To Shirakawa-go and Back Again

AUGUST 20, 2023


To Shirakawa-go and Back Again

Note: this post was re-posted from my old website, originally published in July 2016.

If you are tight on budget but have plenty of time to spend, traveling in Japan using juuhachi kippu (official name Seishun 18 or 青春18きっぷ) might be a good way to go. Although, sometimes the decision to make is not an easy one. You will feel like you are aging faster while on the train between stations. Also, your ass will be sore as hell from the constant sitting. But it is all worth it simply because it will be an amazing story. So was mine, and I am going to tell it here.

In the winter of 2015, my friends and I planned to go to Shirakawa-go, one of Japan’s most famous tourist attractions, declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995. The three of us had a rather limited budget, but time was not a problem. We aimed to roam through five prefectures in Japan in five days: Saitama, Toyama, Gifu, Kanazawa, and Nagano.

We left Sendai for Saitama prefecture on the first day. Saitama is the hometown of one of the said friends, and he told us we could stay in his house for a night before continuing the journey. He also told us his mother is a practitioner of sado (Japanese tea ceremony) and ikebana, and would love to teach us how to do them. We were excited upon hearing that promise.

When we arrived hours later, I was pleasantly surprised to see his home, a typical Japanese house with specifically built washitsu, or Japanese rooms for tea ceremonies. We had the most wonderful time with a simple tea ceremony and flower arranging workshop.

On the second day, we departed for Toyama prefecture. I do not recall how long it took to reach Toyama, but I remember vividly it started snowing just when we entered Gunma prefecture. It was my first experience seeing snow, and I could not be more excited.

We had some rest in Niigata, Echigo-Yuzawa station. We had to switch to private railways because juuhachi kippu, unfortunately, is not valid between Echigo-Yuzawa and Kanazawa in Ishikawa prefecture.

Echigo-Yuzawa station was quite spacious, and there were several gift shops. One of them had a very interesting display of a merry-go-round, from which uncountable small dolls in the shape of animals, vegetables, or even Japanese demons hung from the top of the ceiling to the floor.

When we finally reached Toyama, it was already past time for lunch. We decided to try the local delicacy there, shiroebitei, or rice bowl topped with white shrimp. It was an excellent choice, and then it was time to explore Toyama.

I must admit that before visiting Toyama I had no knowledge about it at all other than it has a castle in the prefecture capital, so that was the first place we had in mind to go. Since the city center was small, we walked to the castle instead of riding the famous tram. Toyama is one of the cities in Japan that still has a functional tram system, and I was pretty amused by the sight of the tram graciously gliding on the track amid the falling snow.

As one would expect from a traditional castle compound, the castle ground has a mesmerizing pond and Japanese garden. One interesting detail is that instead of being built on a hill or high ground, this castle was built on top of flat lands, making me wonder if the castle was defensible during armed conflicts. Of course, a moat enclosed the compound, but seeing a castle in rather low terrain was bizarre. It cost ¥200 to enter the castle’s main building, allowing us to climb to its topmost point.

We spent the whole afternoon in Toyama, then went to Takayama by train. Takayama is a small city in the mountainous Hida region in Gifu prefecture. Commonly referred to Hida-Takayama to differentiate it from other cities sharing the same name, it is now one of the top ranks cities to visit among travelers who love rural elements in their trip.

Takayama is also often used as the place to spend the night before continuing to Shirakawa-go due to its proximity to the world heritage site. We did the same thing, having booked a room at a pleasant hotel some distance from the station.

On the morning of the third day, we were supposed to leave Takayama for Shirakawa-go by bus. However, before the departure, we deliberately woke up very early in the morning just because we would like to see the old town of Takayama, which features whole streets of houses and buildings dating back to the Edo period (1600-1868) during the city’s golden period of merchants. It was such a lovely neighborhood, rivaled that of the old part of Kyoto.

Less than one hour after we boarded the bus, we arrived in Shirakawa-go. Since we were early, there were still traces of unmelted snow from last night’s fall and no sight of tourists other than the ones who rode the bus with us. Shirakawa-go was better than advertised. The visual pleasure of seeing the gassho-zukuri (steep thatched roof) houses was indescribable. It felt just like a different world altogether. When I crossed the bridge from the parking lot to the village, I entered an old town where time did not flow, as if everything was frozen in eternity.

We explored the whole place happily, coming and going to every nook and cranny, climbing the observation hill to see the entire Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go‘s largest village. I could not recommend more to try and go to this majestic place if you visit Japan, although I feel recently it has some over-tourism problems.

One last note, though, that if we were to go during the peak of the snow, we would have been subjected to the glorious sight of a white, snow-covered village.

After we were satisfied with Shirakawa-go, it was time to move on to the next destination, Kanazawa in Ishikawa prefecture. Around 2 PM, we took the bus to Kanazawa and arrived within an hour.

Without time to waste, we hurried to visit the famous Kenrokuen Garden, dubbed as one of Japan’s three most beautiful gardens, before its closing time at 5 PM. Under the cloudy winter sky, the garden put up tranquil air that would lull its visitors to unknowingly loosen up and, without realizing it, spend the whole day in the garden alone.

The trip’s next leg saw us taking a train ride to Nagano prefecture. We had one thing in mind when we arrived: make a snowman. So imagine how disappointed I was to discover that Nagano was devoid of snow. Not wanting to give up, we returned to ride the train to the previously passed station of Myoko-Kogen, a spot notable for its ski resort.

There, we could see snow as far as our eyes could see, and thus we ventured across the rail track to get to the fields laden with unending snow. In an unexpected turn of events, we met a very kind Japanese elderly man with whom we conversed. After knowing we wanted to build a snowman, he offered to help build us one! We named our plump snowman Maruko.

Myoko-Kogen was a beautiful place. The wintry scenery gave us many unforgettable views, such as the photo of the lone red barn in the middle of the snow. We braved knee-depth snow on many occasions to get to the higher point of the hill where we could look around the little town with gasped breath and wet shoes.

After the sun went down, we returned to Nagano, where I had booked a guest house near the main street. The guest house was a bizarre place, full of statues and carvings seemingly brought back by the owner from their trips worldwide. Those statues gave a very ethnic feeling to the place but, simultaneously, oozed a certain creepiness because most depicted demonic figures. Unfortunately, I did not take even a single photo there.

On the morning of the last day, we went to Zenkōji, the most popular temple in Nagano. It would appear to be just another Buddhist temple, but it housed the first ever Buddhist statue brought to Japan when the religion was first introduced in the 6th century. In addition, unlike any other Japanese town that grew revolving around the castle as its core, Nagano was built with Zenkōji as its core.

Though the morning visit to the temple was fulfilling, all good things must come to an end. Turning our backs on Nagano, we boarded the train back to Sendai. Not much to tell here, just that the trip back to Sendai took the whole day. It was excruciating and wearisome, but this was just the anti-climax given my experience during the trip.

It was late at night when we arrived in Sendai, tired to the bone. Just in the blink of an eye, the trip ended. Yet I felt that my 5-days trip memories would last forever, at least in my heart. If I had another chance to use juuhachi kippu again for a trip, I would do it in a heartbeat!

Useful links (in case you missed some of the above), all in English:

  1. Seishun 18 (juuhachi kippu)
  2. Shirakawa-go official website
  3. Kanazawa Tourism Information Guide
  4. Toyama Tourist Information
  5. Nagano Official Travel Guide

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About the Author

Jerfareza Daviano | Photographer in Sendai, Japan
Jerfareza Daviano

Jerfareza is a freelance photographer from Indonesia currently based in Sendai, Japan, offering wide range of photography service especially profile portraits, couple or family photos, and wedding photography. Should you wish to hire him you can check here for more details.

Visit his website for articles about travel in Japan especially Tohoku area and interesting bits about photography.


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