It’s not often that we use the word ‘unique’ because very often things described as such usually aren’t. Unique, that is. But there are some villages in rural Japan that are the only examples of their kind and they offer a fantastic glimpse into traditional life in the Japanese countryside.
The historic mountain villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama have been designated as UNESCO heritage sites and were historically quite isolated from the rest of the world. The villages Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go, and Ainokura and Suganuma in the Gokayama region are located in central Honshu, on the Shogawa river valley, across the borders of the Gifu and Toyama Prefectures.
Ogimachi is probably the most famous of the villages and is known for its light-up events, where the whole village turns their lights on in winter-time and visitors come from far and wide to marvel at the beauty of a snowy wonderland. These are scheduled events and hugely popular. Reservation is essential, not only for staying in the village but also for attending the viewing and some transportation options.
Initially when planning our winter trip we thought that Ogimachi would be the obvious place to visit but unfortunately everybody else thinks that too. It was impossible to find accommodation in this lovely village, even when trying to book several months in advance. But we had a Plan B which worked very well indeed. Ainokura is smaller and quieter but similarly delightful.
Getting to Ainokura in Rural Japan
We had been staying in a business hotel in the lovely city of Kanazawa on the western coast of Japan and, as we planned to return there, left our main luggage at the hotel and just took an overnight bag with us. We then caught the shinkansen (bullet train) from Kanazawa to Shin-Takoaka. It is possible to catch a bus to Ainokura from Shin-Takoaka – the journey takes just over an hour or so – but we caught possibly the cutest train ever to Johana and caught our bus from there.
Ainokura can also be reached from Toyama. The shinkansen goes to Toyama and it’s possible to catch a bus from there. It is feasible to visit the village as a day trip from both Takoaka and Toyama but we recommend staying overnight.
Our bus to Ainokura left from Johana station and we embarked on a pleasant journey through the Japanese countryside. A short walk from the main road took us into the village.
A word of warning: If you are visiting during the winter the area can experience a lot of snowfall – 2-3 metres on occasion. This may mean that occasionally buses can’t get through and are delayed until the roads can be cleared. It’s worth bearing this in mind when planning your onward journey.
Staying in a Gassho Farmhouse
The farmhouses are called ‘gassho’ which means ‘joining hands in prayer’ due to their very steeply pitched thatched roofs. Because the area experiences such heavy snow in winter, the roof design ensures that snow falls off the building quickly and this helps prevent the structure being crushed by its weight.
The houses have three or four levels – the top levels are not living areas but used for various industrial or farming purposes, such as making washi paper or rearing silkworms.
The front and back have a large gable with windows to let the light in.
We booked a room at Yomoshiro ryokan, a delightful family run house.
On arrival we took off our shoes and were offered an array of indoor slippers to wear. This is very common in all Japanese households, it’s considered very rude to wear outdoor shoes inside a house.
Our hosts were lovely and very welcoming. We were offered a cup of warm tea and a biscuit in the living area.
The living area has a sunken fire with a kettle suspended above the embers. The room was warm and toasty.
Our room was in traditional style with tatami (reed) mat and futon bedding on the flooring. Usually the bed is laid out while you are enjoying dinner.
The bathroom and toilet were shared with other guests and one thing that you need to remember in Japan is to change your indoor slippers for bathroom slippers when you use the bathroom or toilet. And change them back – it is really easy to forget to change the slippers back and walking on the tatami in your bathroom slippers is like walking inside in your outdoor shoes.
Exploring the Village
We visited the day that our hosts reopened their accommodation after the new year holiday so unfortunately some of the attractions in the area weren’t yet open. There is a museum of traditional industries which demonstrates the paper making and silk activities of the region.
The village also has a folk museum that showcases traditional utensils, tools and musical instruments from the region.
There are a number of walks in the area. One of these is essential – a viewing area close to the village entrance where you can climb up the hillside to take that perfect shot of the village, nestled amidst the mountains.
Back to the Gassho for Dinner
The costs of our stay included dinner and breakfast and this was a highlight of the visit as the food on offer was locally sourced, some even grown by our hosts. We dined with the other guests in the living area.
Our home-cooked dinner was utterly delicious. Char, a fish a bit like a trout, was salted and roasted on a spit in the fire.
We were also served koi sashimi, vegetable tempura and a home-grown spaghetti squash, mountain greens, and simmered bamboo shoots, mushrooms and sweet potato.
Rice accompanied the meal and we also enjoyed some local sake.
After dinner we were entertained with a documentary about the villages and then our hosts played some music using traditional instruments.
A lot of these are percussion, notably the sasara which comprises many wooden clappers which are strung together.
A Cosy Night’s Sleep
At bedtime we were provided with hot stones to put into our futons.
These stones had been heated in the fire and were placed inside ceramic boxes then wrapped in a thick cloth.
These were better than any hot water bottle we’d ever used, they retained the heat so well – they actually felt as though they were getting warmer through the night.
Breakfast the following morning was a traditional Japanese meal and also delicious. There were lots of fresh vegetable dishes, rice and miso soup.
We were given the choice of a raw or boiled egg. We always choose raw egg. You mix it into the rice, which partially cooks the egg, add a bit of soy sauce to your taste and then scoop up the flavourful mixture with a piece of nori seaweed. You usually get a sour and salty umeboshi plum – a real wake-up call!
Staying in a gassho is a delightful way to spend time in rural Japan and is highly recommended. But… make sure you plan your trip and book early!
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