Is this really Japan?

One thing that is wonderful about Japan is the fact that it has so many different types of places to visit. What I mean is that you go on a domestic holiday within Japan but it feels like you have gone abroad, and you sometimes forget that you are actually still in Japan. A beach holiday on a small Okinawan island feels like you have gone somewhere like the Seychelles (you can find some of our Okinawa photos here). You go to Hiroshima and the scenery you are greeted with at the Inland sea makes you think that you are not in Japan but somewhere in South Asia (you can find some of our Hiroshima photos here). Tokyo looks like a metropolis smilar to New York or London, but it’s clean, people are typically extremely polite and the infrastructure functions exceptionally well (recall that there are frequent earthquakes and typhoons in Tokyo and it deals with these better than London deals with three flakes of snow) (you can find some of our Tokyo photos here). And maybe you could say that Kyoto looks like ‘real’ Japan with its temples, shrines and kimono-wearing ladies heading to the closest tea ceremony or Ikebana class (you can find some of our Kyoto photos here).

Last weekend, with some Japanese friends, me and the kids headed to what I think is the ‘Switzerland’ of Japan, namely to Shirokawago in the Gifu prefecture.

Early Saturday morning our friends in their 8-seater rental car pulled outside our apartment to pick us up for this ‘Alpine’ adventure. Our kids and their kids are good friends so I assumed the 4-hour journey would be a piece of cake with ‘I spy with my little eye’, Top Trumps, joint book reading and a carefully controlled iPad quota, but it actually turned out to be pieces of cake, everywhere. Not only were the kids monkeying around with food, they were also making a mess with nose bleeds, vomiting, dirty shoes on the seats, and the usual stuff most parents would expect on a 4-hour car journey. But even though the car’s interior was having a road trip from hell – in between vomits and nose bleeds, us passengers were having a great time.

We had reserved Sunday for Shirakawago, so when we got to Gifu on Saturday, we first went mountain biking in the town called Hida. Actually, when I say ‘mountain biking’, I don’t quite mean your typical mountain biking. We had the mountain and the bikes but instead of revving across unbeaten peak paths, we jumped on bikes that were attached to a frame, which in turn was attached to an old train track. The younger kids sat in between the two bikes like royalty and enjoyed chauffeuring service provided by us adults and a 12-year old (to make up numbers).



Somewhat typically for Japan where most cyclists’ seats have been adjusted so that the cyclist’s knees seem to hit their chin when pedalling, when I sat on the bike, the seat was uncomfortably low. No self-respecting Finnish outdoor shop owners’ daughter would accept knee-to-chin style inefficient pedalling. So, I asked a staff member to adjust the seat. He explained that it was in its highest setting. There we were again, in a situation where Japan ever so effortlessly makes a normal size Western woman feel like an Amazonian. My 150 cm, 40kg female friend and her only slightly bigger husband found it hilarious that their Finnish pal’s long legs (hardly!!!) were not compatible with (what I would call a child’s) mountain bike. Luckily us Westerners as well as the Japanese looked equally unflattering in our crash helmets.


Two-by-two us and the other 15 cyclist pairs leisurely cruised 3 km down the hill. It was awesome. The sun was shining but there was a slight breeze (which you would appreciate if you knew how painfully hot Japanese summer days can be) and the view was amazing. Little did I know (due to slight translation problems) that once we were down the hill, we would have to cycle that 3km back up! Yikes! Maybe it was for the best I didn’t know what was coming, or I wouldn’t have enjoyed the ride down through the old train tunnels and lovely mountain forests as much as I did. Anyway, when we got down to the resting spot at the 3 km mark and the staff swiftly turned the bikes round towards the direction we had come from, it hit me that we would have to cycle back up the hill, which now, thinking about it, kind of makes sense. Luckily, the bikes were installed with battery operated pedalling aids. However, when I was huffing and puffing up the hill (regardless of the pedalling aid) worrying that the cyclists behind us would start ringing their bells at us crawling up the hill like an overweight turtle after a too ambitious CrossFit class, I would have paid good money for the exchange of my bike for one of the staffs’ mopeds at the front and the back of the line of us mountain cyclists.



Apart from my unacceptably poor physical performance, the ‘mountain biking’ experience was good fun. All of us adults, and the kids loved it.

After mountain biking, we drove to Takayama, a town known for its historical old town.







In addition to the beautiful old buildings, Takayama had several sake shops.





Since my husband missed the trip due to having been in England at the time, I thought I’d buy him some sake, his favourite drink. Entertainingly, I got a bit tipsy sampling some delicious local sake in the search for very dry sake for my husband (I’m more of a sweet plum sake person while my husband prefers nail varnish remover). As you can see in the picture below, I eventually found a ‘little’ something for him.



We also noticed many bird nests around. I was told that the Japanese believe that swallow nests bring good luck and thus, people are very creative in coming up with workable ways to share their habitat with the nests. In the photo below the umbrella hangs underneath a nest to protect the taxi from anything that might drop down from the nest.



Our hotel in Takayama was great. The hotel had indoor and outdoor onsens (hot springs) and it served one of the best buffet dinners I’ve ever had (which included for instance sushi and sashimi made to order, pizzas baked to order in a proper stone oven and personal table-top BBQs). After the buffet we headed for a relaxing session in the hot springs.

A word of advice to anyone else slightly self-conscious about the circumference of their waist: Don’t go to an onsen after a buffet dinner. After all, similarly to Finnish saunas you go to onsens naked, and thus, you can’t hide the earlier overdose of sushi, tempura or Chinese dumplings. The post-buffet-look really isn’t flattering even for the petit Japanese ladies let alone someone who carries around her waist a 10kg ‘lifebuoy’.

The following morning we drove to Shirakawago in the mountains of Gifu.


Due to its location, Shirakawago gets lots of snow in the winter and thus, similar to many houses in the Alps, the angle of roofs of houses in Shirakawago is relatively steep.











Not only are the roofs unusually steep, but the material of the roofs in Shirakawago is predominantly thatch (presumably to insulate the cold in the winter). And Shirakawago did not leave a fan of old British thatched houses cold. The village was beautiful with the old thatched houses, lovely forests around it and a river running through it. No wonder it is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centres.





We had a great weekend experiencing a new side of Japan (to us). Now the only thing to do is to start thinking where to go next.