Thursday, June 7, 2012

Postcards from Japan: Meigetsu-in

Favorite Things

My days here in Japan are winding down. The pack-out dates have been set. The tickets back to the states have been purchased. Borrowing from Shakespeare – parting will be such bitter sweet sorrow.

The Sweet: I cannot wait to return to the states. I miss our family. I miss our friends. I miss our dog. After three years of living overseas I have a heightened awareness of what makes me sooooo American, the good and the bad.
The Bitter: It will be hard to say good-bye to this amazing country, I’ve learned so much living here in Japan. Learned to stop and pay even more attention to the details. Learned to appreciate that less is truly more. I hope that I have also gained a deeper appreciation for all that is Japan – the ‘Wa’ – the essence of Japan.

Yesterday marked one of the first of many “lasts” for me to come – a friend and I had blocked out our calendars for a shopping trip to Kamakura. Not on the schedule was a visit to see hydrangeas but when I mentioned that perhaps we could start off the day with a “swing-by” trip to one of the temples in the Kamakura area known for beautiful hydrangeas she graciously agreed. This is one of the things I love about living here, the Japanese appreciate, embrace and celebrate the beauty of nature. Where else would you find hundreds of people – enough to warrant policemen in the streets directing traffic – all walking towards the same destination, to be wowed by blossoms? Only in Japan.

Meigetsuin – Ajisai-dera a.k.a the Hydrangea Temple

Located in Kita-Kamakura, Meigetsuin is a short 10-minute walk from the train station. It is not hard to miss, just follow the masses because at this time of year with over 2000 hydrangea plants lining it’s pathways and grounds it is the place to be for seeing these beautiful plate sized blossoms.

Zen Garden, Bamboo forest, hydrangeas lining well worn old stone pathways, a small stream with a waterfall and another hidden garden for my friend and I to discover which is only open for as long as the Irises are blooming – this temple has it all.

The hydrangea blossom with its many petals is a symbol of expressing love, gratitude and enlightenment. It is said that the observer can get lost in the abundance of petals and thus lost in one’s own thoughts – propitiating higher thought and reaching enlightenment.

I have less than three weeks left here and will be trying in between the purging, organizing, and all else that encompasses moving a family of five overseas, to enjoy my final days in this country that has offered me so much. Revisiting some of my favorites and sharing my final adventures as I get outside these gates for the last time. Look for more posts to come, hoping to pass along all that I love about living in Japan and hoping the next one that follows in my footsteps will see the beauty and of course the inspiration that surrounds you in the land of the rising sun.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Military Spouse Wanted

This is what the ad should have said.

Seeking energetic, upbeat individual with finely tuned organizational skills. Candidate should be willing to relocate frequently*, usually far away from family and friends; able to manage household maintenance issues as they arise, most often when partner is deployed; and have a good sense of humor (which you will need) or at least a deep appreciation for the ironic. Additional skills considered helpful but not necessary: enjoys long periods of solitude; possesses great social skills; and a willingness to be a single parent if required. Full medical and dental coverage provided. For more information a How-to Manual is provided. *previous moving skills are not necessary but considered very helpful.

How to be a Naval Spouse
They come from different parts of the country, different education levels, different socio-economic backgrounds, all faiths and political partys are represented. A naval spouse can be one of the most challenging jobs youll ever have. It can also be one of the most rewarding. Below is a short guide on some aspects we have found helpful in becoming a successful spouse to your career Navy service member.

If you enjoy a challenge, being on your own and discovering your inner strengths through crisis, then this job is for you. Deployments can range from four months to one year. The ability to problem-solve and make crucial decisions independent from your spouse is critical. Self-reliance is key to success but a willingness to ask for help is essential for survival.

There is no way to get around it you need a boatload of patience in order to be successful. Dig deep, its in there somewhere. Call on whatever reserves you may have, because your patience will be tried repeatedly throughout a 20-year career: either in the commissary with long lines and screaming kids, or in the pharmacy with long waits and screaming kids, or during the PCS season (Permanent Change of Station) involving multiple lines in multiple locations in order to process out from one duty station to another.

The average Navy family will relocate every 2.9 years over a 20-year career. Preparation is key to transforming an ordeal into an adventure. The first step in the process towards a successful move is contacting your spouses Personnel Support Department (PSD a.k.a. PTSD) which will then set you on track to the Personal Property office to set up your HHG (Household Goods). Be sure to have a copy of your spouses orders in triplicate. Additionally, a current Power of Attorney will prove crucial nothing can happen without the POA, you need the Power to take control.

Purchase a good set of tools and familiarize yourself with how they feel and what they are used for. Home Maintenance for Dummies is suggested for reference. Equally important is having a reliable mechanic and/or maintenance man on speed-dial. Years of study have shown that as soon as a spouse deploys whatever was fully operational with either the house or car will require urgent attention within 24 hours of his departure. Be prepared.

To offset the many challenges you face as a military spouse one of the greatest benefits are the friends you will make with other military spouses. Theyve been there done that. They understand better than your family or friends back home or even at times (or perhaps most times) your spouse, the trials and tribulations of setting up a household, getting kids enrolled in schools, the how-tos and where-fors of finding sports teams for your kids (because you moved after the local tryouts had already taken place), dentists that take your health care, etc. They are always there to lend an ear or have a shoulder ready when youre convinced youve reached your tipping point. You cannot survive without your fellow sister-spouses, they are critical to your success. Cultivate them, care for them, keep them.

You will be frequently required to attend social engagements with individuals you have little in common with except that both of your spouses are in the Navy. Polished social skills will be most helpful when you engage in conversations. Additional tips would be to always have on hand in the cupboard some sort of go-to appetizer for when your husband calls and asks what are you doing? for me that is code for Im about ready to get hit with something that wasnt on my to-do list like attending a get together at the Commanding Officers house in an hour oh and your spouse is tied up at work and will be meeting you there.

