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August 31, 2007

Keeping up with the Joneses

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Even once you loose all desire to get a bigger house or bigger car or greener lawn with a bigger pool, there is still an innate desire to beat the Joneses. In our case the Joneses are friends from Tokyo that, at the same time as us, aspired to escape the hell that is "big city".

The "Joneses" too the lead by looking at available houses from early on. They had been searching for about a year when Tomoe told him one day at work that she was coming to join me in Otari-mura to look at houses (this was back in March when we all still lived in Tokyo). It just so happened that he too was on his way to look at a house in Otari-mura as well. We seemed to be running neck-and-neck.

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While we did not find our dream house in Otari, they did. We, however, moved out to Hakuba anyway, deciding that to continue the search from here would be much more effective. Our friends were still back in Tokyo looking at us and feeling a bit of fire under their butts.

They soon moved out to their dream house, and we found our place in Sakae (still living in Hakuba). We soon began hearing stories of how difficult it was for them with all the work they had to put into their house getting it ready for the winter (it sounded as if the whole place needed to be almost completely rebuilt). We were feeling a bit jealous because the place we found is too new and does not require any work - something we were looking forward to doing. But on the other hand, based on theirexplanation, we envisioned their place to be in a small cluster of houses we knew along the main highway connecting Hakuba to the Japan Sea. The place we found had so much support from the village and so much potential in terms of our future plans, that we could not help feeling a bit smug. We thought to ourselves "They should get rid of that place and move to Sakae as well".

As summer rolled around and Tomoe had a chance to visit Sakae again, she came back with some terrible news. Sakae is HOT. Better than Tokyo, sure, but nothing like the cool summer days we had been enjoying in the Hakuba/Otari area. Also, while Sakae has more snow than Hakuba/Otari, it is also heavy, wet snow. Not ideal for enjoying the back-country ski experience Hakube/Otari is known for.

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Still, we thought we were winning. Until, that is, we finally got a chance to visit them in their home a few days ago. We met them at the 7-11 along the highway, expecting to be led across the road into the little cluster of houses which are hopefully just out of reach of the constant drone of cars and trucks. Instead, we passed by that little cluster, then another cluster, then another, the road winding further and further upwards, leaving us in awe that their ligh-weight truck could make it with the weight of two people.

Half-way up we knew we had lost the race with the Joneses.

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They were living in our dream house. An old (really old) Japanese style farm house that needed lots of renovation. A large field right behind their house. A mountain side filled with trees free for their use. No neighbors preventing them from building an outdoor bath, and, what must be one of the most amazing views in all of Otari-Mura. Not to mention a great one-eyed cat to share it all with.

DANG!!

The photo below is Tomoe's "I think we lost" face, followed by her "good sport" face in the next photo.

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August 26, 2007

Best recipe in the world

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This is the secret recipe for one of the most amazing potato, onion, cabbage stews I have ever had.

Ingredients

  • Onions
  • Potatoes
  • Garlic
  • Cabbage
  • A little water
  • Olive or sesame oil
  • Dutch oven
  • Space to make a fire pit
  • Wood to make a fire
  • Someone you love to share it with


Directions

  1. First, quit your job. With the freedom you gain through unemployment, move out of the city.
  2. With the money you save by not paying big-city rent, take your time before finding your next job. Pick a job that makes you happy regardless of how much it pays - remember, most of the money you made in your big city job went to pay for the "opportunity" to have that big city job.
  3. Spend some time getting to know the locals - relationships are worth so much more than money, so don't view an hour chatting with the neighbor about how great the latest Tom Cruise movie was as "time wasted".
  4. Have a strong vision of the type of place you want to live, but don't be too stubborn. Flexibility pays and you will eventually find exactly what you are (or should have been) looking for.
  5. Once you have a place to crash, a job to pay some basic bills.. chill out and relax. If you happen to find the time, buy, borrow, or beg yourself a dutch oven.
  6. Wait for a cool night (knowing how hot it is in the city doubles the satisfaction of the experience). If the sky is clear enjoy the stars and moon. If it is hazy, enjoy the mystique. If its raining, take off all you clothes and dance a bit.
  7. Find some stones to make a fire pit and some old, unused wood to make a fire
  8. The easiest and most inconsequential part is cutting and mixing the veggies into the dutch oven. If everything else is in order, even raw potatoes will taste like heaven.
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August 22, 2007

Hard-drive is full

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My hard-drive is getting full again, meaning its time to clean out dome of the photos. Going through some past stockpiles of photos I decided to post a few and throw out the rest. These photos are from my parents visit to Japan a few months ago.

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August 21, 2007

Exploring

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I had most of the day off today, so in addition to catching up on some NPR and other news sites (did everyone else know about the big hurricane in the Caribbean?), Tomoe and I went for a short hike up a nearby riverbed. We started at the same "remote" point where we were stranded with a flat tire last night, but were quitedisappointed to find dam after damn dam - even at 1200 meters.

It was still a beautiful day for a hike - not too hot and the water was warm enough for a quick dip without a wet-suit. We only made it to the last dam before the "unregulated" part of the river began. I wanted to go further but Tomoe had driving lessons in the afternoon.

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I used the rest of my free time catching up on NPR and other news.

One interesting article I found was this NYT bit about the chicken-slave/egg industry. The article highlights the growing demand for "cage-free" eggs. It also mentions how "cage-free" really means nothing. Tomoe and I rarely, if ever, eat anything with eggs while at home (when I am at work and other people are in charge of the menu its pretty hard to control that kind of thing). When we do have eggs we know how many are in a 5-meter area, and how often they get to go outside. The eggs are hell expensive, but the main reason we shell out is because of the horrific treatment of the the chickens who provide most of society with the cheap eggs we have been trained to "need". Just take a look at the photo of the supposedly better-treated "cage-free" chickens in the article.

A lot of people I know talk about "free-range" chickens as well, but often all that means is that the door to their cage was opened for a few minutes offering them the "opportunity" to go out and enjoy a real life befitting a bird. Of course, having been raised their entire life in a tiny pen, they are to afraid to step out and see what a real life might be like.

Hmmmm. Chickens, people... are we really that different? How many of us have been raised our entire life confined by an extremely limited view of what life should be and could be? How many of us are afraid to step outside that view and experience the joys waiting us outside our own little coop? Given the obvious likenesses, I wonder why it is so hard for us to empathize with the chickens.

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August 20, 2007

The New House

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Tomoe and I just got back from a great little adventure. To help her practice for her driving test that will allow her to drive manual cars (yes, you need a special licence for that in Japan), we took our Pajero out for a spin. To spice things up we decided to take one of the extremely seldom used mountain roads that we have not been on yet. Tomoe was plowing through weeds and brush as high as the car, dodging enormous rocks, and driving over the remains of a recent land-slide. All went well until we got to the very end of the road where.... BANG!

A flat tire should not really be a problem, especially since the car had a spare, but when we looked for the jack, we found a few important parts missing, and the jack itself would not lower enough to be placed under the an area that would lift the car high enough to change the tire. After deciding not to just walk out and come back in the morning on bike, we tried everything we could, used every tool, rag, tape, and plunger we could find in the car (it was much like that great scene in Apollo 13). In the end after many failed attempts, we managed to make do with what we had and get the spare on and enjoy the cruise back down to civilization.

This makes the previous problems we had with the car seem trivial... basically that when we received it from a friend leaving the country the power-steering didn't work and Tomoe was having real troubles with it. I finally got around to adding some power steering fluid so I expect that to do the trick. The only thing left now is for me to get my Japaneselicense so I can stop worrying when I get the frantic call from work saying "Kevin, can you get to the lake in 15 minutes to guide a firefly tour!?!". Although I do enjoy flying through the rough back-roads to the lake. Who knew cars could be fun?

Of course, for the most part, cars are a pain in the ass. With the end of the busy season and the Obon holiday, the roads were packed with cars today, full of people leaving the cool hakuba air for record setting heat waves in Tokyo and Nagoya. I did get a break from the canyoning today, as I spent the day at Aokiko lake doing Canoe tours. I also realized (yet again) what a small world it is when I discovered that one boy on my six-person tour was in the same elementary school class as the son of my previous boss at the environmental consulting company in Tokyo.

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As things wind down with the tour guiding here in Hakuba, Tomoe and I are getting ready to move to our new home in Sakae. These photos of hour new house and its surroundings were taken by Tomoe on her recent trip to the area. While it is not exactly our dream house (very close to the neighbors, relatively new, and no "personal" field right next to it) we can hardly complain given the fact that the roof is a no-shovel roof (a big deal in the snow-country where people shovel their roof every day), and the rent is free (although we will insist on paying *something*, if only to cover the property tax.) It just goes to prove the old saying "Ask and ye shallreceive."

I looked forward to shoveling the roof, but since ours will not need it I will have to satisfy that urge by shoveling the neighbors roofs I guess. The house has a garage so we can protect the car in the winter - and the public plowing of the roads is so top-notch that we really never have to shovel anything. The fact that our neighbor is the village "mayor" (I don't know the correct English word to describe his position) may even mean that our road is plowed first.

The house itself (shown in the first photo) is quite modern, and fully furnished. Complete with stuff we didn't really want or need, like a 30-some inch flat screen TV. In the small yard there is a pond for melting snow in the winter, but used by many locals to raise their own fish - so we can have fresh fish for dinner anytime we want without worrying about the environmental impacts ofcommercial fishing. A river passes by our back-yard, which is nice. It would be nicer though, if it was not walled up with concrete.

In the future we hope to get a more secluded, older house - with a pit toilet and wood-burning stove, but for now we want to focus on building relationships in the area, and if that means taking a new no-shovel house with a brand-new 30-inch flat screen TV.... well, so be it. Its still ten-thousand times better than our apartment in Tokyo.

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Recently people have been asking me what I will do for the winter in terms of income. While I had no concrete plans, I also had no worries. The bike-tour plan takes into account seasons that are nothospitable to bicycles, and I can always do web-work or translation. I also will be trying to make some snow-country tours. What I had not planned on, is the owner of the ski area putting me on the schedule as ski-patrol and signing Tomoe up as a snowboard instructor - despite the fact that I have only skied on a "real" (over 500ft) mountain three times in my life, and Tomoe has only tried snowboarding twice.

Its shaping up to be a great experience filled with very welcomed surprises.

Life is good.

Our new house has plenty of room... anyone who read this is welcome.

The first photo is of the house. The other photos are taken from the windows and other surrounding areas. Compare these to the view from our Tokyo apartment below...

August 15, 2007

Workaholic

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I have not had a day off in over three weeks.

When I am not supervising kids at camp, I am either canyoning, canoeing, or taking families for night paddle-cruises to watch shooting stars and fireflies. Yet, despite my never having a day off, I feel so bad for my customers who come here with only two days off before they head back to the office in the city.

Some people are beginning to question their current lifestyle though, wondering if it is really what they want.

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This past weekend two of Tomoes friends from her corporate days visited. We took them out in the canoes for an afternoon paddle and dip in the oh-so refreshing Aokiko Lake, followed by a hotaru (firefly) tour. Tomoe took them bike riding and hiking in the beautiful Hakuba Valley, and the main attraction was a half-day of canyoning. (the photos are all from that trip - including the top photo which is me holding Tomoe over an almost vertical waterfall...)

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It was also Tomoe's first time into the canyon. While I wish there was a little more water to make it more "thrilling", everyone still has a lot of fun - including Tomoe, who was the only member of the 14 person tour to try to perfect her front flip of the ten meter rock again and again and again. She loved it so much, in fact, that we are planning to hike up the river again on our own this Friday (which I just may have off) and practice at our own pace. Anyone with Friday off is welcome to come up and join us! We have a wide open loft for your to crash in, and canguarantee some great views, cool dips, and exciting slides down waterfalls.

I would write more but my paddling expertise is needed at tonight's Fire Fly Tour.

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August 08, 2007

A Tough Life

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In the news this week... Tomoe got back from Sakae the other day and has found us a great house. Its not the exact home we dreamed of because it doesn't really have a yard and field, but given the abundance of forest, mountain and field in the area, I guess we can live with having another house just ten meters away (at leastfor the winter). But I will write more about that later with photos.

