Winter Excursions

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Flag of Japan  , Chubu,
Thursday, May 26, 2011

SAKURA SEASON:

I figured the changes in seasons offered a good opportunity to update my blog. The spring was seemingly short lived as the chilly winter air transitioned to comfortable warm temperatures with intense sunshine quite quickly.  Spring seemed to last only as long as the cherry blossoms which transformed the Japanese attitude amidst the ongoing tragedy endured by those in the Tohoku Region.  Perhaps the traditionally celebrated blossoms were timely as a shift in outlook was necessary for everyone in the country, as the constant burden of the recent disasters was taking a severe toll. 

While many were torn as to whether to celebrate the cherry blossoms (sakura), the general feel of those participating was a deep respect for those affected by the tragedy, but an appreciation for optimism and continued recovery.  For those unaware, the cherry blossoms are traditionally celebrated throughout the country with elaborate festivals.  People emerge from the cracks of the winter woodwork in order to soak up the stunningly beautiful ornately scattered cherry blossom trees throughout the parks of Japan.  Generally a cheerful nature pervades, as everyone is enthusiastic about the prospect of the seasonal rebirth.  Elaborate picnics are common as well as celebratory day drinking.  The sakura festivals (hanami) I attended with my friends this spring were certainly some of the more joyous occasions I can remember, particularity relative to anxiety and tension caused by the recent disasters.

While I enjoy dwelling on the recent spring events, all those avid blog followers will note that I've neglected addressing much of my activity from this past winter.  So, the remainder of this blog will focus on that.  It was a lively winter and my pursuits offered me good opportunity to expound upon the perspective I’ve been developing since my arrival in Japan ten months ago.  I continued my mindset of "never refusing an invitation" in order continue opening my mind to new activities and approaches.  I’ve also discovered my life to be substantially more exciting with this mindset, as I continually find myself in situations I’ve never been exposed to in the past.  I’ve realized any sort of reluctance to uncertainty is simply weakness due to my own insecurity and ignorance.  So, I’ve focused on eliminating it through an entirely open approach to everything I learn, every person I meet, and every activity I participate in, with the ultimate goal in mind of achieving the essence of a completely open mind.

So, I’ll elaborate on some of the strange activities I’ve found myself participating in since the holiday season.  After a two and a half week stint back in Wisconsin over the Holidays I jumped right back into my routine of busy weeks in my schools separated by even busier weekends of traveling.  I went to the Nagano Prefecture on two separate occasions to ski and snowboard.  Both weekends were great, and while I went with the same outdoor club based in Tokyo, the weekends couldn’t have been more different. 

SKIING IN NAGANO:

My first trip to Nagano in the middle of January was to Nozawa Onsen Resort.  This is a quaint, traditional and very authentic Japanese ski village at the base of an expansive mountain resort covered by forests.  The town is renounced for its 21 natural hot springs interspersed throughout the village.  Some are indoors, some outdoors, and some are even occupied by Japanese Snow Monkeys.  All of them provided relaxation nonetheless, especially after a long day out on the mountain.  I didn’t have much in the way of expectation, but was definitely caught off guard when my friends and I made it to our accommodation after the five hour bus ride from Tokyo.  The room we stayed in was about 12’ X 15’ and slept five people.  It was traditional Japanese Tatami (straw mat) style with nothing other than a table for us to sit around.  In the closets were Japanese Futons (mats we lay on the ground to sleep on).  I realized quickly when on a busy and tiring ski weekend, you really don’t need much more than a mat to sleep on anyway. 

As soon as we arrived I recognized how exhausting of a weekend it would be.  There was loads of fresh snow.  The Japanese Alps are famous for their feathery powder, and the massive amount they receive each season.  Over the two days we were in Nozawa, we received over 45 inches of fresh snow.  This made for some tremendous skiing, and also some interesting experiences as a result of exploring unfamiliar terrain with such an incredible amount of snow.  I had some memorable lines that would rank up there with some of the best I can recall.  The terrain was diverse, with quite a bit of tree skiing.  As great as the snow was, the lack of steep grade due to smaller elevations than I am familiar with made for some frustrating runs.  I’ll attach a story about one particularly adventurous run at the end of this blog. 

