Weekend in Osaka: January 24-25, 2015

We had a really nice weekend with family. Owen plays for the school’s middle school boys’ soccer team and they hosted Marist Brothers International School of Kobe on Saturday. Owen enjoys playing soccer and his athleticism helps him be a good player. He is also starting to feel more comfortable at the school and Japan and it shows with more relaxed performances. His team won 7-1 and he scored two goals and assisted on another two. You can see in the videos above and below. There is a good core of athletes in grade 6 at the school with Eun and Rhen. I hope to see years of athletic success as they mature and play together more.

Ollie being cool at the park

The weather was nice, with temperatures getting up to 11C and sunny, so I joined the kids at a local park to play. It is so nice to feel safe enough to let them go to the park on their own and play. It brings back memories of my childhood in the 1970s, when we did a lot by ourselves without the modern helicopter parenting of today.

Nadia, Ocean, and Wakana

On Sunday we met our old friends from Belgrade, a former classmate of Ocean, Wakana. Her father Tsutsuru is on a business trip, but Miyuki brought the girls to Umeda and we met them for lunch and skating. The rink was in the plaza of the Grand Front Osaka . It is nice that city officials are taking what used to be a huge train freight yard and converting it to parks, apartments, restaurants, etc. There was no ice but instead a plywood rink with a white, wax-like covering. One could skate relatively well, but it was not as smooth as real ice. I felt like a cool dude because most of the people on the rink were not very good skaters. I don’t know if that is true of all Japanese and how popular skating and hockey are here. On the way home we stopped at H&M to buy some long-sleeved shirts for the kids.

Japanese Literature: Yasunari Kawabata

I am reading Japanese authors whose works have been translated into English. I just completed Kawabata’s “Beauty and Sadness'”. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968. He was born in Osaka, where I currently live in 1899 and committed suicide in 1972. He is most famous for his books Snow Country (1956) and Thousand Cranes (1959).

Beauty and Sadness is his last novel, which came out in  1961. It is the story of author Oki Toshio. When he was newly married, he had an affair with a 16-year old girl, which ended with her getting pregnant, having a miscarriage, and spending a short time in a mental institution. Today, this would be considered a criminal offense. In the book, he keeps his marriage and gets fame for the book he wrote inspired by the affair. The story mostly takes place 25 years later when the girl is an artist in Kyoto. I won’t give more of the plot away, but it involves a possible murder. I thought it was a good story and the descriptions of Kyoto’s temples were vivid. The women are wearing kimonos often, which I find today in Japan, very rare.

In my opinion however, it had rather weak character development and there were many holes in the plot. Kawabata wanted to be a painter and the book has a lot of references to visual arts. The book has been made into a movie twice, one Japanese and one French. The ending allows for much reader speculation and it would make a good book club selection, as there would be lots to discuss.

I don’t think I will read any more of his works but it was good to be introduced to such an important literary figure in Japan.

Impressions of China and Thailand

The family in front of our hotel in Guangzhou

On the way back from our family holiday in Byron Bay Australia, we had an overnight stop in Guangzhou, China. This was our first visit to China and after reading so much about the growing economy of China and their takeover of the world, I was very curious to see it. We flew Southern China Airlines, which has excellent service, and in legroom, my most important factor, they scored extremely high, and they provided a free hotel for an overnight stay. The hotel was located about 20 minutes from the airport. Guangzhou is a huge city, about the size of Chicago, but I had never heard of it before moving to Asia. China is so big with a number of massive metropolises that most people in the world know little about. I know that it was one night in one city, but according to my initial impressions, China has a long way to go before being a world leader in culture and society, like the US, Europe, and Japan. The number of construction projects were impressive and it was a massive hotel, but the infrastructure of the roads and buildings, etc. reminded me more of Latin American and Eastern Europe than more developed countries.

The view from my hotel room of the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok

We had a nice stay however, and found some high quality, cheap fruit in a market nearby. We were certainly stared at and I assumed not many American families with blond children go through there. The pollution was really bad, with a chemical odor in the air and a hazy morning. I know China will get it under control eventually, but they really need to take drastic measures to improve air quality. Many expats who teach there complain of this and it is a shame when children have to have an indoor recess because of pollution. I am intrigued to see more of the “middle kingdom” one of the oldest civilizations on earth to understand the country better.

