Sunday, February 4, 2018

{Travelog} Shirakawa-go, Japan's Winter Wonderland

Shirakawa-go has been on my bucket list since I got to know about it. It is on my must-visit-before-I-die list ever since, and it certainly did not disappoint me. In fact, it way surpasses my expectation with its enchanting beauty and rich historical culture. 

While there are many tour operators covering this heritage sites, going with travel company is not my option as I prefer to have the freedom to go or rest as I wish.So let me share with you how we planned and executed our free & easy trip to this winter wonderland. You may find all important links at the bottom of this post.

The picturesque river of Shirakawago where time stood still.

Our overall route of travel to Takayama, Shirakawago and the Gifu perfecture. The entire route took a total of 13 days (and when time permits, i will share the full itinerary)

 Tokyo 东京> Takayama 飛騨高山> Shirakawago白川乡 > Ainokura, Gokayama 五箇山> Kanazawa 金沢 > Kyoto京都 > Osaka 大阪市 > Tokyo 东京

Our trip to Shirakawago started from Takayama. There are many ways to get to Shirakawago and we opted to take the Nohi bus from Shinjuku station to Takayama, then the heritage bus to the village, but you have other choices too:

  • from Tokyo 东京, Nagoya 名古屋, Osaka 大阪市 or Kyoto 京都 using the available passes: Kansai Hokuriku pass, Takayama Hokuriku pass.
  • use a local travel agent - various half or full day packages available on TripAdvisor, Japanican.
  • book with a lodge in Takayama which provide local bus tour to Shirakawago, but it is mostly a day trip without sleepover.
If you too opt to travel from Takayama, the map below summarizes the various possible routes & the cost. I snapped this picture while waiting to exchange our passes at the JR office.

Nohi Bus to Takayama

Fee (one-way): Adult: 6,690 Yen | Children: half price  (6 to 11 years of age)
Nohi bus website here  
Timetable from Shinjuku station to Takayama here (total travel time 5h30m)
Important to notes:
  • All express buses require a reservation (reserved seats only), you may reserve up to 1 month in advanced.
  • we purchased our ticket at the Nohi bus counter itself for the same price, so unless it is peak season, don't think it is necessary to pre-book the ticket.
【Takayama-Hokuriku pass 高山、北陆区域周游券】 
This popular JR pass allows one to visit the popular places within Gifu prefecture at a discount and it's valid for 5 consecutive days starting from the first day of usage. I have planned our route to maximize the usage of this pass, but I should have included one more night stay at Kanazawa 金沢 so we could explore Toyama 富美. Anyway, with this pass we have managed to cover Takayama, Shirakawago, Gokayama, Kyoto and Osaka without incurring extra cost (but would have to bring the pass to exchange for a bus ticket at the bus office). This pass also covers Toyama, Fukui, Nagoya, Gero and several other areas, I would highly recommend you to purchase this pass if you are travelling DIY like us. 

However, do note that this is not a loop pass, so please plan your route carefully.

You may purchase this pass directly from Japan Rail website, from other travel agents such as Japan Travel Beruea (JTB), Klook, or from the JR office.

The heritage bus route & reservation number.

【Takayama-Hokuriku Pass】
Fee: Adult: 14,000Yen | Children: 7,000Yen (6 to 11 years of age)
To understand more about this pass, read on more here
Important thing to note about this pass: 
  • you must exchange the pass at the ticket gate and get a stamp by the officer.
  • the pass cannot be used at the automatic gate, we just show our pass to the ticket officer at gate for manual access.
  • to use the heritage bus, you need to show the pass to the counter staff to exchange for a bus ticket. passports will be required during exchange for verification purpose.

【Day 4 Takayama 飛騨高山
• A5 Hida beef yakuniku
• Hot bath @ Hodakaso Yamano Iori Ryokan

After departing our Airbnb in Shinjuku, we headed straight to Shinjuku station, where Nohi bus station is just located next to it. We hopped onto the 11:20am bus to Takayama (supposed to aim for 9:20am bus but took too long to wake the duo). The ride was 4:30h with 30mins of rest stops in between. It was a scenic route and I would really recommend NOT TO DRIVE as the route is hilly and winding.

Little C pushing her luggage after departing our Airbnb :)

The Hodakaso Yamano Iori Ryokan we stayed for a night, it has a small but welcoming front yard.

After dropping our luggages at our ryokan,Hodakaso Yamano Iori, we went to Maruaki to taste the A-5 hida beef based on recommendation by front desk lady.

