Communist Mystery: The Secret Appeal of the DPRK

Many are the reasons as to why one would want to visit the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. For some it is way off the ‘beaten track’. The fact that many people think you cannot travel to the place at all reinforces this sense. For some it provides a window into what the communist countries of Eastern Europe might have been like before 1989. Indeed, the tourist companies trade on this desire, offering Soviet architecture tours or plane tours in which you fly with Air Koryo’s fleet of Tupolevs. For some it is an effort at reinforcing their own ‘world’, to remind themselves of how ‘bad’ socialism really is and why capitalism is far ‘better’. For some it is a genuine desire to see what this form of socialism looks like, even to the point of sympathising with the sheer effort of maintaining the system. For these people, it is extraordinary that the DPRK has survived for almost seventy years.

For some, however, it is the appeal of what I would like to call ‘communist mystery’. By this I mean the profound sense that the DPRK is keeping much hidden from public scrutiny. More than once has the ancient foreigner’s title of Korea as the ‘hermit kingdom’ been used for the north. Indeed, whole projects exist – sponsored by the limited ‘intelligence’ services of countries such the United States – to try and find out what is happening in the DPRK. Most of that is pure speculation, since they really cannot find out all that much. Foreign journalists are forbidden to enter the country and one is not permitted to take in any GPS device. Add to this the fact that the telephone networks do not connect internationally, and that there is a separate phone network for foreigners who visit the country. The two networks do not connect with one another. And the DPRK’s computer systems also remain internal, without connection (mostly) to the wider internet. A visitor is therefore ‘off the grid’ when visiting the place.

This mystery, of course, generates a desire by some visitors to act as pseudo-journalists, attempting to find out about what is being kept hidden. It may take the form of trying to photograph items they think they are not supposed to photograph, or of ducking off from a tour group for a few minutes to see what might be seen. But let me give two examples.

When travelling the metro system, one is told not to photograph the metro tunnels. You may photograph anything else – people, metro cars, the glorious artwork in the stations, one another – but not the tunnels. So of course one or two try to photograph the tunnels. Who knows, they may hold some secret weapon stash, or some underground laboratories, or whatever. But as soon as the photographs are taken, a platform attendant immediately walks up, calls to a guide and demands that the photograph be deleted. This only exacerbates the mystery. I happened to be standing next to one such culprit when the deletion took place. The photograph merely contained a black space, with nothing to see. But the fact that you could not take a photograph of black space meant that it much conceal something.

The other example is the fabled ‘fifth floor’ of the Yonggakdo Hotel, one of the hotels where many visitors stay. The lifts skip by the fifth floor, jumping from four to six. And if one has bothered to check the internet, then stories abound of the mysteries of the fifth floor (check google or youtube). Many are speculations: here the guides are kept under guard so as not to be corrupted by foreigners; here is equipment to spy on visitors; here is a crack military squad ready to deal with any problem. To add to the mystery, occasionally a guard may appear and sternly demand that you depart. In our group, a few tried to get to the fifth floor by the stairs. One or two even managed a photograph. What did they reveal? Some pipes, perhaps a door or a wall or a corridor. And of course rooms with doors. Nothing else.

That is the point: nothing is there. The Koreans are very good at creating the impression that something is there, hidden from prying eyes. I suspect that they have created such zones precisely to maintain the mystery, for it appeals immensely to some foreigners, especially of the bleeding heart liberal type. Nothing actually exists in the metro tunnels except tracks for the trains. And nothing is to be found on the fifth floor of the hotel, except rooms and a possible guard to tell you not to enter. After all, if there really was something to hide, why have stairs with a door that opens on the fifth floor, or why have a ‘secret lift’ that visitors can actually use to get close to the fifth floor?

Let the mystery continue, for it keeps some visitors coming.

Closed Borders: Visiting and Leaving the DPRK

If you believe the steady stream of items propagated by the corporate media and government agencies, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a ‘totalitarian dictatorship’ with closed borders. People are not allowed to enter and its citizens are not permitted leave. If someone does happen to try and leave the ‘hermit kingdom’, he or she is dubbed a ‘defector’. Conversely, anyone who wishes to enter the DPRK is also a ‘defector’ – a recent example being the Chondoist leader, Ryu Mi Yong, who opted to leave South Korea and move to the north to join the bulk of her fellow Chondoists.

