Travel

Can a shared cup of tea revitalize aging Takao?

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

In southeastern Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture, nestled about 30 minutes by car from the city center in the slopes of Mount Fusube, is the small village of Takao. On clear days, from the observation deck several hundred meters above the village, the view stretches out over terraced rice paddies, across the greater Echigo Plain and all the way to the Sea of Japan; beautiful, but remote.

It’s also a genkai shūraku (a depopulated village where most residents are senior citizens) — a common story playing out in villages across the archipelago. A few decades ago there were around 50 to 60 households in Takao; today there are only 23, and the village has no children under elementary school age.

Still, residents are deeply attached to their yama no kurashi or “mountain way of life.” Two years ago, Takao native Mina Ueki and Akemi Suzuki struck upon an idea to help showcase their village, if not encourage people to move there themselves. Inspired by the format of the Engawa Cafe community event in Osawa, Shizuoka Prefecture, Ueki and Suzuki created the monthly “Ochanomi Sanpo” (“Tea-drinking Walk”).

Community-focused: Shigeo (left) and Mina Ueki, two leaders of Takao's Ochanomi Sanpo ('Tea-drinking Walk') event, which is aimed at revitalizing the aging village of Takao. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
Community-focused: Shigeo (left) and Mina Ueki, two leaders of Takao’s Ochanomi Sanpo (‘Tea-drinking Walk’) event, which is aimed at revitalizing the aging village of Takao. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

With the help of several Takao farmers — including Shoji Ota, the representative for local agricultural association Akari, and eco-farmer Shuji Ota (no relation to Shoji) — Ueki and Suzuki enlisted six households in their plan, kicking off the first Sanpo back in Feb. 2017.

The premise is simple: One Sunday each month, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., participating households open their doors to visitors. A green bucket placed outside a door means that produce or other handmade items are for sale; a pink bucket means visitors are welcome inside.

For ¥300, guests can relax on couches, tatami or, as temperatures drop, at kotatsu (tables with electric heaters), chatting with hosts and each other over endless cups of tea and a plate of several home-cooked dishes made from whatever’s in season. There’s no time limit, and people often spend upwards of 45 minutes at a given house before departing in search of the next venue, typically visiting three or four of the six open houses.

“Somehow or another, we wanted to get various people to visit (Takao),” says Suzuki, mentioning that she and Ueki thought it would be a more interesting event if visitors could enter residents’ homes. The first Sanpo drew around 50 guests, but since then the event has grown and, although attendance varies by month and weather, some Sanpo have had over 500 attendees.

Open for business: Colored buckets outside the Suzukis' house indicate that guests are welcome for tea and that homemade produce is available for sale. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
Open for business: Colored buckets outside the Suzukis’ house indicate that guests are welcome for tea and that homemade produce is available for sale. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

“To be sure, the Ochanomi Sanpo’s goal is (to inspire) immigration,” says Ueki, who also makes and sells jars of marmalade and jam made from pesticide-free, Japan-grown produce. So far, although some have expressed interest in moving to Takao, nothing has panned out. Still, at each event, around half of the attendees are repeat visitors; most drive up from the immediate Joetsu area, though an increasing number hail from greater Niigata Prefecture.

November’s Ochanomi Sanpo — No. 31 — begins a bit damp and chilly. Shoji sets up a stand to sell carrots, his main crop, outside of his house; Ueki and her husband sell crates of daikon and cabbage, as well as jars of her jam. Just after 10 a.m., cars pull into the village and soon the five houses open that day are full of convivial conversation.

Green tea flows freely and the small dishes on offer reflect Japan’s autumnal bounty: there’s kabocha (pumpkin) cake, pudding and vegan bread; semi-dried persimmons and steamed peanuts still in the shell; homemade konnyaku (devil’s tongue), much softer than its supermarket equivalent; tart, pickled sansai (mountain vegetables); noppe, a hearty, creamy local stew; and even soy milk yogurt topped with berry coulis.

“If you don’t take care of (local) people, you can’t take care of the area,” Shuji says.

From Joetsu, Niigata Prefecture, Takao is best-accessed by car, with parking available in town. From Joetsumyoko Station, it’s possible to take the Kubikino Bus No. 41 to Yanagishima, from which you can arrange a community bus to Takao (Monday-Friday; on weekends, contact event organizers). For more information about Takao’s Ochanomi Sanpo, visit bit.ly/ochanomi.