Due north of Tokyo, Niigata Prefecture lies on the western face of Japan, bordering the sea. Niigata’s terrain is carved with enormous mountain passes that mark the northern end of the Japanese alps. These soaring slopes are covered with heavy snowfall in the winter months, providing an ideal location for rural ski-towns. From mid-November until the beginning of April, snow falls ceaselessly. The snow that gradually builds inch by inch, day after day, forms into an impenetrable wall that finally melts away in the warmth in early May. The snow is gets so tall during this time that many homes have two genkan[1] built into their house, one on the first story of the house and the other directly above it on the second story, allowing the home owners to walk out directly onto the thirteen feet[2] of snow that inevitably accumulates before the end of winter. Thus, rural Niigata has been named Yukiguni[3], or Snow Country.
 
While the winters of Niigata are characterized by a fine sheet of white that covers every living thing, the late spring and summer months allow the vibrant greens of rice fields and thick impenetrable forests, which are typical of Japan, to finally emerge. The mountain air grows warm and sweet in the afternoon sun, then slowly cools in the early evening and holds late into the morning. The higher you drive in these remote mountains; the marks of human life grow increasingly scarce. Although these rural towns are far from restless cityscapes, with their constant roar of human life, they are far from silent. The days and nights are filled with the sounds of life. From the hum of the cicada to the ribbits of frogs and howls of monkeys; the mountains are alive with the breath and constant flow of life. It’s a common occurrence to be reminded of your closeness with the other forms of life that occupy the world – something that tends to be forgotten modern society.
 
I lived in a rural mountain town in this mountainy region of Niigata for a season only a little while ago. I moved there at the end of April when the snow had almost finished melting away, standing at a mere four-feet high. I arrived as the town had begun to shake off the frost of the long winter. Having lived in Japan a few years before, just prior to starting college, I had always wanted to return once again to live with the people and experience the country with the freedom that is allowed to those who are fluent in the language and culture. I ached to travel across Japan and explore the areas that few tourists can venture without a guide. So, in order to satiate my desire to return and immerse myself in Japanese life and culture, I found an opportunity at a non-profit international college, which allowed me to work professionally and travel freely. Through accepting the position offered by this oddly placed NPO, I found myself living with four Japanese college students in a cabin in the mountains removed forty-minutes by car from the country town of Yuzawa in Niigata Prefecture. This admittedly unfavorably remote location would serve as my base of travel operations where I would work and live as I explored Japan.
 
 
 
One
Sacred Time

Although many Japanese claim to be non-religious [4], almost all consider themselves to be Shinto and Buddhist. Their spirituality doesn’t come in the form of weekly church attendance or adherence to a specific religious doctrine, but as a manifestation of culture that has been passed down and embraced; a manner of lifestyle that is enacted in the most common and everyday practices in Japanese life. Shintoism permeates Japanese culture, tradition, and society – intertwining itself into the very heart and soul of all things Japanese. In fact, Shintoism is infused with the concept of the
sacred of almost every natural thing native to Japan [5] – whether it be objects, people, places, or things. There is potential for kami in nearly every aspect of Japanese life.
While the exact doctrine (for the lack of a better word) of Shinto belief varies region to region, a few features that remain consistent throughout the continuum of Shinto belief. Kami, often translated to “God” or “gods”, reaches past what most western cultures consider to be the divine. Kami is contained in all that is sacred. It denotes the sacredness of nature, the spirit in ordinary objects, and the divinity of all living things. From Mt. Fuji to O-hashi (Chopsticks), from rivers and trees to deer and spiders, Shintoism contains the belief that the sacred spirit can be in all; from the supernatural to the simple and ordinary. The term yaoyorozu no kami (八百万の神), the eight-million gods, can be seen as an exemplary principle of Shinto belief.
 
