Travelogue Japan: Hida-Furukawa – The Small Town Made Famous By An Anime

Even if you’re not an anime fan, you might have heard of the hugely popular Kimi No Na Wa (2016). The movie earned a whopping $355mil at the box office, making it the highest grossing anime film of all time (topping Spirited Away)! It tells the tale of a city boy from Tokyo and a girl in a rural town in Japan who switch bodies, eventually falling in love with each other. Compelling story line aside, the animation is famous for its beautiful art style and references to actual landmarks and gorgeous landscapes in Japan.

One of these places is the small town of Furukawa in the mountainous Hida region, which I had the pleasure of visiting during my recent trip to Japan! 🙂

Kanazawa, Japan

Situated within the mountainous Gifu prefecture, Hida Furukawa is a quaint town with an old touch, since most of its buildings date back to the Edo era. Furukawa, along with sister town Takayama (15 minutes by train) was once famed for their high quality timber and skilled carpenters, so much so that nobles used to hire them to work on buildings in the capital, calling them the ‘Master Builders of Hida’.

Kanazawa, Japan

Today, agriculture is a major source of income for the town’s residents. Streets are quiet on a weekday, so much so that you could probably lie down in the middle of the road and not encounter any traffic! The newer part of town is characterised by small mom-and-pop stores, while the old section boasts typical Edo-era wooden structures.

Kanazawa, Japan

We popped into a local restaurant for a lunch. Since the region is mountainous, there are plenty of ingredients such as roots, shoots and mushrooms in the cuisine. Wasn’t sure what exactly I was eating since the proprietor spoke no English, but I think this was a mix of shoots with plump mushrooms, topped with quail egg and the town’s specialty, miso paste. The savoury miso brought out the earthy flavours of everything else, balanced by the silkiness of the raw egg. Amazingly fresh, amazingly good!

Kanazawa, Japan

Japanese food is always served in such a way that it feasts the eyes before it does the tummy. There was also a soup with noodles, beans, ginger/pickles, miso soup, bamboo shoots and rice.

Kanazawa, Japan

After lunch, we walked to Hida Furukawa Matsuri Hall, a museum dedicated to the town’s history and the Furukawa Festival, an annual event held since ancient times. Participants, dressed in nothing but a loin cloth, pull giant decorated wooden floats that are several stories high through the streets; accompanied by the beat of drums. Atop the floats are various puppets featuring both mythical and historical characters, which are moved to tell stories to eager spectators.

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

Back to the streets we go! An interesting point for visitors to look out for are the canals, which are stocked with fat and colourful Japanese koi fish. Strolling through the neighbourhood felt extremely relaxing, what with the gentle breeze and the sound of flowing water.

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

Furukawa is also known for its sake breweries, housed in traditional wooden buildings with the signature sugidama (cedar ball) hanging at the entrance. Was surprised to enter one and find that the ‘master brewer’ there was a white American man (!)

Kanazawa, Japan

And finally, we paid a visit to the very famous scene from the Kimi No Na Wa anime, the train station…

Amazingly detailed!

Getting to Hida Furukawa 

Useful guide here

*Photos not watermarked courtesy of Japan National Tourism Organisation

 

 

 

 

 

Travelogue Japan: The Thatched Roof Houses of Ainokura Village, Gokayama

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.

Kanazawa, Japan

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.

Kanazawa, Japan

Breathtaking scenery. 

Kanazawa, Japan

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.

DSC_0493 copy

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.

DSC_0491 copy

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.

Kanazawa, Japan

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.

DSC_0482 copy

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.

Kanazawa, Japan

Kanazawa, Japan

On the right were steps leading further up the mountain.

Kanazawa, Japan

Flowers in full bloom in the village.

Kanazawa, Japan

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.

Kanazawa, Japan

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).

Whoa. 

 

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.

