Ski Japan

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I just returned from three days of skiing at the Norikura Kogen ski resort in the beautiful “Alps” region of Japan. I was chaperoning a school trip and we used the services of North Star  which specializes in youth groups. The Norikura mountain range is in the Nagano prefecture on the main island of Honshu, pretty close of Tokyo. It is a large state, and it is as far away from the sea one can get in Japan. The 1998 winter olympics were held in Nagano, mostly in another area called Hakuba. 9 of the 12 highest peaks in Japan are found in the prefecture.

Before moving to Japan, I never really thought that Japan would have such great skiing. But it makes sense. The country is mostly mountainous, located far north of the equator and receives plenty of snow thanks to being surrounded by water. Skiing was never a big part of Japanese culture, but in the 1930s, Hannes Schneider introduced lighter skis and bindings to Japan. His family hotel is still running and we are planning to stay there next winter.  After World War II, skiing took off and hundreds of resorts were developed.

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Hannes’s panache probably increased skiing’s popularity in Japan

People are skiing less in Japan today and many of the smaller resorts are closing. I think part of the problem is it is an aging population, skiing is expensive and young people have digital diversions. I made it a point to have my children learn how to ski and experience the sport. Hopefully they can enjoy the sport throughout their lifetime. I love being outdoors all day with my family and it is a great way to be active in the winter. It beats watching computer screens.

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Beautiful conditions at Norikura Ski Resort

I am returning to Nagano prefecture tomorrow with my family for a week of skiing in Shiga Kogen. However, I injured my knee at Norikura on the last day. I was showing off and skiing off trail when I hit a tree. I tried to abort and crashed my knee into the slope and the tree his my inner thigh. A close call. I skied for another hour, but when I got on the bus heading back to North Star, I noticed my knee had swelled. It didn’t really hurt, but today, Sunday, I am still not as mobile as I want to be and it is starting to bruise. I don’t think I tore any ligaments or tendons, but sustained a bad bruise. Nadia is using her Aunt Silvia’s alcohol and salt compress technique to speed healing. It is starting to bruise and the swelling is going down, but just not as fast I would like for it to go. I really want to be ready to ski with the kids on Tuesday.

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OIS Sabers on the Slopes! 

The skiing at Norikura was spectacular! Being mid-week in March, the slopes were almost empty. There were 20 different runs off 8 lifts. There was a mix of groomed and wilder runs and one of the runs had slalom gates which were a blast! It is a drier snow in that part of Nagano, so despite sunshine and warm temperatures, the snow was not icy. It was interested that driving the 40 minutes up the mountain from Matsumoto to the resort, snow appeared only as we neared resort. There was plenty of snow to ski without the need for artificial snow.

I will be looking for one of Japan’s most loved novels, written by Nobel laureate Yasunari Kawabata, “Yukiguni” (snow country), which is set in a snowy town (Yuzawa) in Niigata, which is northeast of Nagano. I’ll be posting from our ski trip in Shiga Kogen.

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Night Patrol in Kamagasaki

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Ocean and other students approach a homeless man

Our school encourages students to develop their passions and interests. My daughter Ocean is a caring little girl and she chose to help the poor and homeless. Yes, there are homeless and poor in Japan. There are not as many as I saw in Los Angeles or New York, two cities with similar populations in the USA. Japan does do a better job of taking care of the disadvantaged in their society, but of course, no society is perfect.

Ocean organized a group of her friends to collect donations for the Sanoh Children’s Center. The center provides a place to supervise and care for children of low income families. Often the parents are working and the center is a home away from home for them. One of the activities the Sannoh Children’s Center is a monthly night patrol to find homeless men and give them food, blankets, heating pads and other essentials.

Ocean ever since she was little, would want to help poor people she saw on the streets. This is an ideal activity for her. The center is located in an old building in a warren of homes and businesses in the Kamagasaki neighborhood of Osaka. It is one of the poorest areas of the city and is in stark contrast to our upscale suburb of Onohara. It is good for the kids to see lower socioeconomic areas and interact with the people who live in those challenging environments. Japan has a much lower crime rate than other countries, so it is fine to walk with children in those streets on a Saturday evening. Due to language barriers, I wish we could do more. The center is accepting donations.

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Ollie and Ocean make rice packets at the center

“The Quiet American” – Graham Greene book review

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I read my second consecutive British expatriate novel set in south east Asia. Burmese Days by George Orwell, is set in 1930s Myanmar while the Quiet American is set in 1950s Vietnam. Graham Greene is one of my favorite authors and his writing style flows beautifully. Like Burmese Days, The Quiet American was a controversial book when it was released.

