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.

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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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Koh Tao, Japan and a Crazy 72 Hours

My story begins in Koh Tao, Thailand, where I vacationed for two weeks and got my open water scuba certification. What a magical place. The main part of the island is a single strip of beach with dive schools and restaurants scattered evenly. They say it’s the Mecca of learning to dive – and the cheapest place to do it – which piqued my interest. I dove every day, ate Thai food by the beach, met fellow vagabond travelers and perhaps played a little too hard…

After the last day of diving, some new friends and I decided to celebrate. There’s this thing called the Koh Tao Pub Crawl where you buy a ticket, get a matching tank top and meander with a huge group of people to the best bars in town. The most interesting of these is called the Queen’s Cabaret, a Thai Lady-Boy show. It’s honestly not a strip club, more like a transgender dance or a drag queen performance. I’ve never been to anything quite like it, I’m still a bit confused by what’s going on with their gender, and I don’t know what I’m supposed to call these women? but it was one of the most interesting experiences of my journey. They are certainly loud and proud.

It was getting late after the show and since my ferry was leaving the next morning at 6:00, I decided I would stay out all night. Poor choice Daniel. Although I never did these things when I was 21, I discovered that I am no longer 21. I didn’t drink enough to go too far past tipsy and I did manage to get about half an hour of sleep before catching a taxi to the ferry, but the next day was rough regardless. I caught the ferry+bus to Surat Thani Airport, took a plane to Bangkok, hopped on a shuttle for an hour from the domestic to the international airport, waited all day for my red eye flight to Korea, and met my friend Cory in Seoul. We chatted about the future, ate Kimbob and watched Jurassic World before I endured my final flight to Japan. I’ve done some long trips in my life but dang. Did I mentioned that I caught a mystery cold during this time and felt like crap?

I recuperated the following day in Tokyo, going in the evening to pick up my bag from a coin operated locker where I had left some things I wanted to keep safe. There I discovered that I had gone past the allotted number of days you can leave a bag in a coin operated locker, the office shuttered for the evening. Since I was leaving early the next morning to go to a work seminar in Kyushu, I wouldn’t be able to pick it up for another 5 days… Refusing to concede to this unfavorable development I changed my flight to Kyushu, visited the coin locker office early the next morning and claimed the bag.

The coin locker office guy was hilarious. He took 20 minutes to process my bag recovery, giving me a rehearsed but “I don’t actually give a crap because I only get paid $7 an hour” lecture about reading the information on the lockers. He also went through his procedures list several times to make sure he had taken out the bag correctly. I apologized profusely and left as quickly as I could, thankful that in Japan you can trust complete strangers to take care of your stuff. At this point, I realized that I needed to leave some other things in the locker that I didn’t want in Kyushu. Hanging my head in shame, I returned to the locker dude, asking him timidly if I might be able to put the same bag he had just taken out back in… He agreed to keep it safe.

My final interesting experience occurred on the way to Narita Airport. A Japanese family got on the train next to me. There were parents, a kid and what I assumed were grandparents, an aunt and a cousin, everyone speaking Japanese. Suddenly the kid starts talking perfect English. He must practice his pronunciation a lot, I thought. Then he started joking about the glasses made of grass and making fun of his aunt for not knowing the difference, which I found humorous. At that point I noticed mom’s Golden State Warrior’s shirt and her – to put it nicely – unJapanese body. They probably lived in California. Then I thought, “this kid is exactly like me – only flipped… two sides of the same coin!” Or were we? While his aunt spoke to him in Japanese, the kid in question would only reply in English, all in second grade potty humor. If he said the word toilet one more time I swear I would have slapped him. I was mortified as a kid to ever speak Japanese in front of my aunts and uncles and hope I didn’t think calling myself Mr. Toilet a thousand times was funny. Maybe that’s what growing up as the only kid that sticks out in a society of conformity does to you. In a final twist, the aunt told the kid in Japanese to cut the English potty humor because someone was sitting next to him (me) that might understand… Little did they know that their secret language was my secret language muhahahaha

That was my last 3 days. Now I’m in Kyushu at a company seminar and in Japan for a total of 10 more days. More of that in a future post.