Parks, playgrounds and kindergartens in Japan are choc-a-bloc full of play equipment that back home in England would have long been consigned by Health & Safety heads to the scrapheap. Rusty, squeaky and dangerous, I quite like them, as they remind me of my own childhood, when rough and tumble was an accepted form of recreation. Incongruously, in a nation renowned for moddycoddling its children, these dinosaurs yet remain. And it was from one of these relics that our youngest son fell.
I’d just finished my last class before spring break, grinning inanely as one does at the chance of time off for good behaviour, when the message came through. Harry, our 3 year old, had broken his arm at kindergarten.
As I arrived at the local private hospital, he with Mrs. Kitchengardenjapan and two teachers were leaving. Apparently the break was too bad to fix there, and armed with X-rays, we were urged to the Prefectural hospital, and after requisite paperwork, were swiftly admitted to the ER, where the doctor on duty lost little time in telling us that the break was bad. Really bad. Surgery was needed. Metal pins had to be inserted. Harry was in for a rough ride.
After more X-rays and blood work, he was given a saline drip and admitted to a private room. For pain relief he was given a bag of ice – the only pain relief permitted.
Surgery was set for 6.20PM (7 hours after the break), on what the doctor told us was their busiest day in a year. A 30 minute operation stretched to 3 interminable hours as more and more complications were found. By this time, the supporting cast had grown to six teachers and the principle of the kindergarten, a standard operating procedure apparently, when an educational institution feels culpable for injury. Standard as it may be however, I do believe that behind the protocol bows and apologies, there was sincerity, contrition and concern. The principle informed us that all hospital bills would be covered by the kindergarten. It was agreed that I should take our eldest son home and put him to bed. The importance of routine, and all that.
Harry was eventually wheeled out. The usually tough-as-nails Mrs Kitchengardenjapan, I’m told, passed out cold at the sight. As far as we know, the operation was a success, but more operations are needed, and it will be months before we know if he’ll make a full recovery. Welcome to spring break.
Were this the litigious West, we’d have been quids-in, on the phone to a solicitor, cashing in mindlessly on our one-armed bandit, sipping umbrella-laced cocktails and planning our retirement on the compensation money. But this is Japan, and Japan is not a litigious society bar the very foolish and the very rich. So instead we’ll get the medical bills paid and a token one-time commiseration payment.* No jackpot, no cocktails, no retirement, just more operations for him and more grey hair for us. Sigh…
Wrong time, wrong place, Harry.
Enjoy your spring break, and… Get Well Soon.
*Obviously a much fairer situation than back home.
School Of (Soft) Knocks
As a worker in the Education sector, I know the value of good schoolin’. There are, however, some things that schoolin’ alone can’t offer, a case in point being the magic of a bamboo forest on an early spring day.
Monday morning was bright and beautiful. The Mountain called, and my eldest and I answered. A light wind blew, the bamboo softly knocked, and we were rewarded with the first bamboo shoots of the season. A nice morning of schoolin’, kitchengardenjapan style.
Rhapsody in White
March may well be kitchengardenjapan’s favourite month. It’s a happy time when both the long claws of winter and the pressures of the day job* concurrently, coincidentally, recede. Moreover, it’s also when the orchard restarts its cycle. And it does it in spectacular fashion.
First comes the ume with its simple flush. Historically the focus of Japan’s famous hanami flower watching season before being elbowed aside for warmer months and showier cherry blossoms, ume is elegant in understatement. Simple and profound is the ume.
Flowering hot on ume’s heels comes our early cherry, the dominating, regal centrepiece of the orchard. Full of perfume and dripping with pollen, it is an unequivocal show-off and an irrepressible magnet for the eyes – and assorted wildlife.
And finally trails cherry number 2, a bridesmaid if ever there was. Young, elegant and modelled on classic lines, she’s also the most fruitful of the three.
