Snow monkeys!

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On our way back home to Osaka yesterday we stopped at the famous Jigokudani onsen (hot springs) to see the “snow monkeys” (Japanese Macaque). I have seen the photos in National Geographic and so it was exhilarating to see it for myself. We had to walk about 3 kilometers to get to the springs, along a trail through a narrow ravine in the foothills outside the small town of Yamanouchi in the Nagano prefecture. They are set up for tourists and I was thinking tourist trap, but the monkeys are so darn cute and with the snow coming down, it really was worth the visit.

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The walk was quite nice through the tall Sugi (Japanese Sugi Pine) trees. The brown trunks and green needles stood out in against a backdrop of white snow. There was not too many people at the baths to ruin the experience. There were several geothermal hot springs spewing out into the river that made the rocky ravine. You could smell sulfur in some areas. The monkeys were not bothered by the crowd and went about their daily lives. There were probably 50-100 monkeys in the area.

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The Japanese Macaque is the northernmost primate in the world and endemic to Japan. It was so strange to see monkeys in snow. They have a tough go in the winter, and the locals feed them, similar to deer in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. A few were swimming in the warm pools but most were climbing the cliffs and foraging for food under the snow. There is a small hotel near the springs and they were on the roof and climbing on the air conditioners.

In the summer they disperse in the local forests, but in the winter they congregate near the springs. It was definitely worth the visit. Thanks to Amy for organizing the trip!

 

Winter Wonderland in Shiga Kogen

Kids in ski lessons

Shiga Kogen is the largest ski resort area in Japan. The 19 separate resorts are interconnected so one can ski from one to another. Owen and I on Wednesday just kept going left and found 6 different runs, including a course that was part of the 1998 Olympic downhill run.

It has snowed everyday we have been up here. The photo below shows the kids digging out our car in the parking lot of the hotel. We were worried that in late March there would be a lack of snow, but there has to be over a meter of snow. It reminds me of my growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The squeak of the tire on the snow and ice covered roads and the quiet that comes with falling snow, brought me right back to my youth.

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The entire mountain range is part of the Joshin’estu-kogen (kogen means highlands) National Park. The Shiga Kogen ski resorts are about 50 kilometers north of the town of Nagano and 250 northwest of Tokyo. The more famous Hakuba ski resorts are close by and cater to foreigners more than Shiga Kogen. That means there are much less people here and some of the slopes are nearly empty, especially the ones further away from the hotels. English is not spoken here much so it helps to have some bilingual people in your party. Our hotel is Japanese-style with the rooms consisting of tatami mats and us sleeping on futons. The food is excellent but mostly Japanese cuisine. They also have a public bath as the bathrooms in the rooms are those plastic “trailer” type so going to the “onsen” is much more comfortable, except for the fact one is nude with possibly strangers.

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Most importantly for me, the kids are having a wonderful time. We are with two other families and they are having a grand time together, staying in the rooms, skiing both during the morning with lessons and free skiing in the afternoon and evenings. We are planning to go see the famous “snow monkeys” on our way back home. Last night at dinner there was a big commotion when they spotted a monkey coming down from a branch and walking across a snow bank. It is so strange to see monkeys in cold weather as I associate them with the tropics. There are a variety of runs, mostly beginning and intermediate so it is perfect skiing conditions.

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Kaio, Oliver, Owen on the ski lift

Nadia does not ski but yesterday she went with the other adults on a snowshoe hike to a lake. It was a good workout and the scenery was stunning- an absolute winter wonderland! I only got to ski one day as I am still recovering from my accident on last week’s ski trip with the students. My left lower leg was swollen after a day on the slopes, which indicated that I came back a bit too early. I was the support team for the kids while getting a chance to work on my doctoral classes.

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I will be sad to leave “winter” and head back to spring in Osaka. It is so nice to live in a country with the four seasons. The mix of beaches, forests, cities and mountains makes travel within Japan interesting.

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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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Night Patrol in Kamagasaki

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Ocean and other students approach a homeless man

Our school encourages students to develop their passions and interests. My daughter Ocean is a caring little girl and she chose to help the poor and homeless. Yes, there are homeless and poor in Japan. There are not as many as I saw in Los Angeles or New York, two cities with similar populations in the USA. Japan does do a better job of taking care of the disadvantaged in their society, but of course, no society is perfect.

Ocean organized a group of her friends to collect donations for the Sanoh Children’s Center. The center provides a place to supervise and care for children of low income families. Often the parents are working and the center is a home away from home for them. One of the activities the Sannoh Children’s Center is a monthly night patrol to find homeless men and give them food, blankets, heating pads and other essentials.

Ocean ever since she was little, would want to help poor people she saw on the streets. This is an ideal activity for her. The center is located in an old building in a warren of homes and businesses in the Kamagasaki neighborhood of Osaka. It is one of the poorest areas of the city and is in stark contrast to our upscale suburb of Onohara. It is good for the kids to see lower socioeconomic areas and interact with the people who live in those challenging environments. Japan has a much lower crime rate than other countries, so it is fine to walk with children in those streets on a Saturday evening. Due to language barriers, I wish we could do more. The center is accepting donations.

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Ollie and Ocean make rice packets at the center

“The Quiet American” – Graham Greene book review

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I read my second consecutive British expatriate novel set in south east Asia. Burmese Days by George Orwell, is set in 1930s Myanmar while the Quiet American is set in 1950s Vietnam. Graham Greene is one of my favorite authors and his writing style flows beautifully. Like Burmese Days, The Quiet American was a controversial book when it was released.

The main character is Thomas Fowler, a middle-aged reporter for a British newspaper. He is covering the conflict between the French and the communist Vietnamese in the first Indochina War after World War II. The novel predicts the entry of the Americans in Vietnam and its failure. Alden Pile is works as an economic attache at the US Embassy. Both men are in love with a young Vietnamese girl, who is living with Fowler. It is a really good story and gives some good background into the time period and war as all good historical fiction does. Greene has many astute observations about aging, retirement, age differences in relationships and the expatriate lifestyle. Fowler is dreading going back to England to take over as the foreign editor of the paper. The characters represent the different viewpoints of the war, with Americans, British, French, Vietnamese and Chinese perspectives explored.

I will not spoil ending, but my only criticism of the book is the depiction of the detective work in a murder investigation. I don’t believe the murderer would get away with the crime. This does not however, take away from my enjoyment of the book and I highly recommend it. It was made into a movie twice and I would like to see the 2002 film.

Pico Iyer from NPR writes more eloquently about the book. Below is an excerpt from his 2008 review:

What touches me in the book, though, is something even deeper and more personal. The novel asks every one of us what we want from a foreign place, and what we are planning to do with it. It points out that innocence and idealism can claim as many lives as the opposite, fearful cynicism. And it reminds me that the world is much larger than our ideas of it, and how the Vietnamese woman at the book’s center, Phuong, will always remain outside a foreigner’s grasp. It even brings all the pieces of my own background — Asian, English, American — into the same puzzle.

You must read The Quiet American, I tell my friends, because it explains our past, in Southeast Asia, trains light on our present in many places, and perhaps foreshadows our future if we don’t take heed. It spins a heartrending romance and tale of friendship against a backdrop of murder, all the while unfolding a scary political parable. And most of all, it refuses the easy answer: The unquiet Englishman isn’t as tough as he seems, and the blundering American not quite so terrible — or so innocent. Both of them are just the people we might be at different stages of our lives. The Quiet American, in fact, becomes most haunting and profound if you think of it just as a dialogue between one side of Greene — or yourself — and the other. The old in their wisdom, as he writes elsewhere, sometimes envy the folly of the young.

The more I read about Vietnam and meet people from there, the more I want to visit.

 

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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