We’ve mentioned Gokayama before, but it is without a doubt a location that bears repeating. I’m a fan of Shirakawa-go over in Gifu Prefecture with its famous gassho-zukuri houses (constructed with steep, straw-thatched roofs to deal with the heavy snowfall common to the area), but Shirakawa-go is not the only World Heritage gassho-zukuri village. Over the border a ways nestled into a valley in Toyama Prefecture is the small gassho-zukuri village of Ainokura in Gokayama, a personal favorite of this author’s.
This visit marked my second to Gokayama, and my companions and I were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of some of the residents working on changing out the thatch on one of the houses. The gassho-zukuri houses in Ainokura are still used as private residences, and a few even operate as cafes and bed-and-breakfasts. It was great to walk down the village’s paths again, breathing in the fresh air and taking in the beautiful scenery. We also took a stroll up a hill overlooking the village for a nice view of the townscape and its historic houses and adjoining rice paddies and vegetable gardens. We also had some delicious aisu oshiruko (sweet red bean porridge with vanilla ice cream) at the cafe and souvenir shop, but that is a story for another day.
The main event of this particular trip to Gokayama was actually not its gassho-zukuri villages like Ainokura. This time around we were here to check out and try our own hands at Gokayama’s age-old specialty: traditional Japanese paper. We made our way to a traditional craft center and shop called Washi no Sato where visitors can participate in a mini-workshop on Japanese paper, which is called washi. Gokayama has long been famous for its washi (hundreds of years actually), and there are still artisans here today carrying on the tradition. The process involves using a screen to gather pulp suspended in water into sheets by submerging a screen and then letting the water drain. Once you’ve got your paper sludge all even like and without bubbles, you throw on some decorations, let them dry, and you’ve just made your very own washi postcards (great as souvenirs, by the way)!
For a few more pictures from our paper-making adventure, check out this post on the Staff Blog.
Now, if like me you’re not entirely happy just walking away with the ones you made yourself (mine were admittedly low amateur grade…), have no fear; there is a fantastic shop right next door with more cool washi stuff than you can shake a stick at. Everything from fans and boxes to wall hangings and lampshades, even just bolts of the colorful stuff. Washi is known for being much stronger and pliable than other types of paper, so it can be used for a quite surprisingly wide array of applications. I ended up picking up a cool business card case that constantly turns into a nifty conversation piece when I’m making new acquaintances.
From JR Takaoka Station, it’s about a two-hour bus ride to Gokayama with four buses operated daily (bound for Shirakawa-go).
Side note: It can be a bit tricky getting to Gokayama Washi no Sato if you don’t have your own car (private or rental). Luckily, you can pay a visit to Washi no Sato on the second day of a Sunrise Tours package tour that also visits Takayama, Shirakawa-go, and Kanazawa. Please note, however, that while it visits the gassho-zukuri village of Shirakawa-go, the tour does not visit the Ainokura village in Gokayama mentioned above. For more information and online booking, check out the links below.
Takayama Express World Heritage Shirakawa-go & Kanazawa 3 Days Round-trip (starts and ends in Tokyo)
Takayama Express World Heritage Shirakawa-go & Kanazawa 3 Days One-way (starts in Tokyo and ends in Kyoto)