Friday, October 21, 2011

Snowpeak - natural lifestyle creator

He sits down to a family dinner only a few times a month as his hectic schedule takes him everywhere, throughout Japan and overseas. He often works from morning to midnight.

Is Snowpeak’s president Tohru Yamai a typical Japanese workaholic out to get rich? No, he says, he mainly works to make his community wealthier and its people happier. However, he is ambitious and his ambitions have grown bigger and bigger over the years as he has expanded the business that was handed down to him from his father.

His business’s success has allowed him to open a new company headquarters on a hilly ranch site four times as large as the Tokyo Dome baseball park in the Shitada District of Sanjo City in April. The site was chosen because Snowpeak deals with the production and distribution of outdoor gear, and the areas surrounding the new building are some of the best camping sites around.

Along with the new headquarters, 60 of his 130 staff members moved to Shitada, planning, designing, producing, selling and even repairing high class goods there in this all-in-one building. The office building won an award for Good Design from Japan Institute of Design Promotion.

He said Snowpeak brand goods are more luxurious than those used by most traditional campers, but they are also highly user-friendly and fashionable. Likewise, his camping sites are of a more sanitary-design and are as equally luxurious as the goods he sells. However, his company doesn’t just please those of us who enjoy camping right here in Sanjo, it also has shops throughout Japan as well as foreign countries such as Korea, Germany and the USA.

Mr. Yamai’s unstoppable quest for excellence didn’t just start after he came to be president of the company. Even back in his high school days when he was on the baseball team, he played with the sole goal of playing for the national high school championship at Koshien Stadium. He had dedicated his whole life to that point to baseball.

After entering university in Tokyo, he pursued his outside interests with far more dedication than he gave to his course work. However, as he grew to be a full-fledged member of society, he began to channel the same energy he had spent on sports and partying to helping others. When a devastating flood hit Sanjo City in 2004, he volunteered to help in the cleanup every day for more than three weeks, without ever visiting his office. Likewise, after the great 3/11 earthquake, his company collected a total of 10,000 tents, sleeping bags, mats and rugs from all over Japan and provided them to many victims and many volunteers who were helping out with search, rescue and restoration projects.

These days, a lot of his energy is devoted to sharing his love for nature and healthier lifestyles. When he’s not doing that, he is helping to foster young and energetic entrepreneurs and business people by volunteering his experience and knowhow. When he was still an active member of the Japan Junior Chamber, the older members tutored him and helped him to “grow up” and he now feels compelled to give back.

As for his company, he hopes that it will be able to serve 100,000 customers a year in five years. As a “citizen of the earth,” as he sometimes refers to himself, he simply wants to contribute positively to society.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Time-Honored Classy Onsen Ryokan, Rankeiso

Rankeiso, located in the Shitada area of Sanjo City, is popular among “onsen” lovers young and old as it is one of Niigata’s best hot spring inns.

When I was a high school teacher in Sanjo, I often volunteered to be an organizer of school parties in order to choose Rankeiso as the venue as it is an ideal setting for relaxing parties.

Recently, I met Rankeiso’s president, Keigo Otake, who is the fourth-generation manager of this family-owned inn. Though he comes across as a bit shy, he is not timid when he speaks about the three points that make his inn one of Japan’s best secluded hot spring spots.

First, he noted, the quality of the inn’s onsen baths is outstanding. The cold spa water is quite rich in minerals and surprisingly tasty. It is a little salty and tastes like seaweed tea. He even uses the water to make Onsen-gayu, a special type of rice porridge for breakfast.

A second factor that makes this inn an unforgettable experience, he noted, is the tantalizing cuisine. Four distinguished chefs turn any of the inn’s traditional country-styled dishes into a high-class banquet. (Having recently attended a family reunion at the Rankeiso where we partook of many of the inn’s best delicacies, I can personally attest that this is no exaggeration.)
The third element, he touched on, and perhaps the most important, is how the inn lies in gentle harmony with it natural surroundings. Scenic woods envelope the inn while the Sumon River runs beside it, allowing those who come there to feel as one with nature.

During our talk, Mr. Otake noted that the “Go” in his given name, Keigo, means “five.” In this way, his parents and grandparents consigned in him five wishes. He didn’t say a lot, but he knows what his family expected of him and he is obviously full of high hopes for his inn.
He didn’t brag about his high ambitions to expand his business, but he did modestly mention that he would like to keep pace with the times. He then concluded my interview by saying he envisions the future of his inn, the village and its people, all the time.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

English Lessons in San Francisco

Niigata University of Management, where I teach English pedagogy, sends students to overseas schools each year. Students here have opportunities to visit campuses in China, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States.

Last month from September 4th to 17th, I escorted a small group of students who wanted to study English to San Francisco. They attended Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, south of San Francisco, which has an affiliated language school within the campus that offered them a two-week special language course.

I was responsible for taking care of them during the program, but while I stayed at a local motel in Belmont, the students were staying with host families in San Francisco. It was good for them to be able to meet and learn how American students spend their home and campus lives.

The language school, named TALK, offers English courses to meet the needs of a wide variety of students. My students took a placement examination at the beginning of the course, and were put into suitable small-sized classes.

Notre Dame de Namur University was founded in 1851 and is one of the oldest universities in California. ( The campus is located about twenty minutes south of San Francisco. The famous Silicon Valley, home to Google, Yahoo, Intel and Apple, is ten minutes away, and it is also a close neighbor Stanford University. Like San Francisco, Belmont’s weather is gorgeous, always mild, cool and clear, though walking around in the sun can still leave you sweaty.

The language school provided a lot of extra activities, such as sightseeing trips to downtown San Francisco, tickets to a San Francisco Giants’ baseball game and a bicycle outing that took us across the Golden Gate Bridge. As a proponent of international exchange programs, I believe programs like this truly expand a student’s knowledge and provide the kind of perspective and experience needed in today’s global society.