CENTRAL HONSHU embraces the prefectures of Aichi, Gifu, Toyama, Fukui, Nagano, Toyama and Ishikawa. This entire area is called Chubu, which is divided into three major areas: 1) the densely populated Tohuku region between Kansai and Kanto on the Pacific Ocean side of Japan, which included the Nagoya area; 2) the Japan Alps and other mountainous areas in the interior; and 3) coastal areas along the Sea of Japan.
Nagoya (2 hours by bullet train southwest from Tokyo) is a major industrial center and Japan's forth largest city. Home to 2.25 million people, with 7.2 million people in its metropolitan area, it is famous throughout Japan for its porcelain industry and is the home of Toyota, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, and a number of drug companies.
Nagoya is 230 miles southwest of Tokyo and 120 miles northeast of Osaka. It is not a major tourist destination but is easier to deal with than Tokyo and Osaka and makes a good jumping off point for places in Gifu and the Japan Alps.
For a long tine Nagoya has been maligned for being a second rate city and the Japanese equivalent of Detroit. Comedians made fun of the unfashionable clothes and funny accents of Nagoya people and their habit of visiting the airport for a night out . But things have changed in recent years. The success of Toyota and the Aichi Expo in 2005 and the opening of a new international airport. have given the city a new confidence. It has a booming economy, one of Japan’s lowest unemployment rates and best real markets. There has even been talk of “Nagoya chic.”
There is a lot of history associated with the place. All three of Japan's greatest heros?Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideoyishi and Tokugawa Ieyasu were born in Nagoya or nearby. Not much remains from their era. Nagoya was heavily bombed in World War II. Most of the buildings have been built after the war.
Nagoya lies in Aichi Prefecture. Aichi is still regarded as a major center of traditional crafts. Among the crafts that are made there are calligraphy brushes, furniture, cloisonne ware, tie-dyed cloth, dyed garments, ceramics, stonework, Buddhist altars, and Buddhist altar implements.
Central Towers Tourist Information: The Nagoya city tourist information office is inside Nagoya Station. Better is the Nagoya International Center (tel. 052-581-0100) within the International Center (Kokusai Center).
Orientation and Transportation: Nagoya is laid out in a grid and fairly easy to negotiate. Nagoya has a subway system and an extensive network of train lines that acts like a subway system. Subway Map: Urban Rail Urbanrail.net
Websites:Welcome to Nagoya Nagoya Convention and Visitor’s Bureau ; Nagoya Info nagoya-info.com City of Nagoya City of Nagoya Map: Welcome to Nagoya Nagoya Convention and Visitor’s Bureau ; Japan Hotel japan-hotel Hotel Web Sites: Hotels Combined Hotelscombined.com ; JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Nagoya is accessible by air and by bus and by train on the main shinkansen line from Tokyo (two hours) and Osaka (two hours) and other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet
Entertainment, Restaurants and Accommodation: The Sakae entertainment and shopping quarter boast has 300 shops and restaurants packed around "Crystal Object" Square. Most places to stay and eat are around Nagoya Station and the Sakae commercial and entertainment district. Nagoya is home to more than 10 deluxe hotels and roughly 90 business and standard hotels. Nagoya has the third largest fish market in Japan but visitors are generally not welcome. There are some sushi and seafood restaurants around it. Website: Nagoya Info nagoya-info.com
Sights in Nagoya
new bus centre Nagoya Castle (Shiyakusho station in the Meijo subway lines) is where a James Bond film was shot. Originally constructed in 1612, it was destroyed by fire during World War II and later rebuilt as a symbol of the city. The 150-foot-high donjon, completed in 1959, has an impressive view from the fifth floor which can be reached by an elevator.
At either end of the roof look for the famous shchi-hoko, dolphin-like creatures.The rooms on the second, third and forth floors have historical exhibits and displays of armor. Ninomaru Garden, on the castle ground is also worth visiting. It has a beautifully-situated teahouse. Website: Nagoya Castle Official site nagoyajo.city.nagoya
Atsuta Shrine (Jingu-nishi station in the Meijo subway lines) is said to enshrine the famous grass-mowing sword, one of the three legendary Regalia of the Emperor along the Imperial mirror and jewels. Originally built in the 3rd century, it contain several shrine buildings and a museum with Shinto and Tokugawa artifacts.
