In the town of Miyama, Kyoto Prefecture, there’s a renovated kominka (Japanese folk house) called Thyme. Owner Noriko Kamisawa’s childhood home, Thyme is now a guesthouse for weary travelers. “I wanted to give it a name that signifies both the age of the building and the different timelines that have intersected here. How my brother and I grew up in this house, and now it hosts other people from all over the world on their journeys,” she explained. “Oh, and of course, we grow the herb thyme outside as well.”

The intersections of timelines stuck with me. I guess that would be a good way of describing a trip like this through rural Kyoto. While “Kyoto” often conjures images of the ancient capital of Japan, there’s more to discover outside of the city area. Beyond the highly visited temple of Fushimi-Inari and Kiyomizudera, the rural communities of Kyoto maintain traditions that are difficult to see for the average tourist visiting.

The town of Funaya

For example, the town of Ine. Located in the northern part of Kyoto prefecture, this town boasts a unique type of architecture called funaya (boat houses) that have boat garages on the first floor that open directly into the bay. This is especially rare considering in most parts of the country, the threat of storms and tsunami usually make living so close to the water too risky. However, due to the natural port formed by the bay, the water around Ine stays relatively calm year-round.

There are 230 funaya in Ine. While many homes are still occupied by local families, some of the funaya have been renovated to preserve the architecture while offering comfortable accommodations to visitors. As I toured a traditional funaya, I could see a couple across the bay, guests at one of these renovated funaya, tossing chips out the window to some very enthusiastic seagulls.


Photo: Katie Thompson

The birds are not the only fans of visitors. The town of Ine works hard to balance sustainable tourism, offering a chance to enjoy this unique village without altering the original streets and architecture of the bay area. This gives the impression that Ine appears today just as it did during the Edo period. One of the best ways to enjoy the town vista is via boat, either by small private vessel or the larger ferry that frequently runs for guests. Beware that those same enthusiastic seagulls will return, as the host sells snacks to toss at the birds. They are joined by the vastly more intimidating kite hawks, creating a Hitchcock-like scene that is both unsettling and amusing.

The connection between the people of Ine and the bay is clear enough from the town itself, but can also be appreciated through its fresh seafood. No visit to Ine is complete without enjoying a plate of fresh sashimi (raw, sliced fish), especially the ineburi (yellowtail) local specialty.


Photo: Katie Thompson

Staying in Miyama 

The kaiseki welcome dinner in Miyama was fantastic, taking place in a traditional-style Japanese home, complete with an irori firepit in the middle of the room. Despite the chill that many who enjoy traditional Japanese architecture are familiar with, the fantastic kaiseki (traditional multi-course meal) complete with a bubbling nabe hot pot warmed us up. Every dish was meticulously presented, and was as delicious as it looked. I was such a fan of the chawanmushi (savory egg custard), that I was happy when one of my fellow writers didn’t want his.


Photo: Katie Thompson

After such a fabulous meal and interesting day, I was ready to rest. In my past experience, staying at a traditional Japanese folk house in the winter usually means sleeping on a futon in a very, very cold tatami room. So imagine my surprise when I’m taken to Thyme, the cleverly named kominka I mentioned earlier. The beautiful, fully renovated house looked less like a kominka and more like an art gallery.

The most striking feature of Thyme is not the gorgeous wood detailing or the incredible bathtub, but the large and colorful artwork that’s prominently featured in the space. Kamisawa’s late mother was a painter, and this cozy accommodation doubles as a gallery for some of her favorite pieces. You could feel the love and admiration Kamisawa and her brother have for their mother in every part of the house.


Photo: Katie Thompson

The next morning, we were greeted with a breakfast prepared by our host, featuring fresh eggs and locally made sausages. I don’t usually get so excited over deer meat, but the area’s pest control turns into really excellent deer sausages.

The thatched roofs of Kayabuki no Sato

Our final destination on this rural Kyoto tour was to visit Kayabuki no Sato’s traditional thatched-roof house. Nestled in a valley with mountains in the background, the idyllic-looking town looked frozen in time, even more so in the cold and grey rain. Despite the downpour, it was enjoyable to walk around the town, admiring the commitment to preserving these thatched-roof houses. While many of the interiors have been renovated for the families that inhabit them, the exterior retains the same roofs the town has used for centuries.


Photo: Katie Thompson

Like Shirakawago and other areas known for their thatched roofs, the town has been decked out with a sophisticated fire-fighting system. Giant sprinklers scattered across the town are ready should any of the grass roofs catch flame. The town runs a test every year, and the site of the giant sprinklers dousing the houses became so popular for visitors that they had to stop publicly announcing when the tests are held.

Along with some local snacks, including a mouthwateringly good purin (pudding – also made from eggs; the eggs and dairy products in Miyama are wonderful!), the visit to Kayabuki no Sato was my favorite part of the trip.

A wonderful look into northern Kyoto

In almost every location we visited, we were the only foreign tourists there. There may have been a few domestic tourists, but it’s difficult for visiting foreign tourists to explore the area beyond the infamous city. Thankfully, organized trips like Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ Countryside Stays program make seeing these rural towns a lot more accessible for those who have a limited amount of time to travel, or who don’t possess the Japanese skill to navigate these areas. It was nice to see towns like Ine and Miyama get introduced to visitors who would have otherwise never been able to see this part of Japan. I hope my own timeline takes me to more locations like this in the future.

© Japan Today


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