2007 Dec 26
Merry Christmas! Time to open (more) presents! Bay and Koa both received small Pokémon electronic games. These are pretty cool because they are in Japanese (of course) but easy enough for the kids to play. When you have two boys, you make sure to get the same gift for both of them, btw.
Today was a relaxing day. The only things on our agenda were to go to the bookstore and kiddyland, then back out to dinner to a special restaurant that Mariko had found out about a few months ago and looked fun. We relaxed at home all day, then at around 4pm, we headed out the door, took our normal route to the station, then took the train to Osaka, walked for a bit, then found the Kinokuniya bookstore, which is in the underground shopping mall. Mariko went off to do her book and magazine shopping, while I took the boys to the children’s book section. Bay found a few Pokémon books and Koa found a few Ranger books. By the way, Koa is absolutely nuts about the Japanese ranger shows. He watches MagiRangers (they use magic), GekiRangers (they use beast powers), and DekaRangers (SPD Police). He loves to do all the poses that they do on the shows. Anyways, we bought a boatload of books. I saw a few camera magazines that looked pretty good, but decided to save my money!!!
Next it was off to Kiddyland, which is a big toystore, not far from the bookstore. The kids loved the place, of course, and I had fun checking out all the video games. I saw a few people buying WiiFit, which looked pretty cool. We bought a couple small things, then left in order to get to the restaurant early.
We had to take a few different trains and walk a bit, but it was good because it built up our appetite. The special restaurant we were going to was actually a fishing restaurant. Yes, you can actually fish there, and eat what you catch! I was pretty excited to go there, but didn’t know what to expect. The boys were also looking forward to it. When we first entered the restaurant, I was blown away. It was so cool! There was a giant pool that was in the center of the big restuarant, then inside the pool were two “boats” with tables. They weren’t real floating boats, they just looked like it. But all around the tables was the pool, and inside the pool were many, many fish. They were all about a foot long, and I recognized some Tai. Around the outside edges of the pool were private rooms, which opened up to the water, and the diners inside could slide open the window and drop in their lines.
The waiter gave us a couple small bamboo poles and a couple small plastic cups of shrimp to use as bait. We ordered some drinks and food, then got down to the business of fishing! I was all set to catch a couple big ones, but wouldn’t you know it, they weren’t biting. I mean we would dangle the bait right in front of their faces, and they would swim away. The kids really wanted to catch something, but it looked like it was going to be a long night. We decided to walk over to the other end of the pool to see if they were biting over there, but I knew we wouldn’t have any luck, since that side of the pool is connected to our side. But, I discovered that there were small cages attached to the side with different fish in it. One of the cages had what looked like sole or flounder, and the other one had lobster. Of course I had to go for the lobster. But they weren’t interested in the bait at all. After a couple minutes, one of the wait staff came over to us and told us that we should just try to hook the lobster, and actually took the bait off the hook for us. He also gave Bay a “kid’s rod” which was plastic, but had a huge treble (triple) hook on it. Now THAT was the pole I wanted to use to get the lobster, but the guys said it was for kids… So I tried to hook the lobster with my single hook. After a couple minutes of trying and almost giving up, zing! I hooked one of the lobsters!
The waiter came over and put it in a net, then Koa got to carry the treasure back to the table. The waiter asked us how we wanted it prepared: sashimi, grilled with butter, or grilled with mayo. We got it with mayo (Japanese love mayo), which was great! They also gave us a celebration song in front of all the other diners. Only then did I realize that the lobster wasn’t such a great deal. It cost us about 3,500 yen, but I think the fun that all of us had made it worth it. By the way, we only saw one other person catch anything, and it was a skinny little thing! Besides the lobster, we had sashimi, croquettes, fried oysters, chicken, tofu, etc. Plus beer for Mariko and I.
After dinner, we walked to the station, took a train to get us close to home, the took at taxi the rest of the way. It was a fun and memorable Christmas for us all!
2007 Dec 25
Today the kids got to enjoy an early Xmas, and got to dig into their stockings. They actually opened up many of their gifts before we left Texas, so they got to celebrate multiple times.
