Farewell Tokyo!

Sumo Wrestlers Need to Go Out Too

This is my last trip to Tokyo, the largest metropolitan area in the world. During my five years in Japan, I’ve visited Tokyo on numerous occasions, both for work and fun. The immense size of the city, both in area and number of people is hard to comprehend. It is a nice place to visit but would not be a good place for me to live. It has a much different vibe than other world cities like London, New York, etc. In many ways, it is much quieter and closed due to the highly rigid and contextual Japanese culture. They do get a lot of tourists, but essentially, Japan is extremely homogenous and it gives the city and nation, a distinctiveness that you do not find in other places.

Akihabara – The Electronics/Manga District of Tokyo

For this visit I stayed in Akihabara, the district famed for electronics and manga/anime. Walking through the streets to my hotel, I passed many young girls dressed in maid or cosplay outfits, advertising various manga-themed restaurants and clubs. There were also many bright lights advertising gaming stuff. I had a quiet night, walking over to Ryogoku kokugikan, the sumo wrestling arena. A grand tournament is taking place there this week. I was rewarded for my efforts by seeing three sumo wrestlers getting a bite to eat in a restaurant district. In Japan they build restaurants and bars often underneath elevated train lines.

Sapia Tower

I love hosting meetings in Tokyo. Kwansei Gakuin University, the foundation that owns our school, rents offices on the 10th floor of Sapia Tower, a huge building that overlooks Tokyo Station. The offices are like a corporate board room and with the luxurious meeting space and huge windows overlooking the city, it gives educators the rare opportunity to see what it would be like to be in the corporate world instead of the non-profit sector. The school heads also appreciate the convenience of meeting steps away from Tokyo Station. Tokyo Station however is only the fourth most busy station in the metro area with “only” over 900,000 passengers daily.

I am leaving Japan next month forever, but will remember fondly my time in the nation’s capital and all of the people I’ve had the opportunity to collaborate with during my five years.

A Night at the Stadium: Japanese Professional Baseball

7th Inning Stretch "Release of the Balloons"
Seventh Inning Stretch

As many of my readers know, my family and I are leaving Japan next month to move to Uzbekistan. I am taking the next 40-some days to enjoy the things I like most about Japan.

I led our school’s “Junior Sabers” baseball club and club supporters to the Kyocera Osaka Dome to watch the Orix Buffaloes host the Seibu Lions of Saitama, Tokyo last night. I appreciate baseball and am trying to instill this in the students and my children. It was a raucous night, with the Lions defeating the Buffaloes, 7-5 in 10 innings. The game entertained us with home runs, spectacular plays in the field, plenty of baserunners and the outcome was in doubt until the very end. The game provided many “teachable moments” for the students regarding the rules and strategies of baseball. It is truly satisfying to teach young people and give them new experiences. Even better, my daughter Ocean is on the team and my son Owen is assisting me in the coaching. I think I accomplished my goal of inspiring the students to enjoy baseball more.

Ocean and Dad

I would like to thank the Orix Buffaloes for their hospitality. They gave us a good deal on tickets, we received a gift packet upon arrival and we had excellent seats on the first line for 1,100 yen ($10). Attending a professional baseball game in Japan is an engaging experience and much different atmosphere to that of the USA. Japanese fans are soccer-like in their passion at the stadium. A highlight is the release of balloons during the seventh inning stretch. This is a tradition in many stadiums in the league. Japanese baseball is considered “4A” meaning better than the top level of minor league baseball but below the Major League Baseball. Ocean’s favorite player was DH Stefen Romero for the Buffaloes. He hit a homerun and also had a couple other hits. He is your typical foreign player here. Romero was the minor league player of the year for the Seattle Mariners, but couldn’t make the MLB roster for the Mariners. He played briefly for one season before being traded to the Orioles. Romero has been very good for the Buffaloes are two years ago, signed a 3-year contract for 2.5 million dollars a year. Not bad for someone who had a “cup of coffee” in the MLB. The other type of foreigner is like former Detroit Tiger Phil Coke. He helped the Tigers win the American League Pennant in 2012 and pitched well in the World Series. After several seasons bouncing from team-to-team in the MLB, he ended up pitching for Orix in 2016.

Panorama View of the Game (note Ocean on both sides of the picture!)

