As I came to find out on my most recent trip to the Hida region, the gassho-zukuri villages of Gokayama and Shirakawa and the old quarter of Takayama are not the only anachronistic hamlets hidden amongst this area's numerous mountains and valleys.
The village of Tanekura is a small, rustic settlement perched on the side of a hilly incline amongst the Japanese Alps in Gifu Prefecture. It is, like other famous villages in this region, a remnant of ages past that still proudly stands to this very day. Of particular note in Tanekura are its old wooden storehouses -- called itakura in Japanese -- and stone-walled, terraced rice paddies. The literal translation of "itakura" would be something to the effect of "wooden plank storehouse," which makes sense when you see them (they are, in fact, storehouses built from planks of wood). Itakura were constructed to protect villagers from the ravages of famine, which were typically caused by droughts or crop-devastating cold-damage resulting in not only the loss of current crops but also the seeds that would have been used to grow the next. Hence, the itakura served as important storehouses for grains and vegetables as well as the seeds needed to grow them in the first place.
The terraced rice paddies -- tanada in Japanese -- are another solution created to deal with the hardships of living, quite literally, on the side of a mountain. Needless to say, normal rice farming methods cannot be used in a mountain village, as even relatively shallow inclines can make maintaining water-filled rice paddies impossible. This means that most mountain villages were unable to grow their own rice. In Tanekura, however, these stone-walled tiers of life-giving growing space were erected entirely by hand to provide the much needed flat planes necessary for successful rice cultivation.
It is a testament to both the sturdiness and quality with which these historical structures were created that they still stand here in Tanekura to this day. Moreover, they are still in use! The residents of Tanekura continue to grow their own produce, with vegetable gardens and small cereal grain plots dotting the spaces in between the homes and weathered, old storehouses. Above the town, arranged in steps, are the terraced rice paddies. Just above that lies the edge of the forest where the villagers go to gather wild mountain plants (more on these later) while avoiding the occasional bear. (On the day we visited, we actually ran into a group of villagers returning with quite a haul of freshly picked, wild mountain plants; luckily, we did not run into any bears.). A mountain stream runs right through the center of town with some of the most crystal clear water I have ever seen, with a crisp, fresh taste to match.
If you would like to get a taste of life in Tanekura, you may be surprised to find that there is actually lodging available right in the town itself. The Tanekura inn is located atop a small hill towards the bottom end of the town. There you will find friendly service, warm futons on which to sleep, and -- my favorite part -- excellent food.
The food really is something special. It's all locally grown, and when I say "locally grown," I mean that it was grown somewhere right out the back door of the inn. Well, some of the ingredients may have been grown -- or more appropriately, grew of their own volition -- just a wee bit further away. Remember those mountain plants I mentioned earlier? Wild mountain plants form an important part of the villagers' diet and are prepared in a variety of ways such as pickled or tempura fried. Even the grilled trout was local: it was plucked right from the town's small pond, where the traditional grain mill can also be found.
You may have heard a lot about the historical towns and villages of the Hida region. What's the point of visiting another little village, you ask. They're all pretty much the same, right?
Guess again, dear reader.
Visiting Tanekura proved to be yet another unique experience in addition to visiting places like Takayama and Shirakawa. Do they have their similarities? Of course. But it is really striking how much the cultures, features, and atmospheres of the towns can differ. On top of that, each seems to be frozen in a different time period than the last; you get the feeling that if you could visit all of them, you just might get an inkling of the full timeline, the big picture. Architecture and townscape fans are really in for a treat (rather, several treats), from the rows of Edo period houses in Takayama's old town to the white earthen walls and carp-filled canal of Hida Furukawa, the straw thatch-roofed gassho-zukuri houses of Shirakawa and Gokayama to the wooden storehouses and terraced rice paddies of Tanekura. Spend some time exploring Hida, and after getting a taste of the history and cultures of the area, you -- like me -- just might end up wanting to return.
Getting to Tanekura:
Coming from a major city like Tokyo or Kyoto, you should head for Nagoya on the Tokaido Shinkansen (bullet train). From Nagoya, take the JR Takayama Line to Hida Furukawa. From there, it is, to be honest, a bit of a trek. It takes about 30 minutes from the station by car, and there is no public transit that goes to Tanekura, so we recommend hiring a car or taking a taxi.