The Beauty of the Tango Peninsula

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Kotohiki Beach, Kyoto Prefecture

Although it is not promoted with international tourists, the Tango Peninsula is one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen in Japan. It juts out like a thumb into the Sea of Japan. It is 146 kilometers by car (2-hour drive) from our suburb of Minoh. We spent an idyllic summer day at Kotohiki Beach on Saturday. With some beaches in Japan, especially during the “swim season” it can get crowded, but Kotohiki had relatively little people and lots of golden sand and turquoise water for everyone to enjoy. We rented a tent, brought the cooler, blanket and books and had a delightful afternoon of swimming, playing Uno, snacking and exploring the tidal pools formed on some of the rocky sections of the shore. As you can see by the pictures, it compares favorably to any beach I have been to.

 

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Lots of dramatic views along the highway 178

I love spending the day outdoors. Being close to nature recharges my soul and being able to share the experience with my family is pure bliss for me. It took some nudging to get the kids out of the house in the morning of course, but as usual, once they are there they have a great day.

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Camp Kralovec

We are experiencing a heat wave with temperatures in the 90s daily and humidity over 50%. I love the hot weather and am not really bothered by it. I feel worse in the winter in cold weather. I love summer!

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“How to Change Your Mind” Michael Pollan

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Michael Pollan, the Harvard and California-Berkeley professor is one of my favorite thinkers and writers. I have read all of his books and his horticulture and healthy eating books have deeply influenced how I live my life. His latest book, “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence” discusses the history of and current research of using psilocybin and LSD to treat mental illness and for people with healthy minds, a way of bringing meaning to one’s life. I’ve listened to him as he made the rounds of the podcasts I listen to, New York Times Book Review, Slate, Fresh Air, etc. His ideas are engrossing and I am thoroughly enjoying the book.

Pollan illustrates the growth of how psychedelics are being used in conjunction with therapy, to cure people with mental illnesses like depression and addiction and help terminal illness patients deal with death. Doctors and therapists use psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms”) LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) and other drugs to break the mind out of obsessive thought patterns of people in these situations. Like many, when I think of “acid” or “magic mushrooms” I think of former Harvard professor Timothy Leary and the 1960s counterculture movement. Pollan shows how medical research into psychedelics started decades before Leary and before the “turn on, tune in and drop out” mantra became popular, scientists were conducting research on how the compounds could be used to help humanity. The current trials of using psychedelics by New York University, John Hopkins, and Imperial College of London are quite promising and it is a shame that reckless recreational use and bad publicity caused governments to make them illegal so long ago.

The most interesting part of the book for me, especially as an educator, was Chapter 5, the section explaining the neuroscience of the human brain on psychedelics. These compounds quiet the DMN (Default Mode Network) of the brain. Discovered in 2001, this network links the cerebral cortex to the deeper, older inner networks of the brain, which control one’s emotions and memories. The DMN controls all of the different networks of the brain, keeping them separate and using the brain’s energy most efficiently to survive and solve problems. The DMN is our “self” or “ego”, or in other words and it is the story we tell ourselves about who we are. This “sense of self” was a great evolutionary achievement and other animals lack such a developed cerebral cortex. However, having a conscience separates us from nature and others. Buddhists and other ancient civilizations have said this for a long time. Even Albert Einstein saw this when he said:

“A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”

Pollan also interestingly talks with researchers working with children. Young children do not have the ingrained patterns of thought of adults and this section of the book reminded me that often novel or “out-of-the-box” solutions to problems come easier to younger people who do not have such a highly developed DSM and entrenched thinking patterns as adults.

Psilocybin and other methods like meditation, fasting, etc. quiet DMN activity and the ego dissolves. This allows the other brain networks to connect with each other and you get all sorts of crazy ideas, visions, feelings, memories, etc. The DMN also filters what input we take in. This helps us get things done and not staring at the clouds or sunlight filtering in through the window. However, something is lost. When the networks are able to connect and take in stimulus from the environment that is usually filtered, sometimes profound insights and new ways of thought take place. That is why people often say they have been profoundly changed after an acid trip.

