Saturday, December 17, 2011

Seeing Shrinecastle around NYC

Imagine my surprise when I walked into the Japanese Culinary Center for a Motsu Nabe event and saw this:

Shrinecastle at Japanese Culinary Center

It's a print-out of "Japanese Culinary Center Puts the Smackdown on Gyoza," a blog entry I wrote about the delicious dumplings event held by Japanese Culinary Center.

I thought that was incredibly cool.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas Tree!

Yes, most people put up their Christmas trees right after Thanksgiving, so I suppose we're a little late in that respect. But our Christmas tree is up and decorated, and I couldn't be happier!

Christmas tree!

We went a little retro this year with giant bulbs.

Retro Tree!

Here is one of our favorite ornaments, the octopus.

Tremendously cool octopus ornament!

Our American tree fits in nicely with the Japanese touches in our place.

Dining/Living room!

Even the office door is decked out for the holidays.

Christmas lights!

Merry Christmas everyone!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ten Hours in Fukushima

A journalist advised me not to go. Two peace activists told me I would be fine, although one of them didn’t want me to eat the local foods. An author suggested a simple lunch probably wouldn’t do much damage.

So I went. And ate lunch. The place in question is Fukushima, the site of what is considered the worst nuclear disaster in history. I didn't go to the vicinity of the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Plant, of course, but for a few minutes I was about 25 miles away, which is close enough. 

I wrote about the experience for my website, JapanCulture•NYC, and you can read all about it in the story "Fukushima City: Six Months Later."

A view of Fukushima from the bullet train

As I looked out the window as the bullet train approached Fukushima Station, I was surprised by how pastoral the area seemed. 

Mountains of Fukushima

The views from a rest area in the mountains are stunning. Fukushima, despite its beleaguered state and struggles with the nuclear crisis, is quite beautiful.

Beautiful late-summer day in Fukushima

Still, the beauty doesn't hide the fact that there are serious radiation concerns, especially in areas such as Iitate, a village that is considered in the "red zone." The "red zone" isn't as bad as a mandatory evacuation zone, but the radiation levels are high enough to warrant the government's suggested evacuation.

Houses near Iitate, Fukushima

My host that day in Fukushima, Professor Takayuki Takahashi of Fukushima University, informed me that drawn curtains in homes likely means the residents have relocated to safer areas.

Fukushima University

So many people, like Professor Takahashi and the other scientists I met that day, are working incredibly hard to solve the nuclear crisis. The sign on a building on the campus of Fukushima University says, "Mitsuke you anata no mirai," which means, "Find your future." It will take decades, but I hope Fukushima finds its future to be healthy.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Everything You Wanted to Know about JapanBall 2011

An edited version of this post appeared in Baseball Reflections.

Last month, as they have done for the past twenty years, Bob Bavasi and Mayumi Smith guided a group of tourists across Japan to discover the joys of the culture through baseball. Bavasi, the son of Buzzie Bavasi of Brooklyn/LA Dodgers, San Diego Padres, and California Angels fame, and Smith, the director of the Nippon Business Institute at Everett Community College in Washington state, operate JapanBall, a whirlwind tour that packs five baseball games in five different cities into seven days. This September I joined Bavasi, Smith, and twelve other baseball fans for a week of baseball, bullet trains, and beer.

JapanBall Hall of Fame
Each tour kicks off at a CafĂ© Roje, a tiny ramen shop in the Tokyo neighborhood of Ochanomizu. Dubbed the JapanBall Hall of Fame by Bavasi, the restaurant – which is run by the husband-and-wife team of Jun and Koko, who cheerfully serve ramen, gyoza (pan-fried dumplings), and chahan (fried rice) to this group of gaijin (foreigners) who sit around and talk baseball all night – houses the plaques of JapanBall Hall of Fame members. The criteria for achieving Hall-of-Fame status are completing three JapanBall tours or taking the see-it-all option in which the traveler attends games at all twelve Japanese professional baseball stadiums in a two-week period. 

Bob Bavasi (standing) gives us the scoop in Tokyo

This year four people were inducted into the JapanBall Hall of Fame, including yours truly, as I was participating in my fourth tour.

