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Saturday, April 2, 2005

JAPAN LITE

Wild West: buffalo and private Sno-Cats


The great thing about Amtrak's North American Rail Pass is that for one price, you can get on and off the train whenever you want within a 30-day period. But I must warn you there is a danger that might make you never want to get back on the Amtrak train again. That danger is falling in love with the places you stop at so that you never feel like leaving. The urge is to linger for a few weeks or years -- put down roots. The train through the Rocky Mountains in Colorado has stops that put you within a short driving distance to ski resorts such as Aspen, Vail, Breckenridge and Steamboat Springs. Of course, I had to visit them all. Even the tiny nontouristy Western towns are so charming, you feel like you'd fit right into the small-town atmosphere, going to the local bank where they serve free cookies and tea to customers and have a box full of toys for the children. Of course, the banks can only afford to do this because they don't have many customers.

I got off the train at Denver's Union Station, one of those old Victorian train stations with extremely high vaulted ceilings that makes you think there must have been a lot of ghosts hanging around at one time. Why else would they have created all that space up there? It couldn't be just for those Dallas women with big hair.

Denver is a big modern city with equally big modern toilets. The Americans, who for years have laughed at the Western toilets in Japan with all their high tech tush gadgetry, now have something to amuse the Japanese with. Somehow, after generations of using Western-style toilets, the Americans have discovered that -- get this -- toilet seats are dirty! The Asians figured this out long ago and chose squat-style toilets. In Denver, I was confronted with a newfangled toilet seat that uses replaceable plastic sleeves to cover the seat. A company, aptly called SCRUB, installs a machine that, when you push a button on the wall, slides the sleeve around to the other side of the seat, replacing it with a new one. A sign informs you, "The old plastic is discarded and never used again!" Well, I should hope not.

With all the modern toilets in Denver, I was ready to return to the plastic-free squat-style toilets, which in the U.S. can only be found in nature. From Denver, I rented a car and drove up into the mountains, past buffalo and wild bighorn sheep. Up in the Rocky Mountains, the snow falls thick -- and slides. Roads in high avalanche areas are not covered as they are in Japan. You just take your chances here -- all part of living in the "home of the brave."

This is the Wild West -- and it just kept getting wilder. I met up with some friends to go back-country skiing for three days near Steamboat Springs. Jay Irwin works for a software company and owns a condominium at Steamboat Springs Resort. But that's not all. At not even 40 years old, he already owns his own Sno-Cat groomer (a tracked vehicle like a tank, used to plow and groom snow on steep terrain) and two snowmobiles for towing skiers in the backcountry. He even owns his own private swath of the backcountry to ski. America has always been called the "land of opportunity," but this is ridiculous -- only in America! (If I'm mistaken, please send me the name and address of another such person, and the best time for me to visit.) I imagine Jay's next purchase will be Mount Fuji. For heli-skiing, of course.

I really didn't want to get back on the train. But hey, I had two days choo-chooing through the Midwest ahead of me: miles and miles of absolutely nothing. Or rather miles and miles of absolutely something. But what?

Check out Amy's new book, "Guide to Shiraishi: Island of Mists & Trances," at www.mooooshop.com/MooooBooks/order/index.htm -- free to peek into, and just $1 to buy.


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