The Lessons Learned from Blood-Sucking Leaches and Other Adventures as a Tour Guide

Without challenging experiences our stories probably wouldn’t be worth telling. The last three months of walking the Nakasendo Way have been a time of fascination as I walked through the rural landscapes of mountainous central Japan, challenge as I completed the journey 6 times en route to covering almost 1,000 kilometers on foot, increased knowledge as I was forced to learn about the history, politics, random facts etc. of this place, personal growth as I learned to solve problems as they arose and manage a group of 12 people at a time with differing personalities, walking abilities, ages, and finally contemplation as I considered my place in this wide world, particularly in this country. Here are a few lessons I have learned along the way…

1. Bring Bug Spray

In the mountains between Karuizawa and Yokokawa lies a pleasant forest path that winds gently downwards for 7 or 8 kilometers through the woods. Last week, this saunter through the forest turned into a mad dash as our group discovered blood-sucking leaches that worked their way into shoes, through socks up legs and even into shirts. It was the stuff of nightmares. They would latch on from both ends, and when pulled off, the anti-coagulant they inject to thin your blood means you don’t stop bleeding.  I now know that for some reason they congregate on that part of the trail, and that they come out in the summer when it’s been raining. I don’t know if bug spray would have helped, but next time I’m bringing it… and taking a different trail.

The eerie Forest of Leeches

The eerie Forest of Leeches

2. The Importance of the Cost-Benefit Analysis

Our trip along the Nakasendo Way involves several train rides. Most of these are commuter trains, but a couple involve bullet trains. One day, after walking 15 kilometers and arriving at the bullet train station, I purchased non-reserved seats for my group, thinking there would be seats open. I even added that I had never not gotten a seat before. Never say unnecessary things like that because the laws of the universe will suddenly intervene to conspire against you. As the bullet train pulled up to the station, I could see people standing in the isles… After pushing our way in, we had to stand for the entire journey amidst the crush of sweaty humanity. I reasoned that everyone was getting the “real Japanese experience” but for an additional $5.00, I have purchased reserved seats every time since.

3. Let People Get Lost, but Not Too Lost

Some people like getting lost. They don’t want to feel like they are on a group tour. My challenge as the leader is managing the tortoises and the hares so that everyone arrives around the same time while making things interesting for everyone. I instruct the sprinters to stop at road crossings, significant landmarks, or whenever they are not 100% sure of the way. Many of them still manage to get lost, but at that point it’s their choice. Somewhere between micromanaging and letting people lead their own tour, there is a perfect balance of letting people get just lost enough that they have fun, but it scares them just enough to make them wait at the crossing the next time.

IMG_08164. Be a Story Teller

People are interested in stories about other people. In Japan’s Edo Period (1600-1868), there was an Imperial Princess named Kazunomiya who was forced to marry the Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi in Edo (now Tokyo). Lamenting her loss of friends and family in Kyoto, she traveled the mountains and passes of the Nakasendo with an entourage of 25,000 servants, guards, peasants and porters, supposedly writing a haiku poem along the way about sad and lonely she was. She was carried in a palanquin the entire way and because our tour walks this same trail, people are fascinated by her story… and the poor porters who had to carry her!

5. Make Time for the Little Stuff and the Normal People

The best part of any holiday is finding the little places, and meeting the normal people who make those places special. Consistently the most popular places that I take people include a random French pastry/tea shop in the mountains called La Province, a community gathering of the elderly who serve us toast and bananas in the tiny little village of Hosokute, and the retired couple in the mountains who make miso pizza, perform local folk songs and have a full miniature train set.

That’s it for now. I’m on to my next adventure, Thailand, where I will be busily doing nothing for the next 10 days. Then it’s back to the States for the summer! Please stay tuned


The Crisis of the Day

Working at the front desk of a hotel, I’ve come to learn that my job is primarily about two things: Making people feel welcome and solving problems. And there are plenty of opportunities to practice each. That’s the challenging thing about working here, but also what makes it interesting. No two days are the same, and just by helping someone have a memorable stay, I have accomplished something. The Japanese staff and I joke about there being a different storm to weather every day, but I have grown the most by dealing with these “storms”. When we look back together, those are the things we remember and laugh about the most.

First, as I mentioned in a previous post there was the skier on New Years Eve who went down the wrong side of the mountain, calling at 4:30 PM (dusk) to say he was lost and couldn’t walk through the deep snow. Being the only English speaker, I attempted to calm him down and suggest what I would do in the same situation, knowing he wasn’t likely to make it out alive. Thankfully, through a series of fortuitous circumstances and dumb luck he did survive, and with a few tears and apologies life went back to normal. From that however, Ed the Australian taught me to appreciate all of the blessings and opportunities that I didn’t even know I had. Life could end so easily in so many ways. Also to avoid idiotic moves like skiing off the back side of a mountain by yourself in a foreign country when there is a blizzard coming in.

Next, there was Edith’s broken bone and insurance situation. While going off a jump at a local resort, she completely shattered her right arm. The doctor said she needed surgery but couldn’t fly for a week afterwards. The insurance needed proof of her injuries before they would pay for her surgery or fly her home. And the Japanese hospital only produced reports in Japanese, which the insurance company in Hong Kong could not read. The situation took a couple of days to resolve, and several times she sat – slumped rather – in the hotel lobby, sobbing. I did all I could, and learned that while everyone has the strength to deal with tough situations like this, a little moral support makes all the difference in the world.