Don Robbs of Hawaii inducted into the JapanBall Hall of Fame

This year a producer and a cameraman hired by an Australian TV company to do a program about Japanese baseball joined us at the ramen shop, recording footage of our Hall of Fame induction ceremony and listening in as we discussed why we go on this trip.

Game 1: Hiroshima Carp at Yomiuri Giants – Tokyo Dome, Tokyo
Fans who follow NPB were hoping for a glimpse of Carp pitcher Kenta Maeda, the reigning Sawamura (Japan’s Cy Young) Award winner. Instead, the start went to Giancarlo Alvarado, a 33-year-old right-hander from Puerto Rico with no MLB experience. He gave up seven hits and two runs in 6.2 innings as the Carp defeated the Giants 6-3. Giants manger Tatsunori Hara pulled starter Shun Tono after only one inning of work, in which he gave up three runs. Hara’s double-switch moved the shortstop into the pitcher’s spot, causing some angst among the JapanBall participants who keep score.

Ultraman at Tokyo Dome

Giants players in posters outside Tokyo Dome

Giants fans

The Japanese game is often described as small ball – leadoff batter gets on base, steals 2nd, is bunted to 3rd, scores on a sac fly – but on this night, we witnessed four home runs, including the 150th of Hiroshima first baseman Kenta Kurihara’s career. Although Kurihara is on the opposing team, the Giants mascots presented him with a bouquet of flowers as he crossed home plate.

Hiroshima fans cheer

The TV crew was also there for the first game, interviewing each of us about what we think of Japanese baseball. We all had praise for the oendan (fan clubs) who create an amazing atmosphere with their constant chants.

Game 2: Nippon-Ham Fighters vs Rakuten Golden Eagles – Kleenex Miyagi Stadium, Sendai
Sold-out trains meant the JapanBall crew had to take a super-early bullet train from Tokyo to Tohoku as we headed to Sendai, a city hit hard by the massive earthquake that struck northeastern Japan on March 11. On September 10, almost six months to the day of the most devastating natural disaster to hit Japan in 140 years, we joined a packed house and watched two gems by two young pitchers, Nippon-Ham’s Yuki Saito and Masahiro Tanaka of Rakuten.

Good Luck Tohoku!

This was a dream matchup of two rivals, both 23, who faced each other in an epic showdown at the National High School Baseball Championship in 2006. After the aces battled to a 1-1 tie in 15 innings, Saito started the rematch the following day, striking out Tanaka to end the game and win Waseda Jitsugyo’s first title.

Tanaka is now in his fifth season with the Eagles; Saito, who attended Waseda University, is a rookie with the Fighters. In their first professional head-to-head matchup, both Yu-chan and Ma-kun – as fans affectionately call them – were impressive, each throwing complete games, the ninth of the season for Tanaka and the first of Saito’s young and promising career. After giving up a run in the bottom of the 1st, Saito settled down until the 6th, when the Eagles scored three runs. He struck out only one batter, but walked only one.

Tanaka prevailed against his rival on this day, and he seemed to grow more confident and dominant as the game progressed. Carrying a shutout into the 9th, Tanaka allowed a run on a two-out, bases-loaded walk – the only one he issued – to pinch-hitter Tomohiro Nioka. It was the only blemish in his 12-strikeout performance. After the walk, Ma-kun was visibly upset on the mound; the run ended his personal 24-inning scoreless streak. (In my opinion, Tanaka technically struck out Nioka earlier in the at-bat on a strike that was called a ball.)

Fittingly, Tanaka struck out the last batter to win the game 4-1. Despite my initial disdain that I once again missed seeing Yu Darvish pitch – he would start, and lose, the next day – this was easily the best game I’ve seen in Japan. Since that outing, Tanaka has recorded five more complete games and leads the Pacific League in ERA.

Ma-Kun addresses the crowd after his gem

We also had the chance to see Kaz Matsui, who returned to NPB and signed with the Eagles after seven seasons in MLB. “It was just like watching a Mets game,” lamented JapanBall member and lifelong Mets fan Ken Schlapp. “Matsui went 0 for 4 with an error.”

Balloon release during the 7th inning stretch

After the game we were invited to a barbecue at the home of Marty Kuehnert, senior advisor to the Rakuten Golden Eagles. It’s rare to visit a private residence in Japan, and we appreciated this special opportunity.