One of the famous tuk-tuk taxis of Bangkok

I also spent a weekend in Bangkok, Thailand for a job fair. Most of the time was spent working, but I did get to go out for a couple of dinners and a walk to the night markets. Bangkok is a huge city set in the tropics and it reminded me of other tropical cities I have visited. The big impression it left on me was the influence of a colorful form of Buddhism. There were ornate shrines, big and small everywhere. This is much different than the more sedate form of Buddhism in Japan. I was also surprised to see so many transgender men/women. It is totally acceptable in Thailand, in part due to the tolerance of Buddhism. I also noticed the king is venerated with photos and books. I didn’t know it was a kingdom. The food as always, was delicious and I hope to come back to visit this tourist mecca.

Picture of the King of Thailand

Owen Makes Soccer Debut

Owen made his middle school soccer (football) debut yesterday. The Senri & Osaka International Schools Sabers travelled to Kobe to play the Canadian Academy Falcons (CA). CA is located on Rokko Island, an artificial island in the Bay of Osaka, which is home to a large shipping port. Yesterday, January 17th was a special day in Kobe, as it was the 20th anniversary of the Great Hanshin earthquake in which over 6,000 died. The game started with a moment of silence for the victims of the tragedy.

In the SOIS middle school, there is about 150 boys, so the team has a lot of players. Six grader Owen plays on the “B” team which is reserved for the younger players. They won their game 5-4 and Owen scored two goals and assisted on another. The team was up 3-0 at halftime, but their positioning broke down in the second half, combined with more aggressive play from CA, made the game close. Owen is not passionate about soccer, but is enjoying the sport. I like it because it makes them run around and is outdoors. Owen played midfield and is learning a lot about the sport. I hope he continues to play.

The Rokko Island pier and running track.

In between games, I went for a run around Rokko Island. There is a nice 5 kilometer loop set in a park like setting which hides the warehouses and stacks of shipping containers that make up most of the island. The earthquake really hurt the port economically. Before the quake, they were much busier, but with the destroyed facilities, Singapore and Hong Kong took over much of the business and Kobe never recovered. Today the island is much quieter with a less busy port and businesses also moved out of Kobe as well. It is nice being on the water however, but the environment is a bit sterile on the island and it feels like one is not in Japan.

The MS boys’ soccer Sabers are in action next week as they host Kyoto International Academy. The grade 8 students are on a science field trip so the younger students will get a chance to play against older students.

Byron Bay: Cheer Up, Slow Down, Chill Out

Our family had a wonderful week in the resort town of Byron Bay. It is located in northern New South Wales, near the border with Queensland, just 45 minutes from the Gold Coast airport. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.

The town is known for its hippy values and promotes alternative lifestyles. As you can see on the entrance sign, the peace and love movement of the seventies is alive and well in Byron Bay. Most of the restaurants and shops promoted vegan, organic, all-natural, gluten-free products. There were signs advertising yoga classes, new age spirituality conferences, etc. There is a very liberal feel to the town.

The town became popular with tourists due to Paul Hogan of Crocodile Dundee fame. He had a vacation home there and opened up a hotel in 1991. Every year, more tourists came and the town developed many hotels and vacation homes for rent and sale. It has managed to keep its hippy vibe, despite the development and is much different than the coastal and inland towns around it. The sub-tropical flora and fauna give the place a Hawaiian look. We were there during the peak summer tourist season and there were long traffic lines into and out of town, but it still felt relaxed. Most of the tourists were Australians with some younger international tourists, backpacking or working their way around Australia.

Byron Bay is also famous for surfing due to the breaking waves on several points in the area. We all took a surfing lesson which gave me a new appreciation for the sport. I learned that rip currents are helpful as escalators to surfers and are not to be feared. Some other fundamentals given to us by our instructor Gaz, were look up at the beach, not at the fish, banana and then build up on the board, and to relax and bend the knees once one is up. The best of us was Ocean and she loved it so much that I bought her a surfboard. We hope to find some surfing spots in Japan. My only complaint about surfing is when there are lots of people waiting for waves. It is better than waiting in lines for downhill skiing however, and there are no costs to use the ocean. I am glad to give our children many different experiences and the chance to surf was one I didn’t have growing up. I think back to scuba diving, skiing, etc. I feel it is important to give our children a good breadth of experiences so they can find what they are passionate about and be aware of what is out there. It will hopefully give them richer, fuller, lives as adults.

We stayed in a luxurious villa ($7 million Aussie dollar list price) near the beach in the Cape Byron Headland Reserve, just outside of town. There was a walking trail through the forest preserve and it allowed me to see lots of different birds, trees, flying foxes, and even wallabies. I did several posts on my nature blog of observations I made on hikes in the local area. There is a scenic lighthouse located on the high cliffs of the peninsula and below lies the eastern most point of the Australian mainland. We walked into town in the evenings for dinner in the local restaurants and were surprised by the huge flying foxes (fruit eating bats) of tropical Australia. I saw these many years ago on a trip to Cairns in the far north of Queensland. I will not likely stay in a nicer place for quite awhile and I would like to thank Jim and Ale for their hospitality and kindness. It was wonderful to share the New Year celebration with family and friends!

