Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Japan Holds Court: Former Tar Heel Graves Heads to Japan to Play . . . Basketball?!

Sometimes a simple text can prompt me to research a topic and write a story. The origins of this blog entry arose from a message sent by my good buddy D.F. It said, "Will Graves signs with Japanese bball team." Since I was researching a baseball story at the time I received the text, my first reaction was, "Will Graves plays baseball?"

No, D.F. was talking about basketball. Graves is the beleaguered guard/forward who was dismissed from the North Carolina Tar Heels men's basketball team last October for "failing to comply with team rules." Coach Roy Williams never provided further explanation. Obviously Graves had disciplinary issues; he was also served a suspension during the team's 2008-09 NCAA championship season. In signing with a Japanese team in Akita, he's about as far away from Chapel Hill as he can be.

Will Graves and the North Carolina Tar Heels in the 2010 NIT Semifinal at Madison Square Garden

Will Graves (#13) as a Tar Heel

I certainly hope Graves has his act together. Japan is a tough place to go if one has trouble complying with team rules. Which brings me to this: Japan has a professional basketball league?

Yes, the bj-league as it's known – and I don't know why it's known as the bj-league or why it's written in lower case – was established in 2005 with six teams. The league expanded after each season and now has thirteen teams in two conferences, including the one with which Graves has signed to play, the Northern Akita Happinets. I don't know what a Happinet is. For that matter, I don't understand the names for the majority of the teams that comprise the bj-league. Names such as Hannaryz (the newest team from Kyoto), Albirex BB (Niigata), and Evessa (Osaka) seem a bit strange to me. I have yet to unearth the details. 

Okinawa also has a team, the Ryukyu Golden Kings. The birthplace of my mother won the bj-league championship in 2008. Pretty cool, huh? I don't think my family members have mentioned that, but my husband reminded me that we saw banners in Tokyo congratulating the Golden Kings on the victory. I have a vague recollection of that, but can't find any pictures.

At any rate, Akita is neither Okinawa nor Tokyo. It's rugged country that's colorful in the fall and snowy in the winter. 

Akita in the fall

It's also where the Akita Inu, a handsome breed of sturdy dog, is from, as told in the book Dog Man: An Uncommon Life on a Faraway Mountain. Excellent read. But I digress.

Akita Inu (from www.remarkabledogs.com)

I wish Will Graves the best in his new endeavor. As Northern Akita's slogan states, "It's a Happinets Time!"

Monday, February 21, 2011

MLB and NPB: New Places, Same Faces

The following is my most recent essay for Baseball Reflections.

Baseball players in Japan began spring training last week, and MLB pitchers and catchers reported this week. Do you know who they are and where they are? In the constant merry-go-round that is professional sports, it’s difficult to keep up with what player is on what team these days.
Let’s break down the comings and goings between Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball.

Hello, MLB

After Hisashi Iwakuma’s botched posting, this is a short list.

Tsuyoshi Nishioka – The 2010 batting champion (.346 average) with the Chiba Lotte Marines signed with the Minnesota Twins, becoming Minnesota’s first Asian-born major leaguer.

Yoshinori Tateyama – He’s not Yu Darvish, but he was his teammate on the Nippon Ham Fighters. The relief pitcher had a career-low 1.80 ERA last season with the Fighters, and the Texas Rangers hope he can duplicate that – including his .213 opponent average – with them in 2011.

Goodbye, MLB

Akinori Iwamura – The second baseman for the 2008 World Series runner-up Tampa Bay Rays is returning to Japan after disappointing stints with both Pittsburgh and Oakland in 2010. The 32-year-old signed with the Rakuten Golden Eagles.

Kaz Matsui – Joining Iwamura on the Eagles is fellow infielder Kaz Matsui, who played for the Mets, Rockies, and Astros. Although Matsui did not live up to expectations in New York, he did appear in the World Series (2007 with Colorado against eventual champion Boston Red Sox).

Kleenex Miyagi Stadium in Sendai, where Akinori Iwamura and Kaz Matsui
will call home with the Rakuten Golden Eagles

Hello, NPB

Baseball fans complain that Japanese players have been less than spectacular in MLB. Despite helping the Red Sox win a World Series in 2007 and posting an 18-3 record the following season, Daisuke Matsuzaka needs to have a strong, injury-free season to prove he’s worthy of his multi-million-dollar contract. Kei Igawa (Yankees) has spent the majority of his MLB career in MiLB, and Ryota Igarashi (Mets) isn’t far behind. Does anyone remember Yasuhiko Yabuta?

The baseball pipeline runs in both directions, and Japan has received its share of duds over the years. Granted, players who don’t quite make it in MLB usually don’t go to Japan with the same amount of fanfare as an Ichiro or a Daisuke or a Hideki Matsui, and recently players – Matt Murton, Craig Brazell, and Colby Lewis, to name a few – have flourished on the other side of the Pacific. But look at what the Japanese league is getting from MLB in 2011. In the column Hardball Talk on nbcsports.com, baseball writer Aaron Gleeman calls the fresh crop of former major leaguers venturing into NPB “ . . . an amusing list of washed-up former stars . . . top prospect busts . . . and role players who for whatever reason never seemed to get any traction in MLB.” Ouch.

Let’s break down the notable names making their NPB debuts in 2011.

Gleeman’s “Washed-up former stars”

Byung-Hyun Kim – The right-handed pitcher hasn’t played an MLB game since September of 2007. He signed with the Rakuten Golden Eagles in January.

Chan Ho Park – After a disappointing season with the Yankees and the Pirates, the 2001 All-Star will play for the Orix Buffaloes.

Chad Tracy – The error-prone Diamondbacks standout is now the second baseman for the Hiroshima Carp.

Chad Tracy's new team may have finished 21.5 games out of first place last season,
but the Carp's ballpark is spectacular.

Gleeman’s “Top prospect busts”

Wladimir Balentien – The outfielder did well in the minors, in the majors (with the Mariners and the Reds)? Not so much. He’ll try his luck with the Yakult Swallows.

Bryan Bullington – The #1 overall pick by Pittsburgh in the 2002 MLB Draft, the right-hander won his first MLB game with the Royals last August, defeating the Yankees 1-0. That may be his only MLB win; he was designated for assignment in November and later signed with the Carp.

Joel Guzman – Guzman signed with the Dodgers in 2001 and was traded to Tampa Bay for Julio Lugo in 2006. After spending the 2010 in the Orioles’ Double A team, Guzman will be a utility player for the Chunichi Dragons.

Wladimir Balentien will see his name on this brilliant video board at Meiji Jingu Stadium in Tokyo.

Gleeman’s Failed role players

Jonathan Albaladejo – He went from the Yankees of MLB to the Yankees of NPB. Albaladejo signed with the Yomiuri Giants, likely replacing Bronx native Marc Kroon, who was invited to spring training by the World Champion San Francisco Giants.

Micah Hoffpauir – In the spring of 2009, Hoffpauir was set to replace Derrek Lee as the first baseman of the Cubs, the team where he spent his entire MLB career. Now, the 30-year-old Texan is playing for the Nippon Ham Fighters of Hokkaido in northern Japan. (The aforementioned Murton, Hoffpauir’s former Cubs teammate, told him he’d love it.)

Rusty Ryal - The former Arizona Diamondbacks infielder signed with the Giants, but his job isn’t secure. He may have to fight Taishi Ohta and Yoshiyuki Kamei for a starting spot at third base.

Jonathan Albaladejo will search for consistency at the Tokyo Dome.

Other Who Made the Move to Japan in 2011

Brian Bannister (Yomiuri Giants) – The former Mets/Royal righty is the son of Floyd Bannister, who played one season in Japan (1990 for the Yakult Swallows).

Marcos Vechionacci (Hanshin Tigers) – Yankees minor league infielder never made it higher than Double A. 

Marcos Vechionacci will pray for his professional career at the baseball shrine adjacent
to his new home ballpark, Koshien Stadium in Osaka.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The JLPT Results: Success!

