April 29, 2009

Kyoto - Nijo-jo, Philosophers Walk, Gion, and Ponto-cho

On Wednesday, Mike, Ilena, and Joyce spent a terrific day in Kyoto. While we have been to Kyoto many many times, we are still finding new and interesting places and things to see to do. And on a beautiful spring day like this, it is easy to enjoy especially the quieter areas of Kyoto. This time, we also had some more freedom and time, since the kids had school (Mike was off from work), and we secured a babysitter to watch them afterward.

This day was a really special one. We explored Nijo castle, wandered through the cool mossy mountainside gardens of Ginka-Kuji, strolled down the peaceful Philosophers Walk from end-to-end, browsed the shops and people-watched in the heart of Gion as dusk settled, and then got to stay into the evening, and had a lovely dinner on the ancient lantern-lit alley streets of Ponto-cho near the Kamo River.

After arriving at Kyoto Station, we first went to Niji-Jo (Nijo Castle) in central Kyoto, a place we had not been to before. Nijo was built in the early 1600s as the Kyoto residence of Ieyasu, the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns. There are beautiful wooden carved reliefs over the entrance gates. The outer castle of Nijo, Ninomaru Paralce, has an exquisite array of ancient gold painted sliding tatami room doors, with scenes of cranes, and oceans, and cherry blossoms. As you walk down the hallways, the floors squeak and sound like nightengale's chirping (a special design made to alert of intruders). It was cute to see little kids put their ears to the ground to try and hear the "birds."

We wandered through the back garden, a small but classic Japanese garden, and onto the bridge leading to the inner castle, before we moved on.

We then hopped the bus over to the Eastern side of Kyoto to see Ginka-kuji , the Silver Pavilion, a 15th century zen temple. The best part are the zen sand garden (representing waves and Mount Fuji) and the mossy meandering garden built into the mountainside.

Just outside, down a hill lined with a yummy group of street food-sellers, begins the Philosopher's Walk, a peaceful path that winds along a canal. Since it was a holiday, and a gorgeous day, there were many women out strolling wearing their kimono. We stopped in some neat stores, including this amazing store that sold mobiles made of delicate orbs. There were tea-houses and artists on the street, and some amazing houses and gardens that we would have loved to call our own, and nice views of the rooftops of Eastern Kyoto. Roads off the path lead off to many different temples and shrines, some of which we briefly checked out.

Later in the afternoon, we headed to the heart of Gion, and popped into some wonderful shops, including a fabric store that sold beautiful blue handmade obi fabrics and fans. It is really a charming area. The stores and restaurants are of an old dark wood, with curtains, and lanterns, and slippered feet peaking out from within.

As we picked our way through Gion (stopping to sample the tsukemono shops and mochi confectioners), we happened upon this random shrine, adorned with paper cranes, down one of the tiny alleys.

As evening approached, we crossed the Kamo river and went exploring for a restaurant down ponto-cho. This is another fabulous, full-of-character alley. We found a cozy tatami-matted place called Mimasuya, where we enjoyed a delicious dinner of sashimi, fresh tofu, fried pumpkin, and steak.

All-in-all, a truly magical day in Kyoto.

April 27, 2009

A Worthwhile Trip Back To Himeji Castle

We have only been to Himeji Castle once. It was last year, during Cherry Blossom Season for 0-hanami. (We picniced. There was a huge festival. Sakura were blooming everywhere. It was beautiful and fun, but we were also joined by thousands upon thousands of our closest Japanese revelers - meaning... it was crowded!). With rumors of long-term renovations starting soon (now, pushed back to starting this Fall), we have been wanting to go back - it is such a nice town and we wanted to get a more relaxed and closer look at the castle, which is up there as Japan's most authentic and striking classic castle. On Sunday we did.

We got off to a bit of a slow start. After all, it was Sunday morning. But that worked out perfectly. Before leaving, we popped in on a small matsuri taking place on Rokko Island (food, farmers market, and music).

On the Rokkoliner and JR train, Jacob and Lauren were in rare form, making friends with and exchanging stickers with different groups of Japanese teenage girls. Although the kawaii squeels that they elicit just by being little white blond children can sometimes (understandably) overwhelm the kids, its fun and funny when they just roll with it. This time, Jacob kept proudly repeating "Very Cute-O," after being so dubbed.
When we arrived in Himeji, the sun was breaking through the to-that-point-gloomy clouds. We happened to catch a very interesting dance routine in front of the castle, before we headed in. We saw some of the peonies garden, and stopped to say hello to the cats that seemed to live there. (Since Japanese dogs are often so small, many of these cats were scaring the dogs!)

We also made some more friends out in front of the castle, who asked us to take their somewhat kooky-posed picture in front of the castle. (We took one of them for ourselves - and for you! - too:)
The castle was completely uncrowded, and we could really take our time to tour the castle building. The kids were super-interested in the castle; it is a true battle fortress, and were running around peeking through the various look-out slits and checking out the hanging weaponry. There was also some striking art on display.

