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Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2003


Mountain hermitage offers challenge to dole

HIGASHI-IYAYAMA, Tokushima Pref. (Kyodo) By far the most common sign along this road twisting up the Iya River in Shikoku's remote Oboke Gorge, a spectacular chasm that is the deepest in Japan, is "under construction."

Cartoon animals smile from the many warnings about roadwork and slope reinforcement as cement trucks thunder by. Down the valley, cranes swivel over a massive unfinished concrete public square close to a traditional vine bridge that draws busloads of visitors.

But the package tourists see little of the harsh reality of the community. Despite the plethora of public works projects, prolonged unemployment and migration by the locals have left the mountainsides littered with empty houses.

The economic woes of rural Japan are particularly poignant in the Iya Valley, one of the country's three "hidden" mountain areas. The farming settlements founded by refugees from the Heike clan after its defeat by the Genji clan in 12th-century civil wars lasted for generations, but they are now threatened with extinction.

There are almost no jobs outside construction and few young people are left. Up a windy road lined with abandoned cars, though, is one old home that's at the center of a movement to reverse the valley's slow death.

Owned by U.S. authors Mason Florence and Alex Kerr, an outspoken critic of Japan's construction economy known for his 2001 book "Dogs and Demons: The Fall of Modern Japan," Chiiori is an Edo Period thatched-roof farmhouse set among towering cedar, bamboo groves and churning mists high above the river. It looks like the abode of a mountain ascetic.

Far from being a relic, it's become a popular locus for Japanese and foreigners keen to promote the Chiiori Project's goals of preserving traditional cultural assets and creating economic opportunities through them.

Since it was opened to the public in 1999, international businesspeople and foreign journalists have also visited Chiiori, which means "House of the Flute," oddities among the few elderly residents of the high-altitude hamlet of Tsurui in Higashi-Iyayama, Tokushima Prefecture.

On a recent volunteer weekend, participants from as far away as Saitama Prefecture were taken out to cut thatch by the live-in staff, young Japanese and a British woman concerned about rural decline. Armed with sickles and rain gear, they set off to harvest pampas grass on a disused cattle ranch in a cloud-raked pass.

The pampas is needed to rethatch the house's decaying roof, a colossal undertaking that is a main focus of the Chiiori Project and its volunteer organization.

Roughly 1,600 bundles of thatch are needed for the job. The cost of buying it would be prohibitive, and there are no more cultivated fields of the plant left here due to depopulation. Staff and volunteers thus brave the cold and rain to reap wild patches high on distant slopes. They see it as a labor of love.

"The whole idea of keeping traditions alive in Japan is more popular with foreigners," said volunteer Rachel Wakefield, a 30-year-old New Hampshire native who teaches English in Kyoto. "It's too bad Japanese aren't attracted by the idea."

Chiiori is one of the last houses here with a thatched roof. Most of the inhabited dwellings have been covered with more convenient tin. Chiiori's open, spacious interior, meanwhile, offers visitors the chance to experience a living space of old Japan that is a home and not a museum. After a day of harvesting, volunteers and staff gather around the "irori" sunken hearth on pine floorboards blackened by centuries of smoke to dine on home-cooked mountain fare.

"The best thing to do at Chiiori is nothing," said co-owner Florence, a Bangkok-based photojournalist who has written Japan guidebooks for Lonely Planet. "I can't recommend anything more than sitting on the veranda, sipping Iya "ban-cha" tea and watching the mist . . . it's a great place to retreat and just chill out."

Whether U.S. high school teachers participating in a seminar at the house, Japanese housewives taking the road less traveled or weekend guests learning to make "soba" buckwheat noodles, which locals are hired to teach, nearly all visitors come away feeling rewarded, according to Florence.

"The ultimate thing about Chiiori is it can be an educational experience," he said.

Florence and Kerr, whose award-winning 1996 book "Lost Japan" relates how he bought the house after finding it abandoned in 1973, pay the expenses of the project, which is running at a loss.

But they hope locals who see the roughly 30 paying visitors per month coming to Chiiori will be inspired to set up tourism-related businesses such as inns and be weaned off public works jobs. One local friend opened a country cuisine eatery in 2002 that is drawing crowds.

"When you explain eco-tourism to locals, it's like speaking an alien language," Florence said. But he added that the handful of people who have moved to the neighborhood in connection with Chiiori is an achievement in itself.

"In some way, Chiiori could help revive the village," said 63-year-old neighbor Isao Oya, a member of the local council. "There are no young people left here and no budget. In the last five to six years, construction hasn't even been feeding the people."

When Oya was a child, some 9,000 people, mostly tobacco, millet and buckwheat farmers, lived in Higashi- Iyayama. Today there are just 2,300, and over 90 percent of the money coming into the valley comes from government construction. Asked about the community's future, Oya put his hands together, indicating a dead end. The problem is nationwide.

"A lot of the old Japan is vanishing fast and within a few decades will have disappeared forever," said J. Sean Curtin, a researcher with the Japanese Institute of Global Communications at the International University of Japan who has lived in the countryside and studied its decline for years.

But he added: "Projects based around traditional industries can sometimes revitalize communities. As Japan gets ever more high-tech, the demand for the nostalgic low-tech past increases."

"Chiiori is bringing new blood in and people from all over the world," said 26-year-old Chiiori Project manager Daisuke Inoue, who grew up in the urban environment of Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, and is now a student of Oya and other locals in the school of rural life, learning farming skills and how to maintain a thatched house.

"Many young Japanese come here and are shocked. They say, 'Alex, thank you for telling me how to be Japanese.' "

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The Japan Times

Article 9 of 11 in National news

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