I think Mariko wanted to spend the day with her Mom, and I got a free dayEwhere I could go out by myself. So, I loaded up the camera bag, got the iPod ready, and headed out. My plan was to head to Osaka Station and just explore around there. I took the normal walking route to the station, then it was a quick train ride to my destination. It’s so great that Mariko’s mom lives just one station away from Osaka Station. You could actually walk to downtown in about 25 minutes if you wanted to.
I was planning on doing a bunch of street photography today, but ended up keeping the camera in the bag most of the time, and just strolling around listening to Jazztronik on the iPod. I love just wandering aimlessly, walking around town and down whatever street looks interesting. The first place I went to was not on the street, though, it was in the underground mallE which is actually the maze of passageways that connect a couple train stations underneath the streets. It’s disorienting at first, since there are so many people walking around, and the passageways look so similar, but after a little while, I started to remember how it was laid out from my previous times there. I found a nice camera shop that my friend Matt recommended to me. Matt, Mikey and I actually went to Yaotomi Camera several years back when we visited Osaka. I found a nice Olympus XA, but decided to hold off on buying it. It was only 4500 yen, but I wasn’t sure I wanted another film camera, although I loved my old one before it broke. I was really looking for a nice used A-mount lens for my 7D, but I didn’t find anything good.
After Yaotomi, I headed up to the surface world. The weather was pretty good, not too cold, and sunny with clouds. I walked down some outside shopping arcade streets, and passed by a couple of restaurants we used to enjoy, a Yukari okonomiyaki restaurant, and a sushi restaurant that is still my favorite in the world. I found it funny and reassuring that these places haven’t changed in these past years.
I saw a Tsutaya down the street so I headed over and went inside. I checked out some CD’s for a bit and then checked out their video game selection. The Wii and DS are kings there, but the PS2 still has tons of shelf space dedicated to it. The PS3 section was small, and the Xbox360 offerings were in a tiny corner in the back. The Xbox360 machine sat there with the red ring of death… I saw a few DS games that looked really good, including a Final Fantasy game, the Professor Layton games, and Momotaro Dentetsu, which I almost bought. But, I decided to save my money and give it a pass.
After Tsutaya, I walked around a lot, and finally ended up at the Sky Building, which looks like two buildings joined at the top by a circular observation deck. There were a whole bunch of Xmas festivities going on in the plaza, but I really wanted to go up to the top, so I bought a ticket (it was either 300 or 700 yen) and headed up in the elevator. At the top, there is a gift shop level, and then you take an escalator up to the next floor. The escalator actually goes out of one bulding and floats high above the ground, eventually reaching the other tower. I found myself in the observation lounge, which gives you a 360° view of Osaka. It was pretty cool because they were having a Konica-Minolta sponsored photo exhibit entitled “Japan through a Diplomat’s Eyes”, in which all the photos were from diplomats and their families, who were working in Japan. The photos were really good, but I wanted to get to the very top, so I found the stairs to the rooftop observation deck. It was really windy and damn cold up there! But, I was happy because there were some nice clouds, and the view of Osaka was great! I ended up taking a bunch of photos up there, and freezing my butt off, but I think it was worth it. And I could actually see where Mariko’s mom’s house was.
I went back down to the ground level and outside, then followed the crowd back to downtown. We all walked through a long underground tunnel and ended up back at Yodobashi Camera. I wandered around for maybe another hour before coming back to another record store, Tower Records. I watched and listened to the DJ’s from FM Osaka for a bit, then checked the restaurants nearby to see if Mariko and my favorite Indian restaurant was still there. Sure enough, Ashoka was still in business and looked to be doing quite well. I really wanted to eat there this trip, but we didn’t have time. Maybe next trip!
It was dark by this time, so I figured I should head back home, especially since it was Xmas eve! When I arrived back, the kids were already finished with dinner, which was a special pizza from Pizza Hut. This one had shrimp all around the crust, and then half of the toppings were seafood, and the other half bbq chicken and corn. It was delicious! We also had some really awesome Christmas Cake. Then, the kids got their reindeer food ready, and they put it outside the door, in a little bowl. The next morning, almost all of the reindeer food was gone!
