March 30, 2008

Hanshin Tigers Game

Today we went to opening weekend of the Japanese League baseball season to see the Hanshin Tigers take on the Yokohama Bay Stars at the Osaka Kyocera Dome. This was our second Japanese baseball game, but our first regular season game and our first Hanshin Tigers game. (They are the most popular team in this area by far. For a good local website about the team, check this out) The Dome was packed to the gills and busting with energy.

The Tigers won 7-0 behind a pair of 2 out 2 RBI base hits from their first baseman Arai (A-RA-EE! A-RA-EE!). (Mike thought long and hard about buying a jersey, but decided to do some more research into the players first). The most popular player, based on looking at the jerseys, appeared to be their power-hitting left fielder, Tomoaki Kanemoto (gam-BATTAY KA-NE-MOTO!) Their closer, Fujikawa, is also very popular (but didn't pitch in today's blow-out win.)

The non-stop cheering with music and drums and thunder-sticks pounding to the beat during the home teams at bats really make the games super-fun. And our neighbors were good enough to give Jacob and Lauren balloons to blow up for the big 7th inning stretch balloon release (no idea. what this is all about, but its fun! Everyone in the stadium blows up a long colored balloon. A song is then played. At the end of the song, all the balloons are released at once, and the stadium is filled with long balloons flying through the air. Check out our video of this below!)

As it turns out it was a rainy day here, so it was lucky for us that today's game was in a dome (the Tigers usual stadium, Koshien Stadium, is being used for a Japanese High School Tournament).

Back at home, for dinner, we had a home-cooked meal of Miso Soup, Rice ,Tuna with our special reduction, and Bok Choy (preceded by some terrific supermarket sushi and sashimi for the adults and dumplings for the kids). But the best food item of the weekend may have been these flavored Belgian Waffles that Ilena and Lauren discovered in Sannomiya Station. (Good thing for us that the Kansai region is known for its sweets and baked goods!)

March 29, 2008

Our First Visitor in Japan, Trip Up Shin Kobe Ropeway

Friday evening, Ilena's brother Matthew arrived. It is so nice to have Matthew here! He will be visiting Japan for the next 10 days, staying with us for most of the time, but also heading to Tokyo for a few days. In addition, Mike's Dad will be here for business beginning next week, and we are thrilled to have two family visitors.

Today, we all headed into Kobe to take the Shin Kobe Ropeway (a cable car) up the mountain. At the top of the Mountain there is a "herb garden," an extensive and beautifully maintained garden and grounds that surrounds the promenade walkway that winds down the mountain. It is called Nunobiki Herb Garden. There are flowers, trees, topiary (and yes, herbs) all over the place. There is also a glass house that includes a greenhouse with larger plants and an exotic fruit garden, as well as a "fragrance museum," where you can smell various fragrance oils (sandalwood, rose, etc.). There are also terrific vistas from atop the mountain, including great views of Kobe below.

So we cable-carred up and hiked down, while exploring the grounds and stopping to smell the flowers (as it is said). It was a really terrific way to spend the day. After exiting the garden grounds, you are only about halfway down the mountain, and we continued a more rigorous hike downwards to see the Nunobiki Waterfall, a really picturesque waterfall that feels like it is in the middle of an isolated forest, even though it is just a short walk from Shin Kobe Station. (the guy who we asked to take a picture of us in front of the waterfall, didn't quite capture it!). It was quite a hike for the kids (and for Mike, who had a couple of guest riders on his shoulders for much of the hike!).

Afterwards, we walked around the Kitano area of Kobe, an area up on the hill that has a somewhat European feel, with cobblestone streets and little tree lined alleys. (We have blogged about Kitano before; it was an area that Ilena had the occasion to explore previously). At this point, the kids were zonked (not to mention hungry). We lucked upon a Dim Sum Restaurant on our way down the hill towards Sannomiya Station, and had a nice Chinese food meal to top off our day.

Upon our return, the kids hit the sack and Ilena took Matthew out to our favorite little bar to have a couple of drinks and enjoy some great 70s and 80s tunes.

