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The Shirakawa-go and Gokoyama regions of Honshu island used to be extremely isolated, especially in winter, home to rice farmers and little visited. Not any more – tunnels through the mountains have brought expressways and tourists to its doorsteps. But for those relying on public transport, some areas are still hard to reach, and I was thrilled when KJ offered to drive me. I’d sleep in popular Ogimachi, where I could get a bus on to Takayama, but first we’d visit Suganuma and its gunpowder museum.

Suganuma

With KJ’s daughter studying for exams in the back seat, we headed for the hills. I can’t get enough of mountain scenery, especially when there are rivers as well, and was also interested to see the haystacks (are they still called haystacks when they’re made of rice stalks?), with bundles of stalks draped over poles and topped with plastic against the rain. But the signature sights here are the farmhouses. Large, multi-story buildings, with unique thatched roofs, they’re called gassho-zukuri or praying hands, after the shape of the steeply-sloped roofs. We saw a thatching job half-done, and I was struck by how thick it was, compared to the thatched cottages I was used to seeing in England.

Half thatched

I thought that Ogimachi was fairly crowded, despite the looming clouds, but Kim said she’d never seen it so empty! We were able to get seats in her favorite restaurant, Irori, where we were seated round the namesake irori or central fireplace. The food was delicious – mine was a hida beef “set”. In the US I seldom eat beef, as I’ve developed an allergy to either bovine growth hormone or the antibiotics used on factory-farmed cows, and grass-fed local beef is expensive and not always available. I make up for it when I travel, and the Japanese beef is, of course, famously tender and delicious. I saw no need to try to find Kobe beef (or the money to pay for it) when hida was so good.

Under the thatch

The farmhouse we visited, Wada, the ancestral home of a well-off family, reminded me a little of the houses in Bhutan, with different activities on different levels. Here the attic level had been used for raising silk worms, but I paid more attention to the quite remarkably massive beams forming the roof supports. I would hate to be within range of one of those during an earthquake! Despite the thick thatch, and the insulation likely provided by snow drifts, I’m sure these houses were seriously cold in the winter. I remembered growing up in England, before my father installed central heating, when only the side facing the fire was warm (wing chairs were invented to trap the heat). Since I would be spending the night in a farmhouse, I was glad it was only the beginning of October!

View from above

After we went up to the best viewpoint (by car to save my foot), KJ delivered me to my farmhouse and headed back to Kanazawa. I was sorry say goodbye, and very appreciative of her help and friendship. I was not as isolated that night as I had expected, though. At dinner, served around another irori, I found that only one of the other guests was Japanese, and the other two an Australian couple at the end of a four month trip home from London. I felt sorry for the Japanese man, who apparently did not speak English, as we spent the meal indulging in travel chat. He seemed to enjoy the food as much as we did – a more elaborate version of my lunch.

Where I slept

After dinner I decided against an evening stroll – it looked too dark, and the ground too uneven, for me to risk it with a bad ankle, and I had a bath instead. The tub was wooden, just big enough for one person, with wooden covers to keep in the heat. Aside from my usual problem of getting too hot under a duvet, I slept fine on the tatami mats in my room, although I would have been happier with somewhere other than the floor or the small table for my belongings. Unfortunately, I was woken early by the sound of heavy rain, and while I did get about 15 relatively dry minutes for photos, the rest of the morning was solid rain.

In the rain

Breakfast was Japanese, except for the egg. Three of us had scrambled eggs alongside the soup, rice, pickles and vegetables, but the Japanese man had what appeared to be a boiled egg. Not so! It turned out to be raw, and after stirring it up just a little with his chopsticks, he drank it down with apparent relish. I’ll take mine scrambled any time…

Manhole cover in Ogimachi

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