DAY 6 (6/6): CROAKING FROGS AND MOONLIGHT REFLECTIONS, Gokayama (五箇山), Toyama Prefecture (富山県), Japan, 2018.05.30
The stay in Ainokura proved to be more than worthwhile. We got the chance to take refuge in a 350-year old gassho-zukuri house and dine right by a traditional Irori (囲炉裏) hearth in the atmospheric dining room. The stay also allowed us to experience Ainokura in the evening, when most tourists were gone. After dinner, it stopped raining. We went out to take in the tranquil atmosphere under the silver moonlight and shimmering stars. Wandering on the winding paths, we were totally surrounded by rice fields and the croaking sound of frogs.
The owner of Gassho Minshuku Nakaya used the traditional Irori (囲炉裏) hearth in the dining room to prepare the smoked ayu fish for our dinner.
Seasoned with sea salt, the smoked ayu fish were the star delicacy of our dinner.
Pickle, deep fried, and soy sauce veggies, carp sashimi, local rice, and smoked ayu fish left us more than satisfactory after a long and wet day in the Japanese countryside.
Outside of Gassho Minshuku Nakaya, the village path was lit with dim street lamps.
The mirror-like rice fields reflected the beautiful gassho-zukuri houses.
With clouds and moonlight, it wasn’t the best time for stargazing.
Loud croaking sound of frogs came from rice fields in all directions.
The village paths were pretty much deserted after dark, except a handful of tourists and local villagers.
The sky was getting darker as we wandered around the village.
We could see a bit more stars as the last twilight faded.
In the dark, we walked uphill a little bit to a lookout that we visited earlier in the day. From there, we took a photo of the night sky over Ainokura just before the moon emerged behind the mountains.
Across the rice fields and river valley, the moon was about to emerge beyond the mountains.
The silhouette of mountains and silver moonlight depicted a lovely reflection in the rice fields. We were grateful to enjoy a moment of absolute peace just before moonrise.
DAY 6 (5/6): GASSHO MINSHUKU, FLOWER BEDS & RICE PADDY FIELDS, Ainokura (相倉), Gokayama (五箇山), Nanto (南砺市), Toyama Prefecture (富山県), Japan, 2018.05.30
The idea of staying a night in a traditional gassho-zukuri house prompted us to come all the way to Ainokura, the remotest of the three UNESCO World Heritage villages in the Japanese Alps. A few centuries-old gassho-zukuri houses in Ainokura have been converted into minshuku (民宿) or Japanese style bed-and-breakfast. A typical minshuku stay offers a Japanese tatami room, as well as dinner and breakfast served in a traditional dining room around an Irori (囲炉裏) hearth. Based on online reviews and guidebook recommendations, we booked our stay at Gassho Minshuku Nakaya, a 350-year old gassho-zukuri located near the end of the village. The interior of the house was as expected full of wooden panels, tatami flooring and timber lattices. The bathroom and toilets were clean and modern, while the dining room and its Irori hearth provided a feature for all visitors.
Outside of the minshuku, gassho-zukuri houses scattered along the few winding paths and surrounded by patches of terracing flower beds and rice paddy fields. Historically, Ainokura was self sustained not by farming, but by making traditional paper and raising silkworm. Since the decline of silkworm raising in the 1950s, some fields of mulberry trees uphill from the village were converted into agricultural fields for vegetables and rice paddy. Today, rice paddy fields dominate the scenery of Ainokura. As the most important staple food in Asia, rice cultivation represents the lifeline for many nations, including Japan. Apart from rice fields, small beds of colourful flowers can be found all over the village. Flowers are planted adjacent to rice terraces, or along winding paths, or in front of village homes, leaving touches of lovely colours among the lush green palette, even in the greyest rainy day.
Gassho Minshuku Nakaya is a well-preserved 350-year-old gassho-zukuri house in the UNESCO World Heritage village.
The thatched roof and timber wall panels of the minshuku look just like other traditional farm houses in the village.
Just like any typical Japanese house, there is a decent entrance vestibule at the Gassho Minshuku Nakaya.
The guest area is limited at the ground floor only, with traditional tatami bedrooms, dining room, and bathroom.
