Sunday dawned in Takayama
. After breakfast at the Best Western I boarded the Nohi bus
to Shirakawa-go, which was another scenic ride, this one about an hour long.
In my original trip planning, I had hoped to stay at a gasshō-zukuri (合掌造り, literally "clasped-hands" style) inn in Shirakawa-go
. I don't remember where I first heard of this rustic village in the mountains where people still lived in thatched-roof A-frame farmhouses and ate around sunken hearths, but seeing photos like this
convinced me this was a place I wanted to visit. The traditional inns in a village like this don't have online reservations, so the easiest way for a less-than-fluent foreigner like me to book a stay at them is to use a site like Japanese Guest Houses
that acts as an intermediary. That intermediation comes with a delay of about a day between when you request a room and when you get a response as to whether one's available at the inn you want. Possibly this wouldn't be a problem normally, but it turns out Doburoku Matsuri
, an annual festival involving unrefined sake, was taking place in Shirakawa-go October 14-19. I assume that's why I couldn't find a single vacant room in Shirakawa-go that weekend over the course of a week of back-and-forth with Japanese Guest Houses
. So I found another scenic village in the region with gasshō-zukuri houses. This one, called Ainokura (相倉), was a little smaller and more remote than Shirakawa-go, with the implication that it's also less tourist-choked. Ainokura was another bus ride beyond Shirakawa-go.
Once I got to Shirakawa-go, I had less than an hour to haul my heavy luggage from the Shirakawa-go bus stop up to the Ogimachi bus stop on the other side of the village, in order to catch the Kaetsuno bus to Ainokura. I muscled it up there in what turned out to be plenty of time. I was a little anxious waiting at the bus stop because it wasn't labeled (and there was no bench or shelter) and no one else was waiting there. Loads of private tour buses rumbled by, but when the appointed time arrived and the Kaetsuno
bus was nowhere to be seen, I was worried. Trains and buses (and people) in Japan are never late, are they? This one was running a few minutes late after all—maybe because it was raining—and I boarded it with a sense of relief. For much of the ride I was the sole passenger, though eventually a few more people got on. Since this was the first time for me riding a local bus on my own in Japan, I thank JapanesePod101.com's Riding the Bus 1
and Riding the Bus 2
lessons for explaining to me how it works and the phrases to use.
I got off the bus at Ainokura-guchi and spent several minutes wondering which way to walk from there. Once I figured it out, it was about a ten-minute walk from the bus stop to Ainokura with heavy luggage. Note to travelers: take advantage of Japan's good luggage-handling services, if you're making any side trip where you'll have to haul your luggage, and have the bulk of your luggage sent ahead to the place where you'll be spending most of your trip (in my case that would've been in Kyoto). It'll save you an awful lot of difficulty.
Once I got to the inn where I would be staying that night, Goyomon
, I entered with the expectation that at noon I was too early to check in. But this was a friendly place where "check-in time" is not a rule. I was shown to my tatami room, where the proprietress put my luggage before serving me tea and sweets in the main room by the irori
I had the whole afternoon to explore Ainokura. I walked up the side of the mountain to the conjugal zelkova tree
. I visited the folk life museums
in the village. I visited Jinushi shrine
. I photographed. I wandered. I visited a gift shop
, where I bought some grain soup mixes, a CD of traditional village folk music, some rustic sweets similar to the ones I'd been served by the proprietress at Goyomon, kaishi
embossed with a gasshō-zukuri design, and a cup of delicious yuzu
I returned to Goyomon where there was more tea. As trout roasted on sticks in the sunken hearth, a couple from Hokkaido
arrived to check in to another of the inn's rooms. They were very friendly; we chatted for a while. There are four guest rooms at Goyomon, so between me and the Hokkaido couple, the inn was operating at 50% of capacity. As usual for a Japanese home, there was no central heating, so the guest rooms each contained an electric heater to ward off the chill.
By this point I was satisfied that I'd seen most of the village and was a little tired, but there was time before dinner, so the proprietress generously drove me to Kuroba Onsen
, about twenty minutes away by car.
Mind you, I had never been to an onsen
before. I had been to Spa World
, a Korean bathhouse
here in the states, with some friends, so I had some experience being naked in a women-only bathhouse space. But this was in Japan, in a fairly remote area where I would be the only Westerner as well as completely on my own. This would not be a place catering to people new to the bathhouse experience and its particular etiquette. And from my understanding there is still some prejudice about foreigners being "dirty" and therefore undesirable at onsen. If that was the case here, it was too subtle for me to notice it. I paid my money at the front desk, disrobed in the women's changing room (I would call it a locker room but there were no lockers—yay for high-trust societies—only baskets on shelves), and entered the bathing area. I washed myself at one of the seated shower stations before entering the bath itself—that's probably the single most important point of etiquette/hygiene to know about Japanese and Korean bathhouses. I alternated between the indoor and outdoor baths, both of which were nearly empty of other patrons and thus quiet and relaxing. After an hour Goyomon's proprietress picked me up and drove me back to her inn.
Then dinner was served: koi-no-arai (fresh, raw carp), nameko-jiru (soup with nameko mushrooms), su-no-mono (mountain vegetables dressed with vinegar), kogomi no goma-ae (young fern with sesame paste), tempura, iwana-no-shioyaki (salt-grilled brook trout), ka-no-mono (pickles), and nimono (a simmered dish with Gokayama tofu, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and wild vegetables), and probably some other dishes that have escaped my memory. It was delicious, of course, and there were so many courses that I was stuffed by the end of the evening. The couple from Hokkaido shared some traditional sweets they'd brought as a nontraditional end to the meal, while the proprietress demonstrated the playing of a sasara
, a traditional folk instrument. I'm surprised I didn't just fall asleep after that, but I stayed up a little while watching an ice-skating championship on TV that was of particular interest to the other guests. When I finally retired to my eight-tatami room, I slept soundly on a futon and a buckwheat chaff pillow. Here are the pictures I took in Ainokura.
I'd also like to point you to Paul's Ainokura blog post
. I don't know Paul, but he traveled to Ainokura about a year and a half ago and stayed at Goyomon, and his photos and description are excellent. If you're wondering what those dishes I described above look like, follow that link. I didn't see his writeup before my trip, but looking at it afterward I can say our experiences were very similar.