January 31, 2008

Kasdan On The Shore

So the title of today's post is in homage to Haruki Murikami's novel "Kafka On The Shore." Murikami is a brilliant (and often bizarre) contemporary Japanese author. One of the strangest characters in Kafka On The Shore is an other-wordly Colonel Sanders (yes - the KFC guy). He is a sort of figment/spirit that guides one of the main characters, a truck driver who wears a Hanshin Tigers baseball cap. We never understood the whole Colonel Sanders character. Well. A funny thing happened today. A co-worker of Mike's offered to take us to a Hanshin Tiger's game, and so he looked them up to get some background. And, he found this on Wikipedia:

"As with many other underachieving baseball teams, a curse is believed to lurk over the Tigers. After their 1985 Japan Series win, fans celebrated by having people who looked like Tigers players jump into the Dotonbori Canal. According to legend, because none of the fans resembled first baseman Randy Bass, fans grabbed a life-sized statue of Kentucky Fried Chicken mascot Colonel Sanders and threw it into the river (like Bass, the Colonel had a beard and was not Japanese). The statue was never recovered. Thus, the Tigers are said to be doomed never to win the season again until the Colonel is rescued from the river.

In 2003, when the Tigers returned to the Japan Series after 18 years with one of the worst records in the Central League, many KFC outlets in Kōbe and Ōsaka moved their Colonel Sanders statues inside until the series was over to protect them from Tigers fans."

See, now that we live in Japan, Murakami is starting to make sense!

Today, Ilena took a grocery store tour and learned all about Japanese vegetables, tofu, meats, fish, and sauces. And she successfully made a delicious (oishi!) miso soup for dinner. In fact, Ilena has been absolutely cooking up a storm here in our little kitchen, making a variety of meats, fish, and vegetables nightly.

Mike has had some minor successes communicating in Japanese on the train and at the video store. When he rented a Spiderman 3 DVD tonight, the video clerk and Mike had a short conversation about 24 and Lost. It's really exciting communicating, even if our Japanese is still extremely limited.

Lauren is adjusting nicely to the language too. Every time we pass a cute dog, she says "ino kawaii! (cute dog!)." And all of the Japanese ladies called Lauren kawaii too!

And tomorrow, we have Jacob's class concert at the school. He has been very busy practicing the songs, which are in both English and Japanese. Should be great!

Finally, we are starting to investigate our options for vacations during March (perhaps) and during Golden Week, at the end of April/beginning of May. We are kicking around the idea of maybe going to Thailand (Bangkok and Phuket - check this place out!) in March if we can put it together in time and find decent airfare, and of staying in Japan for Golden Week and going to Hiroshima (less than an hour and a half away by Shinkansen bullet train) and perhaps Okinawa, way down south. We shall see. By the way, the Japanese National Tourist Organization webpage is awesome for anyone looking to travel in Japan. For example, check out their page on Hiroshima here.

And that about does it for tonight.

January 29, 2008

School Begins, Freedom, and Jeans

Yesterday was the first day of (the very long awaited) semester at the Canadian Academy. The kids were both very excited - Jacob woke up at 1 AM, got himself completely dressed for school and came in to our room saying, "I'm ready to go school" only to learn that he could go back to bed for at least 6 hours. Lauren, thankfully doesn't get herself dressed yet.

Mike and Ilena walked the kids to school together; it's about a ten minute walk down the road -more like 20 if the kids have their druthers. Stopping at every playground and cute little statue around drags out our walk a bit. But leaving early is key - people in Japan are never late for anything.

Dropping the kids off at school was a breeze - no separation anxiety or first day jitters on the part of our children (no big surprise there). Lauren stayed through lunch and then came home at 12:30- she reported a great day - loved her teachers and the kids in the class. The heated floors in the classroom are quite a perk too! Jacob was picked up at 3:00. He also had great things to say about his new school. He was assigned a buddy, also a Jacob. The highlights of his day were recess and gym (rather predictable, we think). On Friday, his class is putting on a concert, so he is learning the songs.

The school is really incredible - we are getting to know some of the other parents, and Ilena went to an Elementary Forum this morning just to check out the latest scoop. After dropping the kids off at school, she has been able to enjoy a few hours of freedom, which seem to go by very quickly after a little run, a shop for the day's groceries and a few minutes on email catching up with friends, family and, of course StarFish.

