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47 Prefectures from A to Y


A World of Myth

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The road to Nara Prefecture's Totsukawa Village winds through a deep green cleft in the earth, with hairpin turns. Totsukawa Village, the biggest village in Japan, takes up more than a fifth of Nara Prefecture, and yet has a population of only about 3,700 people. The area is remote — there are no trains, only buses. It is so large that the climate varies considerably from its north end to its south. In this 96 percent mountainous village, the roads meander along the mountain, the crops are terraced, and villagers of yore got around by yaen — human-powered rope gondolas strung precariously over rivers.

At Totsukawa's Hatenashi Settlement, the majestic view and the region's storied past come together. The settlement, population around twenty, sits in the middle of a mountain with stunning vistas all around. In fact, the name "Hatenashi" means "neverending," and indeed the eye is drawn over the pocket rice fields to crown after crown of mountain, receding into the misty distance.
Winding right through the settlement is the World Heritage Kumano Kodo, or Old Kumano Road, a pilgrimage road dating more than a thousand years back. This stone-paved path is part of a network stretching over seventy kilometers from the sacred Buddhist site of Mount Koya in Wakayama Prefecture, through Totsukawa Village, and back to Wakayama at Shinto's Hongu Taisha. At Hatenashi, the journeyer can stand, armed with a sturdy walking stick, and take in the views that other pilgrims have admired for over a millennium.

Totsukawa Village is a stronghold for Shintoism, according to Akinari Kamiya, a representative from Totsukawa Village's Tourism Division. As we head up Mount Tamaki to visit the village's most venerable shrine, wild monkeys dart across the road in front of us. There are deer and wild boar here, too, greatly outnumbering the human population. A susurrus moves through the trees, pierced by the call of a bird.

Tamaki Shrine is at an altitude of more than a thousand meters and was built more than a thousand years ago. This shrine, whose name "Tamaki" means "where the treasure lies." Here stands a grand, gnarled Japanese cedar tree, or sugi, which according to the shinwa no sekai, or world of myth, is three thousand years old. The tree is banded with a shimenawa, a rope made from rice straw by local villagers.

Taro Kuroiwa, a Shinto acolyte studying and training here, talks about what inspired him to come here. "I love talking with everyone, and hearing their different ways of thinking. And of course I'm interested in Shinto. But I think this kind of fantastic nature can't easily be found elsewhere."

Weary travelers can find solace at day's end at one of the region's abundant hot springs. At Taki no Yu, one of the area's most popular baths, an open-air hot spring runs alongside a waterfall. Here the hot water springs eternal, being neither recycled nor reheated but keeping a natural 50ºC flow. A soak in these restorative waters is a balm for both the body and soul.
"The air is delicious, the food is delicious, there is peace and quiet, and nature is abundant," says Kamiya, a transplant from Kanagawa Prefecture who prefers to make his home in Totsukawa. "The people here are friendly and helpful. In Totsukawa everyone helps each other. Everyone knows you."

Totsukawa Village offers a look at a traditional way of life, a glimpse of a close-knit community firmly connected to its history. Though there are no high-speed trains and no convenience stores here, there are other treasures to be found.