RIP, My Lovely Scarf

By Gem

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I didn’t write a post yesterday, because I had a HORRIBLE afternoon. I’m tired and lurgy, so I was in no mood to go to my Tea Ceremony lesson, but I decided to be stern with myself (it’s a few hours out of my afternoon, it’s not that demanding an activity, the serene atmosphere would make me feel better, etc). So, when work ended, I wrapped myself in my scarf and coat, trudged to the station and plonked onto the Kinomoto train, where I sat in an unhappy daze with my scarf beside me… until I stood up and left it on the train!

And it was THAT scarf! My soft blue, lamb’s wool scarf that Kin chose the yarn for. My second-ever knitting project! I only finished it a few weeks ago, on the way back from Tokyo and it’s already gone.

I actually DID remember my scarf before the train got away, so I raced back along the platform with a JR employee and scoured the carriages for it, but some rotten sod had whipped it in the time it took us to get back there! I hoped so much that they’d simply picked it up to hand in to lost property, but it was not to be.

Tea Ceremony was a sad experience that day. Not only had it cost me my lovely scarf, lugging my bag around had given me a headache and I was far too wooly-headed and unhappy to actually learn anything. By seven, I decided that the day was a write-off, so I bid my sensei farewell and left early to catch the seven thirty train.

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…and missed it. So I had an hour to sit scarfless in the cold, reflecting on how much nicer everything would be right then if I’d been less strong willed and had just gone home when I wanted to. Now I wasn’t going to be home until nine AND I still had to make dinner and wash my hair. As far as first-world problems go, I was suffering badly last night.

Kin, thankfully, knows how to put me back together, so I didn’t have time to take off my coat before he bundled me off for steak and cheap wine at the imitation Italian joint down the road (bless him). A decanter of dodgy white is generally all it takes to improve my outlook (not to mention my headache) so I felt much better about the world before very long at all.

So what was the take-away from my unhappy evening (since “wine makes everything better!” is probably not a good moral)?

While I was still shivering in the dark, I thought that the moral to this story was that if you really, really don’t want to do something, you’re a lot better off not doing it. Revived by steak and sauvignon blanc, I still broadly agreed with that point of view, but could remember what that tired, chilly Gem could not; that the whole reason I’d dragged myself out was because I’ve been not-doing far too much lately! So maybe the lesson is really that it’s important to determine and maintain acceptable levels of activity, so that you don’t have to force yourself to do things when it genuinely is a bad time for you.

I actually like the second moral, even if it’s not very catchy, but I thought of an even better one today. I was really very, very sad about my scarf; I treasure my clothes and homewares, because I don’t have a lot of money to spend on that sort of thing. When that’s the case, and something happens to one of your possessions, it’s something of a tragedy. This time is different. I loved my scarf; it was lovely, soft and expensive, but…

I can make another one.

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A good scarf is bloody hard to find. Actual wool scarves cost a fortune and even finding a decently pretty acrylic is a matter of waiting until a shop finally has what you want and snapping it up the second it goes on sale (if it does). And if you lose it or stain it, it’s gone. You can’t have that scarf again. You have to resume waiting for the next pretty thing to turn up and hope that you have the money for it.

But my scarf wasn’t irreplaceable. Hours went into making it, but I was learning the entire time and now I know I can make it again; much, MUCH faster. I no longer have to wait for someone to design and produce a scarf for me at a price I can afford. It might not seem like much, but it shows how important it can be to an individual to develop a bit of independence in the production process.

(I’m trying to avoid the “teach a man to fish” parable here, but it just keeps seeming more appropriate with every word.)

This has made me more determined than ever to beg Beans for sewing lessons, stock up on crochet hooks and practice my knitting. Back when everyone could make things, I suppose store-bought items were a luxurious option. Now, though, we’re uncomfortably reliant on them; and the quality is dropping. Otherwise, why can no woman in the world find a blouse that is the right size for her knockers AND her waist? Not to mention opaque enough not to show her bra?

