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gkimbal's Spring in Tsukahara album on Photobucket

Monday, December 20, 2010

My Dogs vs. My Husband

Kiley won three prizes at the recent Seabrook Dog Festival: Best Kisser, Top Licker, and Best Trick. I sometimes wonder if her former life was a human being. She has a unique ability to communicate with us. She is a better kisser than my husband. She cleans the dishes better than my husband and she won’t complain about my cooking. Well, my husband plays tricks on me better than she does…I ended up being involved in his hobbies and moving to Japan.

I will never be interested in astronomy. The first time I went to Alaska, it was by motorcycle. I slept in a tent and it rained for over a month. I promised myself that I would never go to Alaska again. I broke my promise and went on an Alaskan cruise with George. We were sick during most of the voyage because of the rough seas. Never again! Then my husband convinced (tricked) me into going to Alaska to see the Aurora Borealis in the middle of the winter. I was freezing as I sat in the snow, on the side of a mountaintop, in the dark, looking up at the black sky. Sure, the aurora was beautiful, but those things (including the stars) can be found in magazines, books, and the internet. Why do I have to freeze my behind to see them? This is the 21st century. Please let me stay warm and dry.

As for an excuse, the only reason I allow him to trick me is because I envy him. Why? George has so many interests, fascinations, and curiosities. I’m often amazed and feel happy to look at him being enthusiastic about learning things as he ages. While I drink beer and kick back, his mind is busy with planning his next project. While I sunbathe and relax, he’s observing the beauty of nature. While I’m chatting with friends at a restaurant, he’s busy with reading books and acquiring knowledge.

Lucky acts like George. Lucky is always hungry for food, fun, and toys. He never gives up until his bowl gets filled, but he doesn’t try to trick me. He patiently waits until he gets what he wants. George patiently waited and never gave up until I said it was okay to move to Japan. George has learned so much from the dogs. That’s why when Kiley plays a trick on George, I enjoy the revenge. I am so proud of my dogs and husband.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Another Look to the Sky

Although we haven’t moved to Japan, we have decided to use this delay in a positive way. It’s hard though. I’m developing skills that I can share with my future students and guests. Just think of the possibilities to practice English while learning about the cosmos. I know…it sounds like an excuse to play with the telescope. That’s where the positive part comes in.

Here’s my second attempt at astrophotography. These photos were taken from my front yard in Seattle. I included before and after images to give you an idea of what can be seen from a telescope compared to the same image after digital processing.  

The reddish sky is mostly caused by light pollution. In the second photo, the sky background has been darkened and the galaxy has been “pulled” into the picture. I tried to explain the imaging process to Erika and she quickly tuned me out and returned to whatever she was doing. I’m not going to give up! I found that if I make my hobbies seem like fun, she eventually comes around. Take stained glass for an example. She wasn’t interested in it at the beginning, but now she does all the glasswork. Who knows…maybe one day she’ll set the telescope up and all I have to do is take pretty pictures. George

Thursday, December 16, 2010


I’ve been interested in astronomy since I first tried to see Comet West in 1976. Lacking any experience, I got up early one clear morning to see the comet. I borrowed a pair of binoculars from my Dad. I stood shivering as I pointed the binoculars to what I had thought was the comet. After about 30 minutes of observing, I found out the object I was staring at was a reflection from a telephone wire…good grief. The light of the morning sky was too bright to observe anything else. I gave up and prepared to go to school. That night I read in the newspaper that the comet was located in the opposite direction I had been looking. Boy, did I feel dumb. The next morning I got up early to witness a spectacular sight. No binoculars were needed as Comet West hung in the sky and was about an inch long. The head of the comet was pointed towards the horizon as its long tail reflected the light from the sun. I watched in amazement until the sun brightened the sky and the comet faded from view. My interest in astronomy never faded.

It wasn’t until recent that I was able to buy a telescope. Actually, it was Erika that encouraged me to finally make that dream a reality. She always encourages me to make my dreams come true, but she always asks me to find out how by myself…like enjoying the telescope, but try not to use any money from our account (ha, ha, she is smart!) We knew that we were going to move to a very dark location in the Japan countryside. Since I was still working, I could purchase the scope now and ship it to Japan after I worked all the bugs out. Believe me, there were a lot of bugs to work out. Living in Seattle didn’t help. I had been waiting six weeks for a clear night to bring the scope out. I’m still waiting and waiting. The best part about waiting is that it gives me time to research various parts and techniques that are required to take beautiful photographs of the night sky. The first thing that I learned was that there was a very steep learning curve that was required. I had a long climb ahead of me. The second thing I learned was that the hobby called, “astrophotography” could get expensive. Thank goodness for Craigslist and Ebay. Without those web sites I could have never funded this adventure. I had made a promise to myself…I wouldn’t purchase anything unless I sold something to fund it. I sold a bicycle, cameras, pool cue, bicycle equipments, even baseball cards. I managed to raise around $5K. Erika just shook her head and wondered what in the world was so interesting about stars? Why not just look at the photos in a magazine or a book? It’s the same, isn’t it? The best answer I could give her was, “No, it’s different”. From the most distant quasar to the nearest galaxy, each has their own and unique story. When you look at the stars, you are looking into history. Besides, the images make pretty pictures…well, some of them do. I haven’t had a chance to take many photographs, but if and when I do, I’d like to share them.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Neighbors and the Neighborhood

