gokayama

Gokayama and Two UNESCO Heritage Villages

LESS POPULAR THAN SHIRAKAWA-GO

Bombarded by tons of marketing from many tour operators worldwide, Shirakawa-go has been one of the most visited villages in Japan. Yet Gokayama, the village next door, doesn’t really have that kind of exposure.

gokayama
Suganuma Village in pouring rain

Moreover, the assumption that Gokayama is part of Shirakawa-go since both have a traditional house called gassho-zukuri and Shirakawa-go is easier to reach than Gokayama makes Gokayama is even less-known. Let me tell you what, they are just terribly wrong!

HOW TO GET TO GOKAYAMA

Gokayama, literally meaning 5 mountains, is situated in the southwest of Toyama Prefecture in Nanto city. The use of the name Gokayama has begun since 1513 to generalize a group of villages spreading in 5 different areas.

From 5 mountains that consist of 40 villages, Ainokura and Suganuma village are the most beautiful ones, that have been listed on UNESCO Heritage Site since 1995 together with Ogimachi village in Shirakawa-go.

To Gokayama, you can either start your journey from Takayama City, Toyama City or Kanazawa. In my experience, the closest way to get there is to take a bus from Takayama Station in Takayama City. Please note that the only public transportation to Gokayama is a bus. No bullet trains, no trams. You can rent a car, too, if you like.

shirakawago
Ogimachi Station

At first, all buses will stop in Ogimachi Station, where Shirakawa-go is located, that takes an hour from Takayama Station. Then, you need to transfer to another bus going to both pretty villages in Gokayama. It takes 30 minutes to Suganuma and Ainokura for another 15 minutes.

The best way to explore Gokayama is to get a 3-day-pass for Shirakawa-go and Gokayama World Heritage Bus at Takayama Nohi Bus Terminal (next to JR Takayama Station). It will stop in all heritage sites, from Shirakawa-go (Ogimachi village) to all villages in Gokayama, including Suganuma and Ainokura village. The ticket price is about ¥3700 per person (please check the updates at the station or check the following sites: https://www.nouhibus.co.jp/english/ , http://www.kaetsunou.co.jp/ (Japanese only))

So, going to Gokayama is not as hard as you think.

Nonetheless, I came to Gokayama twice. First in spring 2016 to visit Suganuma Village, which was accidental (check further in my previous post to know why) and second in autumn 2017 to visit Ainokura Village. Bad planning was the key problem here, that should not happen to you as both villages in Gokayama is more than easy to visit all at once, as I explained before.

Another misconception I heard is that Gokayama is situated in the same area as Shirakawa-go. All right, let me get this straight. Gokayama is in Toyama Prefecture, whereas Shirakawa-go is in Gifu Prefecture.

GASSHO ZUKURI

One of the most distinctive characteristics of Suganuma and Ainokura Village lies on the farm houses with thatched-roof almost touching the ground called gassho-zukuri. Gassho means to join one hand’s in prayer, referring to the construction shape of the roof. These unique farmhouses have been existing since Edo Period (1603-1867) when Lord Maeda was in reign.

shirakawago
gassho-zukuri house in Shirakawa-go, not as steep as that in Gokayama

The gassho-zukuri’s steep roof having 60 degrees angle, steeper than that in Shirakawa-go, is created that way to accelerate the snow to fall down from the roof quickly. Excessive snow creates burden and potentially collapse the roof. Apart from that, the roof is made of straw to maintain the warmth inside the house in winter time.

Surprisingly, they don’t use nails and metals to assemble all materials, that are only straw and wood from forests around the village, to build the farm house. The straw is replaced every 15 to 20 years manually by Gokayama Forest Owner’s Cooperative Association. This is indeed a time consuming kind of work. Yet, if it involves over 100 people, the process would take just a day.

