Monday, December 7, 2009

Hello America...Good Bye Tokyo and Bangkok

Hello everyone. I am back in the good ole United States of America. Please stay tuned for stories of the adventures that happened during my three week backpacking excursion through Southeast Asia.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Tokyo is Japan's biggest city, home to over 12 million people, and recently claimed the title of most expensive city to live in. The big city is one of the few fashion capitals of the world, which is overly prevalent to locals and tourists alike, as they travel around to its many shops and boutiques.  The pace of the city is underestimated at a million miles a minute and the amount of people crammed into one city is at times overwhelming and unreal. Tokyo is also home to "so much plastic shiny shit" as Betsy's mom eloquently exclaimed as we ventured through the infamous electronics block which houses anything from spare parts for your Easy Bake Oven to arcades with wall to wall claw games.

My first taste of Tokyo was at Shinjuku Station which is the busiest subway station in the world. Everyday over 4 million people pass through the station and Betsy and I quickly became simply another statistic. Navigating the subway labyrinth is a unique skill in which luck, knowledge and insanity go hand in hand. The subway is at Tokyo's core, running miles upon miles beneath the concrete metropolis and became a intellectual game to Bets and I. (Betsy was obviously the brains of our operation.)

Our time in Tokyo seems now to be a blur. We were in the city limits for less than 48 hours yet saw all there is to see (minus the famous fish market which is scheduled for our return visit). We were fortune enough to get to go on a paid bus tour of Tokyo and thus we were able to take in more than the average tourist. Our first stop was Tokyo Tower which is identical to the Eiffel Tower except orange and ten meters taller. Following that fantastic view, the tour took us to a huge Shinto Shrine which was an amazing tribute to creation and mother nature and then to the Imperial Palace where Japan's emperor and empress live by themselves.  I should note that the palace is twice the size of the White House estate and the emperor holds no political power whatsoever. The rest of the tour included; a pearl demonstration, a Buddhist Temple and the electronics block. While in Tokyo, we also got to see Mt. Fuji from the Tokyo Government Building's 45th floor, a national park's beauty of the fall and the famous Ginza shopping district (which closes its streets on the weekend to make it the "shoppers' paradise!")

Tokyo was an experience and a half. Constant movement is the best way to describe its flow and feeling. Upon returning home to the small mountain village of Norikura, I felt oddly at peace in such a remote location yet missed the city's fervor and spirit. I would venture to say that one would go crazy living so close to so many people and moving at the rate at which they move but 12 million people do it everyday... my hat is off to them. See ya, wouldn't want to be ya.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Camp Program

Northstar is an adventure lodge that attracts many different kinds of people and groups and for the past month campers have been mainly high schoolers from around Japan. Schools come to Northstar for a unique experience of studying English in the midst of an "extreme" environment. The environment we create is a unique one to Japan and brings about an "aloha" community as service is blended with outdoor activities and fun.

Campers arrive by bus and after an energetic greeting by our staff, initiative games commence. Games include; four point tag, tank commander, mine field, human knot and lots lots more. These games are aimed at teaching lessons of communication and teamwork while simply having a blast with friends. Following initiative games, Kayo (our resident chef) whips up a delicious meal with international flavor. At night, campers enjoy jumping on the trampoline in the main lobby, playing ping-pong or fuse-ball in our game room or catching the latest snowboarding movie in the lounge. Kids usually play into the night and their voices can be heard long after the call for mandatory lights out at 10:30pm.

The following day the schedule is as follows; breakfast, adventure activity, lunch, adventure activity, free time, dinner and then s'mores and bonfire. It is a full day of fun. Adventure activities are led by the Northstar staff and include mountain biking, river hiking, hiking, rock climbing, tyrollean traversing and rogaining. Kids choose two activities and then are lead on the three hour adventure by us (adventure staff).

