Going Crazy Over Cherry Blossoms

As a former biology teacher and amateur botanist, I have to admire a country that celebrates the spring cherry blossoms to the extent that the Japanese do. Everyone talks about the sakura or cherry blossoms that can be seen all over the city. There are many different species of cherries (Prunus spp.) and next year I intend to identify more of them. We had a hanami (blossom viewing party) at school. Everyone was talking about it and many people were having picnics under the trees. There are a lot of cherry trees in Japan. I saw hundreds of them all over the city. As you can see in the photos and video, they are a common tree in parks and they are used to line streets, streams, and reservoirs.

The viewing of cherry blossoms started in the 700s here in Japan and at first the ume or plum tree was more celebrated. They are a symbol of the ephemeral nature of life, which has Buddhist influences. Stopping to “smell the roses” or cherries, here is a good lesson for all of us. Soak in as much of every day as you can!

The symbol of the cherry blossom was used by the military in the build up to and during World War II. Japanese kamikaze pilots painted them on the side of their planes. Today they have a more peaceful symbolic value.

Below is a video of my morning bike ride. Loving the spring morning runs and bike rides!

Universal Studios Japan: Inside the Beehive

On our last day of spring break we took the kids to Universal Studios Japan (USJ), which is located near the waterfront here in Osaka. I am not a fan of the big, themed amusement parks. I find them artificial, expensive and crowded and USJ lived up to my expectations. I would rather spend my family’s free time out in nature or doing something spiritually uplifting or engaging with the mind rather than lining up for “attractions”.  However, I was convinced by my lovely wife to give our children the experience, and she is right. It is one of the activities everyone should do at least once.

We did chose a bad day to go as it is during the local schools spring break as well. In speaking with a friendly parking attendant on the way out to our car, he gave us the figure of 51,000 visitors that day. He said the day before the park welcomed 60,000. On a bad day, they usually get round 30,000. The demographics were overwhelmingly Asian, with mostly Japanese, but with significant populations from the Philippines, China and other Asian countries.

I felt overwhelmed at the number of people as you can see in the photos in this post. All of the rides were between 90 minutes to 2 hours waiting time. There were even longish lines for getting food. My worst nightmare!

USJ was built in 2001 and the park has been highly successful throughout its history. It is the only non-Disney theme park to crack the top ten world wide in revenue and number of visitors. They are another one of those money-making machines, with for example, 9 dollar plastic souvenir mugs of “butter beer” for sale in the Harry Potter exact replica of Hogsmeade. Note that I am not a Harry Potter fan and I couldn’t get through the first book in the series. I don’t understand the universal appeal of the story, especially with adults.  Everywhere we went, came the opportunity to spend more money.

The best thing about the day was that we spent a lot of time together. There were some bright moments. There was an exciting Waterworld action theatre performance, complete with explosions, drama and getting the crowd wet. The roller coaster in the Jurassic Park was also priceless. It was the first time on a roller coaster for the kids.

I am glad I went and got it over with. How can a family with three young children who lives in Osaka, not go to USJ? However, it would have been better on a less crowded day.

Hike Through Rokku Gaaden

It was a glorious early spring day yesterday, so we took advantage of the perfect weather and hiked through Rokku Gaaden (Rock Garden in English) in the hills above Kobe. The 5 kilometer hike goes through the sandstone “badlands” to the summit called Fubukiiwaato (447 meters). The views of Osaka Bay and the Koshien metropolitan area were quite nice. I can’t get over how close the dense urban population is so close to the quiet, forested hills. It is much like Avila Park outside of Caracas, Venezuela.

Nadia was a bit nervous climbing through the rocky bits, but seeing local senior citizens moving down the rocky paths, inspired her to power through. The kids loved scrambling over the rocks on the way up to the top. There were not that many people on the trail, considering it being a beautiful Saturday. It is a great hike to do close to Osaka/Kobe and can be reached by public transport.

We were disappointed not to see any of the famous wild boar, but it provided entertainment through the hike when one of us would snort like a pig to fool the others that boar were in the area. I did see the pygmy woodpecker for the first time and we discovered the source of a foul odor we have been smelling during this holiday. A bush that I think may be a Boxwood (Buxus sp.) has flowers that give an odor with a hint of small, rotting animal. We’ve been wondering what they were the past couple of days in our runs around Minoh and our visit to Kyoto earlier this week. I’ll have to look more into it and identify it.

The view from the top

I found a description of the hike in the Lonely Planet’s “Hiking in Japan” which I highly recommend for residents and tourists wanting to get out and explore a bit of the countryside. There are 70 detailed hike descriptions including maps.

We finished the day with a meal down at the Kobe Port waterfront. All and all, an excellent day with my family.

Macau: A Tale of Two Cities

The Venetian Casino at Night

I spent an absorbing 5 days in Macau over the holiday, not only because of the International Baccalaureate education conference I attended, but also because of the city-state itself.

Let me explain the title of the blog post. The main part of Macau is a peninsula jutting out into the South China Sea. It is separated from mainland China by a river. I stayed on a hill that was a park amidst a sea of apartment buildings and traffic.I think the hotel was a former convent because its name, Posado de las Monjas (Lodging of the Nuns), which is today a hospitality and tourism university. The university runs a small hotel and nice restaurant, and I highly recommend both. I thought it funny that the Chinese taxi drivers only recognized it as Mung-ho and not the original Portuguese of monjas. Macau is the most densely populated country in the world and I really felt it, despite being in the middle of a park. As you can see from the view from the top of the hill, there is a lot of humanity packed into a small space. The peninsula is where most citizens live and it was generally run down, chaotic but people were friendly and no one bothered me. The historic center is quite nice, with typical Iberian main plaza, a cobblestone shopping street and beautiful facade of an old cathedral. The rest of the peninsula was old dingy apartment buildings and colonial buildings that have seen better days.

Macau also has two islands, now one island because of land reclamation. This is the casino tourism part of the city-state and totally different from the old city in the peninsula. I have not been to Las Vegas in 20 years but the size of the casinos and connected shopping malls, restaurants and night clubs reminded me of my time there. The size of the casinos are immense and it is hard to capture the scale. The conference was held at the Sheraton, the world’s biggest, and walking between the meeting and exhibition rooms took a long time. I went for a walk across the street via covered walkway and went into the Venetian casino’s shopping mall, which was a replica of Italy, with canals, gondolas and even St. Mark’s Square. There was also an events arena attached to the mall.

Tourists take a ride in the gondola in the mall

I sensed that the Chinese with their new found wealth really wanted to spend it. This part of Macau was a capitalism/consumerism amusement park. It had all of the brand name stores, Dolce & Gabbana, Rolex, etc. I didn’t see much of the reported slowdown of tourists, in fact, there were 4 massive construction projects. Thousands of workers and tens of huge cranes could be seen as I walked around the island between meetings. I don’t see the appeal of a casino vacation, and the idea of a family resort destination had not reached Macau yet. The vibe of the place is captured in this David Beckham ad for the Venetian casino. He does an incredible acting performance by the way!

This is one place I could never live. The opportunity for outdoor pursuits, like biking or jogging were extremely limited. There were some pathways along the water front and in the parks, but only short distances. I also was intrigued by the pollution. Although my app said the air quality of the city was fine, I never did see the sun or blue sky. It was a constant haze as seen from the window of the taxi I took across one of the three bridges to the casino island.

It will be interesting to see how Macau develops as the Chinese economy matures and takes over the city-state in 2049. I am also curious now to visit Hong Kong, and compare and contrast it to Macau. I talked to a taxi driver from Macau and he didn’t care about being taken over by China. He didn’t like the government trying to control the number of mainland tourists who were coming to the city, but he argued that the city was already Chinese and he was just concerned about making a living and providing for his two children.

The historical center of Macau

It would take an extremely generous salary and benefit package for me to work in China. I’ll wait to visit Shanghai and Beijing before making a firm judgment, but I was relieved leave Macau and come back to the quiet and refined system of Japan.

The Business of Baseball in Japan

Matt Murton, a great baseball player and engaging speaker.

Last night I went to the other side of the bay to Kobe to attend the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan sponsored talk, “The Business of Baseball” featuring author Robert Whiting and Hanshin Tiger player, Matt Murton.

Whiting is a long-time commentator on culture and baseball in Japan. His most famous book is “You Gotta Have Wa” which I read recently. It should be required reading for anyone working in Japan! Whiting tells the story of baseball in Japan and the clash of cultures when foreign players, mostly American, come over to play. The book has relates to life outside baseball, and will give useful insight to people in any field, including business and education.

