Teri had wanted to visit the cities where her ancestors came from and we found that one of the cities was not too far from Kyoto. So we jumped on a train going that direction and within a few hours (and a lot of confusing train signs) we arrived in a city way out in the country called Uchita (pronounced OOCH-ta).
28 December 2003
wanted to report on my visit to the ancestral home city of the hiratas, my maternal great-grandparents. the information mom gave me for the hiratas was wakayama-ken, naga-gun, uchita-cho, 649-6400. by the way uchita is pronounced OOCH-ta, the "I" is swallowed.
it turns out that wakayama province is just south of kyoto, whereas yamaguchi-ken (home of the naitos) is much further south. during this new years time it is almost impossible to get a train ticket going south since everyone is going home for the new year holiday (from tokyo to parts south), in fact we have only a partial ticket to get to miyajima island on monday; we have a reserved seat from kyoto to okayama, but we must stand between okayama to hiroshima. the ticket guy thought 40 minutes standing was not too bad.
another side note, one of our taxi drivers told us firmly that lunar new year is a chinese holiday, not a japanese holiday. lunar new year does have some significance in the buddhist calendar but the "social calendar" observes 1 Jan as new year.
so I had pretty much ruled out going to yamaguchi in the south as impossible. I talked to the folks at the Tourist Info Center (TIC) which by the way is basically the ONLY place you can find english speakers in Japan, and I'm not kidding about that. she was able to find uchita on the map, it was just outside of wakayama city, and she thought it might take ~3 hours by train. I had her photocopy the detailed map, which turned out to be invaluable.
well to make a long story short, at 1pm we decided to go to uchita, and if it weren't for my willingness to jump on the first train i thought was going in the right direction (which turned out to be an express to osaka, not a slow-moving local), and allyn's sign-reading skills at osaka that got us on the airport express train (which decouples several cars and sends them on to wakayama, except cars 1-5 that went to the airport during the day, switch and go to wakayama at night -- you can't imagine how confusing the signage was), we would never have made it before sundown.
to give you an idea of how small uchita is, we asked at the info counter at wakayama for a map of uchita. she said "uchita?" with an expression that said "why do you want to go to uchita." it turns out that Negoro-ji Temple, a semi-famous buddhist temple, is in Iwade-cho to the west, and Kokawadera shrine, a semi-famous shinto shrine, is in Kokawa-cho directly to the east. so uchita is sandwiched in between two (quite minor) tourist stops.
we got to uchita at twilight. it was lightly hailing/raining and very cold (low 30's). we had planned to go to a post office to find a more exact location of the 649-6400 postal code but due to the weather, decided to have a taxi driver take us to a shrine. in fact our original plan was to walk from uchita station back 1 mile to shimoisaka station but the weather made that impossible.
basically I felt it would be appropriate to pray at a local shrine and/or find a graveyard, so I picked out a shrine clearly marked on the tourist map at the train station, and looked up "please wait for me" and "5 minutes" (go fun) in my japanese phrasebook and took a nervous allyn over to the waiting taxi drivers.
"Konnichi wa" (good day), "dozo" (please), I showed the driver the circle I'd drawn on the map. "address?" he asked me. "no-" I think I confused him by circling the wrong area on the map. the taxi driver was very confused about where I wanted to go. I pointed at the symbols for temple and shrine that the TIC lady had written on the map, and I finally said "ji, ji" (as in senso-ji shrine, I knew "ji" meant shinto shrine). he said "ah, jen-ji, jen-ji" which I figured was the generic noun for shrine so I said "hai".
the shrine appeared to be an old, maybe abandoned shrine (although I did confirm later that it was the same one shown on the tourist map at the station). I showed him the "please wait for me" phrase in the book and held up 5 fingers and said "go fun, go fun." he replied "hai". the water at the purification well was not running but I could turn on the tap so I could wash my hands. no ladle. the haiden had some streamers or offerings tied to it and there was a very large rope (4" diameter) that went up into the roof thru a hole in the ceiling, with a large 12" jingle bell attached to it. probably connected to a larger bell. allyn recommended that I not ring it, altho we found out later that this type of bell does not make a very loud sound and it is indeed meant to be rung by supplicants. oh well, next time. I said a prayer for the hirata family.
then we jumped back into the taxi and I had the brilliant idea to have the taxi driver take us to shimoisaka (the more westerly train station in uchita, about 1 mi W of uchita station) where there were supposedly 2 temples very close to the station. I said "shimoisaka JR" and he understood. JR means japan railway. the whole taxi ride from uchita to shimoisaka (20 minutes?) was ¥2070, about $20, and it rained the whole way.
from the station, I walked back up the road to find the closest buddhist temple but it appeared to be closed (bldg doors were closed). the light was really fading and it seemed too dark to try to find the cemetary by walking on the narrow roads. so we went back to the train station to wait for the 5:40pm train. by now it was pitch black and freezing cold.
so I felt like we had not really experienced uchita or paid proper respects. I had wanted to buy shrine emblems to bring home. other temples sold dozens of types of little good luck charms for safe driving or good examination results, etc. I had found nothing of uchita to bring back with me. south of the train tracks were some bright lights and some sort of modern-ish shopping mall but I knew that a visit there wouldn't leave me with any kind of feeling for the old uchita of the late 1800's. finally with 2 minutes before the train arrival I decided to bring a local rock back with me. the rocks at the train tracks were undoubtedly not local but in a field nearby I found another rock that seemed to be a different color so I decided it was a local rock. I wrapped it in kleenex (it was after all covered in dirt) and I stuck it in my pocket. later I found I had carried a small spider back with me. but after his big trip to the city he was sent down the drain back to the ocean...
uchita is a small agricultural town, maybe a few thousand residents. I would guess the town's major output is produce, enough to send outside the city. some plantings were small and were probably to serve one family. it would be a very cold place to farm - I saw one woman working in the field bundled up in a snow suit and gloves with a hood with a mouth cover. some plants are grown under low plastic tents, long half-cylinders, I've seen this technique used in korea as well. the homes were tidy and the streets were fairly clean and paved but clearly this is not an area with a lot of growth prospects. most families seemed to own a car. I would guess the standard of living here, and the population density, is about the same as in kauai, a lot of small business owners and agriculture, but enough traffic to support small mini malls. we even saw a very small circle k store. the taxi stand at the train station had 4 taxis waiting. the train tracks were single track at the station and double-track outside of the stations (so trains could pass in opposite directions). the trains thru the valley have 2 or 3 cars and run from 5 or 6am to midnight, about 2 per hour. so after your big night on the town in wakayama, you'd have to be home by midnight. in the picture looking N from uchita station, the small overhang on the R, that looks like a bus stop, is the train station.
I did take a panorama of some local fields and homes and it will make a nice little shrine with my rock. I was glad I came but I'd like to go back some day to explore further.
although at the time I felt that I had seen little, I am so glad to have all the pictures and videos of having gone there. So I'm very glad we went.
Here are the cities of Wakayama:
Upon reviewing the video that Allyn took, I think Uchita appears more prosperous that I originally thought. In fact the Wakayama website states that the towns in Naga-gun are becoming bedroom communities for Wakayama city.
"Ken" is province, "Gun" is city, and "Cho" is town. A Gun is made up of several Chos.
Here are some Internet links for Uchita and Wakayama:
Here you see Naga-gun is the city name (click on CITIES)
Home page of Uchita town
(this page is in Japanese).
Wakayama Tourist Information
Here is the famous Uchita rock: