Into the Beating Hearts of Hokkaido

From Morioka it is going to be on to the great Northern island of Hokkaido to finish out my winter journey in Japan. As I blog my itinerary have you been following along? If not there is still time to catch up!

As it were, I’ll be flying home from out of the capital Sapporo at the end of the month. But not without first stopping off for a pleasant stay in the historic harbor city of Hakodate, glamping and backcountry snowboarding in Niseko, and (fingers crossed) visiting the Ainu Culture Promotion Center just outside of Sapporo.

So, let’s start there shall we?

What is an Ainu? Rather, WHO ARE the Ainu? The Ainu are the indigenous inhabitants of Japan, and their culture is alive and vibrant today, particularly on the Northern island of Hokkaido. In fact, the Ainu people populated and controlled much of Hokkaido all the way into the later 20th Century, until the time of the Meiji Restoration when the island was overrun militarily and annexed by the Japanese government. At that time the Ainu were put through a sweeping process of settler colonialism, in which they had their indigenous identity stripped from them, and their lands dispossessed to make way for land reorganization and resettlement. Many Ainu were folded into the general Japanese population and subjected to forced assimilation and re-education.


It is a process familiar in so many ways to that experienced by my own tribal nation here in the U.S. context. As I continue my own personal journey to recover my family’s heritage and engage with our tribe’s process of restoring its sovereignty, I look forward to visiting the Ainu Culture Promotion Center, one of many sites of memory building in Hokkaido and in Japan. I do this to, in some small way, understand their very similar journey and learn something from it. Japan officially recognized the Ainu as indigenous people just this week if you can believe it!

9DF8C791-3360-4AA5-B234-7918D14CE569Prior to arriving in Sapporo I will have been touring the back-country of Niseko with the Hokkaido Backcountry Club and Black Diamond Tours. As with Kintoun, I’ll look forward to posting a full review here of my experience with the guides from Black Diamond at the end of the trip. I’m sure it will all be wonderful. But at this stage what I am looking  forward to most of all is just being in and near Niseko, as I hear it is incredibly beautiful country.

On a bit of an adventurous whim I decided to combine my backcountry excursion with some luxury winter camping–or as it is more appropriately termed: “glamping”. Through Airbnb I managed to find the most amazing outdoor camping community run by none other than professional backcountry skier Yohei Sasaki—a lifelong native (dosanko) to Niseko and Hokkaido. Rather than go on and on about Yohei in the space of this post, I’ll let this short documentary tell his story for us. It is inspiring I promise, and I’m honored to have the chance to stay on his land.

5 Niseko Stories – Yohei Sasaki from Experience Niseko on Vimeo.

Sapporo and Niseko are must-see destinations in Hokkaido to be sure, but to get there from where I’m coming from by Shinkansen you have to pass by Hakodate. And what an amazing historical city to drop in on. In its earliest days, Hakodate was actually an Ainu fishing settlement. Because of its incredible geography and location on the Tsuguru Straits where the Sea of Japan connects to the Pacific Ocean, it was an attractive center of trade, making it a highly contested land prize. No surprise then, but yes the Ainu were eventually forced out by a succession of mainland clans. The port city was also a strategic target for Commodore Perry and became one of the first modern city developments for the Japanese government under the ensuing Meiji period.

EE792E28-2AAC-45F2-85CB-9D05600EBA1EI mention all of this dramatic historical turnover only because it serves to contextualize my interest in stopping over on the way through to Niseko. With so many competing interests over the years, both domestic and foreign, Hakodate is a unique study in politicized architectures and contested memory spaces—something of keen interest to this once would-be historical scholar and memory activist. It will be a city that I can walk for a day and really peel back the layers to trace the sweep of Japan’s ambitions over the centuries to build a united nation—politically, culturally, and economically.

So, if you have been following along so far in the blog you will know that as I hit send on this post I am already here in Japan. I’m actually right outside of Morioka, of which Sara-san and I discussed at some length in the previous post. I’m actually resting comfortably in Nyuto Onsen, of whose virtues I extolled in the post just prior to that. I’m pleased to say that the entire itinerary has gone according to plan thus far—down to the exact detail. Sugoi!

B34E31EA-2702-4A3C-BCB5-674619122D2DAs I soak in the healing waters of Nyuto I prepare my mind and body for the adventures ahead. When next I post it will be from home, and I’ll have so many things to say about what this first major winter expedition has taught me. I’ll take you into the mountains and trees with me and we will tease apart what the backcountry has to speak to us. One thing is already abundantly clear to me—the people of Japan have built and continue to nurture an incredible country, full of cultivated diversity.  There is one Japan, but there is no “one” Japan.  I’m honored to be allowed to come here, to play and to explore.

This land has opened things in me that I wasn’t prepared for and that will stay with me I think for quite some time. I hope to share them with you if I can find the words to do them justice. Until then.


Things to Do in Morioka…When You’re (NOT) Dead…From Snowboarding

I’m posting from the road en route to Chicago O’Hare where I will be hitching an overnight flight to Taipei and then on to Tokyo. With my ass parked at a Starbucks here in frigid downtown Chi Town I had a chance to catch up with my good friend and co-worker Sara Simon.