Then there was Hubert the angry American. His name wasn’t actually Hubert but for some reason that’s what I’m calling him. He wanted everything for free because he was important (self-proclaimed) had photographed in 45 countries, and worked for all kinds of well-known magazines (repeating this several times). Hubert met an American student during his stay, who skied with him and helped him photograph the ski resorts of Shiga Kogen. Said student stayed an additional day to help Hubert, but failed to inform the hotel that he would not be checking out. Despite this, Hubert demanded that we also let this student stay for free. When I said this was obviously against hotel policy, I was told to “shut the f up” (4 times), that I did not understand the big picture, and that this was the worst service he had ever received (having of course, photographed in 45 countries across the globe for numerous other important magazines and publications). I made the mistake of laughing at him, and got a further soliloquy threatening to withdraw the ad in the important magazine he was photographing for. The whole situation was a mess. I learned from Hubert, however, to never ever treat someone like they are less than you, no matter how successful, rich or famous I might or might not become. As Federer would say, “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice”.

Finally, there are the crises that we cannot resolve. I received a call yesterday saying there had been an avalanche on the mountain, and two Argentinian guys from our hotel had been involved. They found the bodies immediately and attempted CPR, but they had died upon impact. Actually I’m not sad for them: they traveled the world skiing and died painlessly while living out their passion. I am sad for the families. How do you tell someone that news? We have so little control over the things that we involve ourselves in every day. A single slip, a careless moment, a jerk of the steering wheel and our lives are over. That could be depressing or liberating. If you are reading this, you are probably healthy, at least somewhat wealthy (having a computer) and definitely alive. There is a lot to be thankful for. The suddenness and finality of death remind me to live every day the way we were meant to.

Those are my thoughts for today as I reflect on some sad, trying, and rich experiences.

Hanging out with good friends in Sugadaira

Hanging out with good friends in Sugadaira

The Importance of Wearing Hats

As I write this, I’m sitting at my hotel in Yudanaka, Japan watching the snow fall outside through the huge stain glass windows. I can see the mountains leading up to the ski resorts, trees lightly frosted with this morning’s dusting. I see ancient buildings nestled up against modern apartments, steam rising in various places from the town’s dozens of public hot springs. And I think again about how different my life is from just a week ago. Last week I was winning money with my uncle at Black Jack tables in Vegas. This week I’m here. I’m not sure I could think of anything more opposite.

Snow in the Mountains

Snow in the Mountains

Yet I’ve come to accept irregularity as part of my life. Someday I want a more stable job, something that pays well, gives me the freedom to spend time with my family and something in which I gain autonomy, mastery and purpose (see the TED talk). Yet for now, I appreciate the experiences and lessons I’ve learned from doing so many things. I was trying to count yesterday how many jobs and internships I have done in my life. I counted 24, but I’m sure there are more. Some of the crazier ones include tour guiding for a Japanese movie star in Kenya, growing chili peppers in the desert, playing pickleball for money and working at a Japanese ski resort. There are lots of lessons to be learned from doing so many things, and I wanted to share a few of those:

1. One Thing Usually Leads to Another

It’s strange, but the things you learn from previous jobs always come in handy in whatever you do next. I don’t know how that happens, but it always has for me. Living and working in Kenya, I learned to think on my feet and use the resources available to me. We frequently dealt with delays, lack of electricity, traffic, corruption. Comparatively, driving Japanese customers around Colorado and dealing with the hiccups that inevitably occur seems like a piece of cake.

2. You Gain Lifelong Friendships & Networks

Yesterday I put on my previously nonexistent bartender hat and waited on Taiwanese guests. Besides learning to make mixed drinks on the fly, we had a fascinating conversation, less because of the content and more because of the linguistic challenges. There were three of us, the Taiwanese tour guide, the Taiwanese customer, and myself. I spoke English and Japanese, the tour guide spoke Japanese and Taiwanese, and the customer spoke Taiwanese and English. We had a roundabout three-way conversation, constantly having to translate everything to the odd man out, both of them becoming increasingly intoxicated. As a result, they both gave me their business cards and I have places to stay in Taichung, Taiwan if I ever visit (which is coincidentally where another close friend of mine lives). One of my bucket list items is to know someone personally from every country in the world. Doing these jobs helps me achieve that.

Wearing another kind of hat

Wearing another kind of hat

3. People are Amazed at Your Life Experience

Things like growing up in Japan and working in Kenya make you an interesting person, which in turn makes people want to talk to you. In my most memorable class at Azusa Pacific, I remember the president telling us to strive to become interesting people, not to boast about our individual achievements but to be able to share our lives with other people. And hopefully that will enrich theirs. I want to be someone who exudes humble confidence, knowing that I can do almost anything but realizing that many other people have helped me along the way and nothing is accomplished by my own strength.

Japanese Friends

Japanese Friends

4. You Learn What You Love & Hate

I love cooking but I could never work in a restaurant. Some lessons can only be learned the hard way. I love helping people create memorable vacations and digging deeper into what makes a place special. That’s the sort of thing that makes me tick, and having done various jobs, I better appreciate the importance of doing something you love. Sometimes you have to do things that you know aren’t the best, but as long as those are pushing you towards something better, those are all just opportunities to learn and grow.

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