In search of stillness
A journey to the heart of true Japan
KEEP PACE IN KYOTO
Japanese hospitality company Fujita Kanko will open two properties in the historic former capital of Kyoto under its Hotel Gracery branding. The 97-room Kyoto Teramachi is due to launch next year and the 128-room Kyoto Shinkyogoku in 2017; the sister hotels will be built adjacent to each other near the heritage shopping district of Shinkyogoku. In an unusual but complementary concept, the smaller hotel will feature all double rooms while the larger will offer twin-bedded chambers. Hotel Gracery Okinawa will also join the company’s fast-growing fold next year. More: en.gracery.com. The minute darkness descends on the village of Ainokura, the paper windows under the thatched roofs all around me begin to glow, turning high walls into eerie faces. Lanterns cast reflections on the rice paddy at the centre of the 20-house village, and the sign warning of bears nearby grows indecipherable in the pitch blackness. Wandering between A-shaped houses with steep, 60-degree straw roofs — gassho zukuri, or praying hands — I might be walking through a Christmas card of occasional lights and tree-trunk seats gathered around a mushroom-shaped low table.
“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 whitest parts of Japan are further 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 promissory note. Here people still trudge through midwinter drifts in snow sandals and coats made of straw.
In his classic novel of 1948, Snow Country, the Nobel prize-winning writer Yasunari Kawabata conjures up the romance of a sheet-white, almost posthumous world of blind masseuses and roads sealed off every year until May. “There was drab poverty in the scene,” he writes, “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. Not long before, in 1940, 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. When his book, also called Snow Country, came out, in 1956, it spoke for a vanishing world of tradition and community that held a special magic for Japanese displaced by years of war and post-war reconstruction.
Yet as Japan started to prosper, in the 1960s, more and more villagers began to abandon the hard, labour-intensive life of their straw-roofed homes for the washing machines and cars of the city.
In Kawabata’s novel, the whistle of the train from Tokyo can often be heard, hauntingly, in the distance as village girls lay out kimono for bleaching and women in baggy trousers work the fields.
Finally, the Japanese government decided that it would have to take conscious 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 fibre.
Part of the beauty attaching to the little houses on the terraced plateaus, after all, was that up to 30 members of a single family lived under the same roof; when a straw thatch needed to be replaced, every 15 or 20 years, the entire village pitched in, completing the task in a day.
Once UNESCO declared Gokayama and Shirakawago World Heritage Sites, in 1995, the preservation of the two settlements seemed guaranteed, even though young people keep fleeing to the city.
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, what my Japanese wife calls “the true Japan”.
On my recent trip to the gassho zukuri, I decide to try to mix the stillness of the remote villages with the civilised elegance of Takayama, an hour or two away. I board a Thunderbird Express train at Kyoto’s Platform 0 (what could be more Harry Potterish?), and get out 150 minutes later at the shuttered town of Takaoka. A World Heritage bus that plies the mountain roads four times a day conveys me and only three other foreigners into a classic landscape of thick green forests and heavy mist.
Cars have on their headlights at 1.30pm as threads of cloud veil and unveil the single-lane highway. Then we pass through a long tunnel, and another, and come out, as in Kawabata’s novel, in a realm of mossy emerald paths and weathered Shinto shrines.
The exquisitely pretty town of Takayama, with its narrow streets of wooden houses, surrounded by temples along the hills, is the area’s mini-Kyoto, a boutique town of dainty curlicues and cosmopolitan restaurants. A gen- tle walk away from the quaint streets at the centre, where even 7-Elevens are made to look like antique homes, 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. It is the most beautiful house I can remember seeing in Japan.
Most visitors stay amid Takayama’s refinements and take in Ainojura and Shirakawa-go via an easy day trip but I am very glad to spend one night in a thatched Ainokura farmhouse, letting the silence seep into my bones.
Inside the cosy Yomoshiro guesthouse, the 14th-generation owner, Kunihiro, dishes out hearty mountain vegetables and river fish cooked by his cheerful wife Noriko, around an irori, or traditional sunken hearth.
As I retire to a hard pillow in a simple tatami room in the 240-year-old farmhouse, I recall how my Kyoto-born wife refused to join me on this trip, so sure was she that we’d be surrounded by ghosts.
In 27 years of living in Japan, I realise as I wake at dawn and walk around the sleeping village that I’ve seldom felt so far from fluorescent lights and Western fashion and 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”.
Japan can be an incomparably sleek experience if you are in love with modern pleasures; but being in such a minshuku, or family-run guesthouse, reminds me that the country’s sovereign graces have long had to do with friendly humanity and an eagerness to make visitors feel at home. Even if you need a laminated card to explain what kind of celery exactly you are eating.
Pico Iyer’s most recent books are The Man Within My Head (on Graham Greene) and The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere.
Thatched roofs of Ainokura, left; inside the late 19th century Yoshijima-Ke House