If you were brought up on a diet of British films and soaps, a weekend in the country conjures up ideas of stately homes; dressing for dinner and days spent on grouse moors. For most of us, this hunting, shooting and fishing idyll is a long way from reality and the weekend away is more likely to be spent in a country pub with a nice walk or two thrown in. Nevertheless we were in no way prepared for the experience of our first stay in the Japanese countryside.
Having got used to the endless urban sprawl that extends the length of the Japan Sea coast, we were amazed at what was in store when a friend invited us to stay at his mother’s home in the rural south of Kyushu. After an eventful boat trip from Osaka where we found ourselves sharing a “private cabin” with an unknown couple, we set off on a seemingly endless car journey from Kagoshima that skirted the still smoking Sakurajima volcano. Finally the car stopped in the emptiest space I had seen in Japan; an open vista of terraced paddy fields with two houses in the centre.
One house was a fairly modern construction with a metal roof and sidings; the other was a traditional straw and wood warabuki house. The latter belonged to my friends mum. We were welcomed in and given tea while we watched a huge stag beetle circumnavigate the centre light. On looking around the house, it was obvious that everything about the place was original. Shoji screens separated the tatami rooms from a corridor and kitchen where a cooking pot hung over an open irori fire. The small amount of smoke that came from the charcoal fire escaped freely upwards towards the thatched roof.
My wife at this stage asked directions to the lavatory and was handed a torch and a pair of very tall geta clogs and pointed towards a shack at the end of one of the fields. On asking why the geta were so high, she received the simple explanation – “snakes”. A while after she set off, I heard a scream and teetered down on another set of geta to investigate. I found my wife looking at the open toilet door with the biggest, blackest spider we had ever seen suspended from the centre. I am ashamed to say that using the space behind the lavatory seemed an easier option.
At bath time we were again handed the torch and shown to a lean-to at the side of the house, this contained an iron goemon-buro looking like a cartoon cannibal cooking pot set over an open wood fire. The washing area was a large flat stone level with the top of the pot. We took turns on this and in the bath whilst my friend’s mum made favourable comments about western body shapes.
Nervous exhaustion gave way to sleep and we woke up to the increasingly frenzied clucking of chickens, culminating in what sounded suspiciously like a death rattle. We sat down to a breakfast of rice, satsuma-jiru soup and a plate of raw chicken meat, all washed down by imo shochu, (distilled potato spirit). This was just part of the preparation for the day’s fishing trip which I will tell you about another time.