Robot Museum opened October 2006 and closed not long after that. It contained more than 1,000 items including panels on robot history and models of robots, toy robots made in the 1940s and models of favorite robot characters such as Astroboy, Gigantor, Mazinger Z and Gundam. Robots showcased include Honda’s ASIMO and Sony’s Aibo. The museum was set up by an Osaka-based publisher of magazines on robots.
Boston Museum of Fine Arts Nagoya Branch opened in June, 1999. Located in three floors of an office and hotel complex, it contains a revolving exhibition of paintings from the Fine Arts Museum in Boston that were acquires as part of $50 million, 44-exhibit, 20-year deal between the Nagoya Chamber of Commerce and the Boston Museum. The new museum in Nagoya costs $300 million Websites: Kintesu Railway site Kintesu.co ; Wikipedia Wikipedia
Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology (Nishi Ward in Nagoya) is fascinated place for anyone with an interest in technology. Founded by the Toyota group, it has an interesting collection of real working machines.
Nagoya Aquarium Nagoya Port Area has been redeveloped in recent years. The main attractions include the large Nagoya Port Aquarium, with 70 displays, 30 tanks and marine life from Japan, Australia and the Antarctic; the Port Tower (offering good views of the harbor); the Maritime Museum; and the Fuji Antarctic Exploration Ship.
Meiko Tritom consists of three cable-supported ocean bridges over Nagoya Port---the 700 meter Meiko East Bridge, the 1,170-meter Meiko Central Bridge and the 758-meter Meiko West Bridge.
Nagashima Spaland (near Nagoya in Nagashima, Mie Prefecture) is the home of Steel Dragon, which at one time was the world’s longest roller coaster and one of the highest, taking riders to a height of 90 meters before they plunge down. It has 40 other rides and attractions including a sea water pool with 18 slides.
In August 2003, a car on derailed and stopped suddenly while it was upside down, 25 feet above the ground. It didn’t fall off the track. but two people were seriously injured and another had to be rescued with a cherry picker. The accident was caused by a broken bolt in the wheel. Bolt problems had been reported earlier but not acted on. Website: Mie Prefecture Tourism site kankomie.or.jp
Toyota factory tour Toyota Kaikan Exhibition Hall (in Toyota near Nagoya) offers daily assembly line tours starting at 11:00am. Tour participants are bused to one of three plants in which Crowns, Priuses and 15 other passenger cars are assembled and walk along a walkway above the factory floor. Reservations are necessary. Call ☎ (0565)-23-3922. Website: Toyota site Toyota site
Other Factory Tours: The Noritake Craft center offers 1½ hour tours in English at 10:00am and 1:00pm. You can see porcelain being made and take classes in brooch-making. Asahi Beer's Nagoya factory offers free tours Monday through Friday from 9:30am to 3:00pm.
Other Sights in Nagoya include the Tokugawa Art Museum, which houses over 10,000 articles handed down from Tokugawa family and a famous school relating to the Tales of Genji. Nakamura Park is the birthplace of Toyotomi Hideoyishi. Higashiyama Park has a fine zoological and botanical garden. Osu Kannon Temple is near a popular shopping and amusement area.
Skyscrapers in central Nagoya include JR Central Towers and Midland Square in front of Nagoya Station. Among the most striking new modern buildings is the Mode Gakuen Spiral Towers in front of JR Nagoya Station.
Seto (12 miles northeast of Nagoya) is a major production center for porcelain. It has an extensive ceramics center, a ceramics museum two-story pagoda and clay mine.
World Exposition in Aichi opened outside of Nagoya in March 2005. It had exhibits form 123 countries with the pavilions for some of Japan’s largest and most famous companies drawing the largest crowds. During its six month run it welcomed more than 22 million visitors, far more than its initial target of 15 million,
The theme of the Expo was “Nature’s Wisdom” and many of the exhibitions had an environmental theme, including ones that sprinkled water and used bamboo screens instead of air conditioner to keep people cool. Buses with fuel cells shuttled people around. An effort was made to recycle everything possible even the concrete.
