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Let's go, Shirakawa-go: The local trades you never knew about

Let's go, Shirakawa-go: The local trades you never knew about

Shirakawa-go (白川郷) is most famous for being the location of the historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (五箇山), which are in turn one of the most famous UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan. Situated in the prefectures of Gifu (岐阜県 Gifu-ken) and Toyama (富山県 Toyama-ken), these historic mountain villages boast clusters of farmhouses constructed in the gassho-zukuri (合掌造り) style, which is only found in this region. However, did you know that Shirakawa-go is more than a collection of old houses? As someone who appreciates food and history, I’ll bring you through a food tour of Shirakawa-go’s esteemed heritage trades!

 

Gunpowder production

The stately exteriors of the gassho-zukuri houses belie an explosive historymany years ago, Shirakawago and Gokayama were known for making enshou (焔硝), a raw material for the production of gunpowder, from mugwort grass, silkworm droppings and human urine. In fact, the Wada House’s (和田家 Wada-Ya) fireplace was said to have been used for this exact purpose, and they maintain a record of their transactions with the Ishiyama Hongan-ji (石山本願寺), which was brutally sieged and razed to the group by Oda Nobunaga (織田 信長) in 1580. 

 

The Wada House contains a pretty comprehensive guide on their enshou production process, and as a bonus, you can leaf through some notes that a Wada descendant produced for a school project for a child’s perspective on their family enterprise! Don’t worry even if you don’t read Japanese: these are packed with colourful diagrams and are sure to bring a smile to your face. 

 

Sericulture

Sericulture tools in the Wada House attic. (Image credit: Shirakawa Village Office)

 

Sericulture was another important trade in the Shirakawa-go area, and you can similarly find some implements in the Wada House’s expansive attic. Indeed, one key reason for gassho-zukuri’s impressive size is the need for space to raise the silkworms and related processes, such as drying the cocoons and reeling the silk. The large attic was particularly helpful for drying the cocoons since it created an airy space with plenty of sunlight.

 

Remember to tread carefully on the floorboards, and spend some time looking into the roofit’s made entirely out of thatched straw and wood! 

 

Wada House (和田家)
Address: 997 Yamagoe, Ogimachi, Shirakawa, Gifu, 501-5627
Nearest station: Takayama Station (高山駅)
Opening hours: 9am5pm
Admission fee: ¥300 (Adults), ¥150 (Children)
Tel: +81-57-696-1058

 

Hunting

I said this was going to be an article about heritage trades, but hunting stillsurprisinglytakes place today in the mountainsides of Gokayama. Animal killing was prohibited after the introduction of Buddhism to Japan during the Asuka Period (飛鳥時代 Asuka Jidai), from 538 to 710, but the practice continued with local variations. 

 

Doubtful? Just check out the giant bear pelt displayed in Takachiyo (味処高千代 Ajidokoro Takachiyo)! This humble-looking establishment is in fact run by a local hunter, who still regularly heads into the hills with his trusty rifle to hunt bears. Bear hunting has remained lucrative despite the danger, due to their highly valuable organs that are used in Chinese medicine. 

 

(Image credit: kitsune6go / CC BY-SA 2.1 JP)

 

One of their signature dishes is kuma-nabe (熊鍋 bear meat hotpot): a warm, homely stew of fatty bear meat and local herbs that teems with local flavour. If you’re more adventurous, you can also try out their thinly-sliced bear fat sashimi. Even though I always thought wild game would have weird smells, it was actually pretty delicious and unique, and I would definitely recommend trying some here at Takachiyo

 

Takachiyo (味処高千代)
Address: 697-3 Ohara, Nanto, Toyama, 939-1967
Nearest station: Takayama Station (高山駅)
Opening hours: 11am2pm, 4pm8pm
Tel: +81-76-367-3118

 

Dining in a gassho-zukuri

Check out their irori hearth and the constantly simmering red bean soup! (Image credit: Gassho Travel)

 

Tired after all that touring? Check out Ochudo (喫茶落人), a cafe within an actual gassho-zukuri house, and its irori (囲炉裏) hearth centrepiece! In the old days, fires were lit in these hearths the whole day, and there would constantly be something simmering away on top. In Ochudo, it's the red bean soup, which is the first thing you smell upon entering this homely little cafe. 

 

Delicious food next to your coffee, beautifully arrayed in a teacup of your choice. (Image credit: Gassho Travel

 

Other than the heritage factor, Ochudo is also famous for its deliciously fluffy butter toast with homemade anko (餡子 sweet red bean paste) on the sidemy friends were pleasantly surprised by the thickness of the toast and the generous serving of not-too-sweet anko! Ochudo’s curry rice is also worth a try, with their homemade curry pickles complementing the slightly spicy curry wonderfully. 

 

Ochudo (落人)
Address: 792 Ogimachi, Shirakawa, Ono, Gifu, 501-5627
Nearest station: Takayama Station (高山駅)
Opening hours: 11am5pm
Tel: +81-90-5458-0418

 

Shirakawa-go and Gokayama have a deep history of local trades that I have only briefly touched on in this article. If you are interested to find out more, there are in fact other attractions that I did not manage to personally visit, such as the Gassho-zukuri Minkaen Outdoor Museum (野外博物館 合掌造り民家園 Yagai hakubutsukan gasshōdzukuriminkaen), which is located nearby the areas I have introduced. If you find the chance to visit the area, you can look forward to a fulfilling day spent learning about valuable local trades!

 

Header image credit: Japanexperterna / CC BY-SA 3.0

 

Writer's profile: A budding student of Japanese history, Qiu Qing’s Japan travel journey is a tale of kindly Japanese people trying to understand her non-existent Japanese. Nevertheless, she looks forward to many future adventures in Japanese inaka and other historic locations.

 

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