The first time I went to Japan, I was 10 years old. We were on our way to visit my maternal grandfather in Taiwan, stopping for 3 days in Tokyo. I remember a hotel high in the clouds and a city more modern than LA far below.
This is my fourth visit to Japan and the country continues to make my jaw drop. Ginza is Fifth Avenue on steroids. Tokyo rivals London in its ability to render conspicuous consumption a high art.
As much as I love the cities, I want to visit the small towns and villages, too. Japan used to be an agrarian society. Like everywhere else in the world, young people have left the countryside for the big cities in search of jobs. Is there anyone left to live the country life?
Akita prefecture is a 3 hour train ride north of Tokyo. The area is famous for its eponymous dogs, komachi rice, and a legend called the namahage. The namahage come into the villages on New Year’s Eve to take away naughty children and disobedient wives. Unless, of course, you ply the monsters with food and drink.
We’re not here for monsters but rather to visit Keno and Gretchen Miura. She’s American and a long-time resident of Japan. He’s the head priest at Dairyuji, a Zen Buddhist temple with an 800 year history. Keno is the 38th head priest, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather before him.
Their sect is Soto Zen, a strain of Zen Buddhism that uses meditation as the gate to enlightenment. Gretchen describes it as an amalgamation of Buddhist teaching, the Shinto tradition of animism, and native religions. For example, Oga is a village of rice farmers and fishermen. Water can be both enemy and protector. In Asia, dragons come from the sea. Hence the name Dairyuji: Big Dragon Temple.
But this explanation is far too rational. Zen is about seeing yourself and the world around you without words or logic. Meditation is all you need. You can meditate seated on a cushion or tilling the fields or by enduring hunger and cold as Keno did during his monastery days. My husband asks, what did you get out of that experience? Keno says, let the water drain until you can see the rocks below.
Rocks and water go together in Japan. To my mind, there is nothing more Japanese than to bathe in a hot spring. With all the volcanic activity in Japan, there are plenty of natural hot springs emitting heat and sulphur. These springs and the inns that service them are called onsen.
Tsurunoyu Onsen sits high above Laka Tazawako, a popular ski resort in Iwate prefecture. Legend has it that a wounded crane was spotted dipping its broken wing into the steaming pool of sulphuric water, healing its wound. The fame of these healing waters soon spread, causing local dignitaries to visit this lair of the black bears.
Centuries later and Tsurunoyu Onsen is still going strong. There are numerous baths here. Some are indoors or gender-specific. The large outdoor bath is mixed. Farmers come to bathe after the ardors of harvest. Tourists, Japanese and foreign, flock to this place for a taste of old Japan. But for foreigners, the bar can be high.
You start with the dance of the slippers. One pair can only be used for traipsing outdoors from one bath to the next. Another is reserved for indoor use. A third set is for the toilet. Since it’s good manners to leave your slippers facing the direction in which they’ll next be used, I need to pirouette in and out of the toilet.
The onsen supplies all the wardrobe you’ll need: a yukata to wear, a large towel for drying, and a so-called modesty towel. The latter is to hide your privates as you climb into the bath. But where do you put this towel once you’re neck-deep in hot water? You fold your towel and wear it on your head.
Dai and Hila live in an area of Shizuoka prefecture known for its tea, cedar, and bamboo. He’s Japanese and she’s Israeli. Together, they are restoring the traditional house where we’re staying.
All of the homes we’ve visited so far have tatami mats on the floor and paper screens for walls. But this house has an indoor courtyard and a wooden deck that stretches the length of the building. Here, you can open and close the screens like a Japanese puzzle box. Open this screen for a view of the forest. Close another screen to let the breeze pass through the house.
In November, however, a draft is the last thing you want in your house. And since Japanese houses are built to withstand the hot and humid summer, there is neither central heating nor much in the way of insulation.
So, I listen for the village chime that rings every day at 5pm. Then I know it’s time to close the wooden shutters that keep out the cold night air and light the kerosene heater. A kotatsu keeps our legs warm while we eat dinner. At night, we sleep under a warm fuzzy blanket with a thick down comforter on top, lulled by the sound of the river rushing by.
Sounds of Japan
In Japan, you’re never far from water, whether it’s the sea, a river or a lake. The sounds, too, are similar across the country. In Dairyuji, it’s the temple bell tolling at six o’clock. At the onsen, it’s the river babbling under our balcony. In Yui Valley, we hear bells every night, reminding the residents to rake the ashes of their wood stoves.
Of course, there are cars and buses and bicycles. Little boxy trucks that wind their way up steep driveways to deliver the harvest. Persimmons, daikon, mushrooms of every kind, watercress, fish, tender bamboo shoots, morikoshi — candies made of adzuki beans.
The Japanese countryside yields its bounty and I partake of its pleasures. Is the countryside the place to find the real Japan? Maybe. Gretchen tells me that Tokyo-ites are fleeing the big city in favor of a life in Akita, closer to nature. Why else would a young couple like Dai and Hila live in secluded Yui Valley?
The trend, at least in the first world, is to slow down. A Zen thought, if ever there was one. I’ve come to the Japanese countryside in search of the real deal. Not a reconstructed facsimile of life seen through nostalgic rose glasses but as it continues to be lived, generations later. I’m happy to say I found it.