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September 19, 2007

Visit to Maki Villiage in Otari Mura


Those Joneses just wont give up!

Yesterday Tomoe and I met them near their home to take a hike together up to an amazing little shuraku (village) in the mountains of Otari Mura. This village is accessible only by foot - a two hour hike from the nearest road. There are only a few people living there (only one woman), making a close-to-self-sufficient life.

When we arrived at the meeting point - feeling confident that we were "winning", they pulled out their next ace in the hole and proceeded to rub our noses in it.

Baru - the pup with a lame leg to compliment their cat with only one eye.

BaruTill & Baru

Anyway, we sucked it up and relied on the satisfaction we felt upon receiving The Pug for free, while they had to pay for their truck - despite the fact that their truck was able to climb the steeproad to the trail-head much easier The Pug.

Hiking to Maki VilliageHiking to Maki VilliageTraditional Japanese House

The hike took about two hours, with a stop for a macrobiotic lunchbox prepared by the Joneses (both macrobiotic masters). The path is rather wide compared to most hiking paths, and I thought it would be a great mountain bike trail for a full-day mountain bike tour. In the winter it would make a great snow-shoe trail - although the time needed doubles.

Traditional Japanese houseTraditional Japanese houses

When we arrived we found most of the residents out in their fields, or working on repairing a traditional kayabuki (a type of straw) roof. While this is the traditional style of most old Japanese houses, keeping the roof in good condition require frequent repairs, and lots of money. Most old Japanese houses now have a tin covering over the original straw roof. Even if one is lucky enough to find a roof-maker who hasexperience with such a roof, finding the materials is another problem all together. Most houses that keep their straw roof these days only repair a small patch of roof each year because it is impossible (or way to expensive) to find enough materials to redo the entire roof in the same year. The blue tarps in the photo above are where the roof is being repaird

Traditional Japanese houseKayabuki CutterOld House in Maki Villiage, Otari

Being the competitive bastishes that the Joneses are, they told us how they plan to take the tin covering off their roof and repair the original kayabuki straw roof. They know full well that out house has a very modern roof and we cant have the straw roof even if we had the money!

GoatTomoe in MakiTomoe in Maki

After an hour or so of exploring the village and scratching the goats heads, we started to head off only to be invited to join everyone for tea. We learned that the people here only haveelectricity in one building, and the rest are still lit by candles. I felt like I was in a scene from the Last Samurai. The only thing missing was the samurai warriors.

FarmersFarmersSayaka & Till

After hiking back to the Pug, we stopped by an antique shop in Otari Mura where Tomoe had ordered a traditional wooden bowl for kneading bread and soba. We were also tempted by some of the other goodies thay had such as a tageta - a type of shoe, much like a snow shoe, that people used to wear when they picked weeds in the rice field to prevent them from sinking into the mud. It reminded me of just a week before when we were telling our newneighbor about our experience pulling weeds in the rice field of our friends in the South of Nagano. The new neighbor looked at us puzzled, saying "We don't pull weeds in the rice field - there is a chemical that kills them all for us".

So what was so bad about just using tageta and picking the weeds by hand?

* * *

In other news, I may be the new face of Haukuba. A co-worker and I spent several hours taking photos of me pretending to fly fish for a promotional pamphlet the Hakuba city tourist council has contracted us to make. If I had known that I would be posing, I would have shaved my neck.

In even better other news, we have our first confirmed customer lined up for a fall colors bike trip in Japan's Sakae Mura!


September 15, 2007

We Win

Tomoe In SakaeSakae MuraView from Kitchen Window

Last night we got back from a few days at our new home in Sakae Mura. A few days ago I wrote about how we "lost" the race with the Jonses to find the best country home. The photo above is showing Tomoe's "we win!" face. Of course its not a contest, so we didn't beat them - but we win in terms of finding a great place for ourselves.

There are, of course, some imperfections to overcome. While our friends are fixing up an old traditional Japanese farm house over 100 years old, we are cleaning up fifty-year-old house made with rather cheap materials. The house was lived in by an old woman who developedAlzheimer and was moved to a nursing home three years ago. Not having been opened for three years, we have a centimeter of dust to clean off of everything. What's more, in her final years in the house she was finding it harder and harder to keep things clean, so the kitchen is giving Tomoe new perspective about the condition she found our kitchen in the last time she left me alone for a week. The second floor is actually quite clean once the dust is cleared - partly because she was not able to get upstairs so there was no one to make it dirty.

New HomeCleaning the KitchenView from Kitchen

The house is full of useless dishes and what-not. Many serving platters, fondue dishes, tea cups, electric blankets, etc. Most of it is still in the original box - wedding gifts that got put directly into the closet when her son got married decades ago. Most of it is going into the trash. Its painful. We want to give away the four huge trash-bags of plates, tea cups, sake sets, and rice bowls. Unfortunately, every house in the village has the same number of useless dishes. We took out anything we thought we could use, but with only two of us, we don't need many more dishes than what we have been using. In the even that we have company or customers stay over, we were happy to find a few matching sets, but for the most part they were typical "useless gift" waste.

Think about that the next time you give someone a dish or decoration you would not be able to find a use for in your own home.

Found these glasses

For all the junk, there were also some gems. Tomoe was happy to find some great knives and miso jars. I was happy to find some cool sunglasses and two bottles of home-made plum wine that has been aging for 16 years!

We have big ideas for "renovations" on a small budget. Friday we made friends with a supplier of beautiful and valuable local wood from deep in the Akiyamago valley at cheaper-than-lumber-shop prices. The kitchen will be completely re-made. The living room walls are all tobacco stained and will have to be replaced. If only the house was two-hundred years old it would feel so much better, but as it is we can get a great place with little cost, so no complaints.

The people there are great. One of the "drawbacks" we identified about living in Sakae was the fact that houses are close together and it will be difficult to protect our privacy. On the other hand, we have the support of not only ourimmediate neighbors, but people in every little neighborhood in the village. When looking for a field to plant some winter veggies (spinach, daikon, nozawana, etc.) we were disappointed to find that all the field space nearby our home was already planted, but lucky to have the support of one of the workers at the local office who lives in a neighborhood higher up in the mountains.

Tractor in Field

This is also a problem, however. On the one hand, we enjoy their willingness to help, but they help too much. Take the field for example. We want a field we can plant some veggies and just try our hand at some chem-free "organic" gardening. (Of course, given the abundant use of chemical fertilizer, herbicide, and pesticide in all the surrounding fields, I am not sure how much we can learn). Thevillage people are so happy to give us a field that they run right out and pour Roundup all over it to kill the weeds for us. They then drive their big gas-guzzling tractor over it to get it ready for our planting. We had already set aside a day to get out there and till it by hand (it would have only taken a few hours). Since it will be too late to plant from seed the next time we get there, they told us to prepare the sprouts and an abundant supply of chemical fertilizer. We are worried that they will be so eager to help that they give our field a regular dousing of pesticides and herbicides without our knowing.

It may take a while to get them to accept that we want to do things a little differently than they have learned, but maybe the oldest of the old folks will understand. After all, in is only recently that farmers have been taught to use any and all chemicals in their fields even when there is only a need for two-persons yeild.

Sakae MuraAfternoon Walk @ New Home

We enjoyed a bath every night at our local onsen (only a five minute walk). The onsen only costs 100 yen ($1) but we still plan to buy the special family pass available to residents that will allow us to use any onsen in the entire Sakae mura area for only 7,000 yen ($70) per year - per household! 100 yen is not the cheapest onsen though, there is also a free onsen if we ever feel up to making the journey deep into the back of Akiyamago valley. There you can dig into the sand along the river to make your own private little natural volcanic bath. We did this on our way home allowing me to scratch one thing off my to-do-in-life list.

Nozawa Onsen VillageAkiyamagoTomoe and The Pug @ Oku Shiga Kogen

On the way there we took a drive (in The Pug - photo below) over the amazingly beautiful Shiga kogen down to Nozawa Onsen Village. On the way back we passed through Akiyamago and across to Oku-shiga kogen. The entire area is beyond words. We can reach it all in less than a day by bike, less than an hour by The Pug. Sakae Mura's ski hill has a 14,000 ($140) yen season ticket, and if we want something a bit bigger, Nozawa ski resort is amazing - especially for a day-visit from Sakae. Its only 40 minutes away by Pug and there are free hot-spring baths sprinkled around the village to warm us up for the short ride home.

We definitely win.

Kiriake onsenAkiyamago Traditional House

September 11, 2007

Picking up the Pug

Shimoguri, NaganoNukuta, Nagano

Tomoe and I just got back from a trip to the south of Nagano where we visited some friends and came how with a new one - the pug.

No, the pug is not a real pug dog. It's a light van, but I have always wanted a pug and this van is kinda stubby, so we named it the pug. As for the Pajero, we decided to get rid of it. For one thing, it is much more expensive to own than a "kei" or "light-weight" car because road tax and insurance cost almost double. For another, we won't need two cars in the winter because we wont have to transport any customers around with bikes, and we were debating what to do. On the one hand, the Pajero is powerful and can carry lots of weight - the Pug can only carry up to 350kg. Environmentally speaking, the Pug is much better than a regular car (though without the power), but the Pajero was diesel and there was always the option to start home-brewing our own bio-diesel or start using tempura oil. (Given the pace we move though, it would probably be a year or more before that happened.)

In the end, in the name of the eco-system, we decided to give up the pajero and keep the Pug. It also helped us to decide when we found out that the frame of the Pajero was rusted out and it would cost at least $10,000 to fix it. And, while this car would run for another 10 years in the USA, Japanese law says that cars have to be "like-new" in order to drive in Japan. Bad for Japan, good for majority-world nations where used cars from Japan that run perfectly well but are a bit rusty get shipped to.

Walking in NaganoCamped in Nukuta

We took the train down to Nukuta station in the south of Nagano, worried all the way because the last time I went there was after the July typhoon. I only made it part way before discovering that the railway was closed due to mud-slide. This time we left on Saturday - again a day after an even bigger typhoon hit dead-on. The friend who gave us the car also lives on a steep slope with a history of land-slides and we were worried that the car might even be laying at the bottom of the valley by now.

All went well other than a few minor mistakes on our part - missing the station and having to wait for two hours for the next train back and, after camping in a high-school athletic field, hiking three hours to their house, only to walk right by it and continue on for another forty minutes before realizing our mistake.

Tomoe & Osamu @ BBQ in WagouBeer Chilling in the PondOsamu Passed Out

Once we arrived though, the Pug was waiting and the BBQ was ready to be fired up. We made a beer & tofu run and spent the rest of the afternoon on into evening drinking and eating with amazing mountain views.

Tora & Tomoe

The next day we packed up the Pug and set off North toward Hakuba, taking a detour through a less popular valley that follows the fossa-magma fault line that separates Northern Japan and Southern Japan in terms of geological tectonic plates and crap. It was an amazing area - perfect for a bike trip! Much of the road was under construction due to recent land-slides, so there were many detours on windy logging roads and very few cars. Tomoe was a bit uncomfortable on the narrow windy roads (as was I when I saw just how close we were to falling off a cliff several times!) so I took over despite my not having a licence yet (but that's a different story).

Shimoguri, NaganoShimoguri, Nagano

Along the way we stopped to check out an area semi-famous for its villages perched on impossibly steep slopes. Their fields would have been rated as black-diamond ski-slopes. The veggies that usually grow straight up were actually growing almost straight OUT!

Oshikamura, Nagano

We also stopped to check out Oshika-mura. This is an area we had found a house for sale, with land and a mountain included for $20,000 USD. When researching the area we found some sites on the web about hippy cults that eat their babies, so it went in our "only if we are desperate" file, but having visited the area, it is now in our "If Sakae doesn't work out, check here first" file. One great thing about the area is that it is at the end of a long road that ends in the middle of the mountains. This cuts out any through traffic unless they are willing to take winding logging roads to get through. It is also arelatively moderate climate with a much longer growing season than where we will be moving to - yet, within a two days hike from the second highest peak in Japan, so hiking options are abundant.

Anyway, I have more to say, but Tomoe and I are taking the Pug to Sakae today to do some trip research and start cleaning our new house so we can move in by the end of Sept.

South Alps, Japan

September 04, 2007


Oli & Tomoe @ AokikoPaul & Akko @ Aokiko

I'm famous... but I look much squattier than I imagined. (I'm the one opening the can of beer in the photo below. Tomoe is squatting behind the BBQ)

Oli & Tomoe @ Aokiko

The photo above is one taken be Paul (fellow web-dork from Tokyo) who was visiting Hakuba this weekend with wife Akko and friend/coworker/fellow web-dork Oli). Somehow, the photos I posted on Flickr have only received 5 (give or take) views, but his have already gotten up to twenty!

Despite my having to work on Sunday morning after a co-worker was injured, the weekend was a success I think. Paul, Akko and Oli arrived late Friday night (long after I was asleep) in time to catch a quick nap in our loft. I woke up early in the morning to prepare to show them around the town before their afternoon canyoning trip (photo later or on Paul's site), but thankfully they all slept in late giving me a welcomed opportunity to just sit on the porch and read.

The afternoon was spent by canyoning (photos coming soon), followed by a bike ride to the best onsen in Hakuba (according to Tomoe, the best she has ever been to) and dinner at an izakaya I was also happy to learn about (until then Tomoe and I had never eaten out in Hakuba). A short ride home, a short walk to the nearby ski-slope, and everyone seemed ready for bed.

The biggest worry for me is that there is so much to share about this area, but the people who come to visit have so little time. Packing everything into two days makes everything suck, but missing out on something great also feels sucky.

At any rate, the next morning I was called in to do an AM canyoning tour after another guide was injured, so Tomoe baked some fresh cinnamon-rolls for the friends in the hopes of keeping them occupied, which seemed to work thanks to their being worn out from the previous day's canyoning.

NNQ ` Aokiko

The the remaining time before that had to head back to Tokyo, we took the canoes out on Aoki lake with a BBQ set and lots of fresh veggies. It was a little rushed, but still delicious!

Akko in HakubaPaul in Hakkuba

I find that we are much more popular now that we live in a great location. In all the years I lived in Tokyo I only had a total of 9 overnight guests (including mom, dad, sister and sister's friends). Since we have come to Hakuba only a few months ago, we already have 5 visitors. Is there something to be learned from that about an possibly innate desire for humand to connect with nature?

Akko @ Aokiko
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