May 28, 2009

Off to Hong Kong

We are off for a weekend trip to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China (AKA Hong Kong).

We are looking forward to exploring this high energy East-meets-West city, taking in the killer skyline, riding the Star Ferry, exploring the markets, and (last but certainly not least) eating the food - dim sum and roasted meats!!

May 26, 2009

Tigers Update

Difficult to explain this season so far for the Hanshin Tigers.

Last year, the Tigers came out on fire and ran away and hid from the rest of the division. It seemed they had built an insurmountable lead by early in the season. Then, the Olympics. The Arai back injury. The losing streak. And somehow (sadly) it all fell apart down the stretch. They lost the division race (after which they had led by 13 games) on the last day of the season, and then were ousted in the playoffs.

Ashamed, the their skipper, Okada resigned, and a new manager, Mayumi, was hired. Other than the coaching staff, not much has changed between last season and this one. Yet, currently the Tigers are languishing in 5th Place. Hopefully, they can turn things around . . .

May 25, 2009

Shiraishi Get Away Weekend

We had a truly terrific time over the weekend on Shiraishi Island with our friends. Shiraishi is truly a gem. Quiet. Rural. Incredibly slow pace. It is an island of fishing and tending to gardens. A perfect get-away from the Japan of our everyday lives. Especially with good friends. (The throw-back nature of Shiraishi Island is perfectly captured in this article. Shout out to our friends the Carrothers for digging up that article.)
I mean what more can you ask for?

A wrap-around porch with this view:
Great hiking trails. We went on two excellent hikes while we were there. Our kids led the way, while the other younger set traveled in kid-carrier backpacks.
. . . With a rewarding view of the Seto Inland Sea from the top:
Mike, Ilena, and Jacob also took the three mama-san bikes (read: old single gear grocery carrying-type bikes) that were provided by the Villa on a trip around the perimeter of the island.
A small beach (which we had entirely to ourselves) to throw around the football, frisbee, search for crabs and starfish, and play in the sand.

We also cooked up a storm - and really enjoyed our meals together through the magical idea of the kids eating in a first shift and then going off to play and then to sleep, followed by a later adult dinner shift.

The communal aspect of the living space and kitchen was great. We shared our feasts with a German couple the first night and an American couple and quiet wandering Norwegian the second night. (It was the least we could do after subjecting these poor souls to all of our early rising children!)

By night we gamed - Sequence, Jenga, and especially Euchre. (Speaking of Euchre, we have surely met more U.S. mid-westerners living in Japan than we have living in the East Coast of the U.S. So, yes, we have learned how to play Euchre.)

When our gaijin posse packed up and headed back to the Ferry, we think the population of Shiraishi took a big hit.

May 21, 2009

Jacob - Gaptoothed!

Sayonara to baby tooth number two . . . Tooth fairy will be a visiting

Heading to Shiraishi Island for the Weekend

Enough with this swine flu stuff already, right?! Feh. Blech. On to better things. . .

This weekend, we are getting away with two other families to Shiraishi Island , a small island on the Seto Inland Sea in Okayama Prefecture. We are all staying at one of the Okayama Prefecture's International Villa's, small "lodges" located in some of the more rural parts of the prefecture.

The six International Villas (each of a different architecture and in different surroundings) were formed in 1988, in order "to attract foreign tourists to the beauty of rural Japan" by providing affordable accommodations in the more rural areas of Okayama Prefecture. (Apparently, these were the brain-child of a former Mayor or Governor type who spent some time travelling abroad and wanted to give-back and create a hostelly type place in Japan, while at the same time increasing tourism.) The Villas (each with a handful of rooms, and a shared common-area and kitchen) have been an institution amongst gaijin as a great get-away location for 20 years. Sadly, due to recent financial struggles, only two remain open.
This will be our second time to Shiraishishima. We visited the Villa at Shiraishi last Fall and had a terrific time. We are looking forward to getting back there in the nice Spring weather. It's very small, quiet, and rural (population of 700ish?) with a nice beach and nice hiking trails.

Really looking forward to this weekend's gaijin get-away (gaijin-palooza? Well. We'll keep working on what we're gonna call it...)

May 18, 2009

H1N1 (aka Swine Flu) Flu Panic Hits Kansai


We just found out that Kobe has its first case of H1N1 flu, and it is a teenager who has not traveled outside of Japan. The local reaction has been to close all public schools in the Kobe/Osaka area. Private schools have also been asked to be closed. Jacob and Lauren's school will be closed for the week. We also hear that Kobe Matsuri, a huge parade event in Kobe to take place on Sunday, has been canceled.

It all certainly seems like a bit much (and the local press, we hear, has been in a state of panicked hysteria), but in this ultra-careful, mask-wearing, quarantining culture, it is an unsurprising measure. (How closing schools is really going to help anything is a mystery to us, since people will still be interacting, going shopping, going to work, etc.)