In the dining room above the Irori (囲炉裏) hearth, a jizaikagi (自在鉤) or free hook is attached to the beam structure of the house.
Our room was a Japanese style tatami room with traditional decorations.
Upon arrival, we were given green tea and snacks.
Outside of Gassho Minshuku Nakaya, lovely flowers could be found in many fields and flower beds.
One of the most impressive flower beds we saw was just opposite to the front door of our minshuku.
The small flowers in front of Minshuku Yomoshiro present a subtle beauty.
Colourful flowers along the village paths lighted up the scenery in a rainy day.
We found some of the most impressive flowers at the terracing flower beds in the midst of the lush green rice paddy fields.
And more flowers…
Late May. Rice seedlings had just planted not long ago. Rows of footprints were visible in the rice paddy fields.
It was a pleasure to get so close to the rice paddy.
At the end of Ainokura near Gassho Minshuku Nakaya, we found some larger rice fields with beautiful reflections of the surrounding mountains.
After spending time to photograph the rice fields, it was about time for dinner.
DAY 6 (4/6): RAINY AFTERNOON IN AINOKURA (相倉), Gokayama (五箇山), Nanto (南砺市), Toyama Prefecture (富山県), Japan, 2018.05.30
45 minutes of bus ride took us deeper into the valley of Gokayama (五箇山) in Toyama Prefecture. Our destination was Ainokura (相倉), one of the three villages with Gassho-zukuri houses inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Rain continued to pour down when we get off at Ainokuraguchi (相倉口) bus stop. We had no choice but to brave the elements and walk uphill into the village from the country highway. It took about 5 minutes to reach the village parking lot, and another 5 minutes to reach our guesthouse. After checking in, we rested a bit until the rain subsided a little.
Sandwiched between dense forests on a hill and the Sho River (庄川) that runs in a deep valley, Ainokura is a situated on a narrow plain surrounded by forests and mountains. With about about 30 preserved gassho-zukuri houses, the 450-year old village remains a quiet rural community with about 90 inhabitants as of 1994. The region around Ainokura was nearly impenetrable until 1925, when a road was built through the surrounding forests. Once a stronghold of silkworm production before the 1950s, the village has since become a self-sufficient rural community filled with rice paddies and flower fields. Today, a few houses are open to visitors as museums or guesthouses, but most of the village remain private, unlike Ogimachi of Shirakawa-go where most houses have been converted into tourism-related uses. The view of Ainokura from the adjacent hill may be less dramatic than the one from the Shiroyama Observatory Deck at Ogimachi, yet wandering in the remote village of Gokayama offers a much more tranquil and delightful experience as if going back in time.The rain was at times heavy as we entered Ainokura in mid afternoon.
Mist and clouds lingered around the surrounding mountains of Ainokura as we entered the village.
After a five minute walk from Ainokuraguchi (相倉口) bus stop, we reached the main parking lot of the village and a small visitor centre.
Rice paddies of different sizes and shapes filled up all the spaces between village homes.
Most gassho-zukuri houses remain as private homes of villagers.
One of the gassho-zukuri houses at the village centre is turned into a souvenir shop.
On a high ground at the village centre stands the Jinushi Shrine (地主神社), a Shinto shrine in the shade of tall trees.
Adjacent to the Jinushi Shrine (地主神社), a stepped path leads to a stone monument to commemorate the visit of a royal prince.
Sonen-ji Temple (相念寺) is a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temple at the heart of Ainokura.
Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (浄土真宗) is a school of Pure Land Buddhism. It is the most popular branch of Buddhism in Japan.
The Sonen-ji Temple (相念寺) building was completed in 1859.
In Ainokura, there are several designated viewpoints, mostly on the slope or farming terraces right by the village.
We walked up to a few farming terraces to look for a desirable viewpoint for the village’s overview.
Some viewpoints required us to walk further uphill into the dense forest adjacent to Ainokura.
We followed a series of signs to reach the highest viewpoint uphill. The walk took about 15 minutes on a narrow paved road.
From the openings between trees, we could enjoy beautiful birdeye’s views of Ainokura.
