Monday, February 12, 2007

Shirakawa and Takayama

It's been a long time since I've written. Not exactly sure why—I suppose I've just settled in, and lately my experience has been only of the dull day to day.

For my birthday, though, I decided it was time to do something special. I've managed to save a surprising amount of money, so I decided to do it up in style while visiting a part of Japan I've long dreamt about seeing: Shirakawago.


I have a real attraction to the minka, or traditional homes, of Japan. There are many varieties of minka, each fitting the climate of their location and the social status of the residents, but generally share a refined elegance that prefers untreated or lightly treated wood, an open central hearth, and a careful division of space. The minka in Shirakawago are important examples of the minka tradition because their like does not exist elsewhere in the world.


They were built by wealthy silk cultivators who developed the tall gables to allow both a large area for the silkworms as well as provide a steep grade that could shake off snow that used to collect meters deep. They often have three, sometimes four floors, only the lowest floor devoted to human living quarters—the rest were reserved for the silkworms and associated labor.


They have a rough beauty and pleasant heaviness that matches the surrounding mountains. The eaves are thickly thatched, about two feet deep. Inside, the posts can be several feet thick, and large, white ropes lash them together, so that the houses are built entirely from thatch, fiber, and wood without the need for metal nails or bolts. Smoke from the fire in the hearth was allowed to float up through the several floors and coat the wood and ropes, protecting them from insects.

They are a world treasure, and were recognized as such by the United Nations in 1995. The houses, collected in Ogimachi (where I stayed) and the five villages of Gokayama, were declared important World Cultural Heritage Sites.

I spent 24 hours in Shirakawa, and though that is a short time, the area is small enough that I felt a familiarity with the buildings by the time I left. In fact, I even stayed the night in one of them, called "Yokichi". I had hoped it would be like living in one of the old farmhouses, but because it had been sectioned off into rooms for guests, the effect was lost, and it ended up feeling like any other ryokan. Not a bad experience at all; however, I had hoped for more.


Still, the area is impressive, and I am glad I spent time there. I recommend, in particular, the open air museum that puts some of the houses on display along with farm implements and tools for silk cultivation. It is beautiful, and did the most to stimulate my imagination. Another part I enjoyed that I almost missed was a northern part of the village with only a few houses are separated by large fields. The other areas of Ogimachi are more concentrated, and though it isn't unpleasant, the wider fields feel more open.

Shirakawa is as spectacular as I thought—to be more precise, as moving and thought-provoking as I expected. Some part of me really longs for the solitary life of a farmer, cut off from the rest of the world for months at a time. Of course I would go nuts and do something along the lines of The Shining were I to actually experience it, but I just said it was thought-provoking.

But the real surprise of my trip was Takayama, a nearby city where I stayed the first and third nights of my trip. It's called "little Kyoto," and that name really is appropriate. It is a comfortable size, with beautiful lacquered merchants' houses lining three long streets and a translucent blue river flowing through new and old. My ryokan was built right on the edge of this river (the Miyakawa), and I sat looking at it as much as I could stand (it was really cold in my room, and sitting under the kotatsu was more pleasant).

It was my birthday weekend, and I received a gift I have been hoping for all winter: snow. There was snow on the ground in Shirakawa, but I didn't see any fall until my last day, when I woke up early and opened the room-width curtains to find snow, not only fallen, but falling.


Honestly, it almost brings tears to my eyes to remember that snow—I have craved snow all winter, and there it was, covering the cherry trees outside my window and falling in clumps of flakes I could almost hear from my room. This is mono no aware: the exquisite consciousness of shortness of life and unfeigned attention to the passing beauty of natural phenomena. It is a melancholy feeling that so suits my nature, a state I wish I could enjoy every moment. But by its very nature it cannot be grasped, or even last very long.


I walked through the magnificent streets and up a short hill to where a castle once stood, now long gone. I thought how difficult it must have been for the merchants and peasants in the city below to run up and down that hill every day; now there is nothing but a flat-topped hill and a temple left. It was utterly silent, except for the rustling of tree limbs and the wind blowing still heavy snow; then someone rang a bell in the temple below, and I thought that was one of the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard. Though I so often feel out of place in Japan and at home, I felt for a second that, for the first time in my life, I was meant to be there, at that moment, on top of that hill, listening to that bell.


I walked further to the top of the hill, then down. As if it truly was meant to happen just for that moment, the sky cleared when I reached a parking lot halfway down the hill, and by the time I left for the bus station the trees outside my room were once again brown, no longer touched heavy with white. I felt only a tiny bit of regret—I couldn't deny I was very lucky to experience what I had, even for a short while.

I have about 500 pictures, so I may post more later; here are a couple that didn't fit into the narrative above.


The wonderful dinner at the rough-around-the-edges but fantastic Sumiyoshi ryokan I stayed in in Takayama.


A weird frog-like gatekeeper I took a fancy to.

1 comment:

Marybeth said...

meraviglioso, mio figlio!

molto bello!!!

I'm glad you had such a great time...it was lovely reading your account of the snow.

ti amo,
mom