Certainly, with less than five reported cases in all of Japan, we are not freaking out (certainly it seems a heck of a lot "safer" being here than being in the U.S.!). And as far as we understand, this flu (at least in its current form) is actually less virulent than the normal seasonal flu. But we shall see how it all plays out. (But it certainly doesn't ease the mind nor is it fun to see read the news reports, see trains and streets desserted, and have everyone around you wearing those surgical masks, which, to a Westerner, have always seemed a bit off-putting.)

Late Sunday Update

Latest news here....Wishing we had stock in whatever company makes these surgical masks that are selling like hotcakes...We hear that the stores are crowded in anticipation of a battoning down of the hatches. (Think pre-hurricane stock-piling, but with more masks.)

Monday Update

News reports now that there are 42 confirmed cases in the Osaka/Kobe area and the freaking out escalates. Looked like about 75% (!!) of commuters were wearing masks this morning.

Tuesday Update

Latest news reports that there are around 160 cases. (Not a big surprise.) 4000 schools in the area have been closed. Our kids vacation/quarantine continues. Meanwhile, from the news back home, we hear that they are recommending not to close schools and that this flu strain is actually more mild than the normal seasonal flu. Out here, we couldn't even buy a mask if we wanted to - the stores are sold out! At least "Prime Minister Taro Aso said the government will not ban people from leaving home and asked people to respond calmly." So we won't be sentenced to stay in our homes. That's a relief...

Wednesday Update

Kids are still home from school. This epidemic has certainly taken its biggest toll on stay-at-home moms (and dads), who have had the kids home all week! Things on Rokko Island have been pretty quiet out there, and it seems that us gaijin are the only ones out there hanging out together instead of staying at home inside alone (while inviting a fair share of disdain for doing so, it seems).

Mike was given a mask by a co-worker at work to use on the train. So now he is wearing a mask on the trains too. (Not so much because we think the mask prevents anything, but out of respect for others who may disagree -- unfortunately, it seems a bit disrespectful and feels weird to be the only one on the train not in a mask). Ugh.

News reports indicate that now that the flu is within Japan, efforts to catch it at the border via scanning arriving flights from North America and quarantining will be curtailed as the focus will go towards slowing the domestic spread. (This is a big relief for us, since we have plans for a weekend trip to Hong Kong in a few weekends, and were getting worried!).

It is also reported that the pace of spread in Kansai is slowing and many who are infected are recovering. Of course, this whole scare is having an impact on education (kids home from school) and business (everyone staying home), unless, of course, you happen to be in the business of selling Purell or surgical masks.

Anyway, this blog was more fun when we weren't writing about swine flu! So we're going to stop this running post here. Hopefully things return to normal around here very soon.

May 12, 2009

Number One Tigers Fan!

She even sleeps with her pink "Tiger Ears." (We walked into Lauren's room and were caught completely by surprise by this....we were cracking up!)

P.S. Note to Lauren if you should happen to see this when you are older. Sorry. We couldn't help it. You were just too darned cute not to share this one!

May 9, 2009

Saturday at Rokko San Pasture

On Saturday (after mountain-biking), we spent the rest of this gorgeous day (clear, sunny, and not a cloud in the sky), with a co-worker friend of Mike's and his family up on Mount Rokko at Rokko san Pasture, a huge rolling green expanse of mountain-top land that is basically an open-air farm. With greens, white picket fences, and tons of roaming sheep the place looks like what one would imagine Ireland or Scotland to look like, but is just a short distance from downtown Kobe. (One interesting side-note - on this sunny hot day (it was in the 80s) we were the only -- I do mean only -- people there in shorts. When Mike asked his friend about this strange fact, he told us that (i) it was too early for shorts (i.e., a seasonal-calendar based fashion fauxpaux on the order of wearing white before Memorial Day!?); and (ii) many Japanese people are very concerned about sun exposure.)

Ilena and the kids had been here before, but it was Mike's first time. We picniced (using our large green o-hanami plastic tarp!), and...well...froliced about. It was definitely a nice spot to spend the day.

Back to Saturday Morning Mountain Biking - Mount Rokko

For all the traveling we have done around and outside of Japan, some of the best times can just be the small local adventures. We are lucky enough to live very close to the Mount Rokko mountain range. If you follow the Sumiyoshi-gawa river up up and up into the mountains, you find a wonderful set of hiking trails from which you can hike all over the Kobe area. It is a truly beautiful area, with cedar and pine forests, mountain views, and some pretty (though man-made) waterfalls. Mike has spent some good times just exploring local Kobe neighborhoods by bike in recent weekends. Last year, he hit the hiking trails, by bike, but hasn't been since.
Now that Spring is back and the weather is beautiful, the mountain biking is again beckoning. This past Saturday (early) morning, Mike went with a group of more-serious-than-he mountain bikers, back up to Mount Rokko. (This is the same group and a similar route to last year's, but it had been quite a while!)

