Hanging out at Handiworks Square

13 04 2014

Morioka is the nearest major city to us, about two hours away in the car. Now that the roads are finally clear of snow, we have been venturing out a little farther to discover what Morioka has to offer. Our adventure on Saturday is more than will fit in one blog post, so here is the first installment.

Morioka Handiworks Square is an artisan craft village west of the city. It’s purpose is to show off local crafts and traditional techniques. There is a large central building that houses a craft museum (more on this later), a restaurant, and an extensive shop. Branching off from this building are many other low (my husband had to duck at several entrances) buildings, each featuring a particular craft workshop. In most of these workshops, visitors can try their hand at the techniques.

Main building houses a restaurant, museum, and shops.

Main building houses a restaurant, museum, and shops.

Our inability to communicate well in Japanese prevented us from trying many of the crafts, but we did make some delicious senbei crackers. These traditional snacks are cooked in iron clamps over an open flame. After watching a group complete the process ahead of us, we felt confident enough to try our hand. We rolled out the dough (being asked to redo several times until it was a near perfect circle) then held the clamps over the fire, rotating every 30 seconds.

Rolling out cracker dough.

Rolling out cracker dough

Cracker presses over an open flame

Cracker presses over an open flame

We browsed workshops full of beautiful ceramics, iron tetsubin teapots, woven baskets, and wooden toys. The adults in our group were particularly interested in the unusual ceramics, many of which had unusual shapes or glazes. One restaurant in the square even offered the option to make your own noodles and then cook and eat them for lunch. This process looked pretty involved and not as kid-friendly, so we skipped it this visit.

Ceramics with metallic glaze

Ceramics with metallic glaze


After we were finished touring the workshops, we visited the small craft museum. Admission is 100 yen, or about $1, and well worth it. There were extensive sections on furniture making, sake brewing, and iron work, all of which were worth a visit. I appreciated the vibrant textile exhibit. Displays of weaving, spinning, and shibori dyeing were colorful and unique.

Traditional spinning wheel

Traditional spinning wheel

B was very taken with Japanese typesetting machines. She spent at least 15 minutes pressing buttons on a defunct printing machine, trying to figure out how it had worked. The tray of type was fascinating. The thousands of common kanji symbols in use make for a very different type setting process than the 26 letters of the Western alphabet.

Japanese letter-press typewriter?

Japanese letter-press typewriter?

I am looking forward to another visit to Handiworks Square. There are more workshops to explore, and I would love to try my hand at some of the more complicated crafts. There is nothing like a visit to this kind of creative hub to emphasize the richness and creativity of the world’s cultures. Seeing crafts I have never encountered before has gotten me eagerly thinking about new things to explore, new ways to combine Eastern and Western culture. I can’t wait to learn more about Japanese crafts.


Searching for Spring

11 04 2014

Spring is slow to come to Northern Japan. Our cherry blossoms won’t arrive for about 2 more weeks. In America, they say that “March goes in like a lion and out like a lamb.” Here, March is pretty miserable all month long, and April just might go out like a lamb. This week we have had a bit of sun, but also fierce winds and rain. The lamb is definitely not here yet.

Still, we have been inside for far too long. So today we ventured out around the neighborhood to search for signs of spring. We had to look pretty hard, but spring is out there. Here are a few glimpses of what we found.


Tiny shoots of green grass are sprouting among the brown.


The farmer is hard at work, and if you look close there are pops of green among the furrows.


We found a flower! Can you spot it?




I think these are related to cauliflower. Aren’t they cool looking?

B drew what we had discovered.

B drew what we had discovered.

The walk was cut short when it started to snow, but we will be back in a few days to check for more progress.

It’s Dino Time

4 09 2013




For those of you more interested in travels than teaching, hang on — photos and thoughts from Hawaii should be coming soon. But first, I wanted to talk a little bit about what we are learning about these days, and by we I do mean ALL of us.

We are officially homeschooling (preschooling) this year, which means I am actively pursuing educational time each day in lieu of preschool. There is no English-language preschool we are eligible here, so we are pursuing other options. To this end, I am taking a course in Project Based Homeschooling, or PBH. With PBH, the parents serve as facilitators and mentors helping children pursue their own deep interests. I am learning a lot, and I’m eager to dig in and help B discover more about the world.

Perhaps not our first official “project,” but a topic we keep coming back to is dinosaurs. B loves them. Loves learning about them, playing with them, digging up their bones. We were so lucky to have found a fossil in Pennsylvania this summer, and even luckier that a paleontology professor actually responded to our emailed questions about what we had found.

The photo above is a collaborative drawing. B knows all the identifying features of her favorite dinos, and she drew those in first, asking me to come back in later and fill in the rest of the bodies. She asked me to label both names and identifiers, which I was happy to do.

Now dinosaurs haven’t ever been one of my big interests, so we are coming at them from about the same level. Through the magic of Coursera I have found a MOOC (massive open online course) from the University of Alberta that provides a lot of great info in short video segments, with quizzes and interactive activities. Class starts today, but you can join in any time in the next few weeks, if this is of interest to you too.

It feels great to be back in learning mode again, learning both about education and paleontology!


Beautiful Hakkoda!

8 11 2012

Fall is here, and it is simply beautiful. To get a full picture of the foliage, we drove to the Hakkoda Mountains for a little leaf viewing. Hakkoda is about 2 hours away, but it is worth the drive in any season. Well, almost.

Our goal was a trip on the Hakkoda Ropeway, an aerial tram that spans several peaks and provides a great view from the top. But here’s the thing, that tram doesn’t run when the wind gets too high. We drove all the way out there last weekend, only to find that the winds were 25 m/s (which is pretty serious). We waited for an hour to see if the winds would die down, but we had no luck.

Once we got home, we discovered that the ropeway website actually lists the wind speed. We started monitoring the winds and biding our time. On Wednesday, the winds and weather were looking good, so R took a half-day off and we hit the road again.

B had a fantastic time on the tram.

The views are spectacular. Here is a picture of the tram operator. Just check out the blazing red leaves behind her!

The tram takes about 10 minutes and goes up to about 4,000 feet. At the top, icicles were shimmering in the trees and there was a dusting of snow here and there. It was spectacular.

At the top of the mountain, there were two short trails (one 30 minutes, the other 60), and we opted for the 30 minute trail, since B was walking by herself. It took a little longer than 30 minutes, but she was such a brave hiker!

After our hike, it was time for lunch at the restaurant at the top tram station. It was another of the ticket vending machine type restaurant. As I usually do, I attempted to read the options and had a look at the few that were illustrated. I chose what I thought was katsu pork but turned out to be panko-crusted fried hamburger. Not at all what we were expecting, but R was happy enough to eat it, and I went with some sort of noodles. Warming and tasty!

The Good Old Hockey Game

28 10 2012

Yes, it’s the best game you can name!

We are casual hockey fans. I don’t have any interest in most sports, but hockey I understand. So when we found out our local hockey team, the Tohoku Free Blades, was playing a few games in Misawa, we jumped at the chance.

Tohoku is the name for the whole northern region of Japan’s main island, Honshu. The team doesn’t appear to have a permanent home stadium, but travels to ice arenas in several cities throughout the area. The Free Blades are part of the Asia League, which includes China and Korea. Teams fly back and forth between the countries, but the level isn’t quite what you might expect from international competition. More like minor league NHL action.

We had never been to the Misawa Ice Arena, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when we walked in. It is fairly tiny — couldn’t seat more than 1000. And there were a lot of open seats. Maybe Misawa isn’t a big hockey town.

B had a great time watching the Zamboni (technically, not a Zamboni but some other brand). The game started slow but was very exciting. We won in double overtime!

Foodwise, we were a bit disappointed. I was hoping there would be interesting Japanese festival foods, but the only concessions were from a bake sale sponsored by Americans. Since I wasn’t particularly interested in buying Cheez Whiz nachos or whole cakes, there wasn’t much to offer.

We had a great time and can’t wait for the next time the team is in town. I think we may have to wait a year, but we will be there!



26 10 2012

I haven’t forgotten about you all, and I have lots of things to share. Unfortunately, somewhere in the unpacking of all our stuff, I have completely lost the battery charger for my camera. So I have a dead camera full of great pictures to share, and no way to take new ones until I get another. More picture posts will follow once I am back in business. Now I need to find the charger, or figure out enough Japanese to try to get one locally. Amazon won’t ship them to an APO. Frustrating.
This week, we carved our pumpkins for Halloween and went to our first ever Trunk or Treat. For those not in the know, this is where families meet up in a parking lot and trick or treat from car to car. Many (cooler than us) people decorated their cars elaborately. We had good candy to hand out and that was about all. Great pictures of B and her friends to come. She is a pilot this year. Very fitting for someone who has spent as much time on planes as she has this year!

We did a bit of cabin camping this month by a nearby lake. We had a pretty good time, but trying to cook outside in strong wind and rain just reminded me that camping isn’t really my thing. Perhaps is it going to be a Daddy and Daughter thing? Again, beautiful pictures of that once I can access my camera again.

B and I took a great nature walk this week. We are so lucky to be in a place with such diverse ecosystems. We were able to walk through conifer and deciduous forests (the leaves are changing, so it was particularly dramatic), all while being 10 minutes from the beach and less than an hour from some serious mountains! Japan is a really cool place to explore if you like nature. Come on over and see!

P is for Pumpkins

27 09 2012

For the last 6 weeks or so, we have had the absolute privilege to have weekly preschool playdates with our good friends Ashley and Hazel. Each week we plan activities around a specific letter. This week we had an awesome time exploring the letter P. We have been working in alphabetical order, and P has hit at the perfect time. Fall has arrived here in Misawa, with the temperature dropping about 20 degrees in the last week. P is for pumpkin, and we themed almost all our activities around them.

Ashley started off our day by showing the girls how to draw P on the chalkboard. They did a lot of drawing, not so much that looked like a P.


Ashley had the brilliant idea of putting the items for each activities in numbered bags, then sending the girls on a number treasure hunt. First stop, shape Jack-o-lanterns!

The bags had circles, diamonds, triangles, squares, and rectangles. B chose her favorites to make this cute Jack-o-lantern.

We painted pumpkin ornaments and glittered up some pinecones (no pictures, as I was on glitter duty), and then it was time for snack. And boy, what a snack. We made mini pumpkin yogurt  pies! The girls did all the work themselves, and snack was delicious!

B stirred together vanilla yogurt, canned pumpkin, and cinnamon. She did it very neatly. Next it was time to spoon the yogurt into some graham cracker pie crusts. Spooning was slightly less tidy, but again, all independent. Finally, she dusted the top with fresh cinnamon. Delicious!