7 Similarities between Japan and Slovenia

Japan and Slovenia…similar? Yeah right.

At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Japan and Slovenia have absolutely nothing in common. After all, on the surface, the two nations appear very different.

Japan is an Asian island nation, Slovenia a European continental country. Japan is an ancient land of 127 million people; Slovenia a new born, with just 2 million inhabitants. Japanese culture is a subject of global fascination, Slovenian culture is unknown to most of the world.

However, having myself lived in rural Japan, as well as Slovenia, I have discovered a surprising number of similarities between these two great countries.

  1. The Landscape

The most obvious similarity between Slovenia and Japan is the natural landscape. Both countries are blessed with green, mountainous terrain, interspersed with flat field-land. Looking out from my balcony in Ljubljana, I gaze upon a landscape of green fields, woodland and mountains.

 

It’s very much like the view from my balcony in the small town of Ono, Fukui. Whilst Japan’s crop of choice is rice, and Slovenia’s is wheat, barley or corn, the scenery is very simlar. Indeed, two friends who also lived in Fukui – Colin and Chris – recently visited and both independently commented that the landscape in Slovenia ‘could be Japan’.

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Fellow former Fukui-ites – Colin and Chris – agree that parts of Slovenia ‘could be Japan’

  1. The Language

Japanese and Slovene as languages, share nothing in common. They have no grammatical or structural similarities and knowing one will not help you in any way to learn the other. But there are traits that the two tongues share.

Firstly, both Japanese and Slovene are thought to be foreigner-proof by the locals. Both nationalities remark how difficult their native tongue is for foreigners to learn and are therefore both surprised and pleased when foreigners attempt to speak it.

Indeed, the Japanese believe that only those possessing Japanese DNA are equipped to speak nihongo. Uttering the simplest phrase in Japanese – for example ‘Watashi wa Igirisujin desu’ (I am English) – will undoubtedly trigger the ‘Ehhh! Nihongo jouzu!‘ (Wow! Your Japanese is excellent!) response.

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Likewise, as I recently discussed in my post Struggles with Slovenian: 6 Months of learning Slovene, most Slovenians do not expect foreigners to bother to learn Slovene, and hence when you drop a phrase or two, they too are pleased and surprised.

The owner of a café in Bohinj once waived my coffee bill, simply because I asked for it in Slovene. It’s a show of respect that someone takes time to learn another’s language, especially when that language is not easy to learn, and this effort does not go unnoticed by the Japanese or the Slovenes.

  1. The Climate

Though Japan stretches over several climatic zones from sub-tropical Okinawa, to sub-arctic Hokkaido, I spent my two years living in Ono, Fukui, which is half way down the main island of Honshu, and the climate there is very similar to that of Slovenia’s.

Both countries have four, very defined seasons; cold, crisp winters with oodles of snow  (ideal for snow-lovers such as myself), a pleasantly warm spring season; hot, sunny summers (though Japan’s is more humid), and a beautiful autumn with spectacular colour changes in the mountain forests.

And both have big, warm, tropical-esque rain storms, after which the scent of the earth is divine.

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Autumn colours, Jezersko, Slovenia

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Winter scene from my balcony, Ono, Fukui, Japan

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Winter scene from my balcony, Ljubljana, Slovenia

  1. A Love of Slippers

Most people know of Japan’s strict ‘slippers only, when indoors’ policy, which is well documented. Indeed, even in schools, kids and teachers must leave their outdoor shoes at the door, and switch to slippers for class. But I was surprised to find that Slovenia has a very similar custom. Just like in Japan, every Slovenian home has a stash of slippers at the door for guests, and walking into a home in your outdoor shoes is most certainly a faux pas.

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Copati (slipper) shop, as seen in Ljubljana, Slovenia

  1. A Love of Gardens

Both the Japanese and the Slovenes seem to take immaculate care of their gardens. Although in Japan where space is far more limited lawns are rare, plants, trees and bonsai are kept perfectly pruned, watered and even trussed up come winter to protect them from the heavy snowfalls. In Slovenia, grass is kept neatly cut, flower boxes perfectly arranged, and vegetable patches weeded and watered. Both nations seem to have a deep connection with their plants and the love of tending for them.

 

  1. A Fever for Festivals

Japan and Slovenia both love a festival. Slovenia has the saying ‘a festival for every village’ and I think the same could be said for Japan. Neither nation needs much excuse to dress up, play music and parade, and even the smallest towns have found something to celebrate.

