Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Magical Ice Lord Yushi

An ice demon approached me scowling and carrying a banner. He was dressed straight from the legends and smiled with too many teeth. I called my friends over only to find that they too had been confronted by one of these ice demons, their King in fact, the Magical Ice Lord Yushi!

But let me back track, you’re probably lost.

When the water molecule falls below 0 degrees Celcius (a convenient temperature to be sure) it begins to exhibit curious properties. When a people evolve around this molecule in its solid state, they too begin to exhibit quirks and curiosities of their own.

A curiosity of my own caused me to pile into a car to see this man named Yushi. I’d been told he eats bears, owns a mountain, and creates an ice forest every year. When invited, I always say yes to meeting people like this. My wife on the other hand, had no qualms about ignoring a Magical Ice Lord. When I asked Raquel if she wanted to join me, she simply chortled and snuggled deeper under our heated coffee table. 

The lake never knew what hit it... Because it's a lake.
So I crammed into a car with too many foreigners and away we went to meet a man on his mountain, stopping only to throw snowballs into a frozen lake.

The ice forest began ordinarily enough. There were trees, and snow on them! It didn’t really seem like the kind of place that a Magical Ice Lord would want to live, but around a bend were confronted with a wall of ice.

It was 5 meters tall, and had swallowed up birch and pine in its hunger to expand. It looked like the prototype for the wall built to keep out the white walkers. Alex and I proceeded to insult it.

Lord Yushi's Ice Forest.
“That’s ice all right.”

“Looks cold.”


I edged through the entry way into the festival proper. Nothing in Japan is free, but I’ve spent 300 yen in far worse ways. I once hiked 4 kilometers to find that the entrance to the sacred pond I sought cost 300 yen to enter (as in go past the fence not swim). I remember laughing at the foolish Japanese who’d approach the gate, peak around a corner, and leave, too cheap to shell out 3 coins! I paid the entrance and realized that yeah, it was just a stupid pond and I’d been ripped off. They didn’t even have none o’ dem fancy colored fish or tiny lil’ trees or nothin!

The ice forest was more impressive. It rose up on either side of snowy promenade for maybe a kilometer. Fathers dragged children on sleds, vendors sold roast fish, and tourists snapped pictures with Japanese White Walkers.

Eric introduced Yushi to me and like any good tourist I threw my arm around him and took a selfie. This was his family’s land, and every year the whole clan through this party and dressed up as beasts and priests and…a giant corncob? I looked to Nolico for an explanation but she only shrugged and mumbled something about this area growing good corn.

I swear, in Japan, everything and nothing is sacred. Here we were in this crazy winter realm, a land of demons and bears and ancient priests, and this dude was dressed up to hock corn. They weren’t even selling any corn! I don’t get it, but I guess I’m alone in this sentiment, for Alex giggled and asked if I’d take his picture with the stupid corn guy.

God he loved that corn...
I tried a new fish (always a highlight for me) and we all wandered around and took pictures until the sun went down and the cold set in. Lord Yushi saw us shivering and offered to let us use his hotel’s Onsen. That’s right, this mountain king even had his own volcanic hot tub. I nodded dumbly, this sounded too good to be true! And indeed it was, for though Lord Yushi was indeed generous, he was also hosting a festival and wasn’t really in the position to be giving guided tours. Instead he led us to the winter games.

Somehow Eric, Alex and I all ended up not only competing but in the same heat, even though most of the competitors were children or their grandparents. But with a grand prize of 3,000 yen on the way (about 30 bucks) we were not going to let those little bastards make off with our loot. So when told we had 60 seconds to stack a tray with as many hazelnuts as we could, we jostled for position as we neared the bucket of hazelnuts, and stacked those trays to the sky. I lost to Eric, but he was promptly beaten by some dumb kid’s mom.

