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Japan: Cultural Reading Adventures + Fun Food and Crafts for Kids

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Our oldest son’s oil pastel version of Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa, a woodblock print.

This post is part of the Tender Sapling Travelers Series.

Passports ready? Let’s go to Japan!

Our recent “visit” to Japan via our monthly homeschool studies as part of Culture Club was not our first. We have turned our focus to Japan many times over the years, in part because my husband was born in Japan. Can you believe my mother-in-law even kept a beautiful Japanese outfit from his babyhood which each of our boys has been able to wear too? Sweet and a lovely connection to the place of their father’s birth.

This past year during early modern history, our oldest son became fascinated with the artist and printmaker Katsushika Hokusai and created his own version of the famous Great Wave off Kanagawa with oil pastels, which turned out to be his contribution at Culture Club a few months later. If you are a fan of Hokusai, share this book as an introduction to this colorful man, who was known by some thirty names throughout his life, and his work with your elementary aged children.

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Miniature origami samurai hats. Same folds as the ones the kids used to make life-size ones at our son’s samurai birthday party.

As as result of our family’s independent studies of Japan’s early modern history, our middle tender sapling asked for a samurai-themed party for his sixth birthday. No, not power rangers. Real samurai stuff. That turned out to be a blast, with the birthday boy teaching everyone how to make life-size origami samurai hats and me donning a lovely kumata (like a kimono, but made out of cotton), thanks to our friend who started Culture Club. Thank goodness for helpful hands, as I couldn’t figure out how to get the beautiful cloth to lay right and not look like I was wearing a jumble of sheets. The samurai hat folding fever continued for months, so our son was jazzed to teach dozens of kids at the Japan Culture Club how to make these smaller ones.

As you can see, Japan is one of those countries that is easy to explore. There are resources and experts readily available – museums hold amazing artifacts and works of art and our local Japanese steakhouse offers a memorable meal experience along with a chance to stand next to a life-size replica of samurai armour – not a bad option if the Met’s amazing Hall of Arms and Armour is too far to visit. Everyone can take a quick trip to the local library or an internet search, which yields a wealth of material.

Here is a list of books we loved reading as we re-explored Japan for Culture Club. We recommend these as a portal to Japan for preschool through upper elementary ages:

ChibiChibi: A True Story from Japan by Barbara Brenner and Julia Takaya (authors),  June Otani (illustrator)

If you love Robert McCloskey’s classic Make Way for Ducklings, you will love this true story of a mother duck and her ducklings who take up residence in Tokyo’s Imperial Palace moat and capture the hearts of the people. After a scare when the beloved smallest duckling – Chibi – goes missing after a storm, prompting search parties and media attention, a special duck house is built to keep Chibi and family safe.

The Origami Master by Nathaniel Lachenmeyer (author), Aki Sogabe (illustrator)

This book introduces the reader to the ancient Japanese art of origami or paper folding through an imaginative moral tale of an origami master and a bird who copies his origami. The colorful pictures engaged our youngest. The older two ran off to fold origami birds as soon as the book was finished.

Since we have three boys who always seem hungry, here are three books that deal with food and introduce aspects of Japanese culture or creativity:

Tea with Milk by Allen Say

This is a sweet tale of how the author/illustrator’s own parents met in Japan and crossed cultural divides, both personal and interpersonal. The book starts with the main character’s move from the United States, where she ate spaghetti, to Japan, where she had to wear a kimono. It then follows her on her path of independence, finding a sympathetic soul and her future husband along the way.

How My Parents Learned to Eat by Ina R. Friedman (author), Allen Say (illustrator)

This is a another touching story of a young Japanese woman and a young American man who meet in Japan and become friends, bridging their cultural gaps as they eat food from each other’s culture.

Who Made This Cake? by Chihiro Nakagawa (author), Junji Koyose (illustrator)

Our big-machine-lovin’ three year old isn’t the only one who enjoyed this humorous Lilliputian-like story of little people with big machines who make a cake. Everyone in the family got a kick out of it. The Japanese connection? The author/illustrator is Japanese, as is the family celebrating a birthday with the help of the little people and their cake-making efforts.

As with all our Culture Club adventures, we tested out recipes. These are two simple and fun favorites from Japanese cuisine:

  • Our rice balls alongside Japanese dishes brought by other families to our Culture Club potluck lunch.

    Our rice balls alongside Japanese dishes brought by other families to our Culture Club potluck lunch.

    Rice Balls (Onigiri) – super easy, fun and yummy! The kids love getting their hands messy as they mold rice balls in their salted hands. Eating the tasty rice balls is the icing on the cake. The recipe I used is evading me, but it’s similar to this recipe, except we skipped the nori and umeboshi. We simply made sushi rice in the rice cooker and once it was cool enough to handle, the kids got their hands wet and salted and made balls from the scoops of rice I dropped in their hands.

  • Fun-shaped Hard Boiled Eggs. Yes, we shaped hard-boiled eggs into cars & fish using molds such as these. Again, fun, fun, fun! Gotta love modern Japanese whimsy! We pressed fresh hard boiled eggs into these molds and ended up with fun shaped eggs. Processed food? Not really. Fun? Definitely.

At our monthly Culture Club meeting, some of the other families brought these terrific crafts that are worth repeating:

  • Daruma Dolls – Daruma or Dharma Dolls are a good luck symbol with Zen Buddhist roots that the Japanese people tend to make wishes on by coloring in one eye of the doll at the new year. Once the wish comes true, the other eye is filled in. Cindy over at One Part Sunshine brainstormed these creative crafts the kids could take home and make a wish on. Basically, the kids used cut up egg cartons, red tape, masking tape, and sharpie/permanent markers to create these clever dolls.
Daruma doll created by our oldest son at Culture Club - Japan!

Daruma doll created by our oldest son at Culture Club – Japan!

Supplies used to create the above Daruma Doll.

Supplies used to create the above Daruma Doll.

Play Sushi

    – This homemade sushi set may rival a Melissa and Doug set. Our Culture Club founder, Sarah, gathered sushi boxes, chopsticks, and a collection of textile craft supplies for the kids to create their own sushi rolls, wasabi, and more. She then got busy with a glue gun, making their creations more permanent so they could take them home and play sushi chef or restaurant owner.
Creative sushi sets the kids made.

Creative sushi sets the kids made.

What are your favorite books, recipes, or crafts that bring Japan and its rich culture into your child’s life?

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Migrate to Mongolia: A Tender Sapling Travelers Cultural Adventure – Part 3 (Food)

This post is part of the Tender Sapling Travelers Series and Part 3 of a 3-part installment on Mongolia. See Part 1 here (book recommendations and learning about the ger) and Part 2 here (prayer wheels, including a step-by-step craft).

I usually love researching and selecting which native food to prepare for our monthly Culture Club homeschool cooperative potluck. However, Mongolia had me stumped.

The traditional nomadic diet is so opposite to what we eat, it presented a few challenges:

1) Where would I get the ingredients or cooking tools, such as the abdominal cavity of a marmot, inside which I would cook chunks of mutton over heated stones if making “Boodog?”

2) If I could get all the supplies and pull off a traditional dish, which typically involves no seasoning and is usually heavy on the animal fat to help Mongolians survive their cold winters, would my kids or any of the 30 other children at our potluck try more than a bite of it?

3) Given that there are several vegetarians in our coop and that our potluck dishes sit out at room temperature for some time, I prefer to select vegetarian dishes from each month’s country. Mongolian food is so heavily meat-based! It’s summarized by Wikipedia as a diet consisting primarily of “dairy products, meat, and animal fat.”

Then I remembered: Continue reading


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Migrate to Mongolia: A Tender Sapling Travelers Cultural Adventure – Part 2 (Prayer Wheels)

This post is part of the Tender Sapling Travelers Series and Part 2 of a 3-part installment on Mongolia. See Part 1 here.

After a wonderful introduction to Mongolia, covered in our Part 1 post, our oldest son was ready to focus on an area of interest to present on at our monthly Culture Club homeschool cooperative. In past years’ learning about Mongolia, his interests veered toward the incredible dinosaur discoveries of Roy Andrew Chapman and team (see book recommendation in the Part 1 post). But this year, he chose to focus on the Mongolian Prayer Wheel.

What’s that? Read on to learn about this fascinating prayer tool, if you will. Plus, use objects around the house to create your own! The step-by-step craft instructions follow the prayer wheel intro:

MONGOLIAN PRAYER WHEEL

Mongolian hand prayer wheel

Our oldest tender sapling found the Mongolian prayer wheel interesting from several perspectives: its design, its spiritual significance, its history, and its recent rebirth as a sign of the revival of Mongolian culture following decades of repression. Here are some of the points he enjoyed learning and sharing with the thirty other children who had each been studying Mongolia on their own: Continue reading


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Migrate to Mongolia: A Tender Sapling Travelers Cultural Adventure – Part 1

This post is part of the Tender Sapling Travelers Series.

Mongolia-Vanishing CulturesOn to Mongolia, Tender Sapling Travelers! While our family had studied Mongolia in prior years, this year brought us new discoveries. We were immediately transported by the vibrant images of nomadic life in Mongolia, another Vanishing Cultures book like the one we read for Norway about the Sami peoples, also written by Jan Reynolds.

I wish I could express adequately how entranced my kids – ages 2 to 9 – are with the Vanishing Cultures books. We’re talking immediately-stop-bickering-with-your-sib-and-pile-onto-the-couch-with-smiles attraction as soon as I pulled the book out! The visuals draw the reader in to another world, making it theirs for a brief while. Life told through the eyes of a child their age helps bridge the cultural gap, filling their minds and hearts with the universal experiences of other children, in this case expressed in a Mongolian setting.

Wild Horese of MongoliaSpeaking of visuals that transport you to another place, my tender saplings also enjoyed watching Wild Horses of Mongolia. This PBS production features Julia Roberts’ journey to the steppes of Central Asia to get to know a nomadic Mongolian family and their wild horses. One of our favorite parts is Continue reading


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Take-off to Norway: Explore the Land of the Midnight Sun

This post is part of the Tender Sapling Travelers Series.

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Chowing down on some yummy Norwegian Pannekaken!

Human nature craves warmer climates in the midst of winter, the tail end of which most of the world’s population is currently experiencing. I guess that’s why Norway’s nickname isn’t Land of the Noontime Moon (its winter personality).

As March transforms from a lion to a lamb weather-wise and as the northern hemisphere welcomes longer days of sunlight (or any at all in the case of the northern reaches of Norway), please join us in “visiting” Norway – the Land of the Midnight Sun.

This is the first stop in our new Tender Sapling Travelers Series. Each month we aim to focus on a part of our wonderful planet and its peoples. This installment will explore the original peoples of Norway, a gripping true story of bravery and love, and lots of food, with links to ethereal music and a couple of meal blessings sprinkled in. Continue reading