In Kyoto, we were met by Jason, a young American textbook rep, who shuttles between Korea, Japan, and the States in the course of his job. He gave us fishburgers and Cokes, piled us into a Land Rover, and drove us to a barbecue an hour and a half away in the mountains.
The parents of a colleague of his built their dream getaway, but then one of them died and the other fell into ill health, so he wants to sell it. The Japanese economy has not been doing well for 20 years, but waiting for better times does not seem wise. So, Jason met his family there along with another colleague who is thinking of buying it.
All the way up the mountains, little villages were tucked into the folds visible from the highway. There are 7-11s, power stations, ratty looking parking lots, and farmhouses with picturesque tin roofs that cover the thatch underneath. Replacing thatch is necessary every 30 years, and costs 100,000 dollars so there's none left.
The house we visited was in one such village. It was on a substantial lot, with weeds that included grasses, ferns, and wispy bamboo. There was a big chestnut tree, a mature kiwi vine, and a slice of a bamboo forest, with plants that had trunks six inches across. What looked like sheep poop was scattered about, that comes from wild pig.
We walked up the hill to visit a shrine in a deep, dark cedar forest. Some forest plots were fenced off, and had bamboo and other undergrowth, but the unfenced areas had been grazed down to dirt by the pigs. There was a long set of stairs leading straight up to the shrine. It passes under a red tori, marking the gate between the ordinary and the sacred. It was hung with twisted rice rope, a shimenawa, with paper hanging from it. We saw almost the same kind of arrangement back up north in Sendai, indicating to me that over the years the local Shinto customs have been formalized into an overarching aesthetic. There were a few little buildings with mysteriously sacred things, and then we went back to the barbecue.
People were preparing food in a relaxed way. Thin slabs of wild boar and beef were set on a little charcoal fire outside and moved onto plates, ginko nuts were roasted, and vegetables were chopped for the soup.
The house has two tatami rooms on the left, which are made in the traditional Japanese way with sliding wood and paper doors, tatami on the floor, and a general feeling of wood. A thick low table is in the middle, surrounded by cushions to kneel on. We sat and little plates with food appeared in neverending sequence. The two children are bicultural, and just came back from fall in Davis, CA, where they went to preschool and first grade. They were cheerful, energetic, and much cosseted.
After way too much food, the businessmen retired to the Western part of the house with their beers to talk, and the women and children stayed behind to chat and roll around on the floor. Camilla's babysitting specialty is to draw and tell stories with children, and that is what eventually happened. One of the men appeared with an amazing ink painting of two dragons done by his grandmother. "Take it," he said, thrusting it at me. "She did hundreds and I don't know what to do with them." Wow. He brought some art books for me to look at, thus both making me happy and freeing the other women to chat in Japanese. This kind of intelligent thoughtfulness is characteristic of all the people we've stayed with. They not only show the kind of hospitality that you would expect from a polite culture, but go several steps beyond to meet individual interests. I hope to learn a tenth of that kind of graciousness!
We almost went to a hot springs on the way home, where fish nibble at the dead skin on your feet, but everyone was too tired. So, with a bathroom and coffee stop at a 7-11, we careened down the mountains, through the narrow streets of Kyoto, and to bed.