In search of still­ness

A jour­ney to the heart of true Ja­pan

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Japan - PICO IYER

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

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