Local Japan: Finding a Home in Gujo Hachiman

August 28th, 2017 By Joshua Bewig
Local Japan
Gujo Hachiman lies at the conflux of three rivers, in a valley nestled among steep, cedar-covered mountains and is overlooked by a castle perched high on a hill.  At the bottom of this hill stands a monument claiming to mark the dead center of the Japanese archipelago.  It may be centrally located in geographical terms, but one arrives here - after traversing a seemingly endless array of tunnels interrupted by quiet hamlets - with the feeling of having alighted in some remote corner of Japan that time has forgotten.

Not only is the appearance reminiscent of the Edo-era, with its narrow stone streets flanked by antique machiya townhouses and its pure mountain water rushing through the centuries-old stonework canals, but the customs and traditions remain largely intact as well. Most notable of these are the local Bon Odori dances, known as Gujo Odori, which are famous throughout Japan and continue from July to early September. During the Gujo Odori, this city of  about 20,000 inhabitants can swell to as many as 10 times that number. Young and old fill the streets donning colorful yukata and clacking about in their geta wooden sandals. The throngs step and sway in concentric circles around the ancient wooden cart, laden in streamers and paper lanterns, from which the musicians perform the age-old songs.  The Obon Festival is the Japanese equivalent of the Mexican Day of the Dead, and the locals say that some of the revelers are really the ghosts of their ancestors, who are called back to the world of the living to partake in the celebrations. 

gujo2
One cannot live here for long without being absorbed into these traditions. My wife and I had barely finished moving into our machiya when our neighborhood leader Suzuki-san thrust open the sliding front door - no one bothers to knock in Hachiman - to announce that the rehearsal for the Hana Matsuri (Spring Festival) would begin at 7:30 at the local shrine. As soon as I arrived I received a lacquered wooden flute and took my place with the young boys kneeling behind the men, so I could begin to learn the festival songs. I was later told that I am the first foreigner to participate in the festival in the 400 years of its history.  I also attend the neighborhood meetings, where we sit around a long, low table on the tatami in the Disaster Prevention Center, drink beer and sake, eat dried squid, exchange gossip, and occasionally bring up the issues at hand, such as whose turn it shall be to set out  the netting on garbage pick-up days, to keep the crows from scattering the trash. Far from being trivial, these ordinary customs help maintain harmony among the inhabitants and establish a sense of community. People look out for each other, and will often share vegetables or pickles, or a little venison in winter after a successful hunt. Neighbors salute one another with a cordial nod, and the children often bow and greet me with a cheerful “konnichiwa!” or “haro!”

gujo3
Morning in Hachiman begins at six o’clock, with the gonging of the temple bell. This ancient bell, and the temple to which it belongs, are stationed on the hill between the castle and the monument declaring Hachiman to be the bellybutton of Japan.  The Abbot of this temple is a young monk who has come to be a friend of mine. On the evenings of the full and new moons I attend his zazen sessions, and other evenings we occasionally meet in town at a clandestine izakaya for a drink, or several. This monk has a well-earned reputation for being able to hold his liquor. I don’t envy him the mornings he has to rise at the crack of dawn to gong that enormous bell after a night of drinking.  It will be rung again at noon, six, and finally at nine pm. If you show up at the appointed time, you too can have a try at ringing this mighty bell, as I have on many occasions.

The pace here is as relaxed as the pace in Tokyo is hurried, and instead of rushing off to the station in the morning to be squeezed like a sardine into a stifling subway car, people take their time sweeping in front of their entrances, and leisurely walk to work or hop into their miniature cars. Aside from the bell, another sound that indicates the time is that of the uniformed children who march by our door to and from school (traffic on our street is prohibited at this time for safety), their lively chatter penetrating the thin walls of our machiya. Little privacy is afforded by our paper and glass walls, so when I practice my flute I hike up a nearby trail into the woods to sit beside a beautiful waterfall, oblivious of how absurdly cliché I must appear, so as not to annoy my neighbors.. One rarely sees people gazing into their smart phones in this town. The children are more interested in catching fish or fireflies than Pokémon, and if you want to talk to someone you can just go slide open their front door and holler “konnichiwa!” If they’re not at home they’re sure to be at one of the cafes, where, in spite of the small town setting, one has no problem finding a well-brewed cup of freshly ground, organic, fair-trade coffee.  The city is indeed endowed with a sophistication that belies its modest size. It also features a small but highly acclaimed music festival, and recently a young entrepreneur has chosen this town, with its pristine water and central location, as the site for a new absinthe distillery and cocktail lounge. At the inauguration, needless to say, our friend the Abbott was called upon to perform the liturgy and invoke the Buddha’s blessings.

gujo4
Like most rural areas in Japan, Hachiman is amidst an aging and depopulation crisis. Yet, happily, there seems to be a growing trend of young people leaving the stress and strife of the metropolis to find a home in the smaller cities and towns. Life is cheap here, food is plentiful and fresh, the air and water are clean, children play in the streets and swim in the river, and people tend to be friendly and cheerful. Jobs are scarce and salaries are cheap, but many industrious and hard-working people find a way to make-by, if not thrive. Many seek to take advantage of the growing tourism industry, as the Gujo area has much to offer in the way of adventure sports, natural beauty, and cultural events. Many work several jobs depending on the season. I myself do freelance video production, and also work as a tour guide. My wife is a Feldenkreis practitioner (a form of body work) and a part-time babysitter. She is a Tokyo native, and it took her some time to get accustomed to the slow pace and lack of fine dining, entertainment, and fashion; but she has since made many friends here and has no problem staying entertained. At times we both miss the diversity and anonymity of the city, and enjoy visiting Tokyo or Kyoto now and then. Neither of us, however, regret having moved here.

We never really planned on moving to a city of this size. We were living in San Francisco, and would visit Japan when we could to search for a place to call home. Tokyo was too urban, Kyoto was too touristy, Fukuoka was too westernized. Then one day we decided to veer from our itinerary on our way from Kyoto to Tokyo, to visit a friend who happened to be living here at the time, and we fell in love with Hachiman as soon as we stepped off the bus. We returned to San Francisco, sold my tree-care business, the car, and most of what we owned, packed and shipped what remained, and arrived here three months after that first visit. Needless to say, it was a leap of faith, and we were very fortunate to find such a charming house to rent and adequate work. We owe much to all the people here who helped us to make the transition as smooth as possible. No one knows what the future may hold, but we have no plans to leave. Hachiman is home.