Untimely Samaritinism

My experience today shows me that perhaps I have retained a few too many of my Kenyan driving habits. Also, interesting things tend to happen around Elbert, like my Japanese hiking trip 2 years ago if you want to read about it.

So I’m in Leadville, Colorado, hiking Mt. Elbert in preparation for my annual Colorado Japanese hiking trip. On the way at around 6:30 in the morning, I see what looks to be a homeless guy hitchhiking. I usually regret not stopping so I decide “what the heck, I’ll pick him up”. I pull over onto the narrow shoulder, look behind to make sure no one is approaching, and wave for him to jump in. He looks grateful, but after attempting the door handle realizes that it’s locked. I fumble around, looking for the unlock button on my parents’ car, before giving up and reaching over to open the handle from the inside. He jumps in and in that tiny 20 second window when no one would have known, I see a policeman’s lights blaring in my rear view mirror. I think “crap, I’ve either been speeding, or I’ve picked up a convicted meth-head criminal who is going to pull a knife on me”, neither option of which sounds particularly appealing.

So I pull over, and the cop suspiciously asks me a bunch of questions about why I picked up a homeless guy. Apparently the cop saw a dead animal down the road, and one of my car’s back lights was busted from someone rear-ending my brother, all of which added to his suspicion. I know he was suspicious because he told me my story didn’t add up… so I told him the same simple story again. I think he was calculating the possibility of some sort of Fargo-esque scenario. I can’t imagine cops in Leadville have an excessive amount to do. He gave us both a lecture about how dangerous – and illegal – it is to stop in the middle of the highway and that it is illegal to hitchhike outside of designated areas (I actually thought it was illegal everywhere) and sent us on our way. I dropped off the thankful homeless man outside of town and continued onto a grueling but beautiful hike up Elbert.

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Come to think of it, I might have picked up the highway-stopping habit up in Japan too. For some reason, they think that as long as your hazard lights are on, anywhere is fair game to completely block traffic. But legality aside, I do think this was a case of doing the moral, yet illegal thing. There were no places to stop along the highway, and this guy would have had to walk at least 10 miles into town. Sorry cop, I know you yelled at me but given the choice, I would probably do the same thing again.

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The Most Interesting Man on the Nakasendo

Over the last year and a half working for Walk Japan, mostly waking an ancient trade and pilgrimage road called the Nakasendo, I have met some fascinating people. They break the stereotypes of what Japanese people are like – working long hours, group-oriented, quiet, respectful etc. I like people who break stereotypes though. They are the ones who don’t need or want to be molded by societal pressures. Life is too short. Quite frankly they are just more interesting. I am meeting more of them in Japan, and being someone who can never quite fit in myself, I like it. I think it’s good for the country. And for whatever reason, compared to the cities I see so many more cool people like them in the countryside, which is partly why I like living in Nagano. Here are a few of their stories.

There are several people on the Nakasendo that consistently find their way into the most memorable of the trip. First, there is the boar-hunting inn keeper Hara San, who grows his own rice and with his wife greets you with a smile and waves until you’ve walked out of sight around the last bend in the road. Their genuine thankfulness for you staying with them is something Western countries could learn from. When we are staying there, after I get everyone settled into their rooms he always gets a glimmer in his eye, asks if it was a long day and offers me some “wheat tea”, his euphemism for a cold Asahi. At dinner, without fail I am offered a glass of “water” (sake).

Then of course, there are the cooks/musicians/conductors extraordinaire – Mr. and Mrs. Ando. After arriving at their log cabin/restaurant, you sit down to a full view of Mt. Ontake, the second highest volcano in Japan after Mt. Fuji. They bring out miso pizza, margarita pizza and fresh-baked bread (this is the 8th day of the trip and almost everyone is happy to get away from rice). But lunch is just getting started. Mr. Ando plays – to the best of his ability – the Tsugaru Shamisen, a traditional 3-stringed instrument that is actually really cool when done correctly (check out this video). Then Mrs. Ando, who plays the harmonica beautifully, plays an old Japanese lullaby that often brings people to tears. At that point, it’s time for the unforgettable Kiso Valley folk song (see video) before the grand finale of it all, a demonstration of the model train set that Mr. Ando has built around the entire house. This couple breaks all the stereotypes and it’s awesome.

