Blueberries and Golf

We had a classic mid-July summer day in “the valley”. We drove north down the mountain towards the Susquehanna River to Nescopeck. The area consists of beautiful farms, forested hills, gigantic homes with finely manicured lawns, dilapidated barns and even a nuclear plant. It was a picture-perfect day with bright sun, blue skies and low humidity. Nadia loved our stop at Stemmrich Blueberry Farm. We picked three buckets full of blueberries for under $20.

Blueberries are from the Heath Family and the Vaccinium genus are berry-producing shrubs like cranberries and lingonberries. They thrive in acidic soils. Blueberries are produced commercially in several US states including Washington, Oregon, Michigan, New Jersey, etc.

To placate the kids, we had a round of mini-golf and a bit of lunch. I won with 47 (3 under par), Owen had 50, Ocean 51, and Nadia/Oliver 68.

Nadia tees off

I am pro-nuclear power because it does not add to climate change by emitting carbons. However, the visual aspect of the cooling towers and long-term storage of spent fuel rods would concern me. We drove closer to the river so I could get a better look at the Susquehanna Steam Electric Station. It began producing electricity back in 1983 and employs over 1,000 people.

The Cooling Towers of the Power Plant

Last Man in Russia by Oliver Bullough

I was considering reading British author Oliver Bullough’s latest book, Moneyland, about tax havens and where corrupt people hide their money, but instead read an older book by him. Last Man in Russia traces the life of Orthodox priest, Dmitry Dudko while elaborating on the history and current state of Russia, circa 2013.

Perm #36 Gulag (courtesy of Ilya Buyanovskiy)

I am taking away a better sense of the “Gulag” or Siberian prison system during Soviet times, which continued all the way through the 1980s. I thought it ended with Stalin. Bullough travels to some of these outposts in both summer and winter. It must have been really tough going to be in a labor camp in those conditions.

He also portrays Russia as a pretty grim place. Rampant alcoholism, declining birth rate, depopulation of rural towns, mistrust in the government, etc. From the Russians I know in Japan, they admire Putin and I thought he was popular, but Bullough talks with a lot of dissidents and people unsatisfied with the country.

Reverend Dudko had an interesting life and a surprising turn which I won’t spoil for readers. I wonder why he picked such an obscure character. He describes going to the important places of Dudko’s life and tracing his steps from a young dissident priest to dying in 2004. His life mirrors the Soviet Union and serves as a metaphor for that form of government.

I am really interested in all things Russia right now due to my moving to Uzbekistan later this month.

New York Times review

Telegraph review

Knoebels Amusement Resort

IMG_0429

The kids had a pleasant day at Knoebels (pronounced kuh-no-belz) Amusement Resort in nearby Elysburg, Pennsylvania yesterday. It is the oldest free admission family-owned amusement park in the USA. After our Universal Studios Japan (USJ) experiences, it was a much more relaxed, enjoyable and cheaper than the expensive and over-crowded USJ.

It gave the kids a taste of Americana culture. The park is set in a beautiful wooded valley and with free parking and admission and tickets for rides ranging from $1.50 – $3.00, there was a wide socio-economic variety of people. It felt like a bit of old-fashioned Americana. Ocean went on 20 rides and Owen went on 18 rides. In the afternoon, the wait times for rides was very short (5-10 minutes). I even did a roller coaster, The Twister. There are three big roller coasters, many smaller rides, a water park with log ride, games, food, entertainment, etc. It felt like a much bigger Iron County Fair that I used to go to as a kid growing up in Michigan, but maintaining that intimate, travelling carnival-like atmosphere.

Stratos Fear Ride
Stratos Fear

We passed some beautiful scenery on the way there and back. The Pennsylvania forested mountains being cut by rivers in the back ground and beautiful Pennsylvania Dutch farms in the foreground. The weather was almost perfect with lots of sunshine and not too hot.

