Shirakawa-go, a small town in the middle of the mountainous prefecture of Gifu, famous for its gingerbread-house like buildings with slopped straw roofs and heavy snowfalls. In the winter around Jan-Feb each year, a Light-Up event is hosted where spotlight is lit in the village and illuminates the village with surreal scenes of magical delight.
The initial phase of planning and research occurred almost a year ago, after seeing the photos of Shirakawa-go I offered almost passingly to take my parents on a trip, ostensibly because it will be difficult to secure accommodation for one person only. After confirming their interests, research work went into various transport and accommodation options.
Booking a homestay – The battle begins 6 months before leaving home…
In the closing days of June the light up dates is put up on the event website… and immediately the battle begins.
There are fewer than a score of gingerbread-like Gassho style homestays. Other accommodations are possible, however they’re more expensive, not the Gassho style house or further away from the village center. All which means it’s a real scramble to secure a place to stay at, with many booked out the moment the light up dates are announced.
To make things even more interesting….. you can count the number of places which can speak some english on one hand. On itself it’s a major annoyance, but not insurmountable, my written Japanese is halfway passable given sufficient time to check translations. The real challenge is only 2 places accepts reservation by email. For the rest? Phone and fax. I’m not confident I won’t misunderstand things over the phone, and where am I supposed to find a fax machine in this day and age? Not to mention I’m on VOIP which messes up fax transmissions. There are solutions, online faxes and platinum credit card’s concierge service or just braving long international calls, but none are ideal nor assured.
Which means I get 2, maybe 3 good shots, after that it’s luck and prayers.
The night of the light up dates announcement I was already phoning my parents for confirmation, at the same time begins drafting emails targeting the 3 dates in January (not possible in Feb due to Chinese New Year, and I wouldn’t try even if I could, the crowd would be terrible).
My first targets are the two email contactable Ootaya (大田屋) and Shimizu (志みづ). A plan B email is also sent to the Shirakawa-go tourism office which offers booking service or the other homestays.
Ootaya came back saying they’re not accepting reservation till November. And the tourism office came back with the status of each homestay, it’s a long list, but the short of it is they’re either all booked out or not yet accepting bookings.
A note regarding the tourism office. The dates they say the homestays start accepting booking is not the real one. That’s the date they’d start accepting reservations via the tourism office. Why that is I’m not sure, but I guess is some have been contracted out by tour companies and won’t release the rooms till later date, or possibly to pick and choose their guests. This is why people often report the homestays being booked out the day they start accepting reservations.
Or how I got a reply from Shimizu despite the tourism office stating they’re not accepting booking yet.
Lucky for me, Shimizu replied that they’re happy to receive me and my parents for the 26th Jan. I don’t know whether me having sent my email in both english and japanese made a difference, but I’m only too glad to have overcome one of the hardest hurdles with ease.
Anecdotally from various forums, the homestays booking became a total nightmare before July had even began in earnest.
After securing Shimizu there were a few later chances to pursue potentially “better” homestays, more professionally run or closer to the village center. But after much thought I decided against it. I’m not sure if I’d always be with my parents during our stay in Shirakawa, if they do need to return to the homestay early, a likely event since it’ll be quite cold there, it’d give a piece of mind to stay at someplace that speaks english so they won’t have problem with communications.
Planning the rest of the trip – The choices are all bad
What should have been straight forward planning turned out to be a total headache that’d haunt me for months until the later half of November.
Travel in the Hida area is simple. You get the Hida-road Free Pass (飛騨路フリーきっぷ), which gives you a return ride on the Hida express from Nagoya to the Hida area including Takayama (高山) and up to Hida-Furukawa (飛騨古川), then unlimited train rides in the Hida area. As an added bonus they also throw in free bus rides to Okuhida Onsen (奥飛騨温泉) and Shinhotaka (新穂高). You also get 10% off bus ticket from Takayama to Shirakawa. All for the unbelievable low price of 23800Y for 3 or 17800Y for 2. A return on the Hida express itself costs ~11600Y per person.
Too easy, buy the pass, travel to Takayama, go to Shirakawa with the bus, return the same way.
The only catch…. the pass in valid only for 3 days. Which when you account for the day in Shirakawa, does not leave you with much.
Assuming one takes the earliest Hida express on the first day then leaves with the latest on the 3rd, then…
If you spend the first night in Shirakawa, you could either jump on the bus immediately upon arriving in Takayama or spend 2.5 hours loitering in Takayama. For me this has the added problem of putting the 3rd day on the same day as the flight back to Taiwan, which essentially means wasting most of the 3rd day, not to mention the risk of a snowstorm stopping the Hida express and missing the fligh, ooooh boy.
