Hinoemata is a rural town in Minami-Aizu, Fukushima-prefecture that is so secluded that, for decades upon decades, families from the town had one of three 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! (We tried this out and it did work, although the man we asked did not look too amused. I think he must get this a lot.)
So why was Hinoemata such a secluded area, and what impact has that seclusion had on its community?
Hinoemata is a very small town, in the middle of the Japanese countryside. It is most easily reached by car, as public transport is rather scarce.
Living in a small town in Nagasaki last year, I thought that I lived in the “inaka” (rural countryside), but came to realise that I didn’t understand what “rural” really meant before I came to Minami-Aizu!
Hinoemata is so rural that for decades it was rendered inaccessible during winter, due to the heavy snowfall in the region. Lacking the new technology for snow-clearing and without modern roads, each year, as the town became increasingly covered by meters of snow, families prepared themselves for the physical and mental strain of not leaving their local area for the next few months to come.
I was told by a local woman that for up to six months of the year, the town was completely covered in snow, which meant that families had to prepare six months’ worth of food capable of being stored indefinitely, prior to the start of winter, to make sure that they could survive.
This hardship has unfortunately given the town somewhat of a dark legacy.
In the middle of the town, there are six little Buddhist figures lined up by the road. My coworker told me that these figures were a tribute to the babies died hundreds of years ago, due to starvation or at the hands of mothers who, devastatingly, were all too aware that they would be unable to feed them in the near future.
On a brighter note, one wonderful thing which has come out of the region’s unique climate is the food. The people of Hinoemata have perfected the art of pickling vegetables (and fish). There is so much variety that can be incorporated into the pickling process that even side-dishes made from the same vegetable can end up tasting different.
One of these techniques includes double-pickling. This is where, after drying a vegetable it is pickled for weeks, then removed, dried and re-pickled, giving it a really rich and deep taste.
I was lucky enough to try out a lot of these pickles during my trip. I stayed in a minshuku (local person’s house), and the owners kindly cooked dinner (pictured above) and the next day’s breakfast (picture below). It was here that I learned about the town’s pickle story!
The dinner was delicious. After a long day of travelling we wolfed it down, and the next morning’s breakfast (which also included pickles and freshly picked chestnuts mixed with the rice!). It was divine.
Before taking in more of the stunning panoramic scenery which envelopes Minamiaizu region, we took a trip to the heart of Hinoemata town, to look at its kabuki stage.
On the way from the car to the kabuki stage, we came across a small shrine on the left. This shrine is unique in that it is covered in scissors. Rusty scissors, children’s scissors, new scissors, scissors wrapped in wire, scissors wrapped in cord. After closer inspection and asking my colleague, it became apparent that this shrine is dedicated to a local Shinto deity of relationships: Ishibotoke of Banba.
It is famous within Fukushima Prefecture as a place where you can cut emotional ties with those you wish to forget, or forge new ties. 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!
Kabuki (traditional Japanese drama) performances have been held at this stage since the Edo period, for at least 250 years. Even today they are held three times a year; May 12th, August 18th and the first Saturday of September. The stage in itself is breathtaking, but 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.
The steps that lead up to a small shrine behind the stage have been transformed into fan-shaped seats.
The stage looks as if the wood that its made of its the same type as the trees that surround it. This means that you can really feel surrounded by nature here.
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.
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.