Sara has been my Sensei for over a year now for all things Nihon. She’s schooled me in the language, the food, the beautiful people, and most importantly the infamous Yōkai….yes Yōkai. Trust me she’s a veritable scholar.

大阪歴史博物館の特別展「幽霊・妖怪画大全集」で展示された歌川国芳の浮世絵「相馬の古内裏」Sara (also known as “dinner-plate”) is also largely to blame for planting the seed of this crazy idea–my jaunting halfway around the globe to frolic in fields of endless Japanese powder. I had the will. She has shown me the way. And let it be known that if I go missing down some volcanic steam vent high in the Japanese Alps…you guessed it…its Sara’s fault (she winces).

I wanted to chat with Sara because the centerpiece of my two week trip finds me in Morioka–home base for my first round of back-country snowboarding. Morioka is special to Sara. She has spent some significant time there and has all sorts of great advice for making the most out of my own time there. Really appreciate her taking the time to chat with me on the fly like this! Ikimashou!

Image courtesy Sara Simon

Matt: I want to hear all about Morioka but can you first just say a little bit about what drew you to Japan in the first place? Where all have you been?

Sara (): I always struggle to identify what originally led me to Japan. I think largely because there was no life-changing moment or long-held desire, Japan just started to interest me and I was seeking a new viewpoint. Japan is unique in that while it is heavily influenced by American culture now, for a long time they were not. So I think the draw was to experience a culture that had a different way of thinking, building and writing that had not been so colonized by the U.S. that it challenged my way of thinking and viewing the world.

As to where I have been in Japan: Sapporo, Otaru, Okinawa, Kagoshima, Sendai, Miyagi, Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Minamchita , Kyoto, Kobe, Himeji, Osaka, Shiga, Nara, Yakushima, Hachinohe, Kuji, Hatchimantai, Ofunato, and Kamaishi.

Matt: Wow! So how did you end up in Morioka and what did you spend your time doing? When were you there last?

Sara (): I applied to teach via a company specializing in ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers). I thought I would have a better chance of being accepted if I put no limitations on my placement preferences. So they assigned me to the city of Morioka. I always felt like I got a really lucky break with that. It is a wonderful city and second home. During the week, I planned lessons and worked at two schools; an all-girls school and agricultural school. On the weekends, I traveled to visit friends and see more of Japan. I was last there in 2009. I want to go back to see the city and how it has changed but I am also very anxious with all the changes after the tsunami (March 2011).

Image Courtesy Sara Simon

Matt: Yeah that is 10 years now–lots of changes I’m sure. You have said to me that I should make an effort to get to know Japan through it’s food. No complaints here! Pretty much every region and city has something unique to offer. So, what should I be going after in Morioka?

Sara (): Morioka is known for its noodles–so Jajamen is a must. It is thick noodles with a garlic and cucumber mix. Once you finish, there can be a second part to the meal for a dollar more, the chef will add some hot noodle broth to your bowl and crack an egg into it. You mix it all together and have a warm soup. Morika also has Reimen and Wanko Soba which can be fun outings too if you like cool summer noodles, and noodle eating contests respectively. But Jajamen was my primary experience and is Morioka to me. Also the ice cream and farm products are great in Morioka. Since the north has more farm land and dairy, it is one of the few places you really see rich dairy products pushed.

Matt: Oishii! And you have no idea how badly I am craving my first Ekiben when I hit Tokyo. But let’s stay focused! Alright, so my four days in Morioka will be spent primarily hitting the backcountry slopes outside of the city but by night I aim to come back and hit the town. What do you recommend to do and see?

Sara (): Karaoke, have some drinks at the izakayas in town. The train station has lots of neat shopping & food in one spot. Rotating sushi (kaiten sushi) would be fun. A sunset up on the castle ruins is a must. Also the shrines and the temples in the area are unique. Of course if there is time you should see the rock that gives Iwate its name. The legend was that a demon terrorized the area but a monk banished the demon. As the demon was sent off, he put his hand upon a rock and the hand-print was seared into the rock. Now when it rains the hand-print is visible. There is a shrine nearby commemorating the event.

The Large Rocks of Mitsuishi Shrine

Matt: I am all over that! Okay, so Morioka is the capital of Iwate and yeah you have spoken to me a lot about how amazing Iwate is. I’m sad because I won’t get much time to tour the prefecture but can you just go on a little bit more about what makes it so amazing. What will I be missing?

Sara (): I think for me it really reminded me of home. It was not a giant tourist trap or what people put on the postcards. It was real Japan. People farming and living and enjoying the slopes. I liked seeing the different viewpoints from the folks in the south. And much like Michigan, Iwate is rich in natural beauty. It is very easy to see it as home and not a vacation spot.

Matt: Before I catch my Shinkansen north to Hokkaido I might have some time to just wander the city. Anything else you recommend I take in?

Sara (): I would say just wander the city. It does not have the big tourist draws. The power of Morioka is its general down-to-earth ambience and the little treasures you trip over as you go. Just keep an eye out for the local demons–the Kappa.

