Typhoon 21 - A case in disaster readiness

Keep kids indoors and teach them to stay away from rivers and waterways during the rains.

Keep kids indoors and teach them to stay away from rivers and waterways during the rains.

I'm looking out my living room window as rain continues to pummel the Western half of Japan for the third day in a row.  This isn't a normal summer rain storm in Japan.  This is a massive storm, dumping up to 7 centimeters per hour of rain at its peak, and continuing for days.  Rivers have turned violent, landslides are being triggered all over, and hundreds of thousands of people are being evacuated all over, from Kyoto to Fukuoka. Two people are confirmed dead and 5 are still missing.

I'll keep this post brief and to-the-point:

The only priority at a time like this is to survive, which means staying informed, making good decisions, and communicating.  In this regard, Kobe City is the Gold Standard of disaster management.

Kobe City's official English PR Twitter

Kobe City's official English PR Twitter

If you're an expat here with a Japanese iPhone, then you received the same alert I did on Thursday morning. Everyone's phone went off with a blaring alarm and a warning about the rains, advising people to take safety precautions.

What you may not know is that Kobe has some incredible resources at work to keep the community informed.  One key resource is the Twitter account @kobecityPR, which communicates critical updates and advisory messages in English, as well as other reminders. Follow this account right now, and pay attention to all their tweets.  For example, last night's 21:00 JST tweet:

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【21:00 July 6】The record heavy rainfall has been continued in Kobe and there is high risk of landslides and flood. Unless urgent and absolute necessary, please stay at home. If you cannot help but leave home, please keep yourself away from hazard areas including swollen rivers.

The Kobe City Hazard Map. Click to go to the Hazard Map in  Japanese  or in  English ,  Chinese  or  Korean

The Kobe City Hazard Map. Click to go to the Hazard Map in Japanese or in English, Chinese or Korean

Another resource you should be aware of is Kobe's live updated hazard map. Right now one of the greatest risks is sediment disasters, landslides triggered from the massive rains. The other major danger is simply getting stuck without safety.  The Kobe City hazard map provides a real-time view of all possible risks, and also identifies indoor and outdoor emergency evacuation points. The hazard map is available in Japanese and English, as well as Chinese and Korean.

Kobe also provides excellence resources in English and other languages, including:

If I missed any critical resources you know of, please let me know via twitter @livinginkobe or on Instagram so we can update this post. 

Please be safe everyone.

What's it like living in Japan?

What's it like living in Japan?

What's it like living in Japan? James Coleman, a native Californian, entrepreneur and technologist who moved from Southern California to Kobe Japan with his family, shares some of the most important points about living in Japan, from safety to food and housing and transportation.  It's all about quality of life, and in Japan, quality of life is abundant.

Read More

知•徳•体 A day in the life of a Japanese elementary school student

知•徳•体 Chi toku tai. A solid academy ability, richness in humanity, and a healthy body. 

The Japanese Ministry of Education's EDU-port Japan Project recently published this video in English, to give people outside of Japan a glimpse into the unique priorities and characteristics of Japanese education by describing the schedule and activities of an elementary school child during the average day.

Women to The Rescue: Why and how women can save Japan.

Clyde Prestowitz, in his 2015 book Japan Restored (link at bottom of page), imagines a very different Japan in the future:

...you notice that there are as many women in smart business suites as there are men, something that had already made an impression on you when you attended a conference with a Japanese client company yesterday. That conference had been chaired by a female CEO, and you were surprised to see that women and non-Japanese employees of the company outnumbered the Japanese men around the conference table. Your Japanese host at the company declined your suggestion of an after-work beer because he had to collect his children from the daycare center.  So you left the office alone and went in search of a drink by yourself, but instead of streets lined with bars, you could only find streets lined with family restaurants, where mothers, fathers, and young children were enjoying dinner together.
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Of course, this isn't today's reality. As of 2015 the Japanese population of 127 million is set to decline to 85 million by 2050, and the only thing aging and shrinking faster than the population is the workforce, 87 million in 2010, and on track to drop to 52 million by 2050.  The problems with this are many: Pension funds evaporate as funds are exhausted, standards of living drop, and the cycle continues. Many following the declining birth rate are even beginning to forecast when the last Japanese person could die.  They're talking about extinction. The current reality is not a small issue.