Tomorrow...we head to Osaka Dome to see the Hanshin Tigers opening weekend baseball game. Should be fun!

March 28, 2008

Oji Zoo Daytrip

With the kids still off from school and our first visitor to Japan (Ilena's brother Matthew) yet to arrive until Friday, Ilena took the kids along with another family to the nearby Oji Zoo in Kobe.

They had a great time, saw some great animals (including Pandas, which we had never seen before), and as an added bonus got to play on an awesome elephant trunk slide.

Afterward, at a nearby children's play-place, the kids got to build some huge Lincoln Log structures. This building project was part of a kids art exhibition that was going on at the nearby Hyogo Prefectural Art Musem. Many of Jacob's classmates had art on display at the exhibition too. Definitely a good day-trip!

Back in Japan

Well, we are back in Japan. And Cherry Blossom season is in full bore. For a funny little article that really shows how seriously the cherry blossom thing is taken over here, check out this article and this one.

Some final thoughts on Thailand:
  • On our way out of the country, we got Dunkin' Donuts Iced Coffees (!) for the grownups and Dairy Queen Oreo Blizzards for the kids at the airport. While there are a million McDonalds and Starbucks, you just can't find these two particular indulgences in Japan!

  • The international airport in Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi Airport) is off-the-charts huge and ultra-modern, and really puts the "international" in international airport. There are Samsung and LG flat-screen monitors blaring world financial news, tons of shops and restaurants, and people from all over Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. Among this hustling modern hangar, there was also, of course, a Muslim Prayer Room (see sign below). The international hodgepodge of the airport again makes Japan seem so homogeneous by comparison; because, well, it is!.

  • As we browsed the Thai Airways destination map on the airplane on the way back home, we realized that we are just starting to scratch the surface of an entire set of countries that we knew very little about and - truth be told - would have been lucky to correctly identify on a map just a short time ago: Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, etc. It's quite an eye-opening experience. We'd literally need years to truly explore all these places . . . let alone Japan!

March 25, 2008

Thailand Vacation - Phuket

…And then we spent the next five days lounging by the pool and playing on the beach.

We are staying at Laguna Beach Resort, a resort which is on a tranquil 3 km bay on Bangtao Beach in Phuket. Our room overlooks the laguna, where you can take boat rides to other surrounding beaches and resorts. There are numerous pools, and all are steps from a white sandy beach. There is a diving pool, a giant pool with a water slide and waterfalls, a giant hot tub, and a pool with water soccer and basketball nets. The beach is lined with little thatched huts, many of which are bars, as well as casual Thai restaurants where you can enjoy the sun set (and some drinks) as the kids play on the beach. For our dinner most nights, we enjoyed some great Thai food, including fresh seafood, while sitting on the beach. We split our time during the day bouncing between the pools and the beach, making sure to hit the beach at sunset. We snacked on fresh pineapples and mangos during the day, and on grilled corn-on-the-cob on the beach at dusk. Ilena and Mike indulged in one-hour full-body Thai massages (for about $12 each), as well as foot massages, both of which were wonderfully relaxing. Jacob and Lauren both enjoyed the Kids Club activities from time to time, made lots of little friends, and played rugby games at sunset on the beach. Lauren enjoyed feeding bananas to the resort’s two elephants at breakfast time.

This resort is a very family friendly place. It is also nice and small. We have met lots of nice people from all over the place. It’s funny, but “Where are you from?” has become a very complicated question. For instance, we have met Australians and New Yorkers who are living in India, Virginians and Brits who are living in Dubai, New Hampshirites who are living in Singapore, and Israelis who are living in Hong Kong. On the beach, Mike asked a girl with whom Jacob had become fast friends where she was from. She replied “China, India, and New York.” One day Mike was wearing a Maplewood t-shirt, and met a man from England who had lived in the next town. Big world. But small world.

