While one side of Japan is a hustling metropolis of tower blocks, late night karaoke bars and 24-hour cat cafes; its other side is laid back, quiet and contemplative. The country is steeped in history and protecting and preserving its heritage is an important Japanese tradition.
Complicated rituals in temples; long, complex tea-making ceremonies; and perfectly choreographed Geisha performances are hugely popular customs and are viewed by internal tourists with the same level of excitement as international tourists. Places like Takayama eschew the opportunity to make more money from tourists by enforcing strict trading rules during the evening, to ensure that the town’s ancient buildings close early so that the traditional feel of the town can be experienced by visitors. Likewise, high up in the mountainous areas of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama the famous thatched farmhouses, known as gassho houses, remain a source of fascination for visitors from all over the world.
There are three grasshouse villages, which are instantly recognisable thanks to the steep sloping thatched roofs of the buildings, engineered to ensure that heavy snow falls slide straight off. Each of the villages, which include Ogimachi – the most visited, due to its easy access from Takayama – and the more isolated villages of Suganuma and Ainokura, is designated a Unesco World Heritage Site. While very busy during the day, the best way to experience the solitude of village life is to stay overnight in one of them, although accommodation is limited and must be booked in advance.
After the non-stop speed of our honeymoon so far, we were looking forward to experiencing a slower pace of life in Japan. We chose to stay in Ainokura and were excited to explore the village when the crowds went home.
The popularity of the villages became clear when we went to the bus station in Takayma where, despite the early hour, large queues had already formed, with many day trippers eager to make a day of it.
The bus journey winds up into the mountains and we passed a lot of agriculture and remote villages. When we arrived in Ogimachi it felt as though we’d been catapulted into the Japanese equivalent of Disneyland, with hundreds of tourists running around with cameras, excitedly capturing every nook and cranny, souvenir stalls selling locally made products and restaurants serving up lunches. Although visitors are asked not to approach the houses, where residents are understandably trying to go about their daily business, it must be so strange for the locals who live there to constantly be under scrutiny from strangers.
As we had another bus to catch, we just took a quick look around the village before travelling to the quieter village of Ainokura. As it’s a further away from Takayama, the village is less visited as a day trip. We were dropped off at a small roadside bus stop and walked up a steep hill and through a forested area until we arrived at the village.
Our first impressions were that it was quite a contrast to Ogimachi, with a much smaller number of tourists dawdling around. In fact, much of the village seemed quite deserted, with shops and restaurants closed and the guesthouses not yet open for visitors.
The village is just a couple of streets and is surrounded on all sides by steep tree-covered mountains. It felt pretty isolated when we were there in the Spring, so it was difficult to imagine what it must be like in the depths of Winter, when residents are often snowed in for weeks.
After locating the grasshouse where we’d be staying, we dropped off our bags and headed for the two small museums which explain what life used to be like for the people who lived in the region and the traditional building practises which are maintained to this day. Each museum (which cost around 50p/64c to get into) was manned by a little old lady, who took their jobs very seriously, despite the fact that we were the only visitors. There was lots of time spent filling in ledgers, handing over tickets and giving instructions in Japanese, much of which we didn’t understand (!) and we were required to remove our shoes before stepping into the tatami mat covered rooms which were filled with display cases of artefacts. Compared to years gone by the residents of the grasshouse regions now live in relative luxury, with electricity and cars making daily life so much easier. Whereas back in the day people were completely cut off from civilisation, sometimes for months at a time. Everything from the clothes they wore, to the food they ate and the toys their children played with had to be made in the village and life sounded like a constant struggle.
From the museum we made the short hike up to a viewing point which looked over the village. It was so peaceful and quiet and eating our lunch of rice balls as we overlooked the tree lined slopes of the surrounding snow covered mountains was such a relaxing way to while away the afternoon.
As check-in time approached we made our way back to our accommodation where we were shown into a large room, with the traditional tatami mat flooring, two folded up futons and a low table with cushions to kneel on in the middle. Our room was separated by a thick paper sliding screen from our neighbours, so privacy was distinctly lacking and we found ourselves whispering with excitement as we changed into our yukata robes before dinner.
Overnight visitor numbers are limited in the villages and there were just seven guests staying in our grasshouse. As we headed into the dining room we were greeted by the sight of the traditional method of cooking, a fire in the middle of the room, which had fish on sticks being cooked over the open flames. In the past this would have been the only way of cooking, although obviously now residents also have a more traditional kitchen as well.
The food was a delicious variety of flavours. What I love about Japanese food is that everything is on the plate for a reason, from the tiny slither of ginger to the finely sliced radish; all of the flavours complement one another. The fresh, smoky flavoured fish which we’d just watched being cooked was accompanied by rice, deep fried vegetables and salad.
Our tables all faced in towards the fire and as Mr A and I sat side by side we chatted to the other guests about their reason for visiting the village. A mother, daughter and family friend had booked their trip after seeing an article about the grasshouses in National Geographic magazine and the Japanese lady in the couple next to us wanted to bring her European boyfriend to show him some of her country’s history. It was a nice way to spend the evening in a cosy, warm room with good food and company.
After the meal was finished we quickly ventured outside before the village’s 9pm curfew kicked in (in place so that locals aren’t disturbed) as, having left the busy cities behind us, we were desperate to see the stars and in the chilly evening we weren’t disappointed. As we craned our heads back there was no light pollution to spoil the vast open sky punctuated by thousands of glowing pinpricks. We walked down the empty streets hand in hand and reminded ourselves for the thousandth time how lucky we were to be on this trip and to see yet another unique side of Japan.
After a good night’s sleep we were getting ready for breakfast when Mr A left the room to use the bathroom. A few seconds later he was back with the biggest kid’s grin – “it’s snowing! Come on!” Within minutes we’d pulled on as many layers as we could and we were running down the street like a couple of crazy people, as the fat flakes danced around us. Snow in Japan. It really was a dream come true.