Today is the last day of the holidays, even though Twelfth Night isn't till tomorrow. We've had a good time seeing family and friends, and I've been preparing a talk I'll be giving n a few days time. (I'm not a great public speaker so it's a bit nerve rackimg.) And T. has been bravely struggling with our service provider, Gradwell, who took my other website offline before Christmas and have been barely responsive ever since.
I've also watched a couple of Christmas presents - Japanese anime cartoon DVDs. I loved "The Girl Who Leaped Through Time" and Ghibli Studios' "Pom Poko," about Japanese raccoon-dog spirit-gods fighting the growth of the modern world. Like most of the anime movies I've seen, they were really watchable, and Pom Poko gave me the inspiration for this blog post. Because I was watching a scene when an old farmhouse with a huge thatched roof is being demolished (above), and I thought,
Hey! I've seen old houses like that!
We saw very similar buildings in Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, where our friend Yoshi took us when we stayed with him and his family in Toyama. They're villages on the Shogawa River, dating back to the 11th century. They are apparently the only place in Japan where groups of these large ancient farmhouses survive more or less unscathed, although once they could be found all over Japan.
Until the 1970s, the villages were very remote and inaccessible, particularly in winter, when they have heavy snowfall, and the inhabitants survived by rearing silkworms. Now, they're UNESCO sites and, although the houses are still family homes, the villagers live mostly by tourism. So the village atmosphere is less "authentic" than it was in those remoter days, but at least visitors like me have a chance to appreciate them. They're such a contrast with sparkling modern Japan, and there is something rather reassuring about their still slightly ramshackle and traditional air.
You'll see old fashioned sights like beans laid out to dry in the sun outside the houses
Giant radishes from the garden hung in the porch
and strings of physalis or "Japanese Lanterns" hang on home made frames outside the wooden walls, overhung by thick thatch.
Trucks trundle down the little roads, loaded with straw for repairing thatch.
Rice sprouts from small fields, the pink and white blooms of untidy cosmos plants wave in the wind,
and there were lots of butterflies when we visited in October.
.And life goes on, with people going about their daily business and hanging their washing out to dry
One of the houses is an inn, and we went inside and had tea. The owner was very friendly although she didn't speak English, and she was happy to let us wander round the large, dark rooms.
and she was happy for us to look around
It was really dark up in the attic, and we gaped at the silkworm rearing trays and equipment. How I wished the silkworms were still there, munching away on mulberry leaves beneath the tall rafters. Hanging off a beam were some of the woven straw boots that local people used to wear in the very heavy, snowy winters
There is a little restaurant-cum-giftshop in one of the farmhouses which, despite seeming rather slow and touristy, sold one of the nicest lunches we had in all our time in Japan
Now there's a modern and very high tech system explained on the poster below, which operates from an underground water supply and sends huge jets of water arching over each house in the main street. Apparently the system is occasionally turned on even when there is no fire, to create artificial rain in dry periods. It must be a most spectacular sight to see.
See the strange red dancing figures in the sign above? You get a clearer view on the poster below. It is a bit of poetic license to have these dancers operating the firefighting equipment, but traditional to Gokayama is a performance called Mugiya-bushi, The dancer is holding a percussion instrument which can be waved around to make a rattling sound.
Songs in this tradition are still performed.
Gokayama opened a small window into a very, very different world, and it is set in an entrancing landscape, with calm rivers and steep wooded mountains of enormous beauty. I hope I'll be able to go back one day to this area, do some hiking and see what else there is to see.
Happy New Year!