Nozawa/Dosojin Fire Festival:

The reason I went to this resort the weekend that I did was not because of the great fresh snow.  The conditions were purely a coincidence which of course I was very pleased with.  Instead, the reason I went was to attend a traditional Fire Festival that dates back to 1863.  This fire festival in the Nozawa Community turned out to be one of the stranger things I’ve witnessed. The festival is held annually and is considered one of Japan’s top three fire festivals according to the Nagano Prefectural Tourism Board.  Essentially what occurs is a massive clash amidst a raging fire.  An elaborately constructed three story high wooden structure stood erect, protected by the community’s boisterous 42 year old men.  Wearing nothing but loincloths in the freezing temperatures, it was obvious that they depended on hoards of hot Sake to keep warm.  They taunted and eventually fought against the community’s 25 year old men who were thrashing through the crowds of elderly men with piles of burning sticks in order to ignite the wooden structure.  Supposedly, whichever group of men wins the battle is thought to have better luck than the other for the remainder of their lives.  In other words, there is a lot on the line, so passionate battles ensue.  Men with bloody faces, missing teeth, singed hair, fried skin, and likely broken bones, battled through the flames in order to either ignite, or defend the massive ornate wooden structure.  The event climaxes in a massive bonfire as the tower succumbs to the flames.  The festival’s power and energy really have to be seen in order to be believed.  Next winter I’ll be 25, so if I return to the States with any burn scars, you’ll know where they are from. It was quite strange to see such sheer brutality celebrated in the way it was, but I suppose, it’s important that the tradition persists, especially in Japan.

As I mentioned earlier, my second experience skiing in Nagano was completely different from my first.  In fact it, while I had intended to, I didn't even ski at all.  I actually tried snowboarding for the first legitimate time, aside from a few foolish experimental runs in the past.  Contrary to my first weekend in Nagano, I went to Hakuba, which is a large Swiss style ski town at the base a towering mountain range with five different resorts.  Instead of terrain covered in trees, much of the resort I skied (Happo) was above the tree line, so it was very exposed.  The snow conditions were poor, which is ultimately why I tried snowboarding.  I figured I would get frustrated in the poor conditions on skis and figured snowboarding would offer a bit more of a challenge.  I was with a great crew who pushed me to progress quickly, and with a few pointers of advice I picked it up pretty quickly.  By the end of the second day I was riding the entire mountain and experimenting with some ill-advised tree grinds and jumps, ultimately ending up coated in slush from the warm temperatures and blazing sunshine on the mountain. 

On the Saturday night my friends and I attended a Reggae Festival in the Ski Town.  It was in fact not solely a reggae festival at all.  The style of music was varied, with everything from Ska, to Irish Folk, to Dub, to Electro, with a few hints of Reggae intertwined.   The venue was incredible, as it was a massive six room Victorian Style Mansion converted into a music hall.  There was a good mix of Japanese and Foreigners, and everyone was enthusiastic about dancing.  I met up with a few friends from my soccer team who live in Nagano, and all in all it was a memorable night.  Good music and great company.  The next morning we were up early to get back out on the mountain.  It was a real struggle at first, but that crisp mountain air always seems to instill a new sense of freshness no matter what the prior night had in store.  The second day was warm again with super strong gusty winds.  I wished I could have had my kite, but I’ll have to wait a few years until I’m at that skill level. 

It was another good weekend.  The only downside of these ski trips is that we don’t return to Tokyo until quite late on Sunday night.  After my first weekend, I made the last bus back to Togane, but it was close.  After the second weekend, I didn’t make it.  In fact I wasn’t close to making it at all.  So, I had to crash with a friend, and catch the first train in the morning in order to make it to school in time on the Monday.  These days are always a struggle, especially after an exhausting weekend, but nothing some peppy junior high school kids can liven up.

ICE FISHING:

I’ve never been too keen on fishing back in the States, but a few people who I’ve grown close to while here are big fishermen, and I’ve followed on a few fishing excursions.  Back in January I went Wakasagi (a type of fish, about the size of a pinky finger) Ice Fishing in Gunma Prefecture.  I went with a fellow teacher at my school.  I’ve been able to formulate a rewarding relationship with him, language barrier aside.  He doesn’t speak any English, but has continually been one of the few coworkers I have who strives to build bridges with me wherever possible.  I have a great appreciation for him, and his efforts to establish a relationship with me even though at times it’s a tremendous struggle to communicate.  Actually, most of the time I have no idea what he is talking about, but he’s quite the contagious personality as everyone around seems to be laughing.  I often find myself laughing as well just because his tone and facial expressions are so ridiculous. 