Things continue to go well for Mike at work. Next week, he will be going on his first business trip to Yokohama (near Tokyo) where he will travel by Shinkansen.

One observation for you guys. The culture of ladies apparel in Japan, much like other non-American countries, is very fancy. No one wears jeans or sneakers. On the weekend, we noticed moms and dads out at the muddy playgrounds in slacks, dresses and rather high-heeled boots. Ilena, Mike and the kids have been very comfortable running around in jeans and sneakers.

This weekend, our friends Bob and Maho will be coming to visit us from Tokyo. They will be our first visitors and we're very excited to have them. (hint, hint, come and visit).

Finally, what's on the tube tonight?: We turned on the television tonight and had our pick of classic Spanish league soccer (FC Barcelona vs. Real Madrid from 1996), two other soccer games from various places around the world, and a thrilling rugby match between Fiji and South Africa. Those Fijian guys are both huge and fast - as the announcer said - It was an "absolUTEly SUPERB match!"

January 26, 2008

Mount Rokko Ski Jo, Conveyer Belt Sushi, and a Surreal Bar Experience!

Today was just a fantastic day in so many ways. We got up early and met up with two other families from Lauren's class-to-be to head to Mt. Rokko Ski Jo for sledding and fun. We took two short train rides, and a motorcoach bus up to the Mountain. What a ride it was, complete with Colorado-style switchbacks and amazing views of Kobe Bay and Rokko Island. It was so nice to get to hang out with other people who had shared the experience of picking up and moving abroad. We learned lots of little helpful bits of information about our surroundings, but also got to share so much of the experience and idiosyncrasies we have been blogging about firsthand with other families who were going through the same thing. And we no longer feel like we necessarily have the loudest children in Japan. (OK, we do, but still...)

The ski and sled area on Mt. Rokko is an artificial snow-making facility that is relatively close-by. It was perfect for a day of fun with the kids. We rented sleds, and although we brought very little in the way of true winter-wear, we made due and everyone had a blast.

Both at lunch and in getting tickets, it became apparent how much Japan loves tickets. You have to go someplace and buy a little ticket, and then someplace else and give them the ticket. Then they stamp the little ticket, which you hang onto until the end of your day, when you bring the ticket back. Lunch was the same way. You go to a little machine, push a button for the food you want (which is identified only in Japanese characters!) and it spits out a ticket. You then bring the ticket to the counter and they give you the food.

Anyway...it was really a terrific day. On the way back, we walked through some neat traditional little shops near the station selling kimonos, meats, fish, sweets, tofu, etc.

Making this day feel like two days, we also scored a babysitter for the evening (a local High School girl from Canada, who has lived in eight different countries in the past 13 years!). On our way to dinner, we happened upon this tiny little bar called Mars Venus Shot Bar, which is about a 5 minute walk from where we live. It's extremely cozy, with room for about 10-12 people. The walls are decorated with U.S. classic rock vinyl album covers, and they had every liquor imaginable. They had live music tonight. The proprietor was extremely nice and easy to speak to, and he even gave us a free sample of sochou (a Japanese liquor made from satsuimaimo- sweet potato). He poured a great drink. It is striking how much care and attention to detail there is in the service industry here. (And you can't even tip!). Instead of tipping, we told him (in Japanese) "We are going to go to dinner. Afterwards, we will come back." (more on that later)

For dinner, we went to a conveyor belt sushi place (you sit at a bar; the plates come around on a belt; you take what you want; at the end they add up the number of plates for the bill). It was the first time we had gone out for sushi for dinner since being here! Even though conveyor belt is not supposed to be the top-of-the-line sushi, it was by far the best sushi we have had! And there are little taps, where you can pour yourself a green tea right at the bar.

