japan nagano japanese alps

Merging Edo-period character with rural charm, Hida Furukawa offers visitors a slice of Japan that – for now – remains fairly under the radar.

As the tiny old train moves slowly up the track, packed tightly with standing passengers and pausing frequently for no obvious reason, that ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ feeling starts to set in. This is about as far from a bullet train as you can get, and – while only 300km in distance – entire worlds away from the bright lights of Tokyo. I’m working my way through the Japanese Alps region to Hida Furukawa, a small town that sits alongside the Miya River, 14km north of the better-known Takayama.

Just like Takayama, Hida Furukawa preserves much of the architecture and charm of the Edo period. Unlike its more famous neighbour, however, it remains relatively tourist-free.

At first, this could seem like a good thing and indeed, meandering along the empty canals lined with historical warehouses, chatting with shop owners who want to know where you’re from and what’s on your itinerary and exploring unoccupied temples does feel like a rare treat. However, it’s no secret that Japan’s rural communities are in the midst of a crisis; in 2014, the country’s population fell by a record-breaking 271,058. And as more and more people flock to cities for work, rural areas, like Hida Furukawa, are being hit the hardest. Tourism, therefore, offers an economic lifeline.

Working with this aim in mind is Satoyama Experience, a tourist company that offers a variety of cycling and walking tours in the area, plus various long and short-stay options. I joined them for a tour around the area, led by Shinji Komori, a friendly and enthusiastic local.

The centre of Hida Furukawa itself is better suited to walking, so we set off on a circuit of the outskirts, stopping at various points of interest on the way, such as a Gasshō-zukuri style cottage (buildings with a steep thatched roof that resemble two hands praying) and a natural spring. We saw very few people in the area, but when we did pass a woman tending her plot of land, we were invited in to see her home, learn more about her work (in her eighties, she still labours today) and meet her cat.

We carried on upwards, away from the town, before coming to an imposing temple at the top of a hill, where we stopped for a cup of green tea and surveyed the view ahead of us: a tiny town dwarfed by the backdrop of a huge mountainside, covered with thick, dark forest. The scene was already fairly ominous, but became more so once Shinji explained that black bears still lived there, and occasionally wandered down into the town.

From there, it was time to start the descent and after stopping off at the ruins of Masujima castle we weaved past the canals just as the rain started to fall at which point we hot-footed it to the next stop, Tanekura Inn.

This building, which is more than 100 years old is owned by Satoyama Experience, which runs it as a guest house. Again, this is to encourage tourists to venture further afield than usual, and offer a source of economy to the rapidly declining village in which it’s set, now home to just eight families.

Staff member Miyuti Sasaki collected me from the station and a short drive later we had arrived. While it may be a little trite, it’s not an overstatement to say the inn was stunning. The high-ceilinged rooms with exposed beams were minimalist yet characterful.

What was perhaps most surprising about Tanekura Inn, however, was the menu – all macrobiotic and primarily sourced from the local area. If this sounds off-putting to the animal-product lovers out there (like me) – don’t let it. Dishes were filling and flavourful, and completely different to anything I’d tried on my trip. I had sushi-style vegetables followed by a plate of soba-based bites, a vegan terrine and fermented tofu. This was followed by delicate vegetable tempura, noodles and soup. And if you’re not on a complete detox, don’t worry – mine was all washed down with a sizeable beer.

After a soak in the wooden tub that was – without exaggeration – the size of my kitchen, it was time for a deep sleep in my silent room. (For those less tired than me – make sure you try and catch a glimpse of the stars. Apparently they are stunning).

The next morning, after marvelling at the view from my bedroom – endless mountains, trees and cloudless sky, I took a walk around the tiny village. While I’d spent some time in rural Japan already, Tanekura was unlike anything I’d seen – wooden square houses were dotted around an undulating terrain, in a kind of Lord of the Rings ‘shire’ style. The surrounding views were incredible. Again – endless, unadulterated countryside. While struck by the beauty, however, it was hard to not also be affected by the sadness of a village that may not have a next generation.

Hida Furukawa, it seems, is existing on a kind of precipice. The hope being of course, that it tips towards tourism. Whether that will happen is yet to be seen, but one thing that does seem certain is that to experience this part of Japan as it currently stands – understated, authentic and beautiful – time is absolutely of the essence.

Cherry stayed at Hida Tomoe, a hotel two minutes’ walk from the station that merges conventional, contemporary rooms with traditional Japanese features such as private dining compartments. One night starts at ¥6,000 (£39)

Cherry spent the second night at Tanekura Inn, as described above. One night starts from ¥5,500 (£35)

The feature image of this article does not depict the areas mentioned in this article but is of a traditional inn in the Nagano prefecture in the Japanese alps.

Tokyo Tourguide

Rina Sawayama

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