Takayama is a city in the mountainous Hida region which remains rather untouched by time. The old town is well-known for its hida beef, which is the premium beef that is raised within Gifu perfecture and is classified with the A/B rank and the 5/4/3 grade. As one of the key missions for this trip is to sample the best beef in Japan, Big Guy and I were determined to have the finest grade of the Hida beef. As the sirloin had sold out for the day, we ordered mixture of 3 variety of A-5 hida beef, sausages and chicken cutlets (for little ones). 

The grilled beef cutlets were simply unbelievably delicious, I've never tasted beef this tender, juicy and flavorful - I only sprinkled with some rock salt to taste, it simply just melted in my mouth. The meal cost us ¥7000+ but really worth that price. We had tried the wagyu beef in Tokyo and Matsuzaka beef in Osaka, none can compare to Takayama's A-5 hida beef.

So if you ever come to Takayama, you simply MUST TRY THE HIDA BEEF!

Minced beef to be added into the short grain white rice.

The condiments for the meal, I especially love the Yuzu sauce, it adds an extra zink to the juiciness.

Delicious hida beef!

A bit over exaggerated I know :D

After a very satisfying meal, we adjourned back to the ryokan, took a rest before heading to the hot bath (which is included in the package). We all changed into our yakuta (traditional Japanese wear) provided by the ryokan, took some silly photos then proceed to the hot bath. Males and females are separated as everyone is required to be completely naked. C and I had some relaxing time in the hot bath, it felt really comfortable to soak in the hot bath under such cold weather - it was actually snowing outside.

After a nice, warm bath, we returned to the ryokan and decided to have some supper with the Takayama green tea provided on the house. So we had tea, waffles (provided) dorayaki, Tokyo banana and sandwiches (bought from convenient store earlier) and had ourselves some peaceful, enjoyable time before entering dream land.

• Accommodation
Hodakaso Yamano Iori ryokan is 3 min walk away from the Nohi bus station and within walking distance to the Miyakawa morning market. It's a bit hard to find as the entrance only have a small signage, but otherwise the location is really nice and the service was warmth and friendly. Alll rooms are  traditional Japanese tatami style and come with very comfortable futons. I especially love the yakuta and hot bath experience provided.
Reservation link here
My rating: 4.5/5.0****
Cost: ~¥6,800 (shared toilet for 2 pax) - ¥11,800 (private toilet for 2 pax)

Important Tips! 
Going to the heritage villages requires bus transit and as we expected both Shirakawa-go and Ainokura to be covered in thick snow, we decided to courier our luggage directly from Takayama to Kyoto Airbnb and brought only 1 day worth of changing clothes with us. It cost about RM160 for all 3 pieces of luggages but that had allowed us to explore at ease. The front desk lady was kind enough to help us fill up the courier form and arrange for the luggage to be sent at our desired time.

• Takayama Miyakawa morning market 飞蝉高山旧街场

We spent some leisure time wandering around Takayama old town on the snow covered street,  and had our breakfast trying all the snacks on sell at the Miyakawa morning market. Takoyaki, Dorakayi, macha ice cream.. we just ate nonstop.

It was a really free and easy time, we killed tons of photos at the bridges, old shops, riverside... wish we could have more time to explore this old town.

The quiet streets in the old town of Takayama. 

Bridges and rivers surrounding the town. 

I was in love with the winter scene..

I believe it says Ichiban gai.

One of my favourite photos - the lone winter tree.

I wish to retire to a leisure life such as this man.

Big guy :)

A very cozy coffee shop

At the Miyagawa morning market, which is located right next to the river making it such a leisure feel.

We were in the middle of food hunting.

the Takoyaki was really warm and just nice on a cold weather.

so are the Dorayaki (filled with red beans)!

The Takayama street map, we explored the Miyakawa morning market and the scenic streets as highlighted in the map. If time allows, do explore the sake breweries in Takayama. We had to give it a missed due to the lack of time.

Source: Japan-guide

with that, we departed Takayama and headed straight to Shirakawa-go, my dream place!

【Day 5 Shirakawa-go 白川乡 & Ainokura 五崮门】
• Shirakawa-go 白川乡

• Ainokura 五崮门

Despite I have made prior phone reservation for our heritage bus ride to Shirakawago, we had to bring our Takayama-Hokuriku to the JR office to exchange for the Heritage bus tickets. It is recommended to reserve the seat earlier as the bus filled up rather quickly with eager travellers.

We arrived Shirakawago at around 12noon, and what could I say? It's simply love at first sight!

Shirakawago, I honestly have no word to describe this place; its been my dream to visit this beautiful Japanese heritage village where all the minshuku (民宿) were built over 200 years ago without using of nails. The villages preserved the gasso-style wooden houses (合掌设计, like a closing palms) so neatly. It's amazing to see the snow-capped roof with icicles hanging at the edges, anyway, I just will let the photos do the talking. 