2007 Dec 23
Today there is not much to write about. I had caught a cold a couple days ago, and wasn’t feeling so great. Mariko, her mom and sister, and Bay actually went out to see a NewS concert. NewS is one of the popular boy bands here in Japan, and Mariko’s family is crazy about them. So they all went off to see them. Koa and I just hung out at home, then went for a walk for some food. We ended up at McDonald’s again for some chicken nuggets for Koa, and I had an ebi-filet sandwich (Shrimp). We sat next to an elderly man (in his 90’s), and he gave Koa a small package of chocolate cookies. It’s an Osaka thing that older people give treats to kids. Koa and Bay got some candy from another guy on the bus. Osaka is an interesting place, that’s for sure!
View the photoset here!
2007 Dec 22
Today was a whirlwind tour of Kansai. In the morning, we had a quick breakfast at home. Mariko’s mom always prepares some food for us before she leaves for work, and today we had tamago-yaki (scrambled egg), sausage, gohan (white rice), and coffee/juice. Our only appointment for the day was meeting our good friend Kayo’s parents in Kobe for dinner that evening, so our day was open.
We decided to take advantage of our JR rail passes and hop on the Shinkansen for Nagoya to eat at an unagi (eel) restaurant that our friends had recommended. I thought it was so cool that we could travel so quickly to another city just for lunch. Plus, riding the shinkansen is pretty cool, no matter how many times I have done it. So, we took the train from our station to Shin-Osaka, which is where the shinkansen stop in Osaka. We found seats in the non-reserved car and the train quickly sped up to Kyoto and beyond. I think it took a little over an hour to reach Nagoya. We switched to a local train, then found the restaurant, Unagi Horaiken, which was up on one of the top floors of a building.
The line for the restaurant was huge! There must have been about thirty people ahead of us, and the restaurant had chairs lined up outside in the hallway. I had forgotten this fun aspect of Japan. It’s basically a line, but just sitting, and every minute or so, you have to get up and move over to the next chair as people are called to their tables. While the unagi restaurant had a huge line, the other restaurants up on that floor didn’t have many customers at all, even though it was about 12:30pm.
We actually didn’t really have to wait long at all, and were seated at our table, where Mariko and I ordered the popular unagi set. We also got some karaage (fried chicken) for the kids. The unagi set was pretty huge, and looked delicious. There is a certain way to eat it, which is to take a big flat spoon and divide up the food into quarters, then put the first quarter into your bowl and eat it as-is. The unagi tasted so good!!! When finished with that part, you scoop the second quarter in the bowl, then add nori (seaweed), wasabi, and green onion on top, and eat that bowlful of food. This was even better than the first! For the third quarter, it’s the same as the second, but then you also add some soup broth to the unagi and rice. And the fourth quarter is any way you like it. I just added the nori, wasabi, and green onion, which was my favorite way. I hadn’t had wasabi with unagi before, but it was really good. By this time I finished, I was pretty full. The amount of unagi and rice was incredible.
With the unagi lunch finished, we headed back to the shinkansen, and headed back to Shin-Osaka. Then we caught another train for Kobe, we we did a little shopping at the 100-yen store before meeting Mariko’s mom and Kayo’s parents for dinner. Kayo’s dad took us to an all-you-can-eat seafood restaurant called Fisherman’s Wharf (I think). We waited in line for a couple minutes, then were seated near the window, where we had a nice view of the harbor. The food here was great. They had a wide variety of food and dessert, plus coffee and soft drinks. Some of the foods were: roast beef, salmon, whitefish, paella, several pastas, mussels, steamed crab, shrimp, pizzas, and sushi. They also had cakes and a chocolate fountain. I at tons (yet again)! It was a fun dinner, and the kids had a good time too.
After dinner, Kayo’s parents drove us home in their car (they were so nice), and we ended another long day.
View the photoset here!
2007 Dec 21
We woke up at the ryokan at about 8am and watched some cartoons on the tv. Mariko went to the combini (convenience store) to pick up some food for us to eat before heading out. She got some onigiri, a hotdog sandwich thing, some other small sandwiches and coffee, tea, and juice. Even the convenience store food was great! One thing about Japan, the food is the best!
