Every year, I dread the onset of winter’s brief days and deep, dark nights. Yet every year I remember that this season brings its own small pleasures: snowball fights; friendships strengthened over hot tea and homemade bread; standing in silence among sun-dappled snowy pines, drinking in the cold, fresh air. Winter gives us time to be alone with our thoughts, to make good on our promises, to seek out small adventures in the seemingly endless days until spring.
In a recent fit of restlessness, solitude beckoned in the form of a trans-alpine journey. One bitterly cold morning in January, I awoke in the dark, dressed in my warmest layers, gulped some green tea, and hopped on a bus toward the mountains. The only things weighing me down were a small backpack and a camera. My destination: Shirakawa-go (白川郷), whose name literally means “white river village.”
In order to reach Shirakawa-gō, I had to stop in Takayama, located in Gifu prefecture. The bus ride from Matsumoto to Takayama is breathtaking, if a bit harrowing. It begins innocently enough along a winding country road east of Matsumoto. But as you delve deeper into the mountains, the valley and the road both narrow, and before long you’re climbing high above hydroelectric dams and gorges flooded with eerily still green water, hurtling through tunnels so narrow they can barely accommodate two vehicles, watching as frosted branches become heavy with snow.
Finally, three hours later, feeling a bit woozy and wobbly, you stumble off the bus in Takayama, “Little Kyoto of the Mountains.” As this moniker suggests, the city is charming – smaller than Matsumoto, with a more historic but slightly run-down feel. I had been once before, in April 2009, but it was an entirely different experience this time, with everything blanketed in a thick, soft layer of snow. With only 45 minutes to spare until the next bus ride, there wasn’t much time for photographs or exploration, but I managed to capture a few of the grounds of the lovely Hida-Kokubunji temple.
Boarding the next bus, which was packed with chatty sightseers, I began to wonder whether Shirakawa-gō would be disappointingly crowded. As a UNESCO World Heritage site, it does get its fair share of visitors, but most arrive in the morning and quickly depart once night falls.
One of the first sights you encounter upon entering Shirakawa-gō (more specifically, the hamlet of Ogimachi) is this suspension bridge, swinging precariously above a pristine, blue-green river. Weighed down by snow and tourists, it feels as though it might snap at any minute and deposit you into the frigid depths below. I hurried across, none too eager to linger over the raging river.
Thankfully, the town was considerably quieter than I’d expected – many shops were closed for the season, leaving the side streets blissfully people-free. I couldn’t stop snapping photos of the snow, which had accumulated to astounding depths, creating subtle patterns in the process.
At the same time, the snow is a huge nuisance for the locals, who must constantly shovel the streets as well as the steeply pitched thatched roofs of the traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses.
Yet for purely aesthetic purposes, leaving the snow untouched can’t be beat.
After a day of wandering the town’s tiny alleys, it was time to retire to Kanja, a minshuku (family-run inn) housed in an immense and drafty farmhouse. Following a soak in the hinokiburo (cedarwood tub), the inn’s proprietor informed me that dinner would be served shortly. When she called me into the dining room, a meal of epic proportions awaited.
There were a number of Gifu prefecture specialities, including toothsome soba noodles with tororo (grated mountain yam), pickled sansai (mountain vegetables), and a whole salted iwana (a type of river fish) with delectably chewy skin and flaky, moist flesh.
A delicate, dashi-based soup was accented by fresh tofu, slippery nameko mushrooms, and sprightly mitsuba.
The vegetable tempura, fresh from the frying oil, was impossibly crisp and light, and the tentsuyu (tempura dipping sauce) had been thoughtfully warmed in advance. Daikon oroshi (finely grated radish), a common tempura accompaniment, was brilliantly placed on a maple leaf. That vivid, blood-red touch brought the entire plate to life.
However, the pièce de résistance was hōba miso yaki, a unique regional specialty. A dried magnolia leaf (hōba) supported a deceptively simple trio of ingredients: thick, salty miso, richly marbled Hida beef, and a variety of vegetables. The whole package was then set over a flame to cook. As the leaf roasted, it imparted a smokey sweetness to the dish, while the beef fat rendered out and melded with the miso to create a luscious sauce for the vegetables. As is typical of Japanese food, the meat’s gamy flavor was not pronounced but instead was tempered and tamed by the accompanying ingredients. Although I’m generally not a big fan of beef, this was truly fantastic, with all the richness and complexity of a French stew compressed into ten minutes of cooking time.
Something about this meal was so grounding, so soothing. Perhaps it was the care lavished on each dish, the sense of abundance juxtaposed with the cold, harsh landscape outside, or simply listening to the two women in the kitchen as they prepared the meal. Each ingredient maintained its integrity amid the rest; together, they quietly embodied that most fundamental aspect of Japanese cuisine – endless variation through minimal manipulation. In deference to the cooks and out of respect for those who cultivated the spoil of riches before me, I ate slowly and deliberately, carefully savoring each mouthful before proceeding. It’s not every day that one gets to eat like this, even in Japan.