Thursday, October 18, 2012

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Socks for Japan

Another great, easy way to contribute: Socks for Japan

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Nuclear boy has a tummy-ache

This is a video produced a few days ago to explain to children what's happening with the Fukushima plant. It's very Japanese - I doubt an English video would use similar imagery of poo and farts! But it's very effective for kids of Kei and Dan's age.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


I didn't expect to be posting again on this blog any time soon. But then, I didn't expect a massive earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis in northern Japan either. So many people I'd lost touch with have been contacting me, some after nearly 20 years, to offer their condolences and ask if we're all right. Yes, we are completely safe, and life here is going on almost as normal.

Osaka barely felt the quake, except for people on the top floors of tall buildings. I was in the car and didn't feel it at all. It was a huge shock to hear what was happening in the northeast of the country, and see the devastating images on TV. That first day, I think everyone in Japan who still had electricity was glued to the screen. It was unbearable to watch, but impossible to turn off. So many lives lost, so many communities demolished, so many people left with nothing but the clothes on their backs, congregating in schools and community centers without food, water, electricity, gas, or medical help. So many vulnerable people - especially the elderly, who form a disproportionately high percentage of the population in the rural areas that have been worst hit. So much to do, to try and get even the absolute basics to them amid shattered infrastructure and freezing weather.

Then came the first news the next afternoon that the Fukushima Daiichi reactor might be going into meltdown. And suddenly that became the only story for a large segment of the foreign media.

I can't write about all the sensationalized reporting that has resulted without getting angry, so all I'll do here is give a link to the Journalist Wall of Shame [UPDATE: link now fixed] project, where people who actually know the situation on the ground are posting particularly egregious examples.

Fortunately, after the initial shock Mum and Dad have been real troopers. Especially after hearing stories from other people who have to spend hours over Skype each day rejustifying their decision to stay in Japan to their frantic families, who are convinced from overseas reporting that Tokyo will soon be (or is already!) a radioactive ghost town, I'm very grateful for their support and trust.

Yes, the situation at the reactors is extremely bad. Yes, if it isn't brought under control it could result in serious radioactive contamination of the immediate area, and possibly over a wider region if the current efforts to replenish the water in the spent fuel pools fail (and as an aside, who on earth had the bright idea of storing highly dangerous radioactive fuel rods with no containment other than a flimsy roof? In an earthquake zone? Which is also vulnerable to tsunamis?). It's dramatic, and terrifying. But there's nothing whatsoever you, I, or the other hundreds of millions of people watching the TV, reading the paper, or surfing the Web can do about it at this point. There will be a time for debating nuclear energy policy, and whether a supposedly one in a million possibility of a catastrophic accident (Tokyo Electric Power's estimate before the quake) is an acceptable level of risk given the potentially horrendous consequences. But at this moment, that won't have any positive effect on the situation on the ground.

However, there are things we can do right now to help the half a million people who are eking out their existence in evacuation centers. Giving to the relief funds that are delivering basic supplies will actually save lives in the next few days. If you're reading this and you haven't already made a donation, please consider supporting one or more of the organizations actively helping get necessities to the evacuees. I am supporting Second Harvest Japan, as I know the director and several board members personally from when I worked in Tokyo, and can be confident any money or goods sent to them will have an immediate impact. Other ways of donating from different countries can be found in the link at the bottom of this post, taken from The Tokyo Post.

Kentaro is also safe and well in Shizuoka, although he felt the earthquake rather more strongly than we did. The only effect on him so far is that his hospital is having to curtail non-essential surgeries, due to a lack of some medical supplies that were being manufactured in quake-affected areas.

And the boys are thriving. At the moment Kei is off on a three-day soccer camp over the long weekend, and Dan is practicing hard for his next piano recital in May. Being older, Kei is more aware of the earthquake and its aftermath than Dan, but I'm grateful that neither seems to be badly affected by seeing the pictures on the news.

