Japan's Past Perfect

From the January/February 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

I’m sitting on the polished wooden steps of a 300-year-old farmhouse in Japan’s Iya Valley, looking out on a succession of mountain folds densely covered in deep green cedars. Skeins of morning mist rise from the valley floor, hang in wispy balls in the air, and tangle in the surrounding slopes. No other houses are visible. The only sound is the drip of predawn rain from nearby branches and from the farmhouse’s roof of thick thatch. The faint scent of charcoal from last night’s hearth rides on the air. I feel as if I’m in the hermit’s hut in a 17th-century ink-and-brush painting.

“Extraordinary, isn’t it?” says Paul Cato, the expatriate manager of this farmhouse, inn, and living-history classroom. “There are mornings when I wake up here and wonder what century I’m in.”

We’re at Chiiori, the project of an American author named Alex Kerr, who fell in love with this part of Japan when he was a student in Tokyo in the 1970s and bought this farmhouse as a way to preserve the traditions he treasured.

The Iya Valley is set deep in the mountainous interior of Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four principal islands, cradled between Kyushu to the west and the main island of Honshu, with the Inland Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south.

I FELL IN LOVE WITH SHIKOKU in the 1970s too, on a visit with my then girlfriend, Kuniko, who brought me to her family home here from the university in Tokyo, where we were both living. On that trip I discovered a Japan I hadn’t known existed: A place of farms and fishing villages, mountainside shrines and seaside temples, rugged seacoasts and forested hills, time-honored traditions and country kindness. Thirty-two years later, I’ve come back with Kuniko to celebrate our 28th anniversary and to see if I can rediscover that special place. While Kuniko relishes time at home with her family, I’m on a solo sojourn tracing pilgrims’ trails and winding one-lane roads in search of this lost Japan.

Kuniko’s hometown, Johen, is a tranquil place of about 9,000 people in the southwestern corner of Shikoku. Although it is a main island, Shikoku is what most Japanese consider tooi inaka, the deep countryside. Though there are a handful of famous sights—the 17th-century castles of Matsuyama and Kochi, Ritsurin Koen garden in Takamatsu, and the hot spring spa of Dogo Onsen in Matsuyama—and though three bridges now link the island to Honshu (the first opened in 1988), Shikoku remains a mystery to the average Japanese. It’s even more mysterious to foreigners, who rarely venture this far off the beaten path.

On my first visit here, I literally fell off the beaten path. Everything was going beautifully until Kuniko and I reached her family’s house, which was located on a lane that seemed narrower than our rental car, with a ditch on one side and a stream on the other. When I tried to turn the corner, a rear wheel slipped into the ditch. And that’s how I met my future parents-in-law, asking if they could help me lift my car from the trench. Kuniko’s mother, Obaachan, recalls this moment 32 years later, as the entire family gathers outside their home to bow me off on a sunny September day. “Don-san, stay away from the ditches!” she calls in Japanese as I pull away.

I’m bound for Cape Ashizuri, the island’s southernmost tip. Last night, over sushi, beers, and a shiny new Shikoku map, I had asked Kuniko’s parents and two brothers to tell me where to go to find the heart of Shikoku. Kuniko’s older brother, Nobuhisa, had nominated Cape Ashizuri, the same place he took us on my first visit. “Be sure to take this road,” he said, tracing a squiggle with his chopstick. “For me, that’s the best way to see what we call aoi kuni Shikoku: ‘blue country Shikoku.’ Blue sky, blue mountains, blue rice paddies, blue sea.” Blue rice paddies? He noted my quizzical look. “In old Japanese, aoi means both blue and green.”

A half hour out of Johen (which is now part of Ainan Town), I’m already immersed in classic aoi scenery: a deep blue sky over evergreen-cloaked mountains, sloping down to emerald rice paddies with a silver-glinting river ribboning through. There are hints of human presence: handmade scarecrows in straw hats placed among the paddies, wooden farmhouses darkened by age, and a diminutive Shinto shrine, with its stout torii gateway and sacred rope, set at the foot of one slope.

