Encountering the Edo Period and Hobnobbing with Owls

This week our family headed to Tokyo for the day to renew the kids’ passports and spend some fun family time.  After an uneventful experience at the embassy and a scrumptious lunch of Indian curry, we trekked over to the Edo-Tokyo Museum to dive into learning about the Japanese Edo and Meiji periods.  
The Edo period lasted from 1603 to 1868 and was the time when samurai were plentiful and Japan was ruled by the Tokugawa Shogunate.  During this time, Japan was closed off to the rest of the world and many of the cultural traditions that we think of as distinctly Japanese came into existence.

The Meiji Period lasted from 1868, when the reign of the Tokugawa family ended and Emperor Meiji took power, to 1912 when Emperor Taisho became the new leader.  This was a period of modernization and westernization for Japan.

The fifth floor of the Edo-Tokyo museum where the permanent exhibits are located is divided into two halves – one with displays about the Edo Period (during which the capital city was called Edo) and and the other with information and interactive zones that teach about the Meiji Era (when Edo became known as Tokyo).

When we entered the museum, we were greeted by a volunteer tour guide who sweetly and skillfully guided us throughout many of the displays, giving us tons of background information and access to a behind the scenes area where we could try out instruments that were used for making sound effects for kabuki performances.  She gave us the option for having our tour in English or Japanese and we decided to go with the Japanese version for listening and speaking practice.  

Highlights for us were the kabuki instruments, a life-size model of the old wooden Nihonbashi bridge, a Meiji Era house we could enter and explore, and a display of samurai swords and armor.  

We are big fans if Indian curry and naan bread!

It’s probably a good thing this isn’t our usual family car!

Learning from our tour guide about kabuki theater and how they made different sound effects during the Edo Period.

This is what the front of the kabuki theater looked like.

Photo op on a Meiji Era bicycle.

We could have spent more time at this fascinating spot, but left after a couple hours so we could zip over to our other touristy activity for the day — an owl cafe!

Tokyo is a city full of themed cafes and new styles are always being added.  Animal cafes are quite popular right now, with different ones offering customers the chance to relax while communing with dogs, cats, birds, and even monkeys or owls.  

After paying an entrance fee, we were provided with a soft drink of our choice and given an hour to hang with the 60 different owls who reside at the cafe.  The decor of Owl Forest Cafe was very eclectic and not really my favorite, but the staff were kind and the many types of owls were cute and allowed us to gently pet them on their backs and heads.  I don’t think we would go back to that particular cafe, but it was a fun family experience, especially for our animal-loving kids.

We’d had a unique and fun-filled day in our favorite big city, but we still weren’t finished with our family adventure.  The final stop was dinner in the home our dear friends who live in Saitama, about an hour away from where we were.

Our sweet friend Echan welcomed us into her lovely apartment and we had a super fun time eating, laughing, and fellowshipping with her family and another close friend, Saki-Chan.  

As we drove home that night we all agreed that the necessity of renewing our passports had provided us with a chance to build some great family memories!  


Pottery Making in Mashiko, Japan

We live in the Japanese city of Utsunomiya, which is less than an hour away from a town called Mashiko that is famous for pottery making.  Tourists from all over Japan make their way to Mashiko to buy pottery and to try their hand at making it themselves at one of the famous pottery kilns.  Despite living close to Mashiko, we rarely go there and no one in our family had ever tried pottery making.  But one weekend Bryan had plans to take Austin and Ethan to a sports camp so Katie and I decided to head on over to Mashiko and let the family Queen of Arts and Crafts give it a try.

We ended up going to a place called Hasegawa Touen, one of many pottery makers who have inexpensive classes for beginners and who welcome children.  Most of the shops in Mashiko offer two kinds of pottery making experiences: forming pottery out of a ball of clay with your hands or using a pottery wheel.  We decided to go with hand forming the clay since it sounded easier.  The staff woman who helped us was very friendly and she assisted Katie whenever she had any questions.  Otherwise, Katie was free to make whatever she wanted and could make use of various tools and clay stamps that the staff provided.

