Ice and Fire in the Ja­panese Alps

Lonely Planet Magazine (US) - - Contents -

Se­cluded on­sens, fiery fes­ti­vals and snow-dusted mon­keys: the Ja­panese Alps are where tra­di­tion and na­ture rule.

A WORLD OF WHITE IS VEILED BE­HIND MISTY CLOUDS, THE SUN FAINT AS THE MOON. SNOW-LADEN TREES ARE JUST VIS­I­BLE AGAINST THE MOUN­TAINS, THEIR DARK FIG­URES FORM­ING A CLAS­SI­CAL INK WASH PAINT­ING. THE MONO­CHROME TABLEAU IS BRO­KEN ONLY BY THE OC­CA­SIONAL STAMP OF RED: PERSIMMONS CLING­ING TO THE BRANCH, THE VERMILION OUT­LINES OF BRIDGES AND BAM­BOO POLES USED TO MEA­SURE THE SNOW­FALL. EV­ERY SENSE IS MUFFLED: TOUCH IS NUMBED BY THE COLD; SCENTS ARE CLOAKED BY THE CRISP AIR; SOUND IS RE­DUCED TO THE WHITE NOISE OF DRIFT­ING FLAKES.

Sud­denly the near-si­lence is in­ter­rupted by a colos­sal roar as three feet of snow cas­cades off a rooftop. For­tu­nately, no one is caught un­der this mini avalanche. The home­owner soon emerges to shovel the freshly blan­keted doorstep. Wear­ing a yel­low oil­skin jacket and a con­i­cal straw hat to pro­tect against the on­slaught of pre­cip­i­ta­tion, he pushes a plow as big as a wheel­bar­row.

Re­ceiv­ing some 400 inches of snow ev­ery year, the vil­lage of Shi­rakawa-gō is one of the snowiest in­hab­ited places on earth. From Novem­ber to April, snow banks build up to heights taller than any hu­man, and res­i­dents must con­tin­u­ally bat­tle to keep paths and roads clear. Lo­cated in an area known po­et­i­cally as “snow coun­try,” a con­glom­er­a­tion of prov­inces to the north­west of the Ja­panese Alps, this is a vil­lage de­fined by its ge­og­ra­phy.

With some peaks ex­ceed­ing 9,800 feet, the Ja­panese Alps cre­ate a great moun­tain­ous bar­rier, di­vid­ing Hon­shu, Ja­pan’s main is­land, into two very dif­fer­ent halves. On the east­ern side, which gets very lit­tle snow­fall, cities, in­clud­ing Tokyo, have grown to form a dense ur­ban sprawl. But on the other side, mois­ture­laden winds from Siberia re­lease their icy loads in almighty down­pours, and this ex­treme weather has kept the vil­lages and towns of this re­gion rel­a­tively iso­lated. These days, snow coun­try can be reached by high­way and bul­let train from Tokyo in a cou­ple of hours, but this his­tor­i­cally cut-off re­gion re­mains a reser­voir of tra­di­tion, a place to ex­pe­ri­ence Ja­panese cul­ture and fes­ti­vals as they’ve been prac­ticed for cen­turies.

“I SEE THE MOUN­TAINS AND THE RIVER AND

FIND MY­SELF RAIS­ING MY HANDS IN PRAYER.”

Ar­riv­ing at Shi­rakawa-gō, I am greeted by a scene frozen in time. The stumps of last year’s rice crop poke out from iced-over pad­dies. A few dozen A-frame homes, some hun­dreds of years old, stand erect be­tween them. Ici­cles ex­tend down from their thatched pam­pas grass roofs like trans­par­ent fin­gers. Built with­out nails and us­ing only nat­u­ral ma­te­ri­als, these build­ings seem to have sprouted or­gan­i­cally from the ground, like the shaggy cy­press for­est sur­round­ing them. Many are now guest­houses and restau­rants. Hang­ing near the en­trances, menus painted ver­ti­cally on wooden boards ad­ver­tise dishes made with lo­cal in­gre­di­ents: pick­led win­ter veg­eta­bles, moun­tain-gath­ered mush­rooms, and Hida beef cooked on a hot plate.

