Latest Reading: “South of the Border, West of the Sun” Murakami

Haruki Murakami is one of the most popular and best known Japanese contemporary authors. His books are best sellers in Japan and are regularly translated and sold around the world. He was born in Kyoto and now lives in Tokyo.

His short novel, “South of the Border, West of the Sun” is the story of the love life of Hajime, an average man born in 1951 in Tokyo. He grew up in nearby Kobe and his mother is from Osaka. The novel traces his life from grade school and his first love when he was 12, to middle age and his marriage and children, and the affairs in between. The narrator owns two jazz bars, like Murakami himself did, and is wrestling with his emotions when meeting his first girlfriend years later, when he is happily married, a successful career, and two healthy daughters. Does he throw all that away, divorce, to be with his old flame? I’ll let you read the book to find out what happens.

The title refers the song, “South of the Border” made famous by Frank Sinatra, and “West of the Sun” refers to Siberian farmers go stir crazy and start walking west on the steppe, and keep walking until they die of thirst and/or exhaustion.

It is a good story and hard to put down. Murakami has a very negative and fatalistic view of life in this book, and other short stories I have read by him. I also didn’t like how secretive the ex-girlfriend was and I don’t think anyone involved with her would tolerate not knowing if she was married and what she did for a living. It does give an accurate picture of life in Japan and after living here a month, I can relate to more of the references in the book. His latest book,Tsukuru Tazaki was a best seller in Japan and is now out in English and he talks about the book in this article in The Guardian.

I always read the local authors in the places I live and will read more of his work. I want to read some of his non fiction works about the sarin gas attacks. It gives me a better understanding of the culture of Japan.

MS Baseball Season Continues

The SOIS Sabers Middle School B Baseball Team travelled across the bay on Saturday to take on the Canadian Academy Falcons from Kobe. The Falcons started with an early 4-0, but going into the last inning, they were down 5-12. They scored 7 runs in the last inning to tie the game and it ended in a 12-12 draw. The Sabers pitching staff couldn’t find the strike zone in the last inning, and the CA batters were not swinging and going for walks, which was a good strategy for them. A controversial umpire’s call in that fateful last inning kept CA’s hopes alive, and they came through with the tying run. In the end, it was a grounder back to the pitcher, Owen Kralovec, who tagged the runner out at third to end the game.

Owen Playing First Base

Myong Jun Kim tripled and pitched well in the middle innings. Misishi homered in the game and was voted MVP by the coaches We enjoyed the sunny weather and camaraderie and I would like to thank Coach Fukushima for his help in getting us there and his cultural insights.

 

The Times Square of Osaka: Dotonbori

Last night we ventured to the heart of Osaka to the famous neighborhood of Dotonbori. This is the crazy stereotypical urban Japan at its finest, with huge neon billboards, throngs of people, deep-fried octopus dumplings, steaming ramen restaurants, crazy fashion and futuristic designed buildings.

Yasui Doton designed this area as an entertainment hub over 500 years ago. HeThe entrepreneur dredged a canal (bori comes from hori, to dig) of the tiny Umezu River. The area was always zoned for entertainment and originally was a theatre district, the last theaters being destroyed in WWII.

Dotonbori today reminded me of a nicer Times Square. The canal at night is surprisingly peaceful, despite the tour boats passing by and the thousands of shoppers and eaters passing overhead. The number of shops are restaurants must number in the thousands. As it was our first time, we were a bit overwhelmed and with the kids being a bit tired, we struggled in finding a suitable restaurant for a family of 5.

The canal of Dotonbori

There are several icons of Osaka, which is the food capital of Japan. Above the restaurants there is a  giant mechanical crab, octopus, and fugu fish, all advertising the cuisine of Osaka. We stopped to take photos in front of  the Glica Running Man, which is a symbol of Osaka. The giant neon sign was taken down by the candy company Glica, and in its place is a regular billboard portraying a running girl. They did have a small version of the original for tourist. The buildings in Osaka are amazing. The designs and lighting are futuristic and sometimes you feel like you are in a sci fi movie like Blade Runner.

Ocean and Nadia in front of the Glica Running Man

Dotonbori is located just outside the Namba Station, one of the hubs of the Osaka train system. It is certainly exotic and if you are not bothered by crowds, it is a good night out. We will go back again now that we know the place a bit, and sample some more of the Osakan cuisine.

Moving In

Will all this stuff fit! (Yes it did)

We have been here for almost a month and finally starting to feel settled in. With the jet lag (14 hour time difference) and large language and cultural differences, Japan is a difficult place to get used to. I really enjoy experiencing new things and thought the process has been fun. Nadia, and to some degree Owen, have a different personality and have been more challenged with the culture shock and language barrier. Oliver and Ocean made an easy transition, much in part due to their younger age.

Japan is extremely organized and has a culture that values order, tidiness, and documentation. This made finding a house, setting up bank accounts, phones, internet, etc. all the more time consuming. One by one, however, we knocked down the list of errands we needed to do and we are at the point now, of almost settling in to a routine. A few advice points for newcomers to the OIS Community that we learned:

1) IKEA has the best prices for furniture and household goods. It is not too difficult to get to the store, as they have a free shuttle from the Namba Station, one of the major hubs of the Osaka Train Network.

2) Nitori is close by and good for futons (Japanese beds) and kitchen ware, although, is more expensive than IKEA.

3) Be careful with the internet from a wireless satellite provider like Wi Max. It depends on your apartment or house. If there are big buildings near by or you are on a lower floor, the connection speed will be slower. If you want a guaranteed connection, go with a cable version, although you will have to wait for 1-3 weeks.