More than 28 years ago as a bride-to-be I was given an apron that read “Navy Wife: Toughest Job in the Navy.” I was young, thought it was cute but kind of goofy, and more importantly wondered why I’d even need an apron. The apron was retired long ago from overuse, on one of our many moves it did not make the pre-move purge, but it reminds me today on Military Spouse Appreciation Day that this job of being a military spouse (note the more PC shift from “Navy wife” to spouse – shows just how long I’ve been working this gig) is tough. Over the years my willingness to move may have dampened (move 13 will take place next month) and perhaps my sense of humor in dealing with military bureaucracy tends to now move more towards the ironic but in this job I have been richly rewarded with experiences and friendships that will last a lifetime and I am glad I answered that ad my husband-to-be put out there so long ago. “Toughest Job in the Navy?” Bring it on.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Teenager Feeding Frenzy

"I learned to find equal meaning in the repeated rituals of domestic life. Setting the table. Lighting the candles. Building the fire. Cooking." – Joan Didion 

Last Thursday’s dinner was prepared and ready before my teenagers came through the door from after school sports activities. Advanced preparedness is required on my part to make this happen. I have learned that I am motivated in the morning to tackle just about anything, including cooking, but by the afternoon I am on a downward spiral and try in vain to avoid anything to do with the kitchen or housework. But these teenagers of mine are going to show up hungry every afternoon, whether I’m ready or not, and life seems to go oh, so much more smoothly if I can just get the meal pulled together before 5 p.m. – otherwise as mentioned in a previous post there is some major carb loading until dinner is on the table.

So dinner was ready – a frittata and a tossed salad – and before my teenagers walked through the door I sat down in front of the computer in an attempt to catch up on some emails. The front door opens and barely a “hi mom” is mumbled before my 16-year-old twin sons make a beeline for the kitchen. Glancing up from the computer I comment “Dinner’s ready, take it easy on the snacks” which was met with suspicious silence. I pop up to see a teenager eating dinner over the stove. In seconds, he had jumped right in and helped himself.

“Hey, set the table and we’ll sit down to eat.” I say.
“I don’t want to sit at the table.” was his response.

I stood there not really knowing what exactly he meant. Did he want to eat dinner standing up in the kitchen because it was faster? Or was it that he didn’t want to sit down and eat dinner as a family because he’s a teenager and family time is not cool?

I sigh, turn to his sibling and say “would you please set the table?” and I start to serve up the plates, thinking to myself, “let it go, just let it go” – it’s all about picking your battles right?

The kids and I did all sit down together to eat, a blessing was said, candles were lit. The dinner conversation was apparently not remarkable – since I can no longer remember what was said – but that’s not important. What is important is that for a very brief time, once a day, we sit together as a family. It is a nightly ritual. Rituals offer comfort, with so much changing all around us, especially as a military family, a family ritual such as a dinner together gives us the daily grounding we need.

What about the resident teenager who did not want to partake in a family dinner? He sat down and joined us and that’s enough to keep this mom ... inspired.

Menu Review
This past week was week 12 of my 12-week plan. Looking back I had some weeks that the plan was totally ditched due to schedules. Other weeks like this past one I modified the original menu plan and ended up with three new hits. Inching ever closer to my goal of 60 dinners that everyone in my house likes. 

Creamy Spaghetti and Beans from Rachel Ray was a three thumbs up ( 

The number one hit was the totally modified Spinach Burritos from Simple Suppers – I modified just about everything with this recipe, including making the burritos into enchiladas. Note the title of the book includes the word “simple” and yet I try to make some dishes even more simple using canned sauce instead of making my own and frozen spinach and boxed rice. I won't win a James Beard award that's for sure but if the plates are empty at the end of the meal and there are no leftovers, that's an indication I won high honors for the night.

Spinach Enchiladas (Jane’s way)
Preheat the oven to 350.

10 corn tortillas
1 bunch of scallions, chopped
3 cloves of garlic chopped
1 package chopped spinach, thawed in the microwave and pressed.
Do you know this trick? I microwave the chopped spinach in the box (minus the outer wrapping of course). When you’ve finished microwaving you simply squeeze the box containing the chopped spinach and it presses out the excess water. No more pressing out the spinach in a colander and getting all the little chopped spinach pieces stuck, or as I’ve done pressing out the water in the microwave dish over the sink and have half of the spinach fall out into the sink.
1 Box of Goya Spanish Rice cooked following the box instructions
1 tsp of ground coriander
2 cups of grated Mexican Cheese
1 can of Enchilada sauce
1/4 cup of chopped cilantro

Saute the chopped onion until tender, about 5 minutes. Add the chopped garlic and saute for about 1 minute, add in the spinach and the cooked Spanish Rice. Remove from the heat, mix in 1 cup of the grated cheese and the chopped cilantro.

• Spray Pam in the bottom of a 11 x 7 pyrex dish. Add just enough Enchilada sauce to coat the bottom of the dish.
• Dip each tortilla into the Enchilada sauce. Add a few spoonfuls of the filling in the middle of the tortilla and roll up, placing in a pyrex dish. Continue until you have used up all of the filling. Drizzle the remaining sauce over the Enchiladas and cover with the reserved 1 cup of grated cheese.
• Cover and bake for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake for 5 more minutes.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

7 in 7

Well I did it. Here's the last bag. It's super cute – the photography does not do it justice. Wish I still had a little girl in the house who a) liked pink, b) would even carry a little bag, or c) carry a bag that has flowers on it.

I learned so much in the last week, I can't begin to run down the list - nor would you, the reader probably want to read it. The highlights though are:
• I actually had fun sitting down and figuring the Japanese pattern out and the bag construction. It was similar in some ways to my graphic design days when I had to figure out layouts with typography and photos. It was probably the most fun I've had using my brain since my design days.
• I loved sharing the process. That may be a bit narcissistic but it's nice when you're in your space all day and not having the interaction of an office to get feedback through the internet.
• If I'm going to pursue making bags and opening an Etsy shop as many of my friends are encouraging me to do, I'm going to need to work on those photo skills. It's one thing to be out in Japan taking photos of beautiful sites - totally a different animal to take product shots.
• Choosing the right fabric for the right bag along with handles is a critical part of the process. I thought I was being so smart choosing the flower fabric for this bag but did not take into account that the pleat would alter the graphic spacing of the flowers. There's a lot more to this bag making thing than just pouncing on some super cute Japanese fabric.

