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Journey to the Bucolic Japanese Alps – Shirakawa-go and the Gifu Prefecture (Part 1)

Over the past year, I have been lusting for Ogimachi Village in Shirakawa-go, a Unesco village nestled in the Japanese Alps and where time has seemingly left the region untouched. This mountainous area is known for its historic A-frame houses, also known as gassho-zukuri, which were made with a traditional building method without utilizing any nails. These gassho houses have withstood the test of time and continue to attract new generations of admirers. The next destination of our trip was a visit to the Gifu region where these houses are located today.

Our trip started early in the morning with the high-speed train ride from Tokyo to Toyama, where we then picked up the rental car for a 1-hour drive to Shirakawa-go. Once we entered the picturesque village and checked into Shiroyamakan Inn that was established in 1884, we knew we were in for a special visit. The inn keeper’s daughter, Nana, greeted us and took us to our room where we were served tea and snacks. We were also given 3 bikes to use while we were staying in the village, which was a godsend since it was a pedestrian only zone from 9am to 4pm. Cars are not allowed inside the historic area, but we could bike around the village and really explore the different parts that many tourists could not get to in a short time. Most visitors to Shirakawa-go arrive on tour buses from Tokyo.

We precariously biked along the Shirakawa Kaido Street as we were trying to stay upright and dodge tourists. We biked all the way to the end of the main street where dozens of volunteers were replacing a roof on a gassho house. This was a laborious process as it had to be done with the ancient technique to maintain its integrity. This was also a community affair and simply wonderful to see the villagers’ coordinated effort and camaraderie, a rare sight in today’s modern society. On the way back to the Wada house, we made a brief stop at Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine, a Shinto shrine nestled among the rice paddies and mountainscape. It’s a small charming shrine that reminded me of one I saw in a Hayao Miyazaki movie. A few short prayers and pictures later, we were ready to continue our exploration of this village.

 

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Next, we biked toward the Wada House while enjoying the views of farmers tending their fields against the backdrop of the Hida mountains; and with the setting sun, it was a magical moment. Wada House, a very well preserved large gassho house, is one of the main historical sites in the small village. Part of the first and second floors are open to the public and a variety of artifacts and traditional everyday items used by successive generations of the Wada family are exhibited there. The best part of the house is the view of the valley from the second floor’s windows.  After a short visit, we continued to bike around the dirt paths intertwined with the rice paddies that surround the farms until it was time for the inn owner, Takuya, to take us on a 1-hour guided tour in his van to some key spots. The bike ride amongst the backdrop of the mountain was a bucolic and peaceful experience. 

 

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Takuya drove us to the back of the Myozenji Temple Museum, where we had a gorgeous photo op with the three gasho houses. We received information about each site via his trusty CD player that guided our tour.  As we drove through the village, Takuya pointed out some interesting tidbits about his village, which he was very proud to share with us as he has lived here all his life. Our last stop of the van tour was at the Tenshukaku (castle keep) Observatory  and the Shiroyama Viewpoint where we took in the views of the village – a magnificent sight. Takuya surprised us with his photography skills and took amazing photos for our family. He could be a professional! Sometimes, photos of the attraction on Instagram oversell the location but this was not the case. Takuya’s cheerfulness and exuberance for his village made this tour extra special. As it was time for dinner, we hustled back in anticipation of the Hida’s beef feast that we had booked for that night.

 

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The part I most looked forward to staying at ryokan is the feast that is usually spectacular. Dinner at Shiroyamakan was no exception. We were served by Nana and Karin, Takuya’s daughters, in a room by ourselves. The ladies were the cutest and sweetest hosts that we have had in a long time. They spoke with us about their lives in Shirakawa-go and the historic inn as well as provided us with the highest quality hospitality. The Hida beef, a type of wagyu, was succulent and all the accompanying dishes complimented the meat perfectly. We could have not asked for a better dinner to end the engaging day.

However, Takuya had other plans and surprised us with a trip to to the same observation deck to see the view at night. He then surprised my mom with a glass of wine and a birthday candle! He had expected us to savor the wine; however, to his amazement, we just downed the drinks. As we took in the gorgeous view of the straw houses lit up amongst the stars, the feeling of joy and contentment of such simple pleasures washed over us. After 30 minutes at the top of the hill, we opted to head back to use the onsen, a hot spring bathhouse located a few doors down from the inn, before it closed. This was a perfect way to wind down our Day 1 in the Gifu region.

 

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*In a beef quality competition, similar to the Olympics in that it is held once every 5 years, this Japanese beef has now won the gold medal two times consecutively.

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Itinerary

Day 1:

  • Train ride from Tokyo Station to Toyama
  • Pick up the car in Toyama and drive to Shirakawa-go
  • Explore Shirakawa-go including Wada House, Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine, Myozenji Temple Museum, and view of the village from Tenshukaku (castle keep) Observatory 
  • Stay at Shiroyamakan and book the Hida beef dinner
  • Bath at the onsen next door

Day 2:

  • Ainokura Village
  • Suganuma Village
  • Hida Folk Village
  • Explore Takayama
  • Stay at Zenkoji temple    
  • Eat dinner at Hidagyu Maruaki

Click here for Part 2 of our trip to the Gifu region.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

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