Authenticity is all for mountaineer

Son of missionaries who was born and raised in Japan finds connection in Nagano village

by Kris Kosaka

Within the majestic silence of a snow-covered mountain lies the hush of possibility. The dormant assurance of life; a mountain in winter signifies hope. Especially for Dan Junker, 47, who lives in a tiny village in the shadow of Mount Norikura.

Local youth have, in recent decades, strayed from Norikurahogen, an aging community on the outskirts of Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. It lacks the flash of larger mountain towns — or the convenience-store convenience.

But for Junker, that’s precisely the appeal of the place.

“I was born and raised in Matsumoto, about an hour south of Norikura, and I grew up looking at the Alps. I started skiing at 3 years old, and the mountain was part of my life as a child, part of my identity.”

Junker’s parents were missionaries and educators, active members of the local community, so much that Junker did not learn English until first grade, when he entered an international school, Christian Academy Japan in western Tokyo: “I had to retake first grade because I couldn’t speak English; my heart language is Japanese.”

Living in the dormitory, far away from family and familiar comforts, he says, “it was always mountains and skiing that was my equilibrium.”

In any language, on most subjects, Junker speaks with heart. “Authenticity is important. Authentic adventure, authentic hospitality. Even volunteering — if it is not authentic, people can read through that. You can only fake something for so long. It becomes tiring.”

With a background in education and hospitality, Junker opened North Star Lodge and Outdoor School nine years ago near the base of the mountain. “North Star is not just a lodge. It is an outdoor school, heavily involved in volunteer work with the local community.”

North Star attracts guests looking for an outdoor experience, not just a place to stay, and with several yearly charity events, it strives to embody an ideal.

“North Star is a philosophy, it is a way of life. Because of that, we get great staff. The staff believe in our bigger picture.”

Uniting his love of the mountain with his quest for authenticity, Junker offers what he calls “heroic hospitality.”

“I believe strongly in the youth culture, and we have youth of all ages come to North Star,” he says. “To keep a young spirit, you have to have hope. We have a saying at North Star: ‘If you’re not living on the edge, you are taking up too much space.’ From children to adults, they come in, they are tired. If we can give them an authentic adventure, if they enjoy authentic hospitality, they leave healed.”

North Star spreads that hospitality by working with the Lance Armstrong Foundation to sponsor the Norikura Century cycling fundraiser in September. In July it hosts an event supporting the Tyler Foundation to help children with cancer in Japan.

Just getting North Star set up in the first place took some heroics. Junker left Japan after graduating from CAJ to attend college in Canada and the United States. With his degree in hospitality and native Japanese fluency, he found a job with Japan Airlines in Hawaii. “It was such a busy job,” Junker recalls. “It was not hospitality anymore, it was not really helping people.”

After three years, Junker decided he wanted to work more closely with people, and went back to school to become an educator.

With a degree in education from the University of Hawaii in hand, Junker got the chance to return to Japan for a one-year teaching position near his hometown. “In Azumi-mura (village) there was a teaching position available — very unique in Japan. I had complete control of my classes. Back then, I wasn’t called an ALT (assistant language teacher) or part of JET (the Japan Exchange and Teaching Program). My visa was for a ‘specialist in humanities.’ I became very involved in teaching, translating, helping children go to Grindelwald (in Switzerland), the sister village of Azumi-mura, or hosting instructors here from Switzerland.”

The one-year position stretched to 20, and Junker naturally became close to people in the community. “People come from all over Japan to open a lodge in Norikura, but they become so busy, they cannot share their love of the mountain with their children. As an educator and mountaineer, I could go alongside the locals and say, ‘Hey, I’ll take your kids to the mountains.’ “

Junker began leading tours and camps into the Hodaka Alps range, and on one trip, a father casually recommended he open an international school in Norikura. “It finished right there, and he didn’t mention it again on the hike, but it stirred in me this great concept — an international school, immersion in English for Japanese, using outdoor sports and nature. We were planning 80 percent English and 20 percent Japanese. We weren’t saying English is better, but for young people to truly impact the world, they need another language.”

Although the local government was supportive, even allocating funds for the land, some locals balked at the prospect of change. “So we had another meeting, discussing ideas . . . other locals said, ‘Let’s not give up on this dream. How can we make it work? Let’s make it smaller.’ North Star grew out of that meeting.”

An avid mountaineer and cyclist, Junker had to climb another mountain of adversity two years ago: a battle with cancer. Ignoring a growth, Junker resisted getting it checked, despite his family’s insistence.

In September 2008, an afternoon suddenly opened up, and Junker decided to placate his wife and find a good excuse to grab some leisure time: “So I brought a book — I love to read, and half the reason (for going to the doctor) was just to finish the book — but the doctor looks at me carefully and says, ‘This is going to take some time.’ Half an hour later, they’re taking pictures, performing a biopsy.”

A week later, the diagnosis was official — melanoma. Junker uses the experience to talk with people, because he noticed cancer in Japan is “like entering death row,” adding, “Part of cancer treatment is talking about it, but in Japan, they hide it. I told everyone and their sister, whomever I talked to, and almost everyone had a family member or someone close who had cancer.”

Although he still undergoes monthly treatments, the cancer has not spread, and Junker credits the melanoma specialists at Shinshu University, his own local hospital.

To Junker, hope and life are connecting forces. “If you go mountaineering, to get to the peak, you don’t go straight up the mountain, you use cross-backs, zig-zag to go up, so when you are walking up it doesn’t really feel like you are moving up. Only if you step back, you can see (the) direction to the peak. En ga aru, (‘a sense of connection’). I sensed a purpose.”

Junker works hard to fulfill that purpose every day. “It’s like that saying, ‘Ishi no ue ni mo san nen.’ Expect to work hard at something for three years before seeing a result. In the small communities in Japan, if you’re not willing to put in the years, you won’t make it. It’s more like, ‘Ishi no ue ni mo ju nen.’ A 10-year effort is needed. The first thing the locals asked me when I moved to Norikura : ‘Are you going to stay here until you die?’ “

As long as he has something authentic to offer, Junker says he will be there.

For more information about North Star, visit the Web site: www.ridenorthstar.com