October 28, 2008

Fall Break - Rokko San Pasture, Spa World

With the kids on fall break this week, Ilena, Jacob, and Lauren have been up to some fun things. On Monday, they went with some friends up to Mount Rokko. Tuesday was an all-day jaunt to the terrific Spa World. (No pictures of that one, though.)

As for Mount Rokko, the last time we were all up there, we went to the obstacle course at Rokko San Field and Athletics. This time, Ilena and the kids had time to hit the obstacle course (it was totally empty, since it was a weekday and the Japanese schools are in session) and also to check out Rokko San Pasture, a little slice of Ireland, right here in Kobe, Japan.
Beautiful blue skies, sheep pretty much everywhere...It was so picturesque and peaceful; it really didn't feel like we were in Japan.

The kids got to feed the goats and frolic around, and a good time was had by all! (Ilena even managed to read "Holstein Cow" in katakana - woo hoo!)

October 26, 2008

Gearing Up for Korea

We are getting excited for our upcoming long weekend trip to Seoul.

Somewhat humorously, many of our friends who have traveled from Japan to Korea have told us that we need to hit such American shopping destinations as Walmart, Krispy Kreme, and Cold Stone Creamery. Apparently, unlike Japan, they do have some these stores in Korea. That hadn't been exactly what we had in mind . . . .As far as shopping goes, we were thinking more about exploring Insadong, Dongdaemun, and Namdaemun. But we are most excited about visiting our friends, exploring Seoul, and sampling all sorts of Korean food.

Halloween Comes Early - Rokko Island Celebrations

Halloween is not a hugely popular holiday in Japan, but since it is a "Hallmark Holiday" that has a large commercial aspect to it, it is growing in popularity. Here on Rokko Island, in our ex-pat community, we do it up...

Halloween in Japan comes early. Well, not really. But, sort of. Because the kids are on Fall Break next week (and many gaijin travel), all of the local celebrations took place last week. There was trick or treating in the Entente (the apartment where the vast majority of foreigners live). There were also parties at school. Jacob was a vampire, and Lauren was a flower princess. No surprises there!

The Halloween season also gave Mike the opportunity to introduce Halloween Peeps to his co-workers. We know, Peeps are really an Easter-type tradition, but that is what came in the package from home (Thanks Mom!), and we didn't have candy corns. (Nor have we seen any here...hmmm.) At any rate, they were a bit hit, and it was hilarious to hear rapid-fire Japanese being spoken around the office with the word Peeps in it. (Kore wa peeps desu.)

October 25, 2008

Hanshin Tigers - Season Wrap-Up

Well, as the Tampa Rays and Philadelphia Phillies continue battling each other in the World Series back home, it seemed like a good time to do a wrap-up post on the Hanshin Tigers (who are now off playing golf, or doing whatever it is that Japanese ball players do in the off-season.)

For us, our first season as Hanshin Tigers fans was bittersweet.

On the one hand, it was terrific. We fell in love with Koshien Stadium. We became fans of many of the players, and even friends with some. We got to enjoy many games. And we learned to really love Japanese baseball. We will continue to follow the Tigers well after we leave Japan.

Unfortunately, however, their once-promising season ended in frustration. The Hanshin Tigers vs. Tokyo Giants rivalry is always described as Red Sox vs. Yankees, with Hanshin playing the role of the Red Sox and Tokyo playing the role of the Yankees (but this is circa pre-2004, when it was the Yankees who played deep into the post-season every year while the Red Sox went home). After an incredible hot start, this season played out that description to the tee. The Giants charged back from 13 games out in July to catch and pass Hanshin during the last week of the season. Hanshin's manager, Okada, ashamed for having blown the division to the Giants, offered his resignation even before the playoffs began.

Although Hanshin finished 2nd and still made the playoffs, they were ousted abruptly by the 3rd place Chunichi Dragons in a best of three series, who won the last game by hitting a HR off Hanshin's star closer Fujikawa to break a scoreless tie. And so it goes for the Tigers...

Currently, the Giants are playing upstart Chunichi for the Central League title, while in the Pacific the Seibu Lions are taking on the Hokkaido-based Nippon Ham Fighters.

October 22, 2008

Kirin Brewery Tour and Sandaya-Honten Teppankaki

Ilena and Mike had a really cool little adventure this week, getting to take a tour of the Kirin Brewery in Sanda. Kirin is our favorite beer in Japan, and touring and tasting tours are always fun. This was no exception.

