July 31, 2008

Lauren's Fourth!

With most of the ex-pat community cleared out for the summer, we didn't have the biggest birthday party in the world on Sunday.

But we certainly had a terrific little group.

There was swimming at the River Mall, followed by Decorate Your Own Cupcake at our place. All cupcake accoutrements came courtesy of Price Club, and the kids helped to make the cupcakes (and lick the spoon and bowl)

In the present department, there was Barbie (Lauren's had a laser-like focus on getting her first Barbie, who she named "Sophia," to pair with her other dolls, Tayler and Olivia (who are "Barbie Alternative" Only Hearts Club Dolls), Groovy Girls, an Aqua Doodle Book. Lauren also now has her very own Razer Scooter, just like her big brother.

We can't believe our little girl is 4!

July 28, 2008

Cool Keitai Gadgetry

We have blogged previously about the mobile phone (aka keitai) culture here in Japan. (Well, mostly about the phenomenon of cell phone straps and do-dads, but...) Some of the gadgets used in cellphones here are indeed very handy. (In fact, here is an article about how the iPhone might be less than well received in Japan, because it doesn't have many of the standard features of Japanese keitai; as best as we can tell, it got a pretty enthusiastic reception regardless.)

Anyway, here are a couple of our favorite handy features that you just don't get back home...

First, it seems that every cell phone is equipped with an application that can tell you every way to get from point A to point B by subway, train, or bus. With Tokyo's labarythian subway system (and Osaka's smaller but still intricate one), this is an incredibly useful tool. Our friends in Tokyo consulted their cell phones for the optimal route and timing information anytime we wanted to go anywhere. And the other day in Osaka, when one of the train lines unexpectedly shut down, Mike was able to enlist the help of another stranded passenger, who (with the assistance of his handy dandy cell phone) was able to provide an alternate route on other lines.

(Although we don't have this on our cell phones (the system is in Kanji and is unintelligible to us!), we do use this website version of the same service; it is - hands down - the most useful website we have found since moving to Japan. You can use it for travel anywhere in Japan and it tells you all your public transportation options, how long it takes, when and where to switch, etc.)

The other striking cell phone feature on full display on trains is people watching broadcast TV on their phones. Somehow, we just haven't caught up with this in the States. Video iPods, sure. But how cool is it to be able to flip open your screen, slide it around to the 16:9 aspect ratio, and watch a live baseball game?

Finally, the ability to use cell phones as e-wallets or tickets to events is another neat feature. For example, when you get an airline ticket, the boarding pass has a boxy bar-code on it that you scan as you enter the plane. But some people just purchase tickets with their phones and the same boxy bar-code appears on-screen. It can then be used as a boarding pass; just scan as you walk in. Pretty cool, huh?

July 26, 2008

Tenjin Matsuri

On Friday night we took a family outing to Tenjin Matsuri, Osaka's largest festival and one of the top three (Japan loves "Top Three" lists!) matsuri in Japan. While Mike had experienced the carnival atmosphere of such Japanese festivals (at Aizen Matsuri, Ashiya Summer Carnival, and Gion Matsuri), this was the first time for Ilena and the kids, who were still battling the jet-lag after returning from the U.S. earlier this week.

While Mike was at work, Ilena and the kids watched the land procession parade though the streets of Osaka (starting at Osaka Tenmangu Shrine). Lots of drumming, yukata-clad swarms of people, and portable shrines carried by 20-30 people each. In general, it seems that there is a lot more culture, history, ceremony to the Japanese parades than the standard U.S. marching-band style parades. (But maybe its just because it is so different for us.)

After the parade, we all met up alongside the river near the Sakuranomiya Bridge to watch the boat procession. The park was filled with carnival stall-food vendors, groups in yukata, all enjoying the evening. It was packed. And quite a great atmosphere.

The highlight of the festival occurs later in the evening. After the land procession, all of the participants board lantern-festooned (and otherwise tricked out) long flat barges, which cruise down the Okawa River. The boats play traditional music and have dancing or cheering. It was quite a scene. especially when night fell. And as it got later and later, more and more people crowded into the river-side area.

This was all followed, of course, by fireworks (hanabi).

