Farewell Japan!

Our happy family home for 5 years

My family and I are leaving Japan after 5 years. This post is a reflection on life in Japan and my likes and dislikes about the country and culture. Living a global nomadic life, I’ve lived in many different countries and realized that every place has things that I like about it and things I dislike. Overall, the Japanese treated my family kindly and we will have fond memories of our time here. 

Japan is interesting because it is distinct. With increased connectivity of communication and transportation, many places around the world are becoming more similar, especially in richer nations. Japan, however, is like no other place in the world. I think this is because it was closed off from the outside world for over 200 years until the mid-19th century. The isolation enabled the culture to develop independently of others. The second factor is the homogenous population. Japan does not allow immigration at any scale, so ideas brought by residents is limited. We were temporary residents working for a Japanese foundation and not immigrants. There are very few foreigners living in Japan than other countries. 

Society is impacted greatly by geography. Japan is a crowded island. The area of the islands of Japan are about the size of the state of California. There are 40 million Californians, compared to the 127 million Japanese. Taking into account the mountainous landscape of Japan’s location on the Pacific ring-of-fire, the amount of suitable living space is limited. In order to make the society function smoothly in this densely populated nation, the behavior of individuals needs to be strictly controlled through laws, rules and etiquette. For example, when I purchased a car, I needed a certificate stating I had an available parking space from my landlord. Often the police will come and inspect the address on the certificate to verify that a space actually exists and is of proper size. The narrow streets do not allow for street parking. I got caught parking overnight in front of our home and the fine was 15,000 Yen ($140 USD). In a place with more space, parking would not be so tightly controlled.  

Farewell – Kita Senri Station

Japan is the oldest country in the world demographically. Approximately half a million more citizens are dying each year than are being born here. As with many developed nations, the birth rate has fallen and the government is desperate for Japanese women to have more children. However, in practice, they do not make it easy, with limited and expensive day care, high educational expenses and many jobs for young people are low-paying. The government is worried because of the increasing costs of health care and pensions for its elderly. With less young people entering the work force, there is more pressure on the government to fund these programs. That is the major reason we left Japan: the high tax burden. Around 50% of our income was taxed and that did not include sales taxes, highway tolls and various fees charged for government services. Unlike the government, I am in favor of depopulation here. There are too many people and if they do not allow major immigration, Japan will have a population around 50 million by 2100. That sounds like a reasonable population density to me! The challenge will be to pay for taking care of the big demographic layer of +60 year olds as they age and die. 

For every aspect of Japan that I like, there is a side of it I don’t like. Regarding taxes, it drives foreign teachers with children out of the country, but the high taxes do provide a world-class infrastructure of safety. One rarely sees a pot hole on a road in Japan. An ambulance or fire truck will be at an emergency in literally minutes. A small fire at our school had a dozen fire and emergency vehicles at the scene very quickly. If you get in trouble, the system here will save you. That gives residents a peace of mind. After a few days here in the USA, that is one of the first things I notice is the poor condition of the roads. 

The aspect I loved the most in Japan was the ability to ride my bicycle anywhere safely. There are a lot of pedestrians and cyclists, both for recreation and just getting one’s daily errands completed. Drivers are courteous and well-trained to be aware of bikes and walkers. The roads and sidewalks are also in mint condition. I biked to all of my meetings at the university from my school, 19 kilometers away. I rode mostly on the busy 171 street and never had even a close call with a vehicle. I really got into cycling while here and it gave me unmeasurable pleasure to cycle through the landscapes of Kansai, both urban and rural. I don’t think I’ll ever have a better place to cycle. 

Osaka is the eating capital of Japan and the quality, variety and distinctiveness of Japanese cuisine is outstanding! I ate the best seafood I’ll most like ever have. There were so many different species of fish and marine organisms, from winter conger eel, to tuna sushi to roasted squid on a stick. I even tried whale during my time living in here (not great). I developed my palette for seafood and learned to use chop sticks comfortably. 

Everyone takes their job seriously in Japan and tries their best, regardless of how much they earn or how prestigious the position is perceived. It is really nice when the convenience store or parking attendant goes out of their way to make sure you receive the best service. The Japanese pay attention to the details and one can be assured that all options will be considered when you are getting a service, which is especially nice when at the dentist or at the hospital. The flip side of this is people stick to procedures, checklists, etc. and when the occasional out-of-the-box thinking is required, it will not happen. 

One of my goals in moving to Japan was to experience the idea of the group being more important than the individual. Working in affluent schools, people with wealth do not flaunt it. It was refreshing to see so much modesty in a culture and people thinking about the feelings of others. At times this is suffocating however, and I am not sure if it is healthy not to be able to express oneself freely. Related to this is the closed and quiet nature of Japan. We missed the warm, open and loud relationships of Latin America and southern Eastern Europe. I didn’t miss open conflict with people, but on the reverse of that, I did miss easily connecting with people. Part of it was language. 

The city of Minoh was absolutely a great place to live. Located so close to the Minoh Quasi National Park was the key for me. I loved having access to forest and nature minutes away, especially in a metropolitan area of 18-20 million people. The suburb was less crowded than other areas of the city, with plenty of parks and green areas. Our home was huge according to Japan standards, and for me, I liked having the kids so close to us. They couldn’t hide far away on the other side of the house. I didn’t like the lack of insulation and urge the Japan construction industry to make thicker walls and windows. The winter is too long and too cold and energy costs too much not to have insulation. Heating room-by-room, walking around cold or paying exorbitant utilities trying to heat the entire house to a comfortable temperature. 

I also gained an understanding of the power of natural disasters. I’ll never forget the morning of June 18 when 15 kilometers away, a quake of 6.1 struck. One needs to experience the sounds and sensations of the earth moving to appreciate the force of nature. 

It was good for us to experience Asia. Nadia and I always wanted to see what it is like here after a long time in Latin America. Commentators say that this is Asia’s century, and in some ways, early into this century, they are right. There is a hustle and bustle that you don’t feel in other parts of the world, especially in East Asia. The airports are much better and they are more advanced in many ways. My problem with is the over crowding. I missed the wide-open spaces. Traveling to Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, Bangkok, Tokyo, etc. I could feel the force of humanity, too many people living too close together. 

Thanks Japan for five pleasurable years. I’ll be following the country from afar and wish good fortune to my friends and colleagues. 

A Capitol Fourth: Kralovec Family in DC

Washington Monument

Last evening we walked to the National Mall to enjoy the Independence Day fireworks and festivities. Due to jet lag, we didn’t get out of the hotel until Trump’s speech was almost over. We did see him leave his speech as the presidential motorcade sped past us. The Blue Angels jet fighters also soared over head, which was awesome.

The fireworks were bit of a disappointment. The 89% humidity level of atmosphere, caused a thick cloud of smoke that hid most of the fireworks. I did get one good photo against the Washington Monument. There were thousands of people walking around and enjoying the show. I think fireworks in general are overrated, but I can’t think of a replacement.

Nadia and Oliver pose with military security

It was entertaining to people watch. There were protesters, Trump supporters, slightly insane people, tourists, college kids, etc. The military and police vehicles and personnel were also entertaining. There are a lot of logistics that goes into holding such a large public event.

We walked down to the trendy and expensive District Wharf. This is a new (2018) mile-long development on the Potomac River. Developers and city officials built 14 large buildings in a disused, high crime area on the fringe of the national mall. George Washington always wanted this area to be developed, so the city should be proud that they finally got this going. The complex included restaurants, a large music hall, apartments, hotels and office space. It was nice but crowded and we finally found a place to eat, a bit later than we expected. However, Mi Vida Mexican restaurant did not disappoint and it was some of the best Mexican food I ever had.

Ocean on her scooter

The electronic scooters were a highlight for the kids. We downloaded the app Bird, and with many of the streets blocked to traffic, they were able to race in the streets along the Potomac. I see why they are so popular and I also see why they can be a nuisance.

District Wharf Nightlife

Shenandoah River – Take Me Home

Boys on the river

Almost heaven, West Virginia – Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees – Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze

Country Roads…

Take Me Home, Country Roads, John Denver (1971)

I was thinking about this song as we floated down the peaceful south fork of the Shenandoah River in northern Virginia. Thanks to our friends, Kim and Mark, who is one of the three “River Keepers” of the Shenandoah River watershed, we had a delightful day on the river! Owen and Oliver were in the canoe and the rest of us were in kayaks. Unfortunately, a migraine headache sidelined Ocean and Nadia stayed at home to take care of here. After a delicious BBQ lunch at Mark’s house, we put the boats in upstream and paddled down back to his house.

The water was refreshing on a hot day. It was so nice to see the boys working together in the canoe all day. They looked like Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer! Outdoor adventure is so good for teenagers and gets them off their digital devices and into nature. We all had a blast! We saw many grey herons on the water, the pterodactyl of wetlands. I also saw a mother Common Merganser mother call over her ducklings to get away from me as I approached them in a kayak.

Mark’s knowledge, experience and expertise of the river made it all the more enjoyable. He was talking about fighting algae blooms from agricultural and livestock runoff and pointed out Native American fishing weirs as we flowed over them. The weirs were particularly fascinating as most Native American tribes did not have stone monuments as legacies and so this is one thing that they left behind that you can still see today. They used to drive fish into funnels formed by rocks they placed on the river bed.

afternoon view

The water was not flowing very fast and in mid-summer, the depths ranged from a foot to 15 feet, mostly shallow. It is a perfect river for kids to learn to canoe.

