Staying the night or a couple of days at a traditional farmhouse should definitely be on the agenda of any serious traveller to Sumita town, Iwate. It's a great way to get to know the local people, sample local foods, learn about local traditions and folklore, and even pick up some Iwate-ben (Iwate dialect, in this case Sumita dialect).
I stayed with the Sasaki family in their 120 year old farmhouse located in a picturesque corner of Sumita town. The farmhouse looks out onto forested hills while only two minutes walk behind the property, the clear waters of the Kessen river flow incessantly downstream towards the sea.
The door of the farmhouse opened onto a symphony of timber construction. After a friendly introduction, the owner, 80 year old Hatsumi Sasaki went on to explain that the house was rebuilt 120 years ago following a fire. Talking of fires, he shuffled myself and accompanying friends into the center of the house to a charcoal hearth. In between an abridged rendition of his family history and servings of tea and snacks from his wife, he made a quick move to the outhouse to fetch some high quality local charcoal to burn in the danro, or open fire. A typical characteristic of traditional Japanese farmhouses is the hearth that normally sits in the middle of the central room of the building. Sasaki stoked the hearth and soon it was hot and glowing with a red rose hue.
In all of this, Sasaki produced a copy of a 17th document showing how his family came to own the property. Although written in very florid calligraphy (gyosho style) typical of the period, the document is a title deed to the farmland on which the house stands.
Sumita itself has a unique history with which Sasaki is only too familiar. Take an interest and he'll be happy to tell you some mukashibanashi (old stories) about the Sumita area. It seems that Sumita too had its own Robin Hood!
Soon it was time to tuck into some hot sake (atsukan) with a real kick from the area and some equally good local food prepared by Sasaki's wife. Don't worry if you're a vegetarian, vegan or have specific food needs. Furthermore, if you don't drink, this isn't a problem either. Hosts are friendly and understanding and it's possible for travellers to make arrangements in advance to fit with specific needs.
Despite the rich natural environment, good food and healthy lifestyle, Sumita is losing inhabitants every year, as young people move away to bigger cities for work and older members of the community pass on. For elderly (but very energetic) couples like the Sasakis, receiving guests from overseas is a really valuable opportunity to make new friends and connections, and pass on some of their skills and knowledge about the area.
After a hearty breakfast the following day, Sasaki demonstrated the art of making zōri, a traditional and surprisingly comfortable footware that uses rice straw as the raw material. There are in fact two ways to make zōri. One is to use your foot as a base to weave the zōri, the other is to use a small wooden plank with 3 pins affixed to the top. Sasaki opts for the more modern wooden plank option. With his help, slowly weave together string to make the toe, body and heel of the zōri. We opted to make a mini zōri that can be used as an accessory however, the technique is still the same as for full size footware.
After a filling lunch and brisk walk to see the Kessen river behind the farmhouse, it was time to bid a warm farewell to our exceptionally kind hosts.
To reiterate a sentiment stated earlier, I really think that staying in a traditional farmhouse is the best way to enjoy exploring the Sumita area. Sumita lies close to the heart of some areas central to Iwate's folklore tradition, such as Tōno town, therefore, staying in a traditional farmhouse could be incorporated as part of a travel itinerary to Sumita, or included as part of a larger travel itinerary to Iwate and the Tohoku region.
Whatever your plans, expect a warm welcome and valuable introduction to traditional lifestyle in Sumita!
For more information about farmhouse stays please contact Tohoku@gmail.com.