November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving - Nihon!

Sunday was the day we designated to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. (Thursday was a work and school day here, and Sunday seemed much more convenient). We hosted a couple of other families at our apartment, threw the old pigskin around, and ordered in the "Turkey Set," which turned out to include quite the delicious Turkey and trimmings. Mike had to go old school without the electric carver, but it all worked out nicely.

It was fun to throw around the football for an hour before heading in for dinner and drinks.

It was of course, a very "different" Thanksgiving . . . in some ways. We had great friends to share it with, a tasty Turkey, and there was a fun football toss. We also had Ilena's signature yam casserole (with the melted mini-marshmallows on top). And our little apartment had that great Thanksgiving smell. But of course we missed our family. And the process of actually cooking said Turkey. And of sitting on the couch and watching entirely too much football.

After apple pie, we even threw in one last birthday celebration into the mix, running the weekly tally to FOUR! The seventh birthday is now officially over. And Ilena can take a break from churning out cupcakes like there is no tomorrow.

Bowling Birthday Party - Jacob's 7th

We are pleased and somewhat shocked to report that we have been able to extend our tradition of bowling birthday parties for Jacob to a third straight year. This year, we hosted 20+ kids and a bunch of parents at Rokko Bowl in Rokkomichi. Despite the somewhat risque bowling poster, it was a great family friendly atmosphere. Do you "Love Bowling"? We do.

It was your standard (somewhat) contained chaos. Five lanes of bowling, followed by food and games. In addition to Simon Says, Musical Chairs, and Freeze Dance, we successfully introduced the Bar Mitzvah staple Coke & Pepsi game to Japan. All in all, another success!

One downside of living in Japan is trying to assemble complicated children's toys with Japanese only instructions. Luckily, Ilena is a wiz. Sort of. (This one took less than two hours!)

Here is Jacob in his new (birthday present) soccer outfit with his new soccer ball. (No assembly required!). He wrote his name in English and katakana on it, and the words "I love soccer."

November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving To All!

We definitely are missing our family and friends at this time of year. After finally wresting away the honor of hosting the family Thanksgiving at our house back home last year, it is difficult to be so far away for this one. (And we miss watching live Football!)

Thanksgiving is certainly different this year. In Japan (unfortunately), it's just a regular work-day. But we will be hosting a little "Thanksgiving" soiree at our place on Sunday. Given the size of our kitchen and oven, there will be a Foreign Buyer's Club "Thanksgiving Set" (aka, Thanksgiving in a box) involved. We shall see . . . .

November 24, 2008

Weekend in Okayama

This (three-day) weekend we headed to Okayama Prefecture with another family just to get away. We stayed on Shiraishi Island (Shiraishi-shima), a small rural island on the Seto Inland Sea, in one of the Okayama International Villas. (The International Villas are a collection of villas located throughout Okayama, that are available for non-Japanese to use at bargain basement prices.)

Thanks to the Shinkansen, the city of Okayama is a mere 40 minutes away. On our way to the island, we stopped at Kurashiki, which had been described by our guidebooks as one of the most picturesque old-feel Japanese towns around. On this gorgeous fall day, it certainly lived up to expectations. An old canal, surrounded by white and black old storehouses and adorned by willows and other droopy trees, is the centerpiece of the old historic area.

In addition to the boat rides on the canal, there were some street artists, and some nice little boutiques to check out. There are also a number of famous museums, but with the children, we were happy to wander through, watch the swans, feed the fish, and grab some lunch.

After that terrific stop, we took a short train ride to Kasaoka, where a clunky little boat (referred to as "the express") transported us (and several elderly Japanese) to Shiraishi. Shiraishi Island is one of the most remote places we have been in Japan. We followed a winding sidewalk from the pier, up the hill, and in between the old wooden homes with their vegetable and fruit gardens before reaching the Villa on the top of a hill.

With an exposed wood beam-and-glass architecture, and a nice deck overlooking the small beach, this was a perfect rustic get-away. There are five rooms - 1 Japanese tatami room (ours), and four western rooms. Our friends stayed at the very dated (apparently Japan did not escape from that distinctive early 70's shade of green) beach-front Ryokan down the road.

Our Villa-mates during the first night were a group of English teachers here with the JET Program (an Aussie, a New Zealander, and an American) with their girlfriends (an American and two Japanese). They got along terrificly with Jacob and Lauren, which was nice. (And Jacob got along particularly terrificly with the girlfriends! He is an unstoppable force around young Japanese women.)

It was like a weekend away with friends at Mike's parents Lake House back home. Except we were in Japan. We played UNO and Dominoes. We hung out on the deck and walked on the beach. We shopped at the one tiny grocery store on the island, and bought beer from the one tiny beer-store on the island. And we cooked up a storm.

On Sunday, another beautiful day, we went on a steep hike up to an observation point that is the highest point on Shiraishi, from a path just steps away from the Villa. The kids were hearty little explorers, and we did our best to keep up! The views were fabulous, and from the top you can see the many other islands of the Seto Island Sea rising out of the water like a field of mountains.

We had planned to stop in Okayama city on the way home to check out Korakuen Garden, billed as one of the top three gardens in Japan. Unfortunately, it was not to be this time, since Monday was a rainy and raw day.

So we got back in the early afternoon, and topped our weekend off by celebrating Jacob's birthday with our friends at a local family-friendly yakiniku chain restaurant called Jyu Jyu Karubi. Ilena brought the cupcakes! (This was a fine Plan B. We had actually planned to go over our friends apartment to have nabe - hotpot stew made at the table with fish stock, veggies, tofu, and meat or fish - but apparently with the cold weather, everyone on Rokko Island was thinking nabe, and the store was out of shabu meat!)

November 17, 2008

Out To Dinner in Kobe...For Kobe Beef

On Saturday night, Mike and Ilena joined some of Mike's colleagues (in visiting from the U.S.) for an evening out in Kobe. As it turns out, this was Mike's first time trying Kobe beef. We went to a terrific small Kobe beef restaurant named Wakkoqu. (Can I buy a vowel?)

The four of us sat at "the bar;" in front of us, was a huge cooktop area, where our own personal chef would cook our dinner in front of us. He started by cooking slices of garlic into servings of garlic chips (turning each slide individually until cooked to perfection). He cut the fatty ends of the meat and cooked the fat to generate the oil for cooking the rest of the meal, which includes our steaks and an array of vegetables and sprouts.

The Kobe beef, which is super-marbled, was seriously melt-in-your-mouth good. A very different taste from other steak. It is served alongside small piles of sea salt, pepper, and a spoonful of mustard that can be combined with soy sauce to dip if you like. The salt and pepper and beef combination was perfect. You just cannot eat too much of it though, because it is incredibly rich. We were pushing the envelope at 250 g (a little over 8 oz.)

For more information, here is a good little review from a local foodie blog that has more description about the place and the food. And, for those of you who are more historically inclined, here is a little history of Kobe beef.

At any rate, it was certainly not the kind of meal you go out for often, but it certainly was a delicious experience.

November 16, 2008

Sunday Out and Kansai Cycle Sports Center

On Sunday, we were invited to the house of one of Mike's co-workers who we know really well. (He was stationed in the U.S. at Mike's office for two years, and returned to Japan around the same time we arrived. We had him and his family over for Thanksgivings back in the U.S.)

It was actually the first time that we had been invited to a Japanese persons home. We understand that entertaining at one's home in Japan is quite rare, since homes are much smaller. Jacob and Lauren love their son, and we really enjoy their company.

They have a lovely home in a more suburby part of south Osaka. We enjoyed hanging out at their house, and had a terrific lunch of roll your own maki. Rice, nori paper, wasabi, veggies, tamago (egg), and all sorts of sashimi were provided, and we went to town! (Jacob and Lauren made western style maki using rice and deli meat, wrapped in nori; that, and take-out KFC!) We even got an impromptu cooking lesson on how to make tamago-yaki - the cold layered egg that is served as a type of sushi. (We need to buy a special pan.)

Afterwards, we headed out to Kansai Cycle Sports Center, a very unique little Japanese amusement park set in the mountains and dedicated to all things bicycle. We started off at a large track that has hundreds of different "silly bikes" of all shapes and sizes. It was hilarious trying to race around the track on these contraptions.

The park has a cycle luge, a roller-coaster, a bicycling roller-coaster that you pedal yourself, and a really nice 3 km bike course in the mountains and through the rustic woods. Jacob and Mike did that one together.

While most of these small Japanese amusement parks have a somewhat old school, dilapidated kind of feel, this place was a total gem. After biking to our heart's content, we finished off our day together by sharing a meal at Rouge Tomato, a fun family place with good pizza and pasta. They had a rock-scissor-paper tournament - winner gets a cake - and celebrating eight or nine birthdays with full-on staff singing and tambourine playing during our meal! By the way, "Happy Birthday" is sung in English. We don't know why!

November 11, 2008

Sunday in Seoul - Korean Folk Village, Hitting the Mall

On Sunday, Mike, Ilena and Lauren trained down to the south part of Seoul to meet up with the Lee Family (and Jacob, who had his first successful sleepover!). On the agenda for the day was Korean Folk Village, a Korean version of Colonial Williamsberg (i.e., see how people used to live, work, and play in olden times) set on a beautiful sprawling property that also includes a cool performances, horse back riding, swings and games, a big old-style Korean market, and a just-perfect-size-for-kids amusement park.

