When visiting remote mountain hamlets in Tokushima prefecture, I found myself contemplating a profound question: Is it right to watch something fade away? Once buzzing with life and culture, these quaint, little-known communities are now on the brink of extinction. This reality was both heart-wrenching and intriguing, igniting a quest to delve deeper into the intricacies of Japan’s rapidly disappearing rural lifestyles.
Embracing the ‘Setsunai’ – A Journey Through Nishi Awa
The term setsunai is often used by the Japanese to describe the vanishing lifestyles of these rural hamlets. At first glance, setsunai translates to “heartbreaking” or “sorrowful.” But it also holds a deeper, more complex meaning, embodying a sense of nostalgia, yearning, and perhaps an inherent feeling of helplessness.
Despite their bleak future, four communities in the Nishi Awa region graciously opened their doors to us. These hamlets offered us an authentic glimpse into their way of life, culture, and culinary delights, coupled with the serene view of mountains entwined with cloud veils.
Hope Amid the Slow Fade – The Resilience of Rural Japan
Contrary to what one might expect, these communities exuded happiness, unity, and hope instead of despair. A striking example was a small hamlet of eight elderly inhabitants, where a young couple had returned to assist their ageing parents and community. Their vision? To showcase the region’s unique lifestyle and perhaps even attract other young Japanese people to settle here permanently.
A Unique Glimpse Into Local Tradition
We were allowed to join their monthly Buddhist ceremony, where the whole village gathers and chants sutras before being blessed by an effigy of Zao Gongen. Instead of a monk chanting the Heart Sutra, they opted for a CD player, which began skipping halfway through the ceremony, much to the amusement of all present.
We also sat in a circle on the floor and passed a huge Buddhist rosary around in a circle as per another ritual unique to this hamlet. It was a massive privilege to be welcomed into their community and participate in local traditions passed down in the region for generations.
The Legacy of Vanishing Hamlets: Preserving Rural Culture
While tourism alone won’t preserve these hamlets’ way of life, it does offer a chance to be remembered. Revenue generated from these visits can contribute to maintaining village shrines or initiating programs to invite younger generations to experience rural life. As visitors, it also encourages introspection, making us ponder questions like “What is my legacy?” or “How do I want to be remembered?”
The Setsunai Charm of Tokushima
Tokushima, albeit a stark reminder of a disappearing Japan, serves as a poignant reflection on life, death, and legacy. Despite the impending vanishing act, the visit proved to be an affirming and positive experience.
For more information on our experience with sustainable and cultural tourism in rural Japan, please feel free to contact us.