I must admit that I entered the DPRK with such a mindset. The warnings from governments like those of Australian, the United States and Canada did not help. They either warn against all travel or strongly advise you to reconsider your travel plans and go somewhere else. I believed that I could visit only with an officially sanctioned tour company (Koryo) and I had read that at most 2,000 foreigners visit the country every year. The very fact that I was able to visit amongst others should already have alerted me to a somewhat different situation, but such is the strength of preconceptions that it did not. Even more, the fact that the flight into the DPRK – a glorious Tupolev 204 – was filled mostly with citizens of the DPRK should have set me thinking. Yet again, it did not.

Only after arriving and spending a few days there did reality set in. Our hotel, Yanggakdo, was quite full, with tour buses clustered outside on any given day. People were constantly arriving and leaving, many of them Chinese but also a good number of people from other countries. For some reason, it seemed to me that Australians were everywhere. I had come with the assumption that we would be largely on our own. Clearly this was not the case. Even at the Demilitarised Zone close by Kaesong, there were buses aplenty, so much so that we were lucky in being the first in a long line of groups visiting the area.

I had to find out more. In one of my many discussions with the older tour guide, I asked. ‘How many visitors come to North Korea each year?’

He thought for a moment and said, ’10,000 or so’.

That made far more sense. Not a huge number by some standards, but way more than anyone would expect.

‘But is this the only hotel where visitors can stay? I said.

‘Oh no’, he said, ‘here are many places throughout the country where you can stay’.

‘So where could I travel?’ I said.

‘Most places’, he said. ‘You can travel in the far north, stay in the countryside, do some volunteer work on farms’.

Later I began to ponder the possibility of spending some more time in the place. I asked about foreigners working in the DPRK.

‘We have a quite a number at different levels’, said another guide.

‘What about universities?’ I said.

‘Oh yes’, he said, ‘foreigners come and teach at some of them. Many come as volunteers through UNESCO, and there is also the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology’.

‘Is that the one funded by Christian groups, with classes taught in English?’ I said.

‘Yes’, he said, ‘and it teaches students about many facets of international education’.

‘Would I be able to spend some time at one of the universities?’ I asked.

‘What do you teach?’ he asked.

‘Marxism and philosophy’, I said.

He smiled. ‘Very interesting. I will see what I can do.’

I gave him my email address.

But what about Koreans travelling, working and studying internationally? I was admittedly quite astounded to find out how many from the DPRK do exactly that. Most go to China, but some travel further afield. Indeed, the week before, when I was in Harbin in the north-east of China, I had encountered students from the DPRK studying there. And this was only one example. To be sure, they need clearance from a government agency to do so. But I was reminded of the fact that I too need to request permission to travel overseas, albeit from my university rather than the government.

Even with this knowledge, on the day of our departure, I was still amazed at how many Koreans were boarding the train out of Pyongyang. On the platform were a few foreigners, but most were from the DPRK. Each day the train leaves for Beijing, carrying locals to various destinations outside the country.

Closed borders? If so, the gate is not securely fastened.



Brazen American Imperialist Aggressors

img_7352-2-320x237‘Brazen American imperialist aggressors’ – this is perhaps my favourite phrase from my first visit to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It appeared in a video shown at the museum of the Korean War. The video set out an alternative narrative, producing select pieces of evidence to show that the occupying US forces in the south had instigated the Korean War. Of course, each side in a conflict has its own narrative. The catch is that the US version has dominated accounts for the last 60 years, while that of the DPRK has not had the same privilege.

I was with a group of 20 people, all of us visiting the DPRK for the first time. They came from various countries in Europe, the United States, New Zealand and Australia. In fact, one third of the group were Australians. Koryo Tours, based in Beijing, organised the tour, in conjunction with the Korean International Tourism Company based in the DPRK. We had one guide from Koryo and three from the Korean company. More details of that in another story, but I was struck by how many visitors come to the DPRK. Asking further, I was told by one of the guides with whom I had many discussions that more than 10,000 non-Chinese foreigners visit the north every year. Even more, many Koreans from the north travel internationally, mainly for study and business.

