November was….

 

November was green, warm and quiet.

We’ve kept close to home (as our photos show!) but there have been plenty of visitors, human and otherwise and a new furry family member to keep us busy. The garden is green and productive, with even more promise for the coming months, work is steady and the house is clean (and almost organised!)

Restfully busy, November was exactly what we needed.

To active tranquillity.

Gem

XX

Say “Hello” to Miss Madelaine!

IMG_3981

Last week, we added another furry face to our household! I’d like to pretend that Madelaine is a rescue dog (since we got her through a rescue organisation) but to be honest, a semi-Labrador less than three months old is definitely appealing enough that she doesn’t a lot of help to find a home. If her foster mother had been the unscrupulous type, she probably could have sold Maddy on, not just charged us an adoption fee that barely covered her microchipping and vaccinations (and can’t possibly have paid for her food and regular worming). Rescuers are definitely not in it for the money.

I’ve desperately wanted a pup for years and years, but we’ve known since 2007 that we’d be returning to Japan one day. Asking family to mind cats is one thing; dogs are more demanding. That means that sleepy little Madelaine isn’t just our newest family member; she’s a real symbol of our homecoming. And, with both of us working part time, it’s the perfect moment to introduce a new baby to the house. Because goodness me, babies are a lot of work!

IMG_5376

Feeding, playing, grooming, etc are all fairly straightforward at this age. But toilet training is definitely an issue (2 a.m. generally finds me in the backyard chanting “Go pee. Go pee,” to a yawning pup) and getting other family members used to the situation is also a bit of a trial. Fuji, our mad, weird little cat is extremely unimpressed at the new introduction, despite all of Maddy’s best efforts to ingratiate herself. Thus far, grovelling, barking, whimpering and rolling around under Fu’s nose have all failed to impress. My housekeeping has suffered a little as well, with my office overrun by cushions and toys, while their smelly little owner snores under my desk. And we’re stretching our already-stretched finances a little further, since Madelaine is going to need her booster shots and desexing very soon.

Still, all new parents have to deal with these problems, don’t they? Whatever their species, babies are expensive, messy, time-consuming and take a lot of effort to fit into your household.

IMG_5357

Unfortunately, not everyone understands that.

Summer is a terrible time for animal rescue organisations. The kitten-breeding season reaches its peak, adult pets are abandoned over Christmas by holiday-makers who can’t find anyone to care for their pets and, in the early months of the New Year, shelters are inundated with dog and cat surrenders from people who didn’t seem to realise that kittens don’t come toilet trained and that puppies need to be exercised.

It’s a horrible, heartbreaking period for the workers, who either have to accept that they will be euthanising perfectly healthy animals or that overcrowding will force them to turn some animals away, with no idea what will happen to them. Our local RSPCA has been trying to deal with this period by holding events at the shelter where people can meet the animals as well as by reducing adoption fees during periods of heavy occupancy.

That means that, if you’ve been thinking about adopting a new family member, now may be the perfect time to start checking out not just your local RSPCA website, but other local animal welfare organisations. The amount of surrenders over this period mean that it’s easier than ever to find the right pet to fit into your lifestyle. Both groups can help match you to the right animal and can give you lots of advice (and, often, financial assistance) to help you properly care for your new pet.

For example, if your life is too busy to deal with the demands of a puppy in the house, you might be matched with an older dog or a litter-trained kitten. If you work long hours, an adult cat, or even two might be exactly the right companions for you. Even if you live in a tiny apartment or have one room in a share house, all is not lost. They can fit you out with a guinea pig, a friendly rat or even a ferret like Esteban to keep you company!

esteban

Just remember, though, pets, even the perfect pet, require food, exercise, vet care, a clean environment and your regular attention. Even if you’re matched with the ideal animal for your lifestyle, you’re still going to have to make some changes yourself, because your pet’s needs are not going to alter according to your capacity to give. You may be sad, tired or broke; they still want walkies! If you don’t feel that you can adapt to anyone else right now, the time may not be right for you to adopt.