Next we made the short walk over to Mariko’s dad’s place and met him and his mother. We spent some time there munching on snacks and talking to Mariko’s grandma, and then went out, not sure where we were going, but just following Mariko’s dad. We ended up at the Osaka Municipal Housing Museum, which was on the 8th floor of the Municipal Housing building. The museum has a recreation of old Osaka circa 1860. It is pretty awesome. The lighting changes every several minutes to simulate all the different times of day. There were even sound effects of birds. It was amazing. Bay and I checked out the sento (public bath house) and he got to open up one of the lockers with an old key. Koa had fun taking photos with Mariko’s camera and running around the town. I really enjoyed walking inside the buildings to see how life was like in the old times. Besides the town, there were models showing the city of Osaka in the early 20th century. These models were so incredibly detailed! There were a few that even moved, and it was so well-done and stylish, with 2D cutouts of people walking on the street, and then other overlays that showed how the city changed over the years. I really recommend visiting this museum if you are ever in Osaka!
After exploring for a couple hours, we were pretty hungry, so we walked down the street to find a place to eat. We quickly found a kaiten-sushi place. Kaiten-sushi is a sushi restaurant where you sit at a counter, and plates of sushi move past you on a conveyor belt. You just grab the plates of sushi that you want, and after you are done with your meal, the wait staff counts up the number of plates and tallies up the bill. Bay loves sushi, and ate so much. I too ate a ton, and drank a bunch of green tea as well. I don’t know how many plates we ended up with, but it must have been around 20 or more.
Mariko’s dad said goodbye to us after lunch, and we headed back to the subway and headed for home. Along the way, I made Mariko stop at the McDonald’s so I could try the Mega Tamago Burger, which I see advertised every day. Mariko was unimpressed with the burger, but I thought it was pretty good! Especially with a nice Kirin. We relaxed the rest of the day, and ended it with a nice hot ofuro.
View the photoset here!
2007 Dec 20
Today was going to be a busy one! We left the house at about 8:30am and made our way to the station. Along the way, Koa got to ride on the back of Grandma’s bike, and he said he had fun. We said goodbye to her at the station, as she went off to work while we went to meet Mariko’s dad at a different station. We put our overnight bag in a coin locker, then took the Keihan Line towards Kyoto.
Our first stop was Otokoyama, which is famous for its bamboo groves and temples. We took a cable-car ride up the side of the mountain, and found ourselves among super-tall bamboo and camphor trees. Some of the camphor trees were several hundred years old! We also got to see a few momiji (Japanese maple) leaves that had not yet fallen to the ground. Mariko’s dad conducts tours sometimes, so he explained a lot as we walked along. There were some temples at the top, and we paid our respects to the gods there. It was really amazing to walk among those bamboo groves and temples, high above the urban sprawl below.
After we decended from the mountain, we had a quick lunch near the station. I had gyudon (beef over rice) and the kids shared kitsune udon. Mariko had curry udon, and I can’t remember what her dad had. Our bellys full, we got back on the train and headed towards Uji. When we arrived, we got a little bit of dessert: ice cream and macha (green tea). In Uji, there is a famous bridge, which is one of the first in Japan. The river it spans is very wide, and flowed very quickly. Mariko’s dad explained a couple of the famous battles that took place long ago, and how the samurai would cross the river on their horses. There is also a statue of Murasaki Shikibu, who wrote The Tale of Genji. Much of the novel takes place in the village of Uji.
After crossing the bridge, we wandered thru town for a bit, then found ourselves at Byodo-in Temple, which is featured on the 10-yen coin. The temple is amazing, and houses a large Buddha. There is also a very modern museum on the temple grounds, and the exhibits are interesting and explain much about the importance of the temple. It’s always fascinating to me to visit these temples because they are so beautiful and serene.
It was getting late in the afternoon when we left Byodo-in and we made our way towards the river again, this time crossing over a brilliant red bridge. Mariko’s dad and I quickly visited two more temples, before heading back to the station. The train ride back to Osaka was a nice rest, with Koa falling asleep on Mariko’s lap. When we arrived at Sekime station, we decided to head straight to the ryokan we would be spending the night at so we could check in and drop our bags off. The ryokan was small and basic, but would be perfect for a tired family. But before we could rest, we needed to have some dinner!