Our heads hung low, we watched the rest of the competition until it was Nolico’s turn. She’d been watching the competition closely, and had quite the strategy for stacking nuts. She wobbled back with more hazelnuts in her tray than I thought possible. She ended up coming in second place! We patted her on the back and congratulated her until we found out that not only did she win 2,000 yen, every competitor received 500! We had drinking money! Alex struggled with the economics of it (“But how can they make money if they give away more than the entrance fee!?”) but when Nolico bought us hot sake he stopped complaining.

Maybe One day I'll be an Ice Lord too...
Everyone lined up to make mochi after that. To make mochi you smash perfectly good rice with an enormous hammer while a man dressed like priest kneads the dough between strikes. All the while an ice demon humps the person trying not to smash the preist’s fingers. I was shocked everyone in Lord Yushi’s family still had all their fingers. Mochi hasn’t really made the jump to America. I’m not sure why, It translates roughly to fucking-disgusting-rice-goo-that’s-impossible-to-chew-and-even-harder-to-swallow. But most people seem to like it.

Humped and tired, we knew it was time to leave when the band (playing on a stage made of ice) started playing a jazzy rendition of “let it Go” on saxophone. I made awful puns about “the cold not bothering me anyway” until actually it did start to bother me and we got in the car and drove home, happy to have a designated driver, and happier to have heat.




Tuesday, February 17, 2015


A good friend of mine once said that the cold is awful, but at least there’s winter sports. In other words, to survive it, embrace it. With this in mind I eagerly accepted an invitation to go snowboarding for the first time. 
If this uncoordinated fool can snowboard, you can too!

And eager doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. I’ve always been one to get overly excited. The night before catching a plane, or even the first day of school, I can hardly sleep. I wake every a few hours only to find that alas, it’s not yet time to make coffee.
The anticipation of snowboarding definitely fell on my excited spectrum. I went to bed at ten; we were to meet at seven am, and I had to get my rest! I woke a few times and always fell back into restless dreams of snowboarding in Colorado with my brother (an event that’s never happened). I had gotten out of bed, eaten coffee and drunk my breakfast by 6:15, only to realize that 6:15 is too early for even me to eat anything. Undeterred, I fixed my wife a cup of coffee and lured her out of bed. I spent the next ten minutes dressing and undressing (though I’d already laid out my clothes the night before) polishing my goggles, and going over what little I knew about snowboarding from youtube. 

Raquel finally came downstairs and drove me to McDonald’s. I bid her farewell in the parking lot and proceeded to chatter inanely to Steve while he drove us up a mountain through his hangover.

We found the slopes nearly deserted. There were maybe 5 other people braving the early morning cold. Excellent I thought, no one to embarrass myself in front of.  We marched into the ski lodge and I demanded the largest boots they had. They fit- barely, and with a nod and a Daijobu to my instructor, I was ready.

Fukushima-san was always encouraging.
A note on my instructor. Steve introduced him as “Fukushima, like the nuclear meltdown.” Fukushima-san had patient eyes, and just a touch of gray hair that poked out from his ski cap. His snowboard though, was what held my attention. It was hardly wider than a ski, as tall as he was, and black as obsidian. It looked like a super villain’s snowboard, or perhaps something made to surf the rings of Saturn. I looked at my own fat red rental with relief. His board gave me motion sickness just looking at it.

We went to face the mountain.

“Skate?” Fukushima-san asked me and I tried to mumble an excuse that would both make my soon to be obvious lack of snowboarding skills understandable yet explain why I was willing to go snowboarding when most people were still asleep under electric blankets.

I went with, “not really for a while… er… ever.”

It seemed to have the desired effect because he showed me how to strap in my boots, and pushed off across the flats, using one leg to propel him every few meters, then balancing on his board until he slowed down. I looked at Steve and tried to explain myself but he just laughed, “Yeah I hate this shit.” He skated away on his board with a bit less grace than Fukushima-san.

