Note: This, and many of my recent posts, are from trips I took pre COVID.
Go online, search for Ainokura village and look through the pictures. This village is so beautiful it is hard to believe that such a place actually exists. Not only does it exist (this isn’t a film set), people live in these towns. Ainokura is one of a handful of villages in the Gokayama region of Japan that are UNESCO World Heritage listed because of their well-preserved gassho-zukuri thatched roof buildings. The two most popular villages to visit are Suganuma and Ogimachi. While they are equally stunning, there were more tourists visiting than there were inhabitants which changes the experience, at least in my opinion. It starts to feel a bit more like an attraction park that being part of something truly special.
The third village, Ainokura, is different. It is the most remote of the villages and on the day we visited we were part of only a small handful of tourists visiting. You park at the entrance and walk around town (here is a walking map). Matsuya is a restaurant right in the middle of town and it offers a regularly changing menu based on seasonal produce. We ordered both the Matsuya set meal and the Zaru soba set meal which came with a colourful array of local specialties including wild edible plants prepared in various ways. It was a true feast and one of the best meals of our trip.
To drink I ordered an amazake. Amazake is a traditional Japanese drink made from fermented rice. It is sweet and can be enjoyed either hot or cold. It is often referred to as sweet sake (although it is non alcoholic) since it is made with the same koji mold used to make miso, soy sauce and sake. The drink is very nutritious and healthy. While an amazake may not technically be considered a hot chocolate (it has no chocolate in it for one), I do think of it as a type of hot chocolate. It is warm and comforting and I make it at home with dark chocolate added. Every amazake I have had in Japan has had a different consistency, often drifting more towards the rice pudding side of the spectrum than smooth drink. This one was nice and creamy and is still to this day the one I enjoyed the most.
The area around Ainokura is known for its washi paper and you can sign up for short paper making workshops at Gokayama Washi no Sato. Many of the houses also operate as guesthouses so consider staying overnight.
Verdict: We had a hard time leaving Ainokura. The atmosphere, the food and my amazake were all amazing. Matuya, right in the middle of Ainokura village.