FROM KANAZAWA TO SHIRAKAWAGO

In praise of picture-postcard Japan

by Chris Cook

As Ana and Roberto, my two good friends from Brazil, and myself gorged ourselves through the multicourse kaiseki dinner at the very pleasant and relaxed Tachibana Shikitei, a Japanese-style inn in Ishikawa Prefecture’s Yamashiro Onsen, I convinced myself that food, when served on quality pottery — in this case, local Kutaniware — really does taste better than if served on a regular plate.

As if the ryokan’s warm hospitality and ambience combined wasn’t enough, the food set out before us was five-star. Prepared using the finest local ingredients and seasonal specialties — Sea of Japan fish and organically grown vegetables — it came in piled high on the Kutaniware.

Before our eyes — and stomachs — was a picture-postcard view of Japanese hospitality at its best: every square centimeter of the lacquered table was covered with plates and dishes of varying shapes and sizes, each bearing items of food so exquisitely arranged that it seemed a shame to even to think about popping them into our mouths and devouring them.

For a few days our base was at Yamashiro Onsen, a small hot-spring resort in western Ishikawa Prefecture, not far from the border with Fukui Prefecture in the Hokuriku region of central Honshu.

From here, we could easily explore the surrounding countryside and also drive up to the prefectural capital, Kanazawa.

We visited Kenrokuen garden — originally the outer garden of Kanazawa Castle — the reconstructed remains of the castle itself, and strolled slowly through the quiet back streets of Nagamachi, the old samurai quarter, where high earthen walls surround traditional Japanese gardens.

It was while admiring the famed Kenrokuen garden, where gnarled pines swoop low over koi-filled ponds, that we chanced upon an extraordinary sight: Six Japanese men in a row, each in rubber boots and brandishing sturdy bamboo brushes, methodically cleaning the stream bed.

It did cross my mind that we could be watching some kind of traditional dance peculiar to the Noto Peninsula area, something rarely seen by outsiders.

We watched them swish, once to the left, once to the right, all in perfect unison, as they very purposefully walked toward us.

In front of them, dirty water with a scum of dead leaves and grass floating on the top retreated below the stone bridge, while behind them, crystal clear water from the nearby streamhead flowed abundantly across the by now squeaky clean bed.

Kenrokuen is worth a visit at any season, but the “ruins” of Kanazawa Castle, just across from the gardens, were a disappointment.

Having seen the beauty of reconstructed historical Japanese or Okinawan monuments in places as far apart as Himeji and Hirosaki, Odawara and Kumamoto, Matsue and Naha, and the sole remaining original structure of Matsumoto Castle in Nagano Prefecture, Kanazawa’s “ancient” remains just didn’t cut it.

Assuming the castle’s main buildings were hidden by the trees behind the entrance, we crossed the moat and went in.

Nearby, in the visitor center, a helpful assistant informed us that no, there was no such thing as a tower or castle-size building to see, but if we wanted, we could pay a few hundred yen and buy a ticket to go in a take a look. With its recently built walls and buildings that looked like they’d been given a lick of paint days earlier, we decided to pass and head on over to the samurai house area, which was at least more authentic.

And, without any noisy schoolchildren picnicking that day on the lawns at the castle entrance, the streets of Nagamachi were blissfully quiet, save for the murmuring of the stream and the bulbuls partying in the persimmon trees.

One of the highlights there was a visit to the Nomura family house, where we admired the gardens, with streams, ponds and attendant vermilion and white carp, and imagined how the samurai lived all those years ago.

Leaving the intensively farmed flat lowlands that sweep down the Sea of Japan coast southwest of the Noto Peninsula, we drove through the mountains to the World Heritage site of Shirakawago. The drive was notable for two reasons.

First, the Hakusan Super-rindo (a toll road) goes through wild mountain terrain where, during the late fall, spectacular displays can be seen as the leaves turn color ahead of winter. There are also a number of waterfalls along the way, the most famous being Fukube no Otake, and the views across the valleys and peaks to Mount Hakusan are stunning.

But second, in order to drive along this road, motorists have to pay the extortionate sum of ¥3,150 for a journey of just 33 km!

Call it highway robbery, but I suppose someone has to pay for the tons of concrete and vast areas of wire installed along the sides of the road to protect us motorists from straying deer and falling rocks.

Entering Gifu Prefecture from Ishikawa (the border is marked by a sign hanging from the roof halfway through a tunnel), we zig-zagged our way slowly down the forested mountainside to the valley floor, and followed the signposts to our destination.

Shirakawago is known for its collection of old-style Japanese farmhouses, and in particular houses in the gassho-zukkuri style which have high, angled thatched roofs well suited to areas receiving large amounts of snow.

Being on the tour-bus circuit that includes the old post town of Takayama, Kanazawa and the region’s many noted hot-spring resorts, Shirakawago is never short of visitors, who come to the village by the hundreds every day, rain or shine.

To escape them, it’s definitely worth considering an overnight stay in one of the several minshuku (family lodging houses) in the village. This way, you can walk around the following morning and have the place virtually to yourself before the hordes of tourists descend, like locusts, onto this window into old Japan.

Above the village the observation area offers a panoramic overview of the houses.

If you are a photography buff a visit to Shirakawago, perhaps on a snowy winter’s day, in the fresh green of spring or with the multicolored hues of fall, will give you unlimited opportunities to capture this unique scene on film or on memory card for posterity.

Tachibana Shikitei ryokan is at Banshoen-dori 16, Yamashiro Onsen, Kaga City. Tel.: (0761) 77-0001 or www.shikitei.com For information about Shirakawago including reservations, call the tourist information center (in Japanese) at (0576) 96-1013. Additional information is available at www.shirakawa-go.gr.jp Information on Ishikawa Prefecture is available (in several languages) at www.jnto.go.jp