Afterwards, dripping with sweat (it was approximately a million degrees) and full of carnival food, and with a small sleeping dead-weight girl attached to us, we made our way through the throngs and towards home. We may have been the only people leaving; the fireworks (which had lasted well over an hour) were still going and more and more people were crowding into the park. Leaving the riverside area was like swimming upstream. And we had never seen a train station so crowded before - with a snaking line outside the station just to get in. But (not shockingly) it was orderly and moved pretty quickly. All in all, an awesome time.

July 24, 2008

Japanime - Gake no Ue no Ponyo

So...a few weeks back, when Mike was wandering around Namba at night, he snapped some photos of cool anime posters and billboards. One of which was this one:

Recently, after reading this article in the Japan Times, we learned that this poster is actually an advertisement for a new movie now out in theaters by famed Japan-animation film-maker Hayao Miyazaki. Based on the review, it sounds awesome - sort of a more trippy Little Mermaid. Too bad for us that it's in Japanese!

P.S. Happy to say that Ilena and the kids are back in Japan, making it feel like home again here.

July 20, 2008

Kyoto - Kibune/Kurama & Gion

Sunday was one of my best days of wandering in Japan. We have now been to Kyoto several times, exploring Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) and Ginkakuji (Silver Pavilion), picnicking at the Imperial Palace grounds during Cherry Blossom Season, and boating and hiking in the western part of Kyoto called Arashiyama. Most recently, I was in Kyoto for the pre-Gion Matsuri festivities.

This weekend, on the advice of a co-worker, I decided to head to the Northern part of Kyoto to do some hiking in and between the mountainside villages of Kibune and Kurama. What a great way to spend an afternoon.

(And yes. The picture above is of ancient stone Buddha statues near Kuramadera Temple, wearing Miffy bibs. Naturally.)

After taking a quaint "electric railway" from a station in the Northern part of Kyoto, we pulled into Kibuneguchi Station, with the rugged green mountains all around. The narrow uphill road leading into town (a one lane road, with two lanes of traffic plus lots of us on foot!) winds through a forest of towering ceder trees, up the mountain, and alongside the Kibunegawa river with its many small waterfalls. Numerous ryokan dot the path, shielded from the road by bamboo fences and screens. Each serves (pricey) lunches on tatami platforms that are constructed above the river. It is quite a spot. Further up the hill, Kibune also has a beautiful ancient shrine called Kibune-jinga. The best part was the vermilion colored lamps that line either side of the steps up to the shrine. The shrine, with the mountains in the background and the forest around it, is an impressive location.

Afterwards, I set off on the hiking path to Kurama. This was a steep and serious hike, particularly on this sweltering day. There were lots of groups of hikers, making for nice camaraderie on the path, with the most oft-grunted expression to passing groups being "atsui, desu ne!?" (it's hot, isn't it!?). Luckily, the rest areas were also ancient shrines in wooded glens, each of which had running cool water that you could scoop onto your hands and face. The most striking part of the hike were the overgrown twisting tree roots that made for an obstacle course at times. (Legend has it that the 12th century warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune was trained among these paths by a demon-like creature known as a tengu. Sure seemed like a good training ground to me!)
As the path descends downwards on the Kurama side, you encounter this stunning beautiful vista of Kuramadera Temple and the mountains. It was really breathtaking.

The path then drops you right into the temple courtyard. Kuramadera was founded in 770, and is a magnificent spot, sitting about half way up the mountain on the Kurama side. From there, it was an easy jaunt down, with wide gravel paths that carry you into Kurama, a laid-back mountain village.

It had been a terrific day, but it was about to get even better. On the train on the way back I met two older Japanese school-teachers who were coming from a fancy lunch at one of the Kibune river-side ryokans (the classic ladies-of-leisure lunch spot, I gathered). We had such a nice conversation in broken Japanese-broken English, talking about our days, Japan, and our families. When we got back to Kyoto they actually invited me to join them for tea and dessert!

This was, of course, completely unexpected, and it is difficult to put into words how nice it is to connect with perfect strangers in a foreign language and place. It bears noting that this was not the first time since being in Japan that we have been taken with delightfully sweet random acts of kindness (although prior to this, they had been directed to our children!). Oh, and at tea-time," I cooled down with the monstrous shaved ice, green tea, and mochi ball concoction shown above.