Japan has the Sapporo Yuki Matsuri (snow festival); Slovenia has its Snow Castle Festival in Črna na Koroškem. Japan has its Festival of the Steel Phallus, Slovenia has its own fertility festivities in the form of the Kurant Festival. Japan has numerous sake festivals, Slovenia has numerous wine festivals. The list goes on…

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Japanese sake festival

  1. Pride in Regional Dishes

Both Slovenia and Japan have great pride in certain foods that come from certain regions of their countries. Despite being a relatively tiny country, Slovenia boasts numerous specialities that hail from certain areas, and there is strong regional identity, for example Jota from Istria or Kranjska klobasa, a sausage that has caused political fighting as Slovenia and its neighbours – Croatia and Austria – battle over it.

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Klobasa (sausage) as served by my lovely neighbours in Koroška, Slovenia

Similarly, Japan has built a whole industry around food tourism, and almost everywhere, from whole prefectures right down to the smallest villages, has at least one special dish that it claims is completely unique to the area. Thus people will travel a long way to sample the firefly quid of Toyama prefecture or the Ishikari nabe of Hokkaido.

Echos of Rural Japan

With so many similarities between my experiences of rural Japan and Slovenia, it’s really no co-incidence that I was drawn here. My two years living in rural Japan were deeply formative; I was struck by its rural beauty. I loved living life outdoors, roaming mountains, paddling rivers, exploring lakes, trying to learn a new language, and feeling like everyday was an adventure into the unknown.

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Exploring deserted lake, Fukui, Japan

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View from my balcony, Ono, Fukui, Japan

When my time in Japan came to an end and I returned to live in the UK for the next ten years, I could never quite get Fukui out of my system. I was always searching for a life like that again.

When I sit outside on a hot summer evening, look out over the layers of mountains, and listen to the crickets chirp, I hear echos of rural Japan.

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Early morning mountain mist, Ono, Fukui, Japan

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Afternoon haze, Mount Peca, Koroška, Slovenia (pic: Benito Aramando)

It took me 11 years to make it a reality, but I think I finally found what I was looking for, here in Sloveina.

ForFukuisSake

If you’d like to read more about life in rural Japan, For Fukui’s Sake is available from Amazon

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Snowshoeing at Dom na Slemenu

In early February, with thick, fresh snow on the ground, I headed to the inn of Dom na Slemenu. Run by my friends Rajko and Darinka (who previously ran the inn at Pikovo) it offers one of the most beautiful views in the area as well as delicious, hearty food, so it’s a regular destination for me.

My goal was to explore some of the trails in the forest via snow shoe and take some pictures of what was quite a magical snowscape. Below are a selection of snaps from my visit.

 

Skiing to My Local Pub: Powder Snow at Pikovo

I was now living in Ljubljana, but with reports that Koroška already had 60cm of snow on the ground and more on the way, I couldn’t resist heading back to the Hinterland.

I have maintained a lifelong love of snow. Not just snowboarding or skiing, but walking in it, taking pictures of it, and just being out in The Great White Deep is one of my greatest pleasures.

My new car was put to the test and passed easily. In 4×4 mode it fired up the snow-covered track with not the slightest hesitation. Pikovo, a small mountain inn lies even further up the mountain, and with the roads up there covered in over half a meter of snow, it was the perfect day to try out my new touring skis.

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Snow road? Snow problem in 4WD mode

I attached the skins to the base of the skis, threw some water, chocolate and extra clothes into my backpack, and began skinning up the slope behind my house which leads to the road to Pikovo. I’ve done a fair bit of snowshoeing in the past, normally with a snowboard strapped to my back, but ski touring is far more efficient.

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skinning up

The skis glide over the surface of the snow, the skins prevent you from slipping backwards even on steep inclines, and the lightweight boots and bindings mean that overall, you’re carrying less weight and moving much faster than with a board on your back.

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The forest was beautifully silent. The sporadic ‘whumpfff’ of snow falling from a tree, the only sound. The first half of the route was quite steep, and with the deep snow, it was hard going. I had to stop frequently to catch my breath. Once at the pinnacle I found the other side had been ploughed more recently leaving just a couple of centimetres of snow on the road.

The underside of my skis would have preferred a deeper covering, but it was enough to ride over, albeit with the occasional p-tex gouging stone taking a bite. I reconfigured my bindings into downhill mode, and skied most of the way, although there were several flat parts where I had to free my heel and employ more of a ‘cross-country ski’ technique.

