Spirited Away: A City Girl Makes Her Home on Mt. Mitake

The following post is a longer version of my recent piece for Japan Forward, and includes more photos. To read the original piece, click here. All photos in this post were taken by me using my Nikon F3 on Kodak Portra 800 film, with the exception of family photos from the Baba family. 

Is anything ever truly by chance?

On a whim I planned a getaway to Mitakesan, a village perched on the top of Mt. Mitake in the Okutama region. The journey is three hours and requires two trains, a bus, and a cable car, too much for a day trip but a good amount of time to get out of Tokyo for the weekend.

In the afternoon, I happened upon BABA-ke Oshi Jutaku, one of the shukubo (pilgrimage guest houses) in the village. Mitakesan has many shukubo but Higashibaba, with its intricate thatched roof, is the grand dame of them all.

Higashibaba opens a tea room in the afternoon, so I stepped inside, lured by the prospect of matcha, where I found two old men who seemed surprised to see me. One shuffled off, and I could hear him calling “Kokochan! There’s a gaijin here!” Out came a pretty woman with short bobbed hair who spoke perfect English with a faint trace of a British accent.

And thus, also by chance, I met Koko Kayoko Baba, the 15th Proprietress of BABA-ke Oshi Jutaku, a city girl who has found herself in a traditional community on top of a mountain, running a guesthouse that has been deemed a tangible cultural property of Tokyo.

These intertwining stories, that of Koko and that of Higashibaba, fascinated me. I returned later to interview Koko about herself, the house, and how she came to be it’s 15th proprietress.

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Koko Kayoko Baba at the entrance to the house.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Mo Stone: Can you give me a brief history of the house? What are some special features of it?

Koko Kayoko Baba: The Baba family are said to be descendants of Baba Mino-no-Kami, one of the big four retainers of the Takeda family. The head of the Baba Family has been an Oshi (a person/family that belongs to a certain temple or shrine and takes care of visitors) and a Shinto priest of Musashimitake-Jinja Shrine, inherited from generation to generation. BABA-ke Oshi-Jutaku was built in 1866. The house has guest rooms for parishioners of the shrine and a family shrine for ceremonies. There is also a large cellar in the basement which was used to preserve food like a refrigerator.

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Koko’s father-in-law and son play outside Higashibaba.
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A special room of the house.

MS: Tell me a bit about yourself and your personal history.

KB: I was born and raised in Yokohama, then I went to high school in Brisbane as an exchange student. After graduating from high school, I studied psychology at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, then fine art at the University of the Arts London. I ended up living in London for 6 years. After coming back from London, I became a teacher at a prep school in Yokohama. I was a teacher at a juku and I used to teach English, Japanese, morals, things like that. I met my husband back in 2016 and we started dating in October, and then he proposed to me in December. After marrying my husband, I inherited his family business and became a young proprietress of Higashibaba in Mt. Mitake.

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Koko’s wedding photo. Photo courtesy of the Baba family.

 

MS: How did you end up here on Mitakesan? Why did you choose to stay here?

KB: I have no idea! I always thought I’d live abroad but I ended up becoming a member of this super traditional Japanese family. I guess you can’t really be in control of your own destiny. Sometimes you just need to relax and let things happen, trusting that everything is working out for the best.  There is a saying in Japanese “人事を尽くして天命を待つ”, which means “Do your best, then let the universe decide.” I decided to stay in Mt. Mitake because my husband asked me to protect the history of the Baba family and preserve the oshi-house building with him.

MS: Your husband and father-in-law are both Shinto priests. Do you feel like daily life is different in a priest family?

KB: Not really. Shinto is a very natural thing for Japanese people. It doesn’t feel like a religious thing, to be honest, because it’s always been here.

MS: That’s been my impression.

