I will repeat this again ... DON'T SETTLE FOR A DAY-TRIP if you plan to visit Shirakawago. Rest your traveler's soul under the thatched roofs for a night or two ... chat with your Minshuku host at the hearth in nothing but body language ... rejuvenate your backpack-weary shoulders in the village's open-air hotspring ... treat yourself to the affordable extravagance of a top quality Hida Beef steak. After all, you've already spent so much time and effort just to get there, especially if you've started out from Tokyo or Osaka.
Unless you have a car, you'll want to stay somewhere within the main village, known as Ogimachi to the locals. There is no westernized hotel (nor would you want one), a total of 3 Japanese Ryokans, and 20 or so Minshuku guesthouses in Ogimachi. Unfortunately none of the Ryokans are housed in a Gassho-zukuri (steep thatched roof) farmhouse, which is everyone's favorite reason for visiting Shirakawago. So for most tourists, it makes much more sense to stay in an authentic, way cheaper and much more atmospheric Minshuku.
Booking a Minshuku
For non-Japanese speakers, the easiest way to book a Minshuku within Shirakawago is to reserve through JapaneseGuesthouses.com, which deals with a few of the 20 Minshukus in the village. I think they do charge a small commission, if I'm not mistaken.
If you've got your eyes on a particular Minshuku not on their list, you could email the Tourism Association at firstname.lastname@example.org and request for the Minshuku of your choice. This is how we booked our Minshuku -- we emailed them our dates, the number of male/female/children in our group, how many rooms we needed, arrival time and transportation, and the Tourism Association made arrangements with the Minshuku and reconfirmed the booking with us.
The Association didn't ask for my credit card number in the booking process. As in most places in Japan, cancellation is based on an honour system -- if you change your plans and no longer need the room you reserved, you're responsible for informing your host so they don't waste the vacant room, not to mention the food and the effort of meticulously preparing your dinner.
Hotel Review: Minshuku Hisamatsu (Shirakawago)
Address: Gifu-ken Ono-gun Shirakawa-mura Ogimachi 585
Price: 7700 yen per person including dinner and breakfast
How To Book: Send an email to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Directions: From the Information Centre, pick up an English map and walk across the suspension bridge (Deai-bashi). Head straight towards the Myozenji temple on the other side of the main road. Hisamatsu is right next to the Myozenji. If you're looking for direction for getting to Shirakawago by PUBLIC TRANSPORTATION, please refer to the Transporation section at the bottom of the previous article.
This is the Minshuku we chose based on the following criteria:
1) a UNESCO World Heritage designated Gassho-zukuri style farmhouse
2) a historical building, preferably dating from the Meiji era or before
3) serves dinner and breakfast around the square hearth (Irori)
Most Minshukus in the village would meet criteria #1 ... and you can usually tell from the exterior look of the house. Criteria #2 needed a little more research in the Tourism Association's Japanese site, but most of the Gassho-zukuri houses in the village are at least a century old anyway. Criteria #3 turned out being the toughest, since the usage of the hearth at many Minshuku has diminished to serving tea and initially greeting visitors.
Not at Minshuku Hisamatsu though. This place is as authentic as it gets, just a step short of letting you tend the fire and grill your own fish. This was dinner time, when the 87-year-old owner Kawata Hisamatsu still sat around the fire and chatted with the Japanese guests in the room. The torch of running the guesthouse has been passed to his daughter, who spoke minimal English and did a great job of keeping up the conversation with us who spoke minimal Japanese. The elderly wife of Kawata-san (whom we simply called Obaasan ... I never asked for her name) was also sitting here but just not in this picture.
It was a very memorable meal for two completely opposite reasons, one being the authentic experience of sitting around the old Irori hearth with a Japanese family, and the second being the even more authentic experience of the heavy smoke from the firewood constantly getting into our eyes. Tolerable to me, it was getting a little too authentic for my wife. This may be something you want to consider when you choose your Minshuku, as authenticity does come with a price.
The food was also memorable -- an 8-course meal very similar to our previous dinner at the neighboring village of Gokayama (see the Gokayama article for comparison), but with a notable addition. Historically Shirakawago belonged to the old feudal province of Hida, a mountainous area which produces one of Japan's favorite and most highly prized food ingredients ...