SUGANUMA VILLAGE

The total amount of gassho-zukuri houses in Suganuma is not as many as that in Ainokura, which is only 9 left and nearly all are uninhabited.

gokayama
Gokayama Folklore Museum

One of the oldest farmhouses in Suganuma is already transformed into Gokayama Folklore Museum, where you can see the exhibits of indigenous people’s way of life in the past and how they produced potassium nitrate or ensho as the main ingredient of gunpowder, silk and handmade paper called washi.

gokayama

Suppose you spot the one and only gassho-zukuri having a pond surrounded by fences, it’s a sign that you have arrived safely in Suganuma.

gokayama
non gassho style cafe

Besides, there are 3 non gassho-zukuri houses and some earthen wall and wooden wall storehouses protected by the government. The cafe I visited to shelter myself from pouring rain is one of the examples of a non gassho style house.

japan
konbu tea

Traditional warm drink you should try is konbu tea, whose main ingredient is seaweed, served with rice crackers. The umami or savoury taste will somehow remind you of refreshing chicken soup, though not per se.

souvenir shop
souvenir shop

AINOKURA VILLAGE

Ms. Shimizu, a guest house owner in Shirakawa-go, where I stayed back in 2016, admitted that Ainokura is her favourite village because of its breathtaking scenery and serenity. Having seen in my own naked eyes, it awakened my sense of sight and simultaneously I felt peace in my heart.

gokayama

Ainokura is the largest village in Gokayama, yet not as busy as Suganuma. From 23 gassho zukuri farmhouses aged 100, 200 and the oldest 400 years, many of them are still in use.

As a visitor, you should respect the local’s privacy privacy by not trespassing their farm or backyard, picking plants or flowers and maintaining the silence. No worries, though. The good news is that you still can satisfy your curiosity about what’s inside by visiting some of the transformed heritage houses into cafes, restaurants and minshuku (family-owned traditional Japanese guest house)

gokayama

Please beware that smoking is prohibited in the neighbourhood, as well as in Suganuma (and Shirakawa-go), and a very dangerous thing to do as the farmhouse straw roof is combustible!

Just like in Suganuma, inhabitants in Ainokura produced ensho, washi and silk for a living, where you can learn more in Ainokura Folk Village. Learning to craft washi, traditional Japanese handmade, could be a fun activity to do in Washi Workshop. To participate in the workshop, you need to register first and make sure to attend before 3.30 pm as it is the last admission.

gokayama
souvenir shop at the entrance

SERENITY AND ORIGINALITY AT ITS BEST

Everything you see in Gokayama, from gassho style houses to surrounding crops, rice fields and shrine groves are still very-well preserved as it is until today because they are unaffected by World War II. Moreover, Gokayama is a perfect destination for those who embrace silence and dislike hustling and bustling crowds like Shirakawa-go.

THE PRICE FAVOURITE’S DESTINATION

In a nutshell, it deserves to be part of your itinerary to Japan once in a life time. To be honest, I didn’t regret to return to Gokayama after the screwed up plan I had made the year before.

Prince Akishino, who stayed in Ainokura twice in 1983 and 1992, once said that he has 3 favourite destinations in the world, and Gokayama is one of it.

If a Japanese prince left his heart in Gokayama, why shouldn’t you?

 

Less Touristic UNESCO Heritage Site in Japan: Suganuma Village

HOW I ACTUALLY ENDED UP IN SUGANUMA VILLAGE

As instructed by an official at Takayama Station that from Shirakawa-go, we needed to transit at Gokayama Suganuma Station to catch an intercity bus to Kanazawa. She circled the name “Gokayama Suganuma Station” on the bus schedule she passed me.

My friend Olie and I arrived at Gokayama Suganuma Station at 11 o’clock. It was surprisingly small and not very presentable for an intercity bus station, although it has some coin lockers for rent starting from ¥100 until ¥600 depending on the sizes. However, none of us suspected anything at that moment and thought it was the right place for a transfer.

Having seen on the map the day before that there’s a heritage village called Suganuma village, we followed the asphalt pathway heading downwards behind the station. We instantly noticed the signature Gassho-zukuri farm houses in front of us.