I don’t think we should all stop buying things; humans have always produced and traded goods, even when we were just doing it within our own villages. Our village is a lot larger now, but I love our interconnected world and I have no wish at all to shut myself away from it. I just think that it’s important for individuals (and communities) to keep their options open. In this case, if we had a little more independence when it came to making our own basic clothing, the products on the market would probably reflect the change.

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Now think: If a certain amount of independence is important for luxuries like pretty clothing, how much more important must it be for things like housing and food? And how capable are you of separating yourself from the marketplace for both?

I’m not, very. When we’re in Australia, I produce a lot of the vegetables we eat, but when it comes to grains, meat and fruit, we’re totally reliant on outside providers. And I’m a fairly accomplished cook, so foodwise, we’re more independent than most.

I don’t actually mind buying most of my food; I’m pretty sure the dude who made the best flint tools traded for a lot of his as well. But I’m very glad that I don’t need to depend on anyone else to turn those raw materials into meals for me. And it worries me how much other people my age DO seem to need it.

But when it comes to housing, I am hopeless. Both of my parents are competent with their hands, but I’m utterly useless. Carpentry is something I’ve desperately wanted to learn for years, just not desperately enough to do more about than search for local courses a few times a year and give up when I don’t find any. I should have bought a book, gone to open days at Bunnings or hired a carpenter to teach me some of the basics. When I get home, I will do those things, or whatever else needs to be done, and when I hire a specialist, it will be for a specialist job.

I plan on being a lot more independent in future. I will still work within my profession and  make money. And with that money, I will still participate in the world’s trading. But I’ll have the ability to be a lot more particular about what I’m buying.

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THAT is what my carelessness on the train has taught me. I feel stronger when I think of what I’ve already learned and I feel very, very good about the new things that I will learn and the new independence that will grow from it.

(….but… Oh! My lovely scarf!)

Are you growing, making or otherwise trying to keep a bit of distance between yourself and the markets of the world? How are you working on it?

 

Gem

XX

On the Boil: The Awesomeness of Soup

 

By Gem
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Now Australia is beginning to settle into autumn, and the spring days here in Japan maintain their chill… Now, it is time to sing the song of soup.

O Soup, the nourishing
Soup, the tasty
O, Soup, ye friend of the poor and saviour of the lazy…

… not to mention, Soup, the best way I know of getting rid of whatever’s going leggy in the garden, or leaky in the fridge. Or, Soup, how you can get five serves of vegetables into one meal, let alone one day. Or even Soup, a really good way of impressing lunch guests without really doing anything. 

But none of those really rhyme so well, do they?

Soup and Scheduling

I’ve spoken before about the importance of planning when you’re trying to keep your diet properly balanced. If you’re generally lazy (I am!), busy (I am!), or just someone who can’t always be trusted to make decisions like a grownup (I am!), but you still want to keep everyone properly fed during the week, then you need to organise your kitchen ahead of time.

Soup is central to my day-to-day organisation. If you always keep a jug of soup and a bottle of salad dressing in the fridge, you will always have a lovely, vege-ful meal half organised before you even get home from work.

This is great for those days when you just plain don’t feel like cooking or discover you have unexpected guests on a night you were planning to make scrambled eggs on toast. With about three minutes extra work, your scrambled eggs become an omelette, and you have soup, salad and toast ready to go with it! Salads and soups travel quite happily to work with you and will turn your lunchtime sandwich into a real meal. It also helps you feel better about those days when you haven’t prepared, but you’re already exhausted and just buy a barbequed chicken and some bread rolls on your way home from work. You’re still giving everyone a decent, balanced meal, you’re just not killing yourself to do it at a time when you just don’t have the energy.

Soup is also another arrow in my quiver against the Healthy-Food-Costs-More brigade.

