Need a distraction from the work week? Read on for the fifth and final part of the “Tim’s Travels in Japan” series, covering my brother and my trip through central Japan!
Background music –
On the heels of our Kyoto exploits, we took a bus into the mountains of Gifu.
Shirakawago is a very isolated area in the Gifu mountains, whose main draw card are its 250-year-old gassho buildings. The steep roofs of the homes are said to resemble hands together in prayer. The less romantic, more practical reason for the angle of the roofs is so the structures can withstand the weight of massive amounts of snow and house silkworms in the attic space. The majority of the buildings are still actively lived in – a home like any other, with the added experience of busloads of tourists admiring your house every day.
My brother and I booked to stay overnight in one of the gassho homes in Ogimachi, better to admire up-and-personal. I was never going turn down sleeping in an actual UNESCO World Heritage Site, I’m an absolute sucker for those kind of bragging rights!
The only reason we were able to grab a place in this tiny town was became we visited in an off season – neither during the full snows, nor during the summertime green. Personally I think the melting snow had its own charm – winter literally melting away to reveal spring. Is that.. birds chirping? Rays of sunshine? A harp strumming?
Our lodgings were quaint but cozy, and our host was kind. Think ryokan/traditional Japanese inn, but more low key – it’s someone’s home after all. With Japanese cuisine included!
Things to do in Shirakawago aside from eating and sleeping? Well, Tim and I spent most of our available time wandering around the village – to the shrine, trekking to The Viewpoint (ask anyone in the village and they’ll tell you which one), and exploring the outdoor museum, featuring many of the older, unused buildings.
You have to admire the people of Ogimachi, to live in such an isolated area, gawked at daily by a steady stream of tourists, in very old homes which require constant upkeep. What keeps them there? Family loyalty? A love for the tourism industry? Maybe its the quiet mysticism of a small community living the same way they have for hundreds of years.
By the village, we found the following text on a stone tablet –
To live in the steep mountains is to live in Paradise on Earth. Even when the lamplight grows dim, we talk fondly of the unending good old times. The young men don’t leave the village, but stay on and support the elderly. When we build roads, we do not sell the trees for lumber. The old trees grow thick on the mountain, enriching our hearts, even if we have no other wealth.
To clear the land and till the soil and support oneself is to obey the laws of nature. He who sells his fore-bearers’ estate loses his native place and brings ruin upon himself. Let him who would hear the song of the birds in the mountains endeavor with all his strength to grow fruit trees there. He shall pass his days in joy gazing at the stars. Happy days still come to the lonely woods in the steep mountains. The light of peace glows on in the eyes of the horses and cattle.
After discarding the idea of quitting our day jobs to live the simple life in the mountains, we hopped on a bus and made our way to Nagano.
Waiting for us at Nagano was our dear friend Georgina (who I had previously visited when we saw the famed hot-spring snow monkeys).
As per tradition, we began our stay with yakitori, edamame and good kiwi yarns at an izakaya. Back at Georgina’s, Tim had his first experience of sleeping under a kotatsu (a low table with a blanket and a heater underneath – otherwise known as the gods’ gift to all in Winter. Am I still bitter that I couldn’t bring my own kotatsu back to New Zealand? Definitely.)
We spent the next morning visiting the highlights of Obuse, the town in northern Nagano where Georgina lives and works. First stop – Ganshoin temple!
Within the walls of Ganshoin features a sprawling ceiling painting of a phoenix by ukiyo-e artist Hokusai, the same guy who created the Wave off the Coast at Kanagawa. If you’re thinking of that one print of a wave that’s on every Japanese souvenir ever – bingo! That guy.
The painting is known as “Ho-O staring in eight directions”, as the phoenix glares at you wherever you stand in the room. Can confidently say, the sassiest depiction of a phoenix I have ever seen. I couldn’t get a photo (the phoenix looked like he would have ratted me out) but I’ve googled it for you here. Hokusai painted this masterpiece when he was 89 years old!
(Fun Pokemon tid-bit – Ho-o (Japanese phoenix) = Ho-oh)
The temple is also well known for its garden full of frogs. Famously, these frogs were an inspiration to Kobayashi Issa, one of the four haiku great haiku masters of Japan. He wrote the following haiku about two frogs fighting over their love interest:
Issa is here.
Many believe this poem actually alluded to his sickly infant son, who later died.
We spent the rest of the day with Georgina feasting on the good foods Obuse has to offer, including pork katsu and chestnut ice cream (Obuse does chestnuts reaaally well).
Most people would have called it a day there, which probably would have been sensible. Being Not-Most-People, we decided to fit in one last sightseeing stop in Matsumoto.
While I’m sure there are many things to do in Matsumoto, I was there for one thing only – the castle, sexily known as “Crow castle” for its dark and brooding colour scheme.
We briskly made our way to the castle site, only 15 minutes walk from Matsumoto station. We made a mental note of both the train that would take us home, and the fact that if we missed it, we wouldn’t make it for the connecting last train. Suspecting that we had little time to spare, we opted to skip the inside tour. We set ourselves up on a park bench,where we had a killer view and a good supply of Pocky.
It was lovely actually, sitting back, taking in the majesty of the castle, plum blossoms rustling overhead, swans circling below.
So engrossed were we of Crow Castle, that we lost track of time completely.
The 15 walk to the train station became a 5 minute sprint.
And then, we were back! Back in Tokyo, my second home. We reached my apartment at around 11pm, with just enough energy to get McDonald’s delivered.
Tim’s final two days in Japan were a whirlwind of ramen, Harajuku kimonos, yakitori and karaoke.
These ten days together were perhaps the longest my brother and I had spent together since we were children. We’d always gotten along really well, but I’d like to think we’re all the closer for our shared adventures.
Where to next, Tim?