Eating Like a Local While the Typhoon Rages On

A major typhoon is sweeping through Japan. For three days, torrential downpours and black clouds heave covered our valley. There have been moments of sunny skies to break the gloom. Two nights ago, I became convinced I would be struck by lightening. The clouds were thick and heavy. I could barely see the streetlight right in front of my window. Thunder and lightning shook the house every two minutes. About every ten minutes, I heard the big crackling an death rattling lightning strike. We are surrounded by forest on the backside. It sounded like the trees were getting pounded. Every time he lightning flashed, our whole room lit up. I found myself wanting to crawl into my mom’s bed, until I realized I AM the mom know. Amazingly, my three-year-old never woke up. My baby woke once but was easily calmed by my presence and fell back asleep. Clearly, he couldn’t see the panic on my face in the dark.

During the day, I drive slower than the numerous grandmas here. I am very cautious of rain on windy mountain roads. When the rain pours the hardest, I stop in to the nearest eatery and pig out until the weather calms down. It is for the safety of my children. A bonus is the delight of my tummy and meeting new faces.

Along the back country road, there is a little development. The drive surrounds me in forestry, rolling hills,and vistas of the town and farms below. Rarely, I stumble upon a little eatery. My first thought is where do they get customers? The road feels deserted, as if I am traveling through a fantasy world by myself. I am frequently the only customer at places I stop. I enjoy the intimacy. The shop owners have time to talk with me, whether out of boredom or any real interest in me. They are always surprised to see a foreigner, especially with a baby in tow.

Today, the rain suddenly picked up speed close to home. I pulled into a little cafe run by a local farm. The little house is surrounded by apple trees and blueberry bushes. The windows look out over the uninhabited forest and a lonely log cabin with wild flowers. The kitchen is run by a mother and daughter team while the grandfather comes in and out as he tends the farm. It feels like dining in there home, as multi generations gather in the kitchen for a family meal while I eat next to them in the dining room. The entryway is filled with bags, dolls, tissue holders, and other items hand sewn by the grandmother. It feels more homey than my own home.

My baby crawls around and takes in all the attention. Meanwhile, the daughter serves me hot tea.  While I relax and watch the downpour, I see her dash out into the typhoon rains to a shed. She comes back in, drenched, holding a small bowl. Would you like some blueberries while I cook? Would I ever! I feel guilty that she suffered the rain for me to eat blueberries and savor them even more than usual. The baby ate them right up! He will be quite disappointed when we get back to eating produce in the desert.

Ooiishi! Yummy!

Ooiishi! Yummy!

The restaurant only serves three dishes. One is soba (see my noodle post: https://misomommy.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/noodles-a-japanese-noodle-guide/). Another dish, displayed proudly on a outdoor banner, is grilled rice balls on skewers slathered with a sweet and chunky miso paste.

Miso rice ball skewers

The third dish is called kurumi. I ordered it blindly and then learned about the dish as it arrived. Kurumi looks like white miso soup, but it is actually coarsely ground walnuts boiled in a sweet broth. The soup is topped with two, freshly-grilled mochi squares. The aroma of buttery walnuts and grilled rice filled the air. As I dug in, the mochi softly pulled and stretched. I bit off a piece at a time, chewed the mochi, and drank the soup. In between bites, I looked over the storm and the mountains.

Walnut soup with grilled mochi

Walnut soup with grilled mochi

A chart on how to make Kurumi, mochi walnut soup

A chart on how to make Kurumi, mochi walnut soup

As you can seem the soup came with homemade pickles.  The salt content is lower than commercial pickles  and the experience is crisp, cool, and refreshing. I didn’t think it could get any better, until she brought out local cherries that she had frozen. They were like little cherry Popsicles plucked right from the cherry tree.

Frozen cherries - a refreshing summer treat!

Frozen cherries – a refreshing summer treat!

After a delicious respite, it was time to face the tsunami and drive slowly home.

Wind and rain typhoon-style

Wind and rain typhoon-style

Real Life Wife Swap: Where is the Greener Grass?

What better way to see if the grass is greener on the other side than to crash in and live on the other side for a couple months? My gracious sister-in-law invited me to live in her house for two months, along with my two boys and her three boys (four if you count her husband). That’s right, five boys.  My sister-in-law juggles a demanding career and motherhood, while I currently stay-at-home full time while contemplating a new career venture.  She is raising her family in rural Japan and I am currently raising my kids in Las Vegas, U.S.A.  This experience creates a personal, first-hand look at a different path of motherhood and cultural perspective. This post will focus on the contrasts and insights from a mom working out in the field and a mom working exclusively at home.