Image available at: Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai

Matt: Oh dear God the Kappa that’s right…lol! Well, let’s get down to important matters. You’ve tasked me with bringing back goodies from Japan! Anything special I should keep my eyes out for in Morioka?

Sara (): Anything from Koiwai farms. They have been around for probably 100 years and make some yummy and truly local snacks.

Matt: Subarashii! This has been great! Sara – what are you missing most about Japan these days?

Sara (): The food. Hiking. Practicing speaking now that I actually have more grammar under my belt.

Matt: Yeah! Yeah! You are taking Japanese language classes (and getting pretty good I might add), so what’s been the most challenging thing about learning Nihongo and also what is your favorite Japanese expression?

Sara (): Japanese arranges thoughts differently than English. Once I accepted that, it got a lot easier, but I had to relax my own expectations and accept the culture (and stop panicking) to get there. My favorite Japanese expression is “nama-biru onegaishimasu” – “a house beer, please”, not so much for the drinking, but because even with just a little Japanese, this can allow you to settle down with people, drink the local drink, and start a conversation. It also shows that you are willing to try with what little you can while in someone else’s relaxing grounds and get the first round.

Matt: Well said lady…I mean Sensei! Kanpai! This has been a blast. Have learned so much! When I get back we can flip the tables and I’ll let you grill me on the trip. Okay I should get rolling. Ja ne!

Riding the Prayers to Suijin: From the Fires of Kamakura to the Healing Waters of Nyuto Onsen

As I depart from Zaō Onsen, the next leg of my journey through Japan brings me deep into the heart of Akita Prefecture and the Tohoku region—famed for its majestic rural winter landscapes.

Image courtesy Flickr user Chris Lewis:

My itinerary has me stopping off first in Yokote just in time for the Kamakura Festival (February 15 & 16), an annual celebration of rebirth and a petition to Suijin, the Shinto god of water, asking for purity in the New Year. I so look forward to wandering pleasantly through Yokote and stopping off at the little lighted igloos (kamakura) to partake of mochi and warm sweet sake. It is hard to anticipate how this celebration will touch me, but I can already appreciate the chance to surround myself with others who are burning away the old and looking ahead to the new. I’m entering a season of this myself. I’m also humbled to have the chance to join the Japanese people in a ritual that acknowledges our intrinsic reliance upon the gifts of nature—in this case fire and water—to revive us, to sustain us, and to nourish us into the future. In all the cultural recovery that I am pursuing for myself and for my Native heritage this practice comes at a good time. Just another opportunity to learn a lost embodied language that the Japanese people on the whole do a much better job of shepherding culturally into the future.

The rural communities of Akita are often spotlighted as bellwethers of Japan’s aging population decline, and the region has become something of a laboratory for attracting more workers, residents, and foreign spending through organized campaigns of ecotourism and agritourism. Moving on then from the soft burning lights of Yokote, I will ride the Akita Shinkansen north through some amazing farm country to my next destination—the Nyuto Onsen—a ring of hot springs just a short bus ride from the mythical Lake Tazawako. But not without first stopping off for a brief tour of the city of Kakunodate and its ancient village of traditional Samurai homes.

Image courtesy Flickr user Scott Lin:

A restoration project unto itself that gives foreign visitors an experience of what it would have been like to live the everyday life of a feudal Japanese warrior and aristocratic landholder. Here too I cannot anticipate what my meditations might be as I wander among and through the homes and streets of this impressive historical recreation project. As someone who has gone out of his way to cultivate a practice of memory activism—advocating for direct encounters with the past through immersive engagements with the personal and spatial legacies of traumatized communities—I’m sure I will be transported on some level. And I will be left pondering the fine lines between truth and mythology.

Image courtesy Flickr user Fumiaki Yoshimatsu:

Rest assured I will have plenty to think upon as I settle into my ryokan at Nyuto Onsen, where I plan to finish out the day by making the rounds to as many of the seven onsens that comprise this incredible ring of natural hot springs. Even as I sit here at a far distance and pen these words I can feel the release of tension from my day’s travel as I slip into the steaming waters. The act of onsen in Japan has its origins in ritual bathing and Buddhist spiritual cleansing practices, and in its earliest days was often facilitated by the rich on behalf of the poor as a compassionate act of gift-giving—the gift of cleansing oneself bodily. For the homeless or working poor, what an experience of joy and rebirth this must have been. For devotees of Buddhism the practice of onsen was also used to elevate meditations upon the divine Buddha. And there is no question that the minerals of the hot springs are physically curative.

dad2I myself am coming out of a long period of work weariness and embarking on some new career projects. May the waters penetrate deep. So, where the first leg of my journey will bring me into the realms of Yamagata’s mountain oni and surround me with the sacred Dewa Sanzen of birth, death, and rebirth, this next leg brings me to the altars of Suijin—petitioning and partaking of Tohoku’s waters to bring about a much needed renewal. From there I should be plenty revived and mentally prepared to take the first big turns in Iwate’s backcountry as I disembark to Morioka to rally four days with my guide Kenichi Minegishi of Kintoun. Japow here we come!