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Getting Organised

Soup and salad dressing are both very simple to make. I shake up my salad dressing in an old squeezy-top mustard bottle that Kin washes out each time we empty it (about every month or so) and store it in the fridge. Just find an old jar, dump in a couple of tablespoons of a nice vinegar (we like a very acidic red wine vinegar), about double that of oil, salt, pepper and any additives that take your fancy (I often add about a tablespoon of Dijon mustard, crushed garlic or some parmesan shavings), shake it up and boom; vinaigrette dressing ready whenever you want it. Just give it another shake when it’s time to squoodge some out.

(Here are some rather more precise recipes if you’re nervous about that sort of thing. Or you can simply buy a nice, low kilojoule salad dressing to keep on hand).

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On the whole, though, it’s even easier to construct a soup than it is to make a salad dressing, and it’s a lot more impressive to visitors.

Basic Soup No 1: Green Velvet

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This soup is Kin’s favourite; it’s also the easiest soup I know! A basic soup like this just needs vegetables and stock. I usually use a liquid chicken stock for my soups, but there are no real rules when it comes to soup. If you are vegetarian, use vegetable stock. If you can’t make liquid stock (I’m not very good at it, either) or afford to buy it, use cubes from the supermarket. Don’t fret too much about getting things right; it’s soup. Soup will forgive you for just about anything.

Ingredients:

1 head of broccoli, divided into small florets, stem chopped
1 bunch of spinach, washed
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed or finely chopped
2 largeish potatoes, peeled and chopped into cubes
1.2 litres of stock (or whatever. If you like a thicker soup, use less. If thinner, use more)
Splash of olive oil
Herbs or seasonings (see variation). Today’s herbs for us are oregano, thyme and rosemary.

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Method:

Heat the oil in a saucepan and brown the onion and garlic over a low-medium heat until softened (probably more than five minutes, probably less than ten. Again, it’s soup; don’t worry so much). Add the potato and stir fry for 2-3 minutes (if adding dried herbs, this is a good time. This is also when I add hard herbs like rosemary), then pour in the stock. Bring to the boil, and then simmer for about fifteen minutes, or until the potato is tender. Add the broccoli (and any other fresh herbs), simmer for about four minutes or until broccoli is tender, then add spinach. Stir through and turn off heat.

Liquify soup using a stick blender, food processor, or whatever you have on hand. If you don’t have any of those things, go to an op shop or a pawn shop and buy one. I don’t care how broke you are. Being able to make soup is going to save you more money than a second-hand stick blender could possibly cost you.

Pour soup into bowls and serve, or into containers to store in the fridge. I sometimes pop a swirl of cream in each bowl, but it isn’t necessary. This soup reheats quite happily in the microwave and keeps for over a week in the fridge.

Variation: Leave out the herbs and instead add half a teaspoon of cumin at the end of cooking. Serve each bowl with a blob of natural yoghurtIMG_8409

This soup can also be made with any sort of vegies you have lying around, like carrot, beans, zucchini and any sort of leafy greens. Just simmer hard veg for longer and add leafy veg toward the end of cooking time. If you like a thick soup, add more potato. If you like a thin soup, add more stock. However you make it, it will always be delicious. It will also be cheap and give you a hefty serve of vitamins and fibre with every verdant bowlful.

What other sort of soup recipes would you like to see? Or does anyone have a good recipe of their own? I’ll be back in my garden soon and I’ll be on the lookout for nice ones.

Happy souping!

Gem

XX

Temporary Living

 

By Gem


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Spring is here and before the end of summer, we’ll be gone. It feels so strange to be living out our normal Nagahama rhythms, while at the same time, preparing ourselves to up sticks and leave in just a few months.

For someone like me, this is very hard. My talk about planning ahead and setting goals might seem to imply that I’m a very future focused person, but the truth is, I really don’t live in a linear world. Past, present and future all have my attention and all are important to the ways in which I manage things.

There are anchors that tie past, present and future together, in the form of stitches that become scarves, of seeds that become plants and then meals and of practice that becomes skill and muscle. Time isn’t a flowing river, where the past moves on to the future and is left behind. Time is a pool where I swim in gentle circles, checking how big the lettuce are getting, if we need soap, what sort of spending we’ve been doing or might do and whether I need to stretch again that day. It’s a restful but efficient way to live and very conducive to evaluation.