Travelogue Japan: Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa

One of our last stops in Kanazawa was Nagamachi, a former samurai district located at the foot of Kanazawa Castle. Since the castle was an important centre of administration for the ruling daimyo, it was natural that a residence catering to the upper echelons, namely the samurai, sprung up within close proximity.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Entering the area was like taking a step back in time, to a feudal era several hundred years ago. We took a stroll through its quiet, cobble-stoned alleyways, flanked by high earthen walls, large wooden gates and private entrances. Some houses are still occupied, apparently by descendants of the samurai who used to be retainers of the powerful Maeda clan.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Like many historic sights within the city, Nagamachi retains its authentic charm, the buildings intact from bombardment suffered in other Japanese cities throughout World War II. I found the earthen walls to be especially intriguing. At each corner of the street was a low, squarish stone. Our guide, Mariko-san, explained that these were used by people to get rid of snow on their shoes by tapping the side of the stone with their feet before entering a home.

Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa

There are two canals running through the neighbourhood. The sound of flowing water lends a feeling of tranquility. Coupled with the fact that there is a low density of vehicles in the area, Nagamachi makes a nice, peaceful excursion away from the throng of tourists at other attractions.

Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa

Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa

One of the places you can visit is Nomura-Ke, a former samurai residence turned museum which houses exhibits of artifacts, equipment and daily household items used in that era. The Nomura family were a rich and powerful samurai family, until, like many retainers, they lost their wealth and prestige during the Meiji restoration.

Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa

The Kyu-Kaga Hanshi Takada Family House, once the abode of the Takada family, has a beautiful landscaped garden – reflective of the clan’s standing and influence.

Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa

We ventured into an old house-turned-musuem for a quick walkabout.  Rooms were made to look exactly like the original, with tatami-ed floors and sliding doors covered with thin washi paper.

Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa

Nagamachi Samurai District, Kanazawa

The kitchen area had wooden floorboards and traditional cooking stoves that used firewood.

GETTING TO NAGAMACHI SAMURAI DISTRICT 

From Kanazawa Station, take the Kanazawa Loop Bus from the East Exit and get off at Korinbo bus stop. From there it is a 5-minute walk to Nagamachi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travelogue Japan: Higashi Chaya Geisha District, Kanazawa

Geishas are traditional Japanese female entertainers, trained to perform in classical music, dance, games and conversation. Films like Memoirs of A Geisha have popularised geishas in the West, but it was executed in such a way that I felt it fetishised the role, creating misconceptions on what it really entails.

Credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Geishas are by no means prostitutes – something that the fellow media guy I was travelling with seemed not to understand. The crude jokes about how our tour guide (who happened to be a woman) wouldn’t understand how ‘the guys’ would want to ‘visit’ the geisha district was not only distasteful but pure bloody disgusting. I lost my temper and snapped that they weren’t prostitutes, and that he should probably do some research on the topic. #pig

But I digress.

During our time in Kanazawa, we visited Higashi Chaya Gai (Eastern Teahouse District) –  one of the best kept entertainment districts from the Edo era. There are three such districts in the city, but this is the largest and best preserved. Since the city escaped bombing from World War II, many of the original wooden teahouses (chaya) are still intact, although there are only two remaining chaya left – the rest have been converted into restaurants, souvenir shops and cafes.

It was a rainy day and the street was deserted. Flanking both sides of the paved road were roughly 20 wooden shops. The facades sported a type of lattice called ‘kimusuko‘ on the first floor, which would shield guests form prying eyes while allowing them to look outside.

There are two chayas still open to the public. One is called Ochaya Shima, which has been converted into a museum, while the other, Kaikaro, is a working teahouse. Admission during the day is 700 yen, which includes tea, but they are closed at night for exclusive functions.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Many Japanese scholars viewed geishas as the ultimate feminists, as they were working for their own bread and board in a time where women had very limited freedom. They were not limited to the traditional roles of a wife and could move around freely without needing consent from a husband. And while some geishas did indeed prostitute themselves, there were others who were strictly entertainers, providing music, dance and conversation.

