An open-air “living museum” of traditional farmhouses deep in Japan’s countryside
Steep-sloped thatched rooftops reach for the sky like hands raised in prayer. Narrow, fast-flowing drainage ditches alive with carp and trout knit the rice paddies and the hulking, three- and four-story farmhouses together into the village of Ogimachi, the main attraction of the Shirakawago region in a remote, pine-covered mountain valley in Gifu prefecture. The total effect is like something out of a Japanese folktale perhaps: Momotaro Peach Boy, or a whimsical Ghibli Studios anime such as My Neighbor Totoro.
By some measures, Japan is the snowiest place on earth, and winter in areas such as the Tohoku region north of Tokyo add to that rep. The Zaosan (蔵王山) mountains, on the border between Miyagi and Yamagata prefectures, for example, gets around 12 metres dumped on its forested slopes each season. That’s a far cry from the 40-metre (120-plus feet) epic blanket that smothers the Japanese Alps around Nagano each year (there’s a reason houses in the countryside traditionally have a second front door, upstairs), but still more than enough to transform this range of stratovolcanoes, crater lakes, and subalpine fir trees into a magical fantastical winter wonderland each year…
It’s been a long time – 35 years? – since I visited Arizona in summer, specifically Sun City West where my grandparents retired. What I remember, however, is the dry heat you mention. even coming from my hometown of Toronto, a place not known for being particularly hot at any time of the year, I was surprised that the 100-degree-plus days didn’t FEEL hotter than they did (seems to me the hottest temp during one of my visits was 116).
By contrast, a hot day in Tokyo reaches 35 degrees Celsius, sometimes topping 38 (100 degrees Fahrenheit). However, there are two additional factors to take into consideration: humidity, and the heat-island effect.
Offhand, I can’t find any useful stats on just how humid Tokyo can be in the summer, but I can recall days where the temp was around 38 and the humidity above 90%. According to the Heat Index calculator at the National Weather Centre, that works out to 178 degrees Fahrenheit. Now, that ain’t the average, as I say, and I’m not sure any days reached that high in the summer of 2016, but it gets there – and in the summer of 2015 there was a record number of straight days of temps above 35 celsius in early August – in fact I posted about it Big Sushi, Little Fishes: a japan blog
The other consideration is the heat-island effect. I don’t know of any way to calculate how much concrete can raise the ambient temperature of a city, but I do know that walking ib Shinjuku, say, on a hot summer day, with car and air conditioner exhaust, amidst crowds of sweltering people, and a hot wind blowing up the urban canyonland can be an overwhelming experience. Fortunately, there are bars and cafes and shops and department stores and the like, most with over-active aircon, in which to take refuge!
So yes, of course comfortable weather is a relative phenomenon, and coming from southern Arizona the temps may even be a little low compared to what you’re used to. But temperature is only part of the equation; people who know say that in summer Tokyo is a tropical climate, on par with Singapore and other hotspots in southern Asia.
Of course, life does go on – even in heat-island Shinjuku – and there are mountains nearby to escape to if the heat does get oppressive. So the heat and humidity is no reason not to visit in summer: it’s just a matter of adjusting your inner thermostat, so to speak!
For more than ten years R. and I have visited the Shinto shrine at the summit of Mount Mitakesan, the village of minshuku and restaurants below, the “Rock Garden” river course, and the trails to surrounding peaks such as Mount Otakesan and Mount Hinodesan.
In order to create this gallery of pictures from those trips, I have gone back to the earliest scans of pictures I shot back in the days of film photography, when my pride and joy was a Konica Hexar Silver camera and rolls of Fuji Velvia and Provia. I’ll continue to add pictures, though it will take time: we average maybe three trips a year, and we’re going again this weekend!
花鳥風月, Kachou Fuugetsu: “experience the beauty of nature, learn about yourself.”
A tangle of scrub pine, roots bone-white in the gunmetal blue of a Hokkaido dusk. Around us low, forested mountains rolled out to sea. In one direction, the Russian Far East; in another, Tokyo and main-island Japan. Only 1500 meters (4500 feet) above sea level, but the harsh climate of Hokkaido — Japan’s northernmost, frontier island — put us already well above treeline. Below, I knew, higuma brown bears, cousin to the grizzly back home in Canada, foraged among the bamboo grass for bedtime snacks. We stood in the triangular shadow of the summit as night crept up-slope, looked over a lightless wilderness, and marvelled at the irony of two city kids from Canada travelling halfway around the world, to one of the most urban and densely populated parts of Asia, to wind up alone on a mountaintop in bear country.
Grizzlies weren’t high on the list of things my admittedly eclectic research on Japan had prepared me for: a sporadic diet of Lone Wolf and Cub, Black Rain, Kurosawa movies, Akira, and Godzilla, had prepared me more for the 85 million-person conurbation on main-island Honshu, the Tokyo-Osaka megalopolis. Nature, for all I knew, was limited to the disciplined gardens of bonsai trees and ikebana flower arrangements, rather than big-N Nature red in tooth and claw.
But in fact, as I was quickly learning, this high tech, near-future, post-industrial nation still has plenty of countryside and even wilderness. In fact, in many parts of the archipelago it seems more like the people are squeezed into what arable land exists, mainly on the coasts, while large parts of the island interiors remain uninhabitable, and thus undeveloped.
Of course, Hokkaido is not main-island Honshu. In fact, that’s kind of the point:
Japan is a surprisingly big and diverse place. 6,000 islands hang pendulously from wintry Russian Far East, all the way to distant Taiwan in the semi-tropical south. Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku and to an extent Hokkaido and Okinawa make up the bulk of what most visitors think of as “Japan,” but there are literally thousands of smaller islands which unfurl into the East China Sea.
Some islands are heavily developed, such as main-island Honshu with the Tokyo-Osaka conurbation (though, as you will learn, there’s still a lot of wildness left even on Honshu); others still have untouched forests of antediluvian fern and palm — such as on Iriomote — and millennia-old cedar — on Yakushima — at their mountainous hearts.