It’s late January in Tokyo, and a rare 6-centimeter snowfall plunges the city’s famously efficient transport network into chaos. Train lines report delays of up to four hours, leaving snaking lines of frustrated commuters steaming, despite the freezing temperatures.
Days later, a minibus in the far north winds its way through channels carved into the snow banks near the village of Nakatsugawa, in Iide, Yamagata Prefecture. Here, as in Tokyo, the weather is abnormal.
“It makes a nice change to see so little snow,” says our driver, with a chuckle. “We’d normally have about three meters piled up on each side of the road, but this is less than half of that. When we see the news from Tokyo, we wonder what all the fuss is about.”
This down-to-earth attitude is one of the defining traits among residents in this part of Japan. It’s safe to assume that without such a sanguine approach, it would be impossible to get through the region’s famously harsh winters.
But, despite the undeniable charms of life here, Nakatsugawa has its problems. Like many parts of rural Japan, this area has been badly affected in recent years by depopulation and aging. The local population shrunk from 3,272 in 1950 to 322 in 2013, and the high proportion of elderly residents and handful of children currently set the community squarely within the criteria for what are known in Japan as genkai shuraku, settlements at the limit of their ability to sustain themselves.
Efforts to settle young families in the area have been hampered by the perceived hardships of rural life and concerns about integrating with Nakatsugawa’s close-knit community.
To allay these fears with local hospitality and boost the town’s economy through tourism, nine Nakatsugawa families opened their farmhouses to visitors as noka minshuku (farm guesthouses), offering board and home-cooked meals.
These establishments are less like the traditional ryokan inns common in many tourist honeypots and closer to the template of a Western bed and breakfast. It is an unusual set up in Japan, where most households only invite friends and family to dine or stay (the burgeoning popularity of Airbnb notwithstanding). But it’s not without precedent in Nakatsugawa. In times past, with roads all but impassable in winter, teachers at the local school (now closed due to low numbers) would lodge and dine with nearby families rather than commute.
Each of the guesthouses is unique, their character informed by the distinctive personalities of the families who run them. Though several of the farmhouses are over 100 years old, including Ikarashi Honke and Ikarashi Shinka, they also have all of the features required by a discerning 21st-century traveler, from Wi-Fi to air conditioning and washlet bidet toilets. Newer establishments even incorporate barrier-free features such as wheelchair access.
This emphasis on inclusiveness is present in all the inns. Each welcomes foreign guests — the town has been particularly popular with Taiwanese visitors since it was featured on an episode of the TV Tokyo show “Inaka ni Tomaro” (“Let’s Visit the Countryside”) — and language barriers are overcome either with pen and paper or, as Goemon hostess Michi Suzuki puts it, “with heart.”
The delicious dinner and breakfast at each guesthouse bears the stamp of its own particular chef, with handed-down family favorites joining creative new dishes, all made with seasonal, local produce: shisomaki (miso wrapped in shiso leaves and fried) is prepared with homemade miso and the wild walnuts that local bears and monkeys also forage for; stews and tempura incorporate butterbur, kabu turnips and distinctively mellow Utsusawa pumpkins; maple trees are tapped for syrup in the local hills; and once-illegal doburoku (unrefined sake) moonshine is now produced with official approval in a disused ski center. And, with prior notice, all farms can accommodate a range of allergies, vegan diets and religious restrictions.
While the term omotenashi (hospitality) is rather overused these days — particularly in the run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — there often remains a barrier of detached formality in Japan when dealing with paying customers. This approach can make a guest feel awkward, as can the converse tendency to overdo things with outrageously lavish spreads. The tone of the hospitality in Nakatsugawa’s noka minshuku is very different: warm but never cloying, generous but not to the point that it elicits a flicker of guilt in those being entertained.
This combination of openness and an emphasis on handling the processing and distribution of produce locally — which ensures more revenue stays where the crops are grown — may help reverse the demographic trends eroding many of Japan’s rural communities.
At a recent seminar hosted in Nakatsugawa by community-building project NowHow, professor Ryuzo Furukawa of Tohoku University spoke of once-common values that have been lost in much of contemporary Japan. These included a sense of fraternity, connectedness, and cooperation within a community living in harmony with the land that all seem to be alive and well in Nakatsugawa. Hopefully the presence of the noka minshuku can go at least some way to passing on that faint, yet very warm flame.
For more information, visit www.iikanjini.com/minsyuku.html (Japanese).