Mariko’s dad led us to a fugu (blowfish) restaurant a few blocks away. Fugu must be prepared by licensed chefs, because it can be deadly if not prepared correctly. This particular restaurant had a glass window where you could watch the chef prepare the fugu. It was somewhat disturbing to watch as he skinned the live fish, then proceeded to cut up the squirming body. Then we settled into our little enclosed booth and table, where a gas stove sat below a large nabe (pot filled with water). We ordered a special drink of sake with broiled fugu fin for taste. It was pretty tasty, and we also had beers to wash it down. The first foods to be served were fugu skin, then fugu sashimi, which was pretty good. Nothing so special, though. Then we had some deep fried fugu, which didn’r really taste special, but was good since I was really hungry. Next, the server brought in a big plate, with noodles, veggies, shiitake, tofu, and chunks of raw fugu. I’m glad I had sake and beer already, because it made it easier to handle the sight of the fugu pieces, which were pulsating and twitching, still full of life. It was pretty gross, actually. But after cooking it in the boiling nabe, it was just like any other fish. Lastly, came another “specialty” dish: fugu sperm sacs. I really wasn’t having any of that. So, I politely refused, and ordered another beer.
After dinner, we headed back to the ryokan, said goodnight to Mariko’s dad, and unpacked. A quick shower and a little tv, and it was off to dreamland. All-in-all, and great day, with an unforgetable meal to top it off.
View the photoset here!
2007 Dec 19
Today we went to drop of the kids at the kindergarten. We took the bus again, which is cheap, just 200 yen per person! But it does take longer than the train. The big advantage is that the bus stops are very close to our starting and ending destinations. The walk from the bus stop to the kindergarten is about 10 minutes, and includes a shortcut past a nice vegetable garden and a secret passageway. After we dropped of the kids, Mariko and I went to another coffee shop for their breakfast sets. Before that, we stopped at a convenience store to pick up some magazines to read. I took some photos in the store, and as we were leaving, the manager asked us what we were going to use the photos for. Mariko just said, “He’s from overseas and thinks all of this is interesting.” Then the manager said, “Ok. Have a nice remainder of your trip.”
Today’s coffee shop wasn’t as nice as yesterday’s, but it was still good. The only problem was that one of the regulars there was chain smoking, so Mariko started feeling a little sick. They did have some magazines, even some “men’s” magazines, with articles and photos aimed at the males of the population. Nothing like looking at pictures of naked ladies while eating breakfast in a coffee shop!
After we finished there, we went back to the kindergarten and saw that they were having an assembly in the big auditorium. All the teachers and some office staff were singing and playing instruments for the kids. It was really neat! And when each class got up to leave, we saw that Koa was holding hands with one of the girls. It was so funny! Back at the classrooms, the kids said their farewells to Koa and Bay. It was so great that the kindergarten would let our kids attend their class for a few days. We thanked the vice principal of the school, then decided to head home and have a nice rest and a drink before heading out again for dinner.
At around 2pm, I got really tired and crashed out on the tatami, and put my glasses on the floor next to me. Unfortunately, Koa came in a little while later and stepped on them, snapping them in half at the bridge. Mariko and I had actually discussed a few weeks ago about getting new glasses in Japan, since it was much cheaper, faster, and you don’t need a prescription. So we left home a little early and went to the glasses store in Yodobashi Camera. I found a nice pair of frames for about 5,900 yen, exam included. Unfortunately, my vision is a bit strange, so my lenses would take a week. Mariko’s lenses would be done in an hour, though. The eye exam was quick, and it is so nice not to have to deal with insurance!
After Yodobashi, we met Mariko’s mom at Umeda and then went to a nearby yakiniku place for some grilled beef, pork, and vegetables. It was all really good, although Bay got very tired and took a snooze. After stuffing ourselves with good food and a few draft beers, we took a taxi back home for a good night’s sleep.
View the photoset here!
2007 Dec 18
Today was Bay and Koa’s second day at the kindergarten, and we decided to take the bus there. We had a bit of trouble though since we got on the wrong bus! But we switched to the correct one at Umeda and were on our way. It was a long bus ride, maybe 30 minutes, and the kids were falling asleep but we finally made it to the school. After dropping them off, Mariko and I started on foot to look for a place to have a cup of coffee and relax. We eventually found a really cool coffee shop that had a couple breakfast sets, and at night the place had izakaya food. The sushi menu on the wall looked really tempting! But it was morning, so we ordered our breakfast sets which included hard boiled egg, small cucumber and ham sandwiches and some fresh fruit. Mariko had toast with marmalade instead of the little sandwiches. The coffee was really good too! Soon it was time to leave and walk back to the kindergarten.
