Rough Guides Editor Amy Hopkins visits Ainokura, a historic village in Japan’s remote Gokayama region, and stays with a resident in his mountain home
“Just pick it up and bite its head off!” Yoshikimi could barely conceal his amusement as he watched me hesitantly prod the small fish, in a clumsy attempt to debone it with chopsticks.
I was doing my best to play it cool as I got to grips with my host’s unfamiliar diet. Fermented turnip, lotus root and a breakfast of raw eggs were all firsts for me – and the cuisine wasn’t the only thing reminding me I was a long way from home.
Outside, the temperature was minus 12°C; the snow three metres deep. From Tokyo, I’d travelled for five hours by bullet train and bus to reach the remote mountain region of Gokayama in Japan’s west Toyama Prefecture.
I was a guest in the home of 64-year-old Yoshikimi Ikehata. His guest house is one of only 20 homes in Ainokura, a village tucked far back in a valley, flanked by pine-covered peaks. The village has been preserved as a cultural time capsule by its remoteness and its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but its community face an uncertain future.
Yoshikimi’s thatched roof house has stood in these mountains for 220 years. Farm houses like his, once used for silk production, are known as gassho-zukri. It means hands-in-prayer, a nod to the distinct triangular roofs which are designed to encourage heavy snow to slide off.
Visitors to Ainokura and neighbouring villages in Gokayama can pre-book an overnight stay in a minshuku, family-run guest houses like Yoshikimi’s. They typically offer between two and six rooms, with shared bathrooms. But AirBnb, this is not. Visitors are guests of the homeowner and are usually only permitted to stay for a single night.
My stay in Ainokura was, therefore, a pause on a longer trip through Japan. I followed a route known as the Three-Star Road. It runs from Kanazawa to Matsumoto in central Japan. Along the way, by shunning the tourist magnets of Tokyo and Kyoto in favour of lesser-visited towns and villages, I discovered pockets of perfectly preserved Japanese culture.
I joined the Three Star Road in Kanazawa, in Japan’s north-western Ishikawa Prefecture. I stepped off the street into an unassuming house and discovered a hive of world-class craftsmanship. A third generation artisan, with grown-up children, Hitoshi Maida, generously demonstrated his skill in kaga yuzen, dying silk to make kimono.
He showed me how the cloth is coloured with natural dyes, washed in river water and fixed with sticky rice glue. I painted flowers onto silk (badly) and had the honour of being wrapped in a duck-egg blue kimono which had taken Hitoshi’s team of artisans three months to create. Hitoshi mentioned there’s a museum in London that’s keen to display his work. “It’s called Victoria and Albert,” he said. “Have you heard of it?”.
One hour’s drive north of Ainokura, I spent a day in the ancient merchant town of Inami, where nearly 200 of the 8000 inhabitants are skilled wood sculptors. The main street smells of timber shavings and is a living art gallery of intricately carved shopfronts. At Inami’s wooden temple, I gazed up at great dragon carved in 1762. The silence was pierced only by the occasional soft thud of snow falling from the temple’s curved roof.
Along the Three Star Road I met artisans – third, fifth, fifteenth generation - practising skills passed down from their ancestors. I watched people make washi paper in Gokayama and brew miso in Matsumoto. I witnessed demonstrations of swordsmanship by a samari descendent in Kanazawa.
Most of the artisans I met were over 60. Despite their greying hair and astonishing skills, some – with characteristic Japanese humility – considered themselves apprentices.
I’ll soon turn 40. In Japan I began to consider, perhaps for the first time, that my best years might be ahead of me. Yet, while I felt inspired by my encounters, they were an uncomfortable reminder of the acute risk of Japan’s rapidly ageing population. Japan’s citizens are the oldest in the world. Nearly 30% of the population are over 65. The birthrate can’t keep up.
Ainokura village is no exception, added to which the mountain lifestyle is more demanding than most. Even the sprightliest pensioner will eventually struggle to climb onto his roof to heave snow from the thatch with an upturned wheelbarrow. When older people leave the mountain, there aren’t enough youngsters to replace them.
There were once 13 guesthouses in Ainokura. Seven now stand empty. The owner of one of the remaining six is 80 and Yoshikmi lamented: “he’ll have to give it up soon." As for Yoshikimi, he assured me that he feels 20 in his heart, although his body is three times older.
Raised in mountains, hard graft and resourcefulness run through his veins. His meals are the result of months of farming, foraging and preservation. We ate udo seasoned with sesame, sugar and miso – he’d harvested the vegetable in the spring and pickled it with salt. Yoshikmi finds ways to increase his harvest, despite UNESCO’s strict land restrictions. Since his wife died, he’s laboured alone.
We’re not living in the 17th century and it occurred to me that Yoshikimi could jump in his truck and drive down the mountain to a supermarket. For the most part, though, he chooses not to. While we dined on river fish, he confessed that he much prefers salmon. “But I won’t cook it,” he said stubbornly. “Salmon’s from the sea. My food is mountain food.”
We ate while sitting on floor cushions circling a sunken hearth in the middle of the room, our faces flushed from the heat of the burning coals. After supper, I sunk into a deep, hot bath in the shared bathroom, before cloaking myself in a yukata, a cosy, padded Japanese bathrobe.
My two female companions and I occupied the three adjoining guestrooms, separated by lockable sliding doors. At night, embers glowed in the hearth and the sky turned a deep black and dumped bucket-loads of snow onto the thatched roof.
Tucked in my firm futon bed, the only sound was the occasional muted rustle or cough from a neighbouring room – strangely comforting in this isolated place. Sleep came easily.
The next afternoon, I visited a neighbouring mountain village, Shirakawago. Here I met Kanako Funassaka, a young woman whose heart, like Yoshikimi’s, belongs to the mountains. Kanako recently bought a local business from its elderly owner and revamped it as a bright, modern shop, Miyama Tofu. She had help from one of the Government schemes that support new businesses in Gokayama.
When I stopped by, Kanako bounded up, wearing a cap and high-top trainers, and asked if she could photograph me for her shop’s Instagram page. I liked her immediately and felt an unexpected pang of longing for my friends at home.
We chatted over coffee (I talked her throught the components of a flat white) and sampled Kanako’s homemade tofu. Snow tofu, rock tofu, tofu cookies – all of it delicious. Young people like Kanako, buzzing with ideas, are the lifeline these mountain communities so desperately need.
Over breakfast with Yoshikimi on my final morning, talk turned to his retirement. He’s planning to buy a campervan and tour all of Japan's 47 prefectures, he explained. I listened, a little envious, as he described his trip, and made a private pact not to let age dampen my curiosity.
Along the Three Star Road, I’d marvelled at the skills of resilient, youthful people twice my age, and enjoyed their company enormously. I realised that, like Yoshikimi, I’m young enough to experience much more of what Japan has to offer – starting with fish heads.
An overnight stay in a thatched guest house costs between £55 and £90 per person and includes dinner and breakfast.
How to get there
From Tokyo, take the bullet train to Toyama Prefecture. From Shin-Takaoka Station, take the bus to Ainokura (one hour).
Find out more and book your Ainokura stay here
Travel to Japan with a customisable Rough Guides trip
Top image: Shirakawago village in Gokayama © Mitsuboshi Kaidou