Shirakawa-go and Takayama: Thatched Roof Heritage Houses, Autumn Leaves, and Morning Markets
Gassho-style farmhouses, big, triangular and with thatched roofs are very rare in Japan, only found in the villages of Ogimachi at the Shirakawa-go region (Gifu prefecture) and Ainokura and Suganuma at the Gokayama region (Toyama prefecture). Due to their particular location at a river valley nestled in the mountains and difficult access, they have remained isolated for a long time and people from there developed a particular farming style, cultivating mulberries and rearing silkworms. The architecture of these houses reflects the socio-economic as well as geographic/weather circumstances and, for all those reasons, they are listed by UNESCO as world heritage traditional sites. Many of these are 100 to 200 years old (some as old as 400 years).
How To Get There and Around
The best way to get to these villages is either by car or bus. There is no train station or taxi. There are buses from Toyama, Takaoka, Kanazawa and Nagoya (there are some direct ones from this last location, but most go to Takayama and then you can take another bus there to Shirakawa-go). Accommodation and places to eat are very limited, so make sure you book in advance. During the day there are a few buses between Shirakawa-go (Ogimachi) and Takaoka, that pass through all the historical villages. You can buy a one-day pass at the tourist information office at Shirakawa-go and just show it to the drivers every time you hop off. They do finish quite early, so make sure you don’t get stuck in the middle of nowhere (especially in the dark, as there are bears at Ainokura). It’s not scary, some people do live around there, just be aware. Here is the heritage bus timetable (PDF).
I went during the autumn leaves season (紅葉 koyo or momiji), one week earlier than the peak time, which was great as the colours were wonderful, but there were a lot less tourists than the following week. You will basically want to take pictures of everything! At Shirakawa-go, you can get information about buses as well as the villages and a map. You can just walk around the villages and you won’t get lost. There are a few places where you can stay for the night and/or eat, souvenir shops and traditional houses that are open for visit (for example, the Kanda house at Ogimachi).
This village also has a view point high up (there is a bus shuttle or you can just walk for 10-15 minutes).
After visiting Ogimachi, I took the bus to Suganuma (Gokayama). The journey along the river is very pretty and the village is below the road level, so you can start taking nice pictures as soon as you get off the bus, before going down the ramp to the actual village.
Then, it was time to continue to Ainokura, which is higher up in the mountains. This village also has a viewing spot, only about 5 minutes walking up.
On the bus route between the historical villages, there are other more modern small villages where you can find limited accommodation, a very small supermarket and a sake brewery. Apparently, there is also an onsen, as the lady from my accommodation at Kaimukura very kindly offered to drive me there. You can see more pictures here.
Takayama Morning Markets and Traditional Streets
Since I had to change buses at Takayama on my way back to Nagoya, I went for a walk to see the morning markets, traditional shops and streets. The bus ride through the mountains was incredibly beautiful. There are two daily morning markets (朝市, Asaichi), both by the river (10-15 minutes walking from the bus station, which is next to the train station). You can grab a map from the tourist information kiosk in front of the train station.
The Jinya-mae market is in front of the Takayama Jinya, and the Miyagawa Market is along the Miyagawa River in the old town. You can buy crafts, snacks and local farm products.
The roads of the old town are narrow, well-kept and very pretty, with some local businesses and souvenir shops.
If you have time for a meal, Hida beef is a great choice. If you are interested in culture/festivals, you can also visit the Takayama festival floats exhibition hall.
You can see more pictures here.