Farewell to Summer (Part I) – Summer Sonic 2018!

Summer is my favorite time of the year. I experienced long, cold winters and cold wet springs and autumns growing up in pre-global warming northern Michigan. The brief respite of the “tropical trumpet” as ecologist Tim Flannery calls it, during July and August was such a respite from the usually inclement weather. It also coincides with school holidays and as a busy educator, I find summer a time to reconnect with myself and my family. As I am writing this on September 1, I am feeling a bit of melancholy and looking back at the peaceful and sweaty days of July and early August. I’ve been so busy with the start of the school year that I did not write much in August, so I am catching up with the end of our summer family activities.


Nadia, Ocean and I attended a big summer music festival called Summer Sonic. The tickets were expensive (14,000 yen – $130 USD) and we were kind of grumbling about being tired and not wanting to go, but what a mistake it would have been to stay home. We all had such a fantastic full day of music, dancing and spending time together! It was well worth the price. It was the first time in years that I’ve attended a summer festival. We went to the first day of the 2-day festival and there were 4 stages with 6-8 bands performing on each one. We walked between venues and the concert times were staggered so we saw an amazing range of music. We caught all or some of the sets of the following major pop music artists:

  • Walk the Moon, Alessia Cara, J Balvin, Beck, Tom Misch, Rex Orange County, Portugal The Man, St. Vincent and Jess Glynne

It was a super hot, humid glorious summer day so the water stations and air conditioning of the Sonic Stage, inside the Osaka Evassa basketball arena helped us keep cool. There were many highlights.

  • Beck – I forgot how much I liked him and he was a true entertainer, providing a good 90 minutes of delightful music. It was the best overall performance.
  • J Balvin is massive on the pop charts for his reggaeton/hip-hop style of music. I had never heard of him, but loved his more traditional Colombian cumbia and salsa-inspired songs.
  • St. Vincent reminded me of Talking Heads and I loved her visual style and dance grooves in her music.
  • Lots of energy from Walk the Moon and Portugal the Man. Both groups had huge pop hits, but I felt both really wanted to play arena rock and Metallica-like hard rock respectively instead.
  • Ocean absolutely loved Alessia Cara, whose target audience I think is teenage girls.



Ocean and her BFF, Alona enjoy Alessia Cara

In between shows, we went to the food court/village and had some super greasy but delicious hamburgers. The concert was held in Maishima Sports Park, an artificial island in the port area of Osaka Bay. The professional baseball team Orix Buffaloes have a training grounds there and the professional basketball team Osaka Evassa’s arena is also located there. It was a distinctive place to hold a festival and despite the tens of thousands of people, it didn’t feel crowded at all. Japanese culture keeps things orderly and the need for security and seeing young people fighting, vomiting or causing havoc was not happening, thankfully.

In the civilized section of the stadium! 

The highlight of the day was bonding with my daughter Ocean, my wife Nadia and our friends! What a great way as a father to spend time with a pre-teen girl! We will definitely go back next year if possible. Having two teenagers in the house keeps us “hip” to pop music and culture and keeps us young!

My Fervour for Cycling

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.

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.

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.


Summer Journal July 6, 2018: Heavy Rains Continue

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.

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.


Culinary Osaka: Robatayaki

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.

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.


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.


Geocaching on the Yodo River


Sunday afternoon we took the kids down to the Yodo River, one of the big rivers running through Osaka into the bay. There are over 300 geocaches along the shores of the river and people come from all over to see how many they can get in a day. We did a loop around both banks of the river and got a bunch, but not close to 300. The sun was out and despite the cold winds, it was quite pleasant to be outside. The Japanese love baseball and play all year round as you can see by the photo above. I also like to see the large number of bikes at the park. That is one of the reasons the Japanese are so healthy is that they get a lot of exercise, which is a suggestion for Americans to improve their health.


As I have previously written, geocaching is a great excuse to get outdoors, spend time together as a family and explore new areas. The river banks are for public use in Japan and one finds sports fields, golf courses, bike paths, fishing spots, etc. We are passing over the Nagara bridge, just outside the central business district (photo above)


Above are the old locks that carried boats between the Okawa and Yodo rivers. Because of dams and levees to prevent flooding, the two rivers had a large difference in elevation. They are no longer used and city officials have turned them into a sort of outdoor museum.


A highlight for me was crossing this train bridge. The tracks are under construction so no trains are crossing, but Oliver was really frightened to cross, thinking a train would come. There is space on the side and it is safe, so it was a managed risk situation. We made it across with no problems.

Thanks to Josep for driving and Pico and Bernie for helping us find so many geocaches!



America-mura (American Village)

Last week we ventured downtown to Shinsaibashi, one of the neighborhoods in the center of Osaka. Bashi means bridge and it is one of the famous bridges over the Nagahori River. Nadia needed to fix her iPhone and the most convenient Apple store is in this area. After getting the phone repaired, we stumbled onto the America-mura the American-themed shopping and entertainment district that is the center of popular youth culture in Osaka. There was an air of excitement and energy, especially around the triangle park (Sankaku koen). There was also a lot of interesting fashion choices, with all sorts of hairstyles and clothes with an urban edge. We walked around a bit and took the kids to Burger King. I would certainly like to go back and explore the area a bit more without the children in tow. There are some live music venues we would like to check out.

“Peace On Earth” by local artist Seitaro Kuroda (1983)

To get to America-mura, it is a side street off the main Midosuji road and subway line that runs north and south, bisecting Osaka. You can disembark at Namba or Shinsaibashi station. The area has always been an attraction for young people. I also liked the robot/human shaped light posts.

It is nice to live out in the suburbs but be very close to the inner city. America-mura is so different from Minoh and it makes for an invigorating night out.

Gamba Osaka

We just got back from attending the  top professional soccer league (J-league Division 1) game between the local Gamba Osaka versus south Tokyo-based Kawasaki Frontale. The top player for Gamba, Usami #39 (back row, second from left) scored in the 43rd minute of the first half. Kawasaki equalized in the 81st minute of the second half and the game ended in a 1-1 draw. I thought Gamba dominated the first half and Kawasaki the second, so it was a fair result.

The “Gamba” comes from the Italian word for leg and the Japanese “gambate – go for it”. They seem to be modeled after Inter Milan and I did see some Italian signs of the fan clubs around the stadium. They are the defending J-League champions, but are third in the table this year, behind FC Tokyo and Urawa Red Diamonds. There biggest season was in 2008, when they won the Asian version of the Champions League. The team started from the defunct B team of cross-town rival in the J-League, Cereza Osaka.

Gamba plays in Expo 70 stadium which is very close to our house in Minoh. They are building a new Suita Stadium, which is close by the current stadium. It will open next season. Both stadiums are in the Expo ’70 or Bampaku park and it is a really nice area. We bike and run around and in the park often.

Tribalism and Nationalism are present in soccer stadiums around the world, including Gamba Osaka

My favorite player for Gamba tonight was striker Takashi Usami. He is only 23 years old and an aggressive, exciting player. He took a lot of shots on goal, which I like to see. He spent a couple of years in Germany, one playing for Bayern Munich. Attendance was over 18,000 and the stadium, although a bit old, was quite comfortable. The crowd was not as big or crazy as the Hanshin Tiger game. A nice evening out!

Christmas in Japan

We had a funny experience earlier this week when we tried to buy a Christmas tree. We heard that Ikea sold real trees so on the last day of our rental car, we drove south to the store. Ikea is located on reclaimed land in the Osaka Bay, close to the mouth of the Yodo River. The waterfront in Osaka is not developed as a tourist destination, but instead is very industrial with a large port and factories.  My guess is that land was cheap and it was easy to receive imported goods so Ikea put their store there. The store is not near public transport so Ikea runs their own shuttle bus from the Namba station.

After about a 45 minute drive we got to the parking lot and there was a frenzy of activity near the entrance. They were selling “trees” around the corner from the entrance and when Nadia asked a salesperson how to buy a tree, she tells us that they are quickly selling out and to hurry to buy a ticket for a tree and stand before they run out. Nadia left for the sales desk and I went out to select a tree. When I got there however, I saw that the “trees” were just large branches. The locals were presenting their tickets and wrapping their branches in newspaper and were carrying them to the cars like babies. Hilarious! They were very happy with their branches. I guess it is all relative and in thinking about the size  of most Japanese apartments, a large tree would not fit. I quickly called Nadia and told her not to spend the 2,000 yen on a branch. Being from northern Michigan and having spent several years shaping Christmas trees at Hanson’s Tree Farm in my home town, I couldn’t get myself to buy a branch. It was a full branch, but it would have been worse than a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.

Instead we ended up getting an artificial tree. The main point was the kids, especially Ocean, loved trimming the tree and we infused some Christmas spirit into our house. We decided to put up the tree early this year because we are traveling to Australia for the holiday and want to enjoy the tree for a longer time.