Days are long and filled with nonstop movement of serving, playing, cleaning, instructing and hanging out with our newly made friends. Days are 12 hours plus but the reward is great and worth it. The reward is smiling faces as kids leave and exclamations of having had the best couple of days of their lives are heard. God is moving here at Northstar and is at the heart of everything we do. The amazing attitudes and service shown in the face of "lost in translation" type situations and endless service are all testaments to God at work in all the N* Staff's lives.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A couple days ago, Betsy (Northstar Staff) and I took off on a trek that would lead us onto the busy and sometimes backwards roads of Japan and eventually to the top of one of the most spectacular peaks in the world, Mount Fuji. Mount Fuji stands 12,388 feet in elevation and is not only an active volcano but also Japan's most recognizable symbol. Fuji is known for its symmetrical cone and is "the" place to see while visiting Japan.
So with the day off, the sun shining and the sounds of Donavon and Bob Marley in the air, the two of us hopped in the little Pajero (a tiny jeep like thing that the Japanese refer to as a car) and the journey began. With the unknown before us, our minds danced in the realm of possibility and promise as our cares of work turned into reservations to play. The roadie did not take long; a little over three hours after leaving Northstar, we got our first glance at the monstrous peak known as Fuji while still many miles away. Excitement reigned supreme and carry us carefree to the base where we slept in a parking lot for the night. 

An alpine start of four a.m. was appropriated, as hopes dreamed were now within our grasps. Hitting the first trail head with only the glow of our head lamps to lead the way, our strategy was simple . . . just keep going up. And up we went. Up and up and up. Fuji proved to be one of the most demanding hikes I have ever been on. However with every step up in elevation, the view and perspective on the world below began to change. A change almost indescribable. A change that left the norm behind and rose above the earth and the clouds into a whole other world. A world where clouds swayed at your feet and the eye could only see beauty in the form of silhouetted peaks piercing the clouds that were now your carpet. A world where vision was not restricted by buildings or bends but rather only by the limit of your God given ability. Lakes seen from above took on a majestic ancient feel as the changing of the colors was defined clearly in the new oranges, reds and yellows that blanketed Fuji's base.

The top of Fuji was awe-inspiring while demanding respect. The elements intensified as Mother Nature seemed disturbed by our conquering of the constant uphill opponent. Winds whipped, rains rages and feeling numbed causing the celebration of discovery and success to be short lived and coldly appreciated. Looking back now, Mount Fuji is a memory I will take with me forever. The antics, the hardships and the friendships experienced from this adventure were worth every step up and every step down.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Breaking of the Chopsticks..."hello peer pressure!"

 Seiya "Big Devastation" Harada and Mark "Little Spoon" Spiegel "Dont Wanna Miss A Thing"

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Mushroom P.A.R.T.Y.

Yesterday the seasonal staff and I went on a very important mission that was both culturally educational and critically important to the night's festivities. We went hunting for mushrooms! Scouring the Norikura mountainsides with only a plastic bag, our will for adventure and resident mountain man and mushroom sensai, Reicho-san. Reicho-san greeted us with the ever-so popular head bow but there was something different about this one. If there is love at first site, then maybe there is BFF at first bow, (foreshadowing) and after Reicho-san's first glance at my skinny jeans he exclaimed in a rather frantically humorous tone "your underwear is going to get wet!" This was translated of course because Reicho-san, being Japan's Father Time as well as Father Nature, does not speak any English except for ok (said alongside the appropriate sign language learned from Buckwheat of the Little Rascals)

So off we went; following this relative stranger into the wild with the hope of mushroom magic outweighing the fear of wet under-roos. If slow and steady wins the race, then Reicho-san must be undefeated. Our patience did payoff however as mushrooms the size of rabbit heads began to fill the plastic bags like Tad Hamilton at Piggly Wiggly. The search went as follows;
 discovery of a mushroom...
a question like "Reicho-san what about this one?...
the response sounding an awful a alot like "damn it" followed by a disgusted head shake...
or an enthusiastic "ok"...
This went on for three glorious hours. In the rain.

Fast forward two hours and move locations from the mountains to Reicho-san's lodge and the party really begins. A traditional Japanese dinner, including mountainous veggies, saki, donut sticks, peanuts, salad, dried fish, mushroom stew, beer, karaoke remote, wine, oranges, hot dogs, apples, asian pears and grapes of all colors, all displayed on a table no taller than a wiener dog, was prepared. The table is strategically and brilliantly designed to decrease comfort and increase groin soreness.  All of Northstar staff gathered for the seasonal feast and after a blessing, the revelry and singing began.

It started with the invention of karaoke in 1910 by Alexander Karok in Belgium and ended last night with the local strays howling along as many American classics were covered, butchered and screeched. In the lot were Elton John's "Tiny Dancer", Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise" and the always infamous "Sexy Back" by JT.  Duets Seiya Harada and yours truly stole the show and hearts with a Japanese'ie rendition of Armageddon's love song "I Dont Wanna Miss a Thing!"

As the staff headed home for much needed slumber, Pappa Reicho and I bonded as "gang bei" (aka cheers) was turned to 11 and on repeat; lost in translation took on a whole new meaning. His Japanese and my English were no match for true friendship. After more drinks, more off key singing and more antics, Reicho-san called me a bear, stole my beanie and danced with me to "Sexy Back" sealing our fate as "brothers from different mothers."

Confusion only happened when I tried to leave and he insistently said "NO" along with 150 other Japanese words.  David Bowie's labyrinth of languages was made straight after Michai, fellow staff, informed me that Reicho-san was inviting me over to stay the night. We have video of this whole interaction. It is an emphatic yelling of "slumber party" followed by an overly friendly embrace of a village elder, who has probably forgotten more about life than I will ever know, and a American mountain man who allegedly looks like a bear.

Here's to new experiences, new traditions and new friendships... Gang Bei!!!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009




Monday, Northstar was home to our first annual Livestrong Century Challenge. The race covered 100 miles and had four major climbs. The weather changed as often as the elevation, but at the end of the day only 10 riders persevered through the elements and the miles to claim victory. Stokley, an American rider from a military base, was overheard saying "this was the hardest damn race I have ever ridden. Those climbs were epic. And this is what I do."
          The race/ride is meant for more than just completing 100 miles; it is a way to lend support for the fight against cancer. On the eve of the event, Dan Junker (head boss at Northstar) gave a tear jerking speech about his victory over cancer and the effects it has had on not only his life but those nearest and dearest his heart. He explained a country afraid or embarrassed to speak up if cancer was present and further stated that the Livestrong challenge was about the fight. "Because if you fight for something, you usually think you have a chance to win. And in that case there is hope. Hope is what we all need. I want to LIVE and I want to HOPE." Dan's story is one of inspiration and hope. His words brought memories of loved ones with cancer, who are still fighting or have passed away, to the forefront of our hearts;  prayers, thoughts and tears were shared by all. Cancer is being fought and I am stoked to be apart of the movement.

We believe that unity is strength, knowledge is power and attitude is everything. (LAF)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Just another week in Japan

*The star of this movie, the little stud with glasses, has a close up at 3:10...I would encourage you to tune in to see poetry in motion.

My Week
Undokai (aka sports day) is a Japanese tradition that is celebrated all throughout the country. Towns, cities, villages gather to support the youth as they "compete" and show off their many talents. Compete is quote unquote because as Dan put it, "Japanese love ties. Because then no one has to fall on their sword." (or something along those line) I laughed and said Americans hate ties because it is like kissing your sister. Then we all laughed an equal amount :) Events of the Undokai were as follows: relay race with too many parts to it to explain, sprint medley, whole city tug-o-war, traditional Japanese dances and cheers and the crowd favorite... MUSICAL CHAIRS. This year was a true cinderella story as a third grader took out the overhyped and highly qualified (last years champ) Mayor of Norikura. However, in Japan no one is a loser. Participants received prizing for simply showing up. The Mayor went home with saran wrap and a chink in his armor.

The rest of the week paled in comparison but was not too bad. My days were filled with running in the mornings, climbing in the mid mornings, mountain biking and hiking in the afternoons and adventure movie watching at night. So basically I played outside the large majority of the week. When I was not playing/working outside, Seiya and I performed maintenance on the snowboard park elements and cleaned toilets. I LOVE WHAT I DO.

