Japan as It Was
Visitors to Northeast Find the Real Japan
Our images of Japan no longer include dainty geishas, brave samurai warriors, or transportation by rickshaw. Were more likely to think of trains packed sardine-tight by men in white gloves, noisy bars and pachinko parlors, and identically suited men and women hurrying to work. But for romantics and Japanophiles looking for the real Japanor hoping at least for a quieter Japanthere is still hope.
On a typical early spring morning I bike to work, passing through the local farms and villages. Little, bent-over women in huge bonnets and aprons, rubber boots, white gloves, and indigo patterned trousers wade through muddy rice paddies glowing an iridescent lime green in the morning sun. Wild bamboo sways beneath the thick pine forest. Just beyond, a cone-shaped volcano tipped in snow towers over the land. The gardens outside the huge farmhouses are a cacophony of colors. And some of the old giant thatched roofs sprout gardens of their own, right out the top, as if the house itself was turning back to the earth. The mist rises above the hills and mountains in layers of gauzy white.
The region of Tohoku, literally translated as Northeast, one of the less-developed areas of the country, is a place still considered the sticks by most Japanese. (The regional dialect is so thick that when older Tohoku-ites are interviewed on national television, subtitles are neededa practice which irks these oldtimers to no end.) This is where the Haiku poet, Basho, ended his famous journey over the back roads of Japan in the 18th century.
Foreign residents here often remark that at last theyve found their vision of the old country: ancient samurai towns, little hamlets of narrow paths lined with traditional wooden houses, fragrant bamboo forests, hidden waterfalls, secluded hot springs, and the peaceful nostalgia, wabisabi, that reflects the essence of traditional Japan. If the crowded trains and streets, the concrete congestion, and the general hustle-bustle of cities give you a headache, this is a more relaxed way to get to know the country.
Little previous contact with Westerners, coupled with the natural hospitality of rural areas, seem to produce a more open and friendly environment. Foreign residentsbe they international exchange students, teachers, visiting lecturers, or short-term sojournersfeel theyre sitting on a well-hidden secret. Foreigners with little or no Japanese are welcomed into neighborhood activities and are readily accepted as members of the community.
Seasonal festivals with traditional music, dancing, games and other attractions and events abound. But some of the most memorable and educational adventures come from simply taking off in any direction for a bike ride, a mountain hike, or a drive through the countryside. Getting lost on your bike is no problem: a friendly farmer will usually throw the bicycle in his pickup and take you where you want to go.
Tohuku, like the rest of Japan, is changing rapidly. The vast majority of farmers out in the fields are elderly. Their children and grandchildren have been flocking to urban areas for a number of years, so the era of small farming communities and the accompanying rural lifestyle may come to an end in the not-so-distant future. The bullet train and an increasing number of airports now connect Tohukus major cities to the rest of the country. Tourists will follow.
Coming to Tohoku
Independent travelers interested in coming to Tohoku should contact the Tourist Information Center via the Japan National Tourist Organization: 1 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1250, New York, NY 10020; 212-757-5640, fax 212-307-6754; www.japantravelinfo.com.
Highly recommended books
Exploring Tohoku by Jan Brown and Kemtz Sakakibara and Japan Inside Out by Jay, Sumi, and Garet Gluck, both published by Weatherhill Publishing, 1994.
Helpful websites dealing with accommodations and travel in this area
Japan Travel Updates, www.jnto.go.jp.
Japan Hotel Directory, japanhotel.net.
HELEN KORENGOLD has lived in Japan for seven years and is currently working in the international program at Minnesota State Univ., Akita, Japan Campus.