On the way home from Daisen, we stopped at the Tottori sand dunes for the day. The audible gasp from the kids when we walked over the hill and saw the dunes for the first time was worth the trip. The dunes are located just outside the city of Tottori and run along the coast for several kilometers. We had a lot of fun running up and down the hills and with temperatures in the 70s, I even went for a swim.

There were a lot of people there, but it didn’t feel crowded. All one had to do is walk a short way to get some privacy. Most of the tourists stopped for photos with the camels near the road and then walked up the nearest dune. It would have been nice to have a picnic lunch and walk to another part of the dunes away from everyone. The size of the dunes is impressive and despite the fact they are shrinking, they still attract a lot of tourists. We were the only non-Japanese tourists in the mountains and at the dunes. This area is really off the beaten track for foreigners. Below is a video from the day.


Daisen National Park

Our first view of the Mountain

I can see why ancient people worshipped volcanoes. There is a sense of awe at the force of nature of something that big coming out of the earth. Above is our first view of Mount Daisen, located on the Sea of Japan coast of the main island of Honshu.

During this fall break from school, we rented a car and drove to the Daisen-Oki National Park.  We had a fantastic stay, enjoying the peace and serenity of the forests and mountains of the park, gourmet meals at a cozy bed and breakfast, and some quality family time. It was a holiday I won’t forget soon.

We only began to explore the park as it includes a large mountain range and even several islands. My highlight was the hike we took to Misen Peak. The trail goes through the Daisen-ji, a Buddhist temple dating from the eighth century. We are getting into the Buddhist and Shinto traditions of washing away the negativity in one’s life and ringing the gong to awaken our ancestors. The kids were pretty good and we made it to the snow line, which is over 1,100 meters. The peak is about 1,700 meters, but I don’t think Nadia was ready to go all the way. There were plenty of old growth trees and spectacular views of the snow-capped peaks. It was great to get away from the crowds of urban Japan as there were only a handful of people on the trail. The mountain is called a “mini-Mount Fuji” and is so far our favorite place in Japan. The fall colors were also out in full force and the drive through the forests reminded me of my home in Michigan.

The trail leading from the back of the temple.

I am really interested in the geology of Japan as it is one of the most seismically active places on earth. Daisen last erupted about 10,000 years ago, but an earthquake in 2000, made one of its flanks unstable. The pre-Buddhist sect, Shugeno, a group of acsetic monks, used to call it the mountain of the great god. The god may awake again someday. Another interesting thing about the mountain chain is their proximity to the Sea of Japan, which you can see from mountains.

We will definitely be back to explore more of the park and maybe even for some skiing this winter.

Safe and sound back in the Daisen village

Latest Reading: “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”

During the fall break holiday, I completed Barbara Demick’s book about North Korea. Demick. She is the Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief. Nothing to Envy focuses on the lives of six North Korean defectors over 15 years. They are all from the city of Chongin, an industrial port city near the border with Russia and China. She goes into detail about their lives before they left, their escape and how they got on in South Korea.

I am fascinated with North Korea’s totalitarian regime. I can’t believe that a family can maintain control over an entire country in this century. Nadia and I watched a documentary in 2001 about a North Korean family living in the rural north, who had to send their 5-year old child away to the capital because they couldn’t feed him. It broke my heart then, before I had kids, and seeing it today I would have a stronger reaction.

When I hear of government repression, I always think about the men that are actually doing the repression. Why do they agree to round up ordinary citizens, interrogate them, hold them prisoner in work camps, etc? And to do so just because of one man (Kim Il-Sung) and his descendants?  I understand human nature and resistance to change and their limited experience and perspective, and I marvel at the ability of humans to adapt to circumstances so that almost anything can be regarded as normal. The book made me angry at the North Korean government. The people featured in the book understood the lies, and fought against them, but they were the minority.

