Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Hamlet Called Ainokura

We rose with the sun on a Sunday (on a Sunday, imagine that!), hurriedly washed the sleep from our faces, dressed, tidied and locked our little airbnb apartment, and stepped out into the 12˚C Tokyo morning. We dragged our luggage along the pavement to Shinjuku Station, passing by intoxicated costumed people still up from a long night of halloween partying. We stifled a laugh and puzzled over what a guy wearing just a pullover and briefs was supposed to be. But there was no time for guessing, we had to hurry in order to make two transfers and not miss the infrequent bus to our destination: a hamlet called Ainokura, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Toyama Prefecture, some 400 km west of Tokyo.

From Shinjuku Station, we took the JR line to Tokyo Station. In Tokyo Station, we bought boxed meals from one of the many stalls before hurrying to find the right platform for the Hakutaka train on the Hokuriku Line (the shinkansen line that connects Tokyo and Kanazawa).

Tokyo JR Station

The Hakutaka has arrived (at Shin-Takaoka Station)

3 hours from Tokyo to Shin-Takaoka

Breakfast on the go: ekiben (boxed meal bought at one of the stalls in Tokyo Station, 850 yen)

On the way to Shin-Takaoka: the urban skyline gave way to the countryside

At 260 kph, the scenery zoomed from an urban jungle to mountains and green fields and soon our stop (Shin-Takaoka Station) was announced and our three-hour shinkansen ride was over. Before proceeding to the bus stop just outside Shin-Takaoka station, we dropped by the tourist information desk to ask for the bus schedule and to ask where the coin lockers were. Since we were staying just a night at Ainokura, we decided to leave our bags in coin lockers in the station and to bring only what was necessary for a one-night stay.

Coin lockers

Countryside views on the way to Ainokura

The one-hour bus ride didn't seem long at all. We were dropped off on the side of the road and the bus driver pointed to a path off to the side of a deserted parking lot. It was a pleasant 5-minute walk along a narrow tree-lined and leaf-strewn 300-meter long path. And then the path gave way to wide open space and our eyes beheld a wondrous rural landscape: some twenty farmhouses with tall A-shaped thatch roofs (gassho-zukuri or gassho-style, like hands pressed together in prayer) embraced by mountains all ablaze in warm autumn colors. Ah, it was love at first sight.

Welcome candy!

We replaced our hanging lower jaws and peeled our eyes off the scenery. That's when we spotted a basket of candies by the side of the road with a sign in Japanese which we took to mean as "welcome to Ainokura, please get a candy" (yes, I gladly got a candy). We moved away from the free candy basket and focused on finding Goyomon, the minshuku (family run bed and breakfast) that we had booked through the Japanese Guesthouses website.

We found our house, thanks to the wooden sign outside: 五ヨ門, which we knew to mean as Goyomon. We knocked on the door, but there was no answer. We tried the door, it was unlocked, and we gingerly walked into the genkan (entryway, usually recessed or lower than the main house) calling out sumimasen (すみません excuse me) until a motherly figure appeared from the kitchen wiping her hands on her apron. She welcomed us in her limited English while we struggled to get out of our shoes and slip into the house slippers waiting on a wooden shelf off to the side of the genkan. She led us across a tatami room (a room with woven straw mats as flooring; we had to remove our slippers before entering) then opened the fusuma (sliding door) to our room: a bare tatami room with sliding doors on all sides, and on the corner, a basket of neatly folded yukata (a robe, or a casual version of a kimono). In a few strides we walked the perimeter of our room as a way of inspection and dumped our bags in the farthest corner, then trailed after our host: crossed the tatami room, slipped our house slippers on, and continued through the wood-floored hallway, leading us to a table in the back where she then brought us a pot of matcha (green tea) and biscuits with a drawing of a gassho-style house.

Goyomon, our home for the night

Welcome snack: biscuit and tea

We took our time nibbling and sipping our welcome biscuit and tea. Curious if there was a garden out back, I opened the shoji (wooden sliding door with translucent paper), letting in the chilly mountain air and unfolding a scene that made me immediately thank God that we were brought to this corner of Japan.

Thank you God

We spent the day walking around Ainokura, hiking to the viewpoint, admiring the houses and the backdrop of mountains awash with the colors of autumn, and rubbing our hands to keep the autumn chill away. We ate lunch at Matsuya, a restaurant, souvenir shop, and convenience store all crammed under one gassho-style roof. (There are only two dining options in Ainokura.) There were a handful of Japanese day trippers doing the same things we did.

Matsuya, a souvenir shop, convenience store, and restaurant all rolled into one

Sansai Soba (soba with wild vegetables, 950 yen) at Matsuya
Oops! I made a boo-boo in this photo: watshibashi (chopsticks across the rim of the bowl)




Ainokura from the viewpoint

Ainokura is a small village but we managed to spend all our time outside. Only when it started to get dark and all the day trippers had left and there were no other tourists but us did we decide to call it a day and head back to Goyomon, where we found our room already laid out with warm futon.

Futon

My friends and I rejoiced when we found we were the only guests that night and more rejoicing when we found out that Goyomon had a private ofuro (a Japanese bath). We were afraid we'd have to go to a sento (public bath house) because we were told, when we made the booking, that Goyomon didn't have a private bath. In the ofuro was a low tap with a detachable showerhead, bottles of shampoo and bath gel (all labeled in Japanese syllabic script or kana), a low plastic stool in front of the tap, and a bath tub of hot water. I was the last to use the ofuro and I knew (hoped) my friends were smart enough to soap, shampoo, and rinse before soaking in the tub!

My hair was still dripping and my yukata askew when we were called to have dinner. In the tatami room just outside our bedroom, zabuton (thin pillows for sitting on) and gozen (small low tables) with a delicious looking dinner was already set up around the irori (sunken hearth used to cook food and heat the room). Joining us for dinner were the couple who owned Goyomon and their friends, three grannies aged 66, 83, and 96.

