A Walk in a Magical Forest in Kamiyama

The small village of Kamiyama, located on Shikoku island, is not only one of the rare villages in Japan where young people come back to, but also offers a diversity of sights and activities that could be surprising for such a small place. Read on as I take you on one of the tours one can do in the village, full of mysterious sights…


Kamiyama, the Shikoku village young people come back to

Many clean streams of water run through the peaceful village of Kamiyama

It’s no secret that the rural areas of Japan are losing population quickly. Young people leave for bigger cities, and the remaining population primarily consists of the elderly. School buildings that used to be full of life only use a few classrooms. Shops close one after the other.

However, in recent years, the small village (about 6000 inhabitants) of Tokushima prefecture (Shikoku Island) has managed some kind of miracle: it’s one of the very few villages in Japan where the population increases. Furthermore, young people from cities come to live to the village.

Their secret: a welcoming attitude, big houses with low rent, a hyper-fast broadband internet connection, and old countryside houses rebuilt into modern, beautiful buildings respectful of the environment. Several companies from Tokyo have decided to set up ‘satellite offices’ there; places where you can work remotely. Employees of media and tech companies as well as artists work in a pleasing environment and go play in the river with their children as soon as their day of work is over. Other youngsters have created new shops: restaurants (including a burger shop and a French cuisine restaurant), cafes, an organic bakery, a wood-fired pizzeria… Others start their own guest houses in the hope to accommodate not only the pilgrims of the famous Shikoku Pilgrimage, but Japanese and foreign tourists too. The village also has its own craft beer, Kamiyama beer.

One of the satellite offices in Kamiyama. The inside is wooden and modern, and large windows offer a view on the mountains.

Kamiyama has become a model for other villages in Japan and the object of many newspaper articles. People come to visit and talk to key persons in hope of being able to do the same in their own village. ‘What most people don’t realize though, is that it took Kamiyama about 15 years of work to go this far’, said Nakayama-san, who is working for Green Valley, a NPO whose aim is to make Kamiyama an exciting place.

The main aim of my visit was to give advice on activities and tours the locals are building for visitors, but as I was walking and cycling around the place, I couldn’t help but imagine what my life would be like if I were to live there… There is a kind of magical attraction to this village.

The mountain of the deity

The stairs on the way to Ooawa Shrine

Kamiyama locals are currently building two walking tours to discover the villageand testing them. This article reflects my experience at this time of the project. In this article I will talk about the ‘Ooawa Tour’, named after Ooawa Shrine, the starting point of the visit. My guide was Sugimoto-san, who is also in charge of the Kamiyama ‘Artist in Residence’ project (more on this later).

With my guide Sugimoto-san

‘Kamiyama’ means ‘the mountain of the deity’ in Japanese, and the village seems to have a strong connection with Oawa Shrine and its kami (deity) so I have looked into the legends that surround it. The name of the shrine comes from ‘ooawa’ (大粟) a kind of millet, which is the emblem of the goddess Oogetsu-hime, the Shinto goddess of food, fertility, and agriculture. Oogetsu-hime is one of the most important deities of the Shinto religion, but she is more often worshipped under other names such as Ukemochi-no-kami, or Toyouke-Oomikami, which is the name under which she is worshipped at the outer shrine of Ise, one of the most sacred places in Japan.

Oogetsu-hime holding millet

Ogetsu-hime used to provide food for the goddess Amaterasu, the most important deity of the Shinto religion. The legends tell Ogetsu-hime was visited by the god Susanoo (in other versions, she was visited by the god Tsukuyomi) and provided him with food that she was able to produce from her body orifices. Susano was so offended and shocked by this that he killed her. However, her dead body created food: millet, rice and beans. As often in Shinto, the legend speaks of her death, but she is worshipped in shrines as a living deity.

The ancient shrine feels like it’s inhabited by something invisible

Ooawa Shrine is a quiet place composed of several buildings. The main one is where Ogetsuhime is enshrined. I admired the painted ceiling that represents all kinds of plants, vegetables and animals – probably because we are dealing with the food goddess.