Mr. Prestowitz puts forward that to maintain economic growth and standards of living, more women need to join the workforce, and women should have more children. To make this a reality, he argues, the following issues need to be addressed and resolved:

  1. The Japanese child care system needs to be fixed. The system of overcrowded hoikuen and under-utilized yochien is arduous at best, and the ease and availability of quality daycare for children has a direct impact on the decision of women to work or not.
  2. Corporate practices and societal attitudes that act as strong disincentives for women to work: Long, inflexible working hours combined with the societal pressure for women to stay at home to care for aging parents in addition to managing the administration and logistics of the childrens' education. Even with Parental leave available to fathers, some estimates indicate that as little as 3% actually take leave available to them for fear of being considered unmanly or disloyal within the workforce.
  3. Male-centric career selection, advancement and compensation: Only 9% of Japanese managers are women, compared to, as an example, 43% percent in the United States. Not only is there a lack of role models to begin with, but the inherent inflexibility of career-track positions post college exit automatically disincentivize female college graduates from applying, which minimizes the potential cost to a company of early retirement by women.  This, along with a median wage that's 28% less than their male counterparts (2X higher gap than in other similar economies) is further disincentive.
  4. Social stigmas associated with single motherhood, and all the various discrimination from various systems that result. Consider this: There were 200,000 abortions performed in Japan in 2011 (reported), and 1.05 million babies born.  First, let me be extremely clear that I am pro-choice. I believe that no government or any person should ever have any power over any woman's decision regarding her body and her pregnancy.  What I do wonder is how many of these women choose to give up motherhood because of fear of discrimination in employment, taxes, housing, social services, and more?
  5. Adoption is rare in Japan.  In the US, the adoption rate is 170 per 10,000 births. In Japan, it's 6. This leads to questions about the impact of the traditional koseki family registration system, where all the demographic data about births, marriages, divorces and life are recorded and widely accessible to outsiders.
  6. Social stigma about fertility technologies that enable women to proactively manage when they want to have children. 

This list goes on. Put simply: It's a complicated mess. But the Japanese government knows what the issues are, and it can take specific action with new laws and new policies to begin reversing and ultimately eliminating many if not all of these issues.  In Japan Restored, Mr. Prestowitz goes on to describe how specific changes to the Japanese immigration system in addition to very specific, focused changes within business could completely reverse today's demographic trend. Envisioning these issues dealt with, and having suggested very specific, actionable and reasonable changes to do so, he ends the Chapter "Women to the Rescue": 

While most of the rest of Asia - especially South Korea and China - is becoming older and more enfeebled every day, Japan in 2010 is becoming younger and more robust.

More Gustos and Cocos than izakaya?  Parks filled with children playing and schools brimming with students eager to take on new challenges?  Women balancing out men in boardrooms and becoming equal decision makers and business leaders? This sounds very much like a future to look forward to.

In Japan Restored, Mr. Prestowitz tackles the main issues Japan is facing in a fascinating and approachable way. Regardless of whether or not you agree with any of his assertions, the book is very difficult to put down, and leaves you energized and excited. Get Japan Restored by Clyde Prestowitz on Amazon, depending on which country you're in:

in Japan via Amazon Japan (English) and now translated in Japanese here

in the USA via Amazon USA (link)

OMOSHIROI BLOCK - Artwork that emerges over time

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The concept is brilliant: A block of high quality paper to tear away one leaf at a time, for memos and messages. But like a 3-D printer with patience, as the pages disappear, a beautifully sculpted object emerges. Each leaf of paper is elegantly scored with a laser-cutter, and each block contains a beautifully crafted object. Designs include extremely detailed objects, including a grand piano, a Japanese castle, a camera, a violin, a Japanese temple and Tokyo Tower.

This must have been a fun project. It looks like the creators used every printing frame from a 3-D object render with the right gauge paper, and voila, gorgeous and emotive art. I remember losing track of time watching chopsticks getting engraved with my son's name in kanji by a CNC machining device on the counter of a little Kyoto shop. I think I would be mesmerized by the manufacturing process with whatever laser cutter they used to make these!

Big thanks to my nerd friend David at Macsparky for sharing this! Currently Triad, Inc. sells OMOSHIROI BLOCK exclusively at Tokyu Hands in Osaka, ranging in price from ¥4,000 to ¥10,000.

Japaneur

There is probably no other country that sparks curiosity like Japan.

Japan is simultaneously approachable, yet alien, and at times seemingly unknowable. I recently heard Tim Ferriss (@tferriss) interviewing Malcolm Gladwell (@gladwell) on a podcast, and Tim described walking around Japan for the first time like “being in a fever dream.” Malcolm described it as simply wonderful.  When you go to Japan for the first time, you’ll discover what they both mean. Japan is wonderful and interesting on so many levels.

