Shirakawago and Gokayama (4 – 5 February 2016)
It was really the pictures of serene mountain villages with their traditional gassho-zukuri-styled houses under pristine white snow that made me decide to visit Japan this time. For someone like me who has lived his entire life in a place just 1 degree north of the equator, these villages simply look so different and enticing.
I had never been to anywhere in the dead of winter before. There was that almost disastrous school trip to New Zealand of course when I was 15. It was in September and I did not realise that temperatures there could go down to 5 degrees celcius at that time of the year. Obviously I was not prepared with the right clothes.
This trip however I was determined to be warm. I even did my research on the internet on how to dress for winter. I visited Uniqlo outlets (they offer affordable and decent looking winter wear) a couple of times to get the right outfits for varying levels of coldness. I was prepared clothes-wise this time!
My adventures in the mountain villages lasted about a day and a half and started from the city of Takaoka which is easily accessed by shinkansen from Kanazawa where I had based myself. It is possible to get a pass for the bus to the villages. Kaetsuno Bus Company provides World Heritage Bus services (the three villages I visited are world heritage sites) to the villages from Takaoka Station. I got a 2-day pass to use the bus services. The 2-day pass costs 3,500 yen whereas a round trip to Shirakawa already costs 3,600 yen so it was definitely worth my while getting the pass.
Now this brochure that I had found online said that I could only get the 2-day pass from the Kaetsuno bus ticketing centre located at Takaoka Station. This was a slight hassle for me since the shinkansen from Kanazawa stopped at Shin-Takaoka Station. The ride between Kanazawa and Shin-Takaoka Stations nevertheless took me less than 15 minutes and then I had to transfer to the JR Johana line to get to Takaoka Station less than 5 minutes away.
I wonder if I could have bought the 2-day pass from the bus driver instead. I did see other passengers getting passes from the driver but I could not be sure if they got what I had wanted. If this was possible then there would be no need to get to Takaoka Station since the bus made a stop at Shin-Takaoka Station as well.
After leaving the city, the bus climbed into the snowy mountains. I had not seen so much snow since the mountains of New Zealand more than half a lifetime ago and I was getting somewhat excited. However before long the clouds suddenly moved in and the sun was hidden. The weather in the mountains can be so temperamental.
My worry that the weather might worsen made me decide to start my sightseeing at Ainokura, the first of the three villages reachable by the World Heritage Bus. I got off the bus with blue skies and white clouds. But by the time I got to the village, a mere short walk uphill from the bus stop, the sky had suddenly become quite grey. It looked like it was going to rain. Or maybe it would snow. Hopefully it would not be both!
However I was almost smirking to myself that the village was quite empty when I arrived. I was definitely not the only tourist around but there were so few of us. The villagers were curiously enough an even rarer sight.
The region where the villages are located experience heavy snowfall in winter. There is therefore a very practical reason to build houses in the gassho-zukuri style. The name is derived from the shape of the house’s roof which looks like two hands joined in prayer. The steep slope roofs ensure that snow does not accumulate too much on them.
These gassho-zukuri-styled houses looked wonderfully picturesque in the snow with the mountains behind them.
As expected, it started to snow. The cold mountain wind blew the snow my way just as I had started hiking up this little hill to get to this viewpoint to see the village. The wind whipped the snow into my face as I stood looking down on the village. I never knew that snow could actually cause pain!
I really do think that more effort should be made to warn people about snow. For people like me who come from the tropics, the whole idea of snow has often been too romanticised. We usually only hear about its beauty and almost never about how much of a bitch it can be.
Number one reality check: snow is water after all, just frozen, and frozen water can melt. When that happens the ground can get pretty messy and dirty if not downright slippery and dangerous.
But even if the snow is not melting, I learnt the hard way that it can still be deceptive and dangerous. The thick snow had made much of the grounds in Ainokura look like they were level, when in fact they were not. I had barely walked three metres into a snowy patch to get to the view on the other side when I felt myself sinking into the snow suddenly. It took me a moment to realise what had happened. And then I kind of panicked a little although I still had the presence of mind to stop myself from screaming.
On the other hand the village was so quiet I wonder if anyone would have heard me if I had screamed.
Thankfully the snow was not too thick. After regaining my wits sufficiently, I assessed my situation and discovered that I had only sunk in up to my knees. With some effort, I managed to clumsily pull myself out of the snow without getting my whole body into it. I was somewhat thankful that there was no one around to see me in my somewhat embarrassing position.
Some snow got into my shoes and this of course melted quickly. It was not fun walking about in the wintry weather with wet socks!
While trying my best to ignore those wet socks I was able to find a way to enjoy the wintry scenery which could still be really quite beautiful. I found a nice cosy shop that offered meals made with vegetables and mushrooms gathered from the surrounding mountains. I wonder if they had been collected before the winter since the mountains looked too cold for anything other than the hardiest of pine trees!
Sitting in the warm room watching snowflakes flying about in the wind outside the window was simply a fairy-tale like experience.
The weather improved significantly just before I left Ainokura. I was finally able to see blue skies with white snow glistening in the sun all around the pretty houses. It turned out to be a somewhat good start to my tour after all!
I visited the other two world heritage villages the next day. A group of Malay ladies got on the same bus as I did. I wonder if they were Singaporean or Malaysian. It was a large group and they seemed like a family. They were three generations of ladies, and only ladies, going on a DIY tour of Japan together. And they startled everyone on the bus when they squealed with so much delight as we drove out of a tunnel into a snow-covered gorge in snowy weather.
Plenty of other tourists were already at Shirakawago by the time I got there that morning. It was a lot busier than I thought. Shirakawago is the biggest and most famous among the three I visited. It is also the best equipped for tourism although it is also the furthest one along the bus route.
Besides the usual viewpoint overlooking the village, as in the other two, there are a few houses in Shirakawago that are open to the public as museums. Each house, three to four stories high, may not merely be home to a large extended family but may also house a mini factory for that family. It is common for the upper stories of these houses to be used for sericulture for example.
Both the houses that I visited, Wada House and the monk’s residence of Myozenji Temple, looked really cosy. However I am not sure if I can live in one of these especially if winter here can be harsh. I hear that these houses can get a little draughty.
Suganuma is the smallest of the three villages. It does not seem to get the same amount of tourist traffic as Shirakawago. It was in fact as quiet as Ainokura the day before. The village is however right below the highway and this to me affected the atmosphere a little bit.
Of the three villages, Shirakawago obviously had the most things to see and this must be the reason it is the most touristy. But if it is atmosphere that one is looking for then Ainokura and Suganuma may be better choices. Furthermore, Shirakawago is actually big and busy enough to be considered a small mountain town to me and not a mere village. The other two definitely felt a lot more rural for me.
Oh and now I know that snow is probably much better appreciated when I am not actually in it.