After a bit of deliberation, Katie decided to make a mug that she decorated with various animal-shaped stamps.  When she was finished, the staff woman engraved Katie’s name and the date in the bottom of the mug and told us it would be ready  in about a month.  When we inquired about why it takes so long, she said that first they have to dry the clay, then bake it, then glaze it (in the color of Katie’s choice), and then bake it again.

Several weeks later, we received a call from Hasegawa Touen and went to pick up Katie’s pottery creation.  She was very happy with the results and it is now her go-to mug for all types of beverages!  Way to go, Katie!  You did a great job!  Maybe next time we will try the pottery wheel!

Fun with Snow and Igloos in Nikko

A few days ago, the kids and I hopped into the car with our good friend Yoshie and sped off for the mountains of Nikko to enjoy the Kamakura Matsuri. Matsuri means festival and kamakura are Japanese style igloos made out of packed snow. Two hours later, we were excitedly wading through knee-deep snow and the kids were “body sledding” down packed snow hills and enjoying every second of it. Even without the igloos to look at and climb inside of, Austin, Ethan and Katie were ecstatic just to be around so much snow and be able to play in it. In Utsunomiya it only snows a couple of times a year and even then it doesn’t get very deep — just a few centimeters, usually. It also melts quickly. So, the kids were jealous of peole who get to live in the mountains of Nikko with so much snow around them all winter. (I, on the other hand, couldn’t help but notice that there weren’t any grocery stores or other conveniences for miles around! I think I prefer just visiting…) The igloos were very cool, though, and some of them had tatami mats and a little barbeque stove inside them so you could eat a meal. We didn’t do any BBQ-ing, but we did buy warm “nikuman” (steamed bread with meat and spices inside) and ate those inside of an igloo so we could warm up a little. In addition to large igloos you could climb inside of, there was a huge area filled with mini igloos that had candles inside of them. Once it started to get dark, workers went out and lit all the candles. It was a beautiful sight!

Though it was a bit of a drive out there, we would definitely go again and would recommend the matsuri to anyone in the area, especially those with kids! If you go, be sure to bundle up! The night we were there it was minus 9 degrees Celsius — 7 degrees Farenheit. Burr!!

How to Make an Inside Out Boiled Egg (or at Least Have Fun While Trying)

Last fall our family started subscribing to the Yomiuri Japanese children’s newspaper and we love it.  It’s great reading practice and it always has interesting articles such as the one that came out last October explaining how to make an inside out hard boiled egg.  Apparently, a professor at Tokyo Women’s University read a 200 year old Japanese cookbook full of egg recipes from the Edo Period and decided to try making the recipe for an inside out boiled egg (where the yellow is on the outside and the white is on the inside).  After many tries, he was able to do it and then decided to write a recipe  for how to make it more easily than the method they used 200 years ago.  The article gave step-by-step instructions and the kids and I tried making it last year with just one change.  The recipe calls for putting the egg inside one leg of a woman’s stocking and swinging it around.  I didn’t want to sacrifice my nylons for the experiment so we used a smaller net bag that is common in Japanese kitchens.  However, after we went through all the rigamarole to make these special boiled eggs, ours just turned out to be normal boiled eggs — what a disappointment!  Of course, I knew in my heart that it was my fault for not wanting to chop the legs off of my nylons in the name of science.  So, when Austin asked again the other night to try making them, I got out the scissors and chopped away.