Our itinerary was packed from dawn to after dusk, with many sites visited in Pyongyang and then a trip along a bumpy road to Kaesong and the demilitarised zone between north and south. On the way, we often heard variations on my favourite phrase: ‘American imperialists’; ‘US aggressors’; ‘American colonisers’; ‘US occupation’. Some of the group became a little weary of the constant reiteration, preferring not to be reminded of the 70,000 US soldiers in the south, let alone the massive amount of military hardware and thousands of nuclear weapons.


But the demilitarised zone itself was a real eye-opener. We were shown the place where the armistice was signed in 1953, the villages and farmers who live in the zone, and then taken to the 38th parallel. Here the feel was quite relaxed, with a smiling soldier telling us about the current situation and openly flirting with some of the women. We were free to photograph and joke.


Looking out over the temporary border, we saw ten DPRK soldiers standing guard on one side. No foreign soldiers were present. However, on the other side only a couple of South Korean soldiers could be seen. The rest were clearly American soldiers. One soldier photographed us with a powerful lens as we photographed them all. But then, a small tour group from the other side appeared. They were led not by civilians, not by South Koreans, but by yet more swaggering US soldiers. Indeed, there were almost as many American GIs as there were people in the group.


The response in our group was palpable. They were clearly annoyed at the presence of so many American soldiers. Many spoke of the swagger, the arrogance of telling others what to do, the intervention in other countries. It seemed as though they had realised that the brazen imperialist aggressors were indeed present.

Two Trees

The best time to plant a tree was twenty year ago; the second best time is today. Or so the ancient Chinese saying has it.

This proverb came to mind at one of those luminous moments when a felt experience of the past strikes in all its vividness. At the beginning of a long bicycle ride, I had paused to look around a town where I had live some decades ago – 22 years ago to be exact. Here was the kindergarten where one of my daughters began to read her first words. Here was the school where the boys went. Here was the bicycle route I rode often to work.

And here was the house where we once lived. As is the way of country towns, it was much the same as we had left it. Rare indeed is the pattern of tearing down and building anew, so characteristic of cities in their frenetic and unthinking pace. The house may have had a coat of paint at some time in between, but now it had much the same, well-worn look. The weatherboard walls, the red tile roof, the paved area out the back behind a besa-brick wall, even the corner at the back of the garage where my younger son built himself a small cave out of large blocks of firewood. It had been a typical bitter winter, with its frosts and persistent westerly wind, so the wood fire of the house required a constant supply of timber. He had disappeared for a few hours, his whereabouts unknown. Until I happened upon the completed cave, with his beaming face peering out of a small window he had constructed.

But one – or rather – two items were not the same: a couple of grand pine trees in the front yard. More than two decades ago, it had been quite open, with grass and a low wall upon which one could sit. One of my daughters, three at the time, would sit on the wall, at times for an hour or more, waiting for visitors from afar.

Yet it was no longer the same. One Christmas, I had been eagerly digging through the second-hand items for sale at the school fete. Having acquired a bag full of items I thought might be useful at the time, I meandered over to the plant nursery, run by the Wilderness Society. Some saplings caught my attention, barely five centimetres high. ‘Slow growing pines’, said the notice. ‘Plant in a sunny, well-drained spot, and water a couple of times a week’. I bought two.
Later that same day, I dug a couple of holes in the front yard, giving them plenty of space. For the next few weeks, I watered them as directed, erecting a small shield around them. I could barely tell if they were growing at all. After a few months, they seemed to settle in and grew a massive one centimetre in height. And by the time we left town, they had shot up in spring, rearing another centimetre or two to the sky.

In the full years that followed, in which I seemed to live four or five lives, I completely forgot about the little trees. Until today: now they towered into the heavens, and spread wide until they touched each other. Whereas they had required some protection when saplings, now they shielded the house from prying eyes and the harsh summer sun.

I paused long to ponder the two trees, marvelling at the way they had grown so large and strong, thinking of the way small acts may have stunning consequences decades later. Many acts pass without notice, forgotten in the sweep of time, but some endure.

Towards the end of this small piece of eternity, another proverb came to mind, this time a Greek one: optimism is when old men plant trees knowing that they will never sit in their shade. I would like to plant a few more trees, I thought, but then realised the extra kick to the proverb. Being old and being an optimist is a difficult and rare combination.

