Hakushu' hidden treasures

Children always find things to do on Ojiro River's banks
Photos by Stephen Mansfield

Tucked away in Yamanashi is an area of natural beauty, Stephen Mansfield explores Hakushu and its secret charms.

Yamanashi mapFor many years Hakushu village, hidden in the depths of Yamanashi Prefecture, was the venue for a colorful international festival featuring avant-garde performances, musicians, dancers and artists. Sadly the festival no longer takes place, but vestiges of the event remain. One of its original organizers, the Butoh dancer Min Tanaka, drawn by the beauty of the region, the traditional values of the villagers and the area's surprising proximity to Tokyo, set up a dance collective here called the Body Weather Farm in the late 1980s. Later, she was joined by other artists. Although the festival is no more, dance workshops and courses at the farm have survived.

The busy Koshukaido links this area of Yamanashi to the capital but, thankfully, keeps most of the traffic firmly on its narrow strip, allowing this agricultural area to go its own way largely unmolested. Until a few years ago, many residents of Hakushu had never laid eyes on a foreigner. With the festival's demise, the patina of rural calm and neglect that lies like a mantle over the village has returned, despite the occasional appearance of a foreign dance student or erstwhile naturalist.

A footbridge over a trout pond at Verga

Secret garden
One of the best places to stay in Hakushu is the government-run-and-subsidized complex called Verga (an abbreviation of Verdant Garden). The center, located in a pine forest, has sloping grounds that run down to the attractive Ojiro River, whose shallow, boulder-strewn bed, natural pools and sandy banks make it perfect for picnicking and bathing. The designers at Verga have worked overtime to get the complex to blend in with the natural environment. Its chalets and bungalows are made of cypress and pine, and its communal onsen are set on a wooded slope. The complex also boasts a fine restaurant housed in a geodesic dome surrounded by water and lawn, offering Japanese barbecues and decent French food, an art gallery and a small shop. Self-catering is popular here as each bungalow has its own fully-equipped kitchen.

While private transportation helps in this area, it's by no means essential, and may even detract from undertaking the country romps that are integral the to Hakushu experience. The area is covered in easy-to-follow hiking trails, the most ambitious being the one up to the summit of Mt Komagatake itself. Hakushu village, an unassuming cluster of mostly older properties and a few more recent, tasteless ones, is worth exploring on foot for its shrines, kitchen gardens and old wooden farmhouses, some of which date back to the Edo period. If you look at the central eaves of these old wooden houses and barns, you will notice that many have family names and emblems inscribed on medallion-shaped reliefs made from plaster, clay and straw, a custom apparently unique to the area.

A family crest carved beneath the eaves of a Hakushu village barn

Aqua vitae
Mt Komagatake forms the backdrop to Hakushu, a peak from which the region's excellent water springs in cool cascades and trickles even at the height of summer. This is good news for those who like their picnics accompanied by wines chilled in natural rock coolers in the river and streams that irrigate the area. Hakushu's water is so good that it's bottled and sold all over the country. The district's water courses form an intricate web of routes that can be turned into walking trails with the help of the local maps that are given out at the nearest station at Nirasaki and at the area's minshuku (B&B). Sengafuchi, a waterfall and clear pool enclosed by wooded slopes, is an enchanting place. So is the mysteriously named God-Snake Waterfall, featured on brochures of the region. A trail leads from the waterfall to Takeu Komagatake Jinga, a truly rustic shrine built among rock boulders and moss in a pine and cryptomeria wood on the upper bank of the river. The wooden shrine has a number of interesting carvings, but its headstones and groupings of Buddhist and native figures, from Fudo, the guardian of hell, to the long-nosed Tengu, time-mottled but beautifully executed, form a fascinating collection of deities. Coming from the waterfall, the shrine is reached by crossing a wooden suspension bridge over the Ojiro River.

A dancer affiliated with Min Tanaka puts on an impromptu performance in the middle of the Hakushu countryside

Water is not the only liquid identified with Hakushu. A Suntory whiskey distillery, in the shadow of a rather grand shrine, lies in the eastern half of the district. Yamanashi is also a serious wine-producing prefecture. Hakushu cultivates its own label at various small, family-run establishments and medium-sized wineries dotted throughout the region. The easiest to reach perhaps, is the Charmant vineyard, a 20-minute walk from Verga. Reds, whites and rosÚs are produced at this winery established in 1940. Its whites, a semillon and chardonnay among them, are the best. Visitors are welcome to wander around the winery, inspect the vines at the back and help themselves to a free tasting from the bottles on offer at its display shop where they sell local produce and cheeses selected to match their wines.

There is much to surprise and delight at Hakushu, and a ramble through the catchment area turns up more features in the landscape than just the peach orchards and the rice paddies for which the region is noted. What appear at first glance to be Palaeolithic stone circles, a granary silo, a rusting septic tank and a cache of incubator bags from the movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers turn out to be perfectly serious statements by contributing artists: art installations no less. Despite the Industrial Age feel of the materials-concrete, stainless steel, nylon-their surfaces and contours blend in with the environment remarkably well. One, a car covered in leaf mold and overhung by a trellis of pipes that look like a forest flyover, actually looked in danger of being overcome by the surrounding fecundity.

Locating these works of art is often easier said than done. Nature moves at a brisk pace out here in the Japanese countryside and several have already vanished, like Khmer ruins, into the undergrowth. Finding them can feel - and this is half the fun - more like a treasure hunt than art appreciation. But then discovering what lies off the beaten track is the reward for exploring Hakushu.

Residents enjoy the good life, their houses surrounded by trees, flowers and vegetable gardens

Getting there:
Nirasaki, the nearest station to Hakushu village is 2hr 30min by JR Chuo-Honsen Line from Shinjuku. Trains also run from Nakano. Buses to Hakushu are highly infrequent, and the taxi ride takes around 20 min.

Where to stay:
There are several minshuku and small family-run hotels in the area. The best place to stay is Verga, (Tel: 0551 35-2121) in the heart of a preserved forest area. Accommodation runs from a bring-your-own tent campsite with some very basic wooden chalets in the JY4000-JY15,000 range, to JY25,000 a night (up to six people can stay for the same price) pine log-houses with living rooms, kitchen and luxury baths.

Where to eat:
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are available at Verga. Cafes are dotted around the countryside. Some of the minshuku are also open to outsiders for lunch and dinner. In Hakushu village, there is a rundown noodle and soba restaurant patronised by locals. The old building stands on the village's one corner, and is overseen by a friendly old lady who also runs a minshuku across the road. Down on the busy Koshukaido, Shingen Abumiya, an old, traditional-style restaurant, serves excellent homemade noodles.

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