It took me nigh on two hours to reach Pikovo. It’s always a pretty spot but covered in pillows of snow it looked even better. Nataša and Felix, the proprietors, welcomed me in and served me gulash washed down with a Laško pivo. Sometimes I meet other people at Pikovo, but today it was my own personal bar and restaurant. Conversation was limited as my Slovene is still extremely basic, but this is a perfect place to practice, as their English is also basic, so it puts us on an even keel.

When it comes to communication, I’ve found a little can go a long way. Although I must sound like a caveman, we were able to share some conversation and learn a little more about each other.

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The gulash was a welcome meal after the two hour journey

The gulash hit the spot and after resting for an hour, it was time to make my way back to Breg. I kept the skins on for the first half, as it’s mainly flat, but upon reaching the ‘peak’ it was back into downhill mode and deep snow.

It was deep but not so steep, so I had to ski in my own tracks for most of the ride or I came to a halt, but I did cut through a couple of sections where powerlines run, and I got a nice taste of Slovenian powder.

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Powerline cuttings provide powder pistes from Pikovo

It’s a great little ski-hike, and one I’ll do again and again whenever conditions permit.

Pivo at Pikovo: A Trip To My Local Mountain Inn

This morning I took my new pair of touring skis for a test ride. Although I’ve been snowboarding for 20 years, I’m relatively new to skiing but have wanted to get into the backcountry more.

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Plenty of snowy slopes for the taking

I long since discovered that skis are a far more efficient method of getting fresh lines so I’ve decided to up my game, get the kit and develop the skills needed to allow me to explore the mountain forests that surround Breg House by ski.

It was when I was living in rural Japan that my backcountry snow trips really began. Life in Koroška reminds me a lot of my life in Japan, where I spent two years living and working in Ono, Fukui. I seem to be drawn to mountainous places that are little known, and where foreigners are considered curious creatures.

Koroška is in many ways like Fukui. A rural backwater, unknown to most outsiders, and even to natives, considered to be ‘in the sticks’. The landscape shares many similarities too; lots of beautiful wooded mountains, heavy snowy winters, warm summers, lots of untouched nature, and not a lot of people exploring it.

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en route to Pikovo (pic: Benito)

In Japan, in a world of often bewildering foreignness, I found solace at a local bar called Yumeya. The owner, Yasu, a smiley-faced mountain-climbing fanatic, was to play a huge part in my enjoyment of area, as he led me and my American friend, Bran Van Man, into the backcountry for snowboarding expeditions on sacred peaks.

Yasu’s bar became a place where I came to know the people of Ono; a place where I could practise my Japanese, drink kirin beer and be merry with the local townsfolk, from gasmen to government officials, monks to maths teachers.

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the road to Pikovo

I now find myself in a place that has many parallels with Fukui.

A little under an hour’s walk from Breg House, is a small mountain inn called Pikovo.

Reached by a narrow, unpaved mountain track, it feels like a road to nowhere and the last thing you expect to find is a place where you can buy a beer.

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can you spy the spire of St Helena?

Yet, along the track, amongst thick forest, you eventually reach the tiny church of St Helena, and right next to it; Koča Na Pikovem. This is my local.

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The tiny church of St Helena

Previously, Pikovo was run by local legend Rajko, who spoke English well and is someone who has gone out of his way to help me with various things at Breg House, for which I am forever grateful. After three years Rajko and his wife Darinka, moved on to a bigger mountain inn in Sleme, which has incredible views and can accommodate some 70 odd people for sleeping. I still visit regulary.

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view from Sleme, my other local (pic: Benito)

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Koča Na Pikovem; my local

Pikovo now has new management; Felix and Nataša from Ljubljana. So whenever I feel like a pivo (beer), I hike on up to Pikovo. Being such an out-of-the-way place, I am often the only customer there, but I never know who I am going to meet, and today I met Mr Šumah.

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Mr Šumah was a rotund gentleman, wore a traditional mountain hat (I want one) and had a friendly smile. The fact that I told Mr Šumah that I didn’t understand Slovene was to be no impediment whatsoever to conversation, as he proceeded to talk away anyway.

I listened hard, picking out a few words and managed to ascertain a little info; namely that he was 77 years old, had driven here in his car, had a son called Rok, and something about cows. I thought he said he could speak Russian, but when I bust out a few phrases (thanks GCSE Russian!) he didn’t respond.

After finishing his coffee, Mr Šumah picked up his crutch, shook my hand, and parted with a srečno! (goodbye/good luck!).

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I ordered venison goulash, washed down with a Laško pivo, and finished up with a kava z mlekom (coffee with milk).

