Life in Daisen — Peter Dixon


“Japan has four seasons.”

That’s less a fact than a point of reference. It’s a phrase you’ll hear time and again; just as back in England you’d label the weather ‘alright’. These are more than sayings; they’re a way to ground yourself in a place – the environment and community. Nowhere is this truer than in Japan, where seasonality has been consciously promoted and refined over centuries. But it’s something you can only experience first-hand.

I arrived in Daisen, Akita at the end of November 2021. But I’d spent the last 15 months or so in limbo – the pandemic, of course. Any expectations I’d held were long gone. Lost in the blur of lockdowns, delays and temporary work. One day stands out – a visit to the Japanese Consulate in Edinburgh for my interview to the JET programme. The first question was as predicted, and it still threw me off.

“Why Japan?”

Now I really like Japan, and my life in Daisen has only confirmed that. But I still struggle to say why. It’s not anime or martial arts. In broad strokes, I’ve always loved exploring the many ways people learn to live. And for Japan that’s etched into the landscape - literally in its mountaintop temples and shrines and unique institutions. But these are just aspects of something broader, that hopefully I can tease out a little here.

Coming in to land amongst the ancient mountains and misty cedar forests; I just missed the legendary autumn colours, for which Akita gets its namesake (秋田, autumn rice paddy). But it was striking anyway. Unreal landscapes and exhaustion aside, the first thing that grabbed me was the friendship and support offered by the people who call Daisen home – my new co-workers were lifesavers, but also strangers I’d run into in a shop or by the night market, who’ve since become close friends through mutual love of Ghibli movies.

One thing everyone warned me about was the brutal Tohoku winters. So, after all the hype it was a little disbelieving to find out my home back in the UK got its first dusting of snow well before Akita. A few weeks here and I was beginning to feel settled, comfortable, but that’s not really what Japan is about..


Mid December and winter comes crashing in. And it won’t relent for 3 months. It’s not exceptionally cold, but Akita gets some of the most snowfall in the world. Surreal doesn’t begin to describe seeing entire country homes - on the wrong side of a snow drift - swallowed by the powder. It’s strangely beautiful, as from a distance the villages begin to resemble little arctic outposts, stung together by telephone lines. But it’s more than idyllic wintery landscapes - the climate demands your attention and necessitates new attitudes to life. You live and die by the kerosene heater (ask your grandparents); your time is measured in elopes between heat sources. Rooms must be sacrificed to preserve the warmth. And many roads cease to exist, despite what Google Maps would have you believe.

Winter is clearing a foot of snow off your car roof for the second time that day; so you can creep through the storm to the familiar neon signs of the petrol station; in order to fill your jerry cans with that all important kerosene. And then doing it again sooner than you’d like.

But winter is also new opportunities: it’s fragile snow lanterns and bracing festivals, local delicacies like kiritanpo and iburigakko round firepits, it’s stunning onsens and learning to snowboard. Back home winter sports were something exotic and niche – picture the well-off on retreat in the Swiss alps. Here it’s a struggle not to get shown up by my elementary students. Daisen is a paradise for skiers, snowboarders and - so I’m told - snowshoe hikers. That’s on the bucket list for next winter! Mt. Ohdai is a local favourite – easily accessible, affordable, and with a range of slopes suited to different abilities. Actually, every ski field is pretty affordable – it’s a way of life here rather than an elite novelty.

Naraoka Pottery in Nangai village is well worth a visit when the cold gets too much – especially when their enormous three-story kiln is fired. It’s based on designs from medieval China, which, combined with a unique sea cucumber glazing method and the specific impurities of the rugged Akita clay, produce brilliant blue pottery in the wabi sabi tradition. Alternatively, you can warm yourself by sampling the many excellent sake varieties here – a byproduct of those abundant rice harvests you can’t help but take pride in. Hideyoshi Brewery offers English language tours on a historic site that dates back to the Edo period. Also really good sake. I think more than any other season the winters in Akita teach you to inhabit your space and time, to adapt and grow and embrace change.


