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Journey to the Bucolic Japanese Alps – Shirakawa-go and the Gifu Prefecture (Part 2)

Waking up to birds chirping in the garden from my Japanese futon somehow felt surreal. This was a strong contrast from the night before, where I slept in a small modern hotel room in the center of Tokyo. As I watched the sun streams in through the paper windows, a sense of serenity enveloped me. It was mostly due to the time difference that I was awake this early to enjoy this moment. It was joyful to listen and observe nature doing its morning song and dance. I could’ve stayed in bed much longer but another day of exploring the Gifu region beckoned me to get up and start my day.

I still had 30 minutes before breakfast, so my sister and I took advantage of the quiet morning and rode our bikes around the village. As it was very early, and no one was out and about yet, we had the roads to ourselves to leisurely admire the mountain scenery around us. There was a sense of freedom and playfulness that we don’t often feel in today’s serious and fast paced world. It was nice to let loose and ride our bikes like we were children exploring the nooks and crannies of this charming village. Unfortunately, it was time for breakfast and we didn’t dare to delay the staff considering all their effort. 

 

 

As we made our way to another room overlooking a small pond, we were welcomed with a feast. I’m not sure if the previous night’s dinner was fully digested but the spread on the table was too tempting not to devour. A luxurious breakfast is part of the ryokan experience and this one was no less amazing. We learned that Takuya had foraged herbs and vegetables from the nearby mountain to add to our local cuisine. Just another personal touch to this extraordinary experience so far. After our meal, we said goodbye to the wonderful family and hospitality. I would highly recommend staying at Shiroyamakan for an unforgettable village experience  if you happen to be in Shirakawa-go.

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Our first stop of the day was a visit to the Ainokura Village, which has 23 Gassho-zukuri houses where 60 people still live an ordinary life. This village is much more rustic than Shirakawa-go and doesn’t offer that much more insight. We wandered around and left after an hour as there was no real difference than what we had already seen in Shirakawa-go. I would suggest visiting this first, then Shirakawa-go or if there is a time constraint, I would skip Ainokura Village altogether.

Our next stop was the Suganuma Village, where there are nine Gassho-zukuri houses and a Shinmeishi Shrine. I was afraid that we’ll be disappointed after the Ainokura Village, but I was pleasantly charmed by this attraction. This village is set up as a folk museum, so it provided more insight through informative placards. The houses are better maintained and the whole set up was just very quaint. We stopped by a small snack shop  where an older aunt grilled mochi for us. It was such a simple snack, but the chewy texture with the lightly charred outer crust made for a delicious afternoon treat. Somehow my mom managed to chat up the neighborhood uncle with his nonexistent English and they were having a blast. That’s country life at its best.

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As it was getting late, we headed to Takayama, a well preserved historic town, and where our next lodging was located. Along the way, we stopped at the Hida Folk Village, an open air museum which has over 30 houses from the Hida region built between 1603 – 1867. The Hida Folk Village relocated these houses to the current location to showcase the subtle different architecture and rural life in Japan. Each house had an interesting history, while the building techniques, materials and purposes were very intriguing to learn about. We spent over 2 hours here and would’ve stayed longer if we had more time. The Hida Folk Village gives a glimpse into the lives of farmers and common folks in the country before electricity and modern machinery changed farming forever. In addition, the museum had workshops where you can see people make paper, carve wood, etc. It was very interactive, although we went on a weekday so not as many stalls were open.

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As the weather was starting to threaten rain, we drove to our inn in Takayama. We were heading to Zenkoji Temple, which also had a relatively new Japanese style guest house attached to it. We had booked the only room with a private bathroom and it had a wall facing a small well-lit garden. It was what I expected a country inn to be and the modern bathroom was a great addition. After settling in, we walked around the historic downtown area of Takayama. Since the town wasn’t bombed out during WWII, many of the buildings have retained their ancient charm. Unfortunately, everything closes at 5pm so we couldn’t explore as much as we would have liked. 

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For dinner, we had shabu-shabu of Hida beef at Hidagyu Maruaki, which was a nice way to unwind from a long day of driving. The A-5 Hida beef was very expensive but the quality justified the sky high prices. The marbling on the thinly sliced wagyu is something you can only find in Japan; and as the fat melted into the beef as it cooked, the tenderness of each slice is something that can only be tasted to be believed. Since we had another long day ahead of us for the drive back to Toyama for our next stay in Kyoto, we made it an early night sleeping to the rain falling outside our room. This was a jam-packed countryside itinerary, yet it was a very relaxing experience taking in the everyday life of the ordinary Japanese mountain folk. I would highly recommend exploring the rural parts of Japan as it is a unique experience and a stunning contrast to the bustling metropolis for which the country is renowned.

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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 1 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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