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A Place is never the Same

A place never the same on the next visit, for you have changed. The place in question was a backpacker’s hostel in Dunedin, New Zealand. But it could have any of the many places in which I have tarried for a while over long years of travel.

On my first visit to this particular hostel, many years ago, it was a glorious relief. We had travelled the length and (admittedly limited) breadth of New Zealand, working our way slowly towards the south of the south island. With one place after another offering adrenalin tourism for people a good deal younger than me, this place offered some reflective peace. Here we found no bungie jumping, no parachuting, no base jumping, no white-water canoeing, no jet-boat leaping, not even alcohol-fuelled and heaving nightclubs. Instead, it was happy being itself. So we stayed longer than planned, soaking up some winter sun, long sleeps and restful days.

On my next visit, after a long day of travel, the hostel was a welcome sight – evoking old memories. It beckoned to me with its deep red bricks, quirky structure, layers of windows and balconies. My room was a cosy corner, with plenty of windows and views over the harbour and town. I seemed to be taken yet again, relishing being in a place that seemed the same.

But it was not the same. Now paint was peeling on sagging balcony rails. No-one seemed to use the kitchen any more. The chairs were stained and rickety. The windows had trouble staying attached to their framed. There was no buzz in the common spaces. At reception, I had to press the call button repeatedly before a surly woman emerged from a back room and showed distinct disinterest in being helpful. To be sure, most of the signs around the place were the same, but they had faded, with the occasional irrelevant word scratched out.

There was one new sign, a tell-tale sign: ‘No refund after you have paid for room’. Initially the sign seemed unremarkable, so I ignored it. But later I realised: it meant that people had been requesting refunds, in order to go to a better place. If they could find one. At the time I was there, it was actually difficult to find accommodation at all, for a university graduation had filled the town to overflowing with visitors from afar. So people seemed to stay here only because they could not find a bed for the night elsewhere. Even so, the fact that it was half-empty spoke volumes.

Had the place really changed? Initially, I thought the place itself had changed and I could find the magic once again somewhere else. But then it struck that it had not changed all that much, for it was largely the same, albeit a little faded and worn. A few touches here and there would easily have restored its former feel.

Instead, I had changed over the years. My thoughts dwelt long on what had once attracted me to the place, about its magic and peace and relief while journeying. That may have been the case then, but things change, don’t they? I realised that I was simply not drawn to the place any more.

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Leaving Nanjing

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‘Nanjing has bad Feng Shui’, she said, when I mentioned I was heading in that direction.

‘How so?’ I asked.

‘Oh, you know’, she said. ‘The way the water is with the mountains, the slopes and sun. The problem is that no government has lasted long when it has been based in Nanjing’.

‘So it’s a political Feng Shui’, I said.

‘Maybe’, she said. ‘The south (Nan) capital (Jing) is simply not a good capital. On paper, everything seems good – the navigable Chang Jiang River, the way nature assists fortifications, the location close to the seaports of Shanghai, the openness to the inland’.

‘So what’s the problem?’ I said.

‘The river’, she said. ‘It lets power seep away to the east’.

‘That’s why governments never last in Nanjing’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘The Eastern Wu in the Three Kingdoms Period of the third century CE, the Southern Dynasties in the fifth and sixth centuries, the Southern Tang in the tenth century, The Ming in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Southern Ming in the seventeenth, the Taiping Revolutionaries in the nineteenth, and the Guomindang in the twentieth – you see the list is long indeed of those who tried and failed to make Nanjing the capital’.

‘Only the Southern Dynasties of 1500 years ago managed to last for a while’, I said.

‘And that was only because of the chaos and conflict between different states’, she said.

‘Otherwise they came to a swift and usually brutal end’, I said.

‘Power simply wouldn’t say in Nanjing’, she said. ‘It is great as a second city, or maybe southern capital, but not as the capital itself’.

‘That must mean layers and layers of history’, I said.

‘Oh yes’, she laughed. ‘The city has been destroyed plenty of times and its people have suffered and been massacred so often – most recently at the hands of the Japanese. But each time something is preserved – ancient walls, homes, tombs, palaces’.

‘I must go’, I said.

