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.
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.
Completed in 1959, the National Museum of Western Art is the only building in the Far East designed by modernist architectural maestro Le Corbusier. In 2016, the museum building has been inscribed in UNESCO’s World Heritage along with 16 other Le Corbusier’s works such as Villa Savoye, Unite d’habitation Marseille, Notre-Dame-Haut de Ronchamp, Chandigarh Capitol Complex, etc. We came for the modernist architecture, although many paintings and sculptures on display by world renowned artists were quite interesting too.
Precast concrete panels were used as the main cladding material for the museum.
We were greeted at the front entrance by Émile-Antoine Bourdelle’s Hercules the archer. Bourdelle was an influential French sculptor in late 19th and early 20th century.
The Thinker at Tokyo National Museum of Western Art was made after the death of Auguste Rodin.
The lobby atrium of the museum was a pleasant surprise. The high volume of the space and the trunk-like columns drew our attention to the unique skylight above.
A skylight consisted of multiple triangles provides an interesting design feature to the space, and also magnificent indirect lighting.
An architectural model provides a sectional view of the atrium and shows the exterior form of the skylight feature.
At one side of the atrium, a zigzag ramp led all visitors to the main exhibition on the upper level.
On the upper deck, we could get a clear view of the lobby atrium with its statues.
Again, the concept of bringing indirect sunlight into the interior was the clear intent from Le Corbusier. The glazing bulkhead above the paintings provided the main source of ambient light.
The collection of the museum ranges from Renaissance to the modern ages.
The glazing feature brings in indirect sunlight, but it also creates a long bulkhead along one side of the exhibition hall.
Some of the paintings and statues were interesting, but our focus was always on the architecture itself.
At the museum courtyard, we could see the various facade cladding materials used at different periods of expansion.
At the forecourt, another zigzag ramp supposedly leads visitors to the lower courtyard. Now the entire area, including the exterior ramp, is closed off.
After the National Museum of Western Art, we thought we had enough dosage of art and history for the day. We were quite tired due to the red-eye flight. We decided to check out another piece of architectural gem in Tokyo, Kenzo Tange’s St. Mary’s Cathedral in Sekiguchi.
As first time visitors to Kyoto, we were eager to see the autumn colours at the world famous Kiyomizu-dera (清水寺), especially when we knew that the iconic Kiyomizu Stage (清水の舞台) would undergo a major renovation starting from January 2017. It was the second last day of the season that Kiyomizu-dera opened for autumn special night viewing, and according to local weather forecast, Kyoto’s weather would turn bad in a day’s time. Without hesitation we hopped on a bus near Kitano Tenmangu and headed back to Higashiyama. We had some rest on the 45-minute bus ride. After getting off, we picked one alleyway to walk uphill. Soon we arrived at the magnificent Hokanji Yasaka Pagoda (法観寺 八坂の塔). As we walked uphill, we felt like we were pilgrims going back in time, entering into a world of narrow stone alleyways, centuries-old timber houses and Buddhist buildings. Along the way, most shops were already closed, but a few souvenir and snack shops still opened to serve the night visitors of Kiyomizu-dera. Over our heads, we soon discovered a strong beam of blue light in the sky, pointing from Mount Otowa (音羽山) where the temple was situated, outwards to the infinite sky above the city. According to the official website, the light embodies the Kannon (観音)’s compassion, brightening the streets of the ancient city. For us, it was like a guidance leading us uphill. It get more crowded as we walked closer to the temple. Minutes later we arrived at the stepped plaza of Niomon Gate (仁王門). In front of the famous Saimon Gate (西門), we lined up to get our admission tickets from a temporary shelter and delightfully walked up the stair to enter the temple complex.
The autumn foliage at Kiyomizu-dera had past its peak a few days ago. Nonetheless, all visitors including us were excited to tour around the celebrated complex under the illuminations of floodlights and embellishment of the remaining autumn maples. At the main hall, we took off our shoes, paid our respect in front of the sanctuary, and admired the illuminated autumn colours down in the valley below Kiyomizu Stage. Standing 13m above the valley, the Kiyomizu Stage (清水の舞台) had been the centerpiece of the temple for centuries. Without using a single nail, the Kiyomizu Stage is made of 410 Hinoki wooden boards supported by 18 Zelkova pillars using the hole and grooves technique known as the Kakezukuri Method. From the stage, a stone path led us to the opposite side of the valley, where a large crowd gathered in front of Okunoin Hall (奥の院) looking back to admire the main hall and Kiyomizu Stage. Perched above the fire red maples, the huge roof of the main hall made of Hinoki bark and the lattice structure of Kiyomizu Stage looked gorgeously timeless, while the comet-like beam of blue light connected the temple with the glittering urban skyline beyond. The path overlooking the valley of colourful leaves then led us further away from the main hall until reaching the base of the small pagoda where we headed down to the valley. In the valley, a tree-lined path brought us all the way back to the bottom of the Kiyomizu Stage, where the adjacent Otowa waterfall (音羽の瀧) came down in three separated streams. Another crowd of visitors formed a long queue at the waterfall, waiting for their turn to drink the water with the special cup provided. As we headed to the temple exit, we passed by a mirror-like pond with magnificent reflections of autumn leaves and the orange Three-storey Pagoda above the cliff.
