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 ūüôā 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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Like White on Rice

Almost a year ago when I came back to Japan for the first time in over 3 years, I wrote about having to adjust to several aspects of the culture. Work hours, language, you name it. After 8 years away, for better or for worse I had become Americanized and some things about the Japanese culture were so blatantly foreign, even shocking to me.

This time feels less like a holiday and more like real life – in a good way. It feels like coming home from a long summer in America and settling into the daily routines. I know the system here. ¬†I feel like I can express my personality like never before. That’s the part of learning a language (or in my case improving a language) that is fun. And in the oddballs, dead-beats and misfits that make up many a hotel staff, I feel like I’m accepted as one of their own, perhaps especially because I don’t quite fit in here either.

It is an interesting phenomenon.¬†Whether I’m in Japan or America I always feel like somewhat of a foreigner. In America my foreignness is more subtle and I can hide behind knowing about the culture. In Japan it’s unavoidable. When I meet people in America, I sound more and more foreign as the conversation goes on. In Japan, I am less and less foreign. Neither is better, I just find that Japan allows me certain privileges and advantages that I might not have in America.

There was, however a situation last week when I learned that I still have a ways to go. Let me set this up by saying I’ve eaten a lot of rice in my life. I have to admit that being here, I get a little sick of eating it 3 meals a day. Growing up, my siblings and I would make fun of my parents for not knowing the different between good and bad rice. Brown rice was even worse. Hard, dry,¬†tasted like cardboard.¬†So some Japanese friends took me to a restaurant in Obuse, Japan that is famous for cooking their rice¬†the way they did hundreds of years ago. My Japanese friends were all commenting on how good it tasted, and although I agreed that it was good, I couldn’t necessarily say it was better than any other rice I had eaten. Alas,¬†I will never be fully Japanese. And that’s alright, I’m learning that it’s more important to be me.

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In other news, the video of winning nationals came out! Check it out when you get a chance:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=crx15UdTpQU

Farting on Elbert

I just finished one of the most ridiculous, memorable and difficult weeks of my tour guiding career and I wanted to share some stories from this experience.

Japanese people are sometimes so… well, Japanese. Mannerisms, ways of doing things, habits.¬†It’s so distinct and noticeable and sometimes hilarious.

For example, before and after any amount of exercise, Japanese people always want to do a group stretch. Now this wasn’t a problem when we started climbing Flat Top Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park at 5:00 AM. Returning at 2:00 PM, however, was a little different. Oblivious to passers-by, the Japanese tour guide decides to do¬†our group stretch in the middle of a busy walkway. Right as we are doing a stretch where you¬†thrust your hips around in a circular motion, a shuttle bus pulls up right behind. Since I’m the closest to the bus, the passengers get a full backside view of my thrusting buttocks. Sometimes you just have to ignore what other people are thinking and go with the Japanese flow.

Then there is the fact that everything in Japan is individually wrapped and packaged. At a supermarket in Estes Park, the attendant and I somehow got to talking about how she had just moved from Boulder where they used far fewer plastic bags. Just as we’re finishing this conversation, the Japanese tour guide decides that each sandwich needs its own bag: 9 bags for 9 sandwiches. The attendant is rolling her eyes and I can faintly hear environmentalists crying in the distance but all I can do is watch disapprovingly.

There is also the lack of appreciation for good beer. Asked to recommend a good Colorado beer the first night, I went with Blue Moon. It’s a local beer and I think it’s pretty darn good. Snubbing their noses at this, they fell in love with the high quality choices of Coors and Bud Light, ordering them at every restaurant. Again, all I could do was chuckle and drink my Fat Tire¬†or Colorado Native as they talked about how much they loved their piss water. Whatever floats your boat I suppose.

Now for the naming of this post. Since this was a hiking tour of Colorado, the highlight of the trip was climbing Mt. Elbert, the highest 14’er in Colorado. Leaving our hotel in Leadville at 3:00 AM, we hiked much of the 4-mile ascent in darkness before watching the sunrise across the mountains and finally summiting. The views were absolutely breathtaking and the weather was perfect.

Sunrise on Elbert

Sunrise on Elbert

I’ve always heard that Japanese people consider burping to be ruder than farting. I initially doubted this, as I had never heard Japanese people burp or fart very much. Everything changes on the mountain though. For some reason (maybe the night before’s pizza), everybody experienced abnormal levels of gas, and the tour guide (the worst of them all) instructed them to just let it out. “Better out than in” is roughly what he said. And oh did they¬†let it out. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such a prolonged, continuous chorus of flatulence; at one point I was actually jealous. And that was just the men! Like most places (I would imagine) the women did not partake.¬†What was really strange was the lack of reaction. Every time someone farted, I expected a courtesy chuckle or a¬†snide comment. They just ignored it and continued on as I listened in amazement.

Our Gasy Group

Our Gasy Group

Ultimately, I think the way people travel reveals a lot about them. The Japanese tour guide was often so obsessed with keeping things the way they were in Japan that he forgot to let the guests enjoy the way things are in America.¬†In Estes Park, he asked the hotel manager which television stations were in Japanese. Hmmm, sorry buddy Japan is not the center of the universe. He made me¬†ask for the bill at the beginning of each meal in order to “not keep the guests waiting”. And instead of eating local food, we went to Thai or sushi places and had Japanese “Obento” lunches. That’s fine,¬†but when I was allowed to take them to BBQ or local steakhouses they loved it. And food is just one part of it: To me, travel means letting yourself adjust to all aspects of life in another place.

The night before they left redeemed it all. Talking about American culture during the trip, I had explained that hugging was just as common as shaking hands. Since ceremony is everything in Japan, we all got in a circle and talked about how great the trip was and how good my Japanese was and how thankful we all were. Towards the end, in accordance with American culture they each wanted to give me a hug. I proceeded to give 8 people a series of the most awkward, arm-flailing, bent down hugs I have ever experienced. But the fact that they were willing to try something new and appreciate what Americans do made it worth all the effort. That’s what it’s all about.

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