After nearly 20 years in big Tokyo I was feeling burned out in my not-so-successful "career" in the service industry, knocking on several after a chance discovery of cheap old farmhouses we set out towards the countryside - but still close enough for my wife to further pursue her working live, commuting by Shinkansen while I would take care of the house and kids and build my own little cafe at home...
Our first bump came when we realized that the bank wasn't willing to give a loan for an old rundown house on some worthless property in the "Hinterland". So, we changed plans and will be building a new house. We already bought the plot last year, with about 400 square meters size, and I have started the vegetable garden beforehand, next project will be the garden house.

15 March, 2012


Growing up on the countryside in Germany with a preference for sport biking rather than motor scooter like most other young people I also did jogging and some swimming, also I wouldn't call myself a real sportsperson. In Tokyo it was mostly to hot to run when I had the time, the pools are expensive, crowded, and only open for two months, July and August. But I did quite a lot of riding my bike, a sports bike with double suspension made by Louis Garneau, or so I thought until I found out that in Japan it's just the name, all the design and manufacturing is done by a Japanese company.
Up here in Karuizawa with an altitude of 950 m (3100 feet) the air is thin as I found out after starting jogging again after some time. My legs felt great which is no surprise with all that biking in Tokyo and my work means being on my feet most of the time. But my lungs didn't like it and quit after a few hundred meters. So I had to "re-invent" my running, keeping myself to a slow pace and getting back into the rhythm and than slowly building up speed and distance. Like before it was an on-again, off-again kind of story, long winter with snow until April gave me excuses not run as much as summer months filled with work from early morning till night that didn't leave any energy. Than last year in September my wife's workplace took part in a big charity fitness event of most of the international financial companies in Tokyo and I chose to run the 10km event. It was a 2.5 km street course, to be run 4 rounds, starting in a stadium. I didn't have much of preparation, but at least the advantage of running in low altitude, when I was used to high altitude gave my body a good boost and much less aching than I had thought. There where well above a thousand people attending the race and it was a very special atmosphere, completely different from just running on my own. I concentrated on the race, analyzing my running and the course, deciding when to up the pace in the end and run an all-out for the last hundred meters. I wasn't really fast, about 52 minutes, but I was satisfied with my performance, exhausted enough to know I gave a good fight - and I was hooked. This would be something to have as a goal, to run a marathon! Because just running around the neighborhood and measuring your time and grade of exhaustness just wouldn't do it for me.
And so, after some searching on a running-portal I came across a nice half-marathon not too far away from Karuizawa, about one hour by car, and applied for it. I still didn't do serious training for it, so, up to the last weeks. Nevertheless, I was willing to give it my best. On Saturday I had a long 10hour working-day, not the best thing to do the day before a race. I packed a few clothes, changing etc in a sports bag because I wasn't sure about the weather and early Sunday morning made my way to the location, only to be stuck in a jam for 35 min before I made it into the parking area, much farther away than written on the pamphlet (note to myself: get there early; expect long jams around the event place). The obvious reason was that the half-marathon race was attended by "only" about 1200 runners, but besides that there were shorter distances and fun-runs, making it an event with many families attending as well.
Check-in was smooth, every runner received a chip to lace to the shoe, there was a baggage-handling counter inside the building, and the whole place itself was overflowing with people, young students and kids up to retirement-age long-distance runners. Also the spring-like weather was very different from home were 20 cm of snow refused to go away, it was only a few degrees in the plus and I had chosen my long-sleeve running shirt with my 3/4 long bottoms and of course gloves, which turned out just right as we were running long time in cold-shadowed forest. After doing some light running to warm up and stretching among all the other runners, the start came and off we went, accompanied by the deep sounds of a local Taiko drum group. Local folks where lining the back roads and cheering the runners, water stations where plenty, so much that I actually over-hydrated because the temperature was rather low and I was lucky to have a toilet just when I needed to, running with a full bladder is not good for your concentration! But shortly after the start the scenery changed when we took a turn and started to climb up a steep road; I had seen the road map with the climbing and descending, I even remember telling my wife that the last 3 km would be downhill, easy to finish...but I was proven very wrong, for when the first steep down hill came, my legs told me they were unprepared for this! And also Karuizawa makes a nice training place, it lacks on thing: steep roads! The course went up again what must have been around 10% incline. And after a few kilometers up in the cold shadows and around the turning-point it was down that same road again. It was around 15 km into the race and at this hill I was overtaken by quite a few people for my legs were on fire and there was no way I could speed down like the others were with seemingly great ease. The last downhill was a similar story, usually I would increase my speed getting closer to the goal, but it was just not possible on this course - After I passed the goal I just sat down, my legs an undefined mass and it took me some time to get enough strength to walk again. My finishing time was 2:02:24, slower than the goal of 2 hours I had set myself. Still, it was a very good experience and this race will hold a special place in my memory. So, where to go from here? There is a half-marathon in Karuizawa end of May, which I thought about attending, but my delaying caught me when I realized that it was already filled by the time I decided to apply. On the other hand I really want to race below 2 hours and so am looking around but nothing yet. As for full marathon, sure that will come with time,  also I am not sure whether this year or next. Nevertheless I decided I will apply for the next year's Tokyo Marathon, even so that race was not such a high priority for me. One reason is, there are 10 times more applications than free spots, meaning it might take a few years until I get lucky. The other reason is, even so I have some negative feelings towards my time in Tokyo, the race itself is a different story, and it meanwhile is looked upon very fondly by runners worldwide. That application is due in August, so in September I might know a bit more about next year's running schedule, there is a full marathon in Nagano in April as well which surely will be the choice if I can't get into Tokyo this time.