Come dusk, as the ane­mic sun slips be­hind the hills, Shi­rakawa-gō’s snows­cape takes on a blue hue, ex­cept for the warm yel­low glow em­a­nat­ing from the win­dows. In­side Ma­goe­mon, one of the inns, Fu­mie Suzuguchi lights the open-hearth fire around which she will serve her guests a mul­ti­course meal. Above her, wooden beams, black­ened from decades of smoke, gleam like lac­quer­ware. Seem­ingly sim­ple from the out­side, the inn un­folds like a bento box in the in­te­rior, with a se­ries of slid­ing doors com­part­men­tal­iz­ing rooms within rooms. Cross­ing the tatami-mat­ted floor, Suzuguchi slides open one of the doors to the ex­te­rior to let in a lit­tle air. “Look­ing out­side lifts my spir­its,” she says. “I see the moun­tains and the river and find my­self rais­ing my hands in prayer.”

Long win­ter nights spent play­ing cards and drink­ing around the fire with few out­siders to in­ter­rupt them has kept bonds be­tween the vil­lagers strong. Neigh­bors come to­gether to help re­pair the thatched roofs in spring. When some­one dies, the en­tire com­mu­nity sits with the fam­ily and makes dec­o­ra­tions for the fu­neral. “To me it feels un­nat­u­ral to go a whole day only see­ing strangers’ faces,” says Suzuguchi of her oc­ca­sional vis­its to the dis­tant me­trop­o­lis where her daugh­ter now lives. “I can only re­lax once I get back to Shi­rakawa-gō.”

Drap­ing on the tra­di­tional yukata robes left in their rooms, guests make their way to the din­ing area and, for one night at least, are made to feel part of this vil­lage fam­ily. They kneel in front of trays set out with a dozen small dishes, in­clud­ing miso-roasted tofu, slow­grilled river fish and thin strands of enoki mush­rooms, set atop a lit clay pot to cook for them­selves. As steam streams off the pot, the cold out­side seems far away.

Even the cities in snow coun­try feel like over­sized vil­lages. Heavy-duty snow­plows and built-in warmwa­ter sprin­klers keep the roads to Mat­sumoto open through win­ter, but life still passes at a gen­tle pace. En­cir­cled by alpine peaks, this city of 240,000 peo­ple crouches low to the ground. The six-story, 16th-cen­tury cas­tle at its cen­ter – the old­est cas­tle of its kind in

Ja­pan – re­mains one of Mat­sumoto’s tallest build­ings. Dusted in snow, its gray-tiled eaves sweep up to meet the sky like the proud crests of a samu­rai’s hel­met. I lose my­self for hours clam­ber­ing up and down the cas­tle’s steep wooden stairs, which are laid out in all direc­tions, like an Escher paint­ing, in or­der to dis­ori­ent at­tack­ers. It’s easy to imag­ine heav­ily ar­mored war­riors run­ning along the drafty cor­ri­dors, hurl­ing pro­jec­tiles through the nar­row win­dows. Vis­i­ble through the slits are a pair of swans on the moat be­low and a white crane glid­ing just above the wa­ter.

Wan­der­ing through Mat­sumoto’s quiet streets, past an­tique stores, stone wells and the clear, carp-filled river, I ar­rive at Yo­hashira Shrine, a tem­ple to Shin­to­ism, Ja­pan’s indige­nous re­li­gion. Lo­cals on their way back from work stop to col­lect pa­pers in­scribed with their for­tunes. Oth­ers rev­er­ently ap­proach the main hall and ring the enor­mous brass bells at the en­trance to send a greet­ing to the spir­its of the shrine. Deep in the gloom of the in­ner sanc­tum, a pri­est in a white robe and crim­son skirts is just dis­cernible as he glides past.

Shin­to­ism isn’t the only re­li­gion that found sanc­tu­ary in Ja­pan’s moun­tain­ous in­te­rior. In nearby Nagano, another peak-ringed city, Zenkō-ji is one of the coun­try’s old­est Bud­dhist tem­ples, dat­ing back to the sev­enth cen­tury. In­side hides the first im­age of the Bud­dha ever to make it to Ja­pan: a 1,500-year-old

statue con­sid­ered so holy that it is never shown to the pub­lic. Still, the prom­ise of be­ing so close to the di­vine draws thou­sands of pil­grims from around the world; they rub shoul­ders with lo­cals dressed in their finest ki­monos. On the day I ex­plore the sprawl­ing com­plex, a row of verdi­gris, time-weath­ered Bud­dhas are crowned with caps of freshly fallen snow. Wa­ter spurt­ing from a myth­i­cal dog-lion sculp­ture steams in the cool air, and wor­ship­pers shield against the white flurry with their um­brel­las.

