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February 20, 2008

Snow Country (Again)

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It seems like all my posts recently are about "snow country", and all my photos are white. While I had hoped to make a much more detaileddescription of the geologics & science of yuki-guni (snow country), and this past weekend offered us the best opportunity yet, we have customers coming this next weekend, and I thought it might be better to prepare for them instead.

Just know that this past weekend was the most snow we had seen all year. Yet, as we walked to the bath today, after two days of clear sunshiny goodness, we found that the walls of snow that line the streets are no longer over our heads. The impressive build-up of snow on the roofs is no longer so impressive (though certainly a great deal heavier) as when the snow was powdery and light.

Last weekend was like a dream. I feel so lucky that that was the weekend that we decided to hike, allowing us to experience the best of the weather in both the mountains and the village. For some, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Luckily, we have many more more years here.

The photos here are from the day after our wonderfully failed hiking attempt. We had discussed going to the Akiyamago Vally, but blowing snow meant that it would be difficult to see anything up there anyway, so we decided to spend time walking around our own village. Even if Chris, our guest at the time, was half as satisfied as I was...

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Our house is typical of the newer homes in the area. We have a self-cleaning roof. The angle of the roof and the material causes the snow to fall of naturally as it warms or grows too heavy. Other houses, however, require regular shoveling, as seen in the photos above, and in Chris' photo. Two days ago I climbed up on our neighbor's roof to help shovel snow. I probably just got in the way, but it was a long-time dream for me. (because our own roof only need shoveling in one small spot, so I miss out on the long standing tradition of yukioroshi (roof-shoveling).

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The only place on our house that requires shoveling is the ten square-feet above the main entrance, as seen in this photo above. Other than that, we need only to shovel the area where we park our car, and a small path in the backyard leading to the composter (which is currently under a meter of snow). The photo above shows Chris shoveling to earn his room and board. The snow on the top of the car was what fell overnight.

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In the old days, people from the village took turns waking up early, putting on their kanjiki snow shoes, and stomping paths in the snow. Now that we have snow-plows, the duties required are simply to shovel the garbage station, in front of the fire-house, and in front of the public meeting hall.

To help keep track of whose turn it is, a sign is made with each household's name. At every major snowfall, the sign is passed from door to door. If there is a lot of snow, two households shovel, if only a little, it is done by one. I just happened to come to our house this weekend (the second time this year), and on Monday morning I joined my neighbor to fulfill my civic duty.

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The "downtown" area (photos above) was interesting to visit after the storm. All the shops were closed as people concentrated on finding someplace to put all that snow. While our area has a river and plenty of field space to blow snow from the street, the downtown area is more compact and less fields. People have to be more creative to make two meters of snow disappear.

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One interesting aspect of this area, is the difference of snow-depth in just a short distance. While the snow was deep near our home, a one-hundred meter ride up the road gives us a much more impressive photo. Likewise, a half-kilometer to the west put the snow well above Chris' reach (you can barely make out the top of the snow about a half-arm's leangth above his hand). The photo above shows Chris and Tomoe standing in front of the "japan record" for snowfall in an inhabited area. The red line at the top of the post is 7.8 meters. as you can see, we are far from beating the record this year.

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February 18, 2008

Snowiest Snow Country Hike


We're back from Naeba. I haven't developed the photos we got from the summit yet, but they are AMAZING!

Those of you who know Naeba, or at least know the recent weather in Japan (especially the Japan Sea coast) may be asking yourselves "Wha....?!!? Are you serious!?" You may be thinking that we are idiots for even attempting it on the snow-stormiest weekend all year.

No, we are not idiots.

Actually, Naeba never happened. We changed plans the night before, having seen that low-pressure hanging off Hokkaido for several days with no sign of moving. The several decimeters of snow the day before departure was also a huge deciding factor. Instead of making a sure-fire failed attempt at Naeba, we opted to hike out from our back yard with lofty, and ultimately unreachable, goals.

It was the hardest and slowest 6.5 kilometers and 330 meters altitude gain I have ever walked. It took us two days, but they were amazingly awesome days.

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Chris arrived Thursday night at around 10:30, and after showing him how easily the fresh snow slid off the old, frozen snow in our yard, it was a no-brainer to switch from attempting the hyakumeizan (famous one-hundred mountains of Japan) Mt. Naeba, to a no-named mountain only a few kilometers from our home with could be reached through terrain that would not put us at risk of being buried in an avalanche. Even after a late start our hopes were high. We expected to make it much further than we did.

After dropping off a route map with our neighbor, and telling him, "If we don't come back in three days, we are somewhere here", we stopped by the post office to mail a few bill payments (just to settle everything in case we die on the mountain). We didn't actually get started up until quite late (8:30 am).


By around noon, we were talking about lunch, but decided to wait until we reached an open area with fields (a place Tomoe and I have have been to several times in less-snowy weather (a half-hour walk from our home). By twelve though, 3.5 hours after setting out, we decided that we were too far, and we would do better to refuel, rather than keep on with low energy. After lunch (and a minor directional error) we trudged on another 1 kilometer, deciding to start making camp at 3:00. Yes. It took us about 2.5 hours to walk one kilometer. Plan "A" had long since been ruled out. If it had been slightly nicer weather with more compact snow, we would have been able to make it, but we were now discussing plan "B" (above)

We decided to set up camp at 3:00 (2.5 hours before it gets dark) because although we were trudging through above-the-knee-deep fresh snow, we weren't sure there was enough to make a snow-cave without taking the time to make a pile and compact it.

For those of you who snow-shoe, the knee-deep snow here is not like snow in other areas. At between 200-300 meters above sea level temps rarely drop below -5 degrees Celsius, which is great for not freezing your butt off at night, but it sucks for walking in HEAVY wet snow. Every step is a struggle. The usual protocol for walking in such deep snow is to continuously switch out the person in the lead, who will step aside, letting the rest of the group pass. Joining the the back of the line is quite easy if the path is packed by everyone before you - in fact, the hardest part is becoming too cold because the group moves so slowly, and walking is so easy, that you use little energy. It does give a good rest though, until you are once again in front plowing through fresh above-the-knee snow.


With a large group, this keeps the group moving with ample rest time, and no one person having to become totally exhausted. In our case though, there were only three people to take turns. What's more, on the return trip, the snow was so deep that the second person had to work as hard as the the first person would have had to the day before. At one point I suggested we take fifty steps each and switch - in order to prevent "macho-ism" or guilt about "not doing my share" from preventing us from stepping down when we should, and thus slowing the group down.

I couldn't even make fifty steps - I stepped aside after thirty.

After finding a promising drift over three meters, we set up camp and dug our hole for the night. Unfortunately, the packed layer of snow under the freshly fallen and drifted snow must not have been as deep as we thought. Despite two meters of snow above, we still saw light coming through the roof of the cave in a few spots, indicating just how light and substance-less this snow was. We should have called it there and started packing snow for a Japanese style kamakura, but we dug on, making sure not to dig "too high". The cave gradually grew wide enough for three of us and our gear to spend the night.

Or so we thought...

Snow caves are quite toasty, more-so than a tent in some cases (and less damp because the moisture is absorbed by the snow or freezes, rather than collecting on the un-breathable tent walls). This cave was no exception, and I was soon asleep. Having gone to sleep so early, however, my body clock awoke me around 1am, at which time I tried to sit up and realized I could not sit up as far as I remember I could sit up before I went to bed.

Nawww. It's just my imagination. But just in case, I set my alarm to wake me up in another hour. I also made sure my glasses, cell-phone, head-lamp, and shovel were in, or near my sleeping bag. A quick scan of the cave revealed that everyone was sleeping on their side, rather than on their back. My thinking was that if the cave is to collapse, we would probably have a better chance to survive if it does not collapse into our gaping, snoring mouths.


An hour later I woke up (actually I was never able to fall asleep again) to find a "possible" difference in the space between me and the snow-cave ceiling. Still, however, no proof. I did not have a tape measure with me at the time. Once again, I set the alarm for one hour later and attempted (unsuccessfully) to drift into sweet slumber.

At around 3 am I awoke (from a non-sleep) to find that there is no way I could ever put my boots on in the same position that I had taken them off the night before. I barely even sit up enough to see my toes. I looked over at Chris and thought he might be dead (though a loud snore quickly comforted me). The Ceiling seemed to be crushing him. I poked his leg, and he responded with "Is this cave getting smaller?"

At 3 am we went outside to set up a tent (and Chris, his bivy-sack). A few hours before, I had stomped down a space in the snow for our tent in case Tomoe, who on rare occasions gets claustrophobia, need to escape the cave. When I got out to put up the tent, I found knee-deep fresh snow in the tent spot. Another stomping proved to be a bad idea, as I was not wearing my gators, allowing a lot of snow to get into my boots getting my socks wet.

Once in the tent, I slept well. I slept so well, in fact, that I disregard the alarm, opting instead to wake up well after 6, meaning (thankfully) that we got a late start that day. There was at least 50cm of new snow. We found ourselves climbing in waist (sometimes higher) deep snow. Even the tracks from our previous day were barely visible as a small indent in fresh snow above my crotch.

The reason I say it was lucky that we got a late start is that it reduced temptation to "go for it". Although I think we would have been fine had we gotten up earlier and continued on (we had food for several days), it was more emotionally comfortable to follow the "known" path home - which we decided to do at 11am. Plan "C" (below) shows the route we actually did.


Another influence was our neighbor - the guy I gave the map to. I had had my cell-phone turned off all day so as not to interfere with the avalanche beacon, and when we finally arrived at camp I switched it on (we were only 3km from our house - well within range) to find five messages - almost one every hour. The neighbor was so worried that he called to find out where we were. When I didn't answer, he gathered some of the other neighbors and began discussing rescue plans. (How many of my Tokyo neighbors would have done that?). We called him the first night to assure him that we were OK, and called again in the morning to tell him we were starting up the mountain, and our plans had changed a bit. He told me that there would be even more snow that night than the night before - more than we have had all winter. What could be a more perfect excuse to head back without feeling like too much of a loser?

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The hike back was a bit easier in that in most places we could see a slight trace of our previous day's track, reducing the need for too much map navigation, which was slightly more difficult in this area than on a steep mountain ridge because the micro-terrain was not so steep and didn't show up on the topo.

Still, the snow was deeper on the way home, sometimes reaching above our waist. This was compounded by semi-clear skies, which made for beautiful vies we missed the day before, but also meant the snow was becoming heavier as it melted when the sun peaked its head out every once in a while. Luckily, the trip home was more downhill than up, making heavy snow more bearable. The backup plan we would have followed if we had woken up earlier would have had a long climb, followed by a much more defined downhill into a small village from where we could then take a plowed road home with just one-hour's walk.

We arrived home just as the snow (which we had been watching in the Northern horizon) reached the village. After a stop at the neighbors to appologize for causing them so much worry, we savoured our local hot-spring bath. The neighbors said that they were worried, but not "too worried" because "Kevin is a mountain pro". This assumption of theirs was based solely on the fact that we had given them a detailed topographic map showing our planned route. They didn't even know that such detailed maps existed. Obviously I must be a pro.

When I get more time I will post photos and a bit of description of the great snow we had in the village, finally making this an "average" snow-fall year. Until now it had been somewhat lacking.




Just in case mom or dad or anyone is worried, the vast majority of us are still alive after the "Naeba hike". More details and a few photos coming. For know, just know that it has been an amazingly, awesomely great weekend here.

February 14, 2008



While I don't want to break any copyright laws by posting these photos, we are excited to be in KURA magazine already. (We knew the day would come sometime, but thought/hoped it would be a little later, after we had gotten our stuff together and were a little more organized with the business. The only thing I am not happy about is how his photos are so much better than mine - and he was only here for a half-day.

We were also featured in the chunichishinbun recently (no photos), which has been running a weekly series on Sakae Mura and an life based on something other than money. The part about us is short, and they somewhat twisted our conversation to fit their theme. According the article, we worried about money when we lived in Tokyo, but now we don't. It's just the opposite. When in Tokyo we had jobs (most of the time) and didn't have to worry about money. Now we have to make our own money, rather than relying on an employer to give it to us, and I worry a lot more. BUT, we are way happier, and don't need as much money. The money we make here is really to fill any basic needs (inluding happiness), but the money we needed in Tokyo was basically to pay for the "privilege" of waking up and going to work everyday so we could make more money to afford to get up and go to work every day to make more money... you get the picture.


We spent the morning practicing with the avalanche beacon, although the possibility to actually getting to Naeba is pretty much nil, now that we have had two days of fresh snow - probably over a meter in Akiyamago, where they had white-out conditions last night (and probably today). Still, we will head up to the trail-head and take a look before giving up. There are some other less-intense routes around here that will be just as challenging if this heavy snow keeps up.

The photo above is Tomoe searching for "me" (my beacon). With this small photo if is difficult to notice the lack of determination on her face...


February 13, 2008

Homemade Natto


We've tried making natto before, but we never had wara (rice straw) so could never "really" make "real" natto. This time we have the straw, which is home to the natto-keen bacteria which causes the soy beans to ferment into the delicious sticky mess I can't live without.

This natto is amazing, and Tomoe is now a star in the village for making it. We get requests every day to teach locals how their mom or grandmom used to do it.

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February 12, 2008



Tonight's weather map is one of the most exciting i have seen since we have been here! Finally, we see a true "fuyugata" (winter weather pattern). When the air-pressure contours are standing straight north-south, with a low-pressure system to in the pacific and a high-pressure in China, it means lots of snow! As the cold, dry air comes across from Siberia, it picks up a lot of moisture from the warm (especially in recent years) Japan sea. When the pressure systems are right, it smashes into the mountain range just a few hundred meters from our house, forcing the moist air higher into the atmosphere, where it cools and dumps on us as the famous Sakae-mura snow.


This is actually the "yama-gata" pattern, which should mean more snow in the mountain areas, as opposed to the "sato-yuki" pattern, which means more snow in the lower villages. Either way, it is great for us too. I have been quite bummed out to only have two meters of snow this year. Somehow, I feel like this is our last chance.

I wonder what this will mean for our Naeba hike this Friday... Ooooo! eeeeee! My body itches with excitement!

* * *

Despite mounting stress over the lack of "getting things done" in preparation for the coming spring/summer/fall, Tomoe and I spent most of the day in Nagano city at the "Green Tourism Symposium". I do feel batter that we were lucky enough to catch a ride with a local officer (who was also in charge of the kids snow country), and a Kyoto University professor who now lives in Sakae and is working hard to promote the village. A one-way train ticket to Nagano is 1,100 yen (about $10). Although the meeting was slightly informative, it would not have been worth $40 for the both of us to attend.

Basically, we heard a discussion between people from neighboring Iiyama (which has a very well-run "country experience" program) and Hakuba, which is considered a success, partly because of the "gaijin (foreigner) boom". The Hakuba speaker correctly identified the foreigners as a big opportunity, and the Iiyama folks know that what visitors want most is to experience the "country life" - things that locals take for granted.

What I have doubts about, is the scalability of a "simple experience" model. Iiyama has a lot of opportunities to try your hand at making soba noodles, or planting rice. These are things that we definitely are eager to use in our own tours, and we are very lucky to have local villages spending their time to organize it (so we don't have to), but I wonder how villages, such as Sakae, will be able to differentiate themselves once "the soba-making experience" becomes even more of a commodity than it is.

When we first dreamt up One Life Japan, we wanted to do bike tours, because we love touring ourselves and can't think of a better way to get close to the "real" life while on vacation. But we also wanted to make sure that our bike tours are less "tours" and more "learningful programs" - an extended experience that helps people draw the connections between the "soba-making experience" and the "rice-planting experience", the geography and history, helping them to see how this exotic country life relates to, and effects their life. Once we get great at doing this, we will be a step ahead of the "soba-uchi taiken" (noodle making experience) programs that will, in the next two years be even more commonplace in very small, struggling village across Japan.

While Sakae will have it's day in the "green tourism" sun, it will be short lived as small villages around Japan jump on this bandwagon (as many already have). Our biggest strength at this point, is that neighboring Iiyama's program is getting bigger, and the village itself is quite "modern" compared to Sakae, where there really is nothing but country life. There are also plans to extend the shinkansen bullet train from Nagano to Iiyama, meaning that Iiyama will probably loose most of what is still great about it. I worry about the effect on Sakae as well (only an hours drive from Iiyama), but by the time that happens, there is a good chance that our village will be forced to merge with Iiyama anyway.

Planning ahead, we are starting to think even smaller - while Sakae is awesome, once Sakae is part of Iiyama, there will only be our shuraku (hamlet), and those around us. We will loose the "Sakae Village" brand, and most people looking for the "Iiyama Brand" will not travel as far as our area just to make soba noodles. We have to start learning how to promote what is great and unique about this area.

We have recently been spending time with a local who spent many years as a guide in this area. The plan is to get Tomoe, myself, and select locals well trained and able to explain Tsukioka (our hamlet) and Sakae Mura, so we can start a group of on-call guides, ensuring that there is always someone on hand to lead a tour when customers show up. Above that, Tomoe and I continue working on making a more holistic program, so that when soba-making is a dime a dozen, we will not be a part of that dozen.


February 11, 2008

Experiencing Village Life

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We are not alone in thinking that this village we have moved to, Sakae Mura, has something special to offer.

This weekend the village hosted a practice round of "Snow country Experience" for university, grade-school, and kindergarten students. If we (the village) can do this well, there is federal funding available from a program designed to introduce kids to country culture on a more regular basis. This would be a small help to Sakae's economy, and a boon to the locals self-recognition of what ana amazing place they live in. Many people just don't realize what is so awesome about their village.

This time, we tried to make use of what Sakae has more than enough of - snow and winter culture. Participants had opportunities to; make kamakura, make and burn a dondonyaki, pound mochi, ski and snowboard, snow-games, tea with the locals, hunt rabbits in the mountains, prepare local foods, make rice-straw shoes, and drink a lot of beer and sake.

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This initial program was not perfect, but it was a great initial attempt. Some things to improve are also things that Tomoe and I have been trying to incorporate into One Life Japan - such as drawing the connections between the various activities, and creating a clear picture of what the activities mean in terms of everyday life, and in relation to historical and natural/geographical influences. Instead of just walking with kanjiki, or making soba, we want the students to have some degree of understanding about why kanjiki and soba are part of the region's culture.

We were especially excited hearing the feedback from the university students who visited, talking about how they felt that Sakae had so much to offer, and how eager they are to come back again (some of them had visited before). Sakae has that "repeater" quality - if you come here once, you want to keep coming back. This was true for us, and we want to promote that. Of course, we don't want to promote it so much that Sakae becomes yet another tourist trap...

The photos are from the various activities over the weekend. The snowman was my contribution. Japanese snowmen only have two levels - legs and torso. Their eyes are in their torso!. I suggested the "american version" where the snowman has legs, torso, and a head. People seemed to like it, saying "Oh my gosh! how cute this snow man is!"

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February 01, 2008

Getting Deeper Day by Day


Finally it is turning into the winter I had dreamed of. We have had about 80cm of snow in the past two days. Still nothing like this village saw in the pre-climate change days, but more than I have ever seen myself. Unfortunately, according to the locals, the "real" snow stops after February 15, so we only have a few days to make this the best winter it could be.

Too bad we didn't have any of our One Life Japan Japan Snow Country Tours planned for these past few days. It seems like winter just started, and now it is over.

The photos are from our walk to the post-office and bath today.

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