On a Shinkansen Between Snow Monsters and Mountain Oni

Almost precisely one month from now I will be stepping off the Yamagata Shinkansen from Tokyo to catch a short bus ride to Zaō Onsen for my first snowboard turns in Japan.

Image courtesy Flickr user Kar-son (Thomas):

Mount Zaō is home to Japan’s famed “snow monsters”–slopes of evergreen trees covered in the frozen mists blown in from the Sea of Japan. Tourists come from all over the world to behold this unique winter wonder. As I contemplated transforming my first trip to Japan into a winter sport excursion, Mount Zaō and these incredible natural formations were a key in the proverbial ignition. How could I pass up an opportunity to nest myself among these remarkable natural sculptures and pay homage to such miracles of nature?

As I have projected my imagination forward in time and eagerly conjured visions of arriving at this mysterious mountain location, I’ve worked my attention outward from Mount Zaō specifically to the surrounding Yamagata prefecture and learned of the entire region’s historical significance as a sacred community of mountains. Along with Mount Zaō and Mount Ryuzan, Yamagata is home to the Dewa Sanzan (Three Sacred Mountains of Dewa)–Haguro-san, Gas-san, and Yudon-san. The Dewa Sanzan represent birth, death, and rebirth in the ancient syncretic religion of Shugendō, whose practitioners are the ‘yamabushi’ or mountain worshipers.

Image retrieved from:

Shugendō is a historical blending of various strains of Shinto, Buddhism, and even the primitive shamanistic practices of the region’s traditional folk communities. Though it was outlawed during the Meiji Restoration, it survives to this day, experiencing a revival in the post-WWII period. Shugendō is not isolated to Yamagata and the Dewa Sanzan but the region and mountains are without question the epicenter of the sacred religion. Every year thousands of Japanese citizens pilgrimage to the three shrines situated on each mountaintop. The practice and significance of mountain worship has only deepened over time in the life of the Japanese people.

Image retrieved from:

As I step on to the Yamagata Shinkansen at Tokyo Station, having hopefully shaken off the first few heavy layers of jet lag, I wonder if I will choose to divert slightly from my itinerary to Zaō Onsen and hail a taxi or train to Yamadera, the site of Japan’s original mountain temple–Risshakuji?

basho_by_hokusai-smallThe site is made doubly famous by Matsuo Bashō’s famous haiku written while on pilgrimage to the temple:


sinking into the rocks,
cicadas’ cry

Or would I dare to divert even more drastically to visit Haguro-san, the easiest and quite frankly, the only open shrine of Dewa’s three sacred mountains during the winter months?

Image courtesy Flickr user Patrick Vierthaler:

What is it about the knowledge of these high places that calls to wanderers and explorers like me? Why do I feel challenged by the ideals of dedicated ascetics like the ‘yamabushi’–who pit their spirits against the elements?  Is it possible to answer such questions in a lifetime?

Image retrieved from:

Between these two contemplative diversions lies Ginzan Onsen, a mountain haven filled with relaxing luxuries, hot springs, and quaint storefronts, all wrapped up in the restored woodwork of an ancient lantern-lit silver mining town. Ginzan Onsen is hailed as one of the must-see winter destinations of Japan. A simple Google Image search for “Ginzan Onsen” says it all trust me. Have at it.

All of this is to say that Yamagata is a special prefecture in Japan. It holds power in nature. As I have set forth to dive a little deeper into the itinerary I have set for myself, it represents the first instance of the country calling to me from the periphery of all those best laid plans and daring me to second-guess myself as I am loathe to do when I set foot in a new country. You see, I am susceptible to wandering down unbeaten paths in foreign lands and intentionally seeking out chance encounters. It has rarely gotten me into trouble (knock wood) and only created indelible memories.

800px-en_no_gyoja_by_jakusaiBut one must be careful. In Japan we are not far from the mountain deities, ancient oni, with whom the ‘yamabushi’ are all to familiar with. If we tread before their shrines we owe them the utmost respect and humility. In between now and then I will search my inner thoughts, and should I decide to skirt their enticements, I certainly will not be the less for it. Mount Zaō is a worthy destination, and will leave me forever changed. All the more so because the famed “snow monsters” may be running up against a natural clock of extinction. Who knows if I will ever get the chance to marvel at these animistic wonders in quite the same way again?

In my next post I will take you to the inevitable next leg of my planned journey–to Yokote and the annual Kamakura Snow Festival. Let’s go!





Nihongo: The Point-and-Speak Edition

In a previous post I talked about the importance of approaching the study of Nihongo (Japanese) in some embodied ways. What I really meant by that was to search around through the myriad of different teaching tools and starting points for learning a complex language like Japanese and find the method that fits the best with your “way of learning.”

IMG_7530 2For some people this starting point will be audio lessons, for others it will be a full college course with structured exercises and homework. For me, Nihongo came alive when I could sit quietly and practice writing hiragana. From there I have been able to recognize the script characters I am writing as I encounter Japanese in its written form—for example as I study signage for public transportation or sushi menus.

