Shirakawa-go: Snow, Mountains, and an Old School Japanese Village!

This past weekend I took a snowy 6 hour train/bus voyage from Mie, my home prefecture, into Gifu, which is a land-locked, mountainous prefecture north of me. The destination was the village of Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for the uniquely steep and thatched roof structure of its traditional houses!

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(Photo by Justin Feng.)

About the Shirakawa Region

Ogimachi is a village located in the far north of Gifu prefecture, which is in central Japan .  The village is in a region known as Shirakawa, a mountainous region of high elevation and heavy snowfall, which was proven during my visit.  This area has hit records of as much as 4 meters of snow! That is over 13 feet!!! When I was there, there was at least a meter of snow on the ground, in some areas the snow rose almost above Justin’s head!

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To get there, we booked a 2.5 hour bus from Nagoya, along a route which wound through tunnels and mountains.  It was snowing this past weekend, and between that and the traffic, our journey was stretched into something more like 4.5 hours.

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This area is famous for the style of its traditional homes, called gasshō-zukuri (合掌造り), or more simply, Gassho-style houses.  The designs of these houses were developed through the 1700s and 1800s and the roofs were built to withstand the insane amounts of snow that fell each year.  They are built from wooden beams, and the thatched roofs resemble hands meeting in prayer.  The houses are a few floors tall (the one I visited had four floors), and the attics often function as work spaces.

Exploring a Gassho-style House!

When I was there, I visited the Kanda House, which was a Gassho-style house open to the public for a fee of 300 yen (one of quite a few in the village).  We were able to enter, and explore the four floors of the house on our own.

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The Kanda House from the outside!

 

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(Photo by Justin Feng.)

The ground floor had an in-ground hearth, which is a traditional feature of these houses.  It had a fire going, and a lady who may have been the owner (?) told us that the complimentary tea served was prepared in a pot that was hanging over the flames.   The smell of burning wood followed you throughout the house!

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The pot over the open hearth! (Photo by Justin Feng.)

The second floor was pretty small, and kind of hugged around the high ceiling of the ground floor.  Something that was pretty cool/cute was there was a fire-watch window on the second floor where you could keep an eye on the fire! The houses are wooden and practically a matchbox ready to burst into flames, so it makes sense to never want to leave the fire unattended.

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View through the fire-watch window.

The third floor and fourth floors had some things up on display, such as various tools used for maintaining and living in the house.  All of the labels were in Japanese so we had to use our imaginations. :P

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Tiny pair of straw shoes! (Photo by Justin Feng.)

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KNIVES! :o (Photo by Justin Feng.)

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The villages in this region were involved in producing silk and gunpowder, and as mentioned earlier, the attics were turned into work spaces in which silkworm rearing and silk production took place.

As we climbed higher and higher in the house, the stairs became steeper, and steeper, to the point of being a few degrees away from being ladders. :o

Food Break! (and unanswered “beef on a leaf” dreams…)

We somehow managed to last most of the day grabbing bites to eat everywhere we went.  Breakfast for me had been milk and cereal and a pancake. We had been intending to sit down and garb lunch at Shirakawa-go, but our bus got in so late we had to be flexible with our plans.

We grabbed one of the first street foods we saw, which was a steamed bun with beef inside.  Hida beef is as special to this region as Kobe beef is to Kobe. I really wanted to try this dish that I nicknamed”beef on a leaf.” Basically, it is Hida beef, placed on a big magnolia leaf, which is all cooked on a little grill.  Unfortunately, timing didn’t work out, but I got my Hida beef in (I think)!

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Our first meal in Shirakawa-go. A steamed beef bun from a place called Zen (ぜん)!

Speaking of things that didn’t work out, I had lined up a few restaurants as back-ups.  The first restaurant, we had heard was really good, but they had just closed when we arrived.  Our back-up was a cafe next to the Kanda house. Closed for the day.  After the Kanda house, we started to walk around, and were getting pretty hungry. We passed another cafe that had an open side displayed, thought about it while walking along the road, and then turned back only to find the CLOSED sign had been flipped during our 2 minute deliberation. -_-

ANYWAY. After adventuring around, and having a weird experience with a glazed-rice-on-a-stick vendor (the dude ignored me and placed, grilled, and completed two rounds of like 15 sticks each as I stood in front of his stand for over 5 minutes, holding my 1000 yen bill and hopping from foot to foot in the cold… wtf?!), we grabbed the same snack as well as a meat skewer from another vendor close to the bus stop.

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Our last meal in Shirakawa-go. Glazed rice on a stick, and a meat skewer. 

Fun Finds in the Village

The whole village is beautiful to walk through, especially in the snow! While not all the houses are Gassho-style, you can find many that are.  Some are open to explore, like the Kanda house, others are restaurants or cafes, and still others are private residences.

We enjoyed people watching, like seeing this man in a rice-hat shoveling snow…

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Look at him go!

 

There were some fun finds as well, like snow sculptures, wooden carvings, and bridges bringing you across frozen rivers!

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Massive snow sculptures! (Photo by Justin Feng.)

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Half frozen river flowing below the village.

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Bridge taking you across the river.

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In Japan, you use a umbrella when it snows!

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Is this holly?!

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Incredible icicles!!

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A better shot at how multicolored they were!

We had a good time there!  We even managed to slip and slide our way up and down the snowy path to the overlook at anxious-about-missing-our-bus-in-40-minutes speed.  My legs were killing me the next day… But we did it!  Visibility was kind of low, and the overlook had been taken over by dudes with tripods. :/ It kind of ruined the magic. There were 8 tripods there, and it was impossible to get a picture with the village in the background… so this will have to do!

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Anyway, glad to have gotten this off my Japan bucket list! :D Not as many people as I anticipated! If I were to do this experience again, I would stay in one of the farm houses, but as we found out, over night stays are usually booked by July of the previous year… WOW!!

A

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