A little more than five hours from neon-buzzed Tokyo lies a very different Japan, one of thatched-roof houses and black nights illuminated by lantern light. Pico Iyer travels to the country’s snowy western region to explore two villages untouched by modernity—and alive with their own quiet magic.
I might almost be staying in Hobbitland. The minute darkness descends and the paper windows under the thatched roofs all around me begin to glow, turning high walls into eerie faces, most of the day’s few visitors gone. Lanterns cast reflections on the rice paddy at the center of the 20-house village, and the sign warning of nearby bears grows indecipherable in the pitch black. Wandering between A-shaped houses with their steep 60-degree straw roofs—*gassho zukuri,*or “praying hands” in Japanese, though they also look like giant open books—I might be walking through a Christmas card of occasional lights and tree-trunk seats gathered around a mushroom-shaped low table.