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

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Starting Pickleball in Japan

The Japanese have three standard responses when faced with a complete foreigner like myself speaking fluent Japanese. The first (and the most common in Tokyo) is complete denial that they have seen anything out of the ordinary: They just can’t be bothered. The second is utter bewilderment (most common in the countryside), which generally leads to me giving my life story and ends in an exchange of business cards or a request for me to marry their daughter, niece, cousin or granddaughter, depending on the age of the parties involved. The second group has led to many interesting conversations, some friendships and even me being interviewed a few times as the representative for foreigners living in Japan. The final group refuses to believe that a person with my face can speak fluent Japanese. When I speak to them, they reply in marginal (at best) English, preferring to speak in one word sentences to accommodate the Gaijin who couldn’t possibly understand them.

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The participants of one of the first pickleball events ever held in Japan belonged to this third group of people. When I arrived, the organizers told me that I could only speak English, telling me they would translate for me because they had told everyone I was the US champion, and it would detract from the champion’s coolness if I spoke Japanese. Feeling rather like a trophy on display, I begrudgingly agreed to their request, resigning myself to being a circus animal performing tricks for the next 3 hours.

30 people attended, which I thought was a remarkably respectable number for an unknown sport in a new country. However, as I quickly found out, the reason I was not allowed to speak English was that 20 of the 30 participants were from a local mentally handicapped club. This was their weekly exercise event, and the organizers were accommodating these people, who they thought wouldn’t be able to comprehend the racial/linguistic gap. This actually proved false as I broke down a couple of hours into the event and started ignoring my translators. The handicapped people understood me perfectly well, and some were remarkably good players after just a couple of hours. I was still on display, as everyone simply called me champion even after I repeatedly told them my name was Daniel, but I didn’t mind so much 🙂

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The pickleball event, and my subsequent weekend trip to Korea have made me think about a few things. At first, I wrongly thought of handicapped people coming to our event as something depressing, like those were the only people we could gather. Then I realized how great it is that pickleball is accessible to everyone. They never quite grasped the rules (having 3 numbers in the score is confusing for anyone), but they had a great time. What a great testimonial for the sport. It is the only sport I know of that can accommodate grandparents and grandchildren, athletes and couch potatoes, wheelchairs and handicaps and to an extent, allow these people to have fun all playing on the same court. When I really thought about it, there might not have been a better way to launch the sport in Japan.

And second, I was reminded of the invaluability (that’s not a real word) of language. Taking away my linguistic ability in Japan, then traveling to Korea turned me from a fully functional, intelligent adult to struggling with basic communication. I’m reminded how thankful I am that I grew up speaking two languages, that Japan is still home and that there is a reason for me having grown up here. The reason is not entirely clear yet, but it is gradually becoming more apparent. Japan is weird and there are things that bug me, but that’s true of anywhere. It’s a pretty cool that I get to live here.

That is my story of starting pickleball in Japan. It’s going to be a long time before it’s mainstream, but you have to begin somewhere right?

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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