Japan Travel Blog April 2015: Shirakawa-go

Nestled along the Shogawa River Valley between Gifu and Toyama is a village that has the most curious set of houses. I remember being asleep when our tour bus rolled to a stop here at Shirakawa-go, and even at my groggy state it’s hard not to notice the houses with their large and steeply-slanted thatched roofing. It’s hard to ignore as well how much they give the area such a charming small-town provincial feel.

Apparently this style of housing is called Gassho-zukuri architecture, with the roofs looking like hands pressed in prayer. Gassho (合掌) literally translates to ‘hands together’. Some people describe it as a book standing open, but whatever your preference for description, these roofs have helped the houses in Shirakawa-go withstand heavy snowfall during winter for over 250 years. And this area gets some of the heaviest snowfall in the world too! The thatching uses dried straw from crops and is exceptionally sturdy, supported below by tall wooden beams.

The restaurant we stopped to have lunch in was Konjaku, and it gave a glimpse of what the inside of the Gassho-zukuri houses look like.

Now before I continue babbling on about the lovely little village of Shirakawa and its unique houses, let’s talk about the lunch we had first because it was a good one!

One of the most memorable things about this whole trip was the number of kaiseki meals we had, and all of them were fantastic to varying degrees. Some were better sets than others, but all were pleasurable nonetheless for a Japanese food-lover like me.

Kaiseki preparation is considered a type of art in Japan wherein balancing the taste, texture, appearance, and colours of the food are taken into consideration. The components of the kaiseki are served in small portions, but there are so many dishes that by the end of the meal you will find yourself quite satisfied! There is always rice and soup included in the kaiseki, but it’s everything else that we should pay more attention to.

The shiizakana or main dishes for this particular meal consisted of thin marinated slices of pork and a grilled fish. These are the dishes you eat with the rice.

I love cold soba. Even though the weather was freezing I was so happy when I saw this bowl!

I thought I’d include a photo of the plump strawberry we had for dessert, just because Japan is well known for its strawberries. My Dad and I bought some boxes of strawberries from a supermarket in Tokyo while there, and they were the best strawberries I have ever eaten IN MY LIFE. The strawberries we ate in this meal, while juicy, weren’t as sweet. Still, I just thought I should put it out there– BUY STRAWBERRIES IN JAPAN!

Admittedly not the best set meal we had, but still, the meat was perfectly seasoned and the fish was perfectly done. And the noodles! When it comes to the food here in Japan, I have very little reason to complain.

With stomachs full and ready to go, it was time to explore the World Heritage Village that is the Shirakawa-go itself. The village has a river running through it, and the only way for tourists to cross is via this bridge. Not quite sure if the locals have some sort of alternate route though.

You might notice that there is a steady influx of tourists here. Apart from being named a UNESCO Heritage site, the interest is also thanks in part to the village being the backdrop of an anime and Japanese game called Higurashi no Naku Koro ni (ひぐらしのなく頃に). Any anime lovers out there who have seen this show? Do tell me if it’s any good because I haven’t seen it! I think the village inspired the setting for other animes as well.

All the while we were here it did not stop raining, and somehow I managed to survive the cold! It’s not so much that I can’t stand the cold but I have to admit I was a bit underdressed for the weather. I brought an umbrella for the rain and completely forgot about the fact that the air gets colder when it rains because there’s still a bit of snow left in these parts. My jacket wasn’t the warmest one.

The rain fell in fat cold rounds that almost looked like tiny snowdrops. They certainly FELT like snow the moment they touched my bare skin. Brrrrrr.

I guess we can pretend for a second that it’s snowing? Truthfully I feel like this village would’ve been magnificent to explore in winter. It would be like walking inside one of those miniature Christmas villages people put up on display during the yuletide season.

Since we came here in the springtime, the earth was beginning to sway with life again even though snow was still scattered on the ground here and there. The village has plenty of fields stretching from one house to another, and added to the fact that it is surrounded by forests and mountains, Shirakawa-go is indeed quite picturesque!

The really interesting bit I learned about these Gassho-zukuri houses is how even the orientation of the houses follow a specific plan. They face north or south to minimize wind resistance. The direction they are built is also relative to the sun– meaning they build it facing whichever way will keep the rooms inside their houses cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Maximizing and minimizing the sun’s effects at the same time? Truly the human mind can think of such incredible things, and the Japanese especially have proven this to be true.

