Finding the natural beauty of old Japan Tour: Modern ways have bypassed the rural landscape and old-style buildings of Ainokura and its sister villages; Destination: Asia.


AINOKURA, Japan - Sure, there is beauty in Japan: Think flower-arranging, silk kimonos and tea ceremony.

But there are surprisingly few beautiful places in Japan. Travelers, primed by the country's reputation for exquisite aesthetics, are sometimes startled by how downright ugly the place turns out to be - as ugly as the United States, with freeway interchanges, high-rise buildings, concrete river channels and power lines cluttering the landscape.

Fact: Japan has one-thirtieth of the United States' land area, but every year pours twice as much concrete.

Given that so much of the Japanese aesthetic revolves around natural themes - cherry blossoms, pines, chrysanthemums, rocks, flowing water, cloud-topped mountains - it is surprisingly hard to find real nature in Japan, except in the tightly disciplined Japanese garden, with its severe prunings, accurately placed rocks and artificial limitation of elements.

Perhaps the most famous Japanese garden, at the Zen temple Ryoanji in Kyoto, has no living elements at all. It consists of 15 rocks arranged on a sea of white gravel so that, wherever the viewer stands, one rock is always invisible. No earthy dirt, leaf or flower has intruded since the garden was created about 1500; the gravel is freshly raked daily. One theory is that the rocks represent a tigress and her cubs crossing a river. Another, that the rocks are mountain peaks rising above a cloud cover represented by the gravel. But the designer, whoever he may have been, left no explanation. Such gardens are called karesansui - dry landscapes.

So where does the traveler go to see "wet," or at least living, landscapes?

Here is where - Ainokura and a couple of sister villages, Ogimachi and Suganuma, in the mountainous west of Honshu, the main Japanese island. The villages have been declared a World Heritage site by the United Nations.

This is not the Japan of artifice - of fluttering parasols and rice-paper screens. Ainokura is peasant Japan of the last century. People lived in distinctive houses with roofs pitched as steeply as 60 degrees, the better to shed snow that can pile up 6 to 10 feet in winter. They tended rice paddies and cultivated silkworms or made paper in the vast attics formed by the sloped roofs. They installed a water system to pump water up the steep sides of their mountains and trickle it back down for irrigation - and for the aesthetic pleasure of hearing rippling water.

Fortunately for the world, modernity never caught up with Ainokura and its sister villages. The rural landscape remained unchanged for more than a cen-tury. World War II, the American occupation, the postwar Japanese economic miracle came and went. The peasants of Ainokura continued to live as before. And in 1995, at a meeting in Berlin, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the three villages a World Cultural Heritage site.

They joined other sites ancient and modern. The Acropolis of Athens, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu in Peru, Cappadocia in Turkey are on the list. So is the Renaissance city center of Florence, Italy, and the historic center of Mexico City. So are natural wonders such as the Galapagos Islands, Arizona's Grand Canyon and Tanzania's Serengeti National Park.

Japan's historic villages were honored for "outstanding universal value" in the quality of the rustic architecture and the "example of a traditional human settlement or land use which is representative of a culture, especially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change."

So the U.N. found Ainokura before the Japanese concrete pourers did. Soon behind came the tourists.

They are a mixed blessing, Shigeru Ikehata will tell you. He is the district chief, and he keeps the Minshuku Yusuke, the only inn in Ainokura. His monopoly is secure, because being a U.N. World Heritage site means that nothing can change. No big chain hotels or resort casinos will invade Ainokura; even his neighbors won't be allowed to take paying guests. The business is all Ikehata's.

On the other hand, he can't expand beyond the four or five guest rooms he has. Seven thousand tourists a day are bused into Ainokura in the summer season, he says. And then they bus back out again for lack of accommodation in Ainokura.

Seven thousand a day - can that be true? That would be 100 buses a day, a dozen an hour, carrying 70 passengers each. Just at the entrance to Ainokura is a large blacktopped lot, not as big as the one at Yellowstone's Old Faithful, but mighty large, considering that the entire village of Ainokura consists of just 27 households set on an area of about 45 acres, counting rice paddies.

All day, from 9 a.m. to mid-afternoon, the buses pull in and disgorge sightseers who stroll the 100 or so yards to the other end of the village. They snap some pictures, buy ice cream or postcards of a bowl of noodles at the local tourist shop, then return to the buses to ride on to the next picturesque village.

"They walk in without respecting that people live here," Ikehata says. That, after all - that people live here - was the whole point of the U.N.'s honoring an unchanging way of life.

Better to spend a couple of nights at Ikehata's inn. Better to feast on his wife's cooking, to hike the mountain paths that the bus tourists never reach, to venture to the spa baths for a relaxing afternoon of bathing out of doors, among naked Japanese of all ages on a breezy cliff overlooking the Sho River.

The inn is one of the "gassho" houses that make the three World Heritage villages distinctive. It is about 130 years old, Ikehata thinks, and has been in his family for five generations. His parents turned it into an inn about 30 years ago. The house was built of wood without nails. The roof was thatched with local grasses. The name gassho means "joined hands," a metaphor describing the pitch of the roof. Ainokura has about 20 such houses, among fewer than 150 that remain in Japan.

The innkeeper Ikehata is 56, wiry with wispy gray hair, and animated. He is a photographer who had a 30-year career in Tokyo before coming home to manage the inn when it became too much of a task for his widowed mother, Seki Ikehata, 78. His photographs, mostly landscapes, decorate the otherwise plain inn.

One of his loves is jazz, and a couple of years ago he brought an international jazz combo led by the American tenor-sax man Zane Massey to the inn. It became a network television event, and Ikehata eagerly shows his guests the videotape of the night when all Japan, or at least much of Japanese Televisionland, tuned to the quaint inn where ultra-modern sound fused with ultra-traditional scene.

Who sits tonight on the straw mats where Zane Massey blew? These Americans, plus a Japanese couple and a Japanese family of four, including a granny and a young boy. Tomorrow evening, it will be a dozen archers from Okinawa, stopping over after a national collegiate tournament.

In the morning we discover the village. We had arrived at the end of dusk, after a long (and expensive) taxi ride from the nearest (but faraway) rail stop, Takaoka. A more economical idea is to reach Takaoka or the provincial capital of Toyama early enough to find a bus to Ainokura - or to rent a car and drive yourself. Still, it was a lovely ride up the Sho River valley in the gathering twilight.

In the morning sunshine, begonias, salvia, impatiens, zinnias, sunflowers, morning glories, hollyhocks, chrysanthemums, hydrangeas, lilies, black-eyed Susans, snow-on-the-mountain, melons, squash, corn, cabbage and beans are all in full riot. Yes, I know, in America these flourish at different seasons. But in Ainokura they flourish together.

Meanwhile, insects buzz pleasantly but don't sting, and peasant women in conical hats weed the edges of the rice fields. Down a mountain path a stone shrine, decorated with flowers and bright cloth, commemorates someone.

The sound of running water is everywhere. Ainokura sits on a narrow plateau some hundreds of feet above the Sho, but the surrounding mountains rise perhaps 3,000 feet more.

The village has channeled the mountain runoff into irrigation streams that are then collected below the village and pumped back up the mountain to be recirculated. The stroller is never beyond the sound of rippling water.

Ah, dinner time comes.

We eat well - 10 dishes, two sauces, rice wine and tea. Let's see - there is grilled fish, batter-fried tempura, a custard laced with vegetables, sliced raw fish, boiled vegetables, pickles, rice, tofu, soup. ... That's only nine dishes; we must have lost count. Blame the rice wine.

When you go ...

Information: The Japan National Tourist Organization, 1 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 1250, New York, N.Y. 10020. Phone: 212-757-5640. Web site: E-mail:

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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