I returned from a work trip to find mail from the Japan Foundation waiting for me. Last week I wondered when I would learn the results of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) I took in December. It's been in the back of my mind all weekend. Because the envelope was made of cardboard, my heart skipped a beat. Could this mean I passed? I don't remember what kind of envelope held my results last year – when I failed.


Indeed, the envelope protected a document certifying I passed Level N4 of the JLPT. Hooray!


I'd like to thank my teacher, Kikuchi Sensei, as well as the iPad and iPhone apps I used as study guides.

Now it's time to begin studying for the next level . . .

Monday, February 14, 2011

Have a Bento from FUJI Catering and Table for Two

Order a bento and feed a child in Africa.

Starting Valentine's Day in New York City, you can do just that. Japanese non-profit organization Table for Two (TFT) and New York-based FUJI Catering, a bento delivery company, announced that they are collaborating in an effort to fight obesity and hunger simultaneously.

I'm happy to say that I played a small role in this partnership. In the summer of 2009, Chopsticks NY hired me to write about FUJI Catering. (You can read that spread here.) Since then, I've written a New Year's resolution story about eating healthy bento and another feature for Chopsticks NY. (Enjoy re-reading those stories here and here.)

When I attended a lecture about TFT at the Japan Society last summer, I immediately thought of Toru Furukawa of FUJI Catering. His bento company would be the perfect find for the Japanese charity. I introduced myself to Masahisa Kogure, director of TFT International, and then discussed my idea with Toru-san. I put them in touch with each other, and after a few months of meetings and strategic planning, the two organizations have formed an alliance.

I wrote a press release to help them announce their goal to feed healthy meals to New Yorkers and children in the impoverished nations of Uganda, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. Read about the collaboration here, have your company order lunch from FUJI Catering here, and learn all about TFT here.

Toru Furukawa of FUJI Catering

Masa Kogure of Table for Two at the Japan Society, July 2010

Masa with a slide of African children TFT has helped

The slide that made me think FUJI Catering could be TFT's partner

Mouthwatering FUJI Catering bento
Photo: Toru Furukawa, FUJI Catering

Don't you want to eat this for lunch every day?
Photo: Toru Furukawa, FUJI Catering

Table for Two-branded salmon bento from FUJI Catering
Photo: Toru Furukawa, FUJI Catering

Table for Two-branded yakitori bento from FUJI Catering
Photo: Toru Furukawa, FUJI Catering

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sushi Saturday at Villanova

Last week I declared "Friday Night Is Sushi Night" after successive weekends of having sushi for dinner. That didn't last long because it was too cold for me to venture out of my hotel in Wayne, Pennsylvania, near Villanova University. The hotel didn't have sushi on the menu, so this past Friday turned into "Balsamic Grilled Chicken Sandwich Night." Pretty lame, huh?

As luck would have it, I was able to have sushi for lunch the following day. My friend and co-worker Susie and I drove around Villanova's gothic Roman Catholic campus and came across Fuji Mountain, a Japanese restaurant in Bryn Mawr. We were the first customers of the day, so we had the place to ourselves.

Fuji Mountain Japanese Restaurant in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

The decor had an Amish or Quaker feel to it, probably due to Bryn Mawr's proximity to Amish country, and was accented with Japanese art and Valentine's Day flourishes.

Valentine's Day soy sauce

Japanese decor at Fuji Mountain

Amish-style quilts featuring familiar Japanese objects such as kimono adorned the walls.

Fuji Mountain's Amish/Japanese fusion

While the interior design is a hybrid of cultures, the food is typically what any Japanese restaurant in the States serves. Susie had the "Washington Roll," which is shrimp tempura topped with avocado and a "special cream sauce."

Washington Roll

Not sure what exactly comprised the "special cream sauce," but it involved imitation crab, something crunchy, and possibly mayo. Since I'm crazy about avocado, I couldn't resist having a bite. Yummy and filling.

My choice was the Combination Box, which came with four pieces of sushi (the standard tuna, salmon, and shrimp along with a piece of fluke - hirame in Japanese), chicken teriyaki, and shrimp shumai.


Chicken teriyaki


The sushi wasn't spectacular, but it was fresh, so I have no complaints. The chicken teriyaki was a little dry, but not terribly so. Shumai is one of my favorite Japanese/Chinese appetizers ever. Alas, no beer or sake consumption as we were on our way to work, but it was a good meal overall.

Will I venture out for sushi next Friday (or Saturday) in East Lansing, Michigan?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Friday Night Is Sushi Night

For someone who doesn't consider sushi to be the be-all, end-all in Japanese cuisine, I sure have been eating a lot of it lately. On Friday I found myself at Sushi Matsuri in Gainesville, Florida. While some of my co-workers were drawn in by the more upscale Dragonfly, my friend Jill and I opted for no frills and walking distance. We weren't disappointed.

Sushi Matsuri in Gainesville, Florida

The unagi (eel, the meaty-looking chunks in the center) was melt-in-your-mouth excellent. The futomaki (upper right) was also delicious, but it fell apart when using chopsticks, so I used my hands. The salmon was a bit tough, but we were pleased with the rest of our platter. Dragonfly may have the ambience, but Sushi Matsuri has good flavor at college-town prices.

Who's up for sushi in Villanova, Pennsylvania, this Friday? Is there sushi in Villanova, Pennsylvania?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Neko Nabe: The Cute Alternative to the "Big Game"

Today is the day of the Big Game. You know the one. Vicious creatures battle it out in a contest that matches superb athleticism against raw determination for a singular purpose: To drag that chew toy across the goal line.

What? You were thinking about another Big Game? Oh, yeah. The one between the Steelers and the Packers? Right. Yeah, that's cool, but the Big Game to which I was referring is Puppy Bowl VII. From it's humble beginnings of letting little dogs run around on astroturf to its current state of rabid popularity. (No pun intended.) I always considered this was a network time killer complete with sweetness and fluff. What I didn't realize until I read this article is that Puppy Bowl is a vehicle for puppy adoption.

As adorable as Puppy Bowl is, I've discovered something that rivals the show's supreme cuteness. Neko Nabe!

NABE [prbe]
Uploaded by probeeden. - More video blogs and vloggers.

Now that's cute!

Seeing this gave me an idea: What if we did a Neko Nabe for kitten adoption? Think about it. Put out a bunch of nabe pots and invite kitties from shelters to sleep in them. This would definitely entice people to adopt the cats because who could resist? There aren't many things more precious than seeing an animal curled up in a dish. Never mind that the container that will eventually hold your dinner. That dinner will not be made of cats, however.

Anyway, I'll develop this idea further and get back to you. This could be the beginning of Neko Adoption Nabe Bowl!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Wide on Rice: The Ugliest Onigiri Ever Made

I recently took an onigiri class at the Japanese Culinary Center in midtown Manhattan. Onigiri is a rice ball, the quintessential go-to snack in Japan. It's also called omusubi, a more polite term that means roughly "to take hold of something with your hands." Rice balls can be round or triangular, and they can be filled with all sorts of goodies. My personal favorite is tuna mayonnaise; other popular fillings are shrimp tempura and ume (pickled plum).

In this case, a class of twenty-five people took hold of rice in order to form triangular-shaped rice treats with varying degrees of success. (Based on the title of this blog entry, you can probably guess how successful I was.)

First, our instructor told us to soak our hands in a bowl of lukewarm salt water. The water keeps the rice from sticking on our hands, and the salt enhances the flavor of the rice. Then, we grabbed a chunk of rice from our plates and packed it tightly in the palm of one hand. We added ingredients such as corn, shio konbu (salted kelp), or salmon. Add strips of nori (seaweed) around each one, and voila! We'd created the perfect snack.

Well, not all of the onigiri were perfect. My triangle-forming skills were severely lacking, as my onigiri kept falling apart. Despite dipping my hands in the salt water and re-shaping the rice balls, they still looked hideous.

