Starting Pickleball in Japan

The Japanese have three standard responses when faced with a complete foreigner like myself speaking fluent Japanese. The first (and the most common in Tokyo) is complete denial that they have seen anything out of the ordinary: They just can’t be bothered. The second is utter bewilderment (most common in the countryside), which generally leads to me giving my life story and ends in an exchange of business cards or a request for me to marry their daughter, niece, cousin or granddaughter, depending on the age of the parties involved. The second group has led to many interesting conversations, some friendships and even me being interviewed a few times as the representative for foreigners living in Japan. The final group refuses to believe that a person with my face can speak fluent Japanese. When I speak to them, they reply in marginal (at best) English, preferring to speak in one word sentences to accommodate the Gaijin who couldn’t possibly understand them.

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The participants of one of the first pickleball events ever held in Japan belonged to this third group of people. When I arrived, the organizers told me that I could only speak English, telling me they would translate for me because they had told everyone I was the US champion, and it would detract from the champion’s coolness if I spoke Japanese. Feeling rather like a trophy on display, I begrudgingly agreed to their request, resigning myself to being a circus animal performing tricks for the next 3 hours.

30 people attended, which I thought was a remarkably respectable number for an unknown sport in a new country. However, as I quickly found out, the reason I was not allowed to speak English was that 20 of the 30 participants were from a local mentally handicapped club. This was their weekly exercise event, and the organizers were accommodating these people, who they thought wouldn’t be able to comprehend the racial/linguistic gap. This actually proved false as I broke down a couple of hours into the event and started ignoring my translators. The handicapped people understood me perfectly well, and some were remarkably good players after just a couple of hours. I was still on display, as everyone simply called me champion even after I repeatedly told them my name was Daniel, but I didn’t mind so much :)

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The pickleball event, and my subsequent weekend trip to Korea have made me think about a few things. At first, I wrongly thought of handicapped people coming to our event as something depressing, like those were the only people we could gather. Then I realized how great it is that pickleball is accessible to everyone. They never quite grasped the rules (having 3 numbers in the score is confusing for anyone), but they had a great time. What a great testimonial for the sport. It is the only sport I know of that can accommodate grandparents and grandchildren, athletes and couch potatoes, wheelchairs and handicaps and to an extent, allow these people to have fun all playing on the same court. When I really thought about it, there might not have been a better way to launch the sport in Japan.

And second, I was reminded of the invaluability (that’s not a real word) of language. Taking away my linguistic ability in Japan, then traveling to Korea turned me from a fully functional, intelligent adult to struggling with basic communication. I’m reminded how thankful I am that I grew up speaking two languages, that Japan is still home and that there is a reason for me having grown up here. The reason is not entirely clear yet, but it is gradually becoming more apparent. Japan is weird and there are things that bug me, but that’s true of anywhere. It’s a pretty cool that I get to live here.

That is my story of starting pickleball in Japan. It’s going to be a long time before it’s mainstream, but you have to begin somewhere right?

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Walking Through the Stages of Life

The Nakasendo Way is an ancient journey through the heart of mountainous Japan, passing through 69 little post towns and 544 kilometers from Kyoto to Tokyo. Since March, I have been a tour leader on this path, learning the ins and outs of my profession by going on training trips with more experienced colleagues. I thought I would share some of my insight from these interesting experiences.

First, I have to note that Walk Japan is one of the top 200 adventure travel companies in the world and I am being trained by the best. It’s difficult, but it makes me want to be better. Being a tour leader requires me to be at times and in varying degrees a friend, a listener, a cheerleader, an expert on logistics and details, a historian, a good guesser, an accountant, a politician, a foodie and an eloquent storyteller. I have not by any means mastered all of these skills, but I do my best to improve each day. As my boss reminded me frequently on our last trip, in the end, tour guiding like anything is about people. My job is to help them enjoy their experience and create memories, which forms their entire impression of Japan. I am not simply their tour guide. I talk about historical information, but have to tell it in a way that is interesting, in a way that connects back to myself and to them. People are ultimately interested in people.

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My first group in front of a traditional Japanese inn in Magome, Gifu

Although I am the one who is supposed to be “guiding” my customers, I have noticed that they often have much more to offer me. Most of our customers are in their 50s and 60s and from around the world. I have gotten in trouble for calling them “older people” so I will stick with calling them “older than myself”. I walk with these people who are older than myself all day every day – 10 days at a time. I learn about their kids, their work, their lives. They give me a new look at the world, one that I couldn’t even get by growing up in Japan or living in Kenya because each person’s experiences are unique. It would be a shame if I didn’t listen when those years of wisdom and knowledge told me something I needed to hear.

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Goofy picture with the cherry blossoms

The other thing about this trip is that it is undoubtedly spiritual. It’s not church, it is the Grand Cathedral of nature. For millennia, the Japanese believed that the forests held kami (spirits). And they do, not in the sense that I believe trees or rivers are gods but in the sense that elements of God are in trees and rivers and all of nature. A cherry blossom in full bloom or layers of mist shrouding deep green forests are often more spiritual than sitting in a church.

Once again I am using Donald Miller because he says it like this:

I once listened to an Indian on television say that God was in the wind and the water, and I wondered at how beautiful that was because it meant you could swim in Him or have Him brush your face in a breeze

Taking people on this entire life experience/spiritual journey is what I now call work. I’m hoping it will be transformational for me and for them. Needless to say I am excited about this job and thankful for the opportunity to do it. This is a phase in the journey of my life, I hope to make the best of it and enjoy the ride.

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Hida Takayama

Over the last few days, I’ve been in Hida Takayama, in Japan’s Central Gifu Prefecture. Like many places in Japan, I had been as a little kid but as life got busier, my family rarely found the time to travel places outside of Tokyo or Nagano. It’s fun to return as an adult, especially as I begin my tour guiding job with Walk Japan. Takayama is also Denver’s Sister City (along with Nairobi interestingly enough). Last year I translated and tour guided for the delegation that came and this year I will get a chance to do the same. They always talk about how incredible the 4th of July Fireworks were at Coors Field.

We did all kinds of things there, but the most interesting was the Unesco World Heritage Site of Shirakawago. There, traditional thatched-roof huts are still lived in by rice farmers. The outsides look dilapidated, but get a peek inside and you see modern air-conditioning units and nice cars in garages. Japan is the ultimate mix of modern and traditional ways of life, and Shirakawago is probably one of the most visible demonstrations of that clash.

I’ve also been reading about the history of Japan, discovering all kinds of things I didn’t know as I tour places I’ve never been. It’s fascinating to live in a place, then read about the events, people and places that made things the way they are today.

I’ve been trying to add some pictures of my Takayam trip to this post, but for some reason WordPress is not letting me. Check out my instagram and facebook