I half-slid, half stumbled after them, and was relieved to find that unlike skateboarding, snowboards can’t shoot out from under you and roll off into a busy street, instead they bring you down with them. But the snow was soft, and after a few slips I was at the bottom of a shallow hill. Fukushima-san was already at the top, Steve was tromping up after him, using the edge of his board to dig into the slope. I followed, already breathing heavy, yet when I got to the top, my heart truly began to race.

They had brought me to the ski lift.
This can’t be right! Where’s the bunny slope?

“This is the bunny slope,” Steve said and shuffled after Fukushima-san who’d already boarded a lift and was rising up the mountain into the growing blizzard.
I stumbled after Steve and managed to get next to him before the ski lift hit me in the butt and I crashed down next to Steve.

“Careful to lift the nose of your board up. If it gets caught you’ll get sucked off the lift and bust your ass.”

I lifted the nose of my board up.
After a frightening five minute ride, we disembarked and I tried not to get smashed by the ski lift. The whole day nothing was more difficult than getting on and off that cursed ski lift. It’s the adult version of those rotating gates at swimming pools that kids can exit through but not enter. I kept imaging myself twisted and mangled, hanging from the wires, my blood forming red icicles, and going up and down the bunny slope for a frozen eternity. 

By the time I shuffled over to the top of the hill, I was actually ready to snowboard. Anything seemed better than that damn ski lift. 

I kept my board perpendicular to the slope and slowly eased forward off the edge, and, just like that I was snowboarding! I coasted maybe 20 meters before plopping on my ass. This was fun! And just by slightly adjusting the angle I could go faster! Why didn’t anyone tell me how easy this was? Steve boarded up next to me and offered a pat on the back, and Fukushima came over and gave me an encouraging thumbs up. I noticed he still hadn’t strapped his one of his feet into his board, though.
I pointed the nose of my board down the hill and WHOOSH! Away I went. Faster and faster I plummeted, only to realize that I didn’t really know how to stop. In an effort to not create a sonic boom and cause an avalanche I turned my board perpendicular to the mountain and….
YEEEAAAARRRRHH!! I tumbled head over heels down the mountainside. Eventually coming to a rest within earshot of Steve laughing maniacally. Fukushima-san boarded over, still with only one foot strapped in, and said only, “slower, like a falling leaf!” and thus I was a snowboarder.

We went down the bunny slope again and again. I learned to dig my heels in to brake, to cruise back and forth across the width of the slope to keep my speed down and to always, ALWAYS fall on my butt and not on my face. We even tried the course on the other side of the ski lift, and though terrifying, I managed to bridge the thick powder, avoid the ski lift poles, and get back to main course without hurting myself too bad. I was a natural! I was born to do this! Not since Tonyhawk’s Proskater had I found a sport that suited me so well! Sure, the ski lift still terrified me, children were skiing circles around me, and I could only ride on the backside of the snowboard and never the dreaded frontside, but that would all come in another fifteen minutes!

I was so sure of my natural aptitude that when Steve suggested we go to the higher (aka highest) slope I didn’t protest, not even when Fukushima-san looked at Steve then back to me and said, “crazy,” did I protest. I knew how to stop, how bad could it be?
The much taller and more terrifying slope,
complete with slalom course.
Ten minutes on a nearly abandoned ski lift and I was quaking in my ski boots. I had just seen a snowboarder plunge off the top of the hill and vanish. Like, literally. One second, he was there, real as the cold, then he pushed off and was gone. He reappeared seconds later, a tiny blur at the bottom of a long steep hill.

Fukushima-san gave me a thumbs up and I asked to see him go first. Mistake. He vanished just like the last guy, to appear as an even faster blur even farther down the mountain.
That obsidian board of his was really something. I was beginning to wonder if I could put sandpaper on mine.
But with a nod from Steve I plunged onto the course. Well, maybe not plunged. More like kept the back of my board dug into the thick snow, and slowly slid down the mountain. We’re talking glacial speeds. Not my finest moment. People skied past, a lot of people. Hey at least I was giving the pros an obstacle. But the hill started to flatten out, my confidence returned, and away I went, not really trying to keep up with the blur that was Fukushima-san, but at least staying close enough to be seen if I crashed.

We came to an even smaller and more precarious ski lift than the last, and rode it back to the top of the insane slope. This time I accepted that I would go down the mountain slower than thawing snow and actually enjoyed myself.  Steve and I traded places as we boarded in and out of each other’s paths, Fukushima-san raced through a thick layer of fresh powder and I followed, then pulled ahead, eager to impress my teacher, only to discover that snowboarding through thick fresh powder looks way cooler than it actually is.
I crashed, and found the snow had molded itself perfectly to my body. Try as I might, I couldn’t get up. I looked up to find I’d crashed directly under the ski lift, and people were either awkwardly avoiding looking at me (in japan, sometimes I can taste the awkward) or just laughing their ass off at the giant westerner who’d stuck himself in the snow. I struggled and thrashed but could not move. I’d push myself into a sitting position, only to have the snow collapse and engulf me yet again. Fukushima-san couldn’t stop laughing and Steve was demanding I give him my phone to take a picture. I should’ve, but I didn’t see how I could possibly reach it without sinking deeper. Finally Steve offered me a corner of his board, I unlatched a boot from my own board, and pushed off Steve to half-crawl, half-drag myself free of the snow. I was steaming with sweat, my glasses were fogged, my breathing labored. Fukushima-san and Steve queued up for the lift, and I shook my head.

I couldn’t do it.

Steve nodded and told Fukushima-san they’d do a few more runs than meet me back at the lodge. I nodded, pretending I understood the Japanese and not just Steve’s look of pity when I asked the way back.

Fukushima-san pointed to a narrow path before me that zigzagged through the woods.

It would have been beautiful if I wasn’t so exhausted and terrified I’d find myself in another snow drift. The path was almost empty, and had gentle slopes that connected flat stretches of fresh snow. I boarded back and forth, my thighs burning, stopping at the beginning of each slope so I wouldn’t have to skate through the flats. Old men skied past with their grandchildren. Snowboarding babes tried not to giggle while they asked if I was alright. I’d nod and give ‘em all a daijobu and push on.

Thus, I was a snowboarder.
I finally found my way back to the lodge, unstrapped my board and drank some Sports Sweat, as the athletes do here in Japan. Steve and Fukushima-san showed up a while later and we feasted on ramen and hot coffee from a vending machine before trying to bunny slope a final time. 

I managed to make it down with only falling twice, a personal best, but the second time I fell forward so hard my head spun, and when Steve told me he didn’t usually like to go back out after lunch I nodded weakly, blamed the early afternoon crowds for compacting the snow and making it more difficult, and bowed my thanks to Fukushima-san. 

He told me to call him if I ever want to go snowboarding again. Kind words, I thought, until I remembered how hard he’d laughed when I was stuck in the snow. Anything to break up the monotony of winter I suppose, and nothing warms the heart like laughter. 

 J. Darris Mitchell lives in Takayama Japan with his darling wife, and is waiting for the snow to melt. If you enjoyed this post check out the rest of what he did in January!  

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The Missing

With three months left in Japan, I’m already starting to wonder what I’ll miss. The people are what I miss most about the States (except for Gray Wind) and I imagine that’s what I’ll miss most about Japan. Only so many weekends are left of drinking at the Greatest Bar on Earth or falling asleep under Eric and Nolico’s kotatsu (a coffee table equipped with a built in heater and a blanket that I never want to leave behind even though it’s next to useless in Texas). I finally went snowboarding (more on that next week) so there’s not much left on my bucket list.

Instead I’m left to wonder what I’ll miss the most. I think it’ll probably be the little things. Of course it’d be easy to say the sushi and the seasons (though I won’t miss the cold) but I think it’s all the minute strangeness of Japan that has worked its way into me.