The Orix Buffaloes are famous for being the initial club of Ichiro Suzuki. He led them to the Japan Series title in 1996 when they were the “Blue Wave” The Buffaloes formed with the merger of Kobe’s Orix Blue Wave and Osaka’s Kintetsu Buffaloes in 2004. They are perennially losers and Orix, a financial group from Tokyo, is not a good owner for a baseball club. The Buffaloes are once again in last place in the Pacific League this year.

Ocean and Owen Outside the Osaka Dome

I’ve had many enjoyable moments with my children attending a couple games every year of the Orix Buffaloes or Hanshin Tigers, the two Kansai teams. I did not get to experience a championship in my 5 years here sadly, but will continue to follow the teams, especially the Tigers and hopefully, they will finally win another title, being shut out since 1985.

The OIS Junior Sabers Baseball Club in the Dome! Go Orix!

Vaclav Smil on Climate Change

Dr. Smil Introduces His Book to Bill Gates

Climate change has been on my mind a lot lately. The topic seems to be in the media recently especially with the publication of Bill McKibben’s Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? and David Wallace-Wells’s The Uninhabitable Earth. I am planning to read both of them. 

A colleague referred me to another book on the subject, Harvesting the Biosphere: What We Have Taken from Natureby retired University of Manitoba professor, Vaclav Smil. Smil is a polymath and the 2013 book has an academic tone being published by MIT Press. I skimmed through most of the initial chapters that define the topic and read in depth the final chapters look to the future. Bill Gates is a big fan of his and after reading his book and watching a few of his videos, I am too!

The term “harvesting the biosphere” refers to humanity using the earth to survive. This includes agriculture, mining, fishing, animal husbandry, construction, transportation, etc. Humanity has transformed the planet “…no species has been able to transform the Earth in such a multitude of ways and on such a scale as Homo sapiens. 

Human Diet

The changes have been so profound and because of the short lifespans of humans, we are not conscious of them. Dr. Smil puts these changes in perspective looking at the problem in a systems and statistical manner. Below are my notes from my reading:

  • Humans have reduced the biosphere’s phytomass (all plants, including photosynthetic plankton) by 35-40% through the invention of agriculture. This includes almost 100% of the best soils in large, populated nations and in 2010, farms occupied 12% of all ice-free land. 
  • Population growth will put a big strain on the earth’s resources. Growth has slowed since its 2% peak in the 1960s and its annual addition of 90 million people annually in the 1980s. UN estimates that we will pass the 10 billion mark in the 21st century. From 1900 to 2000, total human biomass has increased 3.7 times. This is not only in numbers, but the sizes of individuals. For example, the average 20-year old male in Japan in 1900 weighed 53 kg, but in 2000, the average is 65.4 kg. Smil also takes 1into account when quantifying human biomass by assigning a greater average to the USA (33% obesity rate in 2000) than Japan (3.9% obesity rate). The mean weight for the 6.1 billion humans in 2000 was 50 kg. 
  • Animal husbandry also has severely transformed the planet. There are 4.3 billion domesticated animals including 1.65 billion cattle. This has played a part in the reduction of Earth’s wild fauna. 
  • Smil and others are against biofuels because it contributes to increased loss of forests. 
  • I was surprised about Smil’s focus on household food waste because I didn’t know the scale of the problem. Waste in the USA increased from 28% of total food supply in 1974 to 40% in 2004. UK households waste 31% and even Japan, the least wasteful affluent country, loses 25% of its food supply. This food waste not only occurs at homes, but in the harvesting and distribution of food. This is unacceptable, especially in light of obesity rates and the over indulgence of citizens in affluent countries. I would like for us to reduce waste in our school cafeteria.
  • He is pessimistic on future production of the oceans. Acidification, higher temperatures and over-harvesting have permanently decreased ocean productivity. 

Smil’s prescription for minimizing human claims on the biosphere’s productivity are as follows:

  1. Stabilize population at < 9 billion
  2. Optimize agriculture thru best practices including crop rotations instead of monoculture
  3. Average food requirements per capital should be limited levels that support healthy and long lives instead of excessive carnivore and obesity-inducing diets.
  4. Pay more attention to post harvest food losses and household food waste.
  5. Develop staple grain crops that fix nitrogen.
  6. Properly manage forests and live within production capacities of forests for wood output. 
  7. Wood demand should be set by maintaining sensible material comforts rather than striving to perpetuate extravagant consumption delivered in “wasteful throw-away packaging”.  In one of his videos, he mentions the $20,000 bathroom re-model that many North Americans go through. Who needs a $20,000 bathroom for a toilet, bathing and grooming?
  8. It may be unrealistic, but to share resources to reduce existing inter- and intranational inequalities. 
  9. Support research leading to new tree cultivars that combine superior productivity with hardiness. 

I also liked that he included the benefits from increased CO2 in the atmosphere and increased temperatures in his analysis of climate change. Will these increase plant productivity? Will the intake of carbon by forests increase or decrease? How will a warmer and more acidic ocean impact marine phytoplankton? 

I will be watching his videos and looking into further publications from him.

My Impressions of Busan, Korea

High Rise Apartments on Haeundae Beach

This is my third trip to Korea (outside of airports) and first time to Korea’s second city, Busan. It is famous for its port, the largest in Korea and fifth busiest in the world. The 3.6 million inhabitants are squeezed in many huge apartment blocks between the steep green hills and the twisting bays of the Sea of Japan. It is only 120 miles from Honshu, the main island of Japan.

I was here for a meeting of the Association of International Schools in Asia athletic conference. We meet annually to review the year and decide on changes for the following year (s). Our hotel was near the largest beach in Busan, Haeundae Beach, the trendy tourist beach and regarded as the “best” in Korea. There were a lot of tourists, mostly Chinese and Korean, but I heard a lot of Russian too. There were three cruise ships in the port and it is a regular stop for cruises in this part of Asia.

The old and new of Busan

I always compare Korea to my current residence of Japan. In talking with a long-time foreign resident of Korea and Japan, he described Korea as a culture between China and Japan, but closer to China. I 100% agree with him. It is much louder and “grittier” than the quiet and refined Japan. I appreciate Korea’s connectivity – it may have the largest and fastest, free public wireless network in the world! Fantastic!

I only stayed for two nights but did get the opportunity to walk around the beach front and explore the Haeundae part of the city. The many stalls displaying aquariums live hagfish, a “slime-producing, eel-shaped marine fish” did not look appetizing, but were fascinating to watch. The old women in the morning selling the fishermen’s catch was the highlight of my run along the seas side. It felt a bit like Florida mixed with the Mediterranean, with many bars, restaurants and high rise apartments near the beach.

Haeundae Beach

Busan is a pleasant city, but with all of East Asia, the population density is too much for my taste. We had a good night out at a Korean BBQ restaurant and walking around soaking in the hustle and bustle of Haeundae Beach. I have enjoyed my visits to South Korea and I respect what the infrastructure and standard of living the Koreans have built. They had a rough time with not only the occupation of Japan and World War II, but also immediately followed by the Korean War which has not technically ended. It is interesting to consider the future of North Korea, China, Japan and South Korea. I wish them peace and prosperity.

Seafood Market
Haeundae Beach, Busan Korea
Women selling their catch in the morning

Our Beautiful Ocean

Official Photo from the April 19, 2019 OIS Dance

I am catching up on blogging this weekend and will try to post some recent events in the life of our family. It was with a bit of sadness that we attended our last elementary dance last month. Our daughter Ocean is the last of our children to finish elementary school and both Nadia and I can’t believe that we are through this phase in our lives. The grade 4/5 parent-student dance is a much anticipated event for our children. Ocean and her friends were so excited to dress up and attend the event.

Ocean and I walk together in front of the school.

School dances are a foreign concept in Japan. It is not in the culture for schools to hold dances like in international and American schools. Some of the local families are still getting used to the concept. You can really see the maturity differences between boys and girls at this event. The girls are much more poised and social, while the boys do not have a clue.

Alona, Elina, Yuka, Ocean, Kanon, Elen and Clara

We made the best of it and Nadia and I danced, although I was the only dad to get out onto the floor. Ocean had so much fun dancing with her friends. They are such a friendly group of girls. It is that time of year and we are looking forward to all of the end-of-year school events.

Spring Has Arrived!

Ocean and Oliver

Warm temperatures, flowers galore and sunny blue skies mark the arrival of spring after a long and cold winter. I spent as much time as I could outside the past two days. It is hard to be in a bad mood with such perfect days as this weekend.

I took Ocean and Oliver to get some photos done for our Uzbek visas. Our neighborhood of Onohara Nishi is so pleasant. With the sun setting and us laughing and talking, I just didn’t want the moment to end. It is such a privilege to be a father and I love my children so much. They are so funny and entertaining for me.

The path to school

Japan has thousands of narrow walking paths between houses. The path above leads from our house to Onohara Park #4 and our school. The neighbors maintain the path, picking up leaves, planting flowers, etc. It makes for a delightful commute to and from school. I am trying to savor the best of Japan as we only have 2 and 1/2 months left here before we leave forever.

Bike Ride in the Minoh Hills

My current obsession is cycling. I can’t get enough of it! I would bike for hours every day if I could. I went for a 25 kilometer ride on Saturday morning. The fresh air, blue skies and fresh, new green leaves made for an exhilarating ride through the Minoh Quasi National Park. My distances are getting longer and my times are getting shorter. Love, love, love biking and Japan is a perfect country for it. There is always a risk when cycling, but the drivers here are courteous and cautious, the roads are in mint condition and there are many bike lanes. I don’t think I will find better cycling conditions anywhere.

Ocean in front of the Onohara Family Mart

Of course, we had to make a stop at a conbini a staple of Japan. It seems like 1 of every 5 times I leave the house, I end up at some time in a convenience store. Today we needed passport photos and cold drinks.

Other activities this weekend were a 5 kilometer run with Nadia, the grade 4-5 dance and a passover celebration with friends. I will be blogging more about them soon.

Technology, Ecology & Art: Garbage Incineration in Japan

Our group in the Hundertwasser Lobby

Yesterday our family visited the Maishima Incineration Plant located near the port of Osaka. Japan is the world leader in burning garbage to produce electricity. Land is precious in this crowded island nation, and landfills are not a good option.

The plant deals with garbage in three ways. Most waste is burned at extremely hot temperatures. The heat is converted to electricity through steam and turbines. Most of the electricity goes to power the plant itself, but the excess electricity is sold back to the municipal electrical grid. The leftover ash is used in land reclamation projects or converted to bricks to pave roads and sidewalks. Japan and in many other countries in Asia, artificial islands are quite common near the coasts of cities. In fact, the main international airport, Kansai International Airport (KIX) is an artificial island.

Large items, such as furniture, bicycles, etc. goes through a different process. The recyclable metals, iron and aluminum are converted to pellets and sent to recycling plants. The leftovers are either crushed into small blocks or burned. The 15 cm – 40 cm blocks are used with ash in land reclamation projects.

Mom and Owen

Incineration plants started in the 1990s and were found to emit toxins into the environment. Today, much of the plants are devoted to cleaning by-products before they are released.

Incineration plants are common in Japan. The Maishima plant is one of six in the Osaka metropolitan area. It handles around 900 tonnes of waste per day. The guide estimated that Osaka disposes approximately 36,000 tonnes per day. With a growing world population living at a higher standard of living than ever before, protecting the planet is an increased concern of mine. I am worried about climate change and the quality of life on earth being lessened by our wasteful lifestyles. I agree it is good to burn garbage instead of just burying it, but it would be better to reduce the amount of waste generated in our lives.

Control Room

On a small level, I have been tracking the waste generation of our family. We recycle glass, metal and paper through the excellent Minoh city recycling program. I’ve started to compost our vegetable matter at school. This has reduced our waste significantly. However, a big problem is packaging. The amount of plastic used to protect, transport and display products is crazy. As a consumer, it is impossible to escape!

View of facade from rooftop garden

What make the Maishima unique is the architecture of the plant. City officials commissions the Austrian/New Zealand artist and architect, Friednesreich Hundertwasser to improve the facade of the plant. Hundertwasser was a fascinating artist and a man ahead of his time. His mother was Jewish and father German, and he escaped death by hidingbill his maternal origins. He became quite a famous architect and applied artist after World War II. Hundertwasser detested straight lines and the grey monotony of city buildings. He was also one of the first architects to incorporate nature in his buildings and believed that planting trees in cities, helped well-being. We visited his famous apartment block in Vienna years ago. Hundertwasser was married to a Japanese women in the 1960s which may be the connection to Japan.

Compared to most of the boring, industrial design of buildings in Japan, I am happy that they invested in making it beautiful. It was uplifting to walk around the roof top garden and it has become of tourist destination and raised awareness of sustainability. Hundertwasser thought the project brought “technology, ecology and art in harmony” and I have to agree!