Thursday, February 06, 2014

Idyllic Shirakawa Go

When we think of Japan, the image that comes to our mind is that of a technologically advanced nation reputed for its fast paced life, its cities, its skyscrapers, its hybrid cards, its Bullet trains. A visit to Shirakawa Go can change all that. It is a place where time has stood still. Of the numerous places we have visited during the last 3 years, a few stand out. One such place is Shirakawa-go. 

Shirakawa go in Gifu prefecture is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site : Historic Villages of Shirakawa go and Gokayama. A visit to Shirakawa go is like a visit into the past, to an era where technology, the hustle of modern life and complexities of life ceased to exist. 
Shirakawa go is a collection of small villages in the Shokawa valley and is Gifu's most popular tourist attraction. Declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995, Shirakawa go and its neighbouring Gokayama are famous for their traditional Gassho-zukuri houses. Some of these houses are more than 250 year old. Of the original 1800 houses, only about 150 remain. The central settlement, Ogimachi has the most number of gassho zukuri houses and is by far the most accessible. This is also where most tour buses visit so it could get crowded during holidays and weekends. Gokayama on the other hand is more isolated and not so easily accessible due to lack of proper bus connectivity.

Ogimachi's Gassho zukuri village can be reached by crossing over the Deai foot over Bridge.
The village has an idyllic charm and visitors can enjoy strolling through the village on foot exploring its various sites. 
The Gassho zukuri homes stand tall amid the rice fields and seasonal flowers.
While the large Gassho homes were inhabited by wealthy silk trading families, peasants lived in smaller huts which are now used as tool sheds. Almost any structure including small temples and bell towers have Gassho architecture.

Most of the Gassho zukuri houses in the village are still inhabited and used by families for dwelling. 
A few houses have been converted into inns, known as 'Minshuku'  offering visitors a chance to experience life in the Gassho house. 
Some houses are converted into museums, like the Wada House, which we visited. The Wada House dates back to the Edo period and once belonged to a wealthy silk trading family. The Kanda House and Nagase house are also popular and belonged to wealthy families in the past.
Gassho zukuri houses get their name, which means "hands joined in prayer", from their steep thatched roofs which resemble the hands of praying Buddhist monks. Winters are fierces in the Hida region where Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are located. It receives heavy snowfall and the villages are under deep snow from December to March. Gassho-zukuri houses are known for their unique architectural style. The architectural style which developed over the centuries is designed to withstand the heavy snow.
Gassho house roofs are supported by a series of triangular frames on a rectangular base, which results in a large attic.
Since the main activity of the region was the cultivation of silkworms, the large attic space was used for cultivating silkworms.No nails are used in the roofs and the timbers and braces are secured using straw rope. The straw used for thatching is a particular type of pampas grass and the thatch is traditionally about 3 feet thick ! Horizontal poles near the top of the roof hold the thatch in place. The roofs slope at about 60 degrees which helps shed rain water quickly so that the straw does not rot. 
The ceiling has small gaps which allow the smoke from the fireplace on the lower floors to reach the roof area to help protect the thatched roof against dampness and moisture and also protect it from insects. 
The irori, is an open fireplace in Japanese rural homes and is used for heating and cooking and also for the family members to gather around.
Gassho zukuri houses traditionally have three or four stories and were built to accommodate large families consisting of 25-30 members on the average. The families mostly lived on the lower floors while the upper floors housed the silkworms. 

The houses have windows on both sides and these were usually opened to allow passage of light and wind.

Due to the extreme weather conditions, the roofs need to be re-thatched every few years. Every year in early summer, a few houses are re-thatched and the entire village gets together to help in this activities. Interesting to note that it takes about 2-3 days for 200 villagers to re-thatch one roof. 

We passed by a group of men re-thatching a small Gassho roof on our way to the Shiroyama Tenbodai Observation Point.
Shiroyama Tenbodai Observation Point is located on an hill overlooking Ogimachi village.
The view is breathtaking. 
The Gassho roofs surrounded by rice fields and the mountains of the Hida region, make this spot look serene.
Also in Ogimachi is a small shrine, the Shirakawa Hachiman jinja. 

Cute votives hanging outside the jinja. 
Some even had photos of people against the backdrop of Ogimachi. 

The Gassho style roof is the design that adorns the Manhole cover in Ogimachi. 
Even a small Japanese style curtain had the Gassho roof printed on it. 
The Gassho zukuri Minka en is an open air museum with a small cluster of Gassho houses on display located near the Ogimachi tourist office and parking lot. 

Gassho houses from the surrounding regions have been relocated here and reconstructed. (Entrance fees 500 yen).

Ogimachi typically receives about 2 meters of snow during peak winter. While this can cause inconvenience to the locals, the snow adds beauty to the landscape. On certain days during the winter, the farmhouses in the village are lit up and the illumination event attracts tourists.  

Summer, when we visited is also a good time to visit Shirakawa go. The surrounding mountains and high altitude ensure the climate is pleasant and gives visitors a break from the typically hot and humid Japanese summers.