The view from the Ikea parking lot back towards Osaka

I didn’t want to take any photos of people, so we sent Oliver to snap a photo of the branches to give you an idea of what they looked like. He took the photo that led this post, this branch sitting on a pallet, waiting for pickup from some happy customer.

I find it interesting as well that the Japanese love Christmas! There are decorations everywhere and Christmas carols playing in the stores. Nadia bought some ornaments and decorations at the local Ikea version, Nitori. Halloween was big here as well.

The view from the Midosuji Highway – downtown Osaka

Inner City Night Patrol

I got to see another side of Osaka last weekend when I accompanied the students from our school on a community service activity. We went to the Sanno Childrens Center in the poorest ward of Osaka, Nishinari-ku. The ward is infamous in Japan for its crime rates, red light district and homeless. Now this being Japan, a country with one of the lowest violent crime rates in the world, I felt quite safe and yes it did seem a bit run down and not as new and tidy as other parts of the city, but compared to disadvantaged districts in cities in other parts of the world, it is extremely safe.

The Childrens (Kodomo) Center was founded in the 1960s by German missionaries. To this day, it continues to provide after school care and other services for children from the ward. As you can see from the photo above, one of the children the center cares for was fascinated with my European, bald, head. One of the initiatives of the center is a monthly yomoguri or night patrol. Volunteers led by the pugnacious director of the center Mami, lead groups into the streets to deliver food (onigiri – spheres of rice wrapped in seaweed) and blankets to the homeless men sleeping in the streets of the shopping arcades in the district. I was filled with a sense of goodness seeing how grateful and kind the men were in talking with the students, including my 7 year old daughter.

Mami gives us instructions for the patrols and you can see Ocean leaning over the middle of the table.

Within Nishinari-ku is a neighborhood called Kamagasaki. This area is home to many male day laborers, who through a variety of circumstances (gambling, alcohol, mental illness) are homeless. The government forbids the official use of the name and they try to hide media from portraying issues in the area. A recent NHK documentary about the Sanno Childrens Center featured one of the orphans the center cares  for and it has brought increased donations to them. It was sad to see them laying on newspaper with cardboard boxes around them as their only protection against the elements. It gets cold at night in Osaka in November. There are several organizations helping them, including a center to organize them finding short-term manual labor, free or reduced price shelters, etc.

We also walked through Tobita Shinchi, another neighborhood within the ward. Tobita Shinchi is infamous for its red light district. As in Amsterdam, the women are displayed for street view, although here, it is open air and the architecture is old Japan style. They were only protected by an elderly woman minder that sat to the side of them. She yelled at me when I tried to take the photo (see below). The police tolerate prostitution, but again, I felt sorry for the girls, as it is a tough way to make a living.

I was so inspired to help and want to make it a regular part of our experience while we are here. I would like to thank Lyn and Hannah for assisting me and Ocean and introducing us to the center.


Osaka Soul Food: Okonomiyaki

The cool autumn weather has finally arrived here in Minoh. Last night the temperature dipped down into the 40s F (5-7 C) and so we wanted a hot meal. We rode our bikes to a restaurant in our neighborhood called Warai. They specialize in Okonomiyaki. The okonomi part of the word means “as you like it” and yaki means grilled or cooked. This style of food is associated with our Kansai region and a there is a slightly different version in Hiroshima. It is popular throughout the country. It is interesting that I have never seen it featured in Japanese restaurants outside of Japan.

The best thing about these types of restaurants is the hot stove that is seated in the table top and the little spatulas everyone is given. The kids love being able to do some “cooking” but one has to be careful with younger children that they do not burn themselves. The staff brings out various dishes half-cooked and lets patrons finish them on the hot stove. The stove also

The famous pancake of Osaka!

We ordered squid, corn and dumplings as the first course. The second course was the famous Osaka pancake. It is made of flour mixed with cabbage and yam, and either seafood or meat is added. It is topped with super thin fish flakes and you can add Japanese mayonnaise or the signature sauce of okonomiyaki, which is like  Worcestershire sauce. I love them and it is known as the soul food or signature dish of Osaka.

Delicious squid and corn

There are many restaurants that serve Okonomiyaki. Warai is a chain of family-style restaurants and there are over 20 in Osaka and Kobe. It is conveniently located for us and is kid friendly. I am looking forward to comparing the Hiroshima-style pancake.

Nadia and Oliver in front of the restaurant in Onohara.