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Mr. Ando on the far right

But my favorite person of all has to be Mr. Suzuki. He is a 75-year-old retiree who runs an ancient tea house along the Nakasendo. He volunteers to run the place, dressing in traditional garb and singing his own version of the Kiso folk song for our entertainment. He’s also recently added a wedding song to his repertoire. He serves the group tea afterwards, communicating amazingly well for someone who speaks about 20 words of English (I help him out by translating too). His two favorite topics of discussion that almost always seem to come up are 1) you will live long by drinking more sake and 2) Japanese men are too “vegetarian” these days (they don’t get married and make enough kids). Needless to say, he is a fascinating old guy with stories and legends to tell about the valley that he has called home his entire life. I aspire to having that kind of dedication to a place and vitality when I am that age.

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Mr. Suzuki. Photo credit to Fernando Gros

People often wonder why I would want to live in Japan. Admittedly, it’s not as comfortable, communication is a little more difficult and it’s a long way from family. But it’s about the people. I am fascinated by their diversity and the rich culture/history that I get to live in. I feel like I learn something new every day. I never appreciated that as a kid. And on the surface, it might be harder to “get in” with people, especially ones who are in the rat race in the big cities. But there is a subculture of Japanese who are moving back for a better life and once you are in, you are in. Their loyalty and dedication to what they do is overwhelming. In the end, I think comfort is overrated anyway. At least in this point in my life, I prefer adventure.

The 11 Best Things About 7-11 Japan

Everyone knows 7-Eleven is an American company right? Well, sort of. What is now known as 7-Eleven was started in the US in the 1920s, changing its name in the 1940s to 7-Eleven to reflect its unprecedented hours of operation. It expanded to the Japanese market in the 1990s, where the Japanese subsidiary did so much better than the parent company that the subsidiary bought the parent. Japan now has around 19,000 7-11s, almost a third of the global total (that’s not counting any other convenience stores, there are around 50,000 total in Japan). Needless to say, Japanese like their 7-11s (and convenience stores). Here are a few things, especially food, that make them so great and must-visit places when traveling in Japan.

They are truly convenient

There are ATM machines at all 7-11s (and post offices) in Japan that work with international cards, giving you 24 hour access to cash (because not being able to pay for much with credit cards is a decidedly inconvenient aspect of Japan). You can also pay your bills, transfer money, buy bus or airplane tickets, and much more at 7-11 ATMs.

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They have Traveler-friendly appliances like chargers and adapters

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They Have Pretty much anything else you need

Toothbrushes, toothpaste, razors, tissues, medicine, soap, shampoo, sunscreen, utensils, notebooks, pens, envelopes, batteries, disposable underwear and T-shirts, you name it – they’ve got it.

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Donuts

They are dangerously good, you should try them.

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The pancake Sandwich

Looking for a quick breakfast? 7-11 has “pancake sandwiches” that have maple syrup and butter inside! Such a good idea

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Drinkable Coffee

Okay, convenience store coffee is never going to be the best, but just lower your expectations and you will be completely satisfied! They  sell ice coffee cups with the ice already in them so you just take it to the register and after paying, push the ice coffee button (R or L) on the coffee machine.

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The wide selection of freshly made food

At 7-11s in America you get hot dogs past their prime and crusty pizza. In Japan, you have rice bowls, sushi, salads, curry, soup and a lot more that is all completely fresh.

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Rice Balls

Any convenience store in Japan is going to have a wide selection of these. You can try  classics like Tuna Mayo, Fried Rice and Salted Salmon to more exotic varieties like Cod Roe, Pickled Plum or Fermented Soy Bean. There are tabs marked 1, 2 & 3 on the plastic wrapping, follow them and you will open your rice ball flawlessly.

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Sandwiches

Sometimes Japanese put  weird things in sandwiches (and pizza for that matter) but usually they turn out pretty well. They always sell Western-friendly varieties like Egg Salad, Tuna and Ham/Cheese.

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These Potato Chips

Japan’s version of Kettle Chips are insanely good. The black pepper ones are awesome too.

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So many kinds of ice cream and popsicles for when it’s hot outside

I could only get half the varieties into the shot!

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