Driving from Takayama into the hamlets of Shirakawago is like leaving the back of the cupboard in Narnia.
One minute it was grey skies, a light drizzle, a long tunnel and then as the dimness blazed into light, we found ourselves out into hills still covered in pristine snow and a sky so blue it hurt the eyes.
Here in the mountains of deep country, it was still winter. Branches were bare and snow clung to the boughs of dark evergreens. It was hard to believe that just a few hours away in the south, the cherry blossoms were already in full bloom. Still, snow or not, it was clear the weather was becoming warmer. We could see steam rising from the thatched roofs as ice and snow thawed in the morning warmth. Coming from the tropics, this was a fascinating sight for us:
Although just about 45minutes by car and highway, Shirakawago is a world apart from Takayama. We found ourselves in a snowy landscape surrounded by houses with steep pitched roofs of thatch. These were the gassho-zukuri or ‘praying hands’ roof houses. World Heritage Sites for good reason. Nowhere else in Japan would you find this collection of well-preserved villages with their unique roofs built this way in keeping with the demands of the harsh winters with heavy snowfall.
Edit out the cars, the paved roads and the modern amenities and you could well be back in time to a land remote and hidden away from the rest of the world, where the Taira clan, long dispersed after the decisive battle of Dan-no-ura, sought refuge. So cut off from the world is Shirakawago that electricity and roads only arrived barely 40 years ago.
We were here to spend a night in a gassho zukuri farmhouse for what better way to experience these unique houses than to spend a night in them.
We rented a car from Takayama’s Toyota outlet which was just in front of the railway station. It came equipped with English GPS. If you obey every instruction doled out by the mechanical voice you won’t go wrong. Except when the instructions are wrong – but that is a story for another day.
So following The Voice, we found our way easily enough and it was a smooth ride to Shirakawago. This the largest village of gassho-zukuri houses and the usual base for visitors to the area with its share of souvenir shops, restaurants etc.
Scattered in the area are other small villages and hamlets like Ainokura and Gokayama and Suganuma. In fact our original intent was to stay in Ainokura or Gokayama – both significantly smaller and far less ‘commercialised’ than Ogimachi. But as it turned out, we were glad that reservations were made for us for a night in Ogimachi, in a gassho farmhouse minshuku called Magoemon which came highly recommended.
At this point, we would really like to thank Mr Ikedo Katsunari of the Gifu Prefectural Office who so patiently bore with my requests and made arrangements for us to stay the night at Magoemon. We were very kindly linked up by JNTO Singapore and Mr Ikedo not only helped us make the reservations, he also armed us with maps, information on bus time schedules, car rental etc and took the trouble to come to Nagoya to meet us when we were travelling from Osaka to Takayama. In fact, he offered to drive to Takayama and take us out for a day. But when we realised that this meant driving more than 2 hours each way from Gifu city where he was based, we just could not let him go to this trouble for us. But there you have it – yet another example of Japanese kindness and hospitality!
Magoemon stood beside the river, away from the main thoroughfare. We were given a room right at the end of the corridor. Right below us, the river. You could hear the gurgling and murmurs of the river. We loved the room which was generously sized – certainly larger than the shoebox in the hotel in Takayama – especially the cosy kotatsu!
There were day-trippers in Shirakawago but as evening drew near, most left and the village emptied out. So walking around the narrow lanes, it was really just me and KH again.
Dinner was in the main living/dining area around the irori. We discovered that we were not the only guests at Magoemon. There was another single lady traveller.
Dinner was great. I think after travelling through central Japan, the dinner at Magoemon ranks among the top food experiences we had. Warning: the following graphic images may upset dieters. Or their diets.
After dinner, we were apologetically told that the there were problems with the plumbing and so the bath could not be used. The inn-keeper’s daughter gave us discount coupons for the local onsen and even cash to pay for this. We protested but she would not take no for an answer and kept apologising for it.
So off to the bath we went to Shirakawago-no-yu. I think we paid about 500yen for this. There’s always something to be said for a good scrub down and then immersion in toasty waters on a cold night – particularly after a good dinner. The bath was quite crowded that night but I was no longer squeamish about being seen in the buff with strangers. Everyone just had the same equipment after all!
Post-bath, KH and I wandered around the silent empty streets of Ogimachi. From a vending machine, I discovered the joys of yuzu. It was the perfect yuzu drink – cool, refreshing and neither too sweet nor too sour and with just the right amount of fizz. My only regret was not being able to buy more bottles. Had I known that THIS vending machine would turn out to be the only one which vended this bottle (and believe me I searched every vending machine we came across in every town we stopped at), I would have carted home a carful!
Drink in hand, we strolled the streets – the only ones out in the cold night. The warm bath had made us braver about confronting the cold. All was quiet – no street noise, no chatter, no TV noise, nothing but the night.
Staring up into the black sky, thousands of stars winked back at us. We could never see so many stars back home. Simply magical and beautiful.
Back at Magoemon, the fairy godmother had come and gone. Our room was now larger with the adjoining room now opened up as the bed room with futons and thick blankets invitingly laid out.
We changed into our yukatas and immediately KH transformed into this:
When we took our wedding pictures 20 years ago, there was a photograph of us that many said looked very Japanese in terms of the posture and the style. I guess he has not lost that air because this photograph is reminiscent of that.
Now how do you say ‘handsome’ in Japanese??