Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas 2012!

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Wow! Another year in Japan has come and gone so fast! This year we’re having a very quiet and low key Christmas at home with my immediate family. I wish I could go meet my family back in the US but at least we’ve got Skype and modern technology for times like this. I’m just glad we’re not the Griswolds. Winking smile

Over the past year, I’ve seen my blog turn into more of a beer blog which is neither good or bad, its just been kind of a slow year for nature stuff since my hiking friend moved away. I’ve picked up a few new friends since then but we don’t meet as often as I’d like.

As for 2012, it’s been kind of a crummy year for international stability, finance, and politics. I won’t go much into that because there are much better blogs for that kind of topic, but I must admit that 2012 must have seemed like all the pieces were falling together for a worldwide apocalyptic event if anyone actually bought into all that Mayan calendar nonsense. My writing of this very blog entry is proof enough that it was all for nothing although it was kind of fun, in a dark way, to imagine what if it actually did happen. Well, I guess that’s that. No one knows when the world will end, and that’s the way it should be. Smile

Here’s to an internationally safer, more politically responsible year for 2013 and hopefully more success in finding a better job to help my family have a bit more breathing room financially. Thank you all for your readership even if you aren’t commenting, I can tell by the page hits that I have a pretty solid base of readers and for that I am very grateful.  May this blog have more interesting things on it in 2013 for you all.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sweet! New phones! Samsung Galaxy SIIIs

DSCF0001After just over a year of carrying around “antique” smartphones, my wife and I agreed it was the right time to go shopping for something newer, and less prone to crashing. Our last phones were designed be NEC, and as it was their first foray into the smartphone market, it was a rough ride of lockups, resets, and unresponsive typing. The overall design of the Medias N-04C was nice as it was super slim and lightweight but it was most likely those features that really limited the phone’s capabilities.

So this time around, now armed with proper smartphone knowledge, we went shopping around for some new phones. My wife wanted the newest Sony Experia phone which is pretty good but a little to small and expensive for my liking, I was leaning toward the Galaxy line as they are the best of the Android bunch. Plus, that AMOLED display is incredible!

 

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Well isn't that cute. The Medias is trying to look like a jelly-bean. Too bad it chokes on the home screen. Sad smile

After a few different shops and confusing price quotes, we ended up buying our phones from a local independent phone shop. Our phones were priced about the same as anywhere else but at this store we got 25,000 yen back in cash. The catch, and yes there was a catch, was that they installed a lot of paid subscription apps before they gave us our phones. This turned out to be ok though as we unsubscribed from all the apps immediately. So we’ll end up keeping about 22,000 of the original 25,000 yen. If were were smartphone newbies we might have been taken for a ride and that 25,000 would have been burnt up within about a few months. I suppose that’s always something to lookout for whenever you sign up at a franchise phone retail outlet.

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So, we really like our new Samsung Galaxy SIIIs. They are incredibly responsive, fully featured, and aren’t much bigger than our last phone. We could’ve went with the stronger, new, quad core version of the SIII (SIIIalpha) or an equally powerful LG Optimus but we wanted to lower our phone bill, not raise it. I think we made the right decision though by balancing functionality with price.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Grand Kirin and Sapporo 100% Malt (Exclusively at 7/11 Japan)

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I usually don't go to convenience stores unless I have to pay an occasional bill that can't be paid through an ATM or really need to use the restroom. Well, I kind of deviated from this stance when I stayed at a hotel in Tokyo with my wife a few weeks back.

I'm a frugal man so I avoided the convenience of buying a super expensive beer in the hotel from their vending machines in the lobby and instead opted to visit a nearby 7/11 convenience store. To my surprise they had a pretty decent variety of beers, many of which I have never seen before. 2 beers immediately caught my eye, the first being a unique stubby glass bottle of Grand Kirin and the other, a silver and black pinstriped can of 100% Malt by Sapporo. Both beers were and still are exclusive to the 7/11 and Ito-Yokado 7&i owned convenience stores and groceries across Japan. So this will be a double review as it's been a few weeks since I've actually drank the beers but I did buy the beers again for this review for picture purposes and the fact that they were tasty enough for a second go.

Grand Kirin

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This beer is unlike most Japanese beers as it comes in a stubby, longneck style, brown glass bottle. The stubbiness cuts off about 20ml from the volume of the drink but it doesn't seem to take away from it's overall value. I felt more willing to pay more for the glass bottle as it is pretty uncommon here in Japan to find a single serving of beer like that. Kirin Grand poured smoothly from the with a nice, thick head that stuck around longer than the average Japanese macro brew. I kind of cheated and took a little swig directly from the bottle and immediately fell in love. The beer had a mild sweetness and went down smooth. It had a great aftertaste and left me pretty satisfied despite its smaller 330ml size. I can't say much more than the fact that it made me want to buy it again and I did. Even with its high price tag of 275 yen or so, it made me realize that sometimes its worth it to spend more. I really hope Kirin keeps this label around to try to compete with the luxury brands like Suntory's Premium Malt and Sapporo's Yebisu brands. I think it would fit quite well in that genre.

Sapporo 100% Malt

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At first glance, the Sapporo 100% Malt beer reminded me a lot of an Asahi Super Dry, not by its taste, but more because of the can's design. Asahi has the most recognizable can because of that simple silver design. 100% Malt pours like a Budweiser with a weak head that disappears kind of quickly, very reminiscent of ta happoshu although it is a true beer. The color is also somewhat like a Budweiser as it comes in a pale yellow color. The beer had a welcoming aroma but I really couldn't put my finger on what it was like. As for taste, it isn't not bad and even leaves a nice bite at the end. The only real saving grace for this beer was that it was the cheapest beer in the convenience store at 195 yen. I won't be buying it again but it was to try something new.

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Both of these beers are exclusive to 7/11 owned stores for now but I think Kirin Grand will eventually make it to other competitors eventually. I've only been able to find the Kirin Grand in 7/11 convenience stores though. The Sapporo 100% malt is a collaboration between 7/11 and Sapporo which I found very interesting. Usually collaborations occur with food and soft drinks. This is the first time I've personally seen a beer collaboration. But hey, if it can keep the price of a beer down, I'll buy into it.

Suntory Amber Beer

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Fall and Winter seem to bring a lot of limited time releases for beers every year. This year is incredibly varied which is great for me. This may be the first time I've come across an Amber style beer from a Japanese macro brewery. Suntory is best known for their Premium Malts and whisky brands so it's not too much of a stretch for them to try to make yet another luxury styled item. All I know is that there's finally a new and unique beer label that has a name that accurately describes what is in the can. Not only does it have a descriptive name, it also employs a full English title, without strangely worded English or Japanese-isms. The can's design, however, is a bit on the simple side. But it's what's inside that counts right? :3

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Just judging by the first pouring I feel that Suntory has done an excellent job, as it pours light but with a medium thick head. The beer's color is a nice medium red color and justifies the title beer's name. The aroma of Amber Beer is light but has a mild sweetness to it as I'd expect. I think it has to do with the roasted malt they use in this particular blend. It went down really smooth and left a light bitterness at the end. It went well with a pizza as well. I really liked it.

Suntory Amber Beer can be found pretty much at every grocery store in my area so it most likely isn't too hard to find anywhere else in Japan. It was maybe 10 or 15 more yen than an Asahi Super Dry, but it was worth every single extra yen. I may buy some more for next week's Christmas party. Maybe have a little beer sampling to celebrate the recent tasty variety of new Japanese beers on the market. Great job Suntory!

Suntory Caramel Brown

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This one’s going to be a short and to the point review. The can’s design caught my eye and got me really excited at the possibility of a nice creamy non-beer, beer. From the picture above, you’d think that’s what to expect and it definitely delivers. I went into this not expecting much as it is a beer-like drink but I was optimistic for something good as these drinks have been improving over the years, especially 2012.

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My first impressions of the alcoholic beverage when poured was that the color is spot-on from my expectations and what I saw in advertisements. It was exactly as the label described it, a rich, caramel brown. So judging by appearances, this drink really does emulate a dark beer exceedingly well. As for taste, it was bitter-sweet and went down well enough but it left my tongue feeling dry. I was expecting more of a syrupy feeling just by how it looked so this kind of added to the overall letdown. It really didn't have much of an aftertaste either but that's not necessarily a bad thing. If it weren’t for the dry after taste on my tongue I may have really been down with this drink. Maybe I’ll give it another shot since its so cheap but for now my decision stands that it’s not something I need to keep in my non-beer, beer circulation.

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In the end, I'd say it's worth at least one shot if you're an adventurous fellow like myself always looking out for a cheaper alternative to the highly taxed beers in Japan. Trying new stuff is ALWAYS fun. Smile

Sapporo Fuyu Monogatari (Winter Tale)

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Sapporo has released their winter season brand beer and being a Sapporo beer fan, I couldn't resist. The can's design and label don't describe what kind of beer it is emulating as opposed to what is usually done by its name or any of the subscript below the label. So I went into this kind of in the dark not knowing what exactly to expect. Sometimes that is a good thing though.

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My idea of a winter brew is heavily influenced by beers like Samuel Addams. I was expecting a somewhat sweet and creamy beer that is best for drinking on its own before or after dinner but not with it. Fuuyu Monogatari didn't seem to be either sweet or creamy (not that it was advertised as such either) but it did come with .5% more alcohol per volume than other beers. It poured light and didn't have much of a head to it. There is little to no aroma to it and what I could smell was indescribable. It just kind of smelled like beer although it reminded me a lot of a dai-san/happoshu beer. The taste was light and watery… Overall kind of forgettable. I suppose one good thing about Fuyu Monogatari was that it was smooth and went down easy enough but it didn't have any notable aftertaste that convinced me I should buy another can.

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I wouldn't go as far as saying Fuyu Monogatari is bad but for something labeled as limited I was expecting more and it falls quite short of its grand namesake. I mean, if Sapporo can do a good job with their Mugi to Hop Kuro which isn't even a real beer, why can't they do a good job with Fuyu Monogatari which is a real beer? It really appears to me as if this was more of just a cash-in by using a unique can design rather than putting a true effort into something that could be good. At least it was being sold at the same price as regular year round beers. It just didn’t click with me when I tried it. Maybe I’ll give it another shot later but as it stands right now, I think I will pass on it for other drinks. Good luck next time Sapporo. I still love Yebisu and your regular gold star label.:)

Saturday, December 15, 2012

I won a mail-in contest for Sapporo’s Mugi to Hop Aka (Red)

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I usually ignore mail in campaigns as I am too lazy to fill out the card and buy a stamp to stick on it. But a couple months back I figured it was worth a shot so I mailed one of the postcards affixed to a 6-pack of Mugi to Hop Kuro back in October if I remember correctly. If I remember correctly, on the mail-in postcard I could choose which version of  Mugi to Hop I wanted, so I chose Red as I never saw it for sale in my region before.


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Well, now it’s the middle of December and to my surprise I got an unexpected express delivery package from Sapporo Beer’s sweepstakes fulfillment department this morning. I just won a 6-pack of Mugi to Hop Red! What a great surprise Christmas gift for such a loyal fan of the Sapporo brand.

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I doubt Sapporo’s marketing division actually has ever read or cares about my blog, but it’s nice to get something back for supporting a brand that get’s it right. The box was shipped as pictured above, no wrapping or extra box around it. I give Sapporo props for not using wasteful packaging as is common with most things here in Japan. It was the size of a 6-pack and had 6 cans of Red inside. It also had a nice letter congratulating me on winning. On the outside of the box there’s a cutout of a Christmas tree you can decorate you home with if you don’t have a tree I guess. I don’t plan to cut it out but it’s a nice gesture. Overall, it’s a pretty neat box.

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So, why is this so special? Well, besides the fact that I actually won something for once, they sent me their Red version. I’ve found great satisfaction in their emulation of beer in their regular Mugi to Hop and Kuro brands but I never could find a liquor store that carried the Red variant. I love all beers, especially Red ones and I was always curious what a Red style happoshu would taste like. Unfortunately the tasting will come in a later entry if I remember to write something about it. For now, we’ll have to wait till I drink the cans on Christmas Eve with my in-laws at their Christmas party. I’m hoping for the best. So far Sapporo has delivered in spades with this particular brand. I expect the same with the Red as well.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Shaving with Evangelion figures

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What do men’s facial shaving care products and Neon Genesis Evangelion have to do with each other? Nothing, but it doesn’t stop promotion teams from trying. As a matter of fact, I love promotions like this because I usually get something I usually wouldn’t buy otherwise for free without even trying. This is kind of old news, especially for those who are fans of the Evangelion series or live here in Japan. Anyway, let’s catch up!
I used to be a fan of Neon Genesis Evangelion while I was in high school, way, way back in the late 90s but had since moved on from the series. But now there is a re-release of the classic series in theaters every year or so, so there are tons of promotions like the shaving cream one that pop up all over the place. I guess Evangelion has found a place in Japanese society and doesn’t seem to have a cloud of nerdiness about it as it might have when it was still a new thing. That’s cool I guess.

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Ever since summer of this year I’ve seen nearly all drugstores and even some convenience stores I’ve visited have a special section decorated all for this particular promotion. I really like how the only guy in the series who has a beard, Gendo Ikari, has it shaved off and he’s uncharacteristically smiling as well. They even got the scruffy Kaji to clean up his act. It’s really funny to see stuff like that after all these years of remembering him as a frigid father figure in name only to one of the lead cast members in the TV series he’s in.
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So eventually I caved in and ended up contributing to this particular campaign. I don’t need to buy shaving products all that often but I finally needed some shaving foam and got an Asuka Langley phone strap figurine with it. She’s proudly sitting as a decoration in my Christmas tree. Smile
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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Pizza is expensive in Japan… So make it at home. Or how Corn and mayonnaise pizza is gross.

Just like many other comfort foods I used to take for granted before coming to Japan, pizza is one of the most overpriced foods in Japan. Delivery can claim upwards of 3000 yen for a Japanese large (small-medium sized pizza by American standards) and if you are trying to be more thrifty the frozen grocery store pizzas can split a 500 yen coin barely satisfy with its pitifully thin crust, skimped out cheese, and toppings. Oh, but we’re really just getting started here… If you are not into having things like corn, sweet Japanese mayonnaise, and other odds and ends that are usually not put on pizzas in the US you’ll find the takeout menu gets much shorter and limited. Sure, you can make a “real” pizza at places like Pizza-La and Pizza-Hut, but they’re going to cost you about as much as a good night on the town.

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mmm… nice n’ corny!

So what’s a pizza fan to do in Japan? Well you can complain on social media or you can do something about it. I used to make pizza toast which was pretty not tasty but more satisfying than store stuff but I got tired of that kind of quick. So, I decided it was time to find out if I could make one cheaper, and far more satisfying to my tastes than what is commonly available here. I am basing my prices and finds on my local area stores, but most of them are national chain stores so depending on where you live, you should be able to do as well, if not better than I. So if you own a simple toaster oven or something that can toast/bake with a flat loading tray, then you’re in luck. Keep on reading…

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I used to eat lot and it’s not even really that good… it also looks not nearly as good the picture on the bag…not even close…

So, the first thing you need for a pizza is the crust. While you could make one from scratch, it’s far easier to just buy a frozen pack of them. I buy mine from a place called Gyomu Super that sells a pack of 5 personal pan sized pizza crusts for about 198 yen a bag. I also buy my pizza sauce there, as it comes in a nifty squeeze bottle like ketchup and comes out to 298 yen but you only need a spoon full of it per pizza so it lasts quite a while. The cheese and other toppings vary as I buy them wherever I can find them cheap. The general toppings for me are thinly sliced bacon, onion, bell peppers, and cheese. I can get a 300gram bag of cheese for about 200 yen or so and a 10 strip package of bacon for under 200 as well. I’ve yet to find pepperoni appropriate for pizza but I think bacon makes a decent substitute. Bacon is great with everything right? Right. Smile

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So, I’m going to be a little loose with my calculations but one of my pizzas cost about 100 yen each give or take a few yen. I’m liberal with the toppings and it doesn’t have any of that icky corn or doughy tasting crust from the super market brand pizzas. I’ve been doing this for about two months now and I am pretty satisfied on how well they come out. It’s not like I eat them every day but I most definitely eat them more often than I used to. I think it makes me a bit happier as well. Plus, they go well with BEER..and even Mugi to Hop Kuro. Open-mouthed smile

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So, if you’re looking for a way to get your pizza fix without blowing through so much cash or feeling underwhelmed from the bagged grocery store pizzas, then you’re in luck. You might have even better ideas or more ways to cut costs. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

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It’s not pretty, but it gets the job done and that’s all that really counts. Open-mouthed smile

Note: I understand that some of you out there may be cool with things like corn and mayonnaise but this does not ring true with my circle of friends so you’re getting one side of the story I guess... I have tried it and will eat it if on hand, but I prefer to not bring it into my house willingly. I can be a bit strange though as I like pineapple and ham on mine, so I guess I can be just as weird… That reminds me, I should try making a Hawaiian style pizza some time.

Pepsi Energy Cola

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I generally write about beers and nature stuff I come across wandering about Japan. Today I came across something I haven’t seen before in the convenience store so I figured why not write about it. When I lived in the US, I was pretty big into energy drinks. It may be a reason for a couple of pounds on my body I’ve yet to lose.

I’ve written before about Monster Energy earlier this year and I was pretty excited to find it, even if it was in a much, smaller, more expensive can. Pepsi Energy Cola comes in an equally small can, just like you’d find in a common Red Bull can. The exterior of the can kind of caught my eye with the Darth Vader mask and red light saber strip along the side of the can. I love novelty items, especially Star Wars themed ones, so I couldn’t resist picking this one up. The tag line on the side and front of the can reads “Give yourself to the dark side.” I found that to be pretty funny and the final reason to why I should give it a chance.

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Pepsi Energy Cola set me back a whopping 200 yen. To put it in a bit of perspective, you can buy a can of beer or 2 hamburgers at McDonald’s for that much. So it’s not something I find myself buying all that often, although I do enjoy colas.

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Ok, now onto what the actual drink is like. When I opened the can I could smell a strong, almost licorice like smell. I poured it into a glass to see how dark it really was. The stuff is as dark as dark colas can get. The most interesting part of the appearance of the cola poured out is that it doesn’t have much carbonation in it as it went completely flat once it hit air. My first sip of the drink was a mix of sensations, mostly good. The drink reminds me a lot of a Red bull or similar energy drink. It has a very citrus like after taste and it really didn’t have much of a cola taste at all. It was like a black Red Bull to me.

It tasted, alright, but it was a bit strong for my liking. It really did get me wired though, although it might have been more to do with me drinking it on an empty stomach. It wasn’t bad but I don’t see myself grabbing another one. If I need an energy fix, I’ll go for a Monster or Red Bull if need be, which is almost never. So there you have it, Pepsi Energy Cola. It’s OK but I’m not sure it’s worth it’s price, but I guess I could say that about pretty much anything I buy in Japan, especially from convenience stores.

If you want to see the can up close and hear my droning voice, here’s a Youtube link to a video I made with my first taste impressions. It’s pretty much what I wrote here, but hey, check it out anyway. Make me feel good when I see the hit stats in my dashboard. Smile

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Another Halloween in Japan

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This is my fifth successive Halloween in Japan and I’m getting used to expecting on doing much for it anymore. Maybe it has a lot to do with me growing up or maybe it’s more that I’m not in a country that really celebrates the holiday. I still do like Halloween enough that I decorate my own slice of America (my home) with Halloween stuff yearly. This year even my wife got in on the festivities and suggested we throw a little Halloween party with the in-laws.

Last year, I went out on a night on the town for the first time in a long time with a newly made friend who has since moved to another part of Japan for the best. If he were still around I probably would have tried to go out again and strut about as a Ghostbuster but it just wasn’t meant to be. Maybe next year I guess… Anyway, this year, my wife arranged to throw a little Halloween party with the family so we ended up buying a lot of Halloween related stuff. A lot of the decorations we picked up for the party were sold by the two main 100 yen shops in Japan. I think we ended up spending close to 2000 yen between the two shops in the end. A few years ago we wouldn’t have been able to do this with such ease but now the selection and quality of decorations and other Halloween related goods have really increased and improved over the short 5 years I’ve been here. While it’s not on the level I’m familiar with back home, it’s definitely welcome and appreciated. Also Halloween stuff here is just so darn cute. I kind of like it like that too. It doesn’t have to be all blood, zombies, spider webs, and bones. Right?

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The biggest part of this year’s Halloween celebrations was that I picked up my first Halloween pumpkins for carving. I always say I’ll get one but either forget till its too late or never find one at the price and size I’d like. This year was a little different since I needed a pumpkin for the Halloween party. We ended up finding one on the Nagano side of the Yamanashi/Nagano border. The roadside market in Hokuto was selling small-medium sized pumpkins in fair condition for 800 yen a head. It was a bit pricey but I ended up picking up 2 in haste. I wish I had shopped around a bit more as I brought home two stinky duds. One started to rot a couple days later and the other didn’t last much longer after carving. As you can see in the picture below, they were in pretty bad shape already. The biggest shock was that under the sticker on the pumpkin on the right there happened to be a huge white wart on it. Sad smile I had completely forgotten my pumpkin shopping training. A mistake I will learn from and not repeat next year.

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The pumpkins, despite all their flaws, turned out alright. The one that started rotting immediately after purchase lost it’s bottom to watery rot, so it didn’t last too long after carving. The other pumpkin with the white warts lasted a week before liquefying and attracting tons of gnats outside our window. Next year I will make sure I don’t buy duds or maybe I can get my father in law to grow some pumpkins in his field. Of course, I would help as he can’t use them for anything. Well, he did like the baked pumpkin seeds I made him at the party. Smile

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The one on the left was the white wart infested one and the one on the right was the one with the rotted out bottom. All the bad stuff was on the other side of the pumpkins. Smile The smaller decorations surrounding the pumpkins I got from Seria like 3 years back. Still looking good!

Finally,  we got some Halloween themed treats on Halloween day from a local bakery. They were a little expensive looked better than they tasted but I guess it was the thought that counts.

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This was also my son’s first Halloween. Even though he wasn’t old enough to understand what was going on it was still nice to have him wear something small in the Halloween spirit. Maybe next year I can get him to wear an actual costume. I wonder what would work…