It would be nice for the US and other rich nations to help them, but with nuclear capability and a 1-million strong armed force, it would be crazy to interfere too much. Everyone sees eventually the influences of the outside world breaking down the government and them losing control and I predict that it will happen in my lifetime. It will be extremely tough on South Korea, but with economic help from neighbors China, Japan, Russia, and the west, I think they will eventually work it out. Not as fast as Germany because of how low North Koreans are, but they will get there.

I highly recommend the book. I have been reading a lot about Japan and the region and hope to get to both South and North Korea in my time here. Demick also wrote a book about life in one street in Sarajevo during the siege that I would also like to read.

Inner City Night Patrol

I got to see another side of Osaka last weekend when I accompanied the students from our school on a community service activity. We went to the Sanno Childrens Center in the poorest ward of Osaka, Nishinari-ku. The ward is infamous in Japan for its crime rates, red light district and homeless. Now this being Japan, a country with one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world, I felt quite safe and yes it did seem a bit run down and not as new and tidy as other parts of the city, but compared to disadvantaged districts in cities in other parts of the world, it is extremely safe.

The Childrens (Kodomo) Center was founded in the 1960s by German missionaries. To this day, it continues to provide after school care and other services for children from the ward. As you can see from the photo above, one of the children the center cares for was fascinated with my European, bald, head. One of the initiatives of the center is a monthly yomoguri or night patrol. Volunteers led by the pugnacious director of the center Mami, lead groups into the streets to deliver food (onigiri – spheres of rice wrapped in seaweed) and blankets to the homeless men sleeping in the streets of the shopping arcades in the district. I was filled with a sense of goodness seeing how grateful and kind the men were in talking with the students, including my 7 year old daughter.

Mami gives us instructions for the patrols and you can see Ocean leaning over the middle of the table.

Within Nishinari-ku is a neighborhood called Kamagasaki. This area is home to many male day laborers, who through a variety of circumstances (gambling, alcohol, mental illness) are homeless. The government forbids the official use of the name and they try to hide media from portraying issues in the area. A recent NHK documentary about the Sanno Childrens Center featured one of the orphans the center cares  for and it has brought increased donations to them. It was sad to see them laying on newspaper with cardboard boxes around them as their only protection against the elements. It gets cold at night in Osaka in November. There are several organizations helping them, including a center to organize them finding short-term manual labor, free or reduced price shelters, etc.

We also walked through Tobita Shinchi, another neighborhood within the ward. Tobita Shinchi is infamous for its red light district. As in Amsterdam, the women are displayed for street view, although here, it is open air and the architecture is old Japan style. They were only protected by an elderly woman minder that sat to the side of them. She yelled at me when I tried to take the photo (see below). The police tolerate prostitution, but again, I felt sorry for the girls, as it is a tough way to make a living.

I was so inspired to help and want to make it a regular part of our experience while we are here. I would like to thank Lyn and Hannah for assisting me and Ocean and introducing us to the center.


Osaka Soul Food: Okonomiyaki

The cool autumn weather has finally arrived here in Minoh. Last night the temperature dipped down into the 40s F (5-7 C) and so we wanted a hot meal. We rode our bikes to a restaurant in our neighborhood called Warai. They specialize in Okonomiyaki. The okonomi part of the word means “as you like it” and yaki means grilled or cooked. This style of food is associated with our Kansai region and a there is a slightly different version in Hiroshima. It is popular throughout the country. It is interesting that I have never seen it featured in Japanese restaurants outside of Japan.

The best thing about these types of restaurants is the hot stove that is seated in the table top and the little spatulas everyone is given. The kids love being able to do some “cooking” but one has to be careful with younger children that they do not burn themselves. The staff brings out various dishes half-cooked and lets patrons finish them on the hot stove. The stove also

The famous pancake of Osaka!

We ordered squid, corn and dumplings as the first course. The second course was the famous Osaka pancake. It is made of flour mixed with cabbage and yam, and either seafood or meat is added. It is topped with super thin fish flakes and you can add Japanese mayonnaise or the signature sauce of okonomiyaki, which is like  Worcestershire sauce. I love them and it is known as the soul food or signature dish of Osaka.

