Hinoemata: visiting rural Japan

Hinoemata is a rural town in Minami-Aizu, Fukushima Prefecture that is so secluded that, for decades upon decades, families from the town only had 1 of 3 surnames:

Hirano, Hoshi or Tachibana.

Even today, if you meet somebody from Hinoemata and ask them “Are you Mr Hoshi?”, chances are you’ll be right!

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Isolated by Snow

For decades Hinoemata was inaccessible during winter. Lacking the technology for snow-clearing, every winter the town’s roads disappeared under meters of snow.

I was told by a local woman that towns like Hinoemata were completely covered in snow for up to six months of the year. This meant that families had to prepare six months’ worth of food able to be stored indefinitely, before the start of winter.

This hardship has unfortunately given the town somewhat of a dark legacy.

Hinoemata’s Darker Side

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There are six little Buddhist figures lined up by the road in the middle of town. These figures are a tribute to the babies who died hundreds of years ago. Most died due to starvation, and some at the hands of mothers all too aware of their inability to feed their children.

Hinoemata Cuisine

Thanks to the region’s long winters, the people of Hinoemata have perfected the art of pickling.

The pickling process in Hinoemata is so varied that even side-dishes made from the same vegetable can taste completely different.

One techniques includes double-pickling. This is where, vegetables are dried, pickled for weeks, then removed, dried and re-pickled, giving a really rich and deep taste.

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I stayed in a minshuku (local person’s house) during my trip, and the owners kindly cooked dinner (see above) and the next day’s breakfast (see below).

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The dinner was delicious. It was perfect after a long day of travelling. The next morning’s breakfast included pickles and freshly picked chestnuts mixed with the rice.

Scissor Shrine

On the second morning of the trip, we headed to Hinoemata’s Kabuki Stage, which stands at the heart of the town.

On the way to the stage, we came across a small shrine on the left, which was packed with scissors; rusty scissors, children’s scissors, new scissors, scissors wrapped in wire, scissors wrapped in cord.

This shrine is dedicated to a local Shinto deity of relationships: Ishibotoke of Banba.

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It is well-known within Fukushima as a place where you can cut emotional ties with those you wish to forget.

If you want to move on from a bad relationship, you can bring old, rusty scissors here. Bringing new scissors, however, will bring Ishibotoke of Banba’s support for the new relationship you are hoping for!

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Hinoemata Kabuki Stage hinoemata-kabuki-9

Kabuki (traditional Japanese drama) performances have been held at this stage since the Edo period, for at least 250 years.

Performances are still held 3 times a year; May 12th, August 18th and the first Saturday of September.

The stage is breathtaking, and I was also sort of taken about by the seating arrangement. It reminded me of going to see a play in Cornwall’s Minack theatre when I was young.

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The steps that lead up to a small shrine behind the stage have been transformed into fan-shaped seats, surrounded by tall trees.

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I would love to come back during the evening and see a candle-lit performance here in the future. There can’t be many things more magical than that.

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The long winters and relatively low population of Hinoemata town has meant that it has an incredibly rich and fascinating history if you just try and scratch a little below the surface.

As well as its delicious pickles, the epic treks you can do in nearby Oze National Park and its ski slopes in the winter, its history makes this town worthy of a visit during a trip to the prefecture. If you time your trip well, you may even get to watch one of the town’s legendary kabuki performances.

 

Access

Hinoemata is most easily reached by car, as public transport is rather scarce.

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