After a couple of hours driving through a thousand shades of green, I stop in a one-street hamlet of about two dozen wooden homes. The main street curves along the seafront, past a placid row of shops: vegetable market, hardware store, hair salon, bakery. Behind one house three men in wide-brimmed straw hats tend a fire of backyard vegetation, the smoke stinging the air. At the end of the street a bent old woman in a sunbonnet pushes a three-wheeled walker. She smiles and bows as I pass. Three kids pedal by on bikes. In the half-moon harbor, fishing boats gently rock. A thickly forested hillside rises steeply behind the houses, and gray cemetery obelisks zigzag in patches of cleared land up the slope. The summer air is still.

“Wah!” the grandmotherly woman behind the counter at the bakery says when I walk in. “A foreign guest!” She is about five feet tall and is dressed in the region’s traditional blue and white dyed kasuri pants and a floppy floral shirt. Her wrinkled, tanned face crinkles into a bright smile.

I ask if she grew up in this village. “Oh, yes, I was born here and have lived here all my life.” She counts on her fingers. “Seven decades.”

Has she ever thought about living anywhere else?

“Oh no!” she quickly responds. “Why would I want to live anywhere else?”

How about the young people, I ask, do they stay here, too? “Ah, well, the young people,” she sighs, “they don’t think there’s much to do here, so they all go to Nagoya or Kobe. They prefer the city. But I like it here; it’s peaceful and close to nature. For me, there’s no reason to leave.”

When I pass her some coins to pay for my canned ice coffee, she waves them away. “I’m honored to have a foreign guest,” she says. “Thank you for visiting Shikoku. Have a safe journey!”

Threading my way through fish-pungent villages, I eventually reach the tip of Cape Ashizuri and stand on the lookout point where Kuniko, Nobuhisa, and I stood 32 years before. I gaze at the gleaming white lighthouse, the craggy coast, the cedar-covered mountains sliding into the sea. This is a picture I carried in my head and heart all those years—pristine, peaceful, offering a wideness of sight and soul that you never find in urban Japan. I call Kuniko and describe the scene. “Yes,” she says, as if she’s known this all the time, “that’s why I was able to marry you. Shikoku opens up your mind and your heart like no other place in Japan can.”

That night I stay in a nearby inn with a sweeping view of rice fields, mountains, and one of the longest white-sand beaches in Japan—and an owner whose own mind and heart seem as expansive as the view. “Welcome to Kaiyu Inn!” Mitsu Ohkada booms in English when I walk into the open-to-the-breezes lobby. He started the inn after years working at an international hotel chain in Bali, he tells me. “I love the slow pace and the tranquillity here—and of course the nature. Do you know aoi kuni Shikoku?” I do.

The next day, I’m white-knuckling along one-lane roads through the green, steeply sloping mountains of the Iya Valley. Villages are carved into occasional clearings on the mountainsides, and I pass farmers hoeing and digging, with occasional bushels of barley standing on hardscrabble plots. It’s late afternoon when I reach Chiiori, the renovated farmhouse cum inn where Kuniko’s younger brother, Fumiyaki, had urged me to stay.

Chiiori is a vision straight out of a Japanese storybook: a long, low wooden farmhouse crowned by a shaggy roof of two-foot-thick thatch.

“Irasshaimase! Welcome!” calls Paul Cato, the American resident manager, as he slides open the inn’s wooden doors. The interior of the house is exquisitely empty, one open room about 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, all gleaming wooden floorboards, thick exposed wooden beams, rice paper lanterns, and rice paper screens. Stepping over the threshold is like stepping back in time.

“That’s actually true,” Cato says when I mention this feeling. “Chiiori is an actual 300-year-old farmhouse. Author Alex Kerr had fallen in love with traditional Japanese architecture and aesthetics, and his dream was to restore this place so that it resembled as closely as possible a typical Iya farmhouse of three centuries ago.

