Spring Break 2017 Continues

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11 years old Oliver! 

We are having a quiet week at home during the second week of the school spring break. After a week of skiing and exploring the Japanese Alps, it is nice to be home and relaxing with the family. I am realizing that time is flying by and the kids are growing up and will be leaving us soon, so I am trying to savor my time with them. It is so nice just to have the time to spend so much time with them. It is one of the perks of having a career in education.

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before
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after

With spring coming, although it is still cold in Osaka, we cleaned the patio. With the kids help, I sanded and put a new wood stain on the furniture and Nadia picked out some flowers to put in our pots. It looks a lot better and we are looking forward to meals outside once the weather cooperates.

Owen is getting braces so we ventured downtown to his orthodontist’s office for x-rays and a consultation. Osaka is a huge city, the size of Chicago and combine it with neighbors Kyoto and Kobe, it is the size of London or Moscow. I like the urban buzz which differs from our suburban location in Minoh. We found a nice restaurant serving tempura and ramen after he was done.

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Family exploring the mirrors of the Osaka Science Museum

On Sunday we visited the National Museum of Art and the Osaka Science Museum. Nadia wanted to share with Ocean the exhibition of Belgian artist, Pierre Alechinsky. She loves modern art and it was interesting to view the works and watch a video of his career. The fine arts play a part in our family’s life and so it is good to expose the children to the work of the masters. His painting of Central Park (1965) is shown below. I like the graphic novel-like panels in black and white on the outside and how it contrasts with the big splashes of color on the inside. I purchased a paper DIY diorama of the Great Wave off Kanagawa  from the gift shop that Ocean and I put together yesterday.

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I am also working on school projects this week, both OIS and for my doctorate, so it is good to catch up on my things to do list. We hope to get up to Lake Biwa tomorrow.

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.

Family Journal: Christmas Season

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The Christmas season is upon us and with it the holiday traditions. Oliver is shown above in Friday’s winter concert held at the school. It was his final elementary concert as he will be a middle schooler next year (yikes!). The students were asked to dress in an urban/hip-hop style, but Ollie looks more like a Trump supporter than a city dweller. They sang “Hall of Fame” and he had a small duet rap part at the end of the song.

It also is the time of parties. Saturday night the faculty met at an Italian restaurant in Senri Chuo and afterwards we went for some drinks at a nearby “stand-up” bar. We had a lot of laughs with friends. Nadia is shown below with Nakae.

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We hosted the global futures (boarding) students Sunday night for a traditional American turkey holiday dinner. Besides being beautiful, Nadia is also a really good cook and prepared an exquisite meal. Turkey, gravy, homemade stuffing, cranberries, sweet potatoes, etc. The students in our school and especially the dorm are so nice, it was an enjoyable evening for us to host them.

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Owen Finishes Basketball Season

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Owen Drives Baseline Against Sons of the Light IS

Owen’s middle school basketball team finished third in the season ending Western Japan Athletic Association (WJAA) tournament last weekend. They lost to Canadian Academy of Kobe in the semi finals and came back to defeat Nagoya IS in the consolation match to finish in third place out of eight teams.

The team finished with 9 wins and 5 losses on the season. They defeated every team in the WJAA at least once. The low shooting percentage in the tournament weekend held them back from reaching the finals. The WJAA is a nice middle school league and the basketball season runs from October to early December. A 14-game season is a good number, although I wish they had more games during the week and less Saturdays. I felt Owen and his teammates Ren and Henri were three of the best basketball players in the league. As they grow and mature in high school, I am expecting to see continued success if they stay together.

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Owen’s trademark running shot

Owen had a very good season and I was proud of him. Left handed people look unconventional in the sport to me. In Japan in middle school basketball, at 5-4, Owen is solidly a position 3. His strength is a running mid-range shot. He is continuing to develop an accurate outside shot and is pretty good taking it inside for layups. He is not quick or fast, but has good defensive instincts that translate into lots of steals and rebounds.

The soccer season begins in January and I am already looking forward to watching him play.

Thanksgiving 2016: Food, Friends, USJ

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Oliver is pictured at USJ with one of the many mascots.

I had a delightful Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends. For the first time in many years, we didn’t have school as our fall break coincided with Thanksgiving. We have 6 luxurious days off, including the Wednesday before and the Monday after. Just what the doctor ordered after a busy fall trimester. Wednesday November 23 is Labor Thanksgiving Day here in Japan and a national holiday. It was established after World War II as a day to commemorate human rights and honor rights of workers. It also dates back 2,500 – 1,500 years ago in Japan to the various harvest festivals under different emperors. A mental note to have the kids make drawings next year to give as gifts to the local koban (police box) as is the tradition here. We celebrated the day with a big thanksgiving dinner with friends (photo below).

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It is “peak” autumn foliage color right now in Osaka. My bike ride up to Katsuoji temple in the Minoh Hills National Park was stunning. Although it is cold in the mornings, it quickly warms up to make it comfortable biking weather.

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On thanksgiving day itself, which is not a holiday in Japan, we organized winter clothes and closets and did some long overdue projects around the house. With both Nadia and I working and the kids being quite active after school, we needed a day or two concentrating on the house. I hope to finish today (Saturday) with putting up the Christmas stuff and continuing improving our home.

