Visitors to Japan are always interested in exploring the country’s distinct traditions. But not all traditional aspects of Japan are easy to come across, especially one like the notion of satoyama. That’s because to experience satoyama, a belief in coexistence with nature, travellers need to make their way out into rural mountain communities. If you’re curious about diving deeper into the traditions and spirituality of Japan, here’s everything you need to know about exploring the important concept of satoyama.
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Brief Background to Satoyama
To really appreciate why you should want to experience satoyama when you visit Japan, you need to first understand the importance of the concept.
The term satoyama translates loosely into “countryside” in English and is a conjunction of the words for “village” and “mountain”. But it’s generally used for regions that sit between the mountains and rural farmland, where communities live in harmony with the natural world in a traditional manner.
Satoyama essentially describes a way of life, where old-fashioned customs related to agriculture and spirituality are followed and embraced. Villages that stick to the ways of satoyama still use traditional techniques for farming and living. Rice paddies and piles of firewood are common sights in these places, just as they would have been centuries ago. If you want to get a sense of what Japan’s traditional side is like, then you’ll definitely want to visit a satoyama village.
But satoyama regions also place a high degree of importance on the natural world and its spiritual importance. These beliefs say that the natural world is home to all manner of gods and deities, and that it is therefore the duty of believers to protect it. As such, these regions are known for their biodiversity and are leading examples of ecotourism in Japan.
One of several attempts to support and preserve the satoyama concept is the Satoyama Initiative. This project was established through UNESCO in 2009 to recognize and promote destinations that embody the spirit of satoyama, not just in Japan but globally. Over one hundred governments and organizations have joined the initiative so far to support such communities and help provide education of the values of this eco-friendly philosophy.
Places to Experience Satoyama in Japan
One of the best parts of Japan to visit if you wish to experience satoyama is the northern region of the Gifu Prefecture and southern edge of the Toyama Prefecture. There, among its mountains, are villages that perfectly encapsulate the concept.
Some of the best to visit are the idyllic villages of Shirakawago (a.k.a Ogimachi) and Gokayama (a.k.a Ainokura), both of which are actually UNESCO World Heritage sites. These remote folk villages are home to well-preserved traditional gasshozukuri architecture and plenty of greenery between the surrounding farmland and forests. If you’ve seen nearly any Studio Ghibli film, you should have no trouble picturing what they look like.
In them, visitors can also witness folk dances and music, and shop for traditional handicrafts. Residents of these villages are proud of their way of life and have fought for decades to preserve it from the rapid modernization that swept through Japan following the war.
Visiting a Satoyama Village with the JR Pass
The natural problem of seeing satoyama with your own eyes is that by its nature it’s only found in remote places. Therefore, to see it you’re really going to have to allow time to make the journey. The good news is that you can use your JR Pass to cover the majority of the journey.
From Tokyo, take the Hokuriku Shinkansen with your JR Pass across to the far coast and Shin-Takaoka Station. From there, you’ll need to board a 1 hour 45 minutes bus that runs all the way to Shirakawago, stopping at Gokayama along the way. There are also buses that run to Shirakawago from other large cities such as Nagoya and Kanazawa. Your rail pass will not cover any of these bus journeys.