Sometimes I love my job

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Sometimes I love my job, and sometimes I don’t. Luckily, this past week was one of the times I loved it. I can always count on Australians to make my week. I have said it before and I will say it again.

I was taking a family of three on a four day bike trip of our little slice of the country-side. I had prepared an itinerary rather light on the riding, but still had several hours a day planned because it is a bike trip, and I would rather have people ask me to lighten up then have them go home without being physically satisfied.

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It turns out they were anticipating even less riding then I had planned, which means I had to unexpectedly fill some riding hours with other activities, but being Aussies, they were gracious and happy with anything. They also were taking my trip after having already spent two weeks in Japan, so they were a bit tired of Japanese food (especially Japanese breakfasts), and the inns we stay at are the most Japanese of the Japanese that you can find in this area, so there is little room for custom western-style menus, plus, part of the value I strive to provide is to experience the local food from our region – wether they like it or not.

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Oh, did I forget to mention that seafood was on the absolute no-no list of two of the three? Luckily one of them was more than happy to eat all the fish and shrimp that came out even after I politely requested the inn-keepers to “do their best” with the menu. In Japan asking for a meal without seafood is like asking for a room without air, and no Japanese person would even think to ask for special menus – they would rather go hungry than inconvenience the inn owners with such personal requests. While the inn-owners are very helpful and would have liked to provide meals to fit the customers tastes, they simply could not fathom how to change their set menus (and I do choose these inns specifically because they have such great food, so to ask them to change it is a bit insulting), and so the first two nights almost every dish had some form of sea-food (in the inn-keepers defense, they did try to make it only “river food”), and being in the countryside, there are no convenience stores on every corner to grab a bed-time snack. I began to fear the customers would starve. But being Australian, they soldiered on with a smile and a “no problem” attitude.

The third night we stayed at the house of a farmer friend who does not run an inn as a main business, so he and his wife were much more flexible with the menu, and I was relieved to see the smiles when a fish-free table setting appeared. It also helped that I stopped by the supermarket and grabbed some cup yogurt and puffy bread for breakfast.

One of the challenges was providing the father with more riding, while keeping the mother and daughter satisfied. Luckily they were Australian and very independent, so I was able to leave them to explore the areas around the inns on their own, while I took some more challenging rides up and down mountains with the father. I wish the whole family could have enjoyed the same scenery, but its hard to “enjoy” when you are tired and sick of riding, so I am content to have showed it to them through the van window.

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The best part for me (and they may not think it was so special now) was getting up early (5am) one day to enjoy a nice long downhill ride through the mountains, ending at my hamlet where we were having out annual 田休み竹の子祭り “Rice planting break bamboo shoot festival”. We had to get up early in order to arrive at 8am when my neighbors head out into the mountain to pick bamboo shoots which were later peeled together as a group, and made into a soup traditional in this region. The soup is then devoured at a big picknick/pot-luck meal where everyone brings their “house specialty” so the customers were able to taste the best of all of our neighbors home-cooking.

My customers were the only non-villagers there, and of course the only non-Japanese speakers, so it was most certainly a bit intimidating, but they handled it wonderfully. It must also get a bit boring if you can’t understand everything going on, but a neighbor summed the value up nicely when he mentioned to me that everything else on my tour would still be around ten or twenty years from now, but this festival may not be, and that this was a truly priceless experience.

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I think so to, and I am immensely happy to have shared it. Even if they may not realize how special it was at the time, I guarantee it will be one of the more memorable events of their three weeks in Japan.

After the bamboo festivities, we headed to Mori Ao Gaeru in Tsunan – small farmhouse / part-time-B&B run by a friend of mine. I love this place both for the beauty of the surroundings. It is in a real farm hamlet surrounded by nothing but farms, and nothing for tourists other than the beautiful sound of frogs in the rice field.

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If anyone is interested in staying a place like this, please let me know. They are reluctant to take non-Japanese speakers unless I am there to help translate, but that is only because they pride themselves on not only providing a room and meal, but also a more intimate setting where they talk about life in the area. If you are interested to visit, let me know, and I can arrange for you, and join you for dinner to smooth the conversation out.

Oh, speaking of dinners, theirs is consistently the best, out-performing even the most expensive ryokans we stay at. This time of year it is almost all foraged from their mountain, and prepared like a pro, but keeping the homemade touch. This, I think, is because most inns prepare a lot of dishes and freeze them until needed, but this B&B has so few customers that everything is made “to-order” or according to what they have from the field that day.

Anyway, it was a great trip, and sometimes when I am up at 4:30am loading bikes wondering why I dont just get a real job, it only takes a few minutes until I am on the road and filled with awe at the beauty around me, and begin to feel the rush that comes from knowing that I am going to share that with someone who otherwise would not have had the opportunity.

Dang, I love my job.

Probably the most satisfying part was when I was talking about Japanese cedar trees, their history and why they are planted where they are, how their value has dropped, etc. etc. and the customer told me that he had asked his previous guide (on a two week guided package tour of Japan) about why the cedar trees are so uniformly planted in the mountains, and the guide shook her head and said “No, no! Japan natural beauty! Natural beauty!” It was satisfying to know that I was able to give a much more complete answer (though he had not even asked me), but a bit annoying that the price of his previous tour with so-so (according to them) inns and some pretty bad back-packer places thrown in and only one guide for 15 people was, on a per-day basis more expensive than mine. And the other tour didn’t even offer bikes. I know I could raise the price of my trips, but I want to keep it at a price that someone thrifty like myself would feel OK to take it. (and rich people are too used to having everything handed to them and tend to complain too much.)

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