25 years ago I traveled to Japan for the first time.  Since then, I’ve been exploring Japan’s language, cultures and customs. Some of my colleagues called me a Japanologist. I think I'm more of a flâneur: A curious, always-learning, always-discovering explorer.  But people like labels, so I coined Japaneur. And I decided to start this site. If you're Japan-curious, or if you're preparing for any kind of visit to Japan, this site and the forthcoming podcast are for you.

Japaneur is the quintessential insiders guide to Japan, with an outsiders perspective.

I decided to start Japaneur for four reasons: 

First, I’m doing it for myself.

I love Japan. I love it enough to have completed a degree in Japanese language and literature.

When my first son was born a few years ago, I suddenly discovered how little I knew about Japan, even after 20 years of experiences and exposure to the country. My wife, who is Japanese, and I decided to raise our son both bilingual and bicultural. All of the suddent I no longer needed to just understand Japanese, I needed to be able to communicate in ways college could never have prepared me for.

So Japaneur is a journal of sorts. The more I discover about Japan, the more questions I ask myself. It’s incredibly useful to use cultural and linguistic discovery as a mirror for self reflection - or maybe better yet, introspection. Now I have a place to collect and share my thoughts.

My son has surprised me several times with his questions, observations and actions. He literally thinks and dreams in two languages. This isn’t unique - my grandfather spoke eight languages during his childhood in Europe - but only now we’re discovering that bilingual children think and feel differently in both languages.  To me, it’s critical that I can keep up with him, because I’m his dad. And that means being able to relate to two cultures that make up his one culture that’s comprised of both.

Consider Japaneur my learning journal. 

Second, I want to share what I've learned, and learn from you. 

Learning about Japan can at times be frustrating, because most of information available in English is either bipolar or unnecessarily exclusive. I had to spend years getting a degree in Japanese to be able to access more - books, websites, and even situations and conversations not available in English.  Across most of Japan, the emphasis on learning and communicating more in English isn’t really working (more on this later). 

I’ve met a ton of people, from college students, to parents to really want to know Japan better. Consider Japaneur my attempt to make Japan more accessible to a global audience of people like me.

I also hope to meet and learn from more fellow Japaneurs. Each one of us must have so many experiences that, collectively, can help each of us better connect the dots as we learn more about Japan. 

Third, Japan matters to the United States and the world.

Japan is the home of core cultural and business concepts that have already radically changed the world, and could make it even better. That iPhone in your pocket is only possible because Steve Jobs vision was made a reality through manufacturing and distribution techniques that originated in Japan. From Tesla to Porsche to Hyundai, nearly all the processes that made their quality possible originated in Japan. 

And what about the cultural concepts of beauty, politeness and honesty that permeate Japanese society? The Japanese concept of space and waste could, if adopted by the west, radically shift our progress in conservation and preservation of our environment.

While certainly not absolute, honesty is a core value in Japan. In Japan, a credit card chargeback hits the bank, not the business. A business will not be a customer of that bank for long with a pattern of chargebacks. But this is the same country where credit cards are not needed to make a reservation.  To make a reservation is to make a promise. I remember a monk running down 15 flights of stairs to return ¥200 (about two dollars) to a visitor that received incorrect change at a temple for a purchase. How much better would our lives be if everyone’s actions were so oriented toward social harmony and cooperation? Just imagine if Americans could take their extreme individualism and balance it with thoughtfulness expressed for the sake of others.

Read the Japan Times for just a few days and you’ll realize that Japan is in trouble. Its economy continues to erode despite all the plans and promises by its current Prime Minister. The last world-changing technology revolution didn’t originate in Japan, it started in Silicon Valley. Japan’s population is in rapid decline, with a negative birth rate. More and more of Japan’s population is elderly, with less and less young workers contributing to the tax system designed to care for the aged.  And Japan doesn’t treat its own women equally, nor foreigners, both of which are key demographics for adding to the workforce in other countries. Japan’s in a pickle.

And we are too. Clyde Prestowitz explains why in the last chapter of his 2015 book Japan Restored. He summarizes why Japan failing is potentially disastrous to world peace and our global economy:

It is greatly in the interest of the United States to have a robust, democratic, militarily strong Japan that has made its peace with World War II, that conducts its own peace-oriented foreign policy, and that is willing to contract mutual security arrangements both with some of its key immediate neighbors and with the United States, as well as others such as Australia and India.  Such a Japan would greatly lessen the geopolitical burden of the United States while also strengthening democratic forces globally and contributing to worldwide economic growth.  The rest of the world, and especially the United States, has a huge stake in having this kind of Japan restored.

