Takayama: “Little Kyoto”, with a townscape of wooden houses creating a warm atmosphere
Takayama (Takayama City, Gifu Prefecture) is an ancient city where you can feel the warmth of wood and people, located three and a half hours by train from Nagoya station, a hub station of Central Japan. This town commands a view of the mountains of Hida, known as the “Japan Alps”, and is called “little Kyoto in Hida” since it has many temples and shrines, as well as wooden houses, craft shops, and sake breweries.
Let’s first travel by rickshaw around the area where traditional wooden buildings are concentrated. As you move ahead, looking rows of houses with lattices while asking the driver for recommendations of sites to visit, you start smelling the savory scent of “mitarashi dango”.
In the morning market made of many stands alongside a river, among the stands that sell woodcarvings, fruits, and sugar sculptures, there is a stand that sells handmade “sarubobo”, which are popular as amulets for protection from bad spirits or for easy childbirth. Conversing with the shop owners is also an appeal of the morning market. In the surrounding area, there are stores that sell snacks such as croquettes or skewers using Hida Beef, which is a brand of beef that represents Japan, characterized by its juiciness and tenderness. “Hida-gyu sushi” with Hida beef on top will melt in your mouth.
Speaking of Takayama, the city is known for sake made with brand-name spring water from the Japan Alps. Many breweries also offer tastings, with “Funasaka Syuzo” offers a brief explanation in English as well. The first sake that is recommended to me is Daiginjo (super premium) “Miyamagiku”, which is mild and had a rich fragrance. Special Daiginjo “Yotsuboshi” has a rich taste, while being refreshing and easy-to-drink, which seems to go with any type of meals.
Takayama is putting effort into improving its tourism services for foreign travelers through provisions such as an official sightseeing map in 10 languages. In the Takayama Jinya, a popular spot where you can see a city hall, official residence, a courthouse and warehouses from the 17th century, a free guide service (English/Japanese) is available that you apply for on-site. When you see the entrances divided by status or receive an explanation of the designs of the houses, you can vividly picture the society and way of life during that time period.
Address:105 Kamisannomachi, Takayama-shi, Gifu Prefecture
Access:Approx. 10 minutes on foot from JR Takayama Station.
THE TAKAYAMA JINYA
Address:1-5 Hachikenmachi, Takayama-shi, Gifu Prefecture
Telephone:0577-32-0643 (Takayama Jinya Management Office)
Access:Approx. 10 minutes on foot by JR Takayama Station
Shirakawa-go: the epitome of beautiful Japanese idyllic scenery
It takes approximately 50 minutes to travel from Takayama to Shirakawa-go by highway bus. When you get off the bus and cross the bridge, you see “gassho-style” wooden houses characterized by steep, triangular thatched roofs. This is “Ogimachi gassho-zukuri village”, which is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site (Shirakawa Village, Gifu Prefecture). Houses with thatched roofs stand side by side surrounded by rice fields, the ridges of the fields are decked with seasonal flowers, and swallows fly around in the sky – it is a perfect portrait of “beautiful Japanese idyllic scenery”. It makes sense that many tourists from all over the world visit the village.
For those who would like to take the time to enjoy the appeal of the gassho-style houses in silence, the “The Heritage Museum” is recommended. Relocated private houses, a water mill and other buildings are scattered throughout the museum premises, where trees grow lushly and through which a creek runs. Inside the museum, sericulture equipment and house wares are displayed. There is also a rest house, made using a private house. You can sit next to an irori fireplace lit by soft lighting and drink a soothing buckwheat beverage as you watch smoke ascend from the fireplace.
The Heritage Museum
Address:2499 Ogimachi, Shirakawa-mura, Ono-gun, Gifu
Access:Approx. 3 minutes from the Shirakawago highway bus terminal
Gokayama: a utopia where classic Japan still remains
Fifty-five minutes north from Shirakawa-go by local bus – after walking from the “Ainokuraguchi” bus stop for about 5 minutes through a forest, a utopia unfolds before my eyes. Gassho-style houses, terraced fields, and rice terraces surrounded by mountains dwell in perfect harmony. This is “Ainokura Gassho-zukuri village” in Gokayama (Nanto City, Toyama Prefecture), which is also registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site, as is “Ogimachi gassho-zukuri village” in Shirakawa-go.
Although the village is more secluded than Shirakawa-go, Gokayama is a popular tourist spot due to its scenery that has the feel of an idyllic mountain village, which can be called an archetypal Japanese scene, as well as gassho-style inns where visitors can enjoy the appeals of a quiet village. I leave my bag at the inn and go out to stroll around the village. As I do so, the sun starts to set.
I return to the inn and simply watch from a chair by the window as the village is enveloped by the dusk. For dinner, flavorful and nutritious dishes using local ingredients such as tempura made of vegetables gathered from the mountain behind the inn, a simmered dish, and sliced raw carp, adorn the table. The smell of the mountain trout being grilled by the inn staff in the irori fireplace just in front of me stimulates my appetite. There is no sign of humanity outside – all I hear is the croaking of frogs.
Morning arrives. The village is bathed by the morning light. People are going to work in the fields. Children play near the houses. There are almost tourists in sight as of yet. The upland view of the village looks like a picture. In the “Ainokura Traditional Crafts Museum”, located in the village, the museum staff sing a folk song with a local instrument known as a “Sasara”. The plaintive melody touches my heart. Before leaving the village, I once again burn the scenery of classic Japan into my mind.
Gassho-style Inn Nakaya
Address:231 Ainokura, Nanto-shi, Toyama
Access:From the “Ogimachi Jinja-mae” bus stop in Shirakawa-go, take the Kaetsuno bus for 55 minutes to “Ainokuraguchi” bus stop, and walk 5 minutes
Kanazawa – a city where Japanese culture and beauty are condensed
Kanazawa is about 75 minutes from Shirakawa-go by highway bus. The first destination after arriving in Kanazawa is Kenroku-en, one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. When I enter the gate, a world of green created by the mossy ground and trees extends in every direction, followed by various beautiful aspects of Japanese gardens that dwell in harmony with nature, such as a teahouse by a lake, a wide variety of beautiful sights, a riverside with stone lanterns, a waterfall and fountain, and well-manicured flowers. In the teahouse, you can experience a tea ceremony.
Around Kenroku-en, there are also museums and galleries. In the Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts, you can appreciate the gorgeous traditional crafts of Kanazawa and Ishikawa Prefecture, including various types of gold leaf work, Wajima urushi lacquer-ware, and kaga yuzen dying. You can also buy products from each workshop at the attached shop. The Kanazawa Noh Museum is a museum that specializes in “Noh” theatre, which is one of Japan’s traditional dramas and is also recognized as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage. You can choose your favorite Noh mask from among the many masks and try it with a Noh costume for free. You can also have a photo taken.
From this area, it takes about 10 minutes by taxi to reach “Higashi-Chayagai”, where a row of traditional machiya houses stand side by side. In the “Ochaya SHIMA”, where geishas once performed, instruments and other items used for performances are displayed in a gorgeous room with red walls, and you can enjoy the luxurious culture that flourished in the castle town.
Address:Kenrokumachi, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa
Telephone:076-234-3800 (Ishikawa Prefecture Kanazawa Castle & Kenroku-en Management Office)
Access:When taking the Hokuriku Railroad Bus from JR Kanazawa Station, it is right next to the “Kenrokuen-shita” bus stop
Ishikawa Prefectural Museum of Traditional Arts and Crafts
Address:1-1 Kenrokumachi, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa
Access:When taking the Hokuriku Railroad Bus from JR Kanazawa Station, it is 1 minute on foot from the “Dewamachi” bus stop
Kanazawa Noh Museum
Address:1-2-25 Hirosaka, Kanazawa-shi, Ishikawa
Access:Take the Hokuriku Railway Bus from JR Kanazawa Station; 5 minutes on foot from the “Korinbo” bus stop of each line, and right next to the “Hirosaka” bus stop of each line
Shoryudo: an attractive, extensive tourist route including the “Three-star Road”
The “Three-star Road” connects Takayama, Shirakawa-go, Gokayama and Kanazawa, and is where tourists can enjoy varying Japanese scenery such as townscapes, villages and gardens. “Shoryudo” is an even more extensive tourist route in Central Japan that includes this “Three-star Road”, allowing tourists to enjoy even more World Heritage Sites and grand scenes of nature. This route runs longitudinally through Central Japan from south to north, and its northernmost part on the Noto Peninsula is shaped like a dragon’s head; this is why the route is named “Shoryudo (Dragon-rise Region)”. The route crosses nine prefectures consisting of Ishikawa, Toyama, Gifu, Aichi, Fukui, Nagano, Shiga, Mie, and Fukuoka, and so many attractive spots, including the Tateyama/Kurobe Alpine Route, Kamikochi, Kumano Kodo and Mount Fuji, are concentrated in this route. If you use the Shoryudo Welcome Card for international tourists traveling to Japan, you can receive discounts and other special offers from more than 400 establishments in the above nine prefectures, including restaurants, hotels, observation spots, public transport, and other spots.