While Tomoe was in Sakae, I was having a blast with a group of kids and their parents from nearby Tokyo at a family camp pt on by Evergreen (the company I work with now) and Gateway International. The camp is aimed at families, offering a chance for the parents to focus on their own well-being (yoga, tai chi, etc...) while Evergreen teaches the older kids about the water cycles:

Water Wizards is a learning module/summer camp for children that examines each phase of the cycle of water. This five-day programme in Hakuba combines standards-based classroom education with practical hands-on experience in the Japan Alps.
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Today we spent the day travelling from nearby the start of the Hime River, to where it empties into the Japan Sea where we built a drift-wood fire and cooked homemade and took time to take a dip. Tomorrow we take the kids on a paragliding adventure to "simulate the feeling that rain must have when falling from the sky". Whatever the reason, it will be fun and I cant wait.

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I want to write more, but I didn't get home until 1:30 am (the parents were quite anxious to stay up and chat around the fire once the kids were asleep) and it is now 3 am. I have to get up at 6:30 tomorrow totake the kids for a dip in the lake and get them ready for paragliding.

Life is tough.

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August 02, 2007

The Slippery Slope

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While I am leery of making this blog sound like an advertisement for canyoning with the company I am currently guiding for, I have been spending so much time doing that, that I have little else to write about.

Not exactly true... but I don't have many photos of my other activities, such as...

1. This past weekend Tomoe and I did some volunteer work for a camp for children and adults with severe skin-conditions, asthma, and allergies. These are generally kids whose parents are afraid to send them on "regular" camps in Japan because - let's face it - Japanese society is not really known for its openness to provide a little personalized care. I recall my dad's experiences at an inn in Beppu - after I explicitly told the owner that he would die if he eats shrimp or shellfish (which he is allergic to) the meal had a bit of each in every single dish! When I confronted the owner, she said "He should try some. He may like it."

The camp was fun and I learned a lot in terms of working with an all Japanese group of kids (including some good "Japanese" games for kids). I also learned a lot about Japanese bugs and how to catch an amazing array of wildlife from the river with my bare-hands. Tomoe learned a lot working on the food preparation where they made it a point to make alternative versions of every dish so that everyone's food looked the same, even if the ingredients were different to accommodate different allergies. It seems like no big deal to me, but I heard several mothers commenting on how great it was that their kid could eat the same thing as everyone else when often times their child is the only one bringing their own lunch to school which can lead to some level of alienation (think about it... no trading food with the kid next to you.)

I was happy to get back from the camp which was in Fujino, a mountainous region just on the outskirts of Tokyo. As the train grew closer I could feel the temperature rising (despite the lowering sun). I barely slept the first night because it was so hot and humid. The folks who came from Tokyo, however, were all commenting on how suzushi (cool) it was in "the mountains". Although I slept well the next two nights after being worn out by the kids, I am still glad to be back in the cool Hakuba valley.

Anyway, I have some photos from that camp, but will not post them because they have a strict personal privacy policy.

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3. Which brings me to the photos... These are all from a day of canyoning two days ago, or canoeing three days ago. It was another in a string of beautiful days here in Hakuba, now that the rainy season has ended, and I was even able to jump into the river without my wet-suit. At the risk of sounding like an advertisement, I can't think of a better way to stay cool in a hot Japanese summer.

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4. I have finally succumbed to being an evil 21st century consumer. In the span of a week I have become the owner of an automobile (actually two - both given to us), and a cell phone (for which I have to pay). Let the trek across a slippery slope begin.

5. Tomoe will be visiting Sakae tomorrow to check out some houses that the village office has found for us, as well as attend a series of lectures and demonstrations about the traditional methods of farming there - unique due to its inhospitable environment. I wish I could go as well because the information would be valuable for our bike tours, but this is the busiest season for Evergreen, and I had already made a commitment to work through the summer... (besides, a part of me would rather be canyoning - which you can see me doing with a somewhat guidely air in the photos below)

Looking at these photos I really LOVE this work... not just because I get paid to do fun stuff, but because the people I am working for (the canyoning clinets) are all smiling and having a ball. Compare this to the often sullen-faced people I was making web-sites for before... None of my web clients ever let out a "Wooo HOOO!" when I made them a drop-down menu.

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