I was like, “Hey, it is indeed a very scenic location for a station. Lovely!”

gokayama suganuma village unesco heritage site
Suganuma Village access situated behind the station

We had about 40 minutes to wander around the scenic village and gave another 10 minutes extra time to walk back to the station with our hand luggage before heading to Kanazawa. The was no way that heavy rain stopped us from exploring the site.

It’s just that almost everything I captured have some traces of rain and raindrops.

ABOUT SUGANUMA VILLAGE

Gokayama region is located in the southwest part of Toyama Prefecture, lying between 1500 meters high mountains along the gorge of the Sho River. It is said that the first settlement started in the 12th century when the defeated Tairan Clan warriors fled to Gokayama to start a new life.

gokayama

Suganuma village is one of the villages in Gokayama region being listed on UNESCO Heritage Site since 1995 and The National Groups of Traditional Buildings also lists the village as an “Important Preservation District”, along with Ainokura village.

Suganuma village consists of 9 Gassho-zukuri houses, built in the end of Edo Period (1603-1867) when Lord Maeda was in reign, 3 non-Gassho-zukuri houses, some earthen and wooden-walled store houses.

gassho-zukuri gokayama japan

Gassho-zukuri houses are like nowhere else in Japan and only exist in Gokayama and Shirakawa-go. Triangle thatched rooftops that resembles an prayer pose with fingertips touching each other pointing upwards is the signature style of these heritage farmhouses, to hold heavy snow in winter time.

Nonetheless, compared to rooftops in Shirakawa-go, those in Gokayama are steeper and there’s a rounded shape on the tip of the rooftop called hafu, something that Gassho-zukuri houses in Shirakawa-go don’t have. Therefore, the snow falls down easier from Gassho-zukuri rooftops in Gokayama area.

dscf7153-copy

The entire village is still in its original form, including the irrigated rice fields, dry crop land and shrine groves. The age of all the properties in the village is about 100 to 200 years old. There are restaurants, cafes, souvenir shops inside the lovely Gassho style farmhouses owned by villagers who live there.

gassho zukuri goyakama japan

HOW WE EXPLORED THE SITE IN POURING RAIN

It rained like cats and dogs and there was no sign of stopping anytime soon. Before exploring the site, my friend left her quite big luggage on the side of a souvenir shop entrance door, informing the store owner in advance.

Perhaps it was because the hard rain, or may be it was simply a very quiet area, that nobody noticed an unattended luggage. 40 minutes later, it was still intact and untouched. There was no need to question about the safety in the area.

souvenir shop
souvenir and snack shop
gokayama
the cafe in a non-gassho style house
gokayama japan
a closer look of the price list

Actually, Gokayama Folklore Museum could be the right place to shelter ourselves. It gives more knowledge about the live of villagers in Gokayama region during Edo period through exhibitions of utensils they used for producing silkworms, gunpowder and Japanese handmade paper called washi.

However, I preferred taking pictures of the entire landscape of the village despite heavy rain since we had a very limited time. But, if time is not a problem for you, visiting the museum could be a good option.

gokayama
Gokayama Folklore Museum, one of the oldest Gassho-zukuri houses in Suganuma

I was so lucky to bring my plastic raincoat, but it didn’t really ease my photography activity. I hung my camera on my neck and covered it with a plastic bag. It was quite troublesome, to be honest, since I had to take it out from the bag every time I saw something nice to take. I stopped capturing after some dewdrops appeared inside my camera LCD. (Luckily, they disappeared the next day. Phew!)

