Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Shirakawa-go - part 1

As I wrote in the previous post, hubby and I visited Toyama Castle in the morning of 29th December 2014. Later in the afternoon we visited Shirakawa-go. Shirakawa-go is a historic village located in Shogawa River valley at the foot of Mount Hakusan in the northwestern part of Gifu prefecture, and is located next to another historic village named Gokayama in Toyama prefecture. In fact, these villages are typical mountain villages that are surrounded by remote mountains and forests, and stretch across the border of Gifu and Toyama prefectures. Shirakawa-go and the neighboring Gokayama villages were declared as UNESCO world heritage site in 1995. These villages are famous for their traditional Gassho-zukuri architectural style farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old. Gassho-zukuri architectural style means ‘constructed like hands in prayer’, as the farmhouses are characterized by thatched and steeply slanting roofs resembling two hands joined or pressed in prayer. This architectural style of the roofs developed over many generations and the design is exceptionally strong. This design in combination with the unique properties of the traditional thatching, allows the houses to withstand and shed the large amounts of heavy snow that falls in the region during winter. In addition, the roofs, made without nails, provided a large attic space used for cultivating silkworms.

Shirakawa-go is widely known as one of the most scenic places in Japan. The picturesque village feels like an old fairy tale world hidden away deep in the mountains. The largest village and the main attraction of Shirakawa-go is Ogimachi. In fact, Ogimachi is the most popular village for the visitors. The quaint settlement offers visitors the opportunity to experience the harmony between the village and nature. Ogimachi village is surrounded by pine tree-covered remote mountains. The village has many rice fields and Shokawa River runs through it. Besides the beautiful scenery of Ogimachi, the unique thatched-roof farmhouses are the center of attraction of the village. The village has 114 Gassho-zukuri styled thatched-roof Minka farmhouses that remain from historic times. Most of these farmhouses along with sheds and barns were built about 200-300 years ago, and remind us of ancient Japan. Many of these houses are still inhabited to this day, and together with their adjacent rice fields, they paint an incredibly picturesque landscape that is a joy to behold and to take a stroll through. The best way to experience the village is to stay overnight at one of the farmhouses, many of which now serve as Minshuku inn.

Hubby and I visited Ogimachi village of Shirakawa-go on 29th December 2014. We went there by our car. As we neared Shirakawa-go, we saw snow covered mountains all around us. In fact there was huge amount of snow everywhere as it was mid-winter season. First we went to Michi no Eki Travelers’ Plaza located few kilometers away from Ogimachi village. The plaza has Gassho Museum where visitors can learn about how the Gassho-zukuri houses are made. In addition, the plaza has an information center as well as local specialty and souvenirs. Unfortunately the plaza was closed due to the year-end holidays. But we liked the building architecture and took rest for some time before proceeding further on our way to Ogimachi village.
Snow covered mountains as we neared Shirakawa-go

Yet another view of the mountains

Michi no Eki Travelers’ Plaza

Our car and snow all around the plaza building

A cute poster warning people to be careful of the snow falling from roofs

Although Ogimachi village of Shirakawa-go is just 4 kilometers south of Michi no Eki Travelers’ Plaza, it took us almost 1.5 hours to reach the car parking lot of Ogimachi. This is because of severe traffic jam due to the New Year Holidays. Near the car parking lot of Ogimachi, we saw many snow covered Gassho-zukuri farmhouses with steeply slanting thatched roofs. Most of these farmhouses now serve as souvenir shops or restaurants. We felt that Ogimachi warmly welcomed us with the wonderful sight of such unique buildings in extremely cold weather. Next we walked leisurely over a pedestrian suspension bridge named Deai-bashi located across Shokawa River, and enjoyed viewing the snow covered surroundings from the bridge.
Several snow covered Gassho-zukuri buildings as viewed from the car parking lot of Ogimachi