Many of the houses here are huge, mostly because large families live in it alongside their extended family. Since the roofs are really high, there’s a lot of space to build an attic. Some residents use their attic to cultivate silkworms, and my only regret is not knowing that there are actually some locals who have opened their homes to the public so that even tourists can witness the kind of lives they lead here.

This area below is the “postcard spot” of Shirakawa-go. I couldn’t be bothered to get a good photo with the complete igloo because I was at this point freezing a little bit. I literally just stood on a covered sidewalk trying to rub feeling back into my hands haha! I got hands that turn into creamsicles so easily!

Thankfully right across this major landmark are a set of stalls selling food! This is where I opted to warm up, thinking that maybe I should wait for the rain to ease up a bit so I can walk around the village more. (For the record, holding an umbrella while taking photos is not easy.) But nope, the rain only bore down harder.

So my Dad and I just decided to get some warm snacks on sticks to help fend off the cold. It didn’t work so much but these were yummy. The oblongish thing is a rice cake brushed with sweet teriyaki sauce.

You might have noticed the people in the background carrying the transparent umbrellas. That’s a thing here in Japan, and you can totally get yourself one of these from the souvenir stores here in the village. It’s certainly useful for a dreary dark day like this. The rain did not stop even for a minute as we made our way back and by the time we boarded the tour bus I’m drained from fending off the cold! Would’ve been nicer to explore this place with a bit of sun.

To get a full Shirakawa-go experience, the recommended duration of stay is at least overnight so you can actually experience living in a gassho-zukuri house. Don’t forget to sample local delicacies and maybe pay a visit to the onsen/bath house here, if you decide to come. The charms of this village are different from other old villages I’ve been to before. I certainly see why animes choose to draw in sights and scenes from here!

I’m going to squeeze in some photos of where we lodged for the night after our visit to Shirakawa Village. It’s called the Unazuki Grand Hotel, and from the outside it looks like something off a horror-driven RPG game. Sorry but that’s what entered my mind! 😛 Rest assured the inside is not scary at all.

The hotel is located in Toyama, and if you look at it from this angle it’s hard to gauge just how big it is. Entering the lobby I’m surprised by the arrangement of the sofas as it reminds me a bit of a dorm’s common room, or maybe even the sitting area at a library. This is where I ended up spending a good deal of my evening because the WiFi signal was strongest down here hehe…

This is the entrance to their onsen (hot bath). As usual, red is the entrance for the ladies and blue for men.

The furnishings in this hotel are quite straightforward, and the way that it looks lived in truly makes me think of school and dormitories. Even the breakfast area is like a cafeteria! You are given a tray and some empty plates to fill as you slide along the different food counters. I liked that we could grill our own seafood.

When it came to dinner though it was a different matter entirely. We dined in a private room with tatami flooring, which meant sitting on the floor with no shoes on. I was growing accustomed to this way of eating to be honest, and I was even starting to really like it. Also, how they arranged our tables, chairs, and meals… What is this perfection!? Seriously.

I actually thought the kaiseki we had here was the best (or at least, it was my favourite) among all we had during the whole trip. Yes every kaiseki we had served only the freshest cuts of raw meat, but this specific kaiseki offered me so many flavourful dishes on top of that fresh sushi.

Shall we get a little closer?

This was my favourite plate in the bunch:

Everything is as delicious as it looks. Just rightly seasoned too! Umami galore mixed with the freshness of the seafood.

Another thing I surprisingly enjoyed are these tiny fried shrimp. Don’t forget to squeeze lemon on them!

Here’s another one of my favourites that thankfully appears in every kaiseki meal. The chawanmushi (茶碗蒸し) is a gently steamed egg custard that has shrimp, fish cakes, and ginko nut inside. They are incredibly soft and incredibly delicious, with a layer of soup on top.

And just when I thought I could eat no more, dessert arrives. Japanese cheesecake with a brûléed top, and some matcha pudding. Both were delicious and not too sweet! An amazing way to end an amazing meal no doubt!

The rooms we all retired into after dinner are, as I mentioned, a traditional ryokan tatami room. The rooms in Unazuki aren’t that big, but I find them nice and warm. The space is just right for two futons side by side.

There is also a little sitting area leading to the balcony door here, and when I stepped out to get some fresh air the next morning, this was the view that greeted me.

How does that not energize you for another full day of exploring?


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