February 28, 2009

Jacob Loses His First Tooth!

We'll have to see what the going rate for the tooth fairy is in Japan!


Ilena took an Origami class last week. Here is her origami menagerie:

What an amazing art form - its hard to imagine how people came up with the intricate folding patterns! Clearly we are still beginners...check out the amazing origami you can find just browsing around.

February 23, 2009

Baseball In The Air - WBC

With Spring Training already underway, Japan is starting to get back into baseball. Most immediately, the hype is starting to build for this year's World Baseball Classic, which begins on March 5th. (Ichiro has been gracing the covers of the local papers for days. Unfortunately, the Seattle Mariners put the kaibosh on potential plans for him to actually pitch . . . .) Japan won the last (and first) Classic back in 2006, upsetting the Cubans in the Final game.

While in the US, most of the news is about which stars are not playing in the Classic, in Japan (as with the Olympics last year), the stars wouldn't dream of not playing for their country. This year's squad includes stars that have jumped to MLB like Ichiro, Fukudome, Iwamura, and Matsuzaka, as well as many of the best players in Japan, like Fighter's SP Yu Darvish and Tiger's closer Kyuji Fujikawa. The rosters of the US, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Canada, and others have a nice helping of MLB superstars.

One of the pool's earlier rounds is at Tokyo Dome, and we thought long and hard about making the trip. But the game that was available was on a Sunday night - a tough time to make the trip with Jacob. The final round is in Dodger Stadium. We'll be watching on TV!

Continued Explorations By Bike

On Sunday, Mike and a friend continued their weekly bike excursions off Rokko Island into nearby towns and neighborhoods. (The running joke about ex-pat-friendly man-made Rokko Island being: "Real Japan, just 10 minutes due north"). Mike actually did a fair bit of exploring by bike last summer, while Ilena and the kids were back home. And Mike and Ilena got to take a nice little off-island bike ride a few weeks back. It is really a great way to get outside, get some exercise, and to explore around. So far, we have been sticking to the streets and sidewalks (in Japan, almost everyone bikes on the sidewalk rather than the street), and have not yet hit the off-road dirt paths in the mountains. Well, not since that one time that Mike did last year.

Generally, we just pick a direction or area and head that way. Just like Sannomiya, with its hundreds of interesting restaurants and bars crammed into every available nook and cranny of space, the surrounding neighborhoods in the Kobe area - like Sumiyoshi, Okamoto, and Ashiya (heading East towards Osaka) and Nada and Rokkomichi (heading West towards Kobe) - are chock full of interesting shops, restaurants, houses, gardens, little back alleys, concrete-bottomed rivers, and local neighborhood shrines. It is almost impossible to get lost, since dead North in any direction are the mountains - the Mount Rokko range, including Mount Maya - dead south is the water - Kobe Bay, and you can always orient yourself by using the JR or Hankyu train tracks and the various stations, each of which is a neighborhood unto itself.

Last time, we happened on a tiny local shrine buried at the end of a dead-end street on heading up the mountains. On this week's ride, our turn-around point was again at another shrine that we happened upon, Gokoku Jinja in Nada. The gokoku shrines are a particular type of shinto shrine dedicated to those that perished in Japan's wars. This was quite a great find. Peaceful, with neat sculptures and nice grounds.

Another week, another shrine...

February 21, 2009

Saturday - Kite Flying and a Gift

On Saturday, we took a family bike ride down the "Marine Park" section of Rokko Island, on the southern tip near the water's edge. It was a sunny, brisk, and very windy day. We brought the frisbee and the football, but spent most of our time watching a giant cargo ship docking nearby. Then, we saw a whole bunch of Japanese high school kids flying three kites -- way up in the air. As Jacob and Lauren got closer, they let them both hold onto the string of the highest flying kite. Out near the water, the wind was whipping - it was a great day to fly a kite.

Then, much to our surprise, they said - "For you. Gift." And gave us the kite. And packed up. And waving and smiling, they left. What a wonderful random act of kindness! (Certainly not the first (or second or third) that we have experienced since being in Japan.) We hadn't flown a kite since we were little kids. It was so much fun. We will surely head back to Marine Park in coming weekends to fly our new kite!

