After eating a continental breakfast at the hotel, we drove to the Gokayama Washi no Sato Center to learn how to make washi, or traditional Japanese paper. I loved this part of the trip and would go here again in an instant. Incredibly, washi paper is durable for 100 years and is used to make many everyday Japanese items, including sliding screen doors, cushion covers, curtains and lamp shades. The process of making washi paper took me back to third grade, when my Mom showed me and her other students how to make recycled paper using shredded newspapers. Of course it’s not the same process, but some of the steps are remarkably similar.
I filmed this video of one of the workers explaining how to make washi paper (trusty CIR Akeem is translating):
If you really want to know more about the paper, I also jotted these notes down from a video we watched about the paper-making process:
In November, kozo shrubs are harvested, tied and put in a water tank. The steaming process begins in the tank, where the paper is steamed for about three hours. This process is meant to shrink the bark. The bark is then peeled, tied in a bundle and left to dry in the sun. The outer layer of the bark is carefully scraped by hand and then it is exposed to the snow (called snow bleaching). The bark is boiled for two to three hours and put in a water tank to soften. After the softening process, the bark is removed of dust by hand. Workers beat it using a wooden mullet to loosen the fiber. It is soaked in a special tororo aoi mixture and placed on top of a stand. It is pressed and dried until 40 percent of moisture is removed. It is then smoothed on a heated surface by brush and it dries within a few minutes.
Here are the cool postcards I made myself (this is a picture of them drying). I plan to keep and possibly frame them:
After making washi paper, we toured Gokayama Ainokura, a community of more than twenty historical homes that was designated a World Heritage Site in 1995. According to the Toyama Prefecture’s Website:
As a community of over twenty households in Taira Village, Ainokura features its architectural structure known as “Gassho-zukuri” (a house with a thatched gable roof, so named because of its shape resembling hands clasped in prayer: “gassho”), steeply sloping at an angle of 60 degrees for protection against heavy snowfall in winter. The village community of these “Gassho-zukuri” houses was recognized for its historic value by the World Heritage Committee and added to the World Heritage List in 1995. The seasonal lifestyle of the households in this community remains unchanged
Our tour guide told us you can rent one out for a night if you really want to experience the culture. We didn’t spend a whole lot of time around the site because there was a small festival going on nearby. We caught the middle/end of a traditional dance routine and some of the dancers were kind enough to pose for pictures with us.
For lunch, we stopped by a small restaurant that served local vegetables. I had some wild mushroom udon soup and also ate a riceball filled with wild mushrooms. This delicious appetizer was a kind gift from our Gokayama tour guide. She said she picked the mushrooms herself the night before.
By mid-afternoon, it was time to move on to see the Tonami Tulip Gallery. The gallery and nearby garden is known for hundreds of tulips that bloom every spring. Although the outside wasn’t in bloom as it is out of season, we toured the museum to learn about the history of the tulip in Japan and we also saw some beautiful tulips on display. I definitely want to come back here in the springtime.
Before or after touring the museum, I suggest stopping by the cafe and trying some tulip and Hokkaido vanilla ice cream with a cinnamon cookie. It was easily some of the most delicious ice cream I have ever tasted. Try not to drool too much as you look at this picture:
As the sun started its slow September descent, we drove to the Fukumitsu Hanayama Onsen Hotel, a traditional Japanese ryokan, or bed and breakfast inn. The word hanayama roughly means mountain flower, and this ryokan is in quite a pretty location. I was easily at my most apprehensive stage at this time because arriving at the hotel meant I would have to try a Japanese onsen. An onsen, or hot spring bath, sounds comforting but it also involves getting butt naked in front of strangers! That’s not necessarily my favorite thing to do. But I took a deep breath and soon found myself trying to relax. Before getting naked in front of strangers, I tried a sand bath, where guests are buried in about a foot of sand (you wear a robe and your face is uncovered, thankfully). I think this is supposed to be good for your skin and it probably helps your body get rid of toxins since you sweat so much! It felt relaxing at first but after 15 minutes I had to get up because my heart was racing and I felt like I was going faint. Lucky for me I still had to experience the naked onsen!
After wiping the sand from my body, I moved toward the onsen area. You first wash yourself (naked, of course) in showers. In this particular onsen, you could choose from an indoor onsen or an outdoor one. I chose the outdoor one, which overlooked the mountains and was really beautiful. Cynthia, Xue and I ended up talking to a kind woman who had to be in her 80s. Cynthia, who studied abroad in Japan prior to becoming an ALT, said she thought if onsens were popular in the U.S., people would most likely be more comfortable with their body image. I agree for the most part, and although I am not dying to go back to one anytime soon, I am definitely glad I tried it.
At the hotel, us girls stayed in a traditional Japanese room with tatami floors and futons and the boys shared a separate room that was similar to our room. We ate a traditional Japanese meal together for dinner before bedtime. Some of the food was…interesting. I honestly couldn’t bear to eat all of it since I have a sensitive stomach (Squid ink??? No thanks!), but the sashimi was tasty and rice here is always excellent. I tried yellow tail sashimi, a delicacy Toyama is known for, for the first time this night.
Must-see: Gokayama Ainokura World Heritage Site. Directions (courtesy of this Website): 25 minutes by Kaetsu-no bus for Gokayama from JR Johana Station. Get off at Ainokuraguchi bus stop and walk three minutes.
Travel Tip Two: Ask for English language guides. Even if you don’t see anything in English when you first arrive at a museum or site, ask if there is an English language brochure or someone who speaks English. Chances are the people at the museum or site will be more than happy to help. If all else fails, gestures can become your best friend.