Meeting people who are living in all of these places has been fascinating. From a family we met who are living in Dubai, we learned that roughly 20% of the cranes in the world are in Dubai (they are building the world’s largest building, the world’s largest mall, etc.) and that the population is 85% ex-pat. Through the other families we have met here, we have also learned a little bit about what it’s like to live as an ex-pat in India and Singapore.

One day, we (Mike, Ilena, and Lauren) took a one-hour elephant trek through a nearby rubber plantation. This included walking through rivers and up steep hills, as well as many breaks so the elephants could gorge themselves with grass and leaves. We got to take home a strand of rubber plucked right off of the tree by our elephant driver. Jacob had no interest in joining us (he is afraid of the elephants), so he stayed back with the Kids Club.

One evening, we got a babysitter for the kids and took a taxi into Patong Beach with our new friends from Virgina/Dubai. Patong Beach is the nightlife district where there are many many hotels and restaurants. (Bangtao Beach, where we are staying, is quite secluded and peaceful by comparison.) We had a superb dinner and drinks at a beach-front restaurant, where we got to choose our snapper and squid before they were cooked.

After dinner, we walked around the main drag of Patong, where the streets are lined with shops, massage parlors, and bars. Thailand is well-known for its adult nightlife. We knew we hit that region of Patong Beach when we happened into one area of bars down one street where every bar had its own pole. (No need to elaborate further; Feel free to use your imagination here). We were just passersby, taking it all in, as the many bars tried to lure us in. Spoken Thai (especially by woman) sounds to us very much like a cat purring– sawat dee caaaa (“hello/welcome”). Before hitting the taxi home, we went into a 7-11 for a cold drink and to see how much we were being gouged at our resort. A lot, it turns out! For example, at 7-11, you can get an extra large bottled of water for 12 Baht (about $0.30). Oh, and in Thailand, even Ronald McDonald greets you with a wai:

Overall, this was a fabulous vacation spot to spend five days doing very little!

March 20, 2008

Thailand Vacation - Temples and Canals

This morning we enjoyed a more casual breakfast of milk smoothies and donuts, followed by superb fresh squeezed orange juice that is sold on the streets here for about $0.80 a pop. It turns out that Bangkok is not only a late-night city, but also an early rising one. The street-side shops are set up early in the morning. Today, we also drove by the Bangkok Flower Market, a twenty-four hour market that caters to Thailand’s temples and businesses with fresh roses, marigolds, jasmine, and orchids (the number one export). Flower necklaces made of rose, marigold, and jasmine are used for religious purposes and are in high demand. We saw bags and bag and bags of fresh picked marigolds lining the streets, as we drove by.

One of the big themes in Thailand is the temples, called wat (there are 400 in Bangkok and 40,000 in Thailand). It is all about Buddhism here. Today we took a half-day temple and canal tour with Mem. The architecture of the Thai wat is amazing. We saw the solid gold Buddha, the 46 meter long Reclining Buddha (at Wat Pho), and The Marble Wat. The grounds at Wat Pho, in particular, are amazing, filled with Buddha statues, gardens, and soaring spiraling structures. At the Marble Wat, we saw a number of orange-robed monks. It turns out that nearly all Thai Buddhist men will become monks for some period (even if only a few weeks or a few months) during their life.

After the temples, we took a long-tail boat ride on the Chao Phraya River, and then through the winding canal “streets” that connect to it. This included a stop to feed loaves of bread to the snake head fish and catfish that hang out in front of one of the water-side wat (where they are protected and may not be caught).

After lunch, back at the hotel, we spent the afternoon relaxing by the pool. We taught the kids how to play Marco Polo, and Lauren learned to hold her breath under water. We realized that (i) it had been weird to eat lunch with forks and knives (we missed chopsticks!); and (ii) we missed the gaijin magic of instantly connecting socially to other gaijin you meet. Here, there were many Europeans and Australians hanging out by the pool, but they all ignored us.

Of course the kids are still like rock stars. And we are merely their entourage. At the airport, the Thai Airways representative made paper airplanes and origami birds for Jacob and Lauren. Tonight we traveled to Phuket (just one hour this time), where we arrived at Laguna Beach Resort at night. More on this place, once we can see it!

