River Hiking in Shiga Prefecture

Owen, Oliver and Harry are ready to shoot down stream.

We had a fantastic day in the outdoors yesterday hiking/swimming up and down the Aichi River. We were quite sleepy as we drove north on the Meishin Expressway heading up to the Shiga prefecture early Saturday. Shiga is the state that surrounds Lake Biwa and we were headed to a river that feeds into the lake. We stopped at the dam before completing the journey to our entry point on the 421 highway.

The best part of the day for me was watching the kids learning how to maneuver in the fast flowing river. Especially Oliver, who does not have a passion for swimming, get over his fear and by the end of the day, begging us to stay as we jumped into the current and let it carry him down river. I think he learned to give new experiences a try and with effort and courage, he can accomplish something he didn’t think was possible at first. An important lesson for him and hopefully he will carry into future challenges he will face.

Ready to jump!

The hike up the river was hilarious. It was a non-technical scramble along the banks and over the big and small boulders in the river. The water was very clear and the water was fast, but not dangerously fast. It sounded and looked more risky than it actually was. I couldn’t stop laughing seeing that my wife Nadia, a true city girl, was put in the middle of a white water rapids.  Trying to get her over the rocks and to get into the river was funny. She got over her fears as well and she did remarkably well on the walk back down to our camping spot for the day.

Owen in River

The scenery was spectacular as well. The walls of green foliage contrasted with the turquoise water and white rocks. We only saw a few people the whole day and it felt like we had the river to ourselves. It reminded me of Horserace Rapids in my home county in Michigan. I am so glad my family got to experience a river like I used to.

I would like to thank our friends Naoki and Tara for inviting us to come along and helping with the logistics that go into preparing kids for a day of water adventure! ありがとお!

First Day of School

Years pass so quickly now, I can’t believe we are once again, at the start of another school year. Today, August 26, 2015 was the first day of classes for both the elementary school and middle school. It is a tradition in our family to take photos of the kids and us, as we are all lucky to go to the same place every day, school! I am so happy to be able to see my wife and children daily on campus. What a privilege.

When I was growing up, my mother used to have us lean against the door of the house on our way out. I should look up some of those photos the next time I am home and digitize them. We would be seen smiling, with our new lunch box or brief case, and ready for another year. We recreated the photos again on our front door in Japan.

Recreating the famous Kralovec family pose.

It was a hot, muggy day and Ocean was up early, excited to get going. She had 19 late arrivals last year and is anxious to do better this year. The kids are so cute! We took the photos outside our door and then took a school car the two blocks to the campus. We usually ride our bikes, but today I had the school car.

We are looking forward to the year and what adventures await us!

Airports in Japan

The family outside of the Narita Airport

It is confusing for foreigners flying into Osaka and Tokyo. Both cities have two airports. Here in Osaka, we have the Itami airport, which is about a 15 minute taxi ride away from our house. The other airport is Kansai International Airport or as it is known by its code, KIX. KIX is an elegantly designed airport, (Italian architect Renzo Piano – yes, his real name) but is inconvenient for almost everyone in Kansai to get to! I would guess there was some politics or corruption that occurred to put the airport on an artificial island, 30-40 miles south of the population centers of Kobe, Osaka and Kyoto. For me to get to KIX, I have to take a “limousine bus” for and hour and 10 minutes to Itami airport and then the 15 minute taxi from there. For people in Kobe, they can take a ferry across the bay, but both the Kobe and Itami airports are so much more convenient.

It was exciting to watch the planes land

Our flight was delayed coming out of Los Angeles and we were forced to spend the night at the Narita airport north of Tokyo. A very strange airport in that once you exit the airport, you are in the middle of rice paddies and forests. Great if you have a layover and have a day to kill, horrible if you need to do business in Tokyo. This is another case of a bad selection of placement of the airport. The other airport in Tokyo, Haneda, is closer to the center of Tokyo, but is limited by size. Narita airport officials have been fighting local residents with departure and arrival times, which are limited and the number of flights.

All four airports have been passed by the competition in other Asian cities to serve as a hub for east Asia. Japan’s airports have the highest landing fees in the world, discouraging airlines from scheduling more flights in the airports. Narita and KIX are both inconveniently located for passengers wanting to go to Osaka or Tokyo and there are less options with flights. The restaurants also only keep regular open hours, thus many times in the evening or morning, one cannot get something to eat or a coffee. Internally, they get competition from the shinkansen or “bullet” train, which in many ways is more convenient.

