Chikamichi: The Shortcut

Here I am, at the end of the road. From Shimonoseki Station, take the overpass, aim for the Tower (a giant ‘Bubble Era’ glass and steel column with a ball on top) and turn right to get to the port. The path stops at Shimonoseki International Ferry Terminal. Where dirt meets water. The End.

            But from here, my boat leaves for Korea…

 

There are two ways to get to Chiiori, the old farmhouse in a remote Japanese mountain village where I live and work, running a cultural conservation project. One is the road, completed seventeen years ago. It’s a narrow road and unforgiving: on one side vertical rock-face, on the other a sheer drop and no crash barrier. From the main road, it zig-zags up the mountain, through the hamlet, past fields, under the forest. The houses remain discreetly hidden, offering only glimpses of corrugated tin roofs nestled into the mountainside: like the bent backs and hat brims of the elderly farmers in the summer fields, faces are obscured.

The other way is the old mountain path, the chikamichi, the shortcut, which was the main route before the road was blasted through. Simple and narrow, made of packed earth, skilfully laid stone and the occasional stretch of concrete, it climbs straight up from the bridge at Wada, cutting across the wide hairpins of the car road and passing right through the heart of the hamlet in a way the road does not. Only when walking the old path do I feel I’m actually here.

Chiiori in Shikoku Japan

I don’t drive, so I end up walking this path a lot. Setting out from Chiiori, I cut down through the chicken pen—they always come running up, clucking, hopefully. From there, pick through the bamboo grove, then around the back of the Takedas’ house. This is a new house—plastic cladding, concrete, tiled walls. The old one burned down forty years ago. Mr Omo next door claims that he was walking nearby when he saw a ball of blue flame fly from the shrine (the one built where a meteorite fell) and land on the house. He went to check on the place… and everything was absolutely fine. Three days later, it burned to the ground. They rebuilt the house—and it burned down again.

I come out on the car road, pick up the path again by the cypress grove, and follow it down past the Kotanis’ house. In autumn, the concrete steps are an explosion of orange cosmos flowers. I try not to step on any, but it’s impossible—they erupt from every crack, day-glo flames licking at my ankles.

Running now, a pebble tumbling downstream, though tall fields of pampas grass, past the neglected tea plantation, around the boar pen and plunging into the thick cedar woods. Once I followed the fork in the path, up to a house hidden in the forest. Dark, derelict and forlorn, the rotten shed floor collapsed under the weight of hundreds of empty brown sake wine bottles, dead washing machines lined up outside, cracked blue plastic bleached by the elements. Thinking it abandoned, I started to poke around, when suddenly I noticed the fresh herbs hanging out to dry, the carefully tended polystyrene planters of spinach and radish, an old iron pot steaming over a low fire… is this the witch’s house from children’s tales? Feeling like a trespasser, I call out a greeting, eventually drawing forth a tiny, bright eyed, ancient grandmother. Ninety-six years old, Mrs Sogo lives alone in the woods, marking her days by the weekly walk up the path to the road to meet the travelling grocery van that brings her supplies. She tells me of a husband decades dead, a brother ‘lost’ in the war, and a daughter in Tokyo, herself now a grandmother, and too old to make the long journey back to the mountains every year. With a cheeky gleam in her eye, she jokes that the planned extension to the road, which would bring the grocery van and its supply of liquor right to her door, will probably reach here just in time to cart her off for her funeral. She won’t let me leave without a can of juice and some chocolates to share with my friends.

Emerging from the woods at the last grave in a tiny cemetery, down the slippery cutting, over the bridge—always stopping to admire the turbulent turquoise waters below—I stick out my thumb, a car pulls up, and I’m off to civilization.

Japanese mountain village 

The problem is, you see, that the road I’m meant to be writing about, this chikamichi, keeps on getting mixed up with so many other roads.

For example, here I am in Korea, on a day trip abroad to renew my Japanese visa. I’m writing this in a notebook, sitting in a street-side restaurant in the fish market. I chose this particular place, this stretch lined with little shacks displaying their live menu of shellfish, crabs, eels in glass tanks, because it reminded me of a dream I had.

In this dream, I am wandering around what was once a fishing town on the coast of Japan, and is now a typically homogenous provincial city like any other. I am trying to find my way. I head down to the seafront—the beach is lined with small fishermen’s huts like beach huts in English seaside towns, just big enough for one man to stand in. I discover they lead down into an inner, underground world, a fishing village under the city, a ghetto, all descending steps, narrow alleys, dirt and briny stenches, where people cook, wash, gut fish and clean clothes outside their front doors, doors which lead to dark, squalid, cramped homes. The inhabitants cannot leave for the city above: it is a completely different world. I didn’t know places like this still existed in Japan, and am excited to find it. Once I leave it, I cannot find my way back in again.