Home-cooked dinner!

The home-cooked dinner was so good that I ate everything that was served and had to loosen my yukata's sash. The host's 66-year-old friend who was drinking some kind of Japanese liquor offered us drinks but we declined. After dinner, our host showed us a video of her daughter performing and playing a traditional wooden musical instrument called a sasara (made up of 108 wooden slats joined together by rope). When the performance ended, she brought out two sasara and two sets of wooden sticks (I don't know what these sticks are called) and taught us how to use these traditional Japanese percussion instruments. When she deemed our musical skills satisfactory, she sang the oldest folk song in Japan called Kokiriku-bushi, but in a faster pace and a livelier manner, and we laughingly fumbled with our instruments as we tried to keep up with her singing.

Playing a Japanese folk song with cute grannies as our audience

The night went on with conversations in two languages: us in English, them in Japanese. We bridged this gap by treating our conversations like we were playing charades. At one point the topic (or category, if you will) was local life. One granny drew a horizontal line in the air with her right hand, and the other hand at hip level, a fist. None of us understood what it meant. The grannies took turns in gesturing and making sounds, helping each other to get the message across, but still our faces were big question marks. Eventually, after I don't know how many tries, everyone (us and them) burst out laughing when we understood what they were saying: That because of the heavy snow during winter, they have to dig two meters just to get a potato! It was a night filled with laughter and it went by quickly.

Soon it was time to retire to bed, but before doing so I went to the washroom to brush my teeth. Midbrush, 66-year-old drunk grandma walked in and gave me a hug! (I guess she found my roundness and fluffiness irresistible! Haha!) I hugged her back and through the bubbly toothpaste in my mouth bade her oyasumi nasai (おやすみなさい good night).

Breakfast is ready

Breakfast was already waiting when we woke up. Mealtime this time was quiet and behaved (with grandma already sober). We only had three hours left in Ainokura and before we had to leave for our next destination, we went to Ainokura's museums: Ainokura Folklore Museum and Ainokura Traditional Industry Museum (350 yen for the combination ticket). The Folklore Museum showcases life in Gokayama region with displays of tools and other things used in daily life. It also has information on how gassho-zukuri houses are built and why they are built that way. The Traditional Industry Museum tells about the industries of Gokayama such as making washi paper and silk (sericulture).

It would have been nice to try our hand at making washi at the Gokayama Washi Workshop, but our time was up: we had to catch the bus back to Shin-Takaoka Station, retrieve our bags, and then take two train rides to our next destination. Four hours on the road until we reach Kyoto.

Accommodations in Ainokura: There are six minshuku in Ainokura and an overnight stay (with dinner and breakfast) ranges from 8800 yen to 15000 yen per person. We stayed in Goyomon and it set us back 8800 yen each. It was the most expensive accommodation I have ever spent on but the experience was well worth every yen I had to coax out of my pocket! If time and money had permitted, I would have loved to have stayed one more night.

Directions from Tokyo to Ainokura: Take the Hokuriku shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Shin-Takaoka Station (3 hours; fare is at least 13000 yen). At Shin-Takaoka Station, take the Kaetsuno World Heritage Bus headed for Shirakawago, but alight at Ainokura-guchi bus stop. The bus ride takes an hour and will cost 1000 yen. Note that buses from Shin-Takaoka go to Shirakawago five times a day only.

UNESCO World Heritage Site: There are three historic Japanese villages included in the UNESCO World Heritage Site list: Ogimachi in Shirakawago in Gifu Prefecture, the largest (59 houses) and the most popular, and the two smaller villages in Gokayama in Toyama Prefecture: Ainokura (23 houses) and Suganuma (9 houses). These villages are not open-air museums but are real villages where people live. When visiting these villages, please keep in mind to behave and keep voices down.

Further reading: Here's a good read about the Ainokura that I saw, learned, and experienced but didn't have the talent to put down in words: The Temporal Shift of Ainokura Village.



Japan
Know Before You Go
Single Entry Tourist Visa for Japan
Roam Around Japan with a Swagger

From Tokyo to Hiroshima (2015)
10D/9N | Tokyo, Toyama, Kyoto, Hyogo, Osaka, Hiroshima
Tokyo Accommodation: Shinjuku Airbnb
Tokyo: Memorable Tokyo Eats
Tokyo: Odaiba
Tokyo: Doing Touristy Things in Tokyo
Toyama: A Hamlet Called Ainokura (you're here!)
Kyoto Accommodation: K's House Hostel Kyoto
Kyoto, Japanecdote: Wisdom from the Road: On exits #2
Kyoto: By the Thousands (Kyoto Imperial Palace, Sanjusangendo, Fushimi Inari Taisha, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove)
Kyoto, Japanecdote: Turning Japanese
Kyoto: Braving the Crowds at these UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyoto (Kiyomizu-dera, Nijo Castle, Kinkakuji)
Hyogo, Japanecdote: If Only I Could Speak Nihongo
Hyogo: Day Trip to Himeji: Himeji Castle and Shoshazan Engyoji Temple
Hyogo, Japanecdote: Am I an Alien?
Hiroshima: Strolling and Snacking in Miyajima
Hiroshima: Remembering the Past in Hiroshima
Osaka, Japanecdote: How to Lose Friends
Osaka Accommodation: Osaka Airbnb
Osaka, Japanecdote: Where is Bentencho Station?
Osaka: Osaka Castle and Tenjinbashisuji Shotengai

Concentrate on Kansai (2016)
Kyoto Accommodations: Guesthouse Wind Villa, Shiori Yado
Osaka Accommodations: Hotel Raizan, Hotel Mikado

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