Tsukahara is located between the cities of Beppu and Yufuin in Oita prefecture on the island of Kyushu. Actually, Tsukahara is part of the town of Yufuin since it’s merged. Tsukahara consists primarily of two communities: Tsukahara and Tsukahara Highlands. The older and established area is Tsukahara. This is the heart of the community. The newer area is the highlands. This community consists of many vacation cottages and tiny home based businesses. The area is located further into the hills and is elevated by a couple of hundred meters. The elevation of our home is 700 meters or 2500 feet. The elevation has its advantages and disadvantages. In the colder months, it can be very cold and windy. Two nights, we experienced winds of over 80 miles an hour. I was glad we were in a log home that had withstood many ferocious storms. The neighbor told us that thunder is incredibly loud at that elevation. The Tsukahara does get snow, but from what I have seen in some pictures, it’s not a lot. It is very beautiful when it’s covered in white. The advantage of being elevated is in the summer. The winds cool the higher elevations creating a pleasant escape from the hot and humid conditions of the lowlands. Tsukahara is only 45 minutes from the ocean. This fact also helps in cooling the area to a moderate temperature.
An important aspect of living in Japan and a reason why I chose to live there are the people. I’m not talking about the people that live in the big cities. I’m focusing on the people that live in the countryside. Over the years of traveling to Japan, I have experienced some of the most incredible hospitality, anywhere. There is something special about people caring for each other. I’m not sure why I’ve only experienced this magnitude of hospitality in the Japan countryside. Perhaps, it’s the culture that makes the difference. Having grown up in a half Japanese family, I can understand some of the uniqueness of the culture. I understand why it’s important to respect your elders and to respect each other’s place in society. I realize that Japan is a small country and in order to get along you must be part of the community. It is important to establish trust and to never betray that trust. Betray that trust and it would be difficult to ask for the time of day. Maintaining a level of trust is not an easy task. Certain protocols must be observed. Some of these rules and procedures are known only to the most experienced Japanese. I don’t pretend to know even the simplest of these rules. That’s why I married a beautiful Japanese woman from Oita. Unfortunately, she often makes mistakes, too.
What does all this mean? I walked the Tsukahara highland neighborhood just about every day with Erika and the neighbor’s dog, Sakura. During those walks, I encountered various neighbors, each with their own special form of hospitality. One neighbor even offered to help me find a job. Another neighbor offered to help repairing our home. Another neighbor invited us to eat sweet potato baked in an open fire, fueled by the fallen leaves of autumn. Another neighbor filled us on the controversial topic of which side of Mt. Yufu is the front. Of course, our side is! We were welcomed by a neighbor who used to rent our home. Yet, another neighbor had wondered if we finally moved in. We were past our 10/10/10 deadline and he politely reminded us of the fact. Why are all of these encounters so special? In the 49 years I have lived in the U.S.A., I have not met nor was I greeted by as many neighbors as I was during the brief 3 weeks in Tsukahara, my home. I’m eager to return the hospitality and help a neighbor whenever I can. I was able to walk our closest neighbor’s dog when the owner had to stay in the hospital. I even had a chance to visit our neighbor in the hospital before we left for the U.S. I never would have done that here. Maybe, my attitude is changing. I’m beginning to trust people and I like the feeling. Tsukahara is not some place special, Tsukahara is a special place. The community transformed me in just the short time I was there. I wish I were there, now.  George