The main character is Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged reporter for a British newspaper. He is covering the conflict between the French and the communist Vietnamese in the first Indochina War after World War II. The novel predicts the entry of the Americans in Vietnam and its failure. Alden Pile is works as an economic attache at the US Embassy. Both men are in love with a young Vietnamese girl, who is living with Fowler. It is a really good story and gives some good background into the time period and war as all good historical fiction does. Greene has many astute observations about aging, retirement, age differences in relationships and the expatriate lifestyle. Fowler is dreading going back to England to take over as the foreign editor of the paper. The characters represent the different viewpoints of the war, with Americans, British, French, Vietnamese and Chinese perspectives explored.

I will not spoil ending, but my only criticism of the book is the depiction of the detective work in a murder investigation. I don’t believe the murderer would get away with the crime. This does not however, take away from my enjoyment of the book and I highly recommend it. It was made into a movie twice and I would like to see the 2002 film.

Pico Iyer from NPR writes more eloquently about the book. Below is an excerpt from his 2008 review:

What touches me in the book, though, is something even deeper and more personal. The novel asks every one of us what we want from a foreign place, and what we are planning to do with it. It points out that innocence and idealism can claim as many lives as the opposite, fearful cynicism. And it reminds me that the world is much larger than our ideas of it, and how the Vietnamese woman at the book’s center, Phuong, will always remain outside a foreigner’s grasp. It even brings all the pieces of my own background — Asian, English, American — into the same puzzle.

You must read The Quiet American, I tell my friends, because it explains our past, in Southeast Asia, trains light on our present in many places, and perhaps foreshadows our future if we don’t take heed. It spins a heartrending romance and tale of friendship against a backdrop of murder, all the while unfolding a scary political parable. And most of all, it refuses the easy answer: The unquiet Englishman isn’t as tough as he seems, and the blundering American not quite so terrible — or so innocent. Both of them are just the people we might be at different stages of our lives. The Quiet American, in fact, becomes most haunting and profound if you think of it just as a dialogue between one side of Greene — or yourself — and the other. The old in their wisdom, as he writes elsewhere, sometimes envy the folly of the young.

The more I read about Vietnam and meet people from there, the more I want to visit.

 

I’m Street Legal!

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The size of my smile is in direct correlation to the amount of time and stress that went into obtaining my Japan driver license! It was quite the ordeal. In all the countries I lived in, it was always some simple paperwork or an international driving permit would suffice. In Japan, after one year, residents need to obtain a Japanese license.

My first challenge was paperwork. I renewed my Michigan license 46 days before arriving to Japan. The rule states I need to prove I drove 90 days as a licensed driver in the USA. I had to send for my complete driving record from the State of Michigan Secretary of State, showing I received my first license on June 6, 1983, one week after my 16th birthday. I also needed to supply original diplomas of university as evidence I lived in the USA for at least 90 days after June 6, 1983.

The second challenge was the eye test and written test. This was pretty straight forward process and after reading through the Japan Automobile Association book, I scored 8 of 10 on the quiz, needing 7 of 10 to pass. The forms and all information is kindly translated to English, which is nice of the driving center.

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The course!

The final part is the driving test. The driving center for northern Osaka is located in the suburb of Kadoma, which is about an hour away by public transport from our part of Osaka. This is an industrial area close to the Panasonic plant and headquarters.  There is a large administrative building and driving course as you can see in the photo above. The test is only about 5 minutes long, but one needs to do everything right. Things like checking under the car before entering the car, checking mirrors, pumping the brakes, looking both ways, etc. One tiny mistake can result in failure. The average amount of attempts it takes to pass the test is 2.7 according to informal research conducted by the English teachers association of Japan. It is hilarious that adults are treated like beginners and actually fail a simple driving test. I rented out the course for an hour on a Saturday to practice so I felt confident, but I was extremely nervous.

I failed the first time. I think the instructor wanted to pass me but the bumper of the car hit one of the yellow poles you see in the photo. It was in the “crank turn” section of the course, almost near the end. The other driver in the car with me also failed by driving over a curb on the “s-curve” portion so I didn’t feel so bad. On the second attempt, I passed! I did have to stop and back up twice in the turning sections. The instructor only criticized my hands while turning, they needed to stay on the wheel more.

In reflecting upon the experience, I think the experience made me more aware of pedestrians and cyclists which is good. There are lots of people in the streets in Japan and as a cyclist myself, want drivers to be aware of us. Still over 400 cyclists/pedestrians are killed by getting hit by cars in Japan. That is a tragedy that people and the media do not talk about much. Self-driving cars can’t come fast enough in my opinion! I was annoyed at the silliness of the paperwork, especially providing evidence that a 49 year old man drove for 90 days in the country of his passport. The Kadoma driving center is such an odd place. It is a doctoral study in sociology waiting to happen. Japanese drivers face the same amount of testing and paperwork as foreigners. The culture here dictates complicated forms and procedures for just about anything, from purchasing a cell phone to exchanging money.