If you spend the 2nd night in Shirakawa, you could return late and hope no blizzard stop you making the connection with the Hida express, or return in the morning and spend 3-4 hours in Takayama.
Neither options leaves you much time if you want to do a little more than sightseeing Takayama. Which I did….leading to my next headache.
Yatsusan Kan (八ツ三館) – Sure about that? Aren’t ratings usually related exponentially to price?
If this trip is ostensibly me making my parents tag along so I can stay at Shirakawa, then Yatsusan is my way of making up to them.
Yatsusan… I can’t quite recall how I ran across it, probably while searching for accommodations in and around Takayama. When I saw the ryokan I was….intrigued.
I had already been considering a ryokan, but truth be told Yatsusan was not quite within the price range I had in mind, nor its location.
Situated in Hida-Furukawa, a small quite town about 20 minutes from Takayama, the ryokan is steeped with history, its main building a cultural heritage, and its website surprisingly emanated charm and comfort without the arrogance or opulence so often found in other larger ryokans. A true historic ryokan, not one of those 10 stories tall modern day fashions.
Furthermore, it was rated 4.9 on Jalan and ~4.84 on Rakuten (two of the largest Japanese booking websites), unbelievably high scores and best in the region.
After much thought, I decided Yatsusan is definitely worth a visit. The problem was it now exacerbated my already strained scheduling. Fitting both Takayama and Yatsusan, its ryokan nature dictating arrival before 4 and leaving later than 9 the take advantage of its services? Impossible. Time spent at one of Takayama, Shirakawa and Yatsusan had to be sacrificed in order to fit in the 3 days of available time.
As it turns out Yatsusan would later develop into a highlight as much as the Light Up is.
Thinking outside the box, err…..train ticket
It still sounds crazy, but the solution to my problem came when I discovered that Yatsusan’s pricing on a Friday night was significantly cheaper than a Saturday which I had intended on staying. If I moved the Yatsusan to the Friday and spend 3 nights in the Hida area instead, it’ll prevent me from utilizing the Hida-road Free Pass, but I’ll also save on accommodation (staying in Takayama on the Saturday is also cheaper than spending Friday night in Nagoya). The price difference does not fully make up for it, but it makes juggling the schedule an option deserving of serious consideration.
Yatsusan + Shirakawa, cheaper, but stupidly crammed schedule, or
Yatsusan + Takayama + Shirakawa, fair bit more expensive, but plenty of free time.
There’s also a significant benefit that there’s barely any bookings for Yatsusan for the Friday while the Saturday is near fully booked. Moving to Friday would mean an empty ryokan all to ourselves. My parents are not quite so comfortable about the Japanese tradition of having to bath naked in the onsen, so having barely anyone there to share the onsen with will be a plus beyond measure, after all, much of the value of the ryokan lies in its outdoor onsen.
While not yet committed, the idea put me on a path of exploring more unconventional schedules, which finally brings me to the final discovery.
There’s a direct bus from Shirakawa back to Nagoya.
Which means saving both on money and time. It means actually cheaper total transport costs than the Hida-road pass option, and even more spare time, basically getting to spend a whole day in Shirakawa. The perfect schedule for what I had planned.
At last, the trip schedule took shape, 6 day (5 night) became Nagoya-Yatsusan (Hida-Furukawa)-Takayama-Shirakawa-Nagoya
Hida road free pass is ~8000Y per person
Bus between Takayama to Shirakawa is 2400Y one way, 4300Y return (and 10% off with free pass)
Bus fom Shirakawa to Nagoya is 3500Y one way
Filling in the rest…. that sounds familiar, you turned this into what again?!
Now I can finally turn my attention to the finer details of the planning like what to see and do.
The last time I was in Takayama, Hyouka had not yet even finished its first season, so there are a few new anime setting spots, naturally this would be a good opportunity to see them.
Then there’s Higurashi, a cult classic which possibly popularized the taking cute things home (by force) and yandere meme. The game/anime’s small cut-off-from-the-world town just happened to be set in Shirakawa, where…surprise! one of the main characters also works as a shrine maiden at the local Shinto shrine. What can I say, mikos are moe, too bad azunyan never worked as one, Akiba would explode.
And well, I can’t say no for a chance like this, it’s like 3 birds with 1 stone… right?
So it is, I intends to also fill in some anime pilgrimage. It’s almost like a tradition at this point. San’in Maigo wasn’t initially planned to involve pilgrimages either, but it ended up having them. Mmmhmmm.
Now, you have any problems regarding this turn of event, please direct your complaints to Miss Rena Yandere
(Note: Yandere means she loves you to death, literally. Rena’s signature pose also involves a machete, just saying)