I’m constantly amazed at how dramatic the landscapes are in the places I have lived since I left the Ohio River Valley. When I lived in Colorado, I spent spring and summer breaks traveling to places like Red Rocks, the Great Sand Dunes, Hot Sulphur Springs, Rocky Mountain National Park, Grand Lake, and Garden of the Gods. When I decided to move back to the Midwest for grad school, I felt a sense of loss–at least until I got to Michigan and discovered how gorgeous it was. If you’ve never been to Michigan in the summer or fall, I can’t recommend it highly enough. The maple leaves, Sleeping Bear Sand Dunes, the lakeshores, the forests, the wine country in the north–even without the mountains I never wanted for beauty.
Moving to Hokuriku meant I got both the sea and the mountains, but the sea never grew on me. My old apartment was about two meters from the water, and while I had always hated the humidity, the tsunami also soured my attitude toward sea-side living. Now when I tell people in Chubu and Kansai that I live in Kanazawa, they often respond, “Oh, by the sea?”, but I live far enough inland that I can’t see it. Rather, I tend to think of Ishikawa as mountainous, with Hakusan in the south of the prefecture and the Central Alps also in the region.
Even though Michigan showed me there was beauty in non-mountainous regions, I still love the mountains (no matter how many times Hakusan tries to kill me). Over the long weekend, a friend of mine from high school who now lives in Wakayama came to visit and requested that we go to Shirakawa-go（白川郷), a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the mountain valley of Gifu.
To get to Ogimachi (荻町), the largest village, we rented a Nissan March and headed for the Hokuriku Expressway. I was quite surprised how easy it was to rent a car in Japan. My friend and I both have Japanese licenses (transferred from our US ones), and all we had to do was show up at the neighborhood rent-a-car, fill out some easy paperwork, and hit the road. The car, a small-engine “Kei Car,” was about 7200 yen for 12 hours, including the price of optional insurance. Tolls were another 4000 yen, but it was manageable between the four of us. For non-drivers, there’s also the Nouhi bus between Kanazawa and Takayama that stops in Shirakawa-go.
Because Shirakawa-go is near the expressway and close to the main roads, access was no problem despite the evidence of heavy snowfall.
The main attraction of these villages is the gasshô-zukuri (合掌造り), the steep thatched roofs shaped like “praying-hands,” which are characteristic of the buildings here. The roofs protect the buildings from the build-up of snow, though we saw more than a few workers shoveling the roofs.
The buildings tend to have several floors, with the first level for the family home and top floor(s) reserved for industries such as raising silk worms and manufacturing nitre for gunpowder. At the Wada House (和田家), we were able to climb up into the “attic” to get a closer look.
The smoke and heat from the irori (囲炉裏), a open hearth, would filter up through the vents in the ceiling to the top floors, heating the workshops and blackening the inside of the roof, which apparently helped keep pests out.
After shopping in town, we decided to walk up to the Shiroyama viewpoint (白山展望台) . The hiking trail is inaccessible in the winter, buried under waist-high snow, but we and a number of others took the vehicle-access road–about a 20-minute hike. The view was well worth the effort.
We also discovered an adorable restaurant called Hiiragi (Holly, 柊), which served Hida beef (hida gyû) and hôba miso yaki, a dish with tofu, vegetables, and in this case, Hida beef, all cooked on a magnolia leaf in miso paste. The staff was incredibly nice, which is not always the case in tourist-heavy restaurants when you look foreign, and the meal was delicious.
We came home with plenty of food omiyage for ourselves: miso, local nihonshu, and hôba miso kits. As we finished our shopping the sun came out, making the snow sparkle and glow.
On the drive home, we stopped in Suganuma (菅沼) and Ainogura (相倉) in Gokayama. Both villages were closed for the night, but we got to see a beautiful pink sunset and a huge full moon over the trees.
This area is stunning, and while Gokayama, with its flowers and rice fields, is gorgeous in autumn, I think I like it best in the winter. After all, there’s something magical about a winter hike, a view of the valley, and looking out on the frozen world while huddled around a table full of grilling magnolia leaves.