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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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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Quirky Japan: Parking & Taxis

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Japan is the approximately the same size as California, but with three times as many people. Space is an issue in cities of Japan. In my neighborhood of Onoharanishi, which is one of the more expensive suburbs in Osaka where people have more space than the average Japanese dweller, space is still at a premium. This family solved the “we have two cars but only one parking spot” problem. Rotary parking systems are common in cities, especially the big parking garages downtown. They are so much more efficient use of space. I wanted to wait at this house until the owner wanted to drive the silver car to find out how it works. I think you would have to take out the bottom car and then lower the silver car.

Taxis here have automatic doors as you can see in this video. This is a good idea because it prevents people from having to open the door when carrying lots of bags or children. It also prevents damage to the door if clients slam the doors too hard. I also noticed it is only the left side door that opens automatically, which in Japan where people drive on the left side of the road, it is a safety measure. People cannot open the door into the street and must exit the taxi curbside.

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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.

Ocean & Oliver on NHK World

 

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The Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK) the largest media company in Japan recently featured a story on Oliver and Ocean and their friends performing in the Noh theatre performance last week. NHK has an English language channel for the international market called NHK World. On their nightly news program, Newsroom Tokyo, they broadcast the story of OIS students learning Noh theatre. Ocean’s interview starts at around the 5:30 mark of the 6:00 minute video. Above is the screen grab, and below is the entire video on YouTube.