Discovering Rural Japan Where Landscape Flows

Story and Photos by Lawrence Charters
Kenko Shimbun, May 1984, pp. 8-9

(Photos scanned from the newspaper.)

Once you leave the coastal strip around the Kanto Plain, japan takes on an entirely different character. In the Kanto you have vast, modern cities, wall to wall buildings, traffic so dense it deserves an entirely new word to describe it, and huge crowds. But travel inland a few kilometers and you find rugged mountains, amazing amounts of greenery, and a quiet so complete it is unnerving. Another unusual quality is the feeling of movement; instead of just sitting there, like well-behaved mountains and forests, the landscape appears to flow. Don’t bother looking for millions of identical acres of wheat as in Kansas, or endless miles of pretty, tame woods as in New England. Each step down a rural Japanese road offers something new.

Small Shinto shrines at the crest of the gorge
Four stone Shinto shrines stand sentinel at the crest of Shosenkyo Gorge. Less than two feet tall, they are dedicated to the animal kami (spirits) of the area.

Yet even this newness is deceptive. You can climb around many places in the western United States, pick out a spot, and be reasonably certain no one has ever bothered to rest there before. When you try for this same sense of discovery in Japan, of being the “first” to visit some remote point, more often than not you find a small torii and, a little further on, a tiny Shinto shrine, built centuries before as a tribute to the local kami (divinities). These kami are believed responsible for giving particularly beautiful spots their special character, and of maintaining links between earth and heaven. On reflection, even the most dedicated Christian would be hard pressed to disagree.

Country road along the river
A country road winds and flows along with the river.
Village cart escorting tourists through the park.
Local villagers have been escorting tourists around the area for over 1,000 years. Wagons, however, have only been used in Japan during the last two centuries, as the steep terrain made wheeled transport impractical.

Shosenkyo Gorge, located in Chichibu-Tama National Park near Kofu, is a spectacular example of this link between heaven and earth. Wind, water, and time have combined to create massive towers of granite, curiously shaped rock falls, and beautiful rapids. The land is so rugged it is no surprise to find the area undeveloped. What is surprising is the discovery Shosenkyo Gorge has been a tourist trap for over a thousand years. Even more disturbing is the knowledge that, five hundred years ago, two armies battled across the crest of the gorge, striving for control of the nearby castle town of Kofu.

Paper fortunes at a shrine
Paper fortunes adorn tree branches at the shrine on the crest of Shosenkyo Gorge.

The warriors, centuries of tourists, and even the castle have vanished. Were it not for odd little articles like this, they would also be forgotten. But the gorge – with its quiet pools amid the rapids and its rock walls covered by green velvet moss – the gorge remains.

The river flowing through the park.
Shosenkyo Gorge has been carved out of the mountains over the ages.

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