A Tale of Balance


At the end of June, I went on a four-day-trip to Izumo, Shimane, and wrote a report on my experience for my landscape management and sustainable tourism class. I tried to combine academic writing and story telling, and am somewhat proud of the result. I thought it would be nice to share my experience and my “work” with more people than just my professor, so here it goes:

A Tale of Balance


An Introduction
A small fire, some candles and a few gas lanterns are the only things illuminating the large, Japanese-style room. Smoke and the smell of the tatami fill the air. Most of the doors and windows are open, and occasionally a soft ocean breeze wafts inside. My host, Hajime, and I are sitting around a square hole, which many years ago used to work like a kotatsu, but now serves as a fireplace. We are engaging in small talk, exchanging stories, while sipping on canned beer that Hajime kept cool in an old chabako in the corner of the room. Whenever the fire grows too weak, Hajime tosses a piece of wood into the hole, or two, then blows air at the fire using a long bamboo pipe.

An hour or so into our conversation, Hajime asks me: “Why did you come to Shimane?” He has switched from beer to red wine (“From Germany! ‘Mariengold!'”) at this point, which he has poured into a tea cup. In broken Japanese I tell him that I want to experience balance, in humans and nature interacting. Shimane, far away from busy, messy Tokyo, a place that almost nobody around me knows anything about or has ever considered visiting, seemed like a good choice; and staying in an Airbnb like Hajime’s (with no running water, gas and electricity) like an even better one, like a “cherry on top”. He listens intently, gazing at the cup he is balancing in his left hand. “I am going to say something really good now,” he starts after I finish. “I think the reason why you came to Shimane is to meet tatara.”

Tatara? Never has tatara popped up in any of my many Google searches in preparation for this trip, nor do I even understand the meaning of this word. So I dig deeper. “Tatara is where production, industry, people and nature meet,” Hajime explains. “But I don’t know if I can tell the story right. I don’t start work until noon tomorrow. Let’s get up early and I will drive you to the place of tatara. Then you can see for yourself.”

Journey Back in Time
Hajime’s place is located on the outer edge of Izumo city, right by the coast to the Sea of Japan, in western Shimane. It should be only an hour drive away from our destination, Yoshida village (now officially part of the city of Unnan, next to Izumo). But, for various reasons, we end up taking almost three. Hajime drops me off somewhere close to the tourist information centre, tells me to contact him if I cannot find a way back to the Airbnb by myself, then hurriedly drives to work.

Until the latter half of the 19th century, Yoshida village, or rather former Yoshida village, was a centre of tatara, a unique Japanese method of iron production. (Pig) iron — crude, raw iron — was usually obtained from iron ore, only scarcely available in Japan. Iron sand, on the other hand, was abundant. For tatara, this iron sand was first collected from mountains, rivers, the sea. Inside a rectangular furnace, large amounts of charcoal were burned to heat the iron sand to a high temperature. On the long sides of the furnace, there were bellows or fuigo, used to generate wind and raise temperatures even further. Like this, impurities in the sand were melted and drained out as slag, until only the iron remained.

Experts are unsure about the exact origins of tatara. Early tatara furnaces can be traced back as far as the 500s, but an exact time remains undefined. It was of great importance to Japan over many centuries, probably until the end of the Taisho era (from 1912 to 1926), approximately when Western iron mass production methods found their way into the island nation. During peak times, especially in Shimane and the greater Chuugoku region, tatara was supposedly responsible for 90 percent of all iron production in Japan.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the traces of tatara are still visible today. Tatara even inspired part of a well-known animation movie — Princess Mononoke, by the Japanese Studio Ghibli under famous film maker Hayao Miyazaki. A big chunk of the movie is set in the industrial town of Tataraba (or simply called “Irontown” in the English version.) Approximately half an hour into the movie, the male protagonist Ashitaka peeks into a factory building and sees a huge furnace, shaped almost like a volcano. Men are next to the mouth of the furnace, tossing rocks and sand into the blazing flames. On the left, there is a group of women, alternately stepping down on the opposite sides of a wooden board (a foot bellow), generating air. This is it, the Princess Mononoke version of tatara.

Initially, I do not realize how much Princess Mononoke will influence my experience in Yoshida village. After a short visit to the tourist information centre to find out if there is a way for me to get home later — there is, as the friendly lady working there informs me, though it involves a lot of walking and even more waiting —, I wander around a bit. At first glance,Yoshida village looks like every other Japanese village: a mixture of shadowed, narrow alleys and open, green spaces; a wider main road parted by a small river; traditional-style family houses that are a far cry from the concrete or crystalline skyscrapers of Tokyo. Once or twice, I cross paths with an elderly woman, and she greets me with a “konnichi wa!” and a big, warm smile, looking excited to see me. I cannot imagine the village gets too many visitors, especially not from abroad.

While walking, I try to study the many pamphlets and brochures I picked up at the tourist information, and they all point me towards “Yoshida Townscape”, so I decide to follow their instructions. I almost feel like I have travelled back in time: Save a few cars, street signs and electricity poles, the area looks like a scene from an old Japanese film set in the Edo period, with its wooden townhouses with baked tile roofs. There is a museum there, on the history of iron production, where I learn more about tatara — about the importance of the type of charcoal, for instance, or the different roles and tasks people exercised in production, or sannai. Sannai, Japanese for “inside the mountains”, refers to the unique communities that formed around tatara, the small villages that served as both the workplace and the home of around 30 households of tatara workers and their families. I find out that there is a former sannai nearby Yoshida village, and decide to go there.

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