Un­per­turbed by the flakes fall­ing on his black robe, pri­est Takashi Wakaomi stands at the gate of one of the tem­ple lodg­ings. Be­fore en­ter­ing, he re­moves his tra­di­tional clog­like footwear. Over tea, served kneel­ing on the tatami-mat­ted floor, he ex­plains why he thinks Zenkō-ji was built here, far from any his­tor­i­cally im­por­tant cities: “The moun­tains are a place to meditate away from the dis­trac­tions of the plains be­low.” In slow, de­lib­er­ate phrases, his white beard mov­ing with his mouth as he speaks, Wakaomi says that it is eas­ier to feel a spir­i­tual con­nec­tion when you are sur­rounded by na­ture. “See­ing the sea­sons change, you un­der­stand rein­car­na­tion. Even un­der the snow, buds lie wait­ing to bloom.”

For hun­dreds of years, peo­ple have been drawn to snow coun­try, seek­ing not just spir­i­tual re­newal but phys­i­cal suc­cor. The Ja­panese Alps aren’t or­di­nary moun­tains. Vol­canic in ori­gin, they har­bor a fiery in­te­rior and ther­mal wa­ters in their foothills. “Samu­rai used to come here to soak and heal their wounds,” says Yukiko Saisu, the owner of Ryokan Biyunoy­ado, one of the many guest­houses in Yu­danaka-Shibu Onsen, a vil­lage that has trans­formed its nat­u­ral hot springs into dozens of bath­houses.

Nowa­days Yu­danaka is bet­ter known as a jump-off for Shiga Ko­gen ski re­sort and the nearby Jigoku­dani Mon­key Park, where a troupe of hot-spring-lov­ing wild macaques (aka snow mon­keys) have be­come some of the world’s most pho­tographed pri­mates. But de­spite the changes that have come in re­cent decades, cul­tural cus­toms dat­ing from the age of the samu­rai still re­main in Yu­danaka. The vol­canic wa­ters are con­sid­ered a present from the gods, and the vil­lage tem­ples and shrines erected in their honor are still well at­tended. In scenes that could pass for another era, peo­ple tot­ter along the main street in wooden san­dals, try­ing not to stum­ble in the snow. Reach­ing their bath­house of choice, they step through the doors and slip off their tra­di­tional robes, let­ting the warm wa­ters en­ve­lope their naked skin. “Ja­panese trav­el­ers love it here but even the lo­cal res­i­dents pre­fer to use the pub­lic baths in­stead of the ones in their own homes,” claims Saisu, be­fore shuf­fling off to at­tend to guests, her ki­mono strik­ing a time­less sil­hou­ette against the grid pat­tern of the slid­ing pa­per doors.

“THE MOUN­TAINS

ARE A PLACE TO MEDITATE AWAY FROM THE DIS­TRAC­TIONS OF

THE PLAINS BE­LOW.”

Chil­dren car­ry­ing lit torches dur­ing the an­nual Nozawa Fire Fes­ti­val

Young men guard a spe­cially built wooden shrine while oth­ers try to set it on fire.

Some 20 miles from Yu­danaka, Nozawa Onsen is another hot spring vil­lage where the de­vel­op­ment of world-class ski slopes hasn’t stopped a rich seam of her­itage from be­ing pre­served. Bordered with thin chan­nels of pip­ing wa­ters, its labyrinthine streets are per­ma­nently cloaked in a va­porous veil, and al­most ev­ery cor­ner is punc­tu­ated with a tim­ber-framed pub­lic bath­house. In mid-Jan­uary, the steam and the snow are met by another pri­mal ele­ment, as Nozawa’s

3,500 vil­lagers hold the an­nual Nozawa Fire Fes­ti­val, a three-day event cul­mi­nat­ing in a blaz­ing bat­tle that seems like a scene straight out of Game of Thrones.

The day be­fore the main cer­e­mony, Mo­rio Tomii, head of the fes­ti­val com­mit­tee, over­sees the carv­ing and paint­ing of stat­ues of Doso­jin, the guardian

Shinto deities in whose name the cel­e­bra­tions are held. “We do this to show re­spect to the spir­its in na­ture,” he says. “The hot springs are a gift from the moun­tains. If

we don’t show our grat­i­tude, we might lose them.”

