Back in Japan

After a month and some change in North America, I’m back in Japan for the Winter. Yes, like a few times before I have decided to write more this year, both on this blog and my new Active Travel Japan blog. So here we go.

Traveling back to the US and Mexico, it was nice to see family and the friends that I could, but the fact that nothing was open made it a different kind of trip. I’ve never sat inside so much life, or seen my family sit around for that matter. Everything was open in Mexico so the two weeks I spent there on our Camp Cabo Pickleball Trip were fun. Although back in Japan it’s some more of the same, I do have my backyard ski resort to alleviate the boredom. You can only snowboard so much though so I’m trying to find things to do, hence the writing.

My sense from visiting the US is that it’s no longer a country at peace. While Japan has its social problems, at the very least it can rally people around being Japanese. It seems that for many Americans now, political affiliation is more important than being American. Whereas during previous crises like World War II, citizens and politicians alike were willing to sacrifice personal interests for the good of the country, I don’t see that happening anymore. You can argue that Japan is more unified because it’s more ethnically unified, but the US has been diverse for its entire existence so that is nothing new. Its diversity is not going away so it must figure out how to unify people around being American. Even if you disagree with someone else’s views, at the end of the day you don’t know everything and both sides are trying to make America better so just work together. I know it’s not that simple, but that’s what I see looking at the US from the outside.

Like I mentioned previously, the hardest thing for me during the pandemic has been maintaining a sense of purpose. I have been fortunate financially because of the popularity of the Pickleball Masterclass, but that means I could literally sit in bed and watch Netflix all day. I haven’t done that of course, but it’s hard to do something today when there is absolutely no sense of urgency because no one is traveling anyway. I suppose it’s a good time to find purpose outside of work, but I loved what I was doing so I didn’t necessarily feel that need in the first place. I am in no position to complain, these are just my rambling thoughts.

Anyway, a new lockdown in Tokyo has cancelled my planned pickleball coaching next week. Last week people who were going to rent my house canceled as well. It’s just that kind of year. I’m less disappointed now, I feel more deflated. I have come to expect everything I plan to get cancelled so I’m not even surprised anymore. A couple of groups of friends are coming next week to ski and snowshoe though so at least that’s something. If it doesn’t get cancelled that is ūüėČ

More to come, please stay tuned.

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The Problem of the Gaijin

Coming back to Nagano after almost 10 years, one of the biggest differences I notice is the amount of Gaijin (foreigners) around. Seeing other white people where I grew up was quite an event. I always stared at them in fascination, wondering how they ended up in such a random place in rural Japan (only later recognizing the irony in that they were probably wondering the same thing).

Granted, I now live in tourism central with the Snow Monkey Park just minutes away, where upwards of 50,000 international tourists visit every year. Shiga Kogen, the largest ski resort in Asia, is 30 minutes up the mountain.¬†Yet things have changed too. All of the sudden Japan is on the world’s travel map. People have realized¬†that Japan does not equal Tokyo, it’s cheaper to travel to than America or Europe, it has amazing food, history and culture, and that¬†it gets some of the best powder snow in the world. Even with the tsunami of 2011, inbound tourism to Japan has increased 30% per annum over the last several years.

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This presents a problem and an opportunity. In the age of cheaper Chinese manufacturing and depopulation (Japan has the lowest birth rate¬†in the world) industries like tourism are necessary to the country’s long-term financial viability. I have wondered for years why Japan did such a poor job marketing themselves to the outside world. They have finally got the word out, but as a result of so much foreign influence, Japan (or the part of Japan that I know) will not stay the same. For Western cultures built on immigration and mingling, adding more people groups to the mix feels like a positive, diversifying influence. In Japan it makes me feel nostalgic, like part of their heritage will be lost forever (again, ironic because I am part of my own so-called problem).

Through the observation of international tourists, however, I have realized that there are constructive and infuriating¬†people who come to this country. It’s well-known here that ski resorts like Hakuba and Niseko and are filled with more Gaijin than Japanese (these resorts are called little Australia).¬†Two weeks ago, I went to something called a fire festival in Nozawa Onsen, where they burn that year’s New Years decorations and ornaments. I was excited to see a cultural event that dates back centuries, and to get some free sake. Instead,¬†I found drunken foreigners (and Japanese for that matter) stumbling around yelling obscenities in the streets and getting into fights. It was unfortunate. I found it disappointing that in the one place that values respect above almost everything else, these people had none.

