Visiting “The True Japan”: Snow Country cover

Visiting “The True Japan”: Snow Country

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A little more than five hours from neon-buzzed Tokyo lies a very different Japan, one of thatched-roof houses and black nights illuminated by lantern light. Pico Iyer travels to the country’s snowy western region to explore two villages untouched by modernity—and alive with their own quiet magic.





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Visiting “The True Japan”: Snow Country

Quiet Magic

I might almost be staying in Hobbitland. The minute darkness descends and the paper windows under the thatched roofs all around me begin to glow, turning high walls into eerie faces, most of the day’s few visitors gone.

Lanterns cast reflections on the rice paddy at the center of the 20-house village, and the sign warning of nearby bears grows indecipherable in the pitch black. Wandering between A-shaped houses with their steep 60-degree straw roofs—gassho zukuri, or “praying hands” in Japanese, though they also look like giant open books—I might be walking through a Christmas card of occasional lights and tree-trunk seats gathered around a mushroom-shaped low table.

Magical Fairyland

Magical Fairyland

Every January and February, the traditional houses of Shirakawa-go (pictured) are illuminated after dark, tour buses crowd in to see a fairyland brought to life, a vision of what my wife calls “the true Japan.”

Photo by Randy Harris

Lost In Time

Inside the cozy Yomoshiro guesthouse, the 14th-generation owner, Kunihiro, serves hearty mountain vegetables and river fish cooked by his cheerful wife, Noriko, around an irori, or traditional sunken hearth.

He collected some of the vegetables five months ago on slopes filled with antelope, as his ancestors have done since before the United States even existed. Even when the last emperor, Shôwa, ascended the throne in 1926, this village, Ainokura, had barely seen electricity or cars or trains. Offering gunpowder in lieu of tax to local warlords, the villagers used to send oxen, wearing straw sandals and ringing bells, through the mountains to deliver their payment.

Ghosts

As I retire to a simple tatami room in the 240-year-old farmhouse—its main decoration a framed portrait of the last emperor, dead now for 25 years, with his family—I think about how my Japanese wife refused to join me on this trip, so sure was she that we’d be surrounded by ghosts.

On the top floor of these three-story houses was, until recently, a “gallery” for raising silkworms; under the ground floor was the mix of dirt and millet and mugwort and grass and buckwheat and silkworm droppings that would be turned into black gunpowder. In 27 years of living in Japan, I’ve seldom felt so far from fluorescent lights and Western fashions.

Magoemon

Magoemon

The proprietress at Magoemon, a farmhouse turned inn in Shirakawa-go.

Photo by Randy Harris

Returned to Unfallen Within

"Snow country" has long been a talismanic phrase in the Japanese lexicon; it speaks of a purer, simpler world where city dwellers can go to cleanse their souls and be returned to something unfallen within themselves.

In truth, the coldest parts of Japan are farther north, but nowhere is snow country more picturesquely represented than in the thatched cottages of the Gokayama district (in which Ainokura hides), and of Shirakawa-go, an hour away by bus, tucked into the mountains of central Japan like a forgotten promissory note.

Here, people still trudge through midwinter drifts 15 feet deep, in snow sandals and coats made of straw; when I look at the laminated cards the owners of Yomoshiro keep on hand for explaining local terms to foreigners, I see the characters for stinkbug and ostrich fern, for beefsteak geranium and long-nosed goblin’s footprint.

Yasunari Kawabata

In 27 years of living in Japan, I’ve seldom felt so far from fluorescent lights and Western fashions.

In his classic 1948 novel, Snow Country, the Nobel Prize–winning writer Yasunari Kawabata conjures up the romance of a sealed, almost posthumous world of blind masseuses and roads cut off each year until May, where “there was drab poverty in the scene, and yet under it there lay an urgent, powerful vitality”; the pulse and tingle of the book come from waiting to see whether a visiting dilettante from Tokyo will corrupt the enigmatic country girls he meets in a hot-springs resort before they, in their virginal innocence, redeem him.

Around the same time, the Tokyo news photographer Hiroshi Hamaya started chronicling the New Year’s dances and praying children of snowbound villages, going so far as to burn most of his negatives of Tokyo in a rural bonfire.

