My friend Laura from Italy came to stay with me for a while before she started university in Kyoto, so I took a day off work when I had no classes to take her to Shirakawa-Go, a village in the mountains near Gifu. I had been recommended to go visit it by numerous people and it’s become a popular tourist destination since its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s famous for its particular style of wooden architecture with steeply-pitched thatched roofs. It’s accessible from Kanazawa by car or a bus from Kanazawa Station and makes a good day trip although you can stay overnight in one of the old houses there too.

It took just over an hour to get to Shirakawa-Go, and once we left snow-less Kanazawa and got on the motorway, we had spectacular views of snow-covered fields and mist-covered mountains with intermissions of orange-lit tunnels. One man who must have worked for a TV station had a huge professional camera and filmed part of the journey from the front of the bus. When we arrived in Shirakawa-Go, we got a shuttle bus up to a viewpoint above the village, assisted by a nice older couple, who also took our picture. The gentleman spoke very good English and had been in Italy many times for work. We had been recommended at the tourist office to take the bus up and then walk down the mountain path to the village, but that path was closed due to the snow, so we walked back down the road the bus came up, marveling at the amount of snow and taking photos.

We were feeling a bit peckish when we got down so we popped into a little cafe that I expected to be touristy but was actually a gem of a coffee shop; a wooden room with two tables and a long counter, presided over by a knowledgeable barista who chatted to us in a mixture of Japanese and English. The menu had an impressive selection of coffees, and behind the counter was a display of cups and saucers, jars of coffee beans, and examples of Japanese lucky dolls. It wasn’t cheap, but it was well worth it. I had the Brazilian coffee, Laura had the Dominican and we both had cinnamon honey toast beautifully served with fruit. The barista ground the beans and brewed the coffee. Laura was fascinated and gave her Italian seal of approval.

This is a sarubobo, meaning baby monkey, which is an amulet from this region, traditionally associated with luck for an easy childbirth or a healthy child.

His hands shook, presumably from all the coffee he drinks every day to test the coffee. He gave us an espresso each on the house because he liked us (which Laura said was actually caffé lungo but was buonissimo anyway). The atmosphere was so nice that we hung out there reading, writing and listening to the classical music being played. It’s called Coffee shop Hina, though it’s not written in English, and it’s at the bottom of the road to the viewpoint.

Our first site of the day was the Wada house, a grand example of a gassho style house lived in by the Wada family who were the wealthiest family in the village. The bottom floor was for the family, with elegant tatami rooms and the hearth in the middle of the house. The ceiling over the hearth was slatted to allow the smoke rise up to the second floor. This had the dual effect of letting the smoke act as an insecticide in the roof thatching, and to keep the upper storey warm enough for sericulture.

No nails are used in the construction of the buildings, the rafters are held in place with ties.

Some empty cocoons of poor old dead silkworms.

Traditional Japanese snowshoes.

We wandered around omiyage (souvenir) shops and grabbed a quick bite to eat and then went to the Buddhist temple and monks’ house, which had five storeys, though you could only go up three of them. It was filled with the scent of incense filtering up from the hearth below, and the views from the windows were amazing.

We wandered aimlessly some more, finding, among other things of interest; an igloo, a water-pump, a bulldozer clearing snow off a house, and a roof being thatched.

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