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Friday, April 29, 2005

POSTCARDS FROM OKAYAMA

Reliving the good life in the country


Staff writer

Visitors to Japan often go into a form of shock not long after they arrive. It is not the different language, cuisine, or social customs that are the cause, but, rather, the realization that Japanese cities are vast, crowded, hyper-modern jungles of humanity where life seems to be constantly on warp speed. The result, sadly, is often disillusionment that there is little of the "traditional" Japan left in major cities, combined with a sense of physical and psychological exhaustion.

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If you want a traditional taste of Japan and a pastoral experience then its best to take a trip to Okayama Prefecture.

Okayama Prefecture was one of the first prefectures to understand that many international visitors wanted both urban tourist centers like Kyoto and Hiroshima as well as the quiet beauty of the Japanese countryside. Located just over an hour from Kyoto and just under an hour from Hiroshima and blessed with what the Japanese Meteorological Agency says is the country's most balanced weather, Okayama met the demand from international tourists for a more pastoral experience by opening up the International Villa Group.

There are a total of five villas. Takebe Villa is located near the center of the prefecture, Fukiya is on the western side, Hattoji is on the extreme eastern side, close to the border of Hyogo Prefecture, and Shiraishi and Ushimado are located near the Seto Inland Sea.

Each villa is a traditional house or houses set in a traditional farming community or village. A trip to one of these villas is as close as you're likely to get to traveling back in time to a preindustrialized country. While traditional in most respects, the villas have modern kitchens and bathrooms, as well as detailed English language instructions on the use of the bath (a traditional bath heated from the outside), as well as detailed guides in English on everything from turning off the gas in the kitchen to finding emergency medical help. In short, no need at all to worry about language difficulties.

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Thatched roofs at Hattoji Villa

The primary draw of the villas, especially to tourists looking to rough it, is that you are entirely on your own in a rural atmosphere. Reservations at any one of the five villas can be made through the Okayama International Center, which is a couple minutes' walk from Okayama Station, but you're responsible for getting there, bringing your own food, cooking it and keeping the kitchen clean. The villas contain washing machines, a major plus for those who are spending weeks on the backpacking trail.

During the day, visitors can enjoy hiking, canoeing, bicycling and fishing, as well as the local cuisine, which includes everything from excellent mountain vegetables lightly fried in a tempura style to fresh fish caught from the lakes, rivers, and ocean. Soba fiends will be happy to learn that near the Hattoji Villa is a restaurant where visitors, with the assistance of a master chef, can make, and eat, their own soba. At night, return to your villa, sit around the irori -- the wood-burning hearth found in traditional Japanese-style houses -- and chat about your day's adventures with other guests. However, smokers take note. All of the villas are nonsmoking.

If you've checked into a villa hoping to catch the news on BBC or watch Beat Takeshi trade intelligent and thoughtful comments with comedians on your favorite variety show, sorry. By order of the management, there is no TV. So bring that big, thick book that you've always wanted to read.

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The spa at Takebe Villa

Or, in the case of the Takebe Villa, you can head over to the onsen and enjoy a soak. It's free to all guests at the villa. After that, if you're feeling a bit peckish, head over to the Takebe yoghurt factory. Unlike the sweetened varieties, Takebe yoghurt has a light, slightly sour taste, but is especially good when frozen.

A major disappointment that many visitors express upon seeing Japan for the first time is that cities, towns, and villages are a jumble of cheap, gaudy, nonuniform modern architectural styles that quickly tire the eyes. Indeed, some visitors have complained that traveling around Japan is a "visually exhausting" experience.

But Fukiya village, home to the Fukiya International Villa, has made strong efforts to preserve the uniformity of it's traditional architecture. The streets are lined with old-style wooden homes and storefronts, and the surrounding countryside is especially colorful in the spring and autumn, when many people visit. There are a number of hiking trails, one of which leads to the Sasaune Mine Shaft. Japanese often describe their country as poor in mineral resources, but in ancient times, Sasaune was one of the region's most important copper mines. Today, you can descend partially down the original mine.

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A sunken hearth at Hattoji Villa

Fukiya is pretty close to the traditional postcard image of Japan that many visitors, especially from the West, come seeking, but fail to find. For many Japanese, especially those who were not born and raised in the huge metropolitan centers, Fukiya evokes a feeling of furusato, which, although literally translated as "birthplace" or "hometown," brews up nostalgia about getting back to basics, about small traditional villages, close families, and friendly neighbors.

For those who prefer the seashore, Shiraishi Island International Villa and Ushimado International Villa are recommended. With emerald-green waters, rocky beaches, gentle breezes and a mild, Mediterranean climate that will remind some of islands in the Aegean Sea, these villas are especially popular with Western tourists. Indeed, Ushimado has dubbed itself the "Aegean of the Orient." Years ago it received, from its sister city of Mytilene, in Greece, olive trees, and today, Ushimado's olive garden is the source for local olive-based products ranging from cooking oil to chocolate to soap.

But even more than olives, Ushimado is known among Japanese as the birthplace of Bizen pottery, which is known for it's earth-tone colors and simple, but warm, texture. At the Sabukaze Craft Center, you can explore the history of Bizen ware and even try your hand at creating your own work.

Ushimado lies on the eastern side of Okayama Prefecture, and is not too far from Himeji. On the western side, near the border with Hiroshima Prefecture and sitting in the Seto Inland Sea, is Shiraishi Island. The island, which is only accessible by ferry, has moderately difficult hiking trails that wind up steep hills. But once you reach the top, you'll be treated to a stunning view of the Inland Sea. The Shiraishi Villa also boasts great views of the sea, and is one of the newest villas -- built with both traditional Japanese designs and materials that create an open, airy feel.

Visitors on limited budgets will be happy to know that the rate for all villas is just 3,000 yen a night. For exchange-students and trainees, the rate is 2,500 yen a night. The rooms are, depending on the villa, either traditional tatami with futon only or a combination of traditional tatami rooms with bright western-style bed-and-breakfast rooms with beds. All kitchens come fully supplied with pots and pans and utensils, and futons are included, but you must bring your own food. However, it is strongly advised that you stock up in and around Okayama Station or elsewhere before setting out for the villas, as several of them, particularly Fukiya and Hattoji, are quite remote.

So if you're tired of urban Japan and prefer the sounds of chirping birds to the sounds of chirping cellular-phone sales girls, a trip to the Okayama International Villas, either as a one-night stay before heading on to somewhere else, or as part of a longer vacation, is a sure way to get not only refreshed and energized but also, just possibly, your answer to the question of what has become of traditional Japan.

For more information on Okayama International Villa Group telephone (086) 256-2535 or fax (086) 256-2576. The Web site is at www.harenet.ne.jp/villa/


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