Shirakawa-Go: Winter Illumination

Notes from my trip to Shirakawa-go to see the winter illumination three years prior to my move to Tokyo.

In January 2016 I traveled to Japan for the third time for a nine days trip. I decided to spend a day in Tokyo, three days in Hokkaido and couple of days in Kyoto at the end of my trip. I then started looking for new destinations within Japan to fill in my remaining days. I had always heard of Japanese Alps, mainly the Gifu prefecture and also the famous Shirakawa Go but I somehow never felt sufficiently excited to make the journey. I then found out that I could get to Takayama (the main area of attraction in Gifu) in three hours from Kyoto with better part of the train trip being spent on a very scenic railroad. If I did not enjoy it, I would come back to Kyoto (my love!) early next morning. I also knew that Takayama was close to Shirakawa Go – this little town in the middle of the mountains entirely composed of “gassho style” houses (with a wooden roof in the shape of a triangle). I also heard of the nights during which the entire town was being illuminated as a special occasion (for only five consecutive weekends during the entire year, from mid-January to mid-February) and I would happen to be in Takayama during one of those nights!

Access to Shirakawa-go

I sure got excited about the illumination event but soon faced the ugly truth – the tickets for the event were long sold out. You actually do not need a ticket for the entrance to the town but you have to arrange a tour bus unless you have a car. Shirakawa-go is about an hour drive from Takayama and there is no rail link between the two towns. I read that people would travel from every part of Japan only for this event and the tickets launched by the tour companies in October were purchased within minutes, if not seconds. So I would not be able to join any of those tours. I would also not rent a car and even if I did, the parking spots would be filled well in advance. I as a last resort got in touch with all the taxi companies in Takayama just to find out that they were also all fully booked. Well actually one of the companies offered me a ride but I would have to wait extra four hours in Shirakawa Go after the event and it would cost me USD 250 one way! I accepted the fact that I would be in Takayama, so close to Shirakawa-go during this rare illumination event but not be able to see it. I decided to still travel to Takayama since I read good things about the town and its traditional feel.

I could still visit Shirakawa-go during the day  (via public transportation which would not be available for the evening return ride). If you are traveling from Kyoto, the fastest way to get to Takayama is through Nagoya, which is a quick 35 minutes Shinkansen ride from Kyoto. Once in Takayama, you switch to local rail-line for another two hours trip to Takayama. 

Hidanamori Pension in Takayama

Takayama trip was planned for my second weekend in Japan. I left Kyoto at around 6 am on a Saturday morning and I was in Takayama a little after 10 am. My hosts at the amazing Hidanamori Pension organized a pick up for me and gave me a ride to the center of the town. After wondering around the town for a short while, I went to the bus station to find out whether there were any tickets for at least the day trip to Skirakawa-go. There was a long line at the bus stop (Nohi Bus) not raising my hopes high even for the day trip. When it was my turn, I just – for the sake of asking – asked if there was any place in the bus for the illumination tour of the very same night. They were initially surprised to hear my question and had me confirm whether I was actually asking for the very same night. They then asked me how many were in my party and I said “just me”- I suppose those two were the magic words. After that, there was a lot of Japanese speaking, phone calls, short staff meetings, checking schedules until the lady dealing with my request came back and announced that they had one room for me in the illumination bus and she repeatedly mentioned how lucky I was.

When I had long accepted that I would be so close yet not see Shirakawa-go during illumination, it was such an amazing moment followed by thousands of “arigato”s from my side. The round-trip ticket from Takayama to Shirakawa-go costs around USD 35. Sligthly less expensive than the taxi offer I got – USD 250 for one way!

Once the ticket issue was settled, I had another six hours in Takayama before getting on the illumination bus so I wondered around the town (very nice little town with good range of quality restaurants and nice design shops). Takayama is also very famous for its old town filled with old Japanese homes from the Edo period but that part felt a little touristy for me. So I spent more time in the other (slightly more modern but atmospheric) part of the town.

Winter illumination in Shirakawa-go

And then came the Shirakawa Go time. I was so excited about my last minute ticket that I got to the bus station an hour early in case anyone stole my seat! It was a beautiful ride to Shirakawa-go through snow sceneries but the real thing – both in good and bad way starts – the moment when you arrive at Shirakawa: millions of buses around with another billion people walking over the bridge to cross the river to Shirakawa Go. The view, in my over exaggerated wild imagination, reminded me of the scene from the movie Everest when the climbers waited for hours at the Balcony for the final leap up to the summit. It was a great view but it sure did not indicate good things about possibility of finding a good spot in the viewing area over Shirakawa Go.

It was snowing and pretty cold (around -5 C) but the town was so beautiful that I don’t think anyone cared about the weather. Once in Shirakawa Go you have to walk up to the view hill (there are only few shuttles traveling up there and the last one departs at around 3 pm).

Pilgrimage for winter illumination

By the time I started climbing the hill, everywhere was already so full. There was no way I could walk up to the end of the hill and still be back on time to catch my bus back to Takayama. So I went as far as I could – passing through a storm of people. It was so crowded that I even had hard time taking my camera out of my bag. It was impossible to set up a tripod but even more impossible to get to the side of the road where I could actually see the town but not a myriad of people. I then knew and accepted that I was not going to be able to take any good photos so I just maximized my ISO and tried to fill in any empty spot I saw to at least record few shots. All my shots were hand-held, so very blurry with couple of exceptions, which still turned out with a lot of noise (the ones you see in this post) due to the ISO level I had to get up to.

Based on the limited visibility I had, I can still confirm that Shirakawa-go looked dreamy during the illumination. While I could not really get a good view of the town from above, I somehow still enjoyed the experience of trying to climb up to a hill with hundreds of other people with the hope of having a short access to this amazing view. It felt like a pilgrimage in its own funny way. I would normally be devastated to miss out on such an amazing photo opportunity but I guess I grew up a little and just told myself, next time! P.S. I still went to Shirakawa-go the next day during daytime to get some photos without worrying about the crowds and I had a great time walking around the town during snow storm & get a lunch at a cozy soba place.