The Hidden Villages

Into the Mountains, In Search of the Hidden Villages 

They are not so hidden now, being conferred UNESCO World Heritage Site status since 1995. But many hundred years ago, deep in these mountains, the residents of Shirakawa, Suganuma and Ainokura led very carefree lives. They built their Gassho houses like hands in prayer – for very practical reasons – to withstand heavy snowfall, whipping winds and keep them cool in summer. 

We had left all that snow on Tateyama early in the morning for Ainokura. At Tateyama Station, we transferred to the Toyama Densetsu line (non-JR) to Toyama JR Station; and then hopped onto the JR line to move to Johana Station. Thereafter, it was another 25 mins by bus. By then, all our fleece were off. The bus wasn’t so frequent so we lounged inside Johana and chatted with the stationmaster who gave us valuable bits of travel information, in English no less!

johana jr station

The delightful Johana JR Station 

It was 2pm when we alighted at a bus-stop sign that said Ainokura.

Didn’t see no Gassho houses anywhere. 

Then, we saw them. Not the houses, but a group of ladies huddled in a little hut opposite were gesticulating to us. Take this road they seemed to say, pointing at a this fork road running from the main road parallel to the hut. Ah yes! We needed to walk another 300m to reach Ainokura. We waved our thanks and trudged determinedly onward. Indeed, the hidden villages were not so accessible and Ainokura was the least accessible of them all.

on arrival

Arrived! With trolley bags in tow

Here’s our home for 2 nights – Goyomon, together with 2 other guests – the ladies were more than 80 but looked way younger! Japanese genes we said!

outside our home away from home - goyemon

Outside our home away from home – Goyomon


Suganuma was a 15-20 mins drive from Ainokura. It was a tiny village. Tinier than Ainokura. We were lucky to have our hostess – Hiromi-san, drove us there and she made sure we got the returning bus (last) timing firmly planted in our heads. 

Whilst Ainokura felt like a real lived-in village, Suganuma seemed more like a showcase. And a very pretty one there.

suganuma entrance

Suganuma entrance – flanked by cherry blossoms trees 

sakura tree

Sakura tree over pool 


Suganuma – pretty in green

a house and a tree

Against the blue sky 

gassho house

Gassho house close up 

goyemon - home away from home

Gassho house converted into a shop – with attached vending machine

house - full frontal

House – full frontal

We dawdled in Suganuma but still made the bus back to Ainokura comfortably. Unfortunately, the good light had faded so this was the best shot I could muster.

ainokura panoramic view

Ainokura panoramic view

The hidden villages were also famous for their beancurd. So, of course we had to try it.

beancurd tempura

Beancurd tempura

The village went to sleep early. At 9pm, there would be a broadcast. I think it was urging people to start preparing to go to bed. In the morning, there was another one at 6am.

night @ ainokura

Night @ ainokura


The next day, we headed out to Shirakawago – the Gassho-house mecca for tourists. Shirakawago was much bigger than Ainokura and it was nestled in a beautiful valley surrounded by snow-capped mountains. No wonder it’s so popular.

from the bus

Terminal stop @ Shirakwago – from the bus

It rained the whole day. But there was no stopping the hordes (nor us). It was a huge challenge trying to take photos sans people, almost impossible.


Houses and mountains

gassho houses

Gassho houses

To escape the crowds, we sought refuge in this Gassho-house cafe which we walked past by chance. I consider it the highlight of this jaunt.

it's a cafe!

It’s a cafe! Tea & coffee room Ochiudo

the beautiful interior

The beautiful interior and all the teacups – you may choose your own!



my coffee

My coffee and the teacup I chose 

Even when it’s raining, it’s still pretty. We walked up a steep slope to a little hill only to find it spilling with even more tourists who had just arrived by bus and by car.

shirakawago from hill

Shirakawago from hill – the shoot du jour  

house and mountain

Walking back to town centre 

more houses

It gets misty

repairing the roof

Repairing the roof

chilling the drinks

Chilling the drinks

some kind of plant

Some kind of plant


It was good to be back to peace and quiet at Ainokura. To leisurely enjoy the beautiful landscape and savour the serenity of this unique countryside.

morning coffee!

Morning coffee!

hearth in house

Hearth in living room – to keep everyone warm and to cook something

morning has broken

Morning has broken


Clouds – last moments

ainokura bus stop

Ainokura bus stop

We were just settling in and it’s time to leave. Maybe one day I will be back again, in a different time, in a different season, to experience the the Gassho villages all over again.

Visited 25-26 April 2013 

Categories: Japan

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