Hubby standing in front of a map of Ogimachi area located at the car parking lot

The mountains, Shokawa River, and the pedestrian suspension bridge

People walking over Deai-bashi suspension bridge

The bridge and the river

A few Gassho-zukuri buildings as viewed from the bridge

Just after crossing the bridge, we saw a stone Torii Gate of a shrine named Akiba Jinja Shrine. We passed through the gate, and started walking along a road with Gassho-zukuri styled farmhouses scattered on either side of the road. To our right side along the road, towards the south, we saw a Gassho-style private residence and a Minshuku inn named Yoshiro. It is a homely inn for a relaxed stay and has Irori hearth for cooking as well as staying warm. To our left side along the road, towards the north, we saw several more uniquely styled buildings, like a private farmhouse residence, Binen Yumeromu Museum far in the background, and a Minshuku inn named Rihee. Binen Yumeromu Museum is 130 years old and its Gassho-style roof was renovated in 2010 after 40 years. The museum exhibits the paintings and wood carvings created by a local artist named Itadani Mineshi. We did not visit the museum this time. Rihee Minshuku inn is 400 years old and has Tsumairi Gassho-zukuri architectural style. We loved the roof of the shed located in front of Rihee Minshuku.
I am standing in front of a stone Torii Gate of Akiba Jinja Shrine

Yoshiro Minshuku inn (left) and a private residence (right)

A private residence (left), Binen Yumeromu Museum (center background) and a portion of the roof of Rihee Minshuku inn (right)

Enlarged view of Binen Yumeromu Museum

The roof of the shed located in front of Rihee Minshuku inn

We continued walking along the road towards the east, and next saw a rather new building named Ebisuya to our right side towards the south. Ebisuya is a famous souvenir shop which has Shirakawa-go related specialty products, like Hida folk art, local Sake, confectionary, and pickles stocked inside. We bought two cute wooden owls as souvenir from this shop. After several more meters of walking we saw a Gassho-zukuri styled grand looking farmhouse named Bunka Kissa Kyoshu to our left side towards the north. The farmhouse Kyoshu now serves as a cafe restaurant.
I am standing next to Bunka Kissa Kyoshu. Ebisuya building is seen on the left side (red arrow). In this photo, both the buildings are viewed from the east.

Ebisuya (left, red arrow) and Gassho-zukuri styled Bunka Kissa Kyoshu (right) as viewed from further east

A pair of cute wooden owls we bought as souvenir from Ebisuya shop

We walked further east along the road for another 50 meters or so and reached a spot where large amount snow was piled up to our left side. We climbed up the 4 meters high piled up snow and enjoyed the beautiful views all around us for some time. We saw two elegant Gassho-zukuri farmhouses to our left side towards the north. One of them is a private residence and the other one now serves as a souvenir shop named Yamaai no Ie stocked with handmade crafts, Hida folk art, and local Sake. We strolled towards the backside of the private residence and saw a small shed and a tiny pond in the backyard of the farmhouse. The snow covered steeply slanting thatched roof of the farmhouse, the shed, and the pond made for an incredibly picturesque landscape that was a beautiful sight to behold. We took several photos of the two buildings from various positions and angles.
Hubby standing on the piled up snow along with Gassho-zukuri styled Yamaai no Ie souvenir shop in the background

I am standing on the piled up snow along with the souvenir shop in the background

Gassho-zukuri styled farmhouses: private residence to the left side and Yamaai no Ie souvenir shop to the right side

Snow covered backyard of the private residence farmhouse, a small shed, and a tiny pond made for a picturesque landscape. The Gassho-zukuri styled farmhouse to the right side (red arrow) is the backside of Bunka Kissa Kyoshu.

Standing on the piled up snow, as discussed in the previous paragraph, we saw three Gassho-zukuri styled farmhouses standing elegantly in a row towards the east-southeast direction. All these farmhouse buildings looked so exotic in more than 2 meters of snow all around. These farmhouses now serve as Minshuku inn. The inn located farthest to us is named Hisamatsu which was built during the Edo period. It has 4 traditional Japanese-style guest rooms from where the guests can enjoy the view of the mountain and the village. The inn located in the middle is named Furusato. And the inn located nearest to us is named Kidoya that has 5 traditional Japanese-style guest rooms. All these inns have Irori hearth and homemade Japanese-style cuisine is served to the guests.
Gassho-zukuri styled Hisamatsu (left), Furusato (center), and Kidoya (right) Minshuku inns as viewed from the top of the 4 meters high piled up snow

Amazing view of the three Minshuku inns

Hisamatsu (center) and Furusato (right) Minshuku inns

Furusato (left) and Kidoya (right) Minshuku inns

Hubby along with Furusato (left) and Kidoya (right) Minshuku inns in the background