From above, we could truly appreciated the thatched roofs of Ainokura, which are steeper than the ones in Shirakawa-go due to the heavier snowfall in Gokayama.
We truly sensed the remoteness of Ainokura with its surrounding mountains.
We wandered around Ainokura between periods of rain, but we didn’t entered any museums.
At the end of the village near our guesthouse, a downhill road led us to a large piece of mirror-like rice paddy. Sunlight was fading, reminding us that dinner was about to start at our guesthouse.
After a leisure stroll in the picturesque Ogimachi (荻町), at around 11am we crossed the suspension Deai Bridge (であい橋)over to the main parking lot / Open-air Museum Gasshozukuri Minkaen (合掌造り民家園). The rain was quite heavy and instead of visiting the open air museum, we opted for a lunch break at Soba Wakimoto (蕎麦脇本), a lovely soba restaurant housed in a traditional gassho-zukuri building. The lunch was a delicious soba noodle soup and a mini bowl of Hida beef rice. After lunch we crossed the bridge back to Ogimachi, and paid a visit to the Myozen-ji temple complex. The visit included seeing two gassho-zukuri buildings, the Kuri (former residence of the monks) and the worship hall. Before leaving Shirakawa-go, we headed up to Shiroyama Observatory Deck (城山天守閣展望台) for the spectacular birdeye’s view of the village and the surrounding mountains. At around 1:40pm, we headed back to the bus station, picked up our backpacks, and boarded a “world heritage bus” heading to Ainokura (相倉) of Gokayama (五箇山), where we would stay the night in a 300-year-old gassho-zukuri house.
On the other side of Deai Bridge (であい橋), the tour bus parking lot and the Open-air Museum Shirakawa-go or Gasshozukuri Minkaen (合掌造り民家園) didn’t look busy at all.
For tourists who arrive by tour buses, Ponte Deai (であい橋) would be their point of arrival into Ogimachi.
Just a stone throw away from the tour bus parking lot, we arrived at Soba Wakimoto (蕎麦脇本). We decided to go for a bowl of soba and a cup of hot tea.
Two “raccoons” welcomed us at the front lawn of the soba restaurant.
It was 11am, and we were the first to sit down in the dining hall of Soba Wakimoto.
We ordered two soba sets. Both came with a seafood soba, and a bowl of Hida beef rice. The meal was fantastic and gave us an opportunity to dry up our jackets.
After lunch, we headed back to Ogimachi. Outside of a tourist restaurant, a sarubobo (さるぼぼ) doll offered visitors a photo opportunity with this amulet of Takayama. The faceless doll was a traditional gift made by grandmothers for their grandchildren as lucky charm.
Back in Ogimachi, we passed by Myozen-ji Temple again and decided to paid a visit. Built mainly in the early 1800s, Myozen-ji Temple presents a rare surviving example of gassho-zukuri temple architecture.
In the Myozen-ji Temple, we could visit the Bell or Shoro Gate, the Kuri, and the main worship hall. All three structures were constructed with the unique thatched roof of the gassho-zukuri style. These temple structures were built in the early 1800s.
The Kuri of Myozen-ji Temple is one of the largest building in the village. Our tour of the temple complex began from here.
The spacious attic of the Kuri building had been converted into a two storey museum. Back in the old days, attics of many gassho-zukuri houses were used to make washi paper and raise silkworm.
Outside the Kuri, the gassho-zukuri houses and reflective rice paddies offered us a glimpse into the fading rural lifestyle of Japan.
The upper levels of the Kuri building allowed us a closer look at the straw eaves of the thatched roof.
From the Kuri, a zigzag corridor led us to the main worship hall of Myozen-ji Temple, where the interior was decorated with a series of paintings depicting the Mount Fuji.
On the ground level of the Kuri, we arrived at a beautiful fire hearth where visitors gathered around to smell the burning natural wood.
Before leaving Shirakawa-go, we walked up the hill near the bus station to Shiroyama Observatory Deck (城山天守閣展望台).
The Shiroyama Observatory Deck (城山天守閣展望台) offers the iconic postcard view of Shirakawa-go’s Ogimachi.
