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No.103 Down Home on the Farm in Japan’s Lush Green Countryside

Picture in your mind your next trip to Japan. What do you see? Is it Tokyo, the buzzing metropolis with packed subway cars, expensive shops, fish markets, and stylish locals? Or maybe Kyoto, the elegant Imperial city with ancient architecture, temples, and its famous bamboo forest. How about Osaka, the crowded center of business and commerce, famous for Takoyaki, the ball-shaped Japanese snack food made of wheat flour-based batter and cooked in a cast-iron mold.

Most travelers think first of Japan’s renowned urban centers. And the popularity of these cities is not only a draw for tourists. Young, highly educated Japanese have for years flocked to the cities in search of better jobs.

The result has been a population vacuum in Japan’s rural countryside. Small villages and towns dot the landscape full of traditional architecture and a wealth of agricultural and craft knowledge in its older generations. But few remain to plant the fields and learn skills handed down through countless generations.

But the tide may be turning. With government support, a small but growing movement of young people seeking a slower pace of life, are leaving the corporate world to rediscover a traditional Japanese lifestyle.

Housing is affordable, and government-funded grants are available to help with the purchase of abandoned “Minkas” (Houses of the people) formerly inhabited by farmers, merchants, and artisans. These old traditional houses constructed of wood and thatched roofs date back as far as the 17th century.

Setting off, we decided we would get out of the cities we have come to love, and discover the Japan we are unfamiliar with, in the countryside.

We booked ourselves accommodation in a “farm-stay” peacefully nestled in the countryside, a short two-hour train ride from Kyoto. A farm-stay afforded us much more than just a place to sleep. Being deeply embedded in the local rural culture, we knew there would be plenty of great local advice on what to see and do from our hosts. And the money we spent would go straight into a community where tourism plays an increasingly important role in Japan’s backcountry.

Heading northwest from Kyoto, the terrain quickly became hilly, the train making short bursts through tunnels and over deep lush valleys, many with streams rushing far below the tracks. With the hills subsiding, we soon arrived in the city of Ayabe.

On the Farm

In Ayabe, surrounded by lush hills and rice fields, Sayaka, her French husband Nicolas, and young son Theo, have converted a two hundred year old thatched-roof farmhouse into a two-guestroom B&B. With much passion, considerable elbow grease, and lots of help from Sayaka’s dad, the old farmhouse was brought back to life.

Before becoming a B&B host, Sayaka was on a very different career path. She worked for Doctors Without Borders spending much of her time in conflict zones around the world. Along the way, she met Nicolas, eventually deciding to settle down, making Sayaka’s native Japan their family home.

As a couple of foreigners out of their depth in Japan’s rural countryside, hearing Nicolas’ stories of moving to Ayabe helped us understand the local culture. Stories of his experiences emigrating to Japan and moving to the country, learning to become a farmer, and becoming a part of the community, made us think that even WE might be able to restore a bit of Japanese heritage for posterity. And it was interesting to hear Nicolas’ Japanese-tinged French accent. With nearby Kyoto referred to sometimes as the Paris of Japan, Nicolas seemed not out of place.

You may choose between rooms set up for sleeping in the Japanese style, with Tatamis, or western style. Bathing is in the Japanese style, located in an outbuilding shared with your hosts and other guests.

Sayaka offers a delicious Japanese homestyle dinner as an option. She is highly skilled at preparing local home-cooked cuisine, and you would do well to take advantage of her considerable culinary talents. As well, her breakfast is exceptional, featuring “fresh rice” harvested by Nicolas a few feet from the table.

Before my first breakfast in Ayabe, the idea of fresh rice had never even occurred to me. So full in texture and flavor, it only vaguely resembles what you might have picked up at Whole Foods. Many of us don’t visit areas where rice is a local crop, so experiencing a meal that is “paddy to table” is not a possibility.

In Summer it’s barbecue season. Whiling away the afternoon in the garden overlooking the rice paddy sounds like a real treat. We look forward to experiencing that on our next trip.

Sayaka seeks out those in the community who would welcome her guests into their homes and businesses to share what living in rural Japan is all about. For our stay, she has arranged two amazing excursions.

The Tea Ceremony

A short drive from the farm, Nicolas drops us off at a beautiful old farmhouse where Mrs. Kikuta Souen greets us. Mrs. Souen, long retired, lives on her own. To keep busy and make a little extra income, she welcomes guests into her historic home and teaches the ancient art of tea ceremonies.