Are there still geishas today? Yes, but the profession is a dying one, according to our guide Mariko-san. The training is rigorous and difficult (in ancient times, geisha training started as young as three or five years of age!), and many young women no longer find the appeal in it.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Geishas have a distinct appearance, the most recognisable being full white face makeup, charcoal-lined eyes and red lipstick.  Hair is often sweeped back into a tall hair-do, accentuated by pins. Mature geishas wear more subdued clothing and makeup (above, background). Wearing a kimono is tedious and often requires the assistance of several people, which is why in ancient times, they employed the services of male dressers and hairstylists.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

The interior of the Ochaya Shima.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Is it okay to take photos with a geisha if you spot one walking down the street?

Unfortunately, many geishas have encountered harassment from tourists wanting to take selfies. As such, there are patrols in the districts that prohibit you from stopping the geisha or harassing them for pictures.

When is it possible to see a geisha in action then, if you’re not paying for a session with them? Public performances are held every Saturday at Higashi Chaya Gai where the local geishas will sing/dance and entertain.

credit : JNTO

Teahouse at night.

GETTING TO HIGASHI CHAYA-GAI 

Take the Kanazawa Loop Bus and alight at Hashibacho bus stop. From there, the area is a 5-minute walk away.

Things To Do in Kanazawa, Japan: Gold-Leaf Art

Gold leaf, which is gold hammered down to an extremely thin sheet (sometimes 1/10,000 of a millimetre!) has been used in decorative art for centuries. The process of layering it over a surface is called gilding. One might find examples of these in European art, on statues, mirrors, small objects and jewellery, or as part of a building’s architecture on ceilings and window frames.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

While there is no definite account of when gold leaf first made its appearance in Japan, some say that it came from China together with the influence of Buddhism. In the 16th century, the Maeda clan (who ruled what is now Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures) attempted to turn Kanazawa into a renowned center for gold leaf art – but the Shogunate, in an effort to curb the influence of powerful daimyo families, restricted gold beating to only Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto. The art was only revived in the 19th century, and has since flourished into a major industry. Kanazawa now accounts for 99% of Japan’s gold leaf production, and visitors will find numerous craft centres and shops selling items such as gold leaf lacquer boxes, cosmetic masks and even gold leaf ice cream!

Our guide had arranged for a gold leaf art class for us in the city’s artisan district. Unfortunately I forgot the name of the shop, but since its a popular activity here I’m sure there are many places where you can give it a go.

The front of the shop had numerous gold leaf products on display, including cosmetics like masks and creams. Not sure if they have any beneficial properties, but it sure feels luxurious!

At the back of the store were two partitioned ‘classrooms’, where materials had been laid out for our small party of three. These included delicate tweezers, forceps, glue, paper cut outs, glitter and more.

Our (pretty) sensei for the day. Communication was a bit difficult since she didn’t speak English, but we made do with hand signs and gestures lol.

We were each given a lacquered plaque. I picked out three animal shapes for my ‘design’. The first step was to gently lay the thin gold sheet onto the cut out. Easier said than done. I’ve never had the most patience or a steady hand, so I ruined two sheets (!!) before getting it right.

Pressing the cut-out designs onto the plaque. The swifter you pull it off, the more likely it’s going to turn out nice. Definitely requires a lot of dexterity !

Before cleaning off the extras around the sides. I thought of picking an earth-sea-air thingy hence the three animals. Also added some colourful glitter to give it some pop.

Another class in session.

It was really fun trying our hand out at gold leaf art, and I find it more meaningful to make my own rather than simply buying a souvenir off the shelf. If you’re ever in Kanazawa and have the time to spare, consider joining a class in the city’s artisan district. There is also a Gold Museum nearby. 🙂

 

Kanazawa Attractions: Fresh Seafood at Omi-Cho Market

Markets are one of the best places to experience the local way of life, and Omicho in Kanazawa is no exception. The bustling, colourful hub is the largest in the city and its oldest, dating back to the Edo era. Its modern form may be a far cry from how it originally looked like – but as you stroll through its neat layout, it’s not difficult to imagine traders in traditional costumes hawking their produce and wares to prospective buyers. Today, there are about 200 stalls selling everything from fruits to vegetables, kitchenware, clothing and more. Of course, being by the sea, Kanazawa is renowned for its fresh seafood, found at every corner of the market.

