SHIRAKAWA-GO – Etsuji’s passion!

Spring tulips and Gassho homes in Shirakawa-Go, Japan
Gassho homes began to appear in Gifu in the 17th century – farmhouse buildings with thatched, steeply slanting roofs

There’s a man in Japan’s mountainous Gifu Prefecture who treks out most days of the year, in all sorts of weather, to photograph his area.

His name is Etsuji Anno, and he posts his superb photos and videos on the internet to publicise Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage mountain settlement in the prefecture’s north west.

This place has some of Japan’s heaviest snowfalls in winter – up to three metres deep this last January – but that doesn’t stop Etsuji.  I’ve watched, via his Facebook and Instagram postings, as he battled blizzard conditions to achieve his photo of the day!

Because of poor internet robotic language translations, I don’t know much about Etsuji Anno.  Except that he appears to work for the Hida Kano travel company, and his photographs show that Etsuji is passionate about the place he lives in. He also posts information about what camera and lens he’s using – something of interest to me as an amateur photographer.

Etsuji Anno really doesn’t have to persuade me about the beauty of Shirakawa-go or its neighbour Gokayama lining the Shogawa River Valley.  I’ve been there twice and found it to be a truely beautiful place, so I understand his passion. My photos aren’t as good as his, but my pictures in this posting hopefully give you an idea of the stunning vistas in this area.

There’s evidence that people were here going back to 7000 BC. The name Shirakawa-go appears in history by around 1176. During the Edo period, the local people produced silk and gunpowder. And, of course, they would have grown crops – even today small grain fields and rice paddies can be seen between homes as many locals continue to lead traditional lifestyles.

Tourism helps to sustain this remote area with hundreds of thousands of tourists visiting every year from around the world, mainly to see the gassho style houses with their steep thatched roofs designed to withstand heavy falls of snow in winter.  The roofs can have a slope of about 60 degrees, and re-thatching them is often a community effort. The gassho houses were built from around 1800, and people still live in them. This is a living town, not a theme park!

Covid has severely impacted tourism for the area, as it has at many other places in the world.  The day tour company that I used to go there for my two visits has closed its Shirakawa-go service, because 90 per cent of its customers were from overseas.

But Etsuji Anno pushes forward undeterred, dutifully posting up his photos – reminding us all how beautiful this part of Japan is, and perhaps hoping that he will inspire people to ensure it is in their bucket list for when international travel is up and running again. I guess he is also trying to encourage Japanese to tour in their own backyard. How often do we all head overseas before we explore our own country!

Last week Etsuji posted up a photo of tulips springing up in the village.  I’ve captured similar photos there, so I identified big time, and strangely felt a little homesick  – the way you do for a place that you’ve come to like very much. 

I’ve always thought that the hype over cherry blossoms in Japan overwhelms the other wonderful showings of flowers that you see throughout the country. Fabulous azaleas – some growing profusely in the wild, hydrangea, carnations, and many other beautiful flowers and exquisitely coloured shrubbery.

More flowers on the streets of Shirakawa-go

Massive tourist crowds packing into one area usually puts me off, but Shirakawa-go is such a special place that it draws me back.  Shirakawa-go should definitely be on everyone’s Japan itinerary. If you are planning ahead for post-Covid, here are my tips to make the best of your visit.

Stay a night or two in the town.  I haven’t done this yet, but I hope to on my next visit as some of the gassho homes there take paying guests.

You’ll be sleeping Japanese style with share facilities – there are no western style hotels here.  But it will be a special experience.  You will see the town without the tourists hordes that usually invade the town during the day and you’ll get to know the locals.  If you are a fisher, you also have the opportunity to cast a line in the nearby Shogawa River full of trout.

The Shogawa River at Shirakawa-go – my husband wants to fish here next time!

If you can’t stay overnight, then make an effort to arrive early in the day on a morning trip – either drive there or catch a bus that will get there before all the other tourist buses.

There are a number of ways to reach Shirakawa-go.  On both my visits I’ve set out from Takayama with the local J-Hop bus service.  J-Hop is the company that I mentioned earlier.  It closed down in Takayama last September (2020) because of Covid’s effect on business.  They had been offering their half day tours to Shirakawa-go since 2012, and staff have vowed to return post Covid. The company still operates elsewhere in Japan, so when the pandemic is over, it would be worthwhile to see if they are up and running again in Takayama.

The other company that runs buses there from Takayama is the Nohi bus company.  They’ve also scaled back their services due to Covid, but at the time of writing were still offering trips to Shirakawa-go and Gokayama on weekends and public holidays.

Walking bridge between the village and the tour parking area

I’ve used the Nohi bus service for other trips and found them to be very professional (see my posting on the Gatton go railway). 

J-Hop was my choice in 2017 and 2019 because its bus service left for Shirakawa-go before Nohi, and was the first tour bus to arrive in the town. By the time you leave, the car park is packed with buses and cars.

My ticket included the ride there and back with a commentary from a guide, but once I arrived I was let loose to explore by myself for about 90 minutes.  For most people, that’s plenty of time to roam the streets, check out the shops, and see inside some of the older gassho homes.    

Early wooden skis once used in the village

The guide on my first trip was the irrepressible english speaking Yamamoto.  He was such an impressive guide, that when I returned a few years later with friends in tow, I asked could we could have him on our trip.  I don’t know where Yamamoto is now, but I hope he’s doing well, and back showing people his neck of the woods when Covid is over.

Our guide on two trips to Shirakawa-go – the fabulous Mr Yamamoto!

In 2019, we were charged 4,400yen each – about $A52 each.  If we had been staying at the J-Hop hostel, it would have cost around $A46.  Post covid, try emailing them for up to date information at tour@j-hoppers.com 

Once you arrive in Shirakawa-go, I suggest you first explore the main part of the village, because when other tourists start to arrive en masse, this is the area that gets packed.  

Go early to explore before big tourist crowds arrive or stay overnight!

Then start exploring the back streets, and move away from the centre.  This is where you will discover the real Shirakawa-go.  Because Shirakawa-go is not just a tourist attraction.  It is a town with people who live and work there, and once you move away from the main drag with its tourist shops, you’ll spot them working around their homes and in their gardens, hanging out the washing – those things we all do in and around our homes.

Tucked away in the forest near the centre of town, I spotted this small tiled roof building.
This local Shiba Inu was outside one home – it is a breed of hunting dog in Japan
Wood store!
Old technology to cool drinks for visitors!

As we walked around, my hubby and I came across an elderly lady who couldn’t get her whipper snipper going.  Now most Aussie blokes are familiar with whipper snippers, so he went to her rescue. Turned out there was a switch she hadn’t turned on.  She was quickly back in action whipper snippering up the weeds around her.  These are the little encounters that stick in your memory.

How often do you get to fix a whipper snipper for a local when touring around!
On the other side of the camera for once at the Hachiman Shrine

Not far from the centre of the town is the beautiful Shirakawa-go Hachiman Shrine, not to be missed. It was founded between 708-715, and relocated about 800 years ago after an avalanche. Both my trips were in spring, and Shirakawa-go was picture postcard pretty with snow capped mountains in the distance, and spring flowers blooming. Etsuji Anno’s daily postings have persuaded me that it’s a place that looks gorgeous at any time of the year.  

Shirakawa-go village’s official website can be found at:

http://ml.shirakawa-go.org/en/

To see Etsuji Anno’s facebook posts go to

https://www.facebook.com/shirakawagoinfo

Also see: 

http://hidakankocompany.com

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