Not sure what's the what next. I may, as one friend has suggested, drag my readers through my shibori process. The weathers finally warming up and I'm getting itchy to dye some fabric I ordered before the kids and I left Japan last year after the triple disaster of March 11th. The move is marching ever closer and I am not moving fabric that's a UFO. Will be looking through my idea notebooks over the next few days looking for, you guessed it .. inspiration.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Six Down One to Go

When you walk into Swany's the first thing you notice (or at least I notice) are all the amazing sample bags on display. Each one has a number attached to it and I write the number down to get my pattern once I've spent my 1000 Yen (not a problem). One pattern I keep writing over and over is No. 3011. I'll see it hanging in one spot, take a photo, write down the number. Turn a corner, see another bag - that I think is a new and different sample only to realize as I get ready to write down the number that "wait, it's the same one I just wrote down a few minutes ago."

I am realizing there is so much more to this process of making bags than just picking up some fabric and whipping out a cute little bag. Handle choice matters, as my previous entry showed. Fabric combinations do too. What tricked me into thinking that what I was looking at was a different bag was the switch ups Swany's plays with each of their bags. Match a different type of handle with a different type of fabric and you have a completely new look. I don't know why I should be surprised at this - it's the details that matter in most design decisions - boutique bags should not be any different.

Looking for a fabric to play with on this project I remembered I had brought with me some hand dyed shibori fabric I dyed a few years ago. I've learned a lot since then about Shibori and this fabric wasn't so precious that I couldn't take the rotary cutter to it and try out a new bag. It's raw silk and I love the feel of this fabric, rough, nubby and holds up to wear and tear.

I have one more bag to go on my experiment. Hoping to get to that later today since I believe today is the last day of 7in7. I know my other half will be most appreciative to have the sewing machine packed away before he arrives from a conference in the states. Fabric stacked, sewing machine out, pattern pieces everywhere ... he might just turn on his heels and head back out the door. My creativity does tend to spread throughout the house – something only appreciated once there's a finished product hanging or sitting somewhere.

So two deadlines in one – his flight was delayed so I know I just got two extra hours – just what I needed to stay on a roll and be ... inspired.

Getting a handle on handles

I’m realizing this bag process is more involved than I thought. There are design decisions that need to be made at the outset and when you change those decisions – like which bag handles you’re going to use – complications follow.

This darn bucket bag has been my nemesis in this boutique-bag exploration. The plan was to use clip on handles. Cute, simple, fast, professional. Yeah! However, once the bag was made and I pulled out the handles I realized I had the wrong fabric for the handles I intended to use (they have a little fleur-de-lis stamped into the metal attachment – just doesn’t match the Japanese fabric, forgot that little detail was on the handle). Now what?

I had a long black leather handle strap and thought – great I’ll use that instead. But how do I attach the handles? I looked through my two bag making books I have for reference and they did not have an example.

I wrapped up the nearly finished purse and shoved it into my bag and headed to – you guessed it Swany’s. There I found an alternate leather handle, with stitching holes punched and a little tab that inserts between the lining and the outer bag for extra security. I thought perfect. Put those in my shopping bag (along with a few other items) and I imagined myself knocking out the bag later that night while I waited for my daughter at soccer.

Not so fast. Once home I realized I hadn’t thought this through as clearly as I’d imagined. What kind of thread was I supposed to use to attach the handles? Surely with all my thread I’d have something suitable. Did I have a needle that would be able to work its way through leather, lining and the interfaced outer fabric? I tried to make do with what I had – struggled to sew on one side of one handle, the thought crossing my mind more than once there has to be a better way.

Next day I find myself headed out to yet another fabric-craft store a few blocks off base and I found the appropriate waxed twine for sewing on the handle, a curved sewing needle marked for “leatherwork” quickly made my purchase and dashed home. I had delusions of being able to zip this project out and be on to the next bag (which is already cut out and just waiting its turn on the sewing machine). Two hours later the handles were finally secured, that’s 30 minutes per handle side! Either I’m not efficient or the thought did cross my mind that there’s a reason those gorgeous handmade Italian leather bags cost a fortune. This is labor intensive. A seam ripper, pliers, broken needle and cramped hands were all involved.

The end result is a cute bag but I will definitely be looking for a much more efficient way to attach leather handles in the future. One of the ladies who helped me at Swany’s earlier this week showed me their rivet maker ... oh so cool, that with the push of a handle I will have leather straps attached to my bag and it will look professional too, yes, learning this technique is now on my to-do list.

This go round, more than a few times I seriously considered pitching the bag and starting a different one but what kept me going was all the encouraging feedback I’ve been receiving on my posts – thanks faithful readers, you’re supportive words kept me ... inspired.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Feeding Teenagers

Add Artichokes to the List

Today begins week 11 on my 12-week quest for control in the kitchen. I sat down this morning to make out the grocery list, reviewing the planned dinners for the week. Adjustments needed to be made – two of the recipes contain artichoke hearts.

I swear sometimes I think my three teenagers have joined in a conspiracy to make me mental (or perhaps that would be more mental). Just days after my last post with the family favorite of the Tomato Artichoke Pasta Sauce my daughter declares she no longer likes artichoke hearts. Arggggghhh!

“What do you mean you don’t like artichoke hearts?” I queried. “Since when?”

“Like, since forever.” she responded.

How could this be, I thought to myself. Surely she’s kidding with me, sensing my kitchen desperation she’s just yanking my chain. Apparently not.

