12 Jun Day 6: Self drive to Shirakawa-go and the Hakusan super rindo
Read our guide to renting a car and driving in Japan here.
Our drive from Takayama to Shirakawa-go went smoothly. We entered the phone number of Shirakawa-go Gassho Zukuri Minka-en into the GPS. As we were in a mountain area, a lot of our drive was through tunnels, some of which were several km’s long. We arrived at the parking spot for the historic village and museum at about 10am. We first went to Gassho Zukuri Minka-en, the open air museum. Minka is a traditional Japanese farmhouse and gassho means ‘to pray’ referring to the houses steep roofs resembling hands in pray. The thatched roofs are made to withstand the weight of heavy snowfall. Houses were relocated to the museum from nearby villages in order to be preserved.
Most of the farmhouses were able to be entered, with some displaying items the family would have used. In some of the houses we were able to use the ladder-like stairs to view the top floor and see the roof from the inside. As we were walking around, a loud alarm sounded, followed by an announcement in Japanese. We had no idea what the alarm was, or what the announcement had said. We were standing in an area alone, so we walked back down a bit to where there were other people, in no panic at all. We then saw a tour group ahead of us continuing, so assuming all was ok, we did to. It turned out it was a smoke alarm that had been set off when a staff member lit the open fire in one of the houses. The open fire-place, called an irori, was set into the floor of the houses main living area and was used for both cooking and heating. The house that had set off the smoke alarm was one in which the top level could be entered. When we did go up into the roof area it was clear why the alarm had gone off as the whole roof was filled with smoke.
The exhibits on display included tools for hunting and farming, clothing that was worn and shoes including snow boots. Most of the items were made from woven straw. In one of the houses top floors there was a really great photo display. Two large boards were filled with black and white photographs from the villages, showing the land, houses and people.
As well as farmhouses the open-air museum also had the family’s storage sheds, water mill, a weir and an A-frame barn that was placed in the middle of water, accessed by stepping stones. The houses were spread out across the grounds and the museum looked like a real little village.
After reaching the end of the museum trail we walked back past the parking area and crossed the long pedestrian bridge to get to the other side of the river. Stopping to have a look at the view. Looking out from one side we could see the rooftops of the Gassho style houses in the museum.
Over the bridge is a real village, where people live. A number of the houses are set up as exhibits and can be entered for a fee, we chose to skip them as we had just been to the museum. We wandered around the village and felt kind of awkward looking at the houses and taking photos, I’m sure the people living in them would be used to it, as it is such a popular tourist spot and is set up to be one, but they are still people’s homes and we felt like we were invading their privacy.
Alongside the houses there is also farming land, a small shrine and several stores in the village. The stores were mostly selling souvenir type items and food. Not all of the buildings were Gassho style but most of them still fit into the village scene. The one thing that did stand out were the modern cars parked at the homes.
After strolling around the village, we crossed back over the bridge. Before getting back in our car, we bought some snacks and drinks to enjoy while driving. I seriously considered buying a rice farmers hat but it would have gotten squashed in our luggage, so I left it. I guess I could have worn it everywhere instead. The photo below is of a gift pack of biscuits I bought in a Shirakawa-go store. The smallest character on the box is a Sarubobo, the mascot of the Hida region. They are traditionally made by mothers and given to their daughters as charms for good luck in marriage, fertility and childbirth. I bought a little doll the next day at the morning market in Takayama.
As well as the biscuits, we bought a bag of rice crackers and some dried sour plums. When walking back to the car I decided to buy my first (of many) hot drink from a vending machine. I chose a can of hot coffee. At first it seemed strange to be consuming something hot out of a drink can, but for coffee in a can, it was pretty good. Boss coffee is from the brand Suntory which featured in the movie Lost In Translation. We left the car park, after paying a small fee and headed for the Hakusan super rindo.
Hakusan super rindo
The Hakusan super rindo is a 33 km toll road that runs through the Hakusan national park. The road winds around mountains and rises to over 1400 metres above sea level. We drove along the road at the end of October and the trees had started to change colour for Autumn. I believe a week or so later was predicted to be the peak time for Autumn viewing, however the road closes in early November over the winter period. We paid for a one way pass which meant we had to do a u-turn before reaching the end toll booth. Along the road there are walking trails that lead to waterfalls and there is also a hot spring located along the way. Fletcher slept for the whole drive so we didn’t get out to do any trails and took it in turns getting out at the viewpoints. There was plenty of gorgeous mountain scenery along the way and we passed by a few roadside waterfalls.
When we started on the road it was really foggy and spitting rain but as we got higher and further along it fined up and we got some great views as we drove along.
If you drive the Hakusan super rindo, please do not stop along the road other than the designated areas. We came across so many tourists that had just pulled over and were standing out on the road taking photo’s. The road curves around a lot and it’s a very dangerous thing to do as you can not see around the bend. Many times we would come around a bend in the road to be faced with people standing there or cars stopped along the road. It’s a very busy road and we also often seen cars having to swerve around people or cars that were in the wrong spots.
Our car GPS told us that the toll booth was approaching so we were able to find a place to pull into and turn around before we reached it. This isn’t some scam thing we did, it is actually stated on the ticket prices that you can do a u-turn within the tolled area and pay a one way fee. We drove back along the road, dodging people stepping out in the middle of the road and returned to Takayama for our last night there.