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Ainokura and Ogimachi

Monday, May 26th, 2008

Kaminashi 上梨

Breakfast was served at 8 AM in the now familiar tatami room, with our food trays situated identically to last night, facing the open pit. The hostess graciously offer to drive us to Ainokura when we were ready, assuring us that it was worth the trip. We had passed within a kilometer of it yesterday when coming over the mountain from Takaoka, so going backwards—even briefly—was a decision that took a moment's thought; but this was was we came for so we would be foolish to turn down such a generous offer.

The first business of the morning though, was to walk through the village and see what we had missed yesterday. This was easily enough done, as there was only the one main road running parallel to the river, a handful of gassho structures beside the Murakami house, a bell tower, a well-tended shrine, the municipal building, and two shops selling food, essentials, and omiyage.

We made special inquires last night about obtaining a sasara, and our host made a call to the manufacturer to allow us to obtain one at wholesale price (¥10,000). We soon found the owner working in his street-level shop repairing a stringed instrument—was it a violin, or was it something exotic? He greeted us and indicated that we should follow him to the workshop, which we discovered was down a steep flight of stairs, in a musky unfinished room faintly lit by the struggling rays of the sun blocked by the dense tree cover and the dirty windows. A bare bulb provided the only artificial light. The lone worker was sitting close to the ground weaving and knotting the ropes that hold the instrument's shingles together. An older woman arrived a few minutes later and took her place, up a short ladder to a half-height loft—a perch as it were (for a shrew?) The whole Dickensian scene could have been creepy if it weren't for the fact that everyone was speaking Japanese, using the polite form of the language, and posturing to close the sale the best way possible. Of the three sizes of sasara there was really only one that we could buy because the small and medium sized ones were simply tourist toys, and we needed the “real” thing.

Ainokura 相倉

As promised, the Yajibe hostess was on call to drive us the twenty minutes to Ainokura. Once there, we recognized this place immediately as a both a tourist stop and an authentic gassho-zukuri village. Fortunately it wasn't yet high season, so the over-sized parking lot for cars and tour buses was nearly empty, and the village itself had few enough tourists that we could actually recognize the genuine residents—they were the ones allowed to drive their cars through the village.

We walked around the village shamelessly taking photographs of the thatched roofs and the well-tended gardens and freshly planted rice fields. We passed on the opportunity to visit the folk museum, partly not wanting to spend the extra money on admission, but partly already feeling that we had seen the real thing. Instead we hiked a short way up the steep-sided mountain to what was billed as two of the largest zelkovas known, supposedly entwined in a lovers embrace: this was poetry we couldn't pass up, especially having just seen the beautiful strong trunk of a stately zelkova in Takaoka. But the reality was not poetic, just two very, very old trees with grossly over-sized trunks perhaps demonstrating a determination to survive centuries of lost limbs and still survive. Still, the walk up the mountain was green and wet and wild enough for even my tastes.

We ordered lunch from the only commercial establishment in the village that was open, the other one closing at the noon hour presumably to feed the field workers. Our little shop had three picnic-style tables amid the omiyage knickknacks. The weather was perfect: no rain, no wind, the sun shining brightly but overpoweringly, the temperature just right for short-sleeves, a day when it's just as nice to be inside as out. We chose a light lunch of noodles (there were only four choices on the menu), followed by green-tea ice cream for Hiro and coffee for me.

Our Yajibe hostess returned to Ainokura to pick us up at 1:30; we arrived back at the minshuku to retrieve our cached luggage, said our goodbyes, and walked to the bus stop to await the short trip to Ogimachi.

Suganuma 菅沼合掌集落

The guide books tell us that Suganuma has nine gassho style structures. We did not get out and visit Suganuma but the brief bus stop gave us a glimpse of the beautiful village lying low in the valley. Two retired gentleman carrying their painting supplies got on the bus at the Suganuma stop; we recognized them as having been in Ainokura just a few hours before. They were cuddly cute when the hum of the bus put them both to sleep within minutes.

Shirakawago 白川郷 — Ogimachi 荻町

The northern outskirts of Shirakawago is marked by a highway interchange, a modern bridge crossing the Shokawa River, a new expressway entry ramp, and tunnels making shortcuts through the mountains. This entrance gave me a poor first impression, especially as compared to the nestling old-country charm of Ainokura and Suganuma. Within minutes, the bus made its way from these outskirts through the old part of Shirakawago known as Ogimachi. And that first impression was replaced by a new “first impression”: here was a gassho-zukuri village with all the right elements (an more of them than any other place we'd seen), but here too were the full complement of tourist buses and crowds; this place was immediately tagged in my mind as a major tourist attraction, with all its negative connotations.

The bus stop was conveniently located directly in front of Nodaniya のだにや, our ryokan for the night, so checking in was a snap. We were out of our room and exploring the streets of the village within minutes, and we were every bit a part of the gawking throng with our map and camera. Oh well.

The majority of the tourists seemed to be speaking Chinese, which was a novelty to me, as I hadn't experienced this nationality of tourists in Japan before. At one point though I actually had a tinge of pride when a small group of these foreigners, after the briefest of hesitation, asked me for directions to the scenic overlook trail: imagine, an English-speaking foreigner providing a Chinese-speaking foreigner with directions, all in Japanese!

We saw perhaps two-thirds of the village core within an hour of setting out. The approaching evening lighting was softening enough to take some nice photographs so we lingered at several different spots catching shots of roof-lines, rice fields, gardens, winding streets, and reflections in water. The air was mellowing to a perfect temperature, and with the departure of many of the big tour buses, the louder, crisper sound of the late afternoon began to give way to the softer and more round sound of the early evening.

Once back at the ryokan, we quickly prepared for the dinner hour, previously set for 6:30, and seated ourselves in the designated tatami room together with the only other guests for the night, a young couple that kept their own company. Dinner itself was served mechanically. The cooking tonight was nowhere near the quality of yesterday night—quantity seemed to be the compensating factor in the cook's mind (give them more and maybe they won't notice the difference.)

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The best part of the stay in Ogimachi was the onsen. The hostess at the ryokan provided us with tickets for the natural hot spring baths which were located at the opposite end of the village, just about a ten minute walk, which we did shortly after digesting dinner. The walk to the onsen was pleasant enough: quiet now that the tour buses had all left. A small party of young misses were returning from the baths, relaxed, softly chatting, wearing cotton yukata in comfort, as only a native-born Japanese can.

The baths themselves were simple: a large crescent-shaped bath adjacent to the indoor wash-up stools, plus a smaller outdoor bath overlooking the Shokawa river. It appeared to be customary to air-dry after the bath by standing at the bamboo picket fence and looking at the riverside scenery below: the night wilds were only indirectly lit from the backside of the nearby residences—the moon being a week past full hadn't yet risen—and it was the voice of the river, tumbling over its bed of rocks, lonely in the black distance, that was memorable, a firm voice that neither beckoned nor warned, but just was.

I learned another new custom at this bath: drinking milk. To my embarrassment, I mentioned to Hiro that the men's side had a vending machine selling nama-sake at a very cheap price, and since we had been looking for the fresh brew earlier in the day, I was proud to have found it so readily available at the bath house. Of course when the bath-keeper told me that it was milk, not sake, I felt every bit like the foreigner that I so much didn't want to be.

The return walk from the bath was much darker, and a bit colder—cool enough that we would have felt chilled if we hadn't just been bathing. The air had lost its earlier softness and its sounds were crisper. The cars were all parked for the night, the road was ours alone, and the night's sounds were mostly from nature: the chorus of crickets that were enjoying the arrival of night seemed to own the village, and were eager to let us know it.

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At breakfast the hostess made too many apologies for the minor lapse in courtesy of having forgotten to give us wash towels and bath towels for last night's onsen, and in the process called attention to her nervous personality, making the insignificant affair an excuse for replacement courtesies (omiyage to go.)

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Kaminashi to Ainokura and return: 20 minutes each way by car.
Kaminashi to Omigachi by bus: less than one hour, 13 fare changes (about ¥650.)
Nodaniya のだにや, ¥8400 per person with dinner, breakfast and onsen tickets.

Nomenclature confusion

As an English speaking visitor, the names of these gassho-zukuri villages were confusing enough, but the multiple designations attached to them made it all the more confusing. In many of the maps and guidebooks Shirakawago is used almost synonymously with Ogimachi, but Shirakawago is the district name and Ogimachi is the village within. Likewise, Gokayama is frequently used in the guidebooks, but it is the district name for the villages of Ainokura, Kaminashi, and Suganuma.

Along the line of travel that we followed from Takaoka in the north to Takayama in the south via Highway 156, the villages are: first Ainokura 相倉, then Kaminashi上梨, next is Suganuma 菅沼合掌集落, and finally Ogimachi 荻町. Gokayama 五箇山 is the area that contains the villages of Ainokura, Kaminashi, and Suganuma.

Shirakawago 白川郷 is the area that contains Ogimachi 荻町, the largest of the gassho villages, plus a few small outlying villages (whose names remain unknown to me), each with no more than a handful of residences, all visible as the bus wound through the valley.

Ainokura is in Taira-mura 平村. Suganuma is in Kamitaira-mura 上平村. Both are in the valley of the Shokawa 庄川. Toga-mura 利賀村, a village not on the average tourist's radar, is along a tributary to the Shokawa, the Toga-gawa 利賀川.

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