Afterwards, I had planned to head back to Kobe, but my new friends had given me some recommendations on their favorite close-by Kyoto sites in the Gion area, so I switched course at the last minute and did some more solo wandering.

Among their recommendations were Hanamikoji-Dori, a very well preserved ancient street. It was a great spot for a Sunday stroll, and you could hear the wooden clop-clop of the traditional clogs along the cobbled streets. Lots of specialty shops, neat doorways, lanterns, and roofs. Their second recommendation was the nearby Yasaka-jinja, (yet another) beautiful shrine:

As I wandered further through the streets, with the sun now starting to set, I spotted this group of geisha, and got a look at the towering Yasaka Pagoda. I also hiked up to take a look at the gigantic Kiyomizudera Temple.

Later that evening, I walked back along the river and wandered through Ponto-cho, a hipster (yet old-school) alley near the river in Kyoto that houses scores of restaurants and bars.

What had started as a day of hiking through the mountains and ancient temples, ended with quite an adventure through many more of the beautiful sites in Kyoto. It felt like two different, but great, days. And making new friends was quite the added bonus. (Finally, I have come to the conclusion that you could literally spend weeks and weeks in Kyoto, and never run out of new things to see.)

July 19, 2008

Ashiya Summer Carnival & Fireworks

I spent pretty much all day Saturday at Ashiya Park and Beach, the site of the Ashiya Summer Carnival. (I had discovered Ashiya Beach a couple of weeks ago while on a long bike ride.)

A co-worker had told me about a festival with fireworks in Ashiya this weekend and so I decided to check it out, again biking out to Ashiya. This was a classic summer matsuri - jam packed with people, many sporting brightly colored traditional yukata, tons of carnival foods, varied musical entertainment (more on this below...I went a little nuts with the video camera), all culminating with a great fireworks display. I spent all day there.

The best part was the entertainment. The "main stage" had more "pop" artists -bad J-Pop mostly, that is, with the exception of a very talented Korean pianist named Jyongri- since it was sponsored by a local radio station. But the side stage was a gold-mine of great performances ranging from a dixieland band (playing such classics as "You Are My Sunshine" and "Sweet Georgia Brown"), to an a capella group called Voice of Mind (they did a rendition of "You've Got A Friend"), to a guitar-team doing Beatles songs, to a young lady keyboardist that reminded me a bit of Tori Amos, to breakdancers, jugglers, and streamer twirlers. Here are some videos of the talent. You tell me in the comments who you liked the best.


(make sure to watch through the big piano riff at the end, which I love)

Streamer Twirler
(starts off slow, but make sure to watch when he kicks it in!)

As the sun set, I headed to the beach (along with thousands of others). As I would later realize when leaving, by the time the fireworks EVERYONE in Ashiya and then some was in the park or its surroundings. There was not an empty spot on the beach, in the park, or in the streets and bridges with views of the fireworks. Turns out that Japanese people really come out for hanabi.

I leave you with this last video of the fireworks. I found that fireworks in Japan are quieter and less overwhelming than fireworks back home. The pace was slower and calmer. It was more about beauty than power. As you will surely notice if you watch the clip through to the end, the crowd was really into the fireworks. (the one Japanese word you will need to know for this clip is "segoi!," an oft-used and handy expression that means wonderful/cool/awesome/nifty):

Oh - and here is one last item - randomly funny Japanese t-shirt (there were many to choose from today, but this is a winner):

July 18, 2008

Back Home - Ilena and The Kids All American Adventure Continues...

Ah, the Jersey Shore! Being a Jersey guy, I just love the Jersey Shore. In fact, according to its website, it is "America's Greatest Family Resort." Um. OK. Maybe they were exaggerating a tad, but there is something great about the Jersey Shore. Anyway, it might not have the pristine white sandy beaches of some other places, but its always a great great time. Of course, I didn't get to go this time, but it looks like Ilena, and especially the kids, had a blast down in Ocean City, visiting friends and hitting the beach.

The kids got really into boogie boarding. So into it, in fact, that Jacob reported that he had developed (the dreaded) boogie-board rash.

There is something just so All-American about cheezy mini-Golf courses:
...And Boardwalk Amusement Parks: