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Pure bliss in gifu

epicure 13 May 2013
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With their scenic backdrops, slow pace of life, and exceptional produce, the small towns of Shirakawa-go and Takayama in Gifu Prefecture offer chef Kazuhiro Hamamoto a refreshing respite from the non-stop bustle of Japan’s bigger cities.

No television. No Internet. Futons and a kotatsu (a heated wooden table) were all that greeted us in our cosy tatami-lined room in Nodaniya minshuku (a cheaper, smaller version of a ryokan), an accommodation in Shirakawa-go, a mountain village in Gifu Prefecture’s Hida region. The absence of such modern amenities is typical for many minshuku in this area. Shirakawa-go is, after all, a place where many things do not change and life is simple. Save for a few small eateries, there isn’t any form of nightlife in this town. After a hearty dinner in the minshuku, there was little else my friends and I could do but retire to our room, drink sake and chat till the wee hours of the morning.

Shirakawa-go is most charming during winter, when snowfall can reach up to two metres—you’ll need your waterproof boots. The wooden houses, with their distinctive steeply thatched roofs (a design known as gassho-zukuri or ‘praying hands’) made to withstand the impact and weight of heavy snowfall, are blanketed in white, creating a fairytale-like scene. From mid January to mid February, the village is also embellished by magical light-ups in the evenings. These light-ups draw many tourists and it can get quite crowded.

A popular local snack among visitors is gohei mochi, which you can buy from a few shops in Shirakawa-go. It’s a skewered, glutinous rice cake that is coated with a sweet miso sauce. Do also hike up to the Tenbodai—a lookout on a mountaintop—for a panoramic view of the village set against a backdrop of looming mountains, an iconic sight in Gifu.

Excerpt from the May 2013 issue of epicure

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