“It’s not just about the architecture; it’s the way of life, too. Look up,” Cato says. Instead of a ceiling, I can see all the way to the roof’s blackened rafters. “In the old days,” he explains, “tobacco was a primary crop. Because of the wet climate, the farmers would hang the leaves from the rafters to dry inside, over the smoking hearths. That’s why there’s no ceiling. They were ingenious in other ways, too.” He lifts a broad wooden floorboard to reveal a pile of stored potatoes. “Alex loved the farming customs and old-fashioned peace he found in Iya, and he wanted to preserve them. Volunteers have come from throughout Japan and around the world to live here, work the crops, and maintain the farmhouse, and local farmers teach the traditional techniques. So this truly is a piece of old Japan.”

One modern feature of Chiiori is excellent Wi-Fi, and I get an e-mail from Kuniko. “We’re following your route,” she writes. “How is Iya and Chiiori? Fumiyaki says it’s the most peaceful place on Shikoku.”

As dusk shrouds the mountains, Cato and I slice and dice radishes, onions, cucumbers, carrots, potatoes, and pumpkins from Chiiori’s garden for a rich stew that we eat around the charcoal-fired hearth. Then I snuggle into thick futons under 300-year-old wooden beams and 25-year-old thatch. I tap out a sleepy e-mail: “Please thank Fumiyaki for his great advice: Staying here is an immersion course in the relation between nature and man.”

THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON, I arrive at Okuiya Niju Kazurabashi, or “double vine bridge.” Except for a lone ticket taker, the site is absolutely deserted. I descend a hundred steps into a primeval scene of thick foliage and floating clumps of mist. Two “wedded” bridges appear spectrally—each a set of intertwining vines stretched across a rushing river. The higher and longer bridge is traditionally known as the male; the lower, shorter one the female. Fog rises from the river and obscures the surrounding hills.

Of all the sights in Iya Valley—the mountains and temples and hot springs—this is the one other place Fumiyaki told me I had to go. “The bridge was said to be built by the Heike clan in the 12th century, when they fled from Kyoto after losing a civil war with the Genji clan,” he told me. “The Heike settled deep in the mountains of Iya, and they built these vine bridges for protection, because they could easily destroy them if the Genji ever approached. Only two vine bridge sites remain. The other one is touristy, but you can get a sense of old Shikoku at this one.”

A sudden wind sways the vine bridge, slick with the day’s rain. Tentatively I set a sandaled foot on the first vine-entwined wooden plank, wishing I’d brought better footwear. I shift my weight, take a deep breath, and set my other foot on the second plank. Swoop!

My sandal slips, and suddenly I’m sprawled on my rump and my foot is wedged between wooden planks. I try to wiggle it out, and the vines claw and cling, lodging it deeper. The woods, the mist, the ghosts of the Heike warriors, all close in on me.

“The people of Iya still believe that gods live in the mountains,” Fumiyaki had said, and now I understand why. I can hear them laughing in the trees.

Finally I find a way to detach my foot from my sandal, scratch and scrape my foot through the planks, and extricate my sandal from the bridge. But I can’t leave—how could I face Kuniko’s family? With the vines dancing and the wind creaking the boughs, I carefully place my re-sandaled foot and clutch the vine-looped handrails with both hands. Focus, focus. Slowly I step from plank to plank, the bridge bouncing and creaking. After a heart-pounding ten minutes, I jump triumphantly onto the other side. I think of Fumiyaki and raise a silent prayer to the mountain gods.

IN THE MAIN HALL at the Zentsuji temple complex, incense spirals into the air and monks intone a solemn chant while a half dozen elderly visitors bow and pray; outside, another young monk assiduously sweeps the dirt ground with a broom made of twigs. At one end of the complex, Japanese tourists led by a flag-wielding guide admire a soaring five-story pagoda; nearby, a quartet of meticulously coiffed women ooh and aah before a stupendous camphor tree that looks to be older than the temple itself.