There is an observatory area, a cultural museum and some shrines, but we could not make it to the observatory area (about 40min walk) as the duo just kept throwing themselves into the thick snow every 50-100m and we had to catch our last bus to Ainokura at 4:15pm. We wandered into the shrine, into the woods which have nobody but us. It's such a surreal place, especially the turquoise color lake which is almost like paradise on earth. We just stood there to admire the scenery for so long, that we nearly missed our bus to Ainokura village.

Our first trial with building snowman :D

The duo playing hide and seek with us.

Ah.. matcha ice cream under deep snow, because why not? ;-)

I fell deeply in love with the village. It's so breathtakingly beautiful.

Snow ball fight, anyone?

"hello!", from E.

The duo was excited, and I couldn't blame them :)

At the shrine which I forgotten the name

In serenity.

Big Guy looking cold :)

Deep in the wood.. where it's only us and the nature.

A very happy me... moments before I lost my beautiful hat :(

My idea of adventure - get wild, get lost... and get lots of memories.

Where we stopped for lunch, it's one of the few heritage houses converted into eatery in the village.

Yasai ramen - japanese noodles with locally grown vegetables. we finished every bit including the soup.

【Ainokura 五崮门】

Ainokura is the bigger of the two historic villages under Gokayama, only few of the gasso style minshuku were opened to visitors and the rest were occupied by the local villages. We booked through Japanese Guest House website and the staff recommended us Ainokura as the minshuju in Shirakawago were all fully booked. It's a blessing in disguise as this place was just too wonderful without the crowd.

We took the heritage bus which is included with our Takayama-Hokuriku pass, the last bus departed at 4:00pm and arrived sharp at 4:45pm. The kind host came to pick us from the bus stop with her little daihatsu, at 4:45pm it was already all dark in the mountain, we were so thankful of her nice hospitality.

Dinner was included in the package, and was served sharp at 6:00pm. It's a full Japanese meal served with locally picked Wild vegetables and the river fishes, inowa, as she told me. The fishes were grilled on low heat over the traditional fire place that is used to warm up the house. The food was prepared to perfection and we thoroughly enjoyed it, since E and C didn't wanted the sashimi, we enjoyed extra portions. The kind host even prepared pudding and orange juice for little ones.

Dinner was served. The most authentic Japanese dinner we had.

The slow grilled fish, traditional style.

A very excited me

Big guy and I went for a night walk while the little ones chilled out in the room. They had no idea that more fun awaited them the next morning... we discovered the lone mailbox in the remote village.

Christmas was near. This is the only restaurant in the village.

【Day 6 Ainokura & Kanazawa】
Snow ball fight
• toboggan ride 

After a sumptuous Japanese breakfast prepared by the host (it was so much so that C could not finished hers!), we wore the snow boots provided and started the fun morning.

Snow ball fight, building snow man, tobogganing, dunk ourselves onto the deep snow pile to play snow angel; we had a good 2 hours of fun before drying up ourselves and left the place using the heritage bus again. We took a nice picture with the kind lady host, really love this place to the bits. If I ever have the chance, I would love to return for a visit.

a moment in Frozen.

We were in cloud 9.

Please meet my Snowy :)

We literally had the village to ourselves that morning. What a privilege.

The woods right behind where we stayed. Reminded me of Totoro's big tree.

Accomodation: Goyomon Minshuku
¥9300/pax, ¥34,400 for family of 4
My rating: 5.0/5.0 *****
Warmth hospitality, delicious homecook Japanese meal, free snow play, beautiful landscape, I couldn't have asked for more.

This is Goyomon minshuku

After all the fun, we dried up ourselves at the fireplace once again, and bid farewell to Ainokura, where we took the next bus that brought us to Shin-Takoaka, and boarded the Thunderbird shinkansen that took us to straight Kanazawa, the home of the beautiful Rokukoen Garden.

This has to be one of the most amazing bus stop on Earth.. a scene i would remember for the longest time.

With this, it marks the end of my post about Shirakawago, Ainokura and Takayama. Thanks for reading till the end, I hope you found what you needed for your next trip. Feel free to like or share my post so it reaches to more travelers like you! ;-)

Reference links:
As promised, these are some of the useful links:
• learn more about the Hokuriku Tayakama pass here
• Check out the Nohi bus schedule and fare here  
• Find out more about the interesting places for Hida-Takayama from its official site here
• Book the Hodakaso Yamano Iori Ryokan here.
• We booked Goyomon through Japanese Guesthouse, you may find the full list of Ryokan and minshuku here

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