One of my interesting takeaways was learning why Major League Baseball has grown to $9 billion in revenue while the Nippon Baseball League has stayed around $1 billion. The reasons are many, but basically, MLB teams run their teams professionally specific to baseball. All front office people are trained and experienced in sports business and they have successfully monetized the sport. From getting taxpayers to fund stadiums, to subscriptions on MLB.com, the league exploits every possible avenue to gain money. MLB teams also work closer together to create a competitive balance and negotiate broadcast contracts together to get more money for all the teams. In contrast, Japanese teams are owned by corporation and are thought of as a division of the company, not a money-making entity in the entertainment business.

Front office people are assigned by the CEO or board to run the teams and they may not have the interest or expertise in sports marketing. The league also is run by the top two teams, Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants, to the detriment of the other teams and the league as a whole. Also, the players do not have much power and hence there is not much incentive for team executives to try to maximize profits to pay high salaries.

As a counter point, I get tired of the high cost of professional sports in the USA. To go to a game with my family, although it is a really great night out, is prohibitively expensive to do it too often. American sports business tries to get every last dollar from the consumers, whether it be through $150 jerseys to a 2% hotel room tax in Green Bay Wisconsin to pay for the renovations to the Packer’s football stadium. They do get the stadium experience right, even in the minor leagues as we experienced this summer.

The vibrant street life of downtown Kobe – Sannomiya

The other takeway is how different the Japanese approach the sport to Americans. The amount of training, practice and preparation is many times more in Japan than in the USA. It is basically a year-round sport, with spring training starting a full month prior to the US. “Thunder” Matt Murton, as he is known, gave the example of batting practice. In the US, batters will take 5-8 swings in the cage and then rest. In Japan, there are 3 cages and he batted for 4 minutes three times and then went in doors to swing some more.

I asked Robert about US managers in Japan and the parallels to a business or education professional working in Japan. He said it was a balancing act and one needs to appreciate and learn as much as possible about the culture and language, but always keep in mind that you were hired for what you bring from the outside world to Japan. He also recommended to leave Japan to decompress a couple of times a year.

I would like to thank the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan for organizing the talk!

Arrival to Macau

We got in pretty late so not much time to get a feel for the place. Initial impressions are a lot of people packed in a small area. The photos are from the Parque de Mong Hu (Las Monjas – The Nuns) on the peninsula part of Macau. We are staying in the older part of the city, near the Chinese border. I am looking forward to seeing the place in the day.

I had a discussion this morning with my children. Is Macau a country or not? The stakes were somewhat high because we keep track of the number of countries we visit, so if we determine Macau to be a country, then it would add to my total. In favor of being a country were that Macau has its own currency, FIFA world cup soccer team, flag and most importantly, Chinese citizens need to have their passports stamped upon entry. Not in favor is that it is basically a Chinese port city. 95% of Macau’s population is ethnic Chinese, as the majority of its citizens have been throughout its history, even with a small cadre of Portuguese sailors and managers running the colony for 450 years. 2/3 of the 31.5 million visitor arrivals in 2014 were “mainlanders” or Chinese. So, basically it is a Chinese city, but until 2049, when it loses its “Special Administrative Region” status, it is regarded as its own country.

The most interesting thing about Macau is that it is Las Vegas on steroids! It is the gambling capital of the world, thanks to the fact that Chinese love casinos and gambling. In 2013 the gambling industry took in 45 billion dollars compared to the 6.5 billion of Las Vegas. I am looking forward to seeing the size of the casinos, although I am not a big gambler and do not see the appeal of gambling as a holiday destination. Macau’s gambling revenue has dropped recently due to the crackdown on corruption and money laundering by the Chinese leader, Xi Jingping. Rich mainlanders use yuan to buy chips and cash out in other currency. It is a good way of getting money out of the country. The Chinese government is making it harder for mainlanders to get visas and is going after casinos to control these “high rollers”. They also prohibited smoking, which is even a greater love to the Chinese than gambling. Other countries are moving in like Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia offering perks to these rich Chinese gamblers. I am curious to see if the casinos are empty.

