The Real Japan

For years I tried and failed to travel happily in Japan. If you travel to see the sights, of course, the place is a tourist dream–guided tours depart constantly for thousands of famous destinations where you can sate yourself on tradition, culture, refinement, ethereal beauty, fabulous food, and tourist trinkets. But if you live there (especially in Kyoto, as I do), the palate tires of this exquisite fare. You long to see the Real Japan. Astonishingly, it does still exist, and there is a way to find it–but you’d better be quick. It’s on the edge of extinction.

It’s one of the abiding beliefs of Westerners that you (unlike the others in your tour bus) aren’t really a Tourist; you’re a Real Person, and it is therefore your inalienable right to meet the Real wherever you happen to travel. Unfortunately, the Midas rule of travel is that whatever a tourist touches turns to gold, and the Real is always disappearing just as your delighted eye is about to fall upon it. Japan is particularly frustrating in this matter; it seems more determined than most to only show you what it believes you ought to want to see. And if you reject the packaged version, slip down a side street and look around, you will probably return shaking your head at the tangle of overhead wires, the shoddy, cramped, tasteless houses, and the infinite sea of unrelieved concrete that is, in fact, the real Japan.

That is everyday reality. So what do you do with your precious vacation, if you’re too poor to fly back to your homeland, and if you believe that somewhere out there is a Japan that is neither packaged tradition nor urban jungle? You head for the countryside, last bastion of the really Real.

The first time I tried this, I decided to get an express train to somewhere a couple of hours beyond the city limits, then hop on a local and get off at the first nice place I saw. I chose Ise, because from there the map showed a railway line running close to the shore through small towns. Ise (apart from the two shrines, which were stunning), was a terrible disappointment, being more shoddy, cramped, tasteless, and concrete than the urban landscape I’d just left.

The first lesson about traveling in the Japanese “countryside” is that it mostly doesn’t exist, if what you mean is a rural landscape in which nature plays an important visual part. This is particularly so along the Pacific Ocean and Inland Sea sides of the Japanese coastline, but increasingly so in other areas as well.

Inaka is a concept that evolved from completely different roots than those of our pastoral-romantic “countryside.” To the Japanese, the Ise area is unquestionably inaka. This has nothing to do with natural scenery; it simply defines that which is not tokai, or city. This implies that it is lacking in all that makes the city vibrant, enjoyable, and convenient, a place where people who know what’s good for them prefer to live. This belief was just as strong and unquestioned a thousand years ago; to come from inaka is cause for shame, and to go there to live is cause for gloom.

Thanks to Western influence, inaka is now seen in a more positive light. Like the off-road vehicle and second house, it’s trendy. A recent ad sums it up: The headline “Tokai nanka, inaka desu” (“Who needs the city, it’s inaka“) appears above mountains and a reedy lake, where a youthful man in an expensive fishing outfit is thigh-deep, casting his line serenely. Inaka is, by definition, where it’s not at. Nothing in this scene even suggests Japan. This man is not really standing in inaka at all; he’s standing in Nature as the international playground of sportsmen.

In fact, this “leisure playground” inaka constitutes another peril for unprepared travelers. If you head inland up one of the river valleys, you’ll find weekend roads clogged with families headed for some vast sports-and-recreation-plus-hot-springs-bath complex that has apparently sprung up in the middle of nowhere. En route, trendy imported log cabins crowd the roadside where old thatched farmhouses once stood. If you do see a fine thatched building, you’ll find it’s actually an elegant, expensive restaurant providing pseudo-country fare. The blight of tourism has once again neatly excised the Real from under your tourist nose; only this time it’s tourism for the Japanese market, even more enraging than the packaged Tradition for foreigners you’ve spurned.

Another, far older aspect of inaka is summed up in the word furusato, one’s “real” or original home. This word conjures up a warming image of an old country house, with Mum emerging from a kitchen full of good smells and Dad returning joyously from harvesting golden rice fields, both glowing with welcome as you lower your city suitcase onto the veranda and announce “I’m home!” It’s the same nostalgia known to every recently urbanized nation; its pleasure depends entirely on the fact that you will soon be returning (a tear in your eye) to city life. You do not have to live out your life in this dark house, hands raw from endless work in the cold kitchen, back bent from endless labor in the fields, which today are so soaked with chemicals that country life is more dangerous than life in suburbia.

Unfortunately, nostalgia does not translate into an active impulse to preserve the landscape. And did that landscape ever exist? Well, yes, and a modified version still does. Here’s how you find it:

Get a good map (preferably contoured) and decent walking boots. Take a bus or train back up that river valley (the farther from a major city the better), get off where a side road leads into the mountains, and start walking. You’ll find the road is narrow, more or less without traffic. A small stream will probably be nearby, with mountainsides rising not far away, and before long you will come to a little group of old wooden houses, many with a steep iron roof covering the original thatch. Vegetables and fruit (daikon, persimmons) hang under the eaves to dry. Flowers bloom in the garden. Beyond are rice fields, yellow before the harvest, and in a nearby vegetable field a bent old figure in farming monpe trousers and a pointed straw hat slowly straightens herself and returns your friendly greeting. Welcome home.

If you’re in luck, this will happen often enough. On another day you will walk up another side road and come upon another village, but this time derelict and empty, thatched roofs caving in, vegetable and rice fields a waste of weeds. These are the haison, abandoned villages, and they will make you weep. This will be the fate of that other village in a few more years. Unless, of course, city money moves in and transforms it into a holiday villa “utopia.”

Or if the haison causes you too much sorrow, try this: Look at your map and run your eye carefully along the coastline. It’s best to ignore the Pacific side of Japan, unless you have good inside information to the contrary; it only leads to concrete shorelines and tears. Try the Japan Sea side (not in winter!), and search for a patch of coast that does not lie on a direct route between cities. This is not easy. Go for the peninsulas, such as Noto, or the smaller peninsulas in Wakasa Bay, but beware the nuclear power plants that generally lie at the end of those enticing little roads. Or, better, try the islands, such as Oki or Sado, where you can still find untrafficked roads, with a good choice of minshuku (bed-and-breakfasts) to stay in en route. Be prepared to catch a local bus if at any point along your route the concrete and pachinko (pinball) parlors have already taken over the landscape.

Fishing villages, another kind of inaka, can be full of delights. You’ll be surprised at how vigorous these villages still are, how few are abandoned. And yet–look at the men mending nets by the water’s edge, the women in kerchiefs and monpe laying out seaweed to dry. They are old. And around the next bend, a construction gang (younger villagers, desperate for work), is widening the pretty, forested coast road into a grand new highway. Cranes are busy chewing into the cliff face, paving down to the tiny pebbly beach, lowering giant concrete tetrapods into the sea beyond it. They are making a “swimming beach,” and not for locals (who wouldn’t dream of swimming in the sea). A proud sign proclaims this endeavor “furusato-zukuri”–building furusato–which twists the old concept so outrageously it makes you gasp.

This is the future of the Japanese inaka. Like it or not. You came to see the Real, and what you find is a reality in the making. Beneath it the last precious moments of that other Japan are rapidly slipping away.

FromKyoto Journal(No. 37). Subscriptions: $35/4 issues from 31 Bond St., New York, NY 10012.

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