Inaka: My Home Sweet Home (Part 2)

In the last issue, I introduced Chiiori, which is well-maintained Japanese house with a thatched roof that is almost 300 years old. Chiiori is located in Iya, one of the most secluded regions in Tokushima. In the last sentence of the article, I wrote, “I strongly recommend visiting Chiiori if you are interested in traditional Japanese country life,” which prompted many of our savvy readers to send me questions, such as “Can you be more specific?”

Luckily, I know someone who might be the best qualified to tell readers about Chiiori and the Iya region. Mr. Paul Cato is an American and living in Chiiori, and I had a chance to interview him for this issue. Here we go!

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First of all, please tell me what made you come to Japan.
I first came to Japan a few years out of college as an English teacher looking for adventure. At that point, I’d never had a full-time job, and I’d never lived outside of Georgia. I had studied history in college, and I’d taken one course on Japan, but I didn’t have any special interest in Japanese culture. I just wanted to go somewhere exciting and new.

How long have you been in Japan? How do you feel now?
I’ve lived in Japan for 4 years now and can see what a lucky choice I made. Although much has been discarded, Japan still has a strong connection to the values of the past. I think the genuine kindness and humility that impresses visitors to Japan stems from that connection. Japan is a quirky place. But in a world of free-market globalization, I think that a patient visitor will find that the quirkiness is just the surface of a rich national character that is very dignified.

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When did you come to Iya?
I came to Iya at the end of 2007. It had been a tough year for me and I was searching for a way out of my rut. I was not a particularly outdoorsy person when I moved into Chiiori, but I figured that I could learn what I needed to. I did not plan to stay for more than a few months.

I’ve just now passed my two-year anniversary of living in Iya, and the experience has been life-changing. I learned that every day has a season, and that every person can get something different from a night in the mountains. I have drastically improved my fire-making skills, but my tea-brewing still needs work. And I learned that that rich dignity of the Japanese still has a stronghold among the people of the mountainous countryside.

It is obviously hard to get to Chiiori even for local people in Tokushima. What sort of foreigners come to Chiiori? And what do they seek and do there?
Travelers who come to Chiiori are good, low-maintenance types looking for a connection with Japan’s past, in a natural setting. They include backpackers, university students, DINKs (dual incomes, no kids) and spunky old ladies. We do get the occasional family (which is always great), but we ask that children under 6 not stay overnight at Chiiori due to the rough terrain and lack of nearby medical facilities. We can recommend some great nearby hotels.

We get a lot of Japan repeaters, who have seen Tokyo, have seen Kyoto, and now want a taste of something less refined and more genuine. These include many foreign residents of Japan who have heard about Chiiori through the books of Alex Kerr. Folks who have experienced the wonderful weirdness of Japanese cities, and are now looking for the roots of the culture.

They are sometimes disappointed that we have a big fridge and wireless Internet, but I remind them that we are trying to make Chiiori comfortable and relevant to the modern world, not just play “Renaissance fair”. If people want to see authentic thatched-roof houses they can go to Shikoku Mura in Takamatsu. Those houses are the real deal, only relocated… and totally empty. I’m trying to live over here, you know! But anyway, I think people come to Chiiori because of the serene views they see in photos and read about in guides, and they stay 2 extra days because of the high-speed wi-fi.

That said, I hope that guests will put down the Blackberry and discover some Japanese roots, not just in the black rafters and paper lamps, but also in conversations with the local people. Iya people are really unique among the Japanese. They don’t treat foreigners as delicately. We are just clumped together in the general category of ‘lowlander’, and not fussed over as much. It’s refreshing to be spoken to in Japanese, and be expected to keep up, instead of the pained English that Tokyo-ites feel compelled to use with us. Besides, Iya dialect is unintelligible, even for Japanese, so the locals are used to the bewildered looks and are very good at sign language.

Last word, please.
I would invite anyone to come to Iya Valley. It’s a steep, dramatic landscape. And although the scars of public construction have damaged some of the scenery, the heart of the people still hold lessons that we can all learn.