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.

Gentleman-At-Nakasendo-Teahouse

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 Lessons Learned from Blood-Sucking Leaches and Other Adventures as a Tour Guide

Without challenging experiences our stories probably wouldn’t be worth telling. The last three months of walking the Nakasendo Way have been a time of fascination as I walked through the rural landscapes of mountainous central Japan, challenge as I completed the journey 6 times en route to covering almost 1,000 kilometers on foot, increased knowledge as I was forced to learn about the history, politics, random facts etc. of this place, personal growth as I learned to solve problems as they arose and manage a group of 12 people at a time with differing personalities, walking abilities, ages, and finally contemplation as I considered my place in this wide world, particularly in this country. Here are a few lessons I have learned along the way…

1. Bring Bug Spray

In the mountains between Karuizawa and Yokokawa lies a pleasant forest path that winds gently downwards for 7 or 8 kilometers through the woods. Last week, this saunter through the forest turned into a mad dash as our group discovered blood-sucking leaches that worked their way into shoes, through socks up legs and even into shirts. It was the stuff of nightmares. They would latch on from both ends, and when pulled off, the anti-coagulant they inject to thin your blood means you don’t stop bleeding.  I now know that for some reason they congregate on that part of the trail, and that they come out in the summer when it’s been raining. I don’t know if bug spray would have helped, but next time I’m bringing it… and taking a different trail.

The eerie Forest of Leeches

The eerie Forest of Leeches

2. The Importance of the Cost-Benefit Analysis

Our trip along the Nakasendo Way involves several train rides. Most of these are commuter trains, but a couple involve bullet trains. One day, after walking 15 kilometers and arriving at the bullet train station, I purchased non-reserved seats for my group, thinking there would be seats open. I even added that I had never not gotten a seat before. Never say unnecessary things like that because the laws of the universe will suddenly intervene to conspire against you. As the bullet train pulled up to the station, I could see people standing in the isles… After pushing our way in, we had to stand for the entire journey amidst the crush of sweaty humanity. I reasoned that everyone was getting the “real Japanese experience” but for an additional $5.00, I have purchased reserved seats every time since.

3. Let People Get Lost, but Not Too Lost

Some people like getting lost. They don’t want to feel like they are on a group tour. My challenge as the leader is managing the tortoises and the hares so that everyone arrives around the same time while making things interesting for everyone. I instruct the sprinters to stop at road crossings, significant landmarks, or whenever they are not 100% sure of the way. Many of them still manage to get lost, but at that point it’s their choice. Somewhere between micromanaging and letting people lead their own tour, there is a perfect balance of letting people get just lost enough that they have fun, but it scares them just enough to make them wait at the crossing the next time.

IMG_08164. Be a Story Teller

People are interested in stories about other people. In Japan’s Edo Period (1600-1868), there was an Imperial Princess named Kazunomiya who was forced to marry the Shogun Tokugawa Iemochi in Edo (now Tokyo). Lamenting her loss of friends and family in Kyoto, she traveled the mountains and passes of the Nakasendo with an entourage of 25,000 servants, guards, peasants and porters, supposedly writing a haiku poem along the way about sad and lonely she was. She was carried in a palanquin the entire way and because our tour walks this same trail, people are fascinated by her story… and the poor porters who had to carry her!

5. Make Time for the Little Stuff and the Normal People

The best part of any holiday is finding the little places, and meeting the normal people who make those places special. Consistently the most popular places that I take people include a random French pastry/tea shop in the mountains called La Province, a community gathering of the elderly who serve us toast and bananas in the tiny little village of Hosokute, and the retired couple in the mountains who make miso pizza, perform local folk songs and have a full miniature train set.

That’s it for now. I’m on to my next adventure, Thailand, where I will be busily doing nothing for the next 10 days. Then it’s back to the States for the summer! Please stay tuned