Koa had a good day singing songs and listening to the teacher read from the storybooks. He even picked out the book he wanted her to read. He also seemed to become labu-labu with one of the girls there. Bay also had a good day. At the end of his class, they ate dried persimmon.
After we left kindergarten, we caught the bus back to the city to look for Dotonbori Gokuraku Shotengai, which is like a small theme park, where the theme is old-time Osaka. There are lots of old ads and posters on the walls, and the little restaurants serve typical Osaka foods, like takoyaki. We of course had takoyaki, but also some kimchee-yaki and some other thing that was like takoyaki, but in a broth. Mariko and I shared a cold beer, which really hit the spot. After we ate, we went up to the 7th floor (the place is on the 5th-7th floors of a building) to catch a show. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was better than I could have imagined. It was like a small musical, but very old Japanese style, and very funny! There was even some wire-work flying at the end. The singing and dancing were excellent, and the crowd really got into it. When that was over, we went to another show, which was an actor’s improv. Before that show started, each member of the audience filled out a few questions on cards. Then the acting troupe would act out a story, using the cards as plot drivers. It was sort of like mad-libs, and very funny. Even Koa had fun, busting out laughing a few times.
When we left Dotonbori Gokuraku Shotengai, it was about 4pm and time to head home. We were all pretty tired, but we had a good day. After bathing, we ate some more takoyaki that Mariko’s sister brought home. A nice snack to end a fun day.
2007 Dec 17
We got up at 7am this morning and ate a nice breakfast at home of tamago-yaki (scrambled egg), sausage, and more maki-zushi. Then we were out the door at 7:50am and headed for Tsukamoto station, which would take us five stops thru Osaka to Suita, to meet Mariko’s friend and her son. Bay and Koa would be spending the next few hours attending a Japanese kindergarten. A quick cab ride to the campus, and the boys were busy in class. The only think I knew about Japanese kindergarten was what I saw in the dorama “At Home Dad”. This kindergarten was exactly like that show. The teachers all wore the same kind of aprons, and they played songs on the piano during songtime. The boys did really good in their new class! Bay’s class took a little walking trip to the post-box about a half-mile away. When we got there, the postman was there, picking up the mail in his mail-truck. I thought that it was pretty cool that they arranged to have him there. After the kids sent their postcards, they marched off back to class and finished up the day at around noon.
We were all pretty hungry by then, so we went to Kobeya, which is a restaurant famous for their fresh bread. You order a meal off the regular menu, but they also come by every few minutes with baskets of assorted breads to choose from. It’s all-you-can-eat bread, so we went a little crazy. I don’t really care for raisin bread, but Kobeya’s is really oishi. We also had milk-bread, orange bread, walnut bread, but the best was the cheese bread. My entree was a combo set of hamburger steak, whitefish, ebi-furai (fried shrimp, and potatoes. It was yummy. The kids got their kid’s meals, which was like mine, but no whitefish. Instead they had omuraisu (egg omelette and rice), fries, spaghetti, and hot dog. Plus a little Japanese flag, which was neat. The ladies ate some pasta, which was also delicious.
While we were eating, Mariko’s friend showed me her keitai, which had a tv on it. It was pretty cool and amazing! I am hoping to see a bunch of cool electronics while here, and this was a great start.
After lunch, Mariko’s friend suggested we visit the Pokémon center, and of course the kids were in agreement that we should go. The center was pretty cool. It was basically a big store filled with anything pokémon related you can imagine. There were these big video games where you put tokens on a gameboard, and the pokémon on the screen would battle. I had no idea what was going on, but the kids certainly enjoyed it. Also, Bay and Mariko learned how the proper way to play the pokémon card game, from an official pokémon trainer. It was pretty neat, I only wish I could understand!
When we left the Pokémon center, we were getting tired, so we decided to just head home via train. But on the way, Koa said he wanted ice-cream and Bay said he was a little hungry, so we stopped at a little cafe in the underground mall below Osaka station. Bay had some spaghetti and Koa had some chocolate chip ice cream on corn flakes. Mariko enjoyed an ice coffee, and I just had a few glasses of water. I was so thirsty! It must have been all that bread I ate at lunch.
We arrived home after that and Bay and I took a hot bath together. It was so relaxing! I love Japanese ofuro (baths)! It was the perfect way to end a long day.
View the photo set here!