We were overjoyed for having such a fruitful day of sightseeing. To give this beautiful day a satisfying closure we opted for a late dinner. We walked downhill from Kiyomizu-dera, passed through Yasaka Shrine (八坂神社), and entered the lively district of Gion (祇園), the active area of traditional geisha. We picked Okaru (おかる), a small udon restaurant popular with geiko since established in 1923. We ordered two of their signature noodle bowls and felt truly grateful of finishing our wonderful first day of Kyoto.
Passing by the Hokanji Yasaka Pagoda (法観寺 八坂の塔) as we headed up to Kiyomizu-dera.
Minutes later we arrived at the stepped plaza of Niomon Gate (仁王門).
In front of the famous Saimon Gate (西門), we lined up to get our admission tickets from a temporary shelter, while the beam of blue light shot up the sky behind the temple.
Stone statue in front of the Three-storey Pagoda.
Looking back out to the Three-storey Pagoda behind entering the main hall.
Visitors stepping into the timber structure of the main hall.
Inside the main hall, the sanctuary is consisted of three sections: outer, inner, and innermost. Only the outer sanctuary is open to the public.
Visitors gathered on the Kiyomizu Stage photographing the skyline of Kyoto.
The strong beam of blue light shot out from Mount Otowa behind the temple.
Behind the Kiyomizu Stage, a prominent stair led down to the Otowa waterfall.
Iconic overview of Kiyomizu Stage, main hall, autumn maples, blue light and Kyoto skyline.
The beam of blue light pointed towards Kyoto Tower in a distance.
The stair adjacent to the timber structure of the Kiyomizu Stage.
The amazing structure of Kiyomizu Stage lit up with floodlight.
Lanterns indicating special night viewing, which happens three times a year: cherry season in spring, three days of Thousand-day Pilgrimage/Special Viewing of nainaijin in the Main Hall in the summer, and the maple colours in autumn.
Autumn foliage and the Three-storey Pagada reflected in the pond near the exit.
Autumn colours, blue light and the Three-storey Pagoda.
By the time we returned to the Niomon Gate (仁王門), Kiyomizu-dera was already closed for the night.
We passed by the lanterns at Yasaka Shrine on the quest for our late dinner.
We picked Okaru (おかる) in Gion for a simple noodle bowl.
We ordered two of the signature dishes: curry and cheese udon and local duck udon.
Curry and cheese udon and local duck udon.
Our posts on 2016 Kyoto and Nara:
OUR FIRST KYOTO STORY, Japan
DAY 1: ARRIVAL AT HIGASHIYAMA (東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: RYOANJI TEMPLE (龍安寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: NINNAJI TEMPLE (仁和寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: KINKAKUJI TEMPLE (金閣寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: KITANO TENMANGU SHRINE (北野天満宮), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 1: NIGHT AT KIYOMIZU-DERA (清水寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: MORNING STROLL IN SOUTHERN HIGASHIYAMA (東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: KIYOMIZU DERA (清水寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: KIYOMIZU DERA to KENNINJI, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: ○△□ and Chouontei Garden and Ceiling of Twin Dragons, KENNINJI TEMPLE (建仁寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: SFERA BUILDING (スフェラ・ビル), SHIRKAWA GION (祇園白川), KAMO RIVER (鴨川) & DOWNTOWN, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 2: YAKITORI HITOMI (炭焼創彩鳥家 人見), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: MORNING IN NORTHERN HIGASHIYAMA (北東山), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: NANZENJI (南禅寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: PHILOSOPHER’S PATH (哲学の道), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: HONENIN (法然院), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: GINKAKUJI (銀閣寺), Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 3: CRAB AND SAKE, Kyoto, Japan
DAY 4: HORYUJI (法隆寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: TODAIJI TEMPLE (東大寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: KASUGA TAISHA (春日大社), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: KOFUKUJI (興福寺), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: NAKAGAWA MASASHICHI SHOTEN (中川政七商店 遊中川), Nara (奈良), Japan
DAY 4: RAMEN & CHRISTMAS LIGHTS, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 5: FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE (伏見稲荷大社) Part 1, Kyoto (京都), Japan
DAY 5: FUSHIMI INARI SHRINE (伏見稲荷大社) Part 2, Kyoto, Japan
DAY 5: FAREWELL KYOTO, Kyoto, Japan