When we went back to the bar, it was in full swing with a four piece band and ten people in the bar. (the place was full). The bartender was so happy to see us. We had a couple of drinks and some Pokky chocolate sticks. The band was basically a Japanese Peter, Paul, and Mary with a stand-up Bass. They were awesome, singing all American folk songs. After some songs, a drunk Japanese guy would yell (in English) "YES!" or "Encore Encore!" They finished their set with "If I Had A Hammer" (it was pretty surreal, especially since for native Japanese speakers l = r .. "I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters, alllll over this laaaaand ooooo..."). Next thing we knew, the drunk guy had a guitar and was playing Japanese folk/flamenco songs. And he was great! When he finished, Mike yelled "Encore!" He finished his "set" with a rousing rendition of Clapton's "Wonderful Tonight"

To top it all off, when we got home and flipped on the TV, we caught the end of a classic episode of the OC on one of our cable stations ("Soooooper Drama"). Quite a day!

P.S. Another great sign, this one on our block:

January 25, 2008

Another Week Down

Here we are, heading into another weekend. Before we start, here are a couple of pictures that show how the kids have been decorating their rooms. Go 100 Yen Store!

Today, we decided to write briefly about "konbini" (the Japanese convenience store), because...well...they are everywhere. With names such as Heart-In, Lawson's, and FamilyMart, these stores are part of the fabric of everyday life.

Konbini are like 7-11's, but different. During rush hour, scores of commuters are in there poring over magazines and manga. The other day, Mike missed lunch at the cafeteria and grabbed a container of sushi at the konbini downstairs. And it was soooo good and fresh, you would not believe it. Also, in Japan they sell hot drinks in plastic bottles. Mike had a yellow vitamin C one; and it was quite good. And as previously noted, you can even pay your utility bills there! Here is a cool website devoted to exploring the various types of food items you can buy at these stores.

Anyway, on the topic of food, today was a stellar food day for Mike. At lunch, he went out for yakiniku (yaki = BBQ, niku = meat). Wow, was it stellar. And we went out for dinner on Friday night near the train station to a Tonkatsu place. We got our own little tatami room and shorty table, and sat on pillows on the floor. Excellent. After dinner the kids enjoyed riding up this escalator near our apartment, which has a flat middle section that converts into stairs. Hard to describe, but trust us, its really cool!

Meanwhile, we are continuing to study Hiragana (slowly). Mike gets lots of practice trying to sound out the names of the various train stations he passes each morning! But its going to take some time.

Tomorrow we are heading to Mt. Rokko (despite having no real ski stuff) for an orientation snow-ball fight and lunch with Lauren's class. Should be fun!

January 23, 2008

Everyday Life

Well, its been a bit rainy and gloomy this week weather-wise. The kids are going a little stir-crazy, and are very excited to be starting school next week. (And so is Ilena!!) We watched Mary Poppin's this weekend with the kids when it rained. (Trippier than we ever recall, by the way.) Although the kids have really been playing together with their toys, one of Jacob's favorite things to do is take pictures of Lauren (and pretty much everything else):

(Next, we'll teach him how to focus...)

Now that Ilena and the kids are on bikes, they are using them to get all over Rokko Island. In addition to the regular grocery store, we have been buying lots of great stuff at the 100 Yen Store:

Speak of bikes, Jacob has really taken to his newfound independence on super-safe Rokko Island. The other day, while Lauren was napping, Ilena let him bike to the playground across the street from our apartment. Ilena watched him the whole way. He unlocked his bike, tucked the key away in his zipper pocket, looked both ways when crossing the street, and yelled up "Hi Mom!" when he got there. He was so cautious and careful. Ilena even noticed that he locked his bike upon getting to the playground, while he was playing all of ten feet away. Gotta love that kid. It's quite a shock seeing all of the young school children walking to and from school and going to playgrounds by themselves.

On a separate note, one neat and different thing about Japan is that you can pay any bill you get at any convenience stores. You just walk in, hand them the bill, and hand them the money. No envelopes, no postage, no hassle. We just paid our gas bill at the Lawson's (basically a 7-11 type store, but with sushi and other prepared foods, and no Slurpies or Big Gulps) convenience mart across the street. Many of these stores have English names. The most popular ones around here seem to be Family Mart, Heart-In, and Lawson's.

Finally, we leave you with some fun signage (as you may be able to tell, fun signage abounds here in the Land of the Rising Sun!) from near Mike's work for a clothing store called Grand Back Big & Tall:

Matta ne!

