As soon as I first read about the gassho-zukuri thatched houses in Ainokura, I knew we had to squeeze in a stay at a traditional minshuku guesthouse there. It might seem out of the way when you look at the rest of our east to west itinerary, but I’m so happy I made that call. It turned out to be my favourite part of our time in Japan!
Why visit Ainokura?
World class history
While the list of World Heritage Sites for a given country is far from exhaustive (an awful lot is omitted), the ones they do include tend to be worth a visit.
Ainokura is no exception! It’s the smallest of three historic villages on the list as a result of the well-preserved traditional Gassho houses. “Gassho” refers to hands pressed together in prayer, echoed in the steep, triangular frame of the thatched roofs that bear the name. Lovely imagery, right?
The guesthouse we stayed in was over 200 years old (I believe), constructed without nails and historically was used for silk production/silkworm rearing. Due to the language barrier we didn’t really grasp much more than that, but you certainly get a great sense of history just being around and inside the buildings.
Not only is the village historical, it’s also wonderfully picturesque. There’s a short path up a hillside at the edge of Ainokura with signs pointing to a “whole village photography spot” for this very reason. It’s such a tiny settlement that it does all fit into a single photo – see above!
We visited in winter and were treated to thatched roofs heavily laden with snow. From what I’ve seen there really isn’t a bad season to visit, though. It’s chocolate-box level photogenic all year round!
Traditional Japanese accommodation
I could sing the praises of our minshuku all day long (Yomoshirou, if you’re interested!). Our hosts were so friendly and warm and very communicative even though their English was limited. You truly felt welcomed into someone’s home.
The accommodation has modern facilities where you’d want them (bathroom, wifi), while retaining plenty of traditional character through decor, dining and sleeping arrangements. Everywhere else in Japan we stayed in Airbnbs or hotels, so this was a fascinating experience by comparison. I’d highly recommend it if you have an interest in Japanese history or culture.
Exploring the village
Ainokura really is tiny. From setting out to explore, it probably wasn’t more than 5 or 10 minutes before we’d walked through the entire village!
Unfortunately due to excessively deep snow we struggled to get very far beyond the main thoroughfare. When we did set out to explore near a cemetery the snow was up past our knees – an utterly new experience for me! We saw a museum, shop and cafe, but sadly we didn’t have chance to check these out on our flying visit.
Though our host spoke limited English, she was very friendly and conversational. (I had even more limited Japanese, but we got by quite happily.)
The family were also really flexible with the food arrangements. I mentioned my (very tricky) dietary requirements when we booked and they advised I bring some of my own food. I made sure to do so, but it turns out I needn’t have: they prepared a whole vegetarian meal for me without soy or beans. It was delicious – I was over the moon!
Traditional stories and settings
As we ate, we listened to the host tell us about the history of the village and the house. She even sang a traditional folk song and introduced us to a traditional Japanese instrument. (Google tells me it’s a Binzasara!)
Overall, though, it was the traditions and the setting that had me completely charmed: tatami mats on the floor, slippers, gathering together to eat around a sunken fireplace, sleeping on futons with a fabric-wrapped bed warmer, yukata…it was all so transportive. A million miles away from staying in a hotel or Airbnb.
Travel tips – Getting There
As I’ve mentioned, Ainokura is really tiny. It’s also quite a bit further north than other major cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka). It can seem a little intimidating to think about how you might get there on public transport.
Luckily, the journey from Tokyo is actually super straightforward! At least since the extension of the bullet train/shinkansen line to Takaoka. One train, one bus and you’re there.
- Check the World Heritage Bus Timetable first. Since there are only 5-6 buses per day to/from Ainokura, I’d recommend checking the bus timetable first and working backwards from that (e.g. we want to catch the 11:00 bus from Shin-Takaoka to Ainokura, what time will we need our shinkansen to arrive? Obviously if you want to do the other villages, this would be the time to factor that in as well).
- Check Hyperdia to find your train times. We travelled from Tokyo to Shin-Takaoka on the bullet train/shinkansen. You could catch a separate local train to Johana to be slightly nearer, I believe. When we compared the cost/time for this it came out better on both fronts just to go the extra distance on the bus instead.
- Book tickets in person at a rail station. You can choose which station you depart from based on the location of your accommodation. We used Japan Rail passes and just needed to book seat reservations in person. I’d recommend the passes for ease of use, but it’s worth researching to see if it will save you money.
- Enjoy seeing the Japanese countryside by rail, then head to the bus stop. When you arrive at Shin-Takaoka, the bus stand is really easily identifiable, as is the bus itself (it had “World Heritage Bus” written prominently on the side of it).
- Bring a map and/or image of your accommodation to help you find it! This might not be necessary, but in my case I was really glad I did because I couldn’t read the signage on the minshuku! There was a handy map in the village with accommodation names that helped, though.
Over to you
What are your thoughts on this pretty village? Would you add Ainokura to a Japan itinerary?
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