Saturday was a picture perfect day, and it felt terrific to be back out there. Unfortunately, I am not yet a very good mountain biker (to say the least) and do not have a very good bike (to say the least). This can be a difficult combination! Although much more practice is required, it was amazing to be out on the trails in the wooded mountains that are so close to where we live.

May 7, 2009

Tokyo Part II - Meiji Jingu, Yoyogi, Kamakura, Shiodome

Sunday - Meiji Jingu, Harajuku, and Yoyogi Park

Our Sunday plans were set long ago. After being there last year on a Sunday afternoon, we knew we wanted to be in Yoyogi Park, where sports nuts, dancers, performers of all sorts, and picnickers fritter away the day. Not to mention the dancing rockabilly boys and Harajuku girls.

Unrivaled people-watching. Even though the crowds near the station on the way out were such that we basically had to crowd-surf through Harajuku and then cab it out of there, the sights made it well worth it!

Since it is right next door, and known as one of the only places in downtown Tokyo where (due to the thick forrest) you can't see or even hear the city, we decided to first check out Meiji Jingu Shrine, which neighbors the park. It is calm and cool inside the large unpainted wood torii gates.

We were lucky enough to be given pieces of mochi shaped like doves and also to catch a formal holiday musical performance (these kimono-clad women were playing harp-like instruments) in front of the main shrine on the way in . . . though there was lots of build-up (read "waiting"), and the kids (with our baseball mitts, jump-rope, and frisbee in the backpack) didn't last long.
We also caught an entertaining puppet show on the way out, which included getting a "behind-the-curtain" peak at how the puppeteers use their arms and feet to operate the puppets. All went well until the characters starting tossing out what we assume to be good-luck charms into the crowd. They were 5 yen pieces, some of which had a red and white ribbon tied through the hole in the middle, wrapped in paper. We assume these to be powerful good-luck charms, because the crowd was pretty aggressive in pursuing them as they were thrown out. It actually got to be a little too intense, so we had to skedaddle out of there!

We spent the rest of the afternoon at Yoyogi, jump-roping, throwing the baseball around (Jacob is starting to use the back-hand snag), and playing frisbee golf. There was lots of great action to watch too. But the highlight of the afternoon was our reunion with the hula-hooping lady from last year (!) Jacob was a bit rusty on the hula-hoop, but he still has that natural knack and he still got five hoops going at the same time.

Monday - Kamakura

Kamakura, the ancient (12th century) ruling seat of the Kamakura Shogunate is a terrific day trip, less than an hour of Tokyo. The history is fascinating. It has lots of well-preserved temples and shrines, including the famous Great Buddha, and is an easy walking city to explore by foot (much more so than Kyoto). It has nice little back-alley streets, lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants. The local specialty is large sembei rice crackers, sold with a big piece of nori as a handle. It also has nice access to nature; Kamakura is a natural fortress, with mountains to three sides, and the bay (with a beach) on the other side. Because of the beach, it also has a bit of a sleepy beachy feel to it, which is nice.

After tanking up (read - more ice cream) along the main shopping street (Komachi-Dori), we walked to the most well known shrine, Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. This was a nice place, set against the mountains, and we caught another cool wedding ceremony (see the very serious bride and groom below), but our favorite places in Kamakura, were our next stops - The Great Buddha and Hase-Dera Temple.

Set against the mountains in the open air (it used to be housed inside before a 15th century Tsunami destroyed the building that housed it), the Great Buddha is truly an awesome site. Everyone was taking goofy pictures (like this one), so here you go!

After the Great Buddha, we enjoyed a back-alley picnic of fruit and sembei, before heading onward to Hase-Dera. There is a very cool story about the famous 10 meter 11-headed Kannon Statue that is held inside. Apparently, two were made by a monk out of a giant camphor tree in Nara. One was placed in Nara, and the other was set out to sea. Fifteen years later, it washed ashore at not far from Kamakura, and Hase-Dera Temple was constructed to honor it. Hase-Dera has terrific gardens, great views of the sea, and thousands of big, small, and medium sized jizo statues in rows (sadly, there to comfort the souls of unborn children).

After Hase-Dera, we strolled down the beach, watched the kite-flying and surfers, and dipped our feet in before winding out way back to the station and heading back to Tokyo.
Tuesday - Shiodome

We spent our last morning in Tokyo staying local in the Shiodome area. There was a local carnival of sorts going on, and the kids hit the bouncy castle and the local Anpanman Store.