Despite the rain, the village of gassho-zukuri houses looked spectacular with the lush green surroundings.
Although most tourists prefer to visit Shirakawa-go in the snowy winter when the gassho-zukuri houses were lit up by flood lights at specific weekends, we didn’t mind to visit in late spring to see the village with its reflective rice paddies and lush green surroundings.
It was touristy, yet the scenery of Shirakawa-go and its traditional gassho-zukuri houses made the visit to this UNESCO World Heritage site more than worthwhile for us.
DAY 6 (1/6): MIYAGAWA MORNING MARKET (宮川朝市), Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山), Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県), Japan, 2018.05.30
Before leaving Takayama we made a brief visit to the Miyagawa Morning Market. Everyday from 6:30am to noon, market stalls selling farm produces, local crafts, snacks, and souvenirs will be set up at the Jinya-mae Market in front of Takayama Jinya and Miyagawa Market along the Miyagawa River. These two morning markets have become popular tourist attractions. We arrived at Miyagawa River at around 6:15am, while a number of vendors were setting up their stalls. We took our time strolling along the river, and were delighted to see a few rows of koinobori (鯉のぼり), the colourful carp windsocks, over the water to celebrate the Children’s Day (子供の日) on 5th of May. They were meant to bring good health and bright future for children. As more vendors got their stalls ready, we turned to the delicious snacks for breakfast. Steady rain began soon after we had our first snacks. We hastily finished them and got ourselves a few local products (miso, dried mushrooms, spices, etc). After returning to our guesthouse to pick up our backpacks, we made it just in time to catch the 8:25am bus for Shirakawa-go, our destination of the day before moving on to stay the night at Ainokura of Gokayama.
The sky was grey and Miyagawa River (宮川) was calm as always. We thought the market stalls wouldn’t be up and running right at 6am so we took our time to stroll along the river.
It was delightful to start the day with a close encounter with a wooden Daikokuten or the God of Luck near the Kaji Bashi Bridge.
Colourful koinobori (鯉のぼり) or carp windsocks were set up (probably for a few weeks around the Children’s Day on 5th of May) over the Miyagawa River (宮川).
Originally the windsocks were used by samurai warriors during battles. In modern times, koinobori or the carp windsocks are meant to bring strength, good health and courage to children.
It was a pleasant scene to have a few rows of colourful koinobori over the calm water of Miyagawa River (宮川).
Some signs said the market opened at 6am and some said 6:30am. Even at 6:30am, not all stalls were set up and visitors were scarce. The grey weather and rainy forecast just made things worse.
Time was still quite early and there weren’t that many visitors around.
We would have to imagine if it was a little later in the day and with finer weather, the market would be much busier.
We would love to get some local produces but we just couldn’t bring them along with us for the rest of the trip.
An old man let us try the samples of the dried shiitake mushrooms. The sample tasted gorgeous and led us to buy a bag of the dried shiitake mushrooms. This bag of dried shiitake turned out to become the best dried shiitake we had ever had at home.
Seven-favored spices is a famous local product. We got a mini bag of spices from the old lady.
After 7am, more stalls were opened as well as the souvenir shops along the opposite side of the pedestrian walkway.
A few stalls were selling beautiful flowers and plants. We would soon found out that flowers were inseparable with village homes in the Japanese Alps area.
An old lady was selling all kinds of miso (味噌). We picked up a pack of Hoba Miso, a regional sweet miso wrapped in a dried hoba leaf (magnolia). Traditionally, the leaf was meant for wrapping the miso and cooking it over the fire.
Local honey vendor was about to open his stall.
Our first snack at the market was the takoyaki or octopus dumplings.
Watching how the takoyaki was made by the vendor was an interesting event in itself.
After takoyaki, we moved to the next stall for fish-shaped mini cakes with various sweet paste.
The takoyaki vendor recommended us to try the award-winning custard pudding at NOIX de COCO (ノアドココ). It was a fabulous suggestion. The vendor was friendly, the pudding delicious, and we got a chance to take a photo of the cute pikachu wearing a pudding hat!