The pavilions that drew that the largest crowds were the ones run by Toyota, with futurist I-unit single-seat vehicles; cars; Hitachi, with unique audio-visual scanner, Sony, with the world’s largest screen (2,005 inches); Mitsui-Toshiba, where visitors were embedded in a computer-generated science fiction film; and Mitsubishi, with a 360-degree theater that showed what the world would be like if there was no moon. One person was injured during the “live flame” magic show ay the Gas Pavilion,
Expo 2005 Another big draw was the head and foot of a mammoth that died 18,000 years and was frozen in the Siberian permafrost. Robots were perhaps the biggest stars. At the Toyota pavilion they played real musical instruments. In the Mitsubishi pavilion they served as tour guides,.At information center an attractive female “Actroid” robot welcomed visitors. She understood 40,000 phrases in Chinese, Korean, English and Japanese and could defend herself against unwanted advanced. Other robots cleaned floors, collected trash and provided security.
Unfortunately the entire Expo was dismantled and recycled, crated away or destroyed. There wasn’t even a park left behind as was the case with Expo 70 in Osaka. Much of the land was restored to the way it was with a few recreational facilities. Some of the land on the site was owned by Toyota and they chose to develop it.
Among the remains of the 2005 Aichi Expo are Satsuki and Mie’s House, the home of the main characters of the popular Miyazaki anime My Neighbor Totoro. The magnetically-levitated train used to carry visitor to the Expo is still operating Website: Expo 2005 site expo2005
Italian Village (near Nagoya) is half amusement park and half shopping mall with a replica of the Campanile in St. Mark’s Square at the entrance and replicas of the David statue and the Bocca della Verita in Rome. The biggest attractions are the gondola rides in boats imported from Italy and manned by young Italian men. They steer visitors through the faux canals, periodically shouting out “Buon giorno!” Carriages rides are also offered. The shops sell Murano glass, Ferrari jumpsuits, Italian sausage and Dolce & Gabbana handbags. Opened in 2005, the park attracted 4.35 million visitors ist first year, double what was expected, Website: Virtual Tourist virtualtourist.com
Arimatsu (25 minutes from Nagoya) is famous for its well-preserved Edo and Meiji period houses, with beautiful tiled roofs and lattice doors.
Tokoname (20 miles from Nagoya) is a famous ceramic production center. It is the home of Kiln Plaza, which boasts a collection of 500 toilets, some 150 years old, and streets and walls decorated with broken pieces of pottery. There are also many shops that sell the cities famous Tokoname-yaki ceramics.
Inuyama and Meiji-Mura
Inuyama Castle Inuyama (25 miles north of Nagoya) is famous for its castle, the crystal clear Kiso River and the beautiful surrounding mountains. Inuyama Castle is Japan's oldest castle and one of four castles in Japan designated as national treasures. Located on a bluff above the Kiso River, it dates from 1537 and has been privately owned by the Narusune family since 1618. It is four stories high and has white walls and pagoda style roofs. There is a nice view from the top.
Handsome homes with traditional curved roofs line Inuyama’s winding streets. Uraku-en garden is within walking distance of the castle. It has four old teahouses, one of which was originally built in Kyoto in 1618. In Inuyama Rhine Park there is a huge amusement park with a zoo, botanical garden and a monkey center.The lower portion of the Kiso River is sometimes called the "Rhine of Japan." Two companies operate slightly thrilling 8-mile trips on the Kiso River from Imawatari to Inuyama in flat-bottom boats for about ¥3,500. Cormorant fishing is done of Kiso River from June 1st to September 30th.
Inuyama is also the home of the Primate Research Institute, a facility that sits on a hill and consists mostly of drab, institutional boxes from the 1960s, but it has one stunning architectural feature: an outdoor facility that includes a five-story-high climbing tower for the 14 chimpanzees currently in residence. Chimps frequently scamper to the top of the tower and take in the view; they tightrope across wires connecting different parts of the tower and chase each other in battle and play.
Websites:Inuyama City site city.inuyama.aichi ; Japan Guide japan-guide Map: Inuyama City Tourist Mao city.inuyama.aichi Hotels: Inuyama City site city.inuyama.aichi Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Inuyama is 35 minutes from Nagoya by train. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet
Meiji-Mura (20 minutes by bus from Inuyama) is a unique folk village. Opened in 1965, it contains more than 60 Meiji-era Western and Japanese buildings built between 1868 and 1912. All of the buildings were transported from various parts of the country and reconstructed here in their original form.
