Rio Shinzawa 2022.03.08

Shinzawa Diaries: (Re)discovering Yourself
2,300 Meters Above Ground

In the midst of a busy work day, weighed under an endless stream of tasks, it can feel like the distance between our current selves and our ideal way of working is impossibly vast. When you feel stuck and snowed under – what would you do?

For Loftwork producer Rio Shinzawa, heading up the mountains seemed like the most natural solution. Taking a month off, Shinzawa substituted the office for a mountain lodge at an altitude of 2,300 meters. Behind this seemingly random choice is a phrase that Shinzawa cherishes: “The value of a life is not determined by how long you live, but by how many breathtaking moments you encounter.”

In this new series about work and regaining your sense of self, Shinzawa shares with us how she went from forgetting how to breathe normally to encountering “breathtaking moments”. In this first installment, we take a look at the situation leading up to her “work fog”, why she chose to go live and work at a mountain lodge, and the important lessons she discovered away from the world below.

Original Japanese text written by Rio Shinzawa
Translated and edited by [the Loftwork Global team]

How many “breathtaking moments” have you encountered?

My role at Loftwork is as a producer. Working through requests from clients in our consultations, I organize issues, plan various projects around those issues, and follow up after the project has started.

Clients engage us in a plethora of work here at Loftwork: open collaboration, regional branding, internal work culture solutions, production of websites and pamphlets, external corporate branding, and so on. It is so wide-ranging that no matter how many times I explain it to my friends, they always say, “I don’t understand.”

Faced with a particular subject matter, we continue to think about the following until we are satisfied with the results, and then we finalize the content of the plan and streamline it into a proposal.

  • What is the client’s ideal situation?
  • What are the key success factors that will help us get there?
  • What would be the most persuasive way for the client to explain Loftwork’s proposal to the company?
  • What are the unique points that will inspire the client to accept the proposal?
  • How can we create a challenge point for Loftwork that will make the member responsible for the proposal want to do his/her best?

After spending many busy and tense days thinking about these things, the time came. I hardly had time to sleep that week and stayed overnight at the office on weekends. I finally burnt out. It was June 2021.

As I continued to turn a blind eye to myself and respond to the tasks in front of me, before I knew it, the work and the role had become overwhelmingly stronger than I was. It was as if I lost the sense of pain that I had in myself by the time I became aware of it.

One of my most cherished sayings is, “The value of your life is not determined by how long you live, but by how many breathtaking moments you encounter.” While we all need to fulfill responsibilities and expectations, it’s important we don’t lose ourselves in the process. In the end, I decided to take the plunge and step temporarily away from work. I needed to regain myself.

But what would I do with time off work? The idea of spending time at a mountain lodge suddenly came to me; it reminded me of when I first started mountain climbing several years ago.

My affinity with the mountains began when I encountered a photo of a mountain landscape in a gallery. I was so moved that I began to climb mountains on my own. At the time, the outdoor boom had yet to happen, and no one around me climbed mountains. Even so, I started, albeit small — first by climbing mountains that I could reach in a day, without worrying my poor parents.

Once, I went to the mountains without rain gear, got drenched, and almost got hypothermia. However, that experience gave me a new understanding of the unpredictability of nature and the need to protect myself, as well as the visceral feeling of being alive. After that, I began to climb mountains more often. High up above the ground, where I first regained my sense of pain — it’s there that I chose to go again, living and working in a mountaining lodge.

Special coffee, missing socks, your own secret base

Life at the mountain lodge, located at a place where one can finally reach after a four-and-a-half-hour walk up a steep trail from the trailhead, was so completely different from what I could have imagined when I lived “downhill”.

First up, work hours: I start my work day a little after 4:00 a.m. I wake up to the sound of climbers before the sun has even risen, and go to work without putting on makeup, fixing my hair, or changing my clothes. I finish work at 9 p.m., but it is not a 17-hour workday. I take long breaks during the day to relax and eat. And the days off are neither weekends nor allocated by shifts, but determined by the weather. This is because the number of climbers changes drastically depending on the weather. If it rains, for instance, it is too dangerous for climbers to come up the mountain, and we may have a four-day week off. And speaking of attendance, the power and signal are unstable at the lodge, so we keep track of our guests in an analog way, marking X and O on the calendar.

The mountain lodge is a place for climbers to take a short rest and stay overnight. The work is mainly divided between two teams: the store team, which serves refreshments and guides guests to the reception desk, and the kitchen team, which serves meals to guests and cleans the hut. The men are responsible for trail maintenance, hut repairs, and other duties. As a member of the store team, I prepare snacks during the day when I arrive at work, receive the day’s lunches, see off climbers, clean the entrance, and watch the sun rise.

Mt. Yarigatake changes its appearance every day, as does the color of the sky. Some days it burns bright red, while other days it seems to rise black. My daily routine is to check and record the time the sun rises — and at the same time, admire it and take pictures of it. It’s a far cry from the mornings down in the ground, when I rushed to get ready and ran out of the house as soon as I finally woke up, the alarm repeatedly going off. Here, I am not using a clock to keep track of time, but rather, letting nature take its course. I am reminded of how time-crunched I had been in my life.

After the climbers depart from the lodge, time flows more leisurely. Taking turns to eat breakfast, we would brew a few liters of iced coffee. Here, we are particular about coffee: we start by roasting the beans ourselves — manually (there is no roasting machine). Such a laborious task makes you feel as though you’ll break your arms! Yet, the lodge’s deep-roasted coffee has such a rich aroma; my favorite part of the day’s work is the moment the coffee is brewed in the morning. I breathe in and out, trying not to miss the smell, and soon it becomes a deep breathing morning routine that awakens my head and heart. In my previous life down below, I would open my PC as soon as I started work, typing emails with a furious sense of purpose before my head and eyes were even awake. I had forgotten how to even breathe.

The way you work and live at a mountain lodge is radically different from that of the world below. We eat and sleep with our fellow workers, and all three meals are eaten during work hours. At night, when the climbers have settled down, everyone gathers around the dining table to chat, sharing the sake and wine brought by the climbers. Afterwards, we head straight to bed. In a mountain lodge, the amount of water is scarce, limiting us to a shower once every four to seven days. Since you need to carry all your own belongings up the mountain, I could only bring three days’ worth of clothes. We endure wearing the same pair of socks for days on end.

After the lights go out at 9:00 p.m., there is no electricity in the attic where we sleep, so it is pitch-dark. Each of us would light a small lamp, read a book, and fall asleep. Since the sleeping quarters are not private rooms and we barely have any space to sleep in, we arrange our 1.5 tatami mats in our own way. The senior members, who have already spent several summers at the lodge, had made their own cardboard aroma stands, bookshelves, and lotion cabinets – which look much more comfortable than my secret base, where books, toiletries, and other items are just lying around. Most nights, I fall asleep to the sound of my friends sleeping, but sometimes I hear the rain and wind so well that I would record the sound to keep as a memento. In my reinforced concrete room down below, I never realized how beautiful the sound of rain on the roof could be.

Living and working in this radically different way, I would soon begin to recover many of my senses that I had been unable to find before. From the next article onward, I will write about some of the important experiences I encountered while living in the lodge, as well as about myself after returning to the lower world.

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