I imagine I’ll miss walking into businesses. Every one greets you with shouts of “Sumimasen” and says goodbye with deep bows and cries of “arigatoa gozaimasta,” even if you leave having only purchased a bottle of cheap whiskey and a package of horrid gummy candy.

I won’t miss that when returning a movie late can almost shut down an entire store. A day before, they’d called to tell us we’d accrued 500yen in late fees, or about 5 bucks. Undeterred by this amount we ventured back to the store for more movies (there’s not much to do when it gets dark at 5:00) only to cause the checkout girl to suffer a panic attack. She scanned our card, saw something awful flash on the screen, and malfunctioned. She looked from the screen to us and back again, unsure of how to proceed. Her manager noticed her plight and came to her rescue, but he too had to consult a clipboard with a handful of violators on it and had to enter an override code before the computer and the check out girl self-destructed. To think, in Austin they just asked us to pay it down to 8 dollars.

I won’t miss the snow, but I’ll probably miss the way it brings together the community. I never felt the sense of community to be terribly genuine in my neighborhood in the States. It seemed our relationship as neighbors revolved around keeping the front yard looking trim, an activity that always felt a waste of time to me. Why grow it at all if only to cut it back? It’s not like people were playing soccer on it. Mowing the lawn is truly a Sisyphean task; shoveling snow is no less repetitive, but it’s much more useful. If I don’t shovel out my car, I can’t leave the house, and besides that, I never had a neighbor mow my lawn for me or smile if I decided to mow theirs. Here, all the sixty year olds and I take turns unclogging the creek bed from the snow our insane landlord dumps into it. My neighbors know that my car may not be shoveled out as early as theirs, but by god I’ll clean the lines between our parking spots before they get home.

I doubt I’ll miss being in a land with a language I don’t understand, but even that has its advantages. It’s easy to read on busses, for no snippet of conversation will distract me, and I can speak freely anywhere and about anything I like. True, some Japanese speak English well enough to understand my complaints about the texture of the raw shrimp or boiled squid, but they’re so damn polite they’d never confess and embarrass me. Not even when discussing lingerie with my wife in department store did the little old lady my wife had been talking to in English for the last twenty minutes bother to tell me she understood every perverted word that left my mouth.

There’s a thousand other little thing I may miss: bowing instead of shaking hands (weird), NEVER tipping (awesome), the thousands of men’s hairstyles as diverse as tropical birds (strange considering women’s single hairstyle: long), women wearing short skirts under the down jackets even though it’s snowing, men shoveling snow and scrubbing windows in business suits, sitting on the floor at a fancy restaurant, udon for breakfast, and on and on.

Yet who can say what will stick? There’s dozens of things I’ve already forgotten about in the States that during the first month seemed barbaric to go without.

What I still miss about Austin is the people. My hippie parents, my hippier sister, Raquel’s mom’s cooking and her dad’s made up words, her sister and her boyfriend and their outrageously delicious hipster meals, drinking beer with Tam and Cole, playing D&D with Mike at his corporate headquarters, talking chickens with Organ, Mitch and Robyn and their baby who won’t be a baby by the time we get back. I miss y’all and so many more so much. I can’t wait to be back to see everyone (especially Grey Wind), yet each day closer to seeing you means a day less with the people here. 
So I must be strong and talk aliens and God with Chaba, hoist penis effigies with Steve, pick Kensei’s brain for the origins of rock and roll, and tag along to Nolico’s parties always drinking and talking, drinking and talking with Eric and Alex, for my time is short, and I don’t want to waste a moment of it.

J. Darris Mitchell will live in Takayama, Japan for a while yet. If you enjoyed this post please share with the people you like sharing with.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Perils of Not Speaking Japanese.

Six months in japan and I have my regrets about moving here from Texas. I suppose it’s to be expected, after all my wife and I picked Asia because it would be different-whatever we thought that meant, and different it proved to be.  