Delicious squid and corn

There are many restaurants that serve Okonomiyaki. Warai is a chain of family-style restaurants and there are over 20 in Osaka and Kobe. It is conveniently located for us and is kid friendly. I am looking forward to comparing the Hiroshima-style pancake.

Nadia and Oliver in front of the restaurant in Onohara.

A Small Town in a Big City

We live and work in the suburb of Minoh, which is about 15 kilometers north from downtown Osaka. It has a population of around 130,000 people and is famous for the forested park the city is nestled against. We are really enjoying living out here and one of the best things is the ability to ride bikes anywhere. We regularly go out as a family and explore the city on bike.

Last weekend we rode up into the hills and visited a Shinto shrine. We also walked along a small creek and the kids had fun running around and exploring the forest. One bad thing about Japan I am learning is there is almost no untouched wilderness. Even in the park, the hillsides have cement reinforcement walls and all of the rivers have dams so the water can be controlled for irrigating the rice paddies of the city.

Ollie being Ollie!

After the walk, we rode back down to the city and went for a late lunch at Q’s Mall, located on highway 171, which bisects the Kobe-Osaka-Kyoto metro area.

I am looking forward to my first fall in Japan. The peak colors will be coming up later this month. I can’t wait to see the famous red colors of the Japanese maples. Some of the bushes and trees are already starting to turn.


My Visit to Borneo

Sunset View from the Kota Kinabalu City Waterfront

I just returned from 5 days in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia, located on the island of Borneo. The purpose of the visit was to attend our regional education administrators conference, so most of my time was spent in workshops and meetings. We stayed at the Sutera Harbor Resort, which was really nice. Unfortunately, I didn’t get much time to visit the city and get out into the incredible nature the region has to offer. We did manage to leave the resort a couple times and get into the city and I talked to a bunch of locals.

Malaysia is split into two regions, east peninsula Malaysia, with 24 million people, and in the west, it takes up the northern part of Borneo, with around 6 million people. Kota Kinabalu, in the state of Sabah, is the capital and the largest Malaysian city on Borneo. Unlike the main peninsula, the local indigenous people are not Malays or Islamic. There are 32 different ethnic groups and I met a few of them. You can see variations in the dress and facial features of the locals. Most of the women wore headdresses, but a significant portion did not. I asked taxi drivers, waitresses, hotel employees what ethnic group they belonged to. That resulted in me meeting Kadazan-Dusun, Brunei-Malay, Bajau, Chinese, Malay, and a mix of the above. They were not offended by my questions and seemed pleased to explain to me a bit about their group. All of them were happy to be part of Malaysia and everyone was quick to give us a smile, a laugh, and easy conversation. I felt very welcomed to the city.

The View Towards Mount Kinabalu from my Hotel Room

I did speak with the head pool guy at the hotel and he mentioned the issue of Philippine immigrants. They have come to Sabah in recent years, seeking economic opportunity mostly, but also because Malaysia is an Islamic country, and that region of the Philippines is Muslim. I read an article, blaming water quality on these immigrants, many illegal or unsupported. There was garbage floating in the ocean and the harbor and canals in the city stunk of raw sewage. The city desperately needs a waste water treatment system. It reminded me of Latin America a bit, and all that comes from a poorer country in the tropics.

It was nice to be back in the tropics. It was my first time to swim in the South China Sea and the water was very warm. Diving and beach holidays are popular in the nearby islands.

Typical Street View of Kota Kinabalu

I really want to go back with my family and go back as a tourist. The island of Borneo is one of my dream destinations as a biologist and lover of nature. I really want to go hiking in the Kinabalu National Park to see the Titan Arum, the worlds largest flower, the thousands of orchids and birds, and to climb Mount Kinabalu. There are also preserves for orangutans and the proboscis monkey. Maybe in the future.