Steady light rain continued and more visitors arrived at the market, but it was time for us to take the bus and move on to our next destination: the traditional gassho-zukuri village ares of Shirakawa-go (白川郷) and Gokayama (五箇山).
DAY 5 (5/5): HIGASHIYAMA WALKING COURSE (東山遊歩道), Hida-Takayama (飛騨高山), Gifu Prefecture (岐阜県), Japan, 2018.05.29
In Kyoto, Higashiyama (東山) is a famous historical district of temples, shrines, pagodas, and old streets. In Takayama, Higashiyama Walking Course (東山遊歩道) that ventures into the quiet side of the city, the Teramachi Temple Area. The 3.5km trail meander through a dozen or so temples and shrines in about 1.5 hour of walking, and does offer a Kyoto-like experience of temple hopping in the eastern side of the Takayama. The Higashiyama Walking Course provides a great alternative from the crowded scenes of Sanmachi Suji District.
After touring the touristy Sanmachi Suji, we turned to the calmer side of Takayama. Following Google Map, we found our way up to Shiroyama Park (城山公園), the lush green hill southeast of the historical district of Takayama.
Apart from lush green mature trees, the Shiroyama Park (城山公園) also contains the ruins of the former Takayama Castle (高山城).
As the castle of the former governor of the Hida Province, Takayama castle was in use from 1588 to 1695.
On our way down to the Teramachi Temple Area, we passed by a stone stele depicting the Three wise monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
We passed by Dairyuji Temple (大隆寺) and its cemetery, continuing to walk downhill.
We left Shiroyama Park via Dairyuji Temple, crossed a canal and entered a quiet residential neighborhood dotted with temples and shrine. The first temple we passed by was the torii gate and stair that led up to the Nishikiyama Shrine (錦山神社).
We continued the Higashiyama Walking Course and reached the next temple: Soyuji Temple (宗猷寺). Located in the southernmost area of Teramachi Temple Area, the Buddhist temple of the Rinzai sect was built in 1632.
We walked over to Zennoji Temple (善応寺) a family temple of the lord of Matsukura castle.
We were then attracted by the flower blossoms, trees and shrubs around a dry garden of Hokkeji Temple (法華寺).
The beautiful wooden structures of Hokkeji Temple (法華寺) are the only Buddhist temple of the Nichiren sect in Hida.
It was already quite late when we arrived at Hokkeji Temple (法華寺). We had both the temple and the popular stone bridge all by ourselves. Although small in scale, the pond and stone bridge at the forecourt evoked a strong sense of nostalgic charm .
Sogenji Temple (素玄寺) is a Soto Zen sect stood next in line in our tour of the Higashiyama Walking Course.
The main hall of Sogenji was relocated here from the ruins of Takayama Castle.
Opposite to Sogenji stood Daiouji Temple (東林山大雄寺). We were particularly drawn to a small shrine with stone statues and a vivid picture of Hell.
Towards the end of our tour of the Higashiyama Walking Course, we reached another tranquil temple complex, the Unryuji Temple (雲龍寺) (many visitors would consider this temple the beginning of the walk).
The gate tower of Unryuji was relocated from the Kouun Pavilion of Takayama Castle. Through the gate, we could see a tranquil residence district down below.
After wandering around the Unryuji Temple, it was time for us to head back to the city centre for dinner. We walked passed a small cemetery near Unryuji and turned left down to the Edogawa River.
We wandered in the small alleyways near Edogawa River, trying to zigzag ourselves back to the touristy city centre.
It was lovely to walk along the river. We followed the water for a while, slowly admiring the traditional houses under the late afternoon sunlight. It did feel like walking in some old neighborhood of Kyoto.
Sake (日本酒), or Japanese rice wine, is a light coloured, sweet taste alcohol made of multiple parallel fermentation of rice. The earliest record of sake drinking in Japan dated back to the 3rd century. Nowadays, it has become a popular alcoholic beverage around the world along with the growing popularity of sushi and ramen. Outside of Japan, sake is just an option of alcoholic beverage. However, within Japan, sake is a living tradition, a national heritage that connects to the local landscape and climate, and a representation of purity and simplicity in the Japanese culture. In the old days, sake was drunk at Shinto festivals, ceremonies and offerings to the gods, and production was made mainly by temples and the imperial court. Then in the 12th century, the general public began to make sake and led to the flourishing scene of sake makers in certain regions in Japan. Not much has changed in the making process since the 16th century.