Anyway, I was appreciative of him inviting me.  He actually invited me back in August when I first arrived in Japan.  I had no idea what to expect, but figured it would be a new experience nonetheless.  We ended up leaving at midnight and drove four hours so we could get out on the ice by the crack of dawn.  There were eight people including me, none of whom spoke much more English than the very basics.   I was able to get by alright with the Japanese I knew, and this particular weekend was a huge confidence booster as far as the language is concerned.  It’s often not proper grammatically, but, when I can get my point across, I’m usually happy enough with that, as is the listening party.  The ice fishing was alright.  We were on the ice the entire day, from sunrise to sunset. We only had a tent, no shanty, and of course as Japanese tradition holds, we weren’t allowed to wear our boots in the tent.  So, the only sort of protection from the cold was essentially worthless because our feet would be frozen after about ten minutes.  The people I was with caught lots of the little fish.  For some reason, I didn’t have such good luck.  I only caught two fish the entire weekend.  Everyone else was at least in double digits.  I was the brunt of countless jokes, to which I still haven’t heard the end of from my coworkers at school.  They just couldn't believe how few fish I caught.  When the sun was setting we began packing up and fried the fish we caught right then and there.  My coworker would teasingly drop them in the boiling oil.  Then he would scoop them out and we would eat them.  There was less than 20 seconds between life, death, and consumption.  Fresh!

That evening we drove all the way to Yamanakako, at the base of Mt. Fuji.  We stayed in another traditional Japanese Hotel, and woke up again at sunrise to get out on the lake below the beautiful volcano.  There were blue bird skies the entire day, with a clump of clouds seemingly stuck on the summit of Fuji.  We were far enough south that the lake didn’t freeze, so we went out on a covered heated boat with open troughs on either side where we were able to drop lures, and catch the same type of fish.  Another day filled with laughter, confusion, and likely much misunderstanding due to the language barrier.

BABY EEL FISHING:

My other fishing excursion was actually a few weeks ago.  I have a good friend who lives out on the coast near my apartment.  I often surf with him.  He owns a small restaurant that I frequent whenever I’m out surfing.  He doesn’t make much money with his restaurant because the majority of his clientele is friends.  When I asked him how he makes a living he said in the winter, he catches Unagi (baby eel).  He invited me to come along with him and it was quite the sight to see.  He goes up river mouths that lead into the ocean at night.  He needs to haul a generator with him in order to provide electricity for the light to which the baby eel are attracted.  Sometimes he goes in the bitter cold water with waiters and other times he fishes from the shore with huge nets.  It’s a pretty gnarly job but he’s been doing it long enough that he’s quite good at it.  It’s also quite lucrative, as on good nights he’ll pull in the equivalent of about $3000.  The eel are not much bigger than a sewing needle and they’re lightening quick, so you really have to have the reflexes to swipe them up with the net.  I wasn’t very good at it, but was really impressed with his capabilities.  I was happy to have had the experience.  Perhaps what I appreciated most about it was the conversation I was able to have with my friend.  He’s half Japanese, half American, and is fluent in English.  It was interesting to hear a first hand recount of the tsunami evacuation response from a coastal resident.  He offered a very interesting perspective. 

TOKYO FOOTY LEAGUE – SALA F.C.

A big part of my winter here in Japan has been influenced by the new soccer team I began playing on in January.  I met another ALT in Chiba at our program's Mid-year Conference.  Ironically enough he’s actually a native of Liverpool, England so we hit it off right away.  He invited me to play with his team so I could see how I fit in.  The first game we only had 11 guys so I got a chance to prove my ability by playing the whole game.  I’ve played every game since and really enjoyed it.  The league is quality.  I would say it’s a slight step up from the Madison Men’s League.  Our team consists of about 75% foreigners and 25% Japanese.  Many of the teams are nationality based.  For example, there is a French team, a Swiss Team, a Dutch Team, a South American Team, and then a few teams with mixed members.  The majority of our team is from the UK, but there are a handful of other Americans, a few Japanese, a Kiwi, and a German.  My team is traditionally at the top of the table, but we’re having a bit of a down season.  The average age of my team is quite old, around 35, so I’ve tried to inspire some energy with my work rate.  I’m finally playing up top as the withdrawn striker, and since I've been scoring some goals.  We’re on a bit of a run, after just taking down the top team in the league, but there is no doubt we’re in a relegation battle.  The league is really well established with three divisions, and nine to twelve teams in each division.  We’re in the top league. 

The soccer has been great.  I’ve really enjoyed playing, and I travel quite some distances to make it to the games.  I realized once I began playing how much I missed being on a team.  I definitely needed some sort of a competitive outlet.  Sometimes it gets the best of me out on the pitch, but I try to contain myself, and channel it in positive directions.  We usually play 2-3 times per month in Chiba, Yokohama, or Saitama (north of Tokyo).  Aside from the competition itself, I’ve really appreciated getting to know my teammates.  It’s been a tremendous social network for me to become a part of, especially considering all of the guys on the team are very well established here in Japan.  I’ve developed some quality insight from their wisdom, although it’s usually a bit capricious during the many rounds of beer that follow each game. 

