To Shirakawa-go and Back Again

If you are tight in budget but have plenty of time to spend, traveling in Japan using juuhachi kippu (official name Seishun 18 or 青春18きっぷ) might be a good way to go. Although, sometimes the decision to make is not an easy one. Yes, you will feel like aging faster while spending your time on the train between stations. Yes, your ass will be sore as hell from the constant sitting. Yes, sometimes you would wish you did not decide to make the trip. Yes, you might be fed up with trains that you think you prefer not to see trains anymore ever after the trip. But it is all worth it in the end. Because it will be an amazing story to have. So was mine, and I am going to tell it here.

Back in winter of 2015, my friends and I planned to go to Shirakawa-go, one of the most famous tourist attractions in Japan declared as  a UNESCO world heritage site in 1995. Three of us had rather limited budget so we thought using juuhachi kippu would be a fantastic way to lower the cost. Time was not a problem after all. And so we aimed to roam through five prefectures in Japan in five days : Saitama, Toyama, Gifu, Kanazawa and Nagano.

We left Sendai for Saitama prefecture on the first day. Saitama is the hometown of Yuki, one of said friends and he told us we could stay in his house for a night before continuing the journey. He also told us his mother is a practitioner of sado (Japanese tea ceremony) and ikebana, and would love to teach us how to do them. We were excited upon hearing that promise.

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A view of Fukiage, a small town in Saitama prefecture.

It took hours to reach Omiya in Saitama from Sendai. From then we would have to change to local trains to get to Fukiage, a quaint residential town. Yuki’s house is located around 15 minutes from the station by foot. I was pleasantly surprised to see his home, a typical Japanese house with specifically built washitsu or Japanese rooms for tea ceremony. His mother welcomed us warmly, and without further ado we went straight to the tea room.

I have participated in several tea ceremony before and I do possess some knowledge about it, but this time I learned something new. I watched Yuki’s mother performing her tea ceremony host duty, gracefully preparing  the tea set — how she poured hot water into the bowl and slowly yet carefully mixed matcha powder with whisk. She served us a couple of Japanese sweets before handing us the tea bowl. There are quite complicated procedures about this ceremony, but it will be too long to describe. Safely to say I learned something new about it.

When the bowl comes to a guest, he needs to turn twice anti-clockwise so that shomen (front side) of the bowl will face him. Likewise, when he finishes drinking the tea he should turn the bowl again so that this time the shomen will face towards the tea ceremony host. I shall savor this piece of information in anticipation of future tea ceremonies.

After sado, we went on to try our hands on ikebana. My friend’s mother had prepared three vases for us and a lot of flowers and trees branches to arrange. It turned out more difficult than I thought. The essences of ikebana are simplicity and balance, pretty easy to remember in theory but in practice I think you must at least have a good sense of art to fully understand how to implement those principles. Ziliang, the other friend, fared better than me because she had good sense. :) Nevertheless, I was content with what I had managed to arrange, as seen in the picture below.

On the second day we departed for Toyama prefecture from Fukiage. My friend’s mother had made us some delicious onigiri (rice balls) for breakfast, which I happily chomped when we were waiting for the train to come. I did not recall how long did it take to reach Toyama, but I remembered vividly it started snowing just when we entered Gunma prefecture. It was my first experience seeing snow and I could not be more excited, so when we had to change the train somewhere in Gunma I came out to the station platform and played with the snow like a child.

We had some rest in Niigata, Echigo-Yuzawa station. We had to switch to private railways because juuhachi kippu unfortunately is not valid between Echigo-Yuzawa and Kanazawa in Ishikawa prefecture. Anyways Echigo-Yuzawa station was quite spacious and there were a number of gift shops. One of them had a very interesting display of a merry-go-round, from which uncountable small dolls in the shape of animals, vegetables or even Japanese demons hung from top of the ceiling to floor.

When we finally reach Toyama it was already past time for lunch.We decided to try the local delicacy there, shiroebitei or rice bowl topped with white shrimp. It was an excellent choice as we practically ate the whole thing in just mere minutes. Then it was time to explore Toyama.

I have to admit that prior to visiting Toyama I had no knowledge about it at all other than it has a castle in the prefecture capital, so that was the first place we had in mind to go. Since the city center was pretty small in area we walked all the way to the castle instead of riding the famous city tram. Toyama is one of the cities in Japan that still has a functional tram system, and I myself was pretty amused by the beauty of the tram graciously gliding in the track amid the falling snow.

As one would expect from a traditional castle compound, the castle ground has mesmerizing pond and Japanese garden. One interesting detail is that instead of built on a hill or high ground, this castle was built on top of flat lands, which made me wonder if the castle was defensible at all during times of armed conflicts. Of course there was moat enclosing the compound but it was rather bizarre to see a castle in rather low terrain. It cost ¥200 to enter the castle main building, which allowed us to climb into the castle’s topmost point.

 

 

We spent the whole afternoon in Toyama then moved on to Takayama by train. Takayama is a small city in the mountainous Hida region in Gifu prefecture. Commonly referred to Hida-Takayama to differentiate it from another city sharing the same name, it is now one of the top ranks cities to visit among travelers who love rural elements in their trip. Takayama is also often used as the place to spend the night before continuing to Shirakawa-go due to its proximity to the world heritage site. We did exactly the same thing, having booked a room at a pleasant hotel some distance from the station.