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Now, though, our imminent departure has put a great big rock in my peaceful little pond and I can’t make a full circle without bumping my head on it! I can’t plant summer flowers; without water, they’ll die before the next person arrives to take care of them. I can’t shop the way I normally do; bulk-buying items like flour and spices is pointless when I won’t be here to use them. I can’t keep gifts or make many things; only so much weight can come back to Australia with us. My current crop may well be my final one; no sense replanting vegetables that will meet the same fate as the flowers.

I’m excited about my future, but right now it’s really interfering with my present!

Don’t worry, I’m not really complaining…. No, I AM really complaining, but I don’t really mean it, so it’s safe to ignore me. I’m looking forward to taking up my Australian life again (binge-reading Jackie French and scheming about suburban livestock is taking up a lot of my free time at present). But living in limbo is making me CRANKY!

Kin is feeling it too, if his complaints about claustrophobia are anything to go by. Spring is a TERRIBLE time to be stuck in a holding pattern; it’s a time for planting, for exciting new projects and setting the foundations for the year, not for trudging along, ignoring the year’s cycle.

Soon, at least, we’ll be able to start packing up some of our belongings and do things like (gulp) dusting off our resumes. In the meantime, though, we’re just waiting…..

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What’s a good way to cheer yourself up when you can’t make, plant or buy anything? If you don’t feel like making a suggestion here, feel free to drop by our Facebook page.

Impatiently,

Gem

(No kisses today;  I’m cranky, so I may end up biting someone)

Tokyo: A Youtube Adventure

By Gem

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It seems that all the great cities of the world have been nicknamed. Chicago is the Windy City, Paris is the City of Love and Venice is beautifully known as the Bride of the Sea. Once a city reaches a certain age and size, it seems natural for its people to give it another name, one based on the culture and the character that place has developed.

All except Tokyo.

Tokyo is undoubtedly a great city, boasting the largest metropolitan economy in the world. It is a populous city, with around thirteen million permanent residents and a huge population of commuters from the surrounding countryside. And it is an old city (once called Edo) which has been the de facto capital of Japan for more than four hundred years. Yet for some reason, Tokyo has thus far evaded nicknaming. Is the culture not strong enough? Does the city lack personality?

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Quite, quite the opposite. Tokyo, in fact, has an excess of personality. Multiple personalities, if you will. Outside minds may have given the area one name, but to the residents, it’s never stopped being a collection of small (yet insanely densely populated) villages, each existing as its own mad little world and each certain that the next quake will be The Big One. What can you call a place like that? Bedlam? Godzilla’s Playground?

“Don’t EVER live in Tokyo for more than two years at a time,” insisted my Japanese teacher back in Oz. “You’ll go insane; and you won’t notice.”

This is a man whose racing bike has more than once whizzed by me doing forty km on a downhill run despite being declared LEGALLY BLIND more than a decade ago.

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He lived in Tokyo for six years.

Crazytown

Japan, overall, can be mad. But even among Japanese people, it’s accepted that Tokyo is much, much madder.

For one thing, the city is constantly changing. In the warmer days of spring, Japanese birds construct nests and Japanese builders hurl down and fling up buildings all over the country. But in Tokyo, they’re busy all year round, making buildings appear and vanish like mushrooms. Stores and advertisements are also constructed or painted on large vehicles (like the flatbed truck bearing massive-breasted, topless, singing battle robots that rolled by during our last visit to Kabukicho) which then move around the city playing deafening music at passers-by. Even without Godzilla or the Next Big Quake, everything is huge, but nothing feels permanent.

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Did I say everything was huge? That’s just the outside of the buildings. In their interiors and on the streets, Tokyo tries to pack as much of itself into the smallest spaces it can. That means low ceilings, narrow paths, tiny furniture and constantly touching at least three other people at once. The scale and density of Tokyo causes a low-grade mental pressure that takes genuine effort to resist.