Standing on the piled up snow, we saw Myozenji Kyodokan Local Museum located towards the east. The museum consists of many elegant structures of Myozenji Temple, like Shoromon Gate, Hondo Main Hall, Kuri priests’ quarters, and a yew tree. Myozenji Temple is an offshoot of Jodo Shinshu Otani Sect and was founded in 1748. We wished to have a closer look at the building structures, and so we visited the temple premises. Myozenji Temple is famous for its unusual belfry-gate or the Shoromon Gate. The gate is two storied and the roof is thatched. The first floor has eaves and a bell hangs from the top of the second floor. The gate was constructed by a person named Kato Sadashichi in 1801 and about 1425 people worked to make the gate structure. The original bell was surrendered to the government during World War II, and the present bell was cast by a person named Nakamura Yoshikazu of Takaoka City in Toyama prefecture. After appreciating the gate structure, we walked past it, and saw the Hondo Main Hall of the temple right in front of us. Hondo Main Hall is unique and probably the only one in Japan having Gassho-zukuri styled thatched roof rather than the typical tiled roof seen in most temple buildings. Construction of the main hall began in 1806 when many zelcova trees were cut down for the wood to be used as construction material. It is said that the construction of the hall took about 20 years and was finally completed in 1827. The master carpenter, Mizuma Usuke, was aided by 9191 workers to build the hall. We noted that the thatched roof of the main hall was completely covered in snow and it was such a picturesque sight. I went inside the hall and prayed for the well being of my family. While going out of the temple premises, I saw a fresh green tree with snow all around it near Shoromon Gate. After the completion of the construction of Hondo Main Hall in 1827, vice-master carpenter Yoshiro planted this yew tree sapling as a memorial tree next to Shoromon Gate. The old tree brings harmony to the temple premises and is designated as a natural monument of Gifu prefecture. We came out of the temple premises and started walking along the road towards the north side. While walking, we saw a huge exotic Gassho-zukuri styled thatched-roof farmhouse named Kuri of the temple complex located adjacent to Hondo Main Hall. Kuri is the living quarters of the priests, and is connected to the main hall for easy access by the priests. Kuri was built during Edo period in 1817 by the vice-master carpenter Yoshiro. The upper floor of Kuri is open to the public where a lot of important resources and materials like tools of the local people and temple related materials are displayed. Kuri is designated as a cultural property of Japan. We did not enter inside Kuri but appreciated the exterior architecture of the building.
Myozenji Temple premises as viewed from the top of the 4 meters high piled up snow

Shoromon Gate

Hondo Main Hall of the temple

I am praying inside the main hall

An old yew tree inside the temple premises

Side view of Kuri farmhouse as viewed from the north

I am standing next to Kuri farmhouse

Kuri as viewed from further north

We continued walking along the road and saw many more interesting Gassho-zukuri styled farmhouses and stunning snow covered views all around us. I will write about the other buildings that we saw in Ogimachi village of Shirakawa-go in the next post.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Toyama Castle

During the New Year holidays, hubby and I visited a few sightseeing places but the blog posts about those places are pending for a long time. As I wrote in an earlier post, we had been to our home in Ichinomiya City of Aichi prefecture during those holidays. We went there by our car. We started from Yurihonjo City on 28th December 2014, traveled throughout the day and stayed overnight at a hotel in Toyama City. The next morning we visited Toyama Castle in the city.

Toyama Castle is a reconstructed flatland castle located in the center of Toyama City in Toyama prefecture. It is also called Azumi Castle and during the pre-modern times it was located within the borders of Etchu province. The original castle was built in 1543 by the lord of the region Jinbo Nagamoto of Jinbo clan. The castle is generally associated with Sassa clan and Maeda clan and was in use from 1543 to 1871. Presently the castle, its moat, and the surrounding lands are maintained by the government of Japan as a public park named Toyama Castle Park. The park is a popular relaxation spot for locals as well as visitors, and is a famous spot for cherry blossoms during spring. Toyama Municipal Folk Museum (inside the castle tower) and Sato Memorial Art Museum are located in the park, which makes the park an historical as well as a cultural paradise.

