Magic in the mountains

Thailand September 04, 2013 00:00

By Premyuda Boonroj
The Nation

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Cut off from the rest of the world for a long period of time, Shirakawa-go is an outstanding example of a traditional way of life

As our bus commences its climb through the Hida Highlands in Gifu Prefecture to the quiet mountain village of Shirakawa-go, I cannot help wondering what the samurai of bygone days would have made of the smooth road and tunnels cut through the mountains.
Probably not much, as the modern infrastructure would certainly have made it easier for the authorities of the time to capture the Samurai runaways who sought refuge in this mountainous terrain more than two centuries ago.
Soon we have left the pine trees and our eyes are treated to green and fertile rice fields then, as the bus turns another sharp bend, the exquisite “gassho style” houses of Shirakawa-go come into view.
Perfectly adapted to their environment, the the Shogawa River Valley villages of Shirakawa-go and neighbouring Gokayama named a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995. 
Shirakawa-go, which is known as the most beautiful village of Japan, features some 100 Gassho-Zukuri farmhouses that have been beautifully preserved over the generations and while some are for show, many are still inhabited. It’s possible to visit the interiors and the entrance fee is a very reasonable 300-450 Yen (Bt100-Bt150)
The name “Gassho-Zukuri” means “hands together in prayer” and refers to the steep 60-degree pitch of the thatched roofs, which allows them to withstand heavy snow during winter. The roofs were constructed with dry grass, beams and ropes but no nails and the large attic area was used to keep agricultural tools and to house the silkworm-raising area, 
The privately owned Myozenji Temple Museum offers visitors the chance to learn about the lifestyle of the farmers and also explains the religious history of the village. Admission is 300 Yen.
While many visitors come on a day trip to Shirakawa-go, others prefer to stay overnight either in a homestay arrangement at one of the farmhouses or at one of three guesthouses, which provide room plus breakfast and dinner. Reservations must be made in advance through the Shirakawa-go Tourist Association. 
Even day-trippers have time to shop for souvenirs and most of them snap up the faceless red monkey doll known as the Sarubobo though replicas of the farmhouses are also popular.
Sadly our schedule is tight and we return to Nagoya in the evening with a visit to its castle on our itinerary for the next day.
Built in 1610 on the orders of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, after he won the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600, Nagoya Castle suffered badly from the bombings of World War II and many of its buildings burned down.
A highlight are the golden Kinshachi, dolphin-liked imaginary animals that were believed to have the ability to summon water hence became the charm for fire prevention. Although the golden dolphins were consumed by flames in WW2, they were restored along with a rebuilt dungeon in 1959.
Exhibitions are on shown throughout the castle’s seven floors including the basement. The castle also features an observation room that offers visitors a 360-degree view of entire castle grounds and downtown Nagoya. Admission is 500 Yen and the castle is open daily from 9am to 4pm.