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.

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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The Question of the War

Today I want to write about something that is, to put it mildly, not so cheerful. As I journey with people from various parts of the world through Japan, we naturally find time to discuss an array of topics. One of the reasons I like what I do is because it gives me lots of time to chat, think and theorize about these different faces of Japan. One question that I invariably receive from someone on the tour goes something like this. “The Japanese people are so nice! How could they have done all those horrible things in the war?” If that’s not a loaded question, I don’t know what is. Here is my attempt to interpret the question and explain some of the history that led up to the events of World War II. In no way am I qualified to justify or make unequivocal statements one way or another so some of this is necessarily opinion. The more I study history, the more I realize that black and white rarely exists in this world though. My American history lessons taught me that this was a battle between good and evil but I don’t believe that level of simplicity is possible in our complicated world.

First, I have a story of personal experience on this topic. In primary school, I remember reading a story about the war in which Tokyo is being bombed (most people don’t know that more people died in Tokyo than in Hiroshima or Nagasaki) and a little girl named Chii-Chan gets separated from her family. To read a strange, probably Google-translated summary of the story click here. Anyway, I am sitting in second grade Japanese elementary school in Tokyo and my teacher, who was older, starts discussing her memory of the air raids. She in no way allocated blame towards the Americans (a typical approach when Japanese discuss the war) or me, but all of a sudden my friends in class turn to me and go, “Aren’t you American? Weren’t they the ones that did the bombing?” There are so many weighty topics contained within that question that it would take a whole book to lay out. I just wanted to share this personal story that I remember so clearly. The war is over but it’s impact is certainly not.

Before discussing the question, I think it’s important to give a very brief overview of Japanese history leading up to the war. From the year 1600 to 1853, Japan for all intents and purposes isolated itself from the rest of the world and developed the culture we now think of as quintessentially Japanese. In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry under the command of President Millard Fillmore forced Japan open by show of military strength so that Western powers could begin trading. Japan resisted initially, realized they couldn’t compete with modern weaponry, and opened up its borders. The Japanese became bitter at being forced to sign an unequal treaty that included exterritoriality (foreigners can get away with crimes they commit in Japan) and internationally set export/import controls but swallowed their pride and accepted the terms, not wanting to end up like their Asian neighbors around them, who were all being colonized by the very same West. They vowed to modernize/Westernize to compete on equal footing, beginning a consorted effort to bring in Western specialists, rewrite the constitution, modernize industry, and expand the military. The Meiji Emperor (Hirohito’s grandfather) was restored to power at this time (although still mostly nominally) and his government pursued the all-important ideals of Centralization, Westernization and Militarization. The latter two especially are crucial elements that led up to the world wars, at least in my opinion.

By the late 1800s/early 1900s the “100 million hearts beating as one” had accomplished the unimaginable, beating both of their giant neighbors China and Russia in military engagements, making Japan the first modern Asian nation and the first Asian nation to beat a Western power. The major global powers (besides Russia obviously) were pretty happy about this because no one liked them very much anyway, especially after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Japan was actually linked with the allies in World War I. Along the way, Japan annexed Korea, Taiwan, ports in China, half of a traditionally Russian island and eventually all of Manchuria in 1931. The justification essentially being, “Hey, everyone else is doing it”.

Japan’s government, until the late 1920s, functioned as a relatively democratic constitutional monarchy, having both elected and appointed positions and the Emperor the ultimate head of state. In the late 1920s however, military power began expanding. The military fabricated a series of international incidents (most famously the Mukden Incident of 1931) to justify taking more territory in Asia and assassinated dissenting members of the Japanese government (most famously the Prime Minister Inukai Tsuyoshi in 1932). After this attempted coup d’etat the military was basically in control and continued taking more and more territory in Asia. The general population didn’t dissent because a) they weren’t told about the negative consequences, b) they were censored, c) Japan kept winning, and d) the economy remained strong, especially from the natural resources that flowed in from Korea and Manchuria. In 1937 the second Sino-Japanese War began and in 1940, Japan invaded Indo-China to cut off the flow of oil and resources flowing into China that were being used to fight the Japanese. The US became upset at Japanese expansionism and set an embargo on exports to Japan (eliminating Japan’s supply of oil), leading up to and culminating with the Pacific side of World War II, which killed an astonishing 75-80 million people globally.

So back to the question. How could the Japanese do such a thing?

First, I don’t think you can say “the Japanese” committed atrocities in World War II. I’m not denying that certain Japanese soldiers committed heinous acts including rape, murder, torture and probably genocide, but an entire race of people cannot be held responsible for the actions of some of its members. That is the very definition of racism and what leads people to justify committing horrible things against other people. When you see other people as monolithic faceless groups with no individual identity, it’s easier to define them by a single characteristic, deficiency or flaw and dehumanize them. I dislike it when people categorize other people in any one generalization because humanity is just not that simple (or boring).

Second, although horrible crimes were committed, a very small portion of the population took part in those crimes. This does not of course justify anything, but takes away from “the Japanese race commited these atrocities” argument. At the height of the Japanese Empire the Imperial Japanese Army encompassed around 6 million men, less than 10% of Japan’s population. Most were drafted into the military and all were indoctrinated with a heavy dose of propaganda surrounding the Emperor and the just cause of the Japanese Empire. Further, Japanese soldiers were encouraged to take and become addicted to Hiropon, a type of crystal meth. Hiropon was intended to dull their sense of hunger – and morality –  when doing unspeakable things. When they returned home, about 10,000 were indicted for war crimes, around half of whom were convicted with jail terms and 1,000 of whom were executed in the famous International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which had its own set of problems including allegations of victor’s justice what to do about the Emperor.

Japan still seems be hated by Asia because of its lack of apology after World War II. I have a couple of comments on that. First, Japan has apologized unilaterally, both verbally (see list of apologies by decade) and monetarily (to 54 nations). The problem, however is a) they do not sufficiently teach the war in textbooks, periodically coming out with books that have something like one page on the entire Pacific War and b) the existence of Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japanese war dead, including Class A convicted and executed war criminals. I think Japan needs to be more forthright on those two important points. Changing their stance on just these two issues would go a long way toward their international image.

That brings me to my final point, just like Americans think they are hated around the world, people think that all Asians hate Japanese. Au contraire on both counts. I have lived in the Middle East: the world does not hate America. And I have been to Ginza on a Saturday (Tokyo’s upmarket shopping district): other Asians love Japan, even if they don’t agree fully with their policies or how they have dealt with the past. I guess that’s kind of my point. We have to separate people groups from the terrible things that individuals within that group or their governments commit.Everyone has their demons if you dig deep enough. If Donald Trump is elected president, so help us God, I don’t want to be identified with pretty much anything he does, just like Japanese shouldn’t be lumped together with the crimes their ancestors or leaders committed. Perhaps they watched as evil men took over their country, but I don’t think we can lump the Japanese race together and say collectively that they acted evilly during World War II. Like I said, they should be more forthright and honest about their past. In today’s world I see this oversimplification and fear mongering for personal gains a lot, and I think it’s extremely dangerous. I want to be a part of a world that seeks to understand individual people, regardless of their race, their past or their affiliations.