By Akihisa Aoyama / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior WriterOKAWA, Kochi — It was a beautiful morning. While the night sky was brightening, a valley covered by morning fog, which became milky colored, came into view, as though it was surfacing. The fog began to move. The slopes of the valley gradually became visible.
Soon, a red roof on the mountainside began to shine, lit by the rising sun. Beyond a field of clouds spreading far into the distance, line after line of light blue mountains could be seen.
Maki Miura, 42, a mountain trekking guide, said, “This scene looks like a baumkuchen, doesn’t it? I have walked around mountains all over Japan, but this is the only place where these ridge lines can be seen in so many layers.”
This is how Miura described the beauty of the Shikoku Sanchi mountain range.
Okawa is a village surrounded by steep crests of mountains that are 1,000 meters high or taller. The village is due north of Kochi, the capital of Kochi Prefecture. Its location is also called the “peak of Tosa,” the ancient name of today’s Kochi Prefecture.
The origins of the Yoshinogawa river are in the same area, where many mountain streams flow into the huge river.
Okawa has a population of about 400 — the smallest population of any village in Japan, except those on remote islands.
I began wanting to know how people live in this mountainous village. So I consulted the village tourism facility Yui-no-Sato. I was then directed to the house of Aino Wada, 83, who is dubbed one of the “masters of living in the village.”
She lives in a family of five — including her son and his wife, and her granddaughter and her husband — in a house on a southern mountain slope with plenty of sunlight.
Wada said, “Once upon a time, men harvested mitsumata plants [for making washi paper] to support their families. Women grew soybeans, azuki beans and everything that could be grown in slash-and-burn farming fields on the slopes, producing various kinds of food.”
The village has little flatland. Because living there has always been inconvenient, residents have accumulated wisdom for life there. It seems that women have long played a leading role in these efforts.
Tofu is made from soybeans grown in Wada’s field, which also provides the roots from which konnyaku is made. She dressed the tofu and konnyaku with miso, which she also made herself, and roasted them to make a dish called dengaku. It was extremely delicious.
Wada told me, “This year, my granddaughter made black tea leaves using tea leaves harvested in my field.” She put some of the leaves into a cup and prepared tea for me.
It was mildly sweet, its taste clear and not astringent. I wondered why it was so delicious. I recognized the richness of living in this mountain village while adapting to its natural environment.
In recent years, an increasing number of people, ranging from young to elderly, have returned or moved in from urban areas.
Masayuki Wada, 27, who is the husband of Aino’s granddaughter Kana Wada, 27, is one of the new arrivals. He moved from Gunma Prefecture and has lived in the village for more than three years.
He said, “In the city where I lived before, the population was 340,000. Now I’m one of 400. I’ve become very different from before. In this village, I feel each of the residents directly affects the future of the village.”
He is one of about 30 people forming a local association of young residents, which comprises villagers in their 20s and 30s.
Masayuki took me to a rice paddy on a slope that was revived as farming land after a 10-year hiatus. Last year, the crop failed because cold water from a mountain stream was poured directly into the rice paddy. But this year, the rice has grown well due to efforts made to warm the water along supply routes.
Masayuki said that after they harvest the rice, they will let all the villagers eat it. The rice stalks were already turning yellow.
From generations of people who have conserved the mountain village by utilizing all of their wisdom, younger generations who have noticed that convenience is not everything are learning various things.
In this tiny village, it seems that the winds of change are blowing.
Central area under water
There was once a large copper mine in this village, and 2,000 people — employees of the mine and their family members — lived here. Around the time the mine was closed, the huge Sameura Dam was constructed at a point along the Yoshinogawa river. The central part of the village was submerged behind the dam.
Okawa may thus be regarded as a village that supported Japan’s postwar economy.
But visiting it can also convince people of the richness of a life in sync with nature, and the happiness of living in a community.
An about 1½-hour flight from Haneda Airport to Kochi Ryoma Airport. With a rental car, about one hour and 20 minutes via Kochi Expressway, taking the Otoyo Interchange exit. From Osugi Station on the JR Dosan Line, about one hour by bus via two routes.
Inquiries: Call Yui-no-Sato (Okawamura Shuraku Katsudo Center) at (0887) 84-2233.
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