Warmth

Warmth

A traditional hearth at Wanosato, a luxe ryokan a short drive from central Takayama.

Photo by Randy Harris

Snow Country

When his book, also called Snow Country, came out in 1956, it spoke for a vanishing world of tradition and community, one that held a special magic for Japanese displaced by years of war and postwar reconstruction.

Way back in 1185, it is said, the Taira clan from Kyoto fled to the remote mountains around Gokayama after a terrible defeat in the Dan-no-Ura war. Cut off from the world, they preserved in their hidden sanctuary memories and customs from the court 125 miles away, even as they fell into abeyance elsewhere (one folk song still performed in Gokayama is said to date back 1,400 years).

All too symbolically, in addition to gunpowder and silk—such an archetypal Japanese combination!—the villages of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go became famous for producing yukyu-shi, or handmade mulberry paper on which, people say, ink remains legible for a thousand years.

Pitching Together

Yet as Japan started to prosper in the 1960s, more and more locals abandoned the hard, labor-intensive life of traditional trades and straw-roofed homes for city jobs and washing machines and cars.

In Kawabata’s novel, the whistle of the train from Tokyo can often be heard, hauntingly, in the distance. The Japanese government decided that it had to take special measures to preserve the traditional settlements, almost as if they were a reminder to the country of where it came from and what gave it fiber. Part of the beauty of those little houses on terraced plateaus, after all, was that up to 30 members of a single family lived under the same roof; when a straw thatch needed replacing—every 15 or 20 years—the entire village pitched in, completing the task in a day.

Dinner at Wanosato

Dinner at Wanosato

Dinner at Wanosato

Photo by Randy Harris

The True Japan

After UNESCO declared Gokayama and Shirakawa-go World Heritage Sites in 1995, their preservation seemed guaranteed, even though—as Yomoshiro’s proprietors tell me wistfully—young people keep fleeing to the city (even as many in the city long to go “back to nature”).

When, every January and February, the houses of Shirakawa-go are illuminated after dark, tour buses crowd in to see a fairyland brought to life, a vision of what my wife calls “the true Japan.” In a country where it’s common to find the raw and the cooked, the very rustic and the extremely refined, all over one another in a chaotic mix, this is the rare area where you can see both cool and warmth in their essential forms, side by side.

Heart Of Stillness

On my recent trip to the gassho zukuri, I decided to start in the heart of stillness and then move out toward civilization.

I boarded a “Thunderbird Express” train at Kyoto’s Platform 0 (what could be more Harry Potterish?), and got out 150 minutes later at the shuttered town of Takaoka. Thirty minutes later, a “World Heritage” bus that plies the mountain roads four times a day pulled up and drove me and just three other foreigners into a classic landscape of thick green forests and heavy mist. Cars had their headlights on at 1:30 in the afternoon, as threads of cloud veiled and unveiled the single-lane highway.

Then we passed through a long tunnel—and another—and came out, as in Kawabata’s novel, into a realm of mossy emerald paths and weathered Shinto shrines.

Fresh Fish

Fresh Fish

Fresh fish for sale in Takayama, a pretty boutique town an hour from Shirakawa-go, and more seductive and foreigner-friendly than almost anywhere else in Japan.

Photo by Randy Harris

Picture Perfect

Ainokura proved as quiet and authentic a way to experience village life as I had hoped for;

but to see the praying roofs in a more dramatic (and somewhat manicured) pattern, the place the tour groups congregate is Ogimachi, in Shirakawa-go, where local authorities have brought in 117 farmhouses from around the region to create a picture-postcard folk village along a river.

Signs point to a “Home Made Restaurant” and crowds of Chinese visitors slurp buckwheat ice cream around a coffeehouse with a replica of Rodin’s Thinker at its entrance; it’s not quite real, but on a singing autumn day of blazing light and warmth, few settlements could be more scenic.

Traditions

Around the showpiece houses of Shirakawa-go, and Ainokura’s Traditional Crafts Museum, you can glimpse traditions from three centuries ago, and see the straw baskets made for cats to sleep in and the sasara hand-drums comprising 108 thinly sliced wooden blocks, to represent the 108 worldly desires that Buddhism seeks to drive out.