One more thing has been added to the increasingly long list of items my kids will not all eat together (her brothers will still eat artichokes). Instead of an expanding culinary palate theirs appears to be funneling into a vortex centered around pizza (homemade of course). My toddlers who ate just about everything I put in front of them have become teenagers with sophisticated but limited taste buds.

Even with this latest revelation there was a homerun last week when I made the Curried Cauliflower and Chickpea dish from the Moosewood Collection, Simple Suppers. I’ve put the link up for those of you who may want to purchase the cookbook. I have a several of their cookbooks and all should be on the shelf of those trying to eat less meat or join in on Meatless Mondays.

While the addition of yet another item to the “untouchable” list in the kitchen is a setback, I refuse to give up. If anything I am getting annoyed, which makes me mad, which in turn makes me stubborn (ask my mom), which in a weird and twisted mom-way of not giving up once you’ve set a goal, makes me … inspired.

Pizza Dough Recipe
This is EASY, do not let the steps dissuade you. Once you have made homemade pizza dough you will not go back to store bought again. My kids love this, to the point that they don’t like store-bought boxed pizza anymore (yes, they are spoiled and just don’t know it yet). It’s easy to freeze the dough for later use.

1 Tbsp sugar or honey
1 cup warm water (not too hot, or it will kill the yeast)
1 envelope active dry yeast
3 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

In a small bowl dissolve the sugar or honey (which feeds the yeast) in warm tap water. Sprinkle the yeast over the water and gently stir until it dissolves, about one minute. Let stand in a warm spot until a thin layer of foam covers the surface, about five minutes (this indicates the yeast is effective).

Using a heavy-duty food processor, add 3 cups of flour and the salt to the beaker fitted with the dough blade. Turn the machine on for a few seconds to mix. Slowly add the yeast mixture and oil and process continuously until the dough forms a single ball. Pinch of a piece of the dough, if it is sticky, continue processing adding remaining ¼ cup of flour until the dough loses its stickiness. Conversely if the dough is dry and crumbly, add warm water, a tablespoon at a time until the dough is smooth.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface (I prefer to use cornmeal) and knead by hand for about 2 minutes.

Shape the dough into a ball and place it in a well-oiled bowl, turning to coat completely on all sides with oil Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap to prevent moisture loss and set to rise in a draft-free warm place until doubled in bulk for about 45 minutes for quick-rising yeast.

With your fist punch down the dough until it has doubled in bulk to prevent over-rising. Shape it into a ball, pressing out all the air bubbles.

If you cannot use the dough within 2 hours of rising, punch the dough down, turn to coat in olive oil, cover and place in refrigerator. Let chilled dough come to room temperature before proceeding.

To make two 12-inch flat round pizzas, divide dough into 2 equal-sized balls. I press out as much as I can by hand on a surface sprinkled with cornmeal (I find this grips better than flour, it does leave a bit of the cornmeal texture in the dough) and then roll the rest out using a rolling pin to reach the desired size.

Top with your favorite toppings. Adults in the house like fresh spinach with minced garlic, olive oil and chopped sun dried tomatoes topped with mozzarella cheese; or olive oil, garlic and dried basil on the base with artichoke hearts and mozzarella. The kids like pepperoni with tomato sauce; or just plain cheese; or olive oil, garlic, basil and shrimp topped with mozzarella. Serve up with your favorite salad for a great dinner.

I know this sounds like a lot of work but it’s really not. Probably the worst part of the process for me is cleaning the food processor. Our kids, when they were younger loved getting in there and helping to knead the dough and of course add toppings to the pizza. Enjoy.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Fourth Bag for a Reason?

"Why?" is the question. Why seven bags in seven days?

"Why are you doing this?" ask my kids as they push aside the piles of fabric and patterns piled up on the only large flat space in our quarters - the dining room table - trying to carve out a place for themselves to eat.

"Are you going to make any money doing this?" Is what my husband wants to know. I'm sure as he casts a wary glance at the charges coming in from Swany's.

"What will you do with them?" ask friends. "Give them away? Sell them?"

The short answer is I don't know why to any of these questions. Maybe it's about the process. Some people knit and think. Solve their life's problems. Others run and think (I do that too). 

Sewing lets me create something while at the same time I'm thinking. Thinking about bag construction, thinking about thread to use, sometimes I'm thinking about anything but what I should be thinking about (pending move). The process is a form of therapy for me. 

I don't know what I will do with these bags. I don't know if I'll sell them and create an Etsy account or just give them as gifts and hope my friends excuse the errors knowing that they were created as part of a learning experience. 

Perhaps I will incorporate them with my shibori dyeing once I master both. Perhaps I'll open a shop, or hold workshops or both. I'm not sure yet. 

What I do know is that through this exercise I am learning, brain cells are firing, creative juices are flowing and it feels right. And oh yes, it of course leaves me ... inspired.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Fear of Zippers

In the world of sewing I have a couple of techniques I tend to avoid at all costs. One is buttonholes, which is crazy since both my new machine and my old one practically made the darn things for you. Nevertheless, it's a hold over from when I was learning to sew many years ago and had less than success with the results.

The other technique is putting in zippers. It is probably the main reason I do not do any garment sewing - unless you count Halloween costumes that of course conveniently did not have buttonholes or zippers. I have made many a decorative pillow for our home but have either sewed the darn thing shut hoping I'd never have to wash them or made an opening in the back so I could slip in the inner form.

Last weekend I started prepping for my turn at hosting book club (tonight). We live in a small space (about 1800 sq.ft.) with 3 teenagers (two of which are now taller than I am) that are all involved in sports. Add to that the recent purchase of a sewing machine, which has led to multiple projects, which of course means numerous piles, I was feeling like I needed some sort of "Organize This!" intervention.