Other highlights from the week...
*hiking to a stinking sweet waterfall
*local bouldering night at northstar
*dance parties
*teaching/playing ninja
*sharing my life story
*learning to drive a manual on the wrong side
*Seiya singing Taylor Swift daily

Big ups to the Mules and Jennies holdin it down in the 'Burg with a little Japanese steeze!


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Monday, September 14, 2009

Motsumoto and back.

Britney Spears' Oops I did it Again was blaring in the van, we adoringly refer to as new white, as the following exchange took place between me and Michai. "Do you know the muffin man?" asked yours truly. Michai responded with utter confusion "the muffin man?" As I giggled I continued the nursery tale with much anticipation. "Yes, the muffin man." "Who or what is this muffin man?" "He lives on Drury Lane." With a look of confusion that only comes at the aid of cultural and language barriers, Michai summoned the rest of the bus for help; "do you guys know this muffin man? What is a muffin man? Is it a Mr. Muffin Man?" Ha Ha Ha. We spent the next ten minutes quoting Shrek and trying to bridge the gap of confusion. The bridge was built impressively but was later turn done after I brought up the fatal infectious disease of "cooties!"

The trip from Norikura (which is where Northstar is) to Motsumoto took about an hour. Along the way, Kanya, Taylor Swift and 3OH!3 rattled the speakers as we passed rice fields and the breathtaking Japan Alps. Out the other window we could see monkeys (saru) taking a recess, turning cable lines and telephones into a jungle gym of amusement. Being American, I freaked and did a little monkey dance but was made fun of by my new Japanese friends who calmly said "its just a monkey. They are everywhere." It is my prayer that those words never come out of my mouth.

Motsumoto, a city of 500,000, was shiny and distracting. Cars, people and advertisements competed for my attention. The first victor was a sushi place that may be THE GREATEST SUSHI in the world. The atmosphere was super fun with "hello kitty" apparel as the star. Woot Woot. Here comes the sushi train. Plates floated by us with relative ease while we drooled over the saucers of unknown tastes and origins. Shrimp, Eel, Squid, Sea Shell, Tuna, Clam added to rice, sprinkled with heaven and wrapped in love, were not only on the menu but available in large quantities. Seiya, Brad and I took full advantage of this advantageous fact.  Digestion was a cinch. We allowed the full body massage chairs to do most of the work with "rodeo boy III" finishing the job.

**It should be noted that Rodeo Boy is a machine that simulates riding a bull and is efficient at attacking those pesky love handles. It also makes for a good laugh.

Grocery store for milk tea, Starbucks (not me) for coffee and then off to do as the natives do.  Procuring local shops that were home to hilarious hats and grammatically incorrect t-shirts. We capped the day off with a stunt walking sesh' in front of the eight story clothing mall (Seiya said the mall was just like Target. Seiya is a liar.) The rail sesh' consisted of Brad, Seiya and myself balancing and tricking on a bendy rail about twenty feet long. The joy was cut short as an even shorter bowing machine, known as the mall cop, confidently crept out to do his job of policing the fun. I then asked Seiya if he smelled bacon but the humor was lost to Japanese ears.

Please check in for video highlights in the near future!

* Shout out to my little bro Scotty and all the other mules who are solidifying the base.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Piece Signs and Head Bows.

To survive in a foreign land it is wise to quickly learn a few catch phrases, movements and to be overall vigilant, doing as the natives do. . .

Here are my notes on research I have been gathering in Japan for the last five days. . .

1. Though counterintuitive, one peace is never enough. If you ever find yourself in a quick fix, (aka a picture of you as ready to be taken) please remember the old adages "one is the loneliest number that you'll ever see" and "say cheese". If you can remember these you will fit in quickly. Two fingers are better than one. More peace is better than one peace. And never forget to ham it up with a cheese-ball grin.

2. When spoken to, repetition and redundancy are your friend. When spoken to, repetition and redundancy are your friend.  Take this to the bank. If a Japanese person speaks to you, bow and say hai (pronounced hi). Thats it. Please do not be fooled by the overwhelming speed and strength of their words. Stick to what works. Head bows and "hai's!"