Here we are in front of the Kirin Beer Can Bus. Pretty neat, huh?

During the tour, we got our own personal guide, who showed us everything from the hops and barley to the bottling - the fully automated plant pumps out 2000 cans a minute! They had a short movie, a display of labels over the years - most interesting was the label during WWII, which is the only label in its history to not contain any English - , and we ended the tour in the bar.

Here is our favorite quote from the Kirin Brewery pamphlet "Notes on How Best To Enjoy Your Beer:"
  • Number 5 on 10 Tips on Enjoying Drinking in Moderation - "Take two days off a week from drinking." (Only in Japan!)
We also loved the Kirin Beer mascot, named Ecojiro. The slogan on the Ecojiro t-shirt: "I was born from the foam of beer." You can't make this stuff up!

After the tour, we each got to sample 2 full glasses of beer. We were also "taught" the proper way to our a beer (in three easy steps!) to achieve the (apparently) desired 70/30 ratio of beer to head.

One of the other nice parts of the beer tour was that we were among the first to taste Kirin's newest beer, which was being released today. (Nice timing!) It is called Strong Seven (as in with 7% alcohol content), and it was excellent and is now our favorite of Kirin's beers.

After the Kirin tour and tasting, we continued on to Sandaya-Honten Yasuragi no Sato ("House of Tranquility"). Sandaya-Hoten is a beautiful steak-house set in a traditional Japanese setting, with large picture windows looking out on a peaceful garden. The food and atmosphere were both amazing.

October 20, 2008

Meriken Park - ACCJ Walk A Thon

This Saturday, we went into Kobe to join in the ACCJ Walk-a-Thon at Meriken Park. It was a beautiful clear sunny day down by the harbor. The event was sponsored by some of the big U.S. companies, like P&G and Lilly.

The walk itself was super-short. It was well attended by lots of Jacob's and Lauren's teachers and friends from school.

After saving her energy by getting carried by Mike and Ilena for most of the walk, Lauren decided to sprint to the finish line.

Before and after, there were great food booths, product give-a-ways, and entertainment.

These were Jacob's favorite (shocker!). They did a number from "Chicago."

Definitely a nice way to spend a nice day.

October 19, 2008

Rabbits On The Moon Making Mochi?

The other night, we were gazing at a full moon, and Lauren told us she could see the rabbits on the moon making mochi.


Apparently, the tale of the rabbit making mochi on the moon is a popular Japanese folk-tale, akin to tales about man on the moon or the moon being made of cheese. Who knew?

The Great Japanese Banana Shortage!

In a great example of the power of fad-ism in Japan, we are experiencing a very real banana shortage! Yes, that's right. A banana shortage. (And this is not good news for us, since our family goes through a LOT of bananas.)

Apparently, this is due to the booming popularity of the latest diet, The Morning Banana Diet, which was described on a widely viewed TV show a couple of weeks ago. Ever since, it has been seriously difficult to find bananas in the stores! Totally crazy. . . .

October 16, 2008

Lower Brow Dining

Lest you think that we only frequent amazing Japanese restaurants, do not forget that we are parents of two little ones.

Jacob and Lauren's favorite restaurant in Japan is Saizeriya. There is one on Rokko Island, and we went there tonight. Saizeriya, whose logo shares the green/red/white Krispy Kreme color scheme, is a cheap Denny's-like chain restaurant serving very inexpensive pasta and pizza dishes. Oh, and they also have escargot. (Random!) And pictures of the Italian riviera on the walls. Anyway, the kids love it because of the free refills drink bar and the corn soup.

The best part of tonight's dinner was that Jacob ordered his and Lauren's meal in Japanese! We are extremely jealous of his accent and pronunciation.

October 15, 2008

An Interesting Shabu Shabu Dining Experience

On Saturday night, Mike and Ilena went out to dinner with a couple of friends. We headed into Sannomiya to a shabu-shabu restaurant called Tokeiya that had been recommended by a co-worker of our friend.

It never ceases to amaze us how many great great restaurants and bars are tucked in back-alleys or on the fifth floor or the basement of otherwise nondescript buildings in the Sannomiya area. Interesting and high quality places are just crammed in there. You really have to know what you are looking for to find it. Using our handy-dandy access map, we did eventually find the restaurant. (Finding things in Japan is always a challenge, even, we are reassured, for the locals.)

