the Degree Confluence Project

Japan : Chūbu

7.2 km (4.5 miles) SE of Makido, Takayama-shi, Gifu-ken, Chūbu, Japan
Approx. altitude: 988 m (3241 ft)
([?] maps: Google MapQuest Multimap world confnav)
Antipode: 36°S 43°W

Accuracy: 10 m (32 ft)
Click on any of the images for the full-sized picture.

#2: Three views of the Confluence #3: GPS reading #4: 80 meters from N36 E137 #5: Shokawa River near N36 E137 #6: Takayama #7: Ogimachi #8: Gassho style house #9: Gasshozukuri in the mountain #10: Ainokura

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  36°N 137°E (visit #1)  

#1: Confluence N36 E137

(visited by Fabrice Blocteur)

Japanese Narrative

21-Jun-2003 -- I followed almost the same itinerary as the one that took me to N36 E136 last March. Since then, a portion of the Maizuru expressway that is to be connected to the Hokuriku expressway in the future had been completed and I took it to the end at Obama. I got back to the expressway at Tsuruga, left it again at the Fukui city interchange and, instead of going west as I did last March, I drove my motorbike east and cut across the northern part of Fukui Prefecture along the isolated southern part of Hakusan national park. Mt Hakusan was visible through the summer haze with a little snow remaining at the top. Less than two years ago, I was climbing that mountain with a friend of mine. It was late fall and we spent a frozen night on the summit. The next morning we were rewarded on our way down by what Japanese referred as “kooyoo”: a mountain ablaze with autumn colors. It was much warmer today and the sun was already high over the horizon.

Shortly after crossing into Gifu Prefecture, I got back onto another expressway – this time the Tokai-Hokuriku expressway – and drove north for about 20 kilometers. The Shokawa interchange, where I left the expressway, was only a few kilometers from a narrow mountain road where I finally stopped my motorbike. It had taken me almost five hours to get here. It took me less than five minutes to walk up the small hill though Japanese cedars and a concerto of cicadas to find the confluence N36 E137. After snapping a few pictures and disturbing a snake, which was more surprised to see me than I was to see it, I got back on the motorbike and went to an outside hot spring at the nearby Hida Shokawa onsen to unwind for the rest of the morning.

It wasn’t yet noon and I could have made it back home within the day but I wanted to visit this region along the Sho River. It is slowly gaining fame throughout Japan and the world as a unique, and until recently little known example of Japanese culture. In the 12th century, the remoteness and inaccessibility of this area attracted some fugitives from the Heike after their clan was virtually wiped out by the Genji in the brutal battle of Dannoura in 1185. The Sho River takes its source in the village of Shokawa were the confluence is located. From the village the river runs swift and clear heading north towards northern Gifu and Toyama Prefectures before reaching the Sea of Japan. It passes through numerous villages, among which three were inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1995 for their traditional “Gassho-style” houses. But I wanted to take my time before visiting them and I decided to go to Takayama to spend the rest of the day.

Set deep within the mountains of Gifu Prefecture, Takayama has been called a “little Kyoto”. Its temples, shrines, festivals, rivers and bridges are indeed reminiscent of Kyoto on a smaller scale. The history of the town began with its carpenters. The skillful carpenters of Hida (as this region is called) are said to have built the Imperial Palace in Kyoto and many temples in that city, as well as in Nara. Takayama contains old streets and buildings that are remarkably untouched by the passage of time. The district called Sanmachi Suji, for instance, the traditional home of Takayama merchants and sake brewers, have been preserved in almost exactly the same state as 200 or 300 years ago. The rest of my afternoon was passed in that district where the history of the inns, shops and taverns can be traced back many generations. This is also where I found a minshuku (Japanese style B & B) to stay for the night. The old lady who welcomed me was charming and very talkative. She was the owner’s grandmother and showed me to my room on the second floor while telling me that she had already visited more than twenty countries such as Saipan, Hawaii, Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok. She came into my room again a little later to show me a guest book filled with names and addresses of foreign visitors and told me to glance through her photo albums downstairs to see all the places she had previously mentioned. But it was getting late and instead of going to Bangkok I went to bed.

I got up early and went to the “asa-ichi” (morning market) to start the day with a fresh coffee and a pleasant stroll through stalls selling vegetables. The temperature had dropped and the sun had decided to take the day off. Later on I visited the Hida Folk Village, a large open-air museum with dozens of traditional houses dismantled from their original sites and rebuilt. Returning to the Shokawa valley I headed north, the road running in the same direction as the flow of the river below. I passed a series of narrow and only partially lit tunnels and nearly got crushed inside one of them by a hefty truck coming from the opposite side. The river was now becoming wider and soon emerged into a lake artificially created in 1961 by the construction of the gigantic Miboro Dam, the largest rock-filled dam in East Asia at that time. Below the dam I stumbled across the first example of the preserved style of architecture in this valley known as “gasshozukuri”, which literally means “praying hands”. This term comes from the shape of the roof which is thought to resemble two hands clasped in Buddhist prayer, a style intended to protect the house from the heavy snow falls of this region. Though these buildings are large, only the ground floor was originally meant for extended family of up to 40 people, with the upper floors used for other activities such as raising silkworms or storage. In most cases, the roofs were taller than the main part of the house.

Of the three preserved villages, Ogimachi is the largest with 59 Gassho-style houses. It is also the one that attracts the largest number of tourists. The main street was packed with tour buses coming from all over Japan. I wandered away from the center for a pleasant stroll through the trees further up the mountain where a few more houses can be found.

I kept going north along the Sho River. The tunnels had now been replaced by a series of bridges signposted as the “Seven Bridges of Hida”. A few kilometers after crossing the last bridge I almost missed the second village, well below the sightseers’ highway. Suganuma is the smallest of the three villages with only 14 households. The feudal lords of Kanazawa used this community, like other communities in Gokayama, as a secret center of gunpowder production. For hundred of years the population in this entire region has been nearly the same as it is today. The construction of a road didn’t occur until the 1920’s and Gokayama was accessible only on foot over a single seven hundred meter high pass. Four kilometers beyond Suganuma, I stopped at the Murakami-ke House, by far the oldest I had come across, dating from 1578. The owner was seated with some foreign visitors around the “irori” (a fire built in a central fireplace in the floor), explaining the characteristics of his house and singing local songs.

I finally left the Sho River a few kilometers further north and took a road winding up the hill to reach Ainokura, the last village, less picturesque than Ogimachi, but considered by some to be the most “real”. As usual on late Sunday afternoons at sightseeing places, tourists were leaving to go back to the cities, and I was the only guest in a minshuku run by a woman of about sixty and her daughter-in-law. They told me to sit down by the “irori” and the younger woman offered me some green tea while her mother-in-law started to make dinner. Like most of the traditional houses in the Shokawa valley, the interior of this house was also built in Gassho-style without the use of nails or dowels, but by ropes and a method of rigidly tensing them. After dinner, the older woman took me to a nearby outside hot spring overlooking the Sho River. It was dark when we came back. At nine a loud orchestral jingle told the villagers to go to sleep and at seven the next morning the same loudspeaker woke them up. But I was up already and I had been taking pictures of the village from the surrounding hills since six. After taking a breakfast of boiled vegetables, pickles, miso soup and rice, I got on my motorbike, took a last glance at the Sho River down in the valley and headed back west with the sun on my back.

Japanese Narrative

21-Jun-2003 -- 今度,3月に計画したのとほとんど同じような旅程で北緯36度東経136度の地点に向った。将来は高速北陸道につながるという高速舞鶴道は、今は小浜まで完成している。敦賀で高速に乗り、福井市のインターで降りて、3月は西に向ったが今回は東に向ってバイクを走らせ、孤立した白山国立公園南部に沿って福井県の北部を横断した。白山は山頂に少し雪をかぶり夏のもやの中に姿を見せていた。2年弱前に私は友達と白山に登った。それは晩秋の頃で、頂上で凍える夜を過ごしたことを覚えている。翌朝、山は秋色に染まり日本でよく言う美しい“紅葉”を見ながら下山し報われた思いだった。その日は暖かく,太陽は既に地平線から高く上っていた。








Translated by Kazushige Naito

 All pictures
#1: Confluence N36 E137
#2: Three views of the Confluence
#3: GPS reading
#4: 80 meters from N36 E137
#5: Shokawa River near N36 E137
#6: Takayama
#7: Ogimachi
#8: Gassho style house
#9: Gasshozukuri in the mountain
#10: Ainokura
ALL: All pictures on one page (broadband access recommended)