A glint of copper hints at Fukiya’s mining past

by Stephen Mansfield

Special To The Japan Times

Sitting in sublime obscurity in a raised valley one hour by bus from Bitchu-Takahashi, Fukiya Furusato Mura in Okayama Prefecture must surely be one of Japan’s most under-appreciated rural destinations. Mention the name even to Japanese travelers and you are likely to draw blank expressions.

Only three buses run a day to the village, passing through an unsullied, almost pastoral countryside, some of the most beautiful in Japan. Its low, woodland valleys, purling streams, traditional terraced farms and rice paddies speak of heritage, time and custom preserved through practice and necessity rather than contrivance. Graveyards tucked along the edges of private gardens, graduated slopes and fields fortified with ancient walls compiled of cannonball-shaped stones, indicate long habitation, residences lived in by the same family for generations.

A kilometer or so before the road rises to Fukiya, as it is known to the locals, the bus slows down at a fairy-tale hamlet (whose name I did not catch) to avoid scraping the eaves of homes, so narrow is the passage. It’s worth alighting here to examine the well-preserved wood-and-plaster homes, a foretaste of Fukiya’s superlative architecture. Entering Fukiya a few minutes later, the bus decelerates once more to avoid the guttering of buildings.

The village is empty when I arrive, though I spot one or two bodies, laconically stretched out on roadside benches, workmen taking their noon siesta, a practice more associated with torpid climates. As I attune my ear to the lower audio levels of the village, sounds begin to surface: a dog snoring in the yard of a sake shop, an old man coughing in a cot somewhere. With only a handful of visitors, the women selling tickets at the entrances to old residences converted into museums are enjoying comfortable sinecures, one middle-aged matron laying aside her knitting needles to greet me.

Structured like an old post town, the atmosphere of the village, with its single main street and tiny warren of back lanes, is more akin to a mountain hamlet. The relaxed ambience and deserted streets quickly breed bad habits, like popping my head unbidden into the entranceways of private homes. So peaceful is the village, I begin crossing the road without first checking for traffic.

The village was the creation of its old copper mines. Mitsubishi was one of the companies that made a small fortune from the mines here. The stone fence of a small shrine behind the main road still bears the company emblem. Bengara (red ochre) mineral was used to stain the wooden grillwork of prosperous residencies.

The rouge-colored pigment’s main ingredient is iron oxide. Used as an aesthetically pleasing coloring agent for architecture, it was much prized as an element in the painting of porcelain ware such as Imari and Kutani, and as a rustproof surface for ships. Inflation during the Taisho Era (1912-26) caused the price of copper to plummet: Fukiya’s fate was thereby, at least temporarily, sealed. The depletion of copper coincided with a drop in demand for bengara and the advent of far cheaper, synthetically produced iron oxide-based dyes.

Whatever damage may have been caused by the excavations, the creation of an industrial landscape, has long been covered over by the restorative hand of nature. After the copper seams were exhausted, Fukiya was largely abandoned. Although a few well-to-do families retained homes in the vicinity, the decamped community left a ghost town of exquisite buildings to languish over the years until restoration of this rare architectural heritage began in the late 1980s.

Fukiya retains the appearance and air of a prosperous village. The profits from mining provided enough affluence for its copper barons to indulge in surprisingly tasteful aesthetic refinements to their residences. These have survived in the fine plaster family crests visible beneath the apex of roof eaves, in elegant ramie wood panels, delicate ironware lamp holders and well-fashioned stone entrances. During the village’s boom years, the late Edo Period and Meiji Era, wealthy mine owners commissioned the finest carpenters from Osaka and Kyoto to build the plaster and tile walled homes that remain standing along the main street.

Despite its former wealth and appearance of continued wealth, there is nothing ostentatious about the buildings, or the way its more prosperous inhabitants appear to have lived during its heyday. The Fukiya Furusato Mura Kyodokan, the former home of a well-to-do family involved in bengara production, is now a local history museum and has revealing displays on the mini-industry. A spacious residence, the rear courtyard has a striking plantless garden, so minimalist it resembles a modern art installation.

Although its scale is indubitably diminutive, Fukiya has some worthy sights. The old copper mine and bengara mill known as Sasaune Kodo, with its narrow-gauge rails still in place, is a 1.8-km walk beyond the village, but worth the effort. All the wooden tubs here are stained pink. You may need to hire a taxi to get to the Hirokane-tei, a 200-year-old residence built by a local copper baron. The undulating tramp through the wooded countryside is invigorating. Surrounded by beautifully maintained gardens with curvaceous lines of topiary, the home, another manifestation of the wealth created through trading in bengara, is distinguished by no fewer than five storehouses, a grand two-storied entrance gate and a reception room set aside exclusively for guests.

Built on the site of the former office of the copper mine, the one-story Fukiya Elementary School was constructed in 1909. It has the distinction of being the oldest wooden primary school still in use in Japan. It’s heartwarming to see a structure as old as this in such fine condition and still serving a useful function.

The former Fukiya International Villa building, a fine place to stay at before it closed down, faithfully re-created a shōyu gura (soy-sauce storehouse), which replicates local features in its latticework and ocher windows. The structure can still be visited. Its exterior wooden boards are charred black, a method that helps to preserve the finish against harsh weather conditions, a practice common to rural areas of western Japan.

The village was designated as a conservation area for historically important buildings in 1977, but appears to have attracted little attention in the intervening years. If the village was known, no one seems to have left any written account of the place, as if the impressions of writers or historians were as immaterial as the ghost town Fukiya had once been.

You can often measure visitor volume from the size of a destination’s car park: in this instance, just enough to accommodate a few vehicles. Given the scale of Fukiya and the spatial restrictions of these mountain valleys, it is unlikely to suffer a fate similar to villages firmly on the tourist map, with their huge bus spaces, well-developed souvenir shops and plentiful overnight accommodation.

One despairs at the way everything is turned into a business opportunity in Japan, but Fukiya’s small-scale tourism could be a study in a more sustainable model. Though I hesitate to even air the thought, Fukiya would be a dead ringer for a UNESCO listing, were it ever to apply. Hopefully, the village in its current state should be able to remain intact with just a modest flow of visitors.

At present, there are no signs of the type of disfigurement that tourism invariably wreaks in its wake. There is no conscious effort at artifice, or if there is, it is done in a muted and subtle way. There are one or two souvenir shops, though no one importunes you from the entrance; a couple of homes converted into coffee shops are furnished in tasteful period fashions; overhead cables have been discreetly relocated to the back lanes. No one appears to be wandering around the village dressed in period costumes, as I have recently seen in the Japan Sea town of Hagi. The aged woman who passes me on the road out of the village, carrying a basket of turnips, is picturesquely wrinkled, wearing a country bonnet and smock, but it is no doubt because she had always done so.

Fukiya proves that it is possible to be isolated without being inaccessible. Inevitably, though, given its architectural credentials and the matchless beauty of its surroundings, the village will take its place as a preeminent site on Japan’s heritage trail, although its visitors are likely to remain those with time on their hands and the requisite interest in destinations that, like Fukiya’s old copper mining shafts, are narrow and deep.

JR trains from Okayama take about 1 hour to Bitchu-Takahashi, where there are three buses a day to Fukiya (the Bihoku bus from stand No. 2.).