Japan’s green farmland with Mt. Ontake in the distance (Photo: Getty Images)
Japan’s recent deadly eruption of the Mt. Ontake volcano shows the lethal side of a land created by Earth’s “ring of fire.” But Japan has enjoyed one major benefit from millions of years of eruptions: volcanic ash deposits creating lush, fertile soil for farms and forests across the country. While many people just think of Japan as the crowded, urban metropolises of Tokyo and Osaka, just a few hours beyond these cities are verdant farmlands filled with fields of rice, fruits, and vegetables.
I hiked a historic path through these farmlands, discovering a hidden Japan of small villages populated with friendly folks who made it seem like I was in Andy Griffith’s Mayberry County, not an inscrutable Asian island-nation. Even with a language barrier, with some help from my tour guide it was easy to bridge the cultural barriers and make surprising discoveries in a rarely visited part of Japan. And all the while I kept a watchful eye on still-dormant Mt. Fuji in the distance.
Hiking the Samurai Trail
Rice field scarecrow (Photo: Bill Fink)
My group was hiking toward the old “post town” of Magome, on the historic Nakasendo Trail connecting the ancient capitals of Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. Along the trail, smiling Japanese grannies wearing smocks sold fruits and vegetables out of wooden boxes along a mountain path, while unmanned kiosks just had change bowls and signs saying “100 yen for anything.” Scarecrows in tidy rice fields wore doll costumes and name tags. Dogs and cats strolled from tile-roofed, wood-beamed homes and sidled up to strangers for a pat on the head.
Bamboo-lined forest path (Photo: Bill Fink)
Magome’s “post-town” designation came in the 17th century from traveling samurai who posted their luggage ahead with their retinue to each town in the chain. Like privileged samurai, we traveled baggage-free, turning our day hikes into leisurely strolls with plenty of time to smell the bamboo. When we reached Magome, we stayed in a traditional family-run minshuku inn and dined on a multicourse kaiseki-style meal with meticulously prepared but tiny helpings of meats, vegetables, and fruits, which proved surprisingly filling.
After dinner, on a steep cobblestone street illuminated only by red lanterns and the moon, a singing innkeeper waved his hands and shuffled his feet to the rhythmic chants of an old samurai song. Our group gathered in a circle around him, trying to follow his moves while precariously balanced on traditional wooden geta sandals, our Japanese yukata robes flowing with the steps.
Samurai dance (Photo: Bill Fink)
After our samurai dance, I strolled Magome’s main street, past two-story wood-and-paper homes, recreations of the originals, which had hosted generations of nobles but couldn’t survive town fires. By 7 p.m., the village was completely closed for business, silent except for crickets, devoid of pedestrians, and blocked to auto traffic.
I imagined myself a visiting dignitary surveying my domain, passing the water wheel by the old granary, clapping my hands in prayer in the shadows of the temple gate and reaching the edge of town, where a large wooden sign still warned visitors, in calligraphy, to behave properly.
My evening concluded with a soak in a steaming hot bath, then sleeping on a futon on a tatami mat floor. But unlike the samurai, I could skip the outhouse and benefit from the wondrous world of Japanese high-tech toilets. When I entered one bathroom, the porcelain potty covered with a console of 20 buttons greeted me by automatically popping open its lid, as if to say, “feed me.”
Exploring the Farmlands
We also walked a leg of the Yamanobe trail, winding past small farming communities, “beside the mountains” as the trail’s name is translated, but fortunately they weren’t live volcanoes. Like a band of peasants, my group stopped at markets to buy rice balls, local fruits, and other provisions for the road.
Farm stands pop up along the way (Photo: Bill Fink)
On these warm fall days, nearing harvest time, we passed a fabulous cornucopia of bounty from family-run farms. Huge eggplants on the vines shone metallic purple like waxed cars. Mandarin oranges, red peppers, and bright green limes sprouted in a rainbow array of carefully tended gardens. And everywhere there was rice. Terraced fields of short green shoots, mature swaths of longer yellow stalks, and harvested brown husks drying on wood frames looked like scenes from old samurai movies that had been colorized almost too vividly.
The modern mini-tractors added a contemporary touch, as did the scarecrows with Mickey Mouse heads. Still, the friendly, small-town vibe of the villages felt as if it had been unchanged for centuries.
Hi, there! (Photo: Bill Fink)
On the trail, we passed groups of old women in sun hats with bamboo picnic baskets. They giggled when we greeted them in basic Japanese. On the weekends, Japanese yuppies flocked to the paths fully outfitted in the latest brand-name extreme gear, but the old ladies had it right in their peasant garb of smocks, sandals, and walking sticks.
As travelers had done for hundreds of years, we stopped at a roadside teahouse, its dark wood interior blackened from generations of wood smoke.
Our group jammed into the back room of a shop in the town of Hirasawa, famous for its lacquerware. In the cramped, stuffy workshop, air thick with paint fumes, three artisans sat hunched over their tables.
Artisans working (Photo: Bill Fink)
I watched a man laboriously paint one identical bowl black after another. Through our guide, I asked him if he ever got bored painting the same thing the same color again and again. He smiled, answering as if I had just posed a Buddhist koan: “If you look right, every object is unique.”
I tried to put this perspective into action as I walked to the next shop. I stared at a chest of drawers in the window display until my eyes crossed. When I walked into the store, it seemed the usual stuff, but my group followed, oohing and ahhing at wood plates as if they were stacked with manna from Nirvana.
Artist at work (Photo: Bill Fink)
The owner went to the back room, and instead of fetching the usual tourist trinkets, he returned carrying the gold, silver, and bronze medals from the 1998 Nagano Olympics, and then the actual Olympic torch. He had won a competition to design them, combining local lacquer and precious metals. This artisan had ingeniously melded ancient techniques and traditional materials into the ultimate reward for the greatest athletes on earth. Even more amazing, he actually made lacquerware interesting to me.
(Photo: Bill Fink)
The main street of the historic village of Narai-juku was lined with dark wooden homes and shops. Owners stood like carnival barkers in front of rows of souvenir stores crammed with shelves of cartoony village mascots, the obligatory soft-serve ice cream dispenser, and souvenir chopsticks and cheap kimonos. But not all was lost in the world of merchants. As the rain began to fall, I ducked into one small store to avoid the chill. The usual trinkets clogged the shelves, but I also noticed some colorful wood-block prints, different from the usual generic landscapes and surprisingly affordable at about $20.
The shopkeeper said it was her husband’s hobby to make these scenes of everyday life in town. When I decided to buy one, she looked outside with great concern, and covered the print with a huge plastic bag. She then added protective cardboard backing, so it wouldn’t get wrinkled in travel, and even gave me a couple of free postcards.
(Photo: Bill Fink)
As I began to leave, she looked worried again. In broken English she said, “Please, take umbrella. Return after rain,” handing me hers from behind the counter.
When I returned the umbrella to the smiling shop owner the next morning, I almost felt like one of the neighbors, a happy feeling of home on a distant road trip.