Gourmet Ski Hike

Today was a new type of skiing. I’ve been alpine, alpine touring, and telemark skiing, but these skis have a fish-scale pattern underfoot that provides some grip for a not-too-steep climb but is smooth for downhill. You are strapped in with a free-heel like telemark skiing – keep in mind I suck at telemarking skiing. It’s a good setup for rolling hills.

I went with Pont-chan, Aka-chan, and another couple who are some serious gourmets when it comes to hiking. I just brought a beer, but they brought 4 bottles of wine, collapsible wine glasses, and a light-weight stove to cook sausages and deer steak. The ratio of eating to hiking was just right: 1 hour eating to 4 hours hiking.

Much love to Yuka-chan for the packed obento of onigiri and eggs.

Now the party continues at Takada castle for my fourth hanami (cherry blossom party) of the year – I went to two in Tokyo and one in Hiroshima. Always super fun!

Visiting Snow Monkeys with my Mom

My mom came to visit me in Japan, and we’re going to spend the next two weeks visiting several cities. I picked her up at Narita on Wednesday, and we spent the evening in a loud izakaya filled with salarymen smoking incessantly. It was the perfect introduction – there were even goldfish swimming under the stone floor.

Today was a bit more on the nature side of things. We took the train up to Myoko Kogen (my home base) yesterday, and, today, Sachiko, my landlady, took us to a sake brewery, a famous mansion with many traditional kimono and Japanese dolls, and a beautiful buddhist temple with Hokusai’s art. But before all that, we went to visit the snow monkeys.

Since it’s bloody cold out, the snow monkeys of Shiga Kogen hang out in the 45 degree celsius onsen (hot spring) all day. As you approach the onsen, the air ripens with the smell of sulphur, and you find a dozen or so monkeys of different sizes soaking in the thermal pool. Pink faced, they are mostly holding onto the edge of the onsen like drunken bathers who have spent too much time in the hot tub. Caught between the choice of steaming hot water or freezing snow, they stretch out while their mates pick bugs out of their hair and groom them.

As for me, after spending all day outside in the cold and windy weather of Nagano, my core temperature needs a boost. This will be a short post as I need to reheat in the onsen downstairs. Hopefully the only pink-faced monkey down there will be me – I don’t need anyone to pick the bugs out of my hair.

Becoming a part of a community in Japan

Today is my 2 month anniversary of being in Myoko Kogen. I can’t overstate what an amazing travel experience this has been. In the last two months, I have improved my Japanese from non-existent to poor conversational (enough to chat people up on the ski lift), tremendously improved my skiing (skied about 40 days), and have met so many people here that I really feel like a part of the community. Everyone I have met here has been exceptionally kind and has really gone out of their way for me.

Myoko Kogen is a set of several ski resorts about a 40-minute train ride north of Nagano; Nagano being a 2-hour bullet train ride north from Tokyo. Just to give a little relative geography, Tokyo is on the southern coast of Japan, and, if you took the train 40 minutes north from Myoko, you would be on the northern coast, splashing your feet in the Sea of Japan. Myoko Kogen’s proximity to the Sea of Japan and the cold Siberian winds blowing from the North are the reason that it’s normal for Myoko to receive a meter of fresh snow any given day. Sounds like a great place to learn how to powder ski don’t you think?

I found out about Myoko from powerhounds.com (as most people have) and decided to come here after reading that it had not yet been invaded by Aussies. While it’s no Niseko (Whistler in Japan), what I read was a little out of date. The past few years have seen a tremendous increase in the number of foreigners, the vast majority being Aussies. And, to put my Aussie-bashing to rest, I would like to officially state that Aussies are a friendly bunch, and most of the Aussies I meet are great. Some of them even apologize for invading en masse.

Based on the epic pow, the lack of foreigners, and the short travel time to/from Tokyo, it seemed like the ideal place to improve my skiing and get into the backcountry while learning Japanese and having a cultural experience. However, my experience here has gone way beyond that and whatever expectations I had were totally exceeded. I honestly feel at home here and like a part of the community – and it has only been two months! I lived in Vancouver for 10 years and never felt like a part of any community. I think that says a lot. Sometimes I do miss the anonymity of city-living. Word travels fast here: go skiing with a member of the opposite sex and people start talking! That being said, it’s great to have people come to the izakaya and say “Hey, you must be Jeremy-san”.