On the other hand, it’s not all work. Interacting with a pet isn’t nearly as demanding as interacting with another human and we manage that every day. And they will offer you their constant companionship, loyalty and unconditional love, even on days when you probably don’t deserve it. If you are sad, they will comfort you. If you need exercise, they will run with you. If you just want some company while watching T.V. or washing the dishes, they will sit on your feet and just be with you. Forget matching teatowels or a potted fern; pets are the best, fastest and most rewarding way to make your house a home. There is no other feeling of well-being that compares to a contented Fuji purring in our laps when the day’s work is done. And being greeted by Maddy’s funny, whiskery, little face in the morning brings happiness to the start of every day.

IMG_5347

We love our furry family and are so happy to have them.

Gem

XX

P.S. You can find the RSPCA Australia website here. If you’re in the Hunter Valley or Central Coast, here and here are some other rescue organisations. There are plenty more, if you google!

P.P.S. Internet troubles and Madelaine meant this post was late; we will still update Monday, as per usual. Meanwhile, check our our Facebook page to see what we’re up to!

 

Luxury on a Budget: Afternoon Tea

IMG_3162

I’ve said it before and I still mean it: When you’re trying to save money, luxuries have to come first. It’s not just possible to enjoy a little luxury while sticking to your budget; it’s absolutely essential. If life has no space for a bit of pleasure now and then, what on earth are you budgeting for?

There’s good news for your bank account, though. When it comes to enjoying a luxury, the thing itself is only part of the package. The main point is the quality of the experience. And the good thing about that is that it means you can have a whole lot of indulgence without spending very much. One happy little low-cost luxury enjoyed in Australian homes, schools and workplaces is morning and afternoon tea.

Japan understood the importance of teatime very well, changing the brew from hot matcha or oolong in winter to cold green or barley tea in summer, enjoyed with a variety of sweet or salted snacks. China and Hong Kong enjoy formal and informal teatimes, including yum cha, the ultimate tea break. South Americans sip volcanic mate, while India and the U.K. both enjoy their morning and afternoon tiffin with savouries and sweets (hence the Australian and New Zealander taste for the experience). Whenever you enjoy it and whatever you call it, when it comes to luxury on a budget, teatime is right up there with foot massages for pleasure and value for money.

IMG_8316

Being Australian, Kin and I have always enjoyed our morning and afternoon teas, but we only started making an event of it during our first Japanese winter. Maybe being indoors so much caused us to try and make it a richer experience or maybe the frozen landscape so far from home caused us to invoke the spirits of our ancestors with their tin teapots, fruitcake, scones and blessed, blessed heat. Whatever our reason for starting, we kept it going all through that winter and now, two years later, we still haven’t stopped. No matter how busy or wretched the day, we always come together in the afternoon to enjoy a little oasis of peace and pleasant sensations.

IMG_1567

Remember that word, please! PEACE is the point to your afternoon tea. This is an everyday event, so it’s not supposed to cause you any stress or problems. With peace in mind, here are a couple of my simplest, most reliable recipes for teatime treats:

(All measures are Australian and metric. I’ll include a conversion chart on the site soon, but for now, look them up here.)

Banana Bread

The simplest thing to make in the entire universe. I’m not even kidding; I have left entire ingredients out of this recipe before, and it still keeps coming up edible.

IMG_8848

  • 3 tbsp olive oil (or other vegetable oil)                                          – 2 cups self raising flour
  • 2/3 cup sugar                                                                                                          – 3 eggs
  • ¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda (baking soda)                                         – ½ tsp salt
  • 4 large or 5-6 small mashed bananas

Preheat oven to 180 C. Grease loaf tin and set aside.

In a mixing bowl, beat sugar, oil and eggs together until light and fluffy. Beat in bananas (if you’re using an electric mixer, you don’t even have to mash them, just dump them in one at a time and let the mixer squoosh them). Sift dry ingredients into the bowl and mix well. It should still be pretty liquid at this stage.

Pour mixture into tin and place in oven. Bake for about an hour; shorter if you like things heavy and moist, longer if you like them fluffy and light. Simple! Slice and eat hot, cold, toasted with honey or however you prefer.