Other than Sala F.C., I compete weekly in a Futsol League in Togane.  It is local, convenient and good quality.  None of the guys I play with speak any English, so at times it can be a struggle to communicate, but helps me improve my Japanese as well.

OTHER:

I have a few other noteworthy events, occurrences, and excursions to mention, although they don’t necessarily deserve a category of their own.  The first weekend of March I took a trip up to Ibaraki, the prefecture north of Chiba (where I live).  We drove four hours in each direction for dinner.   I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but I’ve realized, it doesn’t matter how good the dinner is, it’s never worth 8 hours in the car.  Although I was happy to see the beautiful coastline of Ibaraki considering much of it was wiped out by the Tsunami which occurred 5 days following.  Anyway, the mean was Anko Nabe, or in English, Anglerfish Hot Pot Soup.  I was told that it’s a delicacy (a very expensive one at that), and that many people are deterred from eating it due to the sheer ugliness of the fish: Anglerfish Photo.  Fortunately I didn’t look at any pictures until after I had eaten it.  Please take a look for yourself.  I was even lucky enough to get to gnaw the scaly mucus like flesh of the lamp which illuminates the way for the gnarly looking deepwater fish. 

I found out in Japan you buy car/moped insurance from 7/11.  Strange!

I realize I still haven’t written a blog about teaching in my Junior High School.  This is because my perception of how things are run in the schools here changes so drastically, and so frequently.  I want to wait until I’m certain about my analysis of the school systems here.  Although, I assure you, it will be my most passionate and insightful blog when I finally get around to writing it.  For now I’ll mention that witnessing my Junior High School’s Graduation was an eye opening experience, into the importance of the formality and tradition prevalent in Japanese Society.  I’ll surely elaborate further when that blog comes around.  Otherwise, since the turn of the new school year in April, I have taken on a new Junior High School which I will be transitioning to permanently come August.   Unfortunately I no longer have time to work at the elementary schools, so my Wednesdays are much less exciting.  I certainly miss the spunk and curiosity of the little ones, but I was happy to have had the time with them that I did.

For those of you that are unaware, I have decided to re-contract, so I will be remaining in Japan for one more year beginning in August.  I’ve enjoyed my time here, and as a result of my experiences and the insight I’ve developed into such a completely different society compared to the States, I am really making progress which has inspired personal growth.  This is exactly what I am seeking at this point in my life, so needless to say, I am content to be getting it, and I would be doing myself an injustice to cut my opportunity here short.  I continue making progress in the language, and rigid societal customs and expectations, thus helping me feel more comfortable here.  I’ve developed tremendous perspective in the last two months, which I consider to be the most exciting from the standpoint of unexpected events, interactions, and emotions occurring.  It is hard to believe everything I’ve lived through in the past two months, but I hope to channel my experience in a positive direction.  Aftershocks are still quite frequent, but every time I feel one, it is a little reminder at just how lucky I am to be having this experience right now.  I certainly miss everyone back in America, and hope you can come visit Japan while I'm here!

As always (if you’ve made it this far) I appreciate any comments or questions about what is going on for me in the Far East.

Thanks!









 
Endnote:  I’ve attached a story which I wrote for a friend who is a big powder skier in Utah.  It is about a specific, somewhat exciting run I had in Nagano that resulted in not only adventure, but some valuable cultural exchange.  Please enjoy if you are interested in reading. 

Back in January I went to the Nozawa Onsen Ski Resort with a group of foreigners out of Tokyo.  The resort was beautiful with an authentic quaint little Japanese ski town at the base.  I would compare the mountain to a resort the size of Solitude (from what I remember).  I had high expectations, as I’ve seen many of Nagano’s Resorts featured in Warren Miller films, but I never could have imagined how much snow was actually there.  I had a tremendous first day, and made it out for first tracks in about 20 inches of fresh powder.  It’s the only place I’ve skied where the snow would rival Utah’s powder from a fluff factor.  I was able to cover the entire mountain, and find a few secret routes where I could consistently find fresh lines even at the end of the day. 