January 21, 2008

A GIANT Victory

It was such a sad start to our day this morning when Mike had to head off to work leaving Ilena and the kids to stay home and watch the Giant's playoff game without him. Sure, following along on the web has its perks, but it's nothing like the real game. Especially when our Big Blue manages to pull off a painful, but amazing victory and will now be heading to the SuperBowl!! What has this world come to? It looks like we will be making annual trips to Japan during the playoffs from here till eternity, since apparently our karmic journey has led to this amazing playoff run. It seems that GAORA (our Japanese cable channel) will be showing the game again tomorrow night (and if it's anything like TBS, the night after that, and the next and the next and the next...). So we declare that SuperBowl Sunday, or Monday morning here is from here on out now officially a National Holiday in Japan.

The most popular commercial we've seen - for the "Shrenda-Shaypa!" I swear, we've seen this commercial twenty times this week:

Our big purchase of the weekend was yesterday at (believe it or not) our local supermarket. So we bought bikes for the kids and Ilena. We're still working on one for Mike. But at least the kids and Ilena can now go to the grocery store as all the other locals do (by jitensha).

Mike also picked up some toys for the kids on Friday night:

Finally, Ilena and Mike are going to attempt to teach themselves Hiragana (so we can attempt to read things like signs and menus). There are 46 Hiragana characters (kana), so we are doing a couple a day. We are also practicing by doing a daily Hiragana to Romanji (writing Japanese words with roman characters) translation of one item we buy in the supermarket, and then looking it up in one of our books or online. For example, the other day we had this: さ わ ら. The first character is sa. The second character is wa. And the last character is ra. When you put it all together, you get sawara, which translates to Spanish mackerel. Cooked up in our fish broiler, it was tasty! We are also making little signs to put around our apartment. Here was Mike's reminder to take out the trash (trash separation and pick-up is amazingly complex here; that's for another post): ご み = go mi = garbage. So, we're trying! Not being able to read sucks. If we are successful, we will also try to learn Katakana, a phonetic character system used for foreign names and words. Kanji, which is more like picture-grams (not phonetic) and of which there are thousands of symbols is likely beyond the scope of this visit!

January 19, 2008

Day in Sannomiya, Kobe

The kids gave us the gift of sleep this morning, sleeping in until an unheard-of 8:30 AM! After whipping up a french toast breakfast, we spent this Saturday morning walking around Rokko Island, hitting the playground and watching all of the morning sports activities on the various nearby fields and play-places. This included watching a field-full of young child kite-fliers. Ilena went for a run on the Greenbelt, a 5K running path around the residential portion of Rokko Island.

We then hopped on a train to Kobe. The main areas there are based around the Sannomiya, Motomachi, and Kobe Stations. The first thing we encountered after getting off at Sannomiya was this Japanese rock band, apparently called Boogie Gallop Foot (all singing in English and not too bad! Although, Jacob remarked that "StarFish is much better than this band"). As we crossed the street to check out the Orix Buffaloes store (the local team, created from a merger of two local teams a couple years ago - one of the teams was Ichiro's former team), we noticed that driving on the "wrong" side of the street was beginning to look pretty normal to us.

Sannomiya is filled with tremendous amounts of shopping. We had lunch at an Okanomiyaki restaurant (Jacob loves the dumplings), and now that we figured out you have to smush it down on the table-top grill to get it to cook nicely, we all really like it! The kids are loving using their chopsticks (we have little plastic "chopstick helpers" that Ilena carries in her purse everywhere).

After lunch gave us a chance to review all the maps and stuff we got at the Information Center, we took a trolley bus ride around town, saw Mt. Rokko up close (it has a very cool cable car ropeway), and eventually got out near the harbor at Kobe Port Tower. We went to the top, which has a super view (where we could see a wedding going on the top of a building below) and a 360 degree rotating tearoom.

Afterward we hit Meriken Park, near the Maritime Museum (housed in a very cool white building near the tower). At the park there, we saw some incredibly masterful jugglers and bike-tricksters. It was pretty amazing. After the park, we wandered around the shops at Harborland, which is like a nicer bigger South Street Seaport with a (yet another) Ferris Wheel and a double-decker merry-go-round. There is also a super cool arcade there. Jacob and Mike got to play this game where you throw balls at a touch-sensitive 50 inch screen. A good time was had by all!

This evening, we've been discovering the vast amount of online resources about living and seeing Japan. There really is so much to see and do. Here are a few of those sites for anyone that is curious:

One last bittersweet note. This weekend is our annual Vermont trip with family and friends back home. We miss it! All our best to everyone.

January 18, 2008

Our Apartment And Some Observations

This morning Mike had his first "true" Japanese train commuting experience. For some reason, leaving 10 minutes later than usual or the fact that the express train was running 10 minutes late, the train was absolutely you-have-to-see-it-to-believe it jam packed. Mike was so absolutely wedged in he didn't even have to hold the hand-straps. The whole smushed collective just sways too and fro as one. At lunch, Mike had his first experience shopping for a particular item (an electrical strip) without being able to read the signs. Incredibly challenging, especially in these monster department store/supermarket/combo shops. (He did eventually find it, as well as some cute toys for the kids). Meanwhile, at work, Mike has been struggling with the Japanese computer keyboard, which has all of the symbols and non-letter characters in a completely different place than on our normal keyboard. But he's getting so used to it that typing on our home laptop keyboard is becoming a challenge!

One observation we share is the remarkable efficiency and practicality of everything. For example, at the Panasonic cafeteria, hundreds of people move through the place and eat incredibly quickly. This is partly due to the fact that there is no waiting on line with hot food and paying at a register. Instead, you grab food and eat. The bottom of each plate has a bar code or RF transmitter, and on the way out you place your tray on a reader and it tells you how much you owe. You then pay by prepaid card at the machine. Very clever.

Another nicety that we forgot to comment on are the heated toilet seats. We had one at the hotel, but don't have one at the apartment, and we miss it already! Especially the kids and Ilena.

Another great concept is department stores with indoor kids play spaces. See the pictures below. It makes having to drag the kids around shopping a bit less painful. Finally, we attach some pictures of our apartment and some pictures from dinner tonight. Ilena and the kids took the RokkoLiner train off of the island to meet Mike at Sumiyoshi Station. After walking around a bit and checking out the Toys R Us there, we found a great casual pizza/pasta restaurant on Rokko Island. Its pretty much built for gaijins, with English menu etc., but very kid friendly and cheap. We met some other foreigner families there, including a family that has a child in Jacob's kindergarten class.

By the way, here are some pictures of our Apartment:

P.S. We love having cable TV. We watched Heroes tonight on FOX! (sure, the episode was two years old, but hey, you can't have everything).

January 17, 2008

Another Pictureless Blog Entry

So now that we've begun settling into our new digs on Rokko Island, we can begin to share a little bit with you about our initial impressions of the area. We left our hotel on Monday and experienced a remarkably smooth move-in to our apartment. Between getting our air shipment delivered and unpacked and having a truckload of rental furniture schlepped up into our new place, we actually managed to head out for a little tour of the island, get Japanese cell phones and dine on traditional Teishoku (set meal/combination with miso soup, rice and main dish).

Daily life in Japan is very different than in the US. Mike has been heading off to Osaka (by way of three trains - but still much better than the commute into Manhattan) every morning, leaving Ilena and the kids to figure things out on the home front. Ilena and the rice cooker have become very well acquainted. Shopping for groceries is a daily event, as very few people drive cars here and most people take their bag or two home with them by bicycle. Since Ilena and the kids have neither (yet), they have been checking out all the stores one by one and are doing their best to choose wisely. There are three nice grocery stores very nearby.

It's sometimes VERY hard to figure out exactly what things are, since we don't know how to read Kanji, Katakana, or Hiragana (the 3 Japanese character sets). Yesterday, Ilena came home with something that the kids called "hot dogs" - but didn't taste like it. Mike took the package into work with him today and the mystery "dogs" were identified as a type of sausage made from fish meat - typically heated and eaten, mainly by children. Lauren seemed to have no problem taking a bite of it right out of the package (it wasn't clear whether it was intended to be cooked or not, another problem with not knowing how to read!)... ah, the innocence of children. Today, while shopping, the kids chose a package of, what they thought were meatballs. Turns out (upon throwing them in a saute pan) that they are actually octopus balls, a delicacy which we have already become acquainted with and intended not to revisit.

