Ancient Takayama and Shirakawa-go, the Middle Earth of Japan
Living in or just visiting Japan, it’s hard to pass a railway station or Japan Travel Bureau office without seeing a poster of the celebrated gassho-zukuri thatched-roof houses of Gifu Prefecture in central Honshu.
In the heart of the gassho-zukuri area the centuries-old village of Shirakawa-go is one of the snowiest places in Japan, which is why these homes were first created. The 60-degree pitched roofs were designed to allow snow to just slide off onto the ground. Although magnificent in winter, spring or fall is a better time for to visit.
Consider combining the trip with a stop in nearby Takayama, an Edo period town and stronghold of the Tokugawa Shogunate. You can spend the night in either place -- both offer unique places to sleep.
In Shirakawa-go, most of the accommodations are in the gassho-zukuri themselves and, while incredibly authentic, they can be cold and rather smoky because the heat source is an open hearth in the middle of the house.
If this takes your fancy, check out Japanese Guest Houses and search for minshuku in Shirakawa-go. If you have something warmer and cozier in mind, you may want to overnight in Takayama.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
From Tokyo, take the Shuto Expressway #4 to the Tokai Kanjo Expressway, then on to the Takayama-kiyomi road to Route #158, which leads straight into Takayama. Once there, look for the Abo tunnel that will take you to Shirakawa-go. The drive should take around five hours. Buses also run from nearby train stations.
For first-time visitors of a certain literary bent, Shirakawa-go evokes a fairy tale world akin to Middle Earth in "The Hobbit". In 1995, it was registered as a UNESCO World Heitage Site as a perfect example of human settlements adapting to their environment.
Ogimachi is the largest village and the main attraction in the region. Here, you'll find almost 150 of the gassho-zukuri that are still used as homes, minshuku and stores. Some of the buildings are over 250 years old.
They were built with three or four stories to be large enough to house extended families on the first floor and allow silkworm farming in the rest of the house.
To begin a tour of the town, follow the signs for the Shiroyama Viewpoint, north of the village, which offers the best opportunities for photography. From there, head towards the main street to explore the village proper.
If you're a fan of "Higurashi no Naku Koro" ("When They Cry"), the extremely popular anime, you might find the Wada house familiar. For ¥500 you can take a tour and get an inside look at this special residence.
Most of the options for lunch are aimed at tourists and include soba, udon and ramen. Shiraogi, opposite the tourist information office, features an English menu and a good set lunch of regional specialties, including river trout.
If you're staying in town, try an evening dip in Shirakawago-no-yu, the onsen at the end of the village -- only ¥500 for overnighters.
Feel the Edo period
In the morning, make an early start and head back through the tunnel to Takayama. Once there, head for the red bridge and you will find the Takayama Jinya and Miyagawa morning markets held along the river in town every day from 7 a.m. to noon.
Farmers’ wives from nearby villages bring fresh produce to these markets -- the offerings change depending on the season. After browsing the markets, cross the bridge and look for Takayama Jinya, first built as a villa for Lord Kanamori, ruler of the Hida Hakayama Han in the 17th century and later transformed into a government office.
The Edo restoration is immaculate and quite stunning. The kitchen, with its modern appliances, would be right at home in a ski lodge in Aspen.
For further fun
Sanmachi Suji, the three main streets that form “downtown”, could occupy visitors for the best part of a day. The historical merchants' houses look much as they did four centuries ago and are filled with souvenirs and indigenous food products. Prime souvenir is a Sarubobo -- a strange faceless baby monkey dolls that comes in all sizes and colors.
Come lunchtime, Ebisu-Honten, a 110-year-old soba shop, is a must-try. The soba tempura is delicious.
Make yourself comfortable
If you decide to stay in Takayama, try Hanaougi Bettei Iiyama, which is on a main street next to a gas station. Once inside the torii gate, past the iron gas lamps, the convenience stores and modern amenities of life are soon forgotten.
The proprietors of the inn will be on hand to welcome you with a cup of hot tea and a plate of Japanese sweets by the open fire in the lobby.
Once you have relaxed, you will select your personal yukata for your stay and be shown to your room, several of which are duplex with a living area and outdoor onsen downstairs and a bedroom upstairs. Sit in the restorative water before dinner and then, dressed in yukata, head downstairs to your private dining room.
The focal point of the meal is Hida beef, which you cook yourself on hot stones over a grill in the middle of the table. This marbled and creamy beef is less well known then Kobe beef but just as good.
Shirakawa-go and Takayama are highly visited destinations and if you want to enjoy them, don’t plan on going there during a weekend or a holiday. But if you are lucky enough to travel mid-week, you’ll discover a place like no other in Japan.