The original Toyama Castle was built in 1543 in Muramochi period by a vassal named Mizukoshi Katsushige under the orders of the lord of Etchu province Jinbo Nagamoto of Jinbo clan. In 1581, Sassa Narimasa, a retainer of Oda Nobunaga, became the lord of this castle. He performed large-scale repairs and improved upon the established defenses of the castle. After the death of Oda Nobunaga in Honnoji Incident of 1585, Sassa Narimasa had a falling out with Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Hideyoshi attacked the castle with 100000 soldiers and destroyed it. The castle was taken back, decommissioned and abandoned. Maeda Toshiie became the governor of the castle in 1597, and Maeda clan ruled over the region for some time. Later his son Maeda Toshinaga renovated the castle and used it as his retirement home until much of it was destroyed by a fire in 1609. In 1640, Maeda Toshitsune, the third lord of neighboring Kaga Domain, was transferred to Etchu province. In 1661, Maeda Toshitsugu, son of Toshitsune, rebuilt the castle again and made it his home. In fact, Toshitsugu founded Toyama Domain and made Toyama Castle his main castle. His descendants ruled over Toyama from here. The castle was home to 13 generations of the Maeda clan until it was dismantled and abandoned in 1871 after the Meiji Restoration. Post-World War II, the castle was reconstructed as a modern concrete structure in 1954. The castle is built on flat land and the remains of the stone wall and the moat of the original castle are still present. The reconstructed main keep donjon does not accurately reflect the original main keep that stood here but is modeled after Inuyama Castle in Aichi Prefecture. The main keep donjon is a concrete structure with 3 levels and 4 floors. The site of the castle has been designated as a national registered tangible cultural property. I really love knowing the history of the places we visit, especially the castles and temples of Japan.

At about 9 am on 29th December 2014, we left the hotel in Toyama City where we had stayed the night before. Toyama Castle is located about 1.5 kilometers south of the hotel, and it took us just 5 minutes of car ride to reach the car parking lot of Toyama Castle Park. Admission to the main keep donjon tower of the castle is closed during the New Year holidays. And since Toyama Municipal Folk Museum is located inside this main tower, unfortunately we could not see the museum artifacts. So we saw the building architecture and appreciated the beauty of the main keep donjon from various positions and angles inside the park.

We entered the castle grounds from the west side of the park and initially saw the castle main keep donjon from the northwest side. The white walls and the dark roofs of the main keep looked gorgeously stunning. Then we walked along a paved pathway located in front of the main keep. To our right side, in a gravel yard in front of the main keep, we saw many stones that made up the foundation of the original castle tower from the Edo period.
Toyama Castle main keep donjon as viewed from the northwest side

Hubby and the main keep as viewed from the northwest side

I am walking along a paved pathway in front of the main keep

A few of the foundation stones of the original castle tower from the Edo period

We continued walking along the pathway and next enjoyed seeing the architecture of the main keep donjon from the northeast side. It seemed that from different angles and positions, the castle tower looked slightly different.
Main keep donjon as viewed from the northeast side

The main keep and I

Hubby walking along the pathway located in front of the main keep

The roofs and the upper floors of the main keep

Sato Memorial Art Museum located in front, that is north, of the main keep

We walked back along the paved pathway and next saw the main keep donjon from the west side. Here I noted that the lower region of the stone wall of the base of the main keep has several huge stones around which normal sized stones are arranged. Such a construction style of rubble masonry is called Warai-zumi.
Main keep donjon as viewed from the west side

I am standing next to a huge stone located in between normal sized stones in the wall of the base of the main keep

We continued walking along the paved pathway leading towards the south side and finally reached outside the castle grounds. We saw and appreciated the architecture of the main keep donjon tower from the south side. We also saw a water-filled moat surrounding the castle tower. We walked along the pathway over this moat and noted that the main keep with its dark roofs, white walls, stone walls of the base, and the surrounding moat made for beautiful picturesque scenery. From this point, we also noted that the contrast between the busyness of the city outside and the serene quality inside the park was simply amazing.
Main keep donjon as viewed from the south side along with the water-filled moat extending towards the east

The moat extending towards the west

Toyama city as viewed from the moat area. The castle is located in the heart of the city.

We loved viewing Toyama Castle and spent about 50 minutes enjoying the architecture of the main keep donjon. Afterwards we left the castle premises and next went to see Shirakawa Village about which I will write in the next post.