Dressed in a traditional Kimono, Mrs. Souen, who speaks only Japanese, has conquered the language barrier with an iPhone translation app. We sit together across an ancient handcrafted table, Mrs. Souen speaks slowly into her phone, checks that the app has understood what she said and then hands us the phone to read the English translation. The conversation proceeds gradually and deliberately, but with Mrs. Souen’s cheerful persistence, we start to learn the basics of the tea ceremony.

Coming from a Western culture where few traditions are cherished, where doing things differently is prized, engaging in an ancient practice, unchanged for centuries, was refreshing. There is no latitude in a tea ceremony—little room for creative expression. Its purpose is clear, its practice refined for centuries, the ceremony has reached perfection in its formal expression. With such careful attention to detail, the outside world melts away, all focus is on the present, the meeting of strangers, and the great hospitality bestowed on us by our kind host.

Emerging from Mrs. Souen’s home and the long history it represents, we are shocked back into modernity coming across her bright red Vespa parked outside. With one last back and forth on the translation app, she explains that the Vespa is how she gets down to the village center for daily shopping. It is fantastic to see modernity in such harmony with tradition, forging a new chapter for this village in transition.

Nicolas is ready and waiting for us. He whisks us back to the farm for dinner, after which we retire to our Tatami room for the night.

Mr. Hideaki’s Tour

The next morning after breakfast, Shirono Hideaki San, the head of the English department at Seibi High School in nearby Fukuchiyama, picks us up. The oldest private high school in Japan, Seibi, is a high achieving school where kids go for their last two years in preparation for entry into university.

Along with a Japanese government push for schools to improve conversational English, the English department at Seibi is modernizing its teaching methods. Hearing about Sayaka and Nicolas’ B&B with a steady flow of English-speaking guests, they reached out, offering to open their school to visitors.

Our visit coincided with the school’s international food festival, and the grounds, hallways, and classrooms were buzzing with activity. Respecting Japanese custom, we deposited our shoes in a locker at reception, exchanging them for elegant leather slippers. And off we went to see the school in action!

For the festival, students had prepared a variety of activities ranging from Anime drawing shows and tea ceremonies, to science projects, and a courtyard full of stalls offering foods from around the world. Such an integrated cultural experience is rare for a tourist. We felt lucky to be given access to share in the school’s accomplishments. What a fun morning talking with all the young students eager to chat and practice their English.

At lunchtime, Mr. Hideaki took us to a fabulous local Udon restaurant, and then to a lacquer workshop where students of all skill levels learn the ancient craft of applying lacquer to wooden objects. With a little more time, learning the art of lacquer applique would be a great trip in itself.

Driving to our next stop, we can still see the traces of destruction from a recent hurricane that blew through the Kyoto province. As we pass along narrow roads and through thick forests without another car in sight, Mr. Hideaki shares tales of local bear sightings and stories of wild hogs marauding through nearby villages: a bit concerning as we park along a steep ravine for a short walk to the next destination. Mr. Hideaki says not to worry.

Making our way down a small footpath to a river far below we arrive at a small shrine sitting atop a large boulder. A well-worn steel chain links the end of the trail to the shrine a few meters above. As the locals do, we hoist ourselves up the chain to the shrine to see it up close and pay our respects.

Called Motoise Sansya Shrine, it dates back to 678 and is a satellite to the more extensive Amanoinato Shrine a bit further up the road. It is dedicated to the agricultural god “Toyoke No Okami,” who is said to have descended from heaven to the Tango region.

The architecture is breathtaking. It’s just the three of us there, and there’s a stillness that takes your breath away. We quietly we make our way around the shrine nestled amongst ancient trees. It was just a few days ago that we were in Kyoto visiting the famous bamboo forest along with hundreds of tourists. Only two hours away, we are in an equally beautiful place, completely alone.

It’s Mr. Hideaki’s favorite place to come for contemplation, and we are so grateful he shared it with us. And that we encountered no bears.

After fending for ourselves in Kyoto for a few days, our visit to the Furuyama B&B and surrounding areas was a totally distinctive experience and curiously fulfilling with all the local contacts and visits to amazing places, and no crowds to contend with. Sayaka and Nicolas made our trip to the Japanese countryside an absolute delight.

Since our visit to the Furuyama B&B, Sayaka has trained additional guides and now offers more curated trips around the area, so your visit will be even more varied than ours. We can’t wait to explore more of the area on a future visit.

Details

For more information and reservations follow the link: https://www.furumayahouse.jp/English


Photography and story by Daniela Stallinger

Planning a trip to Ayabe? Here is the current weather and what to expect for the next few days.