Up the blue river from Futamata to Atago
The 213-km-long Tenryu River originates in Lake Suwa in Nagano Prefecture and flows into the Pacific Ocean through Aichi and Shizuoka Prefectures. The basin has flourished as a key location for transporting lumber and goods and for ferry boats since the Edo Period, when a boat route was developed from Tatsuno Town in Nagano to Iwata City, Shizuoka. This was to transport lumber for the reconstruction of the Great Buddha Hall of Todaiji Temple. Tenryu Futamata, located in the watershed, held an important military, political, and economic positioning as it was where industrial roads such as Akiba Kaido and the Salt Road converged. Futamata Castle for example, surrounded by the natural fortifications of the Tenryu and Futamata Rivers, is said to be a famed medieval fortress over which Tokugawa Ieyasu and Takeda Shingen fought a fierce battle. The town was lined with encampments, and at its peak, there were as many as 19 inns in the area.
This trip starts from Futamata Shopping Arcade, still conjuring up the nostalgic mood of the Showa period. Kosuke Ito, proprietor of bicycle store “Happy & Slappy” and the gyoza specialty restaurant “Gyoza Slappy,” takes us for a spin, on a course he created specifically for Papersky, up the Atago River. Ito has been riding gravel bikes in this area since the days when he ran his own store in Hamamatsu City, and kindly selected light and easy gravel routes that can be tackled on mini velo bikes.
“As someone who grew up in Hamamatsu, Atago is somewhere I associate with having fun during the summer holidays. It’s perfect for a foray into nature, and you can bike along roads while cooling off in the rivers.”
Leaving Futamata behind, we follow the Tenryu River northward, and then take a road that follows the Atago River to the northwest. From the footpath between rice paddies, we head onto gravel paths which afford views of the clear waters of the Atago River and waterfalls such as Otoko-taki (male waterfall) and Onna-taki (female waterfall). The sound of the river and the sunlight filtering through the trees combine to create an exhilarating cycling experience.
Our first encounter is with Yoshiaki Hikabe of Hikabe Furniture, which produces custom-made furniture in the forests of Atago. The Hikabe family has been engaged in forestry and tea farming for generations in this region surrounded by cedar forests and tea plantations. In the Atago area the key words are “river and forest.”
“After studying furniture making in Matsumoto, I returned to my hometown and joined a forestry cooperative to study logging and forestry. This workshop and the house next to it were built by my lumberjack father and I, using wood he felled from our privately owned forest recently built my own house. In the past building houses using wood from one’s own land used to be a common practice, but now it has become an extravagant and almost extinct luxury. But since the pandemic, I feel that such decadence is now starting to be regarded positively and with great respect.
Lucas remarks that this style of managing your own mountain and creating products as you see fit is very ‘now’. With mountain management, even when planting just a single tree, the planning is done with the generation of one’s own grandchildren in mind, 50 years down the line. This sustainable approach to mountain planning, which has been practiced long before the word “sustainable” appeared, is exactly what is needed in this day and age.
A fulfilling time in Atago
Mr. Takayuki Mori, who is in charge of revitalizing the community, is a genuine Atago native who has lived here for 13 generations. 6 years ago, he opened “Villa Atago“, an inn that he rents out as a whole house.
“There is a beautiful river right out front, and we used to pick up firewood there, make bonfires, roast fish, and just gaze up at the night sky. I used to think there was nothing to do here, but then it dawned on me that the environment here is in fact the most luxurious that one could hope for these days. That’s when I opened this inn.”
Mr. Mori took me to “Kaneta Otaen,” a tea farmer in Atago that produces and sells tea, insisting that I try it. Katsunori Ota is a tea connoisseur who produces first-class Tenryu tea and is well known both in Japan and around the world. The reason is said to be the favorable environment of Atago for tea plantations.
“Most of the generation-spanning tea farms are located on steep slopes like this one. There is little frost even in winter due to the wind, and the difference in temperature between morning and evening makes it difficult for pests and diseases to occur. In addition, we go to great lengths to cultivate the soil. When we deeply plow each row at a time, oxygen is supplied to every nook and cranny of the soil, and fertilizers are well mixed in. It’s a lot of labor so no one does it anymore, but you can’t make good tea if you don’t do what other people won’t.”
We savored a cup of Ota-san’s tea with his recommended way of brewing. The tea has a condensed dashi-like flavor and sweetness that will transform your perception of tea! It was such a jarring experience that everyone avowed in unison “never to drink bottled tea again.”
We spend the night at “Villa Atago”, and then head back on the road to Futamata. to “Gyoza Slappy”. In front of the shop flutter narrow strips of paper saying “Got gyoza? And the sound of sizzling dumplings can be heard. Time to enjoy a toast with juicy gyoza and beer!