Admit, we all have Pinterest dream destinations? Those picture-perfect places that we intently stalk and save on our boards secretly fantasizing about the day we actually get to see them with our own eyes. Places that captivate our mind so much that we cannot rest until we locate them on the map, figure out how to get there and start looking at our budget to see how to make it all happen. Well, I have long had Pinterest board dedicated to Japan which kept me inspired. While traveling to Kyoto and strolling through Gion district has always been an ultimate dream of mine (duh), my list didn’t end there (insatiable, I know). But can you really blame me? One day I put my eyes on a photo of Ogimachi in Shirakawa-go, an old Japanese village buried in snow that looked absolutely surreal.
This image never left my mind, and I vowed to make it there sooner or later. Last month, I made this dream come true (although it was hard to believe it and I asked Mandy to pinch me a few times)!
After enjoying full day in Takayama, we booked a tour to Shirakawa-go thinking it would be more convenient, but as soon as we arrived we realized that two hours allocated for the tour were nowhere near enough to soak up the charm of this village, so we decided to stay behind and explore the surrounds at a relaxed pace.
Ever felt like you were in a dream? or a fairy tale? I certainly did. Upon arrival to the small bus station you have to cross a suspended bridge that hovers over Shokawa river leading to Ogimachi village. It feels like you step back in time to the Edo period, or better yet, to some imaginary world of shoguns and samurais. You are instantly engulfed by the zen-ish rustic atmosphere of the village. Life here is slow, traditional and intangibly charming.
The entire landscape is like an enchanting painting of a folktale (only in 4D). Lovely gassho-zukuri houses are planted among verdant green rice fields and surrounded by colorful gardens, orchards and Lilly ponds. You hear the water running through the creeks and energetic cicadas singing, the wind gently blows over the blooming meadows while the lush forest of cedar trees hugs the village and fill your lungs with fresh alpine air. During a few hours I spent there I felt incredibly calm and relaxed, detached from the hustle of the world physically and mentally.
Ogimachi village in Shirakawa-go area was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1959. Dozens of tourists travel to the remote village every day to admire gassho-zukuri houses some of which are 250 years old. Due to harsh and unforgiving winters with a lot of snow, the roofs of the houses are thatched and steeply angled to prevent the snow from piling up. And in summer the straw keeps the houses cool. “Gassho” comes from the Japanese word for prayer, as the steep shape of the roofs resembles praying hands. Astonishingly, these houses were built without nails, pegs, or brackets. Complex joinery, ropes, and strips of hazel wood hold the beams together. They are robust enough to withstand winter storms and earthquakes.
Currently many of the old farmhouses have been adapted into shops, museums, restaurants, and inns where you can spend the night. Besides just walking around and marveling the historic architecture, there are a few sights that you might consider visiting. Needless to say everything is within 5-minute walk away from each other.
Start at the Ogimachi Joseki Observation Deck located on top of the hillside with a panoramic view of the entire village. You can either follow a trail and walk up there or take a shuttle bus from the station. On the right side of the bus station you’ll see Gassho-zukuri Minkaen, an open air heritage museum which exhibits farmhouses which were intentionally relocated there to preserve them from destruction. Since all of them are exhibits you can wander through them and spend as much time as you’d like exploring each house.
As you cross the bridge and stroll through the village, you’ll pass by Myozenji Temple built about 230 years ago. It also features the iconic thatched roof which makes it stand out from other tile-roofed Japanese temples.
There are also a few heritage houses – Kanda, Wada and Nagase – that open their doors to visitors willing to tour the historic buildings. Per our guide’s recommendation we opted to visit Kanda, one of the best preserved houses. As a bonus, they serve cold green tea which was quite refreshing in the heat of the summer. The Kanda house was built by the 2nd son of neighboring Wada house who later changed his name to Kanda. The structure was built over 10 years around 1800 AD. The family was prominent and quite prosperous thanks to flourishing silkworm and gunpowder business. The first thing you notice upon entering the gassho-zukuri house is that the interior is extremely spacious. In fact these houses were living AND working spaces for a few generations. Sleeping quarters were on the first and second floors, while the triangular top stories were reserved for silkworm cultivation.
Household activities center around the irori (charcoal hearth), which sends smoke up through the timbers and thatched roof. Upstairs you can get a close-up of how the roof of a gassho-zukuri house is constructed. The roofs are re-thatched every 20-30 years. It is a very labor intensive work requiring team of over 150 people. It takes a village, literally.
You can also visit a Doburoku Festival Museum which features Doburoku sake produced by the Shirakawa Hachiman Shrine next to it. This unfiltered cloudy sake made from Hidahomare rice is a local specialty and unique to Shirakawa-go. I haven’t tried the one I got as a souvenir just yet, but it’s said to have mellow flavor and rich aroma with moderately sweet taste.
After a day filled with sightseeing and hiking, you can soak your feet in the Shirakawa-go no Yu hot springs. And needless to say there are plenty of places to get a refreshing soft-serve or hearty bowl of local ramen in one of the restaurants.
Although nothing compares to simply meandering off the frequented tourist tracks through the scenic alleys and hidden corners of the village and observing the slow pace of the quintessential rural scene of Japan.
The village is so small it is hard to get lost, but we wandered to the outskirts only to discover a deserted and absolutely serene tiny shrine hidden in the woods.
We spent time sitting on boulders by the river cooling off in the crystal clear waters of the mountain stream (ahem, use sunscreen if you decide to do this, ok?) and then soaked up the idyllic sight by sitting on the hillside which overlooked the terraced rice fields, the river and the village beyond.
Honestly, this day always remain as one of the most memorable moments of my time in Japan. As cliché as it may sound, I left a piece of my heart in Shirakawa-go and cannot wait to get back. I advise you to do the same!
Shirakawa-go is easily accessible from Takayama or Kanazawa via bus. Japan Guide has information on how to get to Shirakawa-go which I recommend to check out if you plan a visit. Hotels and tour companies in Takayama and Kanazawa also provide day tours of the village, but from my personal experience two hours were not enough to enjoy the place, so I recommend going there on your own. If you have time, I’d also recommend booking one of the minshuku (Japanese guesthouse) in the villages. I’d imagine how atmospheric it would be to spend a night inside the original gasscho-zukuri house, observe how and what the hosts cook for you, and immerse in their lifestyle. I found this website through which you can make a reservation, average price is about $100-150 per person per night and, I believe, includes breakfast and dinner.
Apologies for a photobomb, but I just had to share the beauty of this place. I very much hope my post inspired you to pin this little gem on your travel boards and plan a visit one day. :)
What is your Pinterest dream destination? Share your boards, I’d love to see and follow!
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This post is part of Monday Escapes Travel link-up hosted by Ting at My Travel Monkey and Allane at Packing My Suitcase; Wanderful Wednesday hosted by Lauren of Lauren on Location, Van of Snow in Tromso, Isabel of The Sunny Side of This and me, Marcella of What a Wonderful World; Life Thru The Lens hosted by Lisa Kerner at Simply Living Photography.