The race: Haruna Ume Marathon
Distance: Half-Marathon 21.097 km (13.11 miles)
Lowest point: 175 m (575 feet)
Highest point: 337 m (1100 feet)
Weather: mostly cloudy, 5-10 degrees C
Time: 2hours, 02 min, 24 sec

08 January, 2012

Hannah moving around

Hannah started walking with 14 months, back in November. The first weeks it was carefully placing one feet before the other, hands raised to catch herself when loosing the balance and falling forward. Which she did often, but even when tripping and landing hard, after the tears subsided she was always back to it again for a revenge challenge.
 A sunny morning, middle December. First rule for photographing kids is to get down on your knees, eye level.
 Also these photos, with the sun shining low from the right, might have looked better with an even lower point of shooting.
Testing some expressions for LL Bean modeling here..."Urban Outdoor Explorer"

No, it's not a Halloween costume

It's just a reverseable poncho

 I'm afraid wearing a cute poncho with a lamb-like hood might be just a bit too much...

Wearing daddy's cap, reminds me of...Jean Paul Belmondo?

 Another day, another outfit, smart-casual? Or function-fashionable?

 Changing your shooting position from time to time can result in an interesting picture
When shooting children, the second rule is: shoot a lot, than a lot more, and then some more again
Because children are totally open with their expressions and fast in changing moods, its important not miss that moment, even if your partner gets a bit noisy about it. Showing her/him these kind of pics will silence every critique. 

New Year's holiday was spent as usual at the grandparents big house, with lots of space to run around - and a fashionable hat from the cousin's past 3rd birthday, worn here in British fashion with a glove as accessory. 

 Playtime was used to get close to each other

But sometimes she didn't like it not being the only star around

Back in Karuizawa, enjoying the fresh air and the nearly empty roads

Hannah's walking style has much improved, it is getting more and more relaxed, leaving room to express herself with the whole body.

 But a smile straight from the heart and covering the whole face, is still the best one

25 December, 2011

Christmas Dinner at Home

This year is one of the very few times I actually am not working around Christmas. In Tokyo, December used to be the busiest time of the year where everyone suddenly seems to have money to spent again with year-end-parties big and small plus Special Dinner offerings around Christmas, 95% of them couples. So the 24th is not a public holiday the 23rd is, as it is the Emperor's birthday. And even here in Karuizawa, which is preparing for winter from November onwards and goes into "hybernation" (冬眠中, touminchu. I've actually seen shops putting this sign out to show they are on winter break. And it's a common word among the many part-time workers about what they will do in winter, as many will take an non-voluntary extended holiday from January up to the middle of April. Only few are willing to drive on snowy roads to work at ski-resorts or feel enough financial strain to engage in lower jobs like room cleaning in one of the many hotels around here.), Christmas means mostly work, depending on which day of the week it falls. So I decided to do a very common Christmas dish, roasted chicken and gathered information on the internet during the last days. Luckily I chanced on a helpful food-program last week which had chicken stuffed with rice, roasted in a cast-iron pot. Since I wanted to have Hannah eat the same food too, I decided against their flavouring with raisins and marons, but instead opted for a more gentle basil-flavour, took the idea of using sweet potatoes(amongst the usual ones) for the vegetable bed from another blog, and from "Simply Recipes" I got the idea of a honey glaze since I didn't want to use garlic butter. I later returned again to this blog to also find some tips about using the leftovers and bones to make some chicken stock.
I started by cutting some celery into small slices and sauteed them in olive oil in the cast-iron pot. I thew in some sun flower seeds as well and after they where browned I scraped the mixture into a bowl.
  To this I added cooked, warm rice, parsley, dried basil and seasoned it with salt and pepper.
I had prepared the chicken already a few hours ahead by washing the outside and inside with cold water and patting it dry. It was then left on the counter to gain room temperature and for the skin to dry for a crispier finish (which didn't finalize as much as hoped for). I stuffed it with the rice and tied the opening with tooth picks which I secured with some string that followed to tie the legs together. I than rubbed salt and pepper on the whole of the outside and put it on a bed of vegetables for which I used roughly chopped onion, carrot, turnip, and aforementioned sweet potato. Some recipes suggested sauteeing the vegetables first which I dutifully did, because I only have a rather small sized microwave oven and since the pot would stand on the bottom I worried the vegetables wouldn't get enough heat, which turned out to be far off the mark.

I preheated the oven to 270 degree and put in the pot with the chicken breast downwards. After 40 minutes I lifted the iron pot out and turned the bird breast facing up. At this point I brushed the now up facing breast part generously with honey.
 Around 15 min later I turned down the heat to about 180 degrees and roasted it for another 45 min until the  digital temperature reader showed that the inside of the meat had risen to about 75 degrees.
After lifting the bird onto a dish for cutting I realized that a few of the vegetables had been burned black, but enough was left, also these where extremely soft, with the sweet potato tasting the best. I had worried in the beginning that not giving any soup or liquid into the pot might just burn the vegetables, but the chicken dropped off quite some liquid, which was more than enough. It was rather the sidewalls of the cast-iron that became too hot and burned some of the greens. And the breast skin didn't turn out as crispy as I had hoped for. Next time I will turn the bird earlier and lower the temperature earlier too which might help. I also would brush the skin before roasting with olive oil.

What did turn out very nicely was the soft tenderness of the meat, totally different from the usual fry pan cooking, we hardly needed any knife. And the stuffing of rice was just delicious as well.

The arrangement on the plate might look rather rough, nevertheless the taste was great! Hannah enjoyed the food as well, shoving the rice happily into her mouth with her hand.

For dessert I had prepared a chocolate cake, Sachertorte, but spiced it with cinnamon, clove, cardamon and nutmeg. I sliced it once and filled it with roasted walnuts and rum-raisins (that are always at hand in the fridge in this house) . I also had planned to put in some sliced pears as well but totally forgot about it. And so they made part of the topping, together with some whipped cream.

08 December, 2011

Making Progress- with Detours

Last week our little Hannah, now 1 year two months old, came down with high fever that was finally diagnosed as three-day-fever, roseola.  It is one of those diseases that little kids go through once and than the body becomes immune. Nevertheless it is heartbreaking to see such a lively happy little kid become weak and listless, not having much appetite either. So I stayed at home the whole week, tending to her or holding her while she was sleeping in my arms.

