Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities
Andrea Pompilio is born to a Japanese mother and Italian father, Andrea was raised in Tokyo and studied in Rome. He later worked as a globetrotting photojournalist. Look for him on DESIGN TALKS plus, on NHK WORLD.
Winter season was almost over and the spring breeze was evident in the air. A fresh feeling I always enjoy. And a perfect timing for a short journey since school's out for spring break and my schedule looks good.
It all started with the thought of going for our last snowboarding of the season, and the spontaneous "dart" was launched hitting a mountainous area in the Chubu Region in Gifu Prefecture. An area quite unknown to me. All I knew was that there were couple of slopes with the final stage of the snow, good onsens (hot springs), the historical city of Hida Takayama, and the world heritage Shirakawa-go.
Access to this region from Tokyo is not bad, just a couple of train transfers.
But on second thought, riding the slopes shouldn't be the theme. It just didn't convince me. We should rather explore the way of life in the region. Possibly, to be in touch with nature away from touristic sites and eat local, meet local and sleep local.
The only way to find out was to go and take it from there.
Hida Furukawa became our starting point.
A beautiful historical town maintaining the aspects of the Edo period with a small canal cutting through the town center lined with proud architectures of local sake breweries and kimono textile makers. Simply astonishing. The tranquil narrow alleys, the surrounding old wooden houses and the stone pavements takes you back in time. It was also exciting to learn that Hida Furukawa was a town famous for its highly skilled craftsmen with the know-how of what would be the base of Japanese architecture, the traditional carpentry of building without the use of any nails. Hundreds of craftsmen were sent out throughout Japan to construct important structures we see today such as castles and shrines of Kyoto or Mie. A technique unfortunately in a brink of disappearance, but lately recognized and regenerating through some contemporary architects including Kengo Kuma.
The town of Hida Furukawa was covered in thin layer of white snow when we were there. A wonderful choreography which even added a mesmerizing touch to our emotions. We were told that when the warmth of spring kicks in towards mid-April, 1000 carps are set out into the canals to add colour to the town. Right around the timing when the Furukawa Festival takes place. A must see annual event.
In a day's stroll you have seen quite everything of the town. Nice and compact.
It was while we were strolling the streets that we came across an English signage "SATOYAMA EXPERIENCE". It looked like a small café but it turned out to be a tour desk specialized in organizing unique trips and activities in the Hida area. We were welcomed by Shiho Yamada, of Satoyama Experience.
"Satoyama" is a term used to define the border zone between livable land where people call home SATO and nature, in this case a mountain YAMA.
The concept of SATOYAMA has developed for centuries and it defines the real meaning of sustainability and the relationship between mother nature and the people. From the gathering of fallen leaves to use as fertilizer in wet rice paddy fields to the usage of woods from the mountain for heating, construction and cooking, villagers utilized the landscape for agriculture creating streams and reservoirs for irrigation. The management of the forests through agriculture sustained a unique balance not only for mankind but for the plants and wildlife facilitated their movement and survival.
It's a concept which unfortunately has been disappearing significantly due to various factors including social and economic changes from around the mid 20th century, to the drastic shift in the usage of natural resources, to the aging Japanese society who cannot perform in harsh conditions which consecutively became less appealing to younger generations more attracted to convenient lifestyles of the cities.
Conservation movements of Satoyama has been actively growing and in recent years the awareness of the importance of protecting and regenerating the Satoyama culture has become evident thanks to efforts by determined people like Shiho Yamada.
In order to understand the reality and the beauty of Satoyama culture, she in fact proposed us to stay at a village in the mountain area approximately 30~40 minutes by car from Hida Furukawa. Of course our decision was made instantly. We were soon on our way to experience the real lifestyle of Satoyama.
Driving up a winding narrow road we reached TANEKURA. It's a Wow experience already. A beautiful village seclude in a mountainous area landscaped with rice terraces and numerous "itakura", wooden storehouses. At approximately 470mt sea level, snow accumulates about 2mt in the winter and goes down to -10℃ and in the summer reaches 30℃.
