Japan Travel

Hidden Japan: The Last Samurai

Not even the Japanese know about this place.

Inn-keeper in Aso to me: “Where are you going today from here?”
Me: “Gokanosho.”
Inn-keeper: “Where?”
Me: “The mountains. Gokanosho. It’s near Yatsushiro City, about two hours from here.”
Inn-keeper: “Oh? Really? Why are you going there?”
Me: “Because nobody goes there. And it’s beautiful.”

Gokanosho literally means “five family hamlets”. These hamlets – currently home to only 352 people – are in the heart of the mountains, the location of which was hidden for five hundred years. Most of the current population are descendants of fugitives, the most famous of which were the Heike clan. The Heike were samurai warriors who lost an epic battle against the opposing Genji clan. The samurai retreated – some heading along the Inland Sea to Shikoku, some south to remote islands below Kyushu, and five families to the secluded mountains of Gokanosho in heart of Kumamoto prefecture. This region is extremely mountainous, filled with gorges, waterfalls, rivers and soaring peaks. The modern road is often single lane and hugs the cliffs, with some brave and creative driving required at times to negotiate the oncoming traffic and hairpin turns.

Locals call this place “above the sky” and refer to the townships at the base of the mountains as the “underworld”. You cannot begin to understand the uniqueness, the beauty and the simplicity of Gokanosho until you have experienced it.

The natural beauty is astonishing and unspoilt. For hundreds of years outsiders believed that this area was only home to bears and other creatures, and that people could not possibly survive in the deep snows of winter and inaccessibility of the mountains. Yet somehow they did – five families who learned the way of the mountains and whose descendants maintain a subsistence lifestyle and the traditions of the old life to this day.

As our group ventured deeper into the mountains, the majesty of what we were seeing coupled with the engineering feats required to have created modern day access to this area was quite overwhelming for many of the travellers. Added to this – with luck on our side again – the cherry blossoms were out in force and peppering the mountainsides. One particular tree at Sendan Waterfall appeared as if it had been plucked out and placed strategically at a prime viewing point, with blossoms cascading down the mountain while Sendan roared and surged beside it. We all agreed – it was absolutely breathtaking and a trip highlight for many.

The other extraordinary thing about Gokanosho is the hospitality and generosity of the people. Life is simple but the energy, enthusiasm and passion of the residence is overwhelming. Accommodation here is basic. We stayed in a minshuku which is like a B&B (bed and breakfast) – a family home with guest accommodation attached. However, if the accommodation is two or three star, the hospitality is seven star. Dinner is a degustation meal lasting three hours, sitting around a fire pit in your yukata (Japanese robes), drinking home-made fermented rice liqueur and rice wine out of bamboo cups. Everything that we ate is either grown by them, hand-made by them or from their neighbours’ farms – trout, tofu, buckwheat noodles, fruit, mountain vegetables, wild boar, venison – the diversity of the ingredients and the dishes that they prepare from them is incredible.

I mentioned this special place, Heike-so, in a previous post. The owners, Mr and Mrs Matsuoka, were as welcoming and accommodating as ever. It was such a special experience to be able to stay with them again and to share their amazing warmth and hospitality with others.

A special mention also must go to one of Gokanosho’s newest residents, our guide Schingo, who for a newcomer to the area is as passionate and intrenched in the area as those who have lived here for generations. His knowledge and desire for others to share in the uniqueness of Gokanosho made a real impact on the group.

I guess it is back down to the underworld from here!

Some photos from Gokanosho…

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