When I read Alex Kerr’s book Lost Japan back in 1996, I fell in love with the idea of visiting Chiiori. Never, never ever in my life, did I think I’d be sleeping on a futon in this ancient farmhouse in the remote East Iya Valley.
First, let me tell you a bit about Alex, the author of Lost Japan.
When Alex was six years old, his father, a naval officer, was posted to Japan. After obtaining degrees in Japanese Studies from Yale and Chinese Studies from Oxford, Alex began searching for an old abandoned house in rural Japan. His search led to Eastern Iya on Shikoku, the country’s fourth-largest island. Iya, because of its steep mountain gorges, had been isolated for 350 years, a hideaway for people escaping the oppressiveness of Tokyo or Kyoto authorities and that didn’t come under control of the Japanese government until 1920. There, Alex found his “castle.”
After he bought Chiiori in 1973, the first thing Alex and his friends did was sweep the floor, as he describes in Lost Japan.
This was not as easy as it might sound, since it was completely covered with five centimeters of powdery black soot. This we gathered into a pile in the garden and burned. But as the smoke began to rise, we suddenly realized that the powder was not soot at all. It was tobacco! During the seventeen years that my house had been abandoned, the tobacco leaves hanging in the rafters had gradually disintegrated and settled on the floor as dust. Unwittingly, that day I burned several pounds of precious tobacco, more than enough to pay off the entire debt for the house.
Assisted by friends, local labourers and neighbours, Alex restored this architectural beauty, maintaining the massive smoke-blackened beams, rafters and pine floors, and the irori (sunken floor hearths), honouring traditional elements while refurbishing the kitchen and adding a wraparound L-shaped structure with modern conveniences like bathrooms, an onsen and laundry facilities.
Alex’s account of how Chiiori received its name paints a picture of those days.
Early guests from outside Iya included poet Minami Shokichi 南 相吉, and one night Shokichi, Alex, and the village children (there were many in those days) got together and came up with a name for the house. The name they decided on was Chiiori 篪庵, made up of Chi 篪 an archaic little-used character they found in the dictionary for “Flute”, and Iori 庵, meaning “Thatched Cottage”. Hence Chiiori, meaning “House of the Flute.” Shokichi wrote a poem about it to music from an old Quaker song, and the children used to sing it.
Alex spent five years living at Chiiori, returning from time to time to host musical performances and literature readings and later opening Chiiori for tours.
Rural Japan has been lost, as Alex addresses in Lost Japan and more directly in Dogs and Demons. Lost to the Ds: depopulation, deforestation and decreasing tourism. Attempting to reverse this trend, in 2005 Alex established what’s now the Chiiori Trust. Its goals are to revitalize rural areas by restoring old homes and encouraging sustainable tourism, organic agriculture and reforestation. Now—lucky for us—Chiiori is available for tourists to rent.
Before we left home, Magellan had googled the map up to Chiiori. “Google stopped here,” he said. “It didn’t go all the way up. I guess that tells you something about the road.”
After Ward slowly snaked our rental car up the mountain, we came to that spot. “This is going to be a three-point turn,” Magellan said in the dimming autumn light of late afternoon in the mountains, when blue turns indigo and shadows fade to black.
The colour I will always associate with Chiiori.
Let’s have a look.
“I wonder about the family who owned this house,” I said to Lynn on our first night. “It’s amazing now. Imagine how it must have been back then.” When we returned to Canada, I emailed Alex, asking about the family. Here’s his response.
The Cultural Agency did a study some years back and determined that Chiiori and the Kimura House are the two oldest extant houses in Iya. Of course I knew none of this when I first walked into Chiiori in January 1973. But some instinct told me that this was unlike any house I’d seen until then.
When I found Chiiori in 1973, it had been abandoned for 17 years. Before that time, roughly maybe in the 1940s, it had been lived in by at least 7 generations of the Kita family (I think it might actually have been 9 generations).
The Kitas sold the house to another family the Nakamotos, who lived in Chiiori only for a decade or so. As I describe in Lost Japan, the young daughter of the house eloped to Osaka, and her elderly grandparents died from grief. The sad remainder of this was an inscription, written upside-down, pasted on the inside of the doors that read, “The child does not return.” Upside-down as a charm to undo it. (I still have that piece of paper). The charm failed, the old folks died, and the house fell empty in 1956. The descendants of the Nakamotos went on living in Tsurui hamlet, in a house in Lower Tsurui. (Chiiori is in Upper Tsurui) but never had anything more to do with Chiiori. Eventually the Nakamotos sold Chiiori to me in June 1973.
Beside Chiiori, there’s a narrow two-storey building that houses a residence for the Trust’s onsite manager and a miniature gift shop. As part of its emphasis on supporting local people and the local economy, the Trust encourages you to request that local women in the nearby area prepare your dinner. We were happy to oblige, and every night, Shota, the onsite manager, a young man from Tokyo, drove that dark, winding road down the mountain and returned back up with dinner.
The first night it was a vegetable soup with sobagome zosai, soba flour before it’s made into noodles. It reminded me a little of spaetzle and was delicious. The second night it was wild boar, pork belly rice and some sort of huge local chive and mountain vegetables. The third night was shabu-shabu, a hotpot dish of thinly sliced meat and vegetables in a simple broth.
Eating dinner in our kimonos while sitting on the floor warmed by the iori, time dissolved into the shadows. We relaxed, the anxiety of meeting the challenge of the Kumano Kodo a distant past, the prospect of exploring the Iya Valley an enticing future, the familial moment a present gift.
After all, how often do we jubilados get to travel with our kids? How many more opportunities will there be to do so? Here we had time to do our laundry, take long nightly baths in the onsen, sleep late. Just be. Lost in our thoughts, together.
The Japanese have a word for the way the Nakamotos felt, the feeling Chiiroi enhances: onzanji —“parental love as solid as a mountain.” It’s a house that lives up to its name, that makes your heart sing.
“The zenith of Japanese aesthetics is deeply rooted in the glorious imperfection of the present moment and its relationship to the realities of the past.”
Brutus Casa. Best 100 Asian Destinations. Volume 198, September 2016. Chiiori is one of the nine Japanese destinations listed in this magazine.
You can find our more about Chiiori at its excellent website.
Kerr, Alex. Dogs and Demons, Tales from the Dark Side of Japan. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.
Kerr, Alex. Lost Japan. Australia: Lonely Planet Publications, 1996. For this book, Alex became the first foreign recipient of Japan’s Shincho Gakugei Literature Prize.
Tanizaki, Junichiro. In Praise of Shadows. Maine: Leete’s Island Books, 1977. The last sentence is a quote from this seminal book.