National Geographic : 1994 Sep
when it reaches the Daishimizu Tunnel. Behind me lies the Kanto Plain, across which factories, farms, and suburban rooftops jostle for precious space. Disappearing in the haze is the sprawl of Tokyo. Then we enter the darkness of the 14-mile-long tunnel. The sun returns with a sharp glare when we emerge, and we are suddenly high in the mountains that bisect the country. I am about to descend into another Japan. The thousand miles of western coastline I will soon encounter seem just the opposite of the congested world I've left behind: a broad, temperate plain rolled out between the mountains and the surf (map, page 73). To the Japanese the land ahead is a hidden reflection of their own faces, and it's this I've come to find. To cross Honshu, the largest of Japan's four main islands, is a journey of the mind and spirit. The Pacific coast-moneyed, neoned, economically mighty-is what the Japanese are proudest to display. They sometimes call it omote Nihon, "the front of Japan," and it's the image most of us know. But they call the region along the Sea of Japan ura Nihon, which means "the back of Japan" or, more subtly, "inner Japan." In its towns and vil lages, its slopes and shadowed valleys, its rough seacoast and hushed rivers, and its patchwork expanses of rich rice terraces resides an accumulation of traditions, a set of values, that all Jap anese guard closely-particularly if they move away. When the urban Japanese talks about "my hometown," he means more than a cluster of weathered wooden houses down a one-lane road. Most of all he means the way of life that unfolds there. This is the world of ninjo, humaneness, or human feelings. Personal ties, fading in the anonymity of the teeming cities, still count above all on this side of Honshu, and the hold of village life endures. Girl, the old code of mutual obligations, continues to define local life. Here the traditional crafts are kept alive, and nature is never far. In a village called Torigoe I stood on the bank of a wet rice field one summer evening listening to full-throated frogs discuss my arrival. As the sun went down, the clear water reflected a cir cle of treetops against a violet sky smudged by a single cloud. These places will never change, I thought, and as I inhaled the plain perfume of summer grasses, I wasn't sure they should. Behind me stood a long, ramshackle farmhouse and a few aging outbuildings in a state of contented decay. No one was home. I started counting the clutter of muddy boots outside the screen door, but I had to give up after eight pairs: Shingo Miyamoto had arrived. PATRICK SMITH has been a correspondent in Asia for 14 years, most recently for the New Yorker. He is currently writing a book about Japan. This is his first article for NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC. PETER ESSICK is a frequent contributor; his photographs appeared last in the Special Edi tion on Water (November 1993).