Things to do in rural Japanese: Banja farmstay in Keihoku

We arrive at Banja farmstay, in Keihoku, an hour's drive north of Kyoto, the day after the village has received its first dusting of winter snow.

It's early afternoon and most of the snow has thawed now, leaving only a watery roadside slush and an occasional icy encrustation on rooftops, but the air is still cold enough to turn our breath steamy.

We are greeted at the roadside by owners Masanori and Tami Tanaka and taken up a gravel driveway to the unassuming 300-year-old homestead. It stands, amid other farm buildings (including an outdoor toilet), in the foothills of the surrounding mountains and, until the Tanakas bought it, had belonged to the same family for eight generations.

INSIGHTS INTO RURAL JAPAN

With the exception of ski-fields, we tend to think of Japan as a largely urban environment, yet traditional agrarian life has continued over centuries in villages like Keihoku.

"The aim of Banja farmstay," Masa Tanaka tells us, in excellent English, over a welcoming tea, "is to give guests an insight into ordinary rural life."

I'm here with my nephew Tom, a US-raised 38-year-old who has been teaching English in Osaka, the large port city to the south of Kyoto, for the past six years. Part of my reason for visiting is to discover what draws Tom to Japan.

We've spent the previous night out on the town in Kyoto, taking in the tea-houses and kimono-clad beauties (alas no geishas) of the Gion district, feasting on "fire ramen" in a backstreet noodle bar and slurping whisky at some dubious watering holes.

Yet, while the bright lights clearly have an attraction for Tom, I'm sensing that this traditional experience is more the history major's cup of green tea.

Sitting around a small fire in the hearth, sunken into the floorboards in the living section of the farmhouse, we feel welcomed by Masa and his wife, and I'm as "at home" as I've felt in 10 days travelling through Japan.

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Tonight, we will return to the hearth to cook a wild boar hotpot on the fire, but this afternoon we need to gather the ingredients.

GATHERING INGREDIENTS

First, we walk down to the fields beneath the homestead, where low-slung greenery springs from long, mounded rows. Using scissors we snip away spinach leaves, white radish, cabbage and pungent Japanese garlic.

From here it is a stroll through the village to the home of the local hunter who will be providing the main ingredient for our feast. Before he supplies us with the wild boar, he takes us into the woods behind his house, first to show us the beehives from which he extracts wild honey and then to forage for funghi.

While the hunter recounts the story of a large bear he recently encountered trying to get into his beehives, he harvests a handful of nameko (brown) mushrooms swelling from a felled tree and, from another trunk, gently removes a cluster of the white oyster or hiratake variety.

Back in his garage I'm half-expecting to find a porcine carcass hanging from the ceiling. But he reaches instead into a freezer, presenting us with some vacuum-packed wild boar, along with some venison.

We're on the point of continuing on to the village shrine, when I raise a weary objection.

"You know what Masa, we've already spent three hours at temples today," I say apologetically, "I think that's enough for most Australians."

"And for Japanese," agrees Masa, grinning, "I've got a better idea."

AN ANCIENT RITUAL

The next hour, spent in the company of Masa's neighbour, 72-year-old Zenemon Katsuyama, is transfixing.

Katsuyama comes from a family of tea makers spanning 14 generations and 800 years. His tea ceremony is a study in benign authority. Everything the master does, from the warming of different teapots to the arranging of the flakey leaves and the pouring of the magic brew, is carefully and gently choreographed. It is like having an audience with a spiritual leader or an elder.

It's getting dark when we return to the homestead and a chill is spreading through the valley and into my bones. As Masa makes up the fire and his wife begins chopping the vegetables for the hot pot, I fill up the half-sized tub in the adjacent bathhouse with water heated by the wood-fired furnace. Then with the limbs of my 1.86m-frame akimbo, I soak for half-an-hour, listening as Tom and Masa debate the differences between imperial Kyoto and my nephew's earthy hometown, Osaka, over sweet potato wine, in the living room.

A MEMORABLE FEAST

Finally warmed through, I take my place beside the hearth where a cauldron is bubbling away. First, Tami presents an appetiser of thin slithers of tender venison to dip into the broth and then gradually, the vegetables we picked earlier are added to the stew, followed by the wild boar.

This is convivial Japanese-style dining at its best, conversation and laughter barrelling along for hours as delicious aromas curl up from the hotpot.

Over dinner, Masa opens up about his life, including six years in his 20s in which he travelled constantly, visiting 38 countries, including Australia.

"In the end," he says, "I didn't know who I was or where I came from, so I returned home to find out."

It was at that point that Masa met Tami, a professional potter, and they decided to start a family and to move to the country to farm.

The bottle of sweet potato wine is all but drained by the time Tom and I adjourn to the 10 tatami mat guest room for bed, sleeping soundly on two mattresses on the floor.

Early the next morning, Masa drives Tom to the nearest bus stop so he can return to Osaka and I have another hot bath as the sun rises over the frosty valley. Then, after a Japanese breakfast including steamed rice, miso, omelette, pickles and tiny grilled fish, I am set up for a morning of making pottery with Tami.

I cannot say that my indelicate attempts to mold small bowls for my young daughters amount to much, but it's another of the homestead's enjoyable hands-on activities.

Indeed, in less than 24 hours at Banja, I feel as if a window has been opened on rural Japan thanks to the farmstay's touchingly simple recipe, mixing activity with cultural sharing. My stay has also helped me understand why my nephew Tom loves Japan so much.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/japan

Kyoto.travel

jnto.org.au

FLY

Japan Airlines flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Osaka's Kansai airport, an hour by train to Kyoto. Phone 1300 525 287, see au.jal.com

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of the Kyoto Convention and Visitors Bureau and was a guest of Banja farmstay. His nephew was a paying guest.

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