Pollan describes his experiences in trying psilocybin, LSD, toad venom and ayahuasca. He is a California Berkeley and Harvard professor and celebrated author so he is not going into these like a hippie from the 60s. Pollan is also in his 60s and entered it with fear of heart failure and the impact the experience would have on his health. He experiences these “trips” with a trained therapist who guides him through taking the drugs and then making sense of it afterward. Pollan is enthusiastic about “healthy normals”, people without mental or a terminal illness using psychedelics to reinvigorate their minds and see life through the filters of a range of their brain networks. It is like a brain “shake-up” and it changes how one interprets the world.

Pollan makes a compelling case for trying psychedelics, especially older people in controlled situations. In his detailed history of psychedelic research and use, he discusses the risks and rewards. I do not want to sound like former Harvard researcher and doctor, Richard Alpert, now Ram Dass, and do not think it is for everyone. However, as I enter late middle age, it may be a good way to refresh my thinking and redefine meaning in my life. I never would have considered trying it, but after reading this book, I see the potential benefits. The book also reinforced the practice of meditation and how good it is for the mind and I should be doing more of it. Currently, most psychedelics are illegal and there is still a negative view on their use in our society, but more government agencies and universities and hospitals are changing their thinking about this. After reading about the research taking place at New York University, Johns Hopkins, London, etc., it seems like they should be used more in therapy.

I highly recommend the book. It is a long, detailed read but worth the time investment. Below are some other notes I picked up from the book.

  • Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, identified, synthesized, and named both LSD and psilocybin. LSD was originally derived from the ergot, the fungus that infects rye and other grains. Psilocybin is a blue chemical compound found in species of  the mushroom genus Psilocybe that has profound effects on the brain. There are approximately 180 species of “magic mushrooms” containing psilocybin found on all continents. Most are in the Psilocybe genus, but some are found in several genera. All are considered LBM (little brown mushrooms) and are difficult to find and identify.
  • The top expert in Psilocybe mushrooms is former Evergreen State College professor Paul Stamets. The love his TED Talk linked here and his description of the millions of mushroom threads (mycelium) weaving through the soils of forests allows trees to communicate with each other.
  • Aldous Huxley the British author of Brave New World was a fascinating thinker and I should read some of his work. He comes up time and again in the book.

My Fervour for Cycling

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Terraced rice paddies in Toyono, Osaka 

My favorite aspect of living in Japan is being able to road cycle relatively safely. Because there are a lot of pedestrians and cyclists, they have the right-of-way, which is opposite in my home country of the USA  where cars rule. I think it is part of the reason people are healthier here than in the USA because everyone walks and rides to do their daily errands. I think it was a mistake for American society to make the car “king” and make it almost impossible in many places, to walk or ride to get your daily activities. Things such as zoning laws, lack of bike lanes and sidewalks, low-density housing, etc. have all contributed to this. These topics have been addressed by many before and there is some progress, but America has a long way to go to reach a level citizens being able to move daily for health and reduction of reliance on fossil fuels.

I have a long glorious summer to cycle every day and I absolutely love it. It is pure pleasure to ride up and down the rolling hills in the northern Osaka and Kyoto prefectures just outside of our suburb of Minoh. I feel myself getting stronger.

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View from the Osaka Hokusetsu Cemetery 

Watching the Tour de France also helps get me motivated to get out daily. Using a VPN, we are able to watch the SBS (Special Broadcasting System) coverage. SBS is similar to National Public Radio in the USA except that it is specifically geared to multiculturalism. Their sports programming included the World Cup and Tour de France.

There are risks to cycling and I try to be as safe as possible. I try to obey traffic signals, am cautious around intersections and high-traffic areas. I also go much slower than I possibly could downhill and always wear a helmet. Cycling has prolonged by exercise by giving my knees a break. My knees have a lot of running miles on them as I have been active in distance running since my early teens. I can only now run a couple of times a week and cycling has taken the place of running.

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Sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) trees line many of the roads in northern Osaka Prefecture

I ride a Merida road cycle which was a hand-me-down from a departed faculty member. He left it and it sat unused in the parking lot until I took it into a shop to refurbish it and get it road worthy. It may be time to buy a proper cycle with biking shoes and pedals. I am still resisting wearing Lycra shorts and top and going all in on the gear and equipment, but I see the appeal. I read some articles about the MAMIL (Middle-Aged Man in Lycra).

