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Introducing Shirakawa-gō & Gokayama

These remote, mountainous districts between Takayama and Kanazawa are best known for farmhouses in the thatched gasshō-zukuri style. They're rustic and lovely; against the vibrant colours of spring, draped with the gentle mists of autumn, or peeking through a carpet of snow, they hold a special place in the Japanese heart.

In the 12th century, the region's isolation is said to have attracted survivors from the Taira (Heike) clan which was virtually wiped out by the Minamoto (Genji) clan in a brutal battle in 1185. During feudal times, Shirakawa-gō, like the rest of Hida, was under direct control of the Kanamori clan, connected to the Tokugawa shōgun, while Gokayama was a centre for the production of gunpowder for the Kaga region, under the ruling Maeda clan.

Fast-forward to the 1960s, when construction of the gigantic Miboro Dam over the Shōkawa river was to submerge entire villages. Many gasshō houses were relocated to their current sites. Although primarily preserved for tourism, these working villages still present a view of rural life found in few other parts of Japan.

Most of Shirakawa-gō's sights are in the heavily visited village of Ogimachi, linked by expressway to Takayama. The less-crowded, more isolated villages of Suganuma and Ainokura, in the Gokayama district of Toyama Prefecture, have the most ambience; other sights are spread over many kilometres along Rte 156. All three villages are Unesco World Heritage Sites.

Passionate debate continues around the impact tour buses have upon these unique communities, and how best to mitigate disruption to daily life. It's a case of not biting the hand which feeds you.

To avoid the crowds, steer clear of weekends, holidays, cherry-blossom and autumn-foliage seasons. To best appreciate life here, stay overnight in a gasshō-zukuri inn. Accomodation is basic and advance reservations are recommended.