The final destination on this trip was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawa-go, written in Japanese as 白川郷, meaning White River Village. It gained UNESCO status in 1995 due to its unique and very distinctive triangular shaped farm houses with massive thatched roofs known as gassho zukuri that can last up to 70 years. According to the websites Shirakawa-go was a quaint little town nestled in a valley with nothing but farms and mountains. However it was nothing like what we expected — as we arrived we were surrounded by hordes of elderly tourists getting on and off of an endless flow of tour buses, choking every single street, alley and path through the town buying shitty souvenirs. It was a bit like being trapped in a weird Japanese architectural theme park, and it really did not feel like a real place where real people actually lived.
To escape the maddening crowds, we walked along the river and took off up the mountain (antisocial much?) to wait until 3 or 4 pm when all the tour buses would round up the old folks back onto the buses and leave. For this reason alone I would say that Shirakawa-go was the least favourite part of the Japan Road Trip because there were just far too many people. If you are considering going, take my advice and do not go on a weekend or in the autumn. Go in the winter, if you can.
That said, when the town did empty of the terrible tour buses, a peaceful feeling settled over the place and you could actually see normal people going about their normal business. Little school kids in yellow hats went skipping by as we sat down to drink a cup of local sake at a small bar on the side of the road. Old men with hunched backs ploughed the land and planted their daikon. Villagers on bicycles rode past with a basket full of groceries. I can’t imagine how these people live with a massive influx of tourists in their tiny town every day of life. I imagine it brings in a hell of a lot of money, but surely the villagers also pay a huge price by having weird tourists walking through your back porch.
The traditional farmhouse stay, however, was truly incredible, and is something I would highly recommend. The farmhouses are quite old, and don’t even have any glass windows, so prepare yourself for some chilly nights because the only thing separating you from the outside air is shoji, the traditional wood and paper doors! The place that we stayed in, Magoemon, had made some adjustments to the bathrooms, and put in a really lovely hot spring bath and toilets with warmed seats (trust me, this is important). Run by an old husband and wife team, at night the guests ate in the communal living room where the old man prepared fish grilled on the fire. Our room faced the beautiful blue river and we fell asleep snuggled under some serious blankets. The walls are thin and you can hear the person sneeze next door, but after a long day everyone was in bed early anyway, which I suppose is the traditional way of life on a farm anyways.
On our last day we woke up to some seriously cold rain and wind, which made us realise how lucky we had been to have five days of just amazing blue skies and t-shirt weather warmth. With great regret we got back in the car and began the seven hour drive back to the biggest city on our planet, and left the clean air, blue skies and autumn leaves behind. Tokyo is such a world away from even the nearby prefectures it is hard to imagine someone from the tiny town of Shirakawago moving to the madness of Tokyo, with the maid cafes, robot sushi, strip clubs, costumed Harajuku girls and capsule hotels. Must be quite mind blowing.
I for one was glad to see a very different side of Japan, one outside the big bad cities. Looking back, each place that we visited was very different, and if I could change one thing I would have spent more time in Kami-kochi, less time in Takayama, and arrived in Shirawa-go in the late afternoon when the tour buses effed off. But for sure I would recommend visiting all of these places, if you have the chance… preferably in a BMW.