The holidays are a great time to get away somewhere quiet. A traditional, quaint country village covered in a layer of white snow surrounded by evergreens that smells of firewood and chilled wind comes to mind. While this may sound like a place in rural Germany or England, Japan’s Shirakawa fits that description to perfection.
Located in a river valley in the Ryohaku Mountains, Shirakawa is all of that and more with its famous thatched roof gassho zukuri farmhouses.
The feeling I got as I stepped off the bus in Shirakawa was akin to having stepped into a life-sized landscape painting, romanticized and enhanced, yet it was neither of those things. It was reality and I was in the middle of it. (As were countless other people, but careful cropping and framing keeps them out of the picture and on the outskirts of memory.)
As a photographer, it was hard to stop shooting for more than a few minutes during the trip because every scene was a post card. Whether admiring the natural, man-made or a combination of the two, I’ve never seen a more beautiful place in the snow.
Shirakawa looks good in any season, but winter just feels like an especially appropriate time to visit. The farmhouse’s distinctive tall roofs where designed so as not to collapse under snow. It could be said that it’s a village made for winter, so it was surprising that the crowds weren’t as bad as I was expecting. Despite its popularity as a tourist spot since becoming a UNESCO world heritage site, the sharp winter seems to thin the tourist herd, So, while there’s plenty of people around, it never feels too crowded.
Throughout the village, houses have been preserved as museums that can be freely walked about. It’s tourist friendly, but for the most part, avoids over-playing to tourists. (An example of that would be California’s Calico ghost town - a real ghost town dressed up like a gaudy cartoon version of an Old West ghost town.)
In these houses, we learned the stories of families that had lived in them for centuries, how they plied the village’s twin industries of silk production and explosives. They’re not merely old shells for new buildings either, all were still completely made of wood and thatch without modern supports.
The upper floors were still full of the old silk-making implements dangling from the ceiling and on display. Their Japanese-only explanations leaving me to wonder how some of these alien devices functioned.
The one-off homes in town are nice, but the most impressive collection of houses are a scenic foot bridge across the river from the body of the village. The Open-Air Folk Museum is a collection of 26 houses from around the area. As Japan has modernized and people left their rural homes, old villages faded away. These houses were brought from those dead places and gathered here where people can experience them and learn their history. Warning: This area is cosplayer bait. I’m still not fully sure what the purple-haired guy dressed like a shrine maiden was supposed to be, but maybe I’m not supposed to.
It isn’t all UNESCO houses and magnificent scenery, as amidst this is a village of modern people who live here and go about their lives. Despite the heavy presence of outsiders and shops that cater to them, the town itself shuts down entirely in the afternoon, leaving visitors with few options but to retire from the cold to the warmth of their ryokans for broiling onsen waters and small homemade feasts for dinner.
Another way to get warm for those averse to naked communal bathing, is drinking the moonshine this region prides itself on, doburoku sake. The milky, ricey substance is less like drinking liquor and more like drinking the mash from the distilling process.
Several Gassho Zukuri farmhouses are now ryokan, but we decides to stay at the neighboring village of Hirase Onsen as the only guests of a ryokan run by a grandmother with assistance from her teenage granddaughter.
We enjoyed the New Year’s holiday in Hirase Onsen, visiting the shrine where doburoku was handed out to all visitors (sadly, my traveling companions decided not to partake, so I didn’t get to try it either) and I rang in the new year with a bell at the temple at the bottom of the hill.
We stayed in a Shirakawa Gassho Zukuri on New Year’s Day, which is when the seven lucky gods roam the village. The “gods” are men (even the women) in colorful costumes carrying their deities’ props and performing a song and dance routine at businesses and ryokans.
We spent a total of three days here, which I believe is about the right amount of time to take everything in.
As much as I love the traditional farmhouses, after seeing a half dozen they start looking alike. And, after admiring the scenery, there wasn’t much else to do but move on to the next leg of our vacation, feeling fulfilled and happy at the time spent in Shirakawa.
Shirakawa’s official English (http://ml.shirakawa-go.org/en/
) website has some helpful advice on how to get to the village from Osaka airport and Takayama. My wife and I flew in from Nagoya, but the advice is the same and our bus was direct from Nagoya with no changes.