This morning we awoke early to depart for a bus tour. Our tour would take us to the traditional villages of Shirakawago & Ainokura and handily departed just across the road from our hotel. We had prebooked our tour online before we went for 6690 yen (approx £40) and after a tad of confusion at the bus station (language barrier and all) we were on the bus ready to depart at 8.30am.
Our ride was just so incredibly beautiful as we followed the river. Despite the 24 degree temperature we soon found ourselves driving through snow laden mountains, perfectly highlighted against the cloudless blue sky.
Ainokura is the most remote village in the Gokayama region, although quite large with around 20 gassho-zukuri farmhouses. The village is a world heritage site and being such a remote village means it’s been successful at maintaining its culture. The village was very quiet and quaint.
The tour allowed us a 50 minute stop in Ainokura and after the tour guide suggested a few things to do we decided to take the climb to see the viewpoint. To get to the viewpoint involved a 10 minute walk up a trail, through some fields. A few times we found ourselves in a tricky spot as snow-covered our path and my plimsols were no match for its icy facade. When we got to the top the views were incredible and we were alone, having been the only ones who decided to take the journey up.
We spent the rest of our time browsing the village with its remarkable farmhouses. Walking around it was hard to believe that we were just a few hours away from one of the most technologically advanced cities in the world.
We soon left to continue onto Shirakawago. The village is another world heritage site, known for its traditional farmhouses which subsisted on the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms, as the mountainous terrain offered little opportunity for rice farming. It stands as an amazing example of the social and economic circumstances that life existed within during that time.
When we first arrived in Sharakawago we had lunch,which was included in the price of the tour. It was a traditional Japanese meal that consisted of miso soup, rice, noodles, tofu, vegetables and fish. I’m a bit squeamish about fish and I couldn’t eat one complete with head so instead myself and the lady next to me went and got some meat skewers from a stall outside.
We then walked into the Shirakawago main village which was a lot busier than Ainokura before that. We had two hours in the village and our visit started off at the Gasshozukuri Homurajin museum, of which entry was included in the tour. The museum included a number of traditional gasshozukuri houses, designed to withstand heavy snowfall with their steep grass roofs. Once again despite the hot weather the snow on the ground was thick and due to Adam’s questionable navigation around the museum I managed to lose half my leg in snowfall.
We soon crossed the Deai bridge into the main village, something that rewarded us with a stunning view over the river. The tourist angle was more prevalent in this village, with many touristy shops around and many more restaurants on offer. Throughout the village were small ponds, fed by the mountain stream, filled with koi carp. Being allowed the time to wander around allowed us to find hidden temples and streams, away from the crowds.
Back on the bus we were given apple crisps, which were really nice. Overall the tour was fantastic, informative and something I’d really recommend. We arrived back in Takayama around 3.30pm.
When we arrived back in Takayama the town was a hub of activity as it was the day of the Takayama Spring festival. The festival, believed to have begun in the 16th century, is held to pray for a good harvest. It is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful festivals in Japan. We pulled up to the sounds of drumming, resonating through the town. As we walked into the centre there was a long procession of Japanese people in traditional dress, it was a spectacular display.
We continued to walk through the town, happening across the Showa Museum. It was a surprise to find this place in the middle of such a traditional town, a shop dedicated to the pop culture of the 50’s, full of retro toys and kitsch. It was really fun to walk around.
As the town centre started to get busier we decided to get away from it and head to the Higashiyama walking course, a walk through Takayamas temple town, based towards the back to the city. The walk was 3.5km long however we didn’t find it as easy as previous walks we’d undertaken, the course wasn’t always clear and we found ourselves going back on ourselves a lot. We saw a lot of traditional temples, castle ruins and quaint shrines.
We soon wandered back into town for the evening festival, the part of the day where the infamous floats would be pulled through the town. As the sun fell the floats lined up and the 100 lanterns dangling off each float were lit, the sight looking so resplendent.
The floats date back to the 17th century and are so intricate and ornate. Each of the 12 floats were different, with wood carvings, embroidered drapery and decorative metal work. Despite the clear surge of people within the town centre it was still very easy to get yourself a roadside space to sit in.
The floats moved around the town, moved by a number of men, pulled on a wheeled cart. The men all wore traditional kimonos and it was clear to see it was a proud moment for them, as their families stood aside cheering them on and offering them drinks.
The atmosphere was something I’d never experienced before, there was the aura of excitement alongside the silence of awe. The floats were so astoundingly beautiful, I almost felt a bit emotional.It really was one of the most magical moments of my entire life.
Once the festival procession was over we picked up our luggage from the hotel and headed to Kanazawa, a journey that took around 2.5 hours. Kanazawa is a city of great cultural achievements and compared to the rest of the country suffered minimal damage during World War II. As a consequence its traditional areas still stand in great condition and for that reason I wished to visit it.
Our hotel was the Hotel MyStays Kanazawa Castle for which we paid £55 a night. This was amazing value considering it was probably the best hotel we’d stayed in during our whole Japan experience. The room was huge, as was the bed, and it was located just a 5 minute stroll from the central station. It was a shame we’d only be here for one night! By the time we arrived it was around midnight so we went straight to sleep, for the best nights sleep of the holiday.
Steps walked: 26,780