I instantly joined Olie, who had sheltered herself earlier to the cafe nearby. By the time I got there, she had made friends with 2 lovely old ladies. Despite the language barrier, they tried to make a conversation with her (and with me later on), offering us some rice crackers after that. From our mixed conversation with some words and gestures, I assumed that one of the ladies is a papier-maché artist.

japan

I ordered kelp tea (konbu tea), a savoury-flavoured tea made of infused kombu kelp seaweed. It was a bit bizarre to have it as a tea drink, but I believe it could be delicious as a soup ingredient.

gokayama japan
shrine grove, seen from the cafe
woven sandal japan
woven sandals behind my seat
gokayama japan cafe
it’s indeed a modern interior inside the Gassho style cafe

THE 11.50 BUS THAT NEVER CAME AND HOW GOOD SAMARITANS HELPED US THROUGH IT

It was 11.50 and our bus didn’t come at all. We wondered why the schedule at the bus stop (I think it’s more proper to call it a bus stop rather than a station) mentioned that the next bus would be at 12.15. The time 11.50 was never mentioned there. An Indonesian couple and a solo traveler from Hong Kong couldn’t help us much, something that was completely understandable.

Suddenly, the 2 lovely old ladies we met at the cafe joined us. We greeted each other and asked them if we could go to Kanazawa from Gokayama Suganuma Station. We showed our tickets, and both lovely ladies advised us to take the same bus as theirs and got off at Takaoka Station. In other words, we needed to buy new tickets and we lost ¥ 1,540 each because we had to take a different bus from the one in our tickets.

gokayama japan

But it didn’t matter anymore. It was a much better option than being stranded at the small bus stop for only God knows how long it could be.

The 12.15 bus was late for about 15 minutes, something not very common for a country like Japan. We totally depended on these ladies and waited for their instruction when to get off.

About 2 hours later, we got off together at Takaoka station. The lovely ladies continued their journey to Osaka by train. On the other hand, we took a train to Shin-Takaoka to transfer for another train to Kanazawa.

We thanked the lovely ladies, that happened to be our good Samaritans. We had no idea what would happen to us if they weren’t there helping us.

Nonetheless, our visit to Suganuma village would probably not happen without being lost at first. May be it happened for a reason.

WHAT WENT WRONG WITH OUR TICKETS?

Later on, we were curious what went wrong with our old tickets. We compared the bus ticket (written only in Japanese) with the bus schedule (written in English and Japanese), where the official circled the station name “Gokayama Suganuma”.

After matching all the Japanese characters from the ticket and bus schedule, it turned out that the Japanese character on the ticket means “Gassho no Sato” station, situated 1 stop before Gokayama Suganuma bus stop.

In other words, we supposed to stop at Gassho no Sato station for a intercity bus transfer to Kanazawa at 11.50! The official circled the wrong station on the bus schedule and she spoke such as bad English that I completely misunderstood her in the end!

 

SOME TIPS ABOUT VISITING SUGANUMA VILLAGE

  • Buy a 3-day-pass for Shirakawa-go and Gokayama World Heritage Bus at Takayama Nohi Bus Terminal (next to JR Takayama Station). It will stop in all heritage sites, from Shirakawa-go (Ogimachi village) to all villages in Gokayama, including Suganuma and Ainokura village. The distance between one site to another is 30 to 45 minutes. The ticket price is about ¥3700 per person (please check the updates at the station or check the following sites: https://www.nouhibus.co.jp/english/ , http://www.kaetsunou.co.jp/ (Japanese only)
  • You only can explore Gokayama and Shirakawa-go areas by bus (and private cars). No trains available.
  • Don’t bring a large suitcase while travelling anywhere in Japan, especially if you plan to move from one place to another for multiple times. Coin lockers for large suitcases are only available at the main or bigger stations. Smaller stations and bus stops only provide coin lockers for small to medium luggage size. It costs ¥100 for a small coin locker and  ¥600 for a bigger one.
  • Choose a 4-wheeled suitcase as it adds more flexibility to drag on narrow bus alley. (Please note that even Shinkansen trains have narrow alleys, too!)
  • While visiting any heritage village in Gokayama and Shirakawa-go, please remember that there are still villagers living inside the Gassho-zukuri houses. Trespassing private properties is not allowed. Making too much noises is also unpleasant for surroundings.
  • As usual, many Japanese people don’t speak good English. A Google Translate app on your phone is extremely useful (I didn’t use that when I was at the station!) while communicating with them.