The process is pretty involved.  I found a great blog post in English explaining how to make the egg, complete with a youtube video (with Japanese subtitles) that shows exactly what we did so I won’t bother to write out the exact instructions myself.  Basically, though,it involves taping the egg with Scotch tape (so it doesn’t break while you’re spinning it around), securing it inside one leg of a woman’s stocking, swinging it around to get the white to move inside and the yolk to move outside (while being careful not to smash the egg into your face, a sibling or parents face, or the wall), and boiling it with the tape still on.  You also have to use a flashlight to check if all the swinging has been successful before you boil the egg. If you’re successful, the light from the flashlight won’t light up the inside of the egg as well as it did at the beginning.  I recommend trying this with a room temperature egg so that the condensation on a cold egg doesn’t keep the Scotch tape from sticking.   Before the boiling we only had one mishap: a little egg yolk managed to squirt out of the egg I was spinning, spraying my glasses and brand new sweater.  But, after running to the bathroom to rinse out the sweater, all was well.  (I’m thankful I didn’t have to sacrifice my sweater for this project too…)

Unfortunately, we still weren’t completely successful this time.  Instead of getting a perfect circle of yellow yolk around a perfect circle of boiled egg white, we ended up with a mostly yellow boiled egg with a little bit of white mixed in.  However, we felt more successful than last time and everyone enjoyed eating their weird eggs.   And, since I’m sure the request to try it again will resurface  in a few months so we can aim for perfection, I am washing and saving the nylons we used this time so that the whole project feels less sacrificial.

Obviously, this isn’t a recipe that you’d want to make on a weekday morning before rushing off to school or work.  It’s a bit time consuming compared to scrambling a few eggs in a frying pan for breakfast.  But, it is worth trying at least once.  And, I guess it was worth the sacrifice of the nylons  — my kids certainly would say so.

Hands-on Japanese History Lesson

Not too long ago, the kids and I made a visit to one of our favorite museums in Utsunomiya — the Tochigi Prefectural Museum.  This museum’s exhibits focus on the history of our area and also on aspects of nature that we can see inside of our prefecture.  (A prefecture in Japan is like a state in America).  We always enjoy the permanent exhibits — dinosaur bones, looking at old artifacts that were found in our area, and drawers and drawers full of bug and other animal specimens — but this time there was a really fun and interesting exhibit on how the Japanese grandmas and grandpas of today grew up.  The museum had a room full of games, toys, clothes, and tools that the grandparents of today used with when they were kids.  The exhibit was especially neat because there were lots of things the kids could touch and even try putting on or using.  The kids really got into trying on old bamboo snowshoes and snow gear made of straw, carrying buckets across their shoulders, and wearing old-style shoes and hats.  Here are some photos of them enjoying the exhibit.

Meeting the Police

The kids and I and some friends made a visit to one of our favorite aquariums on Saturday and while we were there we came across a Tochigi Police Department display of two police cars and a police motorcycle.  We all had a fun time talking with the officers and posing in front of the vehicles and the kids even got to dress up in kid-sized uniforms.  Here are a few pictures of us.

Japanese Lunches

We’ve been living in Japan for so long now (this August will be ten full years) that I tend to forget what might seem interesting to people who don’t live here.  Everything just feels normal and usual to me now.  But, today as I was making the kids lunches for school, it struck me that the lunches my kids eat are pretty different from the sandwich, fruit, and veggie ones that my mom packed for me in a brown paper bag or (in my younger years) my Bionic Woman lunch pail with the cool matching thermos. 

Japanese lunches (called bentos) are usually comprised of rice, meat or eggs, veggies, seaweed, and fruit, all packed in a very small (by American standards) cute little lunch box that is totally different than anything I’ve seen in America.  Some Japanese moms go all out and totally decorate their kids’ lunches with wieners cut like octopuses, hard-boiled eggs cut like flowers, and apple slices cut to look like bunny rabbits.  They also use special craft punches and scissors to cut dried seaweed into special shapes to make faces, messages, or other decorations.  (Check out some photos of amazing Japanese bentos here.) 

My kids, however, have to live with a very Joe-basic version of a Japanese bento.  Hopefully they won’t be scarred for life and have to go through years of counseling to undo the damage, but since none of the other kids in their school have super fancy bentos they probably don’t know the difference! 🙂  Here are a couple of pictures so you can see what our kids eat for lunch on the days they go to school.  Austin and Ethan’s lunch boxes are double-decker style and Katie’s is the cute yellow one with the bananas on it.  Check out the interesting Japanese English decorating the lid of Katie’s bento box. 🙂