Ogimachi, Ainokura and Suganuma (also known as Shirakawago and Gokayama villages) were naturally isolated by the Japanese Alps. While the country developed to become one of the most advanced and technical places in the world, theses villages grew mulberry trees and silkworms for living.
Their Gassho-style houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs are the only examples of their kind in Japan: A unique farmhouse style that adapted to the environment and the economic needs of the families that still live there (since the 11th century).
Stunning in winter with the snow on their roofs, spectacular in May with all green surrounding, they made a top visit on my last trip to Japan and this is why you should add them to your list too.
What you shouldn’t miss when visiting the Japanese Alps
Starting point: Takayama
We chose the quiet town of Takayama as our starting point for this route. ¿The reason? It is the closer to Hida and Ogimachi and is a nice visit on itself. Plus, it has plenty of options to sleep.
The city has a more modern looking feel, but lacks no authenticity: a beautiful preserved area with Edo-style small buildings of sake merchants and artisan shops, two morning markets with fresh produce from the surrounding lands, a great collections of temples, bridges and museums…
I’ll tell you more about it in a future post 😉
Second stop: Hida town
Many tourists have only heard of Hida because of the folk village, which they visit instead of Shirakawago and Gokayama on their route through the Alps and I can’t blame them, there is so much to see in Japan!
The folklore village (known as Hida-no-sato) isn’t really in Hida, but closer to Takayama with about 30 traditional houses brought here in 1971 to show how life used to be in the Japanese Alps. But since we would be visiting the actual villages, we chose better to visit Hida village itself.
To our surprise, this small village was a very fun point of our trip. A quiet small village full with water canals (and hungry carps that you can feed), sake merchants and temples. A great place to see how the real life of the area is today, without the trillions of tourists that take the region during high season.
Third stop: Ogimachi (Shirakawago)
The town of Ogimachi is what we know as Shirakawa-go village. Declared Unesco World Heritage Site in 1995, the village is by far one of the top visits for japanese tourists in the Alps.
While there is a museum on one side of the village, you can cross the river and visit the real town (you can even eat and sleep there, as some houses have transformed into shops, ryokan and machiyas) and get inside some of the houses (for a small fee) to see how they are from the inside and how they were used to grow silkworms in the past. Some of the oldest houses are about 250 years old!
If you want a great view of the village from the top, don’t forget to climb up to the Shiroyama view-point.
Ainokura: the living town (Gokayama)
There are two protected villages in Gokayama: Suganuma and Ainokura. Ainokura is the farthest one from Takayama, but also a really living one. Smaller than Ogimachi, it is about one hour and a half from Takayama and 40 minutes from Ogimachi by car.
Less visited than Ogimachi but so charming! Being so remote, Ainokura, along with the rest of Gokayama, has kept a lot of its traditional culture. It has some craft and artisan workshops you can visit, as well as some minshuku, but many of the houses remain private houses where the community still lives.
Also, Gokayama, especially the towns around Ainokura, is well-known for its washi paper. There are several shops in the area where you can see artisans making washi paper and even try making some yourself.
Eating: a must on any trip to the Alps
You can’t say you’ve been to the Japanese Alps and didn’t eat Hida beef and Hida apples. There is even an apple kitkat specialty you can find in many shops in the area.
For meat lovers: most restaurants and izakayas in the area offer Hida beef on their menus. It’s not the only thing you can eat here, but it surely makes a great eat. Also check butchers with restaurants for a fun experience in Takayama.
For fruit lovers: Apples can also be harvested during harvest season (mid-September to mid-October) in some orchards around the Gifu area.
Some extra info
Hidden in the Japanese Alps, the traditional mountain villages of Shirakawa-go are relatively close to Takayama and relatively close to each other but offer no train connections, so you will need other means of transport (we chose to rent a car but there are regular tourist buses.)
The villages are almost flat and can only be explored on foot (there are pay parking lots available just outside).
How to get there
By car: We found the best rent-a-car option in Matsumoto city, which is about one hour and a half from Takayama and Hida. From there, you will find a highway/expressway to Ogimachi and a nice road to Ainokura.
By bus: There are plenty of tourist buses that take you to the main village, Ogimachi, on a half-day or full-day trip from Takayama. Public buses from Takaoka also take you to Ainokura.