Most of us alive have experienced a world where the United States, a country in which its safe to challenge the establishment, is the greatest world power.  Japan is arguably the only country in Asia to have demonstrated massive, successful economic growth under a democratic government. Mr. Prestowitz explains that Japan is uniquely capable of furthering peace and prosperity in the world, be building stronger relationships with its neighbors and other major countries committed to freedom and democracy.  Of course, the alternative is terrifying.

I want my children to grow up in a world of peace and opportunity, and not in a world of war like the one my grandparents experienced during WWII.

Finally, let's not forget the fun

So far, I've been pretty serious. I didn't and won't forget the fun and strange. 

In what other country can you find an 18 meter tall (54') 50-ton robot statue at a park? Where Kentucky Fried Chicken is a Christmas tradition? Or a ghost (hoji-hoji) that compels nose-picking? An island full of cats?  High-tech toilets with fuzzy logic processors?

What better place to capture and share all the cool and interesting things Japaneurs discover around almost any corner in Japan?

Getting started

There’s so much to cover, discuss and write about. So as the greatest American travel writer Harry Franck would say, the only think to do is apply the seat of my pants to the seat of my chair and start writing.  

If you’re interested in Japan, stay tuned by joining my email list here, following @japaneur on twitter, and subscribing to the podcast once it goes up.  Please let me know your feedback, thoughts, ideas and questions.  

I’m certain we’ll learn from each other, and learn together. And the awareness we create could just help make the world a better place.

The annual お守り (omamori) cycle

I usually make an annual visit to the 西宮神社 Nishinomiya shrine to pray (donate $) to Ebisu for great business luck in the coming year. Ebisu (transliterated as Yebisu.. ゑびす) is the god of fisherman, luck and the working man. This year a family member is going for me. He's returning the good luck お守り (read = omamori) that I bought in the prior year, and also picking up a new, larger お守り with the budgeted money I've set aside for my annual purchase of good business luck from the temple.  お守り needs to be returned to the temple it came from each year and replaced with newly purchased お守り.  The monks figured out a good recurring revenue model, centuries before the Internet and magazine subscriptions.

My donation never really compares to the big bucks power of some big Japanese companies. Their donations usually include what they make: Beer, sake, etc. And of course lots of money.

At the 西宮神社 Nishinomiya Shrine, there is a particularly big fish each year that you are supposed to affix money to - or better yet, getting money into it's open mouth - which creates good luck. It's usually big. The one in the picture is 250 kilograms and 2.5 meters long.

Maneki Neko 招き猫 A.K.A. the beckoning "Fortune Cat"

That cats bring luck isn't a new concept. The Egyptians were so enamoured with cats that they even worshiped the cat goddess Bast. If vermin including cobra snakes were problems in your home and you discovered that cats hunt and kill both (!!), you would probably be fond of cats, too.

Almost everyone's seen a Maneki-Neko 招き猫, translated literally as "beckoning cat". Sometimes they are perched at the entrance of a shop, other times sitting on a shelf looking over the sushi chefs toward the seated customers, or facing the door of the restaurant. Some Maneki-Neko have a swinging arm (motorized, mechanical, sometimes solar-powered) that looks like it's waving at you. Others are fixed with one of their two arms up, paw down.

Cultural side note: The way we gesture "come here" is very different than the Japanese way. We either use a finger in a curling up motion to say "come here", or swing our arm in the direction we want someone to go, or use our thumb to point the same, in a "come on over this way" gesture. Don't ever use the American/Western finger curling come here gesture in Japan. It's considered rude in Japan, and in some other Asian countries you'll get thrown in jail for using it (or worse). 

Instead, the Japanese will extend their arm partially or entirely with palm of hand facing the earth, and while keeping the arm relatively still, wave the hand down pointing to earth, then back up to a neutral position, palm facing the earth.  I made a little video demonstrating this here.

Where does Maneki Neko originally come from?

Maneki Neko comes from the Gotokuji Temple in Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, just a five minute walk from Miyanosaka Station on the Tokyu Setagaya Line.

In Japan, there are temples for just about everything. From fertility to business luck and beyond. The Maneki Neko is said to bring good luck in its direction. If you're looking to increase your luck, a visit to the Gotokuji Temple is in order.

There are many myths and legends surrounding the origins of the Maneki Neko. The most dramatic of stories is that of a cat who was cared for by a priest at the temple during the Edo Period (1603-1868). One day a Japanese feudal lord named Ii Naotaka was passing by the temple, and Naotaka and his servants took shelter from a thunderstorm under a tree near the temple.  That was when they saw the cat that appeared to be waving at them, beckoned to come inside the temple.   Curious, they followed the cat into the temple and were greeted by the priest. Shortly after entering the temple the tree was struck by lightning.  It is said Naotaka was grateful to the priest and offered forward gifts to the temple, all the result of the cat.

