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February 21, 2016

Magic in Shirakawa-gō

Shirakawa-gō, where do I begin? The historic village of Shirakawa-gō in Gifu Prefecture is a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site in Japan - you may have seen photos of its slanted, thatched-roof huts (a total of 114, known as gassho-zukuri) covered in thick blankets of snow, or illuminated on a winter's night. It was such images that grabbed my attention a couple of years ago when we were deciding on a destination for a wintry Christmas holiday. It seemed an ideal spot to spend my first (and maybe only) white Christmas in 2013, but unfortunately we weren't the only ones with the idea and accommodation was well and truly booked out by the time we phoned around. 

Fast forward two years and a few months to this weekend when our Shirakawa-gō dreams finally came true. This time we booked many months in advance and waited patiently through the autumn and early winter months in Fukuoka. Then, as it tends to do rather reliably, the time came! (and went!) Now I sit back at home under my kotatsu a few days later, reflecting on my photos and memories from our short but illuminating two-nighter in UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shirakawa-gō. 

Getting there from Fukuoka was a bit of a trek, flying from Fukuoka Airport to Nagoya where we took a train and two buses to finally arrive at our destination ten hours later. 

We alighted from a highway bus as the sun was setting in the Shogawa river valley where the village is nestled and crossed carefully over a beautiful, icy bridge into a place unlike any other.

Although I was too exhausted from the day's travels to get more than a rushed first impression as we hurried to our accommodation, the huts we passed looked brilliant against twilight-blue skies and soft white snow. The river rushed in the background, but there was little other noise. Hoards of tour buses that we were yet to encounter had all departed for the day and a nighttime stillness was settling over the village. 

We located our lodging, checked in and got acquainted with the grand three-storey gassho-zukuri hut that we would spend the next two nights in.

Following a traditional minshiku-style dinner which was accompanied by a live shamisen performance, we rugged up and borrowed a torch to go exploring in the snow. The night was pitch black but clear - stars we never see in the city were silently saying "hisashiburi!" to us from the sky. The snow sparkled like glitter as frost crystallised on its top layer. Huts were aglow from inside, but we had the deserted streets all to ourselves. It may sound like I'm romanticising, but such is the spell of a winter's night in Shirakawa-gō.

Giving in to the cold and the tired, we returned to our minshiku and took a dip in the neon-green bath, in the pastel blue bathroom. Then there was nothing left to do but sleep; I with a strategically placed futon allowing my legs to stay halfway under the kotatsu for warmth.

We had come to Shirakawa expecting a more extreme level of wintry weather than we're used to down in Fukuoka. The area is known for its harsh winters and heavy snowfall, yet we awoke on Saturday to a sunny morning and blue skies. In fact, the temperature for our day of sightseeing would stay around the 12Cº mark and the sun would rarely dip behind clouds. Even better, there was still enough snow remaining from the previous snowfall that everything looked fresh and white in the morning (by the evening much of the rooftop snow had melted and the sidewalks were more slushy than soft and fresh). 

So we set out rather early and enjoyed a few more moments of peaceful wandering before the tour busses arrived and the little village started to buzz with tourist energy. 

Crossing back over the river, we made our way to the open-air Gassho Folk Museum where many restored gassho-zukuri houses are arranged in an easy walking route. These huts were transferred from nearby areas and restored to their current state, and the open-air museum allows you to enter many of them and learn about what it may have been like to live there in the past. 

A warm and delicious miso-katsu lunch gave us the energy we needed to continue on with our snowy, sunny walking tour of Shirakawa-gō.

From the Ogimachi-Jyoshi observation platform, you can command a spectacular panoramic view of the village and its surroundings. This was a view I had been dreaming of in anticipation of our trip...

Near the observation point we took advantage of a field of soft snow to build a yuki daruma - my first snowman! She turned out rather nicely and we left her to sit atop the hill and watch down over Shirakawa-gō. 

Searching for a place to sit down and have a cuppa tea, we hit the jackpot by scoring seats on the verandah of a gassho-zukuri house-turned-cafe. The sunshine was unbelievable and we stripped off layers to bask in the rays, laughing about how it felt more like a summer vacation than a winter one. A glass of orange juice for me and yuzu drink for Kamil and we were in heaven.

And with that, our day was almost done. We made the walk back to our accommodation, took in the view one last time before retiring for another epic dinner/bath combination and a night of sound sleep. 

We awoke the next morning to rain and slush, extremely grateful for the previous day's fortuitous weather. Packing our bags, all that was left to do was say goodbye and embark on another 10-hour journey back home to Fukuoka.

Shirakawa-gō: place of true magic, preserved tradition and historic and cultural importance, I would call it one of Japan's must-see destinations. We hope to go back one day in another season, but for now I count myself lucky for this experience.

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