We enjoyed climbing the narrow steep staircases (more like ladders) up to the sixth floor, while carrying our shoes in white plastic bags there were handed out at the entrance.
It was a far more relaxing and extremely enjoyable trip to Himeji. We are really glad that we went back!

Umeda and Namba with Joyce

The Kasdan Family Bed and Breakfast (Nihon) continues to be open for business. (We always dreamed we could have a bed and breakfast, but we pictured it in Vermont, not Japan!). Mike's Dad has left, and our final family visitor is now with us in Japan. Mike's Aunt Joyce (one of the few family members who posts comments in this very space!) arrived on Thursday night and is staying with us through early May.

Friday was an adjust-and-get-a-feel-for-Kobe day, which included (at least for Ilena and Joyce) checking out the Ikuta Shrine, wandering through Sannomiya, a yummy sushi lunch, drooling their way through the delicacies in the basement of the Sogo Department Store, and then all sharing a great family meal at our favorite yakitori place, Masaya in Ashiya. (Yes, we take all our visitors here!)

On Saturday, a dreary rainy day, we wanted to stay inside and under cover as much as possible. We figured we could do that, while exploring the two main downtown areas of Osaka, Namba and Umeda. We have explored Kobe far more than Osaka, so we were happy to spend the day in Osaka. We started in Namba and then worked our way to Umeda later in the day. We had a warming ramen lunch, did lots of people-watching (there is serious fashion on display), and browsed and souvenir shopped through the underground shopping malls (Namba City and Namba Parks) and browsed through the ceramic-ware, knives, and knick-nacks on Doguyasuji (aka "Kitchen Street").

Here we are in the ramen-ya:

Some sights of Kitchen Street. Joyce in front of a wall of knives...

The wall of plastic sushi...

And last, but certainly not least, some of that serious fashion we were talking about. (Jacob fell madly in love with this woman.)

Afterward, back in Umeda, we let the kids play some video games at Joypolis in the HEP5 building in Umeda, one of those monster high-energy hustle-bustle mega-shopping, food, and entertainment complexes. Most importantly (to Jacob), there is a Sega Joypolis in there.

Saturday night we had our babysitter to watch the kids, and hit Sannomiya and went to a great yaki-niku place called Fufutei. Mike had been there before with co-workers, or we never would have found it. It is on the 3rd floor of a building of Ikuta Road - you take the tiny elevator up - and it opens to this great huge restaurant. Highly recommended!

April 26, 2009

Ichiro Ichiban

The Ichiro Suzuki ad campaign for Kirin Ichiban that is all over Osaka and Kobe these days:

Kirin is our favorite of the Japanese beers. And Ichiro is just plain cool.

April 25, 2009

Lauren's KA Concert

Here is one of the songs from Lauren's class concert:

April 23, 2009

From The Odd Gadgets Department - O Hashi!

This gadget that can be used to convert chopsticks (hashi) into a fork is just too ridiculous not to share. Just plain silly.

(Although we do confess to carrying around these little plastic hinges for the kids to use when eating out. (It seems, this simple device is actually patented!))

Another funny thing about this whole chopsticks thing is those occasional people who see a gaijin eating with hashi and comment in (feigned?) amazement about how "expert" we are.

Yes. We can do it too!

April 20, 2009

Bopping Around Kobe and Lauren's Ice Cream Face

This weekend the weather was sunny and fabulous. Mike's Dad was in visiting, and he stayed with us. On Saturday, we took the kids (with their scooters) down through Chinatown and to Meriken Park, by the Bay in Kobe. We hung out in the park, watched some street performers (including an extremely talented monkey), and took a short cruise around the bay.

There was also a very cool kite/koi noburi display in the park.

Here are the faces of Lauren enjoying her ice cream:

April 16, 2009

Food and Fun Fair at CA

So...last weekend was the 2009 Food and Fun Fair at Canadian Academy. This is a great event that celebrates the diversity of the international community here, with great food and performances.

Being an active part of the kids' school community has been one of the best experiences of our year in Japan. Ilena and a friend of her's were co-organizers of this PTA fundraiser event.

(She won't toot her own horn, so I (Mike) will: They busted their butts, and did an absolutely phenomenal job. And their hard work paid off. It ran smoothly and was lots of fun.)

The FFF kicked off with the parade of nations . . . . Lauren was a very smiley USA sign-bearer for the USA contingent.

There were food booths from the USA (hot dogs, hamburgers, candies...thanks to Costco!), Canada (featuring poutine, aka cheesy gravy fries), Korea (kimchi, BBQ meats), Taiwan (bubble tea!), Philippines (meats and sweets), India (naan, curry), Japan, China, Thailand, and Switzerland. Ah food. We love you so!

Entertainment throughout the day included two dance performances that Lauren participated in (one with her ballet class and one with her school class), and a great taiko drumming finale.

Now that it is all over, Ilena has no idea what to do with all of her (reclaimed) spare time. But she should manage OK . . .