In writing that first post, part of what I was also trying to convey was the importance of immersing yourself in the learning process. I think when we tap into our optimal “way of learning” it’s only the beginning of the journey. I can sit for an hour or two and practice writing hiragana, paying close attention to the stroke order and the length and position of each stroke. But I shouldn’t stay here, I need to surround myself with some other formats of learning that I can turn to in order to transform the phonetics of each character into some usable language and communication. Branch out.

So, in this post I thought I would share a handful of the different learning tools that I’ve been introduced to over the past year or so and highlight some of the affordances that they offer. They are each a little different from one another. Each of them have potential for being good starting points for you depending on your “way of learning.” And I can vouch for each of them as being valuable tools to put in your arsenal.

First up is Memrise—an addictive little language-learning app. What I personally like most about it is that it taps into my proclivity for Japanese in its scripted form and reinforces my learning on those levels. The app prompts you with flashes of vocabulary and kana/kanji, and then challenges you to remember and recognize them in and amongst a small constellation of similar words or phrases. The creators of Memrise purport to base the app’s design on principles of brain science and memory. They pitch the power of mems—a coined marketing term (if we’re honest) for “mnemonics, etymologies, amusing videos, photos, example sentences: anything which helps connect what you’re learning and bring it to life.” Coupled with this science they also aim to make the app fun and highly social. My coworker pulls it out at get-togethers all the time and we quiz on it for five or ten minutes. It’s a lot of fun. Makes for a great travel companion. It’s available on both iOS and Android.

Next up is Rocket Languages for Japanese—a must-have for taking steps toward understanding the spoken language—on both formal and informal levels. Using modules and levels it does an amazing job of moving a learner from simple greetings and conversations to much more complex interactions—all couched in the dynamics of modern Japanese culture. I’m almost through with Level One and can safely say that Rocket has helped boost my vocabulary, given me some confidence going into the street-level conversations that I will inevitably have with various locals, and most importantly driven home the nuances of the Japanese system of grammar. Each level can be a bit pricey, but if you keep your eyes open Rocket will frequently offer sales/discounts, especially during holiday periods. Truthfully, the only gripe I have about Rocket is the all too frequent misogynist remarks made by Kenny-san to the real star instructor of each lesson, Sayaka-san. It leaves a real bad taste in the ear if I can coin such an expression. But they both shake it off and she gets in some good counter-punches here and there along the way.

9781626164765_0Rocket can be great for getting a flavor for conversational Japanese, but if you want to understand the Japanese language in its larger cultural and country context then I highly recommend the book The Seven Keys to Communicating in Japan: An Intercultural Approach. Written by three highly accomplished professionals in communication and international business, and part of a series of country-specific books, the work emphasizes the LESCANT (language, environment, social organization, context, authority, nonverbal communication, and time conception) method. I have found it to be a highly digestible, pragmatic, but also conscientious look at the way that modern Japanese people live and how their values set the ground rules for how they speak with both foreigners and with one another. I’m only as far as the section on environment, but even here I have gained a huge appreciation for the ways that the Japanese respect for nature determines many of their living habits, even their urbanization, and how this in turn streamlines and formalizes some of their communication. It’s fascinating.

The last helpful tool I will encourage you to seek out is a local Japanese language or intercultural group. Do a little digging on Facebook for groups in your area and try to find one that meets at a local restaurant or coffee shop on a regular schedule. Here in my area we have a sister city organization (GRSCI Omihachiman) that meets once a month and hosts cultural presentations and language study. In the short time that I have been attending I have had a chance to learn about Noh theatre, kimono, origami, and even the historical role of women in Japanese society. The last hour of each month’s get-together is devoted to practicing spoken Japanese, and it has really helped with my pronunciation and usage. You get to hear directly from native Japanese speakers who can help you separate what you learn in a text book from what really happens in street conversation.

There are lots of other resources I could highlight, but I mainly wanted to provide you with a smattering of different formats that could be a good fit for your “way of learning.” There are apps, there are audio lessons, there are good old-fashioned books, and lots of in-person opportunities to practice. As my coworker says “we have zero excuses!” Indeed, starting next month I will be taking an online one-credit introductory course on kanji, and will have lots of things to say about how that is going for me—it really does stand to help me navigate the signage and other written sources that I’ll need to turn to for help in navigating some of the more rural parts of Japan that I will be traveling through. I’m excited!

Though I have been overwhelmed at times with too many resources I think I’ve finally found my leisurely groove with learning Nihongo. I owe a lot to my coworker and senpai for both throwing me in the forest and slowly but surely helping me find my way out. A very Zen instructor approach actually (whether she realizes it or not). She recently planted a wonderful little book in my hand straight from Japan—The Original “Point-and-Speak” Phrasebook. She handed it to me with the gentle reassurance that I’m never going to be ready for prime-time before I have to disembark in February, so relax a little, when I get there just point and speak. There’s just no way around it, to the vast majority of the Japanese people, I will just be a bumbling gaijin. So embrace it a little. Roll with it. Also very Zen.

