Minakami & The Mountains of Madness, Part I

Kamimoku moon header

Rural Japan FTW

So many great things that happen when you dig around rural Japan (or, presumably, rural anywhere). There are novel culinary experiences, large doses of fresh air, dynamic scenery, and so much more. Taken together, this accomplishes something spectacular — the opportunity to engage with people you otherwise wouldn’t know. You may even become part of communities you otherwise wouldn’t have access to, if you just go looking.

Traveling on your own to parts unknown is, I think, an apex experience in humanity. When you put yourself out into the universe, with all that potential risk and reward, it pays off to proactively pursue uncertainty, and humbleness when you find it. Doing so frequently results in new relationships, both personal and professional. Ultimately, this can blossom into friendship, something the world can always use a little bit more of.

New Friends

One of those new friends is a guy named Cory, an excellent dude with an interesting background and an eye for adventure. He reached out a few months ago to get a better read on what we’re doing in rural Japan.

His inquiry wasn’t out of any general interest. Rather, it was because he and his family live in rural Minakami, Gunma in a riverside akiya where he runs a consulting business. Through his experiences there, at the intersection of adventure and industry, he’s become a proponent of escaping the city. Doesn’t hurt that he’s well connected to a number of akiya owners in the area, too.

Rock & Rural

One major reason I’m so actively exploring rural Japan is that it is an entire country we’re talking about. That takes time! By traveling around, we end up integrating with communities far and wide, which is very useful. With their input and anecdotes, we’re able to constantly update our understanding of the landscape.

So we chatted back and forth over text and zoom for a few weeks getting to know each other. We threw around some thoughts on where akiya and inaka are headed moving through Coronatime, too.

But talk is cheap, and I don’t like hot air. Eventually, Cory and I decided it was time to put our money where our mouths were, and he got to work organizing what turned into the greatest adventure I’ve been on yet.

Kamimoku Itinerary Locked In

Cory managed to schedule a 4-day itinerary featuring a whole lot. A walk through of an abandoned elementary school successfully repurposed as a teleworking space, for example. Also, 3 akiya tours, a mountain biking trip, a barbecue, a pizzeria visit, and 2 interviews with locals. He even set me up in one of his friend’s akiya, a beautiful 3 story house in the Kamimoku area completed last year with a Suzuki Jimny. That’s Japan’s pint size answer to the Jeep, by the way.

What the actual fuck — Who organizes such crazy schedules, and in such a short amount of time as Cory did? I’ve got close to a decade in community organization, and just getting a few meetings together can be outstandingly difficult. It’s a miracle to me that Cory put all of this together, and I’m really genuinely impressed. As I’m typing this, I wonder if it could just be the case that inaka life is just that much less dense.

Regardless, Cory hit multiple grand slams on this like I’ve never seen before, and I can’t thank him enough for putting it all together. But here’s the wildest part — it was even better than it looked!

Just Reiterating that Cory’s a Great Guy

Another thing about inaka is that those far-flung places outside of a city center tend to house outstandingly connected and friendly communities. Often enough, it also has a magic air of serendipity. This is a hella powerful combination when you’ve got someone running ground game in your favor. Sure enough, there were experiences to be had waiting for me that could not be foreseen.

Below, I will begin an attempt to describe some of what transpired during my stay in Kamimoku, but fair warning: it can’t possibly live up to the actual experience. If the following piques your interest, I implore you to get in touch with Cory asap.

Long Train Rides Through Rural Japan

As is my wont, I once again eschewed use of Japan’s fabled Shinkansen bullet trains for the local variety. I did this knowing full well that Kamimoku is much further out than a lot of the places I’ve been exploring lately. Who cares.

From where I am in rural Yugawara, that’s basically a 5 hour trip, but that’s the point. In exploring the inaka landscape, I’ve discovered I’m quite productive on long, empty, local train rides. It could have something to do with the gentle rocking of the train cars. Maybe its the ASMR-y drone of the countryside as you careen through the night. Perhaps that bizarre feeling which accompanies the realization that a train in Coronatime, much like a plane or a bus, doesn’t actually belong in this reality because they’re built for capacity now turned deadly is the culprit.

On the Train to Kamimoku

There are even more reasons why Long Train Rides Through Japan are my favorite teleworking platform. They all bear mentioning, but that takes too much time, so let’s just accept the above and move on.

While the ride to Kamimoku from Yugawara is quite long, it is also spectacularly simple. It only involves 2 transfers, one at Kozu Station from the Tokaido line to the Takasaki line, and another at Takasaki Station for the Joetsu line. It’s that easy!

The train ride itself wasn’t all that exciting, and isn’t that as it should be? I worked on some client portfolios, banged out a bunch of emails, scheduled a few calls, and took a nap. I even indulged in some good ol’ fashioned gaming.

Matt working on a train

A Little R&R

Now, I’m not much of a gamer. I usually feel like I force myself to do it as a means to break out of Work Mode and just relax. And, to be honest, I think that kind of reflects what Akiya & Inaka is all about. We need to disengage with the torrential onslaught of Professional Life and re-engage with our Own Life, what can be full of fun and relaxation. When or why making time to enjoy yourself became so taboo is unknown to me, but that it did is quite unfortunate. I, at least personally if not also professionally, aim to undo that.

