Hiraizumi is a most beautiful small town surrounded by mountains, and almost entirely planted with green rice fields.
At one point, during the 1200s, it was a glorious place filled with Pure Land Buddhist sanctuaries, beautiful gardens, and some amazingly crafted Buddhist temples, shrines and carved devotional huts.
At the JR Hiraizumi train station, a friendly lady approached me, and offered to be our free tour guide to two of the major sights in the area.
In any other part of the world, you would expect that she has a hidden agenda, or that she was expecting a big tip.
But this is Japan and I know that she is for real, and that she is either a kind volunteer offering a few hours of her day once a week, alternating with other kind volunteers, or that she is hired by the city to make foreign tourists feel welcomed and not overwhelmed.
I also knew that she would most definitely refuse a tip, if we did not know better and were foolish enough to offer her one.
Last year, Hiraizumi became a World Heritage Site, and the city now offers free English speaking guides to show foreign tourists around the Motsu-ji Temple complex with its Pure Land Gardens, and to visit the Chuson-ji Temple complex which is located on the hill, and is dotted with many beautiful temple buildings and hosts the famous Golden Hall (also called the Hall Of Light.)
Unfortunately, I had to refuse her kind offer, since we had just arrived at the train station with our big backpacks, and the information center lady had already called our Ryokan Guesthouse, to come and pick us up.
We planned to see the sights of Hiraizumi tomorrow…
The friendly tour guide plied us with English maps and brochures and chatted freely with us.
She told us that currently all tourism from America and from Europe had come to a halt.
People are afraid of the radiation from nearby Fukushima, (less than two hundred kilometers away,) that was caused by the Tsunami that damaged the nuclear reactors… And she asked me if we were not afraid of the Nuclear radiation….
I told her that we do not believe that we are in any danger…. And that we believe you can rise above and transform all physical vibrations… And that the Japanese people need the world’s support in these hard times…. So this is why we came now…
She had a tear in her eye, as she heard what I said.
She thanked us for coming to her wounded country…
Jules added that maybe the foreign tourists stopped coming now, because Europe and America are still emerging out of the global recession, and Japan is very expensive for many of them (at prices of $200-$350 per night for a hotel room, plus flights or train passes, car rental, food and other travel expenses.)
He added that tourists can go to places like Thailand, or China, or Vietnam, and get a lot for their money, and that they tend to skip Japan, since it is an expensive destination.
By that time, the lady who runs our Ryokan in Hiraizumi, came to pick us up.
It was a bit of a shock to come from a quiet and very laid back mountain onsen, where everyone moved in a non-hurried way, and was very patient with us as we tried to make ourselves understood in half broken Japanese, to a place that seemed to be run by a few women who seemed to be on speed.
They talked very fast and instead of walking, they ran everywhere.
Of course they are not really on speed, they just drink a lot of Japanese coffee that comes in a can out of the vending machines (hot or ice cold,) which is very strong and very sweet.
I am told that it is similar to Red Bull (I would not know, since I only tried this Japanese ice coffee once ten years ago and found it totally undrinkable, and I have never tried Red Bull and have absolutely no intention of trying it either….)
We chose this place because the photos of the room, the hot springs and the food, all looked wonderful on the Internet…. And I also have to admit that I LOVED the name of the Guesthouse.
It is NOT a joke….., this is the actual name of the hotel in English: “Oshu Hiraizumi Shizukatei Hot Springs Onsen Hotel Ryokan and Soba Noodle Restaurant.”
We were shown to our tatami mat room which was lovely, spacious and air conditioned.
We were given tea and some sweets, that looked like translucent circles with a green tea paste filling.
We explained that we wanted to go and see the Takkoku no Iwaya Bishamon-do cave temple, that was carved into rock, and had a large carving of the Buddha on the rock face beside it.
The sweet lady who picked us at the train station, offered to drive us to the temple cave.
This was a true blessing, since her Guesthouse was located in the middle of the rice paddies, and the only way to get around the area is by car, or by bicycles which could be rented at the train station for only 1000 Yen ($12) for the day.