Chikyu - Deep Sea Drilling

Over the past few months, there was a very sophisticated deep-sea drilling boat docked on Rokko Island for repairs. The Chikyu, one of the world"s deepest drilling vessels, can drill to depths of 7000 meters below the sea bed. The drill is housed in a 3-4 story cable structure that make the boat look more like a floating mini-apartment building.

Right before they pushed off, we heard that they were having an open house and tours of the ship. Mike was interested in checking it out, but when he arrived with some friends the lines were wrap-around lines reminiscent of Disney World! Cars were streaming in. They were bussing people in. And there were tents with food vendors. Apparently, it was a big deal.

He didn't brave the 2+ hour line, but it was neat to get a closer look, and a nice day to walk out there and then walk on back home.

February 19, 2009


On the home-cooking front, we have expanded our comfort food repertoire from Shabu Shabu to Nabe. Nabe is a popular and traditional way of communal table-top hot-pot cooking of fresh veggies, tofu (yaki tofu, i.e., grilled tofu, is best for nabe), and meats or fish. It is a great family meal; and terrific in those cold winter nights. (Or even when its not so cold.)

Ilena actually took a local Nabe cooking class to learn some of the basics, like how to make the dashi broth base (basically water, kelp, and bonito flakes), how to make ginger chicken meatballs, and some of the classic nabe vegetables (like mizuna and mitsuba). After that it is just a matter of adding the veggies, meats, and tofu and enjoying. After all is eaten, you combine rice into the remaining dashi to make a sort of porridgy risotto. Super warming finish to the meal.

Other fun food experimenting have been on the Curry front. Learning from a Singaporean friend (who is wonderful and often cooks for us!), Ilena had a very sucessful first attempt at Malaysian Chicken Curry. Yum.

February 17, 2009

Funny Signage

Seen on the JR Train on Mike's morning commute: "I was unaware of those piercing eyes looking at my backpack" (with picture showing large-backpack-wielding commuter banging onto fellow passenger with said backpack).

Translation into New York speech: "Hey you, with the big freaking backpack! Watch it buddy."

February 14, 2009

Happy Valentines!

Happy Valentines Day to all!

The kids enjoyed sharing little "valentimes" treats with their classes. (And we enjoyed these days when your kids are happy to be your valentine!)

We have previously written about giri choco, and the valentines tradition here in Japan. (A "brilliant" marketing campaign that more than doubles valentines day profits for Japanese chocolate companies!)

Mike got a beautiful box of chocolate Japanese fans from some co-workers.

Our favorite quote of the day was on the card attached to the box of chocolates that Mike got for Ilena: "I wish I could have the stomach filled with love alone." Romantic, eh?

February 12, 2009

Wednesday Off - Biking and Sake

On Wednesday, Mike had off for a Japanese holiday. We decided to go for a bike ride off Rokko Island along the Sumiyoshigawa River. On our way back, we happened upon a really neat Sake Museum called The Kiki-Masamune Sake Brewery Museum. Huge sake vats, and free sake tasting. Biking and sake don't exactly go together, but it worked out pretty well!

Sapporo - Day Three (Trip to Otaru)

On Sunday we took a day-trip from Sapporo to Otaru, a small town about 30 minutes from Sapporo by train. The train ride takes you alongside the mountains and the sea, and the snow beaches. Otaru was deep deep in snow drifts, and it was snowing when we arrived. It is a picturesque little town, with the main walking/shopping district near an old canal lined with old warehouses.

Otaru is famous for glass-blowing and for music-boxes. The buildings that house the glasswares and music-boxes are big and beautiful. Here is Jacob checking out the music-boxes.

Some glass sushi:

One of the neat stores that we explored was a nori store, filled with all types of snacks made of seaweed. The shopkeepers were very friendly, insisting on us trying everything. Lauren loved the dried seaweed snacks!

Jacob also got to try his hand at glass-blowing; he made his own souvenir mug, which we shipped back to Kobe.

Otaru had a bunch of neat snow and ice creations too:

Sapporo - Day Two

Our second day in Sapporo was marked by a trip to the third Snow Festival site, Tsudome. Tsudome is the site that was outside of the downtown, which had an array of kids snow activities. The activities included snow rafting (being pulled on a raft by a snow-mobile around a track), ice slides, snow tubing, and bamboo skiing for the kids. Although the lines were pretty long, we were able to split up, and do a bunch of the activities. The snow rafting was our absolute favorite!

