Yuzu: The Fruit of Minoh


Late November / early December is the harvest of the yuzu, a type of citrus fruit. The yuzu is a hybrid, a cross between the sour mandarin (Citrus reticulata) and the Ichang papeda (Citrus ichangensis). The size ranges from the golf ball size (photo above) to grapefruit size (photo below). It has a tart taste and is used as a seasoning like lemon juice or the zest is used in many recipes. It can also be used to flavor vinegar or honey or fermented into an alcoholic drink on its own. It is unique in the citrus world in that it is frost tolerant and quite hardy.


The fruit is also one of the symbols of our suburb of Minoh. The city has adopted the fruit as its mascot, the cute Yuzuru, the samurai with a tender heart. (below) The Japanese love mascots, as comedian John Oliver describes in this excerpt from his show. He is seen everywhere and he even has the bumpy skins of the yuzu.


We have some around the house this week and I’ll try to use them and see what they taste like.

Viewing the White Egret


On the way home from Tottori we stopped at the famous Himeji Castle in the Hyogo prefecture. It is an UNESCO world heritage site and the finest example of the classic Japanese feudal period architecture. We arrived too late in the day to enter, but we did admire it from the substantial grounds surrounding it. It is called the “white heron” or “white egret” because with the roof gables give it the appearance of the white bird taking off in flight.

Castles are always funny to me in that people don’t realize all the awful things that took place on the site. They are usually the sites of great battles where men died and if the raid successful, the women and children enslaved. Because it happened so long ago however, people look at them for the architecture and history, but not the tragic human story. Himeji is no exception to this rule and since it was originally built in the 1300s, probably many people died fighting for control of the castle and the town. It is built on a hill and dominates the city.

It is remarkable that it is still standing. During World War II, a bomb landed on the roof but failed to detonate, meanwhile the entire city was destroyed by the allies. It survived the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995, while once again, many buildings in the city were destroyed. Earlier, it was almost demolished and developed by the locals, but the expense of tearing it down, prevented various parties throughout history from doing so.

I am glad that it remained standing and perhaps if we are in the area, we will return to go inside. We found several geocaches around the castle and despite the rainy night, it was a good time. I want to thank the Tsubaki and Marce families for coming with us!



Daisen National Park

winds at the top of the mountain

During the fall break we took a few days to visit the prefecture of Tottori and the Daisen-Oki national park. It is my favorite place in Japan (so far) and it was our second visit to the area. We went with two other families from the school community. The kids had a blast, and the adults too!


photo – Evan, Owen, Bill and Noah at Misen Peak

The highlight for me was the hike on Tuesday. We walked to the 1,709  (5,608 feet) meter high Misen Peak, in the Mount Daisen National Park. Despite fog, rain and cold winds, I had a wonderful day with my family and friends. Much of the pleasure of the hike was taken away by the clouds and fog obscuring the spectacular views to the nearby Sea of Japan. It was made up for me by spending the day outdoors and with my family. Highlights included walking through the gloomy beech forests near the town, with the falling leaves and then leaving the forest past the tree line to the summit. The winds whipping up the face of the mountain and going over at low points on the ridge were amazing to walk through! They were interspersed by quiet areas protected by rocks and bushes. It was a difficult hike with rocky steps mostly going straight up for the 6 miles up and down the trail. Nadia and the rest of the mothers and children made it to the turnaround point, close to the end of the beech forest. Owen and I and the three others went on from there to make the summit. The next day we saw snow on the mountain, so overnight, the icy winds and rain must have turned to snow, shortly after we left the summit. It was about 3 hours walk up and 2 hours walk back. The hot bath at our pension was just what the doctor ordered upon return, and a 2 hour nap!


photo – Although it Daisen looks like Michigan, you don’t get Buddhist shrines in the forest like in Japan.

Daisen mountain has that classic volcano look from the west, but it has not erupted for the past 10,000 years. It has long been the center of worship, with the Daisen-ji temple founded almost 1,300 years ago. Shugendo, an ancient Japanese religion adapting shinto, taoism, buddhism and other beliefs, is practiced here. Adherents seek awakening through understanding the relationship between humans and nature and practitioners do this through denying themselves worldly pleasures and spending a lot of time on the mountain.


photo – The kids heading up the stairs of the Daisen-ji temple.

It is pretty close to Osaka (2-4 hours) and is a relatively remote, unpopulated part of Japan. The area around the mountain reminds me of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, so that might be one of the reasons why I love going there.


On the other side of the prefecture(state) are the Tottori sand dunes, which we visited the day before. Kids love them! It made for a perfect sunny afternoon. The weather was so nice that a couple of us even went for a swim. The huge dunes were a blast to climb up and sprint down. The crashing waves of the sea were relaxing. It might have been our last warm day of the season, as it is getting cold with the onset of winter.


The dunes were shaped by winds bringing sand up from the sea. Over 100,000 years of this formed the only large dunes in Japan. Since World War II however, they have been shrinking due to a government reforestation program and tsunami walls further up the coast, changing wind patterns. Today they are 16 kilometers long and 2 kilometers wide.

A wonderful autumn break!

Quirky Japan: Children at Play Signs


(photo – A sign at a nearby park cautions drivers that children are near)

This is another in my continuing series of “quirky Japan” which covers the little things about life in Japan that makes it distinct.

