People often talk about visiting Tokyo and Kyoto. I’m sure they are amazing in their own right, but Japan is so much more than these two places. For those who venture off the beaten path, there are exquisite gems waiting to be discovered, hidden deep within the mountains of central Honshu.
Welcome, to Gokayama.
Like something out of a painting? Yes.
Located within Toyama Prefecture, Gokayama is a valley region surrounded by mountains – best known for its ‘gassho-zukuri‘ (literally, prayer hands) houses. The slanted roofs are angled at 45 to 60 degrees, designed to withstand heavy snowfall in winter. Some of these buildings date as far back as 400 years! Three villages in the area have been designated as historic treasures and are on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
Due to its remote location, locals have retained much of their customs and traditions, making Gokayama the perfect place to experience rural Japanese life, one that has changed only slightly over the centuries. Most villagers still earn a living through farming and agriculture, as evident by the vegetable/terraced rice fields dotting the landscape.
Our day tour in a private car took us to Ainokura, the largest (and most remote) village in the area. Home to about 60 villagers, there are some 20 gassho-zukuri houses here. Some are still residences, while others have been converted into museums, inns and shops.
There’s something invigorating about fresh mountain air – it’s so clean, it’s like air that hasn’t been breathed by any other living creature. It’s easy to see why people have ‘retreats’ organised in the mountains – the air, the clean water, the lush greenery… it does wonders for one’s wellbeing.
What you should do in Ainokura: Take lots of pretty pictures of the homes, framed by the mountain scenery.
What you shouldn’t do: Trespass. The homes are private property.
Neighbours pitch in to replace the thatched roofing every decade or so, according to our guide. The design is such that it leaves a lot of attic space, which in ancient days the villagers used to cultivate silkworms.
There was a small shrine in the village that looked straight out of an ancient Japanese tale. Hidden in a grove, we accessed it through a traditional wooden gate (torii). Shady trees surrounded the clearing and in the middle was the wooden shrine. It was shuttered, but it looked really old and mysterious, with a bell pull dangling from the front.
On the right were steps leading further up the mountain.
Flowers in full bloom in the village.
A house verandah with children’s toys and bicycle. No gates or fences – very unlike the ‘forts’ you find in urban housing areas in Malaysia.
We were pressed for time, but our guide told us the hike up to the viewpoint would be worth it – so we huffed and puffed our way up the side of the mountain (and realised we were really unfit).
If you have a bit more time to spare, maybe stay overnight at the inn to really immerse yourself in the experience of rural mountain life, and visit some of the attractions in the area such as the museum (where you’ll get to see handicrafts such as washi paper – a popular product).
Getting to Ainokura Village
Bus: You CAN get to Ainokura by bus; it’s a stop along the bus route between Shirakawa-go (another gassho zukuri region) and Shin-Takaoka Station on the JR Hokuriku Shinkansen. The ride takes 45 minutes and 1,300 yen for one hour. Getting back might be a problem though.By car
Car: Ainokura is a 45 minute drive from Ogimachi via National route 156.