The Gotokuji temple sells the Maneki Neko statues and provides this version of the story on paper along with the statues:

The story of a Monk and a waving cat:
A long time ago when the temple was a shabby hut and the Monk could barely live on the small income he gained as practising mendicant. He had a cat and cared for it like his own child, sharing his own meal with it. One day he said to the cat, "If you are grateful to me, bring some fortune to the temple." After many months, one summer afternoon, the Monk heard sounds around the gate, and there he saw five or six samurai warriors on their way home from hawk hunting, approaching him and leaving their horses behind. They said, "We were about to pass in front of your gate, but there a cat was crouching and suddenly it lifted one arm and started waving and waving when it saw us. We were surprised and intrigued, and that brought us to come here to ask for some rest." So the Monk served his bitter tea and told them to relax. Suddenly the sky darkened and heavy rain began to fall with thunder. While they waited a long time for the sky to clear, the Monk preached Sanzei-inga-no-hou (past, present, future reasoning sermons).
The samurais were delighted and began to think about converting to the temple. Immediately, one samurai announced, "My name is Naotaka Ii. I am the king of Hikone, Koshu province. Due to your cat's waving, we were able to hear your preaching. This has opened our eyes, and seems to be the start of something new. This must be the Buddha's will." Soon after they returned home, Naotaka Ii donated huge rice fields and crop lands to make the temple grand and generous as it is now.
Because of the cat, fortune had been brought to the temple. Therefore, Gotokuji is called the cat temple. The monk later established the grave of the cat and blessed it. Before long the statue of the cute waving cat was established so that people might remember the episode and worship it. Now everybody knows the temple as the symbol of household serenity, business prosperity, and fulfillment of wishes.

When you visit Tokyo make sure to pick up your own good luck Maneki Neko from the Gotokuji temple. And remember, always be nice to animals, especially cats.

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Japanese Hotels - Why good is often better

I like great service, I'm a fan of good food, and I'm very particular about where I sleep. I expect a hotel room to be safe and secure, exceptionally clean and very private. And now that I have children, my expectations are that much higher. Which is why I'm a fan of higher-end hotels. 

This is one of the reasons I love Japan.  In general, I've found hotels in Japan to be profoundly better in many ways to their western counterparts. For example, my family and I recently stayed at The Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo (links to booking.com). We've stayed at five-star hotels in Chicago, New York, San Francisco and more, but The Prince Sakura Tower Tokyo blows them all away (excluding ultra-luxury hotels like The Ritz-Carlton, but I'll get to that later). The service is exceptional, the basic breakfast buffet was delicious, and the care with which the facility is maintained by the staff can be felt everywhere.  In my mind, I created a new ranking: five-star-plus (5+).

Why good is often better in Japan

When I think back over the last several hotels we've stayed at in Japan, including the Hotel Okura in Kobe, the Hotel Granvia in Kyoto, I'm consistently impressed with almost every aspect of the stay. We even routinely book the Hotel Nikko at the Kansai International Airport on every inbound flight to Japan.  It's walking distance from the airport, and a perfect place to rest upon arrival instead of trying to make that last 4 hours of travel with two extremely tired young kids in tote.

Typical Japanese service is really good

These aren't ultra-luxury hotels, like the Ritz Carlton and St. Regis. But you'll be surprised at how great the service is. I think a lot of this comes down to what we consider to be "great service" in American or other western countries. The Ritz-Carlton is fiercely proud of their 1992 and 1999 Malcolm Baldrige awards, as they very well should be.  There's a lot to the Malcolm Baldrige award, but in a nutshell it comes down to performance excellence. So it shouldn't be any surprise that, in the country that basically invented the concept and practice of kaizen, or continuous improvement, that almost every hotel provides an incredibly predictable, reliable experience.

And then there's the surprise and delight that comes from the unexpected, which is part of what makes Japan so fun and cool.  Last year I stayed at the Westin Tokyo, in the Meguro Ward, together with my brother who was visiting Japan on business. We flew in together from California, and as is usually the case, we were tired and hungry checking into the hotel. I grabbed a room service menu and saw:

  • Beer (glass) $10
  • Draft beer (glass) $14

I'm from California and we have access to a lot of really good beer, including several local beers available on draft. Then there's just silly, plain emotional decision making. "If I'm going to spend $10 on what might be boring, I may as well instead spend $14 on something that's likely to taste better," said I to myself.

Boy, was I pleased with that decision. In less than five minutes, the room bell rang.  And at the door?  The bar.  They brought the bar to our room. Well, maybe not the entire bar, but a bar on wheels with a keg built-in, and accompanied by an individual very skilled and serving draft beer.

If you're a fan of the Ritz-Carlton and other similar, ultra-luxury hotels, you'll simply be delighted in Japan.

Ultra-luxury Hotels in Japan

I'm a big fan of the Ritz-Carlton, and have stayed numerous times at The Ritz-Carlton Osaka. And recently on one outing to Osaka we stayed a night at the St. Regis Osaka as well. If you are a fan of either of these hotel brands, you be perfectly satisfied and at home in Japan.

One of the interesting things I noticed is that a big, obvious differentiator in the United States between ultra-luxury five-star and just regular five-star is a predictable customer experience. In the United States, I'm used to getting less that professional service and attention at many five-star hotels, and I notice a lot of mistakes. In fact, an unfortunate reality that a good number of US hotels actually point at their "service recovery" rate (how well and often they attend to customer complaints and fix problems). 

I think it would be a lot better to point out the absence of issues instead.  When the error rate is so low in Japan across the board, the differentiators that remain to stand out are the ones that matter: Atmosphere, cuisine (my favorite), skillful and elegant service, the Concierge's deep local knowledge and network.

If you are visiting Osaka in Kansai, I can't recommend The Ritz-Carlton Osaka highly enough.  The location is great, and the service is exceptional. You'll truly feel cared for.  The St. Regis Osaka has some impressive features - like butler doors and floor-to-ceiling glass walls letting you look out over the city from your bath - but it's not nearly as conveniently located. I also preferred the food at The Ritz-Carlton far more. Room service is always more expensive, but the food at the Ritz always over delivers. The food at the St. Regis was barely average, but came at a huge price premium.

What hotels have you stayed at in Japan that you enjoyed? What did you enjoy about the stay?  I'd love to get your feedback and recommendations.

An incredible ryokan and onsen in Kyoto

In Kameoka, deep in the countryside inland of Kyoto, Japan, there's an area famous for its natural hot springs called Yunohana.  And like most natural hot springs, some great Ryokans exist to provide a uniquely Japanese experience that combines hospitality with a special kind of rejuvenation. Yunohana Resort Suisen is an exceptional and recently established Ryokan that offers the best of Japanese cuisine and hot springs in a lovely and peaceful environment.

In 2015 my wife and I coordinated a visit to Japan for my brother and I.  It was his first trip to Japan, on business for a board meeting in Tokyo.  After the meeting, we spent a day in the noisy melee of Tokyo. Then we traveled to Kansai, Western Japan, to experience some of my favorite cities: Osaka, Kobe, and of course Kyoto.

When most people think of Kyoto, they think ancient and they think temples. The Ryokans and onsen (hot springs) in the Kyoto region are exceptional, and if you're planning a trip to Japan, it's worth considering staying in at least one carefully selected Ryokan. Most travel advisors seem to recommend Ryokans within the city of Kyoto for the sake of convenience. I prefer to get away and go deeper into the countryside to experience nature in Japan a bit more intimately.

Which brings me back to Yunohana Resort Suisen. Like most of my favorite Ryokans, it's small at just 13 rooms in total. And in this case, the focus is entirely on ensuring all guests can take in everything Yunohana offers.

The accommodations are wonderful, of course.  Each room overlooks the main garden, and each room has a small sitting room to relax and take in the garden, which is somewhat traditional. The public (for guests) baths are on the first floor of the resort, with separate baths for men and women.

Across the garden and up the hill, just past a small shrine, is an outdoor, open-air private hot spring that you can reserve in advance.  We traveled toward the end of Spring, and the cherry blossoms were still falling when we arrived. We booked separate times so each of us could enjoy the open-air bath.

This, for me, was the peak and best part of our stay at Yunohana Resort Suisen.  In very Japanese fashion, upon arrival we received apologies from the staff because the weather report indicated that it may rain. Not the kind of apology you hear at resorts in Maui when the staff knows everyone was looking forward to sun and blue skies lounging around the hotel pool.  This was a more formal apology that the weather may not be perfect.

As it turns out, it was perfect for me. When it was my turn to enjoy the outdoor private hot spring, I visited reception for the key and walked up the hill, noticing a very small shrine on the property, several yards off the walking path. Was it here before the resort? Two statues - stone foxes - almost seemed alert as if guarding the shrine. At the top of the walking path I unlocked the changing room, got settled in, then quietly entered the private outdoor hot spring.

It was beautiful. There's something magical about sitting in a hot spring with the perfectly cool Spring air on your face, and cherry blossoms falling around you.  Then it became more beautiful. It started raining.

I can't quite express how amazing it is to experience all of those things at once, so I took a quick recording to give you a taste.   It's moments like this that make me swear to myself that I'll continue exploring Ryokans and onsens every year for the rest of my life. And it's experiences like this that compelled me to start this site, so I could share with others who would enjoy the same.

Imagine my surprise when, after I was done enjoying the private hot spring, to find this at the door of the changing room, all the way up the hill:

The service was exceptional. In fact, you won't even notice it unless you're thinking about it, which is the point of exceptional service.  It's invisible, and you simply notice the absence of things.

The other key experience at a Ryokan is the cuisine. Yunohana Resort Suisen created a beautiful kaiseki-ryori experience.  The dining is semi-private (or entirely private, if you opt for it). We enjoyed dozens of dishes prepared by chefs from local and seasonal ingredients, including bamboo, octopus, the highest quality kobe beef, and more. Breakfast was even more interesting, with a poached tomato stewed in miso, which was surprising and amazing.  Enjoy the gallery featuring just a few of the dishes we enjoyed. And no, that's not a Piranha, it's just a local fish that has some pretty fierce-looking teeth. But man won in this case, and it made a delicious course in our meal.  

The room was fantastic. Traditional elements but with modern touches. And extremely comfortable.

Departing Yunohana was as positive an experience as the arrival.

Japan's dangerous population shift

In Japan, the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, a government-affiliated organization, released an announcement projecting that Japan's population could fall from 127.09 million in 2015 to 88.08 million by 2065.  See "Kansai leaders grope for ways to keep regional population stable amid projected slide"

But that's not the worst news.

According to the organization's estimates in 2013 the eight major prefectures that make up the Kansai region are projected to lose about 25% of their population by 2050, and the age demographic will dramatically change, with over 40% of the population over 65 years old, and less than 10% under age 14.

Making babies is one major are of concern. There are a variety of social, business and other economic issues impacting Japanese society, leading to one of the lowest birth rates the country has ever seen.  There are not enough births to replace the current population at the same level. In 2016, the total Japanese population dropped by 162,000, the sixth consecutive year of population decline.  But in reality, during the same year the Japanese population actually dropped 299,000. The delta was a 136,000 increase in foreign residents, somewhat slowing down the dramatic population decrease.  See Japan Times "Japan’s population slips for sixth consecutive year but foreign residents slowing the fall"

One of the biggest problems facing Japan is a potential calamity that the central government of Japan just isn't addressing at all.  And the data is right in front of them: In 2015, the national census showed that Japan's total population had declined by 960,000 since 2010.  But during the same period of time Tokyo's population actually grew by 350,000. The reason? A well-known pattern of young people moving from smaller cities to two places, Tokyo and Osaka, and primarily the former. There's an unprecedented concentration of the Japanese population in the capitol.  So why is this so dangerous?

Experts advise that there is a 30% chance of a massive quake hitting Tokyo in the next 10 years, and a 70% chance of a major quake in the next 30 years. Those aren't the kind of odds I'd like to bet against. Japan learned a serious lesson from the Great Hanshin Quake that struck Kobe and the surrounding region in Western Japan in 1995. Not only were thousands of lives tragically lost, but that quake essentially "choked" the flow of critical utilities, goods and services, and more, essentially shutting down the economy for months if not years.  Even as I write this in 2017, more than 20 years later, Kobe is still struggling to recover to its prior economic state.

In his book Reconstructing Kobe, author David Edgington draws on years of extensive fieldwork and research recording the the first ten years of reconstruction and recovery of the city following the Great Hanshin Quake.  In reading the book, I couldn't help find myself becoming terrified of the potential ripple of issues that could fundamentally set Japan back decades should a major quake hit Tokyo while it houses such a disproportionate volume of Japan's population.

I think the central government should realize that now is the time to address the over-concentration of the Japanese population in Tokyo. Not just for residents of Tokyo, but for the survival of Japan as a whole when, not if, the next quake hits.

Of course, that's easier said than done. The first step Japan will need to take is making a decision that addressing the over-concentration issue is a priority. The second step will be looking at the possible options for addressing it.  The third step will be taking action.

