Asia | Japan – Heaven in the mists of mountains
First go at writing this although I’ve been here over 7 months now.
I’m doing JET in a small town called Yasu, in Kochi-ken, Shikoku, Japan.
Shikoku is one of the four main islands in Japan, and the least populated thanks to the beautiful mountainous inland.
Yesterday I came back from a wonderful weekend in a traditional thatched house up in the mountains, belonging to Alex Kerr: a reknowned writer who laments for the Japan that has been smothered by concrete and apathetic corruption.
Three female friends and I had decided it was about time to visit this mystical place that many of our contemporaries had raved about.
Chiiori- which means ‘house of the flute’ -is
tucked away in the Iya Valley, a remote but beautiful vein of (relatively) unspoiled countryside.
Alex bought the house in the 70’s when the small hamlet of which it was a part still had no road running to it. The people there had lived in their own self-sufficient oblivion to the modern world for centuries, and are in fact descendents of the famous Heike (Taira) clan that fled to Shikoku after defeat to their rivals back in the 13th century.
The Heike retreated up into the mountains and made their own settlement there. This is quite unusual for the Japanese- unlike most European countries, settlements rarely occur towards or at the tops of mountains, as it is traditionally believed that demons or gods populate the peaks- no place for humans.
Also the acute angle and impenetrable forests of most mountains and hills here make it very impractical to live. This was exactly what the Heike used to their advantage in eluding their pursuers.
Chiiori is now co-owned by Alex and Mason Florence, a travel photo-journalist who fellow Asia/Japan trekkers may recognise as the contributer to Lonely Planet guides of the region. They visit on occasion, but the maintenance of the cottage is left to two live-in managers: at the time of writing Mary and Yuki. A live-in artist occupies a small hut a little further down the mountain, and volunteers come and go throughout the year, helping with maintenance and farming.
Winter had all but finished, so everyone had thought. We arrived Friday evening to a very chilly Chiiori, drank and ate and chatted with the other guests, residents and volunteers, of varying professions and backrounds. Most people stayed over and slept on futons in the main room- the house is prepared for up to 20 guests at a time.
Because of the structure of the house, there is little insulation factor. As the front of the house which overlooks the valley is open, despite the thin glass sliding doors used in winter, believe me it is as warm as sleeping in a cow-shed. We all wore full outdoor clothing- hats and gloves- to bed to avoid hypothermia.
Mary told us how in January and February, she would often wake up in the morning to find everything left out in the kitchen frozen solid, pipes frozen (meaning no water) and how they would have to defrost snow over the ‘iiori’ (sunken fireplace in the centre of the room). When we visited the cold water was running, but just about. The hot water tank had expired a few months earlier, so the only option for a thorough wash was to go to a local hot spring- ‘onsen’ to clean up. For the residents, they might get round to doing this once every one or two weeks, inbetween kettle-boiled water baths that would cool far too quickly for each person to bathe adequately.
Saturday was tilling day- preparing the terrace infront of the house for seed sowing. It decided to snow on top of us, but as we were laboring away we didn’t feel the cold. Before we knew it there was a layer of snow coating everything, adding further unreality to the place by making it more dreamlike.
Kathryn was thatch-cutting, the lack of thatching grass available means that for the past few years they have needed to accumulate this valuable resource and dry it in readiness for the next big re-thatch, which will be in a couple of years time.
We stopped hoeing and hacking away at the cold earth at about 5 to set off for the onsen, to get our bodies clean and remove some of the woodsmoke smell that had penetrated our clothes and hair. Apart from fleeting hand-washes under the freezing water, our bodies had not seen a drop of it.
We all plunged naked into the outdoor spring, gratefully letting our bodies scald and then adjust to the temperature.
Back at Chiiori the men had prepared a vegetarian dinner which was waiting for us.
Sitting round the kotastu and the sunken fire, we debated the merits of different types of toilets that could be installed, considering the advantages of keeping to the ecological, traditional theme, but also bearing in mind that some visitors come not as volunteers ready to ‘rough it’ but rather as guests who expect both the traditional experience and modern sanitary standards.
As The Chiiori Project (the NPO name for it) has little income and increasing expenses due to the upkeep of such a place, it needs the income of these types of guests to sustain itself.
We woke up Sunday morning to see a world of white outside Chiiori’s wide windows. The field was frozen and the likelihood of getting much done disappeared, and as we had decided to see the famous vine bridges of the valley, we only had time to get breakfast, chat about traditional roofing techniques (Did you know that shingle can be wooden? These wooden shingles; flat plank- like tiles, are also used for roofing in Japan, though usually for temples and shrines) and do some window washing before we set off.
After a winding drive east down the Iya Valley we found the least visited of Iya’s 3 vine-bridges, which has a smaller one beside it. The four of us were alone in trying to cross these snowy Indiana Jones spans in the still whiteness of the valley. The wooden beams beneath us placed a foot-slip’s breadth apart, we were silently thrilled and vocally terrified by the crossing.
We returned on a hand-pulled cable car which stretches across the creek, another ‘first’ for me.
I will be going back at the end of this month, to reclaim my heart which has been left behind, on top of the mountain with the demons and gods, amidst the woodsmoke and coal-black beams.