After another adventurous day in Takayama we got up early to enjoy another beautifully served Japanese breakfast. Refreshed by green tea and unidentified but tasty breakfast items, we headed to the bus station, boarding the bus to Shiragawa-go.
Having seen Hida no Sabe in Takayama, Shiragawa-go did not come as a great surprise and as we had made reservations to stay the night in the smaller and more remote Ainokura, Shiragawa-go became only a glimpsy visit.
The town of Shiragawa-go is beautiful with around 50 gasho style houses. But it is also very touristy. The Hida no Sabe offered a much better overview of and information about the countryside life of the Japanese Alps. In Shiragawa-go however we experienced a strong mix of tourists walking around in something like a village section of Disneyland and locals who went about their everyday life, cutting grass, hanging up the laundry. I admire the locals patience with all the visitors. Personally, I would go crazy, if I had people constantly taking pictures of my home, my house, my rice field.
Despite my thoughts of Disneyland, Shiragawa-go is beautiful and definitely worth a visit. We only stayed 1 1/2 hour, walking to the Shiroyama viewpoint and seeing the Kanda-ke house before taking the bus onwards. Though had we not had the time to book a nights stay in a gasho minshuku in neighbouring Ainokura, we’d have spent a few more hours here. It might also have been worth it to stay at Shiragawa-go overnight and experience the place without the crowds.
We however had decided on a stay in the pleasant and remote Ainokura – and that I do not regret. About 40 minutes by local bus from Shiragawa-go lies the smaller and less visited Ainokura.
The village holds 20 Gassho-style houses and is picturesquely placed in a small valley between the majestic mountains. When we came, clouds covered the mountain tops giving off a misty feeling. It was an absolutely breathtaking view with the otherworldly green rice fields and the Gassho-style houses in the foreground.
Arriving in Ainokura around one o’clock we set out exploring the village before dinner. It is a tiny village which takes no more than half an hour to walk around, but there is a pretty nature trail running along the village which leads to a very nice view point over Ainokura.
Before hiking up the nature trail we browsed the local souvenir shop and had a late lunch while enjoying the peace and quiet of Japanese country life.
We had reserved a private room with board at Nakaya Gasho Minshuku, a 350 year old Gassho style house. The room was a traditional Japanese style with tatami mats and a low table with pillow chairs. During dinner our very kind host would lie out our futon beds on the floor for the night. Only a rice paper wall separated us from a family of four and a middle aged Japanese couple, with the light from their rooms shining through the rice paper.
The Gassho-style farmhouses are unique even in Japan where they originate and have been build for generations in the Gokayama region of the Japanese Alps. Their most obvious characteristic is the steeply-sloped thatched gable roof with an angle of around 60 degrees depending on the village in which they were build.
The roof which looks like hands in prayer has given the houses their architectural name Gassho, which means to join one’s hands in prayer. The steepness is due to the heavy snowfall in the mountainous region in winter and the need for it to slide off the houses.
The houses were built from the 17th century and until the beginning of the 20th century, and used to dominate the area with 1,800 Gassho-style houses in 93 villages. Today however only 150 remain most of them in Shiragawa-go and Ainokura.
It is quite surprising how much space you find inside a Gassho-styled house. The Kanda-ke house in Shiragawa-go was 4 stories high and offered plenty of space for both living and working. The work space of the houses was often used for raising silkworms and making washi paper.
At Nakaya Gasho Minshuku dinner is served around a fireplace with a large pot hanging from a massive hook in the ceiling. Here our hostess had prepared grilled fish on a stake. The guests were placed in a circle around the fireplace, which makes it easy to converse, but also a bit embarrassing for those of us not used to eating with chopsticks. To my luck the Japanese guests complimented my use of the chopsticks.
It was quite a brilliant experience to have dinner conversation with ordinary Japanese, two of whom were quite well versed in the English language. However, I did have troubles understanding when the father from the family of four asked me if we had any good prayers in Denmark. Hmm… I’m not really religious and I’m not sure prayers can be famous.
Fortunately my boyfriend had picked up something from our Japanese lessons back home, namely that Japanese people tend to mix up l and r. He was quick to establish that we were discussing soccer players – which is so much more his area of expertise. I think he earned a few brownie points with the son when he asked about Shinji Kagawa – a famous Japanese player who plays for Borussia Dortmund.
Staying at Nakaya Gassho Minshuku has been an unforgettable experience. The mix between the peaceful nature and country environment and the traditional Japanese living has been perfect. Nothing less. The only thing we missed out on was the vanilla ice cream with soy-beans which I had hoped to taste after our nature trail walk.