Lian Hearn's travels in Japan's snow country

09 January 2017

Lian Hearn, author of Tales of the Otori and the epic new series Emperor of the Eight Islands, describes a visit to the snowy mountains of the Tohoku region in search of an authentic sense of ancient Japan.

For six nights when I fell asleep I saw snow falling gently behind my closed eyelids, calming me into the deep slumber of the winter world.

My journey to the snow country was akin to a pilgrimage to somewhere several different places merged: the real landscape, so beautiful, dangerous and demanding, the world of Japanese painting where mountains are looming shapes of grey and white, snow piles inches deep on the smallest leaves and twigs, and icicles hang from eaves like frozen limbs, and the snow country of my imagination in the world of the Eight Islands and the Three Countries.

‘It’s getting harder and harder to avoid the hordes,’ a friend of mine grumbled about Kyoto recently. The famous places of Japan are becoming victims of their own popularity. If possible I travel out of season to less well-known destinations.

In February this year I went with a friend to Yokote, in Akita, whose position in the mountains of Tohoku gives it some of the heaviest snowfalls in Japan. I was on my way to visit friends in Hachinohe in the far north of Honshu, and the Yokote ‘kamakura’ festival was being held a few days earlier. It seemed like a great opportunity to experience heavy snow.

Kamakura are little shelters made of snow, furnished inside with mats and stools, a brazier to toast mochi, a small shrine, and candles. Children dressed in brightly coloured traditional winter costumes invite you in to eat mochi and tsukimono and drink amazake, the mostly non-alcoholic, fermented rice drink that is popular in winter.

There is something enchanting about this festival. The little kamakura look so appealing and being invited inside while snow falls in a blizzard around you, and lights glimmer in mini-igloos everywhere you look, is like something from a fairytale. The snow, the darkness, the lights, the kindness of the people made me almost delirious with happiness.

The next morning we went to the Asahi Yamaoka shrine. The shrine itself was on top of the mountain and later that week huge Bonden figures would be carried to the top by young men. The snow was knee deep – we hardly made fifty metres before we gave up.

It was a timely reminder of the hardships experienced by the snow country communities. We could just visit and marvel at the beauty while they have to deal with its inconveniences for four or five months of the year. The snow is so intense it has made people patient, cooperative and cheerful. However this year there was another unexpected reason for anxiety: a sudden warm spell swept across Japan and for the first time anyone could remember it rained in Yokote in February.

Snow sculptures turned grey and grainy, losing their definition, and kamakura had to be reinforced with buckets of old snow. Freezing rain is an extra hazard. The Yokote tourist site implores visitors to be careful, wear suitable clothes, and affix cleats to their boots to avoid slipping. Apparently every year there are falls and broken bones.

An ancient festival called Emburi is held in Hachinohe in February. It is a spring festival, defiant in the coldest part of the year. It’s thought the name derives from eburi, the hoe-like implements carried by the older male dancers. I had seen dancers of the shishi-odori and onikenbai on my last visit to Tohoku, and the experience was one of the key triggers for The Tale of Shikanoko. I was very keen to see this festival and I was not disappointed – it completely exceeded any expectations.

The variety of costumes and dances, the haunting music of flutes, cymbals and drums, the inclusion of all ages, children and adults, men and women, and the unselfconsciousness of the performers made it a unique experience. We saw the dancers in several different locations: during night time preparations at the Choja shrine when excited children were running around and adults were drinking sake and practising by the light of many fires and torches; the following morning at the shrine at daybreak, as the cohorts of dancers set out in a sudden unusual snowstorm; in the main square where they regathered; the procession through the streets of the city; in the garden of a yashiki while we sat under rugs on the veranda and drank amazake.

After Hachinohe we returned to the Snow Country, to Tazawako, a caldera lake, the deepest in Japan, surrounded by many hot springs. We took a bus up the mountain to Nyuto onsen and stayed at an inn call Taenoyu, enjoying the best of the onsen experience with amazing meals served in exquisite dishes, charcoal braziers, open air hot springs surrounded by snow, and beautiful views. And snow, deep on every branch and thatched rooftop.

It was unbelievably beautiful.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when we returned from a morning onsen expedition to find a camera crew filming there. A commercial for a wristwatch, we were told. A foreign crew, a famous photographer. A window set up with a bamboo blind, a dark kettle, the background of falling snow, an employee in blue work clothes walking outside, his black hair turning white under the flakes. ‘Feel free to take photos,’ the photographer said. ‘It’s very beautiful.’

The commercial was using the same images that had enthralled and enchanted me but I felt angry and depressed. Were the sights and experiences that had resonated so strongly with me no more than images to be used for merchandising, commodities in a commercial world? I would probably use things I had seen, landscapes, rituals, tastes, expressions, gestures, at some stage in one of my books, in my attempt to recreate an authentic sense of ancient Japan. Would I also be both feeding off and feeding into the myth? This question continues to hover over me as I write.

After the devastating events of March 2011 tourists are slowly returning to the Tohoku region. Perhaps like me they take consolation in finding an unchanged world and cherished traditions. They try to ignore the unwelcome rain and cameramen.  And are calmed by the deep quiet of the snow country, and see snow falling behind their eyelids when they sleep.

Emperor of the Eight Islands, the first novel in Lian’s epic new series set in a fantastical medieval Japan is out now.

Lord of the Darkwood, the second and final instalment of 'The Tale of Shikanoko' will be published in the UK 26th January 2017.

>>>Start reading 'The Tale of Shikanoko'

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