Why our traditional hand-painted Christmas cards and holiday wishes will - once again - be late in arriving at your mailbox:
In the beginning of December we were just having fun in the snow and playing with Buna (BOO-na), the baby cockateil. "Buna" is the Japanese word for a Beech tree. These trees are native to Japan, but have been chopped down in many areas to make room for faster growing plantations of sugi (cypress). trees. Now, the value of Buna forests for holding vast amounts of water and preventing landslides is scientifically recognized, so people come from all over Japan to see the buna forests of Sakae Mura.
Later in December we took a trip to Tokyo to give English language guided tours of the Eco-Products exhibition in Odaiba. While we feel guilty about taking the Pug (our light-van) instead of public transportation, we justify it by having reduced our accommodation footprint. Instead of staying at hotels and hostels that use ridiculous amounts of energy to heat when no heat is needed, we slept in the Pug with our sleeping bags. There is no better feeling than waking up 30 minutes before work, putting on your suit in the back of the van, and stepping outside with just a five minute walk.
Of course, we also saved lots of money by staying in the van. Paying only 500 - 2,000 yen per night for parking instead of 7,200 yen for a youth hostel, and even more for conveniently located business hotels. Sure we had to pay 400 yen each for use of nearby public baths, but it is so much nicer than a youth-hostel shower. The only snag came on the third night when the police knocked on our window at 2 am thinking we were druggies shooting up in the car. Once we told them why we were in the area, they lightened up and politely asked us to leave. We ended up getting very little sleep, parked on the side of a bridge along side other car-campers and resting truck drivers. Every time a truck passed the bridge would tremble and shudder violently - only re-enforcing my fears (the real reason I couldn't sleep) that "the big one (earthquake)" would finally strike that night and send us plunging into the frigged Tokyo Bay. That didn't happen though, and this is chalked up as one of my favorite "unusual places I have spent the night" memories.
Once we got back from Tokyo we had only two days to prepare for 12 people joining our Christmas Snow Country Event. We suddenly realized that we should have made a maximum limit, but we were so anxious to share the beauty of our village that we readily accepted everyone that applied. Luckily, only 7 people actually made it, and that was plenty of stress itself.
We took advantage of the free opening day skiing at our local ski-hill, followed by a "Christmas" dinner (Tomoe made stuffing and pumpkin pie with real pumpkins) at our home. On the second day some of the group opted for more skiing, while some (including one man from Vietnam who had never seen snow in his life) opted to walk with traditional Japanese kanjiki snow-shoes through a buna forest. We were lucky enough to run into a friend who took us out to pick mushrooms and fukinoto, which I had always thought of as a wild spring vegetable. Apparently, thanks to the insulating effect of the snow and low altitude of Sakae Mura, here it buds and grows in the winter as well.
We spent the night at a local year-end party for the village young people (average 50 years old). I have eaten very little meat since I was in University, but I can tell you that if I could have a constant supply of beef as good as it was that night... It was fresh from the farm on the hill just a few kilometers from our home. So fresh, in fact, that it tasted best completely raw with a dash of wasabi.
Because we were all drinking, we took a bus home (we missed the bus to get there so had to drive), which meant that I had to get up early the next morning to ride my bike up the mountain to pick up the car. My alarm woke me at 6, but the sound of thunder like I have never hear it before convinced me to sleep in until 8:00 when the guests awoke. We had planned to head up to Akiyamago for the day, but rain down here meant snow up there and we decided not to risk driving on the narrow roads. Instead, we took the opportunity to visit the local geta (wooden Japanese shoes) maker who lives and works a short walk from our house. He is in his seventies, and the last true geta craftsman in Nagano. I had seen videos of him working, but it was a real treat to watch him in person and hear his explanations about every step.
As the weather cleared up on the 25th, we took a ride up to Akiyamago where we were delighted to find a meter of snow with a fresh powder covering. One highlight was a long conversation with a traditional woodworker who showed us a $12,000 tea-chest he had just made for someone with too much money. A lunch of hand-made soba noodles and a hot bath followed by great views of Akiyama's steep snow-covered mountains competed the experience.
Once the customers had gone, Tomoe and I took an evening to relax before we had to start work again the next day - this time (aside from answering a ton of emails) we were checking out some possible kanjiki snow-shoe courses near our home. One is up the mountains directly behind our house, the other takes advantage of the ski-lift near the main station. From the top of the lift we can walk even higher for amazing views of the entire village and the distant mountains. While the course we originally planned turned out to be too long for our "general" trips, it was a lot of fun for us as we had our animal tracking guide with us. The photos below show Tomoe inspecting rabbit poop, the dug up earth where a wild boar wallowed, and what may be a bear (or monkey) print.