December 18, 2008

Homeward Bound - Signing Off For 2008

Well, this Saturday, we will be heading back to the U.S. for a visit. We will return to Japan after New Year's. We are looking forward to relaxing and catching up with family and friends.

It is likely this will be the last post in this space until 2009. So Happy Holidays, Happy New Year, and best wishes for health and happiness to all our loyal readers. All four of you. :)

We will catch you on the flip side.


Tonight, Mike attended a Panasonic bonenkai, a traditional end-of-the-year office drinking party. It was a fun time hanging out with friends from work, being entertained by co-workers, with the youngest of the ranks serving as emcees for the evenings entertainment. (But this will be a pictureless blog entry, to protect the innocent!) Here and here are some humorous accounts to give you the general flavor of the bonenkai.

December 16, 2008

Arashiyama Hanatouro - A Different Kind of Illumination

On Monday night, after work, Mike went to Kyoto to check out a different type of illumination display in one of our favorite areas of Kyoto, Arashiyama. It was called Kyoto Arashiyama Hanatouro. This is a very special evening where hundreds of ceramic and bamboo lanterns bathe the streets, the bamboo forest, and the famous Togetsukyo Bridge in a soft light. Brightly colored giant paper lanterns and ikebana displays are set up in the parks. In addition, various shades of orange, green, blue, and purple back-light the surrounding mountains, trees, and shrines.

It was a particularly peaceful time, strolling around Arashiyama taking it all in. Everyday Arashiyama -surrounded by mountains, chock full of temples and shrines, and with rick-shaws whisking passengers up and down the main street, lined with traditional craft shops and delicacies - is a treat. Arashiyama by lantern on a cool winter night was even more special. I tried to capture some of the vibe in these pictures, but it was hard to really do it justice.

December 14, 2008

Chanukah Comes Early In Japan

We continued our tradition of celebrating the Jewish holidays with our friends, the Guttells. This time, we gathered for an early Chanukah brunch.

There were latkes. And there was serious dreidel-playing. It was a great time!

There was even chocolate Chanukah gelt, with chocolate Yen! (Of course.)

And there was of course, that age-old Chanukah tradition of playing baseball, soccer, and football before the aforementioned celebration. OK, its not an age-old tradition at all. But that's what we did. And it was fun.


On Saturday night, Mike and Ilena headed into Sannomiya to try a robatayaki place that was recommended by friends. Robatayaki is a Japanese version of grilling, where the food - fish, seafood, vegetables, and meats - are cooked in front of you over a large wood-burning grill. The atmosphere is very casual, with lots of wood; it is meant to evoke a rustic, round-the-hearth kind of feel. (A robatayaki is a sub-category of izakaya, relaxed Japanese pubs.)

The chef mans the grill. The rare and raw foods are displayed on a bed of ice in front of you. Seated at a counter that wraps around the grill, you point out what foods you want. The chef then cooks it up, and passes it from his station behind the grill to your seat using a large paddle that resembles a rowboat oar. In fact, we think it was a rowboat oar! The menu consists of slats of wood, with kanji characters for the various items, that are hung behind the chef. When they run out of an item, the slat of wood is spun around to reveal its bare side.
The food is fresh, simple, warming, and very good. We tried yellowtail, scallops, and whale. The grilled sweet potatoes (setsumaimon), yaki-onigiri (grilled rice balls), and "potato bata" (potatoes grilled with butter) were insanely good side dishes. All of it washed down nicely with a couple of beers. So good.
(By the way, if you are ever coming over to live in Japan, we highly recommend the Japanese restaurant and menu book - What's What In Japanese Restaurants, which was given to us as a gift before we came here. Great useful book.)

We ended our relaxed night out over coffees at Nishimura's Coffee, a famous high-end European style coffee house in Japan. The original branch, a tudor-looking three story building that opened in 1948, is in Sannomiya. With a rich Victorian-feeling decor and pricy specialty coffees, it is a nice place to just relax for a little while.

December 13, 2008

Lost In Translation?

Sweet Camel is the name of a store in Kobe. As for their motto - "Jeans for Aggressive Woman" - we are not so sure! But don't worry; Ilena just got a sweater.

December 6, 2008

Kobe Luminarie - 2008

On Saturday night, we headed into Kobe with a bunch of friends. Before going out for dinner, we wanted to check out Kobe Luminarie 2008, a massive light festival that is put up every holiday season since 1995. (It began to commemorate the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of 1995.) Popular from the start, it is now viewed by something like 5 million people/year during the two weeks it is on display. And on Saturday night of the weekend the light display opened, the people (and their keitai cameras) were out in full force!

And with good reason. The lights (apparently hand-painted from Italy) were very beautiful. They were arranged as a grand archway, a long covered hallway, and - at the end - a gigantic cathedral.

In order to walk through the light display, you have to walk down a winding path of city streets. Basically a number of parallel streets near Motomachi are closed to traffic and the streets themselves become a winding back-and-forth amusement park-style line. The "line" moved at a pretty good pace though. There were tons of (largely unnecessary) workers, holding signs, directing people with megaphones (also unnecessarily, since the instructions were things like "walk slowly" and "don't stop to take pictures"), and stopping the thousands of the pedestrians in line at various intersections so other pedestrian traffic (usually five or six people) could walk across the street. But the line moved pretty fast, and despite the cold, it was really nice to be taking a little night stroll through the high-rent shopping district of Kobe. With thousands upon thousand of others!

In fact, we would have to say that the most interesting part was actually the walking to get there. Although the crowds were huge, it was pin-drop quiet. Seriously. And everyone was walking in the same direction. No pushing, no cutting, not a peep. It was almost disconcertingly orderly. Ah Japan! It really was an amazing and very peaceful experience.

Here are some parting shots of some of our Saturday evening posse, with the light cathedral in the background behind us:

December 4, 2008

What's For Dinner? Nabe!!

Ever since the weather started to turn a bit colder and we saw our Villa-mates on Shiraishi Island huddled out on the deck, enjoying a slow warm meal of meat, noodles, and vegetables around a steaming hot-pot, we have been craving nabe.

The other day, Ilena picked up a gas-powered table-top stove and pot, a whole bunch of veggies, some think-sliced shabu meat, tofu, konnyaku, and some dipping sauces.

Total success! The kids loved it too; although, the combination of children, chopsticks, and the dropping of things from various heights into a pot of boiling water was at times dangerous. (I almost said - "Don't Try This At Home." But trying at home was kind of the point.)

Nabe is a leisurely (again, a relative concept anytime Jacob is involved), relatively healthy, and warming way to eat. We will surely be experimenting further with nabes as the winter kicks in.

December 2, 2008

Lauren - Field Trip Making Mochi

Today, Lauren's class went of a field trip to visit a local Japanese kindergarten. While there, they learned how to make mochi. She even brought some home. (Mike is the only one who likes mochi.) We don't recall any mochi-making field trips from our youth; we are thrilled at all the neat experiences that our kids are having.

In other news, Jacob's class is having a "Cultural Celebration" this week. Since its December and we are among the only Jews around, Ilena signed up to do a snack/game/learning booth about Chanukah. Its perfect - potato pancakes and spinning the dreidl! Apparently, however, we are the only people that classify our religion as part of cultural celebration week. Here is the full list from Jacob's class:

USA, Canada, Judaism, UK, Japan, Korea, Philippines, India, and Singapore.

Which one of these things is not like the other?

November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving - Nihon!

Sunday was the day we designated to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. (Thursday was a work and school day here, and Sunday seemed much more convenient). We hosted a couple of other families at our apartment, threw the old pigskin around, and ordered in the "Turkey Set," which turned out to include quite the delicious Turkey and trimmings. Mike had to go old school without the electric carver, but it all worked out nicely.

It was fun to throw around the football for an hour before heading in for dinner and drinks.

It was of course, a very "different" Thanksgiving . . . in some ways. We had great friends to share it with, a tasty Turkey, and there was a fun football toss. We also had Ilena's signature yam casserole (with the melted mini-marshmallows on top). And our little apartment had that great Thanksgiving smell. But of course we missed our family. And the process of actually cooking said Turkey. And of sitting on the couch and watching entirely too much football.

After apple pie, we even threw in one last birthday celebration into the mix, running the weekly tally to FOUR! The seventh birthday is now officially over. And Ilena can take a break from churning out cupcakes like there is no tomorrow.

Bowling Birthday Party - Jacob's 7th

We are pleased and somewhat shocked to report that we have been able to extend our tradition of bowling birthday parties for Jacob to a third straight year. This year, we hosted 20+ kids and a bunch of parents at Rokko Bowl in Rokkomichi. Despite the somewhat risque bowling poster, it was a great family friendly atmosphere. Do you "Love Bowling"? We do.

It was your standard (somewhat) contained chaos. Five lanes of bowling, followed by food and games. In addition to Simon Says, Musical Chairs, and Freeze Dance, we successfully introduced the Bar Mitzvah staple Coke & Pepsi game to Japan. All in all, another success!

One downside of living in Japan is trying to assemble complicated children's toys with Japanese only instructions. Luckily, Ilena is a wiz. Sort of. (This one took less than two hours!)

Here is Jacob in his new (birthday present) soccer outfit with his new soccer ball. (No assembly required!). He wrote his name in English and katakana on it, and the words "I love soccer."