If you have not heard of Shirakawa-go, it is Gifu prefecture, just inland from Kanazawa which is on the Sea of Japan side. The village of Shirakwawa Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995, they are famous for their traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old.
Knowing that this destination is a popular getaway for the weekends, I took this trip during the weekday to avoid the crowds. This trip was on November 5th and 6th, which was a Monday and Tuesday.
This trip was not my normal kakueki style – this time I took the Shinkansen both ways, and stayed in a more upscale business hotel in Kanazawa city. I had found a good deal from a travel agent where the cost of the hotel and train was the same as the train by itself.
One of the things that I really learned on this trip is that while tourism infrastructure in some remote regions can be underdeveloped, in other areas it can be very well suited to foreign travelers. Kanazawa and Shirakawa-go are two of these places. In fact, a bit too successful in the sense that throngs of foreign visitors can really take away from the charm of the genuineness of the location. I really don’t want to bash these places for being too popular, but I think it goes to illustrate some of the imbalance you can see between the well-known places and the destinations that are under-visited. OK, enough of the rant – it still was a great trip!
Kanazawa station is really impressive. The main front entrance has a large covered glass area that looks more like a modern airport than a train station. The front entrance is graced by a large Torii gate. It truly is an impressive mix of modern and traditional design.
From the West exit of the station, there is a large open public square with this dramatic monument. I could not help bu think it looks like something out of the former Soviet Union of the Brutalist architecture theme.
From Kanazawa station, you can take a bus to Shirakawa-go. The ride is several hours, but winds through a beautiful rural countryside.
What is really amazing about these old houses is that fact that people still live in them. I took this picture with the laundry out to dry. While the roof will need replacing eventually, supposedly they can last for up to 80 years.
However, what I did not show was the throngs of tourists that descend on this little village. While the residents still maintain their small private farms, the farms to not appear large enough for the community to survive on agriculture alone. Tourism, while perhaps very disruptive, seems to be the primary source of income. I am sure to the residents that there are mixed feelings about the constant, daily invasions.
As you can see from the local website, locals have taken some action to help reduce the disturbances, but from the fact that such notices is evidence of a problem http://ml.shirakawa-go.org/en/manga_en/1319/
Although the village is quite small, you can spend at least an hour walking around and exploring. There are a number of small restaurants, but tend to be a bit overpriced.
One of the main attractions is a hillside viewpoint that overlooks the village. Although there is a shuttle bus, I recommend that you do not take it and instead take the pleasant walk up a road that has been closed to traffic.
The Wada house is one of the main attractions. It was built around 1800, and is by far the largest gassho style house in Shirakawa-go. The second floor and part of the first floor are open to the public. The Wada family was a wealthy trader family in the village. The house is lovingly preserved and gives the visitor a chance to see the intricate roof construction up close.
I would say that 3 hours or so is enough time to explore the village and have a nice meal. By late afternoon, we boarded the bus for the return trip to Kanazawa. Note that the buses are generally full, so do not even think of going there without a return reservation.
Right in the middle of Kanazawa city is a beautiful park build on the former grounds of a Meiji-era high school. Inside, is a free museum that illustrates the activities that went on at that time. The school inside has high ceilings more typical of European-influenced design.
Kanazawa city is a great town for a casual walk-about to explore. This clean canal winds through the city
I really noticed a lot of foreign visitors in Kanazawa. The city, restaurants, hotels and merchants really seem to go out of their way to accommodate foreign guests – I would say some of the best efforts that I have seen in any Japanese city.
A really great walk is Nagamachi (長町), a samurai district located at the foot of the former Kanazawa Castle, where samurai and their families used to reside. The area preserves a historic atmosphere with its remaining samurai residences, earthen walls, private entrance gates, narrow lanes and water canals. While there are some traditional shops, most of these are still maintained as residences.
Kanazawa is famous for its seafood, in particular it’s crab. There are many varieties and all kinds of prices. The most famous is the zuwaigani with its thin and long legs.
A trip to Omicho Market is a must-see for seafood lovers. While there do seem to be some wholesale operations, the primary focus of the market is consumer. What always amazes me about Japanese fish markets is the lack of any sort of fish smell. The fish are that fresh!
I am a huge fan of crab, particularly the type from colder waters, so when I knew I was going to Kanazawa, crab was a must-have on my list. There are a number of restaurants in the market featuring fresh seafood. Note that the predominant mode of serving seafood is very simple donburi (food placed on a bowl of rice). Most is raw or very slightly cooked. This suits me just fine as I believe that the delicate taste of crab should not be disturbed by any seasonings.
I had this amazing kani-don (crab bowl). A common local custom is to garnish food with gold leaf. This crab had a marvelous, delicate taste. However, note that the seafood here the best, but don’t expect it to be cheap. This bowl was ¥2,800 – certainly not inexpensive, but worth every bit.
One of the most famous areas of Kanazawa is Higashi Chaya.
Chaya is a traditional establishment for dining and entertainment, where geisha would entertain guests with dance and music since the Edo period. The central part of Kanazawa was dotted with a number of chaya houses in the past. These chaya houses were moved into four districts distant from the central part in 1820. Higashi chaya is the largest chaya district in Kanazawa. You can spend a lot of time walking through here and exploring. However, it is quite crowded with tourists.
Higashi Chaya is probably one of the most visited areas in the city after the castle. I did spend some time on the grounds, but for the most part when I travel in Japan, I tend to try to avoid castles simply for the fact that almost every single one was destroyed during the Meiji restoration, leaving only the foundations intact, and what you see are re-creations. While I respect the commitment to reliving history, and the incredible steps they take to make the recreations as authentic as possible, the fact that they are not actually the real thing makes it a lot less appealing to me.
Overall, this was a very nice two-day, one night trip that is very easy to take from Tokyo due to the direct Shinkansen service. Given this convenience and well developed tourism infrastructure, Kanazawa and neighboring Shirakawa-go have been able to attract many foreign tourists.
However, I it was not as personally satisfying as some of my other kakueki-style trips. I realize that this is based on my personal preference where I tend to prefer those spots that are more out of the path of mass tourism. Certainly in Japan there are many of these type of relatively undiscovered destinations, but they do require more work to get to, and a sense of serendipity as well.