Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The wonderful Shirakawago in the winter

When mum and I decided to take a last minute trip to Shirakawago last summer we weren't expecting such a beautiful spot, see my other post about Shirakawago in the summer. The only thing we weren't able to do back then was to stay in one of the farmhouses aka "minshuku" (they get fully booked early in the summer) so I was so excited that I had the chance this weekend to return for a winter wonderland scene and to stay in a real minshuku! So we set off on the bus from Kanazawa on Saturday, an easy 1 1/2 hr trip (¥3010 rtn) and the heavy dumps of snow started to re-appear as we climbed up the mountains through the mile long tunnels.

Got to Shirakawago, well Ogimachi in fact, and found our thatched minshuku (Japanese farmhouse style B&B) stayed called Yoshiro, a bit spit and sawdust but ran by an old Japanese couple who turned out to be so sweet that it just made it a "real Japanese experience" that you could simply never get staying in an impersonal hotel. More to that later.

So Yoshiro has only signs in kanji so both myself and Maylee were wondering whether we were just walking into someones house! (they rarely lock doors to these places) We knew we were in the minshuku when we heard the lady out the back shout "irasshaimase" (welcome) and she then appeared and took us to our tatami mat room complete with kotatsu (a table with built in heating device underneath and blanket) ready for our cold tootsies! After a quick cup of green tea (which I'm now starting to like...) and a biccie we headed out.

In Shirakawago there are about 3 or 4 gassho style houses converted into small museums. We went to Nagaske (since I visited the others on my last trip) Each one charges a small entry fee of ¥300 and you get a translated leaflet with a bit of history. The house belonged to the Nagaske family wgh were doctors for the Maeda Lords in Ishikawa Pref.

The 2nd floor is packed with medical instruments, gifts from the Maeda family as well as tools for raising silkworms.

In each of the gassho houses, usually in the middle of the living room downstairs stands an "irori"- an open fireplace used for heating (an absolute necessity in these winter months) and sometimes cooking.

Amazing that they can erect these gigantic houses with not a SINGLE nail! See ropes binding foundations together.

Met Raquel and Ayako at Yoshiro and had a good catch up under the cosy kotatsu (thats the table not a bed!) until it was time for din dins. As soon as we walked into the small tatami mat restaurant the old lady had us get to work stoking up the irori fire!

What could only have been her elderly husband then bought out these wonderfully prepared trays of food, just check it out!

OK I'll try and take you through the food here-
Top right: boiled spinach, slices of daikon (a huge white Japanese radish) & marinated fried chicken
Top left: mountain vegetable tempura
Top middle: Sato-imo (里芋) a tiny Japanese sweet potato
Middle left: Kinkan- a Japanese kumquat/tiny orange- (金柑), zenmai (an edible fern, the stuff that look stringy green beans but brown) and sutake, mini bamboo shoots.
Middle centre: Chopped tomato
Middle right: Silk tofu sprinkled with katsuobushi shavings (鰹節) which are dried fermented & smoked tuna flakes!
Bottom left: Grilled river fish called Iwashi (like a sardine)
Best of all that I forgot to take a piccie of (oops) was the hida beef (local speciality) & onion cooked on a mini stove we had each. Then came out a huge Japanese teapot of green tea.

The food was soooo yummy and after stuffing our faces we were just about to retire to our room when the little old lady (fairly mute up until now) comes out with her shamisen! You couldn't get more of a real Japanese experience. She played and sang some traditional Japanese songs and then asked us where we all from (2 Americans, me British and 1 Japanese) She then started playing again.

It took a while to figure out she what she was playing (kind of 'out of tune' sound) but then realised she was playing the Beatles' Hey Jude! (ironically Ayako, my native Japanese friend was the first to figure that one out..) and we all sang along. She then started belting out the American national anthem. Classic! We then had a try at playing but it's so difficult because unlike a guitar a shamisen doesn't have frets so its amazing that they know where to put their finger.

After a sing along we went back to our rooms and as always in a ryokan the little bed fairies had been busy. Our beds were all out ready on the floor but weirdly each one had a huge bulge at the bottom. We all had no idea what the bulges were (including Ayako) and they turned out to be mini plug in kotatsu heaters to heat the beds! I guess like our equivalent of a heated blanket except these things are wooden boxes (see photo below on left side). Hmmm fire hazard?

They obviously get in the way a bit but very cosy to have your feet next to.

The next day we were woken up at 6.34am by our neighbours in the next door room playing music. Don't expect peace and quiet staying in Japanese ryokans/minshukus, the rooms are only separated by thin wooden screens.

After another wonderful breakfast we had a stroll around the village, tried out one of Japan's infamous rice burgers, (yep packed rice instead of a bread bun- great for those on a yeast free diet like I'm supposed to be!) and then headed home.

Shirakawago is one of my favourite places so far in the Ishikawa/Gifu area. For anyone in Kanazawa wondering where to go, don't hesitate. GO! It can be easily done as a day trip (the village is actually really small) or if you want to stay a night make it a gassho farmhouse like Yoshiro for an authentic experience (Cost for 1 night dinner B&B was ¥8000 including a heating charge of ¥300, about £55) I reserved through the tourist info office in Shirakawago. Some of them speak English or send them an email

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