Obtaining a local driving license is a rite of passage for expatriates here. I would like to thank my wife for urging (not nagging) me to get this done. I am also thankful for the support of Ritsu and Art. They spent their time on me and gave me many helpful suggestions. I will be forever grateful! I am proud of my accomplishment and feel so relieved to be a legal driver again! I am looking forward to getting out to the best parts of Kansai and Japan.

Culinary Osaka: Robatayaki

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Guests sit around the charcoal grill and choose which what they would like eat.

Osaka is known as the culinary center of Japan with its 91 Michelin-starred restaurants and thousands of other places to eat. Osakans are also known to enjoy life through eating and drinking with friends and family and are the most out-going people of any Japanese region.

My moving to Japan has opened my eyes to many different dining experiences, tastes and sensations. I am not a “foodie” but have come to enjoy a good meal and different dining experience. For my wife’s birthday, she wanted Robatayaki. This is a traditional Japanese style of cooking fresh ingredients, mostly seafood and vegetables over simmering charcoals. It originated in northern Japan, I read both Hokkaido, the big northern island of Japan and Sendai, the northern part of Honshu. Fisherman used to put hot charcoal in the stone box before going out to fish so if they caught anything, it could be cooked as soon as they returned. The family sat around the stone box and the food was delivered via a boat paddle.

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The “menu” at a robatayaki restaurant

We chose a restaurant in Umeda called Isaribi It is located down a narrow, but busy street near the train station in the basement of a building. It has a great atmosphere with the chefs and waiters shouting welcome and other things, and a decor that reminds me of a rustic cabin. The food is placed in front of the grill (see photo above) and you can point to what you want to eat. The grill master uses a long-handled platter (see video below) to deliver the food to diners after he has cooked and seasoned the entree. We chose the all-you-can-eat-&-drink option for 2 hours. It cost about $35 US per person.

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It was an exotic and delicious dining experience. After two hours however, I was ready for some cool fresh air and a walk around the city. We take new teachers to the school there as part of their orientation to give them a sense of the dining experiences that one can find in the city.

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Book Review: Burmese Days – George Orwell

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In looking for 1984 for my wife, I found “Burmese Days” the first novel by George Orwell. It is based on his time as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma, now Myanmar from 1920-1927. The British ruled Burma from 1885 – 1947 from their base in India. The book was published in 1934.

Orwell took a lot of heat from the old “Burma Hands” because it portrayed them a petty bigots and it hit a bit too close to home. He said it was fiction, but based on his reporting from seven years in the country. I love books about expatriate communities and glad I found it.

The setting of the novel is a remote “station” in northern Burma. A small community of British expats are working in the timber industry and are often out for weeks at a time in the forests. The social life is centered around the European Club in the center of the village. It reminded me much of my time in eastern Venezuela, working for a school serving the petroleum industry. The main character is Flory, who is a bachelor in his 30s and after 11 years in the country, has learned the language and appreciates Burmese culture, unlike most of the expats there, who are there to make money and keep their British culture and traditions and whose social life revolves around the club. I see this in my various posts throughout my career as an expat, some people get into the local culture while others prefer to keep their own. I am finding it harder to integrate in this age of the internet when you media is from all over the world. It is much different from my first posting in Colombia before the internet when one was truly cut off from America.

Flory is quite critical of the society and is kind of an outsider. When he falls in love with the visiting English niece of one of his colleagues, he is torn apart when she prefers the British culture of European Club and does not appreciate Burma the way he does.

I thought the best quote capturing the spirit of the novel, when describing Flory as he approached middle age.

 “For as his brain developed – you cannot stop your brain developing, and it is one of the tragedies of the half-educated that they develop late, when they are already committed to some wrong way of life – he had grasped the truth about the English and their Empire. The Indian Empire is a despotism – benevolent, no doubt, but still a despotism with theft as its final object.”

I learned a new vocabulary word, pince-nez which are those Teddy Roosevelt glasses without ear pieces, but a nose clip.

I highly recommend the book for people interested in the history of the British empire, Myanmar and the life of expatriates.

 

 

Soccer Season for Owen

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Owen is playing for his middle school soccer team. They defeated the Kyoto International University Academy this morning 7-0. They really dominated the game. Owen played only in the second half and scored a goal (see video below). He scored a second goal but was offsides. He played striker and my biggest impression was that in Japan he is tall, so he really stood out. I hope they can repeat as WJAA champions. The tourney will take place in a month.

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