Tsuyu (梅雨), the rain season, begins to hit Okinawa in May and gradually makes its way north to the rest of Japan until the end of June. During the wet season, rainy and cloudy weather affects the entire country except Hokkaido, Japan’s second largest island north of the main Honshu Island. The seismic active island is 3.6% smaller than Ireland, with a climate significantly cooler than the rest of Japan. Seeking for a pleasant getaway from Hong Kong’s humid and hot summer, we picked Hokkaido as the destination for our 11-day vacation from 15th to 25th of June. Traveling in the remote national parks and rural countryside of Hokkaido, hiring a car was a necessity. The Hokkaido journey was our first road trip in Japan.
Known as Japan’s last true wilderness, Shiretoko National Park (知床国立公園) is the natural haven where Brown Bears and Blakiston Fish Owls ruled the primeval forests and Orcas, Minke and Sperm Whales roamed the waters of Nemuro Strait. With fantastic natural scenery, wildlife and seafood to offer, this easternmost part of Hokkaido topped our priority list in the travel itinerary. Next in the journey took us to the spectacular volcanoes of Akan Mashu National Park (阿寒摩周国立公園), where we came close to Japan’s clearest water at caldera Lake Mashu (摩周湖) and the fantastic onsen and fly fishing hot spot of Lake Akan (阿寒湖). While the lavender fields of Furano (富良野) and Biei (美瑛) had yet reached the peak bloom moment, the ultra fertile soil below the Tokachi Volcanic Group (十勝火山群) treated us with some of the best bread, corn, potatoes, asparagus, melons and milk that we ever had in our lives. Despite far away from Tokyo and Osaka, the architectural magic of Tadao Ando (安藤忠雄) in Hokkaido satisfied our thirst of contemporary design and aesthetics. Back in Obihiro (帯広), Otaru (小樽) and Sapporo (札幌), historic traces of early pioneers and contemporary dessert shops and local eateries brought us back to delightful charm of urban Japan. What’s more? Day after day of mouthwatering seafood, fresh produces, good coffee, and lovely patisseries reminded us how wonderful our world could be, when the water is clean, soil is rich, forests are healthy and people are friendly. Thank you Hokkaido. You have truly touched our hearts.
Located north of Honshu Island, Hokkaido is the second largest island in Japan.
Flying in from Tokyo Haneda, our Hokkaido journey began from Memanbetsu (女満別空港) near the Shiretoko Peninsula. After more than 1,181km of driving, we arrived at Otaru and Sapporo at the western side of the island.
This black hatchback hybrid Toyota Prius c (Toyota Aqua in Japan) provided us the means of transport from east to west across Hokkaido.
After 2 days of rain and wind, we finally had a glimpse of the active volcano of Mount Rausu (羅臼岳), the tallest peak in Shiretoko Peninsula.
The greatest experience we took away from Shiretoko was the close encounter with a pod of orcas in the Nemuro Strait.
The Mashu Lake (摩周湖) offered us a peaceful sunrise at 3:30am.
Under the shadow of Mount Oakan (雄阿寒岳), dozens of fly fishermen stepped into the crystal water of Lake Akan (阿寒湖) to test their luck.
Farms and greenhouses were washed with heavy rain as we entered into Furano (富良野).
Still at least half a month to go before the peak season of lavender blossom, visitors were enjoying themselves at a relatively less crowded Farm Tomita in Nakafurano.
Compared with rainbow flower fields, we loved the wheat fields at Biei the most.
Tadao Ando’s Chapel on the Water has been famous in the designer’s world since the 1980s.
The Hill of Buddha is the latest addition in Hokkaido by Tadao Ando.
At Yoichi Distillery (余市蒸溜所), whiskey has been produced since 1934.
Saturdays Chocolate in Sapporo is one of the many excellent local eateries and cafes that we visited in the journey.
Last but not least, Hokkaido offered us the best seafood and dessert that we ever had as far as we could remember. Let’s begin to tell the story of our journey!