Zentsuji is the birthplace of the beloved Buddhist scholar and high priest Kobo Daishi, who built the temple in the early ninth century. This is the place Kuniko’s father, Ojiichan, had said I should see. “To understand Shikoku,” Ojiichan said, “you have to understand the pilgrimage, which follows in the footsteps of Kobo Daishi. There are 88 temples all around Shikoku in the circuit, and pilgrims—o-henro-san—walk from temple to temple to gain wisdom and purity. I remember when I was a little boy the pilgrims would approach our door—you could hear the ting-ting of the bells they carried—and my mother would tell me to bring them rice and oranges. That’s why we welcome strangers on Shikoku.”

Book your next trip with Peace of Mind
Search Trips

A shop displaying books, beads, walking sticks, and other pilgrimage accoutrements entices me, and I lose all sense of time perusing a children’s picture book showing the life and legends of Kobo Daishi. When I emerge, pilgrims are everywhere, clad in identical conical bamboo hats and loose, immaculate white jackets and pants, all carrying straight, sturdy staffs. I approach one couple who look to be a father and daughter. Youthful energy radiates from the father’s time-lined face. When I ask them about the pilgrimage, the daughter reaches into a shoulder pouch and carefully lifts out a book with a cover of gold and red silk. “At every temple, the priest writes the name of the temple on a page and then stamps it with the temple’s stamp,” the father says. They turn the pages for me. “Every time I make the pilgrimage, I feel lighter. It refreshes my sense of the meaning of life. I feel like I can do anything after I’ve finished the journey,” he says.

“Of course,” the daughter says, “this is only our fourth circuit. That o-henro-san there”—and she points to a wizened man draped in colorful sashes and dressed all in black—“is doing the route for the 333rd time!”

As I watch the pilgrims pray and pose for pictures, I realize that they are a benedictory presence on Shikoku. In their fervent, plodding path, they remind us to slow down and keep a higher spiritual purpose in mind. And I realize too the deep truth of Ojiichan’s words, that the tradition of hospitality, kindness, and openness on the island must trace its roots to the pilgrim’s own openhearted quest.

I tour the island for two more days, stopping to feel the texture of old straw-and-clay farmhouses, idling in serene fishing villages, bowing to pilgrims I pass. At a hot spring spa, a half dozen middle-aged women befriend me and insist on paying for my dinner. When I’m lost at a coastal intersection, a truck driver goes a half hour out of his way to deliver me to the right highway. At a roadside snack stand, the proprietress asks me if I’m doing the pilgrimage and when I tell her no, that I’m looking for the heart of Shikoku, she exclaims, “Then you’re a pilgrim, too!” and presents me with a strawberry shaved ice.

On the fifth day, I arrive back at Johen just as dusk is falling. The family is waiting for me with a feast of fresh-from-the-harbor katsuo sashimi and grilled aji, and fresh-from-the-garden mushrooms, tomatoes, and cucumbers.

As we sit on tatami mats around a low table, Obaachan fastens me with her bright eyes. “Well,” she says, “did you find the heart of Shikoku?”

“I did,” I say, and they all look at me expectantly. “But it’s not one particular place. I found it in farmers’ fields and fishermen’s villages, and in the pilgrims who give a sense of the sacred to daily life. And I found it over and over in everyday people who greeted me with a wide spirit and heartfelt hospitality.”

For a second I’m not sure if anyone has understood my mangled Japanese. Then they all nod and smile.

Ojiichan ceremoniously pours beer for everyone and raises his glass. “Don-san, it’s good to have you home. Kanpai!”

We all drain our glasses, then Obaachan raises hers again. “And I’m glad you missed the ditch this time!”

Editor at large Don George writes Trip Lit, Traveler’s monthly books column online. Photographer Macduff Everton first visited Japan while hitchhiking around the world at age 18.

Read This Next

Is banning fishing bad for fishermen? Not in this marine reserve
SeaWorld allegedly violated the Animal Welfare Act. Why is it still open?
'World’s worst shipwreck' was bloodier than we thought

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet