Snow, Glorious Snow – a Weekend in Takayama and Shirakawa-go

One of the things I wanted to do whilst over here in Japan was to see some beautiful mountainous scenery with a generous dusting of snow, so this weekend I left Phil on Awaji and travelled up north for a bit of personal sightseeing. After finishing work at Sorakuen on Thursday I stayed one night in Osaka in order to make a work-related trip to visit one of Osaka’s most famous ‘roof gardens’ (I will write a dedicated blog on this after I have visited a few more roof gardens and urban landscapes).

Before catching my train to Shin-Osaka where I would catch my bullet train (shinkansen) to Nagoya, I made a brief stop at the Hankyu department store next to Osaka Station. Japanese department stores have a lot more floors than those back home in the UK (fifteen in the case of Hankyu Umeda, Osaka), and frequently one of the uppermost floors is a dedicated gallery space for art or design exhibitions. A few weeks earlier I had seen a sign on a train advertising a Special 40th Anniversary Exhibition of Hello Kitty artwork at the Hankyu Umeda store.

While I am no longer a teenage girl and have never been an avid collector of Hello Kitty merchandise (honest!) I was sufficiently intrigued to go to see a collection of original paintings of one of Japan’s most successful design exports. To be honest I had not known that there were even any Hello Kitty paintings to be seen, so it was quite interesting even though the signage was entirely in Japanese and I did not pick up much information. Naturally I was obliged to lighten the weight of my purse by buying a few ill-chosen and overpriced souvenirs in the exhibition shop. As gifts you understand.

 

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Next it was a short hop along on the local train service from Osaka to Shin-Osaka station to catch my Shinkansen to Nagoya, and from there catch the Special Express Service bound for Takayama. When you travel long distances in Japan the journey is all part of the experience as the trains are so comfortable and reliable, and the scenery so beautiful. Just look at these stunning views from the train window. The water course in the pictures is the Hida River by the way.

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It was dusk when I arrived in Takayama so there was a limit to what I could see that evening. Not to worry though, for I had booked myself into the rather lovely Ryokan Tanabe for a relaxing treat. The Ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn which has its origins in the Edo period when several were built along the highways of Japan to offer travellers a relaxing night’s bed and board. They are an excellent way for Westerners to experience Japanese culture as the rooms come complete with traditional tatami matted floors and futon beds, as well as a low table and cushion seating for guests to take dinner in their room as is the Japanese custom.

Ryokans are a little pricier than hotels but, as they are often found in hot spring resorts, the natural hot spring water in harnessed in the form of a number of onsen (hot spring spas) for guests use. As one is expected to remove all of ones clothing before partaking of the onsen’s warm waters, there are always separate onsen for men and women.

A night at Ryokan Tanabe was just the relaxing treat I needed after my long journey and the busy Japanese TRIAD schedule so far.

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I even got to choose the colour of my Yukata (robe) for using the onsen and I loved the bag of little onsen essentials I was given upon arrival too.

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After a good night’s rest I was up bright and early ready for my coach trip to Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, which left Takayama bus centre at 8:30am. I’d signed up for the tour because it advertised an English-speaking guide on board – I’d thought perhaps there’d be other English- or American tourists on the trip, but it turned out that the only other six English-speaking passengers were actually Chinese! Here’s our guide showing us the route we would be taking along the Shogawa River from Takayama to Shirakawa-go, and our schedule for the day.

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As we made our way to our first stop of the day, Ainokura in Gokayama, there was yet more stunning scenery for me to photograph from the coach window. The layer of snow got progressively thicker as we headed further north – by the time we arrived in Ainokura it was taller than me!

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Ainokura is a protected National Heritage Site and, along with two other villages of gasshō-style houses in the Gifu Prefecture, was added to the World Heritage List in 1995. There are 20 gasshō -style houses in Ainokura, most of which are around 100-200 years old.

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The gasshō-zukuri roof is thatched and shaped almost like an equilateral triangle, with a steep 60-degree slope which enables snow to slide off easily. The large roof is supported by chonabari – oak beams with a curve at the base – these are harvested from oak trees that grow on the mountainside and develop the curve naturally. The roof frame is constructed using rope and neso (twisted hazel boughs) and on to this is added a thick layer of thatch. The ropes are said to bestow a great deal of strength to the roof as they accumulate soot from the hearth smoke and become as hard as steel.

