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The Real Japan

The sun pours molten gold over the mountains and sets fire to the red and gold autumn colors of the trees that carpet the valley below. A solitary Shinto shrine on top of the mountain casts a shadow like an accusing finger at me, the only witness to this magnificent new dawn in the mountains of Japan.

This is not the Japan I expected to discover when I first came to Japan on the JET program, the largest international change program in the world. Each year the JET program sends hundreds of young graduates from countries like America and England to teach English in Japan.

The image of Japan that I had was of crowded neon-lit streets in a super-metropolis like Tokyo. Like many foreigners before me I made the mistake of thinking that Tokyo was the “real” Japan. That in its head long rush into modernity Japan had completely lost touch with it’s ancient traditions in a blaze of artificial neon, sky scrapers and concrete expressways.

I have since come to realize that the real Japan lies in areas that few foreigners ever take the time to discover. Barely glancing at them as they speed past them on the bullet train between the tourist traps of Tokyo and Kyoto.

The real Japan is in the mountains. This is not surprising when you consider that 80% of Japan is mountainous and the rest of the country is divided between rice fields and heavily built up industrialized areas. It is not surprising then that the Japanese have a developed a special relationship with mountains.

Most foreigners in Japan give little consideration to why Mt.Fuji san is the symbol of the nation. Or that mountains in Japan often have “san” added to the end of their name, which is a traditional mark of respect in the Japanese language. The reason for this is that in Japan’s only indigious religion Shintoism, all natural phenomena like mountains, rocks, rivers, etc, are objects of worship within which kami or gods are believed to live.

Even in today’s modern Japan Shinto ceremonies are routinely held to bless the opening of new businesses in futuristic skyscrapers in Tokyo. It is usually only foreigners who see this as a strange mix of ancient traditions and the hyper-modern. While the Japanese see it as a perfectly natural way of balancing the wa or the social harmony that is so prized by the Japanese.

Like so much in Japan this long relationship is an implicit way of life that is taken for granted like the turning off the autumn leaves. So it often takes an outsider or foreigner to notice and articulate it.

I live and teach in a small town in Fukushima prefecture in northern Japan, in the center of which is the Mt.Bandai-san national park that is full off outstanding mountain scenery. I often spend my weekends hiking around the park which has allowed me to experience a rural side of Japan that few foreigners ever get to see.

Within the park I often see old women, who look like crabs with backs bent from years of harvesting rice, collecting sansai (mountain vetagables) in baskets woven from bamboo. Or forgotten Shinto shrines perched atop a mountain or hidden in a grove of bamboo that will never appear in any guide-book, but are all the more beautiful for that. Occasionally I even come across the steep thatched roof of traditional farm houses called gassho-zukuri (which means “praying hands”), that look like the left over reminders of an older, gently Japan.

As a foreigner living in a remote mountainous area I have almost unconsciously begun to copy the uniquely Japanese way of experiencing and seeing nature. Slipping into it like an invisible glove. It is only then that I have begun to appreciate the real Japan.

The Japanese awe of mountains begins with the Shinto worship of yama-no-kami or mountain gods and continues today with the common practice of Japanese hikers praying at small Shinto shrines often found on top of mountains.

While hiking you often come across trailside stone Buddhist statues that the elements have slowly worn down until they are barely recognizable. But beneath which Japanese hikers have still left offerings off 10-yen coins.

The entrance to scared areas are usually marked by stone or wooden vermilion-painted Tori gates that also have small piles of stones left on top, each stone the simplest of preys left by all the hikers who have passed that way.

In Japan there are also many different Shinto festivals or matsuri that celebrate nature’s different seasons by welcoming the Gods. Over the years these traditions have developed into a Japanese love of “viewing” the different seasons in nature. This is way the Japanese love to talk about how Japan has very distinct seasons and how the viewing of each one has it’s own distinct, aesthetic pleasure

The crowds of hikers viewing the Japanese maple trees, transformed by the first cool breath of autumn into blazing mixtures of reds and yellows, continues this tradition. Only in Japan have I ever seen hikers carry a tripod and heavy camera equipment up into the mountains to try and capture the beauty of the autumn leaves in the valleys below.

The most famous season in Japan is the brief cherry blossom season in spring, when the Japanese traditional have “cherry blossom viewing” parties under the canopies of fading pink blossoms.

Winter transforms northern Japan and the mountains into a harsh arctic landscape covered in a blanket of crisp snow. The perfect, almost symmetrical, snow-capped cone of Mt.Fuji-san becomes the archetypal image and symbol of Japan.

The winter season also offers the stark contrast off hiking around the cone of volcanoes from which boiling clouds of sulfur escape from vents in the snow covered ground. In this volcanic landscape that reassembles the surface of Mars you occasionally even see Japanese macaque monkeys bathing in natural Hot Springs to escape the bitter winter cold.

These volcanic thermal springs are tapped by the Japanese and turned into onsens or hot spring resorts. The best onsens are old rustic baths made from cypress wood found hidden away deep in the snow covered mountains.

Toiling through deep snow and then enjoying a steaming hot bowl of ramen (Chinese noodles in pork broth) and then soaking in an onsen is always the best way to end any winter hike in Japan.

It is a Japan far away from the blinding neon of Tokyo, one which has resisted the onslaught of modernity, hidden away in the mountains of Japan.

Those readers who have the chance to go out and discover the “real Japan” should buy a copy of Lonely Planet’s “Hiking in Japan,” ($19.99) which is the best in-depth guide in English to hiking in Japan.

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