Ugly onigiri

Nori failure

Hey, looks aren't everything, right? So my onigiri weren't as cute as my classmate's, who used corn to decorate her perfect triangles of rice goodness. What matters most is that mine were yummy!

Pretty onigiri

Looming in the distance was a perfect specimen of an onigiri, expertly shaped by our instructor. One of the class attendees referred to it as Buddha. Yes, he was the Onigiri Buddha, there to lead us down the path to rice-ball enlightenment.

Onigiri Buddha

I enjoyed eating my onigiri almost as much as the tremendous tonjiru, a hearty miso stew prepared by the JCC staff. It was the perfect day-after-the-third-blizzard-in-a-month fare.


I lamented on Facebook about my poor, pathetic onigiri, and a couple of friends gave me excellent tips. The JCC gave participants a four-pound bag of rice cultivated in Akita Prefecture in northern Japan, so I'll use it to refine my technique. I will achieve success in onigiri.


Our instructor chats with a fellow student in front of the Japanese Culinary Center's impressive collection of knives.

The Japanese Culinary Center

The Japanese Culinary Center's wares

My actual onigiri may have been ugly, but at least my accessories reflected the spirit of the occasion.

Onigiri jewelry!

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Setsubun: The Seasons Have Divided, So Now It's Spring!

Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!

Today the Japanese yelled, "Out with the devil! In with good fortune!" It's Setsubun, which means "season division." Big, bad winter is on the way out and spring is born. This year, Setsubun falls on the first day of the Chinese lunar calendar, so it's like New Year's Day all over again.

During the observance of Setsubun, Japanese traditionally put roasted soybeans in a wooden cup. Children throw those beans at an oni, or a demon, generally portrayed by the man of the house.

Here is an example of an oni:

Maru as oni from sisimaru.blog17.fc2.com/

That Maru. Is there no end to his wacky antics?

Anyway, I wrote about Setsubun last year; click here for those fabulous details. Sakura Hostel, located in Tokyo, has a nice write-up about the festivities in its blog, Asakusa Diary. For a comprehensive look at the Japanese observance of Setsubun, watch this 2010 video from YouTube user RoninDave. He went to several spots in Kyoto and Nara to see Setsubun celebrations and documents them nicely here.

So, out with bad fortune and in with good fortune. Hope everyone has a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Fly Fishing: Sushi on the Road

I realized that I hadn't been through Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in a little while when I walked through last Friday and discovered that an area once littered with wobbly tables and a hot dog cart is now occupied by a swanky-looking seafood and sushi establishment.

You can have fish for breakfast at the airport in Chicago.

It was around 8:00 a.m., and I had a little time between flights, so I thought breakfast time was the perfect time to have sushi. I didn't actually eat fish for breakfast, although I love doing that in Japan. Instead I had inari zushi (sushi rice encased in a soybean pouch) and futomaki (a veggie roll that also contained tamago, an egg omelet).

Futomaki (left) and inari zushi

I was on my way to Lawrence, Kansas, to work the Kansas State/Kansas men's basketball game. Lawrence, home of the University of Kansas, is practically at the very center of the United States.

"A" marks the spot of Lawrence, Kansas (Google Maps)

Imagine my surprise when my co-workers suggest, in the middle of Livestock Nation, that we have sushi for dinner that night.

Wa, a sushi restaurant in Lawrence, Kansas

The name of the place is Wa, which is the Japanese word for "harmony." The six of us ordered a little bit of sashimi and tons of rolls, which arrived on the standard giant sushi boat. (I forgot to take a picture of it, but there's one in this 2009 review of the place.) It wasn't fancy, but the rolls were excellent. The only issue we had was with the salmon sashimi, which was practically frozen in the center, but we had that replaced without a problem. A couple of bottles of cold sake topped off the meal in fine fashion.

I felt that I had wa while I was at Wa, a surprisingly good Midwestern sushi restaurant. They even had what looked like a Hakuin hanging near the front door.

Did Hakuin paint this?

Maybe Friday night will become sushi night. Think I can find sushi in Gainesville, Florida?