May 31, 2008

Sports Saturday and Meriken Park - Kobe

We kicked off this Saturday just like last Saturday. Mike again joined the weekly pick-up basketball game at the Canadian Academy gym and then we all biked on over to the field for family baseball. (Unfortunately, the majority of the participants are Red Sox fans who insist on calling it Funway Park. Un-amusing.) Mike was the automatic pitcher, although Jacob got a turn on the bump as well. This is turning into a really fun weekend tradition. (Jumping from biking, to basketball, to baseball makes Mike feel sort of like a (way way) less athletic Bo Jackson). Here are a couple of pictures from today's game:

In one of the sadder aspects of ex-pat life, a lot of our friends from Rokko Island seem to be leaving! Although turn-over at this time of year is quite high in this community, we're sure to meet many new friends as well. Recently, we have been informed that some of our good friends are moving back to the U.S., Switzerland, and Korea. We will miss them. But we hope to visit them all in the coming months and years! (We already have the Korea trip planned for the Fall.)

Today we spent most of the afternoon with a family that we have become friends with through Jacob. They have been living here for three years and are moving back to Korea this month. We headed into Kobe with them and treated them to lunch. We all spent the rest of the afternoon strolling and playing in Meriken Park (at the Kobe Port area).

It was supposed to rain, so the kids had their rain-boots; instead of actually wearing them (what fun would that be?!), they used them in a game of horse-shoes:

In the park, we stopped to check out this juggler (and some roller-bladers and skate-boarders):

Some that we encountered, preferred the horizontal position. This first group were wedding party goers. We are not sure if this was the pre-party, the post-party, or they just decided to skip the whole thing and get wasted):

Second, is just some random guy catching some R&R (he was snoring quite loudly):

Third, well, that's Mike having a quiet moment, while the kids their darndest tried to scale the obviously unscalable art/monument:

We also walked around part of the Park that is a Memorial for the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake, which devastated the Kobe area in 1995. One corner of Meriken Park (which was heavily damaged in the quake), was left in an un-repaired state, so you could see the earthquake damage (pretty amazing):

They also had a nicely done exhibit there that described the earthquake and the reconstruction. As you may imagine, Jacob and Lauren had many many questions...

Back home on Rokko Island, we spent the early evening relaxing outside of Tully's Coffee, where Mike and Ilena each enjoyed a Swirkle pick-me-up and the kids each enjoyed an ice cream pick-them-up. (The later evening was spent watching the season finale of LOST; go iTunes!)

Tomorrow, we plan to go back to Kyoto for the day. But for now, we're bushed.

May 30, 2008

OK - Last Post on Mascots (Promise)

So...Mike is completely addicted to the Japanese Mascots Blog (which we blogged about and linked to last week). Check it out! They add a new mascot every day, complete with a little write-up. As previously noted, there are certainly lots to choose from!

Here is Sunchakkal, the mascot from one of the Japanese Universities. We're pretty sure that the Penn Quaker would dominate that bird any day.

Some more recent fun ones (courtesy of the above site), including Akabi and Hoopy:

May 27, 2008

Memorial Day - Interleague Baseball at Koshien

Happy Memorial Day to all of our U.S. Readers! Although we don't celebrate Memorial Day over here in Japan, Ilena and the kids were able to have a little picnic on Monday followed by an improptu swim in the fountains (while Mike was at work), and, later that evening, Mike and Ilena were able to take in some Memorial Day baseball at Koshien Stadium. (Sort of, since Monday here was Sunday in the U.S., but whatever, you get the point). Anyway, thanks again to courtesy seats from the Williams' family (3rd row behind the Hanshin dugout!), Mike and Ilena enjoyed a terrific 2-1 extra innings victory by the Hanshin Tigers over the Seibu Lions in a great interleague play matchup of the respective League Leaders.

Although Jeff Williams didn't pitch (he had pitched in the prior two games, the Tigers got some great starting pitching and then turned to the other 2/3 of their famed JFK bullpen (plus Watanabe, who got the win) and were able to squeak out a victory on a walk-off 2-out RBI single by Kanemoto in the 11th inning. (Incidentally, he beat the Lions Closer, Alex Graman, who was a former Yankee who never really panned out in the Majors).

We can't help but continue to gush about Japanese baseball. We made fast friends with our outgoing (and increasingly drunk) Tiger-fan neighbors. The guy in front of us in the Yellow Tigers jersey had posters for every player and bought and downed a beer (literally) every half-inning. Every time we looked up it was like instant replay as he was chatting up the neon-clad beer girl and she was smiling as she poured another. Another of our buddies is the guy in the hat with the little stuffed Tiger on it. We all "conversed" in broken English and broken Japanese. And rooted like crazy!

Every time the Tigers had a batter up with a man in scoring position, which was often, the cheering and thunderstick combination of "Rasshai Rasshai (BOOM-BOOMBOOM) HEY! (BOOM-BOOMBOOM) HEY!" went up through the crowd, the home fans whipping themselves into a frenzy for every pitch. The coolest thing about the experience is the positive energy of the fans. They are so adoring. And there is no booing. Ever. They just love this team. And even though our friends were wasted, there was never any belligerence and they were friendly (and highly entertaining) throughout.

The only tough part about being a Tiger's fan is that Mike can't find a Jersey in his size. He is dying for some gear, but the LL size in Japan just doesn't quite fit comfortably across the shoulders. This is highly annoying.

Here are some pictures from the game. Shortstop, Toritani (No. 1):

Mike's favorite player, Arai (1B, No. 25). He is off to a terrific start. He reminds Mike of a Japanese Andres Galaragga in his prime.

Kanemoto (OF, No. 6). The most popular of the Tiger hitters. Today's Hero of the Game.

Here is the post-game on-the-field press conference with Kanemoto, flanked by the Tiger's Mascots. The fact that EVERYBODY sticks around for the post-game press-conference and subsequent singing and cheering is really cool.

May 26, 2008

Student Led Conferences and Kobe Kachoen

Last week Canadian Academy organized "student-led conferences" for all the elementary grades. This is a very cool concept; the teachers don't update you or give reports. Rather, it is just the kids chance to show us everything they have been working on in school.

Both Jacob and Lauren worked hard preparing what they wanted to present at their special conference. Ilena headed to school with the kids and started in Lauren's class. Lauren's teacher had set up five stations around the room, including circle time, poetry and song corner, spring art book, and a special class slide show. Lauren led Ilena through each of the stations with a huge smile and bundles of pride. It was clear that Lauren has been hard at work over the last few months and that she soaks up everything. After the classroom portion, Lauren took Ilena to her music, art and gym class to give her a short demo.

Here she is showing off some beautiful origami which she had done in art class recently:

After finishing up with Lauren, it was Jacob's turn to show his stuff. Kindergarten had also set up stations around the class for the students to guide their parents. Jacob guided Ilena through his current ocean science unit as he displayed his portfolio with his ongoing research project on the clownfish, created a graph based on different fish types, read a couple of his favorite "home school books" and even got to handle some real (dead) fish, squid, and clams while identifying all the important parts. Jacob was just glowing the entire time. He's come such a long way in just five short months. As with Lauren, after finishing in the classroom, Jacob escorted Ilena to his gym, music and art class where the teachers had left out some materials for him to explain their current work/activity. He even got to spend a couple minutes finishing up a floral masterpiece which he hadn't quite completed yet. The sunflower picture below is definitely in the running to be framed!

After leaving school by lunchtime that day, Ilena and the kids headed to nearby Port Island to check out Kobe Kachoen, an exotic flower and bird park.

The flowers were really beautiful, but the true show-stoppers were the hundreds of birds all roaming free. One of the rooms was devoted to toucans. You could buy food in a little cup (an assortment of diced melon) and the birds would land right on your arm as you feed them from your hand. Lauren jumped right in and enjoyed spending time with her new little avian friends. Jacob was a little more cautious, and stuck to just petting the owls. There were some brilliant tropical birds, penguins and a duck pond (with some very hungry ducks.). In all it was a great way to spend a beautiful afternoon.

May 25, 2008

Speaking of Mascots...Weekend Goings On

Speaking of Japanese Mascots, over the weekend on Rokko Island, there were a couple of Festivals. One was a green environmental-type event (food, music, speeches, hats made out of recycled newspaper). Another, right next to it, was a car event sponsored by BMW (lots of cool cats, a bouncey castle, some car simulation games). Not sure where this mascot was from, but the Panda and Lauren became fast friends:

And here are some pictures of the kids near some of the sportier Beamers that were on display:

It was kind of funny to have the car festival plopped right next door to the save-the-planet fest, all in the same day. But festivals are always fun!

As for the rest of the weekend, among the highlights was a family baseball game (ages 3-adult) that was organized by Jacob's kindergarten teacher. Batting order was in height order and all adults had to hit lefty. It was a good time (and perhaps the start of a Saturday morning weekend tradition), until it was called on account of a steadily increasing rain.

On Saturday night, we got a babysitter, and went out for dinner and drinks. We lucked into a superlative Chinese Restaurant in the Kobe MINT building, which adjoins Sannomiya Station. It was called Lee's Garden, and as explained by the English-speaking and very friendly Mr. Lee (who had spent time as a Chef in Taiwan and California), offered a great set course. All of the food was superb, but the absolute highlight was the Sesame Balls served for dessert. Simply one of the most delicious things we had since arriving in Japan.

We finished the night off at our favorite local bar on Rokko Island - Mars Venus Shot Bar (previously blogged about here). The live rock/folk music this weekend was the Japanese proprieter on acoustic guitar and his friend on electric guitar, rocking out to tunes like Country Road, Wonderful Tonight, Your Song, and several Beatles hits. Always a good time!

May 24, 2008

Mascots In Japan

We wanted to do a short entry on Japanese Mascots, which seem to be quite the cultural phenomenon over here. (It probably has something to do with the cultural emphasis on cuteness (kawaii) in Japan, combined with the great popularity of anime and manga.) These mascots can be either of the cartoon or cuddly variety. And they are not just for sports teams. Most prefectures and corporations have mascots. Every event, festival, and program has a mascot. Police and fire departments have mascots. Even Mozilla, maker of Firefox (our browser of choice), has launched a Japanese mascot. In short, they are ubiquitous.

