The first step to dealing with an addiction, supposedly, is to admit to one’s self that the addiction does in fact exist. I am taking the first step therefore, in admitting I am addicted to my kotatsu and it probably should end….
A kotatsu (ko-tat-su) is a small Japanese floor table with a heater on the underside and a blanket over the top). It’s a marvelous, cozy invention that helps survive the cold evenings in your apartment. Japanese houses lack insulation so despite my best attempts at using heaters I still love my kotatsu best. Other older ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers) warned me of the dangers of the kotatsu but I was young and a little cocky and thought I had nothing to fear. That over-confidence came back to bite me in the butt.
The problem is that once I nestle myself under all those toasty blankets at my kotatsu I don’t want to move…even to pee. Leaving the warmth of my kotatsu, to battle forces with the wicked cold air of my kitchen, can take minutes of mentally working myself up to sprint to the toilet, sprint to the kitchen to grab another mug of tea or a cookie, etc….. Thus, as a result of this addiction to my kotatsu, I’ve gotten quite plump this winter. *gulp* If there is one thing I have learned after my most recent relationship with my kotatsu is this: never ever allow yourself to start hoarding your snacks near the kotatsu….they will disappear faster than cookies in a kindergarten! Uh-oh!
My life every night can pretty much follow the plot of this little story:
If Jessie sits at her kotatsu she’s going to want a cup of tea, and if you give Jessie a cup of tea she’s going to want a cookie, and if you give Jessie a cookie…
It was a bad habit and it needed to be kicked, fast! About 2 weeks ago I vowed that it was imperative for my sanity and my waistline that I stay as far away from my kotatsu as I could for one weekend in order to lessen what felt like a gravitational pull into a black hole of doom.
Enter superhero Lizzy, best friend and superb travel-planner! She suggested, and coordinated, a trip to the very cute town of Shirakawago and I couldn’t agree fast enough! Shirakawago (she-rah-kawa-goh) is a small remote village in the mountains between the prefectures of Gifu and Toyama. It is a UNESCO world heritage site which is most famous for the traditional thatch-style farmhouses. Some of these houses are more than 250 years old!
Firstly, let me just say that these pictures do not do the village justice, the houses are beyond adorable! I was very happy we had followed our co-workers’ recommendations to go in winter because it was magical. It felt like we had been transported to the North Pole and were walking around a Christmas town.
Walking around the snowy village you could catch glimpses of the traditional houses as they played peek-a-boo with you through the trees. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced!
The name of this style of house in Japanese is “Gassho-zukuri” (Gah-shou zoo-curry) which when translated into English means “constructed like hands in prayer”. This is because the farmhouses’ steep thatched roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks when pressed together in prayer. Isn’t that just so sweet? The downside to receiving so much snow is that in the winter months now many owners of the gassho-zukuri houses have taken to “helping” their homes by getting up on the thatch and shoveling snow off. It was terrifying to watch!
A man shoveling snow off the roof. Terrifying to watch!
I traveled to Shirawakawago with my friends Lizzy and Zoya. Both Zoya and myself hail from snowy countries so we weren’t as astonished by the towering height of the snow in Shirakawago. Lizzy however, was absolutely ecstatic over how much snow there was! She made me laugh with her desire to fall backward into the snow. We ever got into a minature snowball fight. たのしい!!!! For someone who never grew up with winter she had wicked aim with those snowballs. I was tempted to ambush her with an unsuspecting snowball often throughout the rest of the trip, however, I had learned my lesson and didn’t quite dare.
We travelled to Ogimachi by bus from Kanzawa, it’s the the largest village and main attraction of this style house. If you visit Shirawakawago in the winter I would 100% recommend taking a bus, the roads can be terrible with all the snow. It is far safer and far more relaxing to take the bus. Tickets were 1,600yen one way to the village from Kanazawa.
Also, if you have time to spare I would also highly recommend staying the night in Shirakawago at one of the numerous Minshuku. Minshuku (me-n-shoe-ku) are Japanese style bed and breakfasts, which are usually family operated. They offer visitors a good opportunity to meet a a local family and experience the traditional Japanese lifestyle. (For a full list of Minshuku in Shirakawago click here!)
We decided to stay at a lovely little minshuku called Nodaniya. It was a traditional style Japanese room, with sliding doors, tatami floors, a kotatsu (OH-NO! haha epic plan to avoid one ruined!) and futons to sleep on. My favourite part of staying at a minshuku is the food!!!!! OM NOM NOM NOM! If you stay at Nodaniya they will serve you a delicious set meal dinner full of local specialities and a lovely Japanese-style breakfast in the morning.
Dinner of local Shirakawago specialties. My favourite part was the hida beef (top left corner) which is very famous in Japan. Melt-in-your-mouth delicious! I will admit to being a little scared to eat the fish, but I figured it out in the end, and it was tasty too!
After dinner we decided to hit the onsen for a relaxing bath. For 700yen you can enter the onsen at the lovely Shirakawa-go no Yu minshuku. It’s about a 5-10 minute walk from Nodaniya and absolute bliss after a chilly day. After the onsen it was time to crawl into our futons and slip away to sweet dreams.
We awoke early the next morning, breakfast was at 7:30am sharp. Easy to do surprisingly when everyone in the room is a teacher used to getting up at 6:30am to get to school on time. Breakfast was fantastic! Another lovely Japanese tray heaped with small portions of various Japanese foods. I ate everything except the egg. Most memorable was when the owner of the minshuku served something I had never tried before and just about died with happiness eating. The name of my Japanese breakfast kryptonite: Hoba Miso.
This Hoba Miso is a regional specialty and is traditionally served as follows: a nice big spoonful with shallots, and perhaps a few mushrooms, on a large ho tree leaf (a type of magnolia) which is then rested over a charcoal brazier to heat until aromatic. It’s eaten at breakfast time with rice. It was the best miso I have ever tried, hands down! My stomach is growing just looking at that picture. If you visit Shirakawago you MUST try this!
After an incredibly tasty breakfast, Zoya, Lizzy and I decided to brave the blizzard that had descended upon the tiny village. Everything was covered in about a fresh foot of snow and freeze-your-nose-off cold. The upside of all the snow: double the magic! The fresh snow made the village look even more beautiful, something I didn’t think possible.
Something super interesting to do when you go is to tour the inside of one of the thatch houses. We chose to tour the inside of the the Wada family’s home, this family was one of the wealthiest families and village leaders of Ogimachi. Their former home is the largest gassho-zukuri farmhouse in the town, and is now open to the public as a museum.
We still had quite a bit of time to kill after we finished touring and souvenir buying (I picked up some Hoba Miso for mom and dad to try when they visit! Hope they like it!). Our feet were frozen by this point and so, when Zoya mentioned a really cute cafe she had visited last time we made a beeline there. Sipping on a piping-hot, cinnamon-dusted cafe latte (oooh such a good idea) gave my mood an immediate boost. We chatted and read our kindles until 2:00 rolled around and it was time to return home.
We also discovered, while talking with a few locals, that Shirakawago has a very fun-sounding sake festival in October. Only 300yen for all you can drink sake, hello trouble! Lizzy and I both agreed that coming back sounded exciting. Shirakawago, it’s safe to say you haven’t seen the last of this Canadian. She’ll be back soon to enjoy your cozy atmosphere again in no time!