Team Japan

I often wonder what it is that drew me back to Japan. I grew up here of course and have that sense of belonging but so did my siblings and they are happily living in the US. What specifically made me want to come back and not them?

First, I can’t discount the influence of a single encounter. I was living in Colorado at the time when my sister told me about a ski resort that was looking for staff. Having nothing better to do I thought, “what the heck” and spent the Winter snowboarding in Shiga Kogen. I didn’t have any plans to move back to Japan until then and that single introduction probably changed my life. Who knows if I would have found a different path back to Japan (I have the feeling I might have) but when I spent that Winter in Nagano I knew I had to stay.

Now that I’m here though, there are a few specific reasons that I just like Japan better than anywhere else. First, Japan is an endlessly interesting place to study. Churchill’s riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma quote actually describes Japan better than Russia. There is a simultaneous depth of culture and weirdness that in my opinion is not found anywhere else. For example, any aspect of Japanese culture from its history, food (which has it’s own branches), art forms, religion etc. is a rabbit hole that you could spend years going down. As a guide, I’m constantly making new discoveries because of the sheer volume of things I want to know. After living here 23 years I’m still asked questions about Japan on every tour that stump me. Second, I relate to Japanese peoples’ personalities better. Most Americans are willing to bare their life stories within a couple of meetings but in Japan – as with myself – it takes some time. It’s not that Japanese people don’t open up, someone just has to be in the inner circle before they do. There are a few ways to get into that inner circle including alcohol and speaking Japanese so I often experience a side of Japanese people that someone who doesn’t speak Japanese simply can’t. And perhaps superficially, Japanese food is just healthier and higher quality than American food of the same price. It’s easy to eat healthy and feel good here whereas in America it takes a conscious, concerted effort.

Another reason I have stayed is that I feel like I have more to contribute than I would living in the US. Speaking English and Japanese in Japan is a valuable skillset whereas in the US it wouldn’t be a significant advantage. In the US the competition for everything from houses to jobs to venture funding is fierce whereas in Japan, there just aren’t as many people competing for the same resources. Macro economically competition is good so it’s the reason the US is so far ahead but as an individual, it’s nicer being in a small pond. I definitely have a competitive advantage here that I wouldn’t in the US. I stand out here and while I hated that as a kid, I realize that it’s valuable as an adult. It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone who meets me remembers me because I’m this weird white guy that speaks perfect Japanese and those connections often come in handy sometime later.

Finally, this is a bit simplistic but despite its issues, I fee like Japan is still one team. I hate to say it but being ethnically homogenous probably helps. And while I am not, as you may have noticed, ethnically Japanese, I do feel like I’ve been let onto the team. I feel like I have skills that can contribute to making a better society, to brining more business here and to diversifying Japan in a positive manner. That’s what makes living here interesting for me.

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

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.