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Great view to the Sendai downtown

After stoppting at Sendai just for one night, I´ve wanted to use the chance to see a little bit of the city. Sendai is the biggest city in Tohoku and the best place to see that is from the observation deck of the AER Building.The AER building is a small shopping center just next to Sendai Station. You have to go to the 31 floor of the building to the observation deck. But watch out there is no way to go there at the shopping center. You have to use the elevator at the office area in the same building to go up. From the 31 Floor you will have a great round view over the city. Also many couples using that spot for a date.After visiting the observation deck I would recommend to walk around the big shopping streets around that area!

Celebrate Marine Day in Shiogama!

These banners outside of HonShiogama Station on the Senseki line boast of the approaching festivities.Next Monday is the Japanese national holiday known as Marine Day or Ocean Day and if you have the time and interest in Japanese festivals, a trip to Shiogama in Miyagi prefecture may be in order. Posters like this have been up all over town for months.    The event begins Sunday with a massive fireworks display generally starting at dusk over Matsushima Bay. The best place to watch the display is from the roof of the Aeon TownMall known as The Big or across the street at Marine Gate, which does double duty as both a fun venue for this event as well as the launching point for a number of ferries and small boats carrying their hires to the middle of the bay to watch the display.     If you're interested in watching from an aquatic position, grab tickets from a number of retailers and bring your own beverages and snacks to enjoy while you watch. This is of course not recommended for those with motion sickness. There is also a park near the water across from the opposite side of the Aeon. It's pretty small and will likely be filled with food and drink stalls. This part of the festival usually fills the oceanside with spectators and the display itself usually lasts upwards of 30 minutes if memory serves.     If standing in a group of strangers watching airborne explosions is not your thing, consider coming out on Monday instead, when a parade of different groups (some from elementary, middle and high schools in the area, some from other social groups and clubs) takes center stage, or rather street, as they dance their way from Ichibankan (the building housing the library across from 7-11 near HonShiogama Station) to the main entrance of Shiogama Shrine.     In years previous, I participated in this alongside friends and my daughter, who was usually asleep by the time the dancing began. Due to a recent foot injury (and my reluctance to carry a three-year-old that far in the heat), I will be attending today's event as a civilian instead of as a participant. Handy tsunami evacuation maps around The Big assist in case of emergency. This one has been edited to indicate fireworks watching areas in pink and the parade route in yellow.    Even without the dancing, there's plenty to see. The omikoshi (portable shrine) will be making its way down the 202 stairs of the main entrance to Shiogama Shrine, then circling the town and heading to the colorful shrine boats which will take it out to bless the bay and outlying islands before its return. This is the only day the public gets to see the boats in action, so its pretty special for those of us who spend the year staring at the gorgeous dragon and phoenix, their rainbow lacquer shimmering in the daylight.     It's fun and free and only open once a year. Why not come on down? HonShiogama Station is 30 minutes and 320 yen from Sendai Station on the Senseki line.

Sendai's Shopping Arcades: A Brief Look

    Stretching on for several blocks, the shopping arcade of Sendai offers a generally fun and useful shopping experience, though the length of the arcade can cause confusion. This can leave even veteran Sendai shoppers to ask questions like: Was the taiyaki shop on this block, or the next? Is this the block with the Starbucks or the Tully's? Where exactly is Forus?    If you want to shop like a pro in this covered shopping area, look no further. I recently found out that each section has its own name and while cafes and restaurants tend to be ubiquitous, I'll let you know any specifics I'm aware of to aid in your shopping journey.These handy maps are posted toward the entrances and exits of the shopping arcade.    First up is Hapina Nakakecho, which opens just across from AER on the west side of Sendai station. Here you will find an old bento shop, a neat little french bakery, and the closest KFC to the station. There is also a small tourist-omiyage store and a very small 100 yen store as well as a Tully's. A small branch of 77 Bank and a ramen shop or two do their business here, too. It runs for only one block, ending at the next major street.            Next up is Clis Road, which runs for three blocks with two by-streets cutting through. Inside this section, McDonald's, Starbucks, and Subway compete for lunch-time business while Quarters, a music shop with CDs on the first floor and instruments on the second, stands out as something a little different. There is also a larger branch of 77 Bank and a craft-supply store neighboring Bikkuri Donkey on street-level. If you're really looking for sewing supplies and/or second hand fashion, check out the 7th floor of the Aeon at the end of the block. This building, formerly operated by Daiei, is the new home to BookOff's Super Bazaar Shop in Sendai. The books and games are on the 8th floor while the 7th floor is shared between the second hand clothes and Mabuchi, a major cloth and craft supply retailer.After Clis Road comes Oomachi, home of several name-brand shops as well as the largest Daiso in the area and a large but crowded Khaldi. Nearby is the owl cafe, easy to find if you keep your eyes peeled for a sign near Khaldi. This section goes for only 2 blocks of shopping with occasional eateries before ending in a 3-way arcade junction with Fujisaki and Zara at the corners. To the left (the Fujisaki side, right in the picture above), you'll find the beginning of Sun mall Ichibancho.In the first block of Sun Mall Ichibancho, there is a small pet shop, a unique T-shirt retailer and a large GAP store. On the second block, another McDonald's and a couple of cafes start the trend that ends in a Coco Curry at the end of the block.         Back at the t-shaped intersection, opposite to Sun Mall Ichibancho is Vladcome.On the left, a number of brand stores compete while further down a specialized green tea shop caters to its own clientele. There is a fairly large Seria on one side and a number of cafes. Vladcome's shopping arcade ends at Forus, where you can find a Starbucks on the second floor and gothic lolita fashion on the seventh.Here the covered arcade ends, but not the fun. Across the street, you'll find the Disney Store, a landmark to the young Sendai socialite, indicating the beginning of Ichibancho, the late-night party and drinking district.Here you can find lots of drinking establishments on the main streets and side-streets as well as a few late-night eateries and karaoke joints in addition to a bowling alley. It can be a lot of fun at the right time for the right people, though I do not recommend any place in this district that claims to have Mexican food. Whatever it is, it is not Mexican food.    Also, if you're in the area, remember to check this whole area out next month for Sendai's Tanabata Festival!    Wherever you shop, I hope your adventures are happy ones.

