Highland hamlet

A vast tatami room serves as the central dining and drinking area
Photos by Simon Rowe

Hattoji villa, lying at the base of the mountain of the same name, is a monument to the earthy aesthetic of Edo Japan. Simon Rowe drops in for some home-style cooking.

Set only 180km away from the urban crush of Osaka, Hattoji village, snuggled deep in the Kibi Highlands, hosts a group of Japanese and foreign travelers who fan charcoal in an irori sunken fireplace in preparation for a feast of grilled fish and forest mushrooms. Smoke wafts into the kayabuki (thatched roof) of the 120-year-old homestead and the conversation, conducted in several languages, flows easily over carafes of warmed sake.

Rustic retreat
With a view to unlocking rural Japan to international visitors, a non-profit organization calling itself the Okayama International Villa Group offers six modern and traditionally-built "villas" for rent, on a nightly or weekly basis, in coastal and country locations around Okayama prefecture in western Honshu. The subsidized tariffs of JY3000 per person (JY2500 for members)-including shared facilities such as a bath, kitchen and often bicycles rate as a good deal-even after bus, train or taxi expenses of getting there have been factored in.

Surrounded by verdant rice paddies and within earshot of the Buddhist Koukenji temple bell, Hattoji villa is located at the base of the 540-meter-high Mt Hattoji. Beneath its uneven wood beams and smoke-stained thatched roof, the hamlet offers an authentic rural experience for travelers determined enough to rent a car or take on the two-hour train-bus combination from Okayama city train station. Maruo-san, the villa' amiable caretaker, greets new arrivals and, after passing through the clay genkan (entrance), directs them to one of four tatami rooms separated by fusuma (sliding doors).

Hattoji villa was once the residence of an influential village elder, and it was likely he who had the sense (and cash) to install a goemonburo - a cast-iron bathtub of a style dating back to the Edo Period (1603-1867) that is heated from below with charcoal embers. Bathers must still perch on a wooden saucer to avoid contact with the iron sidings that can become scalding hot. For well-padded Westerners, fitting into the soup pot-sized tub must be done in half measures, though thanks to a modern gas-heated water system, a comfortably long soak at day's end is not impossible.

Chilling around the irori

Divine destiny
During the 7th century, Hattoji was a center for Sangaku, or "mountain Buddhism," a sect that shunned city life to seek purification through nature. It had the misfortune, however, to be wedged between three warring fiefdoms that gradually reduced the sanctuary's once-impressive monastery complex to just two temples - Hattoji and Koukenji - both of which overlook the village's 13 remaining kayabuki-roofed farm houses.

At the top of a stone path in a dense grove of bamboo behind the villa, an eerie stillness pervades nearby Hiyoshi Shrine. The shrine was founded in the year 728 and a 700-year-old oak tree keeps all but a few shafts of light from filtering down to the forest floor, where stone gargoyles stand guard outside the well-maintained complex and purple smoke drifts from an incense basin. Adding to the ominous aura is the ao-daisho ("blue general"), the non-venomous paddy snake, which sometimes seeks out the sunlight along the path and waits until hikers are almost on top of it before making its startled dash for the undergrowth, as happened on my way back down the mountainside.

Like its resident reptiles, Hattoji's aging inhabitants also go about their daily chores with polite disregard for the carloads of day-trippers and camera clubs who romp through their backyards and paddies, firing off shutters and strobes like mercenaries in their quest to capture images of a fast-disappearing lifestyle.

Behind one farmhouse, an old woman hauling baskets of grain from a storage cavern had stopped to chat with tourists when a sudden blood-curdling shriek came from somewhere in the darkness. Someone had ventured down the passageway and, unable to see in the gloom, had brushed against a mukade, or long-legged centipede - the terror of all city slickers - whose bite is extremely painful. The hapless tourist scurried out unscathed and the old woman chuckled, telling the bunch of pale faces that the cave was full of them - they were her pets!

Traditional farm implements hang from ther hooks on Hattoji's thatches-roof houses

It's only when the last day-tripper has departed that the quiet rhythms of tilling, planting and harvesting across Hattoji's lush hillsides creep back to you. The rural atmosphere couldn't be stronger inside the vast tatami room of Hattoji villa, where guests gather for a nightcap and the glow of the irori embers is the sole source of light. Originating in the Jomon Period (300 B.C.), the irori still provides a dwindling number of households in the Kibi Highlands with light and heat for cooking and drying clothes during the abysmal winter months. A carved wooden fish hangs above the villa's irori acting as an "equalizing" water charm against fire spirits.

As the octopus sizzled and the sake bubbled and the sound of chirping paddy frogs permeated the villa's mud straw walls, I almost felt myself being propelled back to the Edo Period, sharing a clay cup of Okayama's finest brew in the company of a raggedy ronin or mild-mannered monk.


CONTACT: The Okayama International Villa Group, Okayama International Center, 2-2-1 Hokancho, Okayama 700-0026. Tel: (81+86) 256-2535. Fax: (81+86) 256-2576.

Each of the OIVG's six villas can be viewed at: 

FACILITIES: All villas have Western-style toilets, laundry, pay phones, bed linen, yukata (cotton kimono), towels, and common kitchen with gas or electric appliances and cookware for self-catering. Guests are advised to bring their own food.

BOOKINGS: Rates per person are: members JY2500 (two-year member fee JY500), non-members JY3000, exchange students or trainees JY500 discount available. Exclusive bookings can be made for Fukiya, Koshihata and Hattoji villas. Rates are JY20,000, JY15,000 and JY18,000 (up to 8 adults), JY30,000 (9 to 13 adults) per night, respectively. Only Japanese yen is accepted.

ACCESS: Okayama Prefecture lies roughly midway between Osaka and Hiroshima. Okayama City is easily accessed by shinkansen from Fukuoka (1hr 48min), Hiroshima (40min) and Osaka (43min).

GETTING TO HATTOJI VILLA: By local train from Okayama station, take the JR Sanyo Main Line to Yoshinaga station (35min), then take the Choei bus (30min) or a taxi (25min). By car from Osaka, take the Sanyo Expressway and exit at the Bizen Interchange, then follow National Route 2 through Yoshinaga town and follow the signs (in English) to Hattoji Furusato Village.

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