Iwamura: “The Real Japan”

What do you consider to be the ‘Real Japan’? The bright lights of Tokyo? Kyoto’s ancient shrines? Samurai culture? Or is it something else entirely? Mark Guthrie introduces you to Iwamura – The Real Japan.

Through the quiet countryside of Gifu prefecture runs a single carriage train operated by a solitary driver. It chugs through the valley, snow-capped mountains on one side, stepped rice paddies on the other. It moves at such a slow pace that as it cuts through the bamboo groves and cedar copses you can make out the knots in the wood, wood only slightly older than the obasan who sits opposite to you. She has sat on that train often throughout her long life because she, like the other passengers – the school kid on his iPhone, the mother dangling a child on her lap – is not a tourist, she lives in this community.

Iwamura, a quaint old town in Gifu’s picturesque countryside is not likely to be found in any guide book you can buy. With its old buildings of wood and paper, packed side-by-side along narrow streets, it resembles a rustic Takayama, Tsumago or Gion. But if you look closely you will see a major difference to those tourist hotspots: the faces behind the ancient wooden doors, rather than the steely gaze of salesmen, here all you find are smiles.

As my friends and I first arrived in Iwamura we were buffeted by an unseasonal flurry of snow. With the icy wind penetrating my light spring jacket I was just beginning to curse my luck when we heard a call from across the street. It was a little old man in the dandiest of red hats, summoning us into his store. Inside he pushed piping hot chestnuts into our hands. “Eat, eat,” he demanded. I did so, awaiting the hard-sell, but none came. “Where you from?” He asked. “England,” I replied, through a mouthful of sweet nut. He smiled a semi-toothy grin. “Welcome to Iwamura,” he beamed. As he did so the snow ceased and the sun came out.

Wandering along the atmospheric streets the same thing happened again and again. Outside one shop a man talked to us for a good fifteen minutes about the local rice production. Street side we chatted to a guy selling locally smoked cheese. At Iwamura Brewery we sampled their famed Onano-Jyosyu “Lady of the Castle” sake; nothing was forced upon us, everyone just seemed happy to share the wonders of their town.
Following our meander through the picturesque town we returned to the station café for coffees and beers, before heading one stop down the track to Hanashiro Onsen, a classic little public bath beloved by locals that is a must-visit for anyone in the area. But it was here that disaster struck!

A sign at the station informed us that the sento’s boiler was broken and thus closed for the day. Not to be defeated, we hit more beers, coffees and conversation with the café’s bubbly owner before making our way back to our hostel.

Guesthouse Yanagiya was once a beautiful old building that had fallen into disrepair. Rather than leave it to rack and ruin, concerned community members clubbed together to rebuild it, turning it into a delightful little hostel that is part Japanese classic, part western convenience.

As we were debating our evening plans in the guesthouse lobby, Miyazawa-san, the head of the community team who now runs the hostel, insisted that we joined him and his friends at Tono izakaya, a fantastic Showa-era style restaurant with all manner of period paraphernalia dotted around the place, that was as interesting as the fare on offer was delicious. But as good as the food and drink was, the highlight was the company.

Everyone made us feel so welcome, and everywhere I looked I found friends I had met that day: the café manager, the woman from the brewery, others I had seen in the street. It was like that bit at the end of Wizard of Oz – and you were there, and you were there – except rather than being crowded around my bed they were asking us questions and offering up dishes to share.

As the night went on the conversation bounced around: from work to New Year’s resolutions to our life stories; but one continuous topic was of Iwamura, and as we walked back to the guesthouse, staring up at the surfeit of stars in the clear country sky, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the passion everyone shared for this town.

The next morning there was no time for hangovers as we had turned up during Iwamura’s February sake festival, and the streets were packed with food and drink stalls and half-cut ojisans.

As much as we were enjoying ourselves – not only the sake tasting, but also meeting again many of the patrons from the restaurant the night before – we decided to get out of the relative hustle and bustle, and to this end Miyazawa-san had arranged for us electronically-assisted bicycles.

Very soon we were in the countryside, the middle of nowhere, rice paddies all around, discovering little shrines and temples at each turn, finally ending our jaunt on the top of a hill beneath an immense cherry blossom tree. While we gaijin know hanami as a time to get drunk in the park, historically the Japanese used the blossoming of sakura as an agricultural symbol to prepare for the planting season in summer. Though it was not yet in bloom, as the sun lowered, looking out across the valley, it wasn’t hard to imagine the communities that had lived here in the past waiting for the petals to blossom.

Finally back on the train, winding our slow way back to Ena, my mind returned to the previous night in Tono and the conversations on New Year’s resolutions. While mine had been a selfish wish, almost everyone else talked about a desire to do something better for Iwamura. From new building projects, to bringing people to the town, to travelling to Thailand with local handicrafts, uppermost in their mind was being part of, and improving the community.

And it was then that I realised: having been there, making new friends with amazing, passionate people, I felt like I was part of that community too. There, in a tiny town, I had found it. It wasn’t the darling streets, the stunning countryside or the amazing local cuisine.

It was a community, people working together and opening themselves up to complete strangers, to foreigners. That was the ‘real Japan’, and I had found it.

You should too.

Getting there:
From Nagoya take the JR train bound for Nakatsugawa to Ena. From there take the Akechi Railway to Iwamura.

Staying there:
Guesthouse Yanagiya http://yanagiya.site/

Eating there:
The Izakaya I visited was Tono, and I highly recommend the huge dishes of yakisoba and the tofu steak. English menus available.

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