I'm the Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet. We launch undiscovered consumer products. It's also the birthplace of Citizen Commerce. I write about design, cultural anthropology, and start-ups, mostly.

Real Deal Road Trip #13: Japan’s Hida region

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Disclaimer: If you’ve travelled extensively in Japan, skip this post.  I’m a novice, sharing some light observations from my second trip to the country.  But if you’ve never been to Japan and want to know what it is like to dive in to such experiences with little preparation, I have that cowgirl approach covered.

I was telling a friend about my trip last week and he suggested that if I ever write a book I should call it “Eating With Chopsticks.” This is because I described how I frantically practiced eating with chopsticks on the flight over.  Why?  Because the last time I was there, I sat across from the CEO of Rakuten at a fancy dinner, eating very little, because I could not get anything to my mouth.   He was amused and gave me the kind of lessons you would give a pre-schooler.  Since that trip five months ago, I’d vowed to do some private at-home practice but that little task never made it to my to-do list.  So there I was, speeding in the air to Tokyo doing remedial training.

“Eating with Chopsticks” is a good metaphor for much of my life lately.  I’m always making it up as I go, but acutely aware my survival or success also depends on it.

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For this business trip I flew over three days early and spent a gracious Labor Day weekend in the Hida region of Japan, four hours northwest of Tokyo.  It’s a rural, quiet area in the Japanese “alps.”  I understand it to be prized by Japanese people for its beauty, traditional architecture, and calm.  Afterwards, I also spent a couple days in Tokyo as well as three days in another mountainous area called Minikami, for a Rakuten executive camp.

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Here are the themes I noted:

  • Shoes are the root of all evil
  • Food:  it’s all in the combinations
  • Where are the people?

Shoes are the root of all evil

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I took this photo of my sandals where they usually were–not on my feet.  That whole “remove your shoes at the door” thing is pretty deep in Japan.  I noted looks of true alarm in the eyes of any hotel employee, colleague, or friend when I lumbered into a “clean room” unawares.  There is a whole lot of ritual around the removal, placement, and recovering of your shoes at an entryway:

  • Approach door or entry area
  • Spin around at edge of entrance
  • Gently remove shoes and place neatly facing “out” and side by side, for easy re-entry and contamination avoidance when you leave
  • Spin back around to enter room

All of this happens so quickly when Japanese people do it that it took me three days to realize it was happening.  My own shoes were awkwardly removed while sitting down, then left sprawled wherever they landed.  At first.

So in my sojourn, I was usually wearing a pair of communal slippers.  They were color coded for indoors, outdoors, men, women etc.  I got gentle guidance into the right combinations when I mistakenly grabbed “mens/outdoors” versions of slippers.

This is near the inn entry at my Hida “ryokan”.  You can see why you would not want to be trooping mud onto these pristine tatami mats.

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At one hotel-based business event I walked around barefoot, figuring that was OK because I was not wearing shoes.  I noticed I was causing consternation among my colleagues.  One of my Japanese board members explained, “We only go barefoot in private places like our homes.”  I answered, “Well I would tend to agree with that policy, but I’m not that eager to put on someone else’s slippers here at the hotel either.”  He assured me the hotel slippers are sanitized daily.  Ahh, so.

During the Executive Camp, the capstone event was climbing Mount Tanigawa, which I later learned is commonly called the “Mountain of Death.”  Why? It’s over 6,000 feet tall, rocky, and has experienced more hiking deaths than any other mountain, including Everest.

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Partway up our ascent we stopped, in all-day pouring rain, to eat lunch in a rustic hut.  Here, I figured, the whole shoe-removal thing would go out the window.  It was crowded, awkward, and we were wet, loaded down with gear, and in a lot of pain.  Surely hiking boots could enter.  Well, yes, they did.  But then they were promptly removed and stored before stepping up on the slightly elevated seating area.  I think Japanese people would remove their shoes before entering a burning building to save a baby.

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Food:  it’s all in the combinations

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Above is my first dinner on this trip.  It was pretty much indistinguishable from breakfast the next day.  I can manage the chopsticks now, but I’ve a very long way to go before I know anything much about Japanese food.  This, below, is what I did learn.

Just because you are confronted with a dizzying array of mostly tiny dishes:

  • You don’t have to consume them all.
  • You CAN gain weight eating them.  Don’t let the small size fool you.
  • The trick is in learning how to combine them.  Some items (garnishes, pickles, small fish) are really not so thrilling eaten alone but they sing in combination.  Especially with rice.  Below was a pretty breakfast starter assortment.

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Here’s part of what went with that breakfast, below.  A special local Hida miso paste grilled with spring onions on a real-live local leaf.  Eat this alone?  Silly.  Over rice?  Divine.

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I was mostly quite happy in my food explorations.

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Except when I was eating one too many grilled “sweet” river fish for breakfast. P1040371

I also was not really keen on consuming an entire little crab, shell and all.

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I did become a bit coffee-obsessed, as it was not served at breakfast at the traditional inns where I was staying.  In one remote area, with no car, I struck out by foot in the area and found this sign.  I decided the little symbol on the left meant “HOT COFFEE HERE AMERIKA-JIN.”  I followed it.  I did indeed find hot coffee, lovingly prepared (slow pour!) at a cool combination ceramics studio/restaurant!  It was a highlight moment.  I later found out that the symbol I thought I cleverly decoded actually means “onsen”, or hot mineral baths.

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I observed vegetables for sale twice in this kind of presentation.  Once it was even on the honor system, as the shop was closed for the day, but they left a box out for money.  I thought only overly-trusting Americans had those kind of systems.  It was heart-warming.

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Where are all the people?

Tokyo is a packed place so I kinda projected that state on the rest of the country.  I was wrong.  Everywhere else I travelled and observed (mostly from trains and buses) was so very empty.  It was like the haunting countryside scenes in the famous Japanese animation film “Spirited Away.”  The movie-version of deserted streets was sinister and I thought that the director used it for effect.  I now realize it might be based on reality.

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Some of this emptiness was in towns.

P1040321P1040329I figured people were just indoors or maybe I was walking around at special meal times.  But it surprised me more in the countryside–where I travelled at all hours of the day.  Since everybody devoted their landholdings to paddys of rice or vegetables (instead of lawns or other people-oriented plots), I figured children were scarce, or they played indoors, or the land just too valuable.  But I rarely saw people outside tending these neat agricultural holdings or doing anything else.  It just defied logic.  The gardens and fields were beautiful.  Someone had to take care of them!

P1040362I was very happy to meet this woman out maintaining her plot.  I stopped to chat with her (via translation) on a guided cycle tour.  She pressed MANY delicious cherry tomatoes on us.  This was one of many expressions of Japanese “Omotenoshi“, loosely translated as hospitality.  It’s a completely different culture of service than “the customer is always right” posture in the US.  It’s more about telepathically anticipating a person’s needs and desires so they don’t have to directly ask.  And it makes for an incredibly relaxing experience, even for a foreigner.

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I was also thrilled to be invited into this farmer’s house, remarkable for its architecture and age of 150 years.  In general the sense of space and grace in the country was remarkable.  This house seemed vast and minimally furnished.  But I did see giant plastic riding toys inside, for her grandchildren.

P1040358I think part of the explanation for my perceptions of an absence of people is that the Japanese seem to put a big premium on privacy.  In the two inns where I stayed my presence was managed separately from the other guests.  I rarely saw other people.  I was served my meals in a private room. Even in the communal mineral baths (of which I partook generously–both indoor and outdoors) there are various bathing and preparation rituals that do a nice job preserving a modicum of privacy from the other bathers.

Here’s a hallway in one of the inns.  Even though there were plenty of shoes at the door, I rarely heard or saw another guest.

P1040402An example outdoor onsen bath.  Divine.

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I reluctantly left that beautiful bath to head back to the bustle of the city.

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The 2020 Olympics Committee choice of Tokyo occurred on my last day in Japan.  I intend to be there, and I am sure there will be no shortage of people.

On my first trip to Tokyo I was happy to have survived and I wrote about it here.  When I read that blog post I can barely relate to the disorientation I expressed.  This trip made me so eager to go back and I feel lucky to know I already have that scheduled for January 1.

4 Responses to “Real Deal Road Trip #13: Japan’s Hida region”

  1. sunnymikkel

    Thanks for a GREAT Blog, you did well.
    I visited Japan a couple of times in the late 60’s as ports of call with the Navy. One incident in Sasabo was at a shoe shop. I went in to enquire about a pair of sandals I saw in the window. The employees all looked very unhappy, but did titter behind hands, as the Manager explained in broken English “that they were very very sorry but they had nothing as big as my size 12’s, Japanese feet are much smaller than American feet, we are so sorry.”

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Funny story! I think you’d still struggle to find a size 12 in Sasabo. I’m an average sized American woman and I feel giant in Japan. Too badsome of the clothes are great!

      Reply
  2. Vicky

    Got your link via Nora G. My husband and I are headed to Japan (Tokyo and Kyoto) late Oct/early Nov. Your blog is very informative, thanks so much!

    Reply

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