The illuminated Gassho-zukuri village houses blanketed in thick layer of snow make a fairy tale like postcard scenery have attracted visitors from close and afar, making Shirakawa-go an extremely popular tourist attraction at specific winter weekends. Situated in the remote snow county of the Japanese Alps, gassho rural regions such as Shirakawa-go (白川郷) and Gokayama (五箇山) have been historically isolated from the outside world. A unique rural lifestyle and special vernacular architecture have been developed in the past few centuries to tackle the snowy and wet climate of the mountains. Gassho-zukuri (合掌造り集落), which literally means “hands in prayer”, refers to the exceptionally steep thatch roofs of the regional farmhouses due to the heavy snowfall of the area. These steep roofs have become a unique symbol of the region. In 1995, three of these remote Gassho-zukuri villages: Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go (荻町), Suganuma (菅沼) and Ainokura (相倉) in Gokayama were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Due to its proximity to Hida-Takayama, most visitors opt for a day trip (or half-day trip) to visit Shirakawa-go. Few would venture farther into Gokayama and even less so would stay the night at one of the mountain villages. In recent years, a number of the centuries old Gassho-zukuri farmhouses have been transformed into guesthouses, allowing visitors to experience the villages’ unique beauty and tranquility after the departure of the daytrippers. Being the largest and most accessible Gassho-zukuri village, Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go is the most developed in terms of its tourist facilities. A number of its old farmhouses have been converted into museums, restaurants and souvenir shops. There is even an area called Gasshozukuri Minkaen Outdoor Museum, where historical farmhouses have been relocated and grouped into an open air museum. Taking the 8:25am bus from Takayama, we arrived at Shirakawa-go bus station in about an hour. When we arrived at one of Japan’s most picturesque farming village, steady rain kept on coming down with no end in sight. We stored our backpacks in a locker at the bus station, picked up a village map and bought a transparent umbrella from the tourist office, and off we went to explore touristy yet charming Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go.
Just outside the bus station, we had our first peek of the rural charm of Shirakawa-go. Rhythmical rain drops rippled across the flooded paddy field of lush green rice seedlings.
Despite the rain, we were delighted to enter the tranquil world of Ogimachi.
It was 9:20am. Not too many tourists were around. We stopped by the pond of waterlilies in front of Wada Residence, one of the largest gassho style house in the village.
Ogimachi has a extensive network of irrigation channels. Visitors may occasionally find carps in the water.
A row of cute scarecrows offer an amusing background for photos, and a friendly reminder of Ogimachi’s rural past.
Straw from farm crops are harvested in the autumn, dried as a snow fence around the gassho style house, and used to repair the thatched roof in the spring or autumn. Due to the need of a large labour force, neighbors in the village would come over to help on repairing the thatched roof.
Many gassho style houses, including the Yamaainoie Residence (山峡の家), have been converted into cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops or guesthouses.
The small gassho style house serves as a charming little cafe with splendid views of rice patties.
The entrance of the cafe is decorated with plant pots, wood lattice and a “thinker” statue.
In 1961, the construction of Miboro Dam at Sho River in Takayama was completed. several villages and shrines were submerged, along with about half of the surviving Gassho-zukuri houses.
Today, the biggest concentration of Gassho-zukuri houses are found in Ogimachi, Ainokura, and Suganuma. Important structures, such as the Myozen-ji Temple in Ogimachi, have become rare survivors from the bygone period.
Thatched roof repair works can still be seen in Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go.
The steep angle of the thatched roof of the Gassho-zukuri houses help to prevent snow accumulation, though people, especially outside visitors, have to be cautious of the falling snow below the roof.
A number of Gassho-zukuri houses in Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go have been turned into guesthouses.
Fire hydrants are important in the farming village because of the combustibility of the Gassho-zukuri houses.
Because of the rain, the mountains beyond Ogimachi were covered in beautiful mist while we were there.
Newer houses in a distinct architectural style can also be found in the village.
Due to the unique appearance of the Gassho-zukuri houses and it natural setting, Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go is often considered one of the most picturesque farming village in Japan.