Thursday, December 9, 2010

City vs. Countryside Part 2

Being too close to nature was a hidden difference between living in the city and living in the countryside. The first night in our home, I decided to enjoy the spectacular night sky. Unbeknownst to me, there were creatures lurking in the susuki. Large creatures rustled in the grass and made snorting and shrieking sounds. It was dark and I couldn’t see beyond the porch light. I had heard from a neighbor that wild boar were in the neighborhood. I kept a safe distance from the edge of my property. The sounds of snorting and shrieking were eerily familiar. I had heard the sound many years ago on a camping trip to Prairie Creek Redwoods in Northern California. It was the sound of an elk trying to gain the attention of a female. Judging from the sound of the thrashing going on, it was a large deer trying to find a doe. The shrieking was loud and could be heard echoing off the distant hills.
Other creatures that roam the neighborhood were raccoons, weasels, fox, and mamushi. I saw a dead raccoon on the road nearby, and I saw a red weasel cross the road. What I didn’t expect to see was a squished mamushi. A mamushi is a pit viper. I had no idea that poisonous snakes were active in cold weather. This little guy was on the road about ¼ of a mile away. This gave me something to think about when I finally bring the dogs to Japan. A snake preventive fence will have to be built before the dogs arrive. I heard a story from a friend that dogs have immunity to mamushi venom. I plan to take serious precautions anyway. Gardening will have to be done with heavy boots. Every time I crouch down, I’ll have to be aware of the dangers. Ah, living in the countryside is not all fun and games. That was a quick rundown of the creatures that live outside.
Let’s talk a little bit about the creatures inside of our home. When I first entered our home, I was shocked to see these huge black moths lying on the floor, dead. Erika was horrified. She wanted to sell the house right away. As I climbed the stairs, I found more and more of them. They were all over the place. On the third floor (attic), I found a skylight covered with them. Most of the moths were still alive. I propped the window open and nudged them outside. Erika wouldn’t let me downstairs until I disinfected my shoes. I later found out that the moths have a unique ability to compact themselves to fit into the tiniest of cracks. Our home has lots of cracks. I spent the majority of my vacation trying to plug those cracks.
Other creatures that lurk in the cracks are cockroaches. Almost every evening at just about the same time, I would find a cockroach scrambling across the floor. This was my first introduction to the wonderful world of cockroaches. Erika gave me a quick lesson. “Kill it. They’re disgusting!!” The cockroaches measured 2 inches long by 1 inch wide. She told me they could fly and were very fast. Armed with a shoe, I proceeded to do as my wife ordered. I didn’t want to kill it, but it was either the cockroach or my marriage. An insect of that size does not die easily. After I smashed it a couple of times and its guts were all over the place…it continued to move its legs. Whack! The first of many cockroach kills. Over the course of 3 weeks, I believe I squashed 7 of them. After the third or fourth one, we decided to use bait. I also continued plugging cracks with foam and sealant. I was beginning to feel uneasy about sleeping on the floor at night. I was also becoming more sensitive to the sounds of crackling paper and clicking I was hearing in the kitchen at night.
Another insect I found in great abundance was what I called a “stink bug”. It was a ½ inch disc shaped bug that gave off a stink if touched. The smell can’t be washed out of your clothes. The little bug flies along and bumps into whatever it hits, a clumsy but effective way of finding its next target. The insect isn’t harmful. It just makes your clothes stink and they are everywhere.
 I also saw the largest hornet ever in the history of mankind. This thing was the size of a small bird and bright orange. It was easy to tell if it were in the neighborhood. The sound it made was like a squadron of attack helicopters. I called it a, “little terrorist”. Whenever I could hear it approaching, I got out of its way…in a hurry. I don’t want to know what it would be like to be stung by such a menacing creature.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

City vs. Countryside Part 1

There were certain things that came with living in the countryside that I didn’t have living in the suburbs. The obvious ones were peace and quiet, room to breathe, and beautiful scenery. The less obvious things had to deal with a well and a septic system, the extreme closeness with nature, and the inconveniences. I mentioned a well and septic because these things were vital to have in the countryside. I’ve lived in the city where the water and sewer were something you took for granted. It was always there when I needed them. I discovered that well water was something that needed to be watched and cared for. In the city, the water was treated with all sorts of chemicals to ensure that it was safe to consume. When I drank the well water, I had no idea what to expect. No chemicals or additives made the water drinkable. The water was pure and right out of the ground. That fact was both reassuring and scary at the same time. It was reassuring because I was drinking water that was purified by nature. It was scary because I was responsible for the water that I drank. If I did anything to harm the environment, it could harm me! A similar observation was made with the septic system. In the city, I could flush whatever I wanted down the toilet. As long as it was out of sight, it was out of mind. The septic system opened up a new way of thinking for me. Septic systems break down debris by using beneficial bacteria. If the bacteria were harmed, then the septic system wouldn’t work properly and an unhealthy, smelly mess would be created. The septic system depended on me to insure that no harm came to the bacteria. By protecting the septic system, I was protecting the environment as well as my bank account. I had to become aware of what I was eating and using around the house. I think we should all live like this. Maybe we would become aware of our impact on the environment and treat nature with greater respect, because in the end, our lives depend on it.
I quickly learned that living in the countryside was inconvenient. For example, when I purchased an item from the store, I had to be aware of how I was going to dispose of the packaging material. Manufacturers love to over package everything. My guess…it’s because it makes the item appear larger than it actually is, it makes the item more attractive, or it keeps the consumer from stealing it. Some packages require a degree in surgery to open them. Anyway, packaging must be discarded somehow. This isn’t a big deal in the city. Just throw it in the garbage can and it’s taken away…out of sight, out of mind. In Japan, they must use a city approved bag. Certain trashes are picked up on certain days. Disposing trash was not only expensive, but also inconvenient in the countryside. The garbage collector doesn’t come to your curb and pick the garbage up. I don’t even have a curb to begin with! The garbage has to be taken to a collection area. Some farmers burn their garbage. The problem is that a lot of the packaging materials are made of plastic and Styrofoam. Burning these items adds harmful chemicals to the environment.
Stores are not readily available near our home. The drive to the store requires a 15 minute drive down a steep, curving, and narrow road. This isn’t a big deal when the weather is nice. The narrow, winding roads in Tsukahara highlands do not have streetlights like in the city. The roads are pitch black and you never know what you might encounter.
Overlook Beppu and Oita
Along with inconveniences are some great conveniences. The best soft-serve ice-cream that I have ever had is within walking distance. Another convenience is the hospital in Yufuin. I was ill for 3 days after drinking some bad tea at a bed and breakfast. I went to the hospital near closing time. I had no insurance. They required only one page of paperwork. Amazing! I had to wait only 5 minutes to see a doctor. This wasn’t just any doctor. He was the assistant director to the hospital. The doctor sat down with me and spoke in English. He listened to my symptoms and showed me a drawing of the gastro-intestinal tract. Then, he explained what was wrong with me. I was given a choice of procedures based on my ability to pay. The doctor then wrote a prescription and continued to chat with me. He wanted to know me as a person, not as a statistic for data on some computer a hundred miles away. I felt as if he cared about me. I had to end the conversation with the doctor because I felt guilty for taking up too much of his precious time. When was the last time you had to do that? The office visit cost an unbelievable $40. I’m looking forward to going again…just kidding.  To be continued…George

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Reaching To This Point (Part 2)

I had no idea where to start. What did I look for? How could I tell if this house was constructed well or if wasn’t going to fall over next day? I needed some help from an expert. I did not know of any log home experts anywhere, especially in Japan. The best I could do was asking for some advice from a contractor and an architect. After they inspected the house, they gave us the bad news. They believed it was a bad idea to purchase the home. I did not want to give up. We looked around at other homes, but Tsukahara was the place that I always compared the others with. Sitting down with the contractor, he helped me make a decision. He asked if I liked the home. Honestly, I hated the house. Too much work, too expensive, too many difficulties to get the house the way I wanted it to be. I loved the location, though. I had an opportunity to live where we had a million dollar view. There was only a small chance someone would build nearby. The location offered isolation and solitude. It was close to nature, and lost in the beautiful countryside. The answer was clear…purchase the house for a reduced price. After a lot of skilled negotiations from Erika, the contract was agreed upon and signed.

Wiring large sums of money to Japan was not easy. The key to wiring money was to make sure that the correct “swift” number was used. The name “Oita” was mistaken for the number “0” followed by “ita”. This caused all kinds of delays along a bunch of trips to the bank. With the value of the dollar falling like a rock, we worried that we wouldn’t be able to afford the house and do the required repairs if we continued to be delayed. Timing was critical as the seller and realtor had to meet with our attorney and someone representing us in Japan. At the same time, the seller’s loan had to be funded and cleared to satisfy our attorney. Also, our funds had to be in an account (the person representing us) to purchase the home and to satisfy the seller. It’s amazing that we managed to coordinate all this, but we couldn’t have done it without the help of many people.

The architect proposed to have the entire house shielded by concrete backer board. Strange as it may have sounded, the drawings made the house look like a typical stucco house. The idea was appealing because the outside of the house looked clean and brand new. The concept was simple. Build a house to enclose a house. After several months of discussions and many Skype phone calls, we decided it was too expensive. There had to be another way. I contacted Permachink. Permachink was widely known as the leader in supplying log home owners with the knowledge and materials to maintain a log house. We attended one of their classes and they assured us that they had all the products we needed to save our home. The next problem was how to get those products to Japan and through customs. I’m still working on that one. All of their products are non-hazardous which means it’s safe to use near our home. This is vitally important since we have a well and a septic system. Protecting the environment is something we take very seriously.

Armed with the plan and knowledge to save the house, we moved forward. We moved forward, but the economy did not. The house in Seattle was taken off the market. Home prices continue to fall. Erika has been unemployed. The yen last traded at 84 (with fees and exchange commission rates it’s more like 79). The economy in Japan continues to be stagnating. Where do we go from here?