In addition to sampling Marty’s new barbecue sauce recipe (excellent!), we met Luis Garcia, the Eagles first baseman who had a key RBI single and made a tremendous defensive play in the game. We also had the opportunity to talk to Darrell Rasner, a right-hander who played for both the Nationals and the Yankees.

From left: Darrell Rasner, Marty Kuehnert, Luis Garcia

Rasner praised Tanaka, saying his teammate will one day play in MLB. But he had higher praise for Darvish. “He’s the real deal,” Rasner said of the talented and popular 25-year-old. “Yu Darvish will go [to MLB] after this season for $50 million [as a posting fee]. And it’s going to be the Yankees.”
We’ll find out soon if Rasner’s prediction is correct. If it is, perhaps I’ll finally see Darvish play in person.

Game 3: Yokohama BayStars at Chunichi Dragons – Nagoya Dome, Nagoya
The 2011 JapanBall tour stumbled upon Milestone Week. This year the Chunichi Dragons are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the franchise. In this game Dragons leadoff batter Masahiro Araki went three for four en route to becoming only the eleventh player in NPB history with 1,500 career hits. His milestone came in the 33-year-old shortstop’s last at-bat. Araki also drove in the game’s only run, as Chunichi defeated the BayStars 1-0.

Nagoya Dome

Anniversary for Chunichi franchise

Maximo Nelson, a Dominican in his fourth season with the Dragons, recorded only his seventh win of the season against 13 losses. He pitched seven strong innings, giving up four hits and striking out five.
The game wasn’t sold out, but the crowd was lively. The bento I had was amazing, too.

Nagoya Dome bento

Baseball Off Day in Kyoto
Since Mondays are off days for all NPB teams, the members of the JapanBall tour had time to explore Kyoto, a city renowned for its many temples. I have to admit that as a frequent traveler to Japan, I have a “been there, done that” attitude when it comes to Kyoto. Although I think Kyoto is a beautiful city, I wasn’t as eager as the rest of the group to see a bunch of temples on this hot afternoon. Instead, I tagged along with a few of the guys on the tour and explored the amazing food court in the basement of a department store near our hotel. After going to the top of Kyoto Tower, I broke down and walked to one temple, Higashi Honganji.

Kyoto Tower

View from Kyoto Tower

Higashi Honganji

I met up with everyone in the evening for our group dinner at a Korean barbecue place near Kyoto’s lively Gion district. It’s always fun to walk through the narrow streets and see all of the great restaurants in the area.

Downtown Kyoto

Kyoto street

Game 4: Chunichi Dragons at Hanshin Tigers – Koshien Stadium, Nishinomiya
“Baseball fans in America have to see this” – Matt Zito, 2011 JapanBall tour member

With arguably the loudest and rowdiest oendan in all of Japan, a Hanshin Tigers game at Koshien Stadium outside of Osaka is an experience to behold. Every fan – EVERY fan – is into the game, faithfully reciting each cheer and hanging on every pitch from start to finish. We were as close to the oendan as we could get, and although we were cramped in the bleachers with no seatbacks or legroom, the majority of us delighted in the atmosphere.

The crowd was on fire, except in the first inning, when Alabama native Jason Standridge, who pitched in 80 MLB games over the course of seven seasons, gave up two runs to the Dragons.

Arizona Diamondbacks scouts were in attendance to watch Taiwanese lefty Chen Wei Yin in his start against the Tigers. They were most likely disappointed with his performance. After being given the aforementioned first-inning runs, Chen gave them right back in the bottom frame. Tigers fans were back in the game, and Chen wouldn’t make it out of the fourth inning.

It was a back-and-forth affair for the first four innings, with the Tigers answering almost every run scored by the Dragons. Almost wasn’t enough; the Dragons prevailed 6-4. Throughout it all, however, the stadium was rocking with the best fans in Japanese baseball.

Hanshin Tigers oendan (fan club)

Ready to release balloons at Koshien

Game 5: Yomiuri Giants at Yokohama BayStars – Yokohama Stadium, Yokohama
Yokohama Stadium may as well have been Tokyo Dome. The sparse crowd of fewer than 16,000 was dominated by Giants fans furiously twirling orange towels. 