Smaller sculptures, as well as tiny snowmen arranged in the shape of a heart adorned the site.

After we headed back downtown, we walked over to Nijo Fish Market. Sapporo is famous for fresh seafood, and kids-be-darned we wanted sushi! After walking through the market (always interesting!), we found an exquisitely good sushi place right next door called Umai (another word for "delicious," like oishii). The kids had soup and rice and edamame, and we had among the best sushi we have had in Japan. (On par with Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo) Insanely melt-in-your-mouth good!

On our way, we passed through Odori, and some more of the large sculptures:

This is the walled off "smoking section" at Odori Park. Even it was made out of ice!

We wandered through Odori Park at night. The smell of warm foods wafted through the air. Crowds were easing through the park. It was snowing on and off, and there were candles laid out in the snow:

The highlight of the evening was the snowboard ski-jump, which was smack in the middle of Odori Park, across from one of the large snow sculptures. Jacob was riveted. So were we...

February 11, 2009

Sapporo - Day One

Last weekend we flew to Sapporo for the 2009 Sapporo Snow Festival. This year was the 60th anniversary of the snow festival (yuki matsuri). Mike has wanted to go to the snow festival ever since seeing pictures of the giant snow and ice sculptures. So when we found a (somewhat) reasonable three-day weekend package, we were going!

(We have posted a whole bunch of pictures here, and will post more over the next few days. But if you want to see all of our pictures and videos from the weekend, feel free to check them out here.)

Sapporo is in Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four islands that make up Japan. We arrived in Sapporo a little before noon on Friday, and it was snowing huge snowflakes. It is a modern and very walkable city. The kids were thrilled with the snow, and immediately took to making snowballs and sliding around. (We don't get snow in Kobe).

There are three main sites for the snow festival: Odori Park, Susukino, and Tsudome. Odori Park is a long park that spans across 10-12 blocks of Sapporo, and the main site for the large snow-carved sculptures that the Snow Festival is famous for. The large sculptures are spread out over the length of the park. They were amazing to see during the day, but even better at night, when they are backlit and adorned by various musical performances.

After checking in to our hotel, we headed for nearby Odori, and saw the Dreams Sculpture. The kids got to ride on a cute little stream-train, walk through an ice maze, and slide down an slide made of ice.

Since we hadn't yet eaten lunch, we headed for Ramen Yokocho (Ramen Alley). Sapporo is famous for its ramen (as well as for its sushi and especially crab, i.e., kani). Ramen Alley is a tiny non-descript alley (we walked past it once before circling back to find it), chock full of hole-in-the-wall ramen joints. We chose one and enjoyed a meal of nice warm ramen. Talk about hitting the spot!

Ramen Alley is in Susukino, the clubbing and entertainment section of Sapporo, as well as the second of the three Snow Festival sites. In Susukino, there are displays of a long row of smaller ice sculptures.

We wandered through Susukino, checking out the ice sculptures and the fresh-caught seafood at Susukino Market. (Jacob also thought this would be a convenient time to plunge his glove-covered hand into a tank of water. That did not work out so well.)

Our next (urgent) order of business was getting new water-proof footwear for the ladies. Their original boots both had soaked through rather quickly. After we solved this issue, and took a hot cocoa break at the hotel, we were ready to wander the Odori at night, taking in many of the impressive large sculptures, like of Japanese Olympians, Hamamatsu Castle, Disney Castle and Characters, a Train, and Namdaemun Gates. Besides the dozen large-ticket sculptures, there are hundreds and hundreds of smaller sculptures ranging from animals to Japanese cartoon characters. Night-time in Odori in the snow was a terrific vibe, with people wandering about taking in the sites and sampling the many foods, which in addition to standard Japanese matsuri fare included ramen, warm ginger bread, and sinfully good flavored almonds.

For dinner, we took a cab to Sapporo Beer Garden, which is famous for its grilled lamb (called the Ghenghis Khan). Although Sapporo is, in our opinion, far below Kirin and Asahi in terms of the beer, the Sapporo Beer Garden is a terrific place.

It has great grounds (with an outdoor fire pit and a few of its own sculptures, an igloo, and ice slides) and the building itself is a majestic brick structure. It was a perfect place to end our first day in Sapporo!