March 19, 2008

Thailand Vacation - Floating Market and Elephants

What a day this was!

We began our day with the amazing buffet breakfast at the hotel. It included fresh fruits and juices, fresh baked pastries, made-to-order omelets, the standard American breakfast fare (pancakes, waffles, French toast, eggs, bacon, etc.), dim sum (Chinese), rice and fish and picked vegetables (Japanese), poori and aloo (Indian), and Thai pancakes and noodles. (As it turns out, this morning feast, while delicious, was quite unnecessary, since we would be eating all day.)

We met our tour guide, Mem, in the lobby at 7 AM. We had booked, by email/internet, a full-day tour that was to include a trip by air-conditioned van to the famous Floating Market (which Mike and Ilena really wanted to see) and the Elephant Park (which we figured would be fun for the kids), as well as some other sites. It turned out to be a terrific thing to do. While a bit touristy, we saw some really amazing places that we never would have figured out how to see on our own. (And, trust us, the prospect of figuring out how to get around in and what to see in sweltering Bangkok with Jacob and Lauren was not something we were interested in!) The driver pulled up, in a roomy boxy old BMW van, we piled in, and we were off. As we drove out of Bangkok and south towards the Floating Market, we passed a number of stunningly beautiful temples, scores of huge billboards with pictures of the King of Thailand (there are pictures of this guy literally everywhere), as well as many shanty shacks.

We first got out of the van to wander around a local street market, which had a dazzling array of fresh fruits and grilled fruits (like bananas). We got a bag of super-sweet pineapple. It came with a mixture of salt, sugar, and chili powder for dipping the fruit into. It was delicious. Thai food combines the salt and sugar tastes a lot (e.g., in lemonade), and while very different for Western taste buds, it is a very good combination.

After the street market, we went to the Coconut Tree Farm, where we learned how they make coconut sugar, tasted warm caramel-liked patties of the sugar, tried our hand at scraping coconut out of the shell (and tasted it), and looked at all of the various handicrafts they make out of coconut shells. (No part of the coconut goes to waste here). It was a fun little place to stretch our legs.

Afterwards, we drove a short distance to the dock. There, we embarked on a motorized long-tail boat ride through a maze of canals that ultimately connects to the Floating Market. It was one fast and fun ride as we zipped through the canals, whizzing by shanty houses on stilts with mini-shrines on the outside and many wild flowers (including orchids). Finally, we disembarked at the Floating Market.

The Floating Market is best described through pictures, which we will include below. The sights, and smells, and colors are just terrific, and it’s a picture in our mind that we will always remember. From boats in the water on the canal, people are selling Thai barbeque meats, fresh fruits, fried bananas, soups, and many other foods. All the prepared foods are made in the boats. There are also food items, as well as souvenir items, for sale along the shore. We sampled mangos, pomelos (like a sweeter cross between a grapefruit and pomegranate), and barbeque meats. It was a great place to wander around. Ilena bought a beach hat that converts into a fan. The culinary highlight was definitely the fried bananas. When you buy foods from the boats in the water, they send the bag to you on a hook on the end of a long rod, which also has a basket. You then put the money in the basket. The kids helped us to complete several such transactions.

After the floating market, we were taken to Royal Thai Handicrafts, which specializes in intricate teak carving. Really beautiful stuff. And compared to the U.S., where a machine made teak table set can be pricey, the prices (before any bargaining) were amazing. We were shown a movable teak liquor cabinet, with the cabinets carved in various designs. The showroom (which was powerfully air conditioned!) was really interesting to look around. We didn’t make any large-scale teak furniture purchases, but it was tempting!

After that, it was off to the Samphran Elephant Park, where we took in the elephant show and the crocodile show. Ever seen elephants play soccer before? (By the way, for a truly superlative blog, check out the Samphran Elephant Park link. Amazing blog about Thailand.)