My brother and I used to joke about the “Slow Children at Play” (see below) that why are government authorities criticizing the speed of kids in a particular park. Did they take 40-yard dash times like in the NFL and deem them slow? I don’t think we consciously realized that they were meant as a warning for drivers to slow down because there is a high probability of children crossing streets or riding their bicycles in the vicinity. As a parent I am now very aware of the purpose of the signs.



Japan takes these signs to a new level as you can see in the lead photo of this post. Mascots and cartoon figures are very popular here so it makes sense that they could be used instead of the traditional sign in the USA. I think it is much more effective that a street sign because it is so different. There are many different styles of these signs depending on the municipality or school. Below are warning signs at a pedestrian path in my neighborhood.


The other aspect I want to feature is the ubiquitousness of vending machines. They are everywhere! There must be thousands of beverage vending machines in the Osaka metropolitan area. I will pay more attention to them and later do a more in depth blog post. I am curious about the economics behind them. How much money do they make? How often do they need to be re-stocked? Do they malfunction often?

My children cannot pass one with out asking me for change. They feature both hot and cold drinks and there seems to be a vast number of different drinks to choose from ranging from teas and coffees, to water, sports drinks, energy drinks, etc. The machine below is on a corner across from the park in our neighborhood. On the other side are rice paddies. They can’t have that many people patronizing the machine. Where does it get electricity from? So many questions…





It was a delight to get spend some time with my brother again when he visited me earlier this month. We haven’t seen each other in person since my dad’s funeral in February of 2012.  We talk on  regular basis, but living far away from each other and my family not spending summers in  Michigan anymore, means that we don’t spend time together.

Growing up five years apart meant that I was always on the next stage of childhood or adolescence. When I was in high school, he was in elementary, when I went off to college, he was in high school, etc.  We have become closer in adulthood. It is special that I can maintain a close relationship with him and hope to continue to do so. Brothers have so many common memories and shared stories, that it got me reflecting a lot during his visit on my family. We had a nice childhood and my parents did a good job of raising us, including my other brother Jim.

It is also a chance to see my dad again, in a way. I am adopted and do not share any physical traits with my Kralovec family, but Andy is not adopted and has my Dad’s voice, eyes and some of his mannerisms. It made me sad that my father is gone and I wish he and my mom could see their grandchildren grow up and see us as middle aged men.

The old axiom is true that your brothers and sisters are the people in life you have the longest relationship with. They are there from the start, and even though we marry and have children of our own, there is a special bond between siblings that is always there because of growing up together.

Thanks Andy and Chantal for coming to visit us! The kids really enjoyed having you stay with us. You are welcome anytime!

Temples of Japan

After our hike we drove across town just before closing time to walk the grounds of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto (photo above). This is another former villa of a rich shogun which upon his death, was turned into a Zen Buddhist temple. From the photos of the temple, it always looked like it is out in the countryside, but a busy street is in front of the grounds and property is in an urban zone. Arriving 5 minutes before the front gate to the complex closing was excellent timing for photos and lack of crowds. It is a thin coating of gold foil, not made of solid gold. The shoguns loved their ponds and gardens, which made for a stunning reflection in the setting sun.

Temples in Japan are similar to the monasteries in Serbia for me. They are usually located in bucolic settings, which is the attraction, as I don’t seek spiritual things. It is also an insight into the culture of a country and there is always a bit of history. They make for a good destination for a day out and a reason to get out of the house.

The biggest temple in Minoh is the Katsuo-ji  (in Japanese, “ji” means temple) which I’ve blogged about before. It is a nice hike we can do from our house and takes about 4 hours round trip. On my brother’s first day in Japan, we went up through the Minoh quasi national park forest to the temple. Despite the rain, it was a relaxing hike and as you can see from the photo above, the clouds made it even more mystical.

Temples also have attractions for kids. They love to feed the koi, or as I call them, colorful carp. There is also incense and candles to light and reflect on family members, both living and dead. Most have a gong or bell that can be rung and the kids can also get a fortune paper and tie it to the string. At katsuoji, you can also get the Japanese dolls, daruma. We have darumas representing our family under the biggest cedar tree on the property.

Daimon-Ji Mountain Hike

Above is the view from one of the fire platforms that make up the giant kanji symbol dai (great). Every August 16, the platforms are stocked with wood and ignited during the yaki – burning festival. A giant dai can be seen all over Kyoto. During the rest of the year, it makes for an beautiful hike and with my brother here, I took advantage of a gorgeous autumn day and went with him and his wife up the mountain. As you can see, the views over the city were breathtaking.

Taking a break at one of the many viewpoints over the city of Kyoto.

Kyoto has thousands of temples, shrines and historic homes. It was the the  capital of Japan for 1000 years, and unlike most of Japan, it was not destroyed in World War II (thanks to US Secretary of War Henry Stimson) and most of the history is preserved.

The hike starts at Ginkaku-ji or the temple of the Silver Pavilion. It dates back  over 500 years. It was originally the retirement villa of a shogun (hereditary military dictator) and it now is a Zen Buddhist temple. The Zen gardens of rock, trees and streams are serene and it would make a nice retirement pad. The main worship hall is not with silver anymore, but it is relaxing to visit if there are not too many tourists.

The trail is well-marked and we followed the description in the Lonely Planet’s “Hiking in Japan” which I highly recommend. The blue skies and autumn colors made it a glorious day that we will not soon forget.  We didn’t do the entire trail that leads to the “philosopher’s path” but made our way back to the starting point after getting a bit past the burning site.