6-8 May 2018. After eight days based in Tokyo I take a shinkansen to Kanazawa, and then a bus to Shirakawa-gō where I meet the people who drive me to the hostel in Shirakawa village. It sounds so simple, and in the end it is, but I get into a bit of a fret about it all. Travel days never seem to get any easier, especially now I’m travelling alone. Will I find the right platform at Tokyo Station? Will I find the right place at Kanazawa Station to get the bus? Will the people meet me in Shirakawa-gō as promised?
There is plenty of English signage at Tokyo Station. And also at Kanazawa Station. And there’s an information centre in Kanazawa Station with lovely helpful people. Nevertheless I ask three different people where to wait for the bus. Of course they all give me the same answer.
I have a longish wait in Kanazawa so needing something completely familiar, something that doesn’t challenge me or fill me fuller with new experiences, I find the nearest outlet of an international coffee chain and settle in. I don’t go online. I have a coffee and lunch and let myself get really present. Sinking into presence. Just being. It feels like the first time since arriving in Japan that I’ve allowed this. The mind has been so busy.
I realise that the digestive issues I’ve been having for the past week are not so much due to the change in diet as to the fact that I have been having trouble digesting my surroundings and all that I have been experiencing. There has been so much to take in. Every day. I haven’t even really digested one experience before being in the midst of the next one. Simply realising this was enough to settle my stomach.
I’m met at the bus terminal in Shirakawa-gō and we travel the short distance to the hostel. I have my pick of beds and choose a lower bunk next to a window. I unpack, put my valuables in a locker, shove my case into the cubicle at the end of the bed, and draw the curtains all around me and tape them shut with duct tape. I have my own little cubby house. It feels safe and cosy. Later I emerge from my cocoon and spend the evening chatting with fellow travellers at the hostel.
In the Shirakawa-gō and Gokayama regions there are three historic mountain villages that together form a UNESCO World Heritage site. The villages are Ogimachi, which is within walking distance of the hostel, Ainokura, and Suganuma, both of which are a short bus ride away. They are located in the remote valley of the Shogawa River and surrounded by mountains.
While researching Japan I came across a photo of snow-covered Ogimachi in mid-winter and immediately knew I wanted to go there. As I researched more and more and began to create a realistic itinerary for eighteen days in Japan Shirakawa-gō remained at the top of the list.
Walking into Ogimachi in the morning I’m filled with happiness, a feeling of pure joy. I’m doing exactly what I’m meant to be doing and I’m surrounded by beauty.
I walk to the edge of Shirakawa village where the rice fields begin,
cross the river, go past the bus station, and so into Ogimachi. What I notice first are the flowers. It is spring in Japan and flowers of all kinds burst forth in an uprising of colour amidst the lush intense green of a land that sees frequent rains.
I was too late for the wisteria in Tokyo, but it is here in abundance in the mountains,
and all the dogwoods are dressed in cloaks of pink flowers.
This area of Japan gets the third-highest average annual snowfall in the world. (The first two places are also in Japan.) Because of this the traditional houses, known as Gassho-zukuri houses, have very steep roofs. Gassho loosely translates as hands together in prayer mimicked by the steepness of the roofs. The buildings of these three villages, Ogimachi, Suganuma, and Ainokura, are up to three hundred years old and beautifully preserved. Most began life as simple farmhouses.
Many are still occupied, several have become guesthouses for the multitude of tourists that flock to the area year round, and some are now museums. Rice is still grown in the surrounding fields.
I walk past the tourist shops and restaurants on the main street and onto the tiny pathways between the houses. I feel as if I’ve landed in a fairy tale or the setting for a fantasy novel about another world. The wood and thatch houses hug the land as if they have always been there, strong, stable, and comforting. They are surrounded by sweet gardens and an aura of love.
I find my way to Wada House, which is about 300 years old. It is a thatched-roof ridgepole Gassho style house and is the largest of its kind. It is open to the public. The interior is an excursion back in time. Entering the tatami-matted floors of the elegant and spacious interior I’m first taken by the hearth, which burns year round.
Up the steep stairs
there are rooms displaying the tools needed for silkworm production
and a view of the surrounding landscape.
The construction, using only wood, rope, and straw, is extraordinary and goes right to the rafters in the attic above.
Back on the main floor there is a shrine
and screens that can be used to create rooms or a large open space as needed.
I am soothed by the sparse elegant beauty. It is Japanese minimalism at its finest.
Back outside I explore more, wandering the back pathways, soaking up the quiet serenity. There is nothing to jar the senses. Every detail is a perfect beautification, from entrances
to storage sheds
to garden ponds,
and the bell tower of Myozen-ji Temple,
I’ve been watching the descending skies, the clouds dark and heavy with moisture. I’m still hoping the rain will hold off. It comes slowly at first and I ignore it, but gradually it gets heavier and heavier. I continue for a while anyway, still not feeling finished with this fairy tale.
Finally I admit defeat. And I’m hungry. I find a restaurant and welcome its cosy and inviting atmosphere. Here I eat one of the best meals I have in Japan – a steaming rich bowl of soba with prawn tempura. It’s so good I’m just about drooling, and a deep contentment fills me along with the warm rich broth.
By the time I’ve walked back to the hostel I’m soaked through. I discover my rain jacket is only water resistant not waterproof. I hang my dripping jacket by the door, shed my wet shoes, and climb into my cubby house for a change of clothes and a nap.
Next morning I take the local bus along route 156. The road snakes back and forth, passing through six long tunnels. We are surrounded by mountains. After about an hour we arrive at Ainokuraguchi bus stop and I climb the hill to the village of Ainokura. In Ogimachi there are 59 Gassho-zukuri farmhouses. Ainokura has only 23. The village is more compact, and less touristy. It’s the most remote village in the Gokayama region, although today, with Japan’s highly developed infrastructure, remote is a relative term.
Once again I find myself strolling through a fairy tale. Most of the houses here are still residences,
and people are busy with spring planting.
I find the pathway to climb up to the viewpoint overlooking the village.
Ahead of me is an empty narrow road, the vegetation thick on either side.
There are stands of the tall straight trees that seem to be everywhere I go in Japan,
and from time to time there are views across to the cloud-covered mountains.
I walk for a while, wishing for the freedom to go for hours, but I’m feeling cautious. There is no one else around. No one knows where I am. And I’m in bear country. I had no idea there are bears in Japan until I saw a notice in the Shirakawa-go bus station. I check with a woman at the information desk and she assures me yes, we live with bears here. What a surprise that was. So now, alone on a remote road I’m unwilling to forge ahead. With reluctance I turn around and head back to the village and make my way down to the bus stop.
Back in Ogimachi I follow the signs to the viewpoint overlooking the village. At first I’m walking along a road then I see a small sign and next thing I know I’m climbing almost directly up on a narrow winding rocky path. I feel a bit like I’m doing the Grouse Grind (2830 stairs!) but I push ahead anyway and finally reach the top.
I go down the easy way – on the road. I don’t know how I missed it on the way up.
Next post: My sweet taste of rural Japan is over, and early the next morning I catch the bus back to Kanazawa for a meeting with Mo and the glorious Kenrokuen Gardens.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2018.