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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Walking Through September

I am starting and ending this month with walking. At the beginning it was hiking through Colorado with a Japanese tour group; at the end walking through Japanese forests on a 10-day journey up the Nakasendo Way. Neither trip is new, yet I love each and continue to learn about myself as I journey. Both trips feel like stepping stones, essential experiences required to move on to bigger and better things.

Hiking up Mt. Elbert with my mom and the Japanese group

Hiking up Mt. Elbert with my mom and the Japanese group

I also did some running in the middle of the month, namely in the form of the Tournament of Champions pickleball tournament held in Brigham City, Utah. I was fortunate enough to win a singles and a men’s doubles title (and accompanying cash), although it wasn’t quite the accomplishment that my dad’s triple crown victory was. Thanks to my partners, the tournament organizers, friends, and everyone else who made the tournament stand out. Even last year, I never could have imagined I would be doing what I am doing today.

Looking ahead, October is going to be insane – but good. Finishing my current walking tour on the 3rd, I begin another one on the 7th in Kyoto. I end 10 days later, when I take a bullet train to meet my college roommate and his wife in Ueda, the town where I spent most of my childhood. We will do some hiking in the area, before I return to Tokyo to meet my parents and the participants of the first ever pickleball tour of Japan (with many more to come). I am so excited and thankful for this year’s participants for believing in us and being willing to spend the time and money to plant the sport in a new country. It makes a huge difference. On the second to last day of the tour, I return to Kyoto to begin a final Walk Japan tour, before flying back to Phoenix to play in the USAPA national pickleball tournament in Arizona.

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Rice Fields and Cosmos Flowers in the Kiso Valley

Let me say a final word and contemplate a bit on life where I am at the moment. It’s Autumn in Japan, my favorite season. The leaves in the mountains are just starting to show a hint of color. There is a coolness in the evening air and a dampness to the fallen leaves. Massive Fuji Apples are appearing in the grocery stores and every day as I walk, I secretly nab at least one ripe persimmon from trees weighed down by them. I hope no one minds. I love this seasonality. I’m sure living in the tropics (or Arizona for that matter) has its perks, but there is something about making it through the summer that makes you appreciate the coolness of the Fall so much more.

It makes me think that joy can’t be experienced fully without some pain and that perhaps life isn’t about avoiding the pain. Maybe it’s about taking in these short moments and deciding to find good in everything – because it’s there if you look for it. The last few years have not been without their difficulties. Even though I don’t show many things on the surface, I often had doubts about where I was going, didn’t have a great attitude and was angry that I wasn’t as successful or with it as other people my age. But with some wisdom that comes from making mistakes and the help of people around me, I am discovering that no matter what I’m doing, there is joy to be found and pride to be taken in doing something well. It helps that I am discovering what I love doing and have the resources to pursue it, something that very few people can say. That’s my philosophical thought of the month, some of the things I think about as I walk many hours through the Kiso Valley