We got back to the hotel in the late afternoon, and took a nice swim at the pool. We met a group of high school kids from Hong Kong who were on a rugby team together and playing some games in Bangkok. They were playing with Rugby balls in the pool, and welcomed Lauren and Jacob into their game. They were very sweet with the kids. Afterwards, we were speaking with the coach, who was from the UK, and we remarked what a nice group of young men they were. He replied: “Actually, I am a policeman, and met all these kids in my, er, professional capacity.” Turns out that all of the kids came from tough backgrounds and the rugby league was a sort of rehabilitation program. Well, they were pretty terrific playmates with Jacob and Lauren.

This evening, for dinner, we got specific directions to a nice Thai sit-down restaurant, weren’t able to find it, and again ended up eating authentic street-side cooked Thai food sitting on a rickety table by the side of the road. This time, we enjoyed real Pad Thai, Chicken with Cashews, Spicy Green Papaya Salad, and Lemonade (made with salt and sugar). Street food was simply our destiny in Bangkok. No complaints, though! On the way back, we walked by the restaurant that we had been unable to find, and just laughed.

After kiddie bedtime, Mike wandered out down Silom Road towards the evening markets and Patpong nightlife area (just to have a quick look!). Along the way, it was basically an orgy of all sorts of goods, sold from sidewalk booths that sprout up to line the sidewalks after 6 PM. The street and bars were packed, and Bangkok was just awash with people and energy. Hitting the bed back in the air conditioned room sure felt good tonight.

March 18, 2008

Thailand Vacation - Bangkok First Impressions

Our trip from Kansai International to Bangkok was terrific. Thai Airways is a fabulous airline. Not only is their official color purple (Jacob’s favorite color), but the service and food was extraordinary. Jacob and Lauren each got Thai Airways inflatable airplane toys, we were served lunches that included Unagi and Soba Noodles, there was ice cream served an hour before we landed, and they even had a complimentary cognac service!

In Bangkok, we had booked a room at the Holiday Inn. We weren’t expecting much considering it was under $90 per night. As it turns out, the Holiday Inn Silom Bangkok is a beautiful hotel with a stupendous lobby, an international breakfast buffet, swimming pool, and beautifully appointed rooms. It was like staying at a four-star hotel. Terry cloth robes in the rooms and all. The Thai greeting is called the “wai” – pressing your palms together and clasping them near your chest. It is a very soft and warm expression. We were being wai-ed left and right at the hotel, and we learned to wai back to people pretty quickly!

Bangkok is basically the antithesis of Japan. Whereas Japan is clean and safe, Bangkok is dirty, polluted, and bustling. Traffic rules either do not exist or are not obeyed (meanwhile, in Japan, people wait at corners for the walk signal even when there is not a car in sight). Whereas Japan is homogeneous, Thailand is like an international smörgåsbord of cuisines and people. There are many Westerners here, but we have not come across anyone from the U.S. Many are from Europe and Australia, and, of course, there are many Asians visiting from neighboring countries. English is spoken much here more widely than in Japan. (Jacob was again excited to encounter so many English speakers.) Whereas melons and fresh fruit are wildly expensive in Japan, fruit in Thailand is abundant and dirt cheap. Whereas Japan is pretty buttoned down, Thailand is outgoing and liberal feeling. The Thai people are very friendly and warm. (One similarity, however, is that people still love our children here. In fact, we were stopped several times during our first day here by Thai people requesting to pose with Jacob and Lauren in pictures! And we also encountered some Japanese tourists – murmuring the now familiar “kawaii, kawaii, kawaii” refrain.)

The hustle bustle of Bangkok is bit overwhelming to the senses, but very exciting. There are hundreds of motorbikes on every street corner, three wheeled taxies (called samlo or tuktuk), and buses with missing doors that are absolutely crammed with people and look like they are falling apart. It is cheap, and bargains abound in street food, exotic fruits, jade, carved wood, art, leather, tailored suits and shirts (handmade suits made to order in 12 hours for $80!), luggage, clothing, and tons of souvenirs. The exchange is about 31 Thai Baht to the dollar.