With its cold climate, pristine water from the Japanese Alps and local rice “Hida-Homare”, Takayama is known as one of the best places for sake production in Japan. In its heyday during the Edo Period, Takayama had 56 sake breweries. Today, there are a handful of the traditional breweries (some say six) remain in the splendid old town of the city. Most of them would offer sake tasting and even a facility visit. Just look for the sugitama (杉玉) hanging outside of the liquor shop entrance. If the sugitama is still green, that means the making of the new sake is underway. If it is brown, then the new sake has reached maturity. Visiting the traditional breweries and doing rounds of sake tasting is one of the most interesting ways to explore Takayama.
With its signature brand Sansha (山車) famed for its muscular umami (うま味) or savory taste, Harada Sake Brewery (原田酒造場) is a highly popular sake brewery in the old town. The brown sugitama (杉玉) indicates that the new sake has reached maturity.
Apart from its shop, visitors may also find the aging tanks in Harada Sake Brewery.
Across the street from Harada stands another popular brewery, the Funasaka Sake Brewery (舩坂酒造店).
With over 300 years of history, Funasaka Sake Brewery has combined generations of experience, innovative technical developments and a new business model.
The complex of Funasaka Sake Brewery includes a shop, bar, restaurant, and a pleasant courtyard.
In the courtyard, large sake barrels are on display at the Funasaka Sake Brewery.
Also with 300 years of history, the Oita Sake Brewery (老田酒造店) has transformed its original brewery at the busy tourist street Kami-Sannomachi (上三之町) into a large shop and bar, while the main brewery has moved outside of the city to Kiyomi, where new technologies and computers are introduced in the sake making.
Oita Sake Brewery specializes in very dry sake and shochu (焼酎) or distilled liquor. Dry sake was considered unfavorable as compared to sweet sake in the old days. However, the trend has gradually changed and dry sake has become popular with soba and steak restaurants.
Just like most other breweries, the store of Oita Sake Brewery designated an area of the store for a causal bar.
Sake and shochu are used at the bar to make cocktails with fruity favours.
Shōki (鍾馗) or Zhong Kui in Chinese is known in Chinese mythology as the king of ghosts and evil beings. It is commonly seen as a guardian spirit to ward off demons. The icon is also popular in traditional Japan. Due to its unpopularity in the old days, dry sake was called “Oni Koroshi” or demon killer, meaning that even demons would die after drinking the dry sake. Oita Sake Brewery (老田酒造店) considers itself the original brand of the “Oni Koroshi” dated over 300 years ago.
Established since 1695, Niki Sake Brewery (二木酒造) is another old sake maker in Takayama that has been in business for 15 generations.
Niki Sake Brewery is famous for its ginjo sake, a premium category of sake that uses rice grains polished to less than 60% of its original size, and fermented in lower temperature in longer period. Ginjo sake is considered to be lighter in taste and more aromatic.
Kawashiri Sake Brewery (川尻酒造場) has been in the industry of sake brewery since 1839. It specializes in jukusei koshu or “aging sake” that uses locally grown rice “hidahomare” and takes two to four years to age.
Kawashiri Sake Brewery (川尻酒造場)
The traditional look of Kawashiri Sake Brewery gives visitors a glimpse of the old Takayama in the Edo Period. Large timber post and beam construction is a Takayama tradition.
Being the smallest brewery in town, Kawashiri rejects new technologies and computers, and relies on the hands of its four brewery employees to produce high quality sake at an affordable price.
Each year, six of Takayama’s sake breweries will open their doors to offer brewery tours. Kawashiri Sake Brewery is one of the participating sake makers.
For 500 yen visitors can get a taste for three of Kawashiri’s sake.
Of course, we couldn’t resist to sit down for a sip of the sake in an interior full of heritage of the magnificent Takayama, the centuries old city in the Japanese Alps.