IMG_8911

Butter cake with passionfruit icing

Up until Japan, I baked my cakes in regular, round cake tin. Nagahama, however, had never heard of such a thing, so I wound up instead having to buy two tiny loaf tins and bake two tiny cakes …. which has turned out to be the best thing ever. I now get one cake to eat and another to freeze for the next time I fancy cake and don’t feel like baking (and sometimes when a woman needs cake, she needs it right away!) Other advantages are that small cakes get eaten quickly, even if you don’t have any visitors for a few days and they also make portion control much easier. Kin could happily eat an entire meal of cake, so he likes the small ones; for some reason, it’s much easier to cut yourself a small slice of a small cake than it is to cut a small slice from a large cake.

IMG_3015

Butter cake (Margaret Fulton):  

  • 125g butter (half a block)                                                                 – 2 cups self raising flour
  • ¾ cup caster sugar                                                                              – 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla                                                                                             – ¾ cup milk
  • Pinch salt

Preheat oven to 180 C. Grease your cake tin/s and set aside.

Cream butter with vanilla and sugar until it looks white and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time until thoroughly combined. Sift flour and salt together three times and fold into mixture alternately with milk, using a spatula or wooden spoon.

(I regularly skip this careful sifting and the cake still turns out pretty good, so if you’re in a hurry, just stir it up and go)

Dollop mixture into tin/s and place in oven. Bake for 30 minutes (twenty-five, if using two pans).

Icing:                    

  • 1 cup icing sugar                                                                                          – 1 tbsp melted butter
  • 2-3 tbsp passionfruit pulp

Makes enough for one of the little loaf-cakes, so if you’ve made a big cake, double up.

Using a spatula or a bread and butter knife, mix the lot together in a bowl, then spread it on top of the cooled cake. Too simple! I also often replace the passionfruit with whatever citrus is handy; use a few tbsp of the juice and grate up a few teaspoonsful of zest to mix through as well.

Sultana scones

Slightly more tricky here: If you want these guys at their best, you actually have to cook them at teatime. Scones are a teatime staple for a reason, though; they’re cheap, quick, pretty easy and bloody awesome. I like plain scones with jam and cream, but Nagahama sometimes had trouble providing these, so sultana ones with butter were a good mainstay.

IMG_1568

  • 60g chilled, chopped butter                                                                 – 2 cups self-raising flour
  • ½ cup sultanas                                                                                        – ½ cup milk
  • 1/3 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 200 C. Grease a baking tray or dust it with plain flour and set aside.

Sift flour into a bowl and then rub in the butter with your fingers until it looks like fine breadcrumbs. Give the bowl a thump on your benchtop every now and then, to bring the big lumps to the surface. Stir in the sultanas. Make a well in the centre of your mixture and very slowly pour in the milk, stirring quickly with a butter knife until you have a dough. You may not need all of it, so watch out; if your mixture gets too sticky, you’ll have to dust it with a bit more flour.

This next step is where all recipe book authors turn out to be filthy liars. They will now tell you to turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead it until smooth. Do NOT do this, unless you enjoy eating grey, tasteless lumps. Instead, gather the dough gently into a ball, turn it out onto the lightly floured surface and then carefully fold and press it a couple of times until it looks like it’s fairly well combined. You may only need to do this two or three times and remember to be gentle!

IMG_1510

Roll the dough out until it’s about two cm thick. Use a biscuit cutter or the top of a small water glass to cut scones from the dough (probably 16-17 of them). Place on the tray about 1cm apart and brush them with a little milk. Bake them for about ten minutes or until they sound hollow when you tap them on the bottom. Serve hot, with butter!

Even at 1/3 cup, these scones aren’t super sweet; I’ll add more or less sugar depending on how we feel. If they turn out to not be sweet enough for you, these scones are lovely with some honey or stewed blueberries.

IMG_3531

Morning and afternoon tea are small, light meals, with the main focus being your chosen drink, rather than food. On working days, our afternoon tea is as simple as coffee for Kin and a pot of tea for me, with some little treat like a slice of cake or some good fruit or mochi. On non-working days we become a little more elaborate and along with our sweets, we also enjoy things like olives, devilled eggs, little sandwiches and other small, savoury items. The point isn’t the food, it’s the event; a period of stillness, pleasant sensations and happiness in solitude or in good company. Stuffing yourself with half a cake is no luxury at all; but slice of it with afternoon tea is an experience to savour.

IMG_3780

Tea’s up!

Gem

XX

Welcome Home!

IMG_3597

And we are back!

The last month’s radio silence has covered a frantic period of packing, posting and rushing around, but we’re finally here (albeit homeless) enjoying a sunny Australian winter. At the moment we’re staying with my family in the country, which is nice when it comes to birds and fireplaces, but not so easy for Kin to get to university. So, last week, on a bright sunny day when Kin had classes, we ventured to Newcastle to visit friends, have a proper coffee and take care of a few things like library visits and collecting a few possessions.

It was a lovely day. The breeze was light and scented with eucalypt and Hamilton was sunny and wintry warm. Mid-morning, Kin trekked off to class and I sat in the sun in a friend’s backyard, with a purring cat on my lap and an occasional avocado rocketing down onto the shed from a nearby tree. After lunch, I ran our errands, then headed out to the university to meet Kin. On this carless day, that meant catching a bus. Luckily, the 226 runs straight to the uni, so I flagged one down, hopped aboard and looked around for a seat.

I had a lot of bags, so I decided for a change to sit toward the front, in one of the four person bays. The lopsided gentleman facing toward the back of the bus appeared to be a little too drunk for that time of the afternoon (but who’s judging?) and I didn’t feel like having someone fall on me every time we took a sharp turn, so instead I sat in the opposite seat, next to a pretty lady in a hijab and her two curly-headed baby boys, one toddling, the other perched on his mother’s foot, using her to support wobbly knees that weren’t really ready for standing. I smiled, she smiled, I settled my bags, took out my knitting and felt that it was truly a beautiful world. Knit two, purl two, keep on to the end… and then a sudden gush of warm fluid drenched me from the knees down and splashed the pretty lady (the older child was in the aisle and the younger had
swung to the side, so both were thus far dry).

It took a second to work out what had happened… We looked down at our dripping legs, looked across at the now suspiciously owl-eyed and wet-chinned man sitting opposite, looked at each other… had a simultaneous realisation and both frantically swooped to retrieve bags, bundles and babies from the spreading pool of vomit, not caring which belonged to whom. And then we were trapped, our burdens safely off the ground with only minimal drippage, but so awkwardly gathered and gripped that we were completely unable to relax our clutch on any one item in case another landed in the soup.

Then, while the two of us watched in horror, completely unable to move, the vile, intoxicated beast leaned forward, right over my legs… and vomited again! And again! With each gush, as my stockings soaked, my shoes filled up and the end of my red skirt turned maroon, the pretty lady’s eyes filled with equal parts sympathy and nausea and I began praying to any gods of public transport that she wouldn’t start throwing up as well. I was having enough trouble containing my own stomach. For several minutes, this awful minion of beery darkness threw up on me, my shoes and my ball of wool, then, having wreaked sufficient havoc for one day, blinked a few more times, stood, and as the bus stopped (sending a frothy wave rushing past again and seriously testing my control over my turbulent stomach) he staggered to the door and was gone.

The elderly gentlemen who boarded the bus en route to the RSL were very helpful. The hijab lady and I each passed them a child, then began rearranging our other burdens sorting out what belonged to whom. Both she and they got away from me as quickly as possible, though, and I couldn’t blame them. I smelled awful. My shoes were full of horror. My skirt and stockings dripped. A nightmare-ridden, beery tsunami had washed away my beautiful day and all I wanted to do was cry. And shower. And throw up. Probably while crying some more. While I threw up. In the shower.

Since I could do none of these things, I just sat in silent misery until the bus reached the university, then stood up to disembark…. And it was horrible. My shoes squelched. Trying to hold my bags as far from me as possible, I splashed off the bus, and dripped my way over the crossing then saw Kin, who, expecting the warm, cheerful, bakery-scented wife he’d left in Hamilton, was surprised to open his arms and have a miserable, vomit-sodden wreck fly into them, wailing bitterly about the awful man on the bus.