A couple of observations about life here that really stand out coming from Japan. The conditions of the roads are much worse than the gold standards of Japan. There are many potholes, cracks, and uncared for shoulders. The USA really needs to invest in infrastructure projects. I also notice the size of people here. We were guessing the percentage of obesity and put it at between 1/3 and 1/2 of Pennsylvanian citizens. In looking up the official rate, I see Pennsylvania is ranked #24 with a 31.6 obesity rate. In Japan it is rare to see someone overweight, so it is a bit shocking coming here. It makes me concerned about the future of American health care, as the rate is increasing. A national exercise and healthy eating campaign should be started immediately. Supporting ways for people to eat less, eat healthier and exercise more needs to be a priority. I was surprised to see rentals of motorized wheelchairs for non-handicapped, non-elderly adults so common. They even had a shuttle taking people the 500 meters or so to the parking lot.

Ocean

Ricketts Glen Waterfalls Hike

Ocean near Ganoga Falls

My exploration of the Appalachians continued yesterday by a gorgeous hike through Ricketts Glen. In this part of Pennsylvania, a ravine is known as a glen. The hike mostly followed Kitchen Creek, a river that flows down the Allegheny Front (the divide that separates the Mississippi and Chesapeake Bay water sheds) through 23 named waterfalls. I have hike to many waterfalls before in my home state of Michigan and I have never seen so many falls in such close proximity. The approximately 4 mile loop of the Falls Trail and Highland Trail was a good length for a family, with some members not very interested in hiking.

Oliver and Owen climbing above Mohawk Falls

The area is named Civil War colonel R. Bruce Ricketts. He made a fortune as a huge land owner through lumber, clear-cutting much of the area except the area around the ravines. There are many old-growth trees along the hike. Old trees are sacred to me and seeing the 300-year old behemoths is awesome. Ricketts’ ancestors gradually sold pieces of his properties to the Pennsylvania State Games Lands. Eventually conservations became involved after World War II and it became the Ricketts Glen State Park. Ricketts also put in three dams and today swimmers and boaters enjoy Lake Jean, named after one of his daughters.

The king of the waterfalls is 94-foot high Ganoga Falls. Many of the falls on the trail are named after Native American tribes, but the origin of Ganoga is unknown. The second highest falls are “only” 61 feet high, so Ganoga stands out. All of the waterfalls are beautiful in their own right and all of them would be enough to make a hike worth seeing. Walking by so many of them is incredible and I recommend the trail. I see why it is so popular.

Nadia posing in front of Ganoga Falls

Farewell Japan!

Our happy family home for 5 years

My family and I are leaving Japan after 5 years. This post is a reflection on life in Japan and my likes and dislikes about the country and culture. Living a global nomadic life, I’ve lived in many different countries and realized that every place has things that I like about it and things I dislike. Overall, the Japanese treated my family kindly and we will have fond memories of our time here. 

Japan is interesting because it is distinct. With increased connectivity of communication and transportation, many places around the world are becoming more similar, especially in richer nations. Japan, however, is like no other place in the world. I think this is because it was closed off from the outside world for over 200 years until the mid-19th century. The isolation enabled the culture to develop independently of others. The second factor is the homogenous population. Japan does not allow immigration at any scale, so ideas brought by residents is limited. We were temporary residents working for a Japanese foundation and not immigrants. There are very few foreigners living in Japan than other countries. 

Society is impacted greatly by geography. Japan is a crowded island. The area of the islands of Japan are about the size of the state of California. There are 40 million Californians, compared to the 127 million Japanese. Taking into account the mountainous landscape of Japan’s location on the Pacific ring-of-fire, the amount of suitable living space is limited. In order to make the society function smoothly in this densely populated nation, the behavior of individuals needs to be strictly controlled through laws, rules and etiquette. For example, when I purchased a car, I needed a certificate stating I had an available parking space from my landlord. Often the police will come and inspect the address on the certificate to verify that a space actually exists and is of proper size. The narrow streets do not allow for street parking. I got caught parking overnight in front of our home and the fine was 15,000 Yen ($140 USD). In a place with more space, parking would not be so tightly controlled.  