Funnily enough, I’ve been playing Stardew Valley. This is a farming RPG centered around a corporate slave who got tired of city life, hung up their suit, and relocated to a farm in the rural countryside. Huh. Sounds familiar.

Stardew Valley

Back to the train. Once you get into the zone, time flies. It felt like 2 hours max when I arrived at Numata Station.

Oops, got on the wrong train, which terminated before my destination of Kamimoku Station.

Which is near Minakami Station but is definitely not Minakami Station, so I had to be careful.

I’m cool with loose schedules, so whatever, but yeah, a bit more planning on my part would’ve made things go a little smoother. All part of the ride.

Darkness Prevails

Once I finally arrived, I pinged Cory. He said that I should exit left and head for 7/11, and that he’d pick me up there. I set out to do exactly that, but immediately upon leaving the minuscule station, I was met with the Great Dark of Kamimoku. I was effectively night blind.

It took me a moment for my eyes to adjust, though there wasn’t all that much to adjust to. The city limits of Minakami – in which Kamimoku is located – are massive, which is accentuated by the diffuse population of 22,000. I’ve been told that people in the area really like their space, so there’s very little in the way of dense clusters of structures like you’d see in even a smaller rural city like, say, Sano in Tochigi.

The Night is Dark, and the Road is Long

There is a preponderance of wide open space, and at night, this is just darkness. I squinted through the dark down the road to see in the distance a bright but lonely sign marking my next salvation. Just as I had been instructed, the convenience of 7/11 and Cory’s battle-scarred Kei Truck awaited.

Into the night I went, armed with only my wits, my wallet, and an expertly packed backpack. I’ve found over the years that I think I’m a light packer, only to realize I’m not once I’m on the road. Recently, however, I’ve been getting better at this. Though this pack was pretty heavy, I did manage to cut it down enough to cram into a single backpack.

There were only a few streetlights peppered between the station and the store. It was nowhere near enough to meaningfully light the way for someone on foot, so I bumbled along the nighttime road the best I could, thanking my lucky stars (which shone exceptionally clearly above me) that not many cars were passing by.

Kamimoku Royalty

Cory greeted me with a mask and an elbow bump  – this still feels like a cheap alternative for a very dated practice in the first place .

He then advised me to put my bag into the truck bed, and suggested I grab dinner in the convenience store. While Kamimoku is drastically different from the metro experience, there are a few things that remain the same. 7/11’s delicious selection of lovingly crafted junk food one of them. I grabbed a sandwich, an onigiri, some nuts, a few beers, and called it dinner.

With a respectable amount of calories and alcohol in my hands, I headed back out of the store and into the fuselage of Cory’s truck, somewhat eerily lit by 2 blue nightlights on the dash, and off we went into the darkness. Things didn’t get much better with the headlights on. The blank canvas of shadow shrouded town remained ostensibly the same, merely whirring past me at a speed greater than before.

Into the Hills of Kamimoku

Soon enough, we took a slight right at the only traffic light I had seen so far, and headed uphill. As we twisted up the mountain road, Cory and I exchanged pleasantries. We spoke of Coronatime business, local characters, the schedule he kindly assembled, details of the house, and our mutual acquaintances. Occasionally, he’d point out the truck window and say something like “remember to turn left at this blue house.” I still couldn’t see jack shit so I just nodded and subtly reconfirmed on my phone that I had Cory’s number.

On and on the road went, getting ever narrower, ever more cobbled, ever dirtier. Japanese roads have always amazed me for their assumption that they are footpaths, and not pathways that cars operate on. The roads in Kamimoku take the cake, of recent memory anyway. Much like the trips on empty trains, I find these country roads quite pleasant, offering a calming interstice between the trip and destination. Of course, they probably aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but hey, so is everything else so that’s cool.

A Castle in the Mountains

Finally, we emerged from a canopied stretch of road into a brief reprieve. A field surrounded by forest, but with the help of moonlight I could just make out the silhouette of our destination against the wispy sylvan backdrop. Stark, yes, but nothing close to Hill House.

As we approached, I could begin to make out the auburn aura of the 3 story structure. The warmth that this visage communicated wasn’t lost on me. Despite my appreciation of these rural roadways, after a bumpy 15 minutes in late autumn mountain weather at night and in the dark following a 5+ hour journey, I was looking forward to getting settled.

Cory pulled past the driveway, in which the aforementioned Jimny was devotedly waiting next to the front door. He went for the keys and I for my bag. With barely any time wasted, I was ushered into the vestibule of a truly astounding house.

Shoes off and slippers on, Cory showed me around the main 2nd floor. That contains dining, living, and office space, and the 1st floor, which has the bedrooms and bathing facilities. He flipped a few switches, pointed out the thermostat, went out and connected the car battery, threw me the keys, said good night and left.

It’d been a long day, he’s pretty perceptive. Besides, we had a lot of time over the next few days, so I unpacked my stuff, grabbed a sandwich and a beer, and went out on the wooden deck overlooking the road and forest we came up through in the now-refreshingly brisk night air and thought about all the cool stuff that was awaiting me in Kamimoku…

To be continued…