Most everyone has heard of Shirakawago, the picturesque thatched-roof village in Gifu Prefecture. But fewer know about Gokayama, another area with two UNESCO World Heritage villages in neighboring Toyama Prefecture. The Gokayama region is nestled in a cleft next to the Sho River in the mountainous inland region of Toyama. While it’s still remote, the 2015 completion of the Hokuriku Shinkansen has made the area more accessible.
How to get to Gokayama
If you prefer to come by car, the parking fee is ¥500.
Soak in some heritage
Like its more famous cousin Shirakawago, the Gokayama villages of Ainokura and Suganuma are both filled with traditional thatched-roof farmhouses. They were named UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites in 1995. Unlike the other village, the Gokayama region is still quiet and lightly touristed. A visit on a sunny holiday weekend saw only a handful of tourists milling around the narrow streets and dirt lanes of the heritage site. The visitors mixed in with the villagers going about their business of tending plots of vegetables and maintaining buildings. (A few of the vegetables are on sale, with an honor box for coins.)
The villages, which you can enter for free, are most renowned for their thatched-roof farmhouses. They are made in gassho-zukuri, which means style of praying hands. The design of the stiffly peaked roofs are due to the long winters here. The heavy snowfall blankets the area in deep drifts and can easily damage structures not built to withstand the weight. Villagers make the thatch itself from thickly layered straw, insulating the house against the cold. Indeed, every bit helps in this climate.
The history of the area dates back to the Jomon period. The defeated Taira clan (is said to have) fled to Gokayama. The houses here were built relatively more recently; the oldest one is around 400 years old, with many of the others in the 100-200 year old range.
The village of Ainokura has 23 gassho-zukuri houses, while the smaller village of Suganuma has nine. Both villages have small museums where visitors can see tableaus of village life, including displays of traditional industries such as silkworm-raising and washi (Japanese paper) making. Be warned: signs say this is a “no drone zone.” Despite this flouting of one aspect of technology, the villages are surprisingly well wired, with free wifi throughout.
A few spots for commerce dot the hamlets. There are small souvenir shops in both villages with snacks and handicrafts, and each has a little cafe serving area fare like tempura and soba made from hyper-local wild mountain vegetables, and sake brewed in the region. There is also a washi shop in Ainokura where the visitor can see the paper being made, try their hand at making a sheet (¥600), and buy paper crafts.
Since it’s a bit out of the way, you may be keen to spend a bit more time here. You can stay overnight in one of the farmhouses (prices from ¥8,100). If you’ve got a group, you can rent out a whole gassho cottage and save a bit, or go really cheapo and try camping.
Finally, what’s a mountain retreat without a bit of onsen? Gokayama doesn’t disappoint. There are two hot springs, both with open-air baths complete with fabulous views: Kuroba and Yuraku. You can gain access to either for the cheapo price of ¥600.
Soaked and sated, you may just find that you don’t want to head back to the big city.
Kinki Nippon Tourist (Toyama branch) hosted this trip, but all opinions are my own.