So here I am, back in the waking world, on the edge of a Korean harbour town: narrow streets, tiny restaurants, people cleaning, chopping, cooking fish on the street, old ladies bent double with age, guarding their wares, the denizens of the fish market in a completely different world from the youths parading down the aptly-named Fashion Street just around the corner, with its French patisseries and American import boutiques. Here it is—it still exists! And why am so I happy to find it, so satisfied to observe that people are still poor, that restaurants are still knocked together from white-painted board and plastic-sheeting, that fish still smell of fish? Is poverty quaint? Is it more ‘real’ than wealth, does it offer a more profound Travel Experience? Or am I just walking a dream road?

One might say that the village path is a dream road—it doesn’t really exist, I’m the only one who still seems to use it to enter and leave the village. My neighbours all drive flatbed trucks, scooters, 4x4s. Where is it I’m really trying to get to? To the bridge at Wada? Or to my own personal mythology of an imagined pre-industrial past?

 

It’s raining. It wasn’t when I set out, but it is now. I don’t mind—it’s a noncommittal, shimmering sort of autumn rain that clings without making anything really wet. As I trot past the last house in the hamlet, I hear a cry “O-nē chan, O-nē chan!”—Big Sister, Big Sister! I turn around. Mrs Higashi, the most beautiful grandmother in the village, is holding out a faded mauve umbrella with white spots. “Take it,” she says. “I’m sorry it’s so old and battered. If you have time I’ll get you a better one, but you look like you’re in a hurry.” She’s right, I am. So much for the slow life—I have a koto lesson in town, and I’m running late.

On my return, I go to take back the umbrella, but am confounded by another sudden downpour. Instead, we sit on her porch, drinking tea, discussing the road. She speaks of Alex, the owner of Chiiori, the house where I work near the top of the hamlet. He bought it 30 years ago, long before the car road was completed, and came up every free weekend he had to work on the restoration. His castle in the mountains.

She tells me how Alex used to come past her house, laden with luggage, furniture, Ming Dynasty antiques, which he would carry up to Chiiori on his back. Her house, she said, used to be a popular stop-off point, a rest station after the first steep climb from the bridge at Wada. Now it lies by an obscure path that nobody uses. Apart from me.

 

Back in the Japanese port of Shimonoseki again, fresh off the ferry with my new visa, and playing violin on the overpass from the port under some huge white piece of abstract corporate art. I’ve been playing all day to cheerful crowds in Korea who gathered as soon as I opened my case and whose generous donations paid for my lunch, thanks to kindly passers-by who took it upon themselves to pass around their own hats and gather contributions. Now I don’t really care about the money—I’m just passing time while I wait for the homeward train, which is lucky, because very few people stop and give anything: people just don’t have the context for busking here. Those who do hold the coin out in front of my face, as if they expect me to stop playing and take it from them. This makes me feel like a performing monkey, being rewarded with a peanut.

A girl comes up—and what a girl! Her face is dusted with silver-flecked makeup, her hair sparkles too. Her clothes are all shocking pink or dark blue denim; her nails are long, fake and pink. She holds her hands nervously in front of her, flexing her fingers backwards and forwards as she talks. There is something disturbingly intense about her, like the shade of magenta she so clearly adores. She wants to know where I’m from. She wants to tell me she’s carrying a Britney Spears poster (also pink). She wants to give me 50 yen, which she holds up in front of my face. She wants my e-mail address. I evade. She gives me hers: pink-keiko@xxx.jp. She continues on her way.

A European girl comes up, asking directions to an internet café. I bump into her again in the station. She’s a trainee Zen nun in Korea, making her own visa run in the opposite direction. Clear green-grey eyes reflect the sea in the weak winter sun. She gives me a book on Knowing Nothing. I don’t understand it. Somehow we lose sight of each other in the rush hour buzz and never get to say goodbye.

As if all this clutter of real roads and imagined roads and dream roads wasn’t enough, there are all these other roads too, the roads of pink girls and Zen nuns that charge across mine and disappear before I can draw breath, leaving me with a book about Nothing or an email I’ll never use.

 

The first snows have come. Jackie the dog and I are very excited. He can’t decide whether to jump in it, roll in it, or eat it, and compromises by trying to do all three at once. I’m hardly better. We decide to celebrate by taking a walk round the mountain to see how Mr and Mrs Mori are doing.

From the top of the hamlet, the road becomes a 2km dirt track winding around the mountain and eventually coming out in Imai (population: 4). We walk through the new-snow silence, past abandoned farmhouses, their inhabitants long departed for the city. I pause to peer inside the old buildings, thatched roofs long rotted into mud, crumbling rooms still littered with abandoned teacups, ancient newspapers and rotting farmers’ clothes, irrelevant to an urban future. Saplings sprout from collapsed wooden floors, nudge their way through wattle and daub walls. Despite the decrepitude, I find something reassuring and peaceful about this slow return to the mountain. Jackie hates these houses, and barks if I get too close.

At Mr and Mrs Mori’s house, I am greeted with warm sake and wild boar – stew for me and a bone for Jackie. After this, Mrs Mori brings out some of her homemade buckwheat noodles—always a treat. “When I was a girl, you couldn’t hope to get a husband if you couldn’t make good noodles and tofu,” she informs me. “Didn’t really matter if you were pretty or not; if you couldn’t make noodles, you’d be a laughing stock!” Recalling my own spectacularly unsuccessful noodle-making attempts, I reflect on how lucky I am that this skill is no longer a prerequisite for success in life.

She tells of how, as a young woman, she moved to the city and lived there for many years, but eventually became bored—everything you needed for life was sitting in the shops, if you had the money to purchase it. She missed the intelligence and creativity required to live with ‘less’—the knowledge of how to feed, house and clothe your family with what is found right here on this mountain.

A guest at Chiiori once asked me if the villagers living in these rather impressive thatched houses were “affluent”. I almost laughed—subsistence farming in the mountains is not usually conducive to amassing any great wealth. But then I looked again at the houses and fields, a whole village created from nothing more than wood, bamboo, stone, clay, vine, straw, grass, and the knowledge of how to use them. I thought of the fierce pride people still take in what they can make, rather than what they can buy. And I changed my definition of “affluence”.

 

Hiking Japanese mountain house

Here I am, travelling half way across Japan, then over the sea to another country and back again, and all I want to do is write about a little stretch of mountain path from my house down to the bridge at Wada. I’m on a train right now, the local (slow) train heading out of Hiroshima back towards the mountains. Except it’s not that slow. The world rushes past, a blur of impressions—a cluster of brown-tiled roofs with flying eaves, stubbled brown rice paddies, a persimmon tree with last summer’s tenacious leftovers still clinging, metal skeletons of greenhouses, bamboo groves, water treatment works,—no way to stop and experience anything of these places, people, houses, soil; all just part of the scenery flying past the window. What is a “Travel Experience?” Is this it, this blur of vague impressions and half-fulfilled fantasies? How long do I have to stop, slowing down to a walking pace, before it comes real? A week? A year? A lifetime? The best journeys seem to happen without going anywhere at all…

 

It’s the hottest part of the hottest month of summer. In a few days it will be o-bon, the Festival of the Dead, when deceased souls make the long journey back from the Otherworld to rejoin their living relatives for a few nights, many of whom will have also come a long way, on crowded roads, returning from the city to their ancestral mountain village.

In preparation for the arrival of the visitors, both living and dead, we join the neighbours in the annual Road Cleanup, a phenomenon found throughout rural Japan, where citizens pit themselves against the eternal onslaught of the wilderness, redrawing the boundaries between nature and human endeavour. One group starts from the very top of the car road through the hamlet, another from the bottom. Armed with spades, brooms, blue plastic scoops and white knitted gloves, we work our way along, pulling weeds, shovelling leaves and dirt from the storm drains, scraping moss from the cracks. When we meet in the middle, there is sweet red bean ice cream for everyone, licked in the grateful shade of the cedar trees.

I learn a new word: yui, derived from the verb musubu, to tie—a village cooperative. Around the year neighbours get together, going from house to house to pick tea, harvest potatoes and sow buckwheat, making tiring, dull jobs into social gatherings.

In the days when everyone had thatch roofed houses, before they were covered in tin, members of each household would go to the up the mountain, cut pampas grass and carry it down on their backs. Every year, it was decided whose house most needed a new roof, and come spring, everyone would gather there to help with the massive job of rethatching. These days, cheaper materials are easily available, everyone has a little money from construction jobs and forestry, and the young people are almost all gone, making it impractical to thatch houses. What was once done almost for free, as a matter of necessity, has now become a luxury item: the $100,000 needed for rethatching nowadays is far beyond the means of ordinary people. As Mrs Mori points out, now that people have a bit of money, it’s everyone for themselves. Up to a point.

 Hiking in the mountains Shikoku Japan

Back at Oboke station, waiting in the deepening gloom for a kindly soul with space in their car. It turns out to be Mrs Kita, the local school English teacher, who stops. We know each other from the days when I taught English in Miyoshi, 20 miles downriver. In the back of the car, her father-in-law regales me with tales of mountain life. Regretfully, his thick mountain-granddad dialect is hard to understand, but there was definitely something about roasting sparrows for dinner. They drop me off at the bridge at Wada and head deeper into the valley as I begin the long trudge up the chikamichi.

Questions of why I choose to live in this remote, distant place so far from the south London suburb where I grew up fade with the evening light. The moss between the stones is just too captivating; the twists and turns of the chikamichi too enticing. If I am living out a fantasy, it is simply of a place where I can allow myself to be drawn utterly into the here and now.

Under the trees the last of the snow still lurks, but on the trees the buds are fattening. Soon, I think, edible spring shoots of horsetail will be pushing, pink and succulent, through the cracks in the road.

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All photos courtesy of the Alex Kerr and the Chiiori Trust

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