Winter Wonderland!

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I’ve discovered the Hira Mountains during this holiday break and continue to explore them. It is the closest snow to us in Osaka (90-minute drive) and I love hiking, so I’ve been “encouraging” family and friends to join me. Moving in the cold white beauty of a forest in December refreshes my soul. They say pleasures are harder to find as one ages, but our ascent/descent to Gotenyama (Goten Mountain) was not quite rapture, but pure contentment!

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The Hira Mountain range is only 15 kilometers in length and 10 kilometers at its widest point. The highest point is Mount Bunagatake which is 1,214 meters (3,984 ft). They abut the eastern shore of Lake Biwa. Despite being a small range, in winter they are extremely beautiful and one of my favorite places in Japan.

My nephew and sister-in-law are visiting and along with another family of 6 people, I led a large party of winter explorers up the steep trail leaving the village of Bomura. Leaving portions of our group at two points along the way, Owen, Evan and I made it to Goten Yama, one of the landmarks of the range. As one climbed, the snow got deeper. The Japanese love hiking, so there were plenty of crampons and boots to pank the snow trail. Note to reader, the term “pank” means to tightly pack down snow and is from the regional dialect of my home on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

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I am a minimalist by nature and when I am walking in the forest, I do not like a lot of gear. My Nike running shoes and tracksuit served me well as I used layers of clothes to keep warm, but flexible. Hikers in Japan love the gear, so everyone we ran into had poles, crampons, heavy boots, waterproof suits and some even helmets. We got over the difficulty of descending the steep, snow-covered slopes by sliding down on our backsides or hopping through the snow.

The kids enjoyed the outing! Nadia prepared delicious sandwiches, that went well with hot chocolate. Between throwing snowballs and careening down the slopes on their bellies, I heard lots of laughter. Even Nadia had fun, feeling at ease with more time in the winter mountains and having the support of friends.

Hiking the Hira Mountains

 

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The Snow of the Hira Mountains

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Winter means snow to me and growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, a place of long, snowy winters. Whenever I am in the snow, it brings me back to my childhood. Thankfully Osaka, which has a similar climate to Atlanta, Georgia and rarely gets snow, is close to the Hira Mountains. I took Oliver and Owen up for an afternoon of snowball fights and walking in the quiet woods. It is so refreshing and relaxing at the same time.

We had so much fun and it was one of those days I won’t forget. Once again, we didn’t make it to the top of Bun Ga Take, the 4,000-foot peak in the Hira range. The snow was too deep and we got off to a late start. We will try again tomorrow and leave in the morning.

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Kralovec Christmas 2017

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Midnight Christmas Eve

We had a really nice family Christmas! The kids don’t believe in Santa anymore, but it was still fun. They stayed up until midnight on Christmas Eve, honoring Nadia’s tradition of Latin America. They each got to open one gift and they saved the rest for the next day.

We had Christmas dinner over at the Tsubaki residence in our neighborhood. They organized games for the kids and we especially liked the “Minute to Win It”. There was plenty of food and friends and that is what Christmas is all about! We missed our extended family in the USA, Singapore and Bolivia.

I’ve immensely enjoyed playing basketball with the kids. This video below is of Owen and Oliver, but today, Ocean got into the act and played as well. She has athletic talent and is a really good shooter and passer. She could be the best athlete of the three children. Anyway, I just like getting out and playing with them. I think Owen has surpassed me athletically. He is now 15 years old and I am 50. I am feeling my age and his strength and speed going past me. He is also taller than me! No fair! Oliver has been going out with us every day and giving it a go. He is such a funny character.

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpQWowLwy8g

Family Journal: Mount Bunagatake

 

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Let it Snow! 

 

Yesterday visited the beautiful Hira Mountains, a small range located on the western shore of Lake Biwa. It took us about 2 hours to reach the Jinjishu temple, in the hamlet of Bomura. The goal was a winter hike to the snow line. As you can see, we managed to get plenty of snow in an attempt to raise Christmas cheer.

The trailhead to Mount Bunagatake, the highest peak in the range (3,984 ft / 1,214 m) just past the temple, next to a massive, old sugi (Japanese cedar) tree. Unfortunately, the family was not in the mood for a 40-minute steep climb to start the walk. I was following the Lonely Planet’s (2009) Hiking in Japan guide which gave an accurate description of the hike. I’ve learned their definition of steep, really means steep. It was muddy and snow-covered in many places, lowering morale even more for the female and younger members of the Kralovec family.

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I didn’t know what to expect as it was my first time in the area. There still is a couple of small ski resorts open, although, with global warming, several have closed. It has been a cold winter so far, so I should have expected snow. We got off to a late start because it is difficult to get the family out of bed in the morning, so I didn’t expect us to get far with this being the winter solstice. We successfully conquered the first steep section but stopped before attacking the next 10-minute steep climb. It was fun to make a snowman and play in the snow at the top of the first ridge.

