World Heritage Site – Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama
We woke up and had a traditional Japanese breakfast at the Ryokan then went to visit the Takaoka Daibutsu. It was interesting to see, but not nearly as old as the one at Kamakura. Wandering around the area a little, we walked by some old buildings which are always nice to see simply because so much of Japan was lost during the War and old structures can at times seem rare.
After our short walk around Takaoka, we wandered back by the Ryokan to pick up our bags, back through the train station and out the other side, and onwards to Zuiryu Temple.
Zuiryu temple is a beautiful temple in Takaoka and probably Takaoka’s most interesting attraction. The atmosphere is very peaceful and the area is devoid of the large crowds which make many tourist sites interesting but slightly painful. We walked up and down the long corridors and throughout the temple complex, admiring the architecture and the peaceful, calm atmosphere throughout.
After visiting Zuiryu-ji, we walked to トヨタレンタカー (Toyota re n ta ka-aaa), Toyota Rent-a-Car, the omnipresent car rental shop which, as its name suggests, only rents Toyota vehicles. The lady helping us rent the car was somewhat dismayed by my International Driver’s License and seemed slightly concerned that the foreigner who spoke essentially no Japanese would be driving instead of the local with the local license.
There was a moderate amount of slowish traffic until we got out of the built up areas around Takaoka. But before long, we we were up onto the winding mountain roads. Flying around corners through beautiful mountain valleys, we went in and out of tunnels and what appeared to be snow shelters as we approached the ancient mountain villages around Gokayama, which are part of a World Heritage Site.
Our first stop was Ainokura (相倉), a small village of gasshō-zukuri (合掌造) style houses. The village is active in the sense that people live there, but it’s predominantly reliant on tourist visits. Ainokura is set on a hillside above a more modern town area and has beautiful views towards the mountains and surrounding hillsides. Several of the old houses are set up as museums and show off aspects of daily life as well as the silkworm cultivation for which the upper floors of the houses were used. The village is amongst small terraced rice fields which are actively cultivated. It’s a bit difficult to tell how much is real and how much is for show, but there are certainly houses which are not open to tourists, tractors for tending to the fields, and small signs of modernity amongst the well-preserved structures.
After leaving Ainokura, we drove a few more miles to Suganuma (菅沼), a similar village. Suganuma is a bit smaller than Ainokura, but also a bit more serene. There are maybe 20 or so structures in the traditional style in a small valley next to a river. We walked around the village looking at the old buildings before sitting down to lunch at one of the restaurants. I ate soba, which was very tasty. Then, we went through a pedestrian tunnel to another small area of old structures overlooking the river with a view to the nearby highway. The highways are built somewhat like those I’ve seen in Italy: straight through mountains and over valleys. Often times, you’ll emerge from a tunnel, drive a few hundred meters across a valley, then cut right through the next mountain. We got back in the car and set off for Shirakawa-go and Gifu prefecture.
The drive from Suganuma to Shirakawa-go was nice and took us through somewhat isolated areas. But it was clear when we arrived at Shirakawa-go that we had come upon a much larger tourist site than the previous sites we’d visited. We obviously drove in from the “wrong” side and it was a bit unclear at first exactly where to go, but we eventually found the giant parking lot complete with large tour buses. From there, it was a short walk across a foot bridge supported beneath by cables. The town is another good example of the thatched-roof style buildings seen in the other towns, but is much larger. It was almost sunset, so after visiting a small temple, we walked up a nearby hill to get a good overview of the town, which is surrounded in the distance by larger, snow-capped mountains. It was a really amazing perspective on Japan, which is usually seen through the lens of bright lights and big cities.
After leaving Shirakawa-go, it was a relatively short drive to Takayama, a small city with familiar aspects of Japan, such as JR service (all of the small towns were served only by buses. After arriving at our hotel—which was a mixture of Ryokan and large multistory hotel—we walked the town a bit and had ramen for dinner. After a long day of driving, it was time for sleep before the trip onwards and out of the mountains to Nagoya.