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CHUBU (中部地方) 2018, Japan, 2018.05.25 – 06.03
Day 1: Tokyo (東京)
1.1 TSUKIJI OUTER MARKET (築地場外市場)
1.2 TSUKIJI INNER MARKET (築地中央卸売市場)
1.3 MORI ART MUSEUM (森美術館), 21_21 DESIGN SIGHT & CAFE KITSUNE
Day 2: Matsumoto (松本)& Kamikochi (上高地)
2.1 MATSUMOTO CASTLE (松本城), Matsumoto (松本)
2.2 “ALL ABOUT MY LOVE”, Yayoi Kusama’s Exhibition at Matsumoto City Museum of Art (松本市美術館), Matsumoto (松本)
2.3 MATSUMOTO PERFORMING ARTS CENTER (まつもと市民芸術館), Matsumoto (松本)
2.4 FROM MATSUMOTO (松本) TO KAMIKOCHI (上高地)
2.5 ARRIVAL IN KAMIKOCHI (上高地), Chūbu-Sangaku National Park (中部山岳国立公園)
Day 3: Kamikochi (上高地)
3.1 MORNING WALK IN KAMIKOCHI (上高地), Nagano Prefecture (長野県)
3.2 DAKESAWA HIKE (岳沢), Kamikochi (上高地)
Day 4: Kamikochi (上高地) & Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉)
4.1 TAISHO POND (大正池), Kamikochi (上高地)
4.2 RETREAT IN THE JAPANESE ALPS, Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉)
4.3 MOMENTS OF ESCAPE, Tsuruya Ryokan (つるや旅館), Shirahone Onsen (白骨温泉)
Day 5: Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山)
5.1 CITY IN THE MOUNTAINS, Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山)
5.2 HIDA BEEF (飛騨牛), Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山)
5.3 SAKE (日本酒) BREWERIES, Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山)
5.4 YOSHIJIMA HOUSE (吉島家住宅), Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山)
5.5 HIGASHIYAMA WALKING COURSE (東山遊歩道), Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山)
Day 6: Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山), Shirakawa-go (白川郷) & Ainokura (相倉)
6.1 MIYAGAWA MORNING MARKET (宮川朝市), Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山), Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県)
6.2 OGIMACHI IN THE RAIN, Shirakawa-go (白川郷), Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県)
6.3 SOBA, TEMPLE & LOOKOUT, Shirakawa-go (白川郷)
6.4 RAINY AFTERNOON IN AINOKURA (相倉), Gokayama (五箇山)
6.5 GASSHO MINSHUKU, FLOWER BEDS & RICE PADDY FIELDS, Ainokura (相倉), Gokayama (五箇山)
6.6 CROAKING FROGS AND MOONLIGHT REFLECTIONS, Gokayama (五箇山)
Day 7: Kanazawa (金沢)
7.1 DEPARTURE IN THE RAIN, Ainokura (相倉) to Kanazawa (金沢)
7.2 A SEAFOOD PARADISE – OMICHO MARKET (近江町市場)
7.3 D T Suzuki Museum (鈴木大拙館)
7.4 Kenroku-en Garden (兼六園)
7.5 Oyama Shrine (尾山神社) and Nagamachi Samurai District (長町)
7.6 Nomura Samurai House (武家屋敷跡 野村家), Nagamachi Samurai District (長町)
7.7 Sushi Ippei (一平鮨), Katamachi (片町)
Day 8: Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture (金沢, 石川県)
8.1 Iki Iki Tei (いきいき亭) and Higashide Coffee (東出珈琲店), Omicho Market (近江町市場)
8.2 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art (21世紀美術館)
8.3 Kazuemachi District (主計町茶屋街)
8.4 Higashi Chaya District (東山ひがし茶屋街)
8.5 Kaga Yuzen Toro Nagashi (加賀友禅燈ろう流し), Asano River (浅野川)
8.6 AFTERMATH OF KAGA YUZEN TORO NAGASHI (加賀友禅燈ろう流し)
Day 9 & 10: Tokyo (東京)
9.1 Marunouchi (丸の内) & Nihonbashi (日本橋)
10.1 OEDO ANTIQUE MARKET (大江戸骨董市), Tokyo Forum (東京国際フォーラム)
10.2 FARMER’S MARKET, United Nations University (東京国連大学), Aoyama (青山)