A Winter Retreat

A Winter Retreat

WINDS, February 1998

Photos by Tom Wagner

When December comes to Miyamacho, its proximity to the outside world starts to fade with the first flurry of snow. And with each successive snowfall, Miyamacho seems to retreat further into the mountains that divide this small town at the northern edge of Kyoto Prefecture from the Sea of Japan.

During the three temperate seasons, Miyamacho attracts a steady flow of visitors. Then, the town is easily accessible, just an hour and a half by car from the city of Kyoto. The visitors to Miyamacho are drawn to the town's impressive thatched roof farmhouses. They come to fish and swim in the clear Yura River, hike in the virgin beech forest at the head of the river, feast on edible wild plants, and stay at traditional inns.

Among the locals, preparations begin early for the great seasonal shift. Only the more recently transplanted are fooled by the cloudless skies of October. In the narrow valleys between the ranges and the Yura, wheat, rice and Chinese cabbages are harvested from the fields of the agricultural cooperative and family gardens. After this harvest of the cultivated land comes a harvest of a more solitary and secretive kinds as the locals comb the steep slopes of the nearby mountains for the rare, expensive 'matsutake' mushrooms. Many of the mountains are leased just for the matsutake season. Though leasing a mountain can cost up to a million yen, fortunes can be made from the fungus; or they can be lost, if, as happens some years, the mushrooms simply fail to show.

Obi

Miyama has long supplied the kimono industry with beautifully woven obi. One of my friends did this as take-home work--for much lower wages than anyone in the city would.

TV

The ubiquitous television entrances four generations living together under a thatched roof in the hamlet of Ashu,, the very last settlement before the mountains really begin. In all but this national habit, the people of Ashu are stubbornly independent.

Father Son

I first went to meet this cattle farming family because their timber frame barn was sheathed entirely in corrugated plastic, an ingenious way of keeping the hay and grain dry. In deference to the old caste system, this family only raised cattle into calves, leaving the butchering to others.

Farmer and Baby

Only 85 years apart, my friend (seated, background) and my youngest child (in sling, foreground), share the warmth of a barn in February.

Butcher

Winter's a slower season for this friend of mine, who made a brilliant business out of selling homemade poultry sausage (a completely Western concept!) to tourists visiting our thatched village from the cities.

Hearth

Another couple of friends: a philosopher-turned-shiitake farmer and his clever wife, who run a thatched inn with the best soba (buckwheat noodles) for 100 miles around. The sunken hearth and the warm sake attract nostalgic visitors from the cities, who soon recall the stinging eyes (from the smoke) and the eternally cold extremities of the old way of life.

Walker

In the solitary winter, the silence of snow falling on thatch is glorious.

Karaoke

THE big event of the winter: a star visits the village.

A general and increasing busyness can be detected as the days grow shorter. The power of the sun, even as it dims, is practically worshipped. From late morning through early afternoon, everything from red 'azuki' beans to the rice straw used for New ear's decorations is brought outside to dry. Chinese cabbages and daikon radishes are dried slightly before pickling. persimmons are peeled and strung up under the rafters. And chestnuts, a favorite winter treat for the children, are gathered, boiled and hung to dry.

Some of the daikon harvested in late November are buried again in mounds of loose earth. Long stakes are planted firmly in these mounds so that this staple may be found in the deep snow and dug out as necessary throughout the winter and early spring. Raw Chinese cabbage is wrapped in newspaper and stored in cool sheds. Locals chop firewood and split it by the ton. They reinforce eaves with uprights that will not be removed until April. Throughout the town, earth is shifted and obstacles are cleared to create space where the prodigious amounts of snow that will later fall can be stowed.

Before the bad weather begins, every home has to be surrounded by corrugated steel or plastic, which will protect windows from the pressure of accumulating snow. Generations living comfortably apart in the warmer months grow closer with the necessity of winter labor. Young, city-dwelling relatives return the favors of the previous months--packages of vegetables and rice delivered from the country by overnight express--by appearing on weekends in November to help build the 2 meter-high snow barriers.

With the first snowfall comes a feeling of relief. Gone are the times when self-sufficient farming families merely shifted their 15-hour workdays to the earth-floored front rooms of their drafty, dim houses. A little over a century ago, winter was simply quieter than summer. Outdoor activity was hampered by the snow: women did more sedentary work, while the men undertook more energetic pursuits. Hunting of deer, wild boar and bears was carried out by groups of about 50 men with seven or eight communally owned guns. Today, the hunting still goes on, but the men have their own guns and drive out in small trucks to the end of the paved roads, continuing by foot on short snowshoes made for the wet snow. 

In olden days, except for the week-long break everyone took for the New Year's holiday, winter was very much a season of work. Charcoal making slackened when the snows blocked the paths to the mountain kilns at the end of December, but rose again steadily as the snow began to melt in February or March. The mending and making of kimonos was an endless task for any woman in the house. 

In those days, only the richer townsfolk could experience the luxury of free time in the isolated months of snow. For these, gambling, though it was prohibited by law, would take the boredom away. Some houses have a hidden second-story room, often with an escape route between the roof and rafters in case of police raids. Since cash was in short supply, the next best thing was gambled away. In spring, any man who'd had a particularly bad run of luck would have to bear the disgrace of another man working some of his fields and later reaping the harvest. 

Today, there are snowplows, fresh vegetables from the cities and television. The winter brings along a kind of festive mood. Yet the old tales of winters spent weaving straw mats, raincoats and sandals or making geta sandals have left an aptitude for work. In some houses, the older wives get together and sip tea and chat while helping one another with piecework jobs, such as packaging yarn, or kitchen tasks like making miso, the fermented bean paste used in soups. 

Leisure activities, too, have become part of the winter rituals. Indoor sports such as volleyball attract a large number of players, and tournaments in the town reveal the strongest each year. A highlight of the season is the annual karaoke sing-off, where between bouts a minor television celebrity performs in a local inn before a gaggle of local fans dressed to the nines. 

In stark contrast to the lights and glitter of the stage is the comfortable, yet otherworldly atmosphere of the ancient religious events that take place all year round. In winter, these are more of a diversion than in the busier seasons. On the 10th of each month, the men gather at someone's house to chant prayers to Buddha for safety and prosperity. The only women present are the wife and perhaps elderly mother of the host, who prepare a feast and flasks of hot sake for the men. In summer, the ceremony lasts maybe just half an hour, and then everyone returns to work. But in winter, there is time to stay a little longer, and after the ceremony is finished, guests tend to linger for several hours, taking their leave only after they have been sufficiently warmed by laughter and hot sake. In this mountain town, winter transforms much more than just the landscape.