Hida Folk Village: traditional farm life in the Japanese Alps

Hida folk village, Takayama, Japan
Hida folk village

Hida Folk Village exhibits more than thirty traditional buildings on the edge of Takayama, a busy regional city of 100 000 people. The buildings, mostly farmhouses, were built in the district between 1600 and 1870 and were relocated in 1971 to recreate a village above and behind the small artificial lake in the foreground of my top picture. Further up the hillside is nothing but forest, and the site is screened from the city below by a row of trees and the fall of the land so the modern world hardly intrudes on the site. (If it all looks very wet, that’s because it was. During the morning we visited, the weather varied from drizzle to solid rain and back again, with a few brief umbrella-free periods.)

The houses were new to me in detail but functionally very familiar.  Pre-industrial farmhouses the world over have a lot in common and the similarities become even closer when you factor in the climate they are adapted to. Hida is high in the mountains, surrounded by peaks of 2800 – 3200 metres (i.e. twice the altitude of the highest mountain in Queensland, and substantially more than Mount Kosciuszko’s 2230 m.) so the parallels are with the Nepal and the Swiss Alps rather than Bali or Calabria.

farmhouse, Hida Folk Village
“Praying hands” farmhouse

The very steeply pitched thatched roofs (“praying hands” roofs) are a response to the weight of snow they have to bear. Animals were kept in an earthen-floored internal “barn” through winter, sharing (and contributing to) the family’s warmth. Fireplaces were built straight on the earth floor, too, as a first line of protection against house fires. There were no chimneys and the smoke had to find its own way out. The upside was that it helped keep the thatch dry from the inside; the downsides are the same as always – a fine layer of soot coating walls and furniture, and smoke inhalation causing health problems.

Hida folk village
Farmhouse floor plan

The remainder of the living space had polished wooden floors, and the step from earth floor to wooden floor is culturally ingrained: outdoor footwear is never worn on wooden floors, whether in houses or in temples. (I was amused to find the distinction surviving in a modern big-city hotel with Japanese-style rooms. One enters the room via a minuscule hallway, takes off one’s shoes and steps up on to a “wooden floor” with a different finish.)

Farm tools and equipment are almost the same as we would find in an old farmhouse in the Gippsland hills, Hervey’s Range or, I guess, Provence. Function defines form, and hoes, axes, horse-collars and cart-wheels have to fulfil the same functions everywhere.

The headman’s house is the odd one out on two counts – firstly that it came from a lower-altitude area and didn’t require the steep roof, and secondly that it is so much bigger. It functioned as the village meeting hall and social centre as well as housing the headman’s extended family.

The Folk Village has a Shinto shrine, on the hillside under the edge of the forest, and a couple of small Buddhist shrines but no temple. That is probably realistic in historical terms, too, since shrines are everywhere but temples depend on a large enough and rich enough population base to support resident monks.

The village was a fascinating place to spend half a day, and if we had had more time we may have sampled some of the activities presented in the village and the nearby Crafts Experience Centre.

Spiders and insects in Japan

golden orb weaver
Golden orb web, with spider

Admiring a large wooden Buddha in its free-standing shrine on public land in Takayama, I noticed a golden veil angling out from one side. That immediately meant, to me as to anyone else who likes spiders enough to learn a bit about them, a Golden Orb Weaver, since the ‘Golden’ refers to the orb (cartwheel) web, not the spider – it’s a [Golden Orb] Weaver, not a Golden [Orb Weaver].

In this case, I soon found, the spider is in fact golden as well, or at least bright yellow with darker stripes and a splash of red. A little research identified it as Nephila clavata – that’s jorou gumo, if you want the Japanese common name (its mythology is fun, too). It is much more colourful than any of our Golden Orb Weavers but smaller than most of them, not much bigger than a full-grown St Andrew’s Cross spider. This one had a male in attendance but was busy with a mouthful of prey.

golden orb weaver
Female Nephila clavata with a male above her

The location was a carpark on the fringe of the city near Hida village, well up into the hills. In a strip of garden on the other side of it I saw this odd and somewhat gruesome sight:

Scorpion flies feeding on a spider’s leftovers

Wikipedia does such a good job with the bizarre habits of scorpionflies that I won’t even begin to say anything about them but move right on to the spider which accidentally provided their meal. Its web was a platform on the top of a small shrub, with a retreat (visible at top left) under a leaf.

The scorpion flies’ benefactor

Other invertebrates I saw nearby included a bright yellow leaf-hopper. Click on the thumbnails, as usual, for full-size images.

The abundance of small beasties here was matched in other natural environments we saw but the urban landscapes were, sadly, almost sterile.

There are almost no domestic gardens in most parts of the cities, and not much (compared to what we have here) by way of street plantings. The lack of plants means a lack of small herbivores (sap-suckers like the two above, caterpillars, beetles, etc), so spiders (which feed on them) and birds (which feed on plants, insects and spiders) don’t do well either. And even if there is a thriving eco-system in an urban park, there is no network of linked habitats for the insects to spread through.

Japanese cities aren’t unique in this, of course, but the difference between rural and urban is particularly abrupt there.

Crows in Japan

The main motivations for our recent Japanese holiday were cultural and historical but naturally I kept a look out for birds and beasts, as I do here. We spent time in Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Takayama and Koyasan, listed from largest to smallest, and from each of them except Osaka we ventured into the edges of the surrounding forested hills.

We didn’t see many birds, however, either in variety or in absolute numbers. Crows outnumbered all the rest, even in urban areas. Beyond them, I can only recall sparrows, a couple of hawks soaring over the rivers in Kyoto, and a couple of waterbirds on a pond at the historic village on the outskirts of Takayama. The weather must bear some of the blame, since we had more wet days than dry and sensible birds stayed out of the rain as much as they could (although we tourists just carried on regardless, as we did in the Italian heatwave last year).

Crow beside the path to the forest shrine in Nara

The (wet) crow above is perching on the pedestal of one of the hundreds of stone lanterns lining the path to a major Shinto shrine on the outskirts of Nara, a beautifully mysterious/haunted/sacred walk through misty forest.

stone lanterns
The path to the shrine

Crows and their close relatives are difficult to tell apart, all of them being much the same size and colour. Japan has four, according to wikipedia: the Jungle Crow, Corvus macrorhynchos; Carrion Crow, Corvus corone; Rook, Corvus frugilegus; and Common Raven, Corvus corax. I think mine is a Jungle Crow, and there’s a blog post about the species here which I just have to mention for the extraordinary ‘tool use’ of urban crows it documents. It’s worth reading for more general info, too; the photos are good but exaggerate the blueness on the crows’ feathers.

Australia has five species, three of which live in North Queensland: the Torresian Crow and Australian Raven, both of which have large ranges including the coast, and the Little Crow, which doesn’t live on the coastal strip but occupies all the drier part of the continent.