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The major issue, though, is not really how much genuinely bizarre stuff (like the topless robots) is actually floating around the city, but how quickly you get used to it. The human brain is resilient and will absorb and adapt to any amount of bizarre stimuli, so in a place where so much is abnormal, your sense of normality becomes extremely unreliable.

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When you add the city’s multiple personalities to that mix and the bizarre ways in which they interact, more than anything, walking around in Tokyo is like a real-life version of those nights you find yourself in the weird part of Youtube. You see something, it looks interesting, you click on it, it leads to something else, you click on that, you keep clicking…. and before you know it, it’s three in the morning and you’re watching a man feed his underpants to a goat.

Fortunately, in Tokyo your service provider isn’t gathering any information on you.

What Happens in Tokyo….

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Ours would have had plenty on us before we even left our Akihabara hotel.

Although the manager had rented us tiny rooms with tinier ensuites, most of the hotel’s business actually comes from capsule rentals to drunk and weary salary men. Two thousand yen (about twenty dollars) grants them access to a large shared bathroom with lockers and a small, coffin-like space in the wall with just enough room for one sleeper and a porn magazine.

Does this seem strange? What’s stranger is that it only took about ten minutes before we were totally accustomed to the idea of going to sleep each night and waking up each morning knowing that there were a hundred businessmen sealed into the walls like wasp larvae.

If we leaned out of the window, we could see the local Pachinko Parlour, where an animated (and adorable) adventurer tugged on a jungle princess’ leopard-skin bikini top. Below, the taxi-drivers, neon-lit trucks and scooter daredevils played their terrifying game of dodgems, while sirens screamed all around, yet never arrested anyone. We could also watch tired office workers step onto the balcony for a cigarette and a moment to think, without ever noticing any of the frenzied activity around them.

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In Tokyo, the people are like islands.

Becoming an Island

Despite our inauspicious beginning, we fell into our Tokyo routine (and our island status) fairly quickly.

In the morning, I would wake up, give the wall (and its load of snoring businessmen) an affectionate pat and wander into the corridor to heat water for tea. When it was ready, the three of us would step out onto the tiny “balcony” to watch the dodgem game, the suited abseiler on the opposite building and, one morning, a procession of neon-decorated trucks blaring pop music to advertise the new Idolmaster Game (which will be released in May if you’re into that sort of thing. Please don’t tell me if you are.)

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After that, it was time for us to decide what to do with our day.

We visited Akihabara, of course; our anime-nerd leanings and our hotel’s location by Dentown made this an obvious choice. While we initially had a wonderful time, cramming ourselves between overstacked shelves of figurines, clothing and art books, we gradually started to notice that Akihabara seems to be morphing into something a lot more seedy and a lot less fun. I don’t know if the art has changed, or the current generation of nerds are a creepier breed, but it had a particularly bad effect on the guys, both of whom declared themselves finished with the place and in desperate need of a bath. And, after accidently catching the tail-end of an AKB-48 show, I couldn’t blame them. It makes me cringe to think that our students could potentially attend concerts in the same building as those sweating, tracksuit-wearing otaku waving their glow sticks at fifteen year olds dancing in ruffle skirts.

(Akihabara still has plenty to offer the nerdy traveller, but you might be more likely these days to just get in, buy it and get the hell back out without enjoying your time as much as you used to.)

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Ueno, mixing more of the old Japan with the new was much gentler on the guys’ bruised sensibilities and we spent quite a bit of time recuperating under the cherry blossoms in Ueno Park and in the Ueno markets. Asakasa, though crowded, is also a fairly relaxed place by Tokyo standards and is popular with backpackers and older Japanese tourists. Our objective was Sensou-ji, a holy site devoted to the bodhisattva Kannon, where people have been visiting and buying (actually quite reasonably priced) souvenirs for almost fifteen centuries. (I really love that about Japan; instead of trying to avoid the tourist traps and really connect with the ancient culture of an area, visiting the tourist traps is HOW you connect!)

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We skipped Shinjuku and Roppongi this time and very quickly zipped through Ginza, but Kin and Shallow indulged me and allowed me a lot of time in Shibuya.

I adore Shibuya; I could spend all day there, just watching people and walking around. This area is a bit of an artistic and fashion centre, not just for designers and multinationals, but also for the kids who stitch, paint or hammer together their own looks and styles and, when they get a little older, even open little shops of their own, which are immediately graffitied by their younger colleagues. (They do it so nicely, though that no-one minds.)

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Really, Shibuya is far too cool for me, but it’s generous enough to let me hang out there anyway.

Most of our trekking was done on foot, although we did hop onto the subway sometimes. As we were generally travelling outside rush hours, Kin and Shallow were permitted to travel in purdah with me, in the “Ladies Only” section of the train (set aside to protect women travellers from sexual assault). Only some of our stations had installed suicide-prevention barriers or calming blue lights, but all played a happy jingle as each train approached, which some claim is another preventative measure.

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Personally, I found this ingenious creation much more cheery and engaging than yet another obnoxious noise on the Japanese subway.

Harajuku was so crowded, the tide of people almost washed us away. Shallow’s height became an advantage for the first time since he’d arrived in Tokyo (normally he just bumped his head on things) and he could keep an eye on Kin’s red hat bobbing away on the current. I just became flotsam and grabbed hold of whatever bits I could reach of either Shallow or Kin whenever the flow brought us close together. We saw a few examples of Harajuku fashion on people (and many more in the shops!) but if you really want to see Harajuku girls, visit Jingu Bashi, the Harajuku bridge, on Sunday afternoon. Right over the bridge is a peaceful Meiji Shrine and also Yoyogi Park, where we met with a friend and unexpectedly became part of a cherry-blossom viewing party with the staff of a Shinjuku publishing company.

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The park was so covered in eskies and picnic blankets that parties combined like slime mould, forming one ultra-party whose participants cheerfully shared their food and sake and posed for group photographs with strangers.

Islands can join very quickly, if sake is involved.

Much later, and a little unsteady, our whole cherry-blossom party was carolling about being fireworks in the karaoke booth where we’d had dinner. Our merry trek from Harajuku had gone past decorated trucks (each with a pair of feet pressed on the windscreen), night markets, outdoor raves and a woman quietly walking her meerkats through Shibuya.

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Just another night in Crazytown.

 

Gem

XX

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March was…

 

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Spring! Finally, actual, no-more-wishful-thinking SPRING! 

 

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The return of old friends…

 

 

 

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Including Shallow!

 

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Rediscovering that Tokyo is insane.

 

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Parties! Actual outdoor ones, after dark!

 

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Hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) in Yoyogi Park. There were so many different parties going on that they all sort of made one BIG party!

 

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The Indoor Refugees’ triumphant return to the Great Outdoors.

 

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Gem’s birthday! These are my presents from Kin, including Kyoto courtyard gardening books and a gorgeous new (second hand) goldy-green kimono! My parents have a finger lime waiting for me back in Oz as well, so I have a pretty good haul this year. Thank you everyone! – Gem

 

March began chilly and still, but soon warmed up to be busy, busy, busy, with trips, events and new discoveries popping up every day!  March was new blooms, night buses and near-nudity! Well….

Okay, no-one’s actually naked, but now that we’ve peeled off the layers of yeti-skins we’ve been wearing all winter and are walking around in actual human clothes, we feel a bit that way. It’s so lovely to be able to wear pretty clothes again and to just step outside whenever you feel like it! The ducks are back, the bats are back, insects are busy everywhere you look and we have survived our LAST EVER Northern Hemisphere winter! In four months, we’ll be back where the weather is sane!

February’s promise has definitely been met; the earth has warmed, nature is hard at work and it’s time for things to happen. And our countdown to Australia gets shorter every day…

It’s go-time!

Kin and Gem

XX