R and I decided on Takayama and Shirakawago for our long-weekend trip. If there was one thing I got out of it, it was a reminder that the air in Osaka is not so great. The pleasant remoteness of Takayama, and moreso Shirakawago, was made apparent by the six hour journey by train into the mountains in the heart of Gifu, and it was nice to breathe clean air again.
We took a train from Osaka via Nagoya because we didn’t know there was a direct train by way of Maibara that takes only four hours. Oh well. The two hour, twenty minute ride from Nagoya to Takayama went by quickly because of the fine views of the Hida river and the surrounding mountains.
Takayama is a small town dubbed “little Kyoto” for its similarities including picturesque canals, temples and old wooden houses from the Edo era. Frankly I find it more appealing than Kyoto. It must be cold in the winter, with high snow banks and wet snowfalls, but a trip there at any time of the year is sure to be rewarding. We arrived on a cloudy day, and it soon began to rain, but that didn’t dampen our spirits. It’s easy to walk around the main part of the town; everything is close to the train station. Particularly appealing is the three or four streets that make up the town’s main attraction: Sanmachi suji, a neighbourhood of old wooden houses dating from the 18th century and earlier, when Takayama thrived as a city of wealthy merchants. In these streets you can find craft shops, tea and coffee shops, sake breweries, old homes, souvenir shops and restaurants.
Other sightseeing spots in Takayama are: Takayama Jinja, a historic government building that used to house visiting officials from Edo; Takayama -shi Kyodo-kan, the local history museum; Hirata kinen-kan, the Folk Art Museum; a number of heritage houses; Hachimangu Shrine; Teramachi, a temple district; and two “morning markets” along the Miyagawa river. Also noteworthy is the surrounding rural area, offering a glimpse into rural Japan.
From Takayama, Shirakawago is two hours away by bus. It is famous for its giant, thatched-roof houses and was made a World Heritage Site in 1995. I didn’t know anything about the place, but became very interested in the way the massive houses were constructed and maintained. Called “gasho-zukuri” because their steep, thatched roofs look like praying hands, they are characterized by a multi-storey attic that was used to raise silkworms.
Gasho style houses are made entirely of wood and grass, with the first floor being built by professional carpenters while the roof is built by villagers who band together in a co-operative, or labour-sharing union. The roofing is done by 100-200 villagers, young and old, and takes one full day. They used to be replaced every 40-50 years, but due to changes in materials re-roofing is done approximately every 30 years now. Pampas grass, which is grown locally, is currently used for the thatched roofs. In the past, kariyasu was preferred since it was easier to grow.
Structurally, gasho houses are very sound, with carefully selected timber used for the house’s frame. The roof and the first floor are actually separate, so when a strong wind blows, the bottom part of the triangular roof frame moves and disperses the force. The roof frame itself is made with tightly woven branches of the mansaku tree, making the roof flexible.
You can mill about the town and visit some of it’s more famous gahso houses to see what they look like inside. Some of them have restaurants serving the local specialty of buckwheat noodles, while others have been made into craftshops and souvenirs stores.
Photographically, Shirakawago is very interesting. There is a small hill to the north of the town from which there is a wonderful view. On the southern side there are terraced rice fields. If you look at the town map, which is availalble at the tourist information centre, there are some pointers for taking great pictures from certain vantage points.
I highly recommend the Heritage Museum, a collection of two dozen gahso style houses that were relocated and rebuilt in this open-air museum at the entrance of the town, just opposite the bus station. Each Gasho house bears the name of the family that once owned it, and one can get a real sense of how people used to live. Many of these houses were relocated here because the construction of the nearby dam on the Sho river forced many communities to be abandoned. Other houses, particularly from a village called Kazura, were moved here after the town’s aging residents decided on an exodus because life in the mountains during the harsh winters had become too difficult. Indeed, if you spend some time in the detailed galleries (located in the attics of some of the houses), you can get a real sense of the unique lifestyle –and hardships — that characterized the Japan alps in the early 20th century and earlier.
Shirakawago is one of those rare destinations that has a totally different face depending on the season in which you visit. R and I arrived shortly before the rice harvest. The rice fields were full and yellow. Spring and summer must also be special, for the cherry blossoms in April and the rice planting in June. Of course the mounds of snow in winter have their charm, too.
Our trip to the heart of Gifu was very rewarding. Takayama is a nice little town, great for a weekend escape from your standard Japanese metropolis, while Shirakawago was a picturesque, educational, and photographic getaway like none other I had visited in Japan. Best of all, there was much-needed clean air throughout.