But I suppose that’s what travel is about. Once everyone has¬†discovered a place¬†it’s not exciting¬†– at least for the genuine traveler. Hawaii is relaxing but I would not call someone who sips pina coladas on Waikiki¬†Beach¬†a very adventurous traveler.¬†The most genuine cultural experiences happen when there isn’t anyone else who looks like you. And even if there is, it’s about¬†wanting to know more about a place’s people, food, values etc. As a person who loves this place and loves travel, those are the types of travelers I appreciate the most – and welcome back.

‚ÄúAdventure is a path. Real adventure ‚Äď self-determined, self-motivated, often risky ‚Äď forces you to have firsthand encounters with the world. The world the way it is, not the way you imagine it. Your body will collide with the earth and you will bear witness. In this way you will be compelled to grapple with the limitless kindness and bottomless cruelty of humankind ‚Äď and perhaps realize that you yourself are capable of both. This will change you. Nothing will ever again be black-and-white.‚ÄĚ

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The Importance of Wearing Hats

As I write this, I’m sitting at my hotel in Yudanaka, Japan watching the snow fall outside through the huge stain glass windows. I can see the mountains leading up to the ski resorts, trees lightly frosted with this morning’s dusting. I see ancient buildings nestled up against modern apartments, steam rising in various places¬†from the town’s dozens of public hot springs.¬†And I think again about how different my life is from just a week ago. Last week I was winning money with my uncle at Black Jack tables in Vegas. This week I’m here. I’m not sure I could think of anything more opposite.

Snow in the Mountains

Snow in the Mountains

Yet I’ve come to accept irregularity as part of my life. Someday I want a more stable job, something that pays well, gives me the freedom to spend time with my family and something in which I gain autonomy, mastery and purpose (see the TED talk). Yet for now, I appreciate the experiences and lessons I’ve learned from doing so many things. I was trying to count yesterday how many jobs and internships I have done in my life. I counted 24, but I’m sure there are more. Some of the crazier ones include tour guiding for a Japanese movie star in Kenya, growing chili peppers in the desert, playing pickleball for money¬†and working at a Japanese ski resort. There are lots of¬†lessons to be learned from doing so many things, and I wanted to share a few of those:

1. One Thing Usually Leads to Another

It’s strange, but¬†the things you learn from previous jobs always come in handy in whatever you do next. I don’t know how that happens, but it always has for me. Living and working in Kenya, I learned to think on my feet and use the resources available to me. We frequently dealt with delays, lack of electricity, traffic, corruption. Comparatively, driving Japanese customers around Colorado and dealing with the hiccups that inevitably occur seems like a piece of cake.

2. You Gain Lifelong Friendships & Networks

Yesterday I put on my previously nonexistent bartender hat and waited on Taiwanese guests. Besides learning to make mixed drinks on the fly, we had a fascinating conversation, less because of the content and more because of the linguistic challenges. There were three of us, the Taiwanese tour guide, the Taiwanese customer, and myself. I spoke English and Japanese, the tour guide spoke Japanese and Taiwanese, and the customer spoke Taiwanese and English. We had a roundabout three-way conversation, constantly having to translate everything to the odd man out, both of them becoming increasingly intoxicated. As a result, they both gave me their business cards and I have places to stay in Taichung, Taiwan if I ever visit (which is coincidentally where another close friend of mine lives). One of my bucket list items is to know someone personally from every country in the world. Doing these jobs helps me achieve that.

Wearing another kind of hat

Wearing another kind of hat

3. People are Amazed at Your Life Experience

Things like growing up in Japan and working in Kenya make you an interesting person, which in turn makes people want to talk to you. In my most memorable class at Azusa Pacific, I remember the president telling us to strive to become interesting people, not to boast about our individual achievements but to be able to share our lives with other people. And hopefully that will enrich theirs. I want to be someone who exudes humble confidence, knowing that I can do almost anything but realizing that many other people have helped me along the way and nothing is accomplished by my own strength.

Japanese Friends

Japanese Friends

4. You Learn What You Love & Hate

I love cooking but I could never work in a restaurant. Some lessons can only be learned the hard way. I love helping people¬†create memorable vacations and digging deeper into what makes a place special. That’s the sort of thing that makes me tick, and having done various jobs, I better¬†appreciate the importance of doing something you love. Sometimes you have to do things that you know aren’t the best, but as long as those are pushing you towards something better, those are all just opportunities to learn and grow.

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