The scenery is spectacular even in Autumn when foliage adds vivid colors to the landscape. 

Address: Gifu Prefecture 501-5627, Ono District, Shirakawa-go, Ogimachi 2499

Phone: 0576-96-1311 

Admission: Entry to Ogimachi- Free
                  Admission to Wada House: 300 yen adults
                 (Admission fees differ for the various facilities.)

Opening time: Village open all time; Wada House: 9:00-17:00


Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Kunozan Toshogu Shrine

Kunozan Toshogu is a Shinto Shrine located in Shizuoka city's Suruga ward. It is located on the peak of Mt Kuno, known in Japanese as Kunozan.

The Kunozan Toshogu Shrine is one of the many Toshogu shrines in Japan. Tosho-Daingongen was the posthumous name of the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu and all shrines dedicated to him go by the name of Toshogu shrine. Nikko's Toshogu shrine is the main Toshogu shrine, while the Kunozan Shrine is second only to it. It however is the oldest of the Toshogu shrines. Interestingly, Kunozan shrine was the original resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu and his body lay buried here till it was moved before his first death anniversary to the Nikko Toshogu Shrine where it rests. 

The shrine is located at the site of the old Kuno castle built in 1568 by Takeda Shingen, a powerful warlord. The area came to be occupied by Tokugawa Ieyasu after overthrowing Takeda family. Before the Kuno fort was built, an ancient Buddhist temple known as Kuno-ji stood in its place. 

Tokugawa Ieyasu was the first Shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate and was the person considered to have successfully united Japan. He established the Shogunate in 1603 and thus began a period known as Edo period till it ended in 1868 with the Meiji Restoration. 

After moving the capital from Kyoto to Edo in 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu handed over the title of Shogun to his son Tokugawa Hidetada and moved to Sunpu Castle, in current day Shizuoka city to retire. He considered the Kuno castle as an important turning point in his life and it was his last wish to be buried there upon his death. His wish was honoured upon his death in 1616. His son and successor, Tokugawa Hidetada, the new shogun had the Kunozan Toshogu Shrine built to enshrine his father in 1617. His son, Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shogun in turn had the grand Toshogu shrine in Nikko built in honour of his grandfather, Tokugawa Ieyasu.   

While the primary 'kami' of the Toshogu shrine is Tokugawa Ieyasu, it also enshrines Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Odu Nobunaga the other two powerful warlords of the time. The secondary 'kami' were enshrined subsequent to the Meiji Restoration.  

The Kunozan Toshogu shrine was maintained by the Tokugawa Shogunate till the shogunate was overthrown following the Meiji Restoration. Subsequently, the Shrine lost most of its revenue and upkeep and as such many of the buildings suffered considerable loss. 

The shrine comprises of a bright red and black coloured buildings adorned with beautiful carvings, gold accents and colorful paintings.
The entrance to the shrine is through the Romon Gate. A path leads past a stable, a drum tower and a copper lantern to the main shrine buildings- the Honden and the Heiden halls. 
The Honden and Heiden were part of the original buildings constructed in 1617. 

These impressive buildings have black lacquer exteriors with extravagant wood carvings and gold leaf and colorful paintings. 

The Main prayer hall

A path behind the main building leads to the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, where his body originally rested. Some of his personal belongings such as handwritten scrolls, swords, armors, clothing, eye glasses and clock are all exhibited in the Museum outside the shrine. 

While the scale of the shrine is much smaller compared to Nikko's Toshogu shrine, the Kunozan Toshogu shrine was the inspiration for Nikko's shrine. 

Most of the structures are designated important cultural properties and the mountain is designated a National Historic site. 
The shrine is accessible by about 1000 stone steps up the mountainside from the south. 
These steps offer an impressive view of the Suruga Bay, but certain stretch of the climb can  be tiring. 
The uphill climb takes about 25 minutes while it takes about 12 minutes to descend the steps. 
The shrine can also be accessed by rope way from the north from the Nihondaira plateau. The plateau is popular for the impressive views over Suruga Bay, Shimizu port, the tea gardens of Shizuoka and most of all the Mount Fuji on clear days. 

The shrine cannot be reached by road directly. Visitors need to park cars at the Nihondaira rope way station parking lot or by the parking lots at the foot of the mountain.We parked our car at the parking lot near the Nihondaira rope way station and took the rope way. My family returned by the rope way, while I decided to check out the steps downhill. 

Descending the steps was quick and the view was good. 

The annual festival of the shrine is held on April 17th while the spring festival is held on February 17-18. 

Address: Shizuoka Prefecture 422-8011, Shizuoka city, Suruga ward, Negoya 390

Phone: 0542-37-2438

Closing days: Open all year round

Time: 9:00-17:00 ( May to October; Closes at 16:00 hrs from November to April) 

Admission: 500 yen (Shrine); 400 yen (museum only); 800 yen(shrine and museum)

Rope way: 550 yen (one way); 1000 yen (round trip)
Combination ticket: 1650 yen (round trip by rope way and admission to the shrine and 

Parking: Available at Nihondaira Ropeway station.