The velvety soft, marbled Hida Beef. Not as internationally famous as the Kobe, Matsuzaka or Omi (collectively known as the Three Famous Cattle Breeds), but just as celebrated within Japan and generally very difficult to find in restaurants outside of the Central region. The quality of these thin cuts of beef was nothing too spectacular (probably A3 Rank by my own estimation), but it was a much welcome change as I've had almost no red meat since leaving Kobe more than a week ago. The Japanese are much more well-known as heavy fish and pork eaters.
Iwana trout seasoned with sea salt, slow-grilled at the hearth right before dinner was served. This was quite average, to be honest.
This was always my favorite dish wherever I went in Central Japan. A tempura dish made with the local organic vegetables and wild indigenous plants, including the intensely fragrant Yama-udo leaves shown at the centre. Best dish of the meal by a mile.
Cold Hiya-yakko tofu, fiddlehead ferns in sesame marinade, and ... what's that brown orb on the far right? It tasted starchy and sweet, and I thought it was some kind of exotic root vegetable found locally. But as the hostess explained, it was a mini potato grown from the strip of farmland in front of their house.
And that's not all -- we were also served the Koshi-hikari rice the hostess herself planted and harvested, from the same ancestral fields passed down from generation to generation. It's quite amazing to see these ancient traditions still being honored, even in the 21st Century in the middle of a first-world country.
Another great thing about staying in Shirakawago is that ... for a mere 500 yen (CAD$5) more, you get the option of upgrading your vacation into a hotspring trip! There is a modernized hotspring Ryokan called Shirakawago-no-Yu near the end of the village, normally charging 700 yen for a dip in their open-air hotspring. You don't need to pay full price if you're staying at a Minshuku though, since your host can get you discounted tickets for 500 yen.
I can't speak for the ladies' side, but in the men's section there was an indoor pool with massaging jets, and a much more attractive but smallish open-air pool overlooking the the Shokawa river shown above ... and the busy two-lane bridge crossing the river. I thought I wasn't a new-comer to Japanese hotsprings, but it still felt a little weird with cars zooming across less than 100 metres away while I sat barenaked in the pool. Just part of the cultural experience I guess.
Though Shirakawago gets invaded by coachloads of international and domestic tourists daily, the evening sees the village returning to its serene, charming past. This was the ultimate escape for city dwellers -- rustic, pastoral, but surprisingly cold. We took an after-dinner stroll around the village, but had to hurry back before the warmth from the hotspring wore off completely . This was in late May, but the nighttime temperature still dropped to single digits Celcius.
Luckily I had the good sense to pick up a bottle of the locally brewed Nigori-zake, a semi-filtered (ie. with residues of the fermented rice suspended in the Sake) rice wine with a very strong flavor. It was available from the local general store for less than 500 yen (CAD$5), which was an unheard-of low price compared to what I usually pay in Vancouver. My wife found it too weird for her tastebuds though, and I ended up having to finish the entire bottle.
This is how modern villagers get through their cold winter nights -- a portable, somewhat foul-smelling kerosene heater inside each bedroom. Even though we're not supposed to run the unvented heater for more than an hour at a time due to the risk of carbon dioxide poisoning, we probably used it for half the night.
The Minshuku was a full-house that night, and each group of guests was assigned to a room partition within the large communal space. As you can see there's a two-feet gap between the room divider and the ceiling, much to the inconvenience of both the ourselves and the Swiss-Japanese couple in the next partition. You can imagine the difficulty for both rooms in muffling the jokes and the pillow talk down to a manageable noise level.
We woke up to the crisp, near-freezing air -- a perfect morning for travelers to gather around the Irori hearth to share stories while warming up the hands and the feet. The hostess had to keep busy as she tended the fire, boiled water for our tea, and cooked breakfast for everyone but herself. It was an atmosphere fitting to everyone's idea of a classic morning in rural Japan.
The breakfast was simple again -- no meat, no fish -- just like the previous morning at Gokayama. The Minshuku's home-grown rice was served again, this time accompanied by the aroma of an unmistakably Central Japanese dish, arguably the most famous dish in the Hida region ...
Hoba Miso ... or soybean paste grilled in a magnolia leaf, with the added toppings of Enoki mushrooms, tofu and scallions this morning. As expected the Miso was rich and flavorous, but it wasn't overwhelmingly salty and was just right for its traditional role as a condiment for the rice. This combination and Miso and rice gave us the perfect fuel as we continued on our trip to Hida Takayama.
This evening was certainly one of our most memorable stays in Japan, yet it's not something I would recommend to everyone without reservation ... the smoky dining room and the thin walls that didn't reach the ceiling were a bit of a shock to my wife, but quite interesting to me. So I guess it depends on what kind of traveler you are, and how highly you value material comfort.
Food Review: SHIRAOGI (Shirakawago)
Address: Gifu-ken Ono-gun Shirakawa-mura Ogimachi 155
Hours: 09:00-17:00 except Thursdays
Website/Map: From Yahoo Japan
Directions: Starting from the Information Centre, walk across the bridge and head straight. You should see a large parking space on your left side after crossing the main road. Shiraogi is one of the few houses right on that square.
"Great Food" and "Convenient Locations" rarely mix -- that's why you can usually find a plethora of uninspired, mediocre eateries at all train stations and bus terminals. But there are always exceptions, such is the inexpensive and excellent Shiraogi, a place I'll always remember for one of the best beef dishes ever.
As far as location goes, Shiraogi is situated at the most unlikely place for even decent food -- right in front of Shirakawago's tourist coach parking. I would venture to guess that 90% of the clientelle are one-time customers who would never visit Shirakawago again in this lifetime, meaning that the incentive to serve quality
food is near zero. Anyway that's what I would expect if this was Tokyo's Shinjuku or Osaka's Umeda.
Even the ordering method was deceivingly cafeteria-ish. Customers are expected to pick out their meals outside the front entrance from a vending machine, pay the machine and take the resulting ticket to the waitress -- just like at your neighborhood Ramen chain. In fact, every little sign was hinting that it might just be the wrong place for lunch ... until we had our first bite.
Simple Teishoku set lunches such as "Mountain Vegetables Soba" start from 780 yen (CAD$8), and go up to 2100 yen (CAD$21) for an mouth-watering Hida Beef steak grilled in Hoba Miso. We ordered two Central Japanese specialties, one being the Hida Beef in Hoba Miso, and another being the Nagoya specialty of Miso Katsu.
Did I forget to mention that this was one of the most memorable beef dishes ever? Just look at the incredible marbling on the beef! It was practically no different from the Matsuzaka or Kobe Beef that we've tried before in terms of its melt-in-the-mouth softness and intense flavors, at a very reasonable price -- roughly 80 grams of top quality Wagyu beef for 2100 yen. And that's not all, as this very traditional dish arrived spiced up with the local region's number one favorite seasoning ...
Again it was the dense, richly aromatic Miso paste grilled on top of a dried Hoba leaf. The price may have something to do with it, but I really thought the Hoba Miso here was better than what we had for breakfast at our Minshuku. It was the perfect balance to the oiliness of the steak as it disintegrated in the mouth.
My only complaint was that ... this heavenly goodness arrived in only 80 grams! If you ask me to choose between a Kobe Beef steak and this Hida Beef Hoba-Miso-Yaki, I would probably choose THIS over the Kobe steak, given the same amount of beef.
I think my wife ordered the Miso Katsu because she was already missing the excellent Tonkatsu at Kyoto's Katsukura after only three days. That makes the tiny unheralded Shiraogi even more amazing, for the Tonkatsu here didn't disappoint even when compared to the successful Kyoto chain. In my opinion it wasn't as unbelievably
tender as Katsukura's, but the thick, sweet Miso sauce brought an entirely different character to the dish. I thought deep fried dishes usually goes better with acidity than with sugar, but this combination of Haccho-Miso and what must have been a copious amount of sugar went very well with the Tonkatsu.
It was an excellent meal overall, which completely belied the rather ordinary appearance of the little eatery. If we ever get the chance to visit Shirakawago again, there's absolutely no need to second guess and look for a different lunch spot ... I doubt if we'd find a better deal anywhere else in the village.
Bill for Two Persons
|Hida Beef Hoba Teishoku||2100 yen|
|Miso Katsu Teishoku||1200 yen|
|TOTAL||3300 yen (CAD$33)|