August 31, 2008

Going Shopping

We are not sure if it is just us getting old or the experience of living abroad, or some combination of the two, but sometimes it seems that simply going shopping can be a fun family activity. The other day, Mike and Ilena were discussing how much fun we had going shopping at Price Club, one of the handful of local foreign buyer's markets. (Reminds us of that scene in Old School where Will Ferrell is talking about having "a big day" of trips to Home Depot and Bed Bath and Beyond!) That place is actually great - awesome beer and wine selection. And its fun to get those items you miss from home. We had chili and corn bread on Sunday night. This is one of our Football Sunday standard meals from home. (Of course there was no football, but it was damned good.)

(Speak of cooking items from home, we have a funny side-story from the weekend. Ilena decided to bake a banana bread. But it did not come out right. At all. Oh, it tasted super-sweet and delicious, but it was more like banana creamy pudding than banana bread. It did not breadify. As to why, it was a mystery. It was only later that she realized that she had used powdered sugar instead of flour. Ah the difficulties when you cannot read the Japanese labels very well and you confuse your white powdered substances.)

This past weekend, a rainy one, we went exploring with some friend near Hanshin Mikage to a mall that we had seen, which had some great stores, including a book store with a tiny but nice English book selection, a Build a Bear, and a very cool specialty coffee store that kept giving us free iced coffee. What?! We're from New Jersey!

Afterwards, we went to Midori, which is sort of like a combination of Home Depot and Best Buy. Home appliances, outdoor stuff, electronics. You name it. And they also sell electronic bulls, apparently for home use. Which is strange. But anyway, we had a good time.

Rokko Island Matsuri

In what was likely the last matsuri of the summer festival season, this Saturday was our local neighborhood festival - Rokko Island Matsuri.

This was our favorite of them all! Only a five minute walk from our house. Lauren got to wear "her kimono" for the first time. (As did many of Jacob and Lauren's little friends.)

We got to hang out with all of our friends from Rokko Island. There were games for the kids. There was great food and drink (local pub Macsy's makes a mean chu-hai!). And there was great musical entertainment throughout the day and into the night. It was basically a huge block party.
The best part was that it was a true multi-cultural affair. Towards the end of the night, after much traditional Japanese music and dancing and some more modern Japanese acts, the gaijin got to take over the main stage, with hilarious performances that included Avril Lavigne (Skater Girl), Michael Jackson, the YMCA and Macarena. OK, well then again, it maybe not be fair to call it "culture," but it was hilarious and a lot of fun. And there was also a rousing performance by a local Belly Dancing group. Not the stuff of your standard matsuri, but the whole crowd, including all the local Japanese were really into all of the music. Or maybe everyone was just really drunk by then.

Here are some more videos to give you more of a flavor of the evening:

The Modern


Belly Dancing

August 30, 2008

The Local Ex-Pat Community

One of the nicest and most unexpected parts of our time here in Japan so far has been the local ex-pat community here on Rokko Island.

(Since we are only here for a (relatively) short time - not the more permanent 3 or 5 year assignments of many of our friends who work for other companies like P&G, Caterpillar, Lilly, or other companies - and we haven't sold our homes and belongings back home, we are sort of pseudo-ex-pats.)

Being in a whole new community and social situation, it is the first time in a long time that we have made so many great new friends.

And, in a lot of ways, walking around here feels like a college campus. Sort of. (Except we have kids!) -- no cars, always out biking or walking, small apartment-style living, and food shopping everyday, plus the tight association with the international school that Jacob and Lauren go to, mean that you see the people you know around the neighborhood every day. Sometimes we feel like we can only walk a couple of steps without running into someone else.

With everyone in the same boat, sharing information and experiences, it makes for a very neat community.

August 28, 2008

Live from OBP! It's YTV Celebration Week

This week at Mike's office building complex, there was a huge week-long celebration celebration of an Osaka-based Japanese television channel, YTV (Yomiuri Telecasting Corporation). The YTV Group owns Japan’s largest network broadcaster, Nippon Television Network Corporation, and affiliate Yomiuri-TV Enterprise Corporation is headquartered in the same building as Panasonic.

To celebrate 50 years in broadcasting, YTV was broadcasting all sorts of zany Japanese variety-shows live all day from Mike's building all week. The place was packed. And it was pretty entertaining actually. Here is the website for the event. (And no, we have no idea what the deal is with the goofy monkey mascots...but they are plastered everywhere.)

In the adjoining building, they had a retrospective display of posters of Japanese television through the years, starting back in the 1960's.

Here are some from the 1960's (my personal favorites):

...The 1970's:

...and Today:

August 25, 2008

What's For Dinner? Preparing Squid

We try to keep it pretty varied for dinners here in Japan. Certainly there is lots of great inexpensive fish - sawara (AKA Spanish Mackerel) is our favorite. Ilena makes a mean miso soup from scratch. And our rice cooker is very well used.