The other interesting statistic is that Macau is the most densely populated country in the world. The 600,000 people are squeezed in a small peninsula and two former islands that are now connected through reclaiming the sea. I have been to number 7 and 8 on the list, Malta and Bahrain, so I will see if it feels crowded.

The city is named after the Chinese goddess Ma – tsu, the goddess of seafarers, because of a temple dedicated to her that is located there. Legend has it that as a young girl in the 900s, she saved her father and brothers who were at sea in a storm through the powers of her mind in a dream. Her mother is said to have woken her which caused the death of her father or a brother, it depends on who is telling the story. As with all pre-history historical figures, details are sketchy. The Portuguese took over the port around 1550 and used it as a trading port for Chinese silk, tea and porcelain. I read that in circa 1600 census, there were 2000 Portuguese, 20,000 Chinese, and 5,000 African slaves. The slaves must have been treated well as they repelled the Dutch when they tried to take it over. Amazing to think today that countries like Portugal and the Netherlands could take and run an port in such a big country as China. In World War II, the allies bombed it because despite its neutral status, they sold fuel to the Japanese. The Portuguese held it until it went to China in 1999 and eventually in 2049 it will become fully a part of China. I wonder why they drive on the left side, while mainland China is on the right and so is Portugal? There are few remnants of Portugal’s long control of the city-state, some buildings, including the ruins of St. Paul’s Cathedral, which burned down in 1835, some DNA and language bits which will soon be washed out by the demographics of China.

I love to discover new places and see how other people live. I always ask myself, could I live there?

On a postscript, in reading The Macau Post Daily Independent, the headlines showed the arrest of 36 “kingpins” of a gang of “pimps”. The young men, ranging in ages from 16-27, arranged prostitutes to visit clients in their hotel rooms. The article got into the economics of the system, the girl only got 50% of the money, the gang member who found the client got 30%, and 20% went to the “kingpin”. The girls also only got paid when they returned to the mainland. So sad that they need to do this to earn a decent living. The men are facing up to 8 years in prison, including the 16 year old, and if found part of organized crime gang, the prison term increases to 15 years. The Macau police department office has both Chinese and Portuguese signs in the background. Other news were as follows:
• the arrest of thief from the mainland who is accused of stealing valuables from 14 cars – he drove around in a scooter looking for potential targets and sold or pawned the mobile phones, tablet computers using the victims’ ID cards – he came to Macau illegally by boat and lost all him money gambling, hence the crime spree on a stolen scooter
• Wynn Resort’s chairman, Steve Wynn is fighting his ex-wife in court over voting control of her 9.4% shares in the company. She is trying to stay on the board, but at the last board meeting, members wanted her out because of a conflict of interest and for creating a negative atmosphere and hurting the board’s effectiveness. Wynn has a large casino in Macau.
• The smoking ban will be increased to include all areas of the casino, including the VIP rooms. A PSA on the front page reminded people of the smoking ban in massage parlors that started this year.
• The governing body of Macau, the “Legislative Assembly” is discussing education law in Macau and is reaffirming the freedom of teachers to deal with sensitive Chinese history topics like the Cultural Revolution and the June 4 protests in Hong Kong. They are also trying to create a mandatory minimum wage bill within 3 years for all sectors of Macau, including doormen and janitors. They are proposing 30 patacas (a little over $3). It is the only jurisdiction in China, including Hong Kong and Taiwan, that does not have a minimum wage law.
• There a page of articles describing Chinese control of Macau, including one government official making a statement control of the number of tourist visas, another denying the movie Selma was banned in Macau and the LA would seek more input from civic associations, professional groups and individuals when making decisions.

Life in Japan: Innovative Design

I am constantly running into really well thought out design of products and objects here in Japan. This post is just about two of the hundreds of differently designed things that makes like easier in subtle ways.

Bicycles are quite popular here. Drivers are respectful and it is pretty safe to ride bikes, even in a big city like Osaka. Because so many people ride bicycles, there are many bicycle garages. In the Q’s Mall near our house, we put them into these holders that are easy to use and hold the bikes up strongly. To save space, a slightly higher rack is interspersed with the lower rack.

Another space saver in this populous country is the gas pump that comes down from the ceiling (below). This allows for maximum amount of use of surface for cars to line up and to come from any angle. Many gas stations have pumps on the ground and cars need to align themselves in the direction of the islands. This would restrict the number of pumps one could have.