There was also a pretty crazy looking giant copper clock (it has talons and all sorts of interesting little figurines on it), that did its thing. . . . And were lucky enough to catch one of those crazy choreographed, insane costumed extravaganzas that are Kids Dance Competitions. We have seen our fair share of these in Japan, and some of these kids are actually super-talented.

This was good for quite a bit of morning entertainment, before heading to catch our Shinkansen.

May 6, 2009

Tokyo Part I - Ginza, Tsukiji, Roppongi

Here is our Tokyo trip in two parts.

On Friday we headed off to Tokyo for a family Golden Week trip. It was a pretty clear day, and we got a really nice view of Mount Fuji (Fuji-san) as we zipped by it on the Shinkansen.

We took a family trip to Tokyo during part of Golden Week last year too. Last year, we got to spend time with some close friends (who are away in the US right now), but we still thought it would a good time to head back. With the exception of a couple of areas (e.g., Harajuku on Sunday!!), we find Tokyo to be not-so-busy during Golden Week in the same sense as NYC in the summer - people try to get out of the city. Traveling with Mike's Aunt Joyce, we got to show her and re-experience some of our favorite spots, and we also got to explore new spots.

Friday - Ginza
We stayed at the same hotel we stayed at last year, Villa Fontaine Shiodome, in the modern glass skyscraper/raised walkway haven of Shiodome Shiosite area near Shimbashi Station. It is very centrally located, just a short walk away from Tsukji (wholesale fish market and sushi Mecca) and Ginza (Tokyo's 5th Avenue), and the wide above-the-street walkways and escalators give the kids ample room to roam.

We spent our first afternoon strolling around Ginza. Our first stop was Hakuhinkan Toy Park; this was a great stop for the kiddies. We had to tear Jacob away from the remote controlled Shinkansen and Lauren away from some of the interactive coloring toys that she attached herself to.

The other highlight was the Sony Building, which has a very cool display of the latest Sony gadgets - you can play with the cameras and stereo equipment, check out new video games and gawk at the television displays. The coolest were these amazing sounding headphones that inserted into your ears (hard to explain, but amazingly crisp sound). Strangest gadget was an as-yet-to-be-released robot/musical companion that rolls around and plays music.

We finished off our day of wandering with some great Chinese food/dim sum at a little second floor joint near Yurakucho Station. (Getting warmed up for Hong Kong!). It is our continued experience that it is damned near impossible to go out for dinner in Japan and have a bad meal.

Saturday - Tsukiji, Hamarikyu Garden, Asakasa, Ueno Park, Roppongi & Nishi Azabu

Saturday was pretty much The Perfect Day. For Mike it began early, with a trip with Joyce to Tsukiji Fish Market at 6:30 AM. This was Mike's second time there; it is an amazing frenetic place. The sheer size of it, the action of hundreds of workers zipping about, carving up fish left and right, is a sight to behold.

We did not go to Sushi Dei this time (the line was just insane), but we found another little sushi joint with a short wait, and breakfast was stellar.

After breakfast, we met up with Ilena and the kids and walked to nearby Hamarikyu Gardens, and then took the boat from there to Asakasa. This was a repeat of last year, but this is one of our favorite garden spots in Tokyo, with a serene pond and teahouse, a 300 year old black pine, all set against the glass skyscraper background of Shiodome. And the boat-ride, under thirteen bridges is a pleasant way to get up to Asakasa.

Once there, we browsed through the stall-shops that line the path to Sensoji Temple. The kids checked out the mini-Ninja costumes. This was Mike's favorite item (Astro Boy is just the coolest):

After our first (of many) Baskin Robbins lunches of the trip -- there was a special Golden Week 2 scoop special!! -- we headed to Ueno Park. (Tokyo has really great parks and gardens.) For Joyce, it was the National Museum. For us, it was people-watching, the playground, the Ueno Zoo (very playful Black Bears and Sea Lions were the highlight; unfortunately the famed Panda passed away last year), and watching kids baseball games.

In the evening, Joyce (bless her heart) volunteered to take the kids out for Pizza and to watch them so that Mike and Ilena could go out. We headed to Roppongi fully intending to have some Western-type meal, but ended up in a basement tempura joint run by an elderly hushand and wife. We sat at the wooden counter and had the place to ourselves. The husband doted over us and cooked for us. It was wonderful.

From there, we did a little pub crawl, after meeting up with a Japanese friend of ours who lives in Tokyo. The evening took us from the swanky open-air alley bar Tiptop, to a great little tachibana (standing up bar) in Nishi Azabu called Joe. We finished the evening at Ganpachi, the inspiration for the Kill Bill scene in which Uma Thurman flashes her dazzling sword-play. They also make a terrific sake mojito, not to mention our delicious post-1 AM snack of rice-bowls, topped with egg and chicken (OK, while it's not the Philadelphia cheesesteak, the midnight snack of our college years, it did hit the spot).