On the morning of the third day we were supposed to leave Takayama for Shirakawa-go by bus. However before the departure we deliberately woke up very early in the morning just because we would like to see the old town of Takayama, which features whole streets of houses and buildings dating back to Edo period (1600-1868) during the city’s golden period of merchantry. It was such a lovely neighborhood, rivaled to the old part of Kyoto.

Less than one hour after we boarded the bus, we arrived in Shirakawa-go. Since we were early, there were still traces of unmelted snow from last night’s fall, and no sight of other tourists other that the ones rode the bus with us. Shirakawa-go was better than advertised. The visual pleasure to see these gassho-zukuri (steep thatched roof) houses was indescribable. It felt just like a different world altogether. When I crossed the bridge from parking lot to the village itself I entered an old town where time did not flow at all, as if everything is frozen in eternity.

We explored the whole place happily, coming and going to every nook and cranny, climbing the observation hill to see the entire Ogimachi, Shirakawa-go‘s largest village and of course played with snow as well. This experience was indeed the highlight of the trip. I simply could not recommend more to try and go to this majestic place if you are to visit Japan. One last note though, that if we were to go during the peak of the snow we would have been subjected to the glorious sight of all white, snow-covered village. However I am pretty weak to cold, so in winter peak I would probably be a popsicle and would not be able to enjoy fully.

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The perfect reflection of the building on the pond makes this picture.

After we were satisfied with Shirakawa-go, it was time for us to move on to the next destination, Kanazawa city in Ishikawa prefecture. Around 2PM we took Nohi bus to Kanazawa and arrived within an hour. Without time to waste, we hurried to visit the famous Kenrokuen Garden, dubbed as one of Japan’s three most beautiful garden, before its closing time at 5PM. And the garden does live up to its reputation. Under the cloudy winter sky, the garden put up tranquil air that would lull its visitors to unknowingly loosen up and without realizing it, spending the whole day in the garden alone.

Sadly by 5PM we had to leave the garden. I still have not got enough yet, though I swore if I had another chance I would visit again, this time to include Kanazawa castle that we had to skip due to shortage of time. Instead of a hotel, we were going to spend the night in Yuki’s father apartment room in Kanazawa, who was at the time stationed in the city for work. We stopped by nearby supermarket to buy cooking ingredients and after traversing narrow alleyways in the old part of city that made Kanazawa unique, arrived at the apartment and cooked home-made meals, then fell asleep quickly with full stomach.

Unfortunately Yuki had to part with us on the fourth day as he had to go back to his hometown. So the next round of trip saw just me and Ziliang take train ride to Nagano prefecture. I did not remember how long did it take to reach Nagano, but we had one thing in mind to do when we arrive there: making snowman. So imagine how disappointed was I that Nagano was devoid of any snow. Not wanting to give up, we went back to ride train to the previously passed station of Myoko-Kogen, a spot notable for its ski resort.

There, we could see snow as far as eyes can see and thus we ventured across the rail track to get to the fields laden with unending snow. In an unexpected turn of event, we met a  very kind Japanese elderly man with whom we conversed a bit. After knowing we wanted to build a snow man he offered his help to build us one! And thus during the building process I could not get that Frozen song ‘Do you want to build an snowman?’ out of my head as I kept humming the tune over and over again. We named our plump snowman Maruko.

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A lone red barn in the middle of snow. Such a picturesque sight.

Myoko-Kogen was a beautiful place. The wintry scenery gave us many unforgettable views, such as the photo of the lone red barn in the middle of snow. We braved knee-depth snow in many occasions just to get to the higher point of the hill where we could look around the little town with gasped breath and wet shoes.

After the sun went down we returned to Nagano where I had booked a guest house near the main street. We ate dinner at Moza Burger then proceeded to enjoy the night strolling around a bit. The guest house itself was a bizarre place. It was full of statues and carvings that seemingly brought back by the owner from his or her trips around the world. Those statues gave a very ethnic feeling to the place but at the same time oozed certain creepiness due to the fact that most of them depicting demonic figures. Unfortunately I did not take even a single photo there.

In the morning of the last day we went to Zenkōji, the most popular temple in Nagano. It would appear to be just another Buddhist temple, but it housed the first ever Buddhist statue brought to Japan when the religion was first  introduced in the 6th century. In addition, unlike any other Japanese towns that grew revolving around castle as their core, Nagano was built with Zenkōji as its core. There was also a history museum at the back of the temple but sadly I did not have time for a visit.

Though morning visit to the temple was fulfilling, all good things must come to end. Turning our backs on Nagano, we boarded the train back to Sendai. Not much to tell here, just that the trip back to Sendai took the whole day. It was excruciating and wearisome, but given the experience that I had during the entire trip, this was just the necessary anti-climax.

It was late at night when we arrived in Sendai. Sometimes it is funny to think that time passes by so fast and just in the blink of an eye the trip ended. Yet I had the certain feeling that my 5-days trip memories were to last forever, at least in my heart. All in all, if I had another chance to use juuhachi kippu again for a trip, I would do it in a heartbeat!

Useful links (in case you missed some of the above), all in English:

  1. Seishun 18 (juuhachi kippu)
  2. Shirakawa-go official website
  3. Kanazawa Tourism Information Guide
  4. Toyama Tourist Information
  5. Nagano Official Travel Guide

 

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