With a full head of white hair, pin-straight pos­ture and few wrin­kles, Tomii doesn’t look his 81 years. He proudly notes that he’s been present at more than 70 of the fes­ti­vals, one ev­ery year since he was a young boy, ex­cept the pe­riod dur­ing World War II, when the event didn’t take place. “We pass this from gen­er­a­tion to gen­er­a­tion,” he says. “The en­tire vil­lage has a part to play.”

Across town, a stream of res­i­dents fil­ter into the fes­ti­val site, bring­ing their house­hold’s of­fer­ings. Sym­bolic pa­pier-mâché daruma dolls, pine branches and card­board boxes filled with old New Year’s dec­o­ra­tions all join the heap, wait­ing to be burned in the fiery grand fi­nale. Ev­ery res­i­dent is in­volved in the prepa­ra­tions but some have a spe­cial part to play. Be­cause the num­bers 25 and 42 are con­sid­ered un­lucky, the men of these ages are the ones tasked with build­ing the gi­ant shrine that will be­come the fes­ti­val’s bon­fire. For days they chop sa­cred beech and cedars from the moun­tain forests, haul them down the slopes and heave the heavy trunks into po­si­tion. When the shrine is com­plete on the fi­nal evening they take on the role of sac­ri­fi­cial lambs, guard­ing the wooden struc­ture while the rest of the vil­lagers take turns run­ning at them with flam­ing torches.

With a name that means “strong cedar moun­tain” and a burly physique to match, 42-year-old Go Sugiyama presents a per­fect pic­ture of sto­icism in the face of the up­com­ing dan­ger. Tak­ing a break from the con­struc­tion of the shrine, he ex­plains that although the 42-year-olds have to clam­ber on top of the two-story ed­i­fice, it’s the 25-year-olds that have the worse job: they have to en­cir­cle the bot­tom of the shrine, fend­ing off the fire-wield­ing at­tack­ers. “When I was 25, I got so close, the flames burned off my nos­tril hairs,” Sugiyama re­calls. “But the sake al­co­hol we drink will take away our fear.”

“WE DO THIS TO SHOW

RE­SPECT TO THE SPIR­ITS IN NA­TURE.”

Come sun­set, Sugiyama’s mo­ment of truth ar­rives. Wear­ing a wor­ry­ingly flammable tra­di­tional straw hat, cloak and boots, he climbs atop the shrine with the other 42-year-olds. Drum­beats and fire­works presage the bat­tle. Dur­ing the next two hours, wave after wave of vil­lagers, in­clud­ing Sugiyama’s own 10-year-old son, rush at the shrine look­ing like they are try­ing to set it ablaze. From atop the holy pyre, all Sugiyama can do is watch the on­slaught be­low and pray the pro­tec­tive ring of 25-yearolds do their job. It’s a rit­ual per­for­mance that’s been car­ried out safely for more than a cen­tury, but to the out­side ob­server, the at­tack­ers ap­pear ter­ri­fy­ingly close to ac­tu­ally burn­ing the men alive.

Fi­nally, when ev­ery­one has had a go at charg­ing, the or­deal is over. It seems the gods are sat­is­fied. Go and the oth­ers are al­lowed to de­scend from the shrine be­fore it is fi­nally set afire, send­ing an enor­mous fire­ball into the dark sky. By day­break, only em­bers re­main. School­child­ren grill rice cakes over the smol­der­ing pile. By af­ter­noon, the ash will be cov­ered in a thick new layer of snow. All will soon be white again.

Yukiko Saisu, owner of Ryokan Biyunoy­ado guest­house, walks through the snow.

A wild Ja­panese macaque (snow mon­key) at Jigoku­dani Mon­key Park

The vil­lage of Shi­rakawa-go is made up of tra­di­tional A-frame houses, built to re­sist heavy snow­fall.

Bridge cross­ing the river that runs through Shi­rakawa-go, vil­lage

A man clears snow in front of his house on the main street of Shi­rakawa-go.

Jour­ney deep into the Ja­panese Alps to dis­cover a place still ruled by na­ture and an­cient tra­di­tions. By GABRIELLE JAFFE @GJAFFE Pho­to­graphs by PHILIP LEE HAR­VEY @PHILIP_LEE_HARVEY_PHOTOGRAPHER

Yo­hashira Shrine, a small tra­di­tional Shinto shrine in Mat­sumoto PHRASE BOOK WHAT’S IN A NAME? Many of the place names in the Snow Coun­try re­gion have a strong con­nec­tion to na­ture. Shi­rakawa-go means “white river vil­lage,” while the tra­di­tional...

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