My family walked downstairs early one morning to see feathers pretty much everywhere. No, I had not had a pillow fight to vent frustrations ... although that sounds pretty good at the moment. What I had done was to take off the five pillow covers from our sofa (which involved a seam ripper) to hand wash them before my guests arrived. I had a week, surely I would be able to knock this project off in a day (or so). I discovered that the feather pillowforms I had purchased a number of years ago were "leaking" feathers. No seams had come apart but the feathers were working their way through the pillow form fabric. When I pulled the pillows out of their covers it looked like I'd been plucking chickens in our living room. Bummer, this was not going to be a quick fix.

Knowing that my husband has allergies, I set off on Tuesday to Swany's with two of my friends and sewingmates, in search of pillowcase fabric - a weave so tight no feathers would break through. No luck. But what we did find were more projects. Precisionsewer picked up a cute little cosmetic bag and said "Oh, will you teach us to make these?"

Before thinking I said, "I don't do zippers."

The disappointing look on her face was all I needed to start back-peddling fast.

"Okay, sure, let's try. I'll have to reteach myself how to put in zippers though."

I left with materials for one cosmetic bag - including a zipper - but no fabric for the pillows.

Once back on base I decided to try using bed pillow allergy covers. I left the home store here on base with five, came home rotary cut off the bottoms and stitched them up. Step one solved. But now I needed to either sew back up the old covers or ... make new ones. You know where I went.

Back out to another store for five zippers. I pulled out my obi and yukata fabric. Ripped one Japanese yukata apart - and started sewing. I had hoped to post something like "5 pillows in 5 hours" but perhaps that was a bit ambitious. Here I am hours before hosting book club - one week later - and I just finished the last of five pillows. With zippers.

Minutes later I whipped out the cosmetic bag. A very long way of going about making my third bag of seven but I learned and relearned a lot. My sewingmates are pushing my sewing skills, which is a good thing indeed. New pillows on our sofa and a cute little bag leaves me of course ... inspired.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Two of Seven

The weather here has been quite nasty today, a good day to stay inside and work on projects. Like my self-imposed seven bags in seven days.

I picked up this fabric from a vendor at the Tokyo International Quilt Show with no ideas in mind other than the thought "oh, soooo, cool!"

When my friend asked me to help her figure out a Japanese pattern, I knew just the fabric I wanted to pull from my stash.

I've learned a lot going through this process, the Japanese have such an interesting way of combining different textures that I also knew I was going in search of the patterned natural cotton I had tucked away somewhere for the cloth handles. The running stitch was a detail I've seen used on a number of bags at Swany's. I think this detail turned the bag from being ho-hum to something quite unique and left me of course ... inspired.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

7 Bags in 7 Days

I have a group of friends here in Yokosuka that have asked me to teach them to sew. My initial thought when asked was, "I'm not qualified." Living in Japan and taking classes in Ikebana (the Japanese art of flower arranging) and Shibori (the Japanese form of sophisticated tie-dying) has made me reconsider the very western mentality of "I've taken a 2-hour workshop, therefor I am now qualified to teach a class."

The Japanese put a lot of emphasis on levels. For example I have an Ikenobo (the oldest school of Ikebana) sensei who is a level 18 (out of 20) instructor. Level 18. Each level requires a certain amount of study and then a test. I suppose that is why here in Japan, Ikebana is not just "flower arranging" it truly is an art. The crowds from the Ikebana exhibition I saw in the fall were something akin to seeing the Monet exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Art a number of years ago. You needed tickets and it was jam packed with people.

During my shibori studies, I would ask the ladies in my class how many years they had been studying shibori. Some would say 5 years, or 10 years or even 20. I was amazed, "Twenty years?" I would say. "You could be teaching." They would smile and look down, shaking their heads and say "Oh, no, I'm not qualified." Really? This was just not something my western brain could wrap her little head around. Who studies a craft for 20 years and is not qualified to teach?

My friends gently pressed me. One friend wanted to make an apron. Another shares my love of Swany's boutique bags and came with a stack of patterns with the question "I want to make these but don't know how. Can you help me figure it out?" The third friend just wants to learn how to use her machine, happy to go on the sewing adventure wherever it will lead her.

I caved. We have been getting together twice a month. In exchange for my time, they all bring something to share for lunch. Food and friendship shared over sewing. I think I am getting much more out of this deal than they are.

I'm getting sewing questions I don't think about anymore like "How do you sew on a button?" or "How do I know what needle to use on my machine?" or "What's this presser foot used for?" – it has required me to take a step back and do a little research. It has also forced me to focus. On bags.

There are more bag patterns from Swany's than I have time to make before we leave this summer but I will be trying to figure out as many as I can before I go. My friend who shares my love of the Swany's bags emailed me last night with "I picked up more patterns when I was at Swany's today." "Bring them next time" was my response "I'll try to figure them out." (they are in Japanese)

With the request for bag guidance and knowing that I'm always better working on a deadline (even if they are self-imposed)  I have decided to make seven bags in seven days. It will take some patience and figuring out (most likely ripping out) as I struggle to look at the corresponding photos we've taken when in Swany's and compare them to the patterns, but what I'm discovering is that I'm really enjoying this exercise. My friends through their request for help in learning to sew, have pushed my sewing skills into new directions. Over the sewing table we've shared stories, recipes, laughs and support – all of which of course has left me ... inspired.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Love affair with Swany’s

There is a charming, lovely, and very inspiring fabric store located in Kamakura, about a 20 minute train ride from where I live in Yokosuka Japan. This sounds convenient until you factor in that to get there I have to drive to the base parking lot that is closest to the train station, walk to the train station and then once in Kamakura, I have a 10 minute walk from the station to the store. I’m not complaining, I’m just setting the stage for my friends in the states. The point is I’m not just hopping in my car and dashing to the fabric store to pick up a few supplies. When I go to Swany’s I’m going with intent. I have a list. I am, of course, wildly open to impulse purchases.