At the entrance of the village a tiny wooden house structure greets the visitor. It's a small temple, the Yakushi-do, with a statue of Buddha inside protecting the villagers from illness. Passing through old Japanese houses and fields no villagers seem to be present so we headed to Tanekura Inn, an old Japanese house built more than 100 years ago, brought to Tanekura and renovated for guest accommodation. The manager, Miyuki-san, clad in floral kimono welcomed us with a shining smile and thanked us for coming all the way to this secluded village. The two story wooden structure was extremely well maintained and nicely renovated re-using most of the old materials. The thick wooden beams expressed a long history of memories, somewhat very comforting to see, and the scent of wood soothing the mind. Tanekura Inn has three Tatami rooms and one twin bedroom, accommodating a total of 15 person max. We were the only ones that night which gave us the exclusivity in the use of the two large bathtubs overlooking the valley.
Before sunset, we went for a stroll to check out the village and hopefully meet some local villagers. Drum beats were heard coming from the village's main shrine, the Yamagami Jinja and since we could not see anyone, we figured the whole village was gathering for some ceremony.
We went up the stone stairway built alongside the rice terraces built during World War II. It is said that women, children, and the elderly that remained in the village as the men were drafted to war gathered rocks in the forest during the summer and used sleds in the winter to carry them down to the village. The same technique used to carry timber. The rocks were then stacked against the hillside and the land leveled to support the soil. The construction took ten years to complete. Cultivation of seasonal products such as myoga ginger and vegetables were seen on the terraces.
I must say it's a tough climb up those steep staircase, but the curiosity to see the view from above pushed us going.
The sound of pure tranquility and peace, just the rapidly flowing snow melted mountain water rushing down the irrigation system along the terraces. And my kids' frolic of amusement fill the cool air. It's a moment of meditation. The moment this village captured my heart…all our hearts.
The view from the top of the staircase was spectacular. The rice terraces and the town below, the valley, the surrounding mountain, and the remaining snow reflecting the sunset. Just beautiful! No words can express it. Strangely I felt something nostalgic, as if I did in the past come here before. The feeling of childhood memories reawakening.
Then from all the silence I hear a man calling out from down below waving at us. Cannot hear what he is saying, but he is saying something and coming up the staircase. Are we not supposed to be here? No, the contrary. As he came closer, we can see his friendly smile and he repeated, "Yokoso", welcome!
"Yokoso, aete ureshiidesu!" So pleased to meet you.
What a beautiful and moving encounter it was for us. He was Fujishiro-san, the former vice ward mayor of the village. "It's beautiful isn't it? Compared to the big cities, we have nothing here in Tanekura, but we have clean air, fresh water from the mountain above us, naturally grown vegetables and, this view". He excused himself for being a bit tipsy after a gathering of the villagers at the shrine ceremony and invited us to his home right below us for a cup of tea.
Living with his wife, Fujiyo, in a huge farm house he shared the story of the Tanekura.
"50 years ago, there were approximately 30 families, a total of 145 people living here. Now we are down to 17 people, mostly above 65 year of age.."
His mission in life has become the conservation of Tanekura and its way of life. Over the years, student volunteers and NPOs gathered to help revive the village taking over the hard work of agricultural maintenance of the landscape, routine weeding, and road maintenance. He is also known to have discovered purely by chance ancient seeds of buckwheat (soba) in one of the Itakura (wooden storehouse) in the village and learned to make soba flour how his ancestors did without any machinery using a water-wheel driven pounder called the Tsukiya. A process in which it would take 10 days to prepare soba flour for 20 people, a practice which faded away in time. He now revived it and makes the utmost quality of soba, and as the word of mouth spread, university researchers and professors from around the country visits to try a taste of his masterwork.
Dinner and breakfast back in Tanekura Inn is prepared by a young female chef, nick-named Sen-chan who migrated to Tanekura a few years ago. She would utilize only materials grown in the area in that season with no animal products and come up with incredibly delicious dishes, basing herself on traditional local cuisine but with a twist of originality. Plates of Sansai (wild mountain plants) Tempura, turnips, myoga rice-balls and vegetables wrapped in hoba leaves were divine.
Tanekura changes its expression every season, but it's advisable to visit in from spring to autumn when the roads are open and safe.
Satoyama offers many hints in how we should open up our future and what is really important in life. It's a pure experience of inspiration!
Andrea Pompilio, as known as Andy, is a citizen of the world. Born to an Italian father and a Japanese mother, he was raised in Tokyo and holds a Dutch passport. He is dedicated to promoting an open-minded spirit and intercultural ties. Andy describes himself as a 'filter', helping to connect Japan to the rest of the world. Currently hosts TV show: NHK WORLD "DESIGN TALKS plus".