‘Be careful,’ she said. ‘You may lose something – not just power. The Feng Shui flows out of the place’.
Go to Nanjing I did, by my preferred mode – train. It was a sleek, smooth affair that managed the more than 300 kilometres from Shanghai in barely over an hour. I had been invited by an intriguing woman – all smiles and ‘welcome to Nanjing’ were on her lips. But it was to be a professional visit, since she lectures at a university there.

Or was it?

She greeted me at the station with a smile and a flower in her jacket. If I had entertained any thoughts of a reflective, intellectual visit, they were soon dispensed. She drew me immediately to the old city wall, where we walked, talked, and posed for silly photos. I looked one way and saw the contours of the old imperial city. Yet when I looked out from the wall, through one of the many apertures for observing and firing upon an enemy, I could see the skyscrapers and bustle of a modern city. I pondered the tensions generated out of the desire to keep and transform millennia of traditions and the century-long project of Chinese modernisation, a project that has catapulted it into being the most powerful economic nation on earth.

By evening, she led me from one temple to another – Buddhist, Taoist, even Confucian. As I paused before statues and incense burners and written ‘prayers’ – even for a human figure such as Confucius – I found myself pondering the apparent contradictions between religious observance and the atheism of the communist party. I would later learn that what appear to be contradictions are not so in China. Or rather, the contradictions find their place next to one another.

The next day we visited the old houses of the rich ruling class, now owned by the people for the people. Here I pondered the old world of emperors and their hangers-on and the new world of the communist party. But here too I thought of the way ruling class women were treated: protected and sequestered inside the houses, even courting was done under strict supervision and even with special chairs that allowed a hint of intimacy without letting the passions of young people run amok. As for the vast majority of young women and men on the farms and fields, that was a different matter entirely.

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Meanwhile, she concentrated on getting my tongue to do strange things. Early in life do we learn the habits of the tongue in order to make the sounds that we know. And those habits stick. So to learn a new language, with unfamiliar sounds and placements of the tongue, is a task requiring endless patience and practice.

Push the tongue into the back of the upper teeth and force the air out, sibilant fashion. Curl the tongue backward and make, yes, another and very different sibilant. Or perhaps an ‘r’ as I have never managed before. On it went, with some frustration, laughter and limited success.

But soon I realised that the way our ears become accustomed to certain sounds means that we hear other sounds in terms of the sounds we know. Call it a sonoscape, if you will. It is the collection of sounds we hear and know, assuming they offer the complete range of all sound. Of course, our limited collection of known sounds does no such thing. Time and again, I thought I heard a standard ‘j’ and would repeat it as heard. ‘No’, she said, ‘like this …’ Again, I repeated what I thought I had heard. To me it sounded exactly the same as the sound she had made. To her it was entirely different. Instead of one ‘j’, Chinese manages two or three ‘j’ sounds, registered in pinyin as ‘j’, ‘zh’ and ‘ch’.

As I struggled with the sounds, we walked, visited imperial tombs, temples, grottoes and those extraordinarily manicured gardens. I enjoyed the visit, but she – I realised later – much more so. In her eyes, her Australian friend was becoming much more than a friend. No wonder that she was showing me her town, her ancient city, perhaps hoping that I would one day she her mine. No wonder that she divulged accounts of her childhood in a Shandong village, her parents and siblings (for they were born before the one-child policy), her recent divorce, her inability to have children, her difficulty in finding a new husband at her age …

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As is my wont, I was blithely unaware of such stirrings. Or perhaps not. For some reason, I began to sense the longing to be on the road again, to feel that the time was coming to be on my way, to depart from that ancient city as power had done so often for those more important than me. The train departed not soon enough, and she stood on the platform offering a melancholy wave.

It seems as though power is not the only thing that slips away from Nanjing.

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The Spaces of Japan

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A compact land with compact houses full of compact people: such is the pervasive image of Japan. Are not the simple beds of traditional Japanese homes folded away during the day to create some extra space? Do not the hotels have stacked capsules into which one slides for the night? Are not the houses themselves more like residences for dolls rather than people?

I arrived in Japan by ship, voyaging across the East China Sea from Shanghai. Two days it took, with a ship full of Chinese travellers in tour groups – for Chinese are not permitted solo tourist entry visas for Japan. As is the way of ships, ours – the Suzhou Hou – eventually kissed the shore and was embraced warily by the dock in Osaka.

