Nakasato Elementary Exchange (Winter) Part 1

Japan is _____________.

Japanese people eat ____________.

In Japan, everyone wears ___________.

When you hear “Japan” what do you think of?  What images come to your mind?  Before I began studying Japan, I thought of swords, anime, rice and green mountains.  Like many people, I thought of Japan through the stereotypes I picked up from television and books.  Anyone who doesn’t specialize is bound to think of another country by the most easily recognizable differences from their home culture.

Yet Japan is diverse.  Most of Japan’s long history, during which all its unique culture developed, happened before cars and easy transportation.  That fact, plus its island geography has created many opportunities for difference that NHK (Japan’s national television and radio broadcaster), trains, and the internet have yet to make fully disappear. NHK has had a huge impact on language, dress, and some social customs, yet one thing is still beyond its reach.

The weather.

Nakasato Exchange

Japan’s geography has created some vastly different climates given the relatively short distances between most places in Japan.  This great difference is at the core of an exchange program between two towns in Japan.  Every year, Kumejima-cho and Tokamachi City trade students so that they can experience the vast difference in climate and the changes in culture it imposes on local life.  As with every exchange program, its goal is to create more aware youth and stronger ties between the local people and wider world.

Tokamachi

Since Tokamachi is located in Niigata Prefecture on the western side of Japan, it gets a lot of rain, and in the winter, a lot of snowfall.  The high mountains and rough weather have led to small towns, yet the heavy snowfall also means rich farmland and other local resources.  The heavy snowfall leads to mineral rich soil when the snow melts.  The soil then lets farmers produce some superior crops.

One of the crops is carrot. I know.  A carrot is a carrot is a carrot.  Then you go to Niigata and eat something that looks like a carrot, smells like one, has the firm texture of one, but tastes far sweeter and has more flavor than any carrot you’ve ever tasted before. Seriously.

Then there’s the rice.  Rice is a staple in Japanese cuisine.  And in a country where rice can be as diverse as coffee, the region has become famous for its delicious rice.  Rice is a heavy water consuming plant, which also means its easier to farm there where water is plentiful.  Not only is rice exported considered delicious, but locals will tell you it is even better eaten locally due to the quality of the local water when boiling the rice.

IMG_6750Rice and the quality of water are also the two most important ingredients in a traditional drink so well-known that much of the world knows the Japanese word for sake.  In Niigata’s case, Nihonshu or rice wine is produced by several companies in the region and is highly regarded.

Despite those claims to fame, the snow beats out the rest by sheer popularity, if not by the locals who have to shovel it, then by the thousands of tourists who trek to the region to snowboard, ski, and sled.  Japan’s train system and many domestic airlines makes it surprisingly easy to travel, which means Tokyoites can pop over for a weekend of skiing at any number of resorts throughout the long winter season.

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The huge quantities of snow have also led to the Tokamachi Snow Festival.

IMG_5421Unfortunately, not all the snow can be turned into art.  There is so much each year that pipes run through most streets and parking lots.  These pipes shoot out warm salt water to melt snow and keep the roads clear through the night.  This was perhaps the biggest surprise to me as someone who grew up in a desert.  The ‘waste’ of water is so huge that it boggles my mind, though I’m sure they deal with it in an effective manner.

The huge quantity of water and large elevation changes even mean that hydroelectric generators can produce much of the area’s power needs in a relatively environmentall

IMG_6125All of these Tokamachi features has led to students who speak the same language as other Japanese students, still play in much the same way and wear some of the same clothes, but whose lives in the winter are far different from those far to the south.

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Checkout the second part of this article, with more pictures, video, and things Japanese.

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