Farewell – Kita Senri Station

Japan is the oldest country in the world demographically. Approximately half a million more citizens are dying each year than are being born here. As with many developed nations, the birth rate has fallen and the government is desperate for Japanese women to have more children. However, in practice, they do not make it easy, with limited and expensive day care, high educational expenses and many jobs for young people are low-paying. The government is worried because of the increasing costs of health care and pensions for its elderly. With less young people entering the work force, there is more pressure on the government to fund these programs. That is the major reason we left Japan: the high tax burden. Around 50% of our income was taxed and that did not include sales taxes, highway tolls and various fees charged for government services. Unlike the government, I am in favor of depopulation here. There are too many people and if they do not allow major immigration, Japan will have a population around 50 million by 2100. That sounds like a reasonable population density to me! The challenge will be to pay for taking care of the big demographic layer of +60 year olds as they age and die. 

For every aspect of Japan that I like, there is a side of it I don’t like. Regarding taxes, it drives foreign teachers with children out of the country, but the high taxes do provide a world-class infrastructure of safety. One rarely sees a pot hole on a road in Japan. An ambulance or fire truck will be at an emergency in literally minutes. A small fire at our school had a dozen fire and emergency vehicles at the scene very quickly. If you get in trouble, the system here will save you. That gives residents a peace of mind. After a few days here in the USA, that is one of the first things I notice is the poor condition of the roads. 

The aspect I loved the most in Japan was the ability to ride my bicycle anywhere safely. There are a lot of pedestrians and cyclists, both for recreation and just getting one’s daily errands completed. Drivers are courteous and well-trained to be aware of bikes and walkers. The roads and sidewalks are also in mint condition. I biked to all of my meetings at the university from my school, 19 kilometers away. I rode mostly on the busy 171 street and never had even a close call with a vehicle. I really got into cycling while here and it gave me unmeasurable pleasure to cycle through the landscapes of Kansai, both urban and rural. I don’t think I’ll ever have a better place to cycle. 

Osaka is the eating capital of Japan and the quality, variety and distinctiveness of Japanese cuisine is outstanding! I ate the best seafood I’ll most like ever have. There were so many different species of fish and marine organisms, from winter conger eel, to tuna sushi to roasted squid on a stick. I even tried whale during my time living in here (not great). I developed my palette for seafood and learned to use chop sticks comfortably. 

Everyone takes their job seriously in Japan and tries their best, regardless of how much they earn or how prestigious the position is perceived. It is really nice when the convenience store or parking attendant goes out of their way to make sure you receive the best service. The Japanese pay attention to the details and one can be assured that all options will be considered when you are getting a service, which is especially nice when at the dentist or at the hospital. The flip side of this is people stick to procedures, checklists, etc. and when the occasional out-of-the-box thinking is required, it will not happen. 

One of my goals in moving to Japan was to experience the idea of the group being more important than the individual. Working in affluent schools, people with wealth do not flaunt it. It was refreshing to see so much modesty in a culture and people thinking about the feelings of others. At times this is suffocating however, and I am not sure if it is healthy not to be able to express oneself freely. Related to this is the closed and quiet nature of Japan. We missed the warm, open and loud relationships of Latin America and southern Eastern Europe. I didn’t miss open conflict with people, but on the reverse of that, I did miss easily connecting with people. Part of it was language. 

The city of Minoh was absolutely a great place to live. Located so close to the Minoh Quasi National Park was the key for me. I loved having access to forest and nature minutes away, especially in a metropolitan area of 18-20 million people. The suburb was less crowded than other areas of the city, with plenty of parks and green areas. Our home was huge according to Japan standards, and for me, I liked having the kids so close to us. They couldn’t hide far away on the other side of the house. I didn’t like the lack of insulation and urge the Japan construction industry to make thicker walls and windows. The winter is too long and too cold and energy costs too much not to have insulation. Heating room-by-room, walking around cold or paying exorbitant utilities trying to heat the entire house to a comfortable temperature. 