Meiji Mura Buildings include churches, homes, a brewery, a theater, a courthouse and two prisons. Highlights include the Imperial carriage of Emperor Meiji, the mansion of Marquis Saigo Tsugumichi, St. John's Church, Japan's first lighthouse (dismantled and rebuilt among the hilly landscape here), and the main entrance hall and lobby of the old Imperial Hotel, designed by the famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Just behind the hotel is “Tokyo Station,” with a couple of century-old locomotives that take passengers a few kilometers to “Nagoya Station.”
The building take a while to visit. The village is open from 10:00am to 5:00pm (March to October) and from 10:00am to 4:00pm (November to February). Website: Meiji Mura site meijimura.com
Imperial Hotel (in Meiji Village) was one of the most celebrated building in the 20th century. It opened in Tokyo on the day of the 1923 Great Tokyo earthquake and survived the jolt thanks in part to earthquake-proof “floating cantilever construction.” Over the years international celebrities such as Babe Ruth and Marilyn Monroe stayed there. Later, it was taken down but the main entrance hall and lobby now stand at Meiji Village.
The reconstructed Imperial Hotel features an exquisite three-story-high lobby with decorative screen, galleries, terraces, ornate friezes and hand carved urns. The building itself is made ocher-colored bricks and volcanic Oya stone.
Other Sights in the Inuyama Area include Ogata Shine (Gakuden station on the Meitetsi Kmonaki Line), known for its rocks and other items resembling females genitalia left by marriage-seeking women; Tagata Shine (Gakuden station on the Meitetsi Kamaki Line), known fir its phallus-shaped objects left behind by sex-seeking men; Tajima, a famous porcelain-making town; and Gero, an unappealing hot spring resort.
Gifu Park Gifu Prefecture (near Nagoya) is known for cormorant fishing, tradition crafts such paper parasols, paper lanterns, hand-made paper, ceramics, woodcarving, lacquerware and swordmaking. The prefecture is mostly mountains. The only really flat area is around the city of Gifu. Website: Gifu Conventions and Visitors Bureau Experience Beautiful Gifu
Gifu (15 minutes by train from Nagoya) is a city of 420,000 is famous for cormorant fishing. Sights in and around Gifu include Mt. Kinka-zan, topped by a reconstruction of Gifu-jo Castle; Gifu-koen Park with a small history museum; and Soho-ji Temple, with a 14-meter-tall papier maché Buddha. The area around Gifu is sometimes called Mino.
Websites:Gifu Conventions and Visitors Bureau Experience Beautiful Gifu Map: Tourist Maps Experience Beautiful Gifu Hotel Web Sites: Gifu Conventions and Visitors Bureau Experience Beautiful Gifu JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Gifu is accessible by bus and by train from Nagoya and other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet
Cormorant Fishing in Gifu is done at night, except after a heavy rain or during a full moon, from May 11th to October 15th on the Nagaragawa River (near Gifu) and the Oze River in Seki and from June through September on the Kiso River (near Inuyama).
The practice of cormorant fishing is over 1000 years old. These days it is performed mostly for the benefit of tourists. The ritual begins when a fire is set or a light is turned on over the water. This attracts swarms of trout-like fish called ayu . Tethered cormorants dive into the water and frantically swim around, gulping down fish.
Metal rings and placed around the bird's the neck to keep them from swallowing the fish. When cormorants' gullets are full they are hauled aboard the boat, and the still-moving ayu are disgorged on to the deck. The birds are then given rewards of fish, and thrown back in the river to repeat the process.
The boats are manned by four man teams: a master at the bow, in traditional ceremonial headdress, who manages 12 birds, two assistants, who manage two birds each, and a forth man, who takes care of five decoys. To get close to action you need to take a viewing excursion on a tourist boats, often illuminated with paper lanterns.
Around 45 boats offer tours. They take off around 6:00pm just before sunset and travel several kilometers upstream to the fishing spots. Along the way visitors can catch glimpses of Mt. Kinka and other stunning scenery. Before the fishing starts a fisherman explains the that fishermen wear black so the birds can’t see them, cover their heads for protection against sparks and wear a straw skirt to repel water. Pinewood is burned because it burns even on rainy days and the cormorants are not fed all day so they will be hungry at fishing time. The birds are all caught in the wild and trained. Some can catch 60 fish an hour.