KB: Japanese people have very mixed-up religious views. You might have noticed we visit shrines at the beginning of the year, and when someone dies, we go to temples. And we celebrate Christmas. It’s chaotic! But I think it’s the nature of Japanese people accepting everything, and it’s kind of a gentle thing I think. Like, when you are born you are taken to the shrine. And you do that naturally, without asking any questions, because it’s the traditional thing for Japanese people to do. The shrine is always there, the shrine has always been there. And Japanese gods are very generous, so they accept anyone from anywhere and they don’t say no to Christians or Buddhists. I think they accept all the visitors to the shrine.

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Baba family photo. Photo courtesy of the Baba family.

MS: When we met, you started to tell me about your husband. How did you two meet?

KB: It’s a long story! I took part in this mountaineering event in Mt. Mitake because my friend asked me to come with her back in 2015. I knew nothing about Mt. Mitake, nor was I interested in mountaineering. My husband was a member of the sponsors and we must have met then but neither of us remember and nothing happened. I joined the event again the following year, and we met at the party in the evening. I don’t usually get drunk but that night was different. I got really drunk after having sake at 800 meters, and when I woke up I couldn’t remember him at all. When I got text messages from him, I was like “What? Who?” I still think the god of Mt. Mitake tricked me!

MS: What’s your feeling when you go to the Mitake shrine?

KB: My first impression here was I felt like I was spirited away. It was quite mysterious, and I felt a big power or something, something unusual here. And then, when I visited the Okujimagami shrine, the little shrine at the back, there are two wolf-gods, and I felt like one of the wolves looked like my dog at my parents’ house. And I really liked it, and I touched it. I think I was quite rude, but maybe the god really liked me, I don’t know. And that night, I met my husband, and I lost my memory. And then, here I am, so maybe the god thought “Oh you should come here and stay!”

MS: The fact that you’re here and your background is so worldly is probably a big asset.

KB: I started helping my parents-in-law and I made the lodging fees in English and Japanese. [At first] it was all over the place. And I made the menu in English as well, and I started posting on Instagram and Facebook and I started applying for a subsidy to make our website. With the website we will have the reservation system as well, so we will have a lot of visitors here.

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The exterior of Higashibaba.

MS: How many people usually stay when they come?

KB: Just two or three. A family, or couple, or maybe four people, [usually] ladies. We have visitors from kindergarten as well, ten kids, four teachers, staying here.

MS: They stay here? Kindergarteners?

KB: It’s a great experience for kindergarten kids. But this kind of house is not very popular at the moment so it’s worth it to take them here and let them experience the tatami mat or the old style bathroom.

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Koko with her mother-in-law and son.

MS: What is one thing about the house you would like to share with visitors?

KB: That’ll be the fact that a shinto priest runs the guest house. My father-in-law is a Shinto priest and at the same time, an Oshi, a person who takes care of visitors. Oshi doesn’t mean a Shinto priest, but here in Mt. Mitake Oshis are Shinto priests as well. That’s the big difference. There are other Oshis in Ise Jingu area and Mt. Fuji area as well but they’re just Oshi, not priests. There’s nowhere else like this, and it’s quite interesting and I think it should be more popular.

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Koko’s father-in-law with her son.

MS: In a way, you’ve been able to have the best of both worlds. You’ve had the international independent experience and now you’ve come full circle, back to the more traditional family-oriented small town experience.

KB: My friends are like “I always thought you’d live abroad!” Same here, I always thought I was going to marry an English man! Here I am, very Japanese. Sometimes you can’t really fight your destiny. You have to make your own decisions, but sometimes it’s important to just let go of it, let things happen, and see how it goes.

MS: Seize the opportunities that you come across. And it seems like you’ve done just that.

KB: I think so. I think I’ve done quite well!

 

 

Japanese Inn: Higashibaba

Location: 54 Mitakesan Ome-shi Tokyo 198-0175

Reservations: The inn only takes one group (up to 10 guests) a day, and at most two groups during peak periods.

Fees: ¥15,000 JPY per person, one night; dinner/breakfast included; tax not included. There are reduced rates for children and infants.

Email: info@higashibaba.com (English available)

Telephone: 042 87 88446 (Japanese only)
Higashibaba is also on Facebook and Instagram.
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The woods on Mt. Mitake.