The other part of cycling I like is the stress relief it gives me. Going for a ride first thing in the morning or after a day at school is such an uplifting mood-boosting activity.  The camaraderie with friends is also  great. Kids are back from running with mom. I’ll blog a bit more about cycling later this summer.

 

Naoshima: The Island of Art

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Ocean and Nadia allowing Naoshima’s charms to work on them – Gotanji Beach

Naoshima is an example of the power of the arts to transform a community. It helped to have an art-loving billionaire invest in the island. His vision is reviving this small island.

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Kusuma’s red pumpkin greets visitors at the port on Naoshima. 

Soichiro Fukutake is the son of the founder of Benesse, a huge publishing and education company headquartered in Okayama, a city 2 and 1/2 hours’ drive from Osaka. His father, Tetsuhiko, used to lead summer camps on a small island (3 miles square) just off the coast of Okayama called Naoshima. Soichiro had fond childhood memories of the island and wanted to help revive the economy. Naoshima is one of the thousands of islands in the Seto Inland Sea (瀬戸内海) the 400 kilometer part of the Pacific Ocean between the main Japanese islands of Honshu and Shikoku and Kyushu (see map below). It is an important shipping route and more importantly for me, it looks and feels like the Mediterranean. We visited the island of Miyajima, just off the coast from Hiroshima this past Christmas.

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Naoshima’s fishing industry was dying and young people were leaving for economic opportunities on the mainland. Fukutake decided to build several contemporary art and architecture museums on the island and commission works all around the island. The Chichu Art Museum displays 5 original works from Monet’s series “Water Lillies”. When sold at art auctions, they go for $15-20 million dollars each! Publishing and education are big industries in Japan, a society that values education where families pay billions for out-of-school classes in language, mathematics, test preparation, etc.

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Oliver on Gotanji Beach at sunset

There were some powerful pieces in the museums. I best liked the Benesse House Museum with the large art/architecture works. “Spirit of the Sky” was super cool and we spent a lot of time just looking up at the sky. I am ambivalent towards contemporary art. Some of the works inspire me and recharge my soul, but others, like Lee Ufan’s minimalist “Mono-ha” style, which consists of huge canvases with a single stroke of a paintbrush, felt like a practical joke on the patrons, paying 1,060 yen to enter the museum devoted to his work.

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Nadia and Ocean contemplating the changing sky “Spirit of the Sky”

For example, Yayoi Kusuma’s pumpkin at Gotanji Swimming Beach brings hundreds of tourists to photograph. It turned a regular pleasant beach into something special, with just that addition of one, large yellow polka-dotted pumpkin at the end of a pier.

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Root beer! Shioya Diner

In between viewing art, we swam at the beach, ate some good meals and relaxed at our cute/clean/cozy hostel. I especially recommend the Shioya Diner, with its retro American diner decor and delicious cajun chicken dish.

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Oliver at the top of the Benesse House Museum

I managed to go for a hike one morning to a secluded beach near the fishing pier. I saw a trail on Google Maps and thought there might be some birds. I did get some excellent insects photos, but the birds were the same kinds found in suburban neighborhoods. The tourist commission of Naoshima should develop the trail and clean the beach where it ends. It could be another nice activity to do and promote the preservation of forests on the island. We did not get to see some of the abandoned homes that were transformed into art pieces or see many of the large works spread around the island.

Without Benesse, Naoshima would be just another small town of elderly in rural Japan. Instead, international tourists visit the museums and residents are able to make a living catering to them.I find it interesting when megacorporations invest in the small town of their founders like Walmart or Lego. It does have a relaxed rhythm and is a perfect get-away from Osaka/Kobe/Kyoto city. Because Nadia and Ocean love art so much, we’ll probably go back to visit. I highly recommend staying on the island.

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Yayoi Kusuma – “Yellow Pumpkin” 

Family Journal July 8, 2018: Here Comes the Sun

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Owen & Ren at Wartburg College (IA) Basketball Camp

The rains have finally come to an end and there is glorious sunshine and blue skies today. After almost 4 days of continuous rain, the nicer weather has come. Flooding in many parts of Western Japan caused deaths, evacuations and lots of repairs and cleaning. Our neighborhood was spared except for an embankment of a reservoir as you can see in the photo below. City employees quickly laid the tarp to hold the land and prevent more sliding.