Smaller buildings in various states of conservation enshrine other important Shinto deities such as Inari, the fox god of agriculture, or Tenjin, the god of knowledge. My guide explained me that on New Year, the villagers’ children take care not to slip on the stairs after praying to Tenjin because that would mean they would fail their exams!

The painted ceiling of Ooawa Shrine

Right next to the Shrine is Jinguji, a Buddhist temple. My guide explained me that the reason the two buildings are so close to each other is that in Japan, Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples used to be a single place of worship until Meiji era (1868-1912) when the emperor decided to separate them and Shinto became the official religion of Japan.

A magical forest

After the visit of these spiritual places, Sugimoto-san took me to a very peculiar forest. The forest is very pretty in itself, but it is also home to many pieces of Art.

One of the projects aiming to make Kamiyama an exciting place is the ‘Artist in Residence’ project. The official website in Kamiyama describes it this way:

‘The Kamiyama Artist in Residence (KAIR) Program is an independent project organized by volunteers who share the desire to develop art and culture in the town of Kamiyama. The program was established in 1999 to provide selected artists with the opportunity to experience Japanese small-town life while working together with local people on artistic projects. Every year for two months from September to November, three artists are invited to Kamiyama. During their stay, they create artworks which are displayed at an exhibition held in early November. Participating artists also hold workshops with local residents, participate in cultural events, and hold open studio days.’ (More about the project on the ‘in Kamiyama’ website)

Stone Spiral, by Marina Carvalho, 2011

Artists from all over the World also create art to be exhibited in the forest at the condition that the pieces of art must respect and blend in with their natural settings. The result is mesmerizing. At various points in the forest, one can find intriguing sculptures made of wood, stone or ceramics, each one of them being both mysterious and perfectly integrated in the scenery. As I was walking the path with my guide, I felt I was walking through the mystical remnants of some unknown civilization.

Kamiyama Kintsugi, by Karin van der Molen, 2018

Next to each piece of art, a plaqueindicates its title, the name of the artists and the date of creation. Sugimoto-san, being in charge of the project, explained to me the concepts and processes of fabrication of the creations. For example, the art above is called Kamiyama Kintsugi. Kintsugi is a Japanese technique of repairing broken ceramics with gold, increasing its value in the process. The artist Van der Molen wanted to express that in human society, people can be separated from each other by things like discrimination, but if they decided to help each other and come together they could become something even more wonderful, just like kintsugi. For this piece, the artist used mostly recycled ceramics donated by villagers of Kamiyama.

The view of Kamiyama from the mountain

After admiring a beautiful view of the village and reaching the summit (where goddess Ogetsuhime is said to have come down from the skies), the tour included a welcomed tea break in the middle of the forest, with a view of several pieces of art. It was a good opportunity for me to ask many questions about the project, Kamiyama, and the life of its inhabitants.

‘All the artists who come here put a lot of deep thoughts and feelings in their creations, and it’s often very eye-opening. It really makes you think about the meaning of things.’ Sugimoto-san told me.

At the summit of Mount Ooawa, a small shrine dedicated to goddess Ogetsuhime marks the spot where she is said to have descended from the skies.

After the tea break, we went down the mountain where I could see many other interesting pieces of art – I don’t want to post all the pictures here because I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. Coming out of the forest, we went along the rice fields and passed the Kamiyama Beer brewery (sadly it was closed on that day). Then we reached the entrance of the Ooawa Shrine, both the starting point and the ending point of our journey.

Just the beginning

A view on part of the village and rice paddies on the way back

The Ooawa Shrine and forest aside, Kamiyama has plenty of pleasant activities to explore the local scenery and culture such as cycling, hiking to a waterfall, gathering local fruits or learning to cook with fire in an traditional Japanese kitchen… Stay tuned as I will introduce all of these in my next article!

Until then, if you’re already interested in going to Kamiyama, you can find all the information for getting there on the ‘in Kamiyama’ website.

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AUTHOR

Amelie

Amelie

Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.