2014
07.01

SYNOPSIS:  About the trinity that makes for the UNESCO grasshopper villages:  Ogimachi, Suganuma and Ainokura.  About language and living in an interdependent community.  About a shrine which offers sacred sake, and about a unique fire drill.

 

Of course they are not called “grasshopper” villages!  But how am I supposed to keep the flood of all these foreign words each day straight in my head?  At the beginning of this trip I had the lofty idea that I would remember a new word in Japanese every day — which would make for a nice 70 words at the end — forget it!  Perhaps, if I were twenty, or one of those language geniuses or if I would not be occupied every day for hours with photos and writing, or if I had a Japanese speaking friend with me, or, or — I don’t know what else, but it ain’t gonna to happen.

I am embarrassed to admit that I have stagnated at the usual five words I manage in each language when I travel:  Hi, yes, no, thanks, goodbye, and in Japan the obligatory: I am sorry!  Toilet is usually a word I need, but not in Japan.  All you need is a city map.  Whenever you feel the urge, rest assured, there is a well-maintained, clearly marked, clean, public facility within 500 meters without fail.  It is phenomenal.

But as I am going from place to place, hotel to hotel, temple to museum, there are dozens of words that cross my path every day which I have to retain for just a short time, including some of the people I meet at the hotel reception, etc.  It’s just too much.  I usually reach for anything familiar sounding to keep a point of reference.  When I started to read about the traditional thatched homes in this area which are referred to as gasso-zukuri and therefore gasso-villages, in my mind they stuck as grasshopper villages.  Live with it.

Ogimachi is the largest of the three remaining villages.  It is the place where I chose to stay, and you can easily spend a day exploring it.   There are still over 100 of the gasso-style homes here, and about 600 residents actually live the traditional life of this area.  That means being rice farmers, raising some vegetables, working together replacing roofs, roughing the 2-3 meters of snow each winter, and celebrating various festivals as a community.  Living by yourself in this way is out of the question.  You need others to help you, and you will be there in turn to pitch in for the community.

This was the way of life for most of the mountain villages for hundreds of years.  With the onset of modernity, the building of roads and highways, the old way of life disappeared.  At some point, only three villages were left with a sizable number of gasso-houses.  At that point, the Japanese government decided to protect them.  Individual homes that were left in remote villages were relocated here to be brought back into the fold of a community.

At Ainokura only 50 homes and about 60 residents are left, and in Suganuma a mere 14 homes.  If there are as many as 20 residents here, I would be surprised.  But at this point, the survival of these villages is guaranteed since they enjoy the protection and funding that comes with UNESCO status which they achieved in 1995.  But this comes at a price.

A day in Ogimachi starts with the arrival of about 12 buses and dozens of private cars.  But at 10 AM the parking lot across the river is full and an overflow up the mountain is beginning to fill up.    Hundreds of tourists are flooding into the village for a day of sightseeing, shopping, photographing and chitter-chatter.  The blessing of income is the curse of invasion…

It took me 3/4 of a day to manage to get via public transportation from Ogimachi to Suganuma to Ainokura and back.  The latter two villages are more remote and less frequented by bus tourism.  That means more privacy but also much less income.  I don’t know what is better.

The parking lot and the suspension bridge at Ogimachi are relatively recent additions which help to keep the tiny village from loading up with vehicles on top of all the people.  By 5 PM all is over like a fluke, and within minutes a curtain of silence hovers over the village.  All the buses are gone, the cars have left, the chitter-chatter and the clicking of cameras is over.   The only form of public entertainment and the only reason to venture out of your home that I could make out now was the bath house.

It is the communal activities and the no less than 14 sacred rituals and festivals, that puncture life throughout the year: there is the new year celebration, the welcoming of the moon, the rice-planting season, the commencement ceremony for brewing sacred sake, there is the shrine festival, the spring celebration, a reed purification rite, a veneration event for the wind and one for the gods in the mountains, there is harvest, a key-exchange ritual (I could not find out who is exchanging keys and why), and the end of the year festival.  Most important of them all is the Doburoku festival, marking the end of the rice harvest.

For years this region has brewed a special kind of unrefined sake unique in all of Japan.  It is sacred and can not be sold.  It can only be given out by the shrine and each year’s brew that was started in January and theoretically is ready for consumption in July, first has to be offered to the gods for several months, before it can be drunk by the community in October.   As part of your visit of the Hachiman Shrine in Ogimachi, which also serves as a small museum featuring artifacts used during that festival, you will be offered a taste or two if you like it.  It has zing!  I could feel the effect of just 1.5 small glasses of this for hours…

Everywhere else, where unrefined sake is brewed, the liquid will separate into the clear on top and the grainy, heavy part of the liquid at the bottom.  Not with the Doburoke; and that is its secret and that is what makes it sacred.

Among the most exciting and essential if non-religious events must be the fire drills.  Fire hydrants can be found at numerous places throughout the village, pretty much one per house.  A few times a year they are tested and turned on all at the same time with full pressure.  Photos were displayed at one of the house-museums which showed the village as if punctured by geysers.  The water shoots up way above each house and comes down like a shower.  Citizens to this day patrol the village looking for fires and sounding the alarm if one is spotted.  The more surprising to see that each house has an open fire pit in the center of the main hall.

But more about the unique features of the grasshoppers in the next blog.

For now, I will call it a day.  Good night.