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Picture Postcard Japan: Takayama & Shirakawa-go

On my trip to explore Japan's Hokuriku region, specifically Nagano, Gifu and Kanazawa, I was really looking forward to seeing Takayama and Shirakawa-go in Gifu prefecture...

On my trip to explore the Hokuriku region, specifically Nagano, Gifu and Kanazawa, I was really looking forward to seeing Takayama and Shirakawa-go in Gifu prefecture. Takayama is a small town surrounded by scenic mountains with a river running through it. Historically it was known for its high quality timber and highly skilled carpenters during the feudal ages. Shirakawa-go is a historic village with unique steep-roofed homes designed specifically to withstand the heavy snow in the area, and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We arrived in Takayama in the afternoon and visited Takayama Jinya which was the local governor’s office during the Edo period. This is the last remaining original building of its kind in the country and has been restored almost entirely to its original Edo period state. All the other Jinyas were torn down after the restoration of Emperor Meiji in 1868. This one escaped destruction by serving as the Takayama Prefectural Office from 1868 to 1969. Besides official business space, the structure also includes residential space, storehouses, and even a grim interrogation room.


From the Jinya, we walked a couple of blocks to San-machi, the old merchant quarter and one of the best preserved Edo-period neighborhoods. The old merchant and artisan houses have all been converted in private museums, traditional restaurants or souvenir shops. Several old sake breweries/shops still operate and visitors can try, buy, and make Takayama sake. The three narrow lanes are often quite packed, a popular place to have green tea ice cream and coffee and to buy souvenirs.


Besides the Jinya and San-machi quarter, visitors should also consider seeing the morning markets along the river, restored heritage homes which house artifacts and crafts, and the Festival Float Exhibition Hall where the famous elaborate Takayama floats are displayed throughout the year. When in Takayama, trying the famed Hida beef is an absolute must – it is amongst the best beef in all of Japan. Hida beef is high quality meat from black-haired Japanese cattle that have been raised in the region for at least two years, and it has to pass a stringent grading system. There are many ways to try this local delicacy including Japanese-style sukiyaki (stew), yakiniku (grilled), or simply as a fine steak. I was lucky enough to have tried it twice: very thinly sliced in sukiyaki, and grilled on a magnolia leaf with miso paste. It was definitely the most tender beef I’ve ever had.


The next morning we traveled from Takayama onward to Kanazawa and stopped by Shirakawa-go for a few hours in the morning. Only a 1-hour scenic drive away, Shirakawa-go can be visited from Takayama as a day trip or as a stop between Takayama and Kanazawa. Together with Gokayama (another historic village) in nearby Toyama, it was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. The villages are famous for their farmhouses which are built in a unique architectural style, gassho. The style features steep roofs designed to withstand the large amounts of heavy snow that falls in the region during the winter. The name means “hands together” as in prayer. Interestingly the roofs, made without nails, provided a large attic space generally used for cultivating silkworms.


Before going to the village, we stopped by the look out point where we were rewarded with a sweeping panoramic view of the village set amongst beautiful mountain scenery. From above, Shirakawa-go looks like a fairy tale village set amongst the mountains and river.


The village is open during sunlight hours and visitors are welcome to stroll the historic area which has 112 Gasho-styled houses. When we visited it was a crisp autumn day and the sun was bright and warm overhead, perfect for meandering. Some houses were still inhabited, others were converted into guesthouses, gift shops & museums such as the Gassho-styled Life Museum. The shops sold little trinkets, souvenirs, dried fruits and knick-knacks. There were also a couple of places that sold ramen and soft-serve ice cream.


I learned that these thatched-roof houses were so valuable and flammable that the villagers take turns doing rounds in the village reminding residents to be mindful of their stoves and fire. These roofs are integral to the purpose of the structure and cost millions of Japanese yen, and require as many as 200 people to take part in replacing a single roof.


Although my visit to Takayama and Shirakawa-go was brief, I was able to enjoy the mountain air and natural scenic beauty, see wonderfully preserved historical buildings, and try the famed local beef, making the Gifu region a definite highlight on my whirlwind trip to the Hokuriku region. With the new shinkansen line to the Hokuriku region slated to open March 14th, 2015, travel to these beautiful towns in northwest Honshu will be easier than ever.