She drove at a fast speed through the beautiful rice fields, and waited for us while we toured the temple complex.
We walked along this beautiful cave temple called Takekou Iwana, enjoying the harmony of the place.
After the sweet and friendly lady on speed dropped us back at our Guesthouse Onsen Ryokan hot springs hotel and soba noodle restaurant, we went for a stroll in the rice fields in the area.
On the edges of the road, we saw an old lady attending to her small rice field.
We admired how meticulously she kept her flowers and her vegetable garden, and how she had planted her rice paddies so straight and kept them so beautifully weeded and clean…
As people who spend a lot of time weeding our own garden in NZ, we know that her garden takes A LOT of hours of bending and kneeling on her knees, pulling weeds.
Between the fields and down from the mountains, we saw rivers and streams, and cranes taking flight from a nearby rice field.
The rice paddies were planted all the way to the edge of the road, I noticed that the farm houses had large glorious roofs.
The barns and storage areas still looked like other farms around the world,…. but the farm houses where people live are large and impressive, with beautiful black or brown clay tile roofs.
The houses had well kept vegetable gardens and front yards that were neatly planted with flowers and trimmed trees.
It reminded me of something I have noticed in many other parts of rural Japan.
People seem to be content with living their whole lives in the villages in which they were born.
No matter how small the village or the town is, people seem to be content with their lots, enjoying their gardens, planting flowers and trimming their trees into intricate Bonsai designs…. Taking meticulous care of their houses and enjoying their gardens, towns, villages and homes.
They organized different flower festivals, Rice, Mochi, Lantern, Poetry, and many other local festivals…
They celebrate the areas in which they live, and they take pride in the history of the region they reside in.
In the culture I lived in, nobody was truly happy with their lot in life… Everybody always wanted more or better things…
They wanted bigger or better homes…. Or they wanted to move on… Or move upwards… Or move away…
(and I unfortunately have to admit that this includes Jules and I…)
Our country folk songs always hint about wanting to “drive away from this deadbeat town,”…. to recreate yourself in the BIG city…. To move away from the perceived limitations of a small town…
While in Japan I have noticed more local contentment about living in a small town.
The hot springs in our guesthouse Hot Springs Hotel Onsen Ryokan and Soba Noodle Restaurant, have such clear and soft spring waters….They left my skin soft and wonderful…
I soaked there a long time, admiring a lady who was kneeling naked on her knees, scrubbing her body as if it were a temple and she was the devoted caretaker…
She had the body of a young twenty year old girl, with perky breasts, perfectly smooth skin and not a gram of fat on her body.
Only later, when I saw her face, did I realize that she must have been in her fifties…
I wish I spoke enough Japanese to ask her some questions…
Dinner was served privately in our room on the low dining table.
The attendants brought in a feast of delicate dishes that looked like a beautiful painting, served on beautiful ceramic plates and bowls, and very inviting in their many colors and delicious flavors.
Because it was a soba noodle restaurant, the meal ended with a dish of home made soba noodles, which were served like pasta, “Al Dente,” with a light soy broth with scallions and radish.
When we finished our meal, we opened the door to our room, and left it open as instructed, to indicate that we were ready for them to clear the dishes and make our futon beds.
There is no Internet in the middle of the rice paddies, so we retired to bed early, hoping to get an early start the next day to explore Hiraizumi.
Before I fell asleep, I remembered the words of Lao Tsu who wrote in the Tao Te Ching about contentment…
“If a country is governed wisely,
Its inhabitants will be content.
They enjoy the labor of their hands
And don’t waste time inventing labor saving machines.
Since they dearly love their homes,
They aren’t interested in travel.
There may be a few wagons and boats
But these go no where.
There may be an arsenal of weapons,
But nobody ever uses them.
People enjoy their food,
Take pleasure in being with their families,
Spend weekends working in their gardens.
Delight in the doings of their neighborhood.
Even though the next country is so close,
Where people can hear its roosters crowing
And its dogs barking,
They are content to die of old age,
Without even having gone to see it….”