In the southern reaches of the island of Honshu, it was indeed compact. Millions upon millions live in these parts, a tsunami of people finding their space on a small land. I began to make my way north, travelling by train. The ageing Shinkansens zipped from one metropolis to another. Kyoto, Nagoya, Kawasaki, Tokyo, Saitami – really a vast megalopolis finding ever new ways to fit human beings into ever more compressed space. The images I had formed from countless representations seemed to be confirmed.

Even the standard hotels were minimal affairs. With names like ‘Smile Hotel’, ‘Route Hotel’ and so forth, they all seemed made from the same mould. A rectangular block contained identical pods: a tight bathroom, a bed, a thin plank on the wall for some odds and ends, and enough floor space to edge along in between. At least I could step off the train and step into a hotel, for the Japanese still assume that many do indeed travel by rail. Some of those travellers – like me – inevitably need a room for the night.

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But I was not so interested in this Japan. So northward I pushed, onto the island of Hokkaido. By now the trains were simpler affairs, although their names claimed much more: Super Hakucho, Super Tokachi, Super Soya, Super Kamui, or Super-whatever. The engines might have had a flash appearance, but the carriages were minimalist. On one such train I plunged into the deep Seikan tunnel under the Tsugaru Strait, wondering about the continental fault line that produces all those earthquakes in these parts. The 50 kilometres passed eventually and, without a sudden inrush of sea water, we arrived above the surface in one piece.

Soon enough I came to see why the train on which I had just travelled was known as a ‘Super’ train. At the port town of Tomakomai, I boarded a ‘local’ train. What glorious machines these are: single-carriage diesel rail motors, which attain a breathtaking top speed of 40 kilometres per hour in between the stops. Actually, their main task is to stop, at every remote village and minuscule platform.

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Now I began to see parts of Japan that rarely register in the international image of the place. The rail motors rattled, banged and lurched in the way they had done for decades. I opted for the long, slow journeys to the corners of Hokkaido, to Wakkanai, Nemuro and Samani on the edge of the northern seas. The trains in these run a few times day, so one needs patience in order to find these far-flung and rarely visited places.

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In these parts the platforms were rusty and crumbling. Often, I had to wait for hours for the next connection. Or I would jump on a train, any train and see where it would take me. Each was of the single-carriage rattler variety, although occasionally – on a ‘busy’ line – two would be joined together. On the way, we stopped at one tiny platform after another. They took the word ‘platform’ literally, for usually there was just a flat piece of cement, without any ornamentation. Or, rather, they did have a single sign indicating the name of the place in question. Occasionally, a passenger would board, while another alighted. The number of people on board remained the same – no more than five.

The hamlets through which we passed gave clearer signs of the stagnation of the Japanese economy over the last couple of decades. Here was none of the flash of the big cities, with their impossible cleanliness, order and neon. Instead, weeds grew, houses showed peeling paint and sagging rooves, and few people were on the streets. I loved it, for this was the Japan I preferred to see.

I soon became used to the fact that my destination would be a few wind-blown houses huddled close to the railway platform. In such places, I engaged in watch-pointing-map-referring-and-signing discussion with the driver. Food? He shrugged, with a wan smile. Hotel? He shrugged again, obviously never having taken the time to explore the hamlet that beckoned to me. I smiled in return.

The challenge was upon me, and I scoured the town in question for some accommodation, any accommodation. Eventually, a modest hotel appeared, although none of Japan’s famed ‘love hotels’ were to be found in these reaches. And I could usually find a shop that reeked of fish. But it would also stock some fruit, the ubiquitous sushi and strange packets of crisp seaweed. A feast fit for a king or queen.

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Needless to say, I was the only foreigner in these parts, and no one spoke a language I knew. It was also early November, so the chill of an early winter seeped into my bones, ably assisted by the fierce wind. So after a tour of the place in question, looking out over the sea and dreaming of yet another ship, I retreated to the relative shelter of the hotel room, where an ancient heater, with its paint a faint memory, battled against the cold.

I had not imagined such places existed in Japan: few people, open fields, towering mountains, and sparse villages in which the houses felt more relaxed about the space around them. Far indeed from the compact megalopolises of the south.

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