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Getting to know Whistler’s Japanese sister

Bicycles, bears, banana bread and a warm gathering place are just some of the things the two towns share


For a moment, I thought I was walking into an old ski cabin in Whistler: a wood stove stood in the middle of the room, board games were piled up under the coffee table, the hot water tank needed turning on, and a bike stood in the mud room.

But I wasn’t in Whistler, I was in Karuizawa, Japan, Whistler’s sister city. Friends of friends of friends generously offered me their cabin for a few days. Outside the sun was setting, the squirrels were chattering, and the dusk hues were settling in. I had left 12 million people in Tokyo that morning and now felt like I was dropped into a completely different world.

As I proceeded to get settled, I noticed that the only major difference between a Whistler cabin and a Karuizawa cabin was in the kitchen drawer: chopsticks.

I’ve learned a lot about chopsticks, or "hashi". There are several do’s and don’ts. Chopstick etiquette, passed down from the last several centuries, is very important. The main dishes always have their own set next to the food, and chopsticks once touched, and used, are your personal belonging. After dinner, never leave your chopsticks crossed or upside down. If you’re in a restaurant, and you have finished eating, return your disposable chopsticks into the paper envelope they came in. Japanese chopsticks are shorter than Chinese chopsticks. And Japanese chopsticks are blunt tipped, while the Chinese ones are tapered.

I made use of another kitchen utensil when I got an early start the next morning. I woke up around 5 a.m. to the sound of monkeys leaping around on the roof. It was most annoying, and I became quite worried when the chimney pipe began to shake. Thankfully they moved on after I banged a couple of pots together for a while. I’m sure we woke up every bird in the prefecture.

Then I set out to explore Whistler’s sister city. Everything I wanted to see was quite spread out, so I decided to rent a bicycle. I walked into a small bike shop and within moments I was out on the street cruising around on my groovy bike.

I couldn’t believe that all I had to do was flash them my "geijin" (Japanese foreigner residential) card. They didn’t ask for a deposit or a credit card. I peddled away in awe at the trust and the honesty shown me. I knew those days were long over in Whistler, or for that matter, most places in the world.

I stopped to chat with a few shopkeepers as I peddled up to the memorial to Canadian missionary Alexander Croft Shaw. I had been quite surprised to see several banners of Shaw hanging from the ceiling in the train station upon my arrival. His life history is well documented and well known amongst the local population. Shaw built a summer cottage in Karuizawa in the late 1800s.