My friend Cole once said, “Japan is different down to the smallest detail, but the big picture is the same.” Wise words. Truly descriptive of being in a land where people pay handsomely for bar-b-q’d chicken skin yet balk at the idea of eating eggs and god forbid- not rice- for breakfast.

However my friend Tam noticed something else about Japan, “The language is different.”

Truer words were never spoken.

The Japanese language is not easy. There are two alphabets, one for local words and one for imports, plus thousands of Chinese pictographs called Kanji that are said to possess some sort of logic that eludes me. And then there’s the pronunciation. Syllables almost always have two parts, a consonant sound followed by a vowel sound, and if that pattern is not respected, my words are not understood. It’s Ka-zu-ki not Kaz-u-ki, ya foreigner!

And thus my knowledge of the language has been laid before you in its entirety. I understand less than little. I have kindergarten students who speak better English than my Japanese. I can read the numbers on cash registers and nod during appropriate points in conversation (hint-nod when the speaker frowns, laugh when they smile) so people think I can survive here, but this is a farce that has worn through. Already the cashiers see me for the liar than I am. Even if I pay and nod at the proper times and smile my most competent smile, they always give the receipt to Raquel.

Not speaking the language of the locals is awkward at best, and terrifying at worst. If I’m lucky, and with some of my friends who do speak English, they’re cursed to translate everything I say until the group eventually splits in two, those who want to talk English with Joe the bearded fool and those who don’t. If I’m without such lifelines, not speaking Japanese can be truly terrifying, like when the bus driver doesn’t turn of the PA system on the bus and mutters under his breath for miles without anyone getting up to stop him. I realized then, that he could be threatening his passengers, telling us all to remain quiet or he’d drive us off a cliff, or he could be worshipping the benevolent supreme god of kittens and I wouldn’t have a clue.

After being here for six months, I dread meeting new people, Japanese or not, for they always ask the same question: “How’s your japanese?”

It’s not. It doesn’t. Its existence is negative. As in no, I can’t speak a lick. I can’t read it, write it, or anything else. The only thing worse than my Japanese is some of my students English.

I must have invoked the wrath of the Japanese god of language, for my last six weeks of teaching English been saddled with 3 extra classes each week, each with a group of students with more abysmal English than the last.

Please don’t misunderstand, not all Japanese speak bad English (I wouldn’t survive here if not for them) but, much like myself, some just don’t have the touch of tongues (my japanese is so bad when I try to speak a word of it to my six year old students they laugh and heckle me).

This week I asked a new student, “How are you?” to be answered with panicked breathes, wide eyes and “mudi-mudi-mudi-mudi-mudi-mudi!” Or “impossible-impossible-impossible-etc-until-your-breath-runs-out.” I mean, my japanese is bad, but I can at least say “Genki-des” at the appropriate point in conversation (though I’m probably saying that wrong too).

Another group of adults panicked when, I asked them to repeat pairs of difficult sounds. I separated “L” and “R” into distinct sounds, made in entirely different parts of my mouth. They looked as if I was asking them to make paper cranes out of starburst wrappers using only their tongue. They attempted to repeat the throaty and guttural, “R” and the tongue-titilating “L” and were met with only by my unenthusiastic support (its hard to fake being impressed when you see a group of grown men bite their bottom lip and attempt to make a ‘v’ sound only to spray saliva all over eachother). No one enjoyed those moments, except maybe the same god who likes watching me suffer any time I introduce my wife “Raquel” (there’s an L and R for those counting) to blank confused stares.

So, yeah, I have my regrets. Language is a big deal, and hard to get around. Not speaking the local language is a serious handicap, and has made me appreciate those who do speak my language. And yet, the very ability that I treasure in them, dooms me to not learning Japanese and not being able to speak with anyone else.
Aw well, as they say in Japan, mudi-mudi-mudi-mudi-mudi.