We even took a morning to drive inland to see a small preserve of rainforest in the Night Cap National Park. Like almost all places in the developed world, including my home of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, it is sad think that 95% of the forests were lost from the time of the early settlers until today. I am quite radical in believing that acreages or small hobby farms should be banned so more land can be devoted to virgin forests.

Owen and Sebey at the Nightcap National Park

As I always say however, it is not important where we are for holidays. As long as I am with my family and can devote most of my energies to my wife and children, I am going to have a wonderful time. I was tempted to work more than I did, but in reflecting on my life, spending time with my family will be more important than getting more done for my job. Finding this balance between my career and family is something that is always challenging for me. The quiet time during the break also got me to reflect on my life. One of my new year’s resolutions will be to focus on my health. One of my enemies is stress and through meditation, exercise, and eating less and more healthy, I want to live better. We will see if I can keep the momentum up as my schedule gets more hectic.

Christmas in Sydney

Yesterday we went to the beachside suburb of Manly. The boys loved the big waves and were safe thanks to one Manly lifeguards. They are one of the oldest lifeguard teams in the world, having been formed in 1903 after 17 people drowned in the first official bathing season the year previous. He has a passing resemblance to comedian Jason Sudeikis. The founder of Sydney, Captain Arthur Phillip named the area “manly” because of the masculine characteristics of the aboriginal people of the area. He was speared in the shoulder there, which is quite a masculine thing to have happen to someone. We took the ferry from Circular Quay to Manly and had some great views of the Sydney harbor (below). The only bad part of the day was the rain in the afternoon, which drove everyone home and made for a crowded ferry ride back home.

We had Christmas dinner and Skyped with a many family members as we could reach. We spent Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day mostly around the apartment in Chatswood. Some locals nicknamed it “Chatswoo” due to its high Chinese and other Asian immigration population. We did notice many Asians and at times it felt like we are still in Japan. Owen showed an interest in the Aussie sports of cricket and football so I took the kids to a nearby oval to play.

Tonight we leave Sydney for Byron Bay. I can see why Sydney is one of the world’s great cities! The massive harbor and weather are magnificent. The city is relatively safe, organized with a high quality of life. The one bad thing is the high cost of living which surprised me coming from Japan. I found it more expensive here than in Osaka. This trip also reminded me of the unique flora and fauna of Australia, which is one of the biggest attractions for me to the country.  Sydney is a little too big for me and I prefer life on the west coast. I am looking forward to watching the Boxing Day Test Cricket Match today from the MCG between Australia and India.

Our family has a close relationship to the wonderful country of Australia. Nadia grew up in Melbourne and we lived in Perth while she was going to Murdoch University. She would like to move back someday here and we are considering sending our children to university here.

It didn’t feel like our usual Christmas this year as we are traveling. It will be nice to be reunited with family this weekend. I’ll be posting from Byron Bay later.

Hike on Middle Cove

Sugarloaf Bay

The city of Sydney is blessed by nature. The Port Jackson harbor, with its deep inlets, peninsulas, islands, bays and ravines makes for numerous stunning views. The Mediterranean sunshine and climate allow verdant, tropical gardens to grow easily, and this combination of blue water, green hillsides and limestone cliffs is absolutely stunning.

City authorities have done a decent job of protecting some of the coastline from development. Yesterday we went for a hike in the Harold Reid Reserve, a protected area on the Middle Cove peninsula. It is about 3 kilometers from where we are staying in Chatswood. Running through the reserve is the small Scotts Creek where I caught a brilliant blue glimpse of the Azure King Fisher. The reserve also has a mangrove area and  we identified massive tree ferns, banksia trees, and saw two kookaburras. There was also a flock of sulfur-crested cockatoos, and a pair of rainbow lorikeets, loudly squawking in a date palm. I was sure we were going to see one of Australia’s infamous poisonous snakes, but no such luck.

The classic Australian Eucalyptus tree

The only thing that bothers me as usual, is the encroachment of housing developments. I guess the money is too good not for people to put multimillion dollars homes on. On the way back we looked in the window of a real estate agency and were shocked what goes for a million-dollar home + here in Sydney. In the USA, the same homes would go for a 1/3 of the price. I don’t know how so many people can afford such expensive homes.

It is always nice to have access to a bit of nature close by in a city of 5 million people. Let’s hope city officials can build on this and preserve more areas of coastline.

The arial roots of mangroves obtaining oxygen in the Harold Reid Reserve.