 

One of the entrances to Omicho.

Like everywhere else in Japan, the market is exceedingly clean. Spacious walkways are flanked by stalls, with goods laid out in an inviting display. The place is busiest in the mornings, but there was a fair number of visitors as well during our visit in the afternoon.

Every colour looked exceedingly vivid. Displays are made to look as attractive as possible – no rotting or less-than-satisfactory fruits/veges would have made the cut. This is quite a contrast with some wet markets in Southeast Asia (or maybe just in Malaysia lol)  where you’d find a bunch of wilted greens piled unceremoniously in a dirty-looking wicker basket in a corner.

The seafood selection is nothing short of impressive. Fancy some hairy crabs for 13000 yen (RM480)?

Why wait til you’re home to savour the seafood? Have it on the spot, like this group of youths who picked out their favourites and chowed down with some soy sauce and condiments. Can’t get fresher than that!

A worker shucking some giant oysters.

 Assorted shellfish and squid.

There are several restaurants within the vicinity. To attract customers, they sometimes put their ‘catch of the day’ on display, like this one which had a giant tuna head on ice.

One of these days I’d love to witness the auction process at the Tokyo market.

  Had a nice unagi on skewer fresh off the grill!

GETTING THERE

Take a bus from stops 6,7,8 or 9 at Kanazawa Station East Gate Bus Terminal and alight at Musashigatsuji. Alternatively, the Kanazawa Loop Bus (Left Loop) also takes you there, alighting at stop 7. Tickets are 200 yen for single fare.

Opening hours: 8AM – 6PM (shop hours may vary)

Closed (varies from shop to shop), but usually Wednesdays and Sundays, as well as public holidays.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting Kenroku-En: One of Japan’s Three Most Beautiful Landscaped Gardens

Kanazawa in Ishikawa Prefecture is relatively unknown among foreign tourists – perhaps due to it being off the beaten path of the Shinkansen (bullet train) – but the place is a popular destination for domestic travelers, and for good reason. If you’re looking for well-preserved examples of art, culture and history from Japan’s feudal era, Kanazawa has, perhaps, one of the best you’ll find in Japan.

Departing from Nagoya in the early morning, we arrive at the modern-looking JR Kanazawa Station an hour later. It was a rainy day – not surprising, since the city is known as the ‘Seattle of Japan’.

Part modern metropolis, part ancient capital, the city is an interesting blend of old and new, as seen from the giant wooden archway at the station’s entrance that stands in stark contrast to the place’s squeaky clean tiled floors, glass and steel railings and concrete facade. Known as a cultural and artistic hub, the city has a rich history that dates back hundreds of years, and was lucky enough to escape bombings during World War II. This makes Kanazawa the best place to see Edo-era buildings in their original form.

After dropping our items off at the hotel, our first stop for the day was Kanazawa Castle. 

* Since it was raining I had to keep my DSLR in the bag most of the time. The photos I took with my phone weren’t too good so here are some from the Japan National Tourism Organisation. Photos watermarked are my own. 

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Kanazawa Castle was built in the 16th century as the homebase of Maeda Toshiie, a local daimyo (ruling warlord of a district). Japan’s feudal era was characterised by war and military insecurity, so it was natural for Toshiie to construct a castle town with which he could defend himself. As a result, nobles and samurais flocked to the place, as did the merchants, blacksmiths, carpenters, entertainers and geishas. Wars and several fires ravished the castle, resulting in its destruction in the 19th century, but the building has since been restored to some measure of its former glory.

A unique feature of the building’s architecture is its white-tiled roofs, said to be made from lead which could be melted down in times of war to make bullets.

Credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

We skipped a tour of the castle and proceeded to the adjoining park instead, which is almost as old as the original castle itself. Kenroku-en, or the ‘Garden of Six Attributes’, is widely considered as one of the most beautiful landscaped gardens in Japan, so called because it combines the six qualities that make up a perfect garden: spaciousness, seclusion, artificiality, antiquity, abundant water and broad views.

Spanning over 11.4 hectares, the garden is home to over 8,000 trees from 183 species of plants, with artificial ponds and streams found throughout the grounds. Look out for the unique two-legged lantern called a Kotojitoro (above, right) which has become a symbol of the gardens.

credit: Japan National Tourism Organisation

Since I was visiting in summer, the trees and plants were a bright, verdant green, bursting with colour and life. It is said that a visit to the Kenroku-en throughout the seasons offers a different experience each time: in spring, cherry blossoms abound, in autumn the leaves turn to vivid gold, red and yellow, while winter sees the trees tied down with long wooden contraptions to keep their shape and protect them from heavy snow.

The gentle patter of rain subsided halfway through our park tour, although the sky remained grey and overcast – a pity, since the place would have otherwise made great photos. Still beautiful though. I can imagine the lords and ladies of old in their fancy kimonos strolling through the bridges and walkways before settling down to a nice warm tea whilst taking in the views.

Some not so nice photos from my phone.

We spotted the ‘oldest fountain in Japan’!  It’s not that impressive at only 3.5m high, but considering that people in the olden days did not have the technology we have today, this was quite a feat. The spurting water was achieved by applying natural water pressure.

One of my favourite spots, which had an ‘island’ in the centre of a pond. I thought it looked rather like a turtle in the water with trees sprouting from its back.

One can easily spend the whole morning walking through the place. Not sure on good days when its sunny, but we almost had the whole garden to ourselves! It was serene and quiet.

Lunch was at a restaurant called Miyoshian, replete with low dining tables, tatami mats and sliding partitions for privacy. Ordered soba noodles again (but hot this time) with chicken in a creamy sauce on top. It also came served with a boiled prawn, sweet egg roll (tamago) and condiments.

GETTING TO KENROKUEN/KANAZAWA CASTLE PARK 

Board the tourist oriented Kanazawa Loop Bus and stop at numbers LL9 and RL8. The Kenrokuen Shuttle Bus stops at number S8. It costs approximately 200yen and takes 20 minutes. Alternatively, there are Hokutetsu buses that run between Kanazawa Station and Kenrokuen, which takes 15 minutes and 200 yen one way.

Entrance fee to Kenrokuen: 300 yen (RM11)

Opening hours:

  • 7AM-6PM (March to October 15)
  • 8AM – 5PM (October 16 – February)

 

Review: Breakfast Buffet @ Chisun Grand Nagano, Nagano City

Our first day in Japan was packed with non-stop activities, so by the time we retired to our hotel, Chisun Grand Nagano, I was too pooped to take any pictures of the room. Here’s one from their website:

credit: Chisun Grand Nagano

Does it actually look this grand? Not really. The hotel was pretty basic, but they DID have two beds so I threw all my luggage/stuff on the other one.

View from room. The hotel is close to the train station so it’s convenient for travelers.

The next morning, got up early to have buffet breakfast on the top floor. Being a barbarian, I didn’t notice that customers had removed their shoes before stepping on the tatami-ed interior until the lady rushed forward and practically shrieked at me “no shoe!” Whoops.

What a beautiful view! The city is ringed by mountains, and in the early morning, they were shrouded by low lying clouds.

Wouldn’t say they have a terribly extensive selection, but there was enough to go around. The Western corner had the usual scrambled eggs, ham, salads, etc.

The Japanese corner had pickles, soup, porridge and other staple Japanese breakfast items. Wanted to try natto but I didn’t want to have an upset stomach throughout the day.

THIS. Sukiyaki in the morning omg. The meat was tender and very thinly sliced, with a perfect balance of lean and fat. At the risk of appearing like a glutton, I went back for second and third helpings… I mean, you can’t blame me, the bowls they provided were so small. I guess that helps with portion control though – you rarely see an overweight Japanese person out on the street.

Overall the food was fresh and tasty (especially the sukiyaki) although selection was pretty limited, but not bad for a three star hotel.

CHISUN GRAND NAGANO 

solarehotels.com/chisungrand-nagano/

Bookings: +81 26-264-6000