I'll try and keep posting updates for a while, now I'm back. In the meantime, here's that list of appeals.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

whitebait icecream

I finally realized why I have so much difficulty getting round to blogging. I'm a strong introvert - even calling close friends on the phone requires a whole lot of screwing up my energy level, while personal emails tend to get put on one side to be answered at length, only to be rediscovered with embarrassment weeks or months later. And blogging is even more revealing - I have no idea who will be reading this, or what your reaction to it will be - and so gets put off "until I have time to do it properly." Which might be this year, next year, sometime, never ...

But I know there are family members and friends who would appreciate a photo or so now and then. So I'm going to try and blog more regularly on more impersonal things to get some momentum going again, and slip in photos of the family whenever there's a particularly nice one to share.

Icecream is a bit of a personal subject, perhaps. We all have our favorites, mine being anything remotely raspberry-related. Japanese icecream includes all the regular standards - you can always find chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla - but quite a few flavors that would raise eyebrows if you saw them in Baskin Robbins in Piccadilly. Some are standard flavorings for Japanese sweets - green tea, azuki bean, sesame, sweet potato - that scarcely rate a second glance when used for icecream too. Others are a bit more unusual. Because green tea is a regular flavoring in Japan black tea gets used in the same way, and I still find it hard to adjust to Darjeeling or Earl Grey icecream. And tastes such as pickled cherry leaves or mugwort, while normal for mochi rice dumplings, somehow feel a bit strange in a cone. But occasionally you come across flavors in icecream shops that just make you go HUHHHHH?

Take this selection. The back row is relatively normal - crumbed cookie, cream cheese, milk tea, and chocolate (phew). But the front row starts getting interesting. From the left, we have shiso (perilla, an aromatic green herb), Calpis (a milk-based drink that's more appetizing than it sounds), lemonade, and finally sea salt. In the same shop I tried root ginger icecream, expecting it to be similar to the crystallized ginger version I've had so many times in London. Sadly, no - the taste was raw and pungent, and I was glad I'd tried a spoonful before buying. (I eventually settled for the lychee.)

Or this shop, in Shizuoka. The bottom three tubs are nothing unusual - grape, mango, and shincha green tea. But take a look at the top row. On the right, you might be forgiven for thinking you have pistachio, but no, it's salt ("emerald salt" this time). With wasabi (hot green horesradish), usually used for seasoning sushi, in the center. And no, your eyes don't deceive you. That is actually a shrimp on the left. Shizuoka is famous for sakura-ebi, tiny crunchy pink shrimps, and someone had the bright idea of adding them to icecream to make a local delicacy. I guess it would be perfect with a scoop of wasabi on the side.

But the one below beats all, at least for me.

In the front row, second from the left, is ... shirasu icecream. Shirasu are tiny baby fish, a type of whitebait, that are a local delicacy in the Shizuoka region where Kentaro now works. They're delicious on rice, with a sprinkling of salmon roe. But in icecream?

I bottled out and got the pumpkin, then thought I just had to try and asked for a spoonful. And what do you know, it was very very good. Not at all fishy, but with a very pure, creamy taste, punctuated by crunchy bits when you bite into a morsel of whitebait. Next time we go, I'm going to have a whole cone.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Dancing with a dolphin

Kei's birthday treat at Adventure World in Shirahama, a couple of hours' drive from Osaka. (He's the smallest child in the middle.)

Monday, August 4, 2008

Taiwan photos

Life has just been too busy to blog! Not so much because Kentaro is now living in Shizuoka - he was around so little before that in practical terms it makes almost no difference to our daily lives (although of course we miss him lots) - but because since April I've been teaching a university class in translation in addition to a tutorial group for postgraduates in scientific English, and the preparation and marking time have taken away every spare minute I had (and there weren't many of those to start with). So apologies to those faithful family members and friends who have been checking in periodically, only to find nothing new since March. We are still here and still well, and the boys are growing up apace.

Kentaro actually has two weeks' proper holiday in his new job, one week in summer and one in winter, which is a fantastic change. We used his summer vacation time to take a family trip to Taiwan, somewhere we'd never been before. Despite a typhoon that covered literally the whole island for the first three days and put paid to a planned trip to the east coast, it was a great trip. Below are a few photos to give you a taste.

We flew EVA Air, which has Hello Kitty as its logo. It felt a bit surreal to fly on a plane with a pink kitten on the side, but it was a good flight and the crew were very friendly.