‘Gasshō-zukuri’ literally translates as ‘prayer-hands construction’, a name which is given to them due to their resemblance to two hands joined in prayer. You can definitely see the similarity…

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Whilst in Ainokura I paid a visit to the Ainokura Folklore Museum where I was able to see inside the roof of a traditional gasshō -zukuri house.

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Also inside the museum were various other cultural artefacts, including a traditional stove from inside the ground floor of another gasshō-zukuri house.

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Ainokura and its surrounding villages are renowned for the production of washi paper. Apparently the technique was brought to the region from Kyoto at the end of the Heian Period when survivors of the Taira Clan fled to Gokayama after their defeat by the Minamoto. I couldn’t resist taking a little paper home as a souvenir…

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After an hour or so in Ainokura we hopped back on the coach and headed for Tenshukaku for a traditional lunch of some intriguing regional foods.  As ever I couldn’t resist photographing the beautiful banquet. The Gokayama tofu is much firmer than the silken tofu I’m used to eating, while the soy sauce and sugar glazed fish is eaten whole, head and all. Just as well I’m not especially squeamish!

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The most intriguing thing on the menu (and my favourite) was the Hoba miso, another very local speciality. This is a yellow (koji) miso paste mixed with a little sugar and sake, topped with spring onion and mushroom and heated on a leaf above a charcoal stone. After a little research I found out that the leaf used is from a type of Magnolia – the locals traditionally collect the large, tough leaves from the ground when they fall in autumn.

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Delicious though the food was the most impressive part of our lunch stop in Tenshukaku were the stunning views over Shirakawa-go – just perfect for viewing those iconic gasshō -zukuri roofs.

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After we’d taken sufficient photos from the Ogimachi-Jyoshi observation platform (I could have photographed that view forever) we regrouped on the coach to be taken down the mountain to Shirakawa-go itself. First stop was a visit to the Shirakawa-go Gasshō-zukuri Minka-en (Folklore Park). The park is home to 26 Gasshō-zukuri houses, nine of which are designated important cultural properties. The watermill, shrine and main temple hall were moved to this location from elsewhere in order to preserve them.

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We then made our way across the bridge over the Shogawa River along with the hordes of other tourists to visit the village of Shirakawa-go.

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Shirakawa-go is one of Japan’s many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, again on account of its historic gasshō-zukuri houses – there are 114 such houses in this beautiful village in the Shogawa river valley. There is plenty to do and see within the village, including several museums, studios, open houses and eateries, but to be honest I was just happy to potter around outside marvelling at the beautiful architecture beneath a glittering carpet of snow.

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Japan has gone selfie mad. The selfie stick was actually invented here and it seems that almost everyone carries them about their person for those moments when one feels the need to spoil a perfectly lovely view with a great big, smiling self-portrait. Oh well, when in Rome – I am known for my love of snow after all…

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After a few hours in Shirakawa-go, it was back on the coach to Takayama to make use of the wonderfully warm onsen at the Ryokan. Another treat that evening was a cup of a delicious thick, white regional sake which I had purchased in Shirakawa-go. Very different from the clear sake Phil and I tried at the Senne niche sake brewery on Awaji Island.

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The next day, before catching my train back to Nagoya in the early afternoon, I had time to have a wander around Takayama to see the historic buildings and visit the local market. Unfortunately the weather had turned rather blizzardy and very cold so it wasn’t the most pleasant of morning’s sightseeing.

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The market was particularly interesting as there were lots of curious local products to see and sample. Any ideas what these delectable morsels are? Answers at the bottom of the page…

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These little sarubobo are local to Takayama and are seen as the mascot for the Hida region. Sarubobo means ‘monkey baby’ and the figures were traditionally made by mothers for their daughters as charms.

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Finally it was time to wave goodbye to the snow as I caught my train back home to Awaji…

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Market Food Answers (clockwise, from top left):-

  1. Smoked tofu ‘cheese’
  2. A crunchy burdock sweet snack
  3. Wasabi coated pumpkin seeds
  4. Sweetened adzuki beans
  5. Your guess is as good as mine…
  6. See above
  7. Shitake mushroom with soy sauce and wasabi
  8. Mountain vegetable
  9. Mountain burdock
  10. Dried persimmon (aka Sharon fruit)
  11. Black bean tea
  12. Suggestions please!
  13. Matcha tea sweets
  14. Rice cakes
  15. Marsh mallows
  16. Black sesame ‘thins’

 

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