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Q & A with Local Kumano Kodo Guide Mike Rhodes

News & Updates Places & Stories 6/20/2022

Having a “Passion” for Japan

Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau consultant and guide Mike Rhodes met briefly with fellow Kumano Kodo-enthusiast John Rucynski, an Okayama University associate professor and author. Mike was a contributor to Rucynski’s most recent book, A Passion for Japan: A Collection of Personal Narratives, a series of articles by long-term residents from all over Japan sharing various reasons why they fell in love with Japan and decided to stay.

In Mike’s article for the book, “Kumano Leap — Local Heritage Adopts a Wandering Soul: Q&A with Mike Rhodes,” he answers questions about why he came to Japan, why he stayed so long (26 years so far!), what is the Kumano Kodo, tips for first-timers and those wanting to be a guide, and more.

But the book also features the fascinating stories of 30 other long-term residents in Japan (national Japanese chess champion, female Buddhist priest, country house/country life renovators, sumo announcers, inspired hikers, baseball enthusiasts, and more) in A Passion for Japan.

We asked Mike some questions

Where are you from? How long have you been in Japan?
I was born in Colorado in the United States, and I have lived in Japan for about 27 years — all of them in Tanabe City, Wakayama Prefecture.

What brought you to Wakayama (Japan)?
Pure chance. As I explain in the Q&A article with John Rucynski, the editor, I had heard about teaching in Japan when I graduated from university. I applied to work as a teacher for a language school, they call them “eikaiwa” in Japan, having no idea where Wakayama was. Boom. That was it.

Why have you stayed this long?
I really loved the area. It is easy to get off the beaten path, wander through the rural countryside, to hike, explore natural surroundings. Coming from my original hometown near the Rocky Mountains, it appealed to me. Gradually, over time, I realized there was rich culture and history in the area. I suppose it cast a spell on me.
After a number of years working for myself as a teacher, eventually marrying, having kids, and gradually guiding more and more, I have been very fortunate.

When did you start working for the Tanabe City Kumano Tourism Bureau, and what do you do?
I was hired in April of 2019, but had been doing multi-day group guides for the bureau on a contract basis since 2013.
My title now is “Consultant and Guide,” but I get to do a lot of things in my work helping promote, guiding, and answering questions about the UNESCO World Heritage Kumano Kodo. I also get to help check trails, develop local guides and services, and even creation of new tours and experiences to enjoy the area.

What makes the Kumano Kodo so special?
As I describe in the article, there is a certain magic about this place that transcends many levels, even if people aren’t Buddhist or believe in Shinto. There are so many overlapping belief systems, histories, roots of local culture. It can be an endless pursuit to try and chase them all down. But that is what I enjoy doing, especially when I am guiding.

What is it like to be a guide for the Kumano Kodo?
It’s a dream job. I get to take groups of visitors on day-long or multi-day trips along the pilgrimage trail, hiking, and highlighting the tapestry of amazing stories that make up the region. The weather is usually good and the scenery can be breathtaking. Most importantly, though, I feel I am part of the local community that has adopted me and allowed me to share their culture with the world.

If interested in learning more about the book A Passion for Japan: A Collection of Personal Narratives is available for sale on Amazon.

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