After unpacking a bit, we headed downstairs to walk around a bit and find some dinner. After a delicious and refreshing fruit smoothie, we decided to walk towards the river to find a Thai restaurant. It turns out that was the complete wrong way to walk. We found ourselves is a distinctly non-touristy part of Bangkok, among many Thai street food vendors. There were no restaurants in sight. So we sat down at a hole in the wall place (and when we say hole in the wall, we mean literally it was a tiny alley with some tables set up and a stovetop for cooking) where we had fried rice with chicken, chow fun noodles with chicken, and iced tea (all for 90 baht). We completed our meal by sampling some of the street food, including various meats on sticks (30 baht for 6 sticks of meat) and dumplings (4 for 20 baht) on our way back to the hotel. With the two hour time difference between Japan and Thailand, we were pretty zonked and went to bed early. This worked our perfectly, since we were to meet our tour guide at 7 AM the next day.

March 15, 2008


Today, we went to the Osaka Sumo Tournament at Osaka Prefectural Gymnasium. We went with a large contingent of other ex-pat families that live in the Kobe area, many of whom we had met over the past few months. Sumo comes to Osaka once per year (in March), and this was day seven of the fifteen-day tournament.

The rikishi (sumo wrestlers) each fight once per day, and the rikishi with the best win/loss record at the end of the tournament is awarded the Emperor's Cup. Rikishi are divided into official ranking groups (which are re-jiggered based upon performance during the tournaments). The matches between lower ranked fighters are early in the day, while the higher-ranked matches are towards the end. The object is to throw your opponent outside the ring (the dohyo) or force him to touch the ground with any part of his body. The matches can last anywhere from 2 seconds to 30-40 seconds. But the pre-match ritual gestures, rituals, and foot-stomping last much much longer. (This part is actually pretty cool.) In between the morning and afternoon matches there are several processions of all the rikishi, and some really cool rituals performed by a yokozuna (a rikishi at the top of the rankings food chain). Here are a couple of videos (the first of a particularly great pre-match and match, the second of the yokozuna ritual ceremony described above):

The sumo wrestlers are like rock stars, but they also walk among the people, entering the gym through the front doors and stopping to talk to people, take pictures, and sign autographs. We also saw a bunch of sumo wrestlers in their traditional robes and wooden shoes, just walking down the street outside the gym.

The event starts early in the morning, around 8 AM. We arrived at around 2 PM, with the gym still mostly empty. But the gym completely filled up by 4 PM, when the big matches were happening. You can really feel the buzz and momentum build throughout the day. Most Japanese sat on pillows in box seats, and got massive amounts of sophisticated foods and sake delivered right to their seats. (We brought peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches.)

The kids (and us) were really wowed by the whole experience. It was really interesting and fun. These guys really are athletes, with unbelievable core strength and amazing balance. Another interesting aspect of sumo is there are no weight classes. So you can get little guys against big guys. Sometimes the little guys used guile and their (relative) quickness to beat the bigger guys. Other times, you get two goliaths just mashing each other. One giant got badly injured in the initial slamming together and got carted off in the biggest wheelchair we had ever seen.

After Sumo, we wandered through the Fifth Avenue-Esqe Namba area of Osaka (one of its two centers, with the other being Umeda). We we looking for a particular restaurant we had seen a write-up on called Slices Cafe, claiming traditional American-style pizza. And we found it. Jacob had calzone and the rest of us had pizza. We shared a banana split for dessert, capping off a terrific day. The funniest thing about our dinner at Slices was that it was a very popular foreigner spot. We had a table by the door. And every time an American (or non-Japanese) person walked in, Jacob smiled and said "Hi!" He really welcomed speaking to people in public in English!