With the foreign buyers markets around here, we can also go international. For example, although its a bit more expensive than back home to put it together, we had a quesadilla night a few days ago.

And then there are your total experimental food nights. Some food items are a mystery. And some are just more exotic than what we are used to. For example, Mike bought a whole fresh squid the other night. Less than 200 Yen (~$2) at the supermarket. He consulted the internet to figure out how to prepare it and followed these simple instructions. Sauteed it up with garlic and lemon juice, and it turned out quite nicely!

August 24, 2008

Stay At Home Weekend

After our recent vacation week and with the start of school for Jacob and Lauren this week, we opted for a stay-at-home weekend on Rokko Island. With school starting up again, the summer is officially winding down. Being back in school is a great thing for Jacob and Lauren - and especially for Ilena! New classes, new teachers, new friends, new Spiderman backpack, you know how it is . . . .

On Friday night, after a family dinner out at An-ke-ru Be-ru (aka Uncle Bell's) Italian restaurant, we wandered out near the River Mall. There was that nice summer-time evening feel, with clusters or people and kids, just hanging out everywhere. We ran into a number of new and old friends. It seems that there is a big end-of-summer/Obon festival next week on Rokko Island, and they have set up bunches of cool Japanese lanterns all over the place. Here are some of them (sorry - camera-phone quality, this time):
On Saturday, Jacob's soccer team had a game against another team on big club soccer field. Usually, he just practices and scrimages with his own team on a playground field, so this was a big deal. Jacob is the token gaijin on a local Japanese soccer club, and handles it really well. In fact he loves it. The coaches are great with him, and some of the kids on his team (1st to 3rd graders) are really talented. This tournament lasted for most of the afternoon. Groups of Japanese "soccer moms" and dads devotedly cheered on their kids. We cheered too - "Go Jacob," until we realized that in Japanese this just sounds like "Five Jacob" (Go is the number five). Ironically, Jacob was wearing number five. So it all worked out alright.

After the kids played, they made a call for parents and handed out new colored jerseys. Mike thought it might be some time to play with the kids, or a parents vs. kids game. In fact, it was a 20 minute soccer game between the parents of our team and the parents of the other team. So Mike donned the (way way too small) jersey and got a taste of what Jacob has to deal with, as the token gaijin. Jacob was on the sidelines, in a role reversal, shouting "Go" and "Run faster!" Total fun! After the day's tournament was over, each squad of kids crossed the field over to where the opposing team's parents were sitting, lined up, bowed, and thanked them. Pretty classy stuff!

Saturday evening, Mike and Ilena got a babysitter for the kids and went out to dinner at the super-swank Kobe Grill, a restaurant on top of the Sheraton Hotel on Rokko Island, which has awesome views of the surrounding area and great food and service. Great steaks. The highlight was when we ordered "Large Prawn Cocktail"; with the small portions we have become used to in Japan, Ilena commented that we would probably get two shrimp. In fact, we got one. But it was literally the size of a small lobster, and was de-shelled and prepared table side. Wow.

Sunday morning, we did some biking. Back home in Maplewood, on weekend mornings, we often joined a great group of families who used to do a 6 mile bike loop around Maplewood and South Orange. Last week, we had seen a sign outside a local bike shop for a weekend biking group here, and we decided to check it out. With Jacob on his own bike and Lauren on the back of Ilena's bike (in her new safer bike seat), we decided to check it out.

As when Mike joined a local group for mountain biking, we were again the most casual bikers in the bunch. Once again, the body-glove lycra outfits and high-end bikes were in full effect! This group of hard-core bikers does two loops of street biking around Rokko Island (each loop in 13 km) at a fairly blistering pace. Two or three of them are professional bikers and one owns the bike store. It was a great group of people, and we held our own for one loop (with Jacob trying to race anyone who came close to him, until even he finally petered out). While not as casual as our bike loop back home, we would love to join this group again!

August 21, 2008

Random Sports Nuggets

How's this for a random little piece of sports related news? Today, apparently, former Yankee pitcher Hideki Irabu was arrested for assault in an Osaka restaurant. Sad.

In real sporting news, the annual Koshien Baseball Tournament has concluded and the winner is a local team, Osaka Toin. The final was perhaps a bit anti-climactic, with Toin cruising to a 17-0 victory.

Here is an interesting little post about watching the Koshien Tourney.
Oh, and in Olympics action, the U.S.A. Olympic baseball team (all amateurs - no pros) beat Japan (all pros) yesterday. Woo hoo!

August 19, 2008

The Japanese Bathroom

Now we've worked really hard over the last 7 months choosing our blog topics to appeal to the majority and as great keepsakes for our family. However, we couldn't leave this one untouched. We've decided that WE WANT A JAPANESE BATHROOM WHEN WE COME HOME!