It looks like winter is marching towards us and I still haven't finished the front side of the garden house! I worked on it this week and finished the two brick compartments. It didn't turn out quite the way I had imagined, but it still looks good enough to me, and to the unknowing Japanese it looks even better. I had drawn up some designs beforehand, but when starting I realized that these bricks where not in a 3 to 1 width to height that I had thought them to be, poor measurement and mathematics on my side. It's been more than 20 years that I did masons work, so there are a few things I don't remember or only half.

But for some reasons I still remembered how to make these "mason's corner" to stretch a string across to follow after without having to drive nails into the wood.

On Tuesday, I had a "detour": close to our plot is a piece of land where people can leave cut-off tree trunks for other persons to take home and make into fire wood. This year it had been empty the whole time but driving by it in the morning I saw lot of trunks there. So I emptied our car, fit in a blue-sheet and started hauling of the pieces I could handle. And than my eyes fell onto a beautiful tree stump, nearly square at the bottom, about 1m in height where it was going off into two trunks. It looked perfect for a chop block! Only problem was how to get it into the car, as it was probably above 100 kg in weight. I nearly gave up on it but than had the idea of building a ramp out of the thinner trunks lying around. So I started "rolling" the beast towards it and than slowly up. Real slow, because every push felt like having to fight a Sumo ringer with my feet slipping and me fast running out of breath.

Finally I had it on top, put a heap of logs to the side to stand the stump up on which was another battle in itself, backed the car up against it and pushed it inside, more or less, because the widening bottom was impossible to get in. With the stump looking out of the back I slowly drove it to the far end of the garden and heaved it out again. Using a long trunk as a lever I was able to push it of the road, but there are still another slightly uphill 10 meters until its final place...

And yesterday I had the second "detour" of this week, when my friendly neighbor came over and suggested to cut off the high weed that was still covering most of the garden with his engine-powered weed-cutter. These are a very common sight to see also I personally had never used one before. So he started at the sides (as fire control in his words) and after I had seen it in action, I took over and cut off the whole stuff. In many places it had been about 1.5 meters high, leaving the Garden House nearly unseen from the road, but now that the plot lies barren, the house is easily spotted from afar.

Having finished the brick works I cleaned the inside today and lay some floor boards I had gotten from the near by guest house as it was being demolished. They had been used as a outside wall covering, heavily painted on. So I put the outside on the bottom and had the raw inside facing up, which also worked quite nicely with the bends. They are single grooved, making them stick together very smooth.
And finally I can walk inside the house without worry to crash through the floor!

25 November, 2011

Hannah update

In letzter Zeit habe ich so viel über das Gartenhaus, Herbst hier, Essen usw geschrieben das es jetzt schon einige Zeit her ist, seit ich Bilder von Hannah hier reingestellt habe. Dem soll hiermit Abhilfe geschaffen werden, also wenig Text aber viele Bilder. Das neueste ganz oben. Ach ja, ein wenig laufen kann sie auch schon, aber noch keine Gelegenheit gehabt, sie dabei zu fotografieren, wird nachgeholt.
 Spaziergang zum nahegelegenen Shoppingcenter. Da aber grade Schlußverkauf war passte der Kinderwagen nicht ins Geschäft rein..
Hannahs Augen sind immer noch so groß, und zum-Dahinschmelzen-gucken schafft sie auch noch ohne Probleme
Neulich beim Kekse essen.

Neulich nach dem Kekse essen.

Im Shinkansen unterwegs mit Papas Mütze, auch wenn kaum eine Kopfbedeckung länger als 5 Minuten auf dem Kopf bleibt.

Sportveranstaltung in Tokyo, Mittagessen auf der Tribüne

Hannah genießt die U-Bahn in Tokyo, zum Glück ist es am Wochenende ja nicht so voll

Hannah und Hiromi in der U-Bahn

Abends im Hotelzimmer

16 November, 2011

Climbing up a tall rock

The name of this mountain is "Takai-iwa", "tall rock", very fitting as it sits towering above the highway entrance of Karuizawa. Thus I had seen it many times but never realized that there was a way to climb it. It doesn't appear in any of the many guide books about Karuizawa, as it seems to be unfitting for a "Resort town" with a big shopping mall to engage in serious outdoor sports. 

The mountain can be climbed from two sides of which I choose the south side. As there is no parking space at the entrance to the hiking path from a narrow road I left my car a bit away and thus got a glimpse of this autumn combination of flaming red maple leafs and a tree without any leafs but lots of bright persimmon fruits.

After hiking through some forest and then upward between big boulders the climb became steep up a ravine of sort with rocks that looked as if formed by concrete and stones but in reality formed during volcanic activity.

The top consists of two big towers with several tops connected by ridges. Autumn had finished at the top and I could thus enjoy an unobstructed view. This one is to the east side with the highway towards the Kanto plain showing in a few places.

And here a view of the late autumn colors of the forests below with Mount Asama sitting at the top
After crossing several ridges I decided to take the front path down with this point being the only kind of challenge. It only doomed to me later that I had somehow missed the biggest challenge, the "chimney" where  one would climb straight up the inside corner of the rock supported by a chain hanging from the top. This place isn't a major attraction, marking of the path with colored plastic bands was scarce and the bottom was totally covered with fallen leaves, making it even more difficult to spot the trail.

When taking pictures from the bottom a flash from the very top caught my eye and I realized two persons standing (!) on the flat top of the highest tower taking in the 360 degree view in disregard to any vertigo and the cold wind that was blowing. I knew than that the small path I thought would end at a small water outlet actually led further on to the "chimney"! But altogether I was done in two hours, so a "revenge" is coming up for sure.

15 November, 2011

The Wall

After more than 20 years I am mixing mortar again and holding a  trowel in my hand - and it feels good. The smell and sound support my memories, I automatically do the movements I had done so many times during my 3 years of apprenticeship as a mason, which was serving as the base for the  architectural college study I entered afterwards; but that lasted less then 2 years before I quit and went off to Japan...

I was happy with the trowel, even in Germany there are different shapes depending on the region and here in the home center I had the choice between a rounded heart shape and the delta. So smaller in size I felt comfortable with the straight edge and the narrow tip as if I had never stopped using it.
Mortar can be purchased as a ready to use mix, but that is more expensive when you are using a lot like I would need. So I purchased a 25kg sack of portland cement and three 20 kg bags of dark grayish sand. I than mixed it dry together before adding the water and started the wall.

I had a bunch of smaller rocks collected from our lot since the beginning, knowing that I would put them to use somehow. But the idea to use them as a base wall came to me only much latter, originally I had planned to  use only red bricks for the lower compartment, hence the mortise below the middle beams in the front wall. And also I had more than enough for this wall I didn't have that much to choose from, so it might look imposing from the front there are a few very thin points which I intend to strengthen with mortar from the back and form a straight base on top for the bricks that will come atop them.
As for the bricks, they are not a common building material because they are very weak to earthquakes and so I had to search around to find some cheap ones. These are actually rather small in size, only about 18 cm long, giving me 4 1/2 lengths for one field. On the other hand this will look nice with only two small fields to fill and gives me more freedom to do some ornamental stuff.

After a few hours of swinging the trowel, slapping the mortar, swapping the stones back and forth to find a nice fit, I was finally done. I used the grout trowel to fill the small holes and flatten the surface of the mortar and after it had fairly dried I used a big brush and lots of water to wash the mortar off the rocks and smooth the mortar lines.

In the garden the broccoli is growing steadily showing not a single caterpillar or other bug after I had sprayed the leafs once, because they had been infested by green caterpillars by the dozen and summer time wasn't the right season for me to look after the garden more than once a week.

Even the cauliflower, which we had planted together with the broccoli was opening up beautifully, can't wait to prepare some nice food with these.