Weighted with the obligatory gifts of two or three Tokyo delicacies, a well-stuffed travel bag and a sack full of sandwiches and bottled tea, I am crowded into a train headed for the countryside in Yamanashi Prefecture. It has been some years since I last visited my very good friends who live there among fields and mountains in a beautifully restored old farmhouse. The season is just right for a visit to this area, about 100 miles west of Tokyo and not far from Mount Fuji. Spring has sprung and flowers, birds and bees are buzzing with the freshness of a burgeoning spring.
We leave the train at Kobuchizawa Station, where Jiro meets us in the car and drives us to the house, a drive of about thirty minutes. Much of what I see from the car is familiar, but there is as well a lot that has changed over the years, either through development or rebuilding. My first time to see this part of Japan was summer of 1980, and in those days the dominant landscape was a green checkerboard of rice fields and vineyards, laid out between scattered farmhouses and backed by mountains. Now there is the sporadic convenience store, or mini-mall and a great many rustic guesthouses built to support the increase in tourism. Fortunately, most of these guest houses were designed and built by people with a concern for the natural, green look of the area, and apart from the occasional vulgar facade of a pachinko (pinball) parlor or bowling alley, everything in this part of Yamanashi is still a treat to the eyes.
Back in the days when I first visited this area, Jiro’s house was an old, well-preserved traditional farmhouse, where his mother cooked on a wood burning stove, and where Papa was usually found working in one of the surrounding rice paddies. The area in back of the house was a jumble of farm equipment and clucking chickens, and off in one corner stood the old table that now refurbished, stands in my Tokyo kitchen. The sky was cornflower blue and the mountains cast sweeping shadows across the fields. It wouldn’t be far off to say that the scene was something I had almost imagined before I ever arrived in Japan.
Today the house is an example of Japanese architects at their traditional best. A dozen or more years ago, Jiro’s family rebuilt the house under the guidance of an architect who specializes in Japanese architecture. Most of the original structural beams were preserved for use in the rebuilding, and the lay out of rooms remained fairly close to the original. Naturally, improvement in comfort and convenience required the overall to become slighter larger, with the addition of a second floor. The kitchen was enlarged and modernized, and two indoor toilets were added. The result was so pleasing that soon after the rebuilding, photographers turned up asking to photograph the house for a magazine spread on traditional farmhouses in Japan.
For three days I enjoy the unequalled warmth and hospitality of my friends, while spending hours each day roaming the country roads and trails of their village, seeing afresh the woods and rivers that I once explored on younger legs. I discover two previously untouched forest settings that have in recent years been turned into a holiday campground and a vacation retreat, and in all truth, neither spot has been badly used. A long walk to the mountain Shinto shrine fills my head with a patchwork of memories, of sounds and smells. I remember the bad asthma attack I once had while on this same walk, and being driven back to the farmhouse by kind strangers alarmed at my symptoms.
In the evenings, Jiro’s wife fills the table with a lavish spread of all the flavors I remember. I worry that if I stay any longer in Yamanashi I will need hard workouts and dieting to repair the damage. No question, my favorite is the kenchin udon, the noodles homemade and served in a rich broth of chicken and vegetables. The vegetables are from the backyard garden, while the chicken not too long ago was pecking among the rows of those vegetables. I suspect too that when I return to Tokyo, my bag will be weighted with packages from this country kitchen.
Before leaving, I walk down the road to visit for a while with the mother of another friend, a hale and hearty woman of almost 80 who still potters in the fields around her house. It amazes me how spry and robust Ito-san is, and I have to think it all has something to do with a lifetime of healthy work, fresh food and clean air. Still the rosy cheeks of a young girl, what is called on young children of the country an “apple face.”
The holidays have passed and now with family members waving goodbye, we board an evening train for Tokyo. I feel totally refreshed after the days of Yamanashi country air, and re-energized for the maelstrom that is Tokyo, only two hours back down the track.