It has taken a bit of a load off my shoulders. More than ever I feel like I can approach my ongoing study of Japanese with a genuine curiosity and respect for its history and it’s ever-changing lexicon. Whatever you do, lighten up and enjoy your learning. And with that I leave you with this!

Until next time…Sayanora!

Yuki no Gengo: The Language of Snow

Snow has been a kindred companion to me for a good many years now. It got into my bones and began to speak to me the very first winter that I set my boots down in the Rockies. That was 1995. I awoke in the Fraser Valley of Colorado to an expanse of fields, foothills, and peaks blanketed with white in every direction and reaching upward to heaven. The sight, along with the thin air and my first morning cigarette at 9,000 feet, literally took my breathe away.

5383273466_a0848d4ddd_bImage courtesy Flickr user Paul Schadler:

I had traveled over 1,200 miles from Michigan by bus and train to a new home in the mountains. The chalet apartment I bunked down in the previous night would be my new home. Secured with a deposit by mail, I had never met or spoken with the landlord. I had not even seen pictures of the property (the internet was just taking off mind you). Before arriving I did not know whether the place had a stove or a refrigerator, only that it had four walls and a ceiling. Having acquired a job at the nearby Winter Park Resort via an on-the-fly recruitment interview held in Grand Rapids (MI), the only thing I knew stepping off the train was that I had a place to stay and a steady paycheck to look forward to until the following summer.

Nothing could have prepared me for what that first season of endless snowfall was going to whisper deep down inside me. That year I experienced every variety of the mysterious white substance that the subtle variations of moisture, temperature, and the jet stream moving across the state are capable of producing. That 1995-96 ski season brought extreme precipitation to the Berthoud Pass and to the Mary Jane side of the resort. And amidst the endless deposits of powder I was swiftly inducted into the raw, tribalistic culture of backcountry snowboarding. Awaking every morning to chase fresh turns. Returning home every evening to relish our epic stories of conquest.

16164814470_2fabb97c45_zImage courtesy Flickr user paultalb:

From that first season I went on to spend three more. There were beautiful off-seasons of course. But it was always the snow. When it fell, however it fell, it stirred something primal and survivalist in me. In all of us. It was symbiotic and magical. It occupied our dreams. When we played in it during our waking hours we could scarce distinguish it from the ethereal nocturnal realms of our sleep. The mountains were benevolent wizards that summoned stormfronts to rake over their peaks and release torrents down upon us for our revelry. It was a fine place to be. Time stood still for a few years.

But then the time came to grow up and move on. Even upon returning to my childhood home in Michigan to embark on the “so-called” project of adulthood, the snow would speak to me in passing from the light drifts that skated across the contours of our lakeshore sand dunes. It still does. Speak to me.

GreatLakes.A2005027.1635.250m-1080x831Image courtesy Lake Effect Living:

We occasionally get epic snowstorms here in Western Michigan. We are the lucky recipients of a phenomenon known as the Lake Effect. Usually once or twice each winter a significant cold air mass will move down from Canada or eastward from the Northwestern states and make its way across Lake Michigan. When that cold air mass meets the warm lower layer of moisture in the air over the lake it will take it up into its colder upper layers and deposit it down along the lake shore in heaps. We get absolutely covered in thick, fluffy snow.

The Northern region of Japan’s main island of Honshu and the entirety of the island of Hokkaido benefit from a very similar phenomenon, as cold air from Siberia moves down across the warm waters of the Sea of Japan. This is the Japanese Snow Machine. Japan’s snow deposit via this similar engine is highly unique as the systems that move down from the North to meet the Western shores are much much colder than those typically running their gauntlet across the Great Lakes. The moisture yanked up from the Sea of Japan is taken up even higher into the troposphere and made especially cold and frozen, leading to the deposit of very dry snow in vast quantities. This is the famed Japow!

Screen-shot-2011-01-21-at-18.31.46-1024x659Image courtesy The Reason:

It is this Japow that is the siren call of my February trip into the backcountry terrains of Iwate, Akita, Aomori, and Hokkaido. And rest assured we will have plenty of time to explore my itinerary in full.

For now, as I reflect back on how this love affair with snow got into the fabric of my soul, and as I look ahead to the transcendent experience of visiting Japan in the heart of winter, my nostalgia and excitement becomes tempered with a soft lamentation. Our world is heating up. We are entering a future of extreme climate change, and every model that scientists generate for us has our glaciers receding, our arctic regions warming. There is no telling how these changes will effect the reliable engines of our annual snowfall over time in places like the Great Lakes and the Sea of Japan. It is complex. But the most recent report of the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) predicts that our Lake Effect Snow will likely become Lake Effect Rain over the next few decades. And Hokkaido, Japan just recorded its latest ever snowfall.

There really is no telling what the future holds.