Here are some of our favorite examples of mascots that we have encountered.

This is Atom Boy (also known as Astro Boy), one of the Mascots for the Yakult Swallows baseball team:

These guys (a penguin and a platypus?) are the mascots for the ICOCA card, which is the train pass we use around here.

This guy is the mascot for PiTaPa, another local train card:

These guys are the mascots for our local movie theater, Movix. (To us they seem very reminiscent of the Backyardigans):

Even the Japanese military has a mascot. (It is actually quite controversial.) Another strange example is the new mascot of Nara, an ancient city we have previously blogged about. It is meant to evoke the two things that Nara is most famous for - the Giant Buddha and free-roaming deer. But, we're not so sure about whether a Buddha-looking guy with antlers was quite the right concept to go with.

For more on this fun little topic, we leave you with this list of the top thirty cutest Japanese corporate mascots and with this great site completely devoted to describing and displaying the many Japanese mascots.

May 23, 2008

Catching Up On Ikebana

Here are some of Ilena's most recent Ikebana creations:

We hadn't shared these for a while! (the pictures just never seem to do them justice; it has been so nice to have these arrangements around the apartment!)

Ilena's teacher is this little 4' 10" dynamo who is a fountain of gardening and flower arranging knowledge. She has shared some useful flower-related tidbits, including burning the ends of flowers and sticking others in vinegar to make them last longer. These may be known by some of you gardening types, but it sure was news to us.

May 21, 2008

The Daily Trip To School

Every weekday at 8 AM, we grab our bikes (or occasionally scooters) and ride them down the street to Canadian Academy. Mike joins (on foot) a few times a week. There is also a nearby Japanese school, and, since most young Japanese kids take themselves to school, there are groups of three volunteer "crossing-guards" posted at every corner. Jacob and Lauren (and Ilena and Mike) exchange a hearty ohayo gozaimasu to the group posted on the closest corner every morning. It's the same three ladies every morning. Mainly, they just chat amongst themselves and say good morning to every passerby.

And yes, we know that in 90% of the pictures our kids are wearing helmets. It can't be helped. We think they should wear the helmets just about all the time. It's just safer that way. :)

Jacob's questions - ranging from the incredibly complicated to the outright humorous - continue. Yesterday before bedtime, while looking at his window at the lit covered tennis courts a few blocks down the road, he said to Mike: "Dad. There is something I don't get about Japan. Why do people play tennis at night here?" Of all the things not to get about Japan, that one took us by surprise!

We are mostly keeping up with all the news in the U.S. Oil is insanely expensive. The economy stinks. Saturday Night Live, particularly their recent spoof of The Office (Japan Version), is still occasionally very funny. The Yankees stink. The Knicks didn't hit the lottery. Obama is moving steadily towards the democratic nomination, and the conversation is shifting from Obama vs. Hillary to Obama vs. McCain. Thank God for the internet, which is where we get most of our daily news. Otherwise, we would have to rely on these guys over at "BS News" for the political analysis:

The katakana in the picture says Obama vs. McCain. (By the way, the "BS" in "BS News" stands for "Broadcast Satellite.")

May 18, 2008

Meat Fest and Kobe Matsuri Parade

We have certainly been enjoying the food in Japan. But on occasion, you just get that craving for large amounts of meat. Luckily, Mike met a great half-Argentinian/half-Japanese guy who told us about Brasiliano, a churrascaria (aka Brazilian BBQ) in Kobe at Harborland. We met him and some other friends for lunch there on Sunday. And we certainly got our meat fix. (As you can see in the picture below, they even have Brazilian BBQ plastic food; amazing!)

Before lunch, we participated in Japan's biggest pass-time: shopping. Mainly, we picked up some shoes and some clothes for the kids at Uni Qlo, a Japanese clothing store that reminds us of a slightly hipper Old Navy, selling reasonably priced casual-wear (but for tiny people; Mike can't shop here, or really anywhere else in Japan that we have found to date.) The first ten times we read the name, we thought it said Uni Glo, but apparently it's Uni Qlo; the name stands for Unique Clothing, you know in a hip trendy Q sort of way. We have heard that Uni Qlo is attempting to make "the leap" and has opened its first couple of stores in the U.S. So check it out.

After lunch, we saw a little bit of a Japanese a capella concert taking place outside on the deck area. Featuring a beat-boxing-Japanese-Boyz' to Men looking group called Permanent Fish. (No idea on the name. We've pretty much given up on trying to explain these sorts of things and are just going to go with it!) They actually sounded pretty good.

Today was also Kobe Matsuri, a summer-time street festival in down-town Kobe, near the Sannomiya Station. We got off there on the way home to check it out and got to see most of the parade. The festival is in its 38th year, making it one of the newer festivals around. It was an extremely colorful, multi-cultural, and high-energy mix of marching bands, baton twirlers, drum bands, municipal and international floats, and dancers and other flashy acts, many in the flamboyant style of Carnival: