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March 30, 2008

Going on Six Months

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I haven't had a snow-less photo to post since November. By the time the snow all melts, we will have had snow on the ground for six months. I am sick of my lack of vision to find photos other than snow - though not sick of the snow itself. One of the reasons i have posted so little these past few weeks is that my photos are all the same. Still, it has been a most amazing winter.

I thought it was a bit strange that I don't get sick of the snow, seeing as how I am not a particularly avid skier or snow-sportsman. I prefer hiking on rock and dirt. I didn't realize why "just being" in a snowy area was so great until the last snow fell and the melting began. Having something to look out at every day, something to measure and compare to the day before, something to look forward to when going to bed at night - this is what made winter here so great.

It feels a bit like cheering on your schools football team - the pride that comes from seeing ten more centimeters of snow each day, of seeing the walls of snow along the road finally reach above our heads. And now, since the beginning of March, the same pride at seeing how far spring is pushing its way in. How many fukinoto (a delicious wild spring vegetable) are popping up along the side of the river, how quickly the snow melts. In February, I hated to shovel because I wanted to see how deep it could get around our house. Now, I want to shovel every day because I want to see how quickly we can get our field cleared and ready for use.

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Sometimes I pass through Nagano City. Despite being only an hour away, the geography of the area means that they get very little snow. Still, it is cold, drab, seemingly lifeless. I feel so fortunate that we do not live there. Although they have four seasons, the amount of day-by-day change in those seasons is nothing compared to Sakae Mura. Sure, once the cherry blossoms bloom they will have two weeks to savor the melancholy of fleeting moments, and fall will also give people momentary glimpses of seasonal beauty as they file from their train to the work and back again. Here, we see change EVERY DAY.

Life here is built on constant change. People's work revolves around the seasons. Be they construction workers or farmers, the winter work is completely different than summer. Our neighbors are construction workers (father/son family business). During the winter, however, the son takes seasonal work as the driver of the groomer at the local ski hill. Other neighbors who farm in the summersupplement their winter "need to be productive" by driving the snow-plow.

One thing that strikes me about the snow-plow work is how wonderfully unpredictable it is. While most of us would HATE having a job that we can't depend on, that we are constantly on call, at the mercy of the weather, there is also something amazing about having such a direct connection to the natural forces that effect yourlivelihood. But then, they are farmers - they're used to it.

I had expected early spring to be a time of waiting, for the snow to melt so we could get on with life. It is not. The snow plows are working overtime, plowing roads that were closed during the winter, people are covering their fields with dirt or ash to help the snow melt faster. We are far behind, hardly prepared for our summer season - both in terms of farm plans and seed purchasing, and in terms of our OneLife Japan website and program offerings.

As I write this, I am feeling the pressure of an upcoming trip for a family of four. Not having spent the winter here, will they feel the same sense of awe and beauty as they ride through our countryside not having endured the winter or, will it just look like an area in the midst of an unremarkable waiting period before the "good" season comes?

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The photos on this post are from a couple of recent spring day-hikes. One was with some friends from the village (Maiko and Bob), and the other was with Shinchan and partner. Shinchan is a fellow Outward Bound instructor, whom you may remember from my winter bike adventure last year.

After an open-fire picnic with a view, we tested out the old snow-board I had laying around (but had never used). I found it much easier, and much more fun, to sit on the snowboard like a sled. I hope to get some old skis and snowboards from the junk-yard and make a super-sled for next year.

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March 29, 2008

Melting Snow

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It's supposed to snow again tonight. It hasn't snown for weeks here (although it snowed a bit in Akiyama a few days ago), and it is hard to believe that the snow on the side of the roads used to be over our heads. The photo above is from Tomoe and I trying to clear our field off so we can get plantin' as soon as possible. Once the snow is gone we also have to wait for the soil to dry a bit.

The photos were taken about a week ago. There is no where near as much snow now, but we are far rom "snow-free". The neighbor was out this morning with a tractor plowing snow off of their rice field. In addition to plowing, people still use the traditional method of spreading dark ash or soil over the snow to aid in the melting process. Still, judging from the current melting rate, the last snow will melt in the end of April.

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These photos are from the top of the village ski-hill. They want a panorama shot to make a sign with the names of all the mountains in the background. Ihappened to be up there on a clear day so I took some shots. Unfortunately , it is my first attempt at a professional level panorama, and only one portion of the skyline turned out. I plan to get up there again on the next clear day.

March 10, 2008

Bi-Weekly Update

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I'm back for a few days. For the past ten days I have been helping to lead a group of high-school students from the Hong Kong International School on a winter hiking expedition to Mt. Manaita as part of an OutwardBound Japan course.

I may be off to Otari Mura again later this week to work another course, so I thought I should take a quick moment to check in. Unfortunately I don't have any photos this time, as my "hiking" camera is broken, so the photos above are from last year's course, and those below are from a private snow-country trip Tomoe and I organized the week before I left for some of our Onelife clients.

The Outward Bound trip was great. While it was not as eventful as last year - no one wandered out of their snow-cave in the middle of the night, getting lost in a snow-storm - it was none-the-less filled with its moments. Aside from everyone making it to the peak and back safely, one of my favorite experiences from the week was attending to a young adventurer who was terrified out about not being able to feel or move his hands. I took him into a tent and started a fire (with plenty of ventilation) to warm him up, and feeling soon returned to his hands.

As I talked to him in the tent, I became increasingly jealous - realizing that he had never in his life experienced cold below 10 Celsius. Having numb hands and feet is a well-known, unalarming (though uncomfortable) feeling for me, and not remembering my first experience with sub-zero temperatures, I began to wonder how amazing it must feel to, after 15 years on earth, suddenly have such a new (and terrifying) experience. I wish I could have felt what he felt.

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Ise Obachan (96)

The week before I left we had five guests over for a Japan Snow Country Experience. The three-day weekend started with a visit to Ise-san - one of the oldest residents of Sakae Mura. Ise-san is a 96 year-old woman who survived the worst avalanche disaster in village history. In 19XX, after several days of constant snow, the snow on a fifty-meter high slope overlooking Aokura gave way, obliterating XX houses, and killing XX people - including most of Ise-san's family.

What was supposed to be a thiry-minute visit for tea & chat turned into an hour-and-a-half of listening to amazing stories of how, after the death of her husband, she made a living supplemented by rice and breaking in young horses for later sale.

Her surviving son (an amazing traditional Japanese carpenter) joined us to show some of his handi-work. His craft is all but extinct. While current carpentry in Japan is based on the presumption that the house need only last for thirty years, the houses Ise-san built could last for centuries. He showed us some of the secrets of the trade - how to build a house that can withstand the harsh, heavy winters of Japan's Snow Country WITHOUT a single nail.

I am very tempted to volunteer to become his apprentice - despite my absolute lack of any building skills.


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From there we took advantage of good weather to travel into the Akiyamago Vally where we would join a pilot program developed by the Akiyamago Tourism Office. Day one of the event included making a kamakura snow hut, burning a don-do yaki, and making kanjiki snow-shoes under the direction of a local hunter, and (for our participants) a bear-meat dinner at a hunter's lodge.

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We had to head back to home that night to pick up two late-comers at the station, but the participants enjoyed a night at the local family inn. The late-comers were forced to struggle through a cold night in our un-heated home.

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Thankfully the weather held for the morning, and magnificent views abounded. After a few hours walking with the hand-made kanjiki snowshoes, with a local hunter explaining all the trees and animal tracks along the way, we gathered at the Noyosa-no-sato inn to make hayasoba - a "quick" (hayai) way to make a meal of soba flour. Instead of making noodles, busy farmers in the Akiyama area used to simply boil the dough and eat it in globs - a method I actually prefer to "regular" soba.

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By the time we had finished our haya-soba, the fuyugata weather pattern had come into effect, and wind-prone Akiyama Valley was enveloped in almost white-out conditions. We had hoped to visit Kiriake Onsen, where you can dig into the icy river to find a hot-bath, but after only ten meters on the small road leading there, we decided it would be best to head back while the mountain roads were still semi-maneuverable. It was one of the scariest drives in my life, with three to six meter visibility, and huge cliffs on each side.

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Despite my desire to get home and out of that storm, we stopped for an hour to break into the local preserved traditional thatched roof house/museum, followed by another hour at the local wood-workers. The preserved house is closed during the winter due to several meters of snow covering the door, but we convinced the local office to let us dig our way in. I was amazed at how warm it was in there, even though there were small snow-drifts on the corners where snow blows in through cracks in the walls. It really makes me wonder why people think they need a fully heated house all year long... what a waste of energy, and even more so, a waste of a life experience that connects us and grounds us to our environment. To live in the cold half-of the year, makes the spring that much more amazing. I wonder why people insist on trying to make their life in-the-middle and mediocre. When it is cold, enjoy the cold. when it is hot, savor the heat. Why did we ever invent the climate control central heating and cooling systems? Why would we choose to dull our senses and willingly miss out on the wonders of life on earth?

We made it home in time for a bath at yuri-onsen (our local hot-spring) followed by a night of drinking and debauchery at our home. The only worry was if we would be able to wake up early enough to visit the local dairy farmer (our neighbors family) to learn about small-scale dairy farming, taste some fresh milk, and have a chance to squeeze a tit.

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All but one of the participants awoke in time, and we rushed to the farm, arriving before the morning milking had ended. We felt lucky to find that one of the cows was in labor, and wold likely give birth that morning, but even after stalling and hanging around, disturbing their work for longer than anyone expected, the cow just wouldn't give it up. We left without seeing the birth of a calf. It would be great to have some photos, so I will make sure to ask the farmer to alert me the next time a calf is about to be born.

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After a breakfast of local goodies (including hot milk made from the morning's squeeze), we stopped by at the local geta (traditional Japanese wooden shoe) maker. The last in Nagano, we listened with saddness to all the knowledge he had to impart. Again, I feel an need to be his apprentice.

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The conversation with the geta maker was fascinating, causing us to loose some time at the ski-hill. Everyone opted for a few hours of skiing on Sakae's village-run ski-hill before a final bath and a bus ride home. The neighbors know us as "people who keep other people's trash" so we had recently recieved a set of vintage 80's style ski-wear, along with an old-style pair of skis for one of out customers to borrow. For some reason, seeing him walk around town in that was my highlight for the weekend.

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