IMG_3456Image courtesy Matt Schultz

Despite the uncertainty, snow remains my kindred companion and as I contemplate a future where there will likely be less and less of it reliably in the places where it falls most naturally, I feel compelled to treat it like something of an endangered language. To understand it better in all of its beauty and mystery. Both its splendor and its treachery. So, with that in mind, ten days from now I will be in Estes, Colorado taking my first-level avalanche rescue training, learning how to read the snow, to better understand its relationship to the weather and to the terrain. I’m returning to the valleys where snow first got into my bones to learn an age-old language all over again for the first time. I will take you with me there and we will excavate its layers and learn to obey its grammar.


Nihongo: An Embodied Journey of Learning

This will be the first of several periodic reflections on my process of engaging the Japanese language in preparation for my trip to the country next February. I urge all of those who take time to read my posts on this topic to exercise caution and your own judgment. In no way do I purport to be an exemplary model of how to go about learning a language as complex as Nihongo (Japanese). Take what you find helpful from my experiences, go about your own studies, and be sure to seek out more experienced speakers from whom to learn and test your proper comprehension.

With this first post I merely want to provide some backdrop or an ethos of sorts for all of the learning that I have begun to acquire and hope to accumulate.

Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potatwatomi History Pamphlet
Image courtesy Matt Schultz

Over the past three years I have been making the slow and careful journey back into the center of the living tradition of my tribal heritage. I am part of a small band of Bodéwadmi (Potawatomi) known as the Nottawaseppi Huron. We are indigenous to the lands of southwestern Michigan. The specific story of my direct ancestors has come to the surface in drips and drabs over these years, and it is a story of slow dispossession. As my lineal descendants were uprooted and forced to assimilate into the settler communities that encroached upon our lands and territories, our family rather quickly lost touch with our language, our relationship with the land, and the practices that brought that relationship to life on a daily basis. We were Anglicized and urbanized.

As our band reconstitutes itself and attempts to rebuild its traditions, language recovery and practice are at the center of the many programs and services being developed by our elders and tribal citizens. Native languages and vocabularies are more than signifiers of cultural maturity or currency between two or more parties, they are literally doorways into our cosmologies and lifeways–our ways of thinking, knowing, and being. How we speak, when, and to whom, materializes and embodies our realities.

Dylan Miner Art Exhibit
Image courtesy Matt Schultz

As I journey down this slow river of language recovery for the sake of my own understanding and for the sake of breathing fresh life into my tribe for its future, I acknowledge the power and sacredness of both the written and the spoken word, as well as the specific ways in which we communicate (and don’t). Silence and non-verbal communication are just as imperative, if not more essential, to grasp and abide by than is cultivating a deep vernacular of many words.

There are not so much right and wrong ways to approach learning a new language–everyone learns very differently. There are simply good and better ways of going about it. Sometimes finding those better ways can be a profoundly discouraging uphill climb and a grasping at loose roots with which to pull ourselves up. Though we may slide back down the hill many times it is important to continue climbing, searching for a strong handhold.

With Japanese I have tried many approaches, all of which in and of themselves (and even practiced together), are valid and essential. I have subscribed to and made use of language learning programs such as Rocket and Memrise. I have attended local conversation groups. I have ordered textbook upon textbook. I’ve spent countless hours watching Japanese language television shows and anime with subtitles. I’ve practiced writing and re-writing Hiragana and Katakana, and soon will be taking an entire introductory online course on Kanji. Each of these I hope to give some individual attention in future posts–spotlighting the elements of their exposure to the language that I have found most helpful.

Anishinaabe translation for the word Humility (ehd-buh-sehn-do-wuhn)
Image courtesy Matt Schultz

But for this first reflection, what I really want to highlight is the importance of simply stepping back and appreciating that when one begins learning another culture’s language we must do so with a deep humility and sense of sacred care. The people of Japan use their language in very specific formal and informal ways. Even as a foreigner (gaijin), though I may never be expected to grasp the exact proper usage, my sincerity to make an effort is essential. Again, learning a language is not merely an exercise in dropping a stepping stone in a moving stream so that we can get from the bank of ignorance and anxiety to the bank of fluency and confidence. It is wading carefully into the current and allowing oneself to bravely find a foothold. To adjust to the cold temperatures as the water level approaches our chest. To pause in the eddies and lose yourself in the swirl.

There is no question that Japanese is one of the more complex and intimidating languages for an English speaker to learn. Aside from the highly-nuanced formal and informal usages, the grammatical orderings and verb forms are markedly different, and the three distinct but intimately intertwined written scripts (Hiragana/Katakana/Kanji) require time and mastery. To make matters worse for myself, I absolutely did not give myself nearly enough time to prepare. I have admittedly spent the bulk of the past year  frantically snatching at loose roots and throwing down stones rather than patiently digging in my heels and wading in slowly.

Hiragana for So
Image courtesy Matt Schultz

Recently my friend and coworker, herself an advancing speaker of Japanese, kindly reprimanded me and urged me to stop treating the learning process like a job and to find a way to connect my learning to something like a story. To immerse myself in the language on creative and imaginative levels. To make it personal. As it turns out this is exactly what I needed to hear. Rather than a system to master, I needed to open myself up to each session of listening and script writing practice as an encounter with a new worldview and a new way of thinking and being. I also needed to begin elevating my understanding and appreciation for the many embodied and non-verbal ways in which the Japanese people communicate with one another. Bows, hand gestures, the etiquette of ryokans, queuing up for the Shinkansens–all just as, if not more, important than being consistent with sumimasen (excuse me), onegaishimasu (please), and arigatou (thank you).