I am not sure how one solves a bad location, without closing and moving the airport to a more logical location. That is an expensive solution, but it might be the only one. Japan is also  probably losing out in international tourist or travelers to Seoul and Hong Kong, which are more convenient hubs to the major cities of China and SE Asia. I personally am annoyed every time I need to take a taxi and bus and 3 hours of my time to fly in/out of KIX. I will do a blog post about my next experience of using KIX.

Rice is almost ready for harvest.

Problems aside, I highly recommend an overnight and full day layover at Narita. We went for a hike in the woods near the airport with the kids. They loved watching the planes roaring into the airport directly overhead. There were also many walking and running trails in the countryside. We met an American Airlines pilot from a small town near mine in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula as well for a bonus! In the afternoon we went swimming in the hotel pool. It felt like an extra day of holidays and a great way to end our summer before the onslaught of work and school.

Book Review: Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery

During the long flights from South America to Japan, I finished the book, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh. Dr. Marsh is an experienced British neurosurgeon. He is an excellent writer with an rebellious attitude and I really was immersed in his world.

I learned a lot of about the life of a brain/spinal surgeon and it is a tough life. He deals a lot with death and illness, and I know it should be common sense, but when one thinks of doctors, one thinks of high salaries and respect in the community. With that however, comes much responsibility and the idea of going into work and someone’s life depends on your performance that day is awe inspiring. It is a demanding career choice, especially doing delicate operations on the brain and spinal cord.

He went through a lot in his over 30 years of practice. Dr. Marsh has come to some revelations through this and he has some interesting reflections on death, illness and medical care. As with other books I have read about death and illness, much of it is just bad luck. I have only known one person with a brain tumor, a teaching colleague of mine when I was in Australia. I was new to the school and didn’t really know him, but he was on and off at the school while he battled the cancer, eventually ending in his retirement and death. So tragic as he left behind a wife and children. Marsh recalls many emotional stories of people dealing with brain tumors. One story of a bicycle rider reminds me to always wear a helmet!

Marsh is a really Brit, and for those Americans who have spent a lot of time around them, you’ll know what I mean. I had to laugh out loud when he wrote what he learned from his American residents that he trained at his hospital. “…I love their optimism, their faith that any problem can be solved if enough hard work and money is thrown at it, and the way in which success if admired and respected and not a cause of jealousy.” I admire the honesty of the Brits.

It is truly awesome to be able to cut into and work on the human brain. His descriptions of the procedures are amazing. The operating microscopes and technology that allows doctors to cut through the skull and repair the mass of jelly which is the brain is incredible. 25% of our blood from the heart goes to the brain which makes it even more complicated and dangerous. He liked his job because “it seemed to involve excitement and job security, a combination of manual and mental skills and power and social status as well.” He sees medicine as a form of craft, neither art nor science.

Many of the cases are really depressing. When patients are terminally ill, it is difficult to accept it and to decide how to proceed. As he asks, “will I be so brave and dignified when my time comes?” I too wonder about my death. He reckons the perfect death is to die in one own’s home, after a long life, quite quickly, looked after by her own children, surrounded by family and free of pain”

He refers to Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and writes that errors of judgement and the propensity to make mistakes are built in to the design of the human brain and gives him comfort in thinking about the mistakes he has made in his career.

He really hates the British public health system and the way modern hospitals are managed. There seems to be a shortage of beds in the UK and I am glad I have private health care, which he also uses. I hope I can afford to keep private health care as I get older.

I am not sure if I would like a job that deals with death and disease all the time. I think I would be good at it however, except for my fine motor skills, which are not great.

Some of the other quotes and vocabulary words I got from the book are as follows:

“…as I become more and more experienced it seems that luck becomes ever more important.”

“…the long working hours and the self-importance it produced in me would lead to the end of our marriage 25 years later.”

“to treat some of the keynote lectures at conferences with a degree of skepticism”

pineal gland – a cone-shaped gland under the brain that releases melatonin, regulating sleep and circadian rhythms. This is known as the “third eye” and some quacks believe the gland can be managed through meditation or other means.

aneurysm – the wall of the artery gets weak and bulges out

pithy – adjective meaning concise and forcibly expressive language

ignominious – causing public shame or disgrace

paroxysms – sudden violent attacks

Return to Los Angeles

Hiking in the Santa Monica Mountain Recreation Area

We had a short break in our long flight from Santa Cruz, Bolivia to Osaka, Japan. My uncle lives in Studio City California and once again, he was a gracious host as we stayed in Los Angeles for 2 days. It was good to get a good night’s sleep, some delicious home cooked meals, and catching up with family / meeting new family members!