Free Fun in Matsushima: Oshima Island and the Beach

    If you're looking for a beautiful place to visit in Miyagi and spend nothing but the cost of transit, look no further than Oshima Island in Matsushima Bay.     While there are a few fun and free things to do around Matsushima, including visiting Godaido Shrine and walking through the new landscape taking shape in the forest in front of Zuiganji Temple, Oshima is the closest free tourist site/attraction to Matsushima Kaigan Station (410 yen, 38 minutes from Sendai).     Currently, the path to the island is a little strange as construction around the park across the street from the station is still taking place. Also, the Matsushima aquarium, a decades-old landmark, was torn down a few years ago as it relocated to Sendai and left a strangely unoccupied lot in its place. To get to Oshima, you have to cross by this vacant lot and take a short, narrow side-road toward the parking lot that used to belong to the now non-existent aquarium. In the foreground, landscaping and paving your way to the beach. A little further back, the vast parking lot. To the distant left, the restroom building.    As you get closer, the path grows into a nicely paved walkway, leading to a beach on the right and Oshima on the left. There is a small, picturesque red bridge connected Oshima to the mainland, and unlike the toll bridge the Fukuurajima, this one is short, unmanned and free. The island itself is pretty small but offers an interesting view and a nice quiet place for reflection on slow, off-season days. If you feel the call of nature, you can make use of the small building on the far side of the parking lot that houses public toilets and that includes a changing table as well as a handicapped stall. Getting to the bridge does involve walking up a few stairs, so those with strollers or other mobility issues may have a hard time accessing the space.     Yep. Stairs before the bridge, but if you had a stroller and a bike lock, you could make use of the railing. The view, after the stairs.The island itself has a few small stone benches (the massive rectangle on the left) in scenic spots for visitors who want to stop and reflect.    There is a railing around the island to keep everyone safe, but it is also of course best to not leave small children unsupervised regardless. There is only really one path around the little island but there are also small caves carved into the rock in some places. The caves themselves are not deep enough to get lost in but do make for a fantastic adventure for some visitors, despite their original purpose as places of solitude and private prayer and reflection for the buddhist monks of the area.    If your exploration of Oshima does not provide enough ocean viewing for you, a nice walk around the beach may be right up your alley. The beach itself isn't so much of a tourist beach and is not maintained to those standards, but can still be a good time. It is part of 松島海浜公園 Matsushima kaihin kōen, which bars barbecues, swimming, and fires of any kind, according to the signs posted in Japanese and English along the coast. Unfortunately, the elements washed out the colorful lettering on "prohibited" which can now only be seen upon very close inspection.Still, if you're only looking for a place to put your feet in the water, write in the sand or hunt for seashells, this can be a great place to explore. Remember to keep a close eye on the kids though, as the ocean washes up all kinds of things. Most of the stuff is normal sea refuse, like shells and kelp, a few bamboo poles covered in barnacles perhaps, but usually nothing outright dangerous.Walking wherever this sign used to hang must be even more dangerous now that they have no sign.Still, it's a great place to explore...or just take in the sea.Also, not a bad place for a selfie.So if you're searching for summer beauty in Miyagi but you're strapped for cash, take a little trip to Oshima!

Free Seaside Concert Extravaganza!

    The Matsushima Park Festival might not sound like a big deal in terms of free local music, but attendees to this year's event would beg to differ. Thirteen different stages, each just far enough away from the others for no musical overlap, dotted the coast surrounding Matsushima Bay as event staff helpfully handed out maps detailing not only the locations of the stages and recommended restaurants but also the names of all guests appearing at each stage and the general genres involved. Most of the stages involved pop and rock in addition to either folk or jazz. One of the exceptions was the hard rock stage, located conveniently at Stage A, on my favorite little stretch of beach in Matsushima.     Behind the stage, the little red bridge connecting the tiny island Oshima to the mainland stood out with postcard-picture precision, juxtaposed by the thrashing of guitars and screaming of local rock groups like DETHSHEAD, Beginning of the End, MURDER HEAD, and STRAWBERRY GUM SYRUP.     My husband, a lover of hard rock, found the music suitable enough. Though he felt that DETHSHEAD was a bit amateurish, STRAWBERRY GUM SYRUP showed a lot of experience and ability. It is my personal belief that the latter was named as a joke by guys who have been playing long enough to not care about sounding tough anymore. Perhaps I am wrong, but they did sound alright. Outside the stage area, a whole beach laid before my daughter, and all she wanted to play with was the barrier-rope.    My husband was also personally offended that the singer of MURDERHEAD appeared to be a young man wearing a backward baseball cap. "He looks like he's {trying to be in} Limp Bizkit!" he said. I did remind him that some of the guys in Pantera also work backward baseball caps sometimes. He was still annoyed.     One of the fantastic things about staying at that stage for so long was seeing how the musicians interacted with eachother. Each set was only 20 minutes, and many of the band members would stay in the small crowd afterward to cheer on the next act. Part of the reason we stayed for MURDERHEAD was that we had seen guys wearing T-shirts supporting the band in the crowd and not realized that those guys literally were the band.     Sendai isn't the largest city, so of course the live music scene is a bit more intimate than I imagined. There didn't seem to be any animosity between the acts but instead, genuine comraderie. The female vocalist for Beginning of the End could be seen in the crowd, applauding FLAME SIGN. One of the guys from STRAWBERRY GUM SYRUP was even on the event staff. They seemed like one big hard-rocking family, and something about that was really heartwarming for me. The walk to Zuiganji temple, which used to be a magical forest before it had to be removed (tree rot + large trees = danger!), but is now in a state or re-growth.Tokyo Nail Cats rocking out near Godaido Shrine.    We did finally make out way down to a few of the other venues and caught glimpses of other acts, stopping at Stage I, by Godaido, another lovely red bridge over the ocean offset against angsty music, this time the energetic rock/pop group Tokyo Nail Cats. Following that was a performance from the winners of the High School Battle of the Bands. I didn't catch the name of the group, but each of the 5 members played exceedingly well-- better in fact that some of the adults we had seen that day. During a cover of 20th Century Boy, the three guitarists jumped from the stage in a dramatic flourish-- only to accidentally unplug themselves from their amps. The gaff was quickly remedied, and their enthusiasm was infectious despite the blunder. Another smaller stage by EntsuuinBacon-wrapped rice on a stick. Delicious, according to my husband.    It was a fantastic way to get a taste of the local music scene, and all for free! If you're in Tohoku especially, keep an eye out for posters in train stations in the Sendai area starting in mid April. The event has run the past three years in late May or mid June. You can also see their (entirely Japanese) website here for more information.

How to Survive Japanese Kindergarten (as a Failed-Perfectionist Parent)

