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.

Shinto: The Religion of Japan

The torii of a shinto temple near our house – looking outwards.

This is my first time living in a non Christian culture. I am curious to learn more about the religion of Japan, which is mostly Buddhist mixed with elements of Shinto. I see many temples around here and want to understand them. I started reading on the subject and during my stay here, I am sure I will learn more. Note that I am not religious and being raised Catholic, I am now a secular humanist. I don’t believe in the supernatural, although I want to, and I am undertaking this study from intellectual curiosity, not a search for the meaning of life or other higher calling. I do think that religions are full of wisdom and my life can benefit from their teachings.

I started with Shinto because it would be like if Europeans still practiced pagan rituals. In a way they do I guess, because Christianity did incorporate some pre-Christian festivals like the winter solstice become Christmas, but most of beliefs have been lost to time and the power of Christianity. Shinto not so and it is the original religion of the first settlers of the island. It gives a window into what they thought was important and how they answered those big questions of why are we here and what happens to me when I die.

The central focus of Shinto is the kami or spirits. The kami can be of ancestors, great historical figures, or of natural phenomena like the sun, trees, wind, etc. Shinto started as honoring ancestors and family lineages, but as the population grew and time went on, the kami became more general. I think that is one way the early Japanese found immortality, by keeping the memory of their forebears alive.

warding off evil spirits

Besides the kami, the religion centers on rituals performed at shrines. There is no sacred scripture or teachings, no belief in a god or heaven. It has been passed down through the generations by repeating of group ceremonies or personal rituals. I enjoy going to the shrines, mostly because they are always surrounded by trees, plants, and peaceful surroundings. This is much like the monasteries of Serbia, they were placed in wilderness, away from attack from the Turks. Visiting them usually involves a hike in the surround hillsides and forests. Shinto shrines are surrounded by not so much forests because Japan is a crowded island, but they all have at least a small grove of trees. You can see it very easily in any view of Osaka from above. Where there are a bunch of trees, there is usually a shrine or temple in the center. Nature not only gives the worshipper peaceful surroundings, but also the kami are found in nature. That might be the thing I like best about Shinto, the reverence for big trees. I respect and cherish old trees.

All shrines have a gate, called a torii. This helps people move from their busy, daily lives to a peaceful spiritual time. The gates are guarded by fierce looking statues of dogs or lions. These ward off evil spirits and the bad things that plague humanity. There is usually a water fountain to ceremonially wash away pollution and negative spirits. It also involves a walk to a temple that holds a sacred object that symbolizes that particular kami, whether it be a former emperor, war hero, or the spirits from that local area. People leave offerings at the shrines.

I don’t think foreigners can become Shintoists. It is a religion that is really tied to the DNA and culture of Japan. During the Meiji Restoration through to World War II, the Japanese government tried to make Shinto the official religion and rid it of Buddhism. They were unsuccessful and today, Shinto is practiced by regular citizens. They form neighborhood networks to take care of shrines and some even become priests for the shrines.

Last week I watched a Shinto procession through our neighborhood here in Onohara (neighborhood of Minoh) consisting of a palanquin being carried by men in costumes. Inside the palanquin were drum players and it was followed by about 100 people in colorful robes.

I have a lot to learn, but hopefully I have given my readers an introduction to Shinto and one outsider’s cursory view of it. I hope to understand Japan better through a better understanding of Shinto and Buddhism.


Shinto: The Kami Way by Sokyo Ono (Ono is a professor at the Shinto university of Kokugakuin Daigaku) with help from William Woodward – Charles E. Tuttle Company publishers, Tokyo 1962

Walking in Meiji no Mori Park

Morning View of the Mino Q-National Park – typhoon coming

Yesterday afternoon Owen and I went for a walk in the Meiji no Mori Quasi National Park. The park provides the backdrop to the view from our house and consists of forested hills near our suburb. I needed to recharge my batteries and get out into some “wilderness” for awhile, and with the perfect autumn weather we are having this week, it was a refreshing afternoon with my son.

The park was set up in 1967 and is called “quasi” because it allows for some development, more so than proper national park. It is nice to have a forest next to a metro area of 17 million people (see last post) and surprisingly, not that many people go up there. That is probably because it takes some effort to go up the hill. There are plenty of marked trails in the park, however, the signs are not in English so we are still trying to figure it all out.

We have been in the park a couple of times and we still have not seen any of the famous monkeys. I thought we were lucky yesterday late in the afternoon, but it turned out to be a squirrel. We also heard a strange call from the forest. You can hear it in the video below right at the end. I will do some investigation to find out what it is. I think it might be a monk from a nearby temple.

(video coming soon…)

We made it to the further point in the park than we have gone so far. On the other side is pure countryside and will be nice to explore once we get a car. So far it is my favorite place in Osaka.

The view back to Osaka

Visualizing 17 Million People

Looking up at the Umeda Sky Building

One of the biggest adjustments for me in our move to Japan is living in a very large city. The metropolitan area of Osaka – Kobe – Kyoto has a population of over 18 million people. That is larger than Moscow, Cairo, Los Angeles, and Bangkok and ranks #14 in the world, just below Mumbai. The three cities are known as Keihanshin and the GDP of this area is roughly the same as London or Paris. There is a lot of people here and a lot of money. The most populous metro area in the world is Tokyo with almost 40 million people. It has a population density higher than Bangladesh. I will certainly be exploring Tokyo in future visits.

The view towards Osaka Bay from the top of the building

Although we live in a big metro area, we do not feel it on a daily basis. The school is located in the suburb of Minoh, which is 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) from the city center. By train it is about 20 minutes. We live only a few blocks away and it is about a 5-minute walk to school. Minoh is full of parks, wide sidewalks, bike paths, and is minutes away from the forested hills of a “quasi national park” so one gets the impression of living in the suburbs of any city. The only time we get a sense of the vastness of Keihanshin is when we take the train into the center or go over to Kobe. The apartments, houses, and businesses go on endlessly.

Our goal yesterday was to get to the top of the Umeda Sky Building. This is an Osaka landmark, built by Toshiba in 1993. During the heady real estate boom of the late 1980s they had originally wanted 4 interconnected towers, but only built two. In between the two towers at the top, there is an outdoor observatory, an escalator on one of the top floors leading across the open space, and modern sitting area with restaurants and cafes. The views are spectacular. They really helped me see how big Keihanshin really is. It goes on forever with hundreds of skyscrapers, all the way out to the Osaka Bay. Around the Sky Building, there are some parks, wide walkways filled with cafes, restaurants, and shops. It is very pleasant, except when one gets closer to the Umeda train station, as there are too many people for my taste in that station.

The garden next to the Umeda Sky building

We had dinner in the basement floor of restaurants. In Japan, it is common for entire floors of buildings or train stations to be devoted to restaurants and bars. There were probably 20 different restaurants to choose from. We chose an Indian restaurant and it was really good. I recommend a visit to the building. The architecture is interesting, it is a really nice area, and the views, especially at night or at sunset are beautiful. It gives one a good sense of the layout of the city.

Growing up in a small town of 900 people in a very rural and isolated part of northern MIchigan, living in a city that has twice as many people as the state of Michigan, is going to take some getting used to. In some of my previous postings overseas, I have lived in cities of around 2 million (Perth, Santa Cruz, Barranquilla, Belgrade) but never this big.

View looking towards our house – Yodo River in foreground