As I drove through Kobe yesterday I saw signs of a solution all around me. Entrepreneurs starting new businesses - and small businesses - all over Kobe. And what I am learning is that Kobe, which is a wildly attractive city to non-Japanese such as myself, has the potential to attract more entrepreneurs from overseas, and in doing so could take the first steps of creating an entrepreneurial culture that actually results in new small businesses being created.  New businesses create new jobs, and Kobe, like many other beautiful places in Japan, has the beauty and amenities of a desirable place to live. I have met some people who really appreciate congested, frenzied deep-urban environments like Tokyo, but they are rare. And I'm not one of them.  The potential exists to reverse the over-concentration population issue, and it will require open-minded leaders within the cities, like Kobe, who truly want to see a solution to the problem, and in doing so potentially save Japan from an unprecedented calamity in the future.

The disaster that struck Kobe provides a very serious warning of the potential catastrophic effect of a forthcoming disaster in Tokyo with it's massively over-concentrated population.  All leaders in Japan should pay attention to this.  Ironically, the seeds of the solution exist in Kobe as well, and the potential exists for Kobe to serve as a progressive, forward-leaning and highly entrepreneurial city that could reboot Japan with energy and passion into the next century.

My son found a baby bird

This morning I stepped out of the front door and was immediately greeted by a tiny baby bird, standing in the middle of the concrete walkway that is the path to the front of our house. It just stood there, its head looking up at me, this towering human in front of it. The bird just shook a little but didn't move.

The first thing I noticed was that it seemed disoriented, wobbly even. It was standing on two feet but having a difficult time. And it didn't run - or fly - when it saw me.  It just sat there, moving his little wings a little and blinking its big eyes at me.

I called out loud to my wife for help - she used to work for a pet rescue center - and she suggested we call the Irvine Police Department to get ahold of animal control. At this point my two sons ran out to see what all the commotion was about, and my wife grabbed a soft, clean towel to scoop up the little guy so he wouldn't get trampled by a toddler. My older son asked if he could help by holding him, and my wife and I both thought it would be OK with some guidance. My son held him as gently, with a touch as soft as anyone could possibly hold a fragile little animal, while I made the call.

Within a matter of minutes the Irvine Police Animal Services officer arrived, a professional and an expert. And thank goodness. I was an emotional wreck over the little bird being stranded, and I was trying my best to pretend I was strong and that everything was going to be fine. The Irvine animal services officer was calm and collected, and we were basically a group of emotional humans that were worried about what to do for this little guy.  Was he sick?  Hurt? Did he fall out of a nest? What do we do? How do we help him? Can we help him?  Do you take him for rehabilitation? You're don't euthanize him, right?

We had a million questions. And she patiently, and thoughtfully, listened to us. She helped us to understand a few things:

First, the little bird wasn't hurt or sick. His feathers weren't all quite in yet. We're guessing gender right now, so I'll stick with a pronoun picked at random. She also pointed out that she can't take an uninjured bird or their nest; Both actions are illegal and a federal offense.

Also, he was either a pigeon or a dove, and most likely the latter.  At this size it's a little hard to tell, but we have five nests in the exposed outdoor rafters of the walkway to our front door, and I know that at least three of them are dove nests.  I've seen the mom or dad bird peeking over the edge of the nests down at me from time to time, and I've even seen them return when it's time to feed the little ones.

The animal services officer explained: "At the right age, when the baby birds are mature enough to set out on their own, the parent birds kick them out of the nest. If they don't, a single predator could get them all. Their chances of surviving go up if they're already out on their own."

Apparently the little ones still get fed by mama bird for a few days at least. The baby bird cries, the mama finds it and feeds it. She concluded by saying that the best thing to do was find a relatively safe spot close to where we found him.

After the animal services officer explained this, I checked with my son to make sure he heard and understood what she had shared, before releasing the little bird back into the "wild".  He nodded, and gently started handing the baby bird, still snuggled in the towel, to the officer.  She cupped him gently with both hands and found a nice little spot underneath a big bush, just off to the side of where we had found him. He just stood there a little, flexing his wings, and seemingly testing his balance, wobbling a bit on his feet.

As the officer walked back up to the driveway with us, my older son started asking a lot of questions. He was mesmerized by the entire event; Here was a police officer who spent her entire day with animal life? How is this possible? I'm sure up until that morning he though police officers simply waited for bank robberies, wreckless drivers and the like.  She grabbed some Irvine Junior Police stickers for the boys from her truck, posed with them for a photo, then bid us farewell.

As she drove away, my son told me, "Papa, when I grow up I want to be a police officer that helps protect animals. They need our help."

I couldn't agree with him more. And I was proud of him for a different reason. For the first time ever, he matched up a profession with a cause.