The Last Snow Country

For their latitude, Japan’s Northwestern coast and mountains, known as the Yukiguni (snow country) are the snowiest place on earth. At 36 degrees North, I live at the approximate latitude of Las Vegas and the South of Spain. Needless to say, we get a little more snow than either of those places. Cold winds blow down from Siberia, hitting the warm Sea of Japan and dumping massive amounts on Japan’s snowy backbone. It effects are spectacular. The snow and the mountains are big reasons why I live here, why I continue exploring.

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I just completed what could be my last Walk Japan tour ever: the Snow Country Trek. The people were fantastic, I enjoyed my time, and I have sort of been asked to continue doing winter tours, which is the reason I say could. My own businesses (Nagano Ventures and Pickleball Trips) have become busier and I am guiding for some other companies, but I realized that I truly enjoy working for Walk Japan. As a tour leader, I don’t do much besides walk, explain food and talk about Japan, all of which I love, so it can feel more like vacation than work. It does depend on the customers though 🙂 I am grateful to the company that hired me as a young tour leader, trained me and allowed me to grow in so many ways. We will just have to see where life leads.

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When traveling around Nagano, I often look around and stare, awed by towering mountains all around. Especially when covered in snow, mountains are a deeply inhospitable place. I personally know three people who have died here and one that was lucky not to. Yet being close to them provides a sense of comfort as well. They carve up this confusing and messy world into manageable pieces. What’s beyond the mountain is irrelevant because the world becomes only what is in front of you, one village at a time. I sometimes envy people from these villages for having such a compact world, for having such a simple life. I wonder what my life would look like had I been born in similar circumstances. It’s an impossible question to answer, but it’s fun to ponder.

Even though Yuzawa, where I am writing this post, has a bullet train station connected directly to Tokyo, I can still imagine its former isolation in Winter. Yasunari Kawabata wrote his Nobel-winning novel, Snow Country from a Ryokan in the village. The opening line reads, “The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country” and rest of the novel takes place here, cut off from the rest of the world. I recommend the novel highly, not for the story, but for its beautiful descriptions of snow and ice. Another quote reads,

The road was frozen. The village lay quiet under the cold sky. Komako hitched up the skirt of her kimono and tucked it into her obi. The moon shone like a blade frozen in blue ice

What made this region unique is that the snow was so vital to life in Japan’s snow country that every aspect of traditional culture was connected to it or influenced by it. The summer was about preparing for the long winter. The traditions, foods, festivals and way of life were all connected to this obtrusive yet vital thing. Art forms developed while buried by snow in your own home. It made for a culture that is distinct from anywhere else in Japan. Nowadays, people do their best to keep these traditions alive but inevitably, connectivity causes change. I believe that Japan’s national culture is growing closer together, just like globally cultures and becoming less distinct. While there are positive changes, some traditions ought to be preserved.

Yet the biggest driver of change might be environmental. When Kawabata wrote his novel, the snow country routinely received 5-6 meters of snow at one time. Today, we are lucky to have 3. The average snowfall decreases every year, and soon the snow country could disappear altogether. It makes me sad and forces me to seriously consider how I live my life. The resources I consume contribute to this problem, and if I don’t change my lifestyle, I cannot expect anyone else to. I don’t want to be the generation that sees the last of the snow country.

Thank you for reading

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Thank you for reading

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Thoughts & Aesthetics

I’m back in the States! Leaving Nairobi’s 80 degree (27 C) weather, I came back to a shocking 0 degrees (-18 C) and snow. It is good to be back though 🙂

After leaving Kenya for several months and now having gone back, I feel like I have some perspective on the place. Most things haven’t changed at all. Same bumpy roads, same grimy traffic and questionable driving choices, same friendly people taking their sweet time doing everything from drinking chai to selling cell phones. Kenya is the same; only in many ways my attitude towards it changed. The challenges don’t seem so daunting anymore and I see genuinely great things happening. While getting a breath of fresh air was necessary, returning reminds me that just like everywhere else I’ve lived, for better or for worse part of me irrevocably belongs to it.

An observation I made during my time in Kenya was that aesthetically, so many things are different from the States. Our tendency is to visit poor countries and experience culture shock at these physical differences. Shoddy construction, open sewage next to unpaved muddy roads, trash littered everywhere smoldering in foul-smelling heaps and unsupervised kids roaming the streets are all vivid reminders that we are definitely not in Kansas any more.

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The road outside the nice house where I stayed in Nairobi

While these physical differences are a real part of poverty, they only scratch the surface. There are much deeper cultural implications and reasons why things are this way. Trash is littered everywhere because most people don’t know littering is bad. Roads might be unpaved because some government official pocketed the money instead of building a road. Buildings are unfinished because you only pay taxes on completed structures.

I’m not saying that poverty is not real in African countries like Kenya. What I am saying is that it’s important to get to know a place before you make assumptions about it. Cliché touristy statements like “Those people have so little but they have so much joy” are hogwash because we have no idea what possessions or joy people have until we get to know them. And from my experience, getting to know people reveals that they are a lot more similar to myself than I thought.

This is my message as I return to America. There are so many assumptions, accusations, pleas and pity parties over this continent. In reality, it’s a vast, complex, intriguing, wealthy, beautiful, diverse and interesting place. I encourage you to take some time to learn about it so you’re educated on the issues. An excellent book on the history of Africa from independence to modern times is The Fate of Africa. It encouraged me to think about issues in different ways and gain a context for why things are the way they are. Another good read specifically about Kenya is It’s Our Turn To Eat, the story of a Kenyan whistle-blower.

Thanks for reading

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