Within tribal societies the proper use of our Native language by non-Native peoples is a signifier of respect and deep consideration. Not in every case, but certainly in many, if care is not taken with our languages the relationship can be put at a distance before it has even had a chance to begin and even severed altogether depending on the intention. This is because of our long history of cultural genocide. It speaks to the deep value that we place on language as a bridge to our ancestral ways of knowing and being. We guard it preciously. And even though I have been assured that the Japanese people are not nearly as threatened by misuses and misappropriations by foreigners, I nonetheless intend to carry my education in the language forward with a deep respect for its sacred function in binding together the cultures of its peoples.

Japanese Gate
Image courtesy Flickr user Trevor Dobson (

So take from that what you will. I feel like I am off and running with a much better spirit of discovery. In a future post on the topic of learning Japanese I’ll say a bit more about how my propensity for visual and graphic learning became something of a temple gate for better understanding. The real point is that you have to make it personal. You have to step through. The journey starts with you.


Ganbatte Imasu!

Preparations are underway. On February 12th I will be stepping off a plane into Narita and catching the Keisei Bus to Tokyo Station, where I disembark for an epic two-week journey throughout Honshu and on to Hokkaido. I’m throwing myself into the deep winter of Nihon (Japan) to experience the world’s best snow on offer.

Nanzen-ji temple, Kyoto
Image courtesy of Flickr user Patrick Vierthaler (

Japan is a country that has long mystified me. From the time that I first began readings in Buddhism from the likes of Thomas Merton, Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, and D.T. Suzuki, I made promise to myself that I would dedicate some attention to understanding the home country of Zen. I’d learned some time ago that the Westernized Beat version of the practice that I have grown fond of wrestling with is missing something essential that I would only be able to appreciate by visiting the land and people of Japan.

A good friend and coworker who has spent ample time in the country told me that if I was bent on visiting Japan I’d be a fool not to also take advantage of my love for snowboarding. And it only took one glimpse of the country in full winter for me to agree wholeheartedly.

Japan Backcountry
Image courtesy of Flickr user Gergely Csatari (

That snap decision may yet be the death of me, but I have not looked back since.

For over a year now, with my coworker’s patient help I have been making logistical preparations, working to get a grasp on the language, practicing the three major writing systems (Hiragana/Katakana/Kanji), and soaking up the unique lifeways of the Japanese people. All while working full time and going through, what all of my coworkers and friends fondly refer to as, my “midlife crisis” (more on that in a second).

It’s been a very busy time. You the reader have a lot of catching up to do, and I aim to get you up to speed. In between now and February I am going to give you the highlights of everything I’ve come to learn and love about this special country–even if from a distance. We will walk through my itinerary and get a sneak peak at the many upcoming stops on my journey. Most exciting of all I will be attempting to document my progress for you, of learning Nihon go (Japanese) and physically training for the most challenging back-country I’ve experienced yet. So hang in there!

OK…now about that “midlife crisis”. What is this really all about?

IMG_4817Well you see…a year and a half ago I went through a long-overdue divorce that freed me up in more ways than one to start the journey of reclaiming nearly sixteen years that had slowly chipped away at the energetic, free-thinking, spirited person that I used to know and love. I had found ways of staying in touch with my inner me–discovering the Beat writers in my late 20s certainly helped. But my other half never quite “got me”, and I could never quite find the secret to bringing myself to life for my children in the overly regimented home that she was intent on cultivating. Married life was hard. It took us both a long time to acknowledge the irreconcilable incompatibilities, but we were both eventually able to bring the marriage to a close amicably and constructively. She is also now free to be the person that she didn’t know she really wanted to be (and that is all I will ever say about that…promise).

Since that day I have been reconnecting with the inner person that I feel most true to, and giving myself the gift of the experiences that I set aside those many years ago. I only have so much time before some of those experiences will be out of reach due to old bones. I also desperately want to believe that while I have the time and energy I can plant a similar seed in my children. That I can model a life of staying true to yourself at all costs, not settling for society’s expectations on you, or the timetables that others want to place on you.

IMG_5108So I’m pushing it a little with the time I have, and willing to test the limits. Because I know that I am most alive when life is in motion, when chance is at the door, when I am out of my comfort zone, and all I have is my wits in the moment and the challenge of making new friends out of complete strangers. And most importantly I want to start channeling my love for all of this adventure into some hard skills that can hopefully help others when they find themselves off the main trail and in hard straits–a place I am also all too familiar with (we’ll save the story of those broken bones for another post).

To wrap this introductory post then, let’s just say that my hope for this winter trip to Japan is that it can be both the starting point for a lifelong relationship with the beautiful country, and the crucible to prepare me for at least a few more years of adventure and direct experience. Ganbatte imasu! We will give it a shot!