Family Journal: April 14, 2018

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Ocean is a bit tired after our run together

I should be writing more as it relaxes me and allows me to collect my thoughts. I also capture those small, fleeting moments in life.

Oliver last night was in a panic. At 8:30 PM he tells me he left his uniform and shoes in his locker. He has a volleyball tournament today and needs to be at the train station at 7:00 AM to travel to Kobe. The school does not open until 7:00 AM. I calmed him down and this morning we rode to the school at 6:45 AM, asked the guard to open it early and we rode to the train station and got him on his way. He was truly thankful for my support. It was nice to help him and hopefully, he learned his lesson to prepare the night before. Procrastination runs in our family ūüôā so I know what he is dealing with and to lower stress in one’s life, one should be more on top of things. I love those mornings when Oliver or Owen have to get to the train station for a sports event. It is quiet and I get to share some time with them. They are a bit groggy being teenagers and need my help in packing their bags and getting them to the station on time.

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The highlight of the day was running with Nadia, Owen and Ocean. We did Nadia’s 7-kilometer loop around Osaka University and Kita Senri park. Nadia is leading an elementary “Girls on the Move” club and Ocean is now into running. I bought Ocean some running gear tonight at Sports Depo.

Oliver wanted to see Pacific Rim: Uprising tonight so I rode with Ocean and him and watched the movie. I enjoyed watching Oliver’s reaction more than the movie, but there was a bit of science fiction to the movie which made it tolerable

Catching up in the past week or so, my friend Ilan and I rode the Saigoku Highway to Kyoto. The road was made in the 1600s during the Edo period and has a lot of very cool traditional Japanese homes and temples. We ended up riding 52 kilometers, more than either of us expected. However, it was a really nice day and fun to spend some time with a friend and ride. If I was independently wealthy, that is about all I would do, cycle and hike and explore the outdoors.

Finally, a Japan post would not be complete without an earthquake story. The other night I was up, as the past few weeks I’ve been suffering from insomnia. The house started shaking and about a minute or two later, I went to the Japan Meterological Station website had the quake map on their system. On the map below, we live in the blue, which was a 3 and the quake originated in Totori, the orange section, which indicates a 5.

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Skiing Over Lake Biwa

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Ocean (blue) Owen (black and white checkered jacket) on the slopes

It was an exhilarating day of skiing today at the Biwako Valley Ski Resort. Lake Biwa is a large freshwater lake north of Kyoto. The Hira Mountains abut against the lake. It makes for a breathtaking backdrop as you can see from the photos. It only took 1 hour and 15 minutes to arrive at the parking lot of the resort, which makes it an easy day trip.

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I love spending a day outdoors with my children. I wish Nadia liked skiing, but she stayed in the lodge for the afternoon. It took a couple of runs for me and Oliver to get comfortable, but we did have fun going down the main run at the top of the mountain.

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The resort is small but picturesque. A gondola takes groups up the steep cliff to the start of the ski area. You cannot see the ski runs from the parking lots. There are only six different trails that are fun to ski. There were a lot of people, but the majority were beginners on the bunny run. Once away from them, there were really no wait times. There are two longer runs which were our favorites. It is not a resort to spend a week, but for a day of skiing, and being so close to our home, it is perfect.

 

 

Family Journal: June 30, 2017

 

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Waiting to board our Cathay Pacific flight at KIX 

 

I am writing this in the Hong Kong International Airport. It is an interesting time to be traveling through Hong Kong as this is the 20th anniversary of the turnover of the island from Britain to China. In 30 more years, it will officially become part of China. There is no reason Hong Kong should be part of the UK and reflecting on the history of the British in China, lots of damaging things occurred. It is right that this colonial legacy is ending. However, it is sad that Hong Kong is slowly losing its different character from the rest of the country.

We are on our way to the USA for summer holidays. It is always hectic and emotional to end the academic year at an international school. I am continuing work on my doctoral studies at Lehigh University which start next week. Outside of school, I did find some time to make some observations.

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I wish my Dad was alive to see a Japanese lawn crew. They were using “weed wackers” at Osaka University when I was biking through the campus earlier this week. The Japanese pay attention to the details and it was great to see these guys holding screens to protect pedestrians from twigs and rocks that shoot up from the machine. Notice too that they are perfectly dressed and taking such care in their job. No matter how menial the job may seem, they take such great care to do it right. This is a prime example. A very professional job!

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My latest addiction is cycling and I can’t get enough of it. I want to bike every day in the Minoh¬†Quasi National Park which is near our house. The views are splendid and going up and down the hills is relaxing, despite being exhausting. I can’t wait for a full year of cycling when I return in August. Japan is up there with Netherlands and Germany for cycling and it is my favorite aspect of living in Osaka.

 

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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