The event that really solidified my sense of community here was the kamakura ski festival last month. It was a great night of hot sake, hot soup, and cold beer, and the whole community came – everyone was there. In the 3 days preceding the festival, I was asked to help out in the preparations. The main work to be done was building the kamakura (think igloo but built by blowing snow on top of a dome instead of stacking ice blocks). The first kamakura was made of snow that had naturally fallen onto this wooden geodesic dome about 6 metres across. The first day we went into the dome and sculpted, out of snow, a bench around the edge and an altar to place some kind of idol. We also blew a bunch of snow on top of it and sculpted the top to look like Mount Myoko (the local dormant volcano). The smaller kamakura was built using an inflatable form and 3 snow blowers to cover it with snow. Then we dug out the inside. It was really beautiful inside; the roof was so thin initially that you could see sunlight coming through. Outside, we carved a long wall out of snow and then cut little cubby holes for people to place candles.

In the 3 days preceding the festival, we built the kamakura. About ten of us all together, we worked for 3 hours in the morning, stopped for lunch (which was provided free of charged), drank copious amounts of Asahi, and then went back to work for another couple hours in the afternoon. Yes, drinking lots of beer and then going back to operating heavy machinery – I don’t know if snow blowers count as heavy machinery, but the little bulldozer definitely did. However, up until the day of the festival, I still really had no idea what the point of the festival was or what we would be doing. I could assume sake would be involved as almost everything involves sake in Japan. But, it wasn’t until we set up a tent and started building a kitchen (3 burners and a charcoal pit) that I realized there would be food. That’s when I got really excited. Festival food is always good, second only to someone’s mom’s cooking.

Free delicious food, free hot sake, and tiny, little cans of beer – that in itself is enough for a great party. But, what made it special, and what made me feel like a part of a community, was that we had all worked on it together; it was not an individual effort but a team effort. Most of the people involved ran the local hotels in Shin-Akakura or worked for the ski resort, but also the young foreigners that work at the English-speaking ski school, some of whom have been here multiple seasons, helped out by digging the candle cubby holes into the snow along the main road and clearing out the kamakura. What also made it special was that almost everyone I had met over the past month was there: the family that runs the hotel I live at, some of the ski patrollers I had met at the izakaya, the fun, young instructors from the ski school, and even the group of Aussies that I had gotten to know since they were staying at my hotel. Everyone was there: going back for seconds of hot soup; going back for fourths and fifths of hot sake; writing wishes on paper cups, putting a candle inside, and placing it in the holes of the snow wall.

Since we had erected a large, red torii gate in front of the kamakura snow domes and placed a smaller gate and an idol inside the kamakura, I asked a few people what the reasons were for the festival. They told me it was to pray for a good ski season. You have to love that about the Japanese. While Catholics are worried about how many Hail Marys they should say, how gays fit in with religion, or if you can have a female priest, the Japanese toss in a coin and pray for good luck in business, in school, or in love. They keep it simple. Just like praying for a good ski season. But with the festival being held in mid-February, more than part way through the ski season, I don’t buy it. I think the real reason behind the festival is just getting everyone together, imbibing hot sake, and keeping that sense of community strong.

Party at Izakaya Pontaro for Yuka’s bday

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything. Let’s just say I’ve been busy having the best travel experience of my life. I have a few posts brewing, and each of them will start off by reiterating how much I absolutely love living in Myoko Kogen (妙高高原).

Cast of Characters: Pontaro (“Pontchan”), runs Izakaya Pontaro; Yuka, Pontaro’s wife, also runs the izakaya; Sachiko, my Japanese mother at Hotel Moc.

Last night was Yuka-chan’s 56th birthday, and, to celebrate, they closed the izakaya to hold a private party for her. Pontchan and I were supposed to have a sushi making competition – Iron Chef: Myoko Kogen edition. The secret ingredient? Well, we didn’t really have a secret ingredient – wasabi, I suppose. But we did have $100 worth of sashimi-grade fish! Pontchan and I were supposed to compete, but, once the beer and sake started to flow, the competition disappeared, and I ended up making nigiri sushi for the birthday girl and her 6 guests. Part of the reason the competition evaporated may be that, being the only gaijin present, they enjoyed the novelty of having a gaijin make them sushi. Either way, it was super fun to learn how to make sushi and pretend to be a sushi chef for a few hours.

Pont-chan and I were behind the bar, working away, while Yuka and everyone else sat up at the bar. Yuka was done up nicely for her birthday. She was wearing a kimono, as she often does, but this was a very elegant one passed down by her mother. She became a little less elegant when I gave her a big pink wig as a birthday present, and Pontchan and I became much less elegant when the sexy aprons came out.