But if there are eight-million kami, what separates the sacred from the profane? Where is the sacred if even the commonplace and everyday is considered to be divine? This problem is reconciled through one of the fundamental features of Shintoism – the concept of sacred space and sacred time [6]. Before I began my travels that summer, I only had a basic grasp of what the Shinto concept of the sacred entailed, only brief glimpses into what this could mean. Through my first experience traveling alone through Niigata, I had a brief experience of sacredness that is imbedded in the common and everyday of Japan.
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After taking the first two weeks to settle into my new home, I decided to set off on a weekend trip to travel around the major cities in the Niigata region. When I say major cities, I mean major in comparison to the villages and farm towns that make up the majority of civilization in Niigata. In reality, these two cities, Nagaoka and Niigata, barely make up a total population of one-million between the two. Yet, regardless of how small these cities actually are, Nagaoka and Niigata seemed like epicenters of culture and excitement compared to my humble cabin in the mountain town.
 
One Saturday in May, I set off to Nagaoka with a few of my Japanese roommates. Our first destination was すたみな太郎 or Stamina Taro. I don’t know if I can fully express the sheer joy of Stamina Taro through mere words. It’s a blasphemy to try to describe it through such a profane tool such as common language. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to convey all that Stamina Taro is and what a gift it is to those who enter. Stamina Taro is where the saints go after they die. Stamina Taro is what the Vikings of long ago referred to as Valhalla. Stamina Taro is the Garden of Eden, El Dorado, and the state of Nirvana all in one physical manifestation as a state of paradise in our undeserving and profane world. In other words, Stamina Taro is an all you can eat (食べ放題) Yakiniku (焼肉)restaurant with around thirty different cuts of meats which are marinated in an assortment of styles – grilled personally at your very own table. On top of all that, they offer all you can eat sushi, soba, and soft serve ice cream. This slice of paradise on earth offers all that your heart and stomach could possibly desire – and all for 1200 ($10~) during lunch hours. Peace on earth, good will to men indeed.
 
After each of us had filled ourselves of about a month’s worth of protein, a few of the guys wanted to hit up a recycle shop[7] and head to the mall for summer clothes and groceries. By the end of the day, we shopped for about two or three hours before deciding to head our separate ways. My roommates would drive back to Yuzawa to meet up with some friends and maybe head to an onsen[8] for the evening, while I would spend the night in Niigata and travel the rest of the next day. The guys were nice enough to drive the extra half-hour or so to Niigata in order to drop me off at the hotel I had reserved near the train station, after which they turned back the way they came to return home.
 
I had originally intended to explore Niigata city a bit the next day, but after walking nearly all of the streets that seemed to hold anything of interest that evening, I realized that I had seen just about all there was to be seen thereabouts. Luckily, in the process of wandering through the few stores that were still open, I had a conversation with a store clerk about a potential location of interest. He had one recommendation, Yahiko Jinja 弥彦神社[10], a shrine located about two hours away by train that sat at the base of the small mountains which bordered the sea. Without other plans to occupied my interest, I figured that I’d go ahead and take a chance on this store clerk’s recommendation. Hell, worst case scenario I’d go to the beach.
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The next day, I woke up and began packing my backpack early in the morning. Since the sun in Japan begins to rise at the ungodly hour of 4:30am in the summer, the light coming in through the window is at full force by 8:00am. Due to this, it had become my unfortunate habit to wake up around an hour before my alarm was set to go off. I headed out, and after picking up a few o-nigiri[9] for breakfast, I headed over to the train station to set off for Yahiko-Jinja.
 
Before boarding the train, however, I would undoubtedly have to sit and wait quite a while on the platform before the train would arrive. In the more rural regions of Japan, you can’t expect the trains to arrive or depart more than once every hour or so from either direction. When I had first began living in Japan, it never really occurred to me that waiting on train platforms could be enjoyable. At the time, I could only think of the next destination, and each moment waiting was time wasted. If I was traveling with a friend, at least I could kill some time with good company. Back then, travelling alone was far from ideal.
 
There are a lot of different opinions about traveling alone. From what I’ve gathered through conversations with co-workers at the college and other travelers I’ve run into, the majority have the same hang-ups about traveling alone. Many tend to think that traveling alone would be lonely or boring. They enjoy experiencing new places with company and can’t really see the point in choosing to go alone over traveling with friends or family. I understand where they’re coming from, and I agree that, at times, I find myself wishing I had brought someone along on my weekend trip. Yet, the most remarkable memories I have of traveling in Japan have primarily occurred when I was traveling alone.
 