The second day I woke up to approximately 25 inches more of fresh powder.  I have never seen that much snow, so I was pretty anxious to get back on the mountain.  After a few exhausting warm-up runs, I made my way back to the remote area where I had been the previous day.  I thought surely it would be incredible with all the new snow.  Now, having never skied in that much snow before I wasn’t really able to grasp the thrill I would receive, and the trouble I could get myself into.  That’s exactly how my run went.  I was at least smart enough to go where I found one other set of tracks so I knew if someone else was able to do it, I would be too.  The first half of the run was without question the best of my life.  The snow was about belly button deep the entire way, down.  What I’ve since realized, is that snow that deep, in order for the run to be successful, there has to be a steep enough vertical drop the entire run.  This is the issue with skiing off trail in Japan.  While the snow is tremendous, the slope isn’t consistently steep enough to gain enough momentum amidst the deep snow.  The mountains in Nagano are just under 6,000 feet which I didn’t really take into consideration prior to this particular powder endeavor.  Needless to say, the steep slope gradually flattened, and while I was still giddy from the thrill of the first half of the run, I was stuck!

I realized I had my work cut out for me in trying to make my way down the flats in order to get back to the groomed trail.  Fortunately I was in a small valley and I had been there the previous day, so I knew exactly where to go, but I was really struggling to make even the slightest bit of progress. Poling was virtually useless as my arms would sing below the surface of the snow before I could get any leverage.  I was able to make my way over to the other tracks I had seen earlier at the trail head.  This allowed me to speed my progress up substantially, but only until I found the people who had created the tracks, and sure enough, they were stuck as well.

It was a Japanese couple on snowboards.  I think they were happy to see me, and I was happy to see them…We realized pretty quickly that we needed to help each other in order to get out of the valley onward to the catwalk which was about 500 meters ahead.  They were in good spirits, but getting frustrated with the situation as well.  They didn’t speak a lick of English, so I had no option but to put my Japanese into action.  We developed an understanding that two people would trail blaze about 25 meters so the third could get enough momentum on the packed snow path in order to go ahead at best 10-15 meters further.  We slowly made progress, but in doing so expended every ounce of energy we had.  When I was in front my quads started burning so badly from lifting my skies out of the snow with every step, that in order to make any ground I had to lean forward and lift them to the surface of the snow with my hands.  Finally we made it to the point where we could see the catwalk maybe 15 feet above us, as we were stuck in a rut below. 

This was the point where I legitimately started to think we were in trouble of being stuck there for a long time.  The reason we had so much trouble making it up to the catwalk was because the snow cats had inevitably plowed so much snow into the valley we were in, that it was heavy, thick, and deep.  The Japanese man decided to try to climb his way up on his own, with his snowboard in his hands to get leverage in the snow.  This was not a good idea, and he eventually started sinking from putting too much weight on his lower body.  He kept squirming to try to get leverage with his feet, and just kept sinking further and further till all that was above the snow was his head.  His girlfriend really started to panic.  At this point, I shouted at him very assertively to stop moving, because there was no way he could get out on his own.  I had to borrow his girlfriend’s board to stay on the surface, as I gradually dug deep enough until I could reach down to pack the snow beneath his feet.  Then, a combination of me pulling him out while sitting on his girlfriend’s board, and him rolling forward from stepping on the packed snow beneath his feet, he was able to get back onto the surface. 

Once he was okay we started the process of gradually packing the snow while stepping on the two boards, skis and poles in order to get leverage.  We packed two snow steps at the base of the rut we were in, then two steps made of the snowboards, and one step made of the ski.  I went up first, getting stuck after the last step, but was fortunately able to wiggle up to the top.  Then they threw me the ski poles and I was able to pull them up using the poles so they didn’t get stuck after the last step.  Eventually we all made it up, and were able to grab our equipment as well. 

In the end we all smiled and laughed about how relieved we were to be out.  Looking back on it, it was a pretty ridiculous situation, but also a bit frightening at how dangerous it was.  I think it was a good reality check for me, so that I keep my limitations in mind in the future, but more than anything else I appreciated so deeply the interaction I had with the Japanese couple.  We grew so close so quickly due to the dire circumstances we were in together.  We all supported each other, not only because we needed to, but also because we wanted to.  My minimal Japanese was a source for a light hearted laugh throughout the situation.  It was a confidence booster for me because we were able to establish understanding with the most basic language exchange.  

For me, as horrendously frustrating of a situation as it was physically, it was a fusion of some of the things I very passionate about; adventure and cultural exchange.

When it was all said and done, I sarcastically said in Japanese "one more time?" and they both keeled over laughing. We gave hugs, which the Japanese usually never do, and we skied and boarded off in our respective ways.
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Comments

Nicholas on

Nice post.
The ice/eel fishing and the fire & ice festival all sound awesome.

Is there a site where we can check the standings for Sala FC?

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