I’ve never made sushi before – not in Canada and definitely not in Japan, but, dressed in white chef’s clothes loaned to me by Sachiko-chan, I helped Pontaro prepare $100 worth of fish using a deadly sharp Misono knife. We had purchased the fish at a market earlier in the day; it was one among several errands we carried out in Myoko city that morning. Cutting up the fish was fun and not terribly difficult. You had to use a bit of imagination to get the right size and shape to come out, and I was chastised for using a sawing motion instead of making one continuous cut. It was so much fun that I recommend to anyone to give it a try. But don’t just get tuna and salmon. Get a variety of fish and try some flat fish (like hirame) – they are more interesting to cut and are delicious. I bought maguro and thought it would be popular, but, at the end of the night, there was mostly maguro left over.

With everyone up at the bar, I asked them each in turn which fish they wanted. In response, they would shout out the type of fish in Japanese. There were 12 different types of fish that we had prepared, and they were spread along the bar in small dishes ready to be joined with an oblong ball of rice. At the start I didn’t know which fish was which, but if I didn’t know, they would help me by pointing. I’ve been using flashcards to memorize Japanese words and phrases, but this was like a real-life game of flashcards. After about half an hour, I started to figure out which fish was which, but a single session of rote memorization doesn’t stick so I’ve forgotten everything except for maguro, tako, and ika.

In order to make my facsimile of a sushi chef more authentic, I was instructed to shout out “aiii yo!” when receiving a sushi order, and upon serving the fish, I was told to shout out “hey! oh match!” I’m not sure what either of these mean. Maybe I will ask Sachiko at our next lesson.

I tried to keep a mental note of each step Pontaro carried out so that I could make sushi again in the future. If your date made you sushi from scratch that would be pretty damn impressive, but then again, living Vancouver with all the inexpensive sushi around, maybe not.

How to make nigiri sushi:

Prep:

  1. Buy a variety of fish and keep them on ice.
  2. Make a lot of rice (optionally cheat and buy pre-formed Nigiri sushi rice balls)
  3. Put the rice into a flat-bottomed wooden bowl (sushi oke), pour in vinegar, and stir. Have your assistant fan the rice while stirring to keep evaporation up.
  4. Transfer the rice into a container and set somewhere to cool.
  5. Wash a cutting board and spray with ethanol.
  6. Find the sharpest knife possible and cut the fish into sushi-sized chunks. The cut should be one single continuous cut. Wipe your knife after each cut to remove fish oil from the blade. Be creative with the angle you cut at in order to get the proper size. Place the fish on a tray and keep cool.
  7. Prepare a bowl of cold water and vinegar. Dip your fingers in this to keep the rice from sticking to them.
  8. Prepare a bowl of wasabi.

The real action:

  1. Dip the fingers of your left hand in the water/vinegar mix. If you dip both hands, you won’t be able to pick up the wasabi on your finger.
  2. Grab some rice and form a ball.
  3. Flatten the ball in your palm of your left hand. The rice stays in your left hand until served.
  4. With your index finger of your free hand, add a dollop of wasabi (quanto basta).
  5. Put a chunk of fish on top and press with two fingers of free hand. Apply enough pressure so that the fish stays attached when the nigiri is upside down but try not to deform the fish.
    1. Ebi are a pain in the ass plus you should put two on each nigiri.
  6. Serve!

307 ways to learn a new language faster

Tanuki!

Remember Super Mario 3? Tanuki!

In numerical order:

  • 7 Tips to Love Where You Are Right Now
  • 13 Things That Are Totally Going To Change You In Your 30s
  • 14 Signs You’re Really Happy (And How To Stay That Way)

When did the annoyingly formulaic title, X ways to be a douche, become so ubiquitous? It sneaked up on me like a brain tumor, growing slowly, until I was like, “WTF, it’s everywhere”. Anyways, here are far fewer than 307 ways to learn a new language faster.

  1. Quit your job. This really frees up a lot of your time for that new language.
  2. Buy a plane ticket to wherever they speak your desired language (but choose a city/town/village where they don’t speak English). You saved some money before carrying out step 1, right?
  3. Learn how to say beer please in your new language: you will probably be thirsty when you get there.
  4. Befriend your local pub, bar, cafe owner and visit them everyday and never feel bad about pestering them and speaking their beautiful language terribly. Alcohol establishments are preferred as they will quickly help you bridge the fear gap of talking, or yelling, in your new language.
  5. Talk to EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON. YOU. MEET. Old people are great. They come from a time when people actually had conversations so they’re good at it.
  6. Learn it on the pillow. Start dating a mother tongue in your new language. Make sure that they have no other language in common with you.
  7. Failing 6, find someone who is learning your new language and who doesn’t have any other language in common with you and date them, or, at least, befriend them. Avoid making friends with other English speakers. They are dirty.
  8. Don’t worry about being polite. Let’s be honest, you’re probably not that polite in your native tongue anyways and people expect foreigners to make mistakes. If you do happen to offend someone, pretend you’re Australian. Say Good-day mate and walk away.
  9. Exploit yourself. Figure out what makes yourself tick and exploit it. For example, if you seek validation in others, use that as a motivation to get yourself moving. Put yourself in a situation where you would be deeply embarrassed if you fail. If you’re competitive, find other people doing the same thing, make them your enemy and blow them out of the water.
  10. Drink plenty of water. This is just a good one in general.
  11. Don’t hesitate to masturbate. All that sitting and studying causes blood to pool in your nether regions. If the mood strikes you, go for it, but in the spirit of total immersion, pleasure yourself to content in the language of interest. An added bonus is you don’t need to feel guilty afterwards because, really, you kind of were studying.
  12. Don’t study all the time. That would be a seriously boring. Go for a bike ride, read a book, watch a movie, or, if all else fails, do some pushups.
  13. Yes, 307 is a prime number.