What a fabulous place. When you walk into the building, you change into slippers. Us large-footed gaijin men got large sized green slippers that screamed "Look at me. I have big feet." The ladies got more petite black slippers. We were then led downstairs, through a huge solid metal door, and into the main restaurant area. It was peaceful and spread out, with tile floors, tatami areas (luckily, the kind with the carve-out that you can drop your feet into) for seating, and lots of luxurious dark wood exposed beams. We were served by a group of very attentive kimono-clad women. What a relaxing environment.

The food was great too. We all got the shabu-shabu beef set, which came with a huge plate of varied vegetables, tofu, noodles, various dipping sauces, and we each got a plate of very thinly sliced beef. All of the food is cooked and fished out of the communal pot of water.

During the meal we had eyed the table across the way, a group of Japanese men, dressed in designer black clothing, one wearing sunglasses (in the basement, at night). In the middle of the meal, they were joined by two ladies who brought and were serving them drinks from a bottle of shochu. Apparently, they had been eyeing us too. After our meal, on our way out, one of the men called out to us and asked where we were from. Five minutes later we had accepted their gracious offer to join them for a round of drinks at their table. The conversation was lively and interesting, which is about all we can say here in this family forum. If you want to know more, you'll have to ask us directly. Suffice it to say, we had a terrific time.

Sports Day

This Monday was a national holiday in Japan called Health and Sports Day, aka taiko no hi. This is a brilliant holiday- basically a day off to promote athletic activities - and we think that this is a tradition that needs to brought back to the U.S. The focus of our Sports Day were the activities at the kid's school. Instead of having the day off, they have a half-day filled with color war-esque races and sports events. All the parents were there to cheer on the kids.

Ilena , who has been getting her PTA shwerve on, was co-coordinator of the indoor part of Sports Day, i.e., running the PTA fundraiser by bringing in fabulous venders to sell food to the parents and students during the event. Mike (was) volunteered to help out to, and spent some of the morning slinging curry and samosas at the extremely popular Indian Booth. (Other food booths included Thai, French Pastry, and the PTA Booth (AKA the Costco Booth - muffins, cookies, and drinks).

The real action was out on the fields and in the gym. In the morning, each elementary school kid got paired up with a high school buddy, for the outdoor events. In the second session, the younger kids did relay races in the gym, while the older kids continued with events outside.

As you can see, everyone had a blast!

October 12, 2008

Rokkomichi Bike and Bowl

It was a whilrwind weekend of children's birthday parties. But on Saturday, while Ilena and Lauren were at a girls-only Hannah Montana party (oh the humanity!), Mike and Jacob got to spend the day together. We decided to go on a bike ride off of Rokko Island to nearby Rokkomichi (also in Kobe).

Using our bikes to actually go places is actually a really nice thing. You can spend a nice slow-paced day of exploration just doing something like taking a bike trip to a nearby town. And Jacob loves bike trips, especially when we get to climb up and down the ramps and over the Rokko Island bridge. Rokkomichi is a small train station centered area (like many in Kobe), but it has lots of restaurants and a nice park. So, we biked around town, grabbed some snacks, played in the park, and had a great leisurely day. We even caught a tiny parade consisting of a single danjiri float being hauled through the little town, which we followed by bike.

One of our ulterior motives in choosing Rokkomichi as a destination is that we had noticed that they have a bowling alley there. We wanted to scout it out as a candidate for Jacob's 7th birthday party at the end of November. Jacob's last two birthday parties back home have been bowling parties; we were not banking on continuing the tradition...until now. Rokko Bowl has 50 lanes, automated scoring and bumpers. And, our personal favorite, a bowling shoe rental vending machine. (Very Japanese). You just pop in 300 yen, punch in your size, and a door opens with your bowling shoes.

Of course, we had to play a couple of games to check it out.

Now its looking like we will be having the old bowling birthday party for the third straight year . . .

October 10, 2008

A Little Off Topic - Omiyage

Some of Mike's colleagues at work have been taking business trips to Europe lately. As is traditional in Japan, when they return they bring a small treat from that place for all of the co-workers (AKA omiyage).

And so, we present to you, from Germany, The Kinder Happy Hippo. Greatest. Omiyage. Ever.
You can't get them in Japan, but apparently they are available in the U.S. Highly recommended!

October 9, 2008

Seasonal Foods

One thing that we have noticed more in Japan is the seasonality of food. (Maybe its because we go to the grocery store every day!).