There are several reasons why the Japanese have mastered the design of a functional and comfortable bathroom. As we've noted previously, their toilets come with all the bells and whistles. While heated seats are wonderful, the various spray (cleansing-like bidet) buttons are left untouched by us (though admittedly Jacob tried them out on our recent vacation in Awaji Island). In addition to the toilet, the "bath room" is really the focal point. In Japan, one doesn't take a bath to cleanse. Rather, one takes a shower until clean and then soaks in a bath for relaxation. In America, we do it backwards. We go into the bath dirty, clean ourselves (or our children) and then soak in a tub of dirty water.

The Japanese shower/tub room is literally a separate water tight room. The shower is a completely tiled area with a detachable hose shower head and a little seat/bench to rest upon. There is usually a small plastic pan which you can fill with water and use to wash the body. During this process, the water can be turned off. Even though most Japanese take a shower and a bath, they still use much less water than we do back at home.

P.S. Lest you think that we are favoring all things Japanese these days, note that we also really want our U.S. sized kitchen back! Further, the Japanese "hole in the ground" public toilets could use some work...Luckily there are (usually) abundant Western versions (read - actual toilets connected to the hole in the ground).

August 18, 2008

Awaji Island Vacation & Driving In Japan

For our second get-away trip of the Obon Holiday week, we headed to nearby Awaji Island. Awaji is a fairly small island that sits in between mainland Japan (Honshu) to Shikoku. Since Awaji is not really easily accessible without a car (no trains, and although you can get around by buses, it seemed inconvenient, since things are so spread out), we rented a car for the first time since moving to Japan.

This required driving on the "wrong" (i.e., left) side of the road in a car with a steering wheel on the wrong (i.e., right) side of the car. We rented a Toyoto Prius (it was also our first time driving a hybrid), which came with navigation (in Japanese, but it's not too hard to understand simple directions like "in 700 meters make a left"). Mike (if he does say so himself) did a pretty good job driving, except for turning on the windshield wipers pretty much every time he meant to turn on the turn signal. (The turn signal, like everything else, is on the opposite side of the steering column and the windshield wipers were on the side where the turn signal is normally found.) This cracked up Jacob and Lauren repeatedly. As we were driving on the road, we noticed how clean and new most Japanese cars were - no equivalent to beat-up Chevys on the road here! We attribute this to (i) taking more pride in cars as a status symbol; and (ii) the fact that they clean your car to the nines every time you pull into a gas station.

We relied quite heavily on the navigation lady. The only hitch was that we couldn't figure out how to re-program in a new destination, so whenever we changed our mind about where we wanted to go, we had to pull over and turn off the car to "reboot" the navi.

To get to Awaji Island, which is less than an hour from Kobe, you have to cross the Akashi Kaekyo Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in the world. Round trip toll for the expressway and bridge was over 5500 Yen ($52). Insane!

We stayed at the Westin Awaji Island Hotel, a high class (way out of our league, but hey it was two days!) hotel situated towards the northern end of the island. The grounds of The Westin are not to be believed and include Awaji Yumebutai Park, a sprawling mixture of flower gardens, lakes, and the architectural stylings of Tadao Ando. (Not to mention two seriously gigantic playgrounds.) The Westin also has a great pool, where we spent the better part of Saturday (and Sunday morning!), as Jacob attached himself (as usual) to three Japanese teenage girls, who became his "new friends."

On our day trips from the hotel we got to see rugged mountains, nice sea views, and lots and lots of onion farms. Onions are one of the foods that Awaji is famous for, and with good reason - they are really really good. We enjoyed them on salads, in Onion Bread, and also in the Awaji Bloomin' Onion form. Other local Awaji products include huge figs and grapes, boiled fish cakes (which doesn't sound too exciting, but they are good) and octopus (best grilled octopus-on-a-stick that Mike has had in Japan). Here are some of the pre-on-a-stick variety:

One day we made a quick stop at the Awaji Ranch, a tiny little farm that put out some seriously good milk. Free samples - woo hoo! The kids enjoyed checking out the cows, and we confirmed that "Moo" in English translates directly into Japanese.

Along the way, we also got to see this huge Daikannon (lit. large Kannon) statute.

Our first day in Awaji, we headed all the way down south and took a schooner ride to see the famous Naruto whirlpools. Dubbed the "whirly twirly pools" by our kids (but called the uzushio in Japanese), these whirlpools are formed under the Great Naruto Bridge. Boat tours head out and into the whirlpools, which twirl the boats around. It was very unique and very cool. (And also hard to do justice on camera.)

We spent our Sunday afternoon at Onokoro amusement park. One part cheesy kiddie amusement park, one part miniature models of famous buildings from around the world (mini-Great Wall of China, Notre Dame, Arc du Triomph, etc.), and one part fairy tale land; it was a fun last day in Awaji.

