Travel: Japan - House in the rising sun

In a mystical cottage in a hidden valley, Deborah Nash discovered a Japan she thought had gone for ever
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The Independent Online
Modern Japan is ugly. Before going there I had seen photographs of the cherry blossom, the kimonos and the Kabuki theatre, and I had a love for the exquisite ceramics and the purity of design. But in Tokyo what impressed me most were the concrete and frosted glass, the skies darkened by skeins of cables and the brand-new reproductions of ancient monuments.

I left Tokyo and travelled. Kyoto, Okayama, Osaka, Nagasaki - the sameness stamped them all. Dissatisfied, I wondered what had happened to the poetry of Japan. Had it all been buried in concrete? At the time I was reading a book by an American, Alex Kerr, who wrote about an 18th-century thatched house he had lived in during the Seventies, in a Shangri-La high in the mountains of the Iya valley. The house was called Chiiori - House of the Flute. It sounded so idyllic, so different from anything else I had seen in Japan, that I decided to go there.

With my limited Japanese and my guidebook maps, it took two days to find Chiiori. The first night I spent out in the countryside in a Buddhist temple that doubled as a youth hostel. It was shut when I arrived, as it was a festival day, but I managed to persuade the monks to let me stay the night. The best part of the experience was the large, rectangular wooden bath made of scented pine. Steeping myself in the deep, hot water was pure heaven.

I spent most of the following day getting on the wrong trains and retracing my steps, but I was fixed on the idea of getting to Chiiori, and the more impossible it seemed, the more determined I was to get there. I asked everyone I met whether they knew the place, and showed them a crumpled piece of paper with "Chiiori" written on it. They all looked blank, until at last a bus driver took the paper in his white-gloved hand and nodded. I was on my way. It was late afternoon when I boarded the bus at Ikeda; at last I had a sense that I was on the brink of uncovering something real, something beautiful, in modern Japan.

The bus trundled along a mountain path, over a bridge and up into the Iya valley. The window framed a panorama of hills tufted with pines, broken by the occasional burst of cherry blossom and the distant, jade-green river below, with mists coming out of the deep throat of the gorge. All this was what I had hoped for, yearned for. Tokyo was a million light years away.

Two hours later we reached a fork in the road and the driver told me to get off and take the right-hand fork up the mountain. Abandoned vans and cars lined this road and I contemplated spending the night in one of them if a hotel did not miraculously present itself. A truck approached and I hitched a lift with two country girls in starched white bonnets. Eventually the truck stopped abruptly and the driver pointed to a half- hidden thatched roof below us. "House," he said, in faltering English.

A narrow path between the fields led to a squat, one-storey house topped by a stupendous roof, the rethatching of which had cost the owner such a fortune that he had moved out and abandoned Chiiori. There it stood, empty, with sliding paper doors slightly ajar and a pair of slippers on a stone. I changed into the slippers and slipped into the house. I could see, even in the engulfing darkness, that it was beautiful. The polished wooden floors gleamed. A kettle hung above a sunken hearth. There was no furniture, just some baskets containing coal, a couple of lamps and a stick sculpture in an alcove.

Outside, the rain fell. For the first time in my life I really listened to that rain, to the different sound it made as it fell on earth, on rock and on pines. Chiiori overlooked pine trees, and beyond them a mist spotted with occasional fairy lights - the lights of cars in the valley below. Just as I was trying to plug the lights in, a middle-aged man, who I later learnt was a neighbour, arrived on the scene. I asked in mime whether I could stay the night and he agreed. He repeated the name "Chiiori" reverently, as though it were a prayer. He brought out blankets from the back cupboard, switched on the lights, got a fire going and filled the kettle with water. Then he left.

I turned to the book that had led me here, Lost Japan, and delighted in reading about the house that I was now sitting in, wrapped up in blankets. I read about Alex Kerr's discovery there of a young girl's diary. She had lived in Chiiori with her grandparents during the Fifties and had found the poverty and gloom of the Iya valley too much. When she was 18 the diary stopped; she had run away to the city. On the door the grandparents pasted a paper charm in the hope that she might come back some day. The paper charm was still there, and I felt a tangible link with the history of the house; I had made the journey in reverse, escaping the harsh neon lights of the city to take refuge in Chiiori.

I woke up early next day, swept the floor, which was coated in floating ash from the fire, and began my trip down the mountain. I hailed a lift from a young worker who spoke some English. It turned out that he knew Alex Kerr, and indeed was mentioned frequently in his book as the boy who loved digging, and who had helped thatch Chiiori's roof. He was now a construction worker and had travelled all over the world, digging tunnels. He dropped me off at the bus stop and gave me a canned drink of hot coffee from the vending machine. It was still raining.

At 8am the bus appeared, with the same driver from the night before. I arrived back at Ikeda reeking of smoke, damp and wood, and the waitress in the station cafe crinkled her nose as I ordered my slap-up meal of coffee, two slices of toast and egg on beansprouts. I sat back, content. Now I could really say I'd seen Japan.