Window to tradition
All of Japan's tiny Narai seems to tell a singular tale of peace, which RUPALI GHOSH experienced.
The Iseya Minshuku in Narai.
SMALL towns say a lot through their railway stations. Narai, more of a village than a small town, nestled deep in the Kiso Valley region some three hours away from Tokyo, is no exception. The snow-covered platform is empty, we are the only passengers to get off the Nagatsugawa-bound train at Narai. The station master has closed his little ticket window at just a little after five in the evening, it is time for Narai to shut down for the day. Narai, the last habitable stop before the difficult Torii Pass, is almost a one-street town.
Once ruled by the Edo shogunate, the town situated exactly between Tokyo and Kyoto was declared a Cultural Asset in 1978 largely because of the Edo period houses, with their distinctive "overhanging" second floor, that line its main street. At the moment though, we've missed the period houses and the wooden signboard declaring Narai a "cultural asset"; instead we're tramping down the snow-lined street looking for a minshuku or inn named Iseya. Our battered Lonely Planet Guide to Japan says Iseya is a "short walk from the station". Much walking and some helpful guidance later, we "find" Iseya which by daylight really is only a very short walk away from the station. Minshukus are a window to the traditional Japanese way of living which explains why first-time gaijin (foreign) visitors to them are nervous. We reached Iseya armed with our Lonely Planet Japanese Phrase Book and plenty of "helpful tips on living in a minshuku". What we weren't prepared for was the picture-postcard beauty of Iseya.
Built over 200 years ago, this minshuku is a step back in time with its polished wooden floors, decorative stone lanterns and rice paper screens. The original rooms are to the front, though the newer annexe at the back is a faithful replication of the old rooms. A Japanese garden complete with stunted trees and rock sculpture now covered over thickly by the pure white snow connects the new annexe to the old house. We are given a quick tour of the minshuku, including the o-furo, or communal bathroom with its long wooden tub filled with steaming hot water and the common dining room where we will meet the other guests shortly at dinner. Our room is in the newer annexe.
The sliding doors are made of rice paper and we are separated from the next room by a cork-board sort of wall obviously not quite the place to discuss state secrets in. The floor is covered in tatami (reed) mats, which explains why we were asked to take off our shoes at the entrance hallway, with a puzzling pile-up of zabuton (cushions) in the centre topped with a large lacquer tray. The tray has a teapot, two little bowls and two saucers with pretty looking beancurd sweets in them. The inn-keeper's wife tells us that everything at Iseya is "self-service". Meaning we make up our own futons at night and roll them away neatly in the morning. Meaning also that we figure out how to put on our yukatas (a dressing gown sort of robe with a matching obe or belt) and use the o-furo before it closes for the night at 10.
Even as the inn-keeper's wife leaves us to get ready for dinner, we're worried about what wasn't there in the "helpful tips on living in a minshuku". Things like where exactly do the pile of cushions go when we put out the futons at night? Or, do we dress in the yukata for dinner? (That is a decidedly silly idea my husband seems particularly keen on); Or is going down for dinner exactly at six a sign of extreme punctuality or extreme greed? (In my case, it's actually extreme greed as we haven't eaten since breakfast). Finally we reach a compromise and go down for dinner at 6:05; without the yukatas. Dinner is served in one of the two dining rooms, the other less formal room will be used for breakfast. We sit Japanese style on large cushions at a low wooden table with our legs folded neatly under us. The dining room has a charming old wooden ceiling, the beams of which are quite warped with age.
Dinner also happens to be my first encounter with real nihon riyori, or Japanese food. Many small beautifully lacquered bowls and dishes (lacquer and woodwork are Narai's two most important crafts) are placed in front of us. The menu is varied every four diners share a large wooden bowl of steamed Japanese sticky rice and then there are the individual dishes: miso soup; a sausage wrapped in a cabbage leaf and then steamed in a light sauce; cold soba or buckwheat noodles topped with soya sauce and vegetables; fish steamed in butter with mushrooms; crabmeat cooked with a potato-corn mash; cold tofu squares with seaweed; and finally green tea and sake to round off the meal. The real test for us gaijin is getting it all down with a pair of hashi (chopsticks). Nihon ryori, I firmly decide tastes quite heavenly. Even though the portions are somewhat bite-sized.
We decide to stop worrying about where we should shove the pile of cushions for the night, and instead squeeze our futon into one of the corners of our room. Somehow that doesn't seem quite right but more important things come first, like slipping the rice paper sliding door (which my husband has incredibly just managed to lift off) back into its groove, quietly. According to a minshuku's unwritten rules, guests musn't be noisy and disturb each other.
We finally manage to get the door back in its groove, silently. Outside the snow has begun to fall thickly, and most of Narai's little wells leftover from the days when the town was a popular resting place for weary travellers about to make their way across the Torii Pass have frozen over. Inside Iseya, the snow blanket has transformed the inn's courtyard into a magical winter wonderland. After an early breakfast, another assortment of tofu, miso soup, egg-pancakes, rice, fish and hard-boiled beans, we check out Narai's main street. The period houses have been carefully preserved, right down to the stone lanterns that stand welcomingly outside the little wooden homes. A tiny coffee shop, almost as quaintly time-warped as Iseya, serves apple pie and piping hot cocoa in bright lacquerware. The friendly owner tells us about the wooden combmakers of Narai, who once fashioned intricate little combs for the geishas of Kyoto. The combs now make interesting souvenirs. As we are leaving her coffee shop she shows us the single "Indian page" in her comment book, then bids us farewell with the Indian greeting she still remembers: "Namaste". Before we leave Narai we stop at a little shrine located at the north end of the town. Roughly hewn, snow-covered stone steps lead up to the temple and its tranquil-faced deity. From the time-warped Iseya to this calming shrine, all of tiny Narai seems to tell a singular tale of peace.
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