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 🙂 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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Pickleball and Language in China

I made it to China! I will be here for the next week and a half teaching pickleball in Dongguan (close to Hong Kong) to a group of coaches, college students and teachers. It’s exciting to be a part of starting a sport in a country as big as China and although it’s at the very beginning, I can see it growing fast.

I’ve been observing recently how language changes experience in another country. In Japan, I feel comfortable to the point of not knowing what to write about in this blog anymore. That might sound strange but living in Japan is normal for me. I can say anything I want, I have close friends, I can tell jokes and am confident that I can do things. I even sleep talk in the language. China is a different story. Today I bought food at a convenience store and asked the front desk for chopsticks. Unable to say “chopsticks”, I resorted to demonstrating my noodles and acting like I was eating them. Later, a student in the pickleball course insisted on taking me to McDonald’s (a cultural discussion for another day). I ordered a cheeseburger with no french fries, but he thought I wanted it without vegetables. On top of being a McDonalds burger, I ate it dry sans condiments… with fries on the side. Admittedly these are first world problems. I’m not saying “woe is me for not getting exactly what I ordered”. It’s just that communication is fascinating. In just a short flight, I have gone from literate and knowledgeable to basically having the oratory capacity of an infant. Maybe less so… when a baby cries we have a basic understanding of what it wants. When adult humans utter unintelligible gibberish to each other, they most often have no clue. Nothing is so humbling as this experience, but I believe it’s a good thing. When language disappears as a means of communication, I find my creativity and observation increases proportionally.

Somewhat related to this, a funny event happened to me while snowboarding before I left Japan. My friend and I like to find powder snow outside the boundaries of the ski area. We find some, but the ski patrol sees us and waits for us at the bottom of the run. I come down first and assuming of course that I don’t speak Japanese, the ski patrol says I’m not allowed in that area. I respond in English, “sorry”, wanting to remain a stupid foreigner and not someone who actually knows they aren’t supposed to be in that area. Then my Japanese buddy comes down and because he is with me, the ski patrol assumes he doesn’t speak Japanese either. My friend knows pretty much zero English so I know that if he says anything, we are busted. And I know that he knows that I know all this. After the ski patrol’s speech on back country safety (he was actually nice about it), my buddy just says “ok” and the ski patrol lets us go! He followed us the next run to make sure we didn’t get into any more fun… I mean trouble and I realized how convenient it is sometimes to be a foreigner. It goes both ways.

All that to say, I am seriously contemplating learning Chinese. The opportunities are huge. Even if it’s not with pickleball, Mandarin is something that will be beneficial forever. But it’s a daunting task filled with visions of trying to say ma 4 different ways and insulting someone’s mother by calling her a horse. Or something like that. Of course, my customers say that about Japan, which is not true, so maybe I am wrong. I find that things are always the most daunting before you start them.

The pickleball club here is serious about spreading the sport. I attended a media day the other day where almost a hundred people attended including the mayor, owners of companies and university professors. Other attendees came from Hong Kong and Singapore to take part. Li Na’s tennis teammate got silver in the competition: I have been teaching her this week and might play with here in a tournament in Taiwan. Things are moving, Asia is coming on the pickleball scene. It’s an exciting time.

The last thing I want to say is that China makes me feel tiny. I still can’t wrap my head around a number like 1.3 billion people. Colorado Springs where I went to high school has 500,000 and there are 800 cities in China with over a million people. I drove from Hong Kong to Shenzhen the other day, and for over an hour straight I saw tower after tower of apartment buildings and businesses. Dongguan where I am working is considered a “medium-sized city” with a paltry population of 8 million. China is mind-boggling and while I don’t want to live here, I want to learn more.

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.