When we lived in the DC area I used to frequent G Street Fabrics. There I would caress bolt after bolt of gorgeous fabrics, my mind drifting from one sewing project to another. My husband maintains it is not physically possible for me to go into a fabric store without running my hands over every bolt (I believe he exaggerates, but then again given the groans from the backseat gang when I even dare to mention fabric store … maybe not). I took classes there, learned how to make decorator pillows, valences for our homes, even lined, French-pleat draperies (no easy feat). I love a really good fabric store. I find it amazing that you can take a lifeless piece of fabric and with a little vision and a pattern you can create whatever you can imagine.

On my first outing to Kamakura when I arrived here in 2009, Bossy Explorer led a group of us to visit Swany’s. Touted as the fabric store to go to, I couldn’t wait to see what was in store. Alas, one of the frustrations to the language barrier is not understanding the signage. We were, as the saying goes, “so close and yet so far.” In the hiatus that Bossy had taken on a one year tour in DC, Swany’s had apparently upgraded. The building she recalled as the main storefront was only selling remnants. Not what our crew had in mind, we walked away disappointed but there was a promise of “the best waffles in Japan” and my attention was diverted. Had we walked a short block further and turned a corner we would have discovered a 3-story fabric wonderland – Swany’s had gone upscale.

What makes this store so different from say a box store like Joanne’s or Hancocks back in the U.S.? Of course there is the Japaneseness. Not sure that’s a word – but it should be when living here in Japan. My friend, Gracious Explorer, explained that in Japan this is known as ‘Wa.’ Swany’s knows their ‘Wa.’ The store has artful displays of fabric and everywhere you turn there are samples of beautiful boutique bags made from the fabric you were just drooling over. Better yet is that each display has a tag with a number on it, when you purchase 1000 Yen (in better exchange rate days 1:1 that would be $10) you get a pattern from 100’s to chose from. I’m not kidding, they have binders of patterns. My collection has begun. The only downside for me of course is that these patterns are in Japanese (what else?). Not to let that deter me I have already made several items.

My time is short here, we are in the countdown to move this summer, but I am determined to make the most of it – as in make as many projects from Swany’s as I can before we leave. Check back in from now until they pack up my sewing machine ... approximately 14 weeks from now and see what I’ve been making, because one thing is certain, Swany’s leaves me ... inspired.

Link to Swany's in Kamakura. If you scroll to the bottom you'll find the map with directions from the train station - in Japanese ... but of course!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Begin Again

I’ve tried a 5-star Fettuccine Pie recipe – a big NO.
A “Crowd-Pleasing Casserole” from Woman’s Day – thumbs down all around.
A prize tested $400 winning recipe from BH&G – it did not win any rave reviews in our house.

These three teenager’s of mine have apparently tough palates to please or at least they’re tough to please all at once. One will at least eat eggplant, the other two push it to the side. Two love tofu, one does not. One’s tired of eating salmon. Two love curry, one only likes it in restaurants. The same two will at least eat my attempts at Indian food, the other goes in search of the cereal.

I am still on my quest – the quest I began a year ago with the idea that surely after more than 25 years of reluctantly being stuck in the kitchen I must have enough recipes that are hits with this crew of mine. Enough to flush out 12 weeks of no-brainer cooking – that’s my dream, when 5 o’clock rolls around every weekday afternoon that I have a plan, I’m not standing in the kitchen with all the cabinet doors open willing something to fall out and hit me that declares “cook me!” That I don’t have to think about meal prep. A mom can dream …

Three active, sports involved teenagers makes for something akin to vulture’s circling for prey come 5 pm. Two 16-year old twins consume volumes of food I could never have envisioned. The produce guy at the commissary knows me. The id checker comments when I’m there more that once a day.

“Weren’t you just here this morning?” she asks
“16-year old twin sons” I sigh. “You cannot begin to imagine.”

I never have enough: milk, apples, bananas, grapes, orange juice, bread, pretzels, gingersnaps – oh hell, basically any kind of carbs. I have reviewed portion control, pointed out that 9 apples should last at minimum three days – an apple a day for each resident teenager. Important to know since apples here in Japan cost a fortune. I even have our grocery list itemized with most used items, organized by aisle. I know, I know … it does seem a bit over the top but believe me it saves tons of time. Sadly, my kids apparently can metabolize food faster than I can shop. I don’t care for grocery shopping – the faster the cart moves down the aisle the quicker I am in and out. This list making, the menu planning it’s all an effort to spend less time doing what I dislike (food shopping and cooking) and more time doing things I do like (anything besides being in a grocery store or cooking … well you could add anything to do with housekeeping too but that’s another story). I am not domestic and yet, here I find myself on a forced march through domesticity. So the goal is less time spent doing what I dislike – which leads me back to the 12-week menu plan.

At the beginning of 2011 I had the idea of 12 weeks, 60 meals (I’m allegedly off Saturday and Sunday) and almost but not quite made it to the end before we had the interruption of the triple disaster of March 11th here in Japan. When the kids and I returned and began the new school year, I tried to strike out the no-hitters and replace them with the hopefuls. All too soon schedules became crazed and I was back to survival cooking. The new year brought new hope and I was determined to try once more – maybe the third time would be the charm. We are now on week eight, more than three-quarters of the way through this extended experiment. I’m still having some bombs (see above) but I do seem to be having more hits and I’m not hearing “I’m tired of eating xyz, we just had that.” I spent 2 days over the Christmas break cooking and freezing some pasta sauces, chili and pizza dough. I loaded up my iTouch with podcasts and playlists and cranked in the kitchen. Strangely, when I now open the freezer I feel a sense of peace with the knowledge that if it comes down to it and I’m desperate for a dinner – I’ve got choices already prepared.

One of my favorite pasta sauces to make and freeze is the Tomato Artichoke Heart Sauce. Last Wednesday things got a bit wiggy in the afternoon – five o’clock rolled around and I still had not started dinner prep. Resident teenagers were beginning to deplete all carb containers in the pantry. Thankfully I was able to reach into the freezer and grab dinner. A no-brainer dinner was at the ready.

The date I have noted on the recipe is April 1995 with “very good” written down. A momentous month for our household – when a working couple became a family, two times over. When those twin eating machines of ours were born 16 years ago my mom came and stayed with us and aside from the unnamed hundreds of daily tasks she helped me with, the care and survival of a mom of newborn twins, the one I remember most clearly was that she left me with a freezer full of home cooked meals. A precious gift – the gift of a mothers cooking. And so while my kids, continue to give me some thumbs downs on my efforts in the kitchen, I am not deterred. My mom is one fabulous cook. She was an Entreprenuer when I was a teenager and yet I recall her somehow finding the time to make us a home cooked meal each night. I don’t know how she managed.

I may not enjoy being stuck in the kitchen but my mom through her actions to take the time and effort to create a meal for the ones you love is a lesson learned from my childhood and leaves me … inspired.

Linguine with Tomatoes and Artichoke Hearts
(4 servings)

2 Tbsp olive Oil
1 medium onion, chopped
3 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 16-oz can Italian plum tomatoes, chopped, juices reserved
2 tsp dried basil
2 tsp dried oregano
1 14+ oz jar marinated artichoke hearts
12-oz linguine, cooked and drained
1 1/2 cups Parmesan cheese

Heat olive oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and sauté  until tender, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes, reserved juices, basil and oregano and simmer until sauce thickens slightly, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Add artichokes with marinade to sauce and cook 2 minutes. Add pasta and 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese to sauce. Toss until sauce coats pasta and mixture is heated through, about 2 minutes. Season pasta to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer pasta to large bowl and serve with remaining parmesan.

(The date I have noted on this recipe is 4/1995 – it’s a copy, I am not entirely sure if my memory serves me well but I believe it came from an issue of Gourmet Magazine)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Setsubun at Hachimangu

“Oni wa so to (Out with the devil).
Fu ku wa uchi (Come in happiness)!”
On February third, the Japanese celebrate Setsubun, a festival celebrating the end of winter and the beginning of warm spring. Roasted soybeans, called fuku mame (fortune beans) are thrown at Mame make (bean throwing) ceremonies held in shrines and temples as people try to ward off devils and wish for good fortune. It is believed that if you eat the same number of fuku mame, equal to your age this will bring you health and happiness in the coming year. Setsubun is unique in that it is honored both at Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. 

I joined 20 Americans and one very generous and lovely Japanese lady, Reiko-san, for the bean throwing celebration at the Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura yesterday. Reiko-san, when asked if she could arrange for a group of Americans to view the Setsubun activities did not miss a beat and responded by replying "Sure, how many tickets?" 

20 was the answer. 

She's a brave soul to take on so many of us single handedly but more than managed (we introduced her to the saying of "herding cats"). She was not only able to procure us tickets to the roped off area of the event but also tickets to the Winter Peony exhibition (my good fortune to see it twice within a week) as well as having us meet one of the head priests after the ceremony. He then presented all of us with gift bags. Seriously. The tickets were free and we get gifts too? 

I had no idea what exactly to expect but the celebration was so much fun. The throwers are apparently dignitaries and local celebrities who line the pavilion holding boxes filled with little packets of soy beans. At the sound of a gong they proceed to throw them out to the crowd, while over a speaker you hear "Oni wa so to. Fu ku wa uchi! Oni wa so to. Fu ku wa uchi!" After less than a minute you hear whistles and everything stops. This happened several times until I finally turned to one of my friends and said "what are the whistles for?" and a Japanese bystander piped up and told us that they are for crowd control. Only in Japan! Not only do they have people watching and decide when things are getting a little rowdy to blow a whistle – everyone listens and stops. I can see why they do this though, I was too busy trying to snap photos while getting knocked about and left the bean catching to my daughter. She did quite well, not only did she get a packet with a symbol for a prize (what we discovered the bags were all for that I took a photo of walking in) she also scored enough packets for everyone in the family to eat roasted soy beans to bring us health and happiness in the coming year. Now that's something to not only celebrate but also give me some ... inspiration

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Kamakura Winter Peonies at Hachimangu

on all sides,
the peony wards off
rain clouds

– Yosa Buson (1716–1783)

I’ve entered into the phase we military spouses refer to as short-timers. We have six months left of our tour here in Japan and with the flip of the calendar into a new year I seem to have been hit head on with the meaning … I’ve begun the season of “lasts.” As in … this will be the last time I go to the Tokyo International Quilt Show – ever. As in … I will not get to see the Yamate Western style homes decorated again.

It also begins a phase of firsts – making the time to experience those things I’ve wanted to see but somehow never made the time to. This is how I found myself last week, standing in the Winter Peony exhibition on the grounds of the Hachimangu Shrine in Kamakura, crossing off one of those items on my short-list. The past two winters I had seen the posters for these winter beauties in the train station and had made mental notes to myself to go see them but other priorities apparently got in the way. Now, without another winter season ahead of me here in Japan, I had to make time or the opportunity would be lost.

Among the many things the Japanese Way has led me to appreciate, is the way they take time out to enjoy and appreciate the beauty of nature. There were eight of us who took the train ride over from Yokosuka to Kamkaura last week. It was a cold windy day with clouds moving in and out of some desperately needed sunshine. As Buson said in his haiku “on all sides, the peony wards off, rain clouds” – the peonies were beautiful and of course left me … inspired.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Tokyo International Quilt Show 2012

Bossy Explorer and I were on the train platform by 8 a.m. to meet Patient Explorer on the first car of the express train to Tokyo. Patient Explorer is our Japanese friend who patiently and graciously puts up with us and until this past summer Weather Explorer. She is patient when we ask her to translate things or explain things or make phone calls for us – all this she does with a smile. She has gone on many of our outings, helped coordinate some and always, always is the consummate Japanese lady. The date had been on our calendar for months – the Tokyo International Quilt Show was our destination. For the past two years I have attended this spectacular display of quilts and was ready to be wowed and inspired once more.