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Yesterday I took care of errands, helping friends and us haul more unwanted items up to the Minoh Clean Recycling Center. They were not charging for dumping until yesterday due to the recent earthquake. I was happy to clear out the garage and back garden.

It felt good to get outside on my bicycle. My friend Ilan and I went 36 kilometers along the Yodo River and through Takatski, 10 kilometers west of Minoh where the epicenter of last month’s earthquake took place. We didn’t see any major damage. In the afternoon I made zucchini lasagna which you can see on my YouTube channel.  In the evening, we took Ocean out for ice cream and suica (watermelon). Oliver spent the afternoon with his friend from school and Owen is still in Iowa, so it was quiet in the house.

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We went for sushi on Saturday evening at the Nigiri Chojiro restaurant in our suburb of Minoh. It is really good sushi and nice atmosphere on a rainy evening.

Today is my last day in the office and I am looking forward to getting a much-needed break from school.

Summer Journal July 6, 2018: Heavy Rains Continue

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A tributary of the Katsuoji River is full of stormwater near our home.

The rain continues for the third consecutive day here in our suburb of Minoh. Heavy rains, ranging from 53 centimeters to 25 centimeters are reported throughout western and southern Japan. As of this morning, 8:56 AM, it is still lightly raining. It is so humid and wet everywhere one goes.

We are receiving fewer emergency alerts on our phones. This being Japan, there is a distinctive ring tone for them. Distinctive tunes are used for all sorts of events in Japan, from the arrival of a train to the station to the automatic doors sliding open at the convenience store to inserting your card into an ATM.

I would like to thank the person who put the earthquake (jishin is the word for earthquake in Japanese) ringtone on YouTube. It is one of the most memorable because like a Pavlovian response, I associate it with the room I am in shaking because of tremors. There is also a good explanation on how the earthquake warning system works. The epicenter of the earthquake of June 18 was only 10 kilometers away, so we received the warning while under the table. I will never forget that sound.

Oliver and I checked out one warning received that a rice irrigation reservoir embankment a couple blocks from our house “may be broken”. You can see the embankment to the far left in the photo below. It is at the top of a hill. Below the hill are rice paddies and further down are homes. It didn’t break and so really not much to see. They probably evacuated the residents of houses directly beneath it to evacuate.

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Matsuzaki Pond embankment and rice paddies

Despite being stuck indoors most of the day, I managed to have some fun. The IB scores were released so I spent part of the day analyzing our results. Oliver and I went to the school library to borrow some books. We visited the doctor for Nadia and I completed the evening going to a local izakaya (informal pub) to watch Uruguay and France World Cup game. It was a mostly boring game with few scoring chances. It will be an all-European semifinal as both Latin American teams lost last night.

 

Family Journal: July 6, 2018 “Rain”

I am trying to get Oliver to cycle more with me. We managed to get a rides completed on July 3 and 4. We did one of my morning routine routes on the cycle path around Exhibition Park 16.0 kilometers in 55 minutes. The next day we followed the Senri River to the Itami Airport and came back through Ibaraki for another loop of 16.3 kilometers and it took us 1 hour and 4 minutes. I had to encourage Oliver to finish the ride by making a quick stop at McDonald’s.

As I am writing this on the morning of July 6, 2018, it has been raining steadily since the night of July 4. All day yesterday and last night, a steady rain, sometimes harder than others has continued. It looks to go all day again today into this evening without stopping. We are being bombarded by heavy rain and “ground-loosening” alerts from the city and some areas of Minoh in the steep slopes of the Minoh National Park and directly below it are being evacuated as a safety precaution. This is shortly after our 7 magnitude earthquake on June 18.

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Screenshot of an alert listing the neighborhoods and blocks to be evacuated

Our neighborhood of Onohara-nishi is far enough away from the mountains and rivers not have to worry about flooding or landslides. Hopefully, I can get out a bit today and take some photos of the water accumulation. Over 150,000 people in Kyoto (143,000) and Osaka (9,700) prefectures were evacuated. Up to 35 centimeters of rain is forecasted for the region.

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Kamo River in Kyoto (photo courtesy of KYODO)