Monday, April 20, 2009

OAT Japan, Thursday, March 26, 2009:

Kanazawa: Optional Excursion to Shirakawa-go & Gokayama

The morning started bright and sunny as we ate breakfast in the buffet room. However, looking north toward the Japan Sea, we could see an ominous-looking low cloudbank moving rapidly toward us. Before we knew it, the hotel was enveloped in swirling snow!

We were witnessing the meteorological phenomenon known as sea effect precipitation, very similar to the lake effect snow common around the Great Lakes. Frigid arctic air crosses the comparatively warm water of the Japan Sea. The resulting instability and orographic lift releases precipitation as rain or snow.

We were wondering if the planned excursion to the Japanese Alps and their historic villages was going to be possible! However, Machiko checked on road conditions in the mountains, and assured us we would go ahead with the trip.

The weather improved as we climbed to our first village, Shirakawa-go. Both Shirakawa-go and Gokayama are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. They are best known for their distinctive farmhouse style buildings called gassho-zukuri, a kind of minka, or farmhouse. One can describe the buildings as sturdy A-frame farmhouses with steeply sloping thatched roofs.

After enjoying the spectacular scenery of Shirakawa-go under sunny skies, the group visited a workshop where we learned to make washi, a fibrous thick paper made from mulberry, cedar and maple bark.

The highlight of our visit to Gokayama was the Murikami House, the oldest gassho-style house in the area, built in 1578. Following tea, we were treated to some traditional dance and music performances. Finally, we had a chance to explore several levels of the Murikami House, now preserved as a museum featuring ancient farm implements and other artifacts characteristic of the region.

By the time we left the Murikami house, to explore Gokayama's shops and byways, the weather closed in with snow flurries, making for some interesting photography.

We had a chance to warm up at a local soba (buckwheat) noodle restaurant where we had miso soup with tofu and green onions, vegetables prepared tempura style, ending with a large bowl of broth with the oversized noodles. We noted that most Japanese patrons were enjoying their soba noodles prepared pasta style on plates.

After lunch, we headed back to Kanazawa and our hotel. As before, dinner was on our own. As we were still conserving our supply of yen, we opted to revisit the adjacent department store and enjoy more of their deli offerings.

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