I also gained an understanding of the power of natural disasters. I’ll never forget the morning of June 18 when 15 kilometers away, a quake of 6.1 struck. One needs to experience the sounds and sensations of the earth moving to appreciate the force of nature. 

It was good for us to experience Asia. Nadia and I always wanted to see what it is like here after a long time in Latin America. Commentators say that this is Asia’s century, and in some ways, early into this century, they are right. There is a hustle and bustle that you don’t feel in other parts of the world, especially in East Asia. The airports are much better and they are more advanced in many ways. My problem with is the over crowding. I missed the wide-open spaces. Traveling to Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo, etc. I could feel the force of humanity, too many people living too close together. 

Thanks Japan for five pleasurable years. I’ll be following the country from afar and wish good fortune to my friends and colleagues. 

A Capitol Fourth: Kralovec Family in DC

Washington Monument

Last evening we walked to the National Mall to enjoy the Independence Day fireworks and festivities. Due to jet lag, we didn’t get out of the hotel until Trump’s speech was almost over. We did see him leave his speech as the presidential motorcade sped past us. The Blue Angels jet fighters also soared over head, which was awesome.

The fireworks were bit of a disappointment. The 89% humidity level of atmosphere, caused a thick cloud of smoke that hid most of the fireworks. I did get one good photo against the Washington Monument. There were thousands of people walking around and enjoying the show. I think fireworks in general are overrated, but I can’t think of a replacement.

Nadia and Oliver pose with military security

It was entertaining to people watch. There were protesters, Trump supporters, slightly insane people, tourists, college kids, etc. The military and police vehicles and personnel were also entertaining. There are a lot of logistics that goes into holding such a large public event.

We walked down to the trendy and expensive District Wharf. This is a new (2018) mile-long development on the Potomac River. Developers and city officials built 14 large buildings in a disused, high crime area on the fringe of the national mall. George Washington always wanted this area to be developed, so the city should be proud that they finally got this going. The complex included restaurants, a large music hall, apartments, hotels and office space. It was nice but crowded and we finally found a place to eat, a bit later than we expected. However, Mi Vida Mexican restaurant did not disappoint and it was some of the best Mexican food I ever had.

Ocean on her scooter

The electronic scooters were a highlight for the kids. We downloaded the app Bird, and with many of the streets blocked to traffic, they were able to race in the streets along the Potomac. I see why they are so popular and I also see why they can be a nuisance.

District Wharf Nightlife

Shenandoah River – Take Me Home

Boys on the river

Almost heaven, West Virginia – Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees – Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country Roads…

Take Me Home, Country Roads, John Denver (1971)

I was thinking about this song as we floated down the peaceful south fork of the Shenandoah River in northern Virginia. Thanks to our friends, Kim and Mark, who is one of the three “River Keepers” of the Shenandoah River watershed, we had a delightful day on the river! Owen and Oliver were in the canoe and the rest of us were in kayaks. Unfortunately, a migraine headache sidelined Ocean and Nadia stayed at home to take care of here. After a delicious BBQ lunch at Mark’s house, we put the boats in upstream and paddled down back to his house.

The water was refreshing on a hot day. It was so nice to see the boys working together in the canoe all day. They looked like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer! Outdoor adventure is so good for teenagers and gets them off their digital devices and into nature. We all had a blast! We saw many grey herons on the water, the pterodactyl of wetlands. I also saw a mother Common Merganser mother call over her ducklings to get away from me as I approached them in a kayak.

Mark’s knowledge, experience and expertise of the river made it all the more enjoyable. He was talking about fighting algae blooms from agricultural and livestock runoff and pointed out Native American fishing weirs as we flowed over them. The weirs were particularly fascinating as most Native American tribes did not have stone monuments as legacies and so this is one thing that they left behind that you can still see today. They used to drive fish into funnels formed by rocks they placed on the river bed.

afternoon view

The water was not flowing very fast and in mid-summer, the depths ranged from a foot to 15 feet, mostly shallow. It is a perfect river for kids to learn to canoe.