I really want to go back and make it to the summit of Bunagatake. Next time we will definitely arrive earlier and dress warmer. It would have been good to have a thermos of hot chocolate and sandwiches, so some more preparation is needed.

The beauty of Hira Mountains was first depicted 500 years ago in the Eight Views of Omi (Omi province is now the Shiga prefecture). The “Evening Snow at Hira” is shown below. You can see the southern part of Lake Biwa, a freshwater lake north of Osaka. The city of Otsu on the shores has made the foreground an urban scene today, but the mountains are still beautiful!

 

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Evening snow at Hira (比良の暮雪)

 

 

Family Journal: December 20, 2017

 

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Kralovec family at the bar of Nick & Renee’s 

I am really enjoying the holidays. Yesterday (Wednesday) morning was mostly devoted to work, with a Skype meeting, catching up with emails and work with a colleague on our accreditation report.

 

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Bamboo forest on the trail behind our school 

 

In the afternoon I went for a walk/run with Nadia. My whole body was sore from a huge exercise day on Tuesday. I need to slowly build up my body instead of diving right in. It is amazing how fast you lose physical fitness in your 50s. The late afternoon and early evening was devoted to Christmas shopping for the kids. Nadia did sensational work in wrapping the presents and our tree looks ready for the season with them underneath.

We finished the day by taking the kids to Nick & Renee’s, an American hamburger and fries place in the neighboring suburb of Toyonaka.

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On Tuesday, Owen had a dentist appointment downtown. Oliver and I accompanied him and we had a lot of laughs, riding the subway and then going to Burger King afterward. The kids are at such a good age right now. It is like hanging out with friends.

 

Keeping Warm: Public Bathhouses

 

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Oliver and Owen pose at the entrance of the onsen

Last night I took the boys to the local public bathhouse, here in Kansai known as an onsen. Onsens are defined as a bathhouse built around geothermally heated, natural spring waters. In Japan, sentoo use heated tap water, but in Kansai, all baths, natural or artificial, are known as onsens. They used to be more popular, but as Japan modernized, more people had private bathrooms, and there was a lack of need public bathhouses.

They are similar to a hotel resort but lack a large swimming pool. We went to the closest onsen to our house, located in the mini-mall, Bb’s. The onsen at Bb’s features a huge sauna, a salt steam room, many different temperatures of baths, some with jets, others still. There is an outdoor section, surrounded by lighted bamboo forests. It has a capacity for 50-100 people.

Temperatures this winter have been near freezing so the sauna/hot tub is so refreshing. There are 4 big onsens near our house and I will try to go to all of them this winter.

 

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Tickets cost 650-750 Yen. ($5.50)

 

The unusual characteristic of onsens in Japan is that people bathe in the nude, and there are sections for men and women. At first, it is strange, but one learns to avert their eyes, strategically use the hand towels provided. The boys were nervous when we went to our first onsen at a hotel when we arrived to Japan in 2014, but they have since gotten used to it. The often go with their buddies after sports practices or school events.

I like the communal nature of the onsen and that here in Japan, there is nothing perverted about public nude bathing. Families go to onsens, even bringing their young daughters (age below 5) to the male section and there is no fear of weirdos.

Onsen etiquette dictates that before entering the pools, it is required to bathe in the shower area. These are Japanese-style, with a small stool provided. It is funny that most onsens ban tattoos, which are culturally not acceptable. This dates back to the idea that gangsters (yakuza) sport tattoos. As more tourists visit Japan, this restriction is slowly going away, with about half of public baths now allowing them. As you can see in the sign below, Bb’s bans tattoos. Expatriates with small tattoos can cover them with a band-aid or tape and they will be OK.

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Sorry, no tattoos allowed!

As I am now a middle-aged man, comfort is key. In the winter, a hot bath is vital to keeping me comfortable, so I am often preparing a bath at home. However, it is nice to go out into the cold and go to the onsen. I love spending time with my sons and it is a fun outing. I am looking forward to more visits this winter. I’ll give my definitive guide to Minoh area onsens in a future blog post.

 

 

Minoo, Japan Makes International News

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Minoh is famous for its monkeys

I came across this article on National Public Radio which also appeared in London’s The Guardian, that featured the observations of field biologists here in my city of Minoh (or Minoo) Japan. I found it hilarious that we are now world-renowned for “randy” monkeys. Researchers from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, documented female Japanese Macaques (referred to popularly as “snow monkeys”) rubbing themselves on the backs of Sika Deer. One of the author’s of study speculates that this is a learned behavior and when adolescent female monkeys do not have access to male monkeys, they resort to the backs of deer. The male deer are not bothered by the interaction.

On Sunday I visited the Minoh Brewery, a small craft beer business that brews some of the best beer I’ve ever tasted. Their logo features a monkey which reflects that the city of Minoh is known for the Minoh Quasi National Park, with its colorful autumn leaves, a stunning waterfall and wildlife such as deer, wild boar and monkeys.

Below is video from the scientists. I think it is great that they are reaching out to popular culture and taking their findings to the general public.