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.

Life in Limbo

I have been traveling a lot. I love it and I chose to do it, but it gets tiring just the same. Since my last post, I flew to Oita Prefecture on Japan’s Southernmost major island of Kyushu for a work seminar. I learned all about the Walk Japan business in what was the largest gathering of foreigners fluent in Japanese I have ever attended. Later I flew to Tokyo and took the bullet train to Nagano where we had a 4th of July pickleball event (not really, we just happened to be playing pickleball on July 4th). I came back to Tokyo, only to wait all day for a plane to Portland that I was destined not to board (I’m flying standby). I then got a great last-minute deal on a hotel close by, waiting the next day for another doomed attempt at Portland. Frustrated, I got a bus to Tokyo’s international airport and flew to Seattle, where I am currently staying in a youth hostel waiting to take the bus to Portland in the morning. It is an elusive city.

Sunset in Ooita

Sunset in Oita

All of this waiting, however, provided me with plenty of time for reflection and for work on my travel website, which I will reveal soon. My conclusion upon pondering is that I am thankful for where I am right now. A year ago after coming back from Africa I didn’t know what I wanted to do. More importantly for me I think, I didn’t know where I wanted to do it. I now have a couple of jobs I love and creative, interesting projects. I am working towards bigger and better things. Life is crazy but it is so much better than being bored.

Some people mistake my like of Japan for dislike of America. I don’t dislike the States, it just never felt like home for me. It doesn’t make me want to dig down and stay. I am a little fish in a very big pond, and while speaking Japanese makes me an interesting novelty, it’s not necessarily very useful. Sometimes I describe it to people like this: “In America, I look like I should belong and as the conversation goes on people gradually realize how different we are. In Japan, I obviously don’t look like I belong, but as the conversation goes on people realize how similar we are.” I like that. People tell me all the time that as a foreigner, you can never fully be accepted as Japanese. Perhaps that’s true, but instead of trying to be accepted as Japanese I think I’m content with just being accepted.

A final note to please use common sense and at least gain a cursory knowledge of world events when traveling abroad. Also, eavesdropping makes for great blog material. The other day in Narita Airport, I overheard a 19-year old American kid from Texas chatting up three Russian girls. After hearing they were from Russia, he couldn’t remember if Russia was still communist and said he vaguely remembered something about a wall. He then asked if they were Sophomores or Juniors in high school, at which point they had no clue what he was saying and the conversation started falling apart. I’m not saying everyone needs to be expert world historians – just be interested in the world around you and aware that language can be a barrier or a bridge.

That’s all for now. I’m headed tomorrow to my brother’s wedding in Eugene, Oregon. Congratulations Jon and Makaya, I’m happy for you.

Among Two Worlds

I just left home. Now I’m home again.

In other words, I left the US last week and made it to Japan safely. I stayed in Tokyo for a few days, eating Thanksgiving dinner at an American family’s house and continuing my 4-year streak of not being in America for such a North American Holiday. I reconnected with Japanese friends, whom I’ve known since kindergarten and elementary school. I went to church in Ueda where I grew up, and in true Japanese fashion they threw me a dinner party even though I insisted that they not make a big deal. Then I rode the train and returned to Shiga Kogen, where I will stay again this winter for about a month.

Seeing Mt. Fuji from Tokyo with American friends

Seeing Mt. Fuji from Tokyo with American friends

It is strange to me how completely different my two worlds are, yet how completely I can belong to each simultaneously. Americans can’t imagine a white boy like me speaking fluent Japanese, and Japanese people ask me fairly frequently if I can speak English. I can see where they’re coming from. When someone seems so American or so Japanese, it’s hard to imagine that person as anything else. It’s like trying to imagine a long-haired person you just met with short hair: You can’t do it.

Although I have inhabited both worlds for quite some time now, I’m becoming increasingly aware of my need to choose one. I want to live somewhere. I don’t want to just float from one destination to the next because it’s too easy to run away from things that matter. Living somewhere means knowing people and involving yourself in everyday life. It means having seasons, even if some of them aren’t your favorite. I’m sure the snowbird lifestyle suits some, but I’m not convinced that it’s healthy or what God desires for our lives. We need more meaning than air-conditioned villas, well-groomed golf-courses and perpetual summer. Comfort is nice sometimes but it’s not a purpose to pursue. Undoubtedly my two world are intertwined and I will always go back and forth between the two. I just don’t want to use that as an excuse not to get down and dirty in the nitty gritty of one.

The difficult thing is that I could see myself choosing either world. I love Robert Frost’s poem about the road less traveled. For my life, it would read “Two roads diverged in the Pacific. I chose ________. It has made all the difference in the world”. Maybe I could live in parallel universes where one Daniel lives here and another one lives there. Or I could time travel and relive one or the other.

Coming to Japan, however, does make me biased. Unlike any other place, when I return to Nagano I breathe a sigh of relief because I finally feel like I’m home. America is great, but I feel like Japan needs me more. From economic stagnation to one of the highest suicide rates in the world, I have opportunities for influence here that I don’t have elsewhere. For now I feel like that is a gift I am meant to use.

Japan also has this meal for 290 yen ($2.50). Who says Japan has to be expensive?

Japan also has this meal for 290 yen ($2.50). Who says Japan has to be expensive?