Some Japanese furniture is low to the ground.

 

4) You need to get an address first, before being able to get a phone, bank account, etc, therefore your energies will be focused on finding a place to live.

5) Shinsei Bank is the best because they have English service and on line English service.

6) The Minoh local government is full of good resources for newcomers and you should visit the MAGFA Community Center early from your arrival if you live near the school. They have free Japanese lessons, cooking classes, a restaurant, and many other events.

7) The Kansai Scene is a great English-language resource for things to to in the Osaka/Kobe/Kyoto metro region.

8) Ask veteran expats and locals at the school lots of questions, from who is the best cell phone provider to where can you buy good cheap vegetables.

9) The Japanese want to be helpful and will try to do their best to assist you, language barriers aside. The percentage of English speakers is low, but we always found someone who speaks enough to get us through our predicament. Someone always comes to the rescue when sorting out trains, shopping, etc. People in Osaka are very empathetic to newcomers.

Nadia and Ocean at the steps to the promised land!

Thank god I brought my tool kit that my Dad and brother Andy, bought me five years ago. It really helped in assembling shelves and tables we bought from Nitori.

 

A Samuri With a Tender Heart

Minoh City Icons

We are finally starting to settle into a rhythm of life here in Japan. This is our first time in Asia and it all has been so overwhelming different. Everything we see or experience I want to find out more about. Where do I start blogging?

We live in the suburb of Minoh which is about a 30-minute drive from downtown Osaka. It is on the edge of the huge metropolitan area that surrounds the flat plains ringing the Bay of Osaka. Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka form a distinct metro region with close to 19 million people. Here in Minoh however, it doesn’t feel like that at all. The suburb has a lot of parks and bike/running trains, and the Hokusetsu Mountains form a backdrop for our views. The forested mountain area is a national park and only a 10-minute bike ride away from our house. (more on that later)

On a visit to the Minoh City offices to register as a resident, I noticed this cartoon mascot figure that looks like a samuri orange in the courtyard of the office complex (below) He is the famous Takinomichi Yuzuru, and is a promotional mascot for Minoh City. A yuzu is a variety of citrus fruit (a cross between a sour mandarin and a lemon-like citrus fruit) that is grown from seed in Minoh. The process takes 15-18 years of careful tending, but the taste of the fruit of the mature tree from seed is much better than by grafting. The village of Todoromi in the north of Minoh is famous for growing yuzu. I really have to get up there to see it myself.

Yuzuru is everywhere in Minoh: on buses, flyers, signs, and on the plaque near the main street in the photo at the top of the blog post. The people of Minoh say he is the samuri with a tender heart and if you pat his eyebrows when you see him, it is supposed to bring you luck! I also notice he has a girlfriend mascot, a pinkish Hello Kitty figure. I need to figure out her name.

Owen Starts Middle School Baseball Career

Senri and Osaka International Schools Middle School Boys’ Baseball Team – August 29, 2014

I was a proud Dad to watch Owen play his first baseball game in Japan. He was a bit unsure of himself, being one of the youngest players and not speaking much Japanese, he over came his fears and had a great day of baseball. The two schools form one team and the “A” Team is for the older students and the “B” Team is for the younger students. In the first “B” Team game against the Canadian Academy of Kobe, Owen came into the game in the third inning to relieve his classmate, Jun, as a pitcher. After getting the first batter to strikeout, he then walked, beaned, and walked another batter to load the bases. He then cooly struck out the next guy to get the second out and then fielded a grounder and tagged the runner heading home from third to get out of a jam. He went on to pitch three more hitless innings to earn the win and him and Jun combined for a no-hitter and an 11-0 victory. Owen through 6 strikeouts and also made another good play in the seventh inning to throw out a runner at first.

Owen Pitching Against CA

He got into the second game against the Marist Brothers International School of Kobe, and in his only at bat, doubled with a line shot between the left and center fielder, to drive in two runs and eventually scoring in a 9-2 victory. He also walked with the bases loaded to drive in a third run. In the first game he scored twice.

Owen carried around his glove all weekend and is very enthusiastic to keep playing baseball! It was a rewarding start to his Sabers career.

 

 

The Calm Before the Storm

Update: The typhoon passed quickly by Japan, crossing the island in few hours. Here is a short video of the peak winds and rain from the lobby of our hotel. There were a few branches down and everything got very soggy, but overall, it was just a bad storm and nothing exceptional. The family slept through most of it, battling jet lag. 

 

Courtesy of Japan Meteorological Agency

We arrived in Osaka a couple of hours ago and are cozy in our hotel. We got in just in time as many flights are being cancelled due to Typhoon Halang which will hit the Japanese mainland in a couple of hours. As you can see from the screen shot above, Osaka is located at the tip of the arrow. Halang, with winds gusting up to 180 km/hour is between a Category 2 and 3 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale. That means there will be heavy rains and winds, and expect some trees and wires to fall. The weather was quite cool with a nice breeze upon our exit from the airport, which is one of the nice things – the heat and humidity of the Japanese summer has dissipated, at least for the weekend.

We are very tired after the 14-hour flight. I’ll try to take some video tomorrow if possible as it is almost 11:00 PM here in Osaka. The Japan Meteorological Agency has an excellent website in English which I will be checking often during my stay here. It also covers earthquakes, weather, and ocean data.

Good night and we’ll see what tomorrow will bring.