There’s a certain magic about traveling alone if you go about it correctly. After a few hours of settling into your own thoughts, not being pulled back out by trivial conversation, you begin to observe things that would normally escape attention. If you can get used to putting away Netflix and social media, you start to become reacquainted with your own thoughts – with yourself. After spending the previous eight months in college – thinking incessantly of the next test, the next party, the next girl – I didn’t realize it when it was happening, but I had stopped spending quality time with my own thoughts. I’d spent such a long time thinking about the people, problems, and work that it had become uncomfortable, at first, to clear my thoughts of the future and past, and to simply let my mind rest upon the present. To let my thoughts wander where they would, to observe the space around me; to pay attention to the faces and sounds typically register as unimportant background features. Observe the oscillations between pleasure and discomfort, interest and boredom, that are experienced but not often monitored. To search for the source of each state of feeling. It’s hard to find the time and patience to practice this in daily life, but the time spent waiting on train platforms and long rides between destinations provide the rare opportunity to reacquaint yourself with your self.
 
I boarded the train that would take me to Yakiho-Jinja. Yahiko lies halfway between Nagaoka and Niigata, but quite a ways west from the rails that connect the two cities. Rather than taking the bullet train that could bridge the distance in less than half an hour, I would be riding the local train that patiently eased its way from stop to stop, often without passengers to board or exit the half-vacant train. I would ride fourteenstops to get off at Yoshida, then ride the next train two-stops further and get off at the very end of the Yahiko-line, at the foot of the arching mountains that boarder the sea.
 
Immediately after boarding, I began reading the novel I had brought along to re-read in some of my spare time, East of Eden. I transferred trains after an hour ride, and after another half-hour wait at the next train station I boarded and continued reading. However, after I sat down on this second train, my mind couldn’t seem to settle on the words on the page. After every couple pages, my thoughts were drawn back from Steinbeck’s writing to the present moment. The soft warm air on my skin. The handful of high-schoolers who lived in these rural parts, returning from club activities. The striking green of rice shooting out of fields of water that remained still as a sea of glass, reflecting the deep blue skies and billowing clouds that speckled the sky. All of this – the entirety of the present – pressed upon my attention and drew me repeatedly from the novel. And after a short while, I gave into the force that was drawing me away from the story that had previously held my attention, to let my mind reside in the present.
 
The train stopped and most of the train’s passengers got off. A high-schooler that appeared to be around the age of seventeen sat opposite me on the otherwise empty row of seats. It was pretty clear by the way her eyes kept busily wandering across the car, only to find their way back to my direction and rest upon me when she thought I wasn’t aware, that westerners were a rare sight in these parts. After experiencing these kinds of stares countless times, always in areas that tourists seemed to avoid, I have come to understand that it had nothing to do with my looks. Rather, I tend to draw attention due to the fact that I’m a six-foot-three blue eyed American. Particularly in these parts, where the only Americans this girl has seen have most likely been limited to pictures and movies, unless she’s happened to come across some on a visit to Tokyo.
 
I made sure to seem as if I hadn’t noticed her gaze. It gets a little awkward when you catch someone looking at you a number of times. What can you do to break the tension of being an oddity? I figured early on, when I lived in the Tohoku region, that everyone is more comfortable when you seem unaware and just let whoever look on without making them feel embarrassed about it.
 
As I looked out the window and gazed at the passing rice fields to avoid the high-school girl’s stare, I couldn’t help but think about the life she must live in the heart of the country, hours away from even the semblance of what could be considered as ‘city-life’. I wondered if she enjoyed it here. Did she dream of moving to the city to run away from her old-fashion, outdated, rural lifestyle? Even if she wanted to leave, does a girl like her have any future prospects in leaving? Or was this exactly what she wanted from life? Maybe life here is beautiful in ways that I’d never even consider. She might never know of the joys of living abroad and experiencing the fast-paced high-intensity life at the centers of human activity – but she might be better off for it. Perhaps she wouldn’t have to lose herself in the process of chasing an empty dream. Perhaps she would live close to the rice fields and be able to know who she was and where she came from and know that it was good. Inevitably, there would be sorrow, loss, and struggle, but who’s to say that modern society has anything more to offer?
 