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The ubiquitous “selfie” at USJ

Because this is not a holiday here, we took the kids to Universal Studios Japan (USJ), which is one of the four Universal Studios (Orlando, Los Angeles, Singapore, Osaka) theme parks.  During holidays, the park is absolutely swamped with people causing long waiting times for rides, but during the off season and during the week, it is reasonably crowded. I think our longest wait time was an hour and most attractions were 15-30 minutes. Seeing the popularity of the Osaka USJ, which averages 8 million visitors per year, the owners, NBC Universal, are opening parks in Beijing (2019), Seoul (2020) and Moscow (2022). The Japanese especially love cartoon characters, Harry Potter and other universal movies, and so even with other parks opening in east Asia, I think USJ will be fine.

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As you might know from previous blog posts, amusement parks are not my “cup of tea” and I loathe the crowds, consumerism and artificiality of it all. However, riding roller coasters is one of the things kids need to experience so I am glad I went yesterday. I loved watching their reactions to the rides and spending the day with them. It was a good way to spend “Black Friday” and we saw other Osaka International School families taking advantage of our school holidays being different than the local schools. It was a full day as we finished off our USJ experience with a decadent meal at the Hard Rock Cafe. We are planning a trip to Tokyo Disney before we leave Japan to round out our amusement park experiences.

Reflecting upon Thanksgiving, I have so many blessings. Healthy children, a beautiful wife I enjoy being with, even after almost 20 years together, an interesting career that allows me to follow my passion of teaching and travel, what more could a guy ask for. I am truly grateful for all of it!

Oliver & Ocean Perform with Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra & Yamamoto Noh

Oliver and Ocean performed again with the Yamamoto Noh theatre troupe in the beautiful NHK (Nippon Hohsoh Kyokai) Hall in downtown Osaka. NHK, the biggest television company in Japan, Hall is home to the Kansai Philharmonic Orchestra and theme of the concert was “East Meets West”. The idea was for the noh play to be backed by a full symphony orchestra. It was combining major art forms from the 1300s (noh – Japan) with the 1700/1800s (classical music – Europe). The mix was absorbing: the sparse sounds of the drums and flute of noh with the sumptuous full orchestra. The play is about conservation of the rivers and bay of Osaka, was backed by pieces dealing with water, culminating in Strauss’s Blue Danube.

NHK Hall is stunningly beautiful. It is located on the third floor and the escalators taking patrons to the entrance goes through this fantastic foyer with high glass ceilings and luxurious bannisters. I was surprised at the almost capacity crowd of 1,400 people for a Monday night. In the video above, Oliver’s speaking part comes at the 4:45 mark.

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The crowd was loving the children’s role in the play. With the seriousness of the noh players and the sophistication of the orchestra, the kids made it accessible for everyone. I loved the director of the orchestra putting on one of the children’s hats for the grand finale piece and asking the audience to participate. It was a really nice for the kids to be on stage with both professional noh actors and the Kansai philharmonic. It is an experience they will never forget.

A huge thank you to all the parents who helped in getting the kids ready. Also to the Yamamoto troupe and the Kansai philharmonic.

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Yamamoto is working to make noh more accessible to a modern audience. After the performance I spoke with Petko Slavov, a Bulgarian PhD in ancient Japanese theatre, and his company, Okina makes digital content, like apps and games that teach ancient Japanese culture. They also help Yamamoto make school visits and noh workshops. We hope to have them come visit in the spring.

The Grittier Side of Osaka

A street side bar in Nishinari-ku, Osaka
A street side bar in Nishinari-ku, Osaka

Last night my daughter Ocean and I went on yomawari (night walk) in the Kamagasaki neighborhood of the Osaka ward of Nishinari-ku. Our school cooperates with the Sanno Children’s Center in their monthly walks to help the homeless of the city. The area is poorest in Osaka with 1/3 of the residents on welfare and a population of aging day laborers that live on the edge of subsistence, often finding themselves without shelter. Ocean is a very empathetic little girl and for her “genius hour” in school, is forming a club to help homeless. I wanted to encourage this so I supported her in going with the older students of the school. IB world schools put an emphasis on community service and the high school students for years have been helping out at the center. The center is also supports poor families by providing a place of refuge, entertainment and inspiration for children.

A homeless man on a street arcade in Nishinari-ku.
A homeless man on a street arcade in Nishinari-ku.

It is about a 45 minute train ride from our neighborhood to Kamagasaki and the differences can be seen immediately. Japan is unlike other countries in that wealth is not displayed as much. I think the culture of respect for others and the collective over the individual does this. Our neighborhood of Onohara-nishi is one of the nicest I’ve seen in Japan, but it is not like Los Angeles’s Bel Air or Detroit’s Bloomfield Hills. The buildings are grungier and the area is filled with cheap karaoke bars, coin operated laundries, etc. It is much neater than poor neighborhoods in other countries that to the local culture of tidiness and organization.

We met and helped around 6 homeless men. They cover themselves with a cardboard box (photo above) and sleep under the roof of the shopping arcades that are common in Kamagasaki. The kids delivered food, blankets and toiletries and the men were quite appreciative. The center is hosting community party today and the men were given a ticket for them to come and get a good meal.

At the children's center getting ready to go out.
At the children’s center getting ready to go out.

We cannot make next month’s night patrol (December 24) but hope to get back in January. It was an unusually warm November evening last night, but when it is cold, it must be tough to be on the streets.

I am also making a point to capture the small moments in my blog. Ocean the other morning woke up and told me about a dream she had. She said I led the family on a hike to a “poison place” in the desert. I jumped into a waterfall and at the end of the hike, there were buckets filled with poison. Oliver tipped one over and she said I jumped between her and the poison to save her. However, a bird picked up a bucket and dropped the poison on us and we all died. This comes from my insistence that the kids go on hikes and experience wilderness and my wife Nadia, a city girl, always thinks I am taking it to the extreme. It is my goal to instill in the kids a love of the outdoors. A funny dream.