When the Yamato court established a fort at Hotta (The ruins are well worth a visit), they were seeking to pacify a wild frontier. They must have failed, because Akita is still largely a stunning expanse of untamed wilderness, checked by innumerable mountains. A place where the human and the animal, the folk and the quintessentially Japanese, the supernatural and the mundane intersect.

I’d never experienced true wilderness - not a place a where the mountains are ever-present on the horizon, the evergreens sprawl indefinitely and where bears factor into your hiking preparation. It’s a far cry from the windswept hedgerows and craggy foothills of northern England – though I’m sure I’ll leave Akita with a newfound appreciation for both.

Akitans are likewise hardy and spirited, and have offered me nothing but kindness and generosity (and foraged vegetables!) in navigating life here and the long winter.

“Sambui na!”

That’s Akita-ben for ‘it’s cold!’. Useful. And it was the first phrase of the regional dialect I was taught. Some of the older generation speak only Akita-ben, indeed I take (Tokyo standard) Japanese class with an Akitan local! But I’ve yet to face a language barrier that couldn’t be overcome with gestures and the incredible hospitality of the people who call Daisen home.

Because of the emphasis on community and supporting local business, a thriving market scene and food culture has developed. I’ve had more delicious meals here than I can recall, but two standouts are Takanashi Store and Café Lopo. Takanashi is a farmhouse turned restaurant and a cornerstone of the market circuit – hosting and appearing everywhere in a cosy van that guards the nicest bento you’ve ever had. They specialise in local favourite ‘Firework Chicken’ – something between chicken kebab and biryani but fresher and more flavourful than both.

Lopo is a smart little café owned by a Slovakian resident, where you can try an authentic Slovak beef stew, along with no less exceptional café mainstays like paninis and matcha lattes. Both these stores sell fresh farm produce too. You’ll want to follow Daisen businesses on Instagram to stay up to date - naturally the menus evolve and follow the seasons.

Back to the land - it goes without saying that Daisen boasts exceptional trails in pretty much all directions, suitable for beginners and experienced hikers. But I’ll resign myself to shout out just Himegami Park, on the western bank of the Omono river, overlooking the town of Omagari. There’s a bunch of easily accessible, but less travelled paths round the park; and a beautiful mountaintop shrine that’s only slightly overshadowed by the spectacular view of the town below.

In the park proper - which is accessible by car – you’ll find a lookout point. Here, on a chilly April night, my impressions of Akita converged and manifested. Looking across the Daisen plain, myself, my friends and a hundred or so townsfolk camped out to watch the spring fireworks light up the sky. Centuries of traditional craft honed into two hours of spectacular arrays. In a fraction of a second the light would search out from above the river, up along the treelines and illuminate our ancient perch. The sound would soon follow – more bellowing thunder or canon fire than anything that resembled modern commercial fireworks. It was the intersection of nature, culture and the living human that makes life in Japan so appealing.


As of writing, the rainy season is making its great and terrible entrance (The faithful know Japan actually has five or six seasons). And I’m taking great pleasure in the soft grey light that fills every cafe, the sounds of the rain chimes that adorn the shrines and temples here, the small dramas of the frogs that my elementary students like to catch and show me. And I especially love the dead silence, the gentle breeze when the humidity breaks for a moment and there’s space for reflection.

In a few weeks, this too will give way to summer proper. Roll on camping by the river and the famous Omagari summer fireworks festival. And no doubt the heat will bring its own challenges – anyone with my background knows that above 15 degrees centigrade is t shirt weather!

Ultimately, when people ask me why I came to Japan I really can’t answer – not in a sentence anyway. But life here has a rhythm that I’ve come to love, built around respect and appreciation for temporality and impermanence. It matters that Japan has four seasons - it’s woven into the culture. That’s not (quite) so obvious in the bustling cities like Tokyo and Osaka, but in Daisen it’s everything. Its shaped me too – I’m more resilient and open, and I’ll continue to be grateful for my time here. I’d recommend a visit to Daisen to anyone interested in approaching life from another perspective. Here’s to many more festivals, new experiences and changing winds!

 Peter Dixon

Life in Daisen