Autumn in the Japanese Alps

Shirakawago, Japan – November 2019

On my most recent overseas holiday I travelled to Japan, an increasingly popular destination which has become one of my favourite countries to visit. On a friend’s hot tip, we incorporated a night in Shirakawago into our itinerary.

Shirakawago (also spelled Shirakawa-go) is situated in the Japanese Alps in Gifu prefecture, central Honshu (the largest island in the Japanese archipelago). It is known for its traditional farmhouses with steep thatched straw roofs, named gassho-zukuri in Japanese meaning “praying hands”. This distinct architectural style is unique to the Hida area in the Japanese Alps, and looking at the roofs shaped like hands pressed together in prayer, it’s easy to see where the name came from.

The steep angles of the roofs prevent snow piling up during the harsh and unforgiving winters of the alpine region. All the traditional farmhouses in Shirakawago share other common features besides the 60-degree angle roof inclination, namely, irori (sunken hearths) in the middle of the living room, the absence of nails in their construction, and a north-south orientation to minimise wind resistance.

The main tourist village in Shirakawago is called Ogimachi. Along with the neighbouring village of Gokayama, the village was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. It has the largest concentration of gassho-zukuri buildings in Japan, with over 110 farmhouses, some of which are over 250 years old.

Located deep in the mountains, Shirakawago has spent most of its history as a remote spot. It is a relatively difficult to reach destination, not close to any train lines (and certainly not any shinkansen lines). By car or bus, it’s about a 75-minute drive from Kanazawa near the coast in Ishikawa prefecture (from where we came), and a 50-minute drive from Takayama (where we would be heading next).

It’s a common day trip option for visitors to Hida Takayama, with tourism growing particularly since it was named a World Heritage site. However, if you choose to stay overnight in a ryokan or minshuku (traditional Japanese inns or guesthouses, often family-operated), you will get to experience the village after the day-trippers have left in the evening. It’s also nicely tranquil in the early morning before everyone starts arriving by the busload.

We stayed at a ryokan called Shiroyamakan. This historic building has been selected as one of Japan’s National Traditional Buildings, and it was built in 1884, in the middle of a hugely significant period of Japanese history known as the Meiji era. Under Emperor Meiji, Japan was quite rapidly transformed from an isolated feudal society at risk of colonisation by European powers into a modern, industrialised nation-state. It saw the end of the Tokugawa shogunate and the abolition of the samurai, the establishment of a constitution and parliament, and the industrial revolution. The capital was moved from Kyoto (capital for over a millennium under Tokugawa rule) to the old eastern capital of Edo – renamed Tokyo by the seventeen-year old emperor.

Ryokans have traditional Japanese rooms with tatami mats and futons which are only rolled out in the evening. There are only four rooms in Shiroyamakan and the inn has been run by a family for several generations. (We got to meet most of them!)

There is a vantage point (“observatory”) with a great panoramic view of the valley and the Ogimachi village on the previous site of the castle Shiroyama Tenbodai. A forgivingly gentle path up the hill only takes 15-20 minutes to walk from the village, but our ryokan offered us a short tour of the area in a minivan, which stopped at this viewpoint for photos. There is also a shuttle bus (200 yen one way) which heads to the observatory from the Shirakawago bus stop. (The only option in winter, when the footpath is closed due to snow.)

The beauty of the village from this spot makes it worth lingering here, despite the other tourists. Seeing the area from the observatory, I could imagine how isolated the village would have been in the past, nestled between tall mountains with incredibly heavy snowfall in winter. The geography and climate of the region meant villages would be cut off from each other and from other regions of Japan for much of the year, contributing to the development of unique architectural styles.

As the sun went down, it was time to head back to the ryokan for dinner.

Let me tell you, the dinner alone is worth staying a night for. The star of the gorgeously elaborate meal was definitely the local delicacy known as Hida beef (or Hida wagyu, which just means Japanese beef).

Hida beef is a highly regarded Japanese beef brand that rivals other famous brands such as Kobe or Matsuzaka beef. The Hida brand name is given to beef which has been raised within Gifu prefecture and has meat quality classified as A/B rank and 5/4/3 grade (marbling).

The presentation and plating, as you can see, was pure delight with seasonal flourishes.

We were also served another delicious example of local produce known as maitake mushrooms on the grill.

Maitake mushrooms grow in clusters at the base of trees such as oak. The mushroom is commonly known among English speakers as hen-of-the-woods, ram’s head, or sheep’s head, but the Japanese call it “dancing mushroom”. According to a Japanese legend as recounted in this article, a group of Buddhist nuns and woodcutters met on a mountain trail, where they discovered a fruiting of maitake mushrooms emerging from the forest floor. Rejoicing at their discovery of this delicious mushroom, they danced to celebrate.

Maitake has been used in Japan and China as part of a traditional diet to treat diabetes and hypertension. Like other medicinal mushrooms, it contains a complex sugar called beta-glucan. It’s even undergoing study for anti-cancer activity (although there are no robust scientific data for its clinical use yet).

After dinner, I went to the onsen for some relaxation, which was pretty much empty for most of the time I spent there. I personally enjoyed the outdoor spring much more than the indoor one, and I spent most of my onsen experience sitting in the hot water with the mountains looming around me in the dark and nothing but the stars for company.

The next morning, we were treated to a traditional breakfast of hoba miso: fermented soybean paste (miso) that is grilled on magnolia leaves (hoba) over a claypot charcoal grill (shichirin) until it bubbles at the edges. The magnolia leaves are soaked in water first, which stops them from burning.

Hoba miso is a regional specialty and is usually served with leek or scallions and a bowl of white rice. It is sometimes an accompaniment to Hida beef. The miso is both sweet and salty, and full of umami. In older times, farmers would eat hoba miso as okazu (a side dish to accompany rice) as other produce was scarce in the area during the isolated winter months.

Among the many beautifully presented small dishes at breakfast, we were also served a small portion of dark meat of which I tried and failed to guess the identity and provenance. It turned out to be local bear meat (kuma niku). I was not sure I had even known there were bears in Japan, but apparently there are, and they are both fair game and a Hida region delicacy.

In fact, our hosts told us that last summer, bears had come down from the mountains and into the village. One bear had attacked a villager and ripped off an ear. They were killed by local hunters, and the villagers enjoyed the spoils.

After breakfast it was time to venture out and see the village before the busloads of tourists arrived. As the morning sun peeked over the mountains, the first rays of sunshine hit the thatched roofs, making rising steam visible against the pale blue sky.

Walking around Shirakawago was like stepping into some kind of rustic autumn fairytale. The village is a postcard-perfect place, not just for the iconic gassho-zukuri farmhouses, but also for its idyllic rice fields, water channels, and vibrantly coloured (at least in autumn) forests reminiscent of the picturesque settings found in Japanese anime. Some views really appeared like stills from a Miyazaki film, rendered in 3D. It was easy to imagine a Joe Hisaishi piano tune playing over the sound of birdsong and running water.

The villagers rethatch the roofs in springtime using grass harvested during autumn. Traditionally, all the villagers join together to work on one house, making quick work of the task. In the past, their houses would be rethatched every 40 to 50 years. However, these days the roofs are rethatched less frequently as hearths have been exchanged for modern methods of heating. We saw one farmhouse in the process of rethatching, looking a bit naked with its exposed wooden roof beams.

Throughout the village, there were trees bursting with bright orange, yellow and red foliage, and neatly lined fields of rice. And the occasional scarecrow.

At one end of the village there was a Shinto shrine, with a shimenawa (enclosing rope) hanging from the torii gate. Shimenawa are lengths of straw or hemp rope used for ritual purification in the Shinto religion, believed to act as a ward against evil spirits and often set up at a ground-breaking ceremony before construction begins on a new building. They are frequently festooned with zigzag-shaped paper streamers called shide.

We spent a couple more hours wandering around the village and then it was time to leave for the larger mountain town of Hida Takayama.

As we headed back across the Shogawa river and up the mountain, the village disappeared from view behind the thick forest.

I’ve only seen pictures of course, but Shirakawago looks strikingly different in each of the four seasons (which are even more distinctly pronounced, thanks to the high altitude): blanketed in thick white snow in winter, splashed with pink cherry blossoms in spring, painted vivid green in summer with rice fields bordered by sunflowers and hydrangeas.

I think getting to experience Shirakawago in all its blazing fall glory was really very special, but I wouldn’t mind coming back to see the whole place turned into a winter wonderland, snow clinging to the thatched roofs and hearths burning inside. In January and February, visitors who stay the night can catch special illumination events when farmhouses are lit up and the entire village is bathed in a frosty glow.

As if I really needed a reason to return though. This remote gem ensconced in the mountains may be one of the prettiest places I’ve been to in my travels, and the aesthetic benchmark is already set high in a country with such love and appreciation of natural beauty. It is well worth a detour and I would suggest a trip here to anyone heading to Japan.

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