The fish are squeezed out the neck. Many visitors find this cruel but the fishermen point out that captive birds live to be between 15 and 20 while those that live in the wild rarely live beyond five. A ride of a tourist boat costs ¥3,300 per adult. For information call ☎ (058)-262-0104. Website: Gifu Conventions and Visitors Bureau Explore Beautiful Gifu
Seki (near Gifu) is famous for swordmaking and cormorant fishing. The Seki swordsmiths hold public demonstrations ever few months at the Seki City Industry Promotion Center. For information call ☎ (0575)-23-3825. Due to a lack of demand many former swordmakers now make kitchen knives and razor blades. The cormorant fishing season on the Oze River in Seki also runs from May 11 to October 15. A seat on viewing boat costs ¥3,500 per adult. For information call ☎ (0575)-22-2506. Website: Gifu Conventions and Visitors Bureau Experience Beautiful Gifu
Takayama (2½ hours north of Nagoya) is often called "Little Kyoto." Situated in a 500-meter-high basin surrounded by the Japanese Alps, it is one place in Japan that has managed to keep the look and feel of old Japan. Its nickname is reference to its large number of temples and the fact it is was modeled after Kyoto in 1586 by its founder, the daimyo Kanamori Nagachia. Unlike Kyoto, the town’s sights are concentrated in an area easily explored on foot and not spoiled too much by modern buildings and traffic jams.
Takayama is home to about 66,000 people and is a fine place to explore on foot. It features narrow streets lined with traditional sake cellars, miso shops, confection stores, well-preserved merchant houses, sake breweries, and charming antique shops. There is a museum with puppets and ornate floats and traditional houses with roofs that look like two hands joined in prayer.
Takayama can be reached on a pleasant train ride through the mountains. The area around Takayama is called Hida. It is famous for its beef (said to be as good as Kobe beef), traditional wooden houses, mountains, forests and farming communities. It receives quite a bit of snow in the winter time. The snow and mountains have isolated communities and helped them keep old traditions alive.
Websites: Hida Takayama hida.jp Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Web Sites: Takayama Hotel Guide takayama-guide.com JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Takayama is accessible by bus and train from Nagoya (shinkansen) and Osaka and other Japanese cities. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet
Festivals and Markets in Takayama: Large numbers of people show up in mid April and mid October the see the massive floats featured in the towns spring and autumn festivals. People come from April to October to enjoy the town's colorful morning markets at Takayama Jinya and the east bank of the Miyagawa River, which lasts from around 7:00am to noon.
Items on sale in the market include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, wild plants, traditional medicines, pickled vegetables, traditional Japanese clothes, paintings, crafts and small souvenir items. Most of the vendors operate in small stalls set up under white canopies. Most of the stuff they sell they either make or grow themselves. There are good buys on pottery, ornate sake bottles and porcelain hibachis. The side streets around the market are equally interesting. One sale here are more artwork, crafts and food items. Many of the shops are charming and crowded.
Sights and Museums in Takayama
Festival float Sights in Takayama are centered around San-machi Suji, the city’s old district which is concentrated around the streets of Ichino-machi, Nino-machi and Sanno-machi. Here you can find narrow streets and alleys lined with traditional wooden houses filled with shops, inns, sake breweries, restaurants, soba noodle shops, pickle stores, antique stores, and storehouses.
Designated as an "Important Cultural Property, San-machi has traditionally been the home of Takayama’s merchants and sake brewers, it looks almost exactly as it did 300 years ago and contains an excellent example of Edo period architecture as well as the oldest and largest rice granary in Japan. There are number of small museums and workshops where crafts are made using traditional methods. The sake breweries are identified by balls made of cedar leaves.
The most popular old house, Kusakabe Heritage House, contains a folklore museum with antique furniture and utensils. Located near the Miiyagawa River, is a wooden section with a two-story warehouse and one story residence with a partly earthen flood and exposed beams. Yoshijima Heritage House is another popular traditional house.
Shiroyama Park sits on the grounds that once contained Takayama’s castle. Only some foundations remain. The park is very pleasant and features good views of the Japan Alps. Near the park is Higashiyma Teramachi, a tree-lined esplanade with thirteen temples and five shrines. Some are reached by stone steps and surrounded by cedar trees. Around the town are forests and wooded hills that can be explored via numerous hiking trails that crisscross the area. In the Forest of Seven Lucky Gods you can see statue of the seven gods carved from 1000-year-old trees . The Squirrel Forest and Hida Wild Plant Garden contains 70 Japanese squirrels as well as squirrels from six other countries. The later has a ¥600 entrance fee.