Besides spending time with my uncle, the highlight for the trip to me was a hike in the Santa Monica mountains. Wilacre Park along with a couple of other natural areas in the mountains that are connected, make for a refreshing green break from the hustle of LA traffic. There were a lot of people on the trails, but everyone was in a good mood and quite complimentary to my family. I spotted a hummingbird and a beautiful yellow songbird that I will identify on my nature blog. The trail was well-maintained and despite some overly large homes encroaching on the limits of the park, it was a pleasant nature experience. This area is separate from our previous hike near the Griffiths Observatory that we did last month on our way through. The Wilacre trail would make a fantastic run because of the gently rolling hills and views to the city. LA surprisingly has a lot of nature reserves due to the proximity of mountains and it is quite easy to get into forest, in the middle of a large metropolitan area.

The boys are amazed at the size of the “double gulp” at 7 11. You won’t find that in Japan!

I read a good article about the Los Angeles River in the Sunday LA Times. The river is 51 miles long and during LA’s development of the 1940s, the army corps of engineer filled the river with thick concrete. They did this so during a rain storm, the city would not flood and the stormwater would safely be sent out to sea. It served its purpose of allowing the city to grow, but it is quite an eyesore when it is not filled with storm water. City officials are trying to figure out how to make it a place to for the citizens to enjoy. Today it is off limits, but it is not realistic to remove the cement and make it green. I don’t know what they will do, but I am glad they are thinking about it. In the parts I saw, the river itself is off-limits and there was only a small flow of treated wastewater. Some of the river had a nice walking trail with artwork and some planting, but it is in contrast to the metal chain-link fence and barbed wire. I will be curious to see what they come up with as they commissioned a famous designer to work with NGOs to make a proposal.

Los Angeles River – Studio City, California – July 2015

It was quite evident to us that LA is the center of movies and television. While on the hike, five planes skywrote “COMPTON” to promote the new film, “Straight Out of Compton”. There were also numerous billboards and small studios all over the city. The city is also the center of the pornography industry, and some of the studios looked a bit dodgy.

We had a nice Thai meal last night. One interesting observation is the contrast between neighborhoods and even blocks. Some like Studio City are really nice with expensive homes and classy restaurants. Then there are other areas with pawn shops, liquor stores and dilapidated buildings on the next block.

View of the valley from the Wilacre Park in the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area

LA has a lot to offer and we really enjoyed our two visits this summer. I would love to come back and see more. I don’t think I would want to live here because of the high cost of housing and traffic. It really is a city of large income disparity and it needs more government intervention to make the city more livable and equitable. They could start with some serious public transportation infrastructure and some serious downsizing of homes and cars, which is much harder to do.

I would like to thank Uncle Jack for hosting and helping us! We love you!

Walking in the footsteps of the Incans

We got an early start and headed out of the city for about an hour and drove to the village of Chataquilla, located at 3,600 meters ( feet). After visiting the chapel at the top of the mountain, which was built over another miraculous image of the virgin Mary. I’ve heard many versions of this folktale in Venezuela and Colombia all the way back to Spain. It must be a Hispanic-America Catholic phenomenon.

Ale and Nadia sample some coca leaves to relieve the soroche.

The local government restored an Incan road from the chapel, dropping 1000 meters to the village of Chaunaca. The path wound around the steep mountain and there were a few very steep drops. Workers took care to cut and fit stones around the original remaining Incan stones to create a level, 1 – 2 meter wide trail. The entire walk is about 5 kilometers, but at that altitude, it felt like double that. We took our time, taking lots of photos, learning the names and medicinal uses of the plants and sorting out the children’s various needs. The views were spectacular and the sky was a pure blue. It was an absolute pleasure taking in the views of the geology and the many valleys, peaks, canyons, etc. What a great morning!

End of the trail – we made it!

We were planning to visit another village in the ancient Maragua crater but my sister-in-law was not feeling well so we returned to the hotel. I really want to explore more of the villages outside Sucre. It is a wonderland for mountain biking, rock climbing/scrambling and walking. It would be similar to the American Rockies in the southwest, like the state of Utah.