I purchased my ticket and once down on the floor turned to Bossy and said “I’m hitting the vendors first and will look at the quilts after lunch.” I had two hours to make my way through the jam-packed aisles before our agreed lunch rendevous, time to make notes and jot down ideas as I passed interesting displays and tried in vain to hold on to as much of my Yen as I could until I made the full sweep.

Once again, the Japanese Way with fiber art speaks to me. The asymmetrical designs, the simplicity and elegance of the designs – this is what I’d come back for. I made note of which number vendors I wanted to revisit and wrote down the cost of the items I wished to purchase – there would be some serious decision making during my lunch break because for better (my desire to stock up on all things Japanese) or worse (my financial bottom line) I did not find a single vendor who would take credit cards. Not one to let a small thing like “all the instructions are in Japanese” I found myself purchasing the tatami matt webbing that I’ve made several purses from. These bags are so interesting, I could not resist. A date with my sewing machine is in my future

Post-lunch, Bossy, Patient and I headed off to look at the quilts. Bossy’s camera died after only a few shots and I became her photographer. Looking for inspiration for the momentous occasion this Spring when she becomes a grandmother – Bossy’s take on the quilts were completely different from mine and through her eyes I saw and appreciated quilts I might otherwise have blown right by. That’s not to say that I didn’t have my moments too. A few of my favorites:

• The Japan quilt – this quilt was breathtaking and the craftsmanship … unbelievable. The details – the hand stitching and embellishment, the layers of fabric and organza, questions of technique – Bossy was surprisingly patient with me as I took photo after photo of this quilt. It's a two sided quilt filled with hearts on one side and cherry blossoms on the other.

• Framed Quilts – These quilts take up such a small space and yet what the artists were able to create within the confines – it was like a license for details. I really liked the whimsy of the felt beads but will have to acknowledges Bossy’s point that it’s a loose definition of quilt. Fiber Art definitely but quilt? Not so sure.

• The bags – oooooohhh the bags. I love the Japanese handbags at these shows and apparently the Japanese do too because the vendors who were selling handles to create your own boutique bags had lines (organized of course with a man holding a sign to let you know where the end of the line was – I didn’t have to read Kanji to figure that one out).

• The Original Design category and the ‘Wa’ category sort of melded in my mind one into another although Patient Explorer did explain that ‘Wa’ means things Japanese but then she smiled and went on to say that of course it also means lots of other things too. Of course it does. (photos at the top are from these 2 categories)

There was so much to see – around every corner more beautiful art. This year of course had so much to do with hope, hope for the future, hope for those still suffering the aftermath of the March 11th triple disaster in Tohoku and through this art there is of course … inspiration

Monday, January 9, 2012


In Christian churches the epiphany season marks new beginnings, a new year in the church calendar. A time to move forward.

In the Miriam-Webster Dictionary it can also mean “an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking” or “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.”

2011 certainly offered those of us stationed here in Japan opportunities to have more than one epiphany as we struggled with decisions that we hope our friends and family back home would never face. Like Christmas ornaments. On the surface these are just decorations but when faced with a decision on what to keep vs what to walk away from they become oh so much more. Each one laced with a memory. If someone handed you a box containing all your ornaments collected over the years and said you can only pick twelve – the rest you may never see again – what would you pick? How could you decide? These are the questions our children faced back in March.

Washi Eggs

If you had walked into our living room nine months ago you would have wondered what I was thinking. Amid all the chaos of trying to pull together essentials and throw them in suitcases to leave for an underdetermined amount of time to an as yet to-be-determined-place, sat our Christmas Boxes. All of them – the big kind that can hold boxes within boxes. I did not bring all of our holiday décor when we embarked on our overseas move, in fact for the tree trimming I only brought the kids Christmas ornaments. I was on a quest for three small boxes.

“Um, mom, what are you doing?” was the question.
I think they were worried … under the pressure of an earthquake, potential radiation fallout and an evacuation I had finally cracked.

“Here’s the deal guys … we don’t know if we’re coming back. The instructions are to pack like we’ll never return. It’s crazy, I know but you all have to decide what is it you want to take. I thought there would be some ornaments in here that were special to you and you’d rather take. You can leave them at Nana and Granddaddy’s when we get there.”

Three faces were looking back at me as this information registered. The suitcases, the dog crate, the paperwork, the passports that were surrounding us … all that was just stuff, replaceable. But the Christmas ornaments? Those are old friends, memories brought out each year and revisited. Sacred territory.

It was only a moment, a few seconds most likely, as my words hung in the air and then like someone throwing a switch they all sprung into action, opening their respective boxes.

The annual ornaments from my parents were apparently a no brainer, as were the ornaments given to my children by close family friends. The others though were harder choices.

“Mom what do we do about the glass ornaments?”

Good question. “I guess we’ll just pack those back up and hope for the best.” Meaning this craziness circulating at the moment about base closures, locking the keys to the front gates and walking away from a nuclear wasteland was over reaction and part of the rumor mill gone viral.

Five months later, in August, when we finally returned to Japan I knew I was going to put a different spin on our holiday tree. What to put on that tree was a bigger question. I did not want the limbs to be bare and so I started working on washi eggs. Beautiful, but time consuming, my visions of a tree covered in nothing but eggs quickly had a reality check. My expectations were reduced to the still Type A goal of a dozen eggs per child – three dozen eggs. Mondays became my craft day and for a couple of months I worked to cover and finish the eggs.

The eggs dangled from the branches and it was a lovely sight. More washi eggs are in my future – I am not ready to let go of my vision of a tree full of these delicate beauties. Sometimes it takes an "illuminating discovery" to realize that two things as simple as an egg and a piece of paper can be joined together to create something entirely new and beautiful. As the new season of the church begins, I chose to mark this time by looking forward and as our 6 month countdown begins search for new ways to be inspired each day here in Japan.

Check back in for pictures and instructions on how to cover eggs with washi paper.