While we've had some culinary adventures/mishaps, we've been getting amazingly fresh fish every night to cook in our fish broiler, a tiny little device inserted beneath the cooktop. We can't figure out how we ever survived without a rice cooker and highly recommend that you all purchase one. The kids have been very brave and keep trying new things. We did manage to snag a small jar of peanut butter (for about 500 yen - roughly $5.00) so that we could remind them of home a little bit.

We've been busy sprucing up the apartment courtesy of the 100 Yen store and the kids have been hanging all of their colorings/drawings on the walls too. We have a playground directly across the street from our apartment building where Jacob is begging to go hang after the big kids get out of school. He has been making friends playing rugby, soccer and even showed them a thing or two with his frisbee today. One of the kids even gave Jacob and Lauren a snack bag of traditional Japanese rice crackers (which ended up in Ilena's pocket, since they're not quite fans yet).

Another terrific resource right here on Rokko Island has been CHIC Kobe, which has classes and community events intended for expats like ourselves. Ilena signed up for a Japanese supermarket tour and Jacob is signed up for a Yoga class. Ilena and the kids visited their school - the Canadian Academy - today to drop off some forms; it really looks terrific! They start school a week from Monday.

This weekend we intend on exploring Kobe a little bit and perhaps buying some bikes. We'll post a bunch more pictures when we get a chance. Nice to be reconnected! Keep those comments coming...

January 15, 2008

Kasdan's Unplugged (Until Thursday)

Hello all. Well, the good news is that we're moved out of the hotel and into our apartment. It took almost all of yesterday and it was quite a busy day. Our leased furniture and the boxes we shipped by air all arrived for delivery and unpacking at the exact same time. We are now set up very comfortably in our apartment. We also got super thin cellphones (from Softbank, which uses Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt to hawk their wares), a DVD rental card (almost all rentals have an English option), and scheduled our set-up for cable TV (apparently, a decent amount of English channels including FOX) and internet access (fiber!). Unfortunately the bad news is that our internet connection will not be hooked up until Thursday, so no blogging from home until then (and no calls to or from our Vonage phone). In the meantime, Mike will be figuring out the commute and Ilena will have first crack at figuring out how to use some of our new appliances (including one machine that supposedly both washes and dries your clothes and another that is a combination microwave, toaster, oven) and how to turn off the light in our Tatami room (no switch seems to turn it off!).

This morning, Mike had his first real commute to work. Pretty smooth. While crowded on one train (standing room only), the rest of the ride was easy and he even got a seat (which have seat-warmers on them) so he could relax and recede into the vocal stylings of none other than Lisa Kasdan on my ridiculously small iPod Shuffle. (Check out the link to Lisa's MySpace page). The train is pin-drop silent the whole way and always on time, which really is nice. Especially when your point of reference is New Jersey Transit. The door-to-door commute is under an hour.

Oh and we almost forgot. GO GIANTS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! While we were able to follow the game through three quarters, we missed the end (since we had to unplug and leave the hotel). Meanwhile, all we could divine from CNN (the one English station we have until Thursday) was that the Colts lost to the Chargers. It wasn't until late last night that we saw the Giants score. Woo hoo. What an improbable and awesome playoff run. As Ilena said, it figures that they pick this year to finally win in the playoffs. But if us being in Japan is what it takes to get the Giants back to the SuperBowl, we'll take it. Beating the Cowboys is so sweet.

January 13, 2008

Our Last Day In Osaka

In today's morning paper (Japan Times), we discovered that Japan actually has a professional basketball league, called the bj league. The sports section featured a page long feature on some guy named Ryan Blackwell (who apparently played at Syracuse), the star of the Sendai Eighty-Niners: "We have four solid American guys and the Japanese guys are stepping up." Its been nice getting an English language newspaper in the hotel each morning. In handouts and pamphlets that you see all over the place, English is often prominently used in the title and cover page. Huge tease. When you open it up, it's completely in Japanese.

Of course the real sport here is baseball, and there are two local teams - the famous Hanshin Tigers in Osaka (who play the Red Sox role to the Yankee role of the Yomiuri Giants) and the Orix Buffaloes in Kobe. There was also an article about the foreign sluggers of the Buffaloes this year, including Alex Cabrera, Greg LaRocca, and Tuffy Rhodes. The Red Sox and Oakland A's are visiting the Tokyo Dome in March this year - it would be cool to be able to see them take on some of the Japanese teams.

Tomorrow we are moving out of Hotel Monterey and into our apartment on Rokko Island. On Mike's morning run today, he spotted some baseball players warming up and practicing. When we all went to check it out together (at Jacob's request), we encountered (next to the field the baseball players were practicing on) groups of white-clad Japanese men rhythmically counting and chanting at the top of their lungs. No idea what was going on over there. But it was certainly interesting.

We spent most of the day on Rokko Island, checking out the scene, the shops, etc. It really is going to be a great place to live. The inner part of this man-made island is totally residential, with fountains and waterways, and raised sidewalks that go between the buildings. There is shopping galore. There is a nice view of the mountains of Kobe from everywhere. (The outer rim of the island is commercial, with big shipping yards.) From door to door, Mike will probably have to walk outside all of 300 feet to get to the train station, because of the covered walkways, etc.

We finally gave in and got our first fast food of the trip at McDonald's - most of us had "Shaka Shaka Chicken" off the 100 Yen Menu (the dollar menu). Shaka Shaka chicken is a friend chicken filet that comes with choice of flavor powders (cheese, or lemon pepper). You put the chicken and the powder in a paper bag and then you "shaka shaka" it to get the chicken coated with the flavor.

Dinner was more traditional and far better, as we shared Yakisoba, Gyoza, and Okinomiyaki, and Miso Soup at a nearby restaurant with a hot plate built in to the middle of the table. Jacob was a big fan of table-top cooking! Proudly, we were able to tell the waiter that it was delicious in Japanese on the way out!

Here are Jacob and Lauren riding the train, with some random Japanese people. They insist on riding on the complete opposite side of the train car from us. They are still the only people talking on the train. And, as many of you know, they only have ONE VOLUME.

This is a Flower Garden near our apartment. Couldn't resist!:

January 12, 2008

The Weekend Begins

Saturday started off as a bit of a dreary and overcast day. After a lazy morning in the hotel room, and in a slow drizzle, we all walked over to Osaka Castle, which is surrounded by a really nice park. It's such a thoughtful/respectful culture here - at the first drops of rain, the hotels put out a large number of umbrellas for guest use. And when you walk in the mall, there is a dispenser of special plastic bags made just to "bag" your umbrella, to keep water from pouring all over the shiny clean floors.

After our journey, we snacked on Takoyaki (balls of mushy dough with a bit of octopus in the middle). Its a regional specialty. Ilena and especially Jacob didn't care for it, but Lauren liked it. Mike is not sure yet.

We then went back to Osaka Business Park to visit a doggy daycare center with big glass windows that the kids love to watch. There are cute little shitzu's with orange, blue, green, and pink dyed tails. We also grabbed some hot cocoa. When Lauren spilled hers all over the place, the waitress rushed over with a new cup, something you don't see everyday back home. So nice. After an unsuccessful attempt at napping, Ilena and Mike each went for a run near the Osaka Castle, and Mike discovered a cool playground.

Also, there was apparently a big concert going on at Osaka-Jo Hall; a group called L'Arc~en~Ciel, on a Tour called Theater of Kiss (apparently they are huge here!). The youth of Osaka were out in full force.

We all went running/jogging/walking to the playground and then ventured out deeper into Osaka and found a place to eat dinner. No english on the menu (And no pictures either! One great thing about Japan is that usually there are plastic display cases with fake food outside the restaurant and pictures on the menu. That makes it easier to figure things out. ) This time, it was just a Japanese menu. We made do (we actually had to walk outside to the display case and do some pointing and asking how to say those things in Japanese so we could order), but it turned out to be a really great meal for everyone. We were deeply craving green salad (gareenu sarada in Japanese!), and it was nice to have some greens. The kids enjoyed too! We took the train back home, and Lauren got a shoulder ride back to the hotel from the train station. Right now, we are having a family movie night - the kids are watching Ratattouille as we type this.

We leave you with these gems :)

"Dorink (Drink) Corner" and Random Shirt Display in the Mall -- "Delaware - First State"?

January 11, 2008

Heading into the weekend

Well, to continue in our usual style, Mike went to work today. It was his first true full day in the office without running around to hospitals, headquarters, or HR meetings. Ilena took the kids to the Osaka Kids Plaza which was just a quick subway ride from the hotel. This indoor playspace (a larger version of Imagine That) was a perfect way to spend a somewhat rainy and overcast afternoon. The place was mobbed with preschool/young children, and again, Jacob and Lauren stuck out like sore thumbs. This didn't stop them from jumping right in and having a blast.

After a little nap, we all went to dinner with Katsura-San (we call him Hitoshi), a coworker of Mike's who spent the last two years working at Mike's firm in NYC. We know him well, and really enjoyed having dinner together. We got to ask some of the questions that we've been pondering about Japanese language and customs and got the enjoy the view 38 floors above Osaka atop one of the Panasonic buildings.

This ends Mike's first week of work. We're looking forward to the weekend. Monday is a national holiday in Japan called "Coming of Age Day." But we'll be busy moving into our new apartment out in Rokko Island, Kobe.

A few bonus pictures from today:

January 10, 2008

Tennoji Zoo & A Visit to Matsushita Hospital

We can tell you are sensing a trend here. Ilena and the kids go off and do cool touristy stuff. Mike goes to work (interesting in its own right - trust me - but not your standard blog material). Well, here we go again. Today, Ilena, Jacob and Lauren hopped on the subway and headed to the Zoo. Tennoji Zoo is your pretty standard run-of-the-mill zoo, but they had some different animals that we hadn't seen before, like Japanese Deer, tons of different types of Monkeys, and Red Pandas. They also made friends with a drunk homeless zoo wanderer guy.

Meanwhile, Mike got to go to Matsushita Hospital for his medical check-up. It was pretty in-depth. But since he's not yet 35, he avoided the need to drink the shot of barrium for the upper GI light-up exam.

After work, we all met and went out for dinner to an Okanomiyaki restaurant. It was damned tasty - like a cross between an omelette, matzo bri, and pancake, but with savory ingredients and a sweet sauce. Its a specialty of this region. Jacob wasn't a big fan, but we liked it!

The kids are now very into counting to ten in Japanese, which they do at the top of their lungs, especially on the subways, which are notoriously silent. Everyone gets a good laugh at them. They also watch some Japanese cartoons and kids shows, which are apparently universally incomprehensible, because they seem to enjoy them as much in Japanese as they do in English! At our hotel, where we have to hand in our key to the front desk and retrieve it when we return, the front desk are now used to Jacob or Lauren running in for the keys. They even smile, and we haven't been kicked out yet!

January 9, 2008

Checking Out Rokko Island

After Mike spent the morning at work and Ilena and the kids spent the morning taking a boat tour of Osaka, we all met at noon with a Matsushita representative who escorted us by train out to Kobe (where we had to fill out the alien registration paperwork) and then on to Rokko Island to take a look at the apartment.

Rokko Island looks like it will be a terrific place to live. There are raised walkways, fountains, playgrounds, and people on bikes everywhere. It has a real open and suburban feel to it, which is rare in Japan. There are tons of shops, restaurants, as well as the renowned Kobe Fashion Museum. The apartment is small, but perfect and has a lovely tatami room that is open for visitors (hint hint).

We had our interviews at the Canadian Academy in the afternoon and were pleased to find out that the school is a super-short walk or bike ride from the apartment. Its literally down the block. The school just opened a brand spanking new and stunningly gorgeous elementary wing, with beautiful classrooms, a black box theater, a music recording studio, a playground, and a gym floor so clean you could eat off of it. We got a great feel for the teachers and administrators there. And, it seems they may be looking for some school nursing assistance!! Despite Jacob continually sliding down the shiny slick new hallways, the kids were both accepted and will start on January 28th. We celebrated at the playground down the block; it was nice to just let the kids run around.

Lauren, napless and zonked, fell fast asleep on the train back to Osaka. Jacob went into his doting lovey evening phase and declared Lauren to be "the sweetest best girl on the whole train." No arguments there. All in all, it was a great day, and we are very excited about our new home.