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Must Visit Destinations in Japan's Gifu Prefecture - Silk Worms in the Attic, Gunpowder Downstairs and a Pond a Mother Would Love

Usually when I visit Japan, I head straight to Tokyo.

I love the bright lights, the energy, the hurry-and-get-out-of-my-way attitude of people rushing from work to metro and home again. I love the technology and the great Izakaya bars serving yakitori and small plates.

I adore the ramen and dry soba bowl joints where a meal and a beer costs next to nothing. I love the rows of densely packed yakitori, udon and tempura stalls in hidden corners of the city like Shinjuku's Memory Lane (Omoide Yokocho) and the soon-to-be-torn down Tsukiji Fish Market.

I love all that and more, but for my latest trip I wanted to "light out for the territory" as Huck Finn said.

I was headed to the Shoryudo Region which lies between Tokyo and Kyoto. In Japan’s heartland, the nine prefectures or provinces of the region offer great opportunities to explore the unusual and the fun.

An Alpine Village

Driving north from Nagano into the mountains, I couldn't believe it. So I blinked. Twice. The farmhouses had a definite alpine look. Steeply slopped, the ends of the roofs pointed to the ground. Tall mountains circled the village. Freshly mown fields stretched between the farmhouses.  No question about it. This had to be somewhere in Europe. Those were definitely the Alps. But, nope. Definitely not. 

This was Japan. I was in the village of Shirakawa-go in Gifu Prefecture, an hour by car from the Sea of Japan. 

Standing on a popular selfie spot on top of a bluff (Tenshukaku Tenbodai), I joined other tourists and had my photograph taken with the village behind me. Down below, the Shogawa River Valley and the mountains stretched into the distance. With heavy snowfalls in winter, the farmers used to be isolated for months at a time. 

The roofs were constructed in the gasshō-style of interlocking thatches, making them surprisingly strong. Even during the heaviest accumulation, snow just fell off the steep roofs without damaging the house.

When winter prevented the families from raising crops outside, they created work inside. Taking advantage of the large attic space, they built silkworm farms. On the ground level space where the family lived, they made potassium nitrate, a key ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder. 

Kind of amazing that in the winter, as the farmers huddled together downstairs and risked life and limb to make an explosive, upstairs the silk worms quietly created delicate threads that would become beautiful cloth.

Today, when you visit, you can peek inside a farm house in the UNESCO World Heritage Site village to see how the family managed this symbiosis. Even though the silk worms are long gone and potassium nitrate is no longer fabricated, farmers still live in their homes and till the land.

The Pond of Filial Devotion

South from Shirakawa-go and Takayama, Route 41 (Masuda Highway) cuts through the mountains. I watched as we drove through thick forests of maple and pine. I was a few weeks late for the best part of the fall foliage, but there were still swatches of bright orange, red and yellow intermixed with the dark green of the evergreen trees.

We pulled over at a rest stop next to the Hida River to look at a beautiful stand of Japanese maples. The bright red trees joined in a circle around a pond filled with large speckled koi. 

At first I thought, how lucky to stumble on such a picturesque rest stop across the highway from a power plant. But it turned out, what I thought was my own private discovery, was something else entirely. This was a special spot, definitely. The place of a legend with a powerful story.

According to the sign, the pond was called the Pond of Filial Devotion (Kochisui) because legend had it, when a woman was very sick, she pleaded with her son to return to the place of her birth to bring back healing waters. He ran without eating or sleeping until he reached Lake Biwa, scooped up the water and raced back to his mother. Unfortunately, he was too late. She had died in his absence. 

Overwhelmed with grief and sadness, the boy cried at this news and fell to the ground. The legend had it that the koi filled pond sheltered by a necklace of towering trees was created by his tears mixing with the waters of Lake Biwa he had carried for so far.

The trip had that kind of quality. Surprises, revelations, beautiful landscapes, revered nature, great history and wonderful encounters. I'll be writing more articles about the trip. Stay tuned and let me know about your own experiences in Japan.

When you go

A survey of Shoryudo destinations can be found on

Consult the Shirakawa-go website which has a description of seasonal activities and lists of accommodations:

Overnight stays in a farmhouse can be arranged. The village is easily reachable by bus from Takayama and Nagoya or by car on the excellent highway system.

The Pond of Filial Devotion, on Route 41 (Masuda Highway)opposite the Seto Power Station (1-2 Seto Gero-shin, Gifu-ken 509-2136 or in Japanese:〒509-2136 岐阜県下呂市瀬戸1−2), next to the Hida River in Koshigaike Park, in Japanese only.


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