Elsewhere in the area are bamboo blocks whose regular thonks kept wild boars away, and sleds used for transporting the sick across the snow.

Heat Meets Cold

Heat Meets Cold

The ofuro,or hot tub, at Wanosato.

Photo by Randy Harris

Takayama

The final, crowning grace of the area is the pretty boutique town of Takayama, an hour from Shirakawa-go, and more seductive and foreigner-friendly than almost anywhere else in Japan.

Takayama has its own cluster of traditional houses ten minutes from the train station, but really its beauty lies in its narrow lanes of two-story wooden houses of the kind that have disappeared almost everywhere else. Takayama is a treasure-house of jazz bars and stylish galleries and crafts shops; even the 7-Elevens here are elegant latticed-wood structures.

As you walk into the hills ten minutes from the old quarter, rich with 13 temples and parks made for strolling, you hear running water wherever you go; above the Yasu River winding through the center of town, a series of shapely bridges turns the bustling city into a garden.

Delicious

At the Hidatei Hanaougi ryokan—in this part of Japan it makes sense to stay in a traditional inn—I find a red origami crane next to the six-course breakfast I’m served in my own room;

hours later, I’m devouring an unexpectedly tasty three-course lunch (for $13) in a French bistro called Mieux, culminating in a gossamer-soft peach sorbet. A gentle walk away from the quaint streets of the old town, I chance upon the Yoshijima Heritage House, a sake brewer’s home built 107 years ago, and find myself in a dazzle of shoji screens and bare tatami rooms, sunlight streaming in under the high rafters. Windows are pulled back to afford glimpses of the first reddening maples in a tiny garden; the light filtered through the paper windows makes abstract expressionist patterns across the tatami.

Six Course Breakfast

Six Course Breakfast

Pictured here: fresh tuna and salmon roe sashimi—wintertime favorites.

Photo by Randy Harris

Transformed

I’m so transformed by the scene—the most beautiful house I can remember seeing in Japan—that I have to return the next day to watch the light work new designs across the thinly lacquered beams and pillars.

Many visitors look in on Ainokura and Shirakawa-go on an easy day-trip from Takayama, returning to the town of dainty curlicues and cosmopolitan restaurants for the evening. But I was very glad to have spent one night in a thatched farmhouse, letting the silence seep into my bones.

Japan can be an incomparably sleek and friction-free bullet train of an experience; but being back in a minshuku,or family-run guesthouse, reminds me that the country’s sovereign graces have to do with friendly humanity and an eagerness to make visitors feel at home—even if laminated cards are needed to explain what kind of celery you’re eating.

Opening Space

In his classic essay on the power of deep eaves and heavy shadows, the novelist Jun'ichiro¯ Tanizaki wrote, “We Orientals love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the shine that call to mind the past that made them.

Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose.” Not only “Orientals,” I thought; the dark silences of these high, mysterious, ancient houses could open up space in anyone who enters.

Timeless

Timeless

A timeless scene—a brook, hugged by banks of snow—at Wanosato.

Photo by Randy Harris

Stay

Beniya Mukayu An elegant, refined 17-room inn a little over two hours from Takayama, near the Yamashiro onsen (hot springs); every room comes with its own open-air bath.

Hidatei Hanaougi This ryokan has a hot spring on the property.

Magoemon For a thatched-house experience in Shirakawa-go.

Wanosato A luxe ryokan a short drive from central Takayama.

Yomoshiro A guesthouse in the gassho zukuri style.

Do

Hida Folk Village A pleasant open-air museum featuring 30 traditional farmhouses.

Kusakabe Heritage House A high-raftered merchant’s house from the Edo era, in a picturesque part of Takayama.

Shirakawa-go Folk Village

Yoshijima Heritage House A merchant’s mansion reconstructed during the Meiji period, near Kusakabe Heritage House.

Eat

Heianraku An inexpensive foreigner-friendly place; especially good for vegetarians.

Mieux Bistro A pleasant French bistro on the main drag in Takayama, with reasonable teishoku (three-course) sets available at lunchtime.

Read

Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata; Vintage, $12.