Afterwards, on our way back to the hotel, we stopped at the more modern Samseong-dong, south of the Han River, to check out the famous mega-malls, like COEX and Hyundai, and to grab some food. The Asian mall complexes are simply beyond belief. Their scale put American malls and shopping to shame. It is total shopping and sensory overload. (And remember, this is coming from people who live in New Jersey; we know a thing or two about malls!). For dinner and drinks, we hit "O'Kims Brauhaus," a spacious microbrewery in the mall, with really nice beer and free help-yourself refills of popcorn (which kept the kids busy). Dinner was an electic mix of cuisines, including German sausages, Thai salad, Japanese tonkatsu, and Korean kimchi chigae. Afterwards, we walked through a beautiful outdoor flower show display that included huge sculptures that the kids could play on.

After a merry car ride back to our hotel, during which almost all of the Soundtracks to both The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins were sung by the back seat with gusto, we said a very tearful goodbye to our great friends.

November 10, 2008

Fall Foliage

This is a particularly beautiful time of year when the Maples are turning a brilliant fiery red. There are lots of hot spots for viewing of Fall foliage in Japan, including prime spots like Kyoto, Miyajima, and Nara. Just to give you a sense of it, these are just a couple of trees across the street from our apartment that are starting to turn.

November 8, 2008

Appreciating The Humble Snack - Onigiri

It is hard to believe that we have been blogging all this time, and haven't taken the time to introduce you to one of our favorite Japanese snacks: Onigiri (aka rice balls shaped into triangles or ovals, wrapped in nori (seaweed) and stuffed with a smidge of some veggie or fish or meat).

You can get these little bad boys in any konbini. Priced from 100 to 130 yen, they are the absolute perfect on-the-go snack. The crispness of the seaweed paper and the firmness of the rice is a perfect contrast. And they are just the right size to fill you up for a bit.

Although we have tried some -ahem- "interesting" fillings due to being kanji-impaired (sometimes the packaging only has kanji; this one at left is hirigana, so we can read it - it says negitoro (fatty tuna with onions/scallions), we are fans of most onigiri that we've tried.

Korea - Weekend, Young Love Blooms In Seoul

We spent out weekend in Seoul with our friends The Lee Family.

Here is the background. Right after we arrived in Japan, Jacob and Jaewon (classmates in school) became the best of friends. The two J's were inseparable. But after last school year, Jaewon and her family moved back to Seoul. It was really terrific to have this visit with them. They were great hosts. It was so much was to catch up with our friends and to explore a new city. The best part was seeing Jacob and Jaewon so happy to be together.

On Saturday morning, we met at our hotel, and we all piled into their car. We drove by the President's House, and over to the giant palace and endless grounds of Gyeongbokgong. Built in the 14th century, this was the main royal palace of the Joseon Dynasty, and is set with a backdrop of two of the five mountains that surround Seoul. (These five mountains, and the sun and moon are pictured in the artwork that goes behind the throne.)

Like in Japan (possibly even worse?), our blond haired, blue eyed, white-skinned kids attracted a lot of attention. Perhaps a bit too much!

After the palace, we grabbed a quick bite at a restaurant called SamcheongGak, an amazing spot located up on the mountains overlooking Seoul. We then drove down through a cute little artsy area called Samchungdong, a neighborhood set in windy streets lined with little cafes and art studios.

We headed to Insadong, a great neighborhood to walk through and take a weekend stroll. We sampled some Korean candies, looked at the various market wares, wandered about, and grabbed some afternooon ice cream.

In the late afternoon, we all went to see the show Nanta at a theater in a neighborhood near our hotel. To get there we had to stroll along a tree lined path along the wall of Deoksogong Palace. It was a beautiful area. The show itself was fabulous. A hilarious show of chopping, Stomp-liked percussion, dancing, and comedy, based in a Korean kitchen.

Dinner was at Cham Sooth Gaal for really great Korean BBQ, shoju (the Korean version of shochu), and Korean beer. Tak and Hana taught us how to really eat Korean BBQ- which greens to use when, smearing a piece of lettuce or bok choy with chili paste and wrapping the grilled meats inside. What a feast!

On our way home, kids on our shoulders, we again lucked out, as we ran into a huge free outdoor MTV-sponsored pop concert that was going in the plaza across the street from our hotel. It was called Beautiful Digital World. We were able to enjoy it both outside and from out hotel room!