*Note - to all our faithful readers, we are off to Thailand for vacation on Tuesday. We may get a chance to post in Thailand, but its not likely. In all events, we will be back online and posting when we return to Japan*

March 13, 2008

Tour of Kitano and The Mystery of Our Tanka Poem Unraveled

As we mentioned, the weather has taken a lovely turn in the last few days. Most of the day has been in the 60s allowing the spring jackets and lighter weight clothing to burst out of the closet. The playgrounds have been packed - everyone is outside on Rokko Island (as we hear is the case throughout much of the spring and summer). The first blossoms (we think plum) are starting to bud on the trees all over the place. It's quite obvious that this is going to be one incredibly beautiful place in the coming weeks. Now we know why people flock to Japan from all over the world for the blossoming season. Some pictures of the kids (Jacob, Lauren, and Jacob's very good friend Jae Won) outside enjoying the weather:

On Wednesday, Ilena spent the day with Trish, from Illinois, who is living in Kobe with her husband (who works for Caterpillar). There are approximately 60 Caterpillar families from overseas living in our area, many of whom have children at The Canadian Academy with our kids. We met these people at the CHIC Carpet Auction a few weeks back, and Trish volunteered to take Ilena out for a day and show her around Kitano-Cho (the Kitano area of Kobe). This area is very unique, and actually a very popular tourist destination for Japanese natives. It is an area with a lot of Western influence as a large number of Westerners and Europeans settled there back in the mid-late 1800s. Many of the original European style homes remain, the streets are cobblestone, and there are hundreds of quaint little shoppes, bistros, and even a jazz park (with life-size bronze statues of the jazz greats - Gillespie, Parker, Armstrong). This area is set into the mountain above Kobe and naturally has amazing views overlooking the whole city and the bay.

After venturing through the cobblestone streets, they went up a steep set of stairs and down a walkway which leads to the Shin-Kobe Shinkansen Station, Shin-Kobe Ropeway, and some spectacular hiking trails. We'll definitely plan to head back there now that we know where it is to check out the hiking, climb the ropeway and see some of the beautiful gardens and temples set upon the mountain. Ilena and Trish had a quick bite at The House of Pacific, where they dined al fresco and enjoyed the breathtaking views of the city below. It was really a great day, and we can't wait to get back to Kitano-Cho as a family (next time Ilena can be the tour guide).

Remember that Tanka poem that the kind old man from Sasayama wrote and gave to us on the train a few weeks back? (We blogged about it here.) We finally got it translated today. Our friend Bob was kind enough to take the time to translate it for us, after Mike scanned and emailed it to him. Thanks Bob! Here is the translation:

"It won't explode.
He is even afraid of his parent's voice.
The child's hand is bathed in the light of the fireworks.
The child glows with aura!

The child's tree hollow is a treasure box.
Beads and marbles
Shining in the morning sun.
Yuichi [a boy's name]
A child's treasures?

Words of blessing for you!
On the ground where the child is crouched
Seaching for treasure are glass beads,
Faintly glittering in the sunlight that passes between the gaps in the clouds.
A spotlight hits the child's treasure!"

In other news, Lauren received mail this week from her Beth El class back home. She was elated to get some mail of her own. The 3s class each sent their own drawings and there was a special note from her teachers. Thanks Jill and Natasha! It made her day!

Our food item of the day is the Tokyo Banana, which Mike brought back as an edible souvenir from his trip to Tokyo. Apparently it is one of the more famous Tokyo souvenirs. (Since little gifts are so popular, it seems like each place we go has its own little specialty gift item.) The Tokyo Banana vendors are all over the Tokyo Shinkansen Station. They are like gourmet twinkies with banana cream filling. Mike actually got a set of chocolate bars, filled with banana cream filling, this time around (instead of the cake). It was a big hit with the chocolate fans back home! (We are counting this as Mike's White Day Gift for the family. By the way, Heartful White Day, as they say on the signs, to all our readers!).

In terms of foods we miss, we came up with one today - Dunkin' Donuts Iced Coffee. While there is Subway and McDonalds, and many familiar food items are available, we have yet to find good flavored iced coffee. Mike was seriously craving one today.

Five days until Thailand!