Washington DC Observations

Setting up the stage near the Lincoln Memorial

Two nights ago I walked down to the National Mall to see preparations for the 4th of July celebration. The late afternoon rain cooled temperatures here in the nation’s capital to make it a pleasant evening for a walk. We are still adjusting to the 13-hour time difference, so a close to midnight walk, is really a mid-afternoon stroll the next day for me. Our hotel is a mile from the National Mall and the Lincoln Memorial, which will be the main stage for President Trump’s Salute to America.

Washington Monument Reflecting Pool

Owen and I earlier in the day briefly stopped at the National Public Radio studios which are also here in Washington. I have spent hours cleaning the kitchen, cooking breakfast and other household chores while listening to NPR. It was a thrill to see where it all happens.

Washington DC is a liberal city with a highly-educated populace. NPR’s news and storytelling is at a higher intellectual level than most other programs and fits well with this city. A strongly anti-intellectual president like Trump does not. Many people here feel that he is turning Independence Day into a personal political rally and are highly critical of the event. I am excited to see how things turn out as I write this morning, the fourth of July.

A podcast nerd at podcast heaven!

My Day in Foggy Bottom

Tour of the Diplomatic Rooms

I am in Washington DC this week courtesy of the State Department’s Office of Overseas Schools. They are giving an orientation to State Department’s programs for American-assisted overseas schools. As part of the workshop, we got a tour of the Harry S Truman State Department Building.

The headquarters of the US Department of State is located in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of DC and is the work place for over 8,000 employees. The place is massive and holds a myriad of offices, reception rooms, including the office of America’s head diplomat, the Secretary of State. Security was tight and we needed to be escorted everywhere we went in the building. The State Department is sometimes referred to as “Foggy Bottom” because of its location. It is one of the oldest neighborhoods in America and is quite affluent, being close to both Georgetown and George Washington universities.

Jefferson’s Traveling Notebook

The highlight for me was seeing the diplomatic reception rooms. The rooms house a collection of Colonial era art and furniture. I had chills seeing Thomas Jefferson’s travelling notebook, the 18th century version of the iPad pro! You could see that he was right handed by the ink drops below the right side of the notebook. The collection of portraits and paintings was also awesome (awe-inspiring meaning of the word). Washington DC has come a long way since the painting below. You can see why it is called Capitol Hill. Today you can barely see the hill because of it being surrounded by development.

“A Glimpse of the Capitol” McCleod, 1844

The Ben Franklin Diplomatic Dining Room was amazing. The views from the balcony, the massive carpets and chandeliers lent an air of importance and dignity to the room. Many ambassadors and Secretary of States have been sworn in in that room.

The view of the National Academy of Sciences and the Lincoln Memorial from the balcony of the Franklin Dining Room

The whole experience made me proud to be an American! There are over 300 embassies and consulates around the world. The US military gets more of the headlines and money, but in my opinion, diplomacy is just as important. Knowing that so many smart, hard-working people support the American government’s diplomatic efforts literally all over the world is reassuring.

Harry S Truman Department of State Building

I would like to thank the Office of Overseas Schools for welcoming the new directors to the State Department. I’ll do my best for the children of American diplomats and foreign service employees.

Urban Osaka

Cocktails at the Conrad Osaka

The farewell tour of Japan continues! Last night we went out with Alexi and Violeta and soaked in the ambience of downtown Osaka. The Hotel Conrad Osaka is located Nakanoshima Island in the Aji River. Osaka is a city of canals and rivers leading from the inland mountains emptying out in Osaka Bay. It was such a delightful evening, with amazing views of the lights of Osaka, live music, delicious cocktails and most importantly, good friends.

Conrad Osaka & the Osaka Skyline

I’ve had many good nights in Osaka. For someone coming from a town of 900 people in the forests of northern Michigan, I am still awed by big cities after all these years.

A big thank you to Alexi and Violeta for driving and introducing us to such a beautiful venue! You are always welcome to our home in T-kent!

Ocean’s Elementary School Graduation

Ocean’s Graduation Speech

It was a touching ceremony this evening as Ocean “graduated” from grade 5. In our school, grade 5 marks the end of the International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme. She will be not only leaving elementary school, but she is also leaving the Osaka International School.

All of the grade 5 students gave a speech. I am always impressed at their public speaking. All of the students were poised and clear in their communication. The speeches were followed by a potluck dinner and photographs and conversation.

These milestones in our children’s lives are taking on more special meaning as they and Nadia and I get older. It warmed my heart to see Ocean happy and beautiful! It was also nice to have her older brothers come to support her. Ocean is the last of our children to graduate from elementary school. It will be strange next year to only have middle schoolers and high schoolers in the house.

I want to thank grade 5 teacher Trevor Jones for his outstanding work with Ocean. I would also like to recognize Ocean’s BFF, Elina and Alona and their families. When families live far from their homeland, the school takes the place of family and the Jones and Boock families feel like our extended family. We will miss you!

Elina, Ocean and Alona