3.  Please refer to suggestions one and two.

I will continue to rigorously dissect the Japanese culture and language in an attempt to add a fourth step for you all but until then please stick to the basics.

* i have attached two photos to further prove my point. which one looks more japanese? Betsy was close but forget to give peace a chance.

**while driving in Japan, there is no left or right turn on red. Just stop. It makes for a less interesting story but is much safer in the long run.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Simple Things.

So this morning at our daily devotional, Northstar's fearless and ever energetic leader Dan encouraged and inspired us, as he touched on death, regret and the simplicity of celebration. He shared about the hardships of his last twelve months and wanted to elaborate on his learnings from his intimate relationship with death.   Here is a synopsis of the simple truths that have rocked my world and created a refocus and change in my point of view over the last thirteen hours and counting.

"Death shows us who we are and what our priorities are." - Dan Junker

The most important thing in life is our Lord. And in that, our attention down the line or to the future is useless or even unwarranted because "this is the day the Lord has made..." and tomorrow is not guarunteed. There is no guarantee except for the moment we are living in right now. So rejoice in that. Celebrate these little moments because combined they become the big ones in life. Reflect, slow down and TAKE A BREATH.  Dan claimed it to be an amazing thing to be alive so remember its a gift from God and we should live accordingly.

His main point is this... LOVE, LIVE and CELEBRATE. Do not let life pass you by. Be the person today, you have always wanted to be tomorrow. Forgive. Dance and sing and laugh more. Watch less TV and go on more walks and bike rides. Drink more coffee with friends and play more board games with family. It is this moment that matters. It is the ones you love and the little joys in life that make it all worth while. Tell them, hug them and even celebrate them. LIVE LIFE!

QUOTE of the Day: "Oh yeah its the Tokyo banana" - Me  "The what???" -Mitchie   "You know, its pretty much a glorified twinkie!" -Me  "Aaaaaa pinky?" - Mitchie (as she motions to his littlest finger)  " hahaha no no no a TWINKIE not a PINKIE!" -Me

Monday, September 7, 2009

Japan or Bust...

The flights were all for the most part uneventful. Kansas City to Chicago. Chicago to Seattle. And Seattle to Tokyo. Highlights include; meeting a military man named Bryan who just happened to be a crossword genius, sitting within five feet of a dog that did not bark once and getting a Japan or bust chant going with our back half of the Boeing.

Narita International (located in Tokyo) is one crazy melting pot for styles, cultures and hair-dos. After getting off the plane, we followed the well mark chicken/anime signs to customs where I was taken into a back room for what seemed like hours and told that I had to leave the day I was planning on leaving. They also encouraged me to get my passport a haircut and a sponsor.

The next part seemed to us more difficult than retrieving our kid brother back from the creepy grasps of the one and only David Bowie. Instructions were as follows…

1. Get through customs. (Check)

2. Reacquire our luggage that should probably have a blog of their own. (Check)

3. Evade the photo police (too numerous to underestimate) as you try to find the eight foot happy hotdog. (Check)

4. Walk 12 paces north and then 6 east of west to a pay phone. And pay the phone. (Check)

*it should be noted that steps 4 and 5 should be swapped.

5. Exchange cash for yen (Check)

6. It is advised that shiny vending machines and aggressive asian haircuts will hinder your success if you do not keep your eyes on the prize. (Check…kinda)

7. After calling base camp, please wonder aimlessly until you happen across a glass automatic door with "S2" on it in grey letters. (Check)

8. Go through the portal, over two walks for crossing, and await your chariot.

*Chariot is Japanese for taxi van driven by an overly friendly Japanese man hosting a red flag and a lack of understanding and knowledge of the English language. (Check)

And that brings me to the present. I am sitting in the back of this van peering through the uncommonly clean windows at a city that yesterday was on the other side of the world. Its green. Deep green. The kind of green that those zany people tell us all to "GO" to. And its big and shiny. My eyes are tired because the focal point of this moving painting changes as the wheels on the van go round and round.

One final note. Tomorrow has become today. The wrong side of the road has become the right. And that side of the world has become this side of the world. So greetings from the future…it is bright!