The day after we arrived we went up Taipei 101, currently the tallest tower in the world. It's due to be overtaken by a skyscraper in Dubai next year, but at least we went up while it still holds the record!

The view from the top.

The boys enjoyed writing postcards at the top of the tower.

Lunch in the food court. The boys were still having a bit of a hard time adjusting, and insisted on familiar food - sushi for Kei, McDonalds for Dan. Kentaro and I were already enjoying Taiwanese chicken and rice.

Kei took this photo of us in holiday mood outside Taipei 101.

The typhoon was approaching and the wind was already pretty strong, so we headed to the National Taiwan Science Education Center, where the boys had great fun with all the hands-on exhibits, a 3D movie (Dan's favorite part of the entire trip), and an entire floor of bouncy-castle-type large inflatable structures. I wish I'd taken some photos of those, as they were so much fun.

The next day the typhoon hit. We had been due to go to Hualien, on the east coast, but all the trains were cancelled that morning. The hotel receptionist told us that services were due to be restored that afternoon, so we checked out, left our luggage at the main station, and went to see the new Pixar movie WALL-E in an almost deserted cinema. When we got back to the station, though, it turned out the afternoon trains had been cancelled too, so back we went to the hotel. The staff were highly apologetic and gave us a better room for the same price, with a huge jacuzzi in the bathroom that made a nice end to a frustrating day.

By the Tuesday the worst of the typhoon was past, but the weather was still cloudy and wet. We headed out on a day trip to Jinguashi and Jiufen, two old gold-mining towns on the north coast about an hour out of Taipei.

The landscape was green and mountainous, very similar to Japan's but with more tropical vegetation.

Jinguashi was the more interesting place of the two. The town has been turned into a "Gold Ecological Park," with the old mining buildings (dating from the Japanese colonial period) restored and one of the tunnels converted into a recreation of the mining process for tourists. Kei was especially excited to be able to touch a huge bar of gold in the Gold Museum.

We were a bit too tired to really enjoy Jiufen. It's a tourist town, with a covered arcade lined with food and souvenir shops and some steep steps that were the inspiration for the landscape in the animated film "Spirited Away." In this photo the boys are eating real crisps - a whole potato sliced thinly, stuck on a single stick, deep-fried, and dusted with curry powder.

The next morning we paid a quick visit to the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall. It's an imposing building, set in a big park that gave the boys plenty of space to run around. They enjoyed standing to attention next to the guards, and watching the marching and rifle-twirling that accompanied the changeover to a new pair.

Then we flew out to Penghu, a small archipelago of islands off Taiwan's west coast. We stayed in a guesthouse near the beach, one of four run by a wonderful young couple called Maco and Anna (you can see their Web site here). Our room was actually in their home, which they share with Maco's parents as well as his brother, sister-in-law and little niece. They were all unbelievably friendly and warm, offering us advice and practical help at every turn. In the photo, Maco is next to Kei; his sister-in-law and niece are next to Kentaro, and his mother and father are on the right.

The islands are low and scrubby, covered by grass, aloe, and cactus. The beaches are lovely, with fine coral sand and hardly any people.

We borrowed life-jackets for the boys, as the surf was still strong after the typhoon.

This, believe it or not, is a single banyan tree. It's 300 years old, and the roots growing down from its branches have developed into more than 100 pillars. We tried to find the original trunk, but it was impossible to tell which it was.
The stalls around the temple behind the tree sell cactus-fruit sorbet, which is surprisingly delicious with a sour-sweet taste reminiscent of blackberries.

Sunset from the seawall at Makung, the main town on the island.

The town has an old ferry that has been turned into a shop for souvenirs and marine products, with navigation equipment on the bridge that kids can pretend to operate. The boys loved being ferry captains for an evening!

Maco took us snorkeling on our last morning. The water was very clear, and we saw many small, brightly colored fish. We swam out to look at the coral reef about 30 meters offshore, but Maco said much of the coral is dying - whether because of the unseasonably cold previous winter, global warming, or some other reason, he's not sure.

Maco and Anna took us to the airport to say goodbye. They had already become such good friends that Kei cried when we left.