Here is a picture of us coming over the misty bridge our of Fairy Tale land. (Mike likes this shot, because it reminds him of a slow motion over-drama-field shot of a football team coming out of the tunnel for the Super Bowl.)

Like our trip to Biwako earlier in the week, these couple days of family R&R felt like a lot longer. And now that we have rented a car, we will surely do it again before our international drivers licenses expire at the end of the year.

August 17, 2008

Lauren - Back In Action!

Our thanks to everyone who called or wrote about Lauren after her biking injury. Thankfully, she is fully recovered. Incredibly, her ankle is fully back to normal, and even the deepest wounds are healing beautifully. Last weekend, before we left for our Lake Biwa trip she hopped out of the stroller and took her first steps, and she has steadily improved since then. She is now walking, jumping, running, dancing, and biking again!

Here is some insanely cute footage from this week's ballet class as proof! (Warning: Grandparents' Special . . . .):

August 14, 2008

Lake Biwa Vacation

With Mike off for the Obon Week Holiday, we took the first of our two planned local get-away trips last Saturday through Tuesday. Our destination was Otsu, a small town on the southern end of Lake Biwa (Biwako). Biwa is the oldest and largest lake in Japan, and is about an hour and a half from Kobe by train, just past Kyoto.

We stayed at the super posh Otsu Prince Hotel. With great views of the lake from our 27th floor room, a beautiful (and huge) swimming pool, six restaurants, bikes to rent, and easy access to the lake-front promenade, this was a destination in and of itself. It was chock full of families on vacation, and apart from the fact that we were the only gaijin staying there that we saw, we felt like we were at a resort outside of Japan.

On Saturday evening, after settling in and getting our bearings, we went for a walk out on the promenade. It was loaded with fishermen, runners, and bikers and had huge flat rocks for Jacob to climb on.

On Sunday, we took a short train ride to Hikone, a nearby castle town farther up north along the lake. The Hikone mascot, Hikonyan, is one of the more recognizable mascots in Japan. He is cute, but it is hilarious that he now symbolizes the Hikone Castle, a massive 17th century fortress that was awarded to a warrior daimyo for his contributions in battle. The castle itself is one of the more impressive and classic castles of Japan, very reminiscent of Himeji Castle.

With Lauren still a little bit ginger on her injured foot, we were in no condition to be doing any serious wandering through the castle grounds or up to the top of this castle. Instead, we took a flat-boat tour of the castle moat. This gave us some nice views of the castle and grounds, as well as of the white and black swans that now live in the moat. It was a pretty unique and relaxing little trip.

Chikubushima Island
Hikone Port is one of the points from which boats depart to some of the small islands in the northern part of Biwako. We walked over to the port, and took a 35 minute boat ride over to the ancient sacred island of Chikubushima. On our way out, we passed some sail-boats and some jet-skiers trailed us out, getting some serious waves off our wake. (This was fascinating to Jacob and Lauren.)

Chikubushima is a total gem. What an amazing place. First of all, there were maybe 3 or 4 other people on our boat out there (the last one of the day). On the island, once past the small port area, we felt like we were the only ones there. In fact we pretty much were. Approaching the tiny island, you can see the vermillion Tori gates, shrines, pagodas, and temples, all nestled in between a lush forest along the mountainside. Steps carve their way up and through these sites. It was like a mini-scale version of Miyajima in many ways - the types of architecture and shrines, the magical enchanted sort of feel - but way more secluded and in a more serene and peaceful setting.

We spent about an hour on the island, climbing the steps (carrying Lauren all the way), exploring the various temples and shrines (which date back to the 700s), and taking in the terrific views. The neatest part was the interconnected Karamon gate, Funa (ship) corridor, and main shrine. Wandering through these ancient wooden halls really felt like we were transported back in time.

Boating on Biwako
Back in Otsu, after enjoying a day at the pool, we took another boat ride on The Michigan, a Mississippi River style paddle-wheel boat that was given as a gift by the sister city of East Lansing, Michigan. The extremely Americana-Huck Finn-ness of The Michigan on the very Japanese ancient Lake Biwa is a bit jarring and quite hilarious. But it was a great time aboard.

Jacob and Lauren indulged in a snow-cone and hammed it up trying on the captain's hat and jacket and "driving the boat." It was a nice being on the water, and the weather was perfect. (That is our hotel in the background of the last picture below)

The rest of our vacation was strolls along the Lake, enjoying the hotel's restaurants, runs along the Lake (Mike and Jacob), bike rides along the Lake (Ilena and Jacob), and family time playing dominoes and watching the Olympics (pretty much all judo, as earlier noted). At the end of our little three day get-away, we felt as if we had been on vacation for a week.