All the moms I know question their parenting and lifestyle choices. Many struggle with the decision to stay home full time or balance work outside the home. Moms and non-moms alike often make hurtful judgments about the choices of other moms. But deep down, I think we all wonder if the grass is greener on the other side, no matter which side we choose.

Wthere is no universal answer for whethe r amok should work outside the home. Each family has different circumstances and an array of factors involved in the decision. Whichever green pasture you choose, both sides should acknowledge  the give and take in the decision. When I studied economics, we called it the “opportunity cost” of your decision; what you give up in exchange for the choice you make. No decision in life is without opportunity cost.

1) Time and energy are finite for all of us. We all must prioritize how to allocate these precious resources. There are ways to increase efficiency, but ultimately spending more time and energy in one area means taking it away from other areas. When you see another mom who appears to do it all perfectly, chances are she just prioritizes things differently. One mom takes pride in baking cupcakes from scratch. Another mom emphasizes looking her best and teaches her kids to do the same. Another mom lets mismatched socks slide because she focuses on teaching her kids how to rock a career by example. We can’t be all things all at once. Another mom leaves her career behind to homeschool her kids. Different priorities with different opportunity costs.

2) Don’t confuse quantity and quality. Whether you are fatigued from career stress or full-time motherhood, find time to refresh. Carve out time to read, write, phone a friend, work out, zone out or just drink a cup of coffee that is still hot. Do not feel guilty for taking a few minutes or a couple hours out for yourself. It is not time away from your kids if you are resting and rejuvenating to be a happier, more focused mama when you get back. Spending every free minute with your kids is only valuable if you are really present an interactive. Snapping at your kids because you are at your wits end is not bonding time. Get yourself Ina. State of mind to provide quality time with your kids.

Also, schedule special family activities or down time when you actually have energy.  There is a tendency to wait until late evening to sit down together, at which point everyone is exhausted. Try to make time right after school. If work doesn’t permit you any time during the week, make sure you schedule your family first during your time off before making other commitments. Also, incorporate your kids into work events and social committments when possible.

3) Parenthood demands flexible scheduling and the ability to drop everything else at a moment’s notice. This conflicts with work and results in many disagreements about which parent will leave work to handle the unexpected. In just one month, the following emergencies arose: hospitalization of relatives, torrential rains necessitating pick ups and activity cancellations, a bear on the loose requiring immediate pick up of kids from school, and random monkey sightings creating danger for walking home from school. You may not have typhoons, wild bears or roaming monkeys, but emergencies and illness will arise.

4) This leads directly into the 9 to 5 myth. There is a myth that work is 9 to 5. Most careers are not to 9 to 5. Schedules are erratic and even when you are physically home, many jobs are taking up your mental energy. Accountants have busy season. Doctors have countless emergencies. Lawyers have deadlines and client emergencies. Teachers have planning and parent meetings. Business owners have to be there whenever the business needs them. When work demands attention after hours, family time is invaded. This is especially difficult with younger children who cannot be left unsupervised.

5) When the cat is away, the mice will play, kick, scream, fight, break rules, break valuables, and play lots of Nintendo. While kids may survive time on their own, they need a good dose of parental guidance and supervision.

6) Whether juggling an outside job, every woman needs time and space to cultivate their own identity aside from family and career. Carve out a little time for yourself.

7) Loosen up on control and the pursuit of perfection to let in some help. I spend time with a lot of moms. I often observe them criticize their spouse, kids, or visiting relatives when they try to help clean up or do chores. The mom has devised a meticulous system to get the dishes clean or how to wash the floor, and she is aggravated that her common sense wisdom isn’t so common sense. It is easier to just do it herself. And you know what the worst part is? A sudden realization follows that I am guilty of the same behavior! Consider this my public apology.
It may be easier to do it all yourself today, but it is much harder in the long wrong. Your spouse, kids and friends will become afraid to help. You will get more burned out and resentful. Your kids also won’t form the habits of taking care of the house. Some guys hate housework or think it is all on us. Ugh. We can’t control others thoughts but we can control how we treat and influence others. Surely every guy hates his wife’s wrath. So let’s try to let loose and let them in.

7) My only conclusion is THE GRASS IS AS GREEN AS YOU MAKE IT. The author of “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” Robert Fulghum, said “The grass is greenest where it is watered. When crossing over fences, carry water with you and tend the grass wherever you are. Whatever pasture you choose, career juggle or full-time motherhood, work hard and nurture your pasture. And if you are truly unhappy, you can change your mind. Just know your Ttitude and efforts are whAt make the grass green, whichever path you go. Although, the grass truly is greener in the Japanese Alps than in Vegas.

Greener pastures in the Japanese Alps

Blending with the Locals

When it was growing up, my relatives told stories about growing up with a lively downtown and specialized stores. When people needed milk, they went to the dairy. When they needed meat, they went to the butcher. Sweets and bread were purchased freshly made at the neighborhood bakery. Salons, restaurants, boutiques, and bars were locally owned. You couldn’t just go to Target or Walmart and get all your shopping done.

Now, I am experiencing this way of life in person. The city of Iida, Japan is  a mix of old neighborhoods with specialized shops and the newer development of big chain stores offering one stop shopping. The outskirts of the little city are full of discount department stores with full grocery stores, hair salons, travel agencies, sweet shops, full service restaurants, mall-style food courts, rotating vendors of all sorts, and retail spots rented out to various boutiques. They even have an arcade, a book store, and a dollar store within them.  It is kind of like the Target and the mall having a baby together. I have literally spent six hours straight in these stores and not run out of things to do, all with a baby or two in tow.

Back in the historic downtown, another world awaits. A bygone era comes to life. The local train runs through the center at an old-fashioned pace. The nearest bullet train is over an hour away by car. The streets are lined with small shops topped by the owners’ homes. Many of the businesses are run by the elderly and many look untouched for thirty years. The camera shop still develops film and sells disposable cameras. There is a store just for. Japanese dishes in a hue of ceramic glazes. There is a liquor store, a tea store with tastings, and a small market just for fresh produce. If you want fish, you go to the seafood shop, chockfull of fish tanks and seaworld oddities. If cows are your thing, there is a genuine butcher shop with delicious homemade roast beef. There is shop to get your custom Chinese character stamp. There are separate tailor shops for men and women’s clothes. There are three ornate shop with intricate kimono fabrics where you can order a custom made kimono if your wallet is fat. One of the kimono shops even has a real koi pond and stream running through the shop.  Unfortunately, photons are obtrusive and inappropriate, so hopefully the verbal depiction is painting a mental picture.

Today, the baby and I passed the morning in a bakery shop run that remains unchanged for almost forty years. The hardwood floors are worn down from the many visitors. The decor is dark wood and burgundy, reminiscent of a Rat Pack steakhouse. As we devoured a savory pumpkin bun and chestnut cake, the owner asked about America and our path to the Japanese countryside.  The grandmother came out to play peek a boo with the baby. She even brought a blanket fresh out of the laundry to  keep him warm. When it came time to leave, the shop owner escorted me out, covering us both with her umbrella. She even directed traffic so we could safely pull out of the parking spot and face the rain.

We could all use a little more small town hospitality in our lives, even as an outsider.

Parenting Dilemma: Jam Packed Action or More Family Time

The alarm clock rattles his nine-year-old body. He rubs his eyes and peers out at the clock. A blurry 6:30 a.m. stares back at him. He falls back under the covers in a sleepy stupor. Suddenly he hears his true wake up call, his mom shouting that breakfast is ready. Hurry up!

He shuffles downstairs. His eyes struggle to greet the day. He shovels down rice and sausage and chugs his milk. The daily routine winds into motion and he gets dressed into his uniform. It is time to trek to school.

Eight hours later, the school bell rings, but the day is far from done. He heads off to after-school tutoring, hungry and tired. Two hours of multiplication, Japanese characters, and English grammar
drills ensues. When it is all over, it is time for swim practice for another two hours.

Finally, it is 8:00 p.m. and time to head home. There is a homemade meal and thirty minutes to talk with his family. Then, he heads off to do homework and more drills for his extracurricular tutoring. He crashes around 11:00 p.m. to rest for another marathon day.

This is a snapshot day of many Japanese children who aim for good test scores and top universities. I even left out music lessons, weekends packed with tournaments and other sports, and various school events. The result is academic rigor, athletic advancement, and about one to two hours a day of family time.

American children often leave out the agter school academic programming, but the trend is to get kids as busy as possible. Sports, music, drama, clubs, fundraisers, youth groups, volunteer projects, and anything else to pad a resume and keep kids busy while parents work outside the home. There are definite benefits in academic achievement. There are also inherent consequences of less time with the family and less energy for the limited time together.

My children are young enough to advert this busy whirl of school and extracurriculars, but I contemplate what the future brings. What is best for my children? To fill their days with studies and practice to excel in academia, sports, and music? To ensure there is ample family time to bond with each other and teach them our personal values and customs? To rely on others to teach them in a standardized system or to make time for quality teaching by their family members? Is it possible to strike a balance and protect family time without compromising their overall achievement? For the U.S. to remain strong and competitive, should we imitate the rigorous schedule and study pattern of Japan? Or should we focus on fostering individuality and creativity, two traits that formed our nation into its present state? How about a fusion of the two approaches to optimize the benefits of each?

From my limited perspective, there is value in both approaches. I am currently developing a fusion-style parenting with my kids. For example, I already use flash cards and workbooks with my three-year-old to learn spelling and basic addition (more Japanese style).  I also have scheduled free play time throughout the day where they can do whatever they want.(American style). I personally hold family time as a top priority. I fear having to navigate the pressures when my children are older to fill the schedules so that family time is virtually squeezed out.  What do you think? What experiences have you had as a child or a parent that shaped your view on this dilemma? Do children thrive best through formal development in organized groups or through personal interaction with their parents and extended family?

Rainstorms: Keeping the Zen On Through the Darkness

Clouds liftingLast night, a rainstorm ravaged the mountainside in the middle of the night. Dark storm clouds sunk into the valley. For the first time, the neighboring mountains were invisible. The storm clouds blocked out the mountains of every elevation. At night, pounding rain blocked out the stars, blurred street lights, and blinded the landscape.

Safe within our temporary home, the heavy rainfall created the perfect soundtrack to fall asleep. Instead of listening to music or the whirrings of my mond, I focused on the rain. I let my thoughts and stresses wash away, envisioning a mental downpour washing out my worries.

Yesterday, the valley filled with darkness. There was no light in sight. The ominous clouds hung heavy on the town. I stayed inside and off the blinding roads.

Yet, in the morning, the clouds lifted. The valley and mountains unveiled before, greener and refreshed.The farmers went back to the fields refreshed from a surprise day of rest. The doom and gloom passed and strengthened us all.

The mental and emotional rainstorms in our life are the same. One day, challenges pour into our valley, block out the light,and sometimes we forget the light, vistas, and life are still right beside us, waiting for the storm to pass. As those dear to me face some stormy skies, may we remember the Light and life is still there. The storm will pass. May we soon be strengthened, enlivened and refreshed, and play in the sun together.

Letting Loose

What if I told you I spent the evening on the nude in a pool of other naked people? Then, what if I told you I brought my kids along? This is what you had in mind reading a blog by a traveling mommy. This is

 exactly what I did. The Japanese are known for their modesty and discretion, but there is one custom that shakes the modesty of the rather immodest Americans: stripping down for a dip in the hot springs with other strangers in the nude.  While showing skin in the U.S. is not unusual, bathing with naked strangers is out of the comfort zone of most Americans.

 

Most hot springs are gender-specific, so women a only with other women.

This is generally more comfortable for foreign visitors except for one major caveat. Often, our sole travel companion is of the opposition gender. Imagine separating from your partner/boyfriend/spouse and going it alone, naked and surrounded by naked strangers that don’t speak your language.

One of my first visits to the hot spring was even more nerve wracking. My Japanese boyfriend (who would become my husband years later) brought me to Japan for a family visit. My boyfriend’s mother was not pleased to see a white girl who was formerly clueless about Japanese culture. Well, guess who came with me alone to the hot spring? Next time you meet someone’s parents or hang out with your in-laws, remember it could ne more akward. You could be naked.

Despite the nudity, and occasional gawking at a white girl at the local hot sprong, a visit to onsen is a magical experience. The steam rises over the water’s surface, creating a therapeautic mist. The outdoor onsen are usually shrouded in boulder cascades, lush landscaping, and scenic mountain vistas.  In order to adjust to the heat, enter the water slowly.  Proceed deeper when your body is comfortable. Once you sit down and the water reaches your chest, your whole body will slowly release and relax.  Although I have a mind that never stops churning, the onsen sedates me mentally and physically.  Fifteen to twenty minutes will change one’s state. It is an automatic zen for the low price of 500 yen, or $5.

Yesterday I finally gathered the courage to go to the onsen with my two kids. At first, my three-year-old wanted to escape the heat. A couple minutes later, he adjusted and went exploring in the water. Unlike a pool, the whole hot spring is shallow and walkable. We all mellowed out a bit and then the hard part was getting him to leave. In the end, we all took a cool shower while seated on small stools. Once dressed and refreshed, we ate dinner at the inn’s restaurant and then drove home. We were all zen then.