Unlike in the U.S. where you can get pretty much any type of fruit year round, the fruit available here is more naturally tied to the season. Right now, the available fruits include green mikan (which look like limes, but taste like slightly tarter and less sweet mandarin oranges), persimmons (which Jacob and Lauren insist should be called per-cinnamons), and Asian pears (a more apple-y pear). We have an Asian pear in our kitchen right now that is the size of a large grapefruit. We pay serious money for fruit here, but you can't argue with the quality.

October 5, 2008

A Day Of Shopping Firsts

Today, a rainy Sunday, we did some shopping.

First stop was UNIQLO (Get it? Unique Clothing. It's one of those Japanesey abbreviations.), which is the closest thing we can get to an Old Navy out here. Although the main goal was to get some casual kids for our (growing) kids, today marked a momentous day for Mike. He purchased his first article of clothing in Japan! Thats right, Mike actually found a pair of pants that fit him here. It was probably some fatty size, but hey - he'll take it. But there was a bit of disappointment too. Mike discovered they had XL sizes and saw a whole bunch of cool Japanese anime and character t-shirts. Alas, after trying on, it turns out that UNIQLO XL is quite a bit smaller that a U.S. size Large. The, ahem, form-fitting t-shirts were left behind.

Today was also Ilena's first outside-of-the-US visit to Costco. There is one in Amagasaki, and it is quite popular. The main purpose of the trip was to purchase food and drinks for an upcoming school event that Ilena is coordinating, and so she was able to get a ride out there with a friend.

Surprisingly, after months of purchasing day-by-day in our local supermarket, Ilena was overwhelmed by the Costco experience. This after being a twice-a-week Costco shopper back in NJ. The massiveness and bulk-size of it all was quite a contrast to what we have gotten used to. We hear that Japanese people form sharing co-ops to split up the bulk items they purchase at Costco. With its variety and prices, it is insanely popular here. Seeing kimono-clad women pushing around those ginormous shopping carts loaded down with groceries was pretty funny. Shopping there on a rainy Sunday afternoon (the places was packed to the gills) was rough, but we did score some familiar (and formerly staple) items for ourselves like gummy bears, the large bag of frozen strawberries, and chocolate covered raisins. Most importantly, from Jacob's perspective, Ilena came home with a monster fresh baked Costco Pizza. Tasted just like home.

While it was nice to get a little taste of home, we will probably stick to the day-to-day bike trips to our local supermarket.

October 4, 2008

Celebrating The New Year Out Here

Being abroad and not in a large Jewish community (read: we know exactly one other Jewish family here!), we have taken an alternative angle in our celebrations of the holidays. In similar style to our Passover Seder (picnic), we got together with said other Jewish family for a (slightly late, but we wanted to wait for a weekend) Rosh Hashanah picnic.

We all went on a bike ride together and then met at a nearby park/playground with the soccer ball, baseball equipment, football, and frisbee.

We had baked an Apple Honey Cake, they had baked a round Challah. We sang some songs, dipped some Fuji apples in the honey, and shared a nice meal together. A bit unorthodox (pun intended), but it was a really special celebration and one we will all remember.

October 2, 2008

Hello! Panasonic

On October 1st, Mike's employer, Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., Ltd., officially changed its name to Panasonic Corporation. This is part of an effort to consolidate its National, Technics, and Panasonic brand, and to cast off the lesser known Matsushita name, into one global identity. So now instead of explaining that "Mike works for Matsushita - you know, they are Panasonic," we can just say "Mike works for Panasonic." Much simpler. (Of course, this is bad news for founder and Japanese business legend Konosuke Matsushita, but apparently even the Matsushita name had to yield for the sake of a unified global brand.)

While the Panasonic brand has been used abroad for most Matsushita products for a long time, the changeover from the National brand in the Japanese market is a big one. National is a huge brand here in Japan, particularly for home appliances, but because of trademark issues, when Matushita expanded abroad, they were unable to use National and instead began using Panasonic.

So, there was a big announcement at work, they rolled-out a new corporate song that everyone had to learn, and we all got brand new "Panasonic" pins. And of course, this all comes with a spiffy new ad campaign called Hello! Panasonic.

Ashiya Beach - Day Trip

On Thursday, the kids were off from school for teacher conferences. Unfortunately, Mike had to work. But Ilena and the kids, along with some friends, took a great day trip to Ashiya Beach, a lovely man-made beach and adjoining park down by the water in Ashiya. (This was the same place that Mike had biked to over the summer and enjoyed the Ashiya Summer Carnival. It's a really nice little spot.)

As you can see, there was a good amount of frolicking on the beach. And everyone came back sun-burnt and (good) tired!