & transportation costs. Basically anything that comes out of our wallet gets marked down in a notebook at the front door. It is surprising how much money we spend, even without many durable goods. Our daily average is 12,000 yen for the past month. That is pretty amazing, since I don't think we spend huge wads of money. But I guess I have the notes to prove we do.

Where does it go? Well, utilities are high, we don't skimp on groceries, we are generous with gifts and we eat out a couple of times a week. Trains and taxis cost us 34,000 this month; utilities totaled over 30,000; I had a 5000 yen hoop class; the emergency kit set us back 8,000 yen; Tod's workday lunches about 1000 yen daily. So anyone who thought I was going to ruin economic recovery by not were wrong. I am still spending plenty of money.

At least not too much of our cash is spent on things that persist.

Hoopiversary #1



It's been exactly a year since I took my first Hooplovers hoop class. That week, I bought two hoops from Deanne and spent the next few months obsessed with learning to spin, dance and whirl - hooping mania. A year later, I'm enjoying hooping just as much as Day One but with more depth to my experience.

When I first started hooping, I asked Deanne why she loved to hoop. She gave me long list of her reasons and I promised I'd have my own set soon enough. Here are some of them in no particular order:

Wellness: Hooping has increased my energy. Maybe it's because of a fitness boost, maybe it's a more positive outlook, maybe there's something magic about spirals. Anyway, I am genkier.

Extroversion: I'm introverted and need my alone time, but I don't mind being on stage or in the public eye. It's been a while since I've been there, though. Hooping has really brought out the show-off in me.

People: My group of friends & acquaintances has become wider and more diverse. I've met some really great women who I am happy to call friends. The Tokyo hooping community is growing and I know that I am part of it and have helped the growth a little bit. This is satisfying.

Notoriety: In my neighborhood and on the trains, its hard to miss the foreigner with the hula hoops. The guards at the university sometimes say hello. All the old guys in the park know me and stop to chat.

Dance: I can! I'm not brilliant, but I can move. I'm no longer afraid to. "Everything is OK" is one of Deanne's mantras that resounded with me.

Sharing: What is more uplifting than sharing your fun and getting someone to smile? I enjoy hooping with strangers in the park, beach, street.

Craft: I love making things, including hoops. If pipe were more readily available in Japan, I'd spend all my money on making hoops to give away.

Performing: Though I don't like impromptu performance, I have learned to accept people watching me when I practice at the park. It spurs me to spin well. I definitely enjoyed rehearsing and being on stage with the Spinbirds. And I'll get to do it again for Spin Matsuri in October. Rehearsals start soon.

Costumes: Hooping is a great excuse to play with shiny fabric and try out unusual shapes and designs. I have a long wish list of costumes to make for myself and hooping friends.

Poi: Not hooping but a related flowtoy, spinning poi is relaxing and meditative. I really like poi a lot.

Color: From head to toe, I am a more colorful person now. No more black and grey clothes. Funkier hair colors. Thanks in great part to Style Smart Sensei Jeanette, but I wouldn't have consulted with her except for hooping.

Boundaries: Every new trick is a challenge to push my physical boundaries and there have been revelations in my thinking, too. Fewer limits. More acceptance. More happiness.

Events: I like planning and participating in events and I've had a year full of getting ready for two big ones. World Hoop Day on 9/9/9 will be celebrated on Sunday the 6th in Tokyo with a Hoop Circus in Yoyogi Park with hooping, games, prizes, face painting and more. And my big project, Spin Matsuri is coming up on Otober 9-11. I've been busy planning and promoting this weekend hoop retreat. It is going to be an amazing group of people; I'm excited about it.

Vanilla Goes with Eggplant

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The other day I tossed some scraped out vanilla pods into a half a bottle of vodka. The vodka is turning all carmel colored and smells beautiful. It's not as strong as extract, but definitely Vanilla...and it makes a great screwdriver variation.

Making a simple eggplant and cherry tomato steam-fry this weekend, the eggplant chunks weren't steaming quickly enough, so I grabbed the vanilla vodka, splashed some in the pan and the result was delicious. The vanilla scented the eggplants but didn't overwhelm them. The cherry tomatos were picquant. I added a bit of salt and pepper and that was a third of our dinner.

Nothing was measured, so I can't give you a proper recipe. It was equal quantities of tomato (half a dozen largish cherry tomatoes from a farm stand) and eggplant (2 small Japanese ones) and maybe a 1/4 cup of vanilla vodka.

The other two dishes that night were green beans with fried garlic and dried chilies, and asparagus and mushrooms with lemon and black pepper. All three cooked sequentially in the same pan using the steam-fry technique. (Except the garlic which was fried in oil to make it brown and crispy)

The whole dinner was the gleanings of our vegetable drawer. Just odds and ends and leftovers turned into something memorable. We eat like this a lot and most of the time it is nothing special, but this vanilla eggplant dish was worth noting for future meals.

Good til 2012

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Time passes and visas extend. Our passports sport fresh new stickers that say "UNTIL -1 OCT 2012"

Go Bag

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Packing a disaster emergency kit is a little bit like packing for a camping trip you hope you never have to take.

Though we've had supplies on hand, I've procrastinated making a proper kit for eleven years because it forces me to acknowledge that I might actually need it. But after three big quakes on nearby faults in the last week, I put all of the emergency supplies into one small "go bag" yesterday.


Here's what is inside:

  • Shelter: two blue tarps/space blankets/plastic raincoats
  • Tools: twine/work gloves/penknife/flashlight/batteries/clips/safety pins/sewing kit/duct tape/matches
  • First aid: antiseptic wash/bandages/analgesics/ointments/thermometer/surgical gloves
  • Food: energy bars/instant coffee/mugs/cutlery/washing up things
  • Clothes: socks/underwear/t-shirt/pants/hat/furoshiki
  • Toiletries: towels/soap/toothbrushes/toilet paper/deodorant/tampons/hairbands/glasses
  • Papers: notebook/family contact details/pencil/marker/labels/copies of our identity documents/cash/photo of us

The kit does not include water, which is in a separate bag. Tod suggested adding vodka and cigarettes for barter or medicine. We have a list of "other things to grab if there is time" that includes the tent and sleeping bag, coats, hula hoops, zous and so on. But if all we manage is this one bag which now lives at the door, we are stocked for basic survival.

I wonder if people escaped with their emergency supplies during the Kobe or Niigata quakes? Where they accessible? Useful? I hope I never have to know from personal experience but I feel relieved that I have a bag ready, just in case.

Confluence of Rattle and Rain


Nature's Scoreboard

Sunday8 pmEarthquakeM6.9; S4Surprise!
Monday7 amFierce Rain65 mmWow.
Tuesday5 amEarthquakeM6.6; S4Again?
Tuesday??Typhoon #9Pfft...

We've experienced two big earthquakes in three days - a magnitude 6.9 on Sunday at 8 pm and one of 6.6 this morning at 5, both felt in Tokyo as a 4 on the Shindo scale. These were good shakers; in the stationery store on Sunday, pens rattled in their displays. This morning the bed rocked like a choppy ocean and I heard our glasses clinking together in their cabinet. No damage done in either quake in Tokyo, but there are some fires and collapses nearer the epicenter in this morning's quake. NHK says we should be braced for further quakes, but not the Big One.

Following the quake Sunday we had a torrential rain yesterday morning. 65mm fell in under two hours. It was impressive. The river rose quickly at Iidabashi and I heard the flood warning sirens sound, though the river didn't flood.

This morning I am battening down for the main thrust of Typhoon #9. By battening down, I mean making a pot of coffee and turning on a light as the sky dims. The rain has started, but it's gentle so far. Despite that typhoons are equivalent to hurricanes, I rarely worry about them, which is probably completely insane. But so often the warnings come to nothing - the typhoon veers away before it reaches the city or it peters out. They are hard to predict accurately so there is a lot of wolf-crying. I think, though, this one might actually slam us.

Science says no, but I still think there is a link between rain and earthquakes.

Sugarpaste Fondant

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My first fondant cake

Tracey had a birthday yesterday and I offered to make her a cake. I wanted to do something special, so I had my first go at fondant. I made it myself using the recipe below and though it took some time and physical effort, it wasn't too difficult at all. This is technically a sugarpaste or rolled fondant, as traditional fondant is cooked like a candy. This one is uncooked - just mix and knead. Making fondant is like making pasta from scratch. This fondant was moist and tasty, easy to roll and color. Due to the gelatin, it is not vegetarian.

The rest of Tracey's cake, in case you wonder, was two layers of cardamom and ginger scented sponge, filled with plum jam and coated with white chocolate ganache before layering on the fondant. It was delicious.

Kristen's Sugarpaste Fondant
makes enough for a two layer cake with decorations and leftovers

1 T unflavored gelatin
1/4 cup hot water
1 t almond extract or flavoring of your choice
1/2 c + 1 T light corn syrup
1 kg confectioner's (powdered) sugar
1/2 tsp shortening (white, not butter or margarine)

In a small bowl or pan, mix together the gelatin and water. Allow to sit for a minute to soften the gelatin. Add the corn syrup and flavoring. Stir until the gelatin is dissolved and the mixture is not cloudy. You may need to reheat the mixture to aid this process - you can do it on the stove (being careful not to carmelise the syrup) or in the microwave if you have one. Set aside.

Dump 750 g of the sugar into a large bowl. Make a well in the sugar and pour in the gelatin mixture. Stir with a wooden spoon until you have a large, sticky ball.

Dust a clean work surface with some powdered sugar. Tip out the remaining sugar into a pile nearby - you will be working this sugar into the fondant. Measure out the shortening and have it handy. Make sure you have removed your rings and bracelets because this is seriously sticky stuff. Transfer the ball from the bowl to the work surface and begin to knead. Slowly work in as much of the sugar pile as you can. (Dipping your sugar coated hands into the pile is a good way to do it, I found.) As the fondant is kneaded, it will form a nice soft ball. When that happens, you can stop. Rub the shortening on the ball and work it in with a last bit of kneading. Divide fondant into two or three discs, wrap the fondant tightly in plastic wrap. You can store the wrapped fondant in an airtight container in the fridge for a few days.

Coloring the fondant
The ideal colorant is gel color, but regular liquid food coloring or coloring powder will work, too. Start with a little bit of coloring and knead it in. Pulling and twisting, ala taffy, helps the color spread through quickly. Repeat with more color until you get the shade you want. Liquid color can make the fondant too soft, so you may not achieve the intensity of color you want. Gel color is concentrated and will make very bright, deep colors. Powdered color can be mixed with a bit of oil to make it easier to work with.

Rolling the fondant, forming shapes, and assembling the cake
Bring the fondant to room temperature if it has been refrigerated. Sprinkle the work surface with powdered sugar. Place one unwrapped disc on the work surface and roll with a pin. Turn the disc to keep the circle even, but do not flip the fondant over. Work this way until the fondant is stretched evenly and flat and is at least as wide as the cake plus allowance for the height of the sides.

Carefully lift the rolled fondant from the work surface. Lay the fondant over the cake (which you have already filled and possibly coated with ganache or smooth frosting) and smooth it across the top and sides, stretching and smoothing it gently to create a wrinkle-free surface. Trim at the bottom along the plate- the fondant may contract a little bit. Allow to dry.

You can use cookie cutters or a knife to cut out shapes from the flattened disc or trimmings. To mount a shape on a stick or skewer, either use royal icing to glue the skewer to the shape, or cut two shapes, dampen them slightly on one side and press them together with the skewer between. Allow to dry. To stick shapes to the cake, either use royal icing or dampen the shape and stick it to the main cake before it dries.

Edogawa Fireworks

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The evening was unseasonably cool but our party staved off most of the chill with hooping, poi, and being silly. 14,000 fireworks were beautiful as always and we had a fun group of friends, old and new, to enjoy it with. Despite the other half a million people attending, we had a large space to spread out and run around.

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