Kin is a good husband. He just hugged me and didn’t even say “Yuck”.

IMG_3666

I’m laughing (a bit) now that I’m back in the country and my stockings, shoes and wool are soaking in separate buckets by the clothesline. But the experience was surprisingly distressing. I’m no stranger to wearing the odd bodily fluid or two in the line of duty (hospital work is good for that) but to be repeatedly assaulted with the noxious expulsions of a total stranger, in what I had expected to be a fairly hygienic setting, actually resulted in a bit of mild trauma, only slightly dissipated by repeated doses of white vinegar and eucalyptus oil. I don’t mean that my spirit has been blighted and my life is now a ruin. But I feel as though I’ve been doused with a hefty dose of reality, as well as second-hand Toohey’s.

For months now, Kin and I have looked forward to coming home and we’ve been so focused on the wonderful things about Newcastle (our parks, our beaches, the wonderful food and interesting shops) that we’ve been ignoring the fact of our beloved city’s dark side. In particular, we’ve been forgetting that Newcastle definitely has a drinking problem, with all of the social nasties that implies. I’ll admit that actually being vomited on is a new one for me, but any health and hospitality workers, or other denizens of late-night Newcastle have at some point experienced side effects of the city’s struggles with alcohol.

Experiencing them again so soon, and so forcefully, has rubbed a certain amount of bloom off our triumphant return.

There’s good and there’s bad everywhere in the world I suppose, and it’s not as though vomiting drunks are unknown on Japanese public transport either. But I’m already feeling less open and more cautious about moving around my city, even before I’ve officially made it back there. On the other hand, my generally solitary nature is now fired with community-building ambitions; I don’t want anyone to be vomited on again, and the best way to prevent it is to make our neighbourhoods as safe and friendly as possible. Even if that does mean interacting with people more often than my semisocial character would normally choose!

IMG_3833

So, all of you community-minded Australians, I raise my glass to you (cup of tea, actually) and swear to join your ranks in the coming months. I will be active, I will be supportive, I will work until our community is green, helpful and free of antisocial behaviours. And, until that day, I will always wear gumboots on the bus!

In the meantime, soak it all away….

 

Gem

XX

Look Who Came to Visit!

Contemplative frog

It’s spring alright! The rice fields are green and full of joy (for frogs) and the nights are dark and full of lurve… also for frogs. As well as having bats to watch, every evening we can also listen to the chorus of croaking from all directions.

Of course, all of this activity means that other creatures are becoming active too, including this fellow:

Snake I, swimming

This is a Japanese rat snake (Elaphe climacophora) that I spotted while watering the beans. It seemed pretty determined to work its way up the canal, so we figured it was heading out to the big rice fields to find frogs like the one above. Being Australian, I immediately yelled for Kin to grab his camera and he raced up the canal in pursuit.

Lurksnake

Unfortunately, his model did NOT feel cooperative. Rat snakes are quite timid (and, apparently, very bitey) so it decided to try and pretend that it wasn’t there and wait for the camera to go away.

Kin was a little disappointed but, as it turns out, he didn’t need to be! When I went for a run along the same canal, I found another friend for him to photograph!

Snake II; full length

Another rat snake! They must be everywhere at the moment! This one seemed a little less timid than the first and allowed Kin and his camera to get quite close. It was proceeding in the same direction as the other fellow, so there must be something attractive (to snakes) in that part of town.

Snake II, head, higher angle

Hello, snake II!

It seems that Japanese people respond to rat snakes much the same way as Australians do to carpet pythons, so our friends should have a safe journey, wherever they’re going. It was lovely to see these beauties and we wish them well on their travels. It’s also fun giving our U.S. friends the screaming heebie-jeebies with these photos!

Is anyone interesting out and about in your area? Have they come to say hello?

We’ve just made a Flickr account, so I’m gradually uploading our photos there (including our Facebook albums). If you want to see more snake pictures or others (soon), please come and visit us!

Gem,

XX