Museums in Takayama: There are a lot of museums in Takayama. Many are concentrated around the San-machi and Suji districts within a few minutes of each other. Most are small and deal with a local craft. The main problem with the museums is that admission prices are very steep for the limited amount things you see.
The Festival Floats Exhibition Hall contains four of the eleven floats used during the festivals and a one-tenth scale model of Nikko’s 28-building Toshua Shrine. The Lion Mask Exhibition Hall houses a collection of 800 lion masks and drums and other items related to lion dancing. At regular intervals throughout the day videos are show of local folk dances and demonstrations are given of automation dolls.
Other museums include the Hida Archaeology Museum, Fuji Folkcraft Art Gallery, Hirata Folk Art Museum. Gallery of Traditional Japanese Toys, Takayama Museum of Local History, and Lacquerware Exhibition Hall.
Hida Takayama Hida Folk Village (30 minute walk from central Takayama) is a wonderful open air museum comprised of 30 traditional buildings, including rice storage houses and houses where traditional crafts are demonstrated. And farmhouses that were rescued from villages submerged by the Miboro Dam.
The park extends over a 99,000 square meters at the foot of Mt. Matsukura The houses are known for their steeply-pitched thatch roofs. Each has been preserved in its original state and often contains items owned by its original owners. The villages also included a kind of circular rice paddy unique to the region and a folklore museum and Museum of Mountain Life, with display of tools and utensils. Certain houses contain workshops, where demonstrations of woodcarving, lacquerware, the making of straw baskets, hats and sandals are given. The village is a nice place to spend several hours of the entire day strolling around. Website: Japan Guide japan-guide
Kamikochi: See Japan Alps
Shinhodaka Onsen: See Japan Alps.
Thatch Roof Houses of the Shokawa Valley
Shokawa Valley Region (west of Takayama) is a lovely rural area of Japan known for its lovely countryside and traditional rural communities and deep winter snows. So much snow falls in the winter that “overcoming snow” is a local motto. It is not uncommon for four meters of snow to fall in a single storm and 22 meters to fall in a season. These heavy snows and the mountains isolate this region from the rest of Japan and have helped keep local traditions alive.
The people of this region have traditionally been farmers and silkworm raisers. Now many rely on tourism. The Shokawa Valley is a bit hard to get to, requiring a car or careful attention to bus schedules. In the area are hiking trails, ski resorts, sports parks, hot springs. The highways that link the region to Takayama in the east and Kanazawa in the west have been built at considerable expense and feature some long tunnels and bridges.
Gokayama and Shirakawago lie in a mountainous areas that embrace 2,702-meter-high Mt. Haku. Until the 1950s the area for the most part was isolated from the outside world, especially in the winter when it receives some of the heaviest snowfalls in Japan.
Thatch Roof Houses of the Shokawa Valley: The Showa Valley region is most famous for its traditionally grass-roof houses, which are known locally as gassho-zukuri (“gassho” means “praying hands,” a reference to fact that the unique roofs look like praying hands. Built through a communal effort, the traditional thatched-roof homes in the area are usually made of unpainted boards and waddle-and-daub walls without using a single nail. The steep praying-hands roof are designed the way they area or shed the heavy snows that fall on them in the winter. The name also indicates how devout the local people are. Most are followers of the Jodoshinshu sect of Buddhism.
Putting on a new roof The thatched roofs can be up to a meter thick and are hand woven from thick reeds that come from communal grasslands. They are woven into matts that are tied on to the beams of the house by straw ropes. No nails are used. Inside the houses it is very dark. The roofs extend almost all the way to the ground and windows are only at the front and back of the houses. The large houses are four stories high and include spaces for raising silk worms.
The thatched roofs are replaced every 30 or 40 years, with work usually being done in April. The work has to be done quickly so the house is not damaged by rain. As many as 500 people take part in replacing a single roof. Some people stand on the roof beams and put the thatch in place while others hand the thatch up to them. With so much labor involved, the cost of doing a single roof can be $200,000. About three or four houses are reroofed every year, with the generous Japanese government absorbing much of the costs.
