Ainokura is in the Gokanyama district where villages of centuries old-style houses are scattered along the main route through the mountainous region of Toyama prefecture in north central Japan. Here in the village of Ainokura, nature is preserved and time is as frozen as the ground beneath the two-foot deep snow in winter. We found the village to be extremely authentic and well preserved owing to its status as a World Heritage Site declared by UNESCO in 1995. The style of houses found here called Gassho-zukuri, comprises an "A" shaped thatched roof made from straw. Currently there are 21 Gassho-zukuri houses nestled in Ainokura village.
Getting to Ainokura was quite a challenge. It required two trains and two buses from Tokyo to Nagoya, Nagoya to Takayama, Takayama to Shirakawa-go (another World Heritage Site), and finally from there to the remote village of Ainokura. Since it is an especially small village, Ainokura has very limited bus service. If we were to miss one connection in the chain, we would miss the only bus available to get us there. Knowing the precision needed in making our connections on time, we left Tokyo at 7am by the Nozomi Shinkansen (fastest bullet train in Japan) and transferred to the train from Nagoya to head north to Takayama, the largest city in the middle of Gifu prefecture. The Nagoya train to Takayama was delayed by 30 minutes, which nearly gave Hiroko a heart attack. Fortunately, the first bus that we needed to get us to Shirakawa-go waited for our late train (unbelievable for Japan). Fortunately for us, we were then able to successfuly make the transfer to the bus from Shirakawa-go to Ainokura. It was almost 2:30pm when we stepped into the gassho-zukuri house in which we were to stay the night.
We stayed in one of the oldest houses, Yusuke, which was built 1868. Now inhabited by the 5th generation of the same family. Shigeru Ikehata, a well-traveled professional photographer, runs the inn with his wife. As we were the only guests for that night, Ikehata-san regaled us with his fascinating stories, making our experience more of a homestay than that of just typical ryokan customers.
It was about 32 degrees outside, with 2-3 feet of snow covering the ground, so the house was cold. In Japanese houses past and present, there is no central heating system and in this rustic case, the only heat source was from Irori (fire in a central hearth). After our explorations outside, all we wanted to do was sit by the fire, drink hot tea, and bask in our before-dinner ofuro (Japanese hot tub, to simplify things tremendously).
That evening, dinner was served in front of the Irori. We were treated with dishes filled with different combinations of mountain vegetables, koi sashimi, and a river fish called Iwana. When futon-time came, we were handed bed warmers and retreated the refrigerator-cold room with freezing cold futon. We quickly got into the bed and hoping that the bedwarmers would do their job...which they did!
When morning came, the room was even colder. Hiroko (somewhat) jokingly said that her hair was covered with frost. We tucked our clothes under the covers of the warm futon to warm them up before putting them on our bodies. And, we quickly dressed and headed for the irori. After a breakfast of warm tofu, miso soup, rice, tsukemono, it was time for us to leave. We thanked our gracious hosts for their generosity and headed off into the early morning mountain mist for the bus stop to catch the bus to Shirakawa-go.