Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, Revisited

A vacation of several firsts this was – our first driving trip, the first trip the mister took to planning entirely on his own, and the first time an itinerary was drawn up based on a driving route instead of places we wanted to visit. It may seem strange that, despite travelling often, we’d never driven overseas before. This can be easily explained – only I drive between the both of us. While I am a competent driver ( a clean driving record of 2 decades to prove it), a driving trip was never considered simply because we have always been afraid that I might be too tired driving long distances since we will be without a spare driver.

That changed for this trip. Some events brought us to Nagoya 名古屋, and since we had visited Nagoya multiple times, we simply ran out of places nearby to sightsee. Japan was a good place to start with for various reasons 1) the Japanese drive on the same side as Singapore (left-hand, right-side drive) and 2) Japanese drivers are courteous to a fault!

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We rented a small car knowing we would be navigating through some winding, mountainous roads. It’s been a while since I drove a small car, and I really enjoyed how easy it was to manoeuvre this cute tiny car. Just couldn’t quite appreciate the lack of power when we drove uphills.

Taking it slow after picking up the car at Nagoya’s Chubu Centrair International Airport to familiarise with the car and its GPS system, we drove leisurely around the airport and then picked up speed to join an expressway.

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Our first destination was a good distance away and several hours drive from Nagoya. It was also a place I insisted on revisiting because I wanted to see how it looked like in summer. The place we are revisiting? Ogimachi Village 荻町 in the region of Shirakawa-go 白川郷. Most people simply refer to it as Shirakawa-go but it is technically inaccurate.

I am profoundly fascinated by the photogenic gassho-zukuri 合掌造り huts that have been so well-preserved over the 100, 200 years so much so that many of them are still inhabited by locals. Interesting nugget of information: every year in early summer, the whole village comes together to re-thatch the roofs of a select few of these huts. Oh, what I would give to witness this interesting communal exercise.

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We first drove up to the Shiroyama 城山 Viewpoint for a vantage view of Ogimachi. Along the drive up, we passed by the minshuku 民宿 we put up at some years back in winter when we visited for the first time, and shuddered in memory of the distance we walked in the cold and snow, lugging our luggage. The viewpoint… also a source of much grief during our previous visit which coincided with the annual winter night light-up event. We camped there, in the cold, for over 3 hours just so that I could keep the tripod space to photograph the light-up. I daren’t walk too near the ledge because I don’t walk well on snowy grounds and was afraid I was going to slip and fall over the ledge. It was so much easier to walk around at the viewpoint without snow, ice and slush. Unfortunately I don’t like travelling in summer much.

Wanted to drop by the minshuku to say hi to the elderly couple running it but I kind of forgotten about it on our drive down. In any case, I’d ‘misplaced’ most of the Japanese language I learnt so we wouldn’t be able to communicate with them anyway. 😆

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After the viewpoint, we drove down to park our car before walking across the long suspension bridge across Sho River 庄川to get to Ogimachi Village. I thought the crowd would have abated compared to the crowd in winter; I was clearly wrong. The whole village was still teeming with international and local tourists alike ambling through the village, visiting the museums and browsing the many shops selling regional specialty omiyage お土産.

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I have made it a personal agenda to take pictures of all the special regional manhole covers that I come across while in Japan. Shirakawa-go’s is really quite pretty!

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It was way past lunch hours by the time we decided to look for food. I missed the Hida beef 飛騨牛 from our previous trip, and since we could not fit Takayama 高山 into our schedule this round, I settled for a set meal with Hoba Miso with Hida Beef 朴葉味噌, Hida-Takayama’s specialty. Many people I know swear by Kobe beef or Matsusaka beef, professing them to be the best beef from Japan, but having tasted all 3 (not at one sitting, though), I tend to prefer Hida beef better for its more subtle tastes. I wonder if more people may prefer Hida beef if they have had the opportunity to taste it; quantity is extremely low hence it never leaves Japan. In fact, it is usually only found in Gifu and maybe the surrounding prefectures.

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We’ve done the museums the last round so we skipped it this time. I tried photographing nice angles of the huts but most of the pictures were not up to my expectations. Ogimachi just didn’t look as interesting in summer. I much preferred it in winter.

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It started drizzling and got progressively heavier. Not wanting to get caught in the rain and catch a cold, we hastily left, following the same route through the suspension bridge as we did when we entered the village.

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While Ogimachi in the Shirakawa-go region is the largest and most well-known village with gassho-zukuri huts, travellers who bother to do some research will learn that the other two villages also inscribed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites are perhaps less visited, less commercialised and therefore more ‘authentic’. I use the term ‘authentic’ loosely since having such a status does dictate that the sites have to be preserved in a certain manner. Nevertheless I much prefer Suganuma 菅沼 and Ainokura 相倉 situated in the Gokayama 五箇山 region, which are just a bus ride away from Ogimachi. But I totally understand why Suganuma and Ainokura are mostly left untouched – they are rather inaccessible: the bus doesn’t come that often (once hourly if my memory serves me well) and it is not a short bus ride (almost an hour).

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With a car, we didn’t have to take the bus this round unlike our previous visit some years back, in winter. We were heading north towards Himi 氷見 and since Suganuma wasn’t much of a detour, we revisited. I would have visited Ainokura again too, dropping by to greet the minshuku 民宿 owner who took such good care of us the last time we stayed there but it would have taken too much time, not to mention out of the way.

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Simply love this view of Suganuma – the village made up of merely 9 gassho-zukuri farmhouses that are still inhabited by villagers kind of sits below the level of the road leading from Ogimachi to Shin-Takaoka Station 新高岡駅. I suppose the road was built this way in order to preserve the village in its entirety.

And after this stop, I drove a long time northwards without another pit stop. I couldn’t wait to reach Himi. My bums were getting numb from the long sitting.

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Eventually, we found our way to Route-Inn Grantia Himi Wakarunoyado ルートイングランティア氷見 和蔵の宿, an onsen hotel before night fell. Didn’t opt to put up at this hotel for the onsen; we both don’t do onsen for various reasons (mine being that my skin cannot tolerate water of such high heat). There wasn’t much of a choice in that area. We did however, see many elderly local travellers walking around in the yukata 浴衣 provided by the hotel, a sure sign that they enjoyed the natural hot spring soak.

We didn’t do too shabbily either. There was a large supermarket next to the hotel. After a quick dinner at Mos Burger, we spent the most wondrous time browsing the supermarket. 😆

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