Technology, Ecology & Art: Garbage Incineration in Japan

Our group in the Hundertwasser Lobby

Yesterday our family visited the Maishima Incineration Plant located near the port of Osaka. Japan is the world leader in burning garbage to produce electricity. Land is precious in this crowded island nation, and landfills are not a good option.

The plant deals with garbage in three ways. Most waste is burned at extremely hot temperatures. The heat is converted to electricity through steam and turbines. Most of the electricity goes to power the plant itself, but the excess electricity is sold back to the municipal electrical grid. The leftover ash is used in land reclamation projects or converted to bricks to pave roads and sidewalks. Japan and in many other countries in Asia, artificial islands are quite common near the coasts of cities. In fact, the main international airport, Kansai International Airport (KIX) is an artificial island.

Large items, such as furniture, bicycles, etc. goes through a different process. The recyclable metals, iron and aluminum are converted to pellets and sent to recycling plants. The leftovers are either crushed into small blocks or burned. The 15 cm – 40 cm blocks are used with ash in land reclamation projects.

Mom and Owen

Incineration plants started in the 1990s and were found to emit toxins into the environment. Today, much of the plants are devoted to cleaning by-products before they are released.

Incineration plants are common in Japan. The Maishima plant is one of six in the Osaka metropolitan area. It handles around 900 tonnes of waste per day. The guide estimated that Osaka disposes approximately 36,000 tonnes per day. With a growing world population living at a higher standard of living than ever before, protecting the planet is an increased concern of mine. I am worried about climate change and the quality of life on earth being lessened by our wasteful lifestyles. I agree it is good to burn garbage instead of just burying it, but it would be better to reduce the amount of waste generated in our lives.

Control Room

On a small level, I have been tracking the waste generation of our family. We recycle glass, metal and paper through the excellent Minoh city recycling program. I’ve started to compost our vegetable matter at school. This has reduced our waste significantly. However, a big problem is packaging. The amount of plastic used to protect, transport and display products is crazy. As a consumer, it is impossible to escape!

View of facade from rooftop garden

What make the Maishima unique is the architecture of the plant. City officials commissions the Austrian/New Zealand artist and architect, Friednesreich Hundertwasser to improve the facade of the plant. Hundertwasser was a fascinating artist and a man ahead of his time. His mother was Jewish and father German, and he escaped death by hidingbill his maternal origins. He became quite a famous architect and applied artist after World War II. Hundertwasser detested straight lines and the grey monotony of city buildings. He was also one of the first architects to incorporate nature in his buildings and believed that planting trees in cities, helped well-being. We visited his famous apartment block in Vienna years ago. Hundertwasser was married to a Japanese women in the 1960s which may be the connection to Japan.

Compared to most of the boring, industrial design of buildings in Japan, I am happy that they invested in making it beautiful. It was uplifting to walk around the roof top garden and it has become of tourist destination and raised awareness of sustainability. Hundertwasser thought the project brought “technology, ecology and art in harmony” and I have to agree!

Cycling Between Osaka and Kyoto

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Owen and Ocean pose for a photo. There are hundreds of small side roads going through farmers’ fields and forests in the hills north of Minoh.

I just love cycling, especially with my children. It is so nice to get them out of the house, off personal digital devices and into the countryside. When you are out cycling, you always see interesting things. We saw a small field of the famous “cosmos” flowers, the autumn “cherry blossoms” of Japan. We also found the British restaurant that is a replica of an old village in England that serves a decent fish’n’chips. Nadia and I went there a couple of years ago but could not find it again. The splashes of orange, yellow and red gave some color to the autumn scenes of rice fields already harvested and gray skies. 

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Riding with Ocean 

I took Owen and Ocean with me on a bike ride this afternoon. We started in the small town of Toyono and did a decent sized loop through the forests and fields straddling the border of Osaka and Kyoto prefectures. Ocean’s biking ability and stamina impressed me and she did not complain during the ride. 

Hiking with Ocean

Ocean and I had a delightful afternoon hike around the Minogawa Reservoir yesterday. With the boys out of the house with friends and Nadia still not feeling well, it gave me the perfect conditions for an afternoon with my daughter.

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Ocean is not happy about hiking with Dad, but the sandwich was good! 

I had to drag her out, but by the end of the walk, I think she was enjoying it. The hike took about 90 minutes and it was not too strenuous. The weather in October in Osaka is ideal for being outside. It is so nice to have such a large wilderness area on our doorstep. Walking and talking while being surrounded by tall trees and lovely ferns is so very peaceful and recharges my batteries and clears my mind.

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A nice trail goes around the Minogawa Reservoir

I now know where to consistently find Japanese macaques in the park. Once again, they were near the reservoir.

 

Latest reading – Shoe Dog: A memoir by Nike Creator Phil Knight

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Besides getting a lot of exercise this summer, I also found some time to read more. Using the Great Lakes Digital Library and access through the wonderful West Iron County District Library in my hometown of Iron River, Michigan, I can download digital books and audible books. I still like a paper copy, but living abroad, digital gives me access to books I would have to order and ship.

I didn’t realize how long of a struggle it was for  Phil Knight to build Nike into the global behemoth that it is today. He started in 1962 and for many years was on the verge of bankruptcy and fighting legal and financial battles with suppliers, US customs, banks, etc. I took it for granted that people always ran long distances for physical and mental health. However, in the 1960s and most of the 1970s, running was a something very few people did.

Phil ran track at the University of Oregon and many of the early employees of Nike either coached or ran track and field there. The “hippie” or “alternative lifestyle” of Oregon and dedication to track and field carried his company through hard times. For a long time they were a private company and on the verge of bankruptcy many times due to cash flow problems. They went public in 1980 and Knight and the founding employees became super wealthy. The term “shoe dog”, refers to a person who is obsessed with shoes and spend many hours designing and constructing better shoes. Thanks to the University of Oregon and Nike, running shoes today are much better than a generation ago. The recent attempt to run a sub 2: 00-hour marathon shows Nike continues to try to improve human performance and athletic shoes.

Knight has strong ties to Japan. He started the Blue Ribbon Sports company by importing Onitsuka “Tiger” shoes. Today Onitsuka is still based in Kobe and is known as ASICS. ASICS is an acronym for the Latin phrase, “healthy soul in a healthy body”. Onitsuka in the 1960s made some of the best shoes around and combined with the expertise and passion Knight and his friends from University of Oregon athletics program, they pushed ADIDAS and Converse, the two giants in the shoe industry of the 1970s. Knight eventually manufactured his own shoes and clothing, etc. and with powerful marketing, they are almost more of a lifestyle and sports/celebrity agency than just a shoe company.

It was sad to hear his regrets regarding his son and his regret of not spending enough time with his wife and children while building Nike. His eldest son tragically drowned in a diving accident in El Salvador in his 20s while working for an NGO.

I highly recommend the book. It gave me a new appreciation for the athletic shoe market, finding a balance between work and family and it was interesting to hear how long and hard Knight and his early partners worked on building Nike.

Camping on the Kanzaki River

Oliver jump

Last weekend we got away from the city and work and headed up to the Kanzaki River in the mountains of Shiga Prefecture for some “shower climbing”. Shower climbing is what the Japanese call canyoning or river hiking. The Kanzaki River starts in the mountains between Lake Biwa and Nagoya Bay. We set up camp on a quiet part of the river and spent two days relaxing and enjoy nature.

August weather in Japan is oppressively hot and humid, so it was such a relief to swim in the cool, clear waters of the river. The water was not as high as in previous times we’ve gone up there, but we enjoyed it just the same. The kids are so much more confident in the water now than they were two years ago. Our two hikes consisted of scrambling over rocks and stopping at water holes to jump from the cliffs and swim. As you can see below, I am not quite as brave as the boys regarding jumping heights.

bill jumping into water

I really enjoyed the camping. Nadia had an air mattress for us in the tent and it was a perfect sleeping temperature. We ate well, with Naoki on the super deluxe Coleman camping stove! Between the views of the white rocks, green trees and blue skies and the refreshing water, it really recharged my spirit. It also reminded me of the importance of wilderness and I plan to take the family out more often this year.

 

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Ollie, Ocean and Sam hop between rocks

It was also nice to pleasant to connect with friends sitting around the campfire.

 

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.