As I considered the possibilities of this girl’s hypothetical reality, the train slowed as it approached a small farm town, and the girl got off. I would have been entirely alone in my car of the train if it weren’t from an elderly man and his wife sitting at the other end of the car. I was left with a rare sight; an empty car on a train that slowly cut its way through an ocean of rice fields.
 
I realized then what an opportunity I would have missed if I had been determined to continue reading my book. I sat in the nearly empty train, and rather than being left with feelings of loneliness, I was impressed upon by the wholeness of myself in the moment. The striking landscape, a reflection of blue skies on water as still as glass, only broken by the thin stalks of rice that shot out of the water, resembled the features of a Rothko painting. My previous consideration of the high-school girl left me deep in thought, my mind wandering with through the openness of the car and my view of the land. I was undisturbed and isolated from care or distraction, where the present moment touched upon the freedom and bliss of the eternal – my first brief encounter with the sacredness of time.
 
The train began to approach the station. I could only revel in the beauty of the happenstance that provided this personal experience. Finally, I had reached my destination, the village of Yahiko.
[1] Genkan or 玄関 are the traditional entryways built into every Japanese house, apartment, and just about any other buildings. This is where both the occupants of the house and any visitors remove their shoes before entering.
[2] Snowfall in Niigata often builds up to 4-5 meters during the late winter.
[3] Yukiguni or 雪国 was the name coined by the Nobel Prize winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata, which was the title given to her most renown novel Snow Country, which is set in Niigata Prefecture.
[4] Multiple studies have shown that when presented with a survey asking for the Japanese to indicate their religion, they often check the boxes for Shinto, Buddhist, and also non-religious. Although most will explicitly admit their ties to with Shintoism and Buddhism, many feel that they are non-religious because Shintoism and Buddhism are individually based spiritual ventures, not institutionally structured like those of organized religions. (Nadeau, Randall Laird. Asian Religions: A Cultural Perspective. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.) In other words, they are spiritual but not religious.
[5] In Nadeau’s Asian Religions: A Cultural Perspective, kami are described “kami are the gods of Japan, and Shinto describes the traditional beliefs and practices associated with these gods. But kami has other meanings too – it is a more complex semantic entity. It can be understood as a concrete noun – in which case it relates to a polytheistic conception of “gods” – or as an abstract noun, meaning “the sacred” – in which capacity it names a sacred quality of existence. Based upon this continuum, we can identify four kinds of kami: 1 mythological creators; 2 exceptional persons; 3 extraordinary things; 4 natural objects and implements.” This includes anyone and anything from the creators Inazagi and Inazami, the imperial family, Mt. Fuji, all the way to water, chopsticks, sake, tea, amongst tens of thousands of other kami. (Nadeau, Randall Laird. Asian Religions: A Cultural Perspective. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.)
[6] Nedeau pg. 218 (Nadeau, Randall Laird. Asian Religions: A Cultural Perspective. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.)
[7] Japanese “Recycle Shops” are the American equivalent of thrift shops, except much higher quality and often a broader selection of items.
[8] Onsen 温泉, are traditional Japanese bath houses.
[9] O-niriri or おにぎり are Japanese rice balls, covered on the outside with seaweed and filled with a pocket of fish or other mixture of local ingredients.
[10] Yahiko-Jinja or 弥彦神社 sits at the base of Mt. Yahiko near the western sea. This shrine has had over a 1,200 year history, having been established before the 8th century.
[11] Tohoku or 東北 is the north-east region of Honshu, the main island of Japan.
 
 

Author: John Sorenson

John Sorenson is in charge of most things at Manga Sensei and writes articles due to a combination of too many ideas and an overwhelming ability to articulate himself.