In the old days villager maintained communal grasslands by annually cutting and burning to provide grass for roofs. The communal grasslands that supply the thatch are disappearing. Many have been plowed over for farms. The roofs and warehouses provide a habitat for raccoons, tanukis, rat snakes, geckos and lizards.
At the of the 19th century there were 1,800 gassho-style houses in 93 districts. Today only about 160 of these houses are left, UNESCO recognizes the area as a World Heritages Site not only because of the houses and scenery but also because of the lifestyle of the inhabitants.
Shirakawa-go (1½ hours by bus from Takayama) is a river valley with Japan's largest collection of gassho double-thatched-roof houses. Selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995, it consists of a several villages with groups of traditional houses scattered over an area of several miles. The area gets quite crowded with tourists in the summer vacation season.
Ogimachi is main village in Shirakawamura. Centrally located across the Syoukawa River from the bus stop and parking lot where most visitors arrive, it has a largest number and densest concentration of grass-roof houses and is the best place to orient yourself. . Before you do anything else you should climb the Tenbodal Lookout to get a sense of what the whole area is like. Then spend a couple hours wander around the houses and enjoy them from the outside and then pick one or two and pay the ¥300 admission fee to check them out from the inside.
There are around 100 or so thatch-roof houses in Ogimachi and a 100 or so more scattered around near the village Most are still lived in or used as storehouses by local families. A half dozen have been converted into museums. There are all pretty similar to one another and visiting one is usually good enough. These include the Wada House and the Myozenji Temple Gassho House. Also worth a look are the Doburoku Matsuri Exhibition Hall, Tohyama House Folklore Museum, and Museum of Daily Life.
Gassho-zukuri Folklore Park (near Ogimachi) has the best collection of traditional buildings. Many of the 25 grass-roof housed were rescued during the construction of the nearby Miboro Dam. Several of the house contain craftsmen demonstrating woodworking, straw handicrafts, ceramics, and painting with Chinese ink. There are about 20 inns in the Shirakawa area. Most are in thatch-roof houses.
Websites: Japan Guide japan-guide JNTO article JNTO Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Hotel Web Sites: JapanHotel.net JapanHotel.net Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Shirakawa is accessible by bus from Kanazawa and Takayama. There is no train service and many roads are closed in the winter. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet
Gokayama (20 minutes from Ogimachi by infrequent bus) also has unique double thatched roofs. Also selected a World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1995, it too is on a river valley with groups of houses scattered over several kilometers. In the old days the town was a source of gunpowder for feudal lords and secret peasant groups.
The gunpowder was made by mixing soil, grass and bacteria generated from urine. This mixture was placed in holes beneath buildings and left to ferment for four years or so and then was boiled with ash and water and filtered and boiled again until a concentrated form was derived. Some of the houses that secretly made gunpowder contain displays on the gunpowder-making process.
Gokayama is less developed and harder to get to than Shirakawago and doesn’t get as many visitors. About 100 people in 30 households live in the houses here. Many are company workers and farmers who make their living in something other than tourism. Their day-o-day needs have precedence over tourism.
For travelers who take the trouble to get to Gokayama the lack of visitors is a big plus. The town is friendlier and less superficial. The people in Gokoyama say that Shirakawamura is like a theme park and the thatch roofs are just a show. Gokayama has an interesting irrigation system. The upper stories of many of the houses has traditionally been used to raise silk worms. Washi papermaking has traditionally been an important local industry.
Most travelers with a car get off the bus at Nishi Akoa, where there is house used in making gunpowder. Three miles away is Suganuma, featuring a group of traditional houses and a folklore museum, with gunpowder displays. Kaminashi is the home of Murakami-ke House, built in 1578 and designated an important cultural property by the government. In Shimonashi you visit in the Gokayama Washi Production Center. About 30 minutes away by foot is the Gokayama Washi Production Center.
Websites: See Shirakawa above. UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There : Lonely Planet Lonely Planet
Image Sources: 1) map Japan Guest Houses 2) Wikipedia 3) Ray Kinnane 4) Nagoya City site 5) Toyota 6) Aichi Expo 2005 7) Inuyuma City, 8) Meiji Mura, 9) Nagoya city, 10) JNTO 11) 12) 13) 15), 16), 17) Wikipedia, 14) Hida Takayama, 18), 19) Nanto City
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2009 Jeffrey Hays