Today, we at WestCoastToFarEast.com bring you to the beautiful Hounoki Ski Area in Takayama Japan, or as some call it the Japanese Alps. There is excellent skiing, snowboarding, sledding for kids, and more. There are multiple lodges here where you can rest after a day on the slopes with warm, affordably priced meal. Or soak your weary bones in a hot onsen bath (my personal favorite) and overlook the mountain tops.
Depending on where you live in Japan, the seasons can be a bit extreme. Summer often brings heat and humidity and winter brings the beautiful snowfall. One thing you can count on is that there will be plenty to entertain you. Where I’m located, near Takayama City in Gifu prefecture (often referred to as the Japanese Alps), snow is basically guaranteed.
So what can you do?
It seems like every neighborhood has it’s own community center, open to the public with activities and exercise equipment, as well as indoor sports like rock-climbing which help keep the kids busy and active during the winter. For us parents – we get the additional exercise of shoveling snow from our driveways and cleaning off our cars every morning along side our neighbors.
But another thing small Japanese towns can brag about is the sense of community created through everyday interactions, and local events and activities – such as a day for kids to come together and play in the snow at the local park.
As the seasons change one exciting form of public entertainment is the many festivals, often regional or for specific purposes, which take place in Japan. When I say Japan I’m really speaking about my own very limited experience, in the Hida Takayama region of Gifu prefecture, and the Takayama Spring and Fall festivals.
In April you can truly witness the change of seasons, with drastic changes happening overnight. Literally, I’ve woken up to fields of flowers that were not there the day before.
Takayama’s spring festival, or Sanno Matsuri, celebrates this change of season. Takayama’s festivals are generally regarded as one of the best in japan, due to the sheer beauty of the elaborate displays called Yatai.
Now let me take a step back here. It’s hard to know how to describe what the Yatai is, and the closest english is probably “parade float” but I really hate to use those words for two reasons. 1. I’ve never been a fan of parades, and I wouldn’t compare one to the festivals. and 2. When I say “float” it makes me think of an inflatable Donald Duck ballon or something, and the Yatai carts are ornate wheeled displays with intricate carvings, lacquering, woven-work and decorative metal-work, found both on the outside and inside – some with intricate mechanical puppets which perform as part of the entertainment.
My understanding is that the different Yatai carts were created by different surrounding communities, with contributions from various artisans from those communities. Over time they would be further improved, and with a bit of competition between the communities the carts would become even more beautiful.
As expected there is music, dancing, performances, and of course my favorite… many differed food stalls to choose from. I recommend attending one for yourself if at all possible.
We’ve landed in Japan and after a few weeks, so much has happened since that 11 hour flight that I hardly know where to start. I could write a blog on 20 different topics;
First and foremost in my thoughts are my kids, and how I’m explaining this whole adventure to them. My sweet 1 year old girl, is mostly just loving all the new attention and excitement as she is still a baby. But I do find a greater importance in speaking to her in English consistently and repeatedly, so that she gets enough exposure to the sounds and syllables of English speech to develop appropriately. The fact that she’s just started walking here is a reminder of everything “new” that she can get her hands on. And there is so much that is new! She’s also sleeping more, which i mostly attribute to all the new stimulation and winter weather.
My toddler is a bigger challenge in my mind;
At age 3 he is basically a mostly-functional person, complete with independent thoughts, emotions and lines of questioning and reasoning. I’ve explained a lot to him in very simple terms for his understanding, which he recites back to me with extraordinary accuracy. But while I think he understands that much has changed, I’m not sure he understands the permanence. To him, it’s still as if his old preschool and friends could reappear at any moment, which sadly they will not. But there is much for him to be excited about.
Our long daily walks outside bring out a vast amount of English communication between us on a variety of subjects, which of course delights me. It’s almost as if he knows he needs to practice with his one source of English as he talks nonstop. Food is something of a challenge, as I have never seen a voracious of an eater, pound for pound, as my 3 year old. At least I can say that it is generally quite healthy food.
The support of grandparents and other friends and family here have helped smooth the transition. The broad countryside, snow to play with, and new places to go and experience. Yet I am also watchful, for any sense of loss he may experience – yet not have the words to express.
He has started an entirely new preschool based in a different language. I have faith in his intelligence and adaptability, but still – it’s a lot of change at once for a little guy. The number of items required to start a public preschool is rather surprising when compared with the US! From hats, to indoor shoes, a kids futon bed, umbrella, handkerchief, tissue paper holder, bags for school items, etc. I can only assume there will be lessons associated with each and a high degree of organization involved because I’ve never seen anything like it. But the teachers are sweet and wonderful, and he is loving and embracing it completely – which puts me at ease. I’m hoping that with my toddler starting “full time” tomorrow i’ll start having more hours for Japanese studies. I’d hope to remain illiterate for as short as possible.
Our room, currently with family, is mostly settled and organized at this point. The first couple weeks was just about figuring out up from down, getting a bank account, getting a cell phone (neither of which was an especially smooth process) and getting bills settled.
So yeah, BEER… and all the other great drinks in Japan.
Enjoying the amazing cuisine and beverages is definitely a huge part of my visits. On my last trip I attempted to try a different beer or drink every day. I especially enjoyed the local Hida Takayama brew, which is definitely something special. I have no doubt that after moving there (2 weeks from now) entirely new worlds of flavor will open up to me.
With the popularity of craft beer growing in japan, and Japanese whisky winning “Best in the World” status, it seems as if Japan is making great strides beyond the commonly known ‘sake’ in the U.S.
One of my favorite sipping drinks is Shōchū (焼酎) which is typically made from sweet potatoes (the good stuff) or barley. To my tastes, it is typically a bit dryer than Nihonshu (what Americans call sake) with mellow herbal flavors and aromas. Truth be told, the smell of Shochu reminds me of Japan – wherever I’m at. But this beverage will be the subject of a future blog post all its own!
Here are a few tasty beverages that were part of memorable moments;
You may be asking, “what is the point” of this Blog. Let me try to make a long story – short;
As a kid i always had some curiosity about other cultures, especially Japan. But it wasn’t until I was an adult, around the age of 25, that I took my first Japanese language class on a whim (at SBCC), and really enjoyed it. I ended up making few language partners who became life-long friends and further engaged my interest in the language and culture.
Then the trail kind of goes cold for a while. I had quit my job in technology, and went back to school for audio & video, and chased the dream of a career in the music industry. After going on to help make many amazing records, and still being quite broke – i met my future wife, who at the time had been living in the US for about 5 years.
Fast forward a few years, and we we’re married, with me in marketing as my primary career, with plenty of time spent with her amazing family in both the US and Japan.
Fast forward a few more years – Ive got two kids, and my Japanese language skills are still basic. But with a few Japan trips under my belt and a love for the Japanese countryside, the people, and the culture – the decision was made to move. Will my language skills ever be passable? Will my kids grow up truly bilingual? When will they pass me up? There are many questions .
The decision to move;
Seeing my son as a toddler enjoying the pristine countryside on a Japan trip, rather than having to prevent him from touching everything (like on a walk through Los Angeles) was certainly thought provoking. Yes – having a support system of family, rather than always “going it lone” in LA was a factor. But the “Aha!” moment was probably when seeing our son play at a Japanese pre-school, and how happy, and healthy he looked – It really got our brains working.
As humans we’re always looking for “what’s next” or the next challenge to overcome. Knowing that raising two kids in Los Angeles was not what we wanted for their younger years, we’ve opted for something different. Selling it all and starting over. The rest is details. But like everything – it all starts with making the decision.
I hope that you follow along with our experience.