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Soon I will be making a concerted effort to learn Slovenian, and people like Mr Šumah, Felix and Nataša will be the perfect practising partners for me, because they don’t speak any English so it’s Slovene or nothing.

I don’t know why I am drawn to such places, but there is something I find very appealing about the lives of rural folk in secret places, unknown to most of their fellow countrymen, let alone the rest of the world.

Perhaps it’s the fact that it is so untouched that attracts me. There is little tourism here (although it’s an incredibly beautiful place), just people going about their lives in a way which likely has not changed a huge amount since Yugoslav times. And na zdravje (cheers!) to that.

A couple of the pictures in this post were taken by Benito Aramando. See more of his Slovenian photos here.

Hiking Mount Peca: a mountain mission in Koroška, Slovenia

Despite visiting Koroška several times a year for the last decade, I had never climbed Mount Peca. It’s a mountain that I can see everyday from Breg House and at 2125m tall, it’s the highest peak in the eastern Karawank range.

Three-time Breg visitor, Benito Aramando (who is a long-standing fan of a Karawank) was enjoying his forth visit, and with perfect autumnal weather, it was the ideal time to hike Peca, so we set off in search of the peak.

A 30 minute drive is required from Mežica to get to the base of the hiking route, where there’s a small area for parking cars. Just one other car was present, and we met the owners of it almost straight away; they were just finishing their hike just as we started ours.

It was a sunny day and Benito was lamenting the lack of sunglasses, but was delighted to adopt a Gant baseball cap for the day, which I had inherited in the hire car. From here we followed the logging road up into the forest, a mixture of conifers and deciduous trees, before reaching the rest house ‘Dom na Peci’ after about 45 minutes.

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Dom na Peci panorama complete with snow gauge

Now out of season, it was not open for business, but we took a chunky wooden seat all the same, and tucked into our lunch (some mesni burek) whilst enjoying views out over the mountain. After lunch Benito went to enjoy the compost toilet too, but ended up not making a deposit in the end.

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From Dom na Peci, we continued up a narrow path through the forest, which eventually opened out on to a grassy clearing. It seemed too remote for the grazing of cattle, and the hunting hide suggested it was maintained purely for shooting deer or perhaps gams – chamois.

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We had picked the perfect day for the climb, sunny but not too hot, and clear, which gave us views out over the Karawank range – layers and layers of mountains, each successive layer a slightly lighter shade of blue.

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Benito, who had brought out the big guns (his SLR camera) was insatiable for shots.

“I just can’t stop. Every direction is the perfect photo.”

And he was right.

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Benito going photo crazy whilst sporting his Gant sports headgear

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Dom na peci from up on high

A Hero is Born

At this point the ascent steepened, the path becoming rocky, and the trees shorter and scrub-like. After around 30 minutes Benito was struggling. Recovering from illness, he was not firing on all cylinders, and after a few pit stops, he finally conceded:

“I think I’m done”.

I guessed we were still around an hour from the top and the terrain didn’t look like it was going to get much flatter for a while. I considered the options; turn back and summit another day, or try and push on. I didn’t want to risk exhausting Benito or causing injury, so I suggested turning back, but just as I did, Benito announced that he was ‘going to soldier on’ like the hero that he is.

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Benito Aramando: hero

I have seen the exact same behaviour from Benito around the mountains of world, from Italy to India, so I knew once those words were uttered, he could make it and we would see the summit of Peca that day.

And so we headed on, the trees becoming scrub, the ground more rocky, until we reached the shoulder of the peak, and the terrain flattened. At this point we knew we weren’t far, and with the peak in sight, Benito’s spirits rose.

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Short shrubby trees gaze at the Karawanks

 

Peca Peak

The summit of Peca (Petzen in German) affords fairly spectacular views of the Karawank range. Benito took the opportunity to go photo crazy, whilst I signed the mountain visitor’s book, which is kept in a small metal box on the peak.

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Signing the mountain visitor’s book on Peca summit

A flock of Alpine choughs noticed our presence and homed in. Cleary used to being thrown titbits by climbers, they made their desires clear; Benito eventually conceded and shared some of his flapjack with them which he had imported all the way from the UK – so the Choughs were really getting a foreign speciality that day.

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Karawankers

I eventually manged to get Benito to cease taking pictures, and we began our descent. Taking about an hour and a half, we saw no other hikers so had the entire mountain to ourselves.

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The descent

All in all, Peca is a lovely mountain to hike and one that I will certainly return to.

Most of the pictures in this post were taken by Benito Aramando. To see more of his fab photos visit his Flickr page.