    Two months have passed since my daughter started kindergarten and I've got to say the process is intimidating and stressful and scary, but needn't be. Much like in life, we will all make mistakes, but sometimes as a foreign parent, I feel woefully inadequate.She looks perfect, right? Wrong! This is the day I forgot the hat.     For instance, the other day we got an email from my daughter's kindergarten letting us know that there had been some sort of event that day for which the children were supposed to wear their sports uniforms. I had no idea of this, because I was counting on my husband to read all the information and tell me what was going on. Unfortunately my husband came home late, too tired to read anything. I did take all of the extra forms out of my daughter's backpack but didn't really look at them. Upon later inspection, I found the form in question and would have understood the dates well enough to know something was going on, but that didn't happen.  Step 1: Read Everything. Even if you can't understand everything, read what you can and try to figure out the rest. Better to be too informed than not informed at all.  Step 2: Prepare Early. You should start looking for schools in your area before your child turns 3 and decide in Fall of the year they turn 3. Yes, admission won't be until April, but a lot of the kindergartens fill up quickly, especially in big cities. We were very lucky to have six different kindergartens available in our small-ish city. Google yochien (  幼稚園  ) and/or hoikuen (   保育園  ) in your area to find more information. Yochien is more structured and more expensive, but official classes start from the age of 3. Hoikuen is more similar to daycare but is more affordable and is usually open to younger ages as well. Many yochien also offer after-school daycare for working parents and early-admission classes for 2-year-olds that guarantee the kid a spot in the upcoming enrollment, though they are expensive.Julia at observation day, proud with her rapidly made apple picture.Step 3: Tour the Schools First. Even if you're a public school kid like me, it means a lot to see not only the facilities but the behavior of the staff, and not just toward your kid but toward you as a foreign parent.    I toured 2 schools our area -- the closest school to us was first, and the tour was a last minute thing arranged by a friend, but I spent the whole time we were there chasing my daughter while the woman in charge chewed the fat with my friend mostly, before showing me something explaining the fee structure which I was not allowed to take home and warning me that there were already plenty of people on their waiting list so they really wouldn't be likely to have room for us.     My husband arranged a walk through of the school he had gone to as a boy and not only were we permitted to take the forms home, but the staff made a point of making eye contact with me and trying to simplify a bit to help my understanding. They did not give me the impression that I was bothering them for being there or that having to deal with a foreign mom would be a deal breaker. Also, my kid loved it there and I could see that there were interracial kids in other classes, so I knew these people had dealt with non-native Japanese speakers before.    So there was no debate where she would be enrolled. Daddy's old school was the winner, no question about it, but without the walk-through, I would have thought the closer school was a better option, hands down.Step 4: Don't be too hard on yourself.      I'm writing this as much to myself as to anyone. Other parents make mistakes and put the kid out in the wrong uniform or with the wrong materials all the time. It happens. Otherwise the school wouldn't have spare clothes ready to go or a note writing system in place to share the information. Even if you're a natural perfectionist, you're not the only one making mistakes. Do what you've been doing your whole time living abroad. Adapt and relax. You're okay and you're probably not the only one to make whatever mistake you might be making today. Step 5: Don't Panic. Always good advice from Douglas Adams, but especially here. In the week leading up to Julia's first day of school, I flipped out over labeling. Maybe this seems normal to kids who went to summer camps like I have seen on TV, but that wasn't my life, so my brain freaked out (hiragana? Katakana? She has kanji, too... And where? And what pen? And what if the ink I choose bleeds into things and ruins the expensive uniform?)...so if you're like me, stop and relax. You're going to adapt. It's going to be fine. Also, I've come to find that there's usually some new change every couple of weeks (summer/winter wardrobe change-over, swim class, etc) so adaptation really is key to survival here.Yes, even every chopstick must be labelled.    Here are some things I learned about the labeling process:1. Hiragana, family name first. Also any other info they give you (class name and number, if it's a big school) 2. Most of the uniform pieces have a little label space somewhere. Some of the additional bits might require an iron-on label, available at the 100 yen store. They also sell pens just for this at the 100 yen store or grocery store. The iron-on labels sometimes fall off in the wash and require a stitch or two to stay on.If you're raising a family abroad, whatever your choices for schooling, good luck!

Aoba Matsuri Summer Festival Review

    There was a great festival last weekend in Sendai, but if you weren't in town to see it, don't fret. I've got a few small highlights right here.     My group came along around noon on Sunday and made a bee-line for the food stalls, and there were plenty to go around. My easy favorite is shoronpo, which I think of as soup inside of a dumpling and is also my favorite in Chinese cuisine found in Japan.    In addition, many stalls offered variations on normal festival favorites, from chocolate covered bananas and strawberries to french fries and fried chicken bits. One special booth to the area though is the kamaboko stall which serves the lightly cooked fish-paste cakes made to resemble bamboo-leaves and served on a stick. More than one shop in the arcade also sells omiyage sets with these Sendai classics inside.     In one of the parks, a large stage was set up where each of the osuzume dance groups eventually gets a turn to perform. If you're less interested in the floats and costumed processions and more interested in just the dances themselves, this is the place for you. There is seating available but it is first-come first-served, so if you show up as late as we did, don't count on sitting down. The stage is usually positioned just past the end of the parade route, so a short walk will take you to Jozenji street, where you can see more of the floats going by. The mascots also put on a show, which my kid enjoyed immensely.    If you're into people in samurai armor and osuzume dancing, this is the festival to come to next year. You can make a whole day of it and stay to watch hours of the procession, but even just stopping by for lunch can be a thrilling spectacle, as we found when we happened upon a samurai-ninja battle in progress on our way through to parks with the food stalls.    So if you're likely to be in Tohoku next May, check out this festival for some fantastic dancing, exciting displays of historical action, and great food to go with the fun. You can find out more about the festival with lots of information in Japanese here and some information in English here.

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