Japan is a great place for time travel. In the remote villages, temples and shrines of the countryside there are places that lure the imagination into another age. This is one of the great pleasures of travel anywhere in the world, that experience of stepping out of daily life into another era. As a photographer who has travelled extensively in Japan, I have encountered many such places along the Japan Sea coast, a region also known for its delicious food and sakes.
The western coast is also known as ‘other side of Japan,’ a relatively unknown and less visited region of Japan. It wasn’t always that way. Since pre-history the Japan Sea coast was the gateway for travelers from the Asian continent. With the advent of modern Japan in the 19th century, however, the country’s largest cities flourished and spread along the Pacific coast and the Japan Sea region slipped into the shadows of history. The area has now become a wonderful destination to discover the old Japan.
One of my favorite places for photographic adventure along the Japan Sea is Sado Island. The island is located just off the coast of Niigata, the home of some of Japan’s most prized sake breweries. Though only 3 1/2 hours from downtown Tokyo by Shinkansen and hydrofoil, the island has a remarkably strong feeling of being ‘cut off from the modern world.’ This atmosphere is there in the daily lives of the farmers and fishermen, who continue to live a life deeply rooted in the island’s fascinating history.
On a recent trip to Sado I drove through the countryside photographing the elderly farmers harvesting their autumn crops. I stopped my rental car to photograph a group of grandmother’s picking persimmons. We chatted for a few minutes, and to my surprise one of the women put down her picking basket and asked me to wait a few minutes while she drove off in her mini truck. Momentarily she came back with a plate of chilled cut persimmons brought from her home. Seeing that I enjoyed the flavor, she placed a small bag of the orange fruit in my hands for the continuing journey.
The Sado island people have a deep and long connection with the past. Perhaps this is due to the unusual history of the island. Know for its great gold mines, the island also has a 1,300 year old legacy of hosting an astonishing assortment of historical individuals who were banished by the lords on the mainland. These characters include Japan’s most renowned Noh dramatist, a Buddhist saint, a disgraced emperor, and an assortment of poets and aristocrats who brought their cultured lifestyles to the island.
Distanced from the intrigues of the mainland many of these individuals devoted their energies to cultural activities like tea ceremony, writing poetry, meditating and gathering up local farmers and fishermen to start local Noh drama groups. Throughout much of the year, these outdoor performances can still be enjoyed under firelight as it has for hundreds of years.
This tradition of island entertainment has morphed into the great Japanese drum group, KODO, which tours the world much of the year. If you have the opportunity to attend one of these performances in your area, I highly recommend it to experience the timeless quality of the island’s continuing creative spirit.
By Everett Kennedy Brown