Japan or the best place in the world to travel

It’s interesting how you can go from just meeting someone to being totally naked with them in the space of a few hours. Ladies, ladies, don’t get in a huff — your femen-centric minds are misleading you —I wasn’t with fuk-u and fuk-mi. I was in an après-ski onsen with some new friends I had made on the slope from Niigata city. Yes — dudes. Actually, I didn’t even know until today that onsen were segregated and nude. I figured it was just a big hot tub slash sake party. Well… life is a learning process.

Today was my second day of skiing at Myoko Kogen in Niigata prefecture just north of Nagano. I had just finished a nice conversation with an older man in his late 60s, who was retired, but working as a Japanese instructor, skiing during the winter, and playing tennis during the summer, when I went to see if I could get a private ski lesson. The guy at the counter didn’t speak English so so well, but a nice young woman was kind enough to help with translating. Note: she had a slight Aussie accent — it always cracks me up when ESL have a Scottish, English, or Aussie accent, somehow I just think they should all sound like Californians. Anyways, the result of the translation was come back later gaijin, but I ran into her and her friends, 5 of them altogether, while scarfing down a bowl of ramen on the slopes. She had learned English in Brisbane and spoke well, so we chatted up, and I skied with them from the rest of the day. It was loads of fun (たのしかったね), and then they invited me to go to onsen.

I have a history with heat-related relaxation. James and I used to hit the sauna fairly often and have epic conversations — we also went to an amazing public bath complex, Stadtbad Neukölln, in Berlin, that is, just by the way, nude and co-ed. Open air hot baths in Budapest, hamamı in Istanbul, and onsen in Japan… the list goes on dear reader. This was my first time at an onsen so I didn’t exactly know the protocol. Here’s the breakdown: you get a big towel and a small towel; get naked and put your stuff in a basket; bring the small towel with you and leave the big one; head over to the line of stools, hunker down, and wash yourself with the provided shower heads; once you’re good and rinsed, pop into the onsen. This particular place had an indoor pool that was about 40 degrees plus another pool outside. Now forty degrees isn’t too hot but they did also have a 90 degree sauna, which is awesome. And for that après-onsen comedown, why not hit the manga library upstair? Yes, there were in fact 4 aisles of densely packed manga sorted by series and sofa chairs for reading. I perused the selection and while remarking on the breadth of manga available, availed myself to the comic with the most scantily clad and impossibly proportioned woman on the cover — to my chagrin might I add: it was entirely PG. The considerate producers of the manga comic did include the pronunciation of the Kanji in Hiragana, so I could at least pronounce the words even if I didn’t understand them.

To end another day of ceaseless suffering, I went to my favourite Izakaya, Izakaya Pontaro, literally stumbling distance from my spartan hotel for the third night in a row. The couple that run the place are very very very nice. The husband enjoys telemark skiing, the wife doesn’t like skiing at all, they have two dogs, and visit their hometown in Kyushu every May which takes them two days by car. After my prerequisite pint of super cold Japanese draught and a few of their superb home-cooked dishes, the wife reminded me I had wanted to order the sake sampler… well, OK, if I must! Three glasses of slightly distinguishable sake later, they poured another one on the house, I would like to say because they enjoyed our conversation so much, but probably because I was their only customer.

Japan truly is the best place on Earth to visit. Come one, come all, unless you’re Australian, then stay effing put.

* Instead of fuk-u and fuk-mi, I was going to reference Zen Zen Chigau and Uso Bakkari from Hitching Rides with Buddha but it seemed a bit obscure.

Module II: Japanese

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OK let’s get pumped for Japanese! Here’s the plan for super happy fun Japanese learning:

Any suggestions?! Leave a comment.