In the late afternoon we visited La Recoleta convent again for a sunset dinner. On the walk back we stopped in the plaza to get a taste of some of the Bolivian Independence Day celebrations. There was a school parade and lots of vendors, music and people-watching. We had a wonderful stay in Sucre!

View of Sucre from the roof of our hotel.

Bolivia is awesome for travel and adventure. The combination of a tropical latitude in the Amazon river basin and the widest part of the massive Andes mountains, blows away what most countries have to offer for adventure travel. I do hope to come back and especially as my children get older, I want to share with them the wilderness of Bolivia. My ideal trip would be to spend a week in the Amboro National Park, entering from the Samaipata side and then going to Vallegrande to see where Che Guevara was killed. Next we would go to the highest capital in the world, La Paz. While there we would do side trips to Lake Titicaca and see the village where Modesta is from and climb the snow-capped peak of Mount Sorata. Next we go to the salt deserts of Uyuni, staying in a salt hotel and do a driving tour of the amazing, alien landscapes of the high Atacama desert. There are brightly algea-colored lakes, high altitude flamingos, herds of vicuna and the weird rock formations. We would finish up by visiting two Amazonian parks, Alto Madidi and Noel Kempff and then the pantanal, the largest wetlands in South America. How is that for a trip!

Hike in the Seven Cascades Canyon

The fifth cascade made a refreshing water hole.

Our goal today was to get out of the city and see a bit of the Chuquisaca (name of the department) hinterland. In the morning we visited the Fancesa Cement Quarry, which they claim is the largest dinosaur track/footprint site in the world. Years ago the company was digging limestone out of the quarry and they ran into a layer of Magnesium oxide rock which was not used in the cement making process. Two geologists working at the company noticed the fossilized dinosaur tracks. Nadia and I visited the site 15 years ago when there was nothing for tourists and since then, the government has established a visitor’s center with displays and information about the geological time scale and dinosaurs. It is quite an informative center and worth visiting if you want to learn more about dinosaurs. The prints are huge and criss-cross a massive (150 meters high by 1 kilometer in length) slice of rock. It was once a lake and the prints of 4 different dinosaurs can be identified.

Owen looking at the sauropod prints on the wall of the quarry.

In the afternoon we went on a hike to the Siete Cascadas canyon. It is located past the cement factory in one of the many mountain canyons/valleys in the area. The guide from the hotel was very knowledgable about the local trees. The driver asked me to smoke a cigarette when we got down to the first waterfall to appease Pachamama, the Quechua indigenous god. He said on Tuesdays and Fridays in the month of August it is bad luck to swim in the waters of the river in the canyon without this offering.

After a few puffs, Owen and I dove into the blue water and it was cold! The guide showed the boys a few rock climbing moves and we explored the canyon a bit. We made it over the fifth waterfall, but the sixth and seventh require some serious rock climbing skills. Sadly there was some graffiti and litter at the site, but the rock formations and waterfalls still made it an awe-inspiring site.

Ollie leads us out of the canyon.

On the way back out, we walked down the river a bit and took a smaller trail back up to the entry road. We saw a freshly killed goat carcass, which the guide said was probably the work of a fox. I loved scrambling with the boys through the canyon and the opportunity to get off the regular trail. The scenery reminded me a bit of the mesalands of the Venezuelan state of Anzoategui, except it was just a deeper ravine here in the Andes.

The access road hugs the side of the cliff and is dirt and it is a bit dodgy with a steep precipice. Our driver was careful going up and down.

Sad to see the tough life of the poor of Sucre.

The drive back into town went through some very poor barrios. The Barrio Alegria was definitely a misnomer (alegria means happiness in Spanish) as the roads were unpaved, makeshift houses, and disheveled children and garbage in front of the homes. Lots of opportunities for community service up there and I am amazed how people survive in such a tough environment.

The city has the great idea to use people dressed as zebras to act as crossing guards during rush hour. The colonial streets of Sucre are narrow and there are lots of universities and K-12 schools getting out plus regular pedestrians.  At first I thought why zebras, but then figured out the white lines of the pedestrian crossing resemble a zebra. A creative way to keep people safe and add to the character of the city.

I can’t wait to explore more of the countryside on Day 3 as we are going for a full day excursion. We finished the day with a walk about the 25 of May Plaza and pizza.