For the second day I was in Nagoya, I decided to venture out of the city once again. Actually I had intended to visit Shirakawa-go on the first day but because I missed the train, I switched to visit Arashiyama instead. The journey to visit Shirakawa-go was not the easiest or the fastest since visitors need to travel to the town of Takayama by train and switch to a bus, with a total travel time of nearly 3 hours.
After checking out of the hotel really early, I deposited my luggage with the bell desk and with the reserved tickets I had obtained yesterda, I boarded the earliest train which departs out of Nagoya at 7:45 am. The JR Hida train provides a direct connection between Nagoya and the town of Takayama, which allowed me to arrive sharply at 10:01 am. Since the next bus departure was at 10:50 am, I purchased my tickets first and head out to explore the town of Takayama.
While not a major tourist attraction, the town was actually quite busy with tourists. I encountered several tourists from South-east Asia while walking around the town. The main attraction in town was probably the old part of town that is about 10 minutes away by foot from the station. In winter time, the city receives a lot of snowfall and thus winter boots are highly recommended when visiting Takayama or Shirakawa-go.
The old part of town is joined to the railway station by several bridges and there are some nice views of the town from the bridge. One of the bridge has 2 interesting statues in the middle – a statue of a long-legged giant and a statue of a long-handed giant. I believe they are from a Japanese folklore.
Across the bridge is the old town proper and the town of Takayama is famous for another thing, which is Hida beef. The town itself is sometimes referred to as Hida-Takayama, with Hida being the historical provincial name of the area. Thus many of the shops in the old town sells Hida beef skewer which is a tasty and affordable snack. Since I only had some pastries for breakfast, I grabbed a couple of these skewers! Hida beef is another variety of wagyu beef, which is rich in marbling and thus have a melt-in-your-mouth goodness.
The old part of Takayama is a very nice place for a stroll and reminds me a lot of downtown Kyoto with many quaint old buildings. It is very pedestrian friendly and for visitors who would like to reminisce about the era gone by, they could also take a ride in a traditional rickshaw.
With the need to return to the station punctually, I did not stay long and head back towards the station. The bus terminal is conveniently situated beside the JR Takayama station and when I arrived, there was already a long queue that had formed. I was initially worried I might need to take the next bus that leaves in the next hour and that would have disrupted my day’s plan entirely. Fortunately the Nohi bus which I took had arranged for more buses to ferry the horde of passengers that were heading to Shirakawa-go. I think this small village certainly captured everyone’s imaginations after being listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The drive from the town of Takayama went through numerous winding mountain roads and tunnels. While the seats on the bus are comfortable, the duration of the ride can vary depending on traffic and road conditions since the roads are mainly 2 lane ways. When there are high snowfall, I expect the duration of the ride to be a bit longer.
It took nearly an hour before we arrived and the bus will drop passengers off at the main car park outside the visitor information centre of Ogimachi village, one of the largest village clusters in the Shirakawa-go area. The visitor information are also includes a small convenience store and a souvenir shop. I grabbed a copy of the local area map from the centre and refreshed myself before walking towards the suspension bridge that one needs to cross to arrive at the village.
While it might be cold in winter to visit the village, I think it is one of the most picturesque time with the blanket of snow covering the village, and thus creating a magical atmosphere. There was a huge amount of snow in the village, add to that the cloudy weather and it imprints a vivid memory. The quiet ambience in the village with mountains all around add to the mystical feel of the village.
The village of Ogimachi is known for the gassho-zukuri farmhouses which resembles the prayer hands of the Japanese people and I think it is designed in such a way to allow the heavy accumulation of snow to drop easily to the ground. While walking around the village, I do notice several residents shovelling off snow from their rooftops, so do be careful of where you tread and do not linger underneath the roofs of these houses!
Even though there are several farmhouses that are open to the public, with some even offering traditional village accomodation, I skipped them and proceeded to the trail that leads to the hilltop observatory. As a side note, the observatory used to be the site of the local castle though I do not think the castle exists anymore. The trail to the observatory is supposedly closed in winter but there were people still walking along these trails since they were not guarded. As such, I followed and winter boots are definitely a must here unless you want to slip and fall. Many tourists did just that as they were on normal footwear. Even with my winter boots on, the trail can be narrow due to the thick snow and sometimes you just need to stop and let people to pass on the way down. Walking up the trail takes around 15-20 minutes depending on how fast you can hike up and it is quite a tiring walk really with many requiring to take a rest in between.
However the view from the observatory is definitely one to savour. There are also spots where a photographer will gladly help you take a shot and print out the photo with a complimentary folder featuring the scene of the village. They would also help you take one with your own camera. On top, there was also souvenir stores, refreshments and even a stall selling Hida beef skewers and croquettes on a stick. I had these on the way back down to fill my stomach since I decided to skip lunch and just feasted on Hida beef skewers! They were really that yummy!
I headed back to the bus terminal and it was the right call as it started to snow quite heavily once I reached the base of the village from the trail. I returned back to the visitor information centre right on time for the 1:50 pm bus that will bring me back to Takayama. Since I had purchased a round-trip fare, all I had to to was to show the conductor the voucher and he would assign me a seat on the bus. I even had time to grab a bottle of hot yuzu drink from the vending machine before the bus departed with a full load that many of the centre fold-out seats on the bus was also occupied. I napped on the way back since it was so cold and snowy that the windows of the bus was fogged up.
Arriving at Takayama around 3:10 pm, there was some time left to spare before my scheduled train ride back at 3:36 pm. This gave me some time to explore the specialty shops around the station for some local snacks and I got some ice cream and more beverages for the return journey to Nagoya. The evening arrival in Nagoya allowed me some time to visit the shops in the city for some shopping as well as enjoy a nice dinner at Nagoya station.
I would say a visit to Shirakawa-go can be done in a day from Nagoya though that would not leave much time to really explore the village. The return bus fare between Takayama and Shirakawa-go that costs me 4,300 Yen (~US$43) was the only expense since I had a Japan Rail pass which includes the ride on JR Hida between Nagoya and Takayama. For more time in the area, I certainly recommend staying a night at Takayama where one can enjoy a dinner of Hida beef or even better stay at the farmhouses in Ogimachi village itself!