Giants fans cheer in Yokohama

In this game between the “Yankees of Japan” and the cellar-dwelling BayStars, we watched another strong pitching performance, this time by Giants rookie Hirokazu Sawamura. The right-hander was Yomiuri’s 2010 first-round pick out of Chuo University. Like his fellow 23-year-olds Saito and Tanaka, Sawamura showed us that some day he’ll win the award that bears his name.

Sawamura pitched seven shutout innings, surrendering five hits and striking out nine. The youngster also made a statement with the bat. He had an RBI double and scored a run in the Giants’ four-run fourth inning, redeeming himself for striking out while trying to bunt during a previous at-bat.
The Giants would go on to win 6-2, finally giving Sawamura some run support. Despite being among the top five in ERA in the Central League, Sawamura had a losing record at the time we saw him pitch. (As of this writing, Sawamura evened his record at 11-11.)

Bob Bavasi (left) with sportswriter Wayne Graczyk

After the game I went with Giants broadcaster and writer Wayne Graczyk at Benny’s Place, a sports bar in Yokohama. Wayne compiles JapanBall’s yearly Japan Pro Baseball Fan Handbook and Media Guide and writes a weekly column for the Japan Times.

Benny of Benny’s Place is a Midwesterner who was stationed in Japan during his stint in the Navy. He never left, opening an American sports bar and serving pizza and burgers.
Japan Entertainment Group’s Jeff Kusumoto, who does work in Japan for the Houston Astros, joined us as Wayne and I celebrated another outstanding JapanBall tour.

Five baseball games in seven days. Brilliant pitching performances by three young guns and milestones reached by two veterans. Bullet trains and sightseeing thrown in for good measure. Just another week on the JapanBall tour.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A Morning at Naha Nishi High School

During our stay in Okinawa, my husband and I had the special opportunity to visit a high school in Naha. The program, "Learning about Uchinanchu Around the World," was part of the 5th Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival, a quinquennial event that brings together Okinawans and their descendants.

A month before arriving in Naha, I communicated with Masaki Takara, an English teacher at Naha Nishi High School. He arranged our visit, planning an assembly with the school's one thousand students and observations in several classes.

English teacher Masaki Takara

Takara Sensei made this crazy poster of me for a late-September festival at the school.

Students with my poster

And the poster was still there on the day we visited.

Poster and e-mails

Naha Nishi High School

After meeting Takara Sensei and Assistant Principal Miyagi, my husband and I attended an assembly in our honor. Students performed a cool hip-hop/traditional eisa dance for us and presented us with gifts. Then Takara Sensei took us to several classes.

"Playing" the sanshin

The first stop was at a music class, where a student laughed at my inability to play the sanshin, a three-stringed, banjo-like instrument native to Okinawa. Can you blame me for being bad? Just look at the notes:

Sanshin notes

We moved on to calligraphy, another activity at which I'm completely unskilled.

Attempting to control the brush

Learning calligraphy

We both gave it a try, and we had a great time talking to these young students. They were engaging and asked us questions about our lives: What our jobs are, how we met, if we have children.

Yucking it up in calligraphy class

Most of the students in this calligraphy class are athletes, so they thought my job of typing graphics for televised sporting events was kakkouii, or cool.

Our  calligraphy

I prepared a slide show for the English class, discussing that although I live in New York, my mother is from northern Okinawa, which is why I was participating in the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival. We fielded questions from the students, although most were hesitant to talk at first.

Yoshihira Sensei's English class

But since these students are going to Australia for a home stay next month, it was important for us to communicate in English so they could practice.

In the following Social Studies class, Ken Saito prepared a worksheet for his students, asking them questions about the Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival and about New York. That class, which had some of the same students from the previous English class, was lively, as we discussed what makes New York City famous. You can read about what Okinawan high school students think of New York here.

Saito Sensei's Social Studies class

Friday, October 14, 2011

Family Time on Okinawa

The best thing about visiting Okinawa is spending time with my family. My husband and I enjoyed having dinner with my aunt and my cousins at a restaurant in Naha. It was amazing to see how my cousins' daughters have grown since the last time we saw each other in 2008.

My family

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival Parade in Pictures

More pictures from the Festival Eve Parade of the 5th Worldwide Uchinanchu Festival in Naha, Okinawa, on October 12. For more about the parade, check out this link.