So the stage is set, spring is here, and the canopy - a Rhapsody in White - hung. This can mean only one thing:
It’s BBQ time!!!! Hurrah!
*The day job(s), for anyone interested.
Towards the end of December, Japanese housewives traditionally put together (or buy) an extravagantly complicated multi-layered boxed meal called O-sechi. It’s meant to last for the first few days of the year and give the poor dear a few days of relief from slaving in the kitchen. Mrs. Kitchengardenjapan, being Traditional Japanese only when it suits her (a Good Thing and a Bad Thing, both), refrains. It’s a good decision, I think.
In order to atone for the shame, Shame, SHAME brought upon us should anybody, God(s) forgive (cough) ever find out about this shocking dereliction of duty, we preserve what’s left of the family honour by making several O-sechi - of sorts - in the orchard.
It’s a lot more fun, a lot less complicated, and truth be told, a lot tastier.
The mid-December boxes start with Hassaku and Seville oranges (Daidai), with Hana yuzu and then the mini yuzus. The end of the month also contains lemons and kumquats.
There follows a complete set of instructions:
Pick more fruit
Repeat steps 1 and 2
Hard work over, crack open a beer. Better still, get your traditionally pliant and obedient Japanese wife to do it for you (Fat chance, but it is the season of hope, after all).
The Shadow Line
My eldest son Kento, he’s a really cool dude. Bilingual at 5 years old, respectful, conscientious, well-mannered and cheerful, he’s a delight to be around. He helps his dad in the fields, his mum in the kitchen and his younger brother with his jigsaws. Moreover, he never yells baka* and knows if he values his life never to kancho**
I rue the fact that due to work, I don’t get to spend as much time with him and his brother as I’d like, so during whatever family service*** time we have together, we like to do traditional father-son things, outdoors if possible.
This past September was Ken’s birthday, and to his joy, he got a bike. And in the snatches of time we have together, I’ve been teaching him to ride – he on his wheels, Dad jogging alongside to catch him when he wobbled. This past weekend, he finally did it, An Achievement, shared.
Now the world is his oyster, and every spare moment brings new exploration, new Adventure. Japan, to him, just got smaller**** Best of all, I can give up the jogging (a hobby for the insane) and ride alongside him.
I do wonder how this country will treat him as he gets older. It treats his Dad half with reverence and half with revulsion, what with being a foreign barbarian, a necessary evil, an exotic, unwelcome burden and all. “Half”***** kids, too suffer by this association of other-worldliness. Hopefully he’ll be able to deal with it, perhaps indeed use it to his advantage (how many kids do you know that are bilingual at 5)? The kanji characters that spell his name, do, after all, call him “Wise Guy”.
So we’ll defer that worry, and enjoy the now, and laugh, laugh with joy, as we pedal furiously, and chart our way, chart our way through The Shadow Line.
* Japanese has a paucity of bad words, but baka ranks among the highest. Literally translated as “stupid”, it’s force depends upon context and delivery. It is used both by his peers and adults alike.
** Kancho is the act of clasping one’s hands together, extending one’s index fingers, and shoving them up an unexpected victims bum-hole. In English, it means “enema”. Again this is a favourite kids’ pastime in Japan. I’ve experienced it from adults, too. Apparently, it’s a sign of friendship.
*** Family service, along with service overtime are English-derived Japanese expressions. The latter means working overtime (usually a lot of overtime) for no financial recompense. It is the bane of the salaried employee, as it is a cultural norm. Pretty much everyone does it, though they don’t want to. Family service, in the same vein, smacks of unwanted, extra obligation to the Japanese. In reality, it’s just playing with your kids. As to why the Japanese render these seemingly odious-to-them expressions into English is, I believe, a subtle exertion of the subtle racism that dominates Japanese society.
**** EVERY Japanese bemoans that “Japan is a small country”. It’s irksome. It’s way bigger than Great Britain and most other European countries.
***** “Half” kids? “Half”?!?!? There’s a big toodoo about the use of this phrase amongst foreigners living in Japan.
Sweet & Sour
So the big wheel keeps on turning. The days are getting shorter, the evenings and mornings cooler, and this morning saw condensation on the windows for the first time. This tells us three things; The first fall frosts are not far off; mosquito season is almost over; and it’s time to start picking citrus.
In the orchard, we’ve many kinds of citrus trees; tangerines, hassaku and Seville oranges, citrons, grapefruits, kumquats and lemons, and it’s in the cold months that these trees bear their fruit.
This citrus season is a mix of sweet and sour and a very welcome food source for us, for winter vegetables are by and large bland on the palate. The season starts at the end of October, with the hayawase (early born) variety of tangerine, and ends mid-March with the final picking of kumquats. Picking with the kids is a lot of fun, a fruitful learning experience, and a lot less fraught with no mosquitoes buzzing around.
Citrus have been grown in this (Yamaguchi) Prefecture for centuries. Not only has it been a historical source of pride for the locals, but, when you consider that until the Meiji Restoration of 1868 (in which the samurai of Yamaguchi played a pivotal role in overthrowing the Shogunate and reinstating the Emperor) 90% of the population of Japan were peasants, living a very hand-to-mouth, hardscrabble existence. What a boon the citrus season must have been to them.
So the big wheel keeps on turning, and time moves on. The Sweet and sour citrus season is upon us again.
Banzai! Or Something like that.
World’s Best BBQ Chicken
Kitchengardenjapan - and I make no bones, apologies or caveats about this – makes the world’s best barbecued chicken. It’s a monster hit whenever we get out the griddle, it’s ever-so easy to make, and it’s yours, free, free FREE! can you but make it to the end of this post. Ganbatte, ‘cos there’s ramble coming up…
Oh look, here it is!
You have to love a country that declares public holidays for both the spring and autumn equinoxes. It’s kinda groovy, kinda hippy-ish, kinda sickle-ically druidic (see what I did there?). More groovy yet is that they are but two of 15 public holidays spread throughout the year, (about double the number of the UK). And then they wonder why the Japanese economy is in tatters. Too much time off, obviously.*
It gets better still. The autumnal equinox, coming as it does towards the end of September, always delivers fine weather – not too hot, (just above 30), perfect for the beach. And the beaches are always, always deserted.
In Japan, the swimming season is officially prescribed. Before the season officially opens and after it has officially finished, it’s inofficially proscribed, and only the most adventurous, devil-may-care, fooflhardy rebels without clues, nay foolhardy dare to enter the waters.**
So yesterday, true to form, we of course went and planted our parasol and claimed a beach; Akase beach, a two-kilometre desert-island disc of golden sand, as our own. There was not another soul in sight, of course.
And we frolicked and swam, caught crabs and seaweed, and drank and toasted our very, Very Splendid isolation. Here’s some pictures, have a look:
And cooked, of course, cooked the world’s best – and easiest – BBQ chicken. Congratulations, you’ve made it this far, here, at long last, is the recipe. It’s for something I call:
Cumin Drunk Chicken
You will need:
- 2 boneless chicken breasts or thighs
- Tablespoon of sake
- Shiokoushou (finely ground salt and pepper)
- Cumin seed.
- At least 12 hours before the BBQ, chop chicken into bite-size pieces. Throw them in a small plastic bag.
- Add sake, cumin, salt and pepper to the bag. Massage the bag
- Leave in fridge overnight
- For ease of cooking, before barbequing, thread the pieces onto skewers
- Grill over a medium heat, turning occasionally
That’